Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Part 1It was mid morning, the refreshing Spring air invigorating the entire town of Four Corners, awakening from its long winter hibernation. Chris, Vin and Josiah, having just returned from their appointed duties, were now enjoying a breakfast of steak and eggs in the saloon. Buck and JD entered in the midst of one of their frequent verbal tug-o-wars. Nathan followed behind, shaking his head, wanting nothing more than to get into an intelligent conversation with Josiah or even Ezra, after having to listen to JD and Buck's petty bickering all morning. Ezra walked down the staircase, straightening his jacket, having just woke up after spending half the night playing poker and the other half completing his prescribed duties. Buck snatched a biscuit off of Chris's plate as he passed by and sat down at an adjoining table.
Everyone's attention was diverted as Judge Travis entered, followed closely by a tall, wide shoulder man with black hair, which was graying at the temples. His hair was cut short and neat, accentuating a strong, square jaw. The strangers eyes were dark and intelligent, but carried a glint that didn't quite match the wide grin on his face. An aura of confidence surrounded him, trying to be believed. A younger man ensued behind him. He was a slightly leaner version of the older man but lacked the rigid demeanor.
The Judge held a huge grin on his weathered face as he stopped in front of the table where Chris, Vin and Josiah sat. From another table, Buck, JD, Nathan and Ezra turned their attention to the three men. The Judge placed his hand on the big man's shoulder as he stepped up to his right. The Judge's cheerful disposition was forcing smiles to appear on everyone's face. There was a lighthearted glint in the elder man's eyes as he looked at the young man to his left; something Chris couldn't remember ever seeing in the austere magistrate.
"Gentlemen," the Judge's voice boomed good-naturedly, getting the seven lawmen's attention. "I'd like to introduce Major Jacob Quist and his son, Orrin. The Major has just retired from the army, even though I believe he is far too young," the Judge chuckled.
"Ah, Orrin, you think anyone younger than you should still be at their mother's tit," Jacob laughed, slapping the older man on the back. Then he noticed the surprised looks from the seven men. "Oh, they didn't know your first name was Orrin." A mischievous grin appeared on Jacob Quist's clean-shaven face. Judge Travis shook his head, knowing his old friend was about to embarrass him in front of his new friends. Jacob turned his huge smile toward the gunslingers. "Yep, my son is named after the esteemed Judge here; he's his god-father." The young man bowed his head sheepishly. His matching clean-shaven face slightly flushed at the attention now directed toward him.
"Don't any of you get any ideas, it's still Judge to you," Travis pleasantly reminded the seven men.
"Boys! Do I have some stories to tell you," Jacob teased, causing the Judge to groan. Buck grinned in anticipation of any stories, especially about the Judge. He knew the man couldn't have always been so stuffy.
Jacob Quist placed a fatherly hand on his son's shoulder, which stood even with his own. "And in two weeks my son will follow in his old man's footstep and join the Army."
The Judge decided to introduce the seven men before Jacob started revealing any embarrassing family secrets. "Well, Jacob, Orrin, I'd like to introduce Chris Larabee the unofficial leader of this motley crew."
Chris nodded his blond head. "Chris, I've told the Major about you and your men and the outstanding job you all have done here, and he's very impressed." The Judge continued his introductions. "Vin Tanner is the team's sharpshooter and tracker, Josiah Sanchez is their spiritual leader and a crack shot, Nathan Jackson is a superb Healer and very adept with knives in both the medical sense as well as self defense." Nathan felt his face flush not use to the compliments of his skill. "Mr. Dunne is the Sheriff, Buck Wilmington is, ah...well, he's a good shot."
"Hey Judge, he's got animal magnetism too," JD yelled out. Buck swatted at the young gunslinger, who dodged the friendly swiped with practiced ease.
The Judge's grin grew wider and he continued, bringing his gaze to bear on the fancy dressed gentleman sitting next to Buck. "Ezra Standish is also a crack shot and con man."
Ezra nodded his head, noticing the slight disgust in the Major's eyes. "Why Judge, you almost sounded proud," Ezra drawled, a faintly amused smile coming to his handsome face.
"Also the resident smart-mouth," the Judge added with a grin, taking Standish's remarks in the spirit they were given.
"And don't forget snazzy dresser," Buck cut in, receiving a deadly scowl from the put upon gambler.
The Major was impressed with the unique individuals who made up the law in the fast growing town, except for Ezra Standish. He had no love for con men, remembering how his own parents were swindled out of their home by a fast talking, self-indulgent swindler. He pushed the thoughts aside, if his long-time friend trusted this man enough to hire him that was good enough for him, at least for now.
Josiah stood up first and extended his hand. "It is an honor to meet you Major Quist." Jacob took hold of Josiah's huge hand.
"Just call me Major, everyone does."
The rest of the men in turn extended their hands to the two men.
Jacob turned his attention to his son. "Well boy, what do you think of the west? This is Orrin's first time out west. He was raised by his mother back east."
"It's wonderful father."
Everyone smiled at the familiar excitement in the young man's voice. Several pairs of eyes glanced over to JD, who still held much of that same enthusiasm.
"So what, besides our esteemed Judge, brings you to our quaint little backwater town?" Ezra asked.
The Major's son answered, "Well, father wanted to spend some quality time together before I went into the service, and I hadn't seen Uncle Travis since I was ten." Judge Travis gave his godson a warm smile and squeezed his shoulders. Since his own sons death, he relished the time with the young man. "I just wanted to get a taste of civilian life in the west before my hitch started."
"I commend you on your militant endeavor, young man," Ezra toasted, holding up a shot of whiskey then tossing it back. The rest of the men followed suit.
"Hey Judge, how long you and the Major known each other?" Buck asked, wiping the beer from his mustache.
"We've known each other for over thirty years, served together in the Army," Judge Travis replied then turned towards Jacob. "But, it's been what, five years since we've seen each other last. We have a lot of catching up to do, Jacob."
"Well, I hope we can get caught up over some lunch, me and Orrin here are starved."
"We have a pretty fine restaurant, so if you gentlemen will excuse us we have a lot to talk about," Travis cheerfully remarked as he ushered the two men out. Chris leaned back in his chair. It was good to see the Judge happy, reunited with family. Chris wondered if he would ever have that feeling again in his life. He gazed over at the six men he worked with and smiled.
+ + + + + + +
Over the next couple days Josiah, JD and Buck showed the Major and his son around town while the others continued with their law enforcement duties. JD and Orrin hit it right off, since they were both schooled in the east. They constantly tried to impress each other with their many adolescent escapades, but were both outdone when Buck regaled them with his many sultry tales, some of which ended with him escaping out a window as an angry father or husband shot at him.
One pleasant mid afternoon the Major entered the small, jailhouse seeking out Chris Larabee. He found the tall, dark-clad gunslinger leaning back in a chair, watching over the only prisoner at the moment. Jacob had been thinking about his future. He was no longer in the Army; his son was leaving soon to begin his own life. He found himself at a crossroads, wondering what he was going to do with himself. He was use to action and a certain amount of regiment and control. He could never get use to a sedentary life that the Judge was pushing. The Judge had told him all about the work that the seven gunslingers had done and how they continued to protect the town and surrounding areas. He also told Jacob that the people of Four Corners were only willing to pay for seven men and no more.
"Mind if I have a cup of coffee?" Major Quist asked.
"Help yourself," Chris answered, coming forward in his chair.
The Major stepped over to the coffeepot, pouring himself a cup. He took a sip, wincing at the bitter taste.
"Oh, should've warned you, JD made it." Chris smiled.
The Major grinned then grabbed a nearby chair, pulling it up to the desk.
"Mr. Larabee, I have to tell you I'm very impressed with your men." He paused. "Now don't get offended with what I'm about to say. I'm sure they all have proved themselves immeasurably but a couple things I'm curious about. Like, why Mr. Standish? Why hire a conman?" The Major took another sip of the awful coffee then put the cup down and pushed it aside.
"Ezra's a good man," Chris stated matter-of-factly. Most people didn't like the conman at first. He made a lousy first impression and his smart mouth usually got him in all kinds of trouble. Chris' eyes narrowed, not liking the path this conversation was taking.
"I understand that Vin Tanner is a wanted man." Jacob added.
"Misunderstanding," Chris replied. This was the only thing he was willing to say about his friend.
"And isn't JD a little young to be sheriff?" Jacob continued.
Chris didn't answer and glared at the inquiring Major. He was starting to get annoyed, friend or no friend, where did this guy get off poking his nose into their business. Chris decided he'd have a talk with the Judge later.
The Major could tell that Larabee was irked by his questions. "Listen, I didn't mean to offend. You have to understand I'm ex-military and not use to such a mix bag of men. In the army we're all cut from the same cloth, you know." The Major laughed, trying to lighten the mood. A small forced smile creased Larabee's mouth. "Well, I just want you to know that if you all need any help I'm your man." The Major smiled and quickly left, leaving a slightly bewildered gunslinger in his wake.
+ + + + + + +
During the rest of the week, the Major continued to regale the men with his heroic campaigns. Nathan, Vin and Josiah listened out of respect to the Judge. Chris occasionally listened to the Major's stories in the saloon but was not one to favor boasting. At times, it seemed like the Major demanded to be believed, or needed to be. Buck and JD were genuinely enthralled, and Ezra as always could care less. Chris was just grateful the sometimes-audacious gambler saw fit to keep his mouth shut.
