Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
[The characters in this story are not mine(no matter how much I wish they were.) and no money is made by me for the use of them in this story. This is for pure entertainment and writing practice. It's the only way to get my Mag7 fix.]
"AMBUSH!" Larabee shouted.
The four lawmen spurred their horses forward as shots whizzed over their heads and ricocheted off the nearby rocks. Chris brought his arm across his chest and fired his colt over his shoulder as Vin turned in his saddle bringing his Winchester to bare. Ezra and Josiah raced ahead, riding low in their saddles. Chris glanced sideways in time to see Vin catch a bullet and slump over his saddle, his horse never breaking stride. Instinctively Vin grabbed hold of the saddle horn. The dark-clad cowboy veered his still galloping horse over and grabbed the reins of Vin's horse. He could no longer shoot so he just kept his head down and didn't look back; riding like the devil himself was on their heels.
Chris looked ahead to see that Ezra and Josiah had pulled up in front of a small, broken down cabin. They leapt off their horses waving them off and immediately took up positions next to the door and laying down cover fire for their friends.
Chris brought their horses up to the front and yelled, "Josiah, grab Vin he's been hit!" He jumped from his horse and took up firing as the huge gunslinger quickly went to Vin who was sliding off his horse. Josiah caught the wounded tracker before he hit the ground, then half dragged and half carried him inside. Chris and Ezra dove in after them and closed the door; bullets splintered the doorframe throwing wood chips behind them. They sat on the floor under the only window trying to get their breaths back in heavy gulps as well as calming their pounding hearts. Sanchez placed the younger man on a cot that sat in the far corner of the one room cabin; blood poured through Vin's clenched fingers. Josiah removed his bandanna and pressed it against the bleeding wound causing an enormous bolt of pain to pass through Vin's body. He sucked in his breath and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to ride out the pain.
"Sorry Vin, I've gotta stop the bleeding," Josiah stated, as he worked diligently on the wound.
Ezra quickly reloaded his gun as he tried to calm his breathing. It had become quiet, which made him very nervous. Chris cocked his ear toward the window, trying to pick up any sound in the now deathly silent world. All he could hear was Vin's ragged breathing inside the small cabin. A deep, malicious voice finally broke the late afternoon silence.
"How's it feel Larabee? To watch your friends shot down."
"Friends of yours?" Ezra remarked his tone laced with sarcasm as he arched a sandy eyebrow toward the blond leader.
Larabee shot him a dispassionate sidelong glance that Ezra ignored. Chris holstered his gun, and keeping his head below the window crept over to Josiah. Chris watched as the ex-preacher carefully opened Vin's shirt, the upper right shoulder was soaked in blood. Josiah searched underneath Vin's tense body for an exit wound, but found none. He resoaked a rag with water from his canteen and pressed down on the still bleeding wound. Vin gasped and bit back the pain, tears forming at the corner of his eyes.
"How ya doing, cowboy?" Chris asked, anxious blue eyes replacing his usual stoic gaze; his forehead creased in concern.
The lean tracker managed a pain-ridden smile and replied, "I've been better." His jaw clenched, trying to hold back the pain that emanated from his shoulder and seemed to fill his whole body.
Chris smiled slightly and motioned to Josiah. The two men moved as far as the confines of the cabin would allow.
"The bullet's still in him. It's too deep, I can't get it out," Josiah said, keeping his eyes on the prone form of his comrade and friend. "We need Nathan. There's nothing more I can do."
Chris looked over at Vin, who had grown very pale in the last few minutes. Chris clapped the ex-preacher on the shoulder. "Do what you can to make him comfortable." Josiah nodded and returned to Vin's side.
"How is our Mr. Tanner?" Ezra inquired as Chris returned to his place by the window.
Chris glanced over at the gambler expecting to see a smug smile pasted on his face; instead, Ezra's face was a mask of unfeigned concern. The enigmatic conman never ceased to surprise him. One moment Ezra appeared unconcerned about anyone other than himself, the next--was anyone's guess. You just never knew who or what Ezra Standish would care about at any given time.
"Not good," Chris replied looking over his shoulder at his friend. "We have to get him out of here."
Standish saw the concern in Chris's face and knew it was serious. It was rare that Chris Larabee showed any emotion on his harden countenance. The somber gunslinger was almost as good as he was at hiding his true feelings, but not when it came to someone he cared about. Ezra knew that Chris and Vin were best of friends. He wondered how it felt to have that kind of camaraderie--someone to confide in and trust. The only friend Ezra Standish had was Ezra Standish, or so he believed.
