Buck stepped into the jailhouse and burst out laughing. "What in the Sam Hill are you doing?"
Ezra straightened from his position over the desk. He held a dirt-covered rag in his hand. Buck noticed the bucket of water and that the floor had been swept.
"Mr. Wilmington, although our stay is temporary, I refuse to live in such filth."
Buck had to admit it was more pleasant now that there wasn't a constant cloud of dust every time they walked. "Maybe I should hire you to clean up my place."
Ezra glared at the cowboy. "You couldn't get me to set foot in your room if you held a gun to my head."
"Buck!" Sadie's voice interrupted the two lawmen's affable verbal war.
Buck turned and rushed out the door. Ezra smiled and dropped the rag into the bucket of water and followed.
Sadie stood just off the boardwalk holding a picnic basket under her arm. She was dressed in a beautiful cream dress that accented her figure and emphasized the dark hair that hung loose about her face. They had had breakfast together several hours ago and Buck smiled at seeing her again.
"Miss Jordan, lovely as always," Ezra politely remarked. He had to admit his friend had good taste in women.
Sadie's smile dropped slightly and she dropped her eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Standish."
Ezra's brow furrowed at the woman's slight change in demeanor.
Sadie's eyes rose up and her smile grew as she looked at Buck, ignoring the gambler's scrutiny. "Buck, I thought maybe we could go on a little picnic."
"Well, I don't know, darlin'," Buck hesitantly answered. "I sorta have a job..."
"Go on Buck," Ezra quickly interjected. "I would feel the cad, keeping you from such a lovely lady. Things are pretty quiet and I believe I can handle things for awhile."
Buck rubbed his chin reluctant to leave Ezra alone, but when he looked at Sadie his resistance and Chris's words melted away. He told himself that he would return soon and that Ez could handle anything that came up.
"I know the perfect spot, not far from here," Sadie said as Buck came up beside her and relieved her of the basket.
As the two walked down the street arm and arm, Ezra's feeling of trepidation returned. It wasn't anything he could put into words, just a feeling that something was about to happen. He glanced up and down the avenue. It was almost noon yet several shops had closed their doors and no one walked the streets. It was as if everyone was waiting for something or privy to something he would have to find out on his own. Ezra turned and went back inside the jailhouse for the first time actually eager to return to Four Corners.
"How much farther, love?" Buck asked as they walked along a narrow path aside the river. He looked over his shoulder, barely able to make out the first building of the town. He hoped they stopped soon, and wished that he had taken the horses.
"Just a little farther up stream," Sadie encouraged, feeling Buck's reluctance. "We'll have plenty of privacy." She had to get him farther away from town.
Buck glanced toward the west noticing the dark clouds slowly moving in. "Let's hope we don't get rained on."
"Oh don't worry. It's just the early spring rains they're usually fast moving," Sadie explained. "You're not afraid of gettin' a little wet?"
Buck chuckled. "Now I seem to remember a certain someone who needed coaxin' into the pond back home."
"Well that was different. If my pa had seen us, he'd have shot you, especially since we both were butt naked."
The two laughed at the remembrance as they continued to stroll down the path, the breeze carrying the scent of rain as it blew through the meadow of wildflowers.
Ezra moved outside the jail as the afternoon cooled. The dark ominous clouds doing nothing to alleviate his growing anxiety. Lightning flickered down from the sky, mixing within dark clouds that were fast approaching the edge of town. He hoped that Buck and Sadie managed to find cover or return before the storm.
Ezra stood and looked toward a large dust cloud that erupted on the horizon. His eyes narrowed as the cloud neared and he could make out individual riders. He checked his guns as the hair on the back of his neck prickled. Ezra glanced up and down the street hoping to see Buck, but no one was in sight.
Two dangerous-looking men purposefully led the nondescript group into town and down the street.
"Gentlemen," Ezra greeted as the motley band pulled up in front of him. He eyed the man he believed to be the ringleader. A tall man with a dark, narrow face and black eyes set like stones on either side of a hatchet nose.
"What can I do for you?" Ezra kept his voice steady, even as his heart stampeded in his chest.
"The name's Rutt Mendoza." The tall man smiled in mock politeness. He gestured over to his right at a younger man who pulled up alongside his horse. "This here is my little brother, Enrique, and some of our friends." He returned his withering gaze to Ezra.
Ezra's eyes darted over the contingent of about twenty harden desperadoes, and he had no doubt that these men were anything but good citizens coming for a visit. His mind was already trying to think up a strategy to stay alive. He had grown use to having six other men backing him and found it difficult to come up with a suitable tactic that didn't have him ending up in a pine box.
"Hear tell there's new law here." There was the slightest hint of a smile in Rutt's heavily accented voice.
"That would be correct," Ezra replied, smoothly laying a hand on his holstered Colt.
"You that law?" Rutt asked leaning forward in his saddle his eyes darkening.
"I am temporarily employed as peacekeeper," Ezra smoothly answered.
"The deuce you say...you dress like a gambler," a voice called out from the back.
"Yes, law enforcement is sort of a sideline of mine," Ezra explained, hoping to stall for time. Rutt's glare and the twenty men behind him caused a prudent amount of fear to coarse through the sharp gambler's veins, but Ezra had been intimidated by the best and was fairly impervious to Rutt's silent threats.
The outlaw sat back in his saddle as he realized intimidation was having little effect on this one. Usually he drove most men into incoherent states of fear by just looking at them.
"A reb gambler, pretending to be a lawman," Enrique laughed, the other men breaking out into laughter as well.
Rutt threw up a hand and his men immediately went silent. He grinned wide, revealing long teeth, almost predatory. "Well, well, everything I hate in one neat little package." Rutt's brief smile flashed with such brutally satiric intensity that Ezra knew he was in serious trouble. He froze as several guns came to bear on him.
"Apparently you didn't get our message when you first arrived," Rutt exclaimed.
"Are you referring to the two gentlemen that were hung?"
"Yeah, that banker fella decided he didn't like our little arrangement anymore and tried to get the people here to rise against us." Rutt motioned and three men dismounted and moved toward the lone lawman.
"We're the law here," Rutt exclaimed. "We set these people up with businesses and they give us the protection we deserve."
Ezra tensed, calculating his odds of getting off a shot and being able to make it back into the jailhouse--the odds were not good. He felt like a cornered rabbit and the wolves were moving in. "You use the money you steal to set these people up in businesses?" Ezra asked in way of distraction.
Rutt grinned. "Yeah, and they tell anyone coming after us that we're just law biding citizens who stay in town. It's sorta our own little oasis," Rutt laughed.
Ezra had to admit it was ingenious. The outlaws could pillage the whole territory and return here for protection. Who would doubt a whole town?
