Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Chris strode through the swinging bar room doors with such force they banged against the walls on either side, causing the men inside the bar to jump. The menacing scowl on his harden face, told the six men sitting at two nearby tables that they really didn't want to know what Judge Travis had to say.
Chris sat in the chair that Vin kicked out to him. He grabbed the bottle of Whiskey, which sat in the center of the table and ignoring the shot glass took a long hard swig. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve he finally stated, "Well, it appears the Judge wants us to apprehend someone."
"Is that all?" Buck replied, noticeably relieved as he leaned back, tipping his chair back on two legs and lacing his fingers behind his head.
"And who is the unlucky miscreant?" Ezra asked.
Chris brought his eyes up. "Marcus Gonzales in Providence."
Buck's chair came forward with a bang, adding to the moans and profanity from everyone--except JD. Buck's jovial grin vanished from his face as he looked across the table at Chris hoping to see that this was some kind of joke. But then he knew Chris never joked. JD glanced around the table, confusion furrowing his brow.
"Whose Marcus Gonzales?" JD impatiently asked.
"Only the most notorious, murderous, cut-throat villain to walk the face of this planet," Ezra enlightened the young man, again wondering why he was in this business.
"Yeah, and just about everyone in Providence is part of his gang or wanted by the law," Buck added, grabbing the bottle of whiskey as he suddenly realized he needed a drink. This was turning into a real bad day.
"This is from the Territorial Governor," Chris continued. "He wants Gonzales brought in to stand trial. It appears they finally have a witness willing to talk. Someone who witnessed one of his many murders."
"And who is this stalwart and foolhardy soul?" Ezra asked, a smug smile lining his handsome face. He figured who ever it was would eventually recant their account or end up dead like the other so called witnesses.
"It's a sixteen year old girl. Gonzales murdered her whole family in front of her then raped her and left her for dead, only one problem, she lived. She's being protected, we just have to get Gonzales to Tucson."
Ezra's smug smile left his face as retribution for such a reprehensible deed vanquished any thought of not wanting to help.
"Well, if a sweet young angel can do this after what she's been through, we certainly can do ours," Josiah sadly intoned. He couldn't imagine what that child must have gone through, but if bringing Gonzales' to justice would help her tortured soul, so be it. It would certainly help his.
"When do we depart for this den of depravity?" Ezra asked in a strong determined voice, which caused Larabee to look over at him. Chris smiled faintly at the enigmatic gambler knowing he had a soft spot for children.
+ + + + + + +
It took a day of hard riding to reach the town of Providence. It had been established a couple years ago by a group of Mormons, until Gonzales and his gang took up residence, chasing or killing all the decent folks. Gonzales' was a despicable, ungainly man who took great pleasure in torturing and belittling others. He was just shy of six foot and had a sickly appearance. Even with his mixed heritage of Spanish and Apache, Gonzales' was always pale, which contrasted starkly with his black curly hair. His dark eyes looked like two black holes sunken beneath a heavy brow.
The seven lawmen set up camp outside of town, close enough where they could hear the gun shots and breaking glass of the nightly festivities. It was still a couple hours until sun up so they refrained from lighting a fire.
"Man, it's not even Friday night," Buck exclaimed listening to the wild laughter and screams coming from the corrupt town.
"Another Sodom," Josiah reflected.
"I guess it would be too much to hope that the Lord would extinguish this town for us too?" Ezra flippantly asked the ex-preacher.
"No Brother, Ezra, I think that's what we're for," Josiah replied with a devilish smile.
"Okay someone needs to get in there and find out where Gonzales is holed up and see what we're up against?" Chris asked, looking at the six dark shapes that surrounded him.
"I'll do it," Vin volunteered, stepping forward.
Chris then turned to the southern drawl coming from his right. "Mr. Larabee, it would be more prudent if I went. I would be a less threatening presence and as I understand it Mr. Gonzales is a man of chance," Ezra voiced, wondering again why he felt the need to always volunteer.
Chris nodded in agreement. JD was to young and the others looked too much like gunslingers. Ezra's gambler exterior, belied his resourceful and sometimes deadly nature. "We wait for first light."
+ + + + + + +
The sun had been up an hour and the town was quiet. JD started gathering wood since they thought it was now safe enough to start a small fire. Nathan passed out jerky and hard tack, which Ezra politely refused figuring he could get some decent food in town.
The suave cardsharp removed his guns and holsters and handed them to Josiah.
"What are you doing, are you crazy going in there unarmed?" Buck exclaimed.
"Mr. Wilmington, I'm just going to extract information, the less threatening I am the more forth coming they will be. And anyway, I still have this." Ezra patted his sleeve, which hid his small derringer.
"I want you back before nightfall," Chris stated rather sternly, but Ezra caught the concern in his sky blue eyes. Ezra tipped his hat to the sedate gunslinger and mounted his horse. Chris hated putting any of his men in danger, but especially alone. He knew that Ezra felt he always had to prove himself and Chris hoped he wasn't taking advantage of that fact. Him and Ezra still had their differences. The southerner's smart mouth and smug disposition, at times infuriated the scrupulous gunslinger. Nevertheless, Chris and him had managed to secure a precarious friendship, one both men seemed to enjoy, and Larabee wouldn't risk that.
