Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Ezra was taking a break from a very lucrative evening of gambling. He finished brushing out the mane of his beautiful, chestnut mare, one of the few things he enjoyed outside of playing cards. His horse began nuzzling the pocket of his jacket looking for some sugar.
"My we do have a sweet tooth don't we," Ezra chuckled. His horse's head came up suddenly, and Ezra froze feeling the presence of others, then he felt the gun in his side. He quietly chided himself, for being so careless. This town had made him lower his guard once to often.
"Is this the one?" A scratchy voice from behind asked, shoving the gun further into the conman's side and causing Ezra to wince.
Ezra kept his hands on his horse's soft nose.
"Yeah, he's the gambler," another replied rather tediously. "Can't you tell by the way he's dressed.
"Okay, you can turn around, slowly," the voice from before said.
Ezra slowly turned around keeping his hands away from his guns. He closed his eyes as hands roughly relieved him of his weaponry, including his derringer. Four dangerous and dirty looking men surrounded him. Ezra kept his face impassive, giving nothing away. He glanced toward the door hoping one of the other lawmen would come by and see what was happening.
"May I be of assistance to you gentleman?" Ezra calmly asked.
A large, heavyset man stepped out of the shadows, the four men parting to allow his massive form to approach. A smile was pasted on his thickly bearded face, but his eyes were dark and menacing. He was dressed better than the others sporting a clean gray jacket and pants and mid knee boots. The lower buttons of the jacket seemingly stressed to their limits by his immense girth. He looked down to his right at a small jittery man whose nose seemed to take up his whole face.
"Frank, go and watch the door."
The smaller man scurried away toward the door.
Ezra's eyes remained locked on the huge gentleman in front of him trying to decide how much trouble he was in and how he could possibly get out of it, this all went through his mind in a matter of seconds.
"Mr. Standish, my name is Jack Brice." The gentleman's voice was amicable, which immediately put Ezra on his guard. When someone was this friendly and pointing guns, you knew the bottom was going to fall out. Jack Brice extended his hand toward the wary conman who ignored it. Brice shrugged, unperturbed by the gambler's slight he continued, "I'm an associate of Mr. Elisah Ashby."
Brice couldn't see the gambler's face in the dim light of the stable. A flicker of recognition flashed in Ezra's green eye's at the afore mentioned name. Ezra heard laughter outside as an armorus couple passed by seeking more the private accommodations of the nearby hotel. Everyone tensed and was quiet for a moment then Jack returned his attention to the staid cardsharp.
"I'm sure you've heard of him," Brice continued, the false smile now gone from his face, and a more relaxed expression taking its place, as he seemed to be trying to read the gambler's thoughts.
Ezra's eyes narrowed, trying to figure out what was going on. "Yes, I've heard of the infamous Elisah Ashby, who hasn't. He's wanted in several states for his atrocities," he answered.
Ashby's Raiders had terrorized the surrounding areas for almost a year, always staying one step ahead of the local law. No one knew who Elisah Ashby was or what he looked like. He was smart. His men robbed mostly stages and banks always knowing when there was a heavy pay load. When the law did manage to capture one of the Raider's they either mysteriously disappeared or were found dead in their cells. Ashby's Raiders had no problem killing anyone who got in their way, including innocent bystanders and it was making it difficult to get stage drivers.
"And what interest would Mr. Ashby have in me?" Ezra asked, his southern drawl remaining smooth and even, but his interest and curiosity were definitely peaked.
Jack Brice leaned his massive form against a stall door. "Well, Mr. Standish, I've done a lot of research on you and the six other men who protect this town, and I've come to the conclusion that you'd be the best man to approach."
"You mean the easiest to buy," Ezra corrected.
Jack chuckled and smiled at the impudent, yet astute gambler. Mr. Ashby had instructed him to get rid of the Seven before they became a problem. Together the Seven were a formidable foe, but separate? Jack decided that if he got rid of the leader, Chris Larabee, the others would fall to the wayside and be easy to deal with. Wilmington and Tanner were Larabee's closest friends. The young sheriff worshipped the man like a father. The darkie healer, Jackson, owed him his life and in a way so did Sanchez. All were intertwined with each other, all except Standish, who seemed the odd man out. Brice wasn't sure why the gambler stayed, but he had learned enough to know that his relationship with Larabee was tentative at best.
"We have a proposition for you," Brice said. "You want to own a saloon someday, preferably while you're still young enough to enjoy it. Would $20,000 in gold do it?"
Ezra noticeably flinched bringing a gleam to Jack's brown eyes and a smile to his face.
"And what would I have to do for this ungodly sum?" Ezra asked suspiciously.
"Kill Chris Larabee," Jack Brice replied matter-of-factly. He watched for a reaction and was a little surprised when he didn't detect one in the gamble's smooth countenance.
"Everyone knows there is no love loss between you two," Jack explained. He had heard how Larabee at times wanted to shoot the smug gambler. Standish kept to the outskirts of the group, only doing his duty under threat of imprisonment or death.
Lord, this man had done his homework, Ezra thought. Larabee and him didn't always get a long, but they had come to a mutual understanding--Ezra stays out of his way, and Chris doesn't shoot him--very simple in Ezra's terms. Ezra never told anyone how much he actually respected the scrupulous gunslinger. He was trying hard to earn the blond leader's trust.
"Can I have some time to consider this offer?" Ezra asked. "I would be giving up a lot, maybe my life."
"Sure," Jack shrugged. He didn't think Ezra would tell anyone, what would he gain by that? "Meet me here same time tomorrow. No tricks or my boys shoot a few innocent bystanders then they shoot you." Brice poked his finger into Ezra's chest to stress the last words.
Brice believed he was just as cold-blooded and money hungry as they were. Lord, he was a better conman than he thought.
Ezra remained in the stables after the outlaws left, his head spinning with what Jack Brice was offering. He cringed slightly at the thought that someone like Brice would think him capable of murder much less betraying his friends. Apparently, Brice wasn't as thorough in his research of the seven lawmen as he believed. Him and Larabee had their differences, but even in the beginning Ezra would never have thought of killing him. It was a long time before the suave cardsharp trusted the six unique individuals he rode with, and he was sure they still had reservations about him. He didn't blame them. He had been taught to lie, cheat, do anything for number one, and he was apparently taught well for someone like Jack Brice to seek him out. Ezra didn't return to the saloon, instead he retired to his room his mind too busy to concentrate on cards.
It was mid morning when Ezra walked into the jail house and plopped down in the only empty chair, ignoring the reproachful eyes of the other six lawmen and Judge Travis.
"It's about time you got up, Ezra," Buck murmured to the tired looking con man.
Ezra hadn't slept much and it showed. He lifted tired eyes to meet Buck's annoyed expression.
"Well, it's so good of you to join us Mr. Standish," Judge Travis remarked as he sat behind JD's desk. He sometimes didn't understand why Larabee tolerated the roguish gambler. He figured that Chris and the others must see something in self-centered conman that he didn't.
Ezra winced at the Judge's cool remark and bowed his head. He had forgotten that the esteemed Judge had called this meeting. He was familiar with the exasperated look that Chris bestowed on him and didn't even have to look to know it was there.
JD shifted nervously infront of the cell, waiting for the explosion that was Chris Larabee. It seemed like Chris was the gunpowder and Ezra was the fuse, but the explosion never came.
Judge Travis returned his attention back to Chris, who still glared at Ezra from underneath his dark hat.
"Okay, now that everyone is present," Travis said. "Let's get down to why I called you here. We have reason to believe that Ashby's Raiders are in the area and planning something."
Ezra's eyebrows raised and the tiredness he felt left him.
"We don't know what their target is yet," the Judge continued, his hands folded on top of the desk as he looked at each of the seven men he had hired to protect the town of Four Corners.
"Anyone know yet what this Ashby character looks like?" Vin asked, not liking the unknown.
The Judge shook his head, then looked over at Ezra who had cleared his throat and shifted forward in his chair.
