Previously posted on another website November 2004. Moved to Blackraptor January 2007
The stage rolled into town causing passer-bys to scurry out of the way, as it pulled up in front of the telegraph office. Judge Travis stood and straightened his jacket, pulling out his watch and frowning at the time. The stage had been running late all week. He glanced over at the five lawmen sitting outside the saloon. He looked back at the stage and exhaled a long, steady breath. "I expect you gentlemen to be on your best behavior."
"Judge, we're always on our best behavior," Buck replied with mock hurt. He glanced over at Chris and smiled. The blonde gunslinger kept his mouth shut.
Travis diverted his full attention toward the sardonic cowboy. Buck shrunk back in his seat a little. Judge Orrin Travis had the ability of making a person feel like a school boy caught playing hooky. Travis grunted and murmured as he stepped off the boardwalk and into the street. "Yeah, for a pack of coyotes."
Buck's mouth fell open and he turned toward his fellow lawmen. "Hey, I think we've just been insulted."
"Or he just insulted the coyotes," Josiah good-naturedly quipped, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands behind his head. The judge had a sharp tongue and enjoyed honing it on his seven regulators.
Chris smiled around the cheroot in his mouth and pushed his hat back on his head to watch the judge cross the street. Travis had been in rare good humor of late, almost to the point of cheerful. Larabee had even saw Travis playing cards with Ezra the other day and listening to one of JD's bad jokes.
Vin saw the knowing smile on his friend's face. "Guessin' you know what's going on?"
"An old friend of his from New York is visitin'. Someone by the name of Ben Graham," Chris explained. "Hear tell he's rich and thinkin' of putting some money into the town."
"Better not let Ezra know," Nathan joked.
"Ah, hell, the judge is trying to turn us into one a those fancy big cities," Buck quipped, scrunching his face in disgust.
"This town could use a little citifying," Nathan said. "Then maybe I wouldn't be patchin' you fellas up so much."
"Wouldn't count on it," Vin chuckled. "When a town starts gettin' all proper just makes for more rules to break."
"No one said anything about making this a big city," Chris broke in, surprised at Buck's agitation "I think he just wants to start a hotel and maybe buy a ranch or something."
"That's how them city folk work," Buck growled. "First a hotel, then more stores, more restaurants and poof you're a major metro...metro..."
"Metropolitan," Josiah aided.
"Can't stop progress, brother Buck," Josiah said from his chair.
"Yeah, but does it have to be shoved down our throats." Buck shook his head and stood. "I need a beer."
"Hold on, Buck. I'll join ya," Nathan called as he followed Buck into the saloon.
Chris bowed his head allowing his hat to shade his blue eyes. Buck, like the rest of them, was worried that Four Corners would become to civilized for men like them. Chris raised his head and scanned the small, but growing burg. It had become home to the seven gunslingers who protected it. Maybe it was time to accept the inevitable changes and stop running away from them. He knew that Travis's friend was only one of many business men who had their eyes and financial futures on the fast growing towns of the western frontier.
"Well, guess we should be hospitable," Josiah said as he looked across the street.
Chris exhaled and unfolded from his chair, tossing his half-smoked cheroot into the street. He stepped off the boardwalk and headed across the street with Josiah and Vin at his heels.
"Those brown bags are mine." Ben Graham gestured at the back of the stage. He watched as the stage driver maneuvered his way on top.
Ben's attention turned toward a young girl, who stood expectantly at the stage door. She was wearing a gingham dress, with a small white shawl draped across her shoulders. Her blond ponytails waved when she turned her head, feeling the stage sway under the driver's weight on top. Ben smiled and offered his hand. The young girl took it proudly, and her father helped her to the boardwalk.
"Is this where we're going to stay?" The girl's sapphire eyes widened as she looked at the gray clapboard buildings.
"Yes, Emily, for awhile this is going to be home. What do you think?"
Emily eyed the frontier town with all the curiosity of a ten year old girl. The buildings looked drab, many homes back east were made of brick, and the ones that were made of wood were usually painted bright colors. Even though the town lacked the color of the big cities, she still found it fascinating.
"It's great! Will I get my own horse?"
"We'll see," Ben laughed. He knew his daughter would like the town. Like himself, she loved adventure and was very open to new things. Ben glanced down the street and his smile grew upon seeing the heavyset man in a dark suit striding toward them.
"Orrin!" Ben greeted as Travis stepped up onto the boardwalk. He took the esteemed magistrate's hand in a firm handshake. "It's good to see ya, and it looks like the wild west agrees with ya."
"Nah, that's just good food," Travis quipped patting his amble stomach. Travis smiled as he eyed the vigorous looking man, who was ten years his junior. "Ben, you old war horse. You haven't changed. How was your trip?"
"A little dusty, but pleasantly uneventful. After all the stories of Indian and bandit attacks we hear back east I was a little nervous." Ben squeezed his little girl's hand.
"The west is mellowing," Travis said, his tone softening. He looked down at the young girl and bowed slightly. "My goodness can this young lady possibly be little Emily?"
The young girl giggled and then quickly established a more mature expression -- she was ten after all. Her father had talked fondly of the Judge, and although his appearance was somewhat intimidating his smile washed away any of her apprehension
What's it been, six years?" Travis asked as he straightened.
"More like seven. Emily was only three when you saw her last," Ben corrected."
Travis's face softened at the time that had past. He glanced over his shoulder when he felt the presence of the three gunslingers. "Ben, I'd like you to meet Chris Larabee, the man I've written you about. Chris, this is Ben Graham, a very old and dear friend."
"Hey, old man, watch the 'old' bit."
Chris reached out and accepted Ben's firm hand. "And this is Vin Tanner and Josiah Sanchez," Travis further introduced.
Vin nodded as Ben sat back on his heels and took in the long-haired tracker and huge ex-preacher. Travis had told him of the seven unique lawmen he had hired as peacekeepers. Their presence convinced him to come out west and maybe invest in the town. He would never risk his family or financial resources in a lawless town. Looking at the three regulators, Ben Graham had little doubt that these men were capable of maintaining peace.
A young man abruptly appeared in the opening of the stage, his disheveled blond hair and brown jacket indicating that he had just woke. Daniel Graham rubbed the back of his neck. He was tired, hungry and sore, having spent the past two days in the cramped quarters of the stage. He looked down the street and inwardly groaned at the rustic buildings and strong stench of horse manure. He stared at the four western men, standing by his father and sister, and stepped down from the stage.
Ben Graham placed a hand on his son's shoulder. Daniel glared and summarily shrugged off the paternal gesture. "Danny, you remember Judge Travis," Ben exclaimed, discounting the slight.
"I told you my name is Daniel, not Danny." The youth glared at his father, then turned away to stare down the solitary street.
"Daniel! Judge Travis has almost single-handedly brought law and order to many towns on the western frontier. You will show him the proper respect," Ben demanded.
Daniel eyed the magistrate with disdain and snorted. "Don't look like this town is even worth it. I'd say you wasted your damn time."
Chris, Vin and Josiah shared a glance and then eyed the impertinent young man.
"Danny!" Ben scolded.
Danny abruptly turned on his heels and walked toward the front of the stage.
"Leave him be, Ben," Travis said.
"Sorry, Orrin, it's been a long trip from New York," Ben said in way of explanation for his son's rudeness.
"Perfectly understandable," Orrin replied trying to lighten the suddenly tense atmosphere. "Everyone is probably tired. Let me take you over to the hotel and get you settled. Chris, could you lend us a hand with the bags?"
Larabee nodded. "Vin, head on over to the jail and wait for Ezra's return from patrol. Josiah and I will take care of the luggage."
"Catch you all later," Vin said and started toward the jail. He spared a glance at the young man as he walked past. Daniel's eyes were dark and foreboding and something told Vin that trouble had just set foot in town.
Travis placed a hand on Graham's back and guided him and his daughter down the boardwalk. Chris and Josiah each grabbed up two bags and turned to follow the judge and his friend toward the hotel.
"Hey, what about my bags?" Daniel asked his voice rising in indignation as his hands moved to his hips. 'Damn, didn't anyone know how to show the proper respect?'
Chris peered over his shoulder at Daniel who was standing in front of two large bags. He couldn't believe the audacity of the young man, who was trying hard to emit an aura of respect and intimidation, but all he managed was a look of someone who needed a swift kick on the backside. "You look strong enough; I think you can manage."
Josiah grinned at the young man's shocked expression. It was obvious that
Daniel Graham was used to getting his own way. His father's position and wealth back east had always ensured preferential treatment by his equals and the lower class.
Danny kicked out his foot, scuffing the weathered slat of the walkway. He was hundreds of miles from home and his father's name. Here, he was nobody. No one knew or cared about Ben Graham or his son, well, almost nobody. Daniel roughly grabbed up his grips and started down the boardwalk, murmuring, about the crudeness of hayseeds and saddle tramps, under his breath. He had wanted to remain in New York, but his father had forced him to come, telling him it was time to become a man. He was already a man! The train ride and then the stage had made him a captive listener to his father's endless lectures about making his own way and standing on his own two feet. Ben Graham believed hard work was the only way to gain respect. Danny had discovered that just having money brought all the respect he wanted.
Danny coughed as two riders kicked up dust beside him. This town was no more than a nondescript speck on an otherwise desolate landscape; one that would soon be forgotten and returned to the dust from which it sprang. His father had made the biggest mistake of his life dragging him here.
Danny checked into his room, grumbling about the lowly accommodations. He paid extra for some paltry indulgences, such as his laundry done and breakfast served in his room. (His father gave him a monthly allowance; of course, it wasn't enough to survive on, at least not by his standards.) Danny decided to explore this holdback of a town on his own. He slipped out of the hotel before his father and the judge could condemn him to a night of appalling food and inane reminiscing.
Danny squinted at the white light of the sun settled on top of the far off ridge. Danny leisurely strolled down the boardwalk peering into store windows and balking at the inferior quality of merchandise. It felt good to stretch his legs after the long trip in the stage. He buttoned up his jacket as a cold wind caressed his face. Four Corners reminded him of the pitiable burgs that rose up around the major cities back east. The small enclaves, usually housing newly arrived immigrants and the plebeian populace. Why couldn't those people find somewhere else to live? Better yet, not come to this country altogether. Of course, then the upper classes wouldn't have anyone to do their laundry or keep their houses. Daniel stopped and looked up to see a tall black man crossing the street. He walked with purpose and was even cordially greeted by a woman he past. Daniel wished he had lived before the war, when darkies still knew their place, so he wouldn't have to pay people to do menial jobs for him. He dreamed of a life of leisure with servants and a grand house.