Ezra rode into Providence, feigning a casual attitude, but keeping alert for any possible danger. The early morning sun rose higher in the sky, but a chill remained in the air, which was very refreshing. He casually surveyed the town with a gambler's eye, noting several men watching him from the roof tops. Two bodies cluttered the main street and he could see where several windows had been shot out. Ezra rode up to the stables. A young man hurriedly grabbed the reins. Ezra flipped the eager youth a coin then flashed another between his fingers. The boy's eyes lit up. "Could you direct me to Marcus Gonzales?"
"You can usually find him in the saloon, but not until later." The young man pointed to a building down the street. Ezra gave the young man the coin. Ezra first decided to try and find some food, hoping the debauched town at least held a decent restaurant.
+ + + + + + +
It was noon when Ezra walked into the grandiose drinking establishment. Glass chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling. The highly glossed bar ran down the length of the far wall, which shelved some of the finest liquors. An Asian rug covered the wide stair case. 'I'm definitely in the wrong business,' Ezra mused begrudgingly, impressed with the expensive decor. The saloon was occupied by several patrons, not all in an upright position, a couple, he weren't sure were even alive. All eyes turned to him as he entered, pulling his ruffled sleeves out from under his long-tail jacket. He stepped up to the bar, ignoring the glares in his direction, and ordered a bottle of whiskey. He turned around casting an experienced eye around the bar room and headed toward the nearest poker table taking an empty seat.
"Gentlemen, may I join you?" Ezra grinned wide enough to reveal his gold tooth. The four men glared warily at the slick gambler. An older, balding gentleman, who sat across the table, handed Ezra a deck of cards and watched in amazement as Ezra quickly shuffled and cut the cards.
The other poker players smiled. It had been a long time since any new blood had entered one of their games. "Nice of you to join us, ah..." one of the players hinted.
"Simpson, Ezra Simpson," he said as he dealt the cards.
The four gentlemen's grins left their faces as quickly as their money left their pockets. Ezra knew how to draw out a snake. He played and won for over three hours when a short blond man reeking of tobacco and whiskey came up next to him. This was what he'd been waiting for. The bait had been taken.
"Mr. Gonzales wants to see you," the blond said rather dryly.
Ezra looked up at the dirty man and wrinkled his nose. "Well, as you can see, sir, I'm right in the middle of a...." The four other players suddenly stood and left, much to Ezra's astonishment. He collected up his winnings and looked up at the blond man, a cocky grin appearing on his clean shaven face. "It seems my game has been discontinued, lead the way."
The blond led Ezra to a back room where Gonzales sat. He motioned the conman to join him. Ezra cautiously sat down, not liking the idea of having his back to the door. He kept a faint smile on his face.
"Senor, I've been told you are a good poker player," Gonzales asked, his accent thick and his smile revealing several missing teeth. Gonzales looked the gambler up and down, figuring him for a professional.
"Well, with what I've encountered so far that has not been to difficult to accomplish, Mr. Gonzales."
Gonzales chuckled. "Ah, you have heard of me. I've been hoping for a more, how you say, experienced player, and that would be?"
"Ezra Simpson, and I believe I can give you a game you won't forget." Ezra's smile matched the glint in his emerald eyes. For another hour, the two men talked and played. Gonzales' false sense of security and confidence bordered on the divine allowing Ezra to extract vital information from the arrogant outlaw; the liquor didn't hurt any either.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra returned to camp late that afternoon, much to everyone's relief, which still surprised him. He wasn't used to anyone caring about whether he lived or died, much less if he returned safely. However, these men seemed to genuinely care about his well being, and he cared about theirs. He had laughed at Josiah's remark once about the Seven of them being fated to follow the same destiny. He had attributed the delusion to the liquid spirits the ex-preacher sometimes prayed to. Now, as he felt the flood of relief from these men he wasn't so sure.
"So, what did you find out?" Chris asked. Ezra sat down leaning up against a fallen log and stretching out his legs. Vin handed him a cup of coffee.
"The whole town is dirty, but Gonzales only has about twenty five men who are loyal, and at the moment, only about a dozen are in town." This brought a serious smile to Chris' somber face. "There are four men on the roof tops at either end of town, and Gonzales has a body guard," Ezra continued, taking a sip of the hot coffee.
Chris rubbed his chin, feeling the day's growth of beard. "Okay we need to get close to Gonzales. If we can get him alone then find someplace to hole up until just before morning we should be able to escape," Chris suggested.
"I have a game with Senor Gonzales at eight tonight. I don't think you can get much closer than that," Ezra proudly replied.
Chris stared at Ezra in disbelief. He hated putting the roguish conman in danger, but realized he had little choice. JD nudged Buck in the ribs a huge smile on his boyish face. Ezra never ceased to amaze the young sheriff. Josiah smiled; he knew Ezra was as surprised as everyone at his recent rash of selfless exploits.
"They have a jail, for what reason I cannot possibly fathom. I believe that would be a discreet rendezvous spot," Ezra added picking up a stick and drawing a crude map of the town in the dirt. The other six gunslingers knelt in a circle around the conman. They studied the crude drawing as Ezra denoted the stables, saloon and jailhouse and their relation to each other. He also showed where the guards were.
