Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
"All right! Vin got another one!" JD cheered, falling back behind the over turned wagon. Bullets bit into the tenuous wood near his shoulder. The grinning lawman re-loaded his twin Colts and listened to the battle raging around him.
Six men had ridden into town early that morning, with the intention of robbing Four Corners Bank. That fact completely astounded the seven lawmen authorized to protect it.
"I'm sure we're all appreciative of Mr. Tanner's sharpshooting abilities," Ezra observed as he peered around the wagon. "But I believe he still requires our assistance."
Ezra glanced up at the hotel roof where Vin had established an ideal perch. The outlaws were now focusing their attention there and Vin hunkered down as bullets flew over his head. Ezra took a moment to again reflect on why he was risking his neck for a dollar a day. The answer eluded him and he smiled as he fired a shot across the street. He glanced over at JD; the young sheriff still reveled in the exuberance of naiveté. Ezra knew the easterner was not foolish, but he wondered how long it would be until he was as jaded as the rest of them.
Ezra caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. He spotted a man creeping along the north side of the newspaper building. He attempted to shoot the outlaw but opposing gunfire forced him back. Ezra bit his lower lip as the outlaw entered the front door of the office. A decision had to be made -- Mary Travis, the town's newspaper editor was inside. He turned and signaled JD. With a quick jerk of his head he indicated the Clarion and then held up his hand: you stay here.
Ezra ducked low and ran across the street. He kept his eyes on the doorway of the building and hoped Mrs. Travis had not been taken by surprise. "Dear God," he thought, "Rescuing a damsel in distress! Mother would be truly appalled."
JD saw the gambler running up the street in a low crouch. He held the warm, heavy Colts steady as he watched his friend zigzag across the road. Ezra kicked up a veil of dust as he moved and it floated upward in the heat of the blazing sun. Still pinned down behind the wagon JD lost sight of the gambler. He hesitated a moment, firing a few shots to give Ezra cover, then crawled to the front of the wagon and carefully rose to shoot over it.
Instead he was slammed face-first into the buckboard as the agonizing heat of a bullet seared through his back. JD crumpled to the ground, still clutching his guns. He tried to raise his head but the hot street seemed to pull him back. He felt the heat move through him, burning from the inside and turning everything black.
"Buck!" A deep regret flooded JD's chest. "Damn it, Buck. I'm so sorry." The young gunslinger feared his friends would be angry with him for getting shot; but blackness wrapped him with its pain-free embrace and his anxiety dissolved with it.
The outlaws increased their fevered attack. They knew now that they had robbed the wrong bank. What rundown cow town had seven gunslingers protecting it? A simple bank heist had become a battle of life or death.
Buck was pinned down inside the saloon. He was alone, except for the company of his own frustration. Where were the other lawmen? He ducked low and tried once again to creep out the doorway. He dove back into the saloon as bullets clipped the doorframe an inch from his face.
"Hellfire, this is getting tiresome." He peered into the street, trying to surprise the outlaw who had him trapped in the saloon. This guy was really starting to piss him off.
He knew that Chris would have his hide for taking such foolish chances, but Buck was distracted by his fear for one young gunslinger. JD had managed to weasel his way into Buck's big heart and his safety was reason enough to risk Larabee's wrath. Buck usually kept a furtive eye on the kid, now he could only pray that someone else was watching out for him.
Vin was trying to get a bead on a particularly evasive outlaw. Once the bandits had discovered his vantagepoint, they maneuvered into the best positions to keep him pinned down. He and Chris fell into a synchronized dance; drawing the outlaws out and forcing them back, so that he could get a chance to shoot.
Vin fired. He grinned as one more of the thieves twirled and crumbled to the ground. He tried to account for the other lawmen. It was becoming second nature for the seven to watch out for each other. Tanner had never had so many people care for his welfare; he didn't think any of them had. Together the seven gunslingers were a formidable foe, but he knew they were becoming more than that-much more.
Larabee wanted to end the conflict quickly and limit the risk to his men. He tried to deny the growing camaraderie between them, but it was like trying to swim up an untamed river; he had to relent to the water's natural course.
Chris caught sight of Buck at the saloon. The ladies' man wore his usual cocky grin. Chris knew Vin was still on the roof trying to take out the remaining outlaws, and Josiah was down at the church blocking any escape. He wished he could catch sight of Nathan, Ezra and JD. He knew that Nathan wouldn't take foolish chances; but he worried about JD. The last time he saw the kid he was with Ezra racing toward an overturned wagon.
Mary Travis hid behind the solid wooden desk in the newspaper office. Gunplay was a common occurrence in town, a small price to pay for the protection of the seven lawmen. She stayed low; her arms clasped tightly across her chest, and said a silent prayer of thanks that her son was safe with Mrs. Potter. She regretted her decision to stay at work. She should have gone with them on the picnic.
Surprisingly, the bell above the door rang, announcing a visitor. Instinctively she raised her head. Too late, she realized her mistake. A young man, with a shock of brown hair and a malicious grin on his face, stood just inside the doorway. He pointed a large gun at her.
