Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in July of 2004.
COPYRIGHT @ AUG 1999
The boy was a man by most standards, at least that's what his father said before he kicked him out of the house. It was time for him to get out and prove himself. He was given a gun and a horse, as sort of a going away present, both had seen better days. The young man's lean frame sat slumped on the bone-weary horse as the two made their way across the western territory. He had a crop of brownish-red hair, which curled part way down his neck. This was the longest he had ever worn it, usually his father would make him cut it as soon as it touched his ears. He wore a light tan shirt and brown pants. His buckskin jacket, being to warm for the unusual hot spell that had gripped the territory was rolled up and tied to his saddle. His hazel eyes, to anyone who could read them, revealed a determination that he was going to be someone. He pulled up in front of the saloon, allowing his horse access to the water trough as he slapped the desert dust from his clothes. He hitched up his belt and holster and pushed back the wide brimmed hat on his head. He had traveled all the way from Kansas to meet and hopefully join the Magnificent Seven.
As soon as he learned to read, a Dime Store novel found its way into his hands and never left. He particularly liked the stories about the notorious escapades of the Wild Bunch, the James Gang and Billy the kid, who was his hero. He read to escape the harsh reality of trying to scrape out a living on a poor dirt farm. He dreamed of becoming famous and having adventures. He had heard tales about The Seven men who protected this town from stagedrivers who stopped at his home to get fresh horses. Stories of how no one could out draw any one of them and how they protected each other. Of a dark clad gunslinger with eyes like blue ice who would shoot you as much as look at you. He was sure nobody told these men what to do. They weren't scratching in the dirt from sun up to sun down, always wondering if there be enough to eat. They could have anything they wanted, who would or could stop them. It never dawned on him that the stories might have been slightly embellished as they were passed down on the trail.
The saloon was fairly crowded with an early afternoon lunch crowd. The young man walked up to the bar, trying to appear older than he really was, which after a week on the trail wasn't hard to do. His face was gaunt from living on hard tack and the couple rabbits he managed to trap. He sported a sparse beard, which itched. The large bartender met the young man at the bar giving him a cursorily once over.
"Yeah, uhm...I'm looking for Chris Larabee?" The youth stammered. The bartender stared as he spit and wiped the inside of a shot glass. He then nodded towards a center table where Chris and Vin sat. The young man turned to look at a man dressed in black with sandy blond hair, who was in a quiet conversation with another, who was dressed in buckskin. Both men looked dangerous and the young man smiled, hooking his thumbs into his gunbelt. This was exactly how he imagined it.
"Hey Chris, when is Ezra due back?" Vin asked the solemn gunslinger.
Chris took a swig of his beer and answered, "Day after tomorrow, why? You anxious to lose more of your money to him."
Vin smiled then looked up as the young man from the bar nervously approached their table.
"Mr. Larabee?" The youth asked, swallowing hard as a sudden dryness filled his mouth. He tried to relax his shoulders without much success. He dropped his arms to his sides then brought them back up and crossed them across his chest. Vin had to bite his tongue to hold back the laugh that threatened to erupt. Chris had a way of making people very uncomfortable.
Chris raised his head slightly to scrutinize the youth. His lips held in a firm line etched across his stoic face. Only Chris' friends could see beneath his harden exterior, only they knew of the wounded heart it covered. Buck, who sat with one of the barmaids at a corner table, brought his attention in the young man now hovering near his two friends.
"Yes, what can I do for you, son?" Chris asked, his voice low and emotionless. The young man grimaced at the word 'son', it made him seem too young and he didn't want this man thinking he was just a boy.
"Sir, I wish to join your gang," he blurted out causing Buck to almost choke on his beer.
Chris was slightly taken aback by this request. He turned to his right to look over at Vin who bowed his head, trying to keep the smile which tugged at the corners of his mouth at bay. He returned his attention back to the patiently waiting young man. The boy, no the man, was probably about JD's age and height.
Something didn't sit right, it was just a feeling, but Chris had learned to trust those feelings.
"What's your name?" Chris asked.
"Chad, Sir. Chad Williams," he replied, standing a little taller, like he was in the Army answering to his commander. Chad kept his eyes straight ahead, not meeting Chris' icy gaze. Chris didn't trust anyone who couldn't meet his eyes.
"Well, Chad Williams, I don't have a gang and I don't need or want anyone," Chris replied, keeping an even tone. He picked up his beer and took a swig.
Chad's shoulders and face dropped slightly as he listened to what Chris had said. He couldn't believe it and had to hold down the anger that was starting to build. How could this man just turn him down without giving him a chance. Everything he read told of how gangs would allow potential members to prove themselves, sort of an initiation. Maybe he knew? Was it that apparent that he had never shot a man? His father always told him he wouldn't be a real man until he shot and killed someone. He was good with a gun, at least when shooting bottles or grouse. He never missed.
"I can ride and I can shoot," Chad eagerly boasted hoping to convince the dark-clad gunslinger to change his mind.
