[Thanks to Nottasha for editing and inspiration. A big mistake is made and Ezra, of course, suffers the consequences. Violence]
The two men walked in compatible silence down the dusty main street of the developing town. Towns' folk seemed to hurry their steps as they crossed the path of the two steadfast men. Chris Larabee walked with purpose in his eyes, scanning every alleyway out of habit and a sense of preservation. The brightly attired man walking next to him maintained a similar stride and a more casual attitude but he, too, took in every detail of his surroundings.
The two Lawmen of Four Corners were in Byers, heading toward the town's restaurant for an early dinner after delivering a prized horse to a ranch outside of town at the request of Judge Travis.
"So, Mr. Larabee, I presume that you would like to leave tomorrow at 'first light' as usual?"
Chris smiled, knowing his citified companion hated rising with the sun. "Well, Ez, I do plan on leaving tomorrow, but I was thinking you may want to hang around another day."
Ezra stopped just short of the steps to the restaurant. Chris halted after a couple steps and turned to the bewildered conman. His smile grew, Chris loved when he was able to startle his southern companion. He figured it was payback for all the times Ezra infuriated him.
"Am I to understand you do not wish my company…"
Chris raised his hand to stop Ezra's still present insecurity about being a part of the seven lawmen who protected the town of Four Corners. He knew the conman at times didn't think he belonged. Ezra had never been a part of anything in his life. It had taken months to just get him to accept the fact that they did like him and want him around.
"Just thinking that this town has a nice hotel and saloon where I believe you did pretty good last night. I thought you might want to spend a little more time here. You don't have a shift till the end of the week."
Chris leaned against the support post, waiting…for what he was not sure. Ezra appeared uneasy at the supposed benevolent offer. He ran his thumb across his lip, a nervous tell the others had learned. Chris shook his head at Ezra's uneasiness--the man still didn't fully trust anyone, always expecting the worse.
"Ez, I've enjoyed our time and we've gotten along pretty good. Maybe we shouldn't push our luck," Chris finally explained as he reached out and clasped Ezra's shoulder.
Ezra smirked at this admittance. It was common knowledge that he and the notorious gunslinger didn't always see eye to eye, but the past three days had actually been enjoyable for both men.
"Well, Mr. Larabee, I believe I will take you up on your most generous offer." Ezra's smile widened to reflect his gold tooth as his unease dissipated.
Chris pondered the smile that now reached the gambler's eyes. He hoped in time the apprehensive conman would realize that he was a friend to be counted on.
"Just see that your ass is back in town day after tomorrow," Chris good-naturedly growled as the men stepped inside the restaurant.
"See, Jay, what'd I tell ya? It's got to be him."
Three men stood outside the saloon watching the lawmen make their way to the restaurant on the other side of the street.
"They sure look chummy enough, but I don't know." Jay scratched at his scruffy beard and looked at his shorter and younger companion who continued to worry at his bottom lip.
An older and more subdued fella declared, "He don't have long hair."
"So? Anyone can cut their hair, Clay," Tyler irritably replied.
"Well we know fer sure that's Larabee." Clay spit tobacco juice into the street.
"Okay," Jay finally relented. "Let's wait for an opportunity."
+ + + + + + +
Chris left the stables after taking care of his horse. Without Ezra's endless chatting, the ride back to Four Corners seemed to take longer. He had ridden alone a lot in his life, but this time he actually didn't enjoy it. It was good to be home though, walking on familiar streets and passing familiar people. He never thought he'd feel comfortable or content anywhere again. He knew it was more than just the town, but also six men who were slowly becoming more that just partners in law.
"Hey, Cowboy, welcome back!" A familiar Texas twang greeted him as he came around the corner. "How was the trip?"
"No problems. So, good."
Vin looked over his shoulder at the stable expecting to see Ezra emerge. "Where's Ez? You didn't shoot him, did ya?" Vin was surprised when Chris had decided to take Ezra with him. The gunslinger had told everyone he needed Ezra's expertise with horses and finances. Vin thought that maybe Larabee was finally making the effort to get to know the southerner better.
"Nah. Believe it or not, we actually got along. I let him stay an extra day. Figured I'd let the people of Four Corners and us keep our money a little longer."
Vin chuckled. "Getting soft in your old age?"
"Watch it, Tanner. Where are the others?" Chris asked as he slapped the dust from his hat. The two men headed toward the saloon. Vin knew that Chris would need to wash the dust from his throat.
"Ah, JD is on patrol and Buck is who knows where. Josiah and Nathan went up to the Seminole village. Some of the kids had some type of stomach bug."
"Anything serious?" Chris asked concerned.
"Don't think so. Nathan said if he needed help he'd send word."