"You!" he growled, "come out here, now!"
Mary swallowed hard and glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could make it to the back door. She was terrified and froze, hugging the heavy desk.
The split second of silence abruptly exploded. Ezra Standish lunged through the doorway, crashing into the man and driving him to the floor in a confused tangle. The young man's gun skidded across the wooden floor banging against the printing press. Both men rolled, and then jumped to their feet. The outlaw charged Ezra and they smashed to the floor again. Ezra held tight to the larger man, avoiding any punches and moving away from the gun. Ezra winced as his back slammed into the edge of a pallet stacked with papers.
Mary tried to make her way to the door, but was forced behind the desk by the wrestling men. Ezra suddenly found himself underneath the heavier man. He instinctively arched his back throwing the desperado off balance and onto his side. The two disentangled themselves and jumped to their feet at the same time. The outlaw threw a wild punch and Ezra ducked and blocked, getting in two quick blows of his own. The outlaw staggered backward and a sharp roundhouse to the jaw sent him to the floor in an unconscious heap.
"Mrs. Travis, are you injured?" Ezra gasped. He remained bent over resting his hands on his knees for a moment. He reached down and scooped up his hat as he straightened.
"I'm fine, Mr. Standish. Thank you." Mary slowly stood, trying to calm the shakiness in her voice.
"Would you happen to have any rope?" Ezra swiped the sleeve of his jacket, trying to remove the dust that grayed the colorful material. He would really have to speak with the Judge about a clothing allowance. This constant tailoring was getting expensive. Mary exhaled with relief and pushed a strand of hair back into place. She reached down and pulled out several lengths of rope used to bundle newspapers. She smiled at the gambler's fastidiousness concerning his clothing. He really was a charming rogue.
Ezra flipped the young brigand onto his stomach and quickly tied his arms behind his back and his ankles together. "Please remain inside, Mrs. Travis. I'll send someone to retrieve this miscreant shortly." Ezra tipped his hat and hurried out of the office to join the others.
The first thing Ezra noticed when he stepped out of the newspaper office was the quiet. After the raucous gunfire that filled the air only moments before, the sudden silence was disconcerting. His adrenaline rush had been fueled by the melee, and now he exhaled, trying to siphon off a sudden feeling of dread. The sound of sobbing directed his next steps toward the center of town.
Ezra came around the overturned wagon and spotted the source of the sorrow. A woman wept uncontrollably over a man who lay unnaturally splayed on the boardwalk. Several townsfolk surrounded the grieving woman. Their expressions ranged from anger to pity. Ezra recognized the stout form of Robert Guthridge, one of the more influential citizens, trying to console the weeping woman. The absence of Nathan meant the man was beyond help. Ezra glanced up the street. Mr. Shepard, the undertaker, was coming their way.
"What happened?" Shepard asked.
"It was them outlaws!" A shopkeeper shouted. "Mr. Berman was just tryin' to protect his store and one of 'em just gunned 'im down. That's the widow there," The man slowly shook his head. "Poor thing."
"Where are Mr. Larabee and the others?" Ezra interjected.
Robert Guthridge stared at the disheveled gambler. Where had he been and how could he possibly have missed everything? He nodded toward Nathan's. "The sheriff was shot. They took him up to the clinic."
Ezra's eyes widened and for a moment he forgot to breathe. Then he gasped and raced toward the clinic.
If he had time to think about it, he would have wondered about the fear that suddenly strangled his heart. He had only recently admitted to himself that there was something intrinsic between him and the six men he worked with, something that held them together--something that kept them all in this one-horse town. He had deferred on his mother's many urgings to join her in various schemes, all because he didn't want to lose out on the friendship of these unique men. He had grown up virtually alone. A door was opening for him; one he desperately wanted to walk through.
Ezra's heart pounded as he raced up the stairs two at a time.
Ezra arrived at the top of the stairs just as Chris, Vin and Buck came out to the porch. Ezra's fear for JD was making it difficult to regain his composure. When Buck saw the breathless gambler, he attacked, pinning the smaller man to the wall with an arm across his throat.
"Where the hell were you?" Buck yelled.
Ezra clenched his jaw in defiance to Buck's anger. He started to feel lightheaded from lack of oxygen.
"JD was shot in the BACK!" Buck shook with rage. "WHERE WERE YOU?"
Chris told Buck that Ezra had been with the young gunslinger. Ezra was responsible. At least, that was the way Buck's rage-filled mind saw things. Memory of the slick conman running out on them at the Seminole Village vividly colored Buck's thoughts and fueled his fury. He needed a target for his anger and fear. At the moment, the self-absorbed gambler was a prime candidate.
Ezra turned pleading eyes toward Vin. Was JD dead? Was he really responsible?
"He's still alive," Vin replied to the unspoken question.
"No thanks to you," Buck growled as he applied more pressure to the gambler's throat.
