Man on Fire
by Rowdy Tanner

Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not own them or make money from them but if I did own them I promise that I would share at least six of them.

Characters: Chris, Vin & Ezra (Sorry Ezra)

Thanks: My sincere thanks go to S.Fulton, Amber Drabble and of course the sainted Nancy.

Chris Larabee awoke, his naked body drenched in sweat, the sheet under him wringing wet. He had been experiencing a nightmare, no, a dream. One he hoped might come true one day. He had imagined his hands closing tightly around the neck of his Nemesis, Ella Gaines.
Yes, Ella, sometimes I do think of you at night but not in the way you think about me. I feel my hands around your throat. I hear you beg. I hear you scream for mercy as I crush the life out of you.
He threw off the blankets to stagger across the wooden floor of his room to the window and raise the sash. Breathing in a great lung full of cold desert air he sank to the floor and replayed the dream in his head. Relishing the exact moment her neck had finally snapped, over and over again until something on the breeze distracted him. Something once again stirring memories of Ella Gaines.
Smoke winding its way up from the Livery! Where Vin Tanner was sleeping beside that cursed beast he would insist was a horse but the rest of them all knew was a four-legged demon from the lowest circle of Hell. Peso had received a bite from some other hellion and while they all had warned him that the biter would be the one dying a venomous death rather than the bitten, Tanner had refused to leave Peso alone until he was certain the horse had suffered no ill-effects.
Larabee ran down into the street as the tracker staggered outside leading two horses he had blindfolded with his buckskin and shirt. Tanner ran back inside, heedless of Larabee's shout, buckskin in hand. Peso and Pony stood trembling in the street as Tanner reappeared with yet more horses. Shaking off Larabee's restraining hand he again ran back inside. The next few minutes were the longest of Larabee's life before Tanner barreled through the door with J.D. Dunne's dainty bay horse, only to collapse on the ground in a heap.
"Tanner! Tanner!" cried Larabee, flinging himself down beside the tracker and rolling him over on his back. "Tanner!"
"What? Cain't ya leave a feller be?" complained the tracker.
"Can you breathe?"
"Iffen I's talkin' I kin breathe. Why? Ya ain't thinkin' a doin' it fer me is ya? Ain't standin' fer none a that kissy-kissy stuff from ya. I don't care what Nathan says 'bout it savin' a feller's life havin' another feller breathin' inta him. I's rather be laying stone cold dead, Cowboy."
"If it ever comes to that, I hereby solemnly promise that I'll let you die, Tanner. Or let your Cousin Elvira save you."
"Hell, she really would suck the life outta me. Are the others on their way ya reckon?"
"Then iffen ya ain't wantin' me ta die a shame right here in yer arms will ya go put some clothes on, Larabee?"
"Only if you swear to stay exactly where you are until Nathan is satisfied that you can be moved."
"Hell, might be layin' sprawled out here in main street fer days the way Nathan takes his own sweet time a fussin' an' a frettin' over a body. Jus' get goin', Larabee, an' don't come back without yer undercrackers on at least. Never knowed a feller so likely ta run around half-dressed. I always reckoned it were fer the benefit of all a the ladies that seem ta like lusting after yer manly form but now I ain't so sure. Reckon ya might be what Ezra calls a 'shameless exhibitionist', Cowboy."
"Don't you dare die while I'm gone, Tanner," warned Larabee, "because I want to kill you myself."
When Larabee hurriedly reappeared in the street at least partially dressed, a mildly protesting Tanner was being cradled in Josiah Sanchez's beefy arms and carried to Nathan Jackson's clinic. J.D. Dunne and Buck Wilmington were tending to the rescued horses and Ezra Standish was standing pole-axed in the middle of the street.
"Mr. L-Larabee," stammered Ezra, his usual aplomb missing in action.
"Ezra?" barked Larabee.
The gambler held out a blackened and charred raggedy item. "See, Mr. Tanner's hide coat, mere cinders!"
"He isn't going to be happy," commiserated Larabee.
"Happy? Happy? Not happy? You have totally under estimated the gravity of the situation, Mr. Larabee. Someone will have to die and die inordinately painfully, Mr. Larabee, before we again see even a glimmer of good humor on our dear tracker's visage."
"That fire was set deliberate," reported back Buck, in a low voice.
"Whoever did this is a dead man," growled Larabee, every sliver of good humor leaving him. "A dead man!"
"I's jus' fine!"
If a man's health could be correctly determined by the amount of noisy complaining he did then Vin Tanner was the very acme of physical fitness.
"That remains to be seen. You can spend the rest of the night in bed and we'll see how you are in the morning," decided Nathan.
"What is ya talkin' 'bout? It's morning now! Kin see the sun. It's mornin' I tell ya!"