"I may be able to be of assistance in that area," Ezra quietly remarked, bringing everyone's attention to bear on him. Ezra bowed his head, fingering his black hat that he held in his hand.
"And how Mr. Standish can you accomplish this feat?" The Judge asked a doubtful smile on his grizzled face.
Ezra looked up, meeting the Judge's sagacious glare. "An associate of Mr. Ashby approached me last night and offered me an insane amount of money," Ezra explained.
"To do what?" JD quickly asked. Ezra turned his head to look over at Chris Larabee, a faint smile turning the corners of his mouth.
"Kill Mr. Larabee," Ezra calmly stated. Chris's face remained impassive. Buck shook his head and JD's mouth gaped open. Ezra had to grin at all the incredulous looks from his compatriots. Vin actually smiled thinking that Ezra was probably enjoying this.
"You want to explain Mr. Standish," Travis growled.
"Apparently they feel Mr. Larabee is a liability and wish him removed, and due to our rather rocky past, and my questionable character they believe I will accommodate them, for a price," Ezra continued.
Josiah's bored expression was suddenly replaced with astonishment. Trouble seemed to just walk right up and slap Ezra on the back like an old friend. Looking at the enigmatic gambler Josiah saw something else, Ezra was bothered by this.
Judge Travis' voice broke the spell that had fallen on the seven men. He leaned back in his chair, which creaked, threatening to topple over. The Judge took a deep breath then brought himself back to the desk. "This could be the break we've been waitin' for. The first chance we've ever had to get a man inside the Ashby camp and find out who Ashby is."
"And how do you proposed to do that?" Vin asked. "Let Ezra kill Chris?"
"In a way, yes, Mr. Tanner," the Judge answered with a devilish smile on his face. He had a plan, but it meant him and the other would have to trust the dubious gambler.
Chris sat back in his chair looking at the Judge. He let out a breath and shifted his gaze back at Ezra. The slick cardsharp would be surprised to learn that Larabee trusted him. Ezra had proved himself time and time again. However, Ezra flaunted an air of disdain and self-interest, which at times caused friction between him and the men he worked with.
"I guess we're going to find out how good a shot you really are, Ezra," Chris quietly remarked.
Ezra met Brice in the stables later that night. He had come alone; the other lawmen staying out of sight, and letting the slick gambler handle the whole situation.
"Well, Mr. Standish have you thought over my offer."
"Yes, Mr. Brice I have and I accept," Ezra replied in an even voice.
Jack Brice's grin widened.
"When do I get my money?" Ezra asked, hoping he sounded sufficiently greedy enough for the sordid outlaw.
He had pegged the self-serving gambler right. He wasn't sure at first if Standish would accept, but the offer of all that money was definitely the right incentive for the avaricious gambler.
"After the job is done. We know Larabee has a cabin outside of town. Tomorrow night you head there, we'll meet you on the road," Brice instructed.
Ezra nodded his head and left anxious to get away from the contemptible man. He hated that someone like Brice believed he was some self-serving traitor, capable of cold-blooded murder. It made him wonder if anyone else thought the same thing.
The day passed slowly as everyone waited in anticipation of the night's drama. Ezra sat alone at his usual table in the saloon trying to avoid the mid-afternoon heat and some of his more boisterous companions. He stared morosely at the full bottle of whiskey in front of him. He held off drinking, since he would require a steady hand for later this evening. He didn't know why he was doing this, risking his life. He had found himself doing that a lot lately. Poor judgment as mother would say. Why risk your life for nothing? Ezra smiled to himself. He could hear his mother's demeaning voice in his head. He had been made, molded and trained into nothing more than a sophisticated thief. Never really given the choice of how he wanted to live his life. He never really thought about it much, until he joined up with the six other men he now shared a life with. He was proud to be working alongside these stalwart men, but they made him question certain aspects of his own life. Now of course, he had to admit, some of his less than sterling talents did come in handy now and then in saving his skin and others. To be known for nothing more than conning people out of their hard earned money and playing a good hand of poker was something he no longer aspired to. Maybe this was a way to put his talents to a more honorable use and to show the others he was more than just a conman. The thoughts kept spinning in his head and he didn't notice Josiah standing in the doorway staring at him.
Josiah had noticed that Ezra appeared distracted and decided to ask why. He was coming to care for the young gambler; something in the man had awakened long buried paternal feelings within the ex-preacher.
"Is there a problem I might help with, Brother Ezra?" Josiah asked as he sat his massive form down in the opposite chair.
"No," Ezra replied curtly without looking up.
Josiah could always tell when something was bothering or gnawing at one of the men, and Ezra was no exception. The egotistical gambler couldn't always hide his inner turmoil behind his practiced poker face. Josiah decided to take a stab at what might be bothering the distressed con man.
"We all know what you're really like, Ezra," Josiah said. Bingo! By Ezra's expression Josiah knew that he hit it right on the nose. It was a shot in the dark, but Josiah just had to think how he would have felt if someone offered him money believing him capable of betraying his friends.
Ezra looked up at Josiah's compassionate face. How can this man be so damn intuitive? Ezra smiled and shook his head. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez. Maybe my less than stellar reputation can finally be put to good use." Ezra didn't realize that the six gunslingers thought more of him then he thought of himself.
The blanket of night finally fell, and Ezra walked his horse slowly down the trail relying on the moon's glow to light his way. He was half way to Larabee's cabin when several men appeared on horseback in front of him. He recognized the huge outline of Jack Brice. They fell in behind him as he continued, no one saying a word.
Ezra dismounted and walked up to the small cabin. The light from the inside poured through the uncurtained windows to bathe the porch in a soft glow. Ezra stopped several feet away. Him and Chris had worked out their exact positions to minimize any mistakes. Ezra called out. "Chris, Chris Larabee!"
Chris opened the door, his six-foot frame silhouetted by the light of the cabin. He was wearing a white shirt that glowed from the lantern light. "Is that you Ezra? What are you doing out here?" Chris hoped he sounded sufficiently bewildered.
Ezra drew his gun in one fluid motion and fired. He closed his eyes not wanting to see the fall of the only man he probably ever admired. Chris grabbed his chest, a red stain spreading outward. His eyes stared back unbelieving as he fell to his knees then toppled face first into the ground. Ezra opened his eyes and stared momentarily at the still form, a cold sweat breaking out on his body. The shot echoed in his ears long after silence came back to the wooded area. He returned to his horse and mounted, trying to calm his fast beating heart. Why was this bothering him so much?
Jack Brice stared at the man with a wide smile on his face. "Gawd-damn you're a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch." Ezra grimaced, grateful for the night so no one could see the turmoil on his face. "Sam, go check on the body," Jack ordered. Before Sam could dismount the sound of horses could be heard coming up from the rear of the cabin. Jack reined his horse around and shouted, "Let's get out of here."
Brice and his men turned and galloped away. Ezra followed, looking over his shoulder to take one last look at his fallen leader.
Vin, Buck, JD, Josiah and Nathan came up from the back of the cabin; they had waited for the shot before coming to discourage anyone from checking the body. Chris was sitting up as the five men approached. Nathan was the first one to the ground and rushed to Chris's side. He knew Ezra was a crack shot, but you never knew.
Ezra had insisted on using real bullets, afraid someone would hear the difference with blanks and get suspicious.
"Are you okay, Chris?" Buck asked as he came up alongside Nathan.
"Yeah," Chris replied fingering the hole that went through the side of his shirt. He lifted the shirt to see where the bullet had grazed his side. Nathan put some balm on the red welt to prevent infection.
"He cut it a bit close," Vin commented with a grin.
"I think your shirt's a goner that cow's blood ain't goin' to come out," Buck ribbed the gunslinger. Chris reached into his shirt and pulled out a thin skinned pouch, which he had struck, releasing the blood.
"It's okay, it's one of yours," Chris stated. JD couldn't hold back the laugh at Buck's shocked face. "Sorry Buck, but Ezra wanted me to wear a white shirt so I'd stand out."