Ezra sat at his usual table in the saloon, having just finished educating several young men in the finer points of poker and losing. Vin plopped down in the chair across from him, removing his hat and running his hand through his now tangled mass of long brown hair.
"Mr. Tanner, how are we this fine day and why aren't you reveling in Major Quist's many valorous accounts."
Vin gave the educated man a quizzical look until he figured out what he had said. "What's that polite word you use when callin' someone an asshole?"
Ezra arched a sandy brown eyebrow and smiled. "Pompous?"
"That's the one." Vin stretched out his long lean legs under the table. It was still early and the saloon was quiet except for the sound of clanking glasses behind the bar as the bartender readied for the night's business.
"I gather you are not impressed with our gallant Major." Ezra placed his cards on the table and picked up the shot of whiskey he had been nursing all afternoon.
"Hell Ezra, he's impressed enough with himself; he don't need anyone else." This garnered a smile from both men. Vin leaned farther back in the chair. "I know he's the Judge's friend and all, but they haven't seen each other in quite a few years a lot can change. There's just somethin' about him, can't quite put my finger on it," Vin tried to explain without much success. He shrugged and poured himself a drink.
Part 2Judge Travis, Major Quist and his son approached Chris, who they found leaning back in a chair outside the saloon, enjoying the early morning peace and quiet. He had seen the three coming toward him after leaving the telegraph office. Chris remembered he hadn't talked to the Judge yet about Jacob. He wasn't sure, but had he felt that Major Quist was probing him for information.
"Chris, we just got word that the Morales' gang is holed up just south of here," the Judge stated, waving a telegram in front of him. "The territorial governor wants them brought in."
"Could you use some extra guns, Mr. Larabee?" Major Quist eagerly inquired.
Chris looked over at the Major and young Orrin. He knew the Major was experienced, and he thought Orrin was quite capable, but he really didn't want them along. He had enough to worry about with his own men.
"Jacob, I don't think it would be a good idea," the Judge answered.
"Now Orrin, it will be a good experience for my son," Jacob countered. "I promise we'll do exactly as Mr. Larabee orders and we won't put ourselves in any unnecessary danger. Anyway, its been awhile since I've seen any action."
"C'mon Uncle Travis, this is the reason I joined the Army," young Orrin pleaded.
Chris could see the Judge's resolve wan then break.
"Okay, but just remember Jacob, Larabee's in charge," Travis reiterated, trying to force a smile for his old friend and godson.
Chris' eyes narrowed; no, he didn't like this one bit. He got the feeling that the Major wanted, or needed to prove something to himself, to others, and to his son. He kept the thought to himself, something he'd later regret.
It didn't take long to get everyone together. It had been quiet for too long, and everyone was itching for some excitement. Even Ezra, who hadn't had any challenging poker chumps in over two weeks, was anxious for some diversion from the norm.
By the time Vin tracked the gang to a small rocky outcropping the sun was already dropping from its zenith. The outlaws had dug themselves in, hiding amongst the cracks and crevices, which covered the mountainside. Scrub trees and bushes dotted the mountainside and surrounding area and added to their cover.
"Alright, JD, Josiah, Ezra, you take the right. We'll take the left and meet on the other side. Hopefully, squeeze them between us," Chris explained as they all dismounted, securing their horses to the low scrub trees. Major Quist grabbed Chris' arm. Buck drew in an audible breath when he saw this. He saw the look in Chris' eyes that caused the Major to quickly release his hold, but he didn't back down.
"What about me and my son, Mr. Larabee?" Jacob asked.
"I would prefer if you and your son stay behind. Me and my men can handle this alone, Major, Chris coldly answered.
"Now, I know I told the Judge I'd follow your orders, but I will not be left behind like some green horn." The Major's dark eyes seemed to grow a shade darker with his growing anger.
"Father," Orrin quietly murmured. He didn't want to cause any trouble even though he didn't want to be left behind either.
"Quiet, boy," Jacob continued as his eyes remained locked on Larabee's cold stare. Josiah smiled faintly. It looked like Chris had met someone as stubborn and determined as himself, well outside of the six men he already worked with.
Chris relented, figuring the Major would do whatever he wanted with or without his permission. It would be better to keep him close, so they could keep an eye on him. "Okay, go with Ezra."
The Major smiled in triumphant. A smile that sent a chill down Chris' spine and wiped the smile from Josiah's face.
Ezra, Major Quist, JD, Orrin and Josiah crept along in single file several feet from the base of the outcropping, trying to move in closer. Suddenly, gun fire caused them to grab cover.
"I believe we have discovered some of the miscreants," Ezra stated as he returned fire unable to get a clear shot.
Josiah crawled over next to Ezra. "Ez, if you give JD and me some cover fire we'll try and come up behind them," Josiah suggested.
Ezra nodded in agreement, he only hoped the Major was as good a shot as he bragged. Ezra reloaded his guns then nodded for the two men to go. Ezra, Orrin and Jacob released a barrage of bullets enabling JD and Josiah to reach the relative safety of the nearby rocks. They soon disappeared from sight. Ezra let out a breath when his two friends reached safety and began concentrating on protecting the Major, his son and his own neck.
Ezra glance toward the Major, who was on his right, and noticed his hands shaking as he tried to reload his gun. A line of sweat had formed on Jacob's upper lip and his left eye twitched. He didn't seem to notice Ezras scrutinizing gaze. Before Ezra could address his behavior the gunfire intensified and the three men found themselves pinned down in a crossfire. Bullets ricocheted off the rock around them. Ezra swore, unable to do much more than keep his head down and get off an occasionally shot. He took a moment to look over to his left glad that Orrin was keeping his head down. Ezra glanced back to the Major, who was now sitting with his back against the rock, trying to make himself as small as possible. He was holding his gun loosely and shaking, his eyes staring off at some distant spot that Ezra could not discern.
"Major, are you injured?" Ezra asked his brow furrowed in bewilderment at the way the Major was acting.
Major Quist didn't acknowledge hearing the southerner. Ezra grabbed his shoulder breaking him from his self-induced trance. The Major looked up at Ezra his eyes causing the gambler to back up slightly. What he saw in those dark orbs was cold hard, unreasoning fear. Ezra ducked as a bullet whizzed by his head.
"We have to get out of here! We're outnumbered, this is suicide." Ezra could hear the fear that was riding on the panic in the Major's voice.
Ezra's attention was diverted by another shot that caused rock shreds to strike his face, bringing a line of blood across his forehead. No one, including the Major would ever understand why he chose that moment to run. Ezra tried to stop him but was forced back to cover as the gunfire intensified. Orrin didn't know what was going on. He turned to see his father running away. He yelled, fearing for his father's life and broke cover.
Ezra leapt at the young mans legs trying to stop him. He watched helplessly as bullets jerked young Orrin's body like some obscene puppet. Ezra screamed out and began firing with a vengeance, trying to find a target to accept his anger. He didn't feel the bullet that glanced off his skull or feel himself hit the ground.
The gunfire finally ceased as Chris and the others had finally caused the outlaws to retreat.
The Major came out of his hiding place having wedged himself into a nearby crevice, covering his ears and eyes, trying to ignore what was happening around him. His whole body shook. His gun hung limply in his hand. He felt so detached, numb. Then reality came crashing down upon him as he looked at his son and Ezra lying motionless in the dirt. He stumbled to his sons side and slowly turned him over. He was still alive, but Jacob saw that the bullet had found its mark, piercing close to the boy's heart.
Jacob lifted his son into his arms. "Orrin?" He said in a low voice, choking back the sob. The young man's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at his father with the same dark brown eyes, his brow furrowed.
"Why, father? Why did you run?" The statement was like a slap in the face to the Major. He couldn't reply, and his son wouldn't have heard if he had. Tears ran down his face as he cradled his son close, rocking back and forth, the words circling around in his brain, 'why did you run?'
Major Quist took a deep breath, trying to calm his trembling body. He gently lowered his son to the ground, placing his hand over his unseeing eyes forcing them closed. Determination now clouded the Major's once panic-stricken visage. His jaw clenched as he looked over at Ezra, who hadn't moved, the only man who now knew his secret shame. He couldn't control what had happened, and he wouldn't accept it, but he was determined to let no one discover the truth. Insanity flashed in the Major's eyes, 'I can't have you tellin' people I'm a coward,' he quietly voiced to the unhearing gambler.
The Major grabbed Ezra's feet and dragged his limp body away hiding it in the same crevice he had taken refuge in. He then placed brush over it and wiped out the tracks. He picked up his son's body and went to find the others.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan attended to Buck, who had been shot in the shoulder and was giving the healer as hard a time as Ezra usually did. Everyone turned, drawing their weapons as the Major appeared, carrying his son. Josiah moved forward to help him. Nathan rushed over but slowed when he saw there was nothing he could do.
"I'm sorry Jacob," Josiah tried to soothe. The Major appeared to be in shock. His jaw clenched, and his eyes staring straight ahead.
"Major, have you seen Ezra?" Chris asked, suddenly very worried for the knavish conman, something wasn't right.
The Major's face darkened. "That son of a bitch got my son killed."