Chris stood and began pacing around the small camp trying to think out all the angles. He stopped in front of Ezra. "Can you keep Gonzales busy for a few hours while we even up the odds a little?"
Ezra nodded. "Not a problem." A half smile came to the gambler's clean shaven face.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra, Marcus Gonzales and three other gentlemen sat at a large table in the back of the saloon. Marcus Gonzales sat to Ezra's right. They had been playing for over two hours and Ezra had won most of the hands, but Marcus Gonzales had also won his share.
Gonzales was thoroughly enjoying himself. He enjoyed the competition, and the fancy dressed gambler was definitely giving him a challenge. He always thought he was good at reading people, but he couldn't discern the smooth talking southerner. This worried him at first, but then he remembered that if he lost too much money he'd just kill the man and take it back. Gonzales had emptied the saloon so they could have a quiet and uninterrupted game. Ezra couldn't believe his luck sometimes.
Everyone paused as the small blond man, who was known as Tigh, stepped up to Gonzales. "Boss, there's rumor that lawmen are coming for you."
Gonzales nodded and waved him off, unconcerned. He knew most of his men were out of town, but he still had plenty of men left and no lawmen were going to get that close to him. He looked over at Ezra who shuffled the cards, his face exhibiting an impassive expression to the knowledge he overheard.
Ezra started dealing out the next hand. "Five card stud, aces wild."
Gonzales picked up the cards in front of him. "So Mr. Simpson, where do you come from?"
Ezra looked at his cards and answered, "Well, Senor as you have probably deduced from my accentuation I herald from the great south, the Carolina's to be specific." Ezra threw down two cards. Gonzales stared at the learned southerner, not sure he understood what he said as he too threw down two cards.
"What brings you west, Mr. Simpson?" a wiry looking, middle aged man who sat across the table asked. He was staring hard at his cards causing Ezra to smile.
"Well, mostly for my health. I had the misfortune of playing poker with a wealthy Magistrate who didn't take to kindly to losing." Gonzales and the others broke into laughter.
+ + + + + + +
The six lawmen waited for the cover of darkness before entering the town. They split themselves into two groups, planning on meeting up at the jail. Buck and Vin went off to secure the jail house. JD, Chris, Nathan and Josiah were going to quietly take out as many of Gonzales' men as they could then they were going to make their way to the saloon.
Ezra was actually enjoying himself, Gonzales might have been the worse tyrant around, but he was one of the best poker players Ezra had come across in a long time.
A dark hair man rushed into the saloon ignoring the other men in the room as he nervously interrupted, "Boss, Jake, Harold and Mac are missing from their posts."
Gonzales' glared up at his man, his dark brows coming together to form one shaggy brow across his forehead. Gonzales stood and walked over to the bar and out of earshot.
Ezra smiled inwardly, but remained indifferent. Chris and the others were whittling down the odds.
Gonzales returned to the table and the dark haired man exited the saloon. "Is there a problem, Mr. Gonzales?" Ezra drawled, trying to hide his amusement.
"No, no problem." Marcus Gonzales slowly resumed his seat, but his eyes now showed his sudden apprehension. "My men probably decided to leave their posts to party, for which they'll seriously regret." Gonzales' mind was no longer on the game and Ezra just continued to absently shuffle the deck.
+ + + + + + +
The sound of gunfire brought Gonzales once again to his feet and caused the other poker players to scurry out the back leaving Gonzales, Tigh and Ezra alone in the bar room. Ezra leaned back in his chair enjoying the sudden fear on Gonzales' face. Marcus Gonzales had had it too good for to long. He couldn't believe anyone could take him.
Josiah, Chris, Nathan and JD had managed to take out four of the guards and were trying to make their way to the stables. As they crossed by an alleyway, shots rang out. The four gunslingers scattered and took cover. Chris swore they were now known. JD ran down the alley taking cover behind several crates, his guns drawn, trying to locate someone to shoot. He didn't hear the footsteps behind him or feel the butt of a gun crack him over the back of the head.
Gonzales started pacing the floor, walking over to the window then back to the bar, seeming to have forgotten about the gambler. Ezra smiled and ejected his derringer under the table. He got up and casually made his way over to Gonzales. Tigh was at the other end of the bar holding on to a bottle of red-eye as if it might be the last one he ever had.
Gonzales saw several of his men running across the street and they heard shots. "Damn, they're close," Gonzales absently remarked, as Ezra came up behind him.
Ezra leaned in next to the man's ear and whispered, "Closer than you realize." The sound of the cocking derringer caused Gonzales to freeze and his heart to miss a beat. Ezra quickly removed Gonzales' gun. He shot a glance toward Tigh who was going for his gun. Ezra shot the blond bodyguard between the eyes with Gonzales' gun.
Ezra shoved his derringer into Gonzales' side halting any ideas he might have of trying to escape. "Now, let's just relax for a bit. I have some friends I'd like you to meet." Ezra hoped the others were okay and that they hurried and secured the town.