"Not to most people," snapped Larabee. "Do you want me to hold you down while Nathan gets the laudanum spoon?"
"I got a new extra large spoon just for Vin so I'll be sure of getting at least some of it down," smiled Nathan.
"Shall I hog-tie him first, Nathan?"
"Ya turned on me too, Cowboy?" groaned Tanner.
"Show him a mirror, Nathan," ordered Larabee.
"What? Y'all tryin' ta scare me ta death now?" protested the tracker.
"Yeah," agreed Nathan, holding the mirror up so the tracker could see his reflection. "See all that soot on your face? It's in your lungs too."
"So you will stay in that bed and do as I say."
"Shucks, Nathan. I feel jus' fine."
"I think he could use a bed bath, Nathan."
An evil grin appeared on Chris Larabee's face.
"I think you're right, Chris, is his Cousin Elvira in town? I'll just go get her."
"No! No! No, I'll do what Nathan says," surrendered the tracker holding up his hands in defeat. "I's as good as an angel."
Vin Tanner was in the Clinic for more than one night on Larabee's orders. He was not a happy tracker. Nathan had heard him cough once, just once for the Lord's sake and had reported the fact to Chris Larabee. Surrounded as he was by fussing tittle-tattling healers and grouchy gunfighters, Tanner was more than ready for Ezra's visit.
"I am so sorry to be the bearer of grievous news, Mr. Tanner."
"Peso?" Tanner's even raspier than usual voice had a break in it.
"Ah, no indeed. I do believe that he is back to his old self, devouring small stable boys and cheerfully bedeviling every other horse in town. I am afraid that this is the only remaining remnant of your chosen apparel."
"M' hide coat? What the hell happened?"
"Mr. Tanner, it was incinerated by the flames of hell. Surely you recall?"
"Ain't never done that afore," declared Tanner, wide blue eyes blinking rapidly revealing the tracker to be in a deep state of shock.
"I very much doubt that it has ever been subjected to such an blazing inferno! Ah, wait, I forgot to whom I was speaking."
"Coat bin aflame once or twice but it ain't never all burned up, Ezra."
"Yes, we have gathered that, Mr. Tanner. However, as you risked yourself to rescue my horse, I was hoping you might accept this as recompense."
"Ezra, ya don't have ta reward me fer that an' ya ain't needin' ta be makin' up an excuse ta give me a gift. Ya kin do it anytime ya git overwhelmed with the urge ta be generous," grinned the tracker. "What is it?"
"Open it and see," said Ezra, unsuccessfully trying to hide his pleasure at being able to do something for the tracker.
The tracker's long slender fingers fiddled with the stubborn knots until Ezra snatched the parcel back and wrenched the string free of the brown paper wrapped parcel and threw it to the floor.
"Ain't right ta waste good string, Ezra. Wind it up in a ball."
"What am I? a kitten? Now, open the parcel, Mr. Tanner," instructed Ezra. "Do you like it?"
"It's right good quality. Thanks, Ezra."
Vin Tanner smiled bravely and tried to looked pleased with the Plainsman jacket stiff with newness.
"I was somewhat unsure as to your precise measurements but both Gloria Potter and Elvira Flynn assured me that 'scrawny' was indeed your size. In fact Elvira Flynn seemed particularly familiar with your exact bodily dimensions, care to enlighten me as to why that might be?"
"Cousin Elvira don't never leave off her grabbin' at me. 'T ain't hardly decent, even fer family, ta be ambushing a feller from behind an' sizing him up. Tells me, 'why, you're woefully underweight, Cousin Vin, I can feel your hip bones!' then feeds me double chocolate cake," shrugged the tracker.
"Ah, yes, chocolate cake. Both ladies did indeed pass comment that you were in desperate need of fattening up."
"Wear this new jacket as soon as I git outta here, Ezra."
"I know it is sorely lacking the charmingly ragged patina of your previous garment but I'm sure I could arrange for you to be tied to a mule team and dragged through the town until you resume your former appearance of an out-of-work scarecrow."
"That's right thoughtful of ya, Ezra."
"Do you like the new jacket?"
The gunfighter solemnly indicated the sand colored Plainsman hanging over the foot of the brass bed.
"Hell, 't ain't me," sighed the tracker.
"Hell, you shouldn't have tried to beat out the fire with your buckskin."
"I have no recollection of that whatsoever," insisted the tracker.
"You really have been in this clinic too long. You're starting to sound just like Ezra."
"Were right good of him ta buy me this. Wish I knowed a way ta pay him back."
"Don't vex yourself, he'll think of a way and knowing Ezra it will be a very expensive way."