"Well, I guess we better enjoy the quiet while we can."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra finished saddling Chaucer and slipped his four-legged friend an apple. He was feeling good. He had been able to sleep in yesterday morning and had a very profitable day on the tables. A good meal topped off his evening as he turned in relatively early, at least for him. He had decided to get an early start back to Four Corners, which amazed him. He thought maybe the improving relationship with Larabee had something to do with it. He had been as surprised as any of them when Chris asked him to accompany him. He had to admit, he had been nervous, but after the first day, the two men had some interesting conservations and fell into a comfortable rhythm and were able to also ride in complete silence.
"Don't tell anyone, but I think I miss our uncouth compatriots' company," Ezra declared to Chaucer as he checked the saddle. "We're both getting soft, old friend." Chaucer bobbed his head as if in reply. Ezra grinned as he fastened the belt on his saddle bags. Chaucer's head jerked up as two men entered the stables. Ezra eyed the harsh looking men suspiciously hoping they were only here to get their own horses. That belief was eradicated when one of the men stepped towards him with gun drawn.
"Okay, Tanner, keep your hands where we can see them."
Ezra paused a moment, at first thinking that Vin had somehow materialized in the stables, but he soon realized the unkempt looking man was referring to him.
A small smile graced the handsome gambler's face as he slowly turned around his hands kept away from his body. "Gentlemen, I'm afraid you're mistaken, I'm not this Tanner. My name is Standish."
"Sounds like a fake name to me, what do you think, Clay?" Jay exclaimed as he continued to point his gun at the conman. An older gentleman stood just outside the doorway keeping a look out for any intrusion and letting his partner take the lead, he just shrugged.
"It is not a fake name," Ezra stated taking offense. He had used enough phony names in his life and was now pleased he could openly acknowledge his family name. "My name is Standish and I don't know anyone named Tanner." Ezra stressed as he calmly moved away from Chaucer's stall, trying to keep his horse out of any potential gun fire.
"Shut up. We're wasting time. Just tie him up and put him on his horse," Clay directed, he was getting nervous, afraid someone would walk in interfering with their bounty.
Ezra noticed Jay's sudden indecision and quickly spun around putting a support post between himself and the gunmen at the same time pulling his Remington. Jay quickly ducked behind a hay bale and fired, his shot going wide.
"Damnit, Jay!" Clay hollered as he stepped inside the stables. Ezra fired a warning shot at Clay trying to drive the man back outside. He thought he could make a run for it out the back entrance. "Alright Tanner, it'll be easier to bring you in dead," Clay snarled and fired as he darted inside an empty stall.
"Where the hell is the law in this town?" Ezra murmured as he took another shot at Jay, forcing the man to the ground.
Clay peered over the top of the stall, a bullet finding its mark between his dark eyes. Ezra thought he now had a chance to make a run for it. He turned in time to see a rifle butt coming for his head. Ezra crumbled to the hay-strewn floor.
"Well, it's about damn time, Tyler!" Jay exclaimed as he cautiously stood up from behind the hay bale, his hair and clothes covered in bits of straw.
"Sorry, had to make sure he didn't see me too soon."
"Damn," Jay said as he examined Clay who stared sightlessly up into the barn's rafters. Tyler stepped up to his partner. "Shoot. Cal ain't going to be happy about this."
Jay wiped a hand down his face. Why couldn't these bounties be easy? Maybe Clay was right. They should have just shot Tanner and be done with it.
"Check him for weapons," Jay suddenly ordered.
Tyler stripped Ezra of his jacket and removed the derringer rigging on his arm placing it in one of Chaucer's saddlebags thinking they could sell it later along with the horse. "Damn, this man is a regular arsenal," Tyler noted as he pulled Ezra's pistol and grabbed the Remington from the floor, eyeing the beautiful weapon and placing it in his waistband. He toed the unconscious gambler, wondering if he hit him too hard. Blood slowly flowed from the gash on the side of his head.
"Well," Tyler grunted as he tried to lift the unconscious gambler. "At least we now only have to split the money three ways." Jay helped his partner lift Ezra over his horse. Chaucer eyed the men warily, but stood his ground. "Yeah, but Clay was a good man, never caused any trouble and did what he was told," Jay replied.
"Okay, boys, what the hell are you all doing?" came a gruff voice. Jay and Tyler turned to see the Sheriff of Byers in the doorway, his gun drawn.
Jay threw up his hands. "Whoa there, Sheriff. We're bounty hunters and this here is Vin Tanner. We have a wanted poster on him." Tyler carefully pulled the folded up poster from his breast pocket and handed it over to the sheriff.
"See, it's all nice and legal," Tyler explained.
The Sheriff looked at the poster, then at the man draped over the horse. He didn't think there was a resemblance, but he knew these posters were rarely accurate in their depiction. He then noticed the dead man.
