Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
[As you probably all realize I seem to like to stay in the realm where Ezra's ethics and motives are always in question and surprising. Hope no one gets bored by this. I just like making him the unwilling hero.]
Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner were relaxing in the comfort and quiet of the Four Corner's saloon. They were the only law present in the growing frontier town. Chris and Buck were escorting a prisoner to Cedar Ridge. JD went to pay a visit to Casey and help around her aunt's ranch. Josiah and Nathan decided to check on a nearby Indian village to see if they needed any medical help. So, the two most solitary men of the famous Seven were enjoying the all to rare peace and quiet. The unusual hot spell that gripped the entire territory was keeping most folks from expelling too much energy.
Ezra absently played a game of solitaire, his mind going through last night's hands of poker. Even in a vest and jacket, the oppressive heat didn't seem to bother the southern gentleman. Vin was stretched out between two chairs; his hat pulled down over his face. The man could sleep anywhere, in any position, which probably came in very handy.
The hairs on the back of Ezra's neck bristled as four rather mangy characters entered the saloon, going directly up to the bar. The largest of the four banged a meaty fist on the counter, causing Vin to slowly raise his hat off his face.
"Gentlemen, the bar is closed," Ezra drawled, not looking away from his cards, but casually dropping his hand and pulling his jacket away from his gun.
Vin's back was to the four men and he looked to Standish to find out what was going on. He saw the calm apprehension in the conman's green eyes and dropped his own hand down upon his gun.
The four men sauntered over, surrounding the two lawmen. "Who might you be?" The larger man snarled. He was a little better kept than his compatriots were, which wasn't saying much. He had dark, thinning hair that he combed over his sun spotted head. His face was weathered, and looked like he had spent his entire life outdoors.
"We be the law here," Vin quietly replied, raising his cold blue eyes. The large man looked down at the lean tracker and smiled.
"Oh, we know who you are," he sneered, scrunching up his pithy face.
The two lawmen both went for their guns, but the man behind Ezra already had his pulled and shoved it into the gambler's back. Ezra swore softly and arched his back, keeping his hand hovering near his gun. Vin saw that Ezra was in trouble and moved his hands away from his guns.
"One move and my friend shoots your friend." The large man glared at the buckskin-clad tracker. The grin on his face showed he was enjoying himself way too much.
Vin locked blue eyes onto the southerner, passing a silent communiqué: Don't do anything stupid.
"Who are you?" Vin asked as their guns were taken.
"My name is Ruford Tillman, current profession bounty hunter." He leaned down and stared into Tanner's handsome face. "And I can smell a $500 bounty a mile away." He straightened and nodded toward two of his men who each grabbed Vin by an arm yanking him up out of his seat. Ezra clenched his jaw as they tied the tracker's hands behind his back.
Ezra kept his hands on the table, waiting for a chance to release his derringer. "Okay, we're going to walk out of here quiet like, and you are going to stay put," Ruford exclaimed, directing his gaze to the fancy dressed gambler.
Ezra's face remained impassive, hiding his sudden decision. Damn, he was running out of time and options. Desperation made the decision for him. Ezra lunged at the large man, but was promptly brought down with a crack across the back of the head by the man behind him. He dropped bonelessly to the hard wood floor.
"EZRA!" Vin yelled, trying to break away from the two men who held him. They dragged the wanted man out of the saloon leaving the unconscious gambler in their wake.
Several quick jabs to Vin's ribs took some of the fight out of him, and he was thrown up on a horse. Vin leaned over the saddle horn gasping for breath. He gritted his teeth against the pain of his side. He watched as the few town's people scattered from sight. He couldn't blame them; these men were dangerous and wouldn't hesitate to shoot anyone who interfered. A rough-looking Mexican, who went by the name Carlos, grabbed hold of his horse's reins and led him away. Ruford, and a younger man, with blond hair, hung back incase anyone decided to follow.
Tanner glared at the man who was riding to his right. He was the one who had hit Ezra. "You know it's a long ride to Tacosa a lot can happen," he slyly exclaimed to the bounty hunter, who couldn't have been much older than himself and reminded him of JD with his shoulder length brown hair. However, this man didn't carry the innocent visage his young friend did. This young man's face was hardened beyond his years.
He turned his head and scowled at the tracker, who had the hint of a smile on his face. "I wouldn't worry about that," the bounty hunter scoffed. "You better just enjoy the time you have left before "
"James, shut up, he's just trying to rattle you," Ruford admonished his young associate as he came up alongside Tanner. "I suggest Mr. Tanner, that you remain silent if you wish to reach Tacosa alive." Ruford nudged his horse into a trot looking over his shoulder. This man unnerved him, he was too confident; too cocky, he would be glad when they reached Tacosa.