Danny continued down the boardwalk peering into a small sewing shop. He turned around when he caught a flash of color reflected in the glass. A man dressed in a purple jacket and pin-striped pants rode up the street. Gamblers were a common sight back east and in all the towns they had traveled through. By his clothing and horse, this gambler was a prosperous one. The animal was magnificent, probably an Arabian. The gambler rode him like visiting royalty. Daniel was mildly surprised when the finally dressed gentleman halted in front of the jail and dismounted. He watched as the gambler swiped the dust from his coat and entered the jailhouse. He looked at the horse that stood patiently at the rail, the reins tied loosely to the saddle horn. Maybe this town had more to offer than he thought. People would take notice of someone riding such an exceptional animal. Ben Graham was a connoisseur of fine horse flesh, and Danny had acquired his father's expertise and admiration. It was the only thing they had in common these days.
The young Graham stepped into the small jail and squinted at the three indistinct shapes that brightened as his vision adjusted to the dreary interior. The flamboyant gambler sat comfortably behind the desk. The long-haired tracker he had seen at the stage sat in the corner like a sentry. A young man, wearing a bowler and jacket, was busy sweeping out one of the jail cells.
"May we be of assistance?" Ezra greeted, noticing the young man as he walked inside.
Danny ran a hand through his hair and squared off his shoulders, trying to appear older than his eighteen years. He had studied his father's business tactics and felt confident to put what he had learned to the test. "Is that your horse?" His voice was strong and sure, a tone that was suppose to cause a person to lose some of their resolve and inform them that they were in the presence of someone important.
Ezra cocked an eyebrow at the young man and the corners of his mouth twitched. "Yes."
"I'm prepared to offer you a very generous price." Danny's father always haggled, but Danny figured out here most people would be impressed by fifty dollars. Anyway, if he had the money why not just offer it instead of wasting time hemming and hawing.
Ezra's eyes widened and he glanced over at Vin who straightened in his chair. "Excuse me," Ezra said turning his attention back to the young man.
Danny glanced at the young man from the cell who had sidled up to the far side of the desk. Danny took notice of the badge and was somewhat surprised; the young man wasn't much older than he was. "I'm offering to buy your horse just name your price," Danny reiterated.
Ezra unintentionally disclosed his surprise at the unexpected offer. He quickly composed himself, but not before seeing Tanner and JD's knowing smirks. 'Good Lord, he'd never hear the end of it.'
JD leaned upon his broom and looked over at Vin who threw him a roguish wink. 'This was going to get good.' Ezra's horse was one of the finest animals JD had ever known, but Obviously, the young stranger hadn't had the privilege of witnessing Chaucer's many unique and somewhat disagreeable antics. He also didn't know how much the southerner cherished his horse. JD thought that Ezra would be surprised that the six gunslingers had picked up on his love for the animal. None of them would think of mocking the kindhearted conman. They knew that Chaucer had become a loyal and trustworthy friend, filling a void that had encompassed his whole life. The six other lawmen only hoped that eventually they would also fall into that same realm of friendship that Chaucer reigned.
"First off, 'HE' is not an IT!" Ezra coolly explained. "And Chaucer would never forgive me if I was to sell him at any price."
JD couldn't help from chuckling at the puzzled expression on Danny's face. It was if the young man was trying to cipher a difficult problem.
Danny figured the gambler was just trying to hold out to get the best price. "I'll give ya a thousand dollars." Danny smiled, believing no one would turn down such an offer and especially not a gambler. (Gamblers would do ANYTHING for money.) He knew his father would call him a fool for offering such an outrageous amount of money, but he didn't care. When he wanted something, he got it. Daniel Graham wanted everyone to know he was worth taking notice of. He had enough money saved up to purchase the fine animal, and then when he went back east he could sell him and get four times as much.
Vin was impressed that Ezra continued to breathe.
"Gawd, did you say a thousand dollars?" JD stammered. He'd never heard anyone offer to buy one horse for that amount of money, maybe a herd, but never one horse. By the look on Ezra's face, it was his first time too.
Daniel grinned at the young lawman, thinking he had impressed the young man.
"I pay what I believe something is worth," Daniel explained. "Your animal is one of the finest I've ever seen."
JD snorted and pushed back his hat. "You might want to try and ride 'im first. He sort a has a reputation of being a mite ornery..."
"Mr. Dunne, Chaucer is not ornery," Ezra defended having calmed his racing heart and swallowing the thousand dollar lump in his throat. It wasn't so much the money, well, actually, it was, but it was also the thought of parting with his horse-his friend--that was making him break out in a cold sweat.
Vin had to stifle a laugh, and Daniel's brow furrowed at the strange reactions from the lawmen. He returned his attention to the gambler. "Sir, I assure you I do have the money and can have it to you by the end of the day."
Ezra ignored Vin and JD's obvious enjoyment over his discomfort. He could tell that the boy was used to getting what he wanted and believed that everyone had a price. "My horse is not for sale."
"Alright, fifteen hundred and that's the best deal you'll ever get."
Vin's grin widened. It was always amusing to see the suave southerner flustered and at a loss for words and now it looked like Ezra might faint.
Ezra cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "I'm sure you're correct in that assumption, and..."
"C'mon, everything has a price," Daniel interrupted, growing impatient. He never had any trouble before buying what he wanted. When his mother was alive, she would give him whatever he wanted. How could someone, especially a gambler, turn down so much money?
Ezra closed his eyes, seeing everything he could buy flash before his eyes. He was about to disassemble the enterprising young man's illusion. "Dear Lord, mother, forgive me," he murmured and opened his eyes, and with a surprising amount of conviction replied, "No, sir, everything does not have a price, and you would be wiser to remember that." The irony was not lost on the materialistic conman, or on his two compatriots, as the silence of disbelief filled the small the room. Ezra's face scrunched, appearing to scrutinize what he had just said. Daniel only appeared bewildered and frustrated.
Danny opened his mouth only to have his next thought interrupted.
"Vin says you arrived on the noon stage with your father and sister," JD broke in. He knew Ezra would never sell Chaucer, and he wanted to save the young man any further embarrassment.
Danny blinked and stared at the young lawman trying to comprehend what he had just said. "Yeah. My father is Ben Graham, and he's looking at investing some money into this town, not that it's worth it," Danny sneered.
"Where you from?" Vin asked.
"Utica, New York," Danny replied.
"I'm from Boston," JD said.
"What'cha doing out here?" Danny sneered.
"That sir is a question I've asked myself many times," Ezra smoothly put in.
"Looking for adventure I guess," JD explained. "This is a good town."
"Compared to what?"
JD stiffened at the slight. He'd lived in the big cities, and didn't know what was so great about them, out here a man could breath and explore. There were probably still places that had never been touched by man.
"Are you a lawman?" Danny asked.
"Yeah. So's Ezra and Vin," JD proudly answered. He was developing an intense dislike for their young visitor and his uppity attitude.
"You don't look much older than me."
"Young men grow up fast on the frontier," Ezra explained. Danny looked at the gambler. A gambler who was a lawman - No one would believe this back home.
"How many lawmen are there?" Daniel asked. He shifted from one foot to another, feeling the long-haired man's eyes on him. The tracker made him nervous, like he was being sized up or his thoughts were being read.
"Seven," JD said. "Chris Larabee is sort of our boss."
"Temporary slave driver you mean," Ezra quipped.
"I met Mr. Larabee; he didn't seem so tough."
"You must have been on his good side," Ezra murmured. "Although which side that is depends on the time of day and whether the moon is full."
"Better not let him hear that," Vin good-naturedly quipped.
Ezra chuckled. He had lived with the threat of Larabee long enough not to worry -- much.
Danny still couldn't believe he had lost the horse, but was grateful for the deviation in conversation. He would have to think up another tactic. "So, what do you all do for fun around here?"
Ezra's eyes lit up, and his hand moved to pull out the deck of cards from his breast pocket. If this young man had the kind of money he said, things could get mighty interesting. Ezra's rapture was short-lived.
"Ah Ez," Vin broke in. "Danny's father is an old friend of the judge." The tracker believed he should save the conman from himself as well as the judge's wrath and Chris's six-shooter.
Ezra's face fell, and he pulled his hand out, minus his cards. This was just not his day. "I suggest you go check out the local fishing hole or something," Ezra coolly remarked.
"I'm sorry I couldn't make Eliza's funeral." Travis sat back in his chair, the remnants of a meal in front of him. The muted conversations of other restaurant patrons surrounded the two men.
"I understand. It was so sudden, by the time we were able to contact you..." Ben paused. "I just wanted to put it behind me, for the sake of the children," Ben sadly muttered lifting a cup of coffee to his lips. "She'd never been sick a day in her life. The doctor said it was her heart." Ben sipped the dark brew, and then raised watery eyes over the cup. His face seemed to age, as grief washed over him once again. "I can't believe its been almost a year since her death. Its been very hard on the children, especially Danny."
"Danny's not much of a child anymore, Ben."
Ben snorted and lowered his cup, absently running a thumb over the flowery design. "He's more a child than Emily at times. I was never there for Danny while he was growing up. I worked from sunrise to sunset. My father worked hard, but it never really paid off. Even after he moved us to the city we barely eked out a living -- Times were tough. I was determined to make a better life for my family. I would tell myself I was doing this for my family, but I was really doing it for myself. It was too late by the time I woke up and learned what was really important. Eliza ending up raising Danny practically by herself. She did the best she could, but she coddled Danny, trying to make up for my absence. He learned he didn't have to work for what he wanted. By the time Emily was five I was successful enough to spend time with her, and the family, but by then it was too late for Danny."
Travis nodded in understanding. He had wished countless times that he'd spent more time with his son. Now his son was dead, sometimes life didn't give you a second chance. "You did what you thought was right, trying to make a good life for your family. Danny will realize that someday."
"I don't know Orrin. He was hanging around a bad crowd back in New York. I'm not sure, but I believe he was exhorting money from shop owners. That's one reason I brought him out here to get him away from that."
"Danny seems like a smart enough lad," Travis stated, trying to put things in a good light. "Maybe a little head-strong and arrogant, but weren't we all at his age?"
"No, Orrin, it's more than that. My boy won't work," Ben angrily announced. "Damn, he thinks the world owes him something - that I owe him something. I want him to be able to take care of himself and not rely on my reputation and wealth. I brought Danny out west hoping to make a man out of 'em." Ben's words trailed off and he bowed his head. He was ashamed of his son and of himself.
Orrin leaned forward and rested his clasped hands on the table. He knew his friend was a good man and was only trying to do what he thought best. "The west will either make a man out of him or kill him. It ain't for people who don't understand hard work."
"I don't know what else to do," Ben exclaimed. "I'm at the end of my rope. We don't talk anymore. We're like strangers. I've lost him and I don't know what to do about it."
Ben wiped at his eyes and glimpsed the remorse in his friend's face, and forced a smile. He hated airing his family's problems, but Orrin was like a brother to him, and he needed someone to talk to. "I haven't given up, Orrin, at least not yet. We had a stop-over in Tucson and stayed for a few days. When we left, Danny seemed more accepting of the situation. He was even more attentive to Emily."