"Can ya' swim?" Buck asked as he approached the threesome. Vin lost it at this point and let out a burst of laughter, almost tipping over in his chair. Buck and Vin were almost rolling on the floor and a small smile lifted up the corners on Larabee's mouth. This brought a surge of anger to Chad's face and his hand went to his gun. He didn't like being made fun of.
Chris' smile disappeared when he noticed Chad's reaction. He looked at the old pistol that the youth carried. "Son, it looks like that gun would blow up in your hand if you shot it." Chad's anger was suddenly extinguished with a cold ball of fear when he met Chris' cool blue eyes. He slowly moved his hand away from his gun.
"You have to give me a chance!" Chad pleaded.
"I don't have to do no such thing." Chris was starting to get annoyed with this boy. "Now, go home!"
Buck and Vin, realizing that the youth was pushing his luck with the solemn gunslinger decided to intervene. Chad could hear the snickers and muffled laughs of the other patrons as Buck and Vin unceremoniously escorted him out the batwing doors and onto the boardwalk.
"Come back when you've grown some," Vin said to him as he turned his back, the humor gone from his face. He saw the look in Chad's face at Buck's innocent remark, this young man was dangerous.
Chad was angry, he had always had a hard time controlling his anger. He always felt that everyone was against him. He just wanted a chance to prove himself. Life had dealt him a lousy hand, or so he believed. His family struggled just to put food on the table. When his mother passed away several years ago, his father had sent his sisters to live with an aunt back east and it was just him and his father trying to keep the farm going. They turned their home into a reststop for the stage line, just to make ends meet. It was a hard life, the only enjoyment he got was reading his dime store novels and listening to his father recant his days in the calvary during the war. How brave men stood in the front lines and tried to shoot as many of the enemy before they themselves took a bullet. Chad's father had killed many men and said it got easier after the first one. The first one is the hardest, but the feeling you get is hard to describe. He said everyone feels differently, but all feel the self- assuredness that comes with the belief they can do anything, even if they won't admit it. No one can ever tell you what to do, again.
Chad wasn't watching where he was going as his mind swirled with his musings. He suddenly felt himself falling as he tripped over a pair of legs that were stretched out on the boardwalk just outside the jail.
"Hey, watch where you're going!" JD yelled, reaching down to retrieve his book, which had fallen out of his hand. He looked down at Chad, who sat sprawled out on the boardwalk. JD offered his hand to the young man, who begrudgingly took it.
"I'm sorry, I guess my mind was elsewhere." Chad then noticed the badge and his eyes went wide. "You're a sheriff?" he asked, the disbelief not hidden in his voice.
"Yeah," JD replied, the anger not hidden in his.
"No, I mean...it's just that I've never seen such a young sheriff before. And why is there a sheriff I thought the Seven protected this town?" Chad questioned.
"Well, I'm one of the Seven," JD proudly announced.
"Really?" Chad's eyes lit up.
"Yeah, just ask anybody," JD replied still a little ticked. Many people had a hard time believing he was capable of up holding the law. They thought he was to young, but they accepted him, mostly because he had six deputies.
"I believe you."
JD stepped back into the doorway of the jail to look at the cell holding his only prisoner. Chad craned his neck to also take a look. A long-dark haired man sat up against the wall, his hat pulled down over his face.
"Whose that?" Chad asked.
"That's Jake Wiley, wanted for murder down in Tucson. We're just waiting for the Sheriff there to come and pick him up," JD explained. When he was sure everything was okay he returned his attention to Chad.
Chad then noticed the book that JD held in his hand. "Hey, you read those too."
JD brought the book up to show Chad. The title read, 'The Adventures of Bat Masterson'.
"I love those books, Billy the kid is my hero," Chad stated innocently.
JD scowled slightly at this. "Really? But isn't he a cold-blooded murderer?"
"Yeah, but no one messes with him and he gets what he wants."
JD shrugged, to each his own. He preferred his heroes to be on the right side of the law, at least part of the time.
"Maybe you can help me, I want to join up with the you guys, you know the Seven."
JD's smile fell from his face at this request. It made him proud that someone would want to join them, but. "Well ah...."
"Chad Williams," Chad stated eagerly, extending his hand.
JD took it and replied rather dryly, "JD. Well I really can't help you, Chad. You need to talk to Chris, he's sort of the leader."
Chad scowled slightly and looked over his shoulder towards the saloon. "I tried that, but I don't think I made a very good impression. If he'd only give me a chance to prove myself." Chad bowed his head for a moment then brought it up to meet JD's sympathetic brown eyes. "Didn't you have to prove yourself to them?" he asked.
"Yeah, I did." JD smiled slightly as he remembered doggin' the six mens' trail as they headed to the Indian village. He was determined to join up with them, no matter what. But he knew that if Chris hadn't seen something in him, he never would of been allowed to become a part of them. JD knew Chad didn't have a chance, but he didn't have the heart to tell him.
"So tell me how you did it?" Chad asked, breaking JD from his reverie.