Ezra's eyes darted right then left as Rutt's men slowly circled him, they apparently wanted him alive since they hadn't removed their guns. Although he doubted he'd get far with the rifles pointed at him. Ezra stood his ground as one of the men grabbed the front of his jacket. He was not going to go without difficulty. He brought his arms together between his attacker's arms and thrust upward, hard and sharp, breaking the hold. Another of the approaching men grabbed his arm...Ezra's free hand caught the fellow's wrist and bent it back, eliciting a squeal of pain. Ezra knew if he went for his guns he would be shot down. His plan was to stay alive until help arrived.
"Damn, he's stronger than he looks," one of Rutt's men commented after recovering from one of the gambler's kicks to the stomach.
Enrique and Rutt watched with amused grins as several more of their men jumped from their horses and joined the fray, quickly restraining the combating gambler.
Ezra was overwhelmed and after several quick jabs to his abdomen he stood bent over within his captors grasp, trying to force air back into his lungs.
"Well, it looks like we got ourselves a fighter. Enrique, he's all yours. But don't take all day. I'll take the boys and meet you at Parson's rock."
Enrique's face lit up, as if his brother had just given him the reins to his favorite horse. "Thanks Rutt."
"Just make sure this one gets everyone's attention," Rutt said. He turned his horse and headed out of town with the majority of his men falling in behind.
Enrique Mendoza slid off his horse and glared at the subdued gambler. He looked down at the pile of weapons and that his men had removed from him. "Damn, Reb, you're a regular armory."
"I try to be prepared," Ezra gasped.
"Well, it looks like you weren't prepared for the Mendoza gang," Enrique boasted as he reached down and picked up the fine purple jacket and tossing it to one of his men.
"Low-life scum have a way of surprising most folk," Ezra pointed out.
Enrique sneered and swung his fist, a roundhouse that landed squarely on Ezra's chin and sent his head whipping back. If not for the two men who held him he would have been flung to the ground. Enrique's fist then sunk into Ezra's stomach again...and again. The pain was intolerable; Ezra felt like he was about to be sick. He decided that if he was, he'd try to catch the miscreant in the explosion.
"Okay, enough warm up! Bring him along," Enrique said as he walked toward the center of town.
"EVERYONE! OUT HERE NOW!" Enrique yelled out as he turned slowly around in the middle of the street. People slowly emerged from the buildings to line the boardwalk.
Ezra swayed in his captors grasp but maintained his feet.
Enrique paced in front of the saloon. "I guess some of you didn't learn from the last lawman who tried to bring order, or from that banker fella. I don't understand some of you. My brother takes care of you, sets you up with the good life. All we ask is that you manage your business and overlook how we make our living." Enrique paused and scanned the crowd, searching for dissention. Most of the townspeople stared down at the ground refusing to meet his dark glare. "Apparently that has become too much to ask for some, so we're going to have a little refresher."
The two outlaws who held Ezra released him in the middle of the street. Ezra swayed then bent over placing his hands on his knees. 'Now what?'
Enrique and his four men went to their horses and reached into their saddlebags. Each man pulled out a long, leather braided bullwhip.
Ezra's eyes widened and his mouth went dry as the five men surrounded him, stretching out their whips and cracking them on the ground.
Nora Ashcroft pushed past the men standing in the saloon doorway and stopped alongside her father. 'God, she couldn't watch it again.' "Pa, you have to stop this," Nora urged.
"Hush, if you interfere, they'll kill us all."
"If we allow this to happen, we're as guilty and immoral as those murderers."
Gideon Ashcroft grabbed his daughter and pulled her inside the saloon. "Shut up! We tried to warn them, but they wouldn't listen. It ain't our fault. We'd be living in a mud hut, scraping out a living in the dust if it weren't for Mendoza," Ashcroft snarled.
Tears streamed down his daughter's face. "Please father, I can't live like this anymore. We can make it without the Mendoza's."
Ashcroft chortled and shook his head sadly. "We don't have a choice. Things have gone too far. Now we just have to do whatever we can to survive."
Nora stared at her father as if he was a complete stranger. They had been dirt farmers all their lives, barely eking out a living until Mendoza came and set them up in this town. The town grew and thrived on the Mendoza's stolen loot.
Tears continued to flow freely down Nora's face. "I can't let this happen."
Gideon raised his hand and slapped his daughter across the cheek, hard enough to send her to the floor.
"Go to your room," Gideon growled. He rubbed his hand feeling the sting of contact in his hand as much as in his heart. He loved his daughter and in his mind he had convinced himself that he was doing all this for her.
Nora raced up the stairs a hand covering the red welt forming on her cheek.
Panic driven adrenaline enabled Ezra to scramble away from his attackers and start running toward the stables.
"Well we don't want to be chasin' you so..." Enrique pulled his gun and fired.
Ezra fell to the ground grabbing the back of his upper leg and feeling the blood ooze past his fingers. The bullet had ripped into the upper part of his leg, sending shock waves of pain throughout his body. His thoughts scattered as pain and fear trampled each other for first place. His leg began to go numb taking away some of his agony, but leaving him teetering on the edge of panic. His breaths came out in quick pants as he looked up into the malevolent faces surrounding him.
"Maybe we should start heading back toward town," Buck suggested as he looked up at the darkening sky. "Them clouds look about ready to burst."
"Just a few more minutes. I love having you all to myself," Sadie cooed as she started putting the leftovers back into the basket. "There's a small hunting cabin not to far from here. We could go there and wait out the storm. It'll be just like old times when we use to hide from father."
Buck forced a grin. He didn't particularly want to relive those times when he could have been shot. "I don't know. I really should be gettin' back," Buck said as he plucked a blade of grass and stuck it in his mouth.
Sadie closed the top on the basket. "I'm sure Mr. Standish can handle things in town."
Buck smiled up at Sadie, and then there it was, the feeling that something was wrong. It just popped into his head like bolt out of the blue. Buck jumped to his feet as a feeling of anxiety washed over his contentment.
"Buck, what's wrong?" Sadie asked as she came to stand in front of the agitated cowboy resting her hands on his chest.
Buck wet his lips and stared down at his first love. For some reason he got a strange feeling that tickled the base of his skull, something he couldn't put his finger on.
"I don't know, darlin', it's just..." Buck looked toward town and the feeling intensified, causing him to take a deep shuddering breath.
Sadie tiptoed and pressed her lips to his. Buck's world returned to that time ten years ago, when everything felt new and good, and the trials of life hadn't eroded some of his optimism.
A gun shot broke the spell and Buck held Sadie away, cocking his head and trying to find the source of the shot.
Sadie wrapped her hands around Buck's neck. "It's probably just some hunter or someone playin' around," she tried to assure.
"Yeah, right." Buck looked into Sadie's face and there it was again, that feeling that something wasn't right, that this wasn't right. Sadie dropped her brown eyes from Buck's scrutiny. Buck placed two fingers under her chin and forced her face up. "What's going on, Sadie?"