"Well, I'm sure everything will work out. Danny will find his place," Travis assured.
"I hope so, because I think Emily and I have found a new home here," Ben said and managed his first real smile in a long time.
It was mid morning and Danny had managed to leave the hotel without his father noticing. Although, he was beginning to believe that his father was intentionally avoiding him. He had finished a satisfactory meal at the only restaurant, and was pensively walking down the boardwalk, mulling over what had occurred yesterday with the cardsharp. He had come to a conclusion as to why the gambler had turned down his offer. Mr. Standish was a consummate gamester; he would rather win the money in a poker game. Daniel had insulted him. He would challenge Mr. Standish. He had been a pretty decent card player back in New York, and anyway, how good could a conman, turned lawman be? He had to be out of form only playing the ingenuous folk of this backwater town.
Danny halted when he spotted a lanky man, with scraggly brown hair, leaning against the side of the building. Kurtz Bryant's stubbled cheeks bulged with a wad of tobacco, distorting his long face. Danny heaved a long sigh and continued down the boardwalk, his eyes searching the street for any sign of his father or the lawmen.
Danny eased up to the hitching rail and rested his arms on top. He watched as several townsfolk strolled past and smiled in his direction. He tipped his hat in greeting. "Is Cullen and Hatcher here?" He asked keeping his eyes forward. He didn't want anyone to think he was with the odious man.
"Yeah, they're here, but Cullen is getting tired of waiting." Kurtz pushed his sinewy form away from the building and hooked his thumbs into his gun belt. He didn't like answering to a kid, but Cullen had told him until they got the money the spoon-fed brat was the boss. Kurtz moved up alongside the young man but kept his attention on the lovely senorita crossing the street and heading for the saloon. Maybe when he was rich a woman like that would take notice of him.
"Just tell Cullen to have a little more patience. It'll all pay off."
"It better after following you all the way from Tucson." Kurtz spit out a wad of tobacco between Danny's feet, turned and headed down the alleyway.
Danny bowed his head, wondering if maybe he should rethink his plan. He raised his head. No, Cullen would kill him, and if he wanted a life free from his father he had to go through with this. He remained at the hitching rail, watching the frivolities of the townsfolk. He wanted to go back east, but not as Ben Graham's son. He would do as his father wanted, and make his own way in life, of course with his father's help. It hadn't been hard to find men willing help with his plan. He just discreetly asked around Tucson for men who wanted to earn some serious money, and who were above asking too many questions.
He found those men in Kurtz, Hatcher and Cullen, three small time outlaws. Kurtz and Hatcher weren't overtly bright, but Cullen was another story. The man was dangerous, and Danny would be glad when they parted company. Just a little longer and he would be set for life. If all went according to plan he would be a rich hero, and his father would be none the wiser.
Danny entered the rustic saloon and rolled his eyes in disgust. The place was small and dreary, with only a few scattered tables. Several people occupied a couple of the tables, amusing themselves in quiet conversation and relaxed games of cards. Lord, didn't these people have anything better to do?
Danny spotted the gambler sitting at a corner table with the ex-preacher, and the tall black man he had seen earlier. He had learned that the darkie was also a lawman, and the town's healer. Back east black men were beginning to exert themselves above their station, trying to prove that they were as good as white men. He was sorry to see that the west wasn't immune to this rising stigma.
Danny approached the table and stopped between Ezra and Nathan. "Mr. Standish, I have another proposition for you. I've come to realize that offering to buy your horse was an insult to your gambling spirit."
Ezra arched a sandy brown and watched as Danny pulled out a wad of cash. "Five-card stud, my money against your steed. Winner takes all."
"Don't do it, Ez," Nathan uttered.
Danny turned his head toward Nathan and growled, "No one was talking to you, Nigger."
It was a moment before anyone knew what was happening. Josiah had leapt out of his chair, and come around the table, grabbing the young Graham by the scruff of the neck and forcing his face down on the felt of the table. Josiah raised his free hand high over his head and brought it down hard on Danny's backside.
"OWWWWW, STOP, PLEASE STOP!" Danny cried and tears streamed down his face.
Josiah's hand came down in five quick successions. He then pulled the young man up and shoved him away from the table. Danny rubbed his backside and wiped his face with his sleeve. He'd never been spanked in his life. He glared at Josiah who stood behind Nathan, his arms crossed over his chest. Danny then looked around the saloon seeing the other patrons smiling. Humiliation reddened his face, and he grabbed a nearby bottle of whiskey and took a threatening step forward. The barrel of Ezra's derringer, the little gun looked bigger than any he had seen, was suddenly in his face. Danny had never been on this side of a gun before, not with someone holding the trigger.
"I strongly recommend that you apologize to Mr. Jackson for I believe you will be in need of his medical services in the near future if you continue with this deplorable attitude," Ezra exclaimed, his voice edged with anger.
Josiah eased himself back into his chair and smiled at Nathan who could only return the expression. Nate was shocked by the young man's outburst. Ben Graham had showed him nothing but respect when they had met.
Ezra had not been surprised by Josiah's action only by the speed at which it was carried out. He was about to castigate the young man and threaten his very existence. He figured that Josiah's method would have a much more lasting effect.
A bead of sweat trickled down Danny's cheek, and he slowly set the Whiskey bottle back on the table. He ran a hand through his hair and took in a quivering breath. "I'm sorry, Sir." The last word being forced out between clenched teeth.
Ezra lowered his derringer realizing this was the best they could expect from the supercilious young man. Danny turned and rushed out the door.
"Thanks, Ez, Josiah," Nathan said. It always amazed him when his friends, especially Ezra, took offense with folk's prejudices. Nathan supposed he was just used to it. He had lived with it all his life and was usually not surprised by it.
"No need, Mr. Jackson. I'm sure you'd do the same for us," Ezra replied with a devilish smile, popping his derringer back up his sleeve.
Nathan grinned. "Sure, the next time someone calls you a cheatin', reb, I'll just call Josiah."
"Our Mr. Sanchez did seem to make an impression on our narrow-minded friend," Ezra quipped, grinning at the large gunslinger. The sight of Josiah spanking the young Graham would bring him days of amusement.
Josiah looked at his hand that still stung. "That boy won't be able to sit without pain for a week." The three lawmen broke into laughter.
Over the next couple days Ben Graham made inquires about land and several nearby ranches. He was usually in the company of the Judge, with his daughter at his side. Ben allowed Daniel his freedom, hoping the young man would learn a little independence and maybe even grow to like the small frontier town. The east was becoming too crowded, and Ben hoped to expand his growing interests. He considered himself a fair and benevolent businessman, but he was a fierce competitor when it came to quenching his ambitious nature, it had proven a successful combination. He had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps, but Danny had proven to cutthroat, willing to go to any length to get what he wanted. Ben at times wondered how far his son would go. Danny appeared to have little interest in earning his own way, and little respect for hard-working people. He was more comfortable spending money and riding on his father's prestige. That was all about to end. Danny had to show him he was willing to work for a living, or Ben would force the boy to stand on his own two feet even if it meant disowning him.
By the end of the week, the excitement of Ben Graham's visit was fading, and the town was finally returning to some semblance of normal. It had been the talk of the town on how the affluent gentleman was going to bring prosperity to the people of Four Corners. However, cattle had to be herded and farms tended, talked moved to more current affairs.
Buck, Ezra and Nathan were engaged in a friendly game of cards, enjoying the quiet solitude of the early afternoon. The lawmen knew that by this evening the town would be jumping, with cowboys coming in after a month on the range. It was the end of the month and payday for many of the outlying ranches. Travis had warned the lawmen to maintain order. He didn't want Ben thinking that Four Corners was some anarchic cess-pool at the end of each month.
Ezra wondered if the town's development would be such a good thing. It would mean more people, which meant more opportunity, but what would happen to the seven lawmen? Would a civilized town want seven gunslingers of questionable character as peace-keepers? Ezra's thoughts were dispelled at the sound of the batwing doors banging open.
Buck glanced up to see JD juggling several bowls on a tray. "What'cha got there, kid?" Buck called out as he threw two-bits into the center of the table. Ezra had seemed preoccupied, and he hoped to take advantage and maybe win a hand.
JD struggled to balance the tray as he made his way across the floor. He set the tray down on the table, covering up the game pot. The three gunslingers eyed the contents of the bowls, each one holding a red, lumpy substance that appeared to be alive.
"Mr. Dunne, you are disrupting a rather lucrative game," Ezra exclaimed.
Buck picked up one of the bowls and shook it slightly watching as the substance jiggled.
"What is this stuff?" Buck asked, sticking a finger into the glob. "It's slimy."
"And wiggly," Nathan put in as he shook one of the bowls.
"It's called gelatin," JD explained. "Mr. Graham brought it from New York and gave some to Mrs. Grant at the restaurant. She wants us to try it before she puts it on the menu."
"Hey, we ain't no guinea pigs," Buck huffed.
Ezra eyed the dessert suspiciously then shifted his skeptical gaze to the young lawman. "I seem to recall reading about a philanthropist by the name Cooper inventing something called gelatin back before the war."
JD picked up one of the bowls and enthusiastically began eating. "Try it, it's good. She flavored it with strawberry jam."
"I refrain from eating anything that wiggles," Ezra said.
Buck stuck his finger deeper into the gelatin and then into his mouth. His eyes lit up at the strong fruity flavor and he picked up a spoon. He scooped up a small piece and tentatively put it in his mouth.
Ezra and Nathan stared expectantly at their audacious friend. "Damn, you don't have to chew it," Buck exclaimed. "It just slides down your throat."
Ezra wrinkled his nose at the thought.
"But it's good." Buck smiled through the red, strawberry-flavored gelatin. He took another bite and started making swishing noises, turning the gelatin into a thick liquid in his mouth and letting it slide down his throat.
Nathan grabbed a spoon and took a bite. "It is good."
"C'mon on, Ez, try some. Where's your adventurous spirit?" Buck cajoled.
Ezra lifted one of the bowls and hesitantly took a bite. He smiled at the light, fruity flavor and couldn't recall anything tasting so refreshing. "Mr. Dunne." The three men looked anxiously at the gambler. "This is an Epicurean delight."
JD stared blankly at the gambler.
"He said it's good," Nathan translated, holding the bowl to his face and scrutinizing the red gelatin. "I wonder if it has any medical benefits."
"Please Mr. Jackson, do not turn this delectable dessert into one of your noxious brews," Ezra good-naturedly teased.
Nathan sneered and then took another bite.
Ezra turned his head, feeling a small presence standing next to him. He smiled as he gazed at the young girl smiling up at him. "Aww, Miss Graham, how are you this lovely day?"
Emily glowed at being addressed in such a grown-up manner. Next to her father, she loved being with the colorfully dressed gambler. She couldn't explain why. There was just something about the suave southerner that put her at ease. The other peacekeepers had scared her at first, except JD, but Ezra was like a kindly Uncle and treated her like a young woman instead of a child.