Ezra removed his hat and ran a hand through his brown hair. "Your friends out there might prove an obstacle in that endeavor," he regretfully stated. "I don't think they're going to let us leave here alive."
Chris stared down at the warped floorboards of the cabin for a moment. His eyes seemed to search the aged wood for an answer. He sidled up next to the window and hollered, "What do you want?" It was a moment before anyone answered.
"We want you Larabee for killing our brother!" The reply came back. The voice was different from the first, younger.
Larabee laid his head against the wall and closed his eyes with a resigned sigh. How many men had he killed in his life? More than he had wanted to and more than he cared to remember.
"Do you perchance know to whom these gentlemen are referring?" Ezra questioned from his position on the floor under the window.
Chris gave the suave conman a you've-got-to-be-kidding smirk then turned back to the window. He grinned as his voice took on a sardonic tone. "Could you be more specific?" He yelled out to the unseen men.
"You don't remember...You murdering dog...!" This voice was abruptly cut off and the one from before replaced it.
"We're the McCormick brothers. You killed our brother Paul last year in Nevada. Now do you remember?"
Chagrin flickered across Chris's handsome features, and Ezra hoped that maybe this was all some kind of mistake. Chris sank to the floor, pushing his dark hat back on his head.
"Maybe these gentlemen have made a grievous error," Ezra quietly asked.
"No, I killed him," Chris stated matter of factly.
"I was afraid of that," the disappointed gambler murmured under his breath there went any chance of talking their way out of this.
Sanchez came over and squatted down in front of the two men. Chris looked over Josiah's shoulder at Vin who lay motionless on the tenuous cot. He couldn't even tell if Vin was still breathing, and was relieved when Vin let out a small moan. He turned his attention back to Josiah.
"He's asleep," Josiah answered Chris's questioning stare. Chris dropped his head in thought, and then started to recount. His voice was meditative, but Ezra and Josiah could detect a deep, pulsing rage.
"It was over a year ago. I was passing through a small town in Nevada. A town that the McCormick brothers controlled using fear and murder. The town had finally got a sheriff, who was willing to stand against them, Sheriff Coffey." Chris smiled as he remembered the large middle aged lawman who managed to keep a twinkle in his eye and justice in his heart. "Paul McCormick was the youngest and probably the worst of the five brothers. There was Sam, the oldest, Russ, Tom, and one I can't remember. Well, Paul decided he wanted another man's wife, only one problem she didn't want him, which didn't deter him in the slightest." Chris shifted his position slightly on the floor, keeping one ear tuned to the outside. The three men turned at the sound of a moan from Vin. Chris kept his eyes on Vin's inert form as he continued, "Paul decided to take matters into his own hands. He killed the woman's husband and dragged his body through town. Sheriff Coffey arrested him; Paul McCormick was convicted and sentenced to hang. Of course, his brothers had other ideas. One night they came and broke their brother out of jail. There was a shoot out. The sheriff was killed, and I killed Paul." Chris closed his eyes reliving the moment in his mind. He had had a deep respect for Sheriff Coffey, almost a fatherly admiration. Larabee knew he shot Paul out of pure unadulterated revenge. "The four remaining brothers scattered and I left town. I figured it was finished."
"Apparently your assumption was far from correct," Ezra commented dryly.
"Larabee! How's your friend doing?" A voice called from the outside followed by the sound of laughter.
"I'm sorry I killed your brother!" Chris yelled out in reply, Josiah and Ezra exchanged surprised expressions. "He should have hung like the low-life scum he was. I did him a favor by shooting him."
Ezra broke into a grin that lit up his green eyes; Josiah bowed his head hiding the smile that tugged at his lips. The three lawmen flattened themselves against the floor as bullets flew above their heads in retaliation for the disparaging remark.
Josiah raised his head. "It would appear brother Larabee that you struck a nerve," Josiah voiced with a faint smile.
After a few moments of silence, Chris cautiously raised and peered out the window. All he could see was a rocky outcrop several yards away covered by a lot of dead brush. He slid back down to the floor.
Ezra was counting the ammo he had left. "I'm afraid I'm down to ten bullets in my paltry arsenal."
"I don't have much more," added Josiah. Chris nodded, contemplating the situation. How many times had he and the others been trapped against insurmountable odds and escaped? This time he wasn't so sure they'd be so lucky.
"Larabee! We have a proposition for you," one of the McCormick's called out from the rocks.
"Yeah, what is it?" Chris answered forcing his voice to remain firm and even.