JD scratched his head. How could he explain the ties that bound the Seven together. Each one trusting the others with their lives and depending on each other. Each one knowing what the others were thinking. They had something special something that could not be explained or duplicated. They were more like a family then just a group of men protecting a town. And JD didn't think that Chris wanted to adopt anyone else.
"Maybe you should go over to the church and talk to Josiah," JD finally stated knowing he'd pay for this later.
"Well, sort of, he's also one of the Seven," JD explained.
JD hated passing this problem to Josiah, but he just didn't know how to handle it. He didn't want to hurt the young man's feelings.
Chad tentatively entered the dimly lit church. When his mother was alive his whole family use to attend church on a regular basis, but after she died his father saw no reason to attend. He blamed God for his wife's death and refused to step foot in his house ever again. Chad saw Josiah sweeping the altar area and heard him humming some familiar hymn. Chad nervously stepped up to the large gunslinger. Josiah heard the shuffling of the young man's feet and stopped sweeping. He raised his blue-gray eyes up.
"How may I be of service to you, brother?" he asked, his soft baritone voice brought a wave of calm over the nervous young man.
"Ah, yes sir, my name is Chad Williams and I was told you could help me?"
Josiah laid the broom against the wall and sat down in the nearby pew, stretching out his long legs. He gave the youth his undivided attention. "That depends on what it is you need help with?"
Chad licked his lips and quietly asked, "I want to join the Seven."
Josiah hid his astonishment as he could see the young man was serious. "Oh really, and who told you I could help you with this gallant endeavor?" Josiah asked, keeping his voice even.
Josiah smiled and promised to get even with the young Mr. Dunne at some future date.
"Well Mr. Williams, if we allowed you to join us we wouldn't be the Seven anymore, now would we?"
"I can ride and shoot and I'm not afraid..."
Josiah raised a hand to stop the youth's exuberant ramblings. He looked the young man in the eye.
"Have you ever shot a man?" Josiah asked.
Chad bowed his head as if ashamed, then raised it and gave Josiah the answer he thought he wanted. "No sir, but I know I could, no problem."
Josiah shook his head and lowered his eyes. "There in lies the problem, go home." Josiah stood, picked up his broom and continued sweeping. Chad stood dumbstruck he didn't understand. He walked out of the church squinting against the bright sun.
"Hey boy," a scruffy middle-aged man called from a chair on the boardwalk.
"What do you want?" Chad sneered, partially because he was angry and partly because the man was slightly disgusting with dirty clothes and hair.
The scruffy man put up his hands defensively. "Whoa, there I only want to help. I overheard you trying to join up with the Seven."
"Yeah, so you heard I didn't have much luck," Chad angrily spit out.
"Well, maybe I can help, you see I'm one of the Seven."
Chad's eyes lit up slightly. "Really?" He asked skeptically, he had a hard time believing this filthy man was part of the Seven. Well maybe he had just returned from off the trail or something and hadn't had a chance to clean up.
"Sure me and Lar..Chris go way back."
"Why do you want to help me? None of the others would," Chad asked still a little suspicious. The Seven was made of all kinds of men. He'd already met the leader, the sheriff and the preacher, so why couldn't this man also be a part of them.
"I see somethin' in you the others don't. We just have to get the others to see it too," the man explained, a wide smile revealing several missing teeth.
"Could you convince Mr. Larabee to hire me?"
The man rubbed the stubble on his chin. "Well, that won't be good enough. You see, you have to prove yourself first."
Chad bowed his head in resignation.
"You can't expect the Seven to accept someone who can't carry their own weight. No one wants someone guarding their backs they can't trust to protect them."
Chad looked up dejected, how could he prove himself to Chris and the others. His father was right, until he used his guns on someone he was a nobody. "I've never shot anyone, Mr..."
"Just call me Jasper." The man stood and extended his hand to Chad, who reluctantly took it.
Jasper Wiley, brother to Jake who was sitting in the jail awaiting the Sheriff from Tucson. Jasper had been hanging around town for three days, trying to think of a way to get his brother out of jail. He had overheard the conversation between Chad and Larabee and watched as the boy talked to the young Sheriff, then walk over to the Church. A plan started to come to mind. He thought the boy might just be what he needed to pull it off.
"Jasper, what can I do to prove myself?" Chad asked, hope slowly coming back, at least this man was willing to help which was more than the others would do.
Jasper placed a caring arm across the Chad's shoulders and started walking down the boardwalk, leading the boy away from the saloon.
"I'll tell you, there might be a way you can prove yourself to Chris Larabee and do the town a great service," Jasper replied.
"How? I'll do anythin'."
Jasper looked at the eagerness in the young man's eyes and thought, this might work out after all.
"Well, I was just about to inform Chris that a certain notorious con man is headin' this way to bilk these good towns folk of their hard earned money." Jasper lowered his voice as he continued, "Now, if you were to say, change his mind about comin' here that would be a step in the right direction, and put you in Larabee's good graces."