Buck smiled at the Ezra's natural affinity with children and could see that Miss Emily was thoroughly enthralled with the debonair conman.
"Are you going to read me another bed time story?"
"I would be more than happy too," Ezra assured. "What shall it be tonight? A story about a magpie's search for a far off land, or about how a brave knight slew a terrible dragon and rescued his one true love?"
"The magpie story."
"Very well, we shall discover these far off lands together," Ezra said tapping Emily on the nose with his finger. He loved reading to the child she never seemed to get enough, especially about places and mystical lands.
Emily smiled. "What's that?" she asked, eyeing the dessert still left in Ezra's bowl.
"This my dear is a dessert fit for a princess." Ezra presented the young girl with the fruity confection like a valet serving his ward. Emily picked up the spoon and tried to scoop up a wiggly cube, finally resorting to using her fingers to pop the piece into her mouth. Her face lit up at the fruity sweet taste and Ezra handed her the bowl to finish.
"Emily!" Danny called from the doorway of the saloon. "Pa wants you back at the hotel." The gunslingers had noticed that Danny no longer entered the saloon, especially if any of the lawmen were present.
"Thank you," Emily said to Ezra and gave him a small peck on the cheek.
Ezra smiled as she whirled around, her innocence trailing her, as she skipped across the floor and out the door.
"Now there goes a sweet kid," Buck interjected.
"Yeah, so what's with her brother?" JD added. "He's a real pain in the back side."
"That is an understatement, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said as he reached over and plucked one of Nathan's gelatin cubes, popping it into his mouth. The healer glared and moved his dish closer to himself.
"He's managed to insult practically everyone in town," JD continued. "He called Rupert a dim-witted rube who wouldn't amount to anything,"
Ezra frowned. He had hoped the youth had learned his lesson after Josiah's little instruction. The judge had asked the seven to keep an eye on the young man, maybe even try and befriend him. Buck had tired, only to be promptly rebuffed and called a saddle tramp. Rupert was one of the stable hands. He was slow, but one of the most congenial people around, always ready with a smile. He took excellent care of the horses, including Chaucer, which endeared him to the gambler right off.
"Apparently, Master Graham has a lot to learn about civility and influencing people," Ezra said.
"Well, my foot to his backside will influence him to straighten up," Buck stated.
"I don't think Judge Travis or Mr. Graham would take kindly to that form of teachin', Buck," JD snickered.
Nathan and Ezra exchanged furtive smirks. Apparently, Danny had been too ashamed of the spanking he received to mention it to his father.
"What I hear, his pa is tryin' to straightened him out," Nathan explained. "He wants Danny to learn to take care of himself out here."
"Hell, that boy wouldn't last a week on his own," Buck added. "He's greener than JD."
"Well, let's just hope we ain't stuck babysittin' 'im," Nathan said.
"Gentlemen, enough gossip, I believe we should all adjourn to the restaurant and inform Mrs. Grant that this would make a fine addition to her menu," Ezra exclaimed.
"Yeah, and maybe she has more," JD eagerly replied.
"I second that," Buck said.
"I'm with ya," Nathan added.
"So, how long is your friend plannin' on staying?" Chris asked the Judge. Travis picked up his fork and breathed in the aroma of the ham and eggs that sat on the desk in front of him. Chris leaned forward in his chair. The judge had asked to meet with him in the jail. Since Ben Graham had arrived, the judge's time had been severely monopolized and there was a lot of official business to take care of.
"Well, he was looking over some property north of town. He's plannin' on going back to Tucson for a bit and try to find out what the railroad's agenda is. He wants to leave his son here," Travis explained seeing the look of distaste flash across Chris's face. He knew the boy was troublesome. "Ben does have plans on helping this town grow. He sees potential here, especially if the railroad runs a line close by." Travis scooped up a small helping of eggs from his plate.
Chris pursed his lips still not sure if this was good news. He realized for many people that growth was an opportunity to prosper. However, for himself, well, that was something he would have to think long and hard on. If he decided to move on, Buck would probably follow him, and JD would follow Buck. He didn't think Vin or Josiah would hang around if the town got much bigger. Nathan might stay or go with Josiah; Ezra would stay if it meant more potential card players. Then again, things had changed, would the seven really go their separate ways?
Chris looked up as Ben rushed into the Jail, the man's terrified expression causing a knot to form in the pit of Chris's stomach.
Travis stood at the sight of his frantic friend. "Ben, what's wrong?"
"Someone's kidnapped Emily!" Ben breathed.
Chris came out of his chair.
"What?" Travis exclaimed. "What do you mean kidnapped? Who'd kidnap Emily?"
Ben held onto the door frame to keep his knees from buckling. He inhaled deep to calm his racing heart. His hands shook as he handed the judge a piece of paper.
Travis quickly scanned the scribbled message.
BRING $200,000 TO PARSON'S CREEK AT NOON DAY AFTER
TOMORROW OR YOU'LL NEVER SEE YOUR DAUGHTER AGAIN.
"When did you last see Emily?" Travis asked, looking up from the note.
"I sent her to Mrs. Potter's store for candy over an hour ago," Ben explained. "I went to Mrs. Potter's and she said Emily never came by. I returned to the hotel to find Danny and I found this note slid under my door."
Travis turned the paper over then handed it to Chris who stood next to him.
"Who would want to take my little girl?" Ben asked. He looked beseechingly at the lawmen as if they could give him an answer.
"We'll find her, Ben, don't worry," Travis assured.
"Do you have that kind of money?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, I do."
Chris's eyes narrowed and the hair on the back of his neck prickled. Everyone in town knew that Mr. Graham was wealthy, but how many knew he had that kind of money? Chris couldn't even image one person having that kind of wealth, and he didn't think many people who lived on the frontier could either.
Chris wasn't surprised to find five of his lawmen saddling their horses at the livery. Word had gotten out fast that the precocious and beloved little girl was missing.
"Okay, Vin, Ezra, you check the trails east of town," Chris exclaimed. "Nathan, Josiah, you search from here to Cedar Ridge. Buck, you and I will circle the outskirts of town then head north. JD is going check out any strangers in town." Chris entered his horse's stall and grabbed up his saddle blanket.
"Mr. Larabee, what if our efforts at finding the young lady fail?" Ezra asked. He couldn't stand the thought of any harm coming to the little girl.
Chris placed the blanket on his horse's back and then stared back at the gambler. "Mr. Graham is wiring Tucson. He's going to have the money delivered just in case."
Buck let go a low whistle. "Damn, that's a lot of money to lose."
"Let's try and save Mr. Graham his money," Chris exclaimed. "And find out who would take a little girl."
"Yeah, and part a little of Josiah's old testament on 'em," Buck quipped.
"I'm with ya, Bucklin," Vin said as he checked his mare's leg.
"That little girl means the world to him," Josiah said. "I doubt he even thought twice about giving up that money."
Ezra stared at the preacher and tried to wrap his mind around the thought that no one could think twice, or even three times about losing two hundred-thousand dollars. Then Emily's sweet face squelched his sudden greed and wiped away the image of himself wallowing in money. Ezra quickly finished saddling his horse and checking his guns.
By mid-morning Ezra and Vin had searched all the known trails east of town without success. Ezra pulled up his horse and exhaled as he eyed another desolate direction. He pulled off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. The sun hung high in the sky and made the search even more miserable. You never realize how big a territory is until you have to find something.
"Mr. Tanner, I believe we should split up."
The tracker cocked his head slightly. They had covered a lot of ground without any sign of the little girl and time was running out. Whoever had taken her knew the area and was good at hiding his tracks. Vin knew that Ezra had developed a soft spot for the little girl, and he doubted the conman would return to town without her.
"I'll meet you back here in two hours," Vin simply replied and wheeled his horse around in the opposite direction. Ezra blinked, flabbergasted that his proposal was actually heeded. He smiled and turned his horse toward the small distant hills.
Ezra kept his eyes on the trail as his horse plodded along. The wind shifted and Ezra wrinkled his nose at the offensive odor that suddenly swirled around him. He had separated from Vin half an hour ago, and now realized his chosen course was taking him toward the town dump. A faintly amused smiled turned up the corners of his mouth, and Ezra shook his head realizing that the tracker was probably chuckling at this very minute. Ezra decided to continue and check out the area - Scum sometimes attracted scum. Maybe he would find more than the normal refuse.
Ezra peered over the small rise to see two men locked in conversation near the edge of a dry wash. One of the men had the look of the desert about him, a brown, seasoned man with straight black hair above a triangular face that was all bone and tight-drawn. The other was short with a face hidden behind a bushy beard and mustache. Emily sat huddled against a dead tree a few feet from the men, her arms wrapped around her knees. Ezra could see that the girl was frightened, but appeared unharmed. The nauseating stench from the dry wash was horrendous. The town had used the wash for almost a year, and it was filled with every form of refuse. The town council had recommended the dump, saying many cities back east had them. Many thought the pit made it too easy to discard useable materials, but Ezra had seen the alternative with trash dumped in alleyways and even in the streets to the point that they were almost impassable.
Ezra raised his head slightly at the sound of a shrill whistle. He gritted his teeth as the hirsute man suddenly grabbed the little girl by the arm and dragged her behind a boulder several feet away. Ezra's eyes widened when he saw why the little girl was taken away in such a hurry. Daniel Graham emerged around the bend and casually walked up to the black hair man. That explained how the kidnappers knew Ben Graham could afford such an outrageous sum of money. Daniel Graham was in league with the kidnappers. Ezra hated to leave the little girl, but he now felt his observation was of vital importance.
Ezra slowly crept back away from the edge of the ridge. He started to rise when a numbing pain crashed between his shoulder blades, driving him back to the ground. He turned his head enough to see the fist plunging toward him then blackness.
"Lookey what I found," Kurtz exclaimed, dropping the dazed gambler to the ground at the edge of the garbage pit. Ezra groaned and rolled onto his back. He felt someone's hands roughly remove his weapons.
"Where the hell did he come from?" Danny asked as he quickly scanned the area expecting the other lawmen to come charging over the hill.
"He was spyin' on us," Kurtz explained. "He saw you and your sister."
Danny ran a hand down his face. Damn, now what? This really complicated things. Danny looked toward Cullen who stood silently, his arms crossed over his chest. Cullen was waiting to see what he would do.
"I'll take care of this, Cullen," Danny nervously exclaimed, seeing the anger burning in the outlaw's eyes.
Cullen remained silent. He didn't like this; he knew the gambling man was one of Larabee's lawmen. He had thought this would be easy money since the son was in on it. No one would know who was involved. They would all be free to go anywhere without fear of a posse or worse, Chris Larabee, doggin' their heels.