Chris Larabee leaned back in the chair outside the saloon exactly three weeks later. Allowing his eyes to stray across the street to the two incredibly beautiful women standing talking in the early evening shade. He granted himself the genuine pleasure of knowing these women were safe because of the presence of himself and his six friends. He admired the cool blonde's animated features, her sparkling eyes so full of life. He had only a rear view of her companion but he wasn't complaining it was worth seeing.
He looked to his left at the other man concertinaed into a chair, hat pulled low so none could tell if he was asleep or awake. He wondered if he should nudge the Texan into awareness and share this moment with him.
"Why don't ya jus' go ahead an' ask her?" drawled the hat.
"Ask what?"
"Iffen she'd like ta take a walk with ya? Full moon tonight, Cowboy. Bet she looks jus' as kissable in the moonlight."
"Which one?"
The hat was raised slightly. "Either."
"One belongs to a dangerous gunfighter," he remarked.
"Thought they both was in love with deadly gunslingers," countered the hat.
The gunfighter in black was about to clarify matters when JD careered into town from the general direction of Nettie Wells' ranch.
"Burn barning!" he shouted, as he hauled the exhausted bay horse to a long skidding halt outside the saloon.
"Steady, Kid. Ya want ta try that ag'in?" rasped the hat, fully alert now.
"Barn burning!"
"Nettie's?" asked the tracker, an expression that threatened deadly violence forming on his face.
"No, the Henderson place. They sent me for help."
"Get the boys together, then see to your horse. We'll get started. This is the third barn in two weeks," said Chris Larabee, his tone of voice grim.
"Ya reckon Guy Royal's up ta his tricks ag'in, Chris?" asked the tracker, as he swaggered after the gunfighter in black.
"Could be. I wouldn't discount the idea."
The scene at the Henderson place was not unlike a Saturday night in Hades. The smell of burning filled the air and a pall of black smoke hung over the still smoldering barn. The Henderson brothers, faces blackened by the soot and smoke, had known from the get go it was going to be a Herculean task to save their barn. Resigned to the loss, they were still grateful that The Larabee Gang had arrived.
"Ezra!" Chris Larabee was issuing orders that the men obeyed without question as the tracker disappeared into the trees but the gunfighter was surprised to see Ezra Standish take off at a run. There was the loud report of a gun and Larabee drew his own gun fearing something terrible had happened as he raced after the gambler.
"Chris! Ezra is hurt! Get Nathan over here! NOW!" yelled the tracker.
Ezra was hurt. Ezra was hurt bad. He had lost a considerable amount of blood already. Nathan thought that he had seen more than his fair share of bullet wounds in the war. Every time one of his six friends was hurt Nathan prayed that he had used up his ration of fatal wounds but things didn't look good for Ezra right now.
The Hendersons, understanding brotherhood all too well, helped Nathan get Ezra into the back of their green painted wagon and on the way back to town without fuss or recriminations. Watching as the other men mounted up and rode after the wagon without giving the barn another glance the Henderson brothers thanked their God that they had not lost a brother to the barn burner.
Chris watched as Nathan stripped off Ezra's fancy red coat knowing full well that the fact that Ezra had no strength to protest at the rough handling of his prized wardrobe didn't bode well. In Nathan's clinic the situation didn't improve as the healer ripped off the gambler's favorite shirt. Vin bent down and picked up the blood soaked vest from the dusty floor, shook it and folded it neatly to one side.
Chris shook himself and tore his eyes away from the figure on the bed, "Whoever it was is a dead man," vowed Chris.
"We'll find 'em an' bring 'em ta trial, Cowboy."
"A dead man, Vin. No trial, just a noose."
"Then I ain't ridin' with ya."
Chris Larabee stood in front of the tracker, his hands balled into fists. "Look at Ezra! Remember that you almost burned to death in the livery!"
"An' they'll git a fair trial an' what they's a deservin' of," rasped the tracker, holding up his hands.
An immovable object meeting an irresistible force. The two men stared at each other.
I understan', Cowboy.
"Sarah and Adam never stood a chance, Vin."
"Ya can't make it right by actin' crazy, Chris, I'll get the barn burner an' bring him in I promise ya."
"Vin, we can get a good few hours of tracking in before dark," called Buck.
"I's stayin' with Ezra."
"Nathan is doing all he can. We need our tracker out there," ordered Chris.
"Ezra needs me more," stated the tracker, watching the shallow rise and fall of Ezra's chest.
"Tell him, Nathan. Ezra doesn't even know you're here. Right, Nathan?"
"I can't tell him that, Chris and you know it," replied the healer meaningfully.
"Chris, he's one of us now. He has been for a long time now but ya ain't gotten around ta admittin' it. He could no more run out on any of us than ya could. He's earned this from us, Chris," said the tracker quietly.