"Nothing." Sadie tried to pull away even as his grip tightened.
"Why don't I believe you?" Buck said warily.
"Buck...please, you're hurting me."
Buck cocked his head toward town. At first, he just thought it had been a distant crack of thunder, but then he heard it again and again--a rhythmic snap--The crack of a whip.
Buck's gut twisted and his mouth went dry. He released Sadie and stood staring back toward town and Ezra. He took a few steps forward, as if that short distance would improve his hearing.
"Don't go, Buck. They'll kill you!" Sadie blurted out.
Buck turned sharply around, his face a mask of fear and betrayal.
"What are you talking about? Who will kill me?" Buck closed the distance between them as anger colored his eyes and forced Sadie to take a step back.
"They would have killed you both. There are too many of them. I had to do it to save you."
A sick feeling settled into the pit of Buck's stomach as he looked back at the town where Ezra was-alone. "What have you done?" He took off running back toward town, praying he wouldn't be too late.
"I did it for us!" Sadie yelled as Buck raced off and the rain began to fall.
The whips cut into his back slicing into his mind as much as his body. His linen shirt was already in tatters and soaked with blood. He kept his head down trying to protect his face, but the lashes struck indiscriminately. He clenched his jaw trying to hold back the scream of pain. He would not be reduced to some babbling idiot, pleading for his life. He didn't think it would do any good anyway. He would die quietly--he only hoped it would come soon.
The whips stopped and Ezra gulped in air as his body shook. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees. The pain generating from his back overshadowed any ache in his injured leg. He looked up at the unfamiliar faces with very familiar expressions, staring at him from the boardwalk on both sides of the street. He'd seen the same looks of indifference, disgust and even a little fascinated horror on the town's folk of Four Corners. He's a conman. He's no good. We're better off without his kind. He shouldn't be around decent folk. Ezra squeezed his eyes shut against the barrage of disparaging thoughts that raced through his mind.
"You're pretty tough for a dandy," Enrique mocked, bending over the gambler.
Ezra shot a look of contempt through the tumbled screen of his sweaty hair. Enrique's confidence withered slightly under the gambler's defiance.
"I got five bucks says he don't last ten minutes," one of the outlaws behind Enrique stated.
"I'll take that bet," another answered.
"Hell, I'll make sure he don't last five minutes," another called out, cracking his whip viciously on the ground.
Enrique straightened. "Finish 'em."
Ezra locked his arms as the whips continued their brutal onslaught. He heard the men laughing around him as the lashes came faster and harder, driving him and his determination back into the dirt. Ezra curled up, trying to cope with the pain, to find some way to compromise with it.
The heavens finally released their burden of rain, the dusty street turning quickly to mud. A few townspeople who couldn't handle the sight of a man being ripped apart managed to disappear during the downpour, but most of the town remained frozen in their spots with fear and a perverse compulsion to witness another's death.
Ezra couldn't feel the rain through his pain. His body lay still in the street, twitching only with each strike of a whip. He had confused impressions of sound--great tides of it washing over him. The pouring rain sounding like a cheering crowd. He barely heard the gunshot as a veil of darkness fell before him.
Vin and Chris hunkered down in their saddles as the rain fell. Chris looked up first as they entered the outskirts of Byers. His eyes narrowed as he made out five forms through the screen of rain.
"Sonofabitch!" Chris snarled and spurred his horse into a gallop as he pulled his revolver. Vin mimicked his action and the two gunslingers were racing down the street, fury burning in their eyes.
Chris aimed and fired, smiling as one of the men crumpled to the ground.
The outlaws stopped their torture when they heard the shot and one of their companions suddenly fell to the ground.
"What the hell?" Enrique yelled as he looked over his shoulder to see two riders charging down the street. One dressed in buckskins, standing in his stirrups firing a rifle, long hair flying back in the wind. The other was a darkly dressed man firing a peacemaker with deadly accuracy.
"There are only two of them," One of Enrique's men informed, drawing his gun and trying to take aim at the two men.
"Yeah, but they shoot like ten," another replied as he scrambled toward his horse only to be shot down before getting half way. Another of the outlaws tried to follow in his comrades' retreat with the same result.
Enrique reached his horse and put a foot in the stirrup as his horse danced around fearful of all the commotion. A bullet tore through his arm, sending him to the ground. He scrambled away from his skittish horse and pulled his gun.
"I wouldn't if I were you," Vin snarled over his mare's leg at the young man. His rifle pointed at Enrique's head. The young outlaw sneered and dropped his gun.
Buck ran out from between two buildings and froze when he saw the huddled bloody form lying on the ground. His breath caught halfway between his lungs and throat. "Oh, God, no." He ran down the road paying no heed to the gunfire around him. He slipped and recovered his step, falling to his knees beside his friend. He reached down to touch the motionless form and stopped, not sure what he should do. There was so much blood, it mixed with the mud beneath him. Buck rested a hand on the gambler's shoulder and Ezra stirred. Closing his eyes a moment, Buck offered up a quick, intense prayer of gratitude, one that Josiah would have been proud of. Guilt mixed with grief threatened to engulf him as he stared down at his friend. Carefully, he turned Ezra over, holding him by his shoulders with one arm to keep his back out of the mud. The rain had lessened, but hid the tears that traveled down Buck's face. He quickly wiped his eyes with one hand.
Ezra groaned with the movement. "Ez, c'mon pard talk to me," Buck pleaded. He looked up to see the town's folk staring back at them.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU LOOKING AT?" Buck raged, drawing his gun and waving it at the gaping townspeople. Were these people crazy? He glanced down to see blood pooling under Ezra's leg. His fury was put aside as he holstered his gun. He pulled off the bandana around his neck and pressed it up on the slowly bleeding wound. He couldn't believe a whole town just stood and watched as a man was being whipped. He was stunned by the ruthlessness of the outlaws and unconcern of the townspeople. He wanted to run amok through the town ripping out its evil soul. Buck's attention remained on the gambler even as Chris and Vin suddenly appeared at his side.
Vin squatted down next to the ladies man and pulled off his bandana. He wrapped it around Ezra's leg to hold Buck's makeshift bandage in place.
Chris looked over at the five outlaws lying in the street. One struggled to sit up against a building where Vin had tied him. Chris squeezed the butt of his gun tempted to just shoot the surviving outlaw.
Ezra twitched as consciousness seeped into his brain. He had no idea how long he had been out. For just the slightest of moments he was home in Four Corners, snug in his bed, buried under his down comforter. That image was ripped asunder as the pain once again grasped him with its invincible hold.
"Easy, Ez, we got ya," Buck soothed, holding him a little tighter.
"C'mon, Buck, let's get him inside." Chris was fighting the fury within. He glared at the town's folk who still stood on the boardwalks. What kind of town was this? How could people watch a man being whipped almost to death? His cold eyes narrowed as Ashcroft approached.