"You think we fooled them, brother Larabee?" Josiah asked as he looked out into the night that had swallowed their friend. He didn't like this.
"I hope so, for Ezra's sake," Chris replied as Vin gave him a hand up.
Chris was not thrilled by one of his men being involved with the Ashby gang, especially alone, but he knew it was the only way. He just hoped nothing happened to the smug cardsharp or he would never forgive himself. His respect for the gambler had grown immensely.
"So, I guess we have a funeral to attend," Vin kidded, trying to ease the tension that had suddenly descended upon them.
Ezra was taken to the Raider's camp, which was nothing more than a collection of five large tents outside the town of Dead Wood. He took note of how many men there were and what kind of weapons they had. Everything was run in a militant style, with Jack as the Colonel. Frank, the beaked nose man from the stable seemed to be his second in command. Now Ezra had to find out what their next move was going to be and get that information back to Chris. Most of the men stayed in tight cliques, but Ezra knew how to insinuate himself amongst less than auspicious individuals. He pulled out a deck of cards and a wad of money walking over to a campfire where four rough looking men sat. "Would any of you gentlemen be up for a game of chance?" His smile widen revealing his gold tooth.
The early morning gray captured the melancholy mood of the townspeople gathered at the cemetery. Only Mary was told the truth about Chris's demise. Chris remained hidden in one of the back rooms of the saloon. A casket lay next to an open hole as most of the town folk surrounded it listening to Josiah's baritone voice eulogize a man that some people feared, others hated, but all respected.
Chris looked up as Buck opened the door and slid inside, after checking to see that no one was watching. The cowboy's normal effervescent personality was subdued as he sat down. "You'd of been moved, Chris. Josiah gave a very touching eulogy." Buck wiped an imaginary tear from his eye and gave Chris a faint grin.
"Did you see any strangers?" Chris asked, as he absently flipped over cards in a game of solitaire.
"Yep, two, they headed out of town right after. Vin is trailin' 'em now." Buck stretched out his long legs and clasped his hands behind his head.
Chris took a deep breath to try and relieve the knot in his stomach. He would be glad when this was all over.
As if reading his mind the smile left Buck's face. "Don't worry Chris, Ezra can take care of himself." Buck hoped he sounded convincing, but he was worried for his friend too.
Ezra was a credit to every con man, but since he had joined the Seven he had changed. He was no longer the self-indulgent gambler they met that first time hustling. Other things were important to him now, the town and the six men he worked with. Ezra no longer felt the need to con, cheat or lie to survive. Chris was worried, what if that change got him killed. He hoped enough of Ezra's previous life's talents were still good enough to fool Ashby. He had never told the gambler what a valuable member he had become and he wanted desperately to have that chance.
Vin returned later that day and entered the back room of the saloon to find Chris, Josiah and Buck in quiet conversation. Vin dropped his lean frame down into a nearby chair, removing his slouch hat. He saw the worry and concern on everyone's face.
"I followed them to just outside of Dead Wood. I didn't want to get to close in case I was spotted. I think they have a camp on the North end of town," Vin reported pushing his long hair back.
"Does this town have a saloon?" Chris asked.
Chris turned to Buck. "Okay, Buck you know what to do stay out of sight, but keep your ears open and hopefully Ezra will be able to contact you soon."
"Right." Buck grabbed his hat and left anxious to be able to help. He hated doing nothing when Ezra was risking his life. Him and Ezra had grown close over the last couple of months. Buck had even managed to put a slight crack in that wall Ezra used to protect himself. From what? Buck wasn't entirely sure, but then Buck had no problem showing his feelings or trusting others, which he had to admit sometimes got him in trouble.
Ezra knew he was being watched, but he still was able to move freely about the camp. He had discovered that no one among the outlaws, except Jack Brice, had ever seen Elisha Ashby. Ashby supplied them with information and plans for which he got sixty-five percent of the take. The rest was split between his men. Ezra managed to discover that the gang was preparing to ambush a gold shipment heading to Tucson at Devil's Rock. This information was easy to come by since he was invited along. Now, he had to find a way to tell the others.
Ezra was checking on his horse when Jack Brice came up placing a friendly arm across his shoulders. Ezra forced a smile for the loathsome man and had to force himself not to pull away.
Brice liked the smooth-talking gambler. He liked the young gambler's confidence and quick wit. Jack had visions, visions of running his own gang without Elisha Ashby and he thought someone like Standish would be a valuable asset. "Well Ezra, now that you're one of us, maybe you want to think of bigger things than just owning a saloon."
"Like what?" Ezra hated pretending that he liked this man it galled him that someone like this could believe he would have anything to do with him.
"Like owning a whole town."
"And Mr. Ashby is capable of achieving this?" Ezra asked, trying to mask his slight disbelief. He thought that Jack was just bragging, trying to build up points.
Jack chuckled and lowered his voice. "Who needs Ashby, I'm talking me and you. With our cut of the gold we can go into business for ourselves, maybe even a legit one." Jack paused and looked at Ezra, the Cheshire grin never leaving his face. "What 'cha say, partner?"
"I say we wait until we get the money before we go spending it." Ezra could see that Brice wanted to achieve great things, but he was incapable of doing it alone. He needed someone to help him, but he also wanted to be in charge. He hated being under Ashby's thumb.
Jack slapped Ezra on the back. "That's what I like a practical man."
"Yes, and being a practical man I believe everyone needs a little relaxation, say in the nearby saloon?"
Jack rubbed his whiskered chin and nodded. "Yeah, that's not a bad idea the men deserve it."
An hour later Ezra and four other men headed toward Dead Wood. Ezra held back from the others enjoying the early evening coolness. He hoped one of the Seven would be in town so he could pass on what he had learned. He knew some of Brice's men were suspicious of him, but so long as Jack trusted him, he would be okay.
They entered the small dying town. The only reason it hung on was the small amount of gold still found along its river. Ezra guessed in another year the town would join the ranks of so many others whose quest for riches turned to dust. Ezra was impressed with the town's drinking establishment, apparently when the town was booming someone put a lot of money into the saloon and it was now the only building worth keeping up. The downstairs held a rather large bar and about a dozen tables. A large, wide stair case led to the second floor and about half a dozen rooms. The four outlaws and Ezra sat around a table playing cards. Ezra allowed the men to win most hands since he didn't want to arouse any animosity.
"Boy, for a gambler you sure are lousy at cards," one of the men, who sported a wild crop of red hair stated as he raked in his winnings causing the rest to laugh.
"I must be having a bad day," Ezra explained with a grin fingering his few remaining chips. For the first time ever his heart and head were not in the game. He suddenly felt a very soft arm caress his shoulders and looked up into the face of a young woman. Her brown hair framing her oval face, which emphasized her large brown-gold eyes.
"Maybe I can improve your night?" she said in a smooth, lilting voice. The four men grinned rudely, seeming to devour the young woman with their eyes. Ezra was sickened by the display, but hid it behind his poker face. To her credit the young woman seemed oblivious to their crass display.
Ezra smiled and was about to regretfully turn the young woman down when he spied Buck on the second floor. He stood, placing his arm around her lithe waist. "If you'll excuse me gentlemen but something of a much more pleasurable nature acquires my immediate attention."
Ezra cringed at the hoots and heckles, which followed him as he guided the woman up the stairs. Buck was waiting in the hallway and took the young woman's hand.
"Thank ya' darlin'." He grinned, bending down to kiss her hand. His eyes looked up to her face and his smile fell as he realized the woman's eyes were locked on Ezra.
"My pleasure," she replied, her eyes not leaving Ezra's handsome visage as she walked down the hall and entered the nearest room.
Ezra shrugged at the envious look from the ladies' man. He started to tell Buck all he knew until Buck stopped him. "Ezra, come with me you can tell Chris yourself."
"No, Mr. Wilmington I still have to find out who Ashby is."
