Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
The wagon roared up the street sending up a huge cloud of dust, as well as, several townsfolk scurrying to the relative safety of the boardwalk. The driver pulled back on the reins stopping the two tempered horses, causing the wagon to fish-tail before coming to a halt in front of the jail. A burly man with long arms and ash-gray hair leapt from the driver's seat and ran up to the jail house door yelling, "SHERIFF!"
Chris, Vin an Ezra had stepped out of the saloon and onto the boardwalk upon hearing the commotion. The dark-clad leader recognized the wagon driver as James Haskell, owner of one of the biggest ranches in the area. Larabee stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the jail, followed closely by Vin and Ezra. The trio reached the wagon as Sheriff Dunne and Buck stepped out from the jail. Mr. Haskell grabbed JD by the arm and proceeded to drag him to the back of the wagon. JD peered in as Haskell removed a blanket covering the body of a young man.
The gunslingers peered over the side of the wagon at the lifeless man inside. They all recognized the body of Eddy Haskell, Mr. Haskell's youngest son.
"Look what those bastards did to my son!" Haskell's voice shook with rage; grief had yet to envelope him, his anger keeping it at bay for the time being.
Larabee hung his head. Why did someone so young have to die? JD was about to ask the distraught man what had happened when everyone turned their attention to a sorrel horse and rider galloping toward them. The young rider pulled up on the horse's reins. He peered down into the wagon from his saddle, fighting to control horse's agitated prancing.
Ezra recognized the young man as Kenneth Haskell, an avid poker player, and eldest son to Mr. Haskell. Kenneth was a mediocre player, at best, but he could be found, more often than not, involved in high stakes games.
"Father, what happened?" The young man anxiously asked his eyes glued to the body in the wagon.
James Haskell approached his oldest son, putting a hand on his boy's leg. "Look what they did to your brother, Kenny." Tears glistened in the elder man's brown eyes, but he refused to let them fall. Kenny was a couple years older and sported the same dark brown hair. Eddy, even in death, retained a somewhat boyish visage, unlike Kenny, whose stern face belied his young age.
"Mr. Haskell, you need to tell us what happened." JD finally asked, hating to break in between a family's grief but it was his job.
James Haskell quickly composed himself, smoothing down his graying beard. He turned to the five gunslingers standing before him.
"Eddy went down to the south pasture this morning. My foreman had mentioned that he'd seen trespassers setting up camp late yesterday, so I had Eddy go and make sure that they moved on, that's all. We've had trespassers before, don't mind so long as they're just passin' through. We've never had any problems." James looked down at his dead son and placed a large callous hand on his boy's leg. "They shot him for no reason. He never would have used his gun."
Larabee's icy blue eyes burned with the building anger that always simmered below the surface, waiting for a reason to erupt. He took his law enforcement duties very serious, as did the other six gunslingers, who protected the town of Four Corners. Moreover And they all took it personally when someone from their town was killed.
James Haskell turned deadly dark eyes to Chris. "You have to do something Larabee! I want those vermin dead, do you hear me?"
"Take it easy Haskell," Wilmington cut in.
"Take it easy! They killed my boy!" Haskell's voice rose along with his anger. His hand gripped the side of the wagon so tight his huge knuckles began to turn white.
"Vin, go round up Nathan and Josiah we'll need 'em." Without saying a word, Vin turned and headed for the church.
"Do you know how many there were?" Chris asked, keeping his voice steady, but firm, hoping to keep the older man together long enough to get what information he could.
"My foreman said there were five of 'em."
Kenny Haskell had dismounted and put an arm around his father's shoulders, trying to turn him away from his brother's body. "C'mon father, you need to come home. I'll take care of Eddy."
James shrugged his son's arm off, pointing a finger at Larabee. "I'm going with you Larabee. I'll meet you at the south end of my property in one hour."
"That wouldn't be a good idea," the blond leader answered, pushing his dark hat back on his head. He knew Haskell was upset and wouldn't remain objective. Hell, who would? Chris wanted to get these men and bring them back to stand trial, not be lynched.
"He's right, father, let them handle it that's what they're paid for. Those men are probably half way to Mexico by now," Kenny calmly stated.
Ezra thought a little to calmly. For someone who just lost their only brother Kenny didn't seem concerned that justice be done. Ezra kept his thoughts to himself, everyone dealt with grief in their own way.
"He was my son, your brother," James snarled. "You two might not have gotten along, but he was blood." Haskell turned back to Chris. "I'll follow them to hell and back and you can't stop me."
Chris bowed his head in surrender. He knew better than anyone did the feelings that were tearing through James Haskell's soul. No parent should out live their children. The twinge of a past ache squeezed the somber gunfighter's heart. He figured it might be better to allow the distressed father to come so he could keep an eye on him. If he ever discovered the person responsible for his own family's death, there'd be no stopping him.
The Seven lawmen met up with James and Kenny just outside the south pasture gate of Haskell's Ranch. Mason Stern, Haskell's foreman, was also present. He had worked for James Haskell for only six months, but James was pleased with his performance. The man kept to himself mostly, but got the job done and that was all that mattered in James' book. Chris eyed the foreman who was clean shaven with black hair, which was graying on the sides. He looked like he'd been born in the saddle and probably didn't feel comfortable out of it. He stuck close to Kenny and the two appeared to be in deep conversation as the Seven rode up.
Vin had no trouble following the tracks left by the five trespassers, which made Larabee uneasy. They were moving south, but slowly, not like someone who had just committed murder. By late afternoon, the lawmen came upon the small cabin discreetly tucked into a sloping grove of aspen and pine.
"Okay," Chris stated as he surveyed the terrain. "Ezra, Buck, take the right. Josiah, JD, go left. Nathan, me and Vin will head up the middle."
Kenny grabbed Chris's arm.
"You stay here," Chris growled in answer to the young Haskell's silent plea.
"Those bastards killed my brother! I want them dead!" This was the first emotional outburst from Kenny that the dark-clad gunslinger had seen since leaving Four Corners. Kenny and Mason had plodded along quietly in the back of the group only talking amongst themselves. Chris assumed grief had left the young man heart sick. Now something else burned in Kenny's brown eyes, revenge--or was that fear? He wasn't sure, but he caught the glare that Mason threw at Kenny causing the younger man to quietly back down.