Chris exhaled slowly. Once again Vin had pointed out the obvious to him. The sharpshooter aiming his shot right at the heart of the matter. Chris had refused to accept what he knew to be true. Ezra Standish was one of The Seven. As important to the brotherhood as Buck or Nathan. As important to them all as Josiah or JD was.
"I'll stay with him," said Chris. "He needs me to be here. He needs me to tell him what I should have said a long time ago that he's earned this from me. That I trust him."
The tracker nodded his head briefly and went out to track the barn burner who had shot Ezra because that was what he did best and Ezra had earned that from him.
Chris Larabee was a man on fire. He paced a small room seemingly growing smaller by the hour. He sat down. He stood up. He leaned over the bed. He paced the room again. Finally, Chris Larabee sat down by the bed containing the seriously ill gambler. He made a fist with his right hand and ground it into his left palm.
He could still smell the smoke. Truth be told it never left him. It was as much a part of him as the memory of putting a tiny charred body in a burlap sack. He had dug their graves himself refusing to let even Buck help. Dug the graves deep to keep them safe in death as he had failed to do in life. Moving like an automaton he had made the two wooden crosses for the graves. Painting them white and painstakingly spelling out both their names in paint as black as his soul.
His fault. His damn fault.
He swore to God and The Devil that this time he would protect them all. Mary and Billy Travis. Gloria Potter and her two young children. Elvira Flynn, along with her adopted daughters, Hope and Lucy Flynn. Nettie and Casey Wells.
When Tanner brought in his prisoner and Larabee had no doubt that the ex-bounty hunter would get this man, Larabee would keep them all safe by opening up the jail cell and lynching the barn burner. He swore it on two graves.
Buck and JD came back into town without Vin or Josiah and made their way up to the clinic. "Vin and Josiah are staying out hoping to follow the trail Vin thinks he's found at first light," reported Buck.
"Thinks he's found?"
"Hell, Chris, you know how the boy is. I can't see a damn thing but he gets all worked up over a broken twig. If he says there is a trail after all I've seen him do I gotta believe him!"
"How is Ezra?" asked JD, not really wanting to know the answer. He could see for himself the wounded man's ghostly pallor but he had pestered Buck to come back to town hoping for better news. He no longer cared if every barn in the Territory burnt to the ground while Ezra was like this. Buck hadn't taken that much persuading either.
"No better, no worse," Chris informed them as Nathan confirmed it with a nod of the head.
Mary Travis and Elvira Flynn entered with trays of food for both Nathan and Chris.
"I sent a telegraph to Maude Standish as soon as I heard," said Mary. "I got this reply a short while later. Maude wishes us to keep her informed of his condition."
"She's not coming here?" gasped JD. "But surely? I don't understand."
"Did you tell her the seriousness of the situation?" asked Chris, thankful that it was Mary's solid home cooking and not Cousin Elvira's which was famous throughout the Territory for being more unpalatable than hot lead.
"Yes. Of course."
"Here send her this," said Elvira, scribbling a message on the back of Maude's wire to Mary.
"A thousand dollars if she gets here in time? Are you sure?"
"I am. Tell her plus a hundred dollars for every day she stays in the clinic with Ezra."
"Elvira, she'll bleed you dry!" warned Buck.
"While she's trying that maybe Ezra will be comforted to know that she came. Maybe it will aid his recovery."
"It will if Ezra finds out he's worth more than Vin's $500," said Buck, with gallows humor.
"We're near enough back on the trail ta Guy Royal's place, J'siah," whispered Vin.
"So Royal is up to his old tricks?"
"Or he's gonna lose his barn."
"Oh dear, my, my, how sad," droned Josiah, with a tombstone smile.
"Not rightly Christian of ya, J'siah."
"Very Old Testament though."
They shared a grin and moved on a shade more cautiously than before.
"I don't know mebbe if I were a proper doctor..." started Nathan, helplessly.
"Doc Dempsey is on his way here from Libertyville but he can't do anymore than you are already doing, I'm sure of it," said Mary confidently, patting his arm reassuringly.
"I don't think Ezra is fighting like the others do. It's almost as if he's leaving it to fate to decide whether or not he survives. Or maybe I'm just overtired to be thinking like that," said Nathan, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand.
"Chris, when the Doctor gets here will you make sure Nathan gets some proper rest? You need rest too," Mary said. "Ezra will perhaps rally a little when Maude arrives. Until then I'll sit with him for a while."
"Maude is actually coming here?" asked JD, with a sneer.
"JD? will you help me carry this pile of dirty linen to the laundry?" Elvira asked.
"Sure, ma'am."
As they left the laundry to return to the clinic she drew JD to one side. "Don't think too badly of Maude."