Buck sighed and shook his head hating to leave Ezra in this position but knowing he was right. "Okay, but as soon as you find out you high tail it out of there." Ezra finished filling Buck in and was preparing to return to his four boorish companions when the tall cowboy placed a hand on his shoulder. Ezra turned his head surprised to see an unusually serious expression on the gregarious man's face.
"You be careful, Ezra."
"Always, Mr..." a faint smile tugged at Ezra's mouth. "Always, Buck."
It was just before midnight and the five remaining gunslingers met in the jail house, including Chris, who was careful not to be seen. They were still worried that Ashby might have men about, and if it was discovered that Chris was alive Ezra's life wouldn't be worth a deck of cards.
Judge Travis again sat behind JD's desk, but beside him stood a medium sized man with black, slicked hair, wearing a dark pin-striped suit. The man looked like he belonged running a Bank, but the badge on his coat and the six-shooter strapped to his hip denoted another line of work. He stood with arms folded, a neutral expression on his face.
"Gentlemen..." Judge Travis greeted, bringing everyone's attention to the two men. "I'd like to introduce Marshal Lacey from Tucson. He's meeting a shipment of gold here and escorting it on to Tucson day after tomorrow. You are all going to accompany him and his ten men."
A forced smile broke across the Marshal's oval face. He brought his brown eyes to bear on each of the men present, and then returned them to Chris where they stayed.
"I've heard much about you gentlemen but isn't there seven of you?" He queried.
"Ah yes," Judge Travis began; he glanced over at Chris, who regarded him through narrow eyes, before continuing. "One of our men is making contact with another that managed to infiltrate the Ashby gang," Travis said.
The Marshal's eyes widen, smoothing out his high furrowed brow.
Vin cast a sideways glance at Chris noticing the gunslinger's hidden apprehension.
"Is that so?" Lacey smoothly said. "And how was this feat accomplished, might I ask?"
Chris's icy blue eyes narrowed as he looked up at the Marshal and in a low voice replied, "I died."
Buck practically fell into the jailhouse, disrupting the silence that had fallen. He was dirty and tired having pushed himself and his horse hard to get back. He plopped down in a chair giving the Marshal a cursory glance then nodded toward Judge Travis.
Vin noticed how the Marshal's right hand had jumped to the handle of his revolver and stayed there. Something was not right. Vin shook it off. The Marshal was also a man who lived by his gun it was a normal reaction.
"Well Mr. Wilmington, what do you have for us?" The Judge asked.
"I met up with Ezra in the saloon." This got everyone's full attention, including the Marshal's.
Buck removed his hat and tried to wipe the dust and tiredness out of his eyes. He leaned forward, placing a hand on his knee. "This Jack Brice has twenty men, all well armed. They also have two cases of dynamite."
Marshal Lacey listened with a deepening frown. Vin whistled and shook his head. He really hated dynamite, something always happened to him when he got near the explosive. Josiah bowed his head becoming more worried for his southern friend. Nathan automatically went over what medical supplies he had on hand. JD came over and handed Buck a glass of water, which he greedily drank then continued, "He says they plan on hittin' a gold shipment day after tomorrow at Devil's Rock. They plan on waitin' til the shipment gets into the canyon then dynamite the end trappin' it."
JD smiled. "Good ole Ez. I'd knew he'd come through."
Judge Travis was impressed. He hadn't been totally comfortable that Standish could pull it off or that he even wanted to. He didn't have anything to gain. The Judge smiled, he would definitely have to re-think his feelings about the roguish gentleman.
Buck bowed his head then looked up at Chris. His easygoing expression having left his face, replaced with a flat, sober look. "I tried to get him to come back with me, but he said not until he discover who Ashby was."
"Damn," Chris quietly whispered, sometimes that man didn't know when to cut and run, Chris thought. He was proud that Ezra wanted to complete the mission, but the longer Ezra played this game the more likely it was he'd get caught. Every one of the seven gunslingers had a sixth sense for each other, some stronger than others, such as between Buck and JD, Josiah and Nathan and himself and Vin. But lately Chris found himself concerned for the exasperating gambler's welfare. He also knew that Josiah had developed some rather fatherly feelings for Ezra, which he was sure would surprise the reserved conman.
The Marshal stared at the six gunslingers. He had to admit he was impressed with their loyalty. He needed to find out how far that trust went. The Marshal stepped out into the center of the room. "Excuse me gentlemen, but do you all trust this friend of yours?" Everyone snapped their heads around and glared at the Marshal as if he had just pulled a gun on them. Unconsciously, Lacey stepped back from the six withering looks. "I mean." He swallowed. "It is $3 million in gold we're talking about an amount that would make most men reconsider their positions, and I understood that this Mr. Standish was a former con man." The Judge had filled him in earlier on the men he would be working with.
"Hell, he still is a con man but we trust him," JD defended, stepping toward the Marshal. Josiah rested a hand upon the young Sheriff's shoulder.
"You're out of line, Marshal," Chris replied, his voice soft and menacing.
His dislike for this man rose two points.
Marshal Lacey nodded his head, pursing his lips. "Please, don't be offended I just wanted to be sure. I mean one should know who one can trust."
Several soldiers escorted the gold into Four Corners about mid morning without incident. It was carried in a reinforced stagecoach; all the windows had been boarded up with slots for rifles. The only way to enter was through the top and
it could only be opened from the inside. The driver was partially shielded on the sides with over lapping boards. Four massive, black steeds pulled the impenetrable vehicle. Judge Travis, Marshal Lacey and Vin met the gold outside the jail watching as the soldiers immediately surrounded the stage taking up protective positions. A young Lieutenant approached the three men. He had the cocky assuredness of youth lacking experience. Vin had seen it in JD in the beginning. He hoped this young man lived long enough to out grow it.
The Lieutenant stood tall, thrusting out his clean shaven chin. He snapped a salute toward Marshal Lacey then extended his hand. "Marshal Lacey it's a pleasure to finally meet and be working with you, Sir." The Marshal smiled at the eager young Lieutenant. "I'm Lieutenant Bradley and I'm at your disposal," he continued.
"Lieutenant, this is Judge Travis and Vin Tanner who will assist on the next leg of our mission," Marshal Lacey explained. The Lieutenant gave each man a curt nod.
Vin leaned his lanky form up against the post and drawled, "Lieutenant, why can't your soldiers continue on to Tucson with the gold?"
"That was the initial plan, Mr. Tanner, but we have problems up north that require our attention. My men are going to wait here for further instructions from Fort McKinney," Lieutenant Bradley explained. "I have been instructed to stay with the gold until it reaches Tucson, though." Lieutenant Bradley turned to the Marshal. "I assume you have acquired the necessary men to complete the journey."
"Yes we have, Lieutenant," Judge Travis cut in. "And if you'll follow me I'll introduce you to them."
Chris had stayed in the jail, still maintaining his death incase any of Ashby's men were about. Problem was, no one knew how close Ashby really was. Judge Travis entered, followed by the Marshal, Vin and Lieutenant Bradley. Josiah also quietly slipped in preferring to stay in the background for the moment.
He stood off to the side folding his arms across his chest.
Vin stepped around the three men and came up alongside Chris who stood as they entered. "Lieutenant Bradley, I'd like for you to meet Chris Larabee, him and his..." the Judge paused a moment and looked over at Chris before finishing the thought, "his five men and Marshal Lacey's ten will escort the gold shipment to Tucson tomorrow."
The Lieutenant eyed the darkly-dressed and pensive man before him. The first thing that entered his mind was this man was dangerous. "Mr. Larabee," he greeted with a half nod.
"Chris, Lieutenant," Judge Travis stated getting the men's attention. "Marshal Lacey has a plan I think you should hear it."
The Marshal stepped forward, between the four men. "I think the Lieutenant should ride with Mr. Larabee and his men with the gold while me and my men hang back. When you reach Devil's Rock where the ambush is to take place, me and my men will move in and instead of Ashby's Raiders cutting us off we will squeeze them between us." Marshal Lacey squeezed his fist in the air for emphasis, slamming it into his open palm.