Mason Stern was angry. They weren't supposed to catch up with these men. Now they had to make sure that they didn't survive or things could get very bad. He started wondering if it was worth sticking around.
"We'll take them alive if we can," Chris told his men.
"Don't count on me trying very hard to do that, Mr. Larabee," Kenny answered acidly.
Chris ignored the retort, figuring it was said in anger and grief.
The Seven split up, trying to move closer to the cabin and the five desperate men inside.
Keeping his head down Chris called out, "In the cabin, you're surrounded throw out your guns and come out. Let's end this peacefully."
Gun fire immediately answered Chris's demand. Standish and Wilmington dove behind a large tree. "So much for diplomacy," Ezra chuckled and returned fire, pulling back as a bullet chipped at the bark next to his head.
"Chris has no tact, I keep tellin' em that," Buck bantered back with the quick-witted gambler as he returned fire from his crouched position beside his flamboyant friend.
"And you would know Mr. Wilmington, being an expert in crudeness," Ezra replied, a mischievous glint in his eyes. He always enjoyed these verbal jests even in the midst of a gunfight. It helped to relieve the tension.
The sight of JD's bowler appearing across the way interrupted Buck's retort. "Damn! If I'd told that boy once I've told 'em a thousand times to remove that damn sissy hat durin' a gun fight."
Ezra smiled at Buck's concern for the young sheriff. "Allow me Mr. Wilmington." Ezra took careful aim and shot JD's bowler off his head.
Startled, JD glanced across the grounds and caught sight of Ezra and Buck laughing like a couple of hyenas. He picked up his hat and fingered the hole, promising to get even with the two men.
Josiah shook his head and smiled, even during a gunfight those two couldn't resist tormenting the young gunslinger.
All of a sudden, the gun fire ceased. The sudden quiet sent a wave of apprehension through all of them.
"I don't think we're goin' t'like this," Buck whispered from his position behind the tree. Ezra squatted down next to the taller cowboy, his eyes glued to the now silent cabin.
Chris and Vin regarded each other silently, both checking their guns. The front door opened and all hell broke loose as several sticks of dynamite were tossed out. Josiah and JD dove for cover as an explosion caused dirt and debris to rain down upon their heads. The young sheriff stood up and fired upon the cabin. Before Josiah could pull the foolhardy and enraged youth back behind cover a bullet ripped through his upper arm.
Ezra watched as two more sticks of dynamite flew toward them. He shouted at Buck and shoved the hesitant gunslinger ahead of him. The first explosion lifted Buck several feet, hurling him into a tree. The collision dispatched the gregarious cowboy into oblivion, his body crumbling to the ground. The second stick landed at the base of the old pine, the subsequent explosion caused the hundred year old tree to weaken and topple to the ground.
Tanner could just make out the man in the doorway. Vin held his breath and waited for him to throw out another stick of dynamite, revealing more of his body. At that moment, Vin stepped out from behind cover and fired, hitting the man in the chest and sending him back into the cabin. Someone from inside the cabin grabbed the dropped stick of dynamite and threw it out. After the last explosion, quiet again descended on the small section of forest.
Chris could just make out Buck's motionless form over to his right; he couldn't see Ezra.
JD and Josiah quickly slid in next to Chris and Vin. JD hissed as he clenched his still bleeding arm, the blood oozing out from between his fingers. Nathan crawled over to him and quickly tied off the bleeding wound. JD saw Buck's crumpled body and yelled, "Buck!" He started to go to his best friend, until Vin tackled him.
"Wait a minute, JD," Vin tried to soothe the distraught young man, as he held him pinned to the ground. JD only stared at Buck's inert form, tears streaming down his face. He couldn't bear the thought of Buck being dead.
"Now what, Mr. Larabee?" Kenny sneered, his face contorted in anger. This was not going well, he had hoped the seven lawmen would make short work of the five drifters.
"That's enough Kenny," James Haskell interjected before Chris had a chance to say anything. James looked over at Larabee who turned away and started crawling over to the right, using the fallen tree as cover. The others quickly followed with Kenny and Stern bringing up the rear.
Stern grabbed Kenny's foot to get his attention as they allowed the others to move on ahead. "You better think of something fast. If those men get a chance to talk things could go to hell pretty quick." Kenny pulled his foot out of the foreman's grasp.
"Don't worry if that happens I have another option," Kenneth replied.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan, JD and Chris reached Buck's side turning him gently over unto his back. They all winced at the deep gash on his forehead. Larabee's heart stopped for a moment, sending him back to another time and place, looking down at the bodies of his wife and son. He couldn't bare to lose his oldest friend.
"He's alive." Nathan ran his hands over the ladies' man checking him for any other injuries and grateful not to find any. He peeled back one of Buck's eyelids. "He's got a concussion and he's goin' to be plenty sore." Nate began rummaging through his pack. He removed several clean cloths and then began cleaning Buck's head wound.
JD's worried face continued to stare down at his friend's slack features, his gut hurt so bad he felt like he was going to throw up.
"Nathan!" The urgency of the call got both Nathan and Chris's attention. They turned as one to see Vin and Josiah breaking off branches of the fallen tree. Chris caught a glimpse of red and swore. This day just keeps getting better and better.
"Here JD, hold this on Buck's head," Nathan instructed the young gunslinger who knelt down beside his best friend. Nathan quickly collected his stuff and followed Chris over to the tree.
Larabee helped Josiah and Vin clear the branches away to reveal the fancy dressed conman. Ezra was on his back, his legs pinned under the tree. Nathan flopped down next to Ezra's head and checked for a pulse. He gently shook the unconscious man's shoulder. "Ezra! Ezra!"
A soft moan escaped the gambler's lips and his head rolled to the other side. Standish slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Jackson's worried visage. "Lord, I extremely dislike seeing your face from this perspective. It's never a good sign," Ezra slowly drawled out.
Nathan couldn't help but smile at the gambler's sarcasm. 'The man could be on his death bed and still make jokes.'
"Well, if'n you'd not git under fallin' trees, we wouldn't be having this discussion," Nathan countered, trying more to lessen the seriousness of the situation.
Ezra raised himself up on his elbows with Nathan's help. He looked down at the huge pine resting across his legs. A vivid memory of soldiers, during the war, with their legs cut off at the knees, sent a shiver down his spine. "Awww hell, there appears to be a rather large piece of kindling on my leg," Ezra quipped.