"What happened to him?"
"Just the hazards of the job, I'm afraid," Jay sniffed. "Tanner just added another notch to his gun. Too bad he can only hang once," Jay quickly defended to the Sheriff.
The Sheriff considered the two men before him. He knew the type, out for an easy profit with no thought to the individual they were taking in. If he decided to check on things, he would have to deal with a dead body and a wanted man. The poster stated that the murderer had to be brought to Tascosa. He didn't want to go all the way to Tascosa.
"Okay, I want your mangy hides out of my town, now," the sheriff suddenly stated. "Don't want no trouble or paperwork."
"Sure thing, Sheriff. No problem." Jay grabbed Chaucer's reins and started to move him out of the stall.
Both bounty hunters froze thinking the Sheriff had reconsidered.
"What are you all going to do about that?" The sheriff pointed at Clay's body.
Jay and Tyler glanced at each other. "Ah, well, we were hoping maybe you could take care of him, Sheriff."
"I ain't no undertaker."
"How about we make it worth your while?" Jay pressed.
"Well, Clay's horse is the bay out back and you can have it and all the tack. That should cover any burial and leave some extra for you," Jay volunteered. Jay glared at Tyler before the man could object.
The Sheriff pulled at the loose skin under his chin considering the man's offer. Hell, he could just bury the man outside of town somewhere in the desert "Okay, what's his name so I know what to put on his tombstone? Did he have any family?" "Only knew him by Clay," Tyler offered.
"Don't think he had any kin," Jay added.
The Sheriff just shook his head a little sadden to hear that, but it made it easier. No one would be looking for him. "Git out of here and never come back to Byers, ya hear?"
Jay and Tyler quickly left the the stables with Chaucer in tow.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, guys, get a load of this!" JD excitedly said as he entered the saloon and sat down at the table with Vin, Buck and Chris.
Buck grabbed the telegram from his young friend's hand ignoring JD's annoyed expression. "It's from the sheriff in Byers. Isn't that where you just came back from, Chris?"
Chris nodded as he took a sip of his beer.
Buck slumped back into his chair. "Damn, looks like some poor sap is on his way to Tascosa," Buck said as he glanced over toward Vin. "It says Bounty Hunters captured Vin Tanner in Byers."
Vin eyed his mustached friend hoping this was a joke. Chris took the telegraph and read it for himself. He saw Vin's shoulders slump as the young tracker stared into his beer.
"Ain't your fault those hunters are idiots and can't read a wanted poster," Chris exclaimed as he threw the wire on the table. He knew this hurt Vin and he knew the tracker would blame himself. Why did the Sheriff feel it was necessary to announce this? Probably hoping for some kind of recognition or something.
"They'll just take him to Tascosa and find out it isn't you," JD tried to ease Vin's conscience.
"Unless they decide to bring him in dead," Vin quietly muttered. This brought silence to the table. Vin's stomach clenched and a shiver went up his spine. "JD, you still have that recent wanted poster on me?"
"Yeah, it's at the jail."
"Could you get it?"
"Sure, be back in a minute." The young lawman raced out of the saloon.
"What's wrong, Vin?" Chris asked, not sure why his friend wanted to look at his poster.
"Don't know. Just got a bad feeling is all," Vin stated as he swirled the remaining beer in the bottom of his glass.
"Damn, you're getting as bad as Josiah and his crows," Buck stated as he leaned back in his chair. "Vin, you know Chris is right. It ain't your fault. There's nothing you could've done about it anyhow."
"So, shit just happens?"
"Well, yeah…" Buck admitted.
Chris knew that his friend was not convinced. The three men sat quietly nursing their beers as they waited for JD to return. Vin's thoughts turning to his previous life as a bounty hunter and how his once proud name was now nothing but a source of trouble.
JD entered the saloon with poster in hand.
"JD, read the description," Vin asked.
"Wanted Dead or Alive for the Murder of Eli Joe in Tascosa. Vin Tanner is of medium height with long hair," JD paused and furrowed his brow as he continued, "Usually found in the company of Chris Larabee."
Chris sat up straighter in his chair suddenly realizing what had Vin troubled.
"Hell, you don't think…" Buck started.
Vin glanced at Chris. "Did you an Ez pal around in Byers?"
Chris leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table, Vin's bad feeling settling into his own gut. "Yeah, we had to make sure all the papers and finances were in order and, like I said, we were actually getting along."
"You don't think…nah, you think it might be Ez them hunters took?" JD pointed out. "But Ez don't have long hair."
"Hair can be cut," Vin countered. "That much money, Hunters will only see what they want to see and if'n they know what Larabee looks like…"
"Shit," Buck quietly replied. He was trying to convince himself that it couldn't possibly be Ezra, but his gut was telling him otherwise.