Danny pulled the gun he now carried and turned it on the gambler. He smiled; it felt good to be on this end of the weapon. Ezra managed to get up on his hands and knees, blinking slowly to try and clear his vision. He raised his head and looked up at the young man standing over him.
"Not so high and mighty when you're at this end of the gun," Danny sneered. He wished it was the preacher he had in his sights. He hadn't been able to sit down the whole day after Josiah's punishment.
Ezra ignored the young man's bravado and asked, "Why?"
Danny looked over his shoulder for a moment seeing Kurtz and Cullen whispering.
"It's not what you think," Danny explained. "I just want to get out from under my father, and I need the money. My father will be happy when I leave."
"And your accomplices?" Ezra glanced over Danny's shoulder to stare uneasily at the two outlaws. Ezra assumed the third one was still watching over Emily.
"I met Cullen and his men in Tucson and promised them a cut if they helped me."
"She's your sister."
"I won't let anything happen to her. I'm using these men so she won't even know I'm involved. Once I get the money I'll be able to start my own life," Danny explained. "No one will be hurt."
Ezra dropped his head. He couldn't believe the risk this young man was taking with his sister. He raised his head as Danny continued, "Listen, I can bring you in on this. How does $20,000 dollars sound," Danny said.
Ezra arched an eye brow and leaned back on his knees. He contemplated his chances of getting away and dismissed any ideas. It would put Emily in too much danger. He had to play this out.
"Hey, that's our money," Kurtz barked. "I ain't sharin' with no gambler."
Danny looked over his shoulder at Kurtz. "You wouldn't be getting anything if it weren't for me." He looked back at Ezra. "So, Mr. Standish, is it a deal?" Danny didn't know what he'd do if the gambler refused. He guessed they could just tie him up somewhere until after the exchange, but he now knew everything.
Ezra knew he didn't have a choice. He could identify all of them. Danny naively believed he could buy his silence, but Ezra wondered if the other kidnappers would believe. He hoped they did long enough for him and Emily to escape. Ezra donned his most persuasive faÃ§ade.
"Well, I would be a fool to turn down such a sum."
"Yeah, you would." Danny smiled with relief. "And maybe we could talk about that horse of yours again."
Ezra's smile grew, showing his gold tooth. "Possible."
Danny smiled and helped the gambler to his feet, relief easing the muscles and sick feeling in his stomach. He had thought the whole deception was over when he saw the gambler. He knew his father would disown him if he ever found out. "See, there's a solution for every problem," Danny announced to his compatriots.
Ezra dusted off his coat and looked up. His gut tightened when he saw Cullen's face. He recognized the look and took a step back as all pretense faded. 'Damn, not long enough.'
A fierce smile slowly came to Cullen's harden face, as he eyed the perceptive conman. He wanted the man to know he was going to die. Cullen pulled his gun and fired.
Ezra felt the bullet tear into his chest forcing him back a couple steps. He clutched his chest as a spike of pain cut through him, driving him to his knees. Ezra looked up at the shocked expression on Danny's face then fell onto his side.
"Why the hell you do that?" Danny screamed, staring down at the motionless gambler.
Cullen calmly holstered his gun and came up alongside the young Graham. "Sometimes there's more than one solution. I like mine better.
"Yeah, I don't trust gamblers and especially ones that are lawmen," Kurtz added. "And I ain't sharing any of the money."
Cullen walked over and wedged his boot under Ezra's body. He flipped the gambler over the edge of the pit. Cullen watched the gambler's body tumble down the trash strewn hillside to finally rest face down at the bottom.
Ezra hit the bottom of the garbage pit and gasped his eyes flashing open. He remained still, trying to ignore the pain that filled his entire body. He desperately wanted to take a deep breath, but the pain and the smell of decay prevented such a venture.
"We're moving out!" Cullen glared at Danny. "I suggest you go back to town before you're missed." Cullen stepped up close and grabbed Danny by the shirt. "And if you don't get us that money, you'll be joining your friend and the rest of the garbage. Do I make myself clear!" Cullen was tired of playing around. He couldn't believe that Danny was actually going to let the gambler join up with them.
Danny peered down at the gambler, and his shoulders slumped. He hadn't wanted anyone hurt. Danny swallowed hard, and his heart raced when the face of the darkly dressed gunslinger flashed before him like a knowing specter. Maybe Cullen was right. At least, there was no way his father would discover his deceit. His plan could go forward. Danny's head snapped up. "Hey if we find his horse it's mine!"
An amused smile graced the tracker's handsome face. Ezra probably realized that he was going to end up searching the dump by now. Vin halted his horse and listened to the echo of a gunshot. Gunshots and a missing Ezra was never a good sign. He wheeled Peso around and urged the horse into a gallop. A sudden fear that he was going to regret splitting up caused him to urge his horse faster.
Ezra kept his eyes closed; unfortunately, he couldn't shut out his sense of smell. The stench was worst down here, where the winds couldn't dispel the foul odor. He couldn't discern the myriad of smells that seemed to be trying to suffocate him. Lord, he didn't want to die in a garbage pit. Discarded like so much refuse
Ezra slowly opened his eyes to see the decaying remains of a pumpkin, left over from last Halloween. Maggots covered something that looked like brown lettuce. A pool of milky substance sat a few feet from his head. Ezra gagged and raised up long enough to dispel the bile that came up his throat. The reflex ignited a searing pain through his chest, and he gritted his teeth trying not to breathe too deeply. He diverted his gaze away from the rancid food and looked upon a three-legged chair.
Useless. Broken. Unnecessary.
The chair hadn't been there long. The red paint was not weathered stripped, and Ezra could make out some type of design etched on the back. It looked like only one of the front legs had snapped off, but still someone didn't think it was worth the time or trouble to fix. Ezra smiled faintly. Mr. Tanner would be aghast at such waste. Ezra could feel the blood oozing out from his chest. He tried to press himself against the ground hoping to slow the flow of blood.
Memories of a life where he wasn't wanted lifted into his mind like bubbles. Worthless. He was feeling light headed. No good. How many times during his life had he heard those words, had them driven into his very soul. Even his own mother had found him useless as a child, except for perpetrating scams or garnering sympathy from a potential mark.
Snap out of it Standish! He refused to die in such a degrading and foul smelling locale. Ezra tried to push himself up, but his limbs refused to cooperate. His eyes squeezed tight forcing tears out the corners. He could feel his life draining away. He was going to die here among the broken and forgotten remnants of life. What a fitting epitaph to a worthless life.
Ezra's gaze returned to the damaged chair. His vision began to shrink and he smiled at his last thought. 'Josiah could fix it.'
Vin rode along the wash until he came to the abandoned campfire. He dismounted, noticing the footprints, especially the small ones. He stood and wrinkled his nose at the scent of garbage, another mark of so-called civilization. He never could understand the need for a dump. He always found a use for everything, not that he had very much. Vin casually walked toward the pit, keeping his eyes on the ground looking for any clues. When he reached the edge, he looked down.
"Ah shit!" Vin jumped and slid down the side avoiding several wooden beams and frantically calling Ezra's name. He leaped over a broken chair and dropped down alongside Ezra's inert body.
"Ezra?" Vin turned the cardsharp over and pulled him into his lap. "C'mon pard, you don't want to die in a garbage pit." Vin laid a hand on the cardsharp's chest and waited, a cautious smile coming to his face as he felt the flutter of a heartbeat. Vin pulled out a handkerchief and applied pressure to the bullet hole. He almost gagged on the smell that enveloped him, rotten food and waste sitting under a hot sun. It brought tears to his eyes.
Ezra's eyes fluttered and the tracker leaned down when he saw his friend's lips moving.
"Yeah, it's me, Ez. Take it easy; I'll get you out of here. I promise." The words rushed out of Vin's mouth as fast as his heart was beating.
Ezra's eyes fought to open. His world swam back into a gauzy sort of focus, as he peered through the tumbled screen of his sweaty hair. He found it hard to breath, and the stench wasn't helping any. Ezra reached out and grabbed Vin's jacket. "Emily...four men."
"You saw the kidnappers. Was she alright?"
Ezra slowly nodded his head and licked his lips. It was so hard to breathe; he had to concentrate on forcing his chest to rise. It felt like a boulder was resting on top of him.
Vin frowned at the mention of the young Graham. "What...what about Danny?"
"He's involved." Ezra's hand fell away and his eyes closed.
"Ah shit. Hang on, Ez, I'll git you out of here."
Ezra looked up at the sky and breathed in the cool, fresh air. He caught a whiff of an unpleasant stench, but knew that he was out of the trash heap. He couldn't quite figure out what was going on. He knew he was lying on his back, but he was moving. A hawk circled above for a moment, as if checking the moving form for possible consumption. It grabbed another wind current and flew out of his field of vision. He remembered Vin being with him.
"Vin...Vin." Ezra's voice was hoarse but he forced himself to be heard.
Vin pulled his horse to a stop and leapt off. He knelt down beside the travois. He knew Ezra was in a lot of pain. The conman's skin was pasty with shock. Vin reached his hand behind Ezra's head and raised the conman so he could sip from his canteen. He then rested the injured man back down. It had been hard getting Ezra up out of the pit. Luckily, the gambler had passed out. Vin had plenty of materials on hand to make a travois, although they were dragging the scent of the pit with them.
"Ezra, can you hear me?" Vin lifted up the make-shift bandaged to make sure the wound hadn't started bleeding. "We're almost home."
"Can't let Danny know," Ezra gasped without opening his eyes. "Think I'm dead."
"Ez, I've got to get you to Nathan."
"Don't risk the girl," Ezra breathed and fell unconscious.
Damn, it was obvious that the kidnappers had left Ezra for dead. If they discovered that the gambler was still alive, Emily could be in danger.
Vin stood and wiped a hand down his face. He looked down at his friend who looked dead, his chest barely rising as he struggled for each breath. Vin looked in the direction of town seeing the top of the first building. He hated what he was about to do, and hoped the others forgave him.
Vin pulled the blanket loosely up over Ezra's face, and then mounted his horse. He pulled off his belt and made a sling for his arm. Then with anxious restraint nudged his horse into a slow walk toward town.
Vin kept his horse at a slow, restrained gait, giving the impression that the body he dragged was beyond any need to rush. Vin fought the urge to glance back at Ezra, hoping the conman stayed unconscious and didn't die. He furtively scanned the street, searching for unfamiliar faces, and clenched his jaw when he saw Danny Graham leaving the hotel. Vin gripped the reins tight to keep from leaping from his horse and wrapping his hands around the young hoodlum's throat.
Vin stared straight ahead, catching sight of JD running into the saloon, moments later, Chris, Buck, JD, the Judge and Ben Graham stepped out. Vin pulled up his horse and glanced to his right to see Nathan and Josiah jogging up the boardwalk. Townspeople had started to surround the travois, murmuring among themselves. Vin remained on his horse. He would make Ezra proud with his performance.
Chris's brow furrowed as he studied the tracker then looked back at the covered body.