"Way to state the obvious, Ez," Vin remarked with a slight smile on his strained face. The weak smiles of the other lawmen only hid the fear they all felt for one of their own.
Nathan eased the gambler back down, placing his wool coat under his sandy brown head.
"Can you wiggle your toes?" Nathan asked as he continued to check the gambler over for any other injuries.
"Good, this soft ground probably saved your legs from bein' crushed," Nathan exclaimed.
"Lucky me." Ezra winced as a sharp pain shot up his right leg.
Vin and Josiah tested the tree and realized they would need more leverage to move it, which meant putting themselves out in the open.
Tanner grabbed a branch and stuck his hat on it. He slowly raised it above the tree, bullets immediately began to fly and everyone ducked, Nathan falling across Ezra to protect him.
They watched the sun sink through the trees, already feeling the late fall chill. Blankets were thrown on Buck and Ezra, who was starting to shiver uncontrollably. Nathan frowned as he felt the first hint of fever. He kept giving the trapped conman sips of water, trying to prevent him from going into shock. It had been almost an hour since the last explosion, and there hadn't been any sound or movement around the cabin.
Larabee watched as James Haskell tried to control his restless anger and frustration. Kenny and Mason had moved off by themselves, which made Chris very suspicious. He cast a thoughtful glance at Vin and could see he was sensing the same thing.
Sanchez leaned back against the tree, taking off his wide brim hat and running his hand slowly down his face. He looked down to the side noticing a dark spot seeping from under the tree. Josiah dug his hand under the tree and alongside Ezra's right leg. When Josiah revealed his hand, it was covered in sandy blood. His long face revealed nothing, but his heart skipped a beat within his chest. He hid his hand under his poncho and moved away from Ezra.
"What's wrong, Josiah?" Chris asked, seeing the distress that marred the huge gunslinger's face.
Josiah brought out his sand-covered and bloody hand. Nathan's eyes went wide and shot back over to Ezra.
"Somethin' must a impaled his leg under the tree. We have to get him out before he bleeds to death."
Chris removed his hat and ran a dirty hand through his dirty blond hair. He glanced over at Buck, who was still unconscious. JD sat next to him, cradling his injured arm and talking softly, hoping that somehow Buck could hear him and know he was close. Chris looked back at Ezra who seemed to have grown even paler.
Chris and Nathan came to Ezra's side, not saying a word so as not to worry anyone, including Ezra. Jackson placed a cool compress on Ezra's fevered brow. Josiah sat at Ezra's side and took the enigmatic gambler's hand. He knew the suave conman was in bad shape when Ezra made no attempt to pull his hand free. Ezra's grip tightened on Josiah's hand when a sudden pain shot up his leg.
"Easy son, you'll be okay," Josiah softly soothed, trying to convince himself as much as comfort his friend.
Vin glanced over at Nathan and knew that something was very wrong.
The Haskell's and their foreman sat quietly by themselves. James was starting to feel the loss of his youngest son, his heart growing heavy, and the life slowly leaching out of him. He had noticed his oldest son and foreman in several quiet conversations. He never realized the two men were that familiar with each other. He hated to admit that Eddy had been his favorite, after his wife had died, he and Kenny grew apart. He thought it had to do with how much Kenny resembled his mother, but there was more to it than that. Eddy had been kind and considerate, whereas Kenny seemed always out for himself.
+ + + + + + +
The weak southern drawl sent a feeling of dread through everyone's heart.
"Yeah, Ez I'm here." Nathan squeezed the gambler's shoulder to reassure him. He could see that the southerner was having a hard time focusing.
Ezra smiled slightly. "I know you're here. Listen, in my room there's a secret compartment in the bottom of my dresser. I have about a thousand dollars stashed there. If I don't make it..." he began.
"Ezra don't, you're goin' to be fine," Nathan cut in. He looked across Ezra at the worried face of their leader.
Chris stared down at the man, he at times wanted to shoot. It took awhile, but Ezra was a part of them now and it was tearing Larabee apart to think they could lose him.
Ezra closed his eyes and continued, "If I don't make it use the money to build your self a decent clinic, with more comfortable beds."
"Ezra don't ..." Nathan started, choking back a lump of emotion. He had grown quite fond of the urbane conman and considered him a friend, a trying and arrogant friend...but a friend nonetheless. He hadn't realized that Ezra Standish, consummate southern boy, had also considered him a friend.
"Promise me." Ezra's green eyes looked up imploringly into the healer's equally dark eyes. He had come to respect and admire this man; a black man who had to overcome prejudice, including his own, to help others no matter what their color or beliefs. Ezra knew he was dying, he could feel his life slipping away, his limbs were becoming cold and it was getting harder to stay awake. It was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate he could hear the others talking, but was unable to separate the voices.
"I promise," Nathan reluctantly agreed.
Chris bowed his head, overhearing the entire conversation. He looked toward the cabin that held the men who held them pinned down behind the tree. His jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed with resolve.
James Haskell approached the newly determined leader, breaking him from his reverie.
"So, what are you going to do Larabee?"
Chris silently glared at the older man. He seemed oblivious to the injured men around him. Chris understood Haskell wanted revenge for his son's death but at what cost?
"Josiah, give me your bandanna," Chris asked, ignoring Haskell's question. Josiah crawled over closer and handed Chris his dirty beige bandanna. Chris reached over, picked up a broken branch, and tied the bandanna to it.
"What are you doing?" Haskell angrily asked. "You can't surrender."
"I'm calling a truce." Larabee began to stand when Haskell grabbed hold of his arm stopping him.
"You can't they killed my son it's your duty to...."
Chris ripped his arm from the elder man's grasp, his icy blue eyes throwing daggers of hate toward the rancher. "I have three injured men, one who is slowly bleeding to death. I'm not riskin' their lives for those four and your dead son." Chris hadn't meant to sound so heartless toward the older man, but he was scared and frustrated. James' leaned back against the tree defeated.
Sanchez placed a sympathetic hand on James Haskell's shoulder, trying to bring some measure of comfort and to keep the man from doing anything foolish.
Chris raised the white flag over the tree then slowly stood. Vin kept his gun trained on the cabin prepared for any show of force.
"No, Chris, don't," Ezra hoarsely pleaded.