"We just want you. Come out and we'll let your friends go. We've had enough fun let's get this over with."
Josiah and Ezra regarded Chris intently. They both knew the scrupulous gunslinger wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice himself. Chris turned to Josiah and asked, "How's he doing?"
"Not good, he's holding his own, but he needs medical attention and soon. I got the bleeding stopped, but he lost a lot of blood and he's very weak." Josiah paused taking a deep breath then slowly let it out. "I'm afraid if infection sets in he won't be able to fight it." Josiah hated feeling so helpless. "And I'm almost out of water," he added shaking his partially filled canteen listening to the sloshing water. Chris let out a long breath and leaned his head against the wall. "I guess it's too much to hope that JD and Buck will come looking for us soon," Josiah ventured to ask.
"They don't expect us back for at least two days," Chris answered.
"And I assume the telegram we received requesting our assistance was a ruse, and these men planned this whole escapade," Ezra added.
Chris chided himself for not checking the message out. These men depended on him, and he had failed them. This one mistake might cost the life of his best friend. Chris's jaw tensed as he clenched his teeth. "Okay, here's the plan, we wait for dusk then I make a break for it. I'll lead them away and you two get Vin back to town."
"Chris, you can't," Josiah protested, he knew Chris felt responsible, but the ex-priest was not willing to let the blond gunslinger throw away his life for the rest of them.
"Mr. Larabee you will be committing suicide. They most definitely want to do you great bodily harm," Ezra said rather nonchalantly, but allowing the concern he felt to show on his face.
Chris's icy blue eyes stared intently at Ezra and Josiah. "Look, we don't have any other choice. Help won't be here soon enough; we're almost out of ammo, and Vin is almost out of time." Josiah and Ezra were momentarily silent knowing Chris was right but hoping to think of another option.
"There's no guarantee that they'll all ride away and let us go," Josiah pointed out.
"I know, but I'm willing to bet they want me bad enough to leave you alone. Anyway it's a gamble we'll have to take."
"The odds are definitely not in the house's favor, Mr. Larabee," Ezra calmly voiced, running his hand down the side of his clean shaven face.
Chris turned his back on his friends ending the discussion. Josiah and Ezra stared blankly at each other neither one knowing what to say. Josiah shook his head and returned to Vin's side. He hadn't realized the bounty hunter was awake until he heard his weak voice.
"Josiah, you can't let Chris do this. They'll kill him," Vin gasped, his eyes trying to focus on the big man.
The ex-preacher sat down and soaked a cloth in water, placing it on Vin's brow. He turned and looked back at Chris who was staring morosely out the window. His gun held loosely in his hand. "I can't stop him," his voice was filled with apprehension, afraid that instead of losing one friend he'll be losing two.
The light was failing as the sun began to sink below the far rocky hills. Long shadows crept up, like dark fingers reaching to shroud the lonely cabin in darkness. Ezra could feel the chill of the night seeping into cabin through the many cracks; his light jacket gave him little warmth. He watched as the man he most respected in his life checked both his guns and took one last look outside.
The horses had strayed off to one side within the cover of a copse of saplings. Chris thought he could easily make the distance; there was a large tree in between, which he could use for cover. He slapped the chamber on his guns closed and went over to Vin. It had been over an hour since any sound had been heard, and he suspected the McCormicks were waiting for dark to move in closer.
Vin struggled to sit up. "Chris, you can't do this. There's got to be another way. Don't do this on account a me," Vin grimaced, as the words rushed out, taking away what strength he had.
Larabee could see the fever burning in the tracker's glassy blue eyes. "There's no other way Vin. I'd do this for any one of you, and so would you in my position. We're family. Don't worry, I'll probably beat you all back to town." Chris gave Vin an unconvincing smile and laid his hand on the younger man's shoulder.
Tanner knew Chris was right. Any one of them would do the same thing, that's what kept them all alive for so long but he had a bad feeling about this. Josiah sat off to the side silently staring at Chris, wishing some divine option would reveal itself to him.
Larabee turned to meet Josiah's troubled gaze, neither one said a word there was no need. Chris smiled and nodded toward the semi-pious man and returned to the window where Ezra stood. Ezra didn't acknowledge Chris's presence. The inscrutable lawman seemed to be wrestling with some inner issue or demon. Standish had run out on them once before but returned. Chris was certain, the sometime self-seeking gambler would not abandon them again, well, fairly certain. Still, he sometimes wondered why Ezra stuck around. Chris knew it wasn't profitable or healthy for a gambler to stay in one town to long. He hoped it was out of loyalty to the rest of the men, but sometimes Chris just wasn't sure what motivated Ezra Standish, someday he hoped to find out.