"Ah sir, what is this about an ambush?" the Lieutenant asked, noticeably agitated by this information.
"We have inside information Lieutenant that Ashby's Raiders are planning
to attack the gold shipment," Judge Travis informed him.
The Lieutenant disregarded the Judge for the moment and turned to the Marshal. "Marshal Lacey, I was not aware of any ambush. I am responsible for this gold shipment until it reaches Tucson. I have full confidence in you, but..." The Lieutenant glanced apprehensively over at Chris and Vin. "I will be in charge of these men."
"Now wait just a minute..." Vin angrily voiced, stepping forward until he felt Chris's hand on his shoulder. Chris didn't like the Lieutenant's arrogance, but if the Lieutenant wanted to take full responsibility for the gold shipment, so be it, his only concern was getting Standish out alive.
Chris thought this over a minute. "It's not a bad plan they might not be expecting Marshal Lacey and his men." Vin turned astonished blue eyes toward his friend but kept silent.
Chris stepped up to the Marshal who was a couple inches shorter than the harden gunslinger. There was something about this man that gnawed at his gut. "Marshal, we need you and your men to be aware that our man might be among the outlaws, and he will be protected above all else," Chris stressed as he turned to the Lieutenant and added, "even your damn gold." Marshal Lacey's left eye twitched as he stared into Chris's icy blue stare. Lieutenant Bradley clenched his jaw deciding not to debate the issue at this time.
"And how will we recognized this stalwart gentleman?" Marshal Lacey asked, his voice strained, as his eyes remained locked on Chris's menacing gaze.
"It won't be hard, he'll be wearing the brightest clothing," Vin answered breaking the inner battle between the two men.
Josiah shivered as a sense of foreboding washed through him.
Marshal Lacey, Judge Travis and the Lieutenant left the jail soon after hashing out the details of tomorrow's mission. Leaving Chris, Vin and Josiah to stand and worry. Neither believed that the Marshal or Lieutenant gave a damn about Ezra they just wanted to get their precious gold through to Tucson.
Chris heard Josiah drop his huge form into a chair. He could see the concern on the big man's face. "Josiah, go back to Dead Wood in case Ezra gets any more information and tell him what's happenin' and to keep his head down." Josiah raised his large form and headed for the door, stopping as Chris added, "I want you back here tonight. I don't need two men in the middle of this."
"I will attempt to bring our wayward sheep back to the flock as I believe the wolves are getting a little to close." He tipped his hat and exited.
Jack Brice entered his tent, the afternoon heat making the inside feel like a stifling kiln. He rummaged inside a small dresser until he felt someone's presence and turned around. A smile broke out on his round face causing the skin around his eyes to crinkle.
"Ah, Mr. Ashby it's you. What can I do..." A hand came across Jack's pudgy face cutting off his words as it whipped his head around.
"You Idiot!" Mr. Ashby's face was red with rage.
"Sir, I don't understand," Jack asked wiping the trickle of blood that ran down his chin. He could taste the salty blood in his mouth where his teeth had cut the inside of his cheek.
"Mr. Standish is a spy!" Ashby spat.
Jack's mouth dropped open. "No sir, he can't be I saw him kill Larabee with my own eyes."
"I just left Four Corners and Chris Larabee was very much alive."
Elisha Ashby turned his back on Jack and started pacing the small confines of the tent. His hands gestured as he talked. "They know everything all our plans how many men, even about the dynamite."
"Ah...sir...I'm sorry," Jack stammered, he swallowed as fear climbed up from his stomach causing his throat and mouth to dry.
"All my years of work ruined due to your incompetence!" Ashby turned around his dark eyes glaring at Jack who wiped the sweat from his brow.
"Sir, I'll kill Standish myself." Jack pulled out his gun and prepared to leave. He was going to make Ezra suffer. Jack was stopped from his demonic vengeance by Ashby's quiet voice.
"No, wait, we need to find out if he has discovered my identity and told anyone. I'm not letting $3 million slip through my fingers. If something were to happen to him now someone might get suspicious, especially if he's being watched somehow." Ashby paused, his eyes closing in thought. "Are the men ready to take the shipment tomorrow?"
"Yes, Sir." Jack holstered his gun and relaxed a little, realizing he was out of danger for now. "But if Standish has revealed our plans couldn't we be walking into trouble?"
Mr. Ashby started pacing the tent again trying to sort through the newest complications. He didn't get this far by not being able to improvise when the need arose. He was not going to let some two-bit gambler ruin years of deception and planning. He liked the way things were.
"I have a plan, and if it works we'll get the gold and get rid of the Seven at the same time." A wicked smile came to Ashby's face, and Jack shuddered slightly, but breathed a sigh of relief knowing it wasn't directed at him. He had received a reprieve of sorts, but he swore he would seek his own revenge on the conniving con man.
Josiah had hung around the hotel in Dead Wood all afternoon watching for any sign of the fancy dressed gambler. He was fearful for the young conman. He knew Ezra was trying to prove something or trying to make up for past mistakes. As the day cooled the huge preacher moseyed over to the saloon. He found a quiet table and ordered a bottle of whiskey. The ex-preacher tilted his chair back, pulled his large hat down to hide his face and waited.
It was a couple hours before nightfall when Ezra and three other men entered the saloon. Ezra immediately caught sight of Josiah at the table. He threw his arms across two of his companions' shoulders leading them to a table across the room.
"Ah gentlemen, why don't you take a seat and I will see to our libations."
Ezra went up to the bar and was joined shortly by Josiah who stood a few feet to his right. Ezra turned his head and smiled at his three companions then turned around.
"A Marshal Lacey is escorting the gold shipment with ten men," Josiah murmured not looking over at Ezra.
"Good." Relief tinge Ezra's voice. He hadn't like the odds of seven men going up against twenty with dynamite.
"Chris wants you out of here," Josiah added taking a swig of beer, which the bartender had placed before him. "And so do I."
Ezra didn't move his head, but his eyes went over to the big man. Ezra recognized the fatherly concern, at one time he would of rejected it, even despised the thought, but not now, it actually touched his heart. "Not until I find out who Ashby is," Ezra finally replied, swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat.
"You don't have to prove anything to anyone."
Ezra bowed his head and murmured, "Only to myself, Mr. Sanchez, only to my self." The bartender placed three beers in front of Ezra, who then slowly collected them up.
"Watch your back, Ezra," Josiah whispered. Ezra smiled, this was the second time that one of the men he had sworn allegiance to had showed concern for his well-being. It gave him a feeling he couldn't explain and had never felt before.
Josiah turned and walked out of the saloon as Ezra returned to his companions.
Ezra and his three companions returned to camp later that evening but continued drinking and playing poker. Ezra kept his wits about him, dumping most of his drinks when no one was watching. It was an easy deception, convincing these three men that he was just as intoxicated as they were. This was a con, pure
and simple, but instead of a monetary gain Ezra was after information.
The first rays of the sun broke the horizon to find Ezra and Frank the last men standing. Ezra listened as the others lay snoring in the dirt of the tent. The diminutive man, who portrayed himself as Jack Brice's right hand man, was holding his liquor pretty good. This was Ezra's last chance. He had decided to try and make a break for it before they attacked the stage. Jack Brice had turned unexpectedly cold toward him, and his instincts told him he was pushing his luck.
Ezra plopped down next to the inebriated man who looked up at him through bleary eyes. "Ah, my old friend, Ezra," Frank slurred. Ezra smiled down at him.
"Yes, Frank, we are friends and friends share things and there is one thing I would love to know." Ezra looked into Frank's bleary eyes making sure he had his attention. "Who is Elisah Ashby?"
Frank brought his finger to his lips and shushed. He then turned his head around as if searching for spies within the small tent. He crooked his finger toward Ezra motioning him to come closer. "I don't know what he looks like, but I do know he's a Marshal," Frank whispered. "Pretty clever, huh? He knows when shipments are coming and when banks are full. He even helps our men escape when they're captured."