"Shut up, Ezra." Chris didn't even look down, his eyes locked on the cabin.
Chris released the breath he was holding as a couple minutes passed and he didn't feel the burn of a bullet. He climbed over the tree and walked toward the cabin. Kenny and Mason peered over the tree drawing their guns. They froze when they heard the click of a hammer and slowly looked behind them. Josiah sat back on his heels, his gun casually aimed in their direction.
"Now, you wouldn't want to be goin' and doing anythin' stupid," Josiah said in a rather menacing voice. He didn't like the way Kenny or the foreman was acting, and he was glad he had kept an eye on them.
As Chris neared the cabin, the door opened. He stopped himself from going for his gun.
"What do ya want?" A young shaky voice called from inside the cabin.
"I'm asking for a truce," Chris replied, keeping his own voice steady and calm.
A tall, lanky blond hair man appeared in the doorway, his gun still in its holster. He scanned both directions before stepping out of the cabin.
"Why?" The blond man's eyes narrowed.
"I have a seriously injured man who needs medical attention." The blond man stared straight at Larabee.
"You're Larabee aren't you?" The blond stated. He had heard about the stalwart leader of the band of gunslingers, who protected Four Corners. He had also heard the man was fiercely protective of his men, and someone you didn't want to cross. By the look in Larabee's blue stormy eyes, he knew this was true.
The blond took a deep breath and scratched his cheek. "My name is Tom Derkin. Me and my four...," Tom paused a moment. "Three men are explosive experts for the railroad." Tom hung his head. Chris didn't understand why this man was telling him this but decided to let him talk.
"I'm sorry about what Hank did. We didn't know he'd use the dynamite on ya. He'd just got out of prison a year ago and didn't want to go back." Tom looked over at Hank's still body. "I guess he won't have to worry 'bout that now."
"Why'd you'd kill Eddy Haskell?" Chris asked.
+ + + + + + +
The others couldn't hear what was being said, but they saw Tom's surprised expression.
"We didn't kill anyone," Tom quickly voiced. "That boy, Eddy Haskell, came and asked us right nice to leave. We didn't know we were trespassin'. Heck, he even told us of a nice place we could go and not be bothered." Tom frowned and his eyes darted back and forth expecting any moment to be shot.
Chris wasn't sure whether to believe this man or not. He saw the three other railroad men peering out the windows but a gun never appeared.
"So what happened?" Chris asked.
"Nothin', we left, but just as we got over the rise we heard a gunshot. We turned and came back to find the boy had been shot. I saw someone ridin' away on a brown horse, but he was too far to get a good look at."
Chris knew he was running out of time. "Why'd you'd run?"
Tom smiled. "Well, it didn't look to good and we got scared. We were afraid people would shoot first and ask questions later."
"What are they talking about?" Vin asked no one in particular. He noticed that Kenny Haskell kept wiping his palms down his pants leg, and his eyes remained transfixed on Chris and Tom. The man looked nervous, almost afraid and this didn't give the perceptive tracker a good feeling.
"Listen Larabee, I know your reputation. You're a fair and honorable man. You have to believe me when I tell ya, we had nothin' to do with that boy's death," Tom vehemently declared, trying to get this man to believe him.
Chris stared into the man's pale blue eyes. "If you're tellin' the truth go back Four Corners and wait. If you're not there when we return I'll be comin' for ya."
Tom smiled with relief and nodded. "Larabee, you might want to watch your back."
"It's just something that the kid said before telling us to leave," Tom continued.
"He told us we were lucky his pa had sent him out and not his brother, 'cause if'n his brother had come out we'd be dead."
Tom went back into the cabin as Chris turned and started walking back toward the others. His mind was going back to something James Haskell had said about his sons not getting along.
+ + + + + + +
"What in God's name were you two talkin' about," James demanded as Chris climbed back over the tree. He glared at the older man then turned his eyes to Ezra, who he could tell was in a lot of pain.
"JD, watch and make sure that they all leave, and then make sure they don't come back." Chris believed the explosive expert, but he didn't live this long taking chances.
Josiah had found two stout branches, and was wedging them under the tree on either side of Ezra. Josiah leaned against one of the poles and looked toward the Haskell's and Mason Stern. "Gentlemen, we require your assistance." James and Kenneth joined Josiah on one pole as Mason grudgingly joined Chris and Vin on the other. "Okay gentlemen, on three, one..two..three." The six men applied their weight to the poles and slowly lifted the tree up.
Nathan watched, his hands under Ezra's arms, ready to pull when the tree was off his legs. Nathan saw the broken branch that had impaled Ezra's upper thigh. Ezra gritted his teeth, trying to hold back the scream as he felt the wood tearing muscle and skin, as the branch was slowly pulled out of his leg.
"A little more," Nathan said.
Ezra's scream was cut off as he fell unconscious. Nathan pulled him out. The dark healer swore and jumped down to Ezra's leg, grabbing a shirt and pressing it against the hemorrhaging wound. The weight of the tree had acted as a tourniquet. Everyone scrambled, fear in all their faces as blood poured furiously from Ezra's leg, soaking the ground around him.
"I need every piece of cloth we have, hurry!" Nathan's panic shout got everyone's attention. Josiah raced back toward the horses, grabbing shirts out of every saddlebag. Vin threw down blankets next to Nathan.
Nathan kept all his weight on top of Ezra's leg trying to stop the bleeding, glad his friend was unconscious. The blood soaked through the first shirts, covering his hands in blood. After five minutes, Nathan's arms started to shake at the strain and Chris moved in next to him.
"Let me take over, on three. One..two..three." Nathan fell back out of the way as Chris placed another shirt over the already soaked ones and applied pressure. He looked down at Ezra's face, which was almost white. He could hardly tell he was breathing. Nathan kept a hand on Ezra's throat feeling his pulse grow weaker.
"Lord, please stop," JD whispered, shifting nervously from foot to foot, his own boyish face becoming pale. Josiah put a hand on the young sheriff's shoulder.
"C'mon, brother Dunne let's see to Buck."
JD let Josiah lead him away.
After another ten minutes Nathan risked a look, hoping the wound had stopped bleeding. Ezra's pulse was weak but remained steady. Chris carefully eased up and allowed Nathan to remove the blood soaked shirts. Jackson sighed in relief, seeing that the bleeding had stopped.