"What are you sayin'?" Josiah asked, thinking that the Major was just overly distraught over his son's death and wasn't thinking straight.
"He ran! We were caught in a crossfire and he ran. My son and I were over run. I barely escaped with my life, but Orrin... he choked backed the tears as he looked down at the lifeless body he held.
The six lawmen stood dumbfounded. Josiah came over, carefully taking the body from Jacob's grasp.
"I don't believe it," JD was the first to speak, but it came out attached to a certain amount of doubt.
"You callin' me a liar, boy!" Jacob yelled, stepping toward the young Sheriff, his dark eyes causing JD to step back.
"Easy, Major," Chris warned. His head was spinning at the accusation. Chris knew he didn't have Ezra completely figured out, but he had felt confident the man would not run. Chris didn't think he had any doubt left about that, but with the Major's allegation, doubt crept back into his thoughts, no matter how hard he tried to stop it. Josiah also tried to keep his mind from stirring up those thoughts, and so did everyone else, but it was a losing battle.
"We need to find him," Chris stated, breaking everyone out of their personal speculations. Josiah had laid Orrin down and thrown a blanket over him, saying a silent prayer for the brave young man.
JD, Vin, Chris, and Josiah searched for an hour, finding no trace of their missing friend, strengthening the Major's accusation. They finally decided to return to Four Corners. Buck needed more medical attention and Orrin had to be taken care of proper. As they mounted their horses JD took hold of Ezra's horse.
"Leave him," Chris voiced dryly. JD dropped the reins.
It was a quiet ride back everyone lost in their own thoughts and torments. One simultaneous thought ran through the six gunslinger's minds. "Would he run?" Everyone felt the gut-wrenching twist of betrayal; the only way they could survive was to trust one another. Had Ezra violated that trust? Moreover, did it lead to the death of an innocent? These were questions everyone was afraid to answer.
Part 3Ezra woke to find himself cramped and cold. He lifted a wary gaze to the surrounding darkness. He tried to stretch but rock, sand and bits of stone rained down on his head as he shifted in the cramp space. He had no idea where he was or how he got here. He brought his hand up and hissed as he touched the wound on his head. His face and hair was covered in dried blood. He looked around but couldn't remember what had happened. How had he ended up in such an abominable condition? He slowly worked his way out of the crevice. He heard a horse nicker and made his way over to it. He had to rest every couple steps as waves of dizziness washed over him. He recognized the chestnut stallion as his own and smiled, stroking the soft nose. He wondered where the others were. Why would they leave him in such a state? Fear gripped him at the thought that the others were dead or badly hurt, but he noticed that all the other horses were gone. He pulled the canteen off his saddle and took a long hard draw.
+ + + + + + +
Judge Travis watched from outside the Clarion News office as the slow moving procession of men rode down the street, their shadows long in the waning sunlight. He saw the covered body draped over the last horse and knew. His heart broke again, the same feeling as when his own son was killed enveloped him. He went up to the horse, placing his hand on the cooling body, tears ran freely down his aged face. He looked up into the dejected countenance of Chris Larabee.
Chris looked down at the judge. This man had trusted him to protect his godson and he had failed him. Mary came up next to her father; he heard her intake of breath as she realized who it was. Judge Travis placed an arm around her convulsing shoulders, as sobs shook her, and gently led her away.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra rode into town early that morning still totally bewildered. His head swam and he felt as if he would black out. He was barely able to stay in the saddle. He heard yelling, but didn't pay much attention until he felt hands pulling him from his horse. "That's the coward that got the Major's son killed!" 'What? What was that about the Major's son?' He thought only half coherently, but these thoughts were painfully interrupted by a kick to his ribs. Ezra curled up as punches and kicks landed on his already aching body.
A booted foot struck his head, sending an enormous bolt of pain through his skull, which sent him into blissful oblivion.
Chris, Josiah and Vin raced out of the saloon, pulling the enraged mob off the now unconscious gambler. Josiah picked up the battered and bleeding man.
"Take him to the jail," Chris directed. Josiah and Vin both looked at Chris.
"He'll be safer there, Chris quietly explained. Josiah carried his unconscious friend to the jail as Chris went to find Nathan. Now the question, Why did he come back? Did he think Chris would give him another chance?
Nathan stood up from beside the cot after bandaging the southerner's head and ribs. He didn't want to believe that Ezra ran, but he kept seeing young Orrin's body and the anguish on the Major's face. "How is he Nate?" Chris asked as Nathan exited the cell where Ezra now slept. Chris closed the door locking it.
"He was grazed by a bullet and has a concussion and a couple cracked ribs," Nathan explained. Chris listened with a deepening frown.
Everyone turned to the groan from the cell. Ezra brought his hands up to his head feeling the bandage. He slowly opened his eyes taking a moment to focus. His vision cleared but what he saw made little sense to his muttered brain. He was lying in the town jail, for whatever reason, he couldn't fathom at the moment. He slowly sat up, putting his head into his hands. He hissed as a sharp pain lanced through his skull almost bringing tears to his eyes. Ezra looked up, seeing Nathan and Chris at the bars, the rest of the men behind them, refusing to look at him. He furrowed his brow and frowned, what the hell was going on?
"Ezra, how you feelin'?" Nathan finally asked. Ezra didn't hear the usual concern in the dark-healer's voice.
He glanced apprehensively at everyone, lowering his head, before answering. "Like my head is about to split in two. I don't suppose I could impose on you for something to relieve my headache." This was the first time that Ezra ever had to ask for pain relief; usually he had to fight off Jackson's attempts to shove it down his throat.
Chris caught the look of disgust on Nathan's dark face before he walked out, not saying a word.
Chris continued to stand in front of the bars, regarding the dazed conman intently. Ezra brought his jade-green eyes up to meet Chris' icy blue stare. The others continued to stay in the background, wearing very disturbing expressions. He noticed that Buck was missing and his gut twisted into a knot. What was going on? Why couldn't he remember?
"Ah, Mr. Larabee, why was I left out in the desert and why am I in jail?" Ezra finally decided to ask; since it didn't appear that anyone was going to enlighten him.
Chris looked sternly at the rumpled looking conman, trying to decide if he really was as confused as he appeared. Lord, he didn't want to believe this man ran. Him and Ezra had their differences but things were getting better between the contrary men. Maybe Chris had expected too much, how could someone change a lifetime of habits in a few months?
"We couldn't find you and Buck was injured..." Chris began.
"Is he okay?" Ezra's asked, quickly standing up and just as quickly regretting the activity as pain shot out from behind his eyes. He grabbed hold of the bars to steady himself.
"Yeah, he's fine, Chris worriedly assured him.
Ezra leaned against the wall, letting out a slow breath. "So, why am I in this cell?"
"It's for your own protection," Chris told him.
Damn, this could take all day. Larabee was not one to give information freely but then neither was he. Ezra smiled at this, but cut it short as his head throbbed. Then he remembered the mob that had attacked him.
"Why was I so brutally attacked?"
Chris' eyes broke away from Ezra's questioning glare. "Orrin Quist is dead!" Chris bluntly stated. Josiah and Vin approached the cell going on either side of Chris. Josiah's face showed the torment he was going through. Vin's remained impassive, still trying to decide where he stood with all of this.
Ezra kept his eyes on Chris not sure he understood exactly what was said. Something flashed through his mind, and he closed his eyes as if trying to remember something, but it slipped away before he could grab it. By the distressing expressions on Vin and Josiah's face he knew there was more.
"And," Ezra prompted the stoic leader.
"The Major says you ran during a gun fight, causing the death of his son," Chris added his voice remaining low. Ezra cocked his head to the side and stared at the harden gunslinger with a skeptical glance. He slowly sat back down on the cot and stared down at his hands.
"What do you remember, Ezra?" Josiah's baritone voice broke the deathly silence.
Ezra kept his head down; he couldn't believe what was happening. Did everyone believe he ran? Did he run? Ezra's head throbbed and he realized that Nathan had not returned with his herbal concoction. Ezra's gut twisted, it felt like his heart was being torn to pieces. His southern drawl was strained as he replied, "I remember covering Mr. Dunne and you, a lot of gunfire, then waking up with a splitting headache." Ezra frowned and brought his hand up to rub his burning eyes. His vision kept blurring and it was making him dizzy.
"Did you run, Ezra?" Chris asked, making solid the words that ran though Ezra's own head.
Again the long silence, Ezra's heart beat hard in his chest. He could feel the blood rushing to his head. He tried to take a deep breath to calm it down, but it stuck in his chest. He brought his head up slowly. "I don't know; I don't remember," he answered a tremulous note in his voice. Josiah hung his head.
Chris ran a hand over his face, rubbing at his tired eyes. He didn't know what to do. Major Quist was the Judge's best friend, a decorated war hero, why would he lie? Ezra was a conman and sometimes a cheat, but he was also a good friend, who had proven himself numerous times. Chris looked upon the distraught features of the gambler wondering if it was all an act.
Chris' musings were interrupted by the Judge's heavy footfalls behind him.
"Mr. Standish, there will be a hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial, Travis simply announced, but all detected the undertone of rage. The Judge believed that Ezra Standish was responsible for the death of his godson. He had no reason to doubt his long time friend. Travis glared at Ezra the disgust not hidden on his aged face. He blamed himself for hiring a man who only looked after number one.