Struggling to breathe, Ezra impulsively released the mechanism that kept a derringer hidden in his sleeve. The small gun catapulted into Buck's gut. His growing resentment of Buck's abuse and his concern for JD pulled rank on his common sense. Ezra knew that the ladies' man could behave irrationally when it came to the young man, but he was tired of being the whipping boy.
"You better be prepared to use that," Buck growled.
"What makes you think I'm not?"
Ezra shifted his gaze at the sound of a hammer being pulled back. His eyes narrowed as he stared down the barrel of Larabee's peacemaker. So, that's the way it is. He was on his own. The door had slammed shut once again. He almost laughed out loud. What a fool he had been to think he could ever fit in with these men.
Ezra lowered his derringer. He had let JD and the others down, and the realization that he would never be a part of this group left him weak and vulnerable. He was an outsider and always would be.
"Buck, back off," Chris said finally. This had gone too far. He was surprised by the gambler's action. Did the man actually fear for his life? Did he believe that any of them would harm the other? Chris wasn't sure, but he thought he saw a look of despair on Ezra's face before it was replaced with his usual mask of indifference.
Wilmington slowly lowered his arm and stepped back, regarding the gambler with a withering glare. Chris holstered his gun. He hadn't meant to draw it, but sometimes deadly force was the only thing the others took seriously.
Ezra rubbed his throat and glared menacingly. Tension formed a wall between the two men, a wall that Buck broke through as he planted a fist into Ezra's stomach, doubling him over. Chris grabbed Buck by the arm and slammed him into the opposite wall.
Ezra fell to his hands and knees, gasping.
"I said that's enough, Buck!" Chris watched as Vin squatted, grasping Ezra's shoulder
"You all right?" Even to Vin's ears it sounded too little too late.
Ezra turned, meeting Vin's eyes. His expression was now unreadable. "Get away from me." Vin slowly stood.
Buck glared at the wheezing gambler. He had been so scared when he saw JD lying in the street. He had thought the kid was dead. How could Ezra have allowed this to happen? Where was he?
Nathan stepped out of the clinic and stared at the crumpled conman. The healer wasn't sure what had happened, but anything that involved the self-seeking gambler was never good, at least, that's the way it seemed. Nathan still wondered why Ezra stayed after his thirty days were up. He figured Ezra was just biding his time until something better came along.
"How is he, Nate?" An air of grief colored Buck's words. The three lawmen crowded around the healer. Ezra finally got control of his breathing and looked up from the wooden boardwalk at the backs of the men
"I got the bullet out," Nathan said. "I don't think anything vital was hit. Looks like it smacked into a rib and splintered it. He lost a lot of blood, but he's strong--I think he'll make it.
An audible sign escaped the men. Ezra bowed his head and thanked whatever deity watched over fools and young, inexperienced gunslingers. He slowly pushed himself up the wall. He knew he wouldn't be welcome in the clinic. Keeping an arm around his gut, he made his way back down the stairs. With each step he took, the distance between himself and the other six gunslingers grew, and so did the ache in his heart.
Buck removed his hat as he entered the clinic. The smell of sweat and blood that met him caused the full grip of fear to twist inside him leaving no room for anger. He didn't know what he'd do if he lost JD. He moved to the bedside and sat in a nearby chair. He gazed at his young friend lying still on the bed. JD looked boyish, like a child who shouldn't be playing in a man's world. Buck carefully touched the wide bandage that encircled his chest. JD's skin was as pale as the linens. Buck grew anxious for a moment when he thought JD had stopped breathing. He spread his palm across his friend's chest and felt the slight rise and fall of air through his lungs.
Nathan stood at a small dresser, mixing herbs to help alleviate JD's pain.
"He's goin' to sleep awhile, Buck." The healer poured a bowl of extract into a small teakettle, distilling the medicine further. "He's lost a lot of blood. Let him be now."
"You hang on, JD, you hear me?" Buck whispered into the young man's ear as he pushed the black mop of unruly hair from his face. JD showed no response. He was suspended in a private dominion of his own pain.
"JD!" Buck's whisper was harsh this time. He wanted the kid back. He had an urgent need for JD to exist in his world, though he was hard pressed to explain why. Buck leaned even closer, his warm breath moving across JD's face. "JD, please."
The only reply was the soft creak of the clinic door as Vin pushed it open. He moved through with Chris behind him, creating one shadow that glided across the floor and then lay still on JD's unconscious form.
Buck felt the presence of his friends and wondered if JD could, too. He sagged a little, exhausted; the aggravating, shit-eating, damn day nearly wiped him out. Without a sound, Nathan was behind him. The healer's long fingers gripped his shoulders and pulled him away from the sick bed.
"Buck, leave him be, I said." Nathan's voice was soft and reassuring. "He's breathing real good. He's strong. He's young." Jackson's words spoke directly to Buck's heart and he waited like a man dying in the desert for the final flow to wash over him. "He's going to make it. He can survive this."