Vin bowed his head, hoping the others returned in time and could find him. He wouldn't put it past these men to forego waiting to they got to Tacosa before hanging him. He looked over his shoulder, seeing the last buildings and hoping it wouldn't be the last thing he saw of a town he had come to call home. He knew Chris and the others would come after him. There was no doubt in his mind; he just hoped they found him in time.
"Ezra, Ezra can you hear me?" Soft light and a soft voice were both trying to break through the fog of his aching head. He brought his hand up to his temple, and then slowly opened his green eyes to look into the face of Mary Travis hovering over him. He smiled until he remembered why he was lying on the floor. He bolted straight up, gasping for breath as a thunder bolt of pain went through his head, almost bringing him to tears.
Mary Travis helped him to his feet. He remained bent over, holding a nearby table for support and trying to will his headache into submission.
"Vin?" He gasped, as the floor of the saloon seemed to spin under his feet.
"They took him."
"How long?" He winced as he gingerly touched the back of his head.
"About half hour. I telegraphed Chris in Cedar Ridge, but they had already left. I sent someone for Nathan, Josiah and JD," Mary replied, her brows coming together in worry for the southerner.
Standish looked at the blond haired newswoman, grateful. He slowly straightened and headed toward the door with Miss Travis right on his heel. "Where do you think you're going?"
"After them," he replied, as if this was the most obvious response. He headed for the stables, having to slow his pace as a wave of dizziness tilted the world around him. He closed his eyes for a moment and stood in the middle of the street. Mary watched him with arms crossed over her bosom. She couldn't believe how stubborn he was being.
"You're hurt, you can't go after them alone. The others will be back soon," she said. The suave gambler heard the concern in her voice.
He opened his eyes and looked at her. "Not soon enough, especially if those men decide to dispense justice before reaching Tacosa." Fear actually gripped his heart at this thought. Of all the men he rode with, he was probably closest to the taciturn tracker. He didn't want to lose that friendship.
Mary grabbed Ezra's arm stopping him from continuing. "There's four of them, you have to wait for the others," she more urgently pleaded. Lord, she was beautiful when she was scared. Also very confusing, he never knew where he stood with her. Sometimes she would shake her head in disgust at something he had said or done. Then there were times when he believed he caught another type of look, one that scared and excited him at the same time.
Ezra gently took her hand, removing it from his arm. "Miss Travis, I think I would rather face the bounty hunters than Mr. Larabee's wrath at allowing Vin to be taken."
"It wasn't your fault." She couldn't believe how scared she was for him. He still believed his life wasn't worth as much as the others. It was hard to erase a life time of belief in a few months.
Standish gave the naive woman a smile and kissed her hand, continuing into the stables. All she could do was wait, and hope the others got back into time.
Even without Tanner's innate tracking skills, the resourceful conman was able to easily trail the four bounty hunters. They didn't seem worried that anyone would follow them. They obviously were unaware that Mr. Tanner had six brothers, who would ride to hell and back for him. If the bounty hunters had been aware of this, they wouldn't be so carefree with their travels, especially if they knew the devil himself, in the form of a dark-clad gunslinger, would be after them. Ezra decided to hold back and wait for the cover of night before getting any closer. He couldn't believe he was doing this. His mother would shake her head in disgust and think he had gone mad. 'Why risk your life?' she would ask. It's something he had asked himself, numerous times. He always came up with the same answer, 'because.' That was it. Because why? Because he had an obligation to these men? Because it was his job? Because Larabee had given him a second chance and he owed the man? Or was it because he had grown to care about the six individuals he rode with? Did he feel the connection that tied them all together? Seven men, one destiny as Mr. Sanchez put it. Deep down did he really believe that? The answer always came back yes.
It was late when Wilmington and Larabee came riding up the dimly lit street. Mary had sat by her office window waiting and rushed out when she saw the two men coming up the street.
When Chris saw Mary standing on the boardwalk outside her office, he knew by the look on her face that something was wrong. The two gunslingers dismounted, but before either could ask Mary gave them the bad news. "Four bounty hunters came into town this afternoon and took Vin," she explained. "I tried to telegraph you, but you had already left."
Chris gripped his gunbelt. He had a feeling that something had happened. "What about, Ezra?"
"He tried to stop them but they knocked him out," she explained.
"So, where is he?" Buck asked, looking quickly around the area for the familiar colorful attire of his friend.
Mary bit her bottom lip and looked up into Chris' steely blue eyes. "He went after them."
"What?" Both Chris and Buck said in disbelief. Larabee swore. He never should have left those two alone. Vin and Ezra by themselves always managed to get into some kind of trouble, together they could get themselves into some really deep shit.
Wilmington shook his head, that crazy southerner was going to get himself killed. During times like these, he wished the cardshark would revert to his more self-serving disposition, at least then they would only have to worry about Vin.