"It's been awfully quiet out there," Ezra softly stated, breaking from his reverie and casting a sidelong glance at the dark-clad gunslinger.
Chris nodded solemnly, his fingers curled into fists of helplessness. "It's our move." His face was grim as he bit his lower lip and removed his pistol from its holster.
Ezra flashed Chris a wry smile, and then stepped behind the self-sacrificing gunslinger. Palming his derringer, Ezra paused, turned and struck Chris across the back of the head. He grabbed the crumbling man and gently lowered his limp body to the floor.
Josiah jumped up from his chair, stunned at what he had just witnessed. "What the hell are you doing?"
Ezra ignored the big man's outburst and proceeded to remove Chris's duster and hat, striking the hat against his leg to remove the dust.
Josiah stopped; his mouth dropped open as he realized what the slick conman was about to do. "Ezra, do you know what you're doing?" The words rode on a breath of disbelief.
"Well, it appears, either Mr. Larabee gives a very inspiring speech or I have lost whatever reserve of self-preservation I still held on to. And no Mr. Sanchez I don't know what I am doing and if I thought about it I'd call myself a damn fool, so I refrain from thinking about it." Ezra donned the black duster and hat. "Can't say much for Mr. Larabee's fashion sense." Josiah stood silently, developing a whole new respect for the presumptuous gambler. "I've seemed to have developed an indomitable spirit, something I'm sure I can attribute to the company I keep." Ezra's ramblings hid the apprehension he felt. "I shall attempt to lead these desperadoes away and you must quickly remove yourselves from the premises as I have no idea how far I'll get."
"What if you get caught?" Josiah asked still slightly dumbfounded by Ezra's action. He always thought there was more to the fancy dressing conman than what he portrayed. Why did he have to choose this particular time to prove him right?
"The thought had occurred to me. I believe I'm better qualified to talk my way out of the situation than Mr. Larabee would be. Hopefully, I won't get the chance to find out. Now, if you'd be so kind as to give me as much cover fire as possible."
Josiah paused a moment looking down at their unconscious leader then over to Vin, who tossed and turned, caught in the grip of a fevered driven nightmare. He drew his gun and picked up Chris's loaded revolver off the floor. Ezra seemed to say a quick prayer before he opened the door and quickly darted to the side. Bullets immediately began to fly and Josiah returned fire with a vengeance. He watched as Ezra made his way to Chris's horse and gallop away. Moments later the sound of several galloping horses raced past the cabin. Josiah waited, listening. He then cautiously went out and rounded up the horses bringing them to the front of the cabin. He looked in the direction that Ezra had taken and whispered a prayer of protection for the suddenly heroic gambler.
Ezra did a fairly good job of outrunning the four men. He stayed off the main trail and hoped to circle around and head back toward town, but every time he tried a shot would divert his travels. He kept the four pursuing men at bay for almost two hours until Chris's horse stumbled, throwing him to the ground. As he sat up, he found himself surrounded by four angry men, who appeared cut from the same piece of rawhide.
"That's not Larabee! We've been tricked." The winded horses pawed and snorted sensing the rage in their riders.
Ezra smiled up at the enraged men.
"Well, this is very easy to explain, gentlemen. It's just an honest mistake I assure you." Ezra reached over and picked up Chris's black hat. "We all make mistakes..."
"Shut up!" Sam growled and fired his gun, ripping the hat out of Ezra's hand. "You just made the mistake."
Ezra's smile vanished from his face. There was no talking his way out of this one. "Oh, Mrs. Standish's boy does manage to get himself in some rather unhealthy predicaments," Ezra murmured to himself.
Dawn was breaking behind Chris, Vin and Josiah as they reached the outskirts of Four Corners. Chris had awakened to a throbbing head. Josiah shared a saddle with the unconscious tracker. Chris had not said a word, his thoughts ranging from anger at being waylaid to downright fear for Ezra. Why had he done it? He hoped to have the chance to ask him. They rode in silence into town, three riders and one lone horse.
The three bone-tired men pulled up in front of the saloon as JD and Mary raced toward them from across the street.
"JD, get Nathan, Vin's badly hurt," Josiah hoarsely said as the young man neared. JD turned and raced off, passing Buck who rushed to help Josiah lower Vin off the horse. They carried his limp form into the saloon.