Ezra looked at Chris who met his eyes, he then turned to the Judge. "What's the charge?"
"The Major is accusing you of dereliction of duty leading to the death of his son," Judge Travis explained, regarding him through narrow eyes.
Standish could tell that the Judge believed his long-time friend. He had to get his wits about him. Ezra took a deep breath and started to get control of his rampaging emotions. "Judge, don't take this the wrong way, but could I request a different arbitrator, seeing that you are a close friend of my accuser."
"Don't worry Mr. Standish, I'll be fair and this is only a hearing." The Judge turned and walked out.
Chris turned away to follow then stopped when Ezra quietly exclaimed, "You believe I ran, don't you Mr. Larabee?" Chris slowly turned around. His lips held in a firm straight line. He tried to loosen his clenched fists.
"I don't know what to think, Ezra. What am I suppose to think? You can't even remember what happened." Chris hadn't intended to sound so angry. He turned, and again started to walk out; upon reaching the door he heard the sarcastic remark Ezra spoke.
"I guess this puts us back at square one."
Chris bowed his head and continued out the door. Josiah's heart broke as he saw the familiar mask of apathy fall over Ezra's face as he stared at men he had considered friends, even family. Josiah and JD left, leaving Vin to watch over him. Ezra stretched out on the cot, placing his hat over his face. Months of trust destroyed in a single moment, but could he really blame them when he himself had doubts.
+ + + + + + +
He watched from a distant knoll. He watched as JD and Josiah again reached the safety of the rocks, then the gunfire increased. His heart beat fast as he watched himself run. He called out to stop, racing down the hill to stop himself. Ezra bolted upright, choking back the yell. His eyes darted back and forth, stopping when they swept over the worried tracker who stood outside the cell.
"Are you alright?" Vin asked, noticing Ezras sweat soaked hair and his flushed face. He had heard the gambler tossing and turning caught in the throes of a nightmare and was preparing to wake him. He hated seeing Ezra going through this. He still wasn't sure what to believe, but Ezra was a friend and he cared about him. Vin knew they all were having trouble dealing with the situation.
"I am fine, Mr. Tanner," Ezra curtly replied. The night was warm, but Ezra couldn't shake the chill that had settled into him. He slowly laid back down, but he wouldn't go back to sleep; he may never sleep again. Ezra stared at the wooden ceiling. He continued to bury his feelings, deep where no one would ever find them and hurt him again. He had trusted six unique individuals, it had taken awhile, but he had started to open up to them. Now he knew, they still couldn't see past the outer covering, still couldn't believe that he could change. He'd thought he'd found a home, a family; he was wrong. A fever raged through him, stoking his growing anger, he hadn't run, he hadn't run, he kept saying to himself. Was he trying to convince himself? A single tear slid down his cheek the last one that he would allow to fall.
Part 4The courtroom was packed with spectators. They overflowed into the street. It looked like the whole town was in attendance. Some were genuinely concerned about justice; others only wanted to witness the downfall of one of the Seven. Josiah and Ezra sat at one of the front tables. Josiah had offered to represent Ezra. He had allowed the demon of doubt into his heart, and he needed to purge it. The other five gunslingers sat behind them, hoping to show the support they had a hard time feeling.
Major Jacob Quist sat alone at the adjacent table, choosing to be his own console. He wore his military dress uniform. His face still held the grief he felt over the death of his son. They had held Orrin's funeral that morning. Everyone attended, except Ezra, who had to remain in jail and Vin who guarded him.
Judge Travis entered and sat down behind an elevated desk. He removed a gavel from his robes and struck it on the corner of the desk, ending the flurry of activity and noise. His own grief laid bare for all to see. He had wanted to delay the hearing a few days, wait for everyone's emotions, especially his, to calm down. But Major Quist had been adamant and convinced him to go ahead.
"This court is now in session," the Judge's voice boomed across the room. "This is only a hearing to decide if there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial. Mr. Sanchez is representing Mr. Standish." The Judge took a deep breath, staring out over the room. He saw Mary and many of the other women dressed in dark clothing. He noticed that Ezra had seen fit to wear something a little less flamboyant than his usual fare. He wore a plain shirt and dark blue jacket, which made him look even paler.
Ezra sat quietly, his eyes glued to his steepled fingers in front of his face. He heard the murmurings of coward and traitor in the background. These words cut a path through his soul, hurting more than any bullet could. No one had visited him in jail; they only came to guard him, knowing his talent for locks. They believed he'd run; his wall of deference was slowly being built up again. Why had he even tried?
"Major Jacob Quist will you please take the stand and state your case for the court, the Judge asked, his voice emotionless, trying to bury his grief for the time being.
The Major stood, holding his chin up, he walked up to the wooden chair that sat next to the Judge's desk and sat down. He glared at Ezra, who ignored him.
"That man," he pointed an accusing finger toward Ezra, "Is responsible for my son's death." Ezra closed his eyes, his headache had not got any better and his vision blurred at times. He felt a chill go through him and tried to suppress a shiver. He barely heard the murmurs that came with the Major's accusation; it sounded more like a low atonal hum surrounding him.
Nathan noticed that Ezra looked very pale, and he saw the shiver that went through his body. Guilt struck him as he remembered he'd forgotten to give him any pain or fever medicine. It wasnt intentional; Buck had broken some of his stitches open and Nathan had to sew him up again, by the time he was finished he had just forgot. 'It wasn't intentional', he said to himself. Was it?
"Please Major Quist just state the facts," Judge Travis reprimanded. He was trying to keep his own emotions from interfering with the proceedings.
The Major bowed his head and took a deep breath then released it. The room became deathly silent. "Mr. Larabee sent me, Orrin, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Standish around to the west side to see if we couldn't trap the Morales' gang between us." Major Quist took another deep quivering breath and continued, "We came under fire by a couple of the outlaws so we gave cover fire to Mr. Dunne and Mr. Sanchez so they could make their way to some nearby rocks and try and get behind them. Next thing I know we started receiving gunfire from two sides and found ourselves in a crossfire." The Major's eyes began to mist and he stopped for a moment, bowing his head until he composed himself. "We, me, Orrin and Mr. Standish hunched down and tried to return fire. I turned to see Standish just sitting there with this strange look on his face, he said, 'tell Larabee I'm sorry I can't do this anymore,' and took off."
Ezra's eyes narrowed at this testimony but he remained silent.
"I yelled for him to stop, worried for his safety, but then the gunfire intensified and it took everything Orrin and I had to protect ourselves, but it wasn't enough. I watched as Orrin took a bullet and fell." Tears streamed down Major Quist's cheeks. "I'd be dead too, but the others must have got the outlaws to retreat in time."
Ezra's face remained impassive as he listened to the Major's account of what had happened. He could feel the eyes behind him glaring accusingly.
Chris and the others wanted to believe Ezra, but the one question kept returning, Why would the Major lie? What reason would he have? Chris couldn't come up with a good enough answer and then that one little thought crept in, like an annoying itch you just can't scratch. He ran once before. No matter how hard they tried the six men couldn't keep this thought from slipping into the forefront of their minds.
Chris looked from behind to see Ezra's hands clenched so tight they shook. Josiah placed a comforting hand on the conman's shoulder, which he promptly shrugged off. Josiah feared that Ezra was rebuilding the wall that had taken them so long to break down. They were a family now, each one made whole by the others. What would happen if they lost one of their own? Josiah turned sad blue eyes back toward the other lawmen.
"Thank you Major that will be all," Judge Travis curtly dismissed the distraught man. His own gray-green eyes misting as he held back the tears.
"Mr. Standish, will you please take the stand," the Judge ordered, his voice cracking slightly.
Ezra rose slowly, his head felt like it was trapped in a vise. His body ached and he had to steady himself a moment. He straightened his jacket and took the seat the Major just vacated.
"Now, Mr. Standish, I understand you sustained a head wound and don't remember much of what happened, but please, tell us what you do remember?" Judge Travis asked, honestly trying to keep his feelings from interfering, but he had a hard time looking at the man he believed responsible for his god-son's death.
Ezra looked over the crowd, noticing Buck with his arm in a sling, grateful that he was okay. These people wanted to see remorse, that wasn't something he was willing to give them. His southern drawl was steady, his words lucid. "I remember giving Mr. Dunne and Mr. Sanchez cover fire and then being caught in a crossfire." Ezra paused, bringing his hands up to rub his temples; his brows came together in frustration. He had tried all night to remember. "Then I woke up in a crevice and came back to town."
Ezra could hear the rumbles of discontent throughout the courtroom. He looked over to his friends, seeing the sadness in their faces, the disappointment. It tore at his gut, his heart, at his very soul. Lord how it hurt.
"Major Quist, do you wish to ask any questions?" Ezra vaguely heard the Judge's muffled voice.
"Yes, your honor." Quist stood, his hands behind his back as he approached the stand.
Ezra's face remained impassive under the Major's scrutiny.
"Well, since you insist you don't remember running out on us I won't waste the courts time in re-hashing that." Ezra glared at the Major noticing that the Judge had allowed the maligning statement.
"You ran once before though didn't you, Mr. Standish?" Major Jacob asked the malice dripping from every word.