"I can't do anything else! How could a mother not want to be here?"
"I know it's difficult for you to understand but try to think of it from Maude's perspective. Would you want to travel all those miles knowing you were going to watch your only child die? A child you have never once thought needed you? A child who you perhaps thought was happier without your poor attempts at motherhood?"
"To take your money to come is contemptible!"
"No, Maude needed the money as an excuse to come."
"I don't understand!"
"Maude is frightened that Ezra won't want to see her in his dying hours. Maude is terrified of having her heart broken. Ezra is her Achilles heel. The only person she has ever truly cared for. He's her sweet baby boy and she's his loving mother it's only that she isn't very good at showing it. Perhaps she doesn't even know how to. Right now she's telling herself that she will be here for the money not for love."
She slipped her arm through his and they walked back to the clinic together as JD struggled to understand the complicated relationship the gambler shared with his mother.
"This is Guy Royal's disused barn," hissed Tanner, as they hunkered down in the long grass. "Look!"
"He's no more than a slip of a boy!" Josiah watched the youth push aside a loose board and squeeze inside the barn.
"Old enough ta know it's dangerous playin' with naked flames near a barn. Old enough ta have shot Ezra," rasped the tracker.
"Do you think he's starting a fire in there?"
"There's a knothole in the side a the barn I's goin' down ta take a gander."
"A knothole? You can see a knothole from here?"
Tanner pulled his spyglass out of his pocket and passed it to Josiah, "Keep watch, J'siah."
Josiah watched as the tracker moved towards the barn. He opened the leather case and focused the spyglass on the knothole and in a relatively short space of time he saw the tracker reappear. He saw the tracker raise his head to look towards the ranch house as if he had heard or seen something. Josiah focused the glass on the ranch house and saw Royal walking across to the barn with something in both hands. With a grunt of surprise Josiah realized that it was a tray covered with a red cloth.
The tracker moved towards the corner of the barn and flattened himself against the wooden side. Tanner heard the jingle of keys and the sound of a padlock opening. He moved back towards the knothole as he heard muffled voices from inside the barn. He waited until Royal had locked up again and left before Tanner made his way back to Josiah's side.
"The boy is locked in there. Seems Royal don't know he can come an' go as he pleases. There's a bunk in there an' Royal jus' brought him food. Somethin' ain't right with the boy. Royal talks to him like he's a bit of a simple soul if ya get my meanin', J'siah. Sorta childlike."
Tanner tried to choose his words carefully so as not to upset Josiah. Josiah appreciated the quiet tracker's consideration of his sister Hannah's mental condition.
"I don't suppose Royal would be happy to hand him over to the two of us without a fight."
"Ya go back ta town. Tell Chris what's happenin' an' I'll stay here an' take the boy when he slips out ag'in."
"Are you sure you can do that on your own? Don't forget he's armed."
"Hell, J'siah, it's what I did fer a livin'. What kinda bounty hunter would I's bin iffen I ain't able ta take a man down alone?"
"He's not much more than a kid and mentally deficient." Josiah felt bad even pointing that out to a man like Tanner.
"I know that, J'siah," replied the tracker quietly and Josiah knew that the tracker would take the kid in without harming him.
Josiah quickly rode back to town meditating on what God had been thinking the day he had made Vin Tanner. A gentle but deadly man.
Josiah watched the various emotions pass across Chris Larabee's face. Surprise at Josiah's description of the culprit and anger that Josiah had left Vin Tanner behind at Guy Royal's place, then the sure and certain realization that Vin Tanner could more than take care of himself.
When Vin Tanner brought the boy in, the barn burner was chattering happily to the tracker who was smiling kindly at the youngster. The boy was led to the jail house still laughing and smiling at the tracker. Tanner handed over the gun that had shot and grievously wounded Ezra.
"Hell, Chris, he ain't got no idea what damage he's done. He's in love with the flames. Jus' loves ta watch stuff burn. Says the fire dances with him. He admits he burned down the Livery but knows burnin' houses ain't right 'cause a the people inside. He shot Ezra 'cause Ezra drew first an' then hesitated when he saw the boy weren't right in the head. He was real scared of Ezra catchin' him an' tellin' Royal."
"Did he tell you why Royal had him under lock and key?" asked JD.
"Says Royal is 'Uncle Guy'. Uncle Guy is real nice an' looks after him so the posse from Red Fork don't find him."
"Uncle Guy?" queried Buck, unable to imagine Guy Royal ever having parents let alone siblings.
The tracker shrugged, "Guess someone needs ta ride out an' tell nice 'Uncle Guy' where his nephew is."
"I'll ask Mary to telegraph Red Fork and see what the posse there wants the boy for," said Chris.