After twenty minutes and several short gun battles, two men entered the saloon, dragging JD between them. Ezra remained seated. The two men didn't notice the cardsharp at first until he spoke, "Drop him Gentlemen...Gently, or end up like your friend." They saw that Ezra held two guns, one pointed at their leader and the other at them. They also saw Tigh's motionless body. The two men regarded each other for a moment deciding none of this was worth dieing for. They laid the young sheriff gently on the floor then stepped back, keeping their hands in the air.
JD stirred and moaned slightly.
Ezra didn't move toward the young man having to cover the three outlaws. "Mr. Dunne, you need to come to your senses now!" Ezra called to him, hoping the young gunslinger was not seriously injured. Gonzales tried to step closer, but Ezra snapped his menacing green eyes upon him staring him back. JD sat up and rubbed the back of his head looking up at Ezra who smiled at the bewildered young man.
"Please take those gentlemen's guns and come over here," Ezra voiced rather sternly hoping to cut through the young sheriff's haze. JD quickly came to his senses and removed the guns from the two men, who had dragged him in. He moved over to Ezra's side.
"How are our compatriots doing, Mr. Dunne?"
JD blinked and tried to focus on the two outlaws. "Buck and Vin got to the jail. I was trying to get to the stables with the others when I was waylaid."
"Well, don't take this the wrong way, but I'm glad you could join me." Ezra chanced a quick smile to the young easterner.
"Glad I can help, Ez." There were times when the young gunslinger felt he was not up to being a part of the Seven, but when he received a compliment from one of them that doubt vanished. He knew he was young and inexperienced, but the others trusted him and that meant a lot especially in this business.
Marcus Gonzales' face was crimson with rage as he quietly fumed, realizing that he been set up by a two-bit gambler and a boy. "You're a dead man," he sneered at Ezra. He couldn't believe he had been fooled by this conman. Who would have suspected a gambler to be lawman?
"JD, how many times have I heard that dire statement?" Ezra sarcastically asked the young sheriff, who played along giving him a lopsided smile.
JD cocked his head and pretended to think about it. "Oh, that has to be five hundred," he said with a grin. "If you count how many times Chris threatens you in a week."
After several quiet minutes had past Ezra decided to make the first move. He knew he needed to get Gonzales to the jail where everyone was to meet. They had planned on leaving town before daylight. It was already after midnight. If they were still here at daybreak they wouldn't stand a chance of escaping.
JD tied the two outlaws to a post in the center of the saloon. "Hey you two are lucky, we only want your boss," JD quipped, giving the rope a tight jerk.
Ezra tied Gonzales' hands in front of him, ignoring the malevolent expression on the outlaw's pale features.
"Okay Mr. Dunne, I'll keep Senor Gonzales covered and you'll watch my back. We're going to walk right out of here," Ezra explained. He hoped Gonzales' men respected, or at least feared him enough to not risk getting him shot.
Ezra came up close to Gonzales' back and shoved his gun into it. The three men stepped out onto the boardwalk.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra placed his gun to Marcus' head. "Now Mr. Gonzales, please inform your cohorts to hold their fire or I will put a bullet in you," Ezra simply stated, his eyes darting back and forth trying to see anything within the dark recesses of the nearby buildings. The jail was only three buildings down.
Gonzales yelled out in Spanish to his unseen men. Ezra prodded Gonzales forward. The three slowly made their way toward the jail. Ezra tensed for a moment, expecting a bullet and relieved when none materialized.
Buck and Vin watched from the jail as the three men made their way toward them. They had a low burning lantern sitting on the floor and five of Gonzales' men tied up in the jail cells. Vin readied his mare's leg as Buck checked his own ammunition, his heart pounding in fear for his two friends. He swallowed hard when he saw JD. He cared deeply for the young man, like a younger brother. He didn't want anything to happen to him.
From the stables, Chris, Josiah and Nathan also watched what was transpiring. "They have Gonzales," Nathan stated in a low voice. Chris smiled, he was glad to see JD; he had worried for the young sheriff when they had become separated.
Ezra and Gonzales reached the boardwalk in front of the jail. When Gonzales put his foot on the wooden walkway, he turned and shouted something in Spanish. Shots seemed to come from every direction. Ezra returned fire, aiming for the gun flashes, rewarded with a string of profanity from some hidden soul. The jail door flew open and JD shoved Gonzales inside. Vin and Buck jumped out on the boardwalk firing.
Ezra felt the bullet rip into his side taking him to the ground. He rolled over onto his stomach and continued shooting. Josiah grabbed Chris stopping him from going to the conman's aid. Ezra felt someone grab him by the collar and hauled him to his feet, pulling him toward the jail. Buck and Ezra dove through the jail door and Vin slammed it shut. Both men lay on the floor gasping and trying to catch their breaths. Buck immediately turned to Ezra who was lying on his side, his eyes shut tight against the pain that flared from his side and spread throughout his body. Buck forced Ezra onto his back and ripped open his shirt, the buttons clicking on the wooden floor as they flew off.
"Damn Ezra! You attract bullets like some men attract lice," Buck stated, looking worriedly down at the hemorrhaging wound. He felt around on Ezra's back but found no exit wound.
"It must be my magnetic personality," Ezra hissed, the pain almost unbearable.