"Who the hell are you? You've ruined everything," Ashcroft yelled, wiping the wetness off his forehead. His white hair plastered almost transparent to his skull.
"Get the hell away from me!" Chris's voice was low and edged with a shiver of deadliness. Ashcroft stopped and stepped back. He stared at the man who suddenly appeared more dangerous than Mendoza. He thought the two men were just drifters who had decided to do a good deed, but the expression on the darkly dressed man's face made him reconsider that belief.
"Vin, get that piece of shit and bring him along." Chris motioned toward the surviving outlaw, ignoring the white-haired man.
"Listen, this has all been a big misunderstanding," Ashcroft blurted out, instantly regretting the outburst.
Chris pulled his gun and shoved it into the older man's face. Ashcroft threw up his hands and slowly back away until he was halfway across the street then he wheeled around and raced back into the saloon.
Chris and Buck carried Ezra up to his hotel room as he struggled back to pain-flecked consciousness. Vin followed behind, using his rifle to force Enrique forward.
Enrique looked over his shoulder at the buckskin-clad man. "Hey, who the hell are you guys?"
Vin jammed the barrel of his rifle into the outlaw's back. "The law," Vin replied. Enrique's brows raised, and he looked the tracker up and down then shrugged. If a gambler could be a lawman, why not a man dressed in buckskins?
They sat Ezra down on the edge of the bed. Buck held him as Chris reached over and poured a generous amount of whiskey into a glass. "Here, Ez, drink this."
The southerner's hands shook as they wrapped around Chris's hand, bringing the glass to his lips. Ezra took a couple tentative sips. Chris pulled the glass back when Ezra started to choke and gently eased his friend down onto his side as Buck removed his boots.
Vin forced Enrique down into a corner and flashed a him a look that left no doubt as to what the ex-bounty hunter would do if he moved. Enrique wasn't a fool, he would bide his time and wait for his brother.
The makeshift bandage around Ezra's leg was soaked with blood and Buck again applied pressure to the wound, trying to stop the flow.
Ezra hissed and his hand gripped the coverlet as his eyes squeezed shut.
"Sorry, Ez, got to stop this bleedin." Buck didn't even want to contemplate what his friend's back looked like under the tatters of his shirt.
"Where the hell were you?" Chris abruptly asked, glaring daggers at his oldest friend. He still couldn't remove the image of the five outlaws whipping the gambler into the ground. He'd never seen anything like it, and how could a whole town just stand by and watch?
"He...he was...making rounds," Ezra gasped out, a shivered chasing itself through his body and his face contorted in agony.
Buck shook his head and glared sadly at the conman. How could he defend him? "Don't go protectin' me with a lie."
Vin quietly stepped up to the side of the bed and threw a blanket over Ezra covering his hip and stomach.
"I was on a picnic," Buck finally admitted.
"You were what?" Chris growled, his blue eyes turning the color of a stormy sea. 'What was his friend thinking?' "A woman?" Chris hissed out.
Buck nodded slowly. "There were two men hanging when we first rode in," Buck continued. "Ezra knew something was fishy. I should a stayed in town."
Chris and Vin's head snapped up at the mention of the hanging and glared at Buck, their expressions feeding the guilt already growing inside him.
Buck was ready. He knew what was coming. Chris's fist connected with his jaw; the blow sending him to the floor. Vin immediately took up Buck's position to keep pressure on Ezra's leg wound.
Buck sat up, rubbing his jaw. He deserved it and was actually grateful to Chris. He deserved much more. He had failed them all, especially Ezra, for the sake of a woman.
Ezra struggled to sit up, closing his eyes against the sudden wave of vertigo. "It wasn't Mr. Wilmington's fault."
"Shut up!" Chris growled, still glaring at Buck. "You were supposed to stay together."
"There were many more of the miscreants earlier," Ezra explained, taking a breath to continue. "Mr. Wilmington would have suffered the same fate if he had stayed in town." Buck slumped against the wall wondering if he could have made a difference.
Vin forced the stubborn gambler back down into the bed. He peered under the soaked bandage relieved that the bleeding had subsided.
Chris's anger turned to the young outlaw who sat in the corner of the room. In three strides he was standing in front of the grinning man.
"Who the hell are you?" Chris demanded.
Enrique's grin just grew.
Chris kicked out at the smug outlaw then turned away.
The dark gunslinger's anger was suddenly transferred to the sound of a soft knock on the door. He flung open the door startling the young woman in front of him.
"What the hell do you want? Didn't get enough, earlier?"
"Chris," Vin calmly chastised.
"I'm sorry, I tried to stop it," the woman sobbed.
Chris took a deep breath and glared at the young woman. He raised his hand and took her chin between his fingers turning her head to see the large bruise under her eye.
"My name is Nora Ashcroft. I thought you could use these." She held out a brown bottle of laudanum and an armful of bandages. Nora looked over at the gambler. "I'll get some more water too."
Chris took the supplies and turned his back as Nora disappeared from the doorway.
Buck gently raised their shivering friend as Vin pulled his knife and cut what was left of Ezra's shirt. Chris poured some of the laudanum into a cup and brought it to the gambler's lips. "You're gonna need this."
Ezra looked up, surprised to see concern within the harden gunslinger's blue eyes. He took the offered medicine without complaint, testimony to the pain he was in.
"Damn," Vin hissed as he removed what was left of Ezra's shirt and threw it beside the dresser. The three gunslingers paused as they stared at a back criss-crossed with lashes, some leaving no more than red streaks across Ezra's muscled shoulders and back, and others seeming to have sliced down to the bone, lifting up patches of skin. Tremors raced throughout the cardsharp's body only bringing more pain as skin pulled taut.
"Does no one...have any respect...for fine clothing nowadays?" Ezra muttered. His back was starting to scream out against the brutality inflicted upon it.
"I think the idea was to bury you in it," Vin replied.
Buck propped up a couple pillows and eased Ezra back into them.
"You just take it easy," Buck soothed. "We'll take care of everything." Buck kneeled down beside the bed and leaned in close to the conman. "I'm so sorry, Ez. I never should have left you alone."
"Please, Buck, there...was...nothing you could...have done." Ezra's eyes fluttered closed and Buck gently ran a hand across Ezra's forehead, pushing back his wet hair.
"Need to check that leg," Vin said.
Vin started cutting up Ezra's pants leg. "Damn, the bullet's still in 'im."
"Wonderful," Ezra drowsily murmured.
Vin sadly regarded Buck and Chris. They all wished at that moment that Nathan was with them.
Nora returned with an ewer of water and more bandages.
"Thank you, ma'am," Buck said as he took the water and returned to Ezra's bedside. He poured the cool water into a basin and dipped a rag into it, gently wiping it across Ezra's brow.