"Okay, we have to get him inside and be very, very careful, make sure that leg doesn't start bleedin' again," Nathan warned. He was sure Ezra couldn't afford to loose even one more drop.
Josiah lifted the unconscious southerner and carried him slowly down to the cabin. Nathan raced ahead opening the door. The cabin had only two rooms, one of which gratefully held a cot. Josiah placed Ezra gently down on the cot.
Vin and Chris carried Buck inside and placed him on an old sofa that sat against the wall. Chris grabbed JD and forced him to the floor next to Buck giving him a look that broached no complaint.
Nathan placed his hand on Ezra's brow and felt the fever that was getting worse.
"I have to clean the wound or he'll die of infection." Nathan called to JD out of habit until he saw the young man sitting on the floor nursing his arm and looking a trifle pale.
"Vin, I'm going to need water and see if you can't find Ezra's flask, he didn't have it on him."
Nate turned his attention to JD. "Let me look at that arm, JD."
Nathan unwrapped the dirty bandage. The bullet had gone clean through. "When Vin gets back we'll pour some alcohol on it and it should be fine."
JD groaned softly at the thought.
Nathan went to Buck who still hadn't regained consciousness. He grabbed his shoulder and started shaking. "Buck, can you hear me?"
Buck moaned and turned his head to the side, a purple bruise peeking out from under the bandage that was wrapped around his head. His speech came out slow and slurred, "Sure darlin', I can do it again."
Nathan and Chris regarded each other with looks that said they didn't really want to know. Nathan left the gunslinger to his dreams, throwing another blanket on him.
Vin returned with Ezra's flask and all the canteens
Josiah stood by the door as James and Kenny came in. Chris looked up at Kenny thinking over what Tom Derkin had told him.
"What do you need us to do?" James asked the dark-clad gunslinger. He felt sorry for his callous behavior toward Larabee's men. He still wanted justice, but not at the cost of another man's life.
"Can you go see to the horses," Chris sneered, still to angry to bestow any sort of civility. James bowed his head, turned and walked out. Kenny glared at the gunslinger a moment then followed after his father.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had cut Ezra's pant leg away and was trying to carefully clean the ragged hole of dirt and bark. Ezra's sweat soaked head tossed from side to side until Chris placed a calming hand upon it.
"Is he goin' to be alright, Nathan?" Vin cautiously asked, afraid of the answer. Ezra looked terrible. Vin didn't think anyone could get so pale and not be dead.
"I don't know Vin. He lost an awful lot of blood," Nathan answered, taking a cool rag and placing it on the gambler's heated brow. "We're just going to have to wait and pray."
The three men left Nathan to his task and tried to make the cabin as comfortable as possible. Josiah went and gathered up some wood for the fireplace, and Vin went out to see if any of the saddle bags held any food.
Night had finally descended when Nathan came out of the room, looking very tired, but a bit more hopeful.
Josiah had found and lit two lanterns that cast the small room in an eerie orange glow. JD was asleep next to the sofa, someone had thrown a blanket over him. Nathan thought that Buck was only in a deep sleep and would probably come out of it tomorrow. Josiah still placed a cool cloth on the hard-headed cowboy's forehead. Vin, Chris and James Haskell sat around a small table. No one had seen Kenny or Mason Stern for the past hour. James Haskell said the two men went out hunting but Chris wasn't so sure about that. There was something about the two men that unnerved him.
"I need everyone's belt," Nathan asked.
"Why?" Vin asked, already removing his thin leather belt from his waist.
"Ezra's running a high fever. He's already starting to thrash around. You know how he sometimes likes to take little excursions. We can't have him moving that leg. He can't afford to lose one ounce of blood." They all heard the seriousness in Nathan's tone. Chris, Vin, Josiah and James Haskell removed their belts and handed them to the healer.
Before the morning sun could sweep away the dark, Chris nudged Vin awake.
"Vin, I need ya to ride out to Haskell's ranch. Check out the south range for me."
Vin wiped the sleep from his eyes but not the bewilderment. He looked up at his best friend. "Sure Chris, what am I lookin' fer?"
"I want you to check the tracks of those five men who were trespassin' and tell me what you find. Then stop by the railroad office and verify that a Tom Derkin worked there."
Vin gathered up his things and quietly slipped out of the cabin and into the graying morning light.
Chris entered the other room and saw Nathan asleep in a chair tipped precariously back against the wall. Chris grabbed the back of the chair and brought it down waking the ex-slave.
"Wha..What?" Nathan looked up at Chris than over at Ezra.
"How is he?" Chris asked as he tried to make out the pale features of the gambler in the slowly brightening daylight.
"His fever is still high. He's quiet now, but he gave me quiet a fight earlier." Nathan got up and checked the bandage on his leg.
"When will we be able to move him?"
"Not for at least three or four days. I need him to rest and allow his body to replenish his blood. I was almost afraid he had lost too much."
Ezra started to mumble and his head rolled side to side.
"You go and get some rest I'll stay with him," Chris said.
"Okay, but wake me if his leg starts to bleed." Nathan left the room.
Chris sat down next to the ambiguous conman. He and Ezra had come a long way--from total animosity to almost a brotherly friendship. For a long time Chris always thought they'd end up shooting each other, but then they realized they had some of the same demons in common.
Chris rinsed out a rag in a basin of cool water and laid it on Ezra's fevered brow. He could see his lips moving, but couldn't hear anything. Nathan had tied Ezra's arms and legs down to the cot and Larabee watched as the muscular gambler strained at the restraints. Chris lay across Ezra's legs, when the gambler became more violent. He watched to make sure that the bandage did not start blossoming red.
Josiah came in, slightly startling Chris, for a big man he was surprisingly quiet. He handed Chris a cup of coffee and walked around to the other side of the bed, pushing back some of Ezra's stray strands of hair. Chris saw a fatherly love in the ex-preacher's eyes.
"Where's Vin?" Josiah asked not taking his eyes off Ezra's inert form.
"I sent him to check on somethin'. He should be back by noon."
"Haskell is fit to be tied," Josiah remarked unconcerned, looking over at the blond gunslinger.
Josiah cocked his head. James Haskell was allowing his anger to over shadow his grief at the moment, but Kenneth, he was another story. He didn't appear angry or grief stricken, more like worried or scared.
Chris stood and stretched out his stiff muscles. "Well, I guess I can't keep hiding in here."