"He didn't think there was time to wait for you to return," she continued. Mary looked down the street as JD, Nathan and Josiah came riding in. Josiah felt it as soon as he saw Buck's face, something was wrong.
Buck looked up at his friends. "Bounty hunters took Vin, and Ezra went after them."
"Alone?" Nathan asked incredulous.
"Yep," Chris replied. "Get fresh horses, we better git after them."
Standish had thrown on a dark buckskin jacket as night fell. He found the bounty hunter's camp and was waiting until a couple of them fell asleep. He figured that at least one would remain on guard. He saw Vin propped up against a tree his hands and ankles tied. Ezra may have been raised a city boy, but he had the stealth and grace of a cat and was able to move quietly within the underbrush, making his way to the abducted tracker.
A sliver of moon, luckily didn't afford much light, and Ezra was able to crawl right up to the tree. He pulled out a knife and began working to cut through Vin's bonds.
Vin smiled at the tug on his wrists. Ezra must have followed him. He always knew there was more to the egotistical conman than he portrayed. He didn't understand why Ezra wanted people to believe the false facade he maintained. Vin kept his eye on the lone guard, who stood by the low-burning fire. The other three were huddled around it in slumber. He felt the ropes fall loose from his wrists. Ezra placed the hilt of the knife into his freed hands. As soon as the guard turned his back Vin brought the knife down to his feet and cut the ropes. He saw the guard begin to turn toward him and swore as he dove into the bushes.
"SHIT! He's getting away!" The guard yelled out as he fired into the underbrush. The others woke drawing their guns. The four men rushed into the dark, dense underbrush.
Tanner caught up with his rescuer and the two raced through the forest, trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the hunters. When they could no longer hear their pursers, they stopped for a moment to catch their breaths. Ezra bent over, placing his hands on his knees as Vin leaned against a tree, trying to gulp in some much needed air. "You have to circle around... my horse is on the other side," Ezra gasped.
"C'mon we need to keep goin'," Vin finally said, pushing himself away from the tree. He hadn't caught the omission in the cardsharp's plan.
"You need to leave me here, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied dryly, his southern drawl barely above a whisper, and Vin almost missed it over the sound of their heavy breathing.
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm afraid I'm leaving a rather visible trail for our pursuers."
Vin's eyes widen and his stomach muscles tighten in understanding. He wasn't able to make out the cardshark's features in the darkness.
Vin grabbed for the wounded gambler as he crumbled to the ground, all the strength suddenly leaving his legs. The tracker threw open Ezra's jacket and ran his hand down the man's left side, feeling the sticky wetness of blood. He reached around to the back, not finding an exit wound.
"Ah, Ez," he sadly replied, holding his friend up by the shoulders. He knew they couldn't be that far ahead of the bounty hunters.
"Please Mr. Tanner, you must go, Mr. Larabee would never forgive me if you did not return."
"You think it would be any different if I came back without you?" Vin countered.
Standish chuckled and winced. "You can't be serious."
Tanner shook his head. For all his skill at reading people, Ezra still didn't realize he was just as important to Chris as any of them. Vin smiled, he would have to have the blond leader sit down and explain a few things to the ambiguous conman, but first he had to get them both out of here.
"I'm not leaving you, so, up, you go." Vin got his shoulder under the smaller man's arm and grabbed hold of his waist to support him. "We need to find some place so I can check that wound."
Ezra wrapped his free arm around his stomach and concentrated on not passing out. It felt like someone was forcing a hot poker into his gut and he was starting to feel lightheaded from blood loss. Why didn't Tanner leave him and save himself?
The four bounty hunters returned to their camp, having been unable to find their escaped bounty in the dark. Ruford paced angrily around the camp fire, swearing under his breath. He had never lost a bounty before and wasn't about to start. Five Hundred dollars was too much money to let escape.
"Ah, boss, I'm real sorry I don't know how he got out of those ropes," the blond man stammered, running his hand through his hair.
James brought the discarded bindings over to the fire. "He had help, these ropes were cut."
Ruford Tillman stopped his pacing and stared at his incompetent man. He drew his gun and fired, examining the shock on the dying man's face before he crumpled to the ground.
"That's one less we have to share the reward money with," Ruford callously explained to his two remaining men. Carlos just grinned, picking up the dead man's rifle and staring hard at his boots.
James shook off the shock and held up his hand, showing the blood on his fingers. "We got one of them."
"Carlos, you take first watch we'll go after them first thing in the morning; apparently, we should have made sure that friend of Mr. Tanner's was dead before leaving town."