Chris carefully dismounted as Mary Travis approached. He steadied himself by leaning against the horse's flanks. Mary placed a hand tenderly on his arm and looked at the riderless horse.
"Isn't that Ezra's horse?"
Chris nodded once, the movement causing his head to pound. JD and Nathan raced by and Chris called out, "JD, tell Josiah and Buck I need you all out here now!"
"Right Chris," Dunne replied and scurried inside.
Chris could feel Mary's hand on his arm; it was the only thing that felt real to him. All he could think of was his best friend seriously wounded, and Ezra, who was running for his very life because of him.
"Chris, what happened? Is Ezra..." Mary choked back the word.
"I don't know," Chris kept his head down, his voice flat and emotionless. "But I intend to find out and God or the devil help them if he is." He raised his eyes, which were now the color of a stormy sky that sent a shiver of dread through Mary's soul. Mary swallowed and stepped back as Josiah, Buck and JD came out of the saloon.
"How's Vin?" Chris asked.
"Nathan thinks he'll make it. He said it's a good thing we got him here when we did," Josiah stated.
"Okay, Josiah get fresh horses I'll explain things to Buck and JD."
Josiah nodded and turned to gather up the weary horses'reins.
"We were ambushed," Chris wearily said as he watched Josiah lead the horses to the stable. "The telegram we received was a fake. It was the McCormick brothers."
"Oh man!" Buck groaned. Chris had told him the story sometime ago, and in fact, him and Chris were together in that Nevada town, until Buck decided to go and call on an old female acquaintance a few miles south. They met up later that week.
"How did they end up going after Ezra?" JD asked.
Chris sighed and closed his eyes. "It was suppose to be me but apparently Ezra had his own ideas." He absently rubbed the back of his head feeling the lump, which had formed and added, "That man picks the worst time to get heroic."
Sanchez appeared with four fresh horses. "Chris, you should rest maybe get something to eat," Mary worriedly suggested.
"No time, it may already be to late," Chris replied a little more sharply than he intended. He immediately looked toward Mary and reached out to place a stray blond hair back in place. She gave him an understanding smile. The four lawmen quickly mounted and rode out.
It wasn't hard to pick up Ezra's trail, since he wasn't trying to hide his tracks. JD rode ahead and after about an hour shouted back to the others. "Over here!"
Chris and the others quickly caught up to the young sheriff who had dismounted and was holding a battered black hat with a bullet hole in it. Wilmington dismounted and checked the area. "It looks like Ezra might have taken a hard fall here." Buck looked around and added, "then was surrounded." Chris stared at the familiar hat then jerked his horse around and continued.
Buck mounted and pulled his horse up alongside Josiah's. The horses snorting in acceptance. "Why'd he do it, Josiah?"
The perceptive gunslinger looked up to the sky as if searching for an answer. He pulled his hat off, letting the shifting breeze ruffle through his graying hair. "Who can tell what makes a man do the things he does. And why are we so surprised? We always knew Ezra had it in him, no matter how hard he tried to hide it."
"Well, I know, but Ezra." Buck shook his head in disbelief. "I sure hope he's all right!"
Josiah turned to the gregarious cowboy. "So do I Buck, so do I."
The four McCormick brothers sat around the campfire passing a bottle of whiskey and laughing. Off to the side, just outside the fire's light lay a battered and torn shape. Ezra had endured several hours of fierce beating and was barely conscious. The McCormick's had taken their frustration and anger out on his body. At first, he tried to protect himself, and then he succumbed, just hoping to survive. A kick to the head had plunged him into darkness. Ezra was sure the men continued, but he was far removed from it. His next conscious remembrance was of being dragged behind a horse for several yards until the rope broke, probably saving his life. His clothes were in tatters and offered little in the way of warmth to his bruised and chilled body. He could barely make out what the men were saying a few feet away, and he wasn't sure what was real and what were just the figments of his tortured mind and pain-ridden body. During brief moments of blissful unconsciousness, his mother was there saying how proud she was of him one moment then how disappointed the next. It would always end with her walking away from him as he cried for her.
"So Sam, what do you want to do with Mr. fancy pants?"
A medium height, pudgy man with an irritable temper, who was now wearing Chris's dark duster, finished off the last of the whiskey. He tossed the bottle aside and replied sourly, "Send his body back to Larabee in pieces." His brothers chuckled in unison.
"Why did this guy pretend to be Larabee?" Tom asked as he stirred the fire's embers to life.
"Maybe he was expendable," Russ added.
"Or maybe Larabee's a coward," another voice answered. "I don't like this we should move out."