Ezra refused to be intimidated by this man. He was sorry about Orrin's death but he felt he had nothing to do with it. "Yes," he stated emphatically.
"Your friends were almost killed because you left your post to search for gold, is that correct?" This stunned the others, the Judge had apparently told the Major every detail.
"Yes," Ezra answered, chagrin flickered across his face, but was quickly brought under control.
"Why did you run out on them, Mr. Standish?" Jacob asked, bending closer to the stoic conman.
Ezra didn't even flinch as he replied, "To save my own skin, Major."
Josiah bowed his head, why did Ezra have to choose now to be completely honest. The courtroom broke into an uproar. Chris, Buck, JD, Vin and Nathan stood up, placing their hands on their guns, warning the angered crowd back.
Major Quist straightened, a triumphant grin on his face as he turned to Judge Travis. "No further questions, your honor." Jacob knew he had won. Ezra would be found guilty and sent away. His secret would be safe and he'd have the added bonus of being able to join up with the Seven.
Josiah stepped up to Ezra, hoping to put a better light on things.
"Mr. Standish, you did come back didn't you?" Josiah calmly asked.
"Yes," Ezra replied quietly. The room had started to spin and he turned his eyes down to the floor.
"You saved them; they would have been killed if you hadn't returned," Josiah remarked, more as a statement then a question.
"They wouldn't have been in that position if he hadn't of run!" Major Quist yelled out. Judge Travis struck his gavel on the table.
Josiah ignored the Major's outburst and continued, "The truth is, you've saved them a number of times, at risk to your own life, isn't that true Mr. Standish?"
Ezra brought his green gaze up looking over at the men he considered more than just associates; he would give his life for these men. "Yes."
"That's all Judge, Josiah said.
"Thank you Mr. Standish, that'll be all, the Judge wearily said.
Ezra slowly walked back over to his seat. Nathan could see the flush of fever and his gut tore with guilt.
"Mr. Sanchez is there anyone you'd like to call up to the stand?" The Judge asked the ex-preacher who stood in front of his desk
"Yes, I'd like Nathan Jackson to take the stand, Josiah requested, turning to face his friend and seeing his stunned expression. Nathan hadn't expected to be called to testify.
"Mr. Jackson, can the type of head wound that Mr. Standish received
cause memory loss?" Josiah asked the fidgety healer.
Nathan looked over at Ezra who refused to meet his dark eyes. "Yes, definitely."
"Could his memory come back?"
"Maybe, not enough is known about how the mind works to make even an educated guess," Nathan explained, hoping this somehow helped.
"Do you trust Mr. Standish?" Josiah suddenly threw out the question toward the dark healer.
Nathan had to think about it for a moment. He thought about how Ezra had taken the children under his wing at the Seminole village and how he had helped Li Pong and even saved JD's life at risk to his own. "Yes, I do trust him."
"Thank you Mr. Jackson, no further questions."
Nathan was preparing to leave when Major Quist stood. "I have a few questions for Mr. Jackson, if you don't mind." Nathan sunk back into the chair.
"Mr. Jackson, have you ever seen Mr. Standish con or cheat anyone?"
"Well, ah not really, I mean it wasn't malicious or anything, it's just somethin' he's been taught to do since birth. It's survival for him, Nathan stammered.
"So he has?"
Nathan didn't answer so the Major continued, "Could you tell if he was conning us now to save his own hide?"
Nathan bowed his head when he spoke. "No."
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan left the chair looking down at Ezra as he passed by noticing how pale he was becoming. Buck patted Nathan's back with his good hand as he sat down trying to reassure him, but Nathan didn't feel he had done Ezra any good.
"Major Quist, do you wish to call up any more witnesses?" The Judge asked.
"Yes, I wish to call Chris Larabee."
Chris removed his hat as he took the seat next to the Judge.
"Mr. Larabee, you didn't trust Mr. Standish at first did you?"
"No," Chris replied.
"Why did you hire him?" Jacob asked.
"I thought he would come in handy."
"You thought a liar and a cheat would come in handy," The Major asked.
"And has he?" The Major asked.
"Yep," Chris repeated looking straight up at the Major's dark eyes.
"What did you say to him after he came back and saved you all at the Indian Village?"
Chris took a deep breath. "I told him never run out on me again."
"And his reply?"
Chris clenched his jaw before answering. "He didn't give one."
"Do you think he would run?"
Chris paused a moment, which brought Ezra's intense green eyes upon him. He stared back with the same intensity and answered, "I don't know." The courtroom went into another uproar. Vin, JD, Buck and Nathan again stood, placing their hands on their guns. Several people made threatening moves, but backed off when they looked into the fierce eyes of the four gunslingers. Ezra was still one of them and they would protect him no matter what.
It took a moment to regain order in the courtroom. Chris and Ezra's menacing stares remained locked on each other, neither one willing to back down.
"No more questions," Jacob smugly announced, returning to his own chair.
Josiah came up to the dark-clad gunslinger putting his body between the two men, effectively ending their line of sight battle.
"Mr. Larabee, has Mr. Standish proved himself a valuable member of this town?"
Josiah turned to the side allowing Chris to see his friend as he replied, "Yes, he has."
"No more questions." Josiah wanted to end this he didn't like the way Ezra was looking.
"Any more remarks or questions?" The Judge asked.
The Major stood up. "I know what I saw, and I saw that man run. He ran to save his own skin just like before. He might not have pulled the trigger but he's just as responsible for my son's death."
Ezra stood up, placing his hands on the table to steady himself. Chris noticed this and looked past to Nathan, who also watched with worried eyes. Chris slowly stepped down from the chair and moved closer to the unsteady man. Ezra's green eyes locked on to the Major's dark ones. "I don't remember what happened, I wish I did. I'm sorry for your son's death but I didn't run!" Ezra said this with conviction even though it was the first time he felt it was true.
Everyone started talking and yelling at once. The Judge's gavel came down once then twice, causing Ezra to flinch. His arms shook and his breathing quickened. The room started to heave then waver and Ezra felt his legs buckle; he never touched the floor. Chris was ready; he leapt forward, catching the collapsing man and gently lowering him to the floor.
Nathan jumped over the railing and rushed to Ezras side feeling for a pulse. He felt the heat coming off his body and swore, which immediately got Josiah's attention.
Josiah placed a forgiving hand the guilt-ridden healer's shoulder.
Part 5Ezra awoke a couple hours later back in the jail cell. He was on his side, facing the wall and could hear the low murmurings of a conversation in the background. He strained to listen.
"How do you all know he's not lying or conning us right now?" Judge Travis' gruff voice rose slightly. "That man was taught to lie since the day he was born, Mr. Jackson said so himself. I'm sorry gentlemen, I have no choice."
"It wouldn't have anything to do with the Major being a friend now, would it Judge?" Buck asked, not hiding the underlining contempt he now felt for the Judge and the Major.
"Mr. Wilmington, I admit my bias. I've known Jacob for thirty years; hell, he's a decorated war hero why would he lie? Someone tell me that?" Everyone was silent.
Ezra slowly rolled over in his bunk. "And I'm just a two-bit gambler," his voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Vin, go get Nathan," Chris said as he stepped up to the cell.
"So, what's the verdict?" Ezra asked as he slowly sat up bringing the palms of his hands up to his eyes, trying to push back the pain. The Judge approached the cell, the hate still evident on his face, even though he was trying to hide it. Buck and JD stood slightly behind him.
"I've called for a circuit judge. He should be here in a few days. I'm sorry Mr. Standish, but you leave me no other choice. You have that time to get your memory back before we hold the trial," Travis explained to the weary looking conman.
"And if I don't get my memory back?" Ezra asked the Judge, an icy edge to his voice.
"The trial will start in four days," the Judge answered with the same icy tone. He looked over at Chris who returned his gaze and watched him walk out.
"What am I looking at Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked in an even voice. He couldn't stop the shiver, which shook him all the way up to his shoulders. He wasn't sure if it was from the fever he had or the fear that gripped his heart. He felt his life, a life he had come to love, being ripped from his grasp and there was nothing he could do about it.
"If you're found guilty you could possibly get a year at Yuma prison, more an likely you'll be sent to Tucson jail for a month and asked not to return," Chris regretfully replied.
"Chris, they can't do that, they can't break us up," Buck uttered as the implication finally dawned on him. It was a long time before he trusted the suave gambler, but he considered him a very good friend and he didn't think he would run.
Buck looked over his shoulder as Vin and Nathan entered the jail, coming to stand on either side of Chris. "Ezra, how you feelin?" Nathan asked.
"Just dandy Mr. Jackson, go away!" Ezra spat out, no longer hiding his growing anger.
"Here Ezra drink this." Nathan held out a tin cup of water and boiled herbs. Ezra looked up at it then slowly stood and took the offered cup. He stared at the healer and let his eyes sweep over the others behind him. He wondered where Josiah was. He noticed how JD couldn't even look at him, how Chris glared suspiciously. He could no longer keep his anger away and he welcomed it. It was a feeling he was familiar with and could deal with, it would fill the empty hole that was slowly growing in his gut. Ezra tipped the cup over, dumping the pain-relieving contents onto the jail floor. Ezra's face was flushed with fever and a growing rage that made his emerald eyes blaze with a demon-like fire. He actually looked more dangerous than all six of the other gunslingers combined. Nathan bit his lip, seeing that anger burning in Ezra's green eyes.