Josiah chuckled slightly. "I'll take over for awhile. I think Buck is comin' around."
This brought a smile to Chris's face, and he slapped the ex-preacher on the back and walked out.
James was pacing the confines of the small room. Chris saw JD sitting up just following the older man's nervous footsteps. The young gunslinger shrugged when Larabee caught his attention.
James stopped right in front of the stoic leader.
"Larabee, now I'm normally a patient man. Your men are all taken care of, I want to know what you're going to do about my son's murderers?" James bluntly demanded.
"How close were your sons?" Chris asked in reply. He had noticed that Kenny and Mason still had not returned to the cabin.
"Huh? What's that got to do with anything?" James asked rubbing at his tired eyes. The death of his son was taking its toll on the rancher, also his other son was acting strange and he didn't know why.
"You mentioned they didn't get along," Chris continued.
"Ah, you know, just normal sibling rivalry," James explained, but turned his eyes away.
Chris looked over and saw Vin silently slip in.
"Listen Mr. Haskell, we'll get the men who murdered your son, I promise," Chris said. He stepped away and went up to Vin.
"What'cha find out?"
Vin looked over at James Haskell who had sat down at one of the chairs, putting his face in his hands. He kept his voice low so only Chris could hear. "I found Eddy's tracks comin' up to the five men, then the five men's tracks leaving. Another horse came down from the ridge and was side by side with Eddy's. The imprint of Eddy's body was next to it."
Chris hooked his hand into his gun belt. "So, it's possible another person came and shot Eddy Haskell," Chris asked.
"Yep, but it must have been someone he knew, the horses got close. There's no way to tell if he was killed before single rider came or after the five trespassers left." Vin removed his slouch hat, his blues eyes coming up to meet Chris's distant gaze. "Oh, and Tom Derkin did work for the railroad. His boss even told me to tell 'em hi, said he was a good man, never caused any trouble and was a hard worker."
Chris no longer believed the five trespassers were responsible for Eddy's death but he dreaded the alternative.
"Chris," JD quietly called from beside the sofa. Chris and Vin knelt down beside the young gunslinger. "I remember seeing Kenneth Haskell playing poker with Ezra and some others last week. Something happened, Kenny got real angry and tried to draw on Ezra." JD couldn't help but smile at the remembrance of the shock on Kenneth's face as he stared into the barrel of Ezra's derringer even before his own gun cleared its holster. "Ezra took care of it, and Kenneth just ended up stormin out," JD explained.
Chris was starting to get a bad feeling about this. He wanted to get back to town.
The three men heard the groan and JD leaped up to look into the fluttering eyes of his best friend.
"C'mon Buck, it's time to wake up." Vin prodded the mustached gunslinger. Buck brought his hand up to his head feeling the bandage. He slowly tried to rise and Chris instantly put an arm behind his back for support.
"Nathan!" Chris called out.
Nathan came out of the other room and smiled when he saw Buck sitting up. "I knew that head of his was too hard--nothing could crack it," Nathan quipped as he approached, looking into Buck's brown eyes and asking the gunslinger how many fingers he saw.
"I'll make you up somethin' for that headache I bet you have."
"Lord, what happened? How long have I been out?" Buck asked closing his eyes to try and shut out the pain that throbbed in his head.
Josiah appeared with a relieved smile on his grizzled face. "You've been unconscious for almost a day. You and a tree decided to have it out--the tree won."
"All I remember is a lot of explosions, was anyone else hurt?" Buck asked, but before he could receive an answer he looked toward JD noticing the sling. "Kid!," he yelled instantly regretting the outburst.
"I'm fine Buck," JD told him.
Then Buck's face fell. "Ezra? He was next to me." He saw the looks on everyone's face.
"He's alive Buck," Chris quickly told him before the unthinkable thought crossed his mind.
"I want to see him," Buck said trying to stand. The room tilted one way then the other and Buck fell back into the sofa sending up a cloud of dust.
"Whoa, don't be making any sudden moves, Buck," Nathan admonished handing him a mug of water and herbs. "Here drink this it'll help with the headache.
"How is he?" Buck asked with a little more urgency taking the cup that Nathan held out to him.
"The explosion caused a tree to fall on him," Nathan said.
Buck's eyes went wide in disbelief. "One of the branches impaled his leg and he lost a lot of blood," Nathan continued.
Buck again struggled to stand. Vin and Chris each grabbed an arm helping the unsteady gunslinger to his feet. He closed his eyes for a moment, hoping that the room would stop spinning, or at least go in one direction.
"Buck, maybe you shouldn't..." JD began.
"I want to see him," Buck defiantly said as he slowly opened one eye to see if the room had finally come to a stand still. Everyone followed the determined man as Vin and Chris helped him walk across the floor. When Buck came to the doorway and saw Ezra's thin pale body laid out on the cot his heart caught in his throat. Chris and Vin helped Buck over to the chair next to the bed. Buck placed his hand over Ezra's and quietly said. "It should have been me."
"What!" Chris growled.
Buck looked up into Chris' icy blue stare. "He pushed me out of the way." Buck returned his attention to his injured friend. He remembered hearing Ezra yell for him to run and feeling Ezra's hands shove him forward.
"Chris I need more medical supplies and some more food to help build up Ezra's blood loss," Nathan said.
Chris rubbed his stubbled face, his tired eyes giving him a drawn appearance.
"Okay, Vin, Josiah, Buck and JD you all head back to town. Josiah you get whatever Nathan needs and bring back the buckboard. Vin collect up some food and come back with Josiah."
JD and Buck regarded each other at Chris's orders, seeming to wait for him to continue.
"Chris, what about Buck and me?" JD finally asked.
"The town needs its sheriff, and Buck, I want you to get some rest."
"I'm not leaving him."
"Buck you're still recovering from a serious concussion," Nathan reminded him.
"I'm find, I'm not leaving," Buck repeated crossing his arms.
"If'n you're not the most bull-headed SOB...have it your way, but if you fall on your face don't expect me to pick you up," Chris angrily shouted and stormed out, missing the grins on everyone's face.
James Haskell angrily entered the cabin only to meet up with Chris's frustrated form.
"Mr. Larabee..." Haskell began.
"We'll be leaving day after tomorrow Haskell," Chris answered Haskell's unfinished question. He was ready to hit the older man. "Where's your son and Stern?"