"Buck, Vin, you're with me. We're heading back to Byers," Chris suddenly ordered as he pushed the chair back and stood. "JD, I want you to wire the sheriff and see if you can get more info. And send one to Ezra in case he hasn't left yet. He's not due back until later today. We'll check the telegraph office when we get to Byers. Let us know if Ezra gets home. Hopefully, we'll meet him on the road."
Chris hoped that Ezra would decide to test the limits of his patience and not return for another day. It was one of the conman's favorite pastimes irritating the hell out of him.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, Cal, we got 'im," Tyler shouted to a tall, lanky man stooped over a campfire. Cal threw the stick into the fire and stood up as the two bounty hunters dismounted.
Cal peered past them. "Where's Clay?
"Well there was a bit of trouble and Tanner got him," Jay explained. "Had to give up his horse to the sheriff to smooth things over."
"Damn." It was hard to get loyal men. "Well, at least you got him."
Jay reached up, grabbed hold of Ezra's waist band and pulled him from his horse, allowing the conman to crumble to the ground without making a sound.
"Damn, he ain't dead, is he?" Cal complained.
"Nah, he ain't dead, at least not yet," Jay remarked. "Probably deserves to be after what he did to Clay."
Jay reached down to haul the man to his feet. Ezra suddenly sprang up and swung his fist hard into Jay's jaw, knocking the man onto his backside. He grabbed onto Chaucer's saddle, but his arms were grabbed and yanked back. Chaucer pranced away from the fracas, but also wanted to stay by his owner.
"HOME!" Ezra yelled as he struggled within the Bounty Hunters' grasp, his arms being forced behind his back.
Chaucer reared and turned, relieved to be given the order to escape the commotion. He quickly galloped out of the camp.
Jay stood and planted his fist into Ezra's mid-section several times. This was the second time this guy had forced him to the ground. Cal and Tyler let Ezra drop to the ground and Tyler landed a severe kick to Ezra's side hearing the crack of a rib.
"Damn, this son of a bitch has cost us a man and now another horse. I sure hope he's worth it when we get him to Tascosa," Jay spat, rubbing his knuckles.
"Don't worry. $500 between just the three of us and maybe we'll be able to talk the law into compensation for Clay, and time and effort," Cal said.
Ezra gasped as he tried to regain his breath. He hurt all over, but managed to prop himself up on an elbow. "Sir, who do I have the displeasure of meeting?"
Cal chuckled. "I'm Cal Waters and these are my men. We're Bounty Hunters."
"Well, as I've informed your compatriots I'm not Tanner," Ezra continued. "You all are wasting your time."
Cal just smiled. "Sure you are and I guess it's our time to waste. And since you now don't have a horse I guess you'll be walking to Tascosa."
Ezra inwardly groaned. He hoped Chaucer made it back to Four Corners and the others were able to figure out what had happened. It would take a week to walk all the way to Tascosa. Lord, his legs ached just thinking about it.
Cal looked over to Jay. "Tie his hands and let's get going we still have some daylight left."
+ + + + + + +
It was noon and Ezra had been forced to walk for the past three hours. He was grateful that the clouds had decided to take pity on him and cover the worst of the sun's heat. A long rope tethered him to Jay's horse and several times it was yanked as Jay tried to make him lose his feet. He knew the man would not stop if he did. His head pounded and he couldn't draw a decent breath without causing pain.
The three bounty hunters pulled up their horses and Ezra eased himself to the ground. He needed the rest. He watched as the three men pulled out their canteens.
"Bet you could use a drink about now," Jay asked as he took a swig from his canteen and waved it at the distressed conman.
Ezra licked his lips, but stared daggers at the man.
"What's your name?" Cal suddenly asked. He wasn't a hundred percent sure this was Tanner, but if he could get the man to say he was it was all the same to him.
"Standish," Ezra snarled.
Tyler laughed, "Damn stubborn cuss."
Cal smiled and capped his canteen as Jay tugged on the rope forcing Ezra to gain his feet then urged his mount forward.
Ezra plodded along, trying to keep his mind busy and off his growing headache, the pain in his chest and aching feet. They had been walking now for two hours and had stopped twice. Cal had asked again if he was Tanner and he again reiterated that he was Standish. The second stop he was given water so that he would stay on his feet.
Ezra's shoulders sagged and he glared at the three bounty hunters' backs. His wrists were rubbed raw from the rope and he had to keep wiping sweat from his eyes. He didn't know how much further he could go and with every passing hour, his thoughts of rescue diminished. The others probably would wait another day before searching, figuring he was on a hot streak on the tables or didn't want to get out of bed. Chris would assume he was testing his infamous lack of patience, although the two contrary men had bridged some of their differences over the past few days.