"Ezra, you needed to drink that," Chris said flatly, trying to keep control of his own frustration. He understood that Ezra was angry but this wasn't helping any.
"Go to hell, all of you! I was better off when I only relied on myself, because that's the way I always end up anyway. My mother was right!" He yelled, his voice rising with his anger. Anger felt better then the betrayal and disappointment he had been feeling; anger swallowed all that up, even the fear.
"Ezra you know that's not true," Vin voiced.
Ezra turned his back on them, pressing his hands, palms down, against the other wall. "If you could just remember what happened?" Chris angrily asked. He was frustrated at Ezra, himself, the whole damn situation.
Ezra snapped back around. "Why don't you try and beat me into remembering, come on Larabee, I won't even fight back," he replied in a menacing tone, his hands held to his side. "You all think I'm lying, conning you, well don't you?" Ezra's fever was stoking his anger, which was melting his fear. He watched as JD left the jail. Buck flashed a regretful expression and followed the distraught young sheriff. Ezra returned to his cot and laid down, throwing his arm across his eyes. He was tired and wished he had drunk some of Nathan's concoction.
Buck found JD outside, sitting on the boardwalk. He sat down next to the young gunslinger, wincing as the movement caused his arm some discomfort. JD continued staring straight ahead, holding back the tears that threatened to fall.
"Gawd Buck, what's happening? I don't want to believe that Ezra ran, I really don't, but..." JD wiped at a single tear that traveled down his cheek.
Buck put a brotherly arm across his shoulders. "I know JD, I know. None of us do. We're just going to have to hope that the truth will eventually come out."
JD turned his head to look at his best friend who was like a brother to him. "What if Ezra never remembers?"
Buck closed his eyes, sometimes the kid asked the hardest questions.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning Mary entered the jail with a tray of food. The Major was like an Uncle to her, and she had cared deeply for Orrin, almost like a younger brother. She nodded toward Vin and Buck, who were sitting around the desk playing cards. Ezra was sitting up, leaning against the wall, his eyes closed. She hadn't trusted the slick cardshark in the beginning. Like a lot of people she believed he only watched out for number one, but over the months he had proved himself. Mary had caught a glimpse of the real man beneath his armor of arrogance. She had even developed feelings for the frightened, insecure man that she discovered there, which had complicated her feelings for Chris Larabee. She never told anyone how she felt. She always thought, or hoped it was just girlish infatuation or lust; Ezra Standish was an extremely handsome man. Now, she couldn't even force herself to look at the man she believed responsible for Orrin's death.
"I have some breakfast for Mr. Standish," she said to Buck.
Ezra cringed when he heard Mary call him by his last name. Buck opened the cell door allowing Mary to place the tray on the small table.
"Thank you, Miss Travis," Ezra quietly murmured, opening his green eyes to meet Mary's soft cornflower blue ones. She quickly turned and left. Ezra saw the hurt and betrayal in her eyes. Where once he believed they had held something more than just friendship, the hole in his gut grew bigger.
"Ezra." Buck's low voice tried to break into his thoughts. Buck wanted desperately to talk to his friend to tell him everything would be okay, but he couldn't. The fact was, he didn't know what to say to him.
Ezra refused to acknowledge him and Buck quietly closed the cell door and returned to Vin.
A couple hours later JD entered the jail. "I'm going to talk to Ezra," he told Buck and Vin.
"Have at it, maybe you'll have better luck than us," Vin replied. Buck gave JD an encouraging smile. He knew the young gunslinger cared very much for everyone, maybe too much. Buck feared the young man was going to get hurt.
Ezra hadn't spoken to anyone since the hearing, and JD noticed the untouched tray of food in his cell.
"Ezra, I'm sorry," he quietly remarked, not knowing what else to say. He removed his bowler, allowing strands of his dark hair to fall across his distraught face.
Ezra sat up from his bed. He saw that JD was truly concerned. His anger had abated slightly as his health improved. "There is nothing to be sorry for Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied apathetically. He was tired. He'd stayed up all night thinking, knowing he'd have to get himself out of this; no one else was going to help.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Only if you're willing to aid in my emancipation, so I can try and clear my tarnished reputation."
"Ezra, I can't, JD replied, looking over his shoulder at Buck and Vin, who were concentrating on a card game. "This is the Judge's orders, you're to remain locked up until the trial."
Ezra chuckled. "I understand Mr. Dunne, they believe I would run out, depriving them of the pleasure of watching me dragged away in chains."
Ezra hated putting the young gunslinger in this position, or taking advantage of his friendship, but he was desperate. "You haven't seen Josiah around lately, have you?" The thought that Josiah also believed he was guilty was almost more than he could bear. He hadn't seen the ex-preacher since the hearing.
"No, Ez, I haven't," JD sadly replied. He knew how close Ezra and Josiah had become. They had an almost father/son relationship. Ezra's faint smile left his face, taking away the dimples in his cheeks. JD put his bowler back on his head. His lips pressed in a firm straight line as he walked past Vin and Buck without even a good-bye.
Vin stretched his lean form out, trying to remove some of the kinks in his tired muscles. None of the gunslingers were getting much in the way of sleep. "Buck, I'm going to stretch my legs some, you want me to get you anything?" Buck only shook his head, examining the cards, he wondered how he had lost almost every game. He started suspecting Vin of cheating. Vin glanced over at Ezra, who hadn't moved since JD left, his food still untouched.
Vin walked out squinting against the late afternoon sunshine. He breathed in the cool clear air trying to clear his own head. He spotted Chris leaning against the railing, a cheroot between his teeth.
"Has he remembered anything?" Chris asked, without looking up, knowing who it was.
"He won't say a word. There's got to be somethin' we can do?" Vin replied. Chris turned his head at the anguish plea from the usually taciturn man. "I don't believe he ran, don't ask me why, it's just a feelin'," Vin added. He rubbed his thumb over his upper lip, looking out toward the distant overlapping hills.
"I know, I have that same feelin," Chris replied, dropping the cheroot to the ground and grinding it out under his heel. They were as close to brothers as one could get without being blood. At times, they shared the same thought and didn't even have to talk to hold a conversation. Both men knew they would not allow Ezra to go to jail, but they didn't know how to save their broken friendship, which lay shattered in pieces at their feet.
Part 6The next morning JD entered the jail to find Buck still on duty. He was ashamed of himself. He had believed that Ezra had run. He had stayed up most of the night, finally convincing himself that Ezra didn't run. "Why don't you go get some breakfast, Buck? I'll take over for awhile."
"Don't mind if I do. I'll bring you and Ezra something." Buck looked over at Ezra, who was beginning to look gaunt; he'd barely eaten anything in two days.
After Buck left, JD went up to the cell. "Ezra."
Ezra removed his hat from his face and looked up at the young sheriff. His headache had finally gone but he still couldn't remember anything. For the past two days he had done nothing but replay in his mind what he could remember, hoping the missing pieces would finally fall into place.
"Your horse is out back," JD simply stated. He removed his badge from his vest pocket and placed it on the desk. He walked out the door knowing Ezra could probably open his cell door faster than he could unlock it using the key.
Ezra watched as JD walked out, renewing some of his lost hope. He pushed open the cell door; he had already unlocked it while Buck was on duty. He couldn't help it; he was bored. Ezra found his horse fully saddled and ready. JD had even packed some food in the saddlebags and his flask. Ezra took up the reins and led the horse out from the alley. He checked the street before mounting and rode off.
From the hotel doorway Major Quist watched as Ezra left town. He sipped his coffee, a satisfying smile coming slowly to his face. He had hoped for this chance. He knew of the gambler's penchant for breaking out of jails. The Major tossed the last of his coffee into the street and headed toward the stables.
Vin was returning from rounds when he spotted Ezra riding out of town. He decided to follow and hoped his friend wasn't running away. He didn't know what he'd do if that were the case. He didn't want to see Ezra go to jail and thought maybe this would be the best for everyone. He pushed the dismal thought aside realizing some part of him believed the Major.
Ezra didn't even notice the buckskin tracker, so intent on discovering the truth.
Vin kept his distance and was relieved when he knew where the enigmatic conman was heading. He followed Ezra back to the rocky outcropping and watched from the cover of several trees as Ezra dismounted. It looked like the gambler was searching for something. Vin continued to watch as Ezra knelt down, placing his hand on the spot where Orrin Quist had died. The blood now dried into the ground.
Ezra stood and looked at the spot where he and the Major took cover. An imagine flashed in his head, and he brought his hand up to his face, stopping halfway. It all came rushing back, and Ezra closed his eyes and hung his head. How was he going to convince the Judge and the others about what really happened? He thought about just leaving, he didn't want to go to jail, but something inside him wouldn't allow this thought to unfold. Ezra fell against a boulder, trying to sort things out. He was still angry; the others had believed that he had run.
The Major climbed up the other side of the rocky outcropping. He laid himself flat upon a sloping slab and brought his rifle to his shoulder. He knew the gambling man was trying to remember by coming back here. Jacob carefully took aim at the gambler who was deep in thought. He couldn't risk the fancy dressed lawman remembering, and this would be easier than going through a trial. Vin caught the glint of a rifle up in the rocks but was too late to warn Ezra. Jacob squeezed the trigger, the bullet tearing into Ezra's side, spinning him to the ground.