"I can do that," Chad quickly assured. He had no love for gamblers since he lost most of his money to one a couple days ago. He knew most were cowards and looked out for themselves, at least, according to the books he read. This would be easy.
"Sure you can, I'll even come and back you up," Jasper added.
"But I'll get the credit, right?"
"Sure, you can take all the credit."
Chad didn't notice Jasper's malicious grin as they strolled out of town.
Ezra had left Cedar Ridge unusually early, especially for him. He had enjoyed a very lucrative and relaxing vacation after depositing Four Corners' bank receipts. During the long lonely ride he actually found himself missing the familiar surroundings of the town, he called home, including the six men he almost considered family. That was a hard word for Ezra to say. For him family meant abuse, neglect and abandonment, but the six men he worked with were showing him another side to being a family, a better side.
As he came around the bend he saw the young man standing in his path, holding the reins of his horse. Ezra pulled up several yards back, analyzing the situation. The boy was about JD's age and looked like he was just off the farm. Something in the boy's face troubled him and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled.
"What can I do for you?" Ezra called out as he scanned the area, something was not right.
"You can turn around and go back where you came from," Chad replied, trying to hide his nervousness.
This dumbfounded Ezra for a moment, then he nudged his horse forward a few more feet and stopped, casually laying his arm atop the horn.
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra asked raising up one sandy eyebrow.
"You're not welcomed here, so just go back where you came from." Chad swallowed hard as he looked into the dangerous green eyes of the fancy dressed man. He could feel the sweat running down his back in little streams. He'd never faced down anyone before, only read about it. He tried to imagine himself as Billy the Kid.
"And who might you be?" Ezra asked hoping to defuse the situation. He would hate to have to shoot the boy.
"Never mind, I'm here to protect this town from men like you."
Ezra took slight offense at this, but kept a faint smile on his face. He thought that maybe the young man was doing this on some kind of dare. But Ezra was not in the mood to play.
Chad's hand hovered near his gun, his hand clenching and unclenching, nervously.
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Ezra's green eyes narrowed.
"Just turn around Mister and no one has to get hurt," Chad said his hazel eyes glaring up at Ezra.
Ezra was getting tired of this. He had been looking forward to a hot bath, good food and some poker with his six companions, who had been paid yesterday.
He saw Chad's eyes drop and drew his revolver. Chad's breath caught in his throat, and he stepped back. He had never seen any one draw so fast in his life. Chad began to think that this was a mistake, but then he remembered why he was doing it. He wanted to be famous, like the Seven, he wanted to be somebody. He kept hearing his father's voice telling him he wouldn't amount to nothing. He wanted badly to prove him wrong. If he could show Larabee he was not a coward and could handle himself he'd have to let him join them and Chad wanted very much to belong.
"Now, you're in way over your head," Ezra declared.
Chad licked his lips, the fear causing his heart to beat faster and his stomach to cramp. He could only stare down at the barrel of Ezra's gun. He didn't know what to do.
Ezra heard the sound of a rifle cocking off to the side and took his eyes from the young man to check. Chad took the opportunity and drew his gun. He raised it and pulled the trigger. The old gun fired and exploded. Chad grabbed his burnt hand then looked up to see Ezra fall from his horse and land in a heap on the ground, everything went silent. Chad stared at the fallen figure on the ground. He was laying on his side his back to him, unmoving.
Jasper came out of the scrub a large grin on his face. "Well, hot damn! I wasn't sure you had it in you, boy."
Chad gave Jasper a half smile, the shock of what just happened keeping him numb. He nursed his wounded hand, his gun laid shattered at his feet.
Jasper went over to Ezra and roughly removed his gun belt then picked up his other gun and holstered it throwing the belt at Chad's feet.
"Here boy, you deserve it."
Chad looked down at the shiny silver guns and slowly picked up the belt and guns. He wasn't sure how he felt, fear and excitement kind of mixed together creating a strange euphoria. He looked at the revolvers. Everything felt sort of dream like, like when he imagined himself in one of his stories. He ran his fingers over the handles of the guns, they were definitely real.
Jasper went through Ezra's pockets and pulled out a wad of bills, which he pocketed.
"What are you doing?" Chad asked, still dazed at what had happened.
"Oh I'm sorry, here." Jasper handed Chad several bills. Chad stared down, with mouth open, at more money than he had ever seen in his life. A smile slowly crept across his face.
Chad noticed the blood stain on the lower half of Ezra's white shirt, he thought he could just barely see him breathing. "Shouldn't we get 'em to a doctor or something," he asked.
Jasper grabbed the reins of Ezra's horse and handed them to Chad, ignoring his question. "Here, you might as well ride into Four Corners in style." Jasper looked down at the motionless gambler.
"Don't worry I'll take care of him." Jasper smiled.
Money, guns a beautiful horse all just for killing one con man and it wasn't even that hard. He couldn't believe it. Now maybe Chris Larabee would give him the respect he deserved. He had proved himself a man.
Jasper handed Chad a piece of paper. "Do me a favor and give this to Chris. Now, don't read it, it's a... official business."