Sam reached down and picked up another bottle of whiskey. "You worry too much, Bart. Let me do the thinking here." He grabbed the cork with his teeth and spit it out taking a long swig from the bottle.
Standish caught the word 'expendable' and chuckled, thinking that was probably one of the reasons why he was in this position. At times, he thought of himself as expendable and believed the others held the same belief. His wrists were tied and covered with dried blood where the rope had cut into them. They hadn't bothered tying his feet. It hardly mattered; he barely had the strength to lift his head. He could still feel every rock and thorn he had brushed over. His body felt raw, his back had taken brunt of the punishment, and he didn't think he had much skin left on it. One eye was swollen shut, and he knew he had some broken ribs. His head spun and throbbed constantly. He shifted slightly, trying to in vain to find a more comfortable and pain-free position.
By nightfall Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD had found the McCormick's camp. Buck silently crept under the underbrush that ran alongside a small creek. His legs stretched into the cold water as he made his way as close to the camp as he dared. He peered out and took note of every one of the McCormick's positions. He could barely make out the motionless form on the other side of the campfire. He watched for several minutes hoping to see some movement, any movement. He slowly made his way back to the others.
They had hidden themselves behind a small knoll several yards away from the McCormick's camp. When Buck returned he related what he had seen.
"There's four of them. Looks like they've been drinking and only one seems to be standing guard. They don't look like they're expecting any trouble."
JD whispered the question that was on everyone's mind. "Did you see Ezra?"
Buck paused a moment, trying to maintain his composure. The sadness he held in his heart now coming to his face, not that anyone could see it in the dark, but they could hear it in his voice. "Yeah, he wasn't moving and they didn't seem to be paying him much mind."
JD swallowed hard and bowed his head, halting the tears that threatened to fall.
Chris closed his eyes, holding back the intense feelings that threatened to come to the surface: anger, sadness, despair. He quickly pulled himself out of his private black hole knowing if there was a chance Ezra was still alive he had to have all his wits about him, and if he wasn't, well, he'd let his anger take over then.
"Do you have a plan, Chris?" Buck asked his silent friend. The clouds had moved aside allowing the moon's glow to reveal the maleficent smile forming on Chris's lips.
"Sometimes the best approach is the direct one," Chris coldly exclaimed in a voice that sent a slight chill down Josiah's spine. Buck just smiled.
One of the McCormick brothers casually walked over to Ezra. He used his boot to nudge the semi-conscious man, who groaned. "Well, you're still with us, uh. You're pretty tough for a dandy," Russ commented, taking a swig from a bottle of whiskey. He squatted down and poured some of the liquor over Ezra's bloody, tortured body.
Ezra arched and hissed in pain, clamping his mouth shut to hold back the scream. His green eyes flared with anger, despite the violent tremors that shook his body. Russ studied the handsome gambler like someone studying an insect he was about to squash. He could tell the man was in a lot of pain, which didn't bother him in the slightest; in fact, he rather enjoyed watching someone suffer. He took another swig and wiped his mouth on his sleeve a huge grin showing his lack of dental hygiene. "Don't worry, we'll put you out of your misery soon enough." Russ chuckled as he stood. "We'll talk some more later, if you're still with us."
"I look forward to it," Ezra managed to gasp. Russ gaped at the injured gambler whose face showed no emotion, just a cold hard stare, which actually caused Russ's smile to drop from his face.
Russ's bewilderment was interrupted by a shout from Sam. "Hey Russ, come here!" Russ slowly walked away still keeping his eye on the disquieting lawman.
As soon as the man was gone, pain twisted Ezra's face and he whimpered slightly. He tried to draw in a deep breath, but his broken ribs wouldn't allow it.
The desert could get mighty cold at night, and Ezra was already feeling the chill that was slowly draining his remaining strength. He doubted he'd make it through the night, but if possible, he would try and disappoint his captors. He heard the soothing call of a distant owl, then a moment later another birdcall, closer this time. He became suddenly alert and raised his head to see the four brothers still mingling around the fire. Ezra heard a rustling from the brush behind him and tried to focus with his one good eye. He hoped his mind wasn't playing tricks on him.
Larabee stepped out of the brush so quietly that it was several moments before the four men realized he was there.
"Here you been lookin' fer me," Chris stated, a contemptuous smirk on his normally impassive face. The three men sitting around the fire jumped up. The fourth man turned and faced Chris, his rifle in hand. They all froze and stared at the darkly clad gunslinger who seemed to materialize out of thin air. Chris stood just outside the camp's firelight his hands casually wrapped around his gunbelt.