The healer's optimism gave Buck the strength to stand and he joined Chris and Vin at the foot of the bed, all three lost in the same thoughts.
What happened? Why was the kid alone? Where was Ezra?
Chris saw the anguish on Buck's face and understood his pain. They were all linked to each other, even a certain wily gambler, and there was no turning back. Their friendship was worth any amount of heartache that life threw their way.
Josiah sat somberly in a chair on the other side of the bed. His gray eyes cast a reproachful gaze over the other lawmen. He, too, wondered about Ezra's absence. He heard the fighting outside the clinic door and if he hadn't been holding the broken body of the youngest lawman he would have intervened. He knew the others would not soon forgive the gambler for this indiscretion. But why did Ezra leave JD unprotected?
Josiah had faith. He believed he had glimpsed the real Ezra Standish. He saw a man who yearned to care for others and to experience that concern in return. But Ezra was fighting a lifetime of mistrust and abuse from strangers and family alike. His profession created its own form of prejudice, forcing him to maintain a mask of apathy. Josiah sensed the gambler was looking for a home, just like the rest of them.
Vin walked over to the window and peered out the dirty glass. He saw movement near the livery and watched Ezra emerge from the stable and head out of town. He folded his arms across his chest and observed horse and rider sink into the desert landscape. Vin now knew he had waited too long to intercede between his three friends. Why had he hesitated?
He looked at the darkly dressed gunslinger; the man was like a brother. Chris didn't fully trust the conman, and Vin wondered if Chris's doubts had clouded his own belief. They should have given Ezra a chance to explain, but tempers were hot, and when it came to the gambler Buck and Chris were likely to act first and question later. Vin wiped a hand across his face as he looked at the town he called home. Would Ezra ever be able to call it home as well?
JD stirred. The other five lawmen all shifted positions, too, their focus locked on the young man. His chin lifted, his back arched and his eyes squeezed shut tight. His soft, pain filled gasp filled the room with a nearly soundless aria that pierced the men's senses. As one, they took a step forward and JD opened his eyes for a moment.
"Buck?" It was more a breath than a word but they all heard it. "S-sorry...sorry, Buck."
In a heartbeat, Buck was back at the bedside. He slid his hand beneath JD's head. He meant to have a word with him, to tell the kid it was OK, ain't nothin' to be sorry for, but instead he just held JD steady while Nathan made the young sheriff drink. It was putrid-an awful smelling thing the healer dosed him with, but the kid didn't seem to know. He swallowed the stuff and when he opened his eyes again he was breathing easier.
JD locked his gaze with the ladies' man, his brows furrowed. This time it seemed the young Sheriff meant to have a stern word with Buck, but no sound emerged. He exhaled deeply and dropped into an acute, drug induced slumber. Buck set the kid's head back on the pillow and plowed his now free hand through the tangled mass of black hair.
Nathan grasped Buck's shoulder again. "Let him be now, Buck. Ya hear me?" Buck stood and moved to join the men at the foot of the bed. "Y'all get out now. Let him rest." Nathan took a step toward the group, herding them out the door. "He's gonna make it. He'll be up and pesterin' y'all with his sorry jokes before ya know it." Nathan closed the door behind the lawmen and leaned over JD's small form.
"Please, Lord." He whispered. "Help him survive this."
The four gunslingers sauntered into the saloon stopping at the first table that crossed their path. Vin continued to the bar and grabbed a bottle of whiskey and four glasses. He slid the stuff onto the table and fell heavily into a chair. He stretched his arms over his head trying to relieve the tightness that had settled into his shoulders.
Buck grabbed the bottle. Forgoing the glass he took a long draw on the fiery liquor. Now that his fear for JD had lessened, he needed something to burn away the remorse that was starting to gnaw his insides.
"Two got away," Vin removed his hat and placed it on the table. He grabbed the bottle of whiskey from Buck and filled a glass.
"We'll go after 'em tomorrow," Chris replied. At the moment, he really didn't care about two inept outlaws. He cared about his friends. They were more than a crew of gunslingers paid to protect a town, they were family. Chris picked up the shot that Vin poured for him and studied the dark amber liquid. Did Ezra feel it? Did he want to be a part of them? He hadn't left town when his thirty days were up. Chris had to believe that Ezra was searching for some meaning, some purpose to his life, just like the rest of them.
"What happened?" Vin asked. Chris looked over his glass at the tracker.
"What'cha mean?" Exhausted, Buck was already feeling the effects of the drink on his empty stomach. It had been a long day already and it was only noon. He might have to agree with Ezra, they didn't get paid enough. This unexpected consensus caused him to grab the bottle of whiskey and take another swallow.
Vin leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of him on the table. He looked sternly at Buck. "You think Ezra ran out on JD, don't you?" Vin's glare dared the mustached cowboy to answer. "I don't believe that. There must have been a reason..."
"Sure there's a reason," Buck snapped back. "But it better be a damn good one."