Ezra's eyes went wide. "Good Lord." If he'd been drunk, he'd have sobered up immediately at this admission. Josiah had told him about a Marshal Lacey who was escorting the gold shipment; it was too much of a coincidence. Ezra maintained his poker-face and took Frank by the nape of the neck slamming his head down into his knee. Ezra let the man drop bonelessly to the dirt floor. Ezra stuck his head out of the tent making sure no one was around. Most of the men were still sleeping or going off to the nearby creek to bathe. He noticed a few men by the campfires preparing breakfast. Ezra casually made his way over to the remuta. He quickly saddled his horse. His only thoughts being that he had to warn the others; unfortunately, these thoughts prevented him from keeping his guard up.
He finished tightening the cinch on the saddle then heard Jack Brice's low voice behind him. "Going somewhere, Ezra?" Ezra bowed his head then turned slowly around to face Jack, who was standing between two other men, their guns drawn. Jack glared at him arms folded across his massive chest.
"You could have had it all," Jack continued. "Not just a saloon, but a whole town, hell maybe even a state."
Ezra chuckled at Jack's grandiose dreams. He raised his green eyes, revealing a nonchalant expression on his handsome face. "The price was to high for your autocrat utopia."
"You're a fool!" Jack spat, his face contracted in anger.
A slight smile came to Ezra's face. "Sir, I'm not the one who trusted a gambler." With that Ezra ejected his derringer and pulled his revolver, shooting the two men alongside Jack. Brice dropped to the ground astonished at the conman's speed. Ezra jumped on his horse spurring the animal forward.
"STOP HIM!" Jack screamed raising his head.
Two men jumped in Ezra's way guns drawn. Ezra grabbed the horn and spurred his horse faster as they fired. One bullet found its way into his side, the other ripped into his shoulder. Ezra hung on as he felt the white heat of both bullets tear into his flesh. He plowed through the men without stopping.
Jack watched as Ezra rode out of sight. He was still on his knees and struck the ground with his fists yelling at his men. "Hurry up and get mounted we have to intercept that gold shipment!"
The sun had been up an hour when the soldiers pulled away from the stage allowing Vin, Buck, Josiah, JD and Nathan to take up the security of the gold. Chris had snuck into the coach with the gold. He didn't want any of Ashby's men to see him, in case Ezra was still with them at the ambush. The Lieutenant was talking to his Master Sergeant giving him further instructions. The soldiers were to wait in town until they received orders from Fort McKinney.
Josiah climbed up into the driver's seat and took the reins. The horses snorted and pranced in anticipation. The rest of the lawmen took up positions around the stage. Marshal Lacey and his men would follow at a discreet distance waiting about fifteen minutes before leaving town. Lieutenant Bradley took up position in front of the stage. His red dress uniform reminding everyone of Ezra.
JD and Buck shook their heads at the cockiness of the young Lieutenant. "He reminds me of you, JD," Buck whispered over to the young gunslinger.
"Hey," JD replied insulted. He looked at the Lieutenant and couldn't resist expressing the thought that came into his mind. "He makes a good target."
Buck turned incredulous eyes toward the young man and busted out laughing.
Everyone hoped that Ezra was no longer with Ashby's gang. Chris had to chuckle to himself as he hoped that this time Ezra had run.
Ezra didn't know how he managed to stay in the saddle. He drove his horse hard and prayed he wouldn't end up killing the animal. He felt the blood running down from his shoulder and adding to the blood pouring from his side, his limbs were going numb. He didn't have time to stop to tend to the wounds, and he was afraid if he stopped he'd never reach Chris and the others. His infamous stubbornness and determination were the only things keeping him going. He stared straight ahead not seeing the desolate landscape only trying to keep his mind focused on one thing, reaching his friends in time.
They had traveled about half an hour when JD pulled up. He shaded his eyes as he looked toward the east. It took a few moments, but then JD smiled as a red blur slowly took shape within the rising sun.
"It's Ezra!" He shouted. Josiah pulled the stage to a stop and turned to see Chris emerging from the top.
"All right, he made it!" Buck whooped, his brilliant smile reaching ear to ear, but it was short lived.
The horse and figure neared, and slowed, Ezra swayed momentarily then fell to the ground. Chris swore and jumped from the top of the stage running as his feet touched the ground. Nathan was the first to reach the collapsed man, forcing the wounded gambler unto his back. Nathan tore open the bloody shirt seeing where the bullets had struck. The shoulder wound wasn't too bad the bullet having gone straight through, but the side wound was another story. Tremors shook Ezra's body as he tried to maintain consciousness the darkness swimming around the edges of his sight beckoning to him.
"Nathan?" Ezra said in a hoarse voice his eyes closed.
"Yeah Ezra, it's me, take it easy," Nathan replied trying to soothe the injured man as he applied pressure to the still bleeding wound.
Ezra's face contracted in agony, and sweat streamed down his face. He stirred weakly then his eyes snapped opened, the intensity of those emerald green eyes against his pale face was startling. He tried to sit up grabbing Nathan by the shirt. "No, we have to get out of here!"
Everyone heard the panic in Ezra's voice, something that was not normal for the brazen con man.
"Easy Ez," Buck said placing a hand on Ezra's shoulder to stop him from getting up. He could feel the heat coming off Ezra's body and shot anxious eyes toward Nathan. He felt a stab of guilt at not getting Ezra to leave sooner.
Ezra's eye's darted around. "Where's the Marshal?"
"He's behind us," Chris replied kneeling down beside him.
Ezra looked directly at Chris. "He's Ashby, the Marshal is Ashby."
"Shit," Buck cursed. Chris immediately stood and looked to their rear for any sign of the Marshal and his men. He looked back the way Ezra had come.
"Okay, get Ezra in the stage. Nathan you're with him."
Buck and Vin carefully lifted Ezra up. He sucked in a breath as pain shot through his body finally taking him. Buck and Vin felt Ezra's body go limp as he passed out, his head falling toward his chest. Chris looked over at JD who was following Buck and Vin's progress to the stage. "JD, can you handle the team?"
JD stopped and turned his attention slowly to Chris. "Sure Chris, but..." Chris held up a hand cutting the young gunslinger off.
"No buts, I want Josiah on top he's a better long range shot."
The Lieutenant remained on his horse watching and listening to what was taking place. This was his first command. He didn't want anything to go wrong. Lieutenant Bradley knew he should do something, but he wasn't sure what. He watched as Larabee took control, his men complying with his every order like a well honed unit.
Nathan threw blankets down on the floor of the stage as Vin and Buck lowered Ezra inside. Nathan tried to make him as comfortable as possible. "Stay with me Ezra," he pleaded, but the stalwart conman was far from hearing.
Chris mounted Nathan's horse and Josiah took up position on top of the stage. Chris looked back at Vin and Buck who had taken up flanking positions
"Okay JD, turn the stage around and when I tell you, you get it going and don't stop for anything until you reach town," Chris said.
The Lieutenant snapped out of his stupor as he realized what Larabee was doing. "Now wait just a minute, Mr. Larabee." Everyone froze and looked at the young lieutenant. "This gold has to reach Tucson."
Chris brought his horse closer to the Lieutenant's. "Didn't you just hear what my man said, Marshal Lacey is Ashby."
"I don't believe it, it's just the delusions of an injured man," Bradley stated confidently. The thought had crossed his mind that maybe these men were planning on stealing the gold.
Chris shook his head. "Listen Lieutenant, we're going to be trapped between twenty men with dynamite and those ten men of Ashby's if we don't get out of here." Chris turned his attention to JD. "Okay JD, let's go."
"Hold it! I said we go to Tucson." The Lieutenant pulled his gun on Chris who gave the man a knowing smile. Bradley frowned then heard the sound of four guns. He swallowed hard and looked to see four guns pointed directly at him. "You can't do this I'm an officer of the U.S. Army."