"So, Tanner, think you can make it all the way to Tascosa on foot?" Jay taunted.
Ezra straighten, and glared back at his antagonist. "For the last time my name is Standish, even someone as irrational and ignorant as you can see I spark no resemblance to this Tanner fellow."
Tyler hooted. "Hey, Jay, I think he just called ya stupid."
Jay frowned. He was getting tired of this man's obstinacy and backtalk. An evil grin formed on Jay's haggard face. He spurred his horse into a gallop, jerking Ezra to the ground and dragging him along the desert floor.
Ezra yelped as he slammed against the ground and then screamed as the hard desert soil ripped apart his shirt and flailed his arms and torso. A sharp pain tore through his leg as something sliced a long gash down his thigh. He twisted at the end of the rope, the earth clawing at his raw skin.
Tyler and Cal caught up to Jay as he pulled his horse up, looking over his shoulder at the meandering trail left by his pull toy. Jay laughed manically, and faced forward, eager to go again. Ezra wasn't moving.
"Damnit, Jay, I don't want to cart a corpse all the way to Tascosa!" Cal shouted, grabbing the bridle of Jay's horse in case he decided their bounty needed more of a lesson.
Jay spat and said, "He deserved every moment of it. You going to lie to me again, Tanner?" he shouted.
Cal frowned, "Tyler, get down and check him."
The younger Bounty Hunter casually slid off his horse and walked over to the prone man. The body was dust covered and the once white shirt was in tatters. He was bloody all over from where the dragging had torn his skin. Tyler rolled the conman over and placed two fingers alongside his neck. He looked down the length of Ezra's battered body seeing the deep gash on his thigh, where blood was flowing freely, puddling under him. He grimaced at the red rawness of his flesh.
"He's still alive, but busted up pretty good. He's bleeding real bad, too. Gonna bleed out."
"Well, stop it. Don't want him dying yet. He'd be real ripe by the time we got to Tascosa," Cal stated.
Tyler walked to his saddlebags and pulled out a dirty shirt, ripping it in half as he made his way back to the tortured man. He quickly wrapped the shirt around the abused leg and pulled it tight trying to stop the bleeding. The thought of smelling a corpse all the way to Tascosa was making him ill.
Ezra groaned through dust covered lips and Tyler quickly brought his canteen to Ezra's mouth. "C'mon, pal, have a drink. You need to stay with us for a little longer."
Ezra managed to take a couple sips of water and then started to cough as the liquid started to wash away the dirt in the back of his throat.
Tyler sat back on his heels bringing his hand to his chin. The wound was still bleeding into the bandage, but it had slowed. "Don't think he's going to last much longer." Tyler looked up at his boss.
"Well that's just great!" Cal glared at Jay. "Looks like we're setting up camp here and first thing tomorrow you're heading to the nearest town and get us another horse."
"What? That'll cost money!" Jay blustered.
"Yeah, and it's coming out of your half of the reward, unless you want to ride with a dead body over your saddle all the way to Tascosa," Cal clarified, a small smirk on his face.
"Shit." Jay knew he had no choice. He looked over at the motionless man and didn't think he'd last the night. Damn, this bounty was definitely not worth all the trouble.
+ + + + + + +
Vin, Buck and Chris had slowed their horses, allowing them to breathe. They had made good time and hoped to be in Byers in a few hours. The tracker had barely said two words since they started out.
Buck nudged his horse alongside his oldest friend's. "You need to talk to him pard. He put himself into a world of despair."
"And say what, Buck? He's going to blame himself no matter what I say."
"And if anything happens to Ezra?" Buck asked.
Chris looked over his shoulder at the man he considered a brother. "We'll just have to be there for him and try and convince him that it ain't his fault."
"You'll be the best one to help him. You know what a name can cost you," Buck reminded.
Chris pushed his hat back on his head and glared at his friend. "Yeah, I do. We ain't going to let that happen. We're going to find Ezra and he better damn well be alive and well."
Vin's thoughts were in turmoil. He couldn't believe how worried, no scared, he was for Ezra. How devastated he'd be if his name caused the death of one of his friends. How would the others feel about him, knowing he was the cause of losing their enigmatic gambler?
Chris slowed his horse and allowed Vin to come up alongside.
"We'll find him," Chris suddenly stated.
Vin pressed his lips into a firm line. "Yeah, but alive?" Vin wiped a hand down his face. "This is my fault," the tracker quietly acknowledged as he kept his eyes on the bobbing of his horse's head.
"No, it ain't. You can't control what them Hunters do."
"Don't matter. They wouldn't be after Ez if'n I wasn't around." Vin took an unsteady breath.