Ezra heard the commotion by the fire and thought he heard Chris's voice. The last thing he remembered was two large hands reaching out from the brush and grabbing him.
"So you decided to face us, huh?" Sam asked laying his hand on the butt of his gun, gray eyes glaring at Chris's cold blue ones. "I heard you were fast."
Chris stared at the man silently and then quietly remarked, "I've heard that too."
Sam's brothers shifted nervously behind him at the gunslinger's cool attitude.
"We still have your friend," Tom declared rather quickly.
"Are you sure about that?" Chris gave a knowing smirk. One of the McCormicks, the one who Chris couldn't remember his name turned around.
"Sam, he's gone!" That's when the four brothers realized Larabee was not alone. The McCormick brothers went for their guns. Chris dropped to the ground and fired, hitting Sam square in the chest. He rolled and continued firing as Sam fell face first into the dust. JD and Buck added their gun fire to the chaos. It lasted only moments and as silence returned Chris stood to look upon the four men lying in the dirt. Two groaned and slowly sat up as Buck and JD walked over to them, kicking their guns away. They pulled the two men roughly to their feet.
"This isn't over, Larabee!" Russ remarked venomously, holding his injured arm. The other man suffered a bullet graze across the temple and looked over at his brother a little dazed.
Chris stepped up to within inches of Russ's face. "Oh yes it is, we're taking both of you to stand trial for the attempted murder of two peace officers." Russ dropped his eyes at Chris's stoic stare. "And if one of them dies I'll hang you myself."
Josiah's large form pushed past the foliage, carrying Ezra's limp form in his arms. He brought their injured friend over to the fire and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. When Chris looked upon his seventh man's beaten body, for a second he thought they were too late. JD and Buck shot looks of disgust at their prisoners and forced them over to a nearby tree.
JD cocked his pistol, shoving it into Russ's arrogant face as Buck finished tying him to the tree. Buck forced JD's gun barrel down. "Now JD, you're the sheriff you have to be more civilized, show more restraint."
"Did you see what they did to him," JD blurted out, his anger causing his whole body to shake.
Russ's eyes narrowed in contempt. "Yeah, be a good lawman. You should have heard your friend scream when we dragged him." Russ laughed.
Wilmington eyes flared. "Well, I'm not a sheriff or civilized!" he replied, as his fist connected with Russ's jaw snapping the man's head back into the tree. Buck grabbed Russ by the collar his eyes unable to focus on the enraged gunslinger. "If he dies you'll never make it to a hangman," Buck snarled.
JD grinned. "How'd it feel, Buck?" Buck's anger quickly subsided replaced with his usual carefree demeanor.
He placed his arm across his young friend's shoulder and led him away. "Great kid! There's a lot to be said for releasing one's primal urges."
JD and Buck returned to the campfire where Josiah was tending to Ezra the best he could. Buck's smile vanished as he and JD stood helplessly by the dying fire. Chris went over to Sam's body and removed his duster. He placed it over Ezra who moaned slightly and turned his head. Green eyes flickered open and the hint of a smile crossed the gambler's features. His expression was a taut mask of controlled agony.
Sanchez propped Ezra up by the shoulders and gave him a sip of water, bringing relief to his parched throat. Larabee knelt down beside his injured friend whose body was already burning with fever.
"That was a damn fool thing to do," Chris good-naturedly admonished the stalwart gambler.
Ezra sighed and cleared his throat; his words slow to form and punctuated by deep rasping breaths, "Ah, well...Mr. Larabee...sometimes foolish works.... In this case I'm not so sure." He looked up at the blond gunslinger who could read the question in his pain-filled eyes.
"Vin's okay. He owes you his life, we both do." Chris placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder. He knew from that day forward he would never doubt Ezra's loyalty.
"Well, maybe you two could bring yourself to join me in a friendly game of poker." Ezra smiled and slowly sank into darkness.
Chris flashed a worry gaze at Josiah who checked to see if Ezra was still breathing. He nodded. Chris turned to JD who stood motionless, his boyish face pale in the moonlight. "JD, ride up ahead and tell Nathan what's happened. We'll follow as quick as we can." JD nodded acknowledgment and raced off into the dark.
Nathan and JD met Chris and the others as they rode slowly into town. Ezra was riding in a travois behind Chris's horse and had not regained consciousness.
"C'mon JD, help me get this scum locked up," Buck said as he pulled the two McCormick brothers from their saddles.