Nora smiled at the care these men showed for one another. She'd never seen anything like it before. She felt responsible, she should have tried harder to stop it, but she was afraid like so many others in town were.
"So, do you know what's going on here?" Chris asked as Nora placed the bandages on the dresser.
She looked down at the handsome gambler. Ezra eyes were shut tight against the pain that racked his body. Buck held him on his side as Vin prepared to clean his torn back.
Nora turned and looked directly at the darkly dressed gunslinger, his rage had diminished, but he still held a threatening presence and Nora had to force herself to reply. "The Mendoza's own this town. No one knows for sure, but rumor has it that they came up from around Mexico. They rob banks and stages. They've set up several of the town's citizens in businesses as fronts. Here they spend their stolen money, permitting the town to prosper as the people deny their existence and hide them from the law."
Buck's heart shattered at that moment. "The people that the Mendoza's set up, they're aware of all this?" Even as he asked he knew he didn't want to know the truth.
Nora sadly nodded. "I'm sorry, but my father, Sadie Jordan, the shopkeeper and several other business owners know full well who their beneficiaries are and where the money was coming from."
Buck's shoulder's slumped, and his eyes seemed to go vacant. He felt suddenly hollow and used up. He had been a fool and it had almost cost Ezra his life. He squeezed the gambler's shoulder in apology.
"The Mendoza brothers and their men are murderous hardhearted savages," Nora vehemently stated, she had remained silent too long. "They killed the sheriff, the same way they were trying to kill your friend."
The three lawmen inwardly cringed at the thought of someone dying underneath the ruthless whips.
"When the bank manager and his brother tried to convince people to go against them, they were hung," Nora continued.
"And if you all don't want to end up the same way, you'll let me go and high tail it out of here," Enrique remarked from his spot in the corner.
Chris glared at the young outlaw. Enrique Mendoza tried to put up a strong front but under the menacing gunslinger's gaze his resolve soon withered. This was not a man to be trifled with and Enrique hoped his brother was careful.
"Damn, this whole town is a hideout," Vin exclaimed, as he gently wiped at one of the cuts across Ezra's back.
"Brilliant, really...," Ezra gasped out, trying to forget the renewed pain scouring his back and leg. "They could spend their ill-gotten loot within the town--their own private oasis."
Ezra hissed and tried to pull away as Vin continued to dab at the angry welts across his back. Buck held tight and looked down into a face that was growing too pale. Buck opened his mouth to say something, but closed it, realizing anything he could say would be pathetic in light of what he had done.
Chris wiped a hand through his hair and looked over at his injured friend. Ezra was growing weak and pale, his jaw clenched against the pain as he fought to stay conscious.
"That is Enrique Mendoza," Nora pointed at the tied outlaw. "His brother, Rutt, will come for him."
"How many men does Mendoza have?" Chris asked.
Nora thought a moment. "Well you killed four of them. I think there are at least fifteen more."
Vin stood and stepped over to Chris and whispered. "The bullet's too deep. Best to let Nate get it out. Some a them lashes need sewin'."
Chris stood lost in thought for a moment. Ezra was seriously injured and they were severely outnumbered if the Mendoza gang decided to attack. He had half a mind to just load up a wagon and ride out, but someone like Rutt Mendoza had to be dealt with. There was no telling how much destruction and misery he had already caused.
"Vin, go and wire the others tell them..." Chris began.
"You can't..." Nora interrupted, "they always cut the telegraph wire before they come to town."
Chris pressed his lips together and held back the urge to kick Enrique up and down the street. "Go and get Nathan and the others," Chris amended.
"We'll do what we can for Ez until you get back." He didn't really want to move Ezra anyway he didn't think the gambler would survive the trip back to Four Corners.
"What if Mendoza attacks before the others get here?" Buck asked.
"We'll just have to deal with that when it happens," Chris replied. "We don't have many options." Chris looked over at Enrique. "They'll come for him sooner or later I suspect."
"You can bet on that lawman," Enrique snarled.
"I'll need a fresh horse," Vin said.
Ezra's voice startled them. "Take Chaucer."
'Damn he's a stubborn cuss,' Chris thought with a smile. He hoped that stubborn streak helped him survive this.
"Will that ornery beast let me ride 'em?" Vin asked doubtfully.
"Chaucer is not ornery," Ezra slurred with a minimum of indignation. "Peppermint candy."
"What?" Chris said.
"He likes peppermint candy," Ezra clarified.
"For a horse?" Buck interjected.
"He's got a sweet tooth," Ezra explained his voice growing soft as the opiate tried to pull him deeper into blackness. "In my saddle bags...you'll find some. And also, Mr. Tanner...,remove your spurs."
"I always knew that horse was spoiled," Buck chuckled slightly, the smile fading as Ezra lost his fight with fatigue and the opiate, slumping into unconsciousness within Buck's arms.
"How is he?" Chris quietly asked as he slowly woke from his position in the chair. He glanced over to the corner of the room, seeing Enrique curled up asleep. How a man like him could sleep peacefully was beyond him.
"Fever's got 'em," Buck replied, wiping a cool cloth across Ezra's forehead. Chris stood and stretched glancing out the window, seeing his haggard reflection against the night. The town was quiet. Chris had all the lights extinguished and threatened to shoot anyone he saw in the street.
"Chris, I never meant for any of this to happen. If I had known..." Buck's voice fell off.
Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Ez was right, you couldn't have done anything and we'd be patchin' you both up or worse."
"Still, I let a woman distract me. Maybe together Ez and I could have held them off," Buck admitted.
"Maybe, but I doubt it," Chris said. He didn't want his old friend to carry guilt around for the rest of his life. He knew what that could do to a person.
"She knew," Buck absently said.
"Yeah, seems so," Chris regretfully said, Sadie's grand restaurant was a direct result of Mendoza's stolen money. Buck had told him about Sadie Jordan. Chris remembered how much his friend had cared about the dark- haired girl and how broken hearted he was when she left.
"No," Buck snapped raising his head. "She knew them devils were coming. She was saving me by sacrificing Ezra."
"Can't say I completely blame her for that. People in love do strange things," Chris intoned.
"But she's a part of all this. How could I not have seen it?"
"You saw what you wanted too, what you lost ten years ago. Believe me I can understand that," Chris replied placing a hand on his long-time friend's shoulder.
Buck's brow furrowed in thought. Had he been living in the past? Did he really love Sadie or was it just some left over emotion from days long past. He looked down at Ezra who moaned softly and knew he could never forgive her. What they had once was now forever destroyed.
Ezra tossed and turned throughout the night as fever slowly stretched its hot tendrils throughout his weakened body. Chris and Buck did what they could for their friend, trying to get more water and laudanum down his throat and cool his growing fever, but by morning the sheets were striped with blood and soaked with sweat and the two concerned lawmen were exhausted as they tried to calm the out-of-his-head gambler.