"Buck, JD's a big boy. We all watch out for him, sure, but..." Chris paused and tossed back the shot of whiskey he held. He had seen the undisguised concern on Ezra's face at the clinic. Ezra wouldn't just leave the kid. "JD knows the dangers of being a lawman. He takes the same chances we all do."
"You think JD expects someone to hold his hand?" Vin threw back another shot.
Buck stared back at the young tracker and then looked over at Chris as he released a long tired breath.
"Ah, Hell." When it came to Ezra, it was hard to know what to think. They had been working together for over a month now, and Ezra was always there to back them up, except for that incident at the Seminole village. Was that first mistake still influencing his feelings toward the southerner? "He better have a good explanation," Buck muttered.
"Saw Ez ride out. He didn't have no packs, probably just needed some breathin' space," Vin drove the knife of guilt a little deeper into each of them.
"Don't you have anything to say, preacher?" Chris asked. When it came to Ezra, Josiah was usually the first defender.
"I believe I'll wait until all the evidence is in," Josiah replied. He threw back a shot of whiskey himself and slammed the glass on the table, daring any of them to answer.
Mary pushed open the bat-wing doors and stepped into the saloon. The town's people were cleaning up the mess left from the gunfight, which included burying the dead outlaws. She had gathered information about the unfortunate death of John Berman, the only civilian casualty. She heard that JD had been shot, and prayed she wouldn't be adding to her obituary page. The sight of the four somber lawmen yanked her heart into her throat.
"Chris, is JD alright?"
Chris looked up as the newswoman crossed the floor and stopped in front of the table.
"Yeah," Chris quickly assuaged her fears. "Nathan thinks he's going to make it,"
"Oh, thank goodness," Mary breathed, bringing her hand to her throat and feeling her quick pulse. She realized that she looked a sight, and tried to shake the dust from her skirt. Her green eyes momentarily locked on Chris's blue ones. She broke her gaze, annoyed at the feelings that Chris Larabee stirred inside her whenever she was near him.
Suddenly, she ceased her feminine maintenance. "Now, is anyone going to remove that man?" She figured in all the confusion and worry over JD that Ezra forgot to mention the outlaw tied up in her office. Mary glanced around the saloon looking for Ezra.
"What man?" Buck's brow furrowed, drawing his brows together.
"The one that caused Mr. Standish to throw himself into the Clarion and save me from abduction." Mary smiled then, remembering the filth the gambler tried to dust off his jacket.
"The one who's tied up in my office,"
Buck's face fell "I don't want to hear it, preacher!" He stood and grabbed his hat, avoiding the preacher's I-told-you-so expression and followed Mary out of the saloon.
When Mary and the four lawmen entered the office the young brigand was struggling to free himself.
"Ah hell," Buck wiped a hand down his face. "Why didn't Ezra say anything?"
"We didn't exactly give him a chance," Chris said. They had all been so worried about JD that emotions were racing like a runaway train--out of control--and the only way to stop a runaway is to crash it. Unfortunately, the gambler was at the end of the line.
Vin glared at the outlaw who smiled arrogantly back. He couldn't have been much older than JD, but looked like he had seen and done it all, and most of it probably wasn't very nice.
"Well, it's 'bout time someone got here," the outlaw sneered. "Hey, where's that dandy who jumped me? Ain't this considered cruel and unusual punishment? I have my rights you know...You all ain't goin' to be able to hold me..."
"Shut up!" Chris growled.
"Well, I guess only one got away," Vin said.
"I think I've seen a poster on this one," Buck said, staring into the outlaw's smiling and bruised face. "Bryce Rosen, I believe."
"That's me," Bryce nodded. "Wanted all over this here territory. If'n you all are smart you'll let me go, cause my pa is James Rosen, THE James Rosen," he stressed.
"Damn, this one likes to talk more than JD," Buck said, using his boot to push the haughty outlaw over.
Bryce laughed spitefully as he struggled to sit back up. He had hoped to get the pretty newswoman and use her as a hostage so he and his men could get away. It would have worked too, if'n that fancy pants hadn't jumped him. It was just his dumb luck.
"I've heard of James Rosen," Josiah said. "Was familiar with his criminal activities down south years back. Thought he was dead."
"No sir, my pa is alive and kickin' and he ain't gonna take kindly to this, no sir."
Chris rolled his eyes at the young man's boasting. "Let's get him locked up."
"You all are making a big mistake," Bryce stated as Vin cut the ropes that bound his legs. Buck reached down and brought the young outlaw roughly to his feet, expending some of his anger.
"Son, we've been making mistakes all day. What's one more?"
Bryce's face fell as he tried to figure out Buck's meaning.
"What about Ezra?" Vin asked as Buck and Josiah led Bryce to the jail.
Chris stopped in the doorway of the Clarion and rubbed his eyes. He wondered if Ezra had left for good, but figured he wouldn't leave without knowing for certain that JD was alive. They would have to keep their eyes open. He'd be back.