+ + + + + + +
Larabee finally had to give in to his companions' demands about traveling at night. He hated stopping, especially when they were so close. He couldn't believe that Ezra would go off on his own to save Vin that man was full of surprises. Just when you thought he didn't care about anyone or anything other than himself he turned the tables on you and dealt himself in. Chris knew he was hard on the abstruse cardsharp. It was sometimes hard for him to believe that the unscrupulous conman had really changed. Larabee had never told anyone, but he had come to care for the fancy dressing southerner, sort of like an errant step-brother. He wondered if the gambler was aware of this, probably not. Hell, the dark-clad gunslinger didn't even think Ezra's own mother cared about him. He knew it was hard for the suave conman, who was always on the outside, to believe anyone could really be concerned for his well-being. The concept of someone caring, without wanting something in return, was as foreign to Ezra, as being a conman was to Chris.
Vin and Ezra traveled for over an hour. For the most part, Ezra was able to hold his own with the tracker's help but he was weakening fast. Vin could feel his weight increasing within his grasp. By the time they reached the river, Vin was practically dragging the southerner and having a hard time getting any fancy dialogue from him.
Tanner found a deep recess in-between two boulders a few feet from the river's edge. He laid the now trembling gambler down as carefully as he could, and then quickly gathered some wood to start a fire. "Hang on pard." He knew he shouldn't start a fire, not knowing where the bounty hunters might be, but he had to check Ezra's wound. Hopefully, the hunters decided to wait for morning to pursue them.
Vin built a small fire, keeping the smoke to a minimum. He soaked his bandanna in the river stream and returned to Ezra's side. He was still conscious, but his eyes were glassy and pain filled. The tracker carefully undid his vest and shirt. The fire barely gave off enough light to see the dark hole in his friend's side. He gently wiped away the blood seeing that the wound was still oozing slightly. He applied pressure to the wound, hearing the swift intake of breath from his friend and feeling the weak grip of a hand on his wrist.
"Easy Ez, I have to stop the bleeding," the tracker soothed. "There's not enough light for me to get the bullet out, we'll have to wait till morn."
After he got the bleeding to stop Vin lifted the southerner's head and shoulders and slid in underneath him to help keep him warm.
"Vin," Ezra whispered. "Please...leave...me."
The ex-bounty hunter hung his head at Ezra's plea and used his hand to wipe the hair from his friend's brow. "I can't, Ez. I couldn't live with myself if I left you." Vin couldn't see the gambler's questioning gaze, which evaporated from his face as the darkness, which had been beckoning wrapped him in its embrace. The suddenness of Ezra's eyes closing brought a fear that Vin hadn't felt in a long time crashing down upon him. It took a moment to gather the courage to check for a pulse.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, releasing a quivering breath as he felt the faint life beat under his fingers. "Stay with me Ezra, please."
He didn't know he would feel this way about the egotistical conman. He considered the man a friend. Someone he could trust in a gunfight, but this feeling was something more. Vin never had any siblings that he knew of, but he thought this feeling might be something akin to caring for a brother. He felt the same way about Chris, but Chris was like an older brother, Ezra was more like a twin. The two men had their differences but there were also similarities. Both men found it hard to trust people and always kept people at arm's length. Both could read people like open books, but had a hard time recognizing friendship when it was right under their noses.
The rugged ex-buffalo hunter listened to the sounds of the night, which blended with the gurgling of the river nearby. He loved the solitude the night brought with it, but as he listened to the labored breaths of his friend, he'd give anything to be in a busy crowded town with Nathan nearby.
The morning sun sliced into the hidden crevice to reveal the two fugitives. One sat at a low burning fire holding a knife over the flames. The other was caught in the fevered throes of a nightmare. Ezra's eyes flashed open and a scream escaped his lips. Vin jumped and threw his hand over the southerner's mouth, praying that their pursers were no where nearby.
"Easy Ezra, take it easy," Vin calmed. The southerner was soaked with sweat and tremors shook his entire body. The gentle tracker laid him back down. "I got to get that bullet out now."
Standish stared up at his long-haired friend and gave him a trusting smile.
"I wish I had something for the pain, but this is the best I can do." Vin produced a whittled down piece of wood. "You need to bite down on this and try and stay still." He rose and retrieved the knife. He knelt down at Ezra's side and wished the gambler was unconscious.
"I...have...the utmost....faith...in you Mr. Tanner," Ezra managed to gasp out, a strained smile coming to his pain-filled visage.
"Are you ready?" Vin asked.
Ezra placed the piece of wood into his mouth and steeled himself for the pain to come. He gave a quick nod and closed his eyes. Vin placed his knee on the smaller man's chest to hold him down, then brought the knife down cutting into the festering wound. Ezra arched momentarily then stopped himself. Vin could hear his breathing quicken and he tried to work as fast as he could. He widen the wound then placed his fingers inside to try and find the bullet. The conman's body began to shake. Vin felt the piece of metal and quickly retrieved it. He grabbed a piece of cloth he'd ripped from his shirt and applied pressure, surprised to see that Ezra was still conscious. He gently took the piece of wood from his mouth.