Vin drew his gun and rushed out, scanning the rocks for the shooter. He raced to Ezra's side praying he wasn't dead. He checked for a pulse relieved to find one.
Hang on, Ez.
Ezra moaned, and Vin carefully turned him over. Ezra's eyes fluttered open and he grabbed the longhaired tracker by his shirt, pulling himself up. "I remember, Vin; I didn't run."
Vin couldn't help but hear the relief in that southern drawl. Ezras eyes slowly closed and he slumped back into the tracker's arms.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had just finished reading JD the riot act for allowing Ezra to escape. His heart really wasn't in it though. He didn't blame the young gunslinger. He had even hoped once or twice that Ezra would escape. He told the Judge, who demanded they go after him, but Chris talked him into waiting until morning. JD believed that Ezra would return and that was good enough for him. He was glad someone still had faith in the ambiguous southerner. Chris sat in the saloon, contemplating the bottle of Whiskey in front of him when Vin quietly appeared, sitting in a chair next to him. He furtively glanced around the saloon.
"Chris, Vin uttered to Chris' bewildered expression. "I got Ezra."
Chris' visage remained stoic. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed.
"He was shot," Vin added.
"What!" Chris' voice rose slightly grabbing the attention of several other patrons.
"I saw him leavin the jail so I followed him. He went back to where it all happened. He seemed to be looking for somethin', and then someone shot him. I didn't get a look at who it was; maybe one of the Morales' gang was still hidden up there. He's up at Nathan's. He won't let Nathan take the bullet out until he speaks to you and the Judge."
+ + + + + + +
Chris, Vin and Judge Travis entered Nathan's room to find Ezra laid out on the bed a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his waist. Sweat covered his muscular body, and the three men could see the pain in his emerald eyes. He shook as his hands gripped the bed sheets.
Nathan stepped up to the three men. "Thank goodness, he won't take any pain medicine, and he won't let me take out the bullet, says he needs to tell you something."
Chris knelt down beside the bed, placing his hand on Ezra's shoulder to get his attention. Ezra turned his head to the side, his glassy green eyes trying to focus on the dark-clad leader.
"I didn't run," he rasped. Chris nodded in agreement, not wanting to upset him at this time.
"I remember, he breathed out, wincing in pain. Nathan handed Chris a cool damp rag to place on his head.
"Ezra, let Nathan take care of you. We'll talk later," Chris quietly said.
"No, can't wait." Fear came to Ezra's eyes. "In case I don't make it."
Chris turned to Nathan as if to verify this. Nathan could only shrug, unsure.
Ezra had a driving desire for this man to know the truth. He didn't want to die with Chris and the others thinking he was a coward.
Chris's heart broke at the pleading in the gambler's voice.
"The Major ran," Ezra gasped out. Vin and the Judge moved in closer.
Ezra licked his lips, and Chris lifted his head, bringing a cup of water to his mouth. Ezra took a couple sips and then continued, "We were pinned down. I thought the Major had been injured. He was just sitting there shaking, not doing anything." Ezra swallowed and fought the darkness that was threatening to fall upon him. "His eyes were wild and he kept saying we're outnumbered there's no chance, then he ran off. his son ran after him. I tried to stop him, but I..." Ezra closed his eyes at the memory of the young man being gunned down in front of him. "...I tried to stop him."
Chris's eyes burned with hate, hate for the man who had caused all this. He believed Ezra; there was no demon of doubt in his mind this time. Chris placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder and squeezed.
Ezra clenched his jaw as a searing pain ripped through him. His eyes closed and his head lolled to the side. Nathan pushed Chris aside and quickly went to work removing the bullet. Ezra didn't move or make a sound as Nathan sliced open the wound and started probing for the bullet. Chris and Vin stayed close incase they were needed. Travis positioned himself against the wall, a scowl imbedded on his face.
The bullet was deep and Nathan started worrying about shock. He finally found it and pulled it out. He applied pressure to the wound until it stopped bleeding then placed herbs on it to prevent infection. Chris helped Nathan raise the still unconscious man so he could wrap a clean bandage around him. Chris brought the blanket up to Ezras chest.
Nathan checked his pulse and breathing and went to his table to prepare some pain medicine. Guilt tore at him. He wasn't sure he'd ever be able to forgive himself. Why'd had he not believed him?
"Will he be alright, Nate?" Vin asked, not taking his eyes off of Ezra's slow rising chest.
"I don't know, he's lost a lot of blood and was already weak from the fever he had and not eating," Nathan snapped, he slammed his fist against the dresser knocking over several vials.
Chris placed a hand on the black man's back. "It's not your fault, Nathan."
Nathan turned angrily on Chris. "It isnt? I didn't give him medicine because I thought he ran. I thought he was responsible for that young man's death." This was the first time that Nathan had admitted this out loud. Tears glistened in his caring dark eyes; he lowered his voice. "What kind of healer am I who couldn't put his personal feelings aside to help someone?"
"A human one," Chris answered. Nathan wasn't the only one shouldering a lot of guilt.
Chris, Vin and Judge Travis stepped out of the room. The Judge hadn't said a word the entire time, he just stood and stared at the two men before him.
"It doesn't prove a thing, Chris," the Judge finally stated. He thought that Ezra was just making it up to save himself. "It's his word against Jacob's."
Vin shook his head and asked, "Why would he wait till now to remember?"
Before the Judge could answer, Josiah came running up the stairs. Fear gripped him when he saw the three men outside Nathan's room. "What happened?"
"Ezra was shot," Vin replied.
Josiah closed his eyes and fell against the wall. "Oh, no, will he be okay?"
"Nathan doesn't know yet," Vin answered.
"Where have you been?" Chris growled, the anger he was feeling now directed at Josiah, remembering that the ex-preacher was no where to be found after the hearing.
"I just returned from Ft Kinney," Josiah stated, ignoring Chris's wrath. He looked at the Judge.
"And why Mr. Sanchez, did you feel the need to go there?" Judge Travis asked.
"I wanted a little more information on Major Jacob Quist, now I wish I'd gone sooner," Josiah answered. After what he was about to say, if Ezra died no one would be able to forgive themselves, including him.
"So what did you find out?" Chris impatiently asked.
"It appears the Major didn't retire. He is under suspension, pending investigation. His superiors wouldn't tell me the reason, but a young corporal did. Apparently, a month ago the Major was in charge of a small unit of about seventeen men. They ran into a band of Comanches and were severely outnumbered. The Major's second in command recommended that they pull back and call for reinforcement, but Quist wouldn't hear of it. He told the men to attack. When it became apparent that they were about to be overrun the Major froze and then ran; fifteen men died. They say he lost his nerve and was too proud to admit it."
"Holy shit," Vin gasped out as him and Chris regarded each other, sharing the anger and blame between them.
Judge Travis bowed his head. He didn't want to believe it, but doubt was slowly ebbing its way into his soul. He lowered his body down onto the bench outside Nathan's door. The three gunslingers saw the despair on their aged friend's face. He had trusted Jacob and that trust led to the persecution of an innocent man and friend. The Judge didn't know how Standish could ever forgive any of them. He wasn't sure he could forgive himself. The frustration and despair that Chris had been feeling over the past few days was now replaced with rage.
"Vin get JD, I have a plan," Chris stated, a venomous smile coming to his hardened face. He realized that it was still Ezra's word against the Major's, but he was not about to put Ezra through a trial.
Part 7"So, Mr. Larabee, I hear one of your men captured Mr. Standish, that is good news," Quist said to the dark-clad gunslinger, who was sitting by himself in the quiet bar room. Quist looked around, surprised none of the other gunslingers were about. In fact, he hadn't seen any of them all day.
"Yeah, but someone shot him." Chris tossed back the shot he was holding, trying to wash down the bile that was rising in his throat from being in the same room with this man.
"Well, you'll forgive me if I'm not sorry," Major Quist sneered. "Will he be able to stand trial?"
Chris slowly raised his head to look at the Major who stood on the other side of the table. "Nathan says he's in some kinda coma, but Vin told us before he passed out that he remembered what happened. So all we have to do is wait until he wakes up." The Major appeared to get slightly flustered then quickly composed himself, but not before bringing a slight smile to Larabee's face. Chris wanted nothing more than to put his hands around the smug Major's throat.
"If you'll excuse me, Mr. Larabee, I just remembered somethin' I need to attend to." The Major quickly exited the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
It was after midnight when a large form slipped into Nathan's darkened room. There wasn't even a lantern on and the windows were covered. Jacob Quist could just make out the dark shape, which laid unmoving on the bed under a quilt. The only sound the Major could detect was his own nervous breathing. He picked up a pillow that laid at the foot of the bed and moved up to the head. His mind wandered through the past few days, the death of his son still fresh in his heart. He still had a hard time believing he was gone. It was easier to believe that Orrin was in the military now, or back east. After him and his mother separated he would go years without seeing the boy, so it wasn't hard to convince himself that Orrin was still alive. He knew the deception wouldn't last, but for now, it was the only way he could remain sane.