"I have an injured man, we're going back to town," Chris sneered. "And if it comes down to that gold or his life you don't want to know what I'll choose."
"That gold's not yours to give away, Larabee," the Lieutenant countered.
"Neither is that man's life," Chris replied turning his horse and his back on the Lieutenant, whose gun was still in his hand.
The Lieutenant looked at each of the four men whose guns were still leveled at him. "You all could get in big trouble with the US Army for this," he said without much conviction.
Vin shrugged and Buck replied with a grin, "Well, that ain't nothin' new."
"Sorry Lieutenant, you'd have to come up with something a whole lot worse than that, especially with the prospect of facing twenty men with dynamite or losing one of our own," Josiah explained. The Lieutenant bowed his head in defeat and holstered his gun.
JD picked up the reins, clicked his tongue and proceeded to turn the team as everyone surrounded the stage.
Chris came up alongside and glanced up at JD. The boy had grown into a man over the past few months, a man to be respected and depended on.
"Don't worry Chris, no one will stop this stage," JD replied confidently. Chris smiled and urged his horse ahead coming up alongside the now subdued Lieutenant. He knew the Army man was only doing his duty and following orders, but when it came down to his men's lives, his family, he didn't care anything about army regulations or orders. The two men walked their horses side by side for a moment.
"Your man is wrong, Mr. Larabee," Bradley exclaimed, keeping his eyes straight ahead. "Marshal Lacey is a credit to law enforcement. He's even captured several of Ashby's men."
Chris leaned forward laying his hand over his horn and looked over at the young Lieutenant. "And what happened to all those men that he captured?" Chris knew that everyone captured had either escaped or been found dead before they could be interrogated. "If I'm wrong Lieutenant I'll apologize to Marshal Lacey in Four Corners."
Chris dropped back as the Lieutenant pondered what was said.
Marshal Lacey and his men had started out shortly after the stage left. They stayed out of sight, waiting for the trap to be sprung. Lacey a.k.a. Elisah Ashby was unable to remove the grin from his face. It was perfect, he would get rid of the seven lawmen and acquire the gold. He would do away with Brice since he had proved incompetent. Later, he would wander into Tucson dejected and wounded, convincing everyone that he was the only one to survive and escape the terrible massacre. He'd be a hero, a rich hero.
"Sir, somethin' strange is goin' on," the man to Elisha's right reported, bringing him out of his reverie.
Elisha Ashby turned to the man who was pointing toward the north. "The stage is coming back," he continued.
Elisha squinted against the sun's glare on the hard packed sand and saw the shimmering image of the stage, which was indeed coming back. He continued to stare and noticed something else. Larabee was now riding a horse and the young Sheriff was driving the shipment. Elisah Ashby was getting the feeling that another complication had arisen.
"Stop that stage!" He yelled, his ten men pulled their guns and charged past him.
"Here they come!" Vin announced, pulling his mare's leg out and checking it. Buck and Chris also pulled their guns. Chris glanced over and saw the Lieutenant's eyes go wide with disbelief. He looked over at Chris nodding in apology then pulled his revolver.
Nathan was trying to get Ezra's belly wound to stop bleeding when he heard Vin's warning. Ezra had not regained consciousness and for that Nathan was grateful.
Chris dropped back alongside the stage watching as the ten men charged toward them. He turned to JD. "Now JD, GO!"
The young easterner whipped the horses up, throwing Nathan back against the far wall. Josiah took aim at the lead riders and began to fire, rewarded with the fall of one of the men. He said a quick prayer for the fallen man even as he dropped another in his tracks a devilish grin cracking his long face.
JD directed the team toward the center of the charging men causing them to part ranks. He could hear the report of Josiah's Winchester above his head and saw Ashby's men fall. Josiah fired at the men on his right, slowly reducing the odds, until a bullet found his leg causing him to drop his rifle. He clenched his teeth as he quickly tied off the wound then pulled out his Smith & Wesson and continued shooting.
JD kept his eyes staring straight ahead, concentrating on keeping the stage moving. He felt the burning fire as he took a bullet to the arm, but kept hold of the reins gritting his teeth against the pain. He could feel the warm liquid ooze down his arm. Chris and the Lieutenant rode straight into the armed men, firing. Buck and Vin maintained positions in the rear, catching anyone who
managed to get past Chris's fury. Nathan pulled his own gun and started shooting through the gun slots. The quicker this battle ended the better for everyone, especially Ezra. One of the outlaws had managed to latch onto the side of the stage. Nathan shoved his gun through the rifle slot into the man's stomach. The outlaw dropped from the stage before Nathan could pull the trigger.
It was over quick, the stage leaving a trail of ten dead men in its wake. JD kept the horses going at a dead run knowing they had to get Ezra back to town quick and worried that the rest of Ashby's brigands would soon follow.
Elisah Ashby halted his horse, throwing an arm across the horn of his saddle, as he watched the stage head back toward Four Corners. He looked over his shoulder to see his ten dead men scattered across the desert floor. He knew it was over. Everything he had worked for--gone, in the wink of an eye, all because of a
slick gambler and six gunslingers.
Jack Brice appeared beside him, most of his men had scattered after witnessing the fury of the gunslingers, deciding that the game was up and that a dead man couldn't spend gold.
"Mr. Ashby I'm sorry, Standish got away from us. He must have warned them," Jack explained.
Ashby just stared off, knowing his dreams and even his perfect masquerade was at an end. He calmly pulled his gun and shot Jack Brice between the eyes, knocking him from his horse. Without a second look, Elisah Ashby rode away.
The stage came roaring into town just as Judge Travis and Mary exited the Clarion News office. JD pulled the team up in front of the saloon, kicking up a cloud of dust as the wheels locked. The Judge and Mary jogged across the street toward them.
"What happened?" Mary asked.
Chris dismounted and approached the Judge. "Marshal Lacey was Ashby, Ezra warned us just in time."
The Lieutenant brought his horse up to the Judge. "Sir, when did my troops leave?"
"Just a few minutes ago, Lieutenant," the Judge replied.
"I'm going to catch up with them and have them return and go after the rest of Ashby's gang." The Lieutenant reined his horse around and took off.
Josiah helped Nathan remove the unconscious gambler from the inside of the stage. They handed him down to Buck and Vin who were waiting below. Chris noticed how pale and lifeless Ezra was and fear squeezed his heart. Vin and Buck carried Ezra up to Nathan's room.
Chris grabbed Nathan's shoulder. "How....?" He didn't' even finish as Nathan shook his head.
"Not good and all that bouncing around in the stage didn't help any." Nathan turned to Mary. "Miss Travis can you help with some of the minor injuries, I'm afraid I'm going to be busy on Ezra."
Chris, Mary, JD and Josiah followed Nathan as he headed up to his room.
Vin and Buck placed Ezra's limp form on Nathan's bed. Ezra moaned slightly bringing Nathan to his side. "Ezra, can you hear me?" He asked. Ezra's eyes fluttered for a moment then were still. Nathan checked Ezra's pulse then his breathing, which was shallow. Sweat matted his light brown hair to his skull.
JD held his wounded arm trying to stop the bleeding, his dark eyes staring fearfully down at the pallid gambler. Vin grabbed a couple pieces of gauze off of Nathan's shelves. He handed one over to JD. Vin began removing the blood, which covered half his face from a bullet that had grazed his head. Josiah's leg finally gave out. He had been shot in the upper thigh and was just now starting to feel the pain. Buck and Chris grabbed the ex-preacher, maneuvering him over to a chair. Buck handed the big man a bottle of laudanum and watched as he took a long swallow of the noxious tasting pain medicine. No one said a word of complaint, knowing their own injuries could wait.
Buck came over next to Nathan and helped him remove Ezra's jacket and shirt. The sound of the blood covered shirt tearing away from the wound made everyone wince, even Chris. The shoulder wound had already stopped bleeding. Nathan grabbed his scalpel and looked up at Buck then over his shoulder. "I need him kept still."