"He ain't goin' to make it," Enrique stated.
Chris grabbed the basin from the dresser and threw it at the detestable outlaw. Enrique jerked aside just in time, still catching the blood colored water in the face.
"We want anything out of you, we'll beat it out a ya," Buck growled.
Chris leaned his forehead against the cool window pane and stared down the street a smile breaking across his face.
"Thank god," Buck said as he wiped Ezra's brow.
Moments later Chris and Buck heard the heavy quick footfalls of the healer and the others hurrying up the stairs.
Nathan burst into the room first, his medicine bag in hand.
"God, Nathan, he's burning up," Buck quickly explained.
"Good lord," Josiah murmured. JD stood in wide-eyed silenced. He'd never seen a man so brutalized.
JD swallowed the bile rising up his throat and looked over at Buck. Vin had told them what had happened. He glanced over at Buck, not seeing a man he trusted with his life, but one who looked someohow diminished. JD still couldn't believe his friend would allow this to happen.
Nathan pushed past Buck and sat down beside the bed, laying a couple fingers alongside Ezra's throat. He shook his head and began to rummage through his bag pulling out a small pouch.
"Josiah, I need this simmered in two cups of water," Nathan explained.
Josiah stood stunned for a moment, murmuring a silent prayer then grabbing the bag and racing out of the room.
"JD, take this piece of shit and lock him up in the jail," Chris ordered. "And don't trust no one in this town."
The young sheriff pulled his gun and yanked Enrique to his feet, grateful for the distraction.
"You're all dead men," Enrique said.
"Damn, you know how many times we've heard that," JD quipped and shoved the outlaw out the door.
Chris grinned, the young easterner was getting as cocky as Buck. Chris turned to see Buck's sadden expression. They both had seen the look of betrayal in JD's young eyes. "I'll explain things to him, Buck," Chris said.
"You think that will really help?" Buck replied turning his attention back to Ezra.
With Vin's help, Nathan carefully eased the gambler onto his stomach and pulled down the sheet. He gasped at the many wounds then went to work, falling into the practice routine of his healing.
"Damn, I'm going to have to stitch these up. Looks like you did a good job of cleaning." Nathan moved down to Ezra's leg and slowly unwrapped the bandage. The wound was angry and red and Nathan knew that infection was trying to take hold.
"Alright, Vin, Buck, I'll need you both to hold him down. I have to get that bullet out. Then I can deal with his fever."
Vin took hold of Ezra's shoulders as Buck applied his weight to his legs. Nathan removed a scalpel and began to cut into the bullet hole. Ezra struggled weakly, trying to push himself up. Vin applied more weight and eased the man back down.
"Shhhh, Ez, Nathan's here. He'll fix you up," Vin assured. The southerner looked worse than when he left, and he truly feared for the man's life.
"Hold 'em. I almost got it." Nathan's tongue pushed on the inside of his mouth as he concentrated on extracting the metal. He finally eased the bullet out, throwing it onto the table. He slapped a bandage over the wound and grabbed Buck's hand. "Hold this, Buck."
Buck applied pressure to the renewed bleeding.
Nathan turned his head when he heard Josiah's heavy footsteps. "We need to get some of this medicine down him, before I start on his back," Nathan explained.
Josiah squatted down next to the Ezra's head and placed a large hand under the gambler's face. He raised him up slightly as Nathan poured some of the foul smelling medicine onto a spoon. Nathan gently slipped the medicine between Ezra's reluctant lips, watching to see that he swallowed before pouring another spoonful. They continued for twenty minutes until Ezra had taken all the medicine.
Nathan checked to see that the bullet wound had stopped bleeding and put a more permanent bandage in place.
"Nathan, is he going to be okay, now?" Buck asked. He was relieved to see Ezra resting more comfortably.
"As long as I can keep him from going into shock. He's going to need lots of rest though. He's lost too much blood and has been hurtin' a long time. That medicine I gave him will help. I'll wait a bit then I'm going to have to start stitchin' those whip lashes."
Vin moved away from the bed and came up alongside the blond leader who had been a silent sentry since Nathan began his work.
"So what are we going to do now, Cowboy?" Vin asked. "We're stuck here until Ezra's fit to ride. And I don't know 'bout you all, but I have a hankerin' for a little payback."
"I'm with you there, Vin," Buck put in.
"As am I, brothers," Josiah said as he gently rubbed Ezra's head.
"Mendoza is down to about fifteen men," Chris explained. "This whole town has been protectin' them. We'll need to prepare for when they come back."
"Fifteen to six, I like them odds," Buck said.
"We need to round up the townspeople and lock them up somewhere, maybe the church. We don't need to be fightin' them along with Mendoza."
Buck broke into a broad grin. "You'd been plannin' this out, you old war dog."
Chris glanced over at Ezra who started to stir as Nathan began to clean and stitch his back. "No one does that to one of our own and gets away with it."
"How about the townspeople?" Vin asked.
"We'll deal with them later, that I promise," Chris snarled.
"Sir, you are making a terrible mistake," Ashcroft complained as Chris practically dragged the man toward the church. Ashcroft dug in his heels and brought the gunslinger to a halt.
Chris glared at the man.
"You have no right to do this. This is our town. You're delusional if you think you'll be able to stop Rutt Mendoza and his gang of cut-throats with only six men?" Ashcroft was scared he was watching his lavish way of life shatter around him. "You would be wise to just leave."
Chris smiled unpleasantly, as far as he was concerned, Ashcroft and the others were just as guilty as Mendoza. "They started this dance, by God, and we're ready to finish it." Chris jerked man forward and stopped.
"Now, listen, you all could become very rich men here," Ashcroft said. "I'm sure the Mendoza's would be more than happy to include you and your men. You can't make much as lawmen." Ashcroft was still bewildered by the unusual individuals who made up the seven lawmen. He thought a gambler was odd enough, but now there was a black man, a preacher, a long-haired woodsman, and a young boy pretending to be a man, along with this mysterious gunslinger and his friend.
Chris spit a wad of tobacco on top of Ashcroft's shoes. "If I had my way, I'd burn this town to the ground with you in it."
Ashcroft relented and allowed himself to be dragged toward the church.
The townspeople were quickly rounded up and secured inside the church. Snarls and glares from the six gunslingers put an end to any opposition.
Buck stopped on the boardwalk as Sadie emerged behind him.
"Buck, I'm sorry. I had to do it to save you." Sadie paused and wiped at tear-filled eyes. She had convinced herself that she could make Buck understand and that everything would be like before. "You see, you haven't changed. I knew what you would have done. You would have faced those men with your friend. I couldn't stand to lose you again."
"You should have warned me," Buck said keeping his back to her, afraid to look at her.