Chad took the paper and stuck it in his pocket he figured this was another test.
Jasper then grabbed Ezra by the jacket, lifted him up and threw him over Chad's old horse. He took up the reins and led the animal back towards the brush where he had a camp hidden in the nearby rocks. He waved a hand at Chad and called out, "Thanks a lot kid you were a big help. I'll put in a good word for ya."
In a moment Chad stood alone, holding Ezra's guns and his horse's reins. He still couldn't believe it, everything had happened so fast, but now he knew he could do it. Larabee would have no reason now not to let him join the Seven. Chad felt truly alive. After years of doubt and fear he finally did it. He felt a great burden lifted from his shoulders. He wished his father could of seen.
Jasper took Ezra to his temporary camp and pulled him from the horse, letting him drop heavily to the ground. He grunted as his wounded side made contact with the rocky ground.
Jasper dragged the semi-conscious man over to a nearby rock. He ripped open his shirt and swore at the bleeding wound. The gambler would die if he didn't do something. He pulled a dirty shirt out of his saddlebags and wrapped it around Ezra's stomach hoping to stop the bleeding. He looked down at his handy work and Ezra's pale complexion, shrugged, and went to make himself some lunch.
JD was leaning against the railing of the jail, trying to whittle something out of a piece of hickory. He looked up to see Chad riding in. He was somewhat surprised, as he had believed that the boy had left yesterday. His surprise turned to shock when he recognized the horse that Chad was now riding. He followed the Chad with his eyes as he pulled up in front of the saloon.
Chad dismounted, patting the magnificent animal on the neck. He had strapped on Ezra's guns and ran his hands over their handles. He noticed the looks he was receiving from the town's folk who passed by and thought it was because they could tell he was now a man. He didn't know it was because he was riding one of the Seven's horses.
JD grabbed one of the towns folk to watch over his prisoner and raced over to the saloon.
Chad sauntered into the saloon and went straight to the bar. He took out one of the bills that Jasper had given him and laid it on the bar. He had never felt so confident in his life. The bar tender chuckled slightly, took the bill and gave Chad a mug of beer. It was early and the saloon only had a few customers, two who were left over from last night, and had yet to recover. He saw Larabee at the same table he was at yesterday, talking to the mustached cowboy who had made fun of him. The buckskin man sat over at a corner table with the preacher.
"What is he doing here?" Buck quietly remarked to Chris. They had just finished an early lunch after making rounds. They had all seen the youth enter, but chose to ignore him. Chris noticed a cockiness that had emerged in the youth's walk and in his eyes. He got a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He downed the shot of whiskey hoping to wash it away.
JD came up to the table, his eyes remaining on Chad who was still at the bar. He leaned over between Chris and Buck placing his palms on the table and in a low voice told them something that froze their hearts. "Chris, that man just rode in on Ezra's horse."
Vin and Josiah stepped up to the table both having got a bad feeling when they saw JD's face as he entered the saloon.
"Are you sure, JD?" Buck asked, turning to take another look at the young man.
"What's the problem brother Dunne?" Josiah asked.
"Chad came into town riding Ezra's horse," he repeated.
Vin stared at the young man's back as he took a drawl on his beer and what he suddenly noticed sent a stab of dread through his heart. "He's also wearing Ezra's guns."
This brought everyone to attention. Chris and Buck rose as one and the five men went to the bar. The five gunslingers surrounded the youth. Chris and Vin came up on either side of Chad who took another swig of his beer.
"Nice guns," Vin asked, the growing anger swallowing the fear he felt for Ezra. Vin knew Ezra would not give up his guns by choice and never his horse.
"Yeah, thanks." Chad smiled and stroked the silver handles. He had practiced shooting them before he rode in to town.
"Nice horse, too. Where'd you'd get 'em?" Chris asked, trying to remain calm, but his voice carried a strong note of disgust.
"Oh, I traded him for mine," Chad lied, well it wasn't a complete lie. Ezra did have his horse.
Buck wanted to throttle the young man.
Chad turned to look into Chris' cold hard eyes and fear once again came to the pit of his stomach. He hated being afraid, but this time he easily vanquished it. He had confronted and shot a man, why should he let this man scare him.
Chad turned completely around and leaned against the bar, smiling at the five men who surrounded him.
"I just did you a favor, Mr. Larabee." Chad smiled, he seemed oblivious to the deadly glares he was receiving from the five lawmen.
"What favor?" Chris asked, his voice strained.
"One of your men told me about the conman heading this way and how you didn't want him coming to your town and swindling the people here."
Josiah noticed that Nathan had joined their little gathering and they both got a sudden sick feeling in the pit of their stomach at this statement.
Chris' took a deep breath, afraid to ask. His fist clenched trying to siphon off his growing anger.
"What did you do?" He said slowly, pronouncing each word.
"We took care of him, he won't be bothering anyone." Chad started getting a little nervous at the way everyone was looking at him.