"It's okay now, Ez, I got it, you just rest."
The southerner's body suddenly went limp and his green eyes fell shut as if this admission gave his tortured body permission to let go.
Vin got the bleeding to stop and wrung out another cloth to place on Ezra's forehead. He knew they couldn't stay here much longer and hoped in a couple hours Ezra would be able to travel. When had he started to care so much for the man that seemed to make a career at keeping people away? All the men he rode with had unique and powerful personalities, some more powerful than others. However, Ezra had something else, he had a character all his own. He wasn't your typical self-centered gambler, though he'd like you to believe that. Vin smiled to himself. He wondered if anyone else knew that it had been Standish and not the bank manager, who left a rather generous donation to rebuild the Ferguson's home that had burned down in a recent fire.
Chris and the others woke before the sun and quickly picked up the trail. They found the Bounty Hunter's deserted campsite, including the dead bounty hunter.
"Chris, over here!" Buck yelled out. Everyone converged on the mustached cowboy, who pointed at the bloody trail leading into the woods.
"It looks like Ezra or Vin are injured," Buck explained.
+ + + + + + +
"Ezra, you have to wake up," Tanner gently called slapping the not so clean shaven face. Ezra moaned and his eyes forced themselves open. Vin could see in the vivid green eyes that a fever still burned inside him, but they couldn't stay here.
Standish tried to sit up and Vin quickly moved in to help. "Will your horse still be where you left him?" The tracker asked.
Ezra nodded. "If those miscreants...haven't taken him..., he should still be there." Even those few words seemed to tire the man out and Vin began to doubt that they would make it.
"Can you make it?"
Ezra looked up into Vin's blue eyes knowing if he didn't make it, neither would he. "Yes, I can make it," he lied.
"We'll walk in the river for awhile, hide our tracks, and then circle around." Vin had taken one of Ezra's guns and placed it in his own waist band. He got his shoulder under the smaller man and together they made their way into the shallow river.
+ + + + + + +
"Damn Chris, someone is losing a lot of blood," Nathan remarked as they continued to follow the trail. They had all seen evidence of the bounty hunters and hoped to catch up to their friends soon.
"Vin will be able to out-fox those bounty hunters," Buck reassuringly explained.
"Unless he's the one hurt," JD added. Buck gave the young gunslinger an angry glare and nudged his horse closer to take a swat at him. Dunne knew what was coming and urged his horse forward.
Larabee ignored the antics of his younger friends, keeping his eyes on the morbid trail. He prayed they didn't find death waiting at the end. He hated feeling helpless and not in control. He hadn't been able to prevent the death of his wife and child. This situation was different, his two friends were hopefully still alive and he would do everything in his power to keep them that way.
Ezra and Vin managed to hide in a crevice in some rocks as the bounty hunters walked by, not a hundred yards away. Tanner checked the ammo in the revolver then looked back at Ezra whose face was bathed in sweat and flush with fever. He knew the man was only staying vertical due to pure stubbornness and determination. Ezra never ceased to amaze him. Why did he come after him alone? He could have, and should have waited for the others, not that Vin wasn't exceedingly grateful
Standish watched through bleary green eyes as Vin watched the bounty hunters. He forced a smile when the tracker turned to look at him. His fever had gotten worse, and his wound had started bleeding again. Ezra wrapped his coat tight to hide it--Vin trusted him. Vin had faith in him, more than he had in himself. His fevered mind brought Larabee's raging face to the forefront, telling Ezra it should have been him who was dead, not Vin. 'Why didn't you save him?' He heard all five of the other gunslingers accuse.
Standish removed his revolver and took hold of the barrel, raising it over his head. He struck the stalwart tracker, watching with fear as he crumbled to the ground. He checked to make sure that he hadn't hit him to hard and laid a hand on the long hair. "Forgive me, Mr. Tanner." He grabbed Vin under the arms and dragged him further back into the crevice, his side rebelling at the strain. Ezra took one last look at the buck-skinned clad form and left the relative security of the rocks. He was going to get the hunters to come after him, and hopefully lead them on a merry chase away from the unconscious tracker. They would either abandon him when they realized he was alone or they'd kill him; he tended to believe the latter. Ezra headed in the direction that the bounty hunters had taken.
+ + + + + + +
Vin moaned and slowly turned over, wincing as the back of his head met the hard ground. He sat up putting his face in his hands and trying to force back the throbbing pain in his head. He looked up and searched the crevice, then swore when he discovered he was alone. "I'm goin' to kill that southern son-of-a-bitch."
He heard rustling outside and stood up on shaky legs, removing the revolver from his waistband. He inched himself along the rocks and peered out. A lazy grin came to his scruffy appearance as he saw JD and Buck nosily making their way up the trail. He quietly revealed himself to the two men causing them both to jump.