Vin was about to assist until a stopping hand intervened. Chris forced him into a chair and went to the other side of the bed, leaning heavily down upon Ezra's shoulder. Nathan began to cut into the festering wound on his side. Ezra tossed slightly then his eyes flashed open and a scream escaped his lips. Vin had to grab the gambler's now flailing legs. Ezra arched trying to get away from the intense pain. Vin put more weight on his legs trying to hold him down. Ezra turned his head into the pillow to muffle a scream. He drew in a hissing breath and swallowed back the next scream. The bullet was deep and Nathan was having a hard time retrieving it. He wished that the conman would pass out.
"Hurry Nathan," Chris said in a strained voice, sweat beading up on his own brow with the exertion of holding down the pain filled man. Ezra was beginning to have trouble catching his breath and his body shook violently.
"I almost got it," Nathan said licking his lips. He grasped the bullet with the clamp. Ezra suddenly went limp as Nathan pulled out the bullet. Nate placed a bandage over the wound and applied pressure. He reached up to lay two fingers alongside Ezra's neck. His brow furrowed as he felt the weak quick pulse. Everyone relaxed a little staring down at the very pale gambler who had probably saved all their lives. Buck fell back against the wall and slid down to the floor, letting out the breath he'd been holding. Chris kept a hand on the gambler's sweat covered shoulder. Nathan grabbed a cool cloth and wiped down Ezra's fevered brow and sweat covered chest.
"Jeez Nathan, is he goin' to be alright?" JD had to ask. Nathan just bowed his head unable to answer the young gunslinger.
No one wanted to leave, but Nathan finally convinced the uninjured members to wait down in the saloon.
Chris and Buck shared a bottle of red-eye as they waited down in the barroom. Buck's hands shook slightly as he lifted the shot glass, tossing the contents quickly down his throat. He brought the glass down, giving Chris an uneasy smile. JD who had his arm in a sling soon joined them. He plopped down between the two gunslingers, wincing as it caused some pain to shoot up his arm.
Buck quietly pushed a shot of whiskey toward his young friend. He was proud of JD, not that he'd ever tell him. A thought of Ezra came to Buck's mind, had he ever told the suave gambler that he considered him a good friend? That he trusted him with his life. Would he get a chance? Fear came to Buck's usually
cheerful face as he turned to JD. "JD, I'm right proud of you. You handled them horses real fine," Buck praised.
JD smiled, nothing could have made him feel taller than a compliment from the man he considered a big brother. "Thanks Buck."
"How's Ezra doing?" Chris asked breaking the spell between the two men.
JD looked over to Chris then back to Buck. His eyes told them more than they wanted to know. The three sat quietly.
An hour later, Vin, helping a limping Josiah and sporting a bandage around his head appeared. Buck stood up to help Josiah into a chair. Chris passed each of his men a shot of whiskey. Time seemed to stand still, each man taking furtive glances to the top of the stairs wondering if they'd ever hear that sarcastic southern drawl again.
Lieutenant Bradley and Judge Travis entered the saloon, the disconsolation so thick it was like hitting a wall.
"How is Mr. Standish?" the Judge asked.
Josiah looked up at him. "Nathan's not sure he's goin' to make it." Josiah's voice cracked at this admission. This was the first time the others had heard this and the shock showed on their faces.
"I'm sorry," Judge Travis replied in a low choking voice. He now knew everything he believed about the conniving conman was false. Standish was far from the self-indulgent man he portrayed.
The Lieutenant remained silent. He was a little in awe of these seven men and the loyalty and caring they reserved for each other and didn't want to intrude. He knew they were as close as any family, probably more so.
"Sorry!" Buck suddenly yelled, abruptly standing causing his chair to tip back. "That man risked his life, broke up one of the biggest gangs west of the Mississippi, saved all our lives and $3 million in gold and all you can say is sorry."
Chris placed a restraining hand on Buck's arm, which Buck shrugged off. He was angry and no one was going to stop his anger, it felt better than being afraid.
"I'm putting him in for a commendation," the Judge said, thinking this would mollify the rampaging cowboy.
"Let's hope it's not posthumously," Josiah quipped, tossing back the shot of whiskey. His own heart was breaking at the thought of losing the obstinate conman.
The Lieutenant stepped forward. "My men are out rounding up any of Ashby's men we'll..." The Lieutenant was interrupted as everyone was suddenly drawn to Nathan as he came down the stairs.
The healer went over to the bar grabbing another bottle of whiskey bringing it to the table.
"He's lost a lot of blood and the wound is seriously infected. If his fever gets any higher there could be permanent brain damage," Nathan answered his friend's anxious expressions. "I think he's in a coma now, his body just couldn't take any more. We'll just have to wait." He plopped down in a chair. Mary was watching over Ezra for the moment, he wanted--no needed to be around his friends.
The next day Chris, Vin and JD entered Nathan's room to witness Nathan and Buck trying to hold Ezra down as convulsions racked his body. After several minutes the convulsions stopped. Nathan felt Ezra's forehead and thought it felt hotter than ever he shook his head in despair.
"There's got to be something we can do?" Vin could hear the fear in Chris's voice and hoped that Chris wasn't reaching his breaking point.
Nathan thought for a moment then turned to JD. "JD, prepare a cold bath, this is drastic, but it might be his only chance." JD raced out to comply. "We have to get his fever down or he won't make it through the day." The three men carried Ezra over to the bath house and removed his clothing.
Ezra's limp form was immersed into a tub of cool water. Nathan carefully bathed his face. Ezra spent ten minutes in the tub before he was returned to his bed.
Nathan checked the wound on Ezra's side, which still oozed slightly, but was running clear. Nathan then felt Ezra's forehead and smiled slightly. He turned to the others who stood to the side. "I think it worked his fever seems lower." They all breathed a slight sigh of relief.
Everyone took turns administering to Ezra the best they could. Nathan still wasn't sure Ezra would come out of the coma; a body could only take so much.
Early morning on the fourth day Chris, Buck and JD sat listening to the shallow, labored breathing of the pale man who seemed to be wasting away before their eyes. Everyone now believed that Ezra would die; it was only a matter of time. All of a sudden his breathing changed, which was quickly noticed after days of
listening to it. JD looked up, fear in his eyes as Ezra's breathing seemed to stop. Chris bowed his head his hand gripping the window frame as his heart was once more squeezed and ripped apart. Buck released the tears he had fought to hold back. Ezra suddenly took a big breath and his eyes flickered open for a moment then closed. Buck rushed to his side and grabbed his shoulders.
"Ezra! C'mon pard come back! Don't you dare die on us. I still owe you $10!" Buck angrily yelled down at his friend, and then slapped his face.
Ezra's eyes opened slowly this time and looked upon the smiling faces of his friends. Chris turned to JD. "Go get Nathan."
Buck and Chris helped Ezra sit up a little and brought a cup of water to his lips. He took a couple sips then settled back. It was a moment before the confusion left his face.
"Is...everyone...okay?" He managed to gasp out, his voice raspy with days of disuse.
Buck had to laugh. "Yeah, no one was seriously hurt, but you, pard," he answered. Ezra smiled slightly and turned his partially hooded eyes to Chris.
"He got away, but his raiders were caught and we now know what he looks like. His face is plastered on every jail wall all the way to St. Louis, thanks to you," Chris informed him.
"You did good, Ez," Buck added wiping the tears from his face.
Ezra smiled and whispered, "Redemption." His eyes fluttered and slowly closed as his head sunk down into the pillow.
Nathan came in followed by JD, Vin and Josiah. He placed his dark hand upon Ezra's pale skin and smiled in relief. He carefully checked the wound. "This man has the luck of the devil," he quietly and gratefully said.
"Or a greater purpose to live," Josiah absently remarked, smiling down at the man he almost considered a son. Josiah hoped the southern gentleman no longer felt that his less than perfect past demanded some type of redemption, as far as he and the others were concerned Standish had redeemed himself a hundred times over.