Jacob hadn't planned on any of this happening. He was even a little sorry about what he had put the gambler through, but he couldn't change the past. He could only make sure no one ever discovered the truth. And honestly, who would really miss a conniving conman? Oh, everyone would be a little sad for awhile for proprietys sake, but then life would go on. With the Judges help he would slowly work his way into the tight group of lawmen and everything would be status quo. Who needed the Army, he would help maintain the peace and become famous, maybe even become the next sheriff. A faint grin creased the Major's stubbled face, yes, all he had to do was take care of this little problem and everything would be fine.
"Just your bad luck, Mr. Standish. I can't have you tellin' people I'm the one who ran. I should have made sure you were dead when I shot you, would have saved us all a lot of grief. Jacob held the pillow over the head of the bed. I'll say a couple nice words at your funeral." He brought the pillow down over the darkened face. Jacob snapped up and dropped the pillow to the floor when he heard the door creak open. He brought his hand up to shield his eyes from the sudden light now invading the room from the hallway. He made out the dark lean silhouette of Larabee and the more stout form of Judge Travis. The Major's breath caught somewhere between his lungs and throat.
"Ah, Mr. Larabee, Orrin, I thought I heard Mr. Standish cry out, so I thought I'd better check, Quist instantly volunteered, his voice somewhat shaky. The two men remained silent, staring at the military man and causing him to shift nervously. Quist winced when he felt the barrel of a gun jab into his stomach and heard the slow pull back of the hammer. He looked down into the face of young Mr. Dunne and closed his eyes.
"Well, JD?" Chris prompted.
"He's the one who ran alright," JD announced with disgust. "He also shot Ezra." This surprised everyone in the room and only furthered Chris's hatred toward this man. JD wanted nothing more than to pull the trigger, but he realized he was also guilty for he had believed the Major.
Jacob stepped away from the bed. "Orrin, you have to understand I was desperate, he pleaded. "Everything I lived by was falling away. I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't have people thinking I was a coward."
Travis didn't know what to say to his friend, who had caused him to almost destroy another man's life. He looked at Jacob as if he didn't know him and suddenly realized he didn't.
"Orrin, does thirty years of friendship mean nothing to you?" Jacob Quist implored.
Travis's eyes narrowed with anger then he bowed his head. "Yes, it did, but it obviously meant nothing to you!" Travis raised his head. "You turned me and everyone else against a good man. You almost killed him, maybe ruined his life, all because you couldn't admit to your own shortcomings." Travis's face turned red with rage as his anger came tumbling out. "Your son, and fifteen men paid the price for your damnable pride. Don't talk to me about friendship, you threw it away just like you threw away my god-son's life!"
The Judge turned sharply away. He couldn't stand the sight of the man he once called friend. Jacob hung his head. Chris's own infamous rage was stoked by the Judge's tirade and was slowly coming to a boil. It had taken a long time to build the fragile friendship between him and the others and the stoic gambler. Was it now destroyed? Chris's anger erupted as he looked at the Major and thought about everything Ezra had been put through. Chris wasn't sure Ezra would be able to forgive them, much less the whole town. This man had taken the precious gift of friendship between seven men and stomped it into the ground.
Quist marched past the Chris and the judge and into the hallway. As the Major neared the top of the stairs Chris couldn't hold his anger back any longer and lashed out. The two tumbled to the bottom of the stairs in a tangle of arms and legs. Chris stood up, pulling the stunned Major up by the collar and landing two solid punches to his stomach, causing him to double over. Vin and Buck watched from the bar, smug smiles on their faces as they watched Chris's rage do what they themselves wanted to. JD stared down from the balcony, grinning. Judge Travis turned away.
Chris held the unsteady man up and looked him in the eye. "This is for Ezra." He put all his anger and guilt behind his fist, which connected with Jacob's jaw. Josiah grabbed his beer as the Major came crashing down on his table, turning it into so much kindling. Josiah raised his beer to Chris who was bent over gasping for breath his anger spent.
JD came down the stairs followed by the Judge, who looked at Chris then down at the Major, who was trying to pick himself up off the floor. Josiah's foot came down on the Majors back forcing him back down.
"Mr. Dunne, please arrest Major Quist until we find out if Mr. Standish wishes to press charges," Judge Travis coolly advised.
Buck and Vin moved in to help JD pick the Major up off the floor and carry him to jail. Travis looked over at Chris and Josiah, both wearing the same look of guilt as he did. He turned and walked out of the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
It was a couple days before Ezra regained consciousness and the six gunslingers barely left his side. The whole town was made aware about what had transpired, and for a few days people could not look one another in the eyes. Many of the towns folk came by asking about Ezras health. Mary brought food to the six vigilant men every day, trying to relieve her own burden of guilt.
When Ezra finally opened his eyes it was to the relieved faces of six men, who wanted nothing more than to beg his forgiveness.
"How you feelin', Ez?" Nathan asked, placing a hand on the gamblers much cooler forehead.
Ezras brow furrowed at the sound of concern. He thought the last several days had been a dream. He looked around the room, realizing he was no longer in jail. He let out the breath he had been holding since it all began.
"Tired," Ezra softly replied and let his eyes close. He wasn't as tired as he made out, but he didn't want to talk with anyone right now. He had too much still to sort out.
"You rest, we're here for ya, pard," Buck said as Ezra drifted slowly off.
The next day JD filled Ezra in on all that had transpired, seeing the relief flood through him, but no smile came to the chiseled face.
Over the next couple days the six gunslingers, one at a time, made their way in to see their recovering friend and to apologize the best they could. Buck even bought Ezra a new deck of cards and JD took extra special care of Ezras horse. Chris thought Ezra forgave them all a little to quickly.
The Judge was the last to appear, and Ezra actually took a certain amount of pleasure seeing the esteemed Magistrate remorseful and uncomfortable.
"I doubt there is anything I can do to make it up to you, Mr. Standish. I can only hope you someday can forgive a stubborn, short sighted old man."
Ezra didn't blame the Judge; the Major had been his friend for thirty years. He had done what any friend would have, what six gunslingers should have done for him.
"Would you like to press charges against Major Quist," the Judge asked.
"No, let him go, the loss of a son is enough punishment," Ezra replied. He just wanted the whole sorted mess to go away.
The Judge complied with Ezra's wishes, but to ease his own guilt he felt he had to do more. He wanted to make sure this would never happen again.
The Judge found Josiah hard at work outside the church, trying to ease the burden of his own culpability.
"Mr. Sanchez, would you care to accompany me to Fort Kinney to meet with Colonel Phillips of the Military disciplinary board?"
A mischievous grin came to Josiah long, beard stubbled face and he put down the ax he was using and followed the Judge.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris! Chris!" JD came racing into the saloon trying to catch his breath.
"Whoa, there JD, what's all the excitement?" Buck asked. Things had finally quieted down and were trying to get back to normal.
Ezra was still recovering but Nathan was worried. The usually contentious conman had not tried to leave the confines of the clinic, hadn't fought him in any way.
"It's Ezra, he's leaving," JD gasped out, his eyes wide, the fear on his face almost palpable.
"What!" All five of the men replied in unison.
"His bags are packed and he's saddlin' his horse now."
The five men rose as one and followed JD out the doors all thinking the same thing.
Ezra continued saddling his horse as the six men entered the stable. He had expected them sooner or later. He patted his horse's neck as he bent over and stepped underneath, placing the horse between himself and the six gunslingers.
"What do you think you're doing?" Buck was the first to ask.
Ezra threw his arms over the saddle, his face impassive. Chris got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw that famous poker face looking back at them.
"I know you're not blind, Mr. Wilmington, I'm leaving," he stated matter-of-factly.
"Ezra, you're not well enough to ride, Nathan added.
"I'm fine, Mr. Jackson," Ezra quietly remarked to the concerned healer, checking the cinch on his saddle. Emotions churned inside his gut, numbing the pain of his wound.
"Why," Chris asked. Ezra laid his head upon his saddle for a moment then raised it to face the six most important people in his life.
"Doubt is a dangerous entity in our business, Mr. Larabee. I couldn't live with myself if I became responsible for one of your deaths." Ezra took the reins of his horse and led him out past six astonished faces.
"Ezra, we know you wouldn't run, we trust you," Chris tried to assure him as he followed him out. The six gunslingers were still dealing with their own responsibility over what had happened. They had let one of their own down; it was hard to deal with.
Ezra smiled at the sedate gunslinger, the only man he had ever truly respected in his life.
Standish locked eyes on each one of the brave men standing before him. He tried to keep his voice from cracking as he replied, "Maybe it was only a moment, or just for a second, but each and every one of you believed I had run." It wasn't an accusation, but a simple statement of fact.
Everyone was quiet for a moment, knowing the intuitive conman was right.
Ezra mounted his horse and looked down at the six men, who he almost considered brothers. He swallowed hard, trying to keep the emotions that threatened to gush forth bottled up inside. "I don't blame any of you. The fact is " Ezra's voice caught. He released a trembling breath and closed his eyes to stop the tears from falling before he continued, "For awhile, I believed it myself."
Ezra gently spurred his horse and trotted away, then broke into a gallop. The six men stood silent, watching him go.
"He'll be back won't he, Chris?" JD asked.
"No JD, I don't think so."
THE END ?