"The two of you couldn't have done anything. You would have been killed," Sadie vehemently replied, trying to make the man she loved understand. "Please, Buck look at me."
Buck slowly turned around to face the woman he thought he loved. He released a breath, the feelings had wilted under her treachery. He closed his eyes a moment, seeing the image of Ezra's torn body in the street again.
"You were willing to sacrifice my friend."
Sadie's eyes harden. "Yes, and I would do it again. I love you I would do anything to protect you." Sadie grabbed Buck's limp hand between her own, bringing it up to her chest.
Buck hung his head. "I deserted a friend...almost got him killed. I have to live with that." He had caught glimpses of sadden disdain from his friends, and he couldn't blame them. He had failed Ezra miserably all because of a woman. He just hoped in time the other lawmen could forgive him-he doubted he'd ever be able to forgive himself.
"I couldn't warn you," Sadie explained. "They expected to find a lawman. If they hadn't, they would have come looking for you."
"So Ezra was expendable."
"I'm sorry about your friend, I truly am." Sadie stepped in close and wrapped her arms around Buck's steadfast body. She pressed her ear against his chest hearing the fierce beat of his heart. "I'll go anywhere with you. We could runaway from all this, just you and me."
Buck ignored her words and breathed in the smell of her hair as he raised his hand only to let it fall back to his side.
"You knew what Mendoza would do," Buck sadly said. "Ezra is like a brother to me, so are the others. I betrayed them all. We need trust in our profession to survive."
She slowly looked up into his stern face and stepped back. "I did it for us," she repeated. 'Why didn't he understand that!' she thought.
Buck's eyes flashed. "No, you did it for you. There is no us." Buck gently but firmly pried Sadie's body away. She looked into his brown eyes and knew she had lost him.
"JD!" Buck called out toward his friend who was nearby. "Take Miss Jordan to the church with the others."
JD took hold of the woman's arm as Buck turned and walked down the boardwalk a piece of his heart falling away to be left behind.
Nathan work furiously on the injured southerner all day, forcing medicine down him to reduce his fever, and cleaning the painful wounds that covered his back. The others were a constant parade through the room, bringing water and clean sheets and helping when they could with Nathan's ministrations. They no longer asked how Ezra was doing, they were afraid of the answer. Ezra tossed and turned, murmuring incoherently and yelling at only things he could see. At times he had to be held down to keep from hurting himself.
Buck sat silently in the corner of the room just staring sadly at the gambler. He would live with the sight of Ezra's whipped and bloodied body for the rest of his life, wishing he had been with him, even if only to suffer the same fate.
Nathan shook Buck's shoulder, and he woke abruptly. He noticed that the room was dimly lit, the day having drained away, leaving the inky blackness of night around them. He didn't remember falling asleep and realized that he had been near exhaustion. He looked over to see the unmoving form on the bed and flashed terrified eyes up at the healer.
"His fever broke, he's sleeping," Nathan said with a tired smile. Buck slumped in his chair and felt relief lightened his heart. He looked over to see Josiah sitting in the chair next to the bed, and Chris smiling from his place near the window. Vin was out on the roof keeping lookout, and JD had remained in the jail to guard the prisoner.
Buck stood and stretched. "I'll go tell the others." He glanced over at Ezra and silently thanked whatever deity watched over him.
Chris returned his gaze to the window grateful that his family was still whole and eager to bring about a little retribution.
Larabee knew their time was running out. Rutt wouldn't wait much longer. Vin had seen the scouts early that morning and they all knew their wait was over.
Nathan came jogging out of the hotel to meet up with the others in the street.
"Nathan, what are you doing?" Buck asked.
"Nora is with Ez. He's doing better. I think you're going to need all the help you can get," Nathan explained.
Chris nodded and turned to the others. "Josiah, Vin, take to the roofs and keep an eye on the church. If anyone steps foot out of it shoot off their foot," Chris instructed.
"We'll keep our errant flock penned up," Josiah assured.
"Buck, take the saloon. JD, the jail. Nathan, the livery." The gunslingers nodded and headed to their appointed positions.
Evidence of yesterday's rain remained in the puddles scattered across the street. Dry mud rutted the road, making it difficult to walk. Chris remained in the middle of the street, his eyes narrowed as he made out the vague forms of riders coming their way.
'This is for you, Ez,' Chris murmured under his breath as his hand stroked his pistol grips ever so lightly.
Rutt pulled up his horse as he entered the town and spotted the darkly dressed gunslinger standing alone in the middle of the street. His men halted several paces behind him as he scanned the area. His scouts had informed him that several men had come to town claiming to be lawmen. He had grown concerned when his brother hadn't returned. He hadn't expected any trouble.
"Hey, Rutt, it's 'bout time," Enrique yelled from the jail cell window.
"They treatin' you alright?" Rutt yelled back.
"Yeah, but I'm tired of hangin' around."
"Well just hang on a little longer. We'll have you out soon enough."
Rutt glared at the darkly dressed gunslinger who continued to stand in the street. The man didn't look afraid to die and that was a dangerous attitude to go up against. Rutt spotted the two men on the roof, and then caught sight of the young sheriff and another cowboy just outside the saloon with his hand on his gun. He then saw a darkie in the hayloft of the stable. Was this all? -- Only six. His confidence started to grow.
"We don't need any law here," Rutt growled.
"Looks to me like you do," Chris countered, watching as Rutt's men slowly moved up and spread out on their horses.
"This town ain't worth it," Rutt said as he walked his horse closer.
Chris smoothly pulled his duster away from his guns. "I'll have to agree with you there, but your men made the mistake of almost killing one of mine."
Rutt released a tired breath, they weren't getting anywhere. He really didn't want to get into a gun battle with lawmen. He knew him and his gang would have to move on afterward. He had enjoyed this town. "Maybe we can come to a compromise, one that benefits all of us?"
"Doubt it," Chris simply stated.
'Damn, this man wants to fight,' Rutt thought.
"Look, I have fifteen men to your six," Rutt explained, pulling his mount to a stop several paces away.
Chris's mouth twitched into a crooked smile. "Yeah, hardly seems fair. That's why I'm giving you a chance to surrender."
Rutt's expression would have been comical had not the circumstances been so dire.
The outlaw leader jerked out his pistol as Chris drew, and fired all in one smooth movement. Chris ran for the protection of a water trough, one round missing his target, the second round knocking a leg out from an outlaw running up the street. Rutt whirled his horse around then jumped from his back to take cover.
Vin fired and watched as an outlaw, who was taking aim at Nathan, dropped out from behind a barrel to lay motionless in the street.
Another overly-confident bandit burst out from Buck's right. Buck spun around and drilled him through the gut. Buck then managed to take out another outlaw across the street. He whirled around, startled to come face to face with an outlaw who stared at him through blank eyes then slowly crumbled to the ground. Buck looked up at the second story of the hotel to see a gun peeking out the window. 'Damn, stubborn cuss,' he thought. Buck hissed as a bullet grazed his arm reminding him to pay attention.