"Hell, Chris, we don't need no posse from Red Fork ridin' in an' tryin' ta lynch the kid."
"Mary will be discreet," Chris assured him.
"Ridin' out an' telling Royal," decided the tracker.
"More bad news from Robin Hood? No, I think Josiah had better go. Royal and Josiah have reached a special understanding if I remember rightly," decided Chris. "Josiah, take Buck and JD with you. Vin, go over to the saloon and get yourself some hot food."
Chris Larabee watched the barn burner through the cell bars. The boy was still smiling. Chris continued to stare until the smile slipped from the boy's face. The barn burner scrambled to the far edge of the bunk and huddled up in the corner. His eyes screwed tight shut, endeavoring to avoid that icy cold green-eyed stare.
Calmly, the gunfighter reached up and unhooked the ring of keys. He ran his index finger along the barrel of the key to the cell door while resting his hand on his Colt Peacemaker.
It was time to remember. Remember it all, every last detail that he had buried deep down inside himself. Blanked out. Banked down like a glowing fire. The smell of smoke now unable to mask that other smell. The smell of burnt flesh. He breathed it in now. Forcing himself to feel the exact same emotions he had experienced riding in on that terrible scene of wanton devastation that had once been the Larabee ranch. Once it had been his family home, all that had remained of the still smoldering wooden cabin were blackened skeletal fingers pointing up to Heaven.
His inability to take it all in at first had caused him to laugh out loud. Until his shrieks of hysterical laughter had become screams of crazed horror. Buck Wilmington, as ever riding faithfully by his side, had remained mute, unable to assimilate what it was he was seeing.
The few scattered items that the fire had not consumed taunted him by their very survival. The wooden train he had lovingly made Adam for his sixth birthday, its red wooden roof pristine, the black painted engine untouched. Sarah's hairbrush, long red hair still entangled in the bristles.
Then Vin Tanner barreling through the doors of the livery stable accompanied by the black billowing smoke. Flames crackling all around him, reaching out jagged fingers to try and snare him. His face blackened by soot, his long hair singed. Someone screaming like banshee when the gunfighter was the only one there. Tanner turning and running back inside, swallowed up by the heat of the inferno.
Once again fire had tried to take Larabee's very soul.
It would only take one blow, Larabee was sure of it. The boy's death would be mercifully quick.
Vin Tanner pushed his untouched plate of food back across the table. Inez Recillos grasped the edge of the bar to steady herself. Never had she ever seen Vin Tanner refuse food. The man ate anything, anywhere, anytime. Something was knotting up his stomach, tearing at his insides.
Standing, he tipped his hat politely to the beautiful barkeep and swaggered across to the jail house.
Larabee had put the key in the lock. He only had to turn it and step inside.
Cletus Fowler is a longtime dead, Cowboy, an' that weak-minded boy ain't Ella Gaines.
The tracker had entered the jail house silently, not even rattling the glass in the door.
"He's a fire-starter, Vin. He doesn't deserve to live when they are dead."
"Kill him an' they'll still be dead. Nuthin' ya do will ever make that right, Cowboy."
"Hell, naw."
"And you? He almost burned you alive! You can forgive him one day?"
"Done it awready, Cowboy."
"Saint Vin!"
"Hell, naw."
The tracker stepped forward and removed the key from the lock.
"Saloon," agreed Larabee.
Guy Royal rode back into town with the three peacekeepers and humbly asked to speak with Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner.
"Albert is my sister Sarah Jane's boy. He has done this before in Red Fork and I promised Sarah Jane that I'd keep him safely under lock and key. The boy hasn't been right in the head since the day he was born but he's never harmed anyone before. I don't even know where he got a gun from. Mr. Larabee, please, my Sarah Jane loves that boy. She'll die of a broken heart if you hand him over to the posse in Red Fork."
"I don't see what else is to be done, Royal. He has left one of my men, one of my brothers," corrected Chris, "at Death's door. If we keep him here I'll see him charged with murder."
"Ya got money, Royal?" rasped the tracker, without looking up from picking at his dirty fingernails.
"What do you want a donation? a gift?" asked Royal, cynically.
"Pay all the folk hereabouts that lost their barns restitution an' put the boy in an asylum," ordered the tracker, pushing away from the wall he'd been leaning on and hooking his thumbs into his gun belt.
"What the hell, Tanner? Are you forgetting about Ezra? Our Ezra for God's sake!" snapped Chris furiously.
"Naw, I ain't. Ezra ain't wantin' a weak minded boy ta hang on his account an' if ya think he do then ya still don't know Ezra real well. If the boy's in an asylum fer good at least his mama can still see him an' he can't do more bad things."
"The cost will just about wipe me out, Tanner!" protested Guy Royal.