"If'n that's so, then I'm as much to blame as you," Chris said.
Vin shook his head. "If we weren't friends, this wouldn't have happened."
"Vin, Chris, this ain't either of yours fault. Ez wouldn't blame you all, so you need to stop blaming yourselves," Buck snapped, he didn't want his two friends heading down that path of guilt. It had taken him years to drag Chris out of his personal hell after the death of his family.
Vin peered over at the ladies' man. "He wouldn't want to be dead either, Buck."
Vin pushed his horse ahead leaving his two friends behind. He needed to be alone. He was starting to think he needed to get used to being alone again.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra shivered as the evening cooled. They left him just outside the range of the fire with only his hands tied in front of him. It didn't really matter. He was so weak and his body throbbed in concert with his leg. The desert breeze would carry grains of sand across his raw and abused body allowing him little rest. He reached down and tried to pull the makeshift bandage tighter bringing an agonizing streak of pain that forced him back to the ground. The bleeding wouldn't stop. He knew he was dying. He hoped that Vin never found out why he was taken. He knew it would devastate the sensitive tracker. He and Vin had started to grow close, and Ezra was getting a taste of what it was like to have a brother, six if he was honest. A lone tear slid down his face. It wasn't fair, to get a taste of something only to lose it too soon.
Jay glared at the conman from the fire. He was frustrated that he couldn't get the man to admit to being Tanner. And he was angry about losing a partner and two horses, and now he would have to pay out to get another horse just to carry his dead body. He pulled his knife from his side sheaf and started using it to move the wood within the fire sending up sparks of light. A wicked smile creased his face as he laid the large bowie knife within the flames.
+ + + + + + +
"I was hoping we would've met Ezra on the trail by now," Vin stated as he pulled up his horse.
"Don't know how we could of missed him on the trail," Chris added.
"Maybe he's still in town," Buck hoped.
"We need to head towards Tascosa," Vin abruptly said.
"What?" Buck asked.
"What 'cha thinking Vin?"
"If Ezra is still in Byers he's okay, but if them Hunters have him they're on their way to Tascosa now."
Chris looked out past the distant horizon as if he could see his lost man and know what was happening. "Vin's right. Even if we miss him he'll head back to Four Corners. We can ride toward Tascosa and stop at the next town and wire JD."
"Alright, then," Buck announced as he turned and spurred his horse into a gallop, Vin and Chris right behind him.
Jay picked up the heated knife turning the red-hot blade in his hand. He then casually walked over to where Ezra was tied. He kneeled down in front of the suffering man.
"Gonna cauterize him?" Cal asked
"Nope," Jay responded, smiling in anticipation.
Ezra opened one eye to gaze at the maniacal bounty hunter who stood over him.
"So what's your name?" Jay sneered, kneeling down and raising the red-hot knife in front of Ezra's face.
Ezra tried to push himself up, but didn't have the strength.
"You're a worthless piece of shit," Jay growled. "Cost me probably more than you're worth, so I might as well get some pleasure. What's your damn name?!"
Ezra stared impassively at the knife his mind failing to grasp what Jay was planning. He would not give in, not give this man what he wanted. Ezra finally managed to force himself up onto his elbow and glared at Jay. "Standish, you moronic asshole," Ezra hissed. 'Damn, maybe the others were right, he was a stubborn cuss', Ezra mused bringing a small smile to his face.
Jay guffawed and pushed Ezra down, shoving one arm across his chest, and using his weight to hold down his legs. Then, smiling still, he laid the hot blade on the side of Ezra's torso.
Vin, Buck and Chris pulled up their horses as the scream echoed off the surrounding hills.
"That sounded like…."
"It came from back there," Vin speculated as he quickly turned his horse and headed toward the source of the tortured scream the other two men following his lead.
+ + + + + + +
Jay removed the knife as the smell of burning flesh assailed his nostrils. He smiled as Ezra withered in pain, tears streaming down his face. But Jay held him in place. Ezra could not escape. His body shook and he was unable to draw in a decent breath of air, taking shallow gasps through his mouth to try and manage the horrific pain.
Cal and Tyler ignored the gruesome tableau, returning to their dinner. Cal promised that it would be Jay who would have to lead the horse with Tanner's body. He and Tyler would definitely stay upwind.
Ezra was slowing gaining control of his body just as Jay rested the still hot knife on his abdomen. Jay never got to hear Ezra scream as a bullet passed through his skull. His eyes froze and his body slowly folded to the ground.
Tyler pulled his gun as three men exploded into their camp. Chris shot Tyler's hand, sending the gun to the ground.
Vin leapt from his horse, his mare's leg pointed directly at the head of Cal Waters. The bounty hunter dropped his gun as if it were on fire and quickly threw his hands into the air.