"Vin!" Buck yelled, slapping the man on the back. Chris and the others immediately rushed forward, guns drawn at hearing the sudden commotion.
"Ay, cowboy you lookin' for me?" The lean tracker asked, putting his hand on the back of his head.
"Are you okay?" Chris calmly asked, keeping the relief and happiness bottled up inside.
"I'm fine, but we have to find Ezra."
"What? We figured he was with you," JD wondered out loud.
"He was, he's the one that cut me loose and we made a run for it." Vin took a deep breath. "He took a bullet in the side. I got it out, but he's running a fever, and I think he's out of his head. He was tryin' to protect me, thought he would get us both caught."
Larabee shook his head finally admitting that he would never figure out the slick cardshark but he would save him.
"How bad?" Nathan asked.
"Bad, he's lost alot of blood. We had to keep movin' with the bounty hunters on our trail," Vin explained.
"Well, he shouldn't be hard to track," Chris added. "Let's go."
Standish managed to lead the bounty hunters away from Vin but he was faltering. His legs could barely carry him and he had to stop constantly to rest. He was hoping he could make it to his horse and get help, but that possibility was appearing more and more remote. At least Tanner was safe; the others would find him.
He heard the bounty hunters tracking him off in the distance and pushed himself away from the tree, but his legs had no more strength, and he crumbled to the ground. He tried to rise, but the darkness, which had waited patiently finally swept over him sending him into peaceful oblivion.
"Damn, it's just that fancy dressin' fella. Tanner's no where around," James muttered as he toed the motionless form on the ground.
"Is he alive?" Rupert casually asked.
A malicious smile creased Ruford's mouth. "Well, maybe he can help us get our bounty back."
+ + + + + + +
The three bounty hunters dragged the semi-conscious gambler up the mountain-side. He was only partially aware of what was going on. His plan had worked, well, part of it anyway, at least Vin was safe. He wasn't so sure about himself.
James and Carlos held on to the southerner as they stood on the edge of a very high cliff. Ruford passively surveyed the land below. He couldn't make out much through the dense scrub, which covered half the valley. "Okay Tanner, I'm willing to bet you're out there. If'n you don't want us to give your friend here flying lessons you better show yourself!" Ruford called out, his voice sailing over the dense underbrush below.
Standish tried to gather his wits as he was held precariously close to the edge of the precipitous. He peered down over the edge, not able to see the bottom through the heavy brush. His side throbbed, but he believed it had stopped bleeding. A small consolation considering he was about to be tossed from a cliff.
Larabee and the others heard Ruford's threat echo off the canyon walls. They were a couple hundred yards from the base of the cliff, hidden from view by the densely packed scrub trees. Vin looked over at Chris and the other five gunslingers then turned to leave.
"Where do you think you're going?" Chris asked, grabbing the tracker's arm.
"I'm not goin' to let them kill him," Vin replied, pulling his arm out of his friend's grasp. Did Chris actually believe he'd let Ezra die for him?
Larabee ran his eyes up the cliff face seeing another ledge about twelve feet below where the bounty hunters and Ezra. It jutted out some five feet from the face of the cliff. He continued to eye the ledge. "Listen, you give your self up, they'll just kill Ezra anyway, and we'll lose both of you."
Tanner hung his head knowing his friend was right and angry at himself for believing even for a second that the dark-clad lawman would allow any one of them to die.
Chris pulled off his dark hat and ran a hand through his sandy hair. Sanchez saw the glint in the gunslinger's blue eyes. "Josiah, Nathan, you think you can manage to get to that ledge just below them?"
The two men looked up at the ledge then back at Chris as if he was crazy, but a knowing smile crept across the ex-preacher's long face.
"What do you have in mind, brother Larabee?"
"Vin will stall until you get in position, then you catch Ezra when they throw him off," Chris simply answered.
"Are you nuts!" Nathan yelled.
"It's his only chance, me, JD and Buck will try and come up from behind and get him, but if we don't..." Chris left the rest unsaid.
Sanchez put a hand on Nathan's shoulder, both men realizing that they didn't have much of a choice if they wanted to save their friend.
"Your friend is running out of time, Tanner," Ruford's voice again boomed over them.
Josiah nodded toward Chris and jogged away, followed by the very reluctant healer.
Chris stood in front of Vin. "You have to stall them for as long as possible." He grabbed his best friend by the shoulder, silently reassuring him that they would get Ezra back alive. Then Chris, JD and Buck raced off to circle around the mesa.
Vin walked out to a clearing a few yards from the cliff and called up. "I'm here!"
Ruford smiled. "It appears you mean a lot to Mr. Tanner," he snarled into Ezra's ear.