"Vin?" Buck's voice quivered with the unasked question.
Josiah gripped the supporting post and stared at the body. His Heart already knew who it was.
Vin swallowed convulsively and lifted a downhearted gaze that sent tendrils of dread through everyone.
"Someone shot Ezra," he simply said. "He musta come across them kidnappers."
"No." JD's face paled, and he felt Buck's hand clasp his shoulder.
"Sonofa..." Nathan murmured and turned his face away surprised at the sudden tears that welled up in his eyes.
Josiah's eyes glistened even as his face darkened. He had seen a lot of death and had believed he'd grown detached. Now, seeing a man that he loved like a son, taken beyond him, his heart burned and ached with old feelings -- It was crushing.
Chris's breath hitched momentarily and his jaw clenched. His body went cold, then hot, then just numb. Only his blue eyes revealed the pain that bit into him like someone driving a hot blade into his gut. "Where?"
Vin's eyes shifted away from his friends. He really hated this. He needed to get Ezra off the street. "A few miles east of here," Vin quickly supplied. "Buck, Josiah, can you git Ezra over to the undertaker."
Daniel Graham moved up alongside his father who stood off to the side. He could see the other lawmen's anguish over their fallen compatriot. 'Damn, he should have sold me his horse, Danny thought, and minded his own business.'
Buck stepped off the boardwalk and began unhitching the travois from Vin's horse. Josiah moved to Ezra's feet and stared down at the expensive black boots. They would need to be cleaned. They were all dusty. Ezra wouldn't be caught... Josiah grabbed the ends of the travois and together the two gunslingers carefully lifted.
Vin kept his right arm close to his body and slid off his horse. "Nate, I need you to take a look at my arm."
Nathan watched as Buck and Josiah gently lifted the freed travois and carry it across the street.
"Nathan," Vin repeated the healer's name.
"Huh? Yeah, sure, Vin. What happened?"
"Ah, just fell and got cut."
"Come on up to the clinic."
"No, I'm going with Ezra. Get your stuff and meet me there. The sooner the better," Vin snapped and then whirled around and raced after Josiah and Buck.
Chris's brow furrowed, since when did Vin ever request Nathan's medical help? The blond gunslinger saw something in the tracker's eyes that gave him pause. Vin was hiding something.
Ben Graham stepped up alongside the judge. "Orrin, I'm real sorry. I know you've taken them boys to heart." He felt terrible, knowing his problems were the cause of the young gambler's death.
Travis inhaled. "Thank you. He was a lawman and knew the risk. He was a good man." Travis exhaled and looked straight at his friend. "But we have your daughter to find, and I'm sure once the others see to Mr. Standish they will continue the search."
Ben shook his head. "I'm going to pay the ransom. I don't want anyone else hurt or killed," Ben sadly exclaimed.
"I understand, Ben, and maybe that's best right now," Orrin agreed. After we get your daughter back we can try and find those men and get your money back." Orrin didn't say that nothing would stop the six remaining gunslingers from seeking out their revenge.
"I don't care about the money."
"Father, I want to deliver the money," Danny broke in. His father stared at his son with a blank expression for a moment.
"I don't think that'd be wise," Travis interjected.
"I want to do this. She's my sister. Please, father, let me do this," Danny pleaded.
Ben's brow furrowed and he cocked his head. "I don't want to lose you."
Danny gasped slightly. Was that concern in his father's eyes? No, it was a ploy; he just wanted to appear like a good and loving father for the judge. "Father, please, I need to prove that I can do this."
Ben placed a hand on his son's shoulder; maybe his boy was finally growing up. "I can't have you going alone."
"I'll have someone covering him, Ben," Travis said.
"I don't think that'd be a good idea, it might scare them and put my sister in danger," Danny exclaimed. He didn't like the idea of someone following, but Cullen had figured on the possibility. Danny would deliver the money and retrieve his sister, and then later he would meet up with Cullen for his cut. If Cullen and the others betrayed him, he would just tell the lawmen who they were.
"I'll have them keep out of sight, it'll only be for you and your sister's protection," Travis explained. He didn't like this. He would rather Chris and his men take care of delivering the money, but the boy seemed determined to prove his worth. Maybe something good could come from Mr. Standish's sacrifice. Maybe a father and son would reunite.
The undertaker's room was set discreetly back behind the livery. Josiah and Buck carefully laid Ezra's still shrouded body out on the table in the center of the room. Josiah turned to face the wall, appearing to pray or curse. Buck stood forlornly by the table, looking down at the motionless form. He never thought Ezra would be the first to go. The man was just too slick and lady luck always seemed to hold him in a special place. Buck always believed it would be Chris, his deadly draw failing him, or Vin, finally unable to outrun the bounty on his head. He even thought that eventually a husband's aim would finally prove true.
"I'll go and get Cyrus," Buck sadly intoned. He turned to the side as Vin rushed by.
"No need, Buck." Vin whipped off the blanket that covered Ezra's face. "He's still alive. At least I hope he is."
Josiah whirled around and glared hard at the tracker ready to tear the man's head off if this was some kind of joke. Chris stopped abruptly in the doorway when he heard Vin's proclamation and almost lost his balance as JD ran into him.
"Sorry, Chris," JD murmured.
Chris moved aside to let the young gunslinger and Nathan pass.
Vin removed his sling and bent down over the unconscious conman. "C'mon Ez, we made it. Please still be with us."
The whole room suddenly exploded with angry questions as Vin tried to coax the gambler back to consciousness. Nathan moved up alongside and placed two fingers aside Ezra's neck, feeling a weak pulse.
"What the hell?" Nathan swore and brought his dark eyes upon the tracker.
"Damnit, Vin, what's going on?" Larabee demanded his expression a mixture of relief and fury. Why would Vin put them through something like this?
Vin stepped away from the table to allow Nathan to work. He watched as the healer opened Ezra's shirt and examined the wound. "Sorry cowboy, had to do it," Vin explained. "It was the only way to get Ez into town without the kidnappers knowing he's still alive."
"He knows who the kidnappers are." JD asked.
"Yeah, he does; especially one in particular," Vin replied.
"What do you mean?" Chris asked.
Vin swallowed and his nostrils flared. "Daniel Graham Kidnapped his own sister."
"Holy shit!" Buck bit out slapping his hand on the side of his leg. "I knew that little sonofabitch was going to be trouble."
"Why the hell would he do that?" Nathan bit out as he continued to examine Ezra. He wished the conman would come to. He had truly believed that Ezra was dead and now he wanted him awake to reaffirm he was still with them.
"Money, what else?" Vin answered. He had had a lot of time to think about what Ezra had told him and it made sense. The boy was blackmailing his own father.
"We need Daniel and his friends to keep thinkin' that Ezra is dead," Vin explained. "Ez thinks it could be bad for the little girl if they thought he was still alive and could identify them."
"The boy is trying to remain anonymous," Josiah said.
"Yeah, that's what I figured," Vin said. "Guessin' that way if things go wrong he still has daddy."
"I'm going to break that little shit's neck," Buck growled.
Thoughts played through Chris's head and his eyes glittered with unbridled vengeance as he looked at the gambler's unmoving body. Daniel Graham had finally gone to far in his search for the easy life.
"Nathan, how is he?" Chris asked.
Nathan straightened. "It's bad. The bullet's still in 'im, and I think it's close to his heart. It must be in pretty good though since all the movin' hasn't killed him." Nathan's mind was already going through everything he'd need and what he would have to do.
Josiah reached out and grasped one of Ezra's limp hands, trying to siphon his strength into the southerner. Buck glanced over at the ex-preacher. The expression on the large man's face sent a cold shiver up his spine. Chris had had the same look years ago after his wife and son were killed. Josiah was on the edge, and Buck hoped nothing pushed him over.
Chris caught a whiff of an unpleasant odor. "What is that smell?"
"It's Ez." Vin paused. "I found him in the town's garbage pit."
'Ah hell,' Buck saw the sudden change in Josiah and knew the huge gunslinger had just jumped from that edge to fall into the abyss of vengeance.
Josiah gently laid Ezra's hand down and started for the door. Buck and Vin grabbed the sizable man by the arms and tried to hold him back. "No Josiah, you can't!" Buck said.
"They threw him away like garbage," Josiah growled continuing toward the door despite the two men trying to hold him back. 'Spare the rod, spoil the child.' Josiah was going to do more than just spank the young Graham boy this time. Danny had stepped over the line, and he would suffer the consequences of a man.
"Damnit, Josiah, think about that little girl," Buck quickly stated. "Ezra wouldn't want you to risk her life."
Josiah stopped his enraged progress and looked back at the southerner. 'They were right, he couldn't risk Emily's life, but after she was safe...'
"Josiah, we'll get who did this," Chris sternly stated, stepping up to the ex-preacher and placing a hand on his shoulder. "I promise."
"It's going to look suspicious with Nathan workin' in here on a dead guy," Buck declared.
"Can we move him?" Chris asked.
"We don't have a choice, I need someplace where I can work on him. Hopefully, the bullet won't move."
Silence filled the small room for a moment. "Let's take him to my place," Chris said.
"How we going to get him out there without being seen?" JD asked.
A crooked smile came to the blond leader's face. "He's supposed to be dead." Chris looked over at the unmoving body. Hell, Ezra looked dead. "Put 'im in a casket. And Vin..." Chris glared hard at the tracker. "Don't ever do that to us again." Chris turned and walked out of the room.
Ezra was laid gently inside a coffin and placed on the back of a wagon. The six lawmen then started slowly out of town with Josiah driving the team and Nathan seated next to him anxiously caressing his medical bag. The six gunslingers couldn't look at the coffin, knowing that Ezra was inside. It was like an omen, one they hoped wouldn't come to fruition.
The judge watched with sorrowful eyes as the six men, who had become as close as brothers rode solemnly out of town. He wondered if things would ever be the same again. Travis frowned as the wagon and its grim parade rode past the cemetery. 'Maybe they planned on burying Ezra somewhere more peaceful,' he mused. Travis' frown softened at the thought that this could be one of Standish's cons.
Nathan was relieved when they finally reached Chris's cabin. He jumped into the back of the wagon and paused. The others all stood expectantly afraid that their friendly cardsharp would remain in the coffin.
Nathan took a deep breath and pulled off the lid. He stared down at Ezra for a moment.
"C'mon, git him inside quick," Nathan yelled electrifying everyone into action. Nathan and Josiah lifted Ezra's limp body out of the casket and handed him down to Buck and Chris.
JD opened the door and moved aside allowing Chris and Buck to carry their injured companion inside.
"I'm going to need lots of hot water," Nathan said.
"We're on it," Vin said, grabbing JD by the collar and pulling him toward the back of the cabin.
"Ez, can you hear me?" Nathan repeated as he pulled out medicines and instruments from his bag. He also pulled out a large medical book on human anatomy. He needed to be sure what he was going to cut into.