As soon as Buck saw that the two remaining men were under control he dragged the dead man a few feet away then crouched down next to Ezra laying a hand on his chest. He tried to ignore the burns on his friend's body.
"Buck, is he alive?" Vin ground out, his teeth clenched tight as his eyes and gun never wavered from Cal's head.
Cal Waters knew the next words spoken would decide his fate.
"Buck?" Chris repeated.
Buck bowed his head as he felt the slight rise of his friend's chest and the tremors that raced through his tortured body. "Yeah, but he's in a bad way." Buck pulled his knife and cut through Ezra's bindings grimacing at the deep furrows around his wrists.
Chris pulled out a pair of shackles and forced Tyler to the ground, his knee on his back. He restrained him, then moved to Vin who still held tightly to his gun.
Chris laid a hand gently on the tracker's tense shoulder.
"Vin, we need someone to pay," Chris said.
"Vin, you're Vin Tanner?" Cal stuttered.
"Shut Up!" Vin growled. He never wanted to kill someone so badly. Chris waited, allowing his friend to make the only decision he could. Vin slowly lowered his gun and stepped away to join Buck. Chris immediately shoved Cal to ground and in the same manner as Tyler, restrained the bounty hunter.
Buck snaked an arm under Ezra's shoulders. The body shuddered to life, and tried to jerk away in an agonized reflex. Buck smiled, despite the tightness in his throat. "Hey, buddy you in there?" Buck asked, trying to keep the despair out of his voice.
"Buck?" Ezra croaked out, his mind trying to believe who he was hearing.
"We got ya, pard."
Vin used his rifle to lever himself down beside his wounded friend, growing weak at the abuse done to the cardsharp's body. Buck was trying to get Ezra to drink a little water, but the gambler was only semi-conscious and most dribbled down his chin.
"We need another bandage his leg is bleeding bad and by the looks of him, he's lost too much blood already," Buck said as he eased his friend back down and tried to get a look at the injured leg.
Chris overheard and detoured back to his horse and saddlebags. He pulled out a clean shirt and ripped it in half as he made his way over to his friends. He glanced at the two bounty hunters, his fierce look making it known that any movement on their part would be met with dire consequences.
"Here." Chris handed Buck the cloth and then knelt down beside the conman. He rested a hand on Ezra's forehead feeling the heat of fever. Ezra managed to open his eyes and, although his sight was blurry at best, he knew his friends had found him. He could feel their concern. He would not die alone.
"Take it easy, Ez. We'll take care of you," Chris assured.
Ezra's mouth quirked into a small smile. Buck pulled the bandage tight on Ezra's leg causing the man to gasp and fall unconscious.
Vin rested his face against his rifle, fighting the tears that threatened to run down his face, he stared hard at what Ezra had been put through. They all could see he had been dragged and something had sliced his leg, half his face was covered in blood and he was so pale he could have disappeared into the sandy soil. Buck tied the other half of Chris' shirt around Ezra's head wound.
Chris stood and removed his hat to allow a cool breeze to comb through his hair. It was growing late. They'd never make it back to town and he didn't think Ezra would last out here. There was also the possibility that Nathan and Josiah were still at the Seminole Village.
"Okay, Nettie's place is closer. Vin and I will take him there. Buck you head to the Seminole village and get Nathan. We'll do what we can for him till you get there."
"What do we do with them?" Buck asked as he stood.
Chris' first thought was just to leave them to starve and for the animals. "We'll take them with us to Nettie's. They'll just slow you down. We're going to need to go slow with Ezra in any case."
Buck looked down at his friend, hoping it wasn't going to be the last time he saw him. He quickly turned and raced off to his horse.
"C'mon, Vin, let's get going," Chris prodded. He was worried about the tracker's mindset at the moment.
"If he dies, Chris, I'm killing them," Vin quietly spoke.
Chris pressed his lips into a hard line. He wasn't going to argue with his friend now, he wasn't sure he wouldn't help him.
+ + + + + + +
The red half glow of the sun sent long shadows across the desert. Vin held Ezra close as they plodded slowly toward the small cabin that sat alone on the wind-swept prairie. Chris ponied two horses with the hunters secured to the saddles. Chris had finally tied a handkerchief around Tyler's wounded hand, it was that or shoot the young man to stop his complaining. The two Bounty Hunters then decided to remain silent during the long ride, which probably saved their lives. Ezra never made a sound and Vin had to keep checking to be sure he was still alive.
Chris pulled his weary horse up to the hitching post and quickly dismounted. He pulled the two bounty hunters off their horses and secured them to the post railing as Nettie and Casey appeared on the porch. Nettie handed her shotgun to Casey. "Oh, merciful heavens, what happened to him?!" She exclaimed as Vin nudged his horse closer to the house. Casey's eyes were wide with horror at the state of the normally handsome gambler.