Ezra wavered and then felt the soft hands of Nora around his waist. "Mr. Standish, you should not be out of bed."
A wave of dizziness flowed over him. "I believe I'll agree with that assumption." Ezra allowed himself to be led back to his bed, his gun still in hand.
Chris watched as an outlaw charged down the street on horseback firing at Buck and driving the lawman to the ground. Chris diverted his aim and fired, the bullet striking the outlaw in the head, twisting it sideways on his neck as he slumped over his horse's withers. When the bay wheeled to get away from the confusion the outlaw toppled to the street.
"Go with God," Josiah murmured as he took aim at a barrel-chested brigand that was making things uncomfortable for JD. He pulled the trigger on his rifle. The outlaw did a curious spin before firing a harmless shot into the ground.
"Who the hell are these guys? They fight like kilkenny cats," Rutt yelled as he tried to get a bead on one of the lawmen. His companion seemed about to answer when his eyes froze in their socket. His mouth opened and closed without a sound then the outlaw fell on his face.
The silence was sudden and intensified the aura of death. Chris quickly checked for his men, noting that JD was favoring his right leg and Buck had blood on his arm, neither man looked in danger of expiring.
"Mendoza!" Chris yelled out. "If you're still alive I'm giving you one more chance to surrender."
Rutt Mendoza stepped out from his cover, throwing his gun to the ground. Two remaining men quickly joined him, relieved that they would live to see another day.
Nathan ran over to quickly check JD and Buck's injuries, finding them fit to make their way up to the hotel room for care. He then raced toward the hotel. Nathan had seen Ezra shoot the outlaw that was sneaking up on Buck. He planned on giving the obstinate cardsharp a good tongue-lashing for leaving his bed it was one of the few pleasures he got.
Josiah and Chris escorted Rutt and his two surviving men into the jail. Vin opened the second jail cell and Josiah and Chris shoved the men inside.
"Hey, I'm hurt," one of the outlaws complained.
Chris eyed the man's wounded arm. "You'll live."
Rutt grabbed hold of the cell bars. "This ain't over, mister. I never forget a face." He still couldn't believe it. How could six men take on fifteen and succeed?
"Well, in case you do, the name's Larabee, Chris Larabee."
Rutt's hands dropped from the bars and his face fell in stunned recognition. He had heard of the deadly gunslinger turned lawman. Some say he was a demon that couldn't be killed. After what he saw, Rutt Mendoza had no doubt that he was.
"Rutt. What's wrong? Who is he?" Enrique asked, growing disturbed by his brother's sudden change in demeanor.
"Shut up." Rutt turned and fell heavily onto the cot.
Vin smiled as he followed Chris outside.
Ashcroft intercepted Larabee as he exited the jail. The townspeople had made their way out of the church after the gunfire stopped. Some looked openly relieved that Mendoza and his men were locked up or dead, others wished it had been the six lawmen who met their demise.
"You have condemned this town to dust," Ashcroft exclaimed.
"Oh, I've done more than that," Chris retorted back hotly. "This whole town is under arrest."
"What? You can't be serious."
"Oh, I've never been more serious. You all are under arrest for aiding and abetting known outlaws. A circuit judge will be here day after tomorrow with a contingent of soldiers. Law and order has come to Byers, Mr. Ashcroft."
Chris turned on his heel then stopped. "And I don't advise anyone trying to leave." Chris nodded up to the roof of the hotel building where Vin raised his rifle.
"You wouldn't dare."
Chris glowered at the older man in reply. "Be glad I don't put Ezra up there instead."
Ashcroft's face paled at the threat.
The circuit judge had come yesterday and quickly dispatched justice by arresting several of the town's prominent citizens, including Sadie Jordan and Gideon Ashcroft. The rest were considered under town arrest with several soldiers staying to enforce the mandate. Much of the property and merchandise of the citizens would be sold to reimburse some of the victims of the Mendoza gang.
"Ay, Ez, Nathan sent me to get ya. We're ready to go," Buck yelled out as he entered the saloon to find the cardsharp sitting at a table, playing solitaire. His leg still gave him some difficulty, and he wasn't permitted to walk around unescorted. A pillow had been placed on the back of his chair to cushion his torn back, and he still had to take Nathan's vile concoctions for the pain. But he was alive and at the moment it was something he was immensely grateful for. At least Nathan saw fit to leave him in the saloon as he went to take care of his horse.
"Ez, what the hell is going on? Move ass," Chris shouted coming in behind Buck.
"I believe I'll continue my stay here, Mr. Larabee."
"What?" Both Chris and Buck asked.
"Oh, geeze, we haven't told 'em yet," Buck reminded.
"Ez, Caplan's kid stole the money," Chris quickly put-in.
"I see." Ezra fingered the queen of hearts that he held in his hand. "It doesn't change the fact that the town doesn't trust me and believed me a thief."
Chris was ready to tear into the stubborn southerner until he caught the sadness in his voice. Ezra hadn't deserved the treatment he received back in town or here.
"Ez, most of the town believed that you didn't steal the money. It's just that others have very loud voices," Chris exclaimed. He could see the turmoil on the cardsharp's face. Ezra wanted to return, but he was torn. He had come to call Four Corners home and the thought of not being wanted was more than he could bare. "Ezra, we're all behind you and if you decide to leave..." Chris looked over his shoulder at Vin and the others who now crowded the doorway. "We'll leave too."
Ezra didn't even try to hide the shock on his face. He looked at the six men, seeing the truth. Ezra pushed himself to his feet and was immediately steadied by Nathan and Josiah's hold on his arms.
"Well, I'd hate to see Four Corners turn into as disreputable town as this, so I guess we should all return."
Ezra looked up at Josiah and Nathan. "Gentlemen, I'd much prefer to face this town's inhabitants under my own power."
The two men slowly released their hold, ready in case the weakened cardsharp collapsed.
"Don't be overdoing it now," Nate cautioned.
"I will not ruin all your hard work, Mr. Jackson."
"Hell, I just don't want you spending any more time than necessary in my clinic."
Ezra inwardly groaned. Nathan smiled and followed the others out of the saloon.
Ezra reached out and grabbed Buck's arm as he was about to leave.
"Mr. Wilmington, I've been remiss in my regrets. I'm sorry about
Miss Sadie. If it's any consolation, she fooled me too."
Buck flashed a tight smile. "Yeah, guess you can't ever really go home again, too much changes," Buck said.
"True, but change can be good."
Buck smiled and threw and arm gently over Ezra's shoulders as the two men walked out of the saloon. "Oh, and about your debt to me," Ezra mentioned smiling at Buck's groan.