"Yessss,....Mr. Jackson." Nathan stopped and knelt beside the gambler placing a couple fingers alongside his neck. Damn, he was so weak. Chris grasped Nathan's shoulder in encouragement and peered down at the suave southerner.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra gasped, forcing open too heavy of eyelids. "I believe I failed..."
"You didn't fail, Ez," Chris quickly said. "You just let Nate take care of ya. Everything's going to be alright," Chris assured.
"You're hurt bad, Ez," Nathan explained. "I got to get that bullet out, and I think it's close to your heart."
"Do what you have to, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said his voice husky with pain. JD and Vin entered the cabin as Ezra asked, "Chaucer?"
"Don't worry pard, we'll find 'im," Buck answered.
"I'll...I'll take care of 'im until you're better. Don't you worry none," JD stammered, setting down several pieces of wood.
"Thank you," came the soft reply as Ezra smiled and closed his eyes. "All of you."
Josiah knelt on the other side of the bed and took Ezra's hand. "You just hang on, son."
Ezra smiled at the moniker, but didn't reprimand the preacher on its use. It actually made him feel good. He wished he was Josiah's son.
Nathan snaked a hand behind Ezra's head and raised it as he brought a cup of water and herbs to his lips. "Here, you need to drink this. It'll help with the pain."
"I don't feel anything," Ezra said. Nathan frowned and looked at the other gunslingers, revealing his fear.
"You will when I start digging for that bullet."
Ezra sipped the medicine until it was gone and then Nathan eased him back down. "We'll give it a few minutes, then I'm going to need him held down."
Chris motioned for Nathan on the far side of the room.
"What are his chances?"
Nathan hung his head and glanced over at the gambler who looked wasted. His face was drawn and his eyes hollow from too much blood loss. The shock to his system was leaving him exhausted. He knew the conman was on the precipice of death, he only hoped he wouldn't be the one to push him over. He watched as Josiah held Ezra's hand, whispering into the conman's ear. He then shifted his gaze to each of the other gunslingers, seeing the fear they shared over their friend. Damnit, he wasn't a doctor. He wouldn't lie to these men, they deserved better. "He's lost a lot of blood and the shock and possible internal damage..." Nathan paused allowing it to sink in. "His chances aren't good. I have to get that bullet out, but he's so weak."
"Do the best you can, Nate," Chris simply said.
Nathan looked at the blond gunslinger seeing his trust and faith. Nathan moved to the head of the bed and lifted one of Ezra's eyelids. "Okay, let's do this."
The five lawmen each gripped a limb wanting to somehow transfer their strength to the fading southerner.
"You hang on, you southern sonofabitch," Chris sternly murmured as he took hold of Ezra's shoulder. Buck and Vin smiled; if anyone could threaten death into retreat, it was Chris Larabee.
Ezra felt the weight of his companions, his friends, and he tried to drawl strength from their touch, their concern.
Nathan began to cut into the bullet wound and stopped as Ezra arched his back. "Hold him down!" Everyone tightened their hold and Nathan continued. He hoped he wasn't doing more damage.
Ezra screamed with pain and his eyes flashed open. He struggled for air that wasn't there and the room felt like it was spinning out of control. Ezra's face contorted in agony.
"Hurry, Nathan," Chris exclaimed, wincing at the death grip that Ezra had on his hand.
"I can't find it. Wait, there, I see it. Hang on, Ez." Nathan exhaled with relief when he saw the bullet lodged just past a rib. He gently grabbed the offending metal with his forceps, careful not to push the bullet back, knowing that heart and arteries were close by. Ezra's face was as white as the pillow and his breaths came out in ragged pants.
"It's over, Ez, just rest," Nathan said as he examined and then quickly cleaned and bandaged the wound. It didn't appear as if there was too much damage done.
The gunslingers all stepped back to catch their breaths. Josiah laid a wool blanket over Ezra's shivering body. The gambler was barely conscious and wracked with pain. His body quivered and shook with convulsions. Nathan laid a hand on Ezra's brow feeling the heat of a developing fever. He knew his friend was too weak to fight. Nathan would have to fervently fight to keep the southerner with them.
Nathan remained inside the cabin as the others stepped outside into the cool evening air. The worry and anger that encompassed them caused Buck to pace the small porch, and Chris's face to harden. Vin caressed his mare's leg, and JD squeezed and released the handles of his Colts. Josiah stood motionless, scanning the darkening horizon, hoping not to see the silhouettes of any crows.
Chris's head jerked up at the sound of a wagon coming around the bend. He relaxed when he saw that it was the judge and Mary Travis.
Travis pulled up his wagon and stared at the five men standing on the porch. Something was definitely not right. He had reasoned that the lawmen had decided to bury Ezra out near Chris's cabin. He didn't see any sign of the coffin or a freshly dug grave for that matter.
"What in Sam-hill is going on?" Travis asked.
Chris stepped off his porch and approached the wagon, offering his hand to Mary and helping her down. "Ezra's still alive."
"What!" Travis stopped halfway off the wagon and glared at the gunslinger.
"Chris, are you serious?" Mary asked.
"Yeah, he saw the kidnappers and they shot him and thought he was dead. Ezra thought it best that the kidnappers believe he's still dead to protect Emily," Chris explained.
Travis wiped a hand down his face; smiling at the relief he felt that the incorrigible southerner was alive.
"I'm going in to help Nathan," Mary said and raced inside the cabin.
"How is he?" Travis asked.
"Not good," Buck said. "Hoping we won't still need that coffin."
Travis then noticed the strange anxious expressions. "There something you wantin' to tell me?"
"Don't rightly know how to, judge," Chris said.
"Why don't you just come right out and say it." Travis was getting a bad feeling inside.
Chris licked his lips. "Danny is in on the kidnapping."
Travis stared for a moment then closed his eyes and exhaled. He opened them and looked straight at Chris. "You sure?"
"Yeah, we're sure."
"What do you want us to do, judge?" Buck asked.
"Well, Danny has gallantly offered to deliver the money," Travis said.
"That little..." Buck began.
Travis waved a stopping hand. "One of you is going to follow him for protection," Travis added.
"Oh, he's going to need protectin' alright," Buck quipped "But not from them other outlaws. Wait until I get my hands on him."
A sinister smile creased Larabee's face. "He's going to have protection, all five of us," Chris exclaimed. "And we're going to take care of his friends, too."
Josiah sat by Ezra's side as Nathan constantly swabbed the southerner down with cool water. The fever had a firm hold, and Ezra's sinewy body was racked with spasms as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
"I need to go and get more water," Nathan forlornly said. He didn't think Ezra could last much longer. "Try and keep him still and if he comes too, even a little, force some water down him."
Josiah tried to hold the shuddering conman still, afraid he was going to tear out his stitches and hurt himself. Times like these when Josiah wished his faith in the almighty was stronger. He laid a large hand on Ezra's brow. "You have to calm down, son."
"Useless..." Ezra murmured.
"What?" Josiah's brow furrowed.
Ezra started panting. "Useless...broken...don't belong."
Josiah's eyes widened. "Now you listen hear Ezra P. Standish, you do so belong, and you're not useless, far from it."
"No good...no good."
"Stop it!" Josiah yelled. His heart felt like it was breaking in two. Did Ezra really believe he was no good?
Ezra's struggles lessened. "Josiah could fix," Ezra breathed out then seemed to relax.
Josiah blinked and frowned trying to figure out what the delirious conman was saying. A faint smile came to Josiah's lips, and he ran a hand through the young gambler's sandy brown hair.
"Yeah, I'll fix it, for both of us."
"Now you be careful, you hear," Ben said to his son as Danny checked the cinch on his horse.
"Stop worryin', father, everything will be fine."
JD cringed as he sat atop his own horse, patiently waiting. 'That's what you think, you backstabbin'...' JD shook away the nasty thoughts. He had been chosen to follow the young man hoping that it would put him at ease.
Danny was growing uncomfortable with his father's show of affection. He knew the only one he cared about was Emily. His father was never there when he needed him. Well, that was all water under the bridge; soon he wouldn't need his father. Danny swung up onto his horse, and his father handed him the saddle bags filled with money. He placed the bags in front of him. "I'll bring Emily home safe."
Ben rested a hand on his son's leg. "You bring yourself home safe too."
JD wanted to be ill watching Danny play the devoted son. He couldn't wait to see the deceiving young man's heartfelt expression wiped from face. Travis had agreed with Chris to keep Ben in the dark about his son. They needed to find out where Emily was and get her back safe, and then Danny and his associates could be dealt with. Chris and the others waited outside of town and planned on following Danny to Parson's Creek. They hoped the other kidnappers would be there and that Emily would be close by. Nathan and Josiah had remained with Ezra; they all knew of the battle that was being fought to keep the conman alive. They hoped Ezra's previous conjured demise wasn't a precursor of things to come.
Danny peered over his shoulder from time to time, knowing the young lawman was close by. His father had assured him that the judge promised that no one else would follow. Everything was going according to plan. He would give Cullen the money and take Emily home. He would take his time returning to town, giving Cullen and his men time to make their escape. He would wait for things to calm down then leave Four Corners, telling his father he was going to try and make his own way for awhile. He would return to his father at a later time, rich and respected, making up some story about running a business in California or something. Danny smiled at the thought; his father would be none the wiser and believe that his son had earned his way.
As Danny neared the rendezvous point, he slowed and his eyes darted from left to right. Cullen and Kurtz suddenly appeared on the trail.
"You got it?" Cullen asked.
Danny smiled and held up the saddle bags.
Hatcher's grizzled face broke into a broad grin revealing several missing teeth.
"I'd never believed it," Kurtz said. "Until I seen it with my own eyes."
"It was a good plan," Cullen said as he approached the horse. "Maybe, we can do more work together."
"No, as soon as I get my cut that's the end of our association," Danny exclaimed.
Cullen chuckled. "Too bad, you make a good outlaw."
Danny cringed. "We need to do this quick, I have someone following. He's going to wait until I come back with Emily."
Vin and Buck circled around on foot and quietly crossed Parson's creek. They wanted to trap all four of the culprits between them and hopefully diminish any gunfire.
"Vin," Buck whispered, getting the tracker's attention, he pointed up ahead, seeing the large, hairy man holding Emily. Vin smiled, he was going to enjoy this.
Danny handed the money over to Cullen.
"Okay, Hatcher, bring out the girl," Cullen called out as he opened the saddle bag. His eyes widened at all the money inside. He wondered if Danny's father could have afforded more. Maybe he would have to hook up with the young Graham again someday.
"Aye, boss, something's wrong," Kurtz said.
Cullen looked over his shoulder and frowned. "Hatcher! C'mon we don't have all day."