"If he ain't here in a couple of hours, we'll go lookin' for him. Let's give things a chance to cool down. I don't want us pulling any more guns on each other."
James Rosen paced atop a mesa a mile south of Four Corners. He was a tall, robust man, barely feeling his fifty years. He still stood straight and strong and only the lines on his face gave any indication of age. His men gave him a wide berth as he tried to quench his anger. He watched the town carefully, his eyes glistening with a bitter wrath. His son had disobeyed him--again. The plan had been to scout ahead and check out the town first. Then they'd all take the bank together. The seven gunslingers were a surprise-just the kind of information that Bryce should have been scouting for, the fool! Instead he had played right into their hands. Only one man had escaped; and he was an even bigger fool than his son was.
Nick Farley stood off to the side, his hands hitched in his gun belt, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. He didn't want to incur the old man's wrath. He was as nasty as his son and Nick knew he was in for a world of hurt.
James stopped in front of the trembling man. "Tell me again---what happened?"
Nick swallowed the lump that blocked his ability to speak. James Rosen continued to glare with diminishing patience. He didn't like cowards.
"Umm," Nick began, his eyes shifting back and forth, searching for an ally but not finding one. "Them lawmen were like an army. We didn't have no chance. I seen Bryce go into a building and a fancy dressed fella ambushed him."
James rubbed his chin and then folded his arms across his chest. "What happened next?"
"Bullets were flyin' every wheres, boss! I shot everything I had. The other boys were all layin' in the street, dead. If I hadn't hid, I would be dead too," Nick's mind raced as he tried to rationalize his own existence. "I got myself hid behind a wagon. Think I got one of 'em. He had a bead on me 'a course-but I was faster than he was." Nick spit at the ground and kicked at it. "Yes, sir. Shot him right in the heart."
Rosen turned his back and slowly paced in front of Farley.
"Mr. Rosen, I reckoned I best get back here and tell you what happened," Nick tried to sound righteous.
James glared at the young man. "Did you see my son get shot?"
"No sir, I didn't hear no gunshots and after awhile the fancy dresser came out. I figured Bryce was captured."
The older man pursed his lips as he came to a halt. Would his son ever learn? Bryce was rash and headstrong, wrapped with a mean streak, making him one of the most wanted men in the territory. James had hoped that Bryce wouldn't follow in his footsteps but at the same time, he was proud of his son. The older Rosen scratched his neatly trimmed beard. He had been the same way some twenty odd years ago, but he never took the dim-witted chances that his son did.
James bowed and shook his head. If Bryce were alive, he'd find a way to save the kid from the hangman's noose.
"Hey! Look over here!" Frank McClure's voice echoed off the dry mesa. "Here comes somebody from town---ridin' fast." McClure was standing just over a rise of sheer rock. It was an excellent vantagepoint and he could see clear back to Four Corners.
"And ain't he a flashy dresser, just like a peacock." McClure was delighted and couldn't resist taking aim at the man. He felt like a kid shooting a tin duck at the St. Louis fairgrounds. The barrel of his gun traced the rider's straight path across the desert.
"It's him!" Nick Farley was stunned. His luck was changing. "That's the lawman that ambushed Bryce! I'd know 'im anywheres!"
James stopped in his tracks and squinted at the distant horse and rider. "Wing 'im, McClure. He might come in handy."
Ezra urged his horse faster; feeling the power of the animal under him, hoping the exhilarating speed would chase away the ache in his soul. He knew he could never run far enough to bring himself any peace or find the answers he needed. Four Corners had become the closest thing to a home he'd ever known. He was not ready to give that up but maybe the decision wasn't his to make. He had been chased out of towns before.
Ezra had been taught to wall his feelings into a neat little pen. Occasionally, one would escape. He would regret that, of course, because when they did, they always got hurt. He would recapture his stray feelings, cage them, and keep a tighter guard. But the corralled emotions were changing: six men were slowly taming those feelings and allowing them to exist in freedom.
Ezra stared off at the straight-lined horizon; it looked like he could ride off the edge. He would stay; he would not be so easily run out of this town. The decision gave him a little peace.
McClure's bullet tore through Ezra's shoulder, shattering his fragile resolve. He careened backward over his horse's flanks. His hip struck the ground first, and sent a searing agony through his leg. That pain deadened the torment when his head slammed the ground.
"Damn it, Frank, I wanted him alive," Rosen watched the gambler somersault off the horse and land in a tangled heap on the ground.
"He's alive." Frank sneered, taking affront at Rosen's lack of confidence in his marksmanship. "Unless his neck got broke in that fall."
James glared at the sharpshooter. McClure was the only man that could get away with such disrespect. His expertise with a rifle had earned him that privilege.
"Farley!" Rosen bellowed. "You and McClure go git that sack of shit and bring him to me." He paced petulantly while the two men mounted their horses. "Alive, you idiots! I want him alive!"