Chris couldn't stop himself. He grabbed Chad by the shirt and lifted him until he was standing on his toes. He threw him against the bar, the edge jamming into the boy's back and bringing a yelp of pain. "Do you see these five men here," he sneered looking over his shoulder.
Chad looked at each and every one of the men standing behind Larabee and nodded his head. Fear had returned to his eyes, he didn't understand what was going on or why he was being treated this way.
"These are my men and the one who owns them guns and rides that horse is my seventh," Chris snarled. He couldn't believe this boy could be such a fool.
Chad's breath caught somewhere between his lungs and mouth. "But, Jasper..." Chad gasped out as Chris released him allowing his feet to firmly set on the floor.
"Who the hell is Jasper?" Chris angrily asked. Chad fumbled in his pockets and pulled out the note that Jasper had given him. He handed the crumbled paper to Chris.
Chris turned away and read it. His eyes narrowed and everyone, except Chad, saw the coming explosion. Chris' fist came around, striking Chad on the jaw, sending him sprawling to the floor. Chris handed the note to Buck and grabbed Chad by the shirt hauling him off the ground and slamming him back against the bar.
Buck read the note out loud, squinting as he tried to decipher the scribble.
"Larabee, have your man. Want to trade for my brother. Tomorrow morning at 6 sharp at the edge of town. Put Jake on a horse I'll be there with your man. No tricks. signed Jasper Wiley."
"Shit!" Buck swore crumpling the paper in his fist.
Chad was afraid to speak. He saw the looks of the other men. Only Josiah looked at him differently, Chad could only see sadness in the ex-preacher's pale blue eyes. Chad knew he had been tricked and that any chance of joining the Seven was probably dead along with the gambler.
Nathan, always the doctor asked, "Was Ezra hurt?" Everyone turned glaring eyes back to Chad, who had backed up against the wall. He swallowed hard refusing to meet anyone's eyes.
Chris grabbed his face and forced him to look at him. "Was he hurt?"
"I...I..shot him," Chad finally admitted.
"Gawd..." Buck exclaimed, moving forward to exact more punishment. Josiah grabbed his arm and held him back.
"Takin' your anger out on the boy will not help Ezra, Brother Buck," Josiah calmly stated.
"No, but it'll make me feel a whole hell of lot better."
"What are we goin' do Chris?" Vin asked. Chris ran his hand through his blond hair. He stared at Chad then grabbed him by the arm and shoved him towards JD.
"Lock him up, JD."
JD took Ezra's guns from him then roughly shoved him towards the swinging doors.
"We trade," Chris finally replied to Vin's question.
Ezra finally regained consciousness, though he wished he hadn't. His side felt like a hot knife was twisting inside. He could feel the fever already raging through his body. He looked down at the dirty bandage wrapped around his abdomen and bile rose in his throat. He didn't think the wound was still bleeding, but this man had a lot to learn about sanitation and first aid. Ezra wished that Nathan and the others were here to enlighten the ill-kept gentleman.
Jasper came over and knelt down in front of him even though Ezra couldn't focus on him he could smell him.
"Ah good, you're still alive." He placed a plate of food on the ground next to Ezra, who only stared at it. There was no way in hell he was going to touch anything this man put his hands on.
"And what pray tell is the reason for my abduction?" Ezra managed to ask in a steady voice. It took Jasper a moment to figure out what the southern man had said.
"Oh, I'm tradin' you for my brother whose locked up in the town jail," Jasper replied smiling. He was very proud of himself, it had been his plan and everything was going like clockwork. It was usually Jake who thought up the plans, being he was the brains in the family.
Ezra tried to sit up and winced as his side rebelled at the action. He quickly looked around the camp seeing no one else. He wondered what happened to the boy who shot him.
"And how might I ask did you lure that boy into this?"
Jasper smiled thinking himself pretty clever. "That was easy I just told him I was one of the Seven. The boy wanted to join you guys and I told him he had to prove himself first. I didn't expect him to shoot you, I just wanted him to keep you busy so I could get the drop on you and I needed a messenger."
"So you used that boy's naiveté and adoration to gain his confidence."
Jasper stared at Ezra like he had just spoken a foreign language. Ezra rolled his eyes and interpreted, "You used him."
"Yeah," Jasper answered promptly.
Ezra was having a hard time keeping his eyes open and he slowly slipped back into unconsciousness.
"Hey don't die on me fancy man." Jasper grabbed Ezra and tried to shake him awake without much success. He checked for a pulse, finding one, he released Ezra's jacket, allowing him to fall limply to the side. He grabbed a threadbare blanket and threw it over the unconscious con man.
Clouds filled the night sky allowing only an eerie glow of the moon to penetrate the thin layers. Josiah entered the jail to find JD asleep at his desk. He quietly went over to Chad's cell careful not to disturb the sleeping sheriff.
His large form stood in front of the cell blotting out what light came from the low burning lantern, which sat on the desk. His presence caused the young man to stir.
"What do you want?" Chad mumbled, still half asleep, he turned over to face the wall. He felt betrayed by everyone.