"Shit, we need Nathan," Buck said, trying to keep the growing fear out of his voice. JD had thrown Gonzales into a separate cell from his other men and returned to the window with Vin to keep an eye out.
"We have to get out of here before the rest of Gonzales' men return," Vin reminded them trying to see through the dark blanket of night and find Chris.
+ + + + + + +
Chris swore when he saw Ezra take a bullet and instinctively wanted to race to his side. Luckily, Josiah grabbed him, holding him back from this impulse. They all watched as Buck dragged the injured gambler inside. The shooting ceased as soon as the door closed. Chris suspected the outlaws were going to wait until dawn to attack.
"Chris, we need to get over there, there's no tellin' how bad he's hurt," Nathan uttered, his tone laced with concern. Nathan hated when one of them was injured and it drove him crazy when he could not be there to help.
+ + + + + + +
Buck helped Ezra slip out of his jacket and shirt and used it to apply pressure to the wound. Ezra inhaled sharply, and bit back the pain that flooded through him. "Sorry Ez." Ezra nodded in understanding, his jaw clenched trying to hold back the scream and the darkness that threatened to take him. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes. It was several minutes before Buck released the pressure and checked the wound. He had stopped the bleeding, but knew the bullet had to come out and soon. A sheen of perspiration had already formed on Ezra's handsome face; his eyes were glassy as he tried to focus. Buck brought his head up and gave him a couple sips of water. The wound felt like it was on fire. "Just rest, Ez." Buck went up to JD and Vin by the window. "We have to get Nathan. He's in bad shape."
It was over an hour and there was not a sound.
"Alright, we're going to make a break for it," Chris suddenly said and looked over his shoulder at his two friends.
"We're right behind you, brother," Josiah assured.
Vin kept watch, knowing that soon Chris would do something. The gunslinger had very little patient. When Chris, Josiah and Nathan dashed out from the stables, guns blazing, Buck and Vin rushed out onto the boardwalk giving them what cover they could. Everyone dove into the doorway panting then checking to make sure they were intact. Nathan rushed to Ezra's side, he was only barely conscious. Chris came over next to him and looked down at his pale friend. He looked over at the cell, which held Gonzales who smiled smugly.
"He doesn't look to good, eh," Gonzales chortled, he fell back into the cell when Buck charged it making a grab for the detestable man through the bars.
"If he dies scum bag, I'll personally drag your body all through this damn town," Buck threatened.
"You all think you'll leave here alive, ha!" Gonzales sat on the small cot bringing a leg up and placing his tied hands upon it. "
Chris squatted next to his injured friend. "Ah, Mr. Larabee," Ezra gasped. "So good of you to join us."
"Can't let you have all the glory, now can I?"
Chris put a hand on Ezra's shoulder feeling the heat coming off the southerner's body. He glanced over at Nathan.
"I have to remove the bullet. Josiah, I'll need your help."
Josiah took hold of Ezra's shoulders as Chris lay across his legs. Nathan gave Ezra a few swigs from his flask then poured some on the knife he was about to use. He nodded toward Chris and Josiah that he was ready. Ezra arched as Nathan's knife entered the wound probing, trying to find the bullet. Chris and Josiah applied more of their weight to keep the conman still. Ezra gritted his teeth, sweat streamed down his face. The bullet was deep and Nathan started worrying about shock. Ezra could no longer hold the scream that demanded to be released; it caused the others to jump. Then all was silent as he passed out from the pain. Nathan pulled the bullet out and poured the remaining whiskey on the wound. He then bandaged the wound and checked Ezra's pulse. Josiah rubbed his hand across the gambler's brow pushing back the sweat soaked hair.
"Will he be all right, Nathan?" Chris asked.
"Only if we don't move him."
Chris' eyes flashed up to him. "Nate, we can't stay here much longer."
"I know," Nathan said bowing his head. "We'll let him rest for as long as possible and just hope for the best."
Ezra started to shiver and the men threw their coats over him, hoping to keep him warm. Josiah slid in behind the shivering man, leaning him up against his chest. He wrapped his massive arms around him, trying to hold in his body heat. Josiah pulled the coats up to the conman's chin and Ezra finally settled into a deep sleep.
"You and your men won't get out of here," Gonzales intoned from the cot in his cell. "My men will hunt you down and slice you up into little itty bitty pieces." Everyone stared as Gonzales' maniacal laughter filled the room. "And I'll take great pleasure in cuttin' that one up myself," he sneered looking at Ezra.
Buck headed for the cell until Chris grabbed his shoulder. He glared at the nefarious outlaw. "If you don't shut up I'll put him in there with you," Chris said, nodding toward Buck, who scowled at Gonzales and wanted nothing better than to tear the man apart. Gonzales swallowed hard, opened his mouth then quickly reconsidered and shut it. The look in the mustached man's eyes was enough to send a shiver down Gonzales' spine.
+ + + + + + +
It was an hour before dawn. Chris had held off leaving for as long as possible to let Ezra get as much rest as possible, but it was time to go. They were going to use Gonzales to make their escape.