Rosen treaded the dry mesa. His boots crunched loose rock in the silence that followed the horses' departure. In the distance he could see a colorful red jacket on the crumpled body. If Bryce wasn't dead yet, maybe this lawman was the key to getting him back without further bloodshed. Not that he shied away from bloodshed, damn it. He was just getting too old for this. He wanted to ride down to the Rio Grande. The only fight he dreamed of now was in the arms of his feisty senorita. Let Bryce run his own gang of marauders. Once this was done, and his son was safe, he was through.
McClure reached the man first and used the toe of his boot to hoist the limp body up and flip it over.
"Be careful, McClure!" Farley demanded. He didn't want to piss off Rosen by bringing back a corpse. He knelt next to the gambler, lifted his head and gently slapped his cheek. He was out like a light but definitely breathing. Farley let the auburn head drop back to the desert floor and took hold of the white shirt. He ripped it off the left side of the man's chest, yanking it past his shoulder to expose the bleeding bullet wound.
"See Farley!" McClure chuckled, "I winged him, just like the boss told me to."
Farley pulled the shirt down the man's back and rolled him forward, scraping Ezra's face against the rocky earth. The bullet's exit hole oozed a steady stream of dark blood. The outlaw used his knife to cut strips from the linen shirt and pack the wound. Ezra felt the pressure and grunted. He tried to sit up but Farley effortlessly shoved him back to the ground and finished binding the wound. There wasn't much left of the shirt but Farley pulled the man's jacket back into place over the bandages.
"Is that it, then?" McClure asked. "His neck ain't broken?"
"How the hell do I know, McClure?" Farley gathered Ezra's arms together and pinned his wrists. McClure tossed him a length of rope and it was quickly knotted in place.
"I ain't no doctor. But I can see he's alive for now, so let's git him back to Rosen, quick." The two men lifted Ezra and tossed him across Farley's horse. The horse smelled fear and tried to sidestep from the group but Farley leapt up and took the reins.
"Wait!" McClure called. He stooped, picked up Ezra's low crown hat abandoned in the dust, and handed it to Farley. "He's gonna need that-goes real nice with the new shirt you made 'im."
Ezra slowly surfaced from the depths of oblivion. His head throbbed. With great effort he opened his eyes. He could see thick ropes tightly knotted. He blinked and tried to study the knots but a pounding wave of pain wrapped his mind. When he attempted to comprehend the scene again he saw that his own hands were bound and he flexed his fingers. He hissed as a sharp pain spiked in his shoulder. His right leg was numb. He wasn't sure if he should be grateful or afraid.
"Ah, welcome back. I wasn't sure you'd ever wake up," James Rosen said as he knelt in front of the injured conman.
Ezra swallowed and tried to focus, but could only manage a blurred, shimmering image. He trembled as a breeze cut through his shredded linen shirt. Blood stained the tattered strips of the fine white garment and Ezra frowned. Damn. Another shirt ruined.
"Don't worry," Rosen said. "The bullet went clean through and we stopped the bleedin'. Frank here..." Rosen looked over his shoulder at the sharpshooter. "...is a right fine shot."
Ezra stared at the older man, incredulous. Did he expect a thank you?' "And who...might you be, sir?" Ezra rasped as he struggled to sit up.
"The name's James Rosen." He reached out and helped the gambler lean against a tree.
Ezra glanced at the small encampment. The blurred shapes of several others huddled around a campfire. Gawd, he wished his vision would clear. The confusion was making him nauseous.
"May I inquire...as to the reason...I have been so ill-treated?"
"You sound like a southerner." Rosen handed Ezra a canteen of water and let him take a drink. James found it hard to believe that this citified dandy was a lawman, but then from what Nick had told him, all seven men were a little out of the ordinary.
"You one a them lawmen?"
Ezra stared at the man over the container. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and lowered his bound hands. There was no reason to lie; it was clear these men already knew. "Yes, I have been appointed a temporary peacekeeper."
"Farley here says you ran into my son in one a them buildings. Is he still alive?"
Ezra had to think a moment. "Was your son one of the miscreants who unwisely attempted to rob the bank?"
"Yeah, sort of overeager." Rosen smiled. "He was suppose to wait for me and the boys, but you know kids; they never listen to their elders," James paused. "So, is he alive?"
"Will you believe me if I say yes?"
James Rosen sat back on his heels and stared at the smooth-talking lawman. He dressed like a gambler, and talked like a gambler and Rosen had never met a gambler he trusted, but what choice did he have? He had to believe that Bryce was still alive.
"We're gonna ransom you, boy. Trade you for my son." Rosen could see the statement had shaken the gambler. "You better hope the kid is still breathin'."
Ezra choked on the water as a harsh chortle burst from his mouth. The laugh turned immediately into a strangled cough that sent tendrils of pain throughout his body. He clenched his teeth and reminded himself to abstain from a sense of humor when he was injured.
"Hey, take it easy! I need you alive."
Ezra breathed through the pain and slowly gained control. "Sir, you are delusional. Why would the other lawmen want me back when they already have that lowlife in their clutches? There's no need for a trade."