"Why?" Josiah simply asked.
There was a moment of silence then Chad slowly rolled over and sat up looking at the long faced preacher.
"I wanted to join you, be a part of somethin'. But I had to prove to you all and myself that I could be one of you. I had to become a man."
Josiah shook his head. "Shooting a man does not prove anything or make you a man."
"Isn't that what you guys want? People who can shoot and protect your back? People who aren't afraid," Chad asked.
"You think we're not afraid?" Josiah didn't wait for an answer. "We're afraid everyday of our lives. Only a fool isn't and fools don't live to long."
JD had woken, but remained silent listening to Josiah and the young Mr. Williams.
"My father told me..." Chad began.
"Your father was wrong. We don't want to shoot anyone, even the bad ones. We only shoot when left with no other choice." Josiah would love to meet the man who had created this young man. He couldn't believe a father would actually teach a son that you had to be able to shoot a man to be a man.
Chad leaned back and stretched his legs. "I don't understand, you've shot men you know the feelin'. I'll tell ya preacher, I never felt so in control, like I can do anything." Chad laced his hands behind his head and leaned back against the wall, a faint smile on his face. "I've been picked on and dragged down my whole life, now it's about time I get what's owed me, and no one can stop me," Chad quietly added. Josiah thought this was said more to himself then to him. He could see the dark glint in Chad's eyes and a shiver went up his spine.
"How did you feel when you shot Ezra?" Josiah asked hoping to elicit some sort of remorse, something he could latch onto and hopefully pull the boy off the path he was now traveling.
Chad gave Josiah a blank stare then his face scrunched up in thought. He remembered the shock when he saw the gambler fall from his horse, but at first he didn't realized it had been him that had shot. "I don't rightly know, I guess I felt bad." But Chad realized that he didn't have any remorse. He had been scared at first when Ezra had pulled his gun, but when he shot him a feeling of triumphant filled him and erased the fear. When Jasper gave him Ezra's guns, horse and money, Chad realized that he had found the excitement and adventure he'd been looking for, just like Billy the kid.
Josiah saw this in the boy's face and knew the young man was truly lost.
The sun was just a sliver on the horizon when Chris, Vin and Buck entered the jail. Buck still wanted to throttle Chad but held back. "Okay, JD let Chad out," Chris ordered.
"Just do it."
JD went to the cell and opened the door allowing Chad to casually walk out.
Chris took the cocky youth by the arm and dragged him out the door and onto the boardwalk out of earshot of Jasper's brother.
"Okay Chad, you want to be part of the Seven, here's your chance. You're goin' to help us set a trap for Jasper," Chris explained.
Chad shrugged his indifference. "Sure." Jasper had tricked him and played him for a fool. And although he had helped him to become a man Chad wanted to get even.
Chris turned to Vin. "Vin give me some extra clothes for Chad to wear he's goin' to be you. I want you to take up a position to get a clear shot at Jake."
An hour later they had Jake on a horse. A blindfold covered his eyes so he wouldn't see that Chad was impersonating one of them. Vin had positioned himself on the tallest building on the outskirts of town. He was looking through his spyglass and saw two fuzzy forms appear. He waved down to Chris.
"Okay, let's go."
They removed Jake's blindfold keeping him in front of them and Chad to the rear. They all nudged their horses forward slowly. As they left the town limits Chris threw up his arm and everyone stopped.
Chris swore under his breath as Jasper came closer leading Chad's old nag behind him. Everyone could tell that Ezra was barely able to stay in the saddle. His head was almost touching the horse's mane, every rhythmic fall of the horse's hooves sent shock waves of pain throughout his fevered body. It took everything he had left to stay in the saddle. Jasper stopped several yards away. He counted to be sure he saw all six of the lawmen in front of him.
Jake smiled and held up his tied hands in greeting. "Hi, bro it's about time," he laughed, turning his glee towards Chris whose face remained impassive. JD jerked at the horse's reins causing the animal to jump and Jake to almost topple off. He sneered at the young sheriff.
"Okay Larabee, you send Jake over and I'll send over your man. Remember I'll have a gun aimed at his back so no tricks," Jasper yelled.
Vin put Jake in his sights. The Seven had no intention of letting this man go, but Vin would have to wait and hope he got an opportunity. He wouldn't shoot as long as Ezra was in any kind of danger. He shut out the world around him and put his eye to his rifle, slowed his breathing and waited.
Ezra was coherent enough to nudge his horse forward. He only hoped the animal walked in a straight line, because he could barely hold the reins.
The two horses approached each other, Ezra's passing on the left of Jake's. Just as Ezra's horse neared Chris and the others, he lost his fight with gravity and consciousness and began to slip from his saddle. Josiah and Nathan leapt from their horses and ran, hoping to catch the gambler before he hit the ground.