Ezra just gave him a faint smirk. He was growing weak from the blood loss and his side felt like someone was ripping it open from the inside. His head was spinning and he was having a hard time holding on to any cognizant thought.
"So, what do you want?" Vin yelled out, after a long pause. He hadn't seen Josiah or Nathan yet and willed them to hurry.
"Easy, you come up here and we let your friend go," Ruford explained.
Vin paused and looked down at the ground then back up the cliff face, shielding his eyes against the noon sun. He could see that Ezra was being held up by two of the bounty hunters and was probably not in any condition to help himself.
"Well, what's it going to be Tanner, we haven't got all day?" James shouted out, shoving his prisoner closer to the edge. Ezra instinctively dug in his heels to slow his progression.
"How do I know you'll let him go?"
"You have my word as a gentleman." Ruford grinned.
Even Ezra guffawed at this, which earned him a punch to his injured side causing him to double over. The bounty hunters pulled him back up, having to hold up even more of his weight as the strength left his legs.
Vin winced as he saw Ezra double over.
Buck, JD and Chris had managed to position themselves about twenty yards away from Ezra and the bounty hunters. They could see that one of the hunters held a gun to Ezra's side. They would have to wait until the situation improved.
"Well, that's not good enough," Vin answered back to Tillman who was starting to get agitated.
Ruford Tillman had hoped that Tanner would have just come up, then they could push the southerner off the cliff and Tanner too if he caused too much trouble. It would only be a minor inconvenience to retrieve his body at the bottom.
James brought his pistol up to the cardshark's head, trying to impress the urgency of the situation on the buckskin tracker down below. He was stalling for some reason.
"Alright, hold on!" Vin yelled out. He breathed a sigh of relief as the two men moved their captive back away from the edge. He then saw Josiah and Nathan making their way along the face of the cliff, they just needed a few more minutes.
"Okay Josiah where are they," Nathan angrily whispered.
The ex-preacher stopped and seemed to listen for something. He heard it, the sound of boots scraping on sand then he saw dirt and pebbles rain down from above. He motioned Nathan to get behind him. The ex-preacher looked up to the heavens, and then down at his huge strong hands.
"Dear lord, if ever I asked for these hands to not falter let it be now," he prayed. "Nathan you hold on to my belt and be ready to pull me back when I grab him."
The dark healer wasn't at all sure about any of this. He knew how much the ex-preacher cared for Standish, if he missed and Ezra died, Josiah would never forgive himself.
+ + + + + + +
"I'm waiting Tanner," Ruford impatiently called out.
"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not coming up."
This got Ezra's attention as much as the bounty hunters. Ruford's dark eyes narrowed suspiciously. This didn't make any sense. First the man wanted to save his friend, now he didn't care if they threw him off.
"What the hell is he sayin?" James whispered over to his boss.
Ruford glared at his accomplice and hissed. "Shut up." He turned his attention back to the long-haired tracker down below. "You think we're jokin', Tanner!" He yelled. Vin and the others could hear the growing anger in the man's voice.
"Oh no, I know you're serious, but I thought it over and I just don't want to hang," Vin calmly explained. Nathan and Josiah were in place, but he hoped that Josiah's strength would not be put to the ultimate test.
Standish was stunned at what Tanner said. He couldn't blame the long-haired lawman. He'd hate to have gone through all this to save Vin's life, only to have the man give himself up and be hung. Still, it hurt a little. He didn't want to die, but at least he would be dying for a friend.
"You must have been wrong about Tanner, Mr. Tillman," Carlos sneered. "This man means nothing to him."
Ezra winced slightly at the words.
"He's bluffing," Ruford exclaimed. "Tanner, I'll give you two minutes to come up here or we'll throw him off."
Vin licked his lips and swallowed the lump that formed in his dry throat at the thought of what he was about to say. Lord, he hoped Josiah caught Ezra or he would never forgive himself.
"Listen, I have things to do, go ahead and throw 'em off." With that, Vin turned around and disappeared back into the brush.
Ezra couldn't believe his ears, did Vin actually tell them to throw him off. Had he been mistaken about their friendship? Suddenly a shot rang out and Carlos dropped to the ground. Everything seemed to be happening from a distance. Ezra didn't feel apart of it, and was surprised when JD, Buck and Chris appeared, guns drawn.
Larabee glared at Tillman who attempted to draw his gun. Chris fired, shooting the gun out of the bounty hunter's hand. All three lawmen stood and glared at the last bounty hunter, who still had a hand on Ezra's arm. The three gunslingers could tell that their friend was only barely with them.
James sneered back at them. His dark eyes locked on to Chris' icy blue ones. His grin grew, baring his teeth. He still held the ace and he would get the last laugh.