Nathan was shocked by the gambler's appearance and quickly checked for a pulse. JD had told him what happened but nothing could prepare him for this. He had only seen this done once before, to a runaway slave and that slave had died. "Get him inside, I have a tub waiting we need to clean these wounds!"
Nate ran ahead as Chris and Josiah carefully lifted the unconscious man and carried him inside the saloon and up the stairs. After they stripped the battered gambler, they gently placed him into a tub of warm water. Ezra groaned slightly but remained profoundly unconscious. Josiah and Chris held him as Nathan gently cleansed his many wounds. "How can a man do this to another," Nathan murmured to himself. Red welts and deep gashes crisscrossed Ezra's pale and sweat-covered body, purple and blue bruises covered his chest and arms.
Afterwards, Chris and Josiah settled Ezra into the bed across from Vin who was sitting up. "Oh my God, what did they do to him?" Vin was up and at Ezra's side his fingers curled into fists of rage.
Nathan pushed him back down. "Did I say you could get up!"? The healer scolded the anxious tracker. Vin slumped down like a berated child. Vin's shoulder was bound and it throbbed slightly, and getting up too quick had made him light headed, but looking at Ezra's bruised and raw body made his own wounds seem minor in comparison.
JD and Buck quietly entered the room and moved up behind Chris. Buck was relieved to see Ezra appearing a little better, but he still looked liked death warmed over.
Nathan placed a cool cloth on Ezra's forehead and checked his pulse and breathing. He lifted an eyelid and checked his pupil. "Well, the bath seems to have eased him somewhat, but he's still running a high fever," Nathan exclaimed. "I think he has a concussion. He could come out of it tomorrow or never. We're just going to have to wait and pray that infection doesn't set in. The herbs in the tub should help numb some of his pain."
Chris glared without saying a word, his mouth held in a firm straight line. He felt Josiah's huge hand fall on his shoulder trying to give reassurance where none could be found. He was responsible. Why had Ezra risked his life? Chris smiled, knowing the answer all too well.
For two days and nights, a fever burned through Ezra's weakened body. Each member of the seven took turns administering to the injured gambler, keeping his wounds clean and his fever down. Vin found himself talking more than he had ever talked before, even though it was to someone who might not hear him. Finally, on the third day Ezra slowly came around. Nathan smiled down at the pale and worn man.
"JD, go and get the others, I think Ez is comin' around." The young sheriff smiled and practically skipped out the door.
"Lord, Ez, it's good to see those cat eyes of yours," Vin remarked from his bed, smiling with relief at his friend's recovery.
Jackson cursorily checked over the frail gambler as he tried to bring things into focus. He handed the still muddled conman a mug. "Here, drink this, it'll help with the pain."
Standish drank the noxious concoction, coughed and settled back down. "I do believe...you're trying to kill me... Mr. Jackson," he gasped. Nathan grinned that was exactly what he wanted to hear--the old Ezra was back with them.
Chris and Buck entered the room as Jackson remarked, "Now I know you'll be okay Ezra, you're already complainin'."
"Ezra, you 'bout scared us to death!" Buck announced his smile stretching from ear to ear.
Chris turned to JD. "How are your prisoners?"
The young Sheriff grinned, "Oh, they're fine, probably hungry though, Buck forgot to feed them yesterday."
Buck shrugged giving his long time friend a guilty grin. Chris's lips twitched as if he were holding a smile at bay, he then turned his attention back to Ezra.
Ezra smiled at the familiar banter he thought he would never hear again. He focused his emerald eyes as Chris stepped up to his bedside. Prepared for a severe reprimand, he was surprised when Chris said, "You owe me a new hat."
Ezra returned the Chris's smile, feeling the concern and friendship he now held.
"Okay, everyone out. My patient needs rest!" Nathan commanded.
Everyone started to walk out. "Not you!" Nathan grabbed Vin by the collar and forced him back down with little resistance.
"Ah, Nathan, how much longer do I have to lay here?" Vin complained.
Nathan rubbed his chin seeming to think this over. "Tomorrow."
"Mr. Jackson, I do believe you're enjoying this," Ezra commented.
Nathan turned to hide a roguish grin and walked out to get some more water and food for his patients.
Tanner continued to stare at the gambler as if he was seeing him for the first time. "I'm not much on words but..." Vin bowed his head. "...thanks Ezra."
Ezra turned his head toward the other man. "No thanks necessary, Mr. Tanner that's what family's for. You'd have done the same for me." Vin smiled.
Re-Edited Mar 2002