This was what Vin was waiting for, Ezra was no longer in Jasper's gunsights. The buck-skinned sharpshooter took aim at Jake and shot him in the arm causing him to fall off his horse. Chris, Buck and JD drew their guns and charged after him. Jasper heard the shot and looked to see his brother falling from his horse. He looked up to see Larabee and his friends coming for them. He shook his head knowing there was nothing he could do to help his brother and he was not about to allow himself to get caught. Jasper shouted towards his brother, "Sorry Jake!" Then turned his horse and headed back into the hills, listening to his brother cursing him all the way. Chris and Buck fired their guns, but Jasper was no longer within range. They decided not to go after him they didn't think he'd try anything again.
Nathan and Josiah reached Ezra just in time and caught him as he left the saddle. They laid him gently down on the ground. Nathan pulled Ezra's tan coat open. "Sweet mother...." he whispered as he saw the dirty bandage wrapped around the gambler's middle. He quickly removed the unsanitary cloth. Josiah looked over his shoulder at Chad who just sat on his horse staring down at them. He didn't know Ezra, it hadn't bothered him to shoot him. He had liked getting the guns and horse and money, he liked it a lot. Josiah saw the slow smile come to Chad's lips.
Chad looked out seeing Chris, Buck and JD reach Jake and dismount their horses. He tipped his hat towards Josiah, turned and rode away. Josiah bowed his head then brought his attention back to his friend.
"Ezra, Ezra," Nathan said, gently slapping the con man's pale cheek. Ezra moaned and turned his head.
Chris and Buck returned with Jake, who sitting back in the saddle scowling down at the six men.
"How is he?" Buck asked.
"The bullet's still in there, but I don't dare remove it now, he's lost too much blood. We have to get him back to town fast."
"Nathan," Ezra hoarsely whispered.
"Yeah, Ezra I'm here, we're all here. Just lie still."
"Cold, so cold." A shiver coursed through Ezra's weakened body. JD already on top of things handed Nathan a blanket.
Chris noticed that Chad was gone. He looked to Josiah who regarded the blond gunslinger with remorse in his face. Josiah knew he couldn't save everyone, but he hated when he lost someone so young. Chris could tell that the ex-preacher was distraught over the boy and didn't say anything about it.
Josiah shared a saddle with the injured southern, wrapping an arm carefully around his midsection to hold him on. Nathan was grateful they were so close to town.
Buck and JD took Jake back to jail, Nathan telling them he'd get to Jake's injured arm when he got to it. He also made sure that Jake heard when he promised JD he could practice taking out the bullet in his arm. Buck,
Chris and Vin smiled at the pleading look Jake gave them.
Josiah and Vin carried Ezra up to Nathan's clinic and made him as comfortable as they could. Chris and Nathan followed. Nathan grabbed a basin and handed it to Vin. "I need water." Vin left without argument. Josiah began to remove Ezra's jacket and shirt he could feel the heat of his fever throughout his body. Ezra's head tossed back and forth and Josiah placed his cool hand on his forehead to calm him. Vin returned with the water and Nathan grabbed some clean cloths. "Josiah, Chris, I might need you to hold him down while I clean this and take the bullet out. Chris looked down at Ezra's flushed and sweating face. The demons of Ezra's past already awakening and beginning their tortured danced in his fevered mind.
Nathan grabbed a knife and began to probe the festering wound. Ezra's eyes flashed open the green so vivid it caused Chris to jerk back. A heart wrenching scream poured past his lips and he fought with everything he had left against Chris and Josiah. Vin had to jump in to hold down Ezra's flailing legs. Ezra gritted his teeth his jaw muscles bulging. "Almost got it," Nathan said as sweat poured down his own dark face. Ezra turned his face to the side trying to bury himself in the pillow.
"Hang in there, Ez," Chris tried to soothe, but Ezra didn't hear him he was in his own pain-ridden world. Chris heard the clank of the bullet when Nathan threw it into the basin and felt Ezra's arms relax. His breathing was coming in quick gasps and his face was flush with exertion. Chris watched as his eyes closed, without a flutter or a blink, like someone just turned off a switch.
Nathan cleaned the wound and bandaged it up then placed a cool cloth on the gambler's fevered brow.
"He should be okay after some rest," Nathan said placing his hand on his chest to check his breathing.
The men took turns watching over their friend, it was two days before his fever finally subsided.
It had been a week since the incident with Jasper and Chad. Ezra was up and about, at least a little at a time. He had to allow Nathan to hover and administer to him for this little reprieve.
Chris and Vin were walking along the boardwalk when they saw JD nailing up a poster outside the jail. They stepped off onto the street and walked over. As they came upon the young sheriff he stepped back, pushing his bowler back on his head. The three shook their heads as they read the poster. Wanted Dead or Alive, $500 for the murder of a bank teller in Kansas City. And there in the middle of the poster was the young face of Chad Williams.
"Well, it looks like the boy got his wish, he's famous," Vin remarked, saddened. He knew how it felt to be a wanted man. Since he had been framed and there was a bounty on his head, but he hadn't had a choice, Chad Williams did and he had made it.
THE END (Aug 1999)