Cullen turned around and started toward the group of trees where Hatcher was supposedly waiting. He hoped the big galoot hadn't done anything stupid. Cullen stopped when a dark-clad man suddenly stepped into his path a gun pointed directly at his heart. 'Damn, he knew shouldn't have trusted that arrogant kid. Anyone who would betray their own family was someone not to be trusted.'
Danny's eyes widened when he recognized Chris Larabee. He turned around to see JD sitting on his horse, his gun pulled. The boyish faÃ§ade replaced with a mask of disgust.
"Alright, Vin, Buck, bring him out," Chris yelled out.
Vin shoved Hatcher out into view as Buck trailed behind holding Emily in his arms. Hatcher sported a black eye and held onto his jaw as he stumbled forward.
Danny's world was thrown into a tail-spin as he watched his future crumble away. He still had one chance.
"Oh, thank god! You saved us, they were going to kill us both," Danny quickly exclaimed, ignoring the flash of betrayal on Cullen's face. What did he expect him to do? Danny knew the dangerous outlaw would do the same thing.
"You little shit!" Kurtz growled.
"Shut up!" Vin said, pushing the barrel of his gun into the man's back. Cullen and his two men were disarmed and surrounded. Buck grabbed the saddlebag of money out of Cullen's hand.
Chris's face remained impassive as Danny continued to spout his gratitude. "My father will reward you all. I'll see to it."
The three other lawmen exchanged amused expressions as Chris's calm demeanor belied the ferocity of his gaze. The composed gunslinger stepped forward. "Git off your horse." Chris's impassive expression fled, replaced by a flat, hard look.
Danny flinched and quickly obeyed, startled by the cold, dismembering stare. "What's wrong?"
Chris back-handed the young man across the face sending him to the ground.
"Ezra is still alive," Chris snarled, taking great pleasure at the sudden loss of color in Danny's face.
Danny and his three accomplices were put on horses and their hands tied. The four horses were ponied together. Buck took up the lead rope as Vin and JD trailed behind. Chris rode ahead with Emily sitting in front of him.
The little girl kept glancing back at her brother, wondering why he had been forced to stay with the bad men. She had assured the darkly-dressed cowboy that she hadn't been hurt in any way. Danny was lucky his sister was unharmed. Chris still couldn't believe that a brother, and son, would do such a thing to his family.
"Where's Mr. Ezra," Emily asked.
Chris's brow furrowed. "He had a little accident and he's resting. You'll see him soon." Chris hoped he wasn't lying to the little girl.
Emily's blue eyes stared at the blond gunslinger. She turned around in the saddle and stared out at the desert landscape.
The contingent of lawmen and outlaws rode solemnly into town. Josiah appeared in the middle of the street as Chris pulled up in front of the jail house. He helped Emily down to the ground.
"Papa! Papa!" Emily squealed when she saw her father come out of the hotel.
Ben Graham smiled with relief and ran to his daughter collecting her up in his arms and swinging her around.
"Oh thank God! Thank God!"
Travis nodded toward Chris.
Josiah waited as Buck passed with the outlaws in tow. He grabbed the lead line and stopped the horses.
Vin pulled up and rested an arm casually atop his saddle horn. 'This outta be good,' he thought, seeing the almost deranged look in the ex-preacher's eyes. He was glad Josiah wasn't carrying his guns.
The outlaws shifted nervously in their saddles as the huge lawman glared madness in their direction.
"Who dumped Ezra into the garbage?" Josiah's voice was low and dangerous. He glared at Danny, the only thing that saved him for the moment was that Josiah didn't want his father interferring. His focus shifted to the next man.
Chris dismounted and leaned against the support post of the jail. He hoped Josiah didn't hurt them too bad. Nathan was to busy too patch anyone else up.
The four captives exchanged glances. Josiah grabbed Kurtz and pulled him off his horse, slamming him onto the ground. The wind rushed from the outlaw's lungs, and he struggled for breath. Kurtz gasped when oxygen finally found its way back into his lungs. He stared up at the enraged preacher. Kurtz whole-heartedly believed that he was going to die.
"Hey, it weren't me. Cullen did it!" He blurted out looking toward his ex-leader and shrugging. Josiah straightened, his fury now directed toward the black hair man. Cullen's eyes darted back and forth searching for any sign of salvation.
Josiah grabbed Cullen and pulled him out of the saddle. Cullen was a big man, but Josiah was bigger.
"Hey, you can't do this! Someone help me! It was all the kid's idea!"
Josiah dragged the struggling outlaw by the collar behind him and toward the side of the hotel. The gunslingers and townsfolk followed, wondering what their semi-pious preacher was up to. Josiah stopped and kicked over the flimsy walls of an outhouse. He then kicked away the makeshift toilet. The townspeople backed away at the foul stench that erupted from the hole in the ground. Some quickly turned and left, knowing what was coming and not thinking their stomachs could handle it.
Cullen went cold as he looked at the expression on Josiah's face. The ex-preacher smiled a fierce smile, one that Cullen was definitely on the wrong side of.
Josiah held Cullen over the five foot deep hole. The stench of human waste and garbage choked the frightened outlaw and brought tears to his eyes.
"Please, don't," Cullen pleaded, his hands gripping Josiah's wrists. "I thought he was dead."
Josiah's anger flared, reaching boiling point, and in one fluid motion he turned the outlaw upside down and dropped him head first into the noxious waste.
Buck scrunched up his face, and JD turned away. Chris shook his head and rubbed his eyes.
Cullen fell head first into the brown, viscous muck, which was spread two feet deep at the bottom of the hole. He quickly turned around and stood forcing himself not to sputter. He didn't even dare to open his eyes. The smell alone was forcing the contents of his stomach to churn.
Ben Graham smiled as he heard his daughter laugh. His smile vanished when he noticed that his son's hands were tied. He then recalled what the outlaw had said. 'It was the kid's idea.' He approached the blond leader. "Why is my son tied? And what did that man mean when he said it was the kid's idea?"
The judge moved up alongside Chris and Ben's stomach tightened when he saw the look in his old friend's face.
Chris had been dreading this question and was relieved when the judge intervened. "Ben, your son was part of this. He hired those men to help him."
"That's ridiculous! My son would never..."
"Ezra is still alive," Travis continued. "He saw your son with the outlaws before one of them shot him."
Ben stared unbelieving at Orrin, then shifted his gaze to his only son. "Tell me it ain't true. She's your sister." A sour sinking feeling added to the tightening of his stomach as he stared up at his son.
"You wanted me to be something, well I am," Danny defiantly answered although inside he felt ashamed. He looked at his sister, no longer seeing the admiration she once held for him. "I would have never let anything happened to her," he quietly assured.
Ben stared at his son as if he was a stranger. He had only wanted the boy to stand on his own two feet, to show him that he could make it on his own. Instead, the young man showed that he would go to any length to attain what he wanted. Ben didn't know what to say, this was not his son. He lifted his chin, turned, and taking his daughter's hand walked back toward the hotel
Danny opened his mouth then closed it without saying a word as he watched his father and sister leave.
"C'mon, son," Buck said, actually feeling a small amount of sympathy for the young man.
Danny turned his head slowly, his eyes barely registering the tall lawman who stood next to his horse. Buck eased the young man out of the saddle and led him toward the jail.
Chris turned as Josiah came up alongside him. "Did you have to dump him in that?"
Josiah raised his eyebrows. "Yep."
"How's Ez doing?" Chris asked. The amused grin on Josiah's face faltered.
"He's hangin' on." Josiah turned and headed toward the livery.
Vin and JD pulled Hatcher off his horse and picked up Kurtz. Chris came and cut their ropes. "You two, go and pull your friend out."
The two men looked at Cullen, whose head and shoulders stuck out of the hole. His whole body was covered in a thick brown layer of waste. He stood motionless, unable to speak or open his eyes. He kept his breathing shallow the smell almost too much to bare. He knew enough about human waste to know that he risked serious illness and blindness. He couldn't tell what was going on and feared that he would be left.
"You've got to be kidding," Kurtz said, wrinkling his nose.
"Do I look like am kidding," Chris growled. Vin pulled his mare's leg for emphasis and the two men slowly walked toward Cullen.
"Hey, they ain't bringing him into my jail smelling like that," JD complained.
"Take him behind the livery and clean him off," Chris added.
Ezra heard voices but he couldn't make them out through the buzzing in his ears. He tried to recall what had happened. He remembered Cullen shooting him and then falling. Ezra's brow furrowed as he recalled the stench. He had been tossed out with the trash, abandoned again...No, Vin. He was sure that Vin had come for him.
"So what's Ben going to do now?" Chris asked the judge. They were standing out on the porch of his cabin. Ezra hadn't regained consciousness and Nathan was growing worried.
"He's going to see what he can do for his son," Travis said.
Chris raised an expression eyebrow.
"No, he's not going to bail him out. Daniel's going to have to do some time, but Ben knows he's to blame too. He's never been a real father to the boy."
"Well, better late than never," Chris murmured. He hoped it worked out -- a boy needed his father.
"Chris, get in here I think Ezra's tryin' to wake up," Buck called out the door of the cabin.
"Ezra, wake your lazy self up now!"
Chris's stern and formidable voice broke through, and Ezra slowly opened his eyes. He was greeted with the smiles of seven much relieved men.
"Good to have you back, Mr. Standish," Travis said.
Ezra grinned, but before he could question the judge's presence, he found himself the center of Nathan's ministrations as the healer propped him up and forced a cup of water down his throat. Nathan laid a hand on Ezra's forehead and took his pulse.
"Well, the fever's down but he's going to be weak for quite awhile," Nathan said.
"Wonderful," Ezra groaned. "Did...I...miss...anything?" He was already growing tired.
"Oh, not much," Nathan said, sharing a smile with the other lawmen. Ezra frowned.
Ezra's eyes flashed wide. "Emily!"
"Is fine, and safe with her father," Chris said.
"Mr. Graham is even trying to help his son," Josiah added.
"Not that he deserves it," Buck growled.
"Has Chaucer come home yet?" Ezra asked, knowing that his faithful beast would come home in his own good time.
"Yosmite found him outside the livery last night," Buck assured. "That horse is a regular homing pigeon." Chuckles filled the room and Ezra sunk back into his pillow.
"What's wrong?" JD asked seeing the sudden perplexing expression on Ezra's face.
"I had the most peculiar dream," Ezra suddenly uttered.
"What about?" Vin asked.
Ezra scrunched up his face trying to remember. "I think I was dead and in a coffin and hell smelled really bad."
Buck's laughter spilled out and passed onto the others. Ezra stared dumbfound at his six friends, who seemed to be caught up in a some type of spasm.
Chris was the first one to regain control, and he laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "It's good to have you back Ez."
Ezra pushed his curiosity aside, he felt as if the others were privy to something that he had missed. He slowly closed his eyes, reminding himself to ply young JD at a later time. The voices in the cabin coalesce and became a distant buzz as his mind drifted away. A small red chair with four undamaged legs appeared within his mind and he smiled.