"Ya want us ta tell them folks over in Red Fork yer the boy's uncle?" asked the tracker softly.
"No. No, I don't. Yes, I'll pay up and put the boy away for good. I'll take him there myself. Are we agreed, Mr. Larabee?"
"Damn well looks like it," spat Chris.
Damn Texan making him go easy on Guy Royal! Chris Larabee was the bad element in this cow town with a less than stellar reputation to uphold and he didn't need a softly spoken tracker with an overly developed sense of justice being a good influence on him! The tracker had already had him holding a vigil by Ezra's bedside, willing the gambler to live. Promising God and any deity that would deign to listen anything they would care to name in exchange for the cheater being fully restored to his brothers. What was Vin Tanner planning next, making him skip through a meadow of wildflowers hand in hand with Stuart James?
Ezra was no better but no worse when Maude Standish finally arrived. She took her time over at the hotel, signing the register, unpacking her innumerable pieces of leather luggage. Changing out of her stained traveling clothes and washing off the trail dust before making her way across to the clinic. Chris and Vin immediately gave up their places at Ezra's bedside and left her to be alone with her son.
"Ah, my sweet baby boy, didn't I tell you that all this foolish do-gooding would end in tears? Please don't die. I want you to live to admit to my face that your mother is always right. Our kind should know better. I taught you to always look after number one. Wake up and explain yourself! Oh, please wake up, my love."
She raised his cold hand to her lips and kissed each of his his fingers, "Such skillful fingers! How quickly you learned to deal from the bottom of the deck. A mother was never as proud as I was the very first time you slipped that Ace up your sleeve. Such promise."
She paused and shuddered with fear for him.
"I shall never forget the first time we worked the cotton gin investment con. I was sure that you were too young but you carried out your part flawlessly. A true artist in every sense of the word. You don't know how many happy memories I have of us working together. How I treasured every single moment. How close I felt to you then. Please come back to me, my sweet darlin' baby boy."
Under the coarse, age roughened sheets that rubbed against his sensitive well cared for skin, Ezra stirred and started his long journey home to the mother he loved.
"Ya awake, Ezra?" Vin Tanner poked his head around the door of Nathan Jackson's clinic.
"Mr. Tanner, where is that vile creature that usually dogs your every step?" inquired Ezra Standish.
"Ya mean Larabee?" drawled the tracker.
"I mean that four legged, man-eating, flea-bag that you will insist is a dog."
"My dawg's takin' young Miz Lucy Flynn out fer a walk."
"Will the darling child be safe?"
"Savage will protect her from bad things."
"Mr. Tanner, isn't that mutt more likely to swallow her whole?"
"Naw. He's gotten a real fondness fer little Miz Lucy."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"Brung ya this, Ezra," the tracker drawled.
"My gold pocket watch. The glass was smashed beyond repair by the bullet as I recall."
"Asked Cousin Elvira iffen a fancy watch like yers could be repaired an' she took me in her private railroad car ta Ridge City ta buy a special new glass fer it."
"You? You did that? You traveled all that way by rail and stepped out in the public eye with Mrs. Elvira Flynn?"
The tracker put down the tray he carried as he moved to sit by the bed, removed his hat and tried to feel settled. The new jacket, now dusty and grubby, still didn't feel right.
"Asked Mary Travis ta kindly come along as chaperone ta make sure Cousin Elvira ain't tryin' grabbin' at me an' takin' me in big fancy stores an' buyin' me new long johns. She don't seem ta care that a fella's combinations are called unmentionables 'cos it ain't polite ta mention 'em. Damn fool woman's obsessed with my private underwear arrangements," complained the tracker, shaking his shaggy haired head. "I sat in the jewelry store an' waited fer yer watch while Miz Travis an' Cousin Elvira bought up most a Ridge City's fancy goods. A damn Confederate Army quartermaster ain't as fixed on foraging fer supplies. Them womenfolks is a plague a locusts when it comes ta buyin' up frilly stuff with handmade lace on it an' red silk stockings."
"Well, I am quite sure that Cousin Elvira's husband, Orlando Flynn, will appreciate the red silk stockings!"
"It were mostly Miz Travis layin' in a store of new silk stockings, Ezra," winked Vin.
"Really? Red silk? Her a widow living alone too!" winked back Ezra.
"Figure Miz Travis got her eye fixed on courting a certain black-dressed fella we knows?"
"If the normally prudish Mary Travis is taking lessons from an experienced seductress, such as your Cousin Elvira undoubtedly is, on how to set mantraps for unsuspecting gunfighters then I theorize that Mr. Larabee has very little chance of escaping matrimony and is as good as snared."