"I have no idea, I haven't seen them since yesterday, maybe they're trying to track down those murderers, like you should be doing."
Chris highly doubted that since he believed that Tom Derkin and his men were waiting back in Four Corners for them, but Chris refrained from telling Mr. Haskell this.
The next morning Chris, Buck and Nathan watched as the others rode off toward town. Chris walked back inside to Ezra's room. The gambler was still pale, but they had been able to remove his bindings since his fever had come down.
Buck took up his place at the head of the bed grabbing a cool cloth and placing it on the Ezra's forehead as Nathan mixed up some more herbs, knowing that Buck was still feeling the effects of his run in with the tree.
The cool cloth caused Ezra stir and Buck reached behind him and tugged on Nathan's shirt. "Nathan, I think he's comin' around."
Nathan leaned over the bed. "C'mon Ez, wake up."
Ezra's eyes fluttered then were still. Buck's face fell slightly. "That's a good sign isn't it Nathan?"
Nathan placed a strong hand on Buck's shoulder. "Yeah, he's trying to come out of it. He's just too weak from blood loss."
Buck couldn't believe how much this was affecting him. It was almost as bad as JD being injured. When had the charming rogue weaseled his way into everyone's heart. Ezra always tried so hard to keep everyone at a distance. Buck wondered if the southerner would be disappointed to know that he had failed to keep their friendship at bay. Buck leaned back in the chair he looked over to see Chris lost in thought.
"A beer for you thoughts," Buck asked, bringing a faint grin to his friend's beleaguered visage.
"I don't know, some thing just doesn't add up. I need to talk to Ezra when he wakes up," Chris said. He would be glad when the others returned and they could leave.
+ + + + + + +
The afternoon marched slowly past. Buck had fallen asleep, his head nestled on his arms, which were folded on the bed. His eyes flashed opened as someone gently shook the bed. Buck raised his head to see Ezra stirring. His eyes fluttered open, closed, then opened again, this time to stay. Buck smiled at the confusion in those green orbs.
"Hey, he's awake." Buck called to Chris and Nathan who were sitting at the table drinking what was left of the coffee.
Ezra licked his lips and Nathan raised his head, bringing a cup of water to his lips and allowing him to drink. Ezra's green eyes slowly focused on Chris, Nathan and Buck's smiling faces.
"Gentlemen? I gather by your smiles that you're happy to see me awake." Ezra's southern drawled was raspy.
"You got that right, pard," Buck announced helping the weak man to sit up.
"Good to have you back, Ezra," Chris quietly said. Ezra smiled and nodded his head slightly to the stoic gunslinger.
"So, what has transpired during my infirmity?"
"You feel up to answering a question?" Chris asked.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Sure." He laid his head back down on the pillow. His leg throbbed but it was only a dull ache, probably due to one of Nathan's concoctions. He hated the taste, but loved the effect.
Before Chris could continue Mr. Haskell entered and a smile came to his face when he saw the young gambler awake.
"Good to see you up, son," James sincerely said.
"JD told me you and some others were playing poker with Kenneth Haskell last week and there was some sort of problem?" Chris asked.
James Haskell's eyes narrowed. "My son doesn't gamble."
Chris ignored him. He now believed that there was much James Haskell didn't know about his oldest son.
Ezra narrowed his eyes for a moment trying to clear the cobwebs from his head. "Yes, he was involved in a rather high stakes game with myself and a couple others from Cedar Ridge. The pot had grown to $5000."
"$5000!" Buck stammered.
"So what happened?" Chris urged.
"Well, young Mr. Haskell couldn't cover his bet. He threw out the deed to his father's ranch. I wouldn't accept it. I closed the table," Ezra explained.
"My son was going to bet the ranch?" Haskell's voice rose with disbelief. He looked at the four lawmen, expecting an answer.
"Needless to say, Kenneth was none to happy with my decision," Ezra continued. He remembered how upset the young Haskell had become. Ezra had worried that he was going to draw on him.
"Why would he do that?" James asked. He wasn't sure he believed what Standish was saying but the others seemed to.
"Sir, your son is indebted to a great many people--me included. Since the deed was not in his name I would not accept it," Ezra answered.
The shock on James' face was enough to convince Chris that Haskell had been kept in the dark about a great many things. It also solidified what Larabee was starting to believe.
"Oh God," James murmured bringing his hands up to his face, which seemed to be aging right before everyone's eyes.
"What is it Haskell?" Buck asked suddenly very worried for the rugged rancher.
"Two weeks ago I re-wrote my will. Kenneth is good at running the ranch, but he lacked any financial sense. He couldn't even balance the books. I put Eddy in charge of all money matters pertaining to the ranch."
Everyone was silent for a moment. Buck finally voiced a question. "How would you feel getting an allowance from your younger brother?"
"He probably always believed he'd end up with the ranch and his money problems would be solved," Nathan said.
"But when Eddy ended up controlling the money, he had to try and take care of his debts another way," Buck added.
"Like getting involved in high stakes poker games," Ezra finished.
"And when that didn't work," Chris said as a sick feeling hit the pit of his stomach. How far would a brother go to right a perceived wrong?
Haskell frowned as it dawned on him what Larabee and the other lawmen were thinking. "No, Kenneth wouldn't--he couldn't." He was about to leave the room to go look for his son when Kenny and Mason suddenly appeared. James' smile dropped from his face when he saw the guns pointed at them.
"Kenneth, what's going on!"
"Shut up old man. If you had just left things alone everything would have been fine," Kenneth sneered. He grabbed his father by the arm and swung him around, placing his gun against the older man's neck.
Mason stepped up and proceeded to remove Chris, Nathan and Buck's guns.
"I don't understand, why didn't you come to me if you were in trouble?" James asked.
"Because father, you know what you would have told me. You would have said why can't you be more like your brother Eddy. Take care of your own problems, be a man." The disgust dripped off of Kenneth's words and seared into James Haskell's heart.
"No, I wouldn't..." James muttered, but his tone belied his words. He had always held Eddy in higher regard.
"Well, I don't have to worry about being like Eddy anymore do I?" Kenny sneered, thrusting the gun into the soft skin of his father's neck.
"You killed 'em, didn't you?" Chris asked.
"Yes, I killed him," Kenny admitted.