Larabee saw in the man's eyes what he planned to do. He lunged forward knowing he'd never make it in time. He watched as James shoved Ezra backwards off the ledge. Chris fell to the ground shooting the laughing bounty hunter dead.
Standish was having a hard time deciphering what was going on around him. Where had Chris, JD and Buck come from? He watched as if in slow motion as the dark-clad lawman raced toward him shouting something. Then he felt himself going over the edge and was to weak and numb to do anything about it. For a second, he felt nothing but air and actually enjoyed the feeling. His freefall came to an abrupt end with the sound of a familiar grunt. He opened his eyes to look directly into the gray-blue orbs of Josiah, relief and blood loss finally took consciousness away.
Josiah and Nathan heard the gun shots and watched as their friend toppled from above. Sanchez stretched out his long arms, grabbing the smaller man from thin air. The added weight propelled the huge lawman forward. He felt Nathan's grip pull him back from the edge, keeping them both from going over.
As soon as his heart calmed Josiah laid his limp friend down and Nathan quickly examined him, checking his pulse and breathing. Josiah looked up the cliff face into the smiling faces of JD, Buck and Chris.
"Nice catch," Larabee remarked, relief not hidden on his rugged visage. His own heart had stopped when James had pushed Ezra off. None of them had realized how much they had come to care for the enigmatic gambler until that moment.
Josiah and Nathan struggled to get Ezra down to the base of the cliff where Vin anxiously waited. From the second that Ezra had been suspended in mid air and falling, Vin had felt fear-driven guilt tear through his gut. Ezra couldn't die, not after what he said. "Nathan, is he goin' to be alright?" The worried tracker asked as he watched the dark healer undo Ezra's shirt. Nathan gasped at the sight of the angry red wound and the bruises.
"He's lost alot of blood and the wound is infected," Nathan sadly explained.
"We'll set up camp here tonight," Chris said as he entered the clearing. Buck and JD right behind him shoving Ruford ahead of them and toward a nearby tree where they could tie him up.
Vin strode up to the large man, his fists balled. He brought his fist up and around striking the smug man in the jaw and snapping his head back. Tillman fell to the ground. He wiped the blood from his chin with the back of his hand and looked up at the enraged tracker a sickening grin cracking his weathered face. Vin turned on his heels and left.
Seven men sat, silhouetted by a brightly burning fire, which kept the surrounding darkness at bay. Vin hadn't left the injured gambler's side since Josiah and Nathan brought him down off the cliff. Ezra's fever slowly climbed, and Nathan had to keep cleaning out the wound and force water down his throat, as he was seriously dehydrated.
Morning brought a little improvement in the gambler's condition. His fever had come down, but he still hadn't regained consciousness and this was starting to worry Nathan and the others.
Chris came and sat down next to the worried tracker, who was staring intently down into Ezra's pale features. He handed Vin a plate of beans.
"God, Chris, he can't die thinkin' I wanted those bounty hunters to throw him off," Vin quietly admitted his fear. Chris put a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sure he figured it out Vin. Ezra's pretty sharp."
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee for admitting that," Ezra quietly drawled. His green eyes slowly opening to look up into the concerned and relieved faces of his friends.
"I'll deny I ever said it," Chris replied unable to keep the humor out of his voice.
"I have witnesses," Ezra countered, a faint grin coming to his handsome visage.
"How you feelin', pard?" Buck asked, coming over when he heard the familiar southern drawl.
"God, Ezra, when you fell off that cliff I thought ." JD choked at the words. He had never been so scared in his life.
"It's good to have you back, brother," Josiah intoned.
Nathan appeared at his side with a cup of water and herbs.
"Here Ezra you need to drink this."
Vin raised the weakened gambler's head up, and Nathan forced the medicine down his throat. Ezra's muscles shook from the exertion and he coughed at the vile concoction, but managed to get it all down.
"As if falling from a cliff isn't bad enough, now you have to go and poison me," the weary conman complained.
The dark healer rolled his eyes, placing a hand on Ezra's brow. "Another day of rest and he should be able to travel. I'd like to get him back to town so I can properly attend to him."
"You mean keep me locked away in that clinic of yours," he sarcastically intoned.
"Yep, he'll be fine," Nathan quipped, shaking his head and dreading the next couple of days of having to keep the obstinate cardshark in bed.
"Ezra." The cardshark turned to the sound of the doleful Texas drawl. "I want to thank you for coming after me."
"Anytime Mr. Tanner, anytime." The taciturn tracker nodded then stepped aside as Chris appeared. Ezra arched a sandy brow at Larabee's deadly glare.
"And if you ever do a fool thing like that again I'll have your ass in a sling," Chris snarled and turned away before Ezra saw the smile form on his lips.
"There's just no pleasing some people," Ezra smirked. This produced chuckles from the other gunslingers as he slowly drifted off into a dreamless sleep.