"Reckon ya'll be obliged ta warn him that Miz Travis is lookin' ta hog tie him?" snickered Vin.
"Not I. Indeed, I shall look forward to celebrating Mr. Larabee's nuptials in a very short space of time."
"Wedding cake is mighty tasty," agreed Vin, licking his lips in anticipation.
"Speaking of sustenance, Mr. Tanner, is that a food tray I espy?"
"Yep. Inez Recillos sent ya this thick fillin' stew fer yer dinner an' Miz Potter sent ya this restorative milk puddin' fer dessert."
"Delicious! I had no idea that all the ladies in Four Corners had such varied culinary talents."
"Star Gazy pie tomorrow, Ezra."
"I do beg your pardon?"
"Ol' Mother York's specialty. All the women hereabouts have decided yer the one in need a fattenin' up now. Every kitchen in town is a buzzin'."
"What does Star Gazy pie consist of?" puzzled Ezra.
"I ain't one a them fancy Denver chefs, Ezra, so ain't rightly sure. Ol' Mother York gave me some once. Took her a catch a fish this morning afore I went ta the saloon."
"A fish pie?"
"Fresh caught fish an' the word 'pie' might be jist an itty-bitty clue, Ezra. See yer brain's workin' ag'in now ya got good food in ya."
"Star Gazy?" queried Ezra.
"Hell, as I recall, the fish sorta stick outta the pie an' stare up at ya with dead eyes."
"Staring fish, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra was already starting to feel bilious.
"Aw Hell!" groaned Ezra.
"Ezra, you should know that Mrs. Flynn offered Maude Standish a thousand dollars to travel here and a hundred dollars for every day she stayed with you," Mary said, as she sat by Ezra's bed and closed the classic novel that she had been reading aloud from.
"Why am I not surprised one iota to hear that my dear Mother had an ulterior motive to be by my side throughout this hideous ordeal?" he asked bitterly. "Cousin Elvira really shouldn't have offered monies to Maude. I am not worth it."
"You should know too, that Maude left without asking for the money," Mary told him.
"Empty handed? She left empty handed?"
"Not a cent."
"Really?" Ezra's jade green eyes misted over and his bottom lip trembled.
"Ezra, you should also know that to your six friends you are worth much more than any sum of money."
"I am?"
He fell into a long period of silence as he wrestled with these startling revelations.

"Mr. Tanner."
"I have considered our differing sartorial styles at great length."
"Yeah? Ya want me ta give ya fashion advice now, Ezra?"
"God forbid that day should ever come! However, I wondered if you might condescend to return your new jacket to me?"
"I have come to realize that I may, from time-to-time, need a more practical and serviceable garment than my bespoke jackets."
"I have now discovered for myself that a .45 apparently makes a hole yay big in a gentleman's wardrobe."
"Damn Indian giver."
"I have always understood that fair exchange was no robbery, Mr. Tanner. A parcel has arrived addressed to you all the way from Libertyville."
"Fer me? From Libertyville? A parcel? Arrived? Addressed? Fer me?"
"Are you going to open the package or will you merely continue to repeat every word I say except in a different order?"
The tracker eyed the large, bulky parcel with suspicion.
"Mr. Tanner, either you open it or I will," Ezra said.
He cut the string carefully with his hunting knife and replacing his knife, wound the string up carefully then put it in a pant pocket. Ezra was frothing at the mouth with impatience until he resembled Peso on a hot day. The tracker carefully smoothed back the stiff brown paper. It was folded up and the unmistakable smell of fresh new hide assailed both men. He leaned forward and drew the buckskin jacket out of its wrappings. It was fringed and he especially liked the horn buttons, the metal studs too. It was his correct size and exactly the length he favored. He slipped it on and immediately felt the same as he used to do.
"Ah. As you were brave enough to venture, virtually unarmed, into Elvira Flynn's parlor. Willing to sacrifice your dignity on my behalf in order to effect a repair to my much treasured gold watch, I was moved to attempt a similarly foolhardy stunt. I braced myself and entered that notorious den of iniquity, The Lucky Dollar Saloon, in nearby Libertyville. Where I engaged your father, Jake McKenna, in polite conversation and made a small request. Suspecting, quite correctly, that he would know exactly how and where to obtain this fiendishly rustic garment for you."
"It's mighty fine, Ezra. Thanks."
Vin was eagerly filling the capacious pockets with numerous bits and bobs while admiring the deep fringing.
"Not as fine as the watch glass you obtained for me but then we do have very different notions of what might constitute a person's gentlemanly accouterments."
"Each ta his own, Ezra."
"Please, Mr. Tanner, in the future do try not to extinguish any blazing conflagrations with said garb."
"Ain't promising nuthin', Ezra but I's willin' ta try."