James Haskell's gray eyes flashed, and he turned his head to face his son. Kenneth Haskell was a stranger to him now. James' brow furrowed as he stared at his oldest child, trying to see the killer he had become.
"How could you? He was your brother," James intoned.
"I was tired of trying to live up to his standards, and yours, old man," Kenneth curtly replied.
"Okay, enough of this father, son reunion," Mason interrupted. "Let's git this done with."
Chris noticed how all the life seemed to leave the elder Haskell. His shoulders dropped, and his face took on a lethargic quality as he seemed to detach himself from the present reality.
"Okay git him up," Kenneth snarled toward Ezra. "You're all coming with us."
"He can't be moved," Nathan said.
Mason pointed his gun at the prone conman. "Well then, I guess we shoot him."
Larabee stepped in front of Mason's gun glaring at the foreman. Ezra swung his legs over the side of the bed as Buck came up and got under his shoulder, keeping his eye on the standoff between Chris and Mason.
"Back off Stern, we're not going to kill them here," Kenneth admonished. "I don't want their friends to find them to quickly. We'll need the head start."
Mason gave the anger-filled leader a malicious grin and stepped back. He would enjoy putting a bullet in the audacious lawman's head.
Nathan slipped under Ezra's other shoulder to assist Buck in holding him up. Nathan worried on his lip as he kept an eye on Ezra's bandaged leg, praying that the bleeding wouldn't start up again. Chris stepped back as his three men moved past him.
Standish's right leg gave out, and Chris grabbed at the collapsing man's waist, his hand feeling the gun tucked in Ezra's waistband under his shirt. Chris kept his face passive but brought his hand up to Ezra's shoulder, giving it a squeeze. The conman always had an ace up his sleeve.
Kenneth backed out the door his gun still to his father's throat. James allowed himself to be led out the door as Mason kept his gun trained on the four lawmen.
"And what do you get out of all this?" Chris asked the foreman.
"Money of course, enough to live a life of leisure. Foremen don't make much."
They all left the cabin and headed up a nearby trail. Buck and Nathan kept their eyes on the bandage wrapped around Ezra's leg praying that the telltale sign of red would not blossom. Chris's deadly glare remained on the father and son who walked ahead of them. Mason brought up the rear, checking over his shoulder for anyone who might be following them.
Ezra clenched his jaw against the pain and sweat started pouring down his face. Buck and Nathan could feel the tremors course through the gambler's body at the exertion he was being forced to endure.
After ten minutes of climbing up the trail Nathan and Buck were practically carrying the semi-conscious gambler and there greatest fear came to past as his leg started bleeding.
+ + + + + + +
"Where the hell are they?" Vin said, exiting the empty cabin.
"There is no way Nathan would have allowed Ezra to be moved," Josiah added.
"Unless they didn't have a choice." Vin started searching the area and quickly found their trail.
+ + + + + + +
After twenty minutes of walking, Ezra's breathing was coming out in short painful gasps and his face was flushed. Nathan guided Ezra over to a nearby boulder and sat him down.
"What do you think you're doing?" Mason yelled.
"Look, he can't go any farther. His leg is bleeding, we need to stop it," Nathan said kneeling down next to Ezra's bleeding leg.
"Soon he won't have to worry about it!" Kenneth answered gasping for breath as he had to practically drag his unresponsive father up the trail. He was becoming a little unnerved at the older man's silence.
Chris laid his hand on Ezra's back and kept his eye on Kenneth and Mason hoping for a chance.
+ + + + + + +
James Haskell seemed oblivious to the goings on. His eyes were vacant, but his mind was spinning. His youngest son dead, his eldest might as well be. The ranch his father had died to make great was going to end with him. He had no one else to leave it too, and this tore at his heart. A lifetime of hard work, suffering and hardship all wasted. He had hoped to pass his legacy down to his children's children, instead it ended here. He looked up at Kenneth and hate filled his heart as tears filled his eyes. He would not let his own flesh and blood ruin any more lives. He could feel his son's gun pointed at his head. James Haskell took a deep breath and calmly brought his hand up grabbing the trigger.
The gun went off the bullet entering James Haskell's skull right above his ear and exiting out the other side of his neck. James Haskell crumpled to the ground. Chris grabbed the gun in Ezra's waist band and shot Mason Stern with deadly accuracy. Kenneth stood stunned, covered in his father's blood. His gun held loosely at his side.
"Drop it!" Chris yelled.
Kenneth looked down at his father and the gun slipped from his fingers and dropped to the ground. He hadn't planned on killing his father. He was going to kill the lawmen, but he was only going to knock his father unconscious and then go back to the ranch to empty the safe and start over in Mexico.
Chris came forward kicking the gun out of reach.
Ezra had slumped to the ground unconscious, as Nathan applied pressure on his bleeding wound.
Vin and Josiah suddenly appeared guns drawn. Josiah said a silent prayer for the elder Haskell who laid on his back his unseeing eyes staring up at the blue sky.
"Shit, we have to get him back," Nathan yelled. Josiah gently lifted the smaller man into his arms and headed back down the trail.
+ + + + + + +
It was another couple days before Ezra could travel back to Four Corners. And after two days in Nathan's clinic, the usually even-tempered healer was ready to strangle the troublesome gambler, which told everyone that things were finally back to normal.
Josiah stepped into the saloon to find Chris and Vin sitting quietly at a center table. Tom Derkin and his men had left earlier that day after a round of drinks and apologies. Josiah approached the two men and set his tired body down into a chair.
"How's the Haskell boy?" Vin asked. He actually felt a little sorry for the young man.
Josiah shook his head. "Hasn't said a word, just sits in the jail cell staring at the floor. I think he's in shock, doesn't understand why his father would take his own life."
"The man figured he'd lost everything, nothing else to lose," Chris sadly remarked twirling an empty shot glass on the table. Josiah nodded in agreement.
Nathan appeared at the bottom of the stairs a sly grin on his handsome dark face. He came up to the three gunslingers and sat down.
Josiah furrowed his brow and glanced up the stairs expecting to see Ezra sneaking around, trying to escape.
"How did you connive our bullheaded friend to stay in bed, brother Nathan?"
Nathan couldn't wipe the smile from his face. "I tied him to it."
Vin and Chris immediately got up and raced to the stairs. "I've gotta see this," Vin uttered.
re-edited Nov 2001