Rosen's face darkened. He hadn't thought of that. He didn't know what this man meant to the town, if anything. "Now, there ain't no reason for name calling. Bryce is a good boy."
Ezra chuckled as much as his pain would allow. "Of course, look at the standards to which he aspires." Ezra stared at the blurred image of the aged outlaw. He had heard of James Rosen. The gunslinger had surely murdered an undue number of innocent citizens, but of course, it was never proven. There were never any witnesses that would testify.
Rosen wasn't sure he understood what the gambler said, but the tone was insulting enough. He suddenly booted the impudent man with great satisfaction. Ezra fell to his side and struggled for air. Spasms of pain raced through his leg. He gasped when oxygen finally found its way into his lungs.
"You better be worth it, or I'll send you back in pieces." Rosen stomped over to the group of men near the campfire. He addressed them all, knowing his orders would be fulfilled. "Git that white shirt off 'im. I'm gonna need it."
Ezra remained on his side, his head resting in the sand. He prayed for the pain to subside. Worth it? The words echoed in his head. Was he worth it to Chris Larabee?
The long shadows cast by the afternoon sun moved across the quiet town. Chris sat outside the saloon; his feet propped on a railing and his eyes on the street. Where are you, Standish? His patience was stretched tight.
"We should go after him." Chris had not heard the tracker come out to the porch and it surprised him to hear his own thoughts spoken. He shifted his gaze to Vin and nodded. He eased the chair onto four legs and stood, stretching his stiff back.
"Rider comin' in." Vin tilted his chin, indicating a lone horseman coming toward them. The man went by the church at a leisurely pace and as he passed the jail he turned and inspected it carefully.
"Hey, Pa!" Bryce yelled. The young Rosen gripped the bars on the window of the jailhouse and peered out. "I told these lame lawmen that you'd be coming to get me out! They didn't believe me."
"They treatin' you alright, boy?"
"The food ain't bad," Bryce yelled out. "But I've slept on better rocks."
James smiled and continued up the street. He reined his horse to a stop in front of Vin and Chris. One glance told him these were the men he would deal with.
"I reckon' you know who I am and why I'm here," Rosen said calmly.
"Reckon I do," Chris replied. "Your son pretty much gave us his life story."
James chuckled. "Yeah, he is a bit of a bragger." His face turned serious, the weathered lines deepening. "What will it take to git my boy released?"
"Your son is under arrest for the cold-blooded murder of John Berman. He ain't goin' no where. What happens to him is up to the judge."
Rosen pursed his lips and casually spit in the street. This definitely complicated matters. He didn't know Bryce had killed someone, and worse, he had left witnesses. James leaned on his saddle horn. He knew his son's days were numbered, and that he would probably die young, but James Rosen would delay that day for as long as possible. He was his father after all.
"Don't suppose there's any way I could change your mind?" Rosen asked, flashing a crooked smile. His comment was met with silence.
"Didn't think so," Rosen licked his lips and scratched his beard. "Well, I might have somethin' that'll alter your thinkin'." Rosen reached into his saddlebag and froze when he heard the quick click of a cocking gun. Buck stepped out slowly from the shadow of the saloon door, his gun held high. "No fancy moves now, Gramps. Looks to me like the acorn don't fall far from the tree."
Rosen met Buck's glare and slowly pulled out a piece of white cloth, dropping it on the ground.
Vin stepped around Buck and picked up the material. His fist clenched tight around the bloody shirt. "It's Ezra's."
"You sonofabitch..." Buck growled as he lunged at the old cowboy.
Chris intercepted Buck's charge and shoved him back. "Wait, Buck, let's hear him out."
Rosen smiled reasonably. "It's simple. A trade: your man for my son," He figured he would get his son and head for Mexico for a spell until things cooled off.
Vin studied the bloodied white shirt that Rosen had brought. He poked his finger through the bullet hole.
"How do I know he's still alive?" Chris asked.
"You don't," Rosen sneered, all pretense of good humor erased from his face. "I want my son brought to Devil's rock tomorrow morning. We'll trade there an hour after sunrise. If you don't show, I'll send you what's left of your man in a box."
Rosen reined his horse and turned back up the street. "Anyone who follows me is a dead man." James Rosen casually rode out of town.
"Damn it!" Buck slammed his fist against the porch post. "This never woulda happened if'n we hadn't chased Ez away." Buck took a step back and faced his friends. "If I hadn't chased him away."
"We're all responsible," Chris said.
Vin nodded once in agreement and carefully folded the ruined shirt. "I'm gonna have a look around."
"Watch your back, pard." Chris knew the tracker wouldn't risk Ezra's life. "It'd help if we knew how many men Rosen had."
Vin handed the shirt to Chris and walked quickly to the livery.
Buck sighed audibly. "I'm goin' up to check on JD."
"Buck," Chris called out. "It ain't your fault."
"Try tellin' Ez that." Buck's shoulders slumped, and he turned and walked slowly toward the clinic stairs.