Chris entered Gonzales' cell and pulled the outlaw to his feet shoving him out the door. Vin took hold of him bringing his mare's leg up to his head, which brought a slight measure of fear to Marcus Gonzales' smug face. Nathan gently shook Ezra who moaned and tried to swipe his hand away. His face was flushed with fever. His eyes fluttered open, but it took a moment to focus. Ezra grimaced as Nathan and Josiah helped him to sit up. Nathan placed a canteen to his lips letting him drink as much as he could.
Chris knelt down in front of Ezra, placing his hand on his leg. He took in the gambler's pale complexion and blood shot eyes. "You up for leavin'?"
Ezra forced his head up, which felt like an anvil attached to his neck. "Do...I...have a...choice," he grimaced as pain engulfed him causing him to grow even more pale.
Chris could see that even a few words were tiring him out. He bowed his head hating to have to put the sly cardsharp through this, but there was no other choice. Buck came up next to Ezra and got his shoulder under his helping the conman to his feet.
"Easy Ez, let's take it slow," Buck said, feeling the man sway trying to get his feet under him.
Ezra grabbed his side then brought his eyes up to meet Buck's concern frown. He smiled and drew his gun bringing a grin to Buck's worried face.
"Okay, Vin, Josiah, take Mr. Gonzales out slowly, everyone else stay close until we reach the stables. The horses are still saddled and ready to go," Chris explained.
+ + + + + + +
Buck shifted slightly under Ezra's weight as the cardsharp tried to get his legs to take more of the burden. He felt so weak and cold. The seven lawmen and Gonzales left the safety of the jail and moved slowly across the street. The early gray of a new day was already lifting the shadows of the town. Ezra concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. It seemed to take an eternity, but they finally entered the darken stables, relieved to find their horses still there. Josiah and Vin put Gonzales on an extra horse tying his hands to the horn. Josiah took hold of the reins and mounted his horse. Buck and Nathan helped Ezra mount his own horse, which seemed to sense his master's pain. The animal stood motionless. The gambler leaned forward taking hold of his horse's mane as pain racked his body. He laid his head down taking deep breaths, hoping he wouldn't pass out. "Ezra, you'll never be able to stay on by yourself," Buck noted. Chris watched as Ezra grimaced, sitting gingerly back in the saddle. His knuckles were white over the horn.
"And, Mr. Wilmington, we'll never be able to out ride pursuit with two in a saddle. You'd be surprise what I can do with the right kind of incentive."
Buck knew he was right. Nathan moved up alongside the injured gambler planning on staying as close as he could. When everyone was mounted, Chris turned in his saddle. "Stay close we need to put as much distance as possible. I have no doubt Gonzales' men will try and follow us."
"Of that you can be sure of," Gonzales sneered.
+ + + + + + +
Chris spurred his horse and burst out of the stables, followed by the others. At first, there was no sound of gunfire. They had almost reached the last building when everyone heard the shots from behind them. Everyone tensed and hunched down spurring their mounts ever faster.
Ezra tried to concentrate on the movement of the horse and getting into the rhythm of the horse's gait. His side screamed in agony, making it hard to catch his breath. His wound had started to bleed again, but he wrapped his coat around himself to hide it. He didn't want everyone stopping because of him.
They rode hard for several miles, and then brought it down to a walk, giving the horses a chance to breath and cool down. Nathan looked over at Ezra who hung on to the saddle horn like a dog hung on to a bone. The healer couldn't even get Ezra's attention so intent he was on staying on his horse and following the man in front of him. Nathan hoped they would stop soon. He didn't think the stubborn gambler would last much longer.
+ + + + + + +
They managed to go another hour and were grateful for the cool breeze that sometimes flowed over them. Buck kept looking back at Ezra, who was slowly slumping forward in the saddle.
Nathan leapt from his horse as he saw Ezra slowly leaning to the right. He caught the unconscious man before he struck the ground.
"Chris! Hold up!" Buck called to the front. Chris stopped and turned in his saddle. He swore as he saw Nathan cradling Ezra's head on the ground. Josiah got off his horse and pulled Gonzales down, shoving him toward the others and forcing him to sit. Chris knelt down next to Nathan, who was trying to get Ezra to drink some water. His jacket fell open and Nathan swore as he looked at the bloody bandage.
"We'll rest here for a while. Vin, go and check out our rear," Chris said. Vin nodded and turned his horse around.
"You are never goin' to escape my men Larabee, especially with a wounded man," Gonzales muttered. Chris stood up and headed toward Gonzales intent on expelling his growing frustration on the malicious outlaw's face. He stopped when he heard Ezra's weak voice call him by his first name; this always scared the dark-clad gunslinger.
Chris returned to Ezra's side.
"As much...as I hate...to admit it, Mr. Gonzales is right. I'm endangering... all your lives." Ezra winced as Nathan applied pressure to the bleeding wound.
"Ezra, we're not leaving you," Buck cut in.
"Buck's right. We're in this together; we get out together," Chris said in a strong voice. Ezra's eyes fell shut and panic came to Chris' stone blue eyes. He motioned for Nathan and the two men stepped away. Buck took over trying to force a few more sips of water down the gambler's throat.
Chris and Nathan moved out of earshot. "How is he?" Chris never beat around the bush and he expected a straight answer too.
"I got the bleeding stopped, but I don't know how much more he can take. He's lost a lot of blood and has a fever. I think his stubbornness is the only thing keeping him going."
Chris removed his black hat and ran a hand through his sweat soaked blond hair. He saw Vin returning and went to meet him.
"They're still on our trail 'bout three miles back," Vin reported. He looked over at Ezra. "How's he doin'?"
"Not good," Chris replied. He went back over to Buck and Ezra. "Alright, they're about three miles back so we have to move." Chris looked over at JD. "JD, you think you can handle Ezra riding with you?"
"No!" Ezra shouted as he tried to sit up. "I will not risk Mr. Dunne's life." Ezra's eyes blazed.
"Damnit Ezra, you're too weak to stay on a horse. You and JD are the lightest, you'll ride Buck's horse, which is the strongest," Chris explained knowing he wouldn't be able to convince the stubborn southerner.
"I can ride, Mr. Larabee." Ezra grabbed Buck's arm and began to pull himself up. Chris motioned to Josiah, who knew what was about to happen. Chris remained silent; watching as his obstinate friend slowly shuffled his way over to his horse. When had the conman's own self-interests given way to concern for the six men he worked with? Ezra didn't want to risk anyone else's life for his, but he needed to realize that the six gunslingers surrounding him were willing to risk theirs for him. Chris was not about to let him throw his life away; it would be no different for any of them. They were a family, and family watched and protected each other, a concept Ezra had a hard time grasping.
The determined conman leaned his head on his saddle for a moment trying to quell his growing nausea. His head throbbed and his eyes burned as they fought to stay open.
"Chris you can't let him do this," Nathan whispered. Chris put a finger to his lips and moved forward with Josiah. Ezra's side screamed with a burning fire, black flashes began to obscure his vision and he had to wipe the sweat from his brow. He groped for the horn then managed to get his foot in the stirrup. He paused a moment then attempted to hoist himself up, causing a surge of pain to rip through him. His eyes rolled back in his head and he began to topple backward. Josiah and Chris were ready and caught him before he reached the ground.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan finished rewrapping Ezra's wound and wished the gambler would come too so he could give him some more water.
"What are we going to do with Ezra's horse?" JD asked as he watched Buck unsaddle the pampered mount. He knew it was impossible for anyone but Ezra to ride the devoted animal.
"Hell, this damn horse is part blood hound, he'll find his way home," Buck explained as he slapped the animal on the rump and watched him race off.
JD mounted Buck's powerful gray gelding and Josiah and Chris put Ezra's limp form in front of him. JD wrapped his arm around his charge feeling the heat and dampness from Ezra's body.
"If he gets to be too much for you JD, you let us know," Chris told the young gunslinger. JD nodded and gently urged the horse forward.
"You're a fool, Larabee," Gonzales' abruptly remarked as Josiah hoisted him to his feet. "That's the difference between me and you and why I'll win. I don't let sentiment get in the way. You'd sacrifice one man for all of you."
Chris glared at the vile man. "That's a difference I will gladly relish."
+ + + + + + +
Buck mounted JD's horse and followed behind seeing Ezra's head lying limp against the young easterner's shoulder. Nathan came up next to JD to keep an eye on him and then Josiah followed, leading Gonzales' horse. Vin and Chris brought up the rear. Chris broke the group into an easy lope. Josiah smirked when he noticed Gonzales squirming in his saddle and looking over his shoulder, hoping to see his men catching up.
It was getting dark and Vin rode ahead to scout the area and look for a place to hole up for the night. He hoped they were far enough ahead to be safe, but he wasn't about to take any chances. Ezra had remained unconscious and this started to worry Nathan. JD was getting tired and had to keep switching arms that were starting to ache with the strain of holding the unconscious man.
Vin found a large outcropping of rocks about a mile ahead, which would provide adequate cover and protection. Nathan laid out a bed roll and Buck and JD carefully laid Ezra down. Josiah tied Gonzales to a small scrub tree and gave him a little water and some food.
"Vin start a fire," Chris said. "They know where we are no sense in freezing."
Vin and Josiah took the first watch, posting themselves amongst the rocks with a clear view of the open prairie in front of them. The night sky was clear and a million stars lit the vast blackness, which was suspended above their heads. Chris came over to where Nathan was administering to Ezra. He had been trying to revive him without success.
"How's he doing?" Chris asked knowing the answer as he looked down upon Ezra's slack face. He looked dead and this sent a shiver down Chris' spine.
"He's going to die if we keep this up," Nathan simply stated.
Chris took an audible breath, held it, and then slowly let it out. He looked around noticing the men he rode with, men who would do anything for each other.
"We're only about fifteen miles from Tucson."
"It doesn't matter, Chris, we put him on a horse and we'll be putting him in a box when we reach there," Nathan angrily replied. Chris could hear Gonzales giggling over by the tree.
"I win Larabee, I win," he chuckled. Gonzales figured all seven of the gunslingers would be killed, or at least the gambler would die, either scenario suited the half crazed, half-breed just fine. He couldn't figure out a man who would risk one life for six. Larabee's loyalty and absurd sense of camaraderie would be the death of them all. Gonzales leaned back against the tree a triumphant grin on his face.
Chris went up to Vin who was using his telescope and scanning the night-time landscape. He spotted the outlaw's fire a couple miles away. It glowed like a beacon on the prairie landscape. Vin lowered the telescope and turned to his solemn friend.
"What are we goin' to do, Chris?"
Chris picked up the telescope and answered, "I don't know, Ezra can't go any farther." Chris handed the scope back to the buck-skin clad tracker, his lips pressed together in a straight line. Vin remained quiet; the two men didn't need to talk to know what the other was thinking.
+ + + + + + +
Morning came all to quickly. Buck came rushing back to the campfire from his watch position. "They're comin', there's about fifteen of them."
Ezra had become delirious during the night and had to be held down on several occasions. Nathan was still at his side wiping his brow and face with a cool cloth.
Buck saw the glint in Chris's eyes, which foretold of a decision.
"JD, you're taking Gonzales to Tucson. The rest of us will stay here to keep Gonzales' men busy."
"Chris, I can't leave you and the others here," JD blurted out.
"JD, Ezra can't be moved we haven't any other choice. We're in a good position. We should be able to hold them off for awhile giving you time to escape."
"I'm not leaving you!"
"Yes you are! JD," Buck's low voice broke in as he grabbed the young man by the collar shoving him toward his horse. "You're goin' do exactly as Chris says. Now get on that horse and ride."
JD glared back at his friend, but he saw the concern in Buck's eyes and it tempered his anger.
Josiah forced Gonzales up on a horse. His mouth dropped as he realized what Larabee was about to do. JD grabbed the loose reins of Gonzales' horse and met Chris' blue eyes. He nodded his head in a silent salute, JD pressed his lips together and quickly turned his head nudging his horse forward.
Chris watched the retreating back of the young gunslinger, hoping it was not the last time he would see him again. "Alright, let's get ready for company," Chris stated to the four men who stood looking toward him.
Nathan covered Ezra with a blanket and took up a position to the right of Buck.
Josiah and Vin zeroed in on the lead riders and waited for Chris' signal. "Now!" They fired a second later; two men fell from their horses. The others charged forward spreading out. Josiah and Vin used their rifles to hit the farthest riders allowing Chris, Nathan and Buck to get the ones that got past. As the outlaws neared, they dismounted and took cover amongst the scattered rocks and scrub trees, moving cautiously up toward the stronghold that protected the five lawmen.
Chris knew they were running low on ammo and it was only a matter of time before they were overrun. He had hoped they could reduce the odds, but Gonzales' men felt they had all the time in the world and were being very cautious, making it hard for the five gunslingers to get good shots.
Vin and Chris heard a shot from behind and turned to see Ezra, a gun in his shaking hand and a man laying dead a couple feet away. Ezra gave the two men a weak smile.
'Lord what kept that man goin'?' Chris thought to himself as he zeroed in on another outlaw who was trying to creep up on their position. He fired and swore as a rock deflected his shot.
Buck reloaded his pistol then lifted his head. His brows came together as a far off sound reached his ears. "Chris, do you hear somethin'?" Chris strained his ears at the distant sound which came to him in-between gunshots. A few moments later, they were able to identify the sound as a bugle. Chris raced to the back and climbed up on some rocks. Using Vin's telescope he peered out, a smile graced his face as he saw a regiment of soldiers coming to their rescue. His smile grew even wider as he saw JD leading the charge. Chris slid down the rock and sat, shaking his head.
Vin came to his side. "Gonzales' men hear the bugle, they're high tailin' it outta here."
Chris and Vin laughed at Buck's exuberant jeers as Gonzales' men turned and raced off. "Run you bastards!" Buck tossed his hat into the air and gave Josiah a big hug.
Nathan returned to Ezra's side, relieved to find him conscious his green eyes semi-lucid.
Moments later JD came loping into camp. He jumped from his horse and was immediately grabbed and given a giant bear hug by Buck. "Buck, put me down!" he yelled, trying to sound annoyed, but not really pulling it off. Vin came up and slapped the young man on the back.
"Is Ezra alright?" he asked as Nathan came forward.
"He should be fine with some rest."
"JD, how did you ever get the cavalry?" Buck asked looking at the young sheriff in a whole new light. He would never admit it to him, but Buck was thoroughly impressed.
"I ran into the unit a few miles out and explained to them what was happening. They'd been trying to capture Gonzales' gang for months."
"And what about Gonzales?" Chris asked.
"Oh, he's being safely escorted to the Tucson jail by the Cavalry. You should have heard him swearing a blue streak when we ran into that army unit. He almost put you to shame, Buck."
+ + + + + + +
The men decided to camp amongst the rocks for a couple days to let Ezra recover his strength. He still complained when he was forced to ride with Vin all the way back to Four Corners, but by the time they reached town it was all Vin could do to keep the exhausted man in the saddle.
The cavalry unit rode straight into Providence arresting, or shooting the more foolhardy, who remained.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin were walking up the stairs heading for Nathan's clinic when they heard a familiar southern voice. "Nathan, when are you going to let me out of this accursed bed?"
"When you're better, and if you don't stop complain' it'll be even longer," Nathan yelled back. Chris and Vin shook their heads as the tirade between the two men continued. Yes, things were back to normal and they wouldn't have it any other way.