"Here, ease him down," Chris said as he held out his arms.
Vin eased his tortured burden down into Chris' strong arms. Nettie rushed ahead and opened the door. "Put him in my room."
Chris grunted as he turned to one side and made his way to the back room. Nettie was quickly at his side pulling down the quilt. Chris eased his burden down onto the bed.
"Buck is on his way to get Nathan," Chris said as he rested a hand on Ezra's head.
"Well, we better make sure he has a patient to tend to then," Nettie replied as she took in the ill-treated gambler. "Casey get the stove going and pots on." Nettie turned when she heard Vin enter and paused for a moment at his total look of desolation. "Vin, we need lots of water to put on the stove and bring me a bucket of cold now."
Vin continued to stare at Ezra then left the room. Nettie looked toward Chris for an answer but he only shook his head. He was glad Nettie was taking over he was having a hard time thinking straight. It had been a long-drawn-out and distressing day. He had feared that Ezra would expire during the long slow ride.
Nettie began to pull off Ezra's boots feeling the tightness. "Lord his feet are swollen."
Chris moved to help. "I think they had him walking a long ways."
"Those two yahoos you have tied up outside responsible for this?"
"Well, as soon as you get them boots off, I need him stripped down," Nettie ordered. "I'm going to get some salve and bandages and we need to get some water down him and get him cleaned up."
Vin scowled at the bounty hunters as he carried in two pails of water. If Ezra died he would kill the two men hoping that Larabee stayed out of his way.
"We are dead men," Tyler whispered. A shiver ran down his spine as he felt the rage that was emanating off the tracker like a demon thing.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stripped Ezra of what remained of his clothing. He had to cut the pin-striped pants to ease the material away from the bandage on his leg. The full extent of Ezra's injuries were now visible and sudden rage boiled up as he took in the inflamed and bloody flesh of his friend, wondering if the genteel man would survive. Chris released a shaky breath and calmed his anger as he laid a sheet over the gambler's legs and waist. Ezra was made of sterner stuff -- they all were.
Vin stepped into the room and paused. A lump stuck in his throat as he took in the violently abused and torn flesh of his friend. Ezra's torso looked and felt like it was on fire. He placed the bucket of cool water beside the bed and circled around to the other side. Vin sat and took hold of the lax hand hoping to let the conman know he was not alone. Vin knew one of Ezra's greatest fears was dying alone.
"Damn, Chris, look at him," Vin sadly stated. "It'll be a miracle if he survives." Vin's eyes watered and he squeezed them tight. The troubled tracker could see dirt and sand embedded in some of the wounds that were already swollen and inflamed.
"Miracles happen all the time, Vin."
"How can he forgive me for this?"
"It's Ezra. He will. You can't beat yourself up about this. Ezra needs you, he's going to need all of us to get through this."
Nettie rushed in her arms laden with bandages and various bottles and a cup of water. "Mr. Larabee, we're going to need more firewood to keep the stove going. Mr. Jackson is going to need plenty of hot water when he gets here." Nettie hoped she could keep the gambling man alive, she truly feared for his life. She glanced over to Vin and knew if they lost the charming conman they could lose Vin as well.
Chris nodded and walked out to do as instructed. He knew Vin and the frontier-woman held a special bond and hoped that Nettie could help Vin see that he was not responsible for the injuries put upon the wily conman.
Nettie threw a clean rag into the nearby bucket and then handed a cup of water and spoon to Vin. "See if you can get some water into him."
Nettie gently removed the bandaged from Ezra's head. She was glad the wound was not still bleeding, but it was caked with dirt. She retrieved the wet rag and began to gently wash off the blood and dirt from the worst of the wounds. She'd seen men dragged before most didn't survive. She was determined that Ezra Standish would beat the odds.
"This is all my fault, Miss Nettie," Vin softly spoke, staring at the cup of water in his hand.
Nettie froze in her administrations and gazed at the young tracker who she thought of as a son. "I'm sure you have nothing to do with this."
"Those are bounty hunters out there. They thought Ezra was me because he was with Chris up in Byers," Vin explained.
Nettie bowed her head trying to think of what she could say to ease the man's guilt. She realized that only Ezra could aid in that. "I'm sure Mr. Standish will not blame you."
"That's what everyone keeps telling me, but it doesn't stop me from blaming myself."
Nettie knew she had to say something to pull the young tracker out of this false belief of culpability. "Now we don't have time for any guilt trip. Right now we need to keep him alive. One thing I've come to know about Mr. Standish is he sees whats-what, and understands the plain hard truth of things. He's not going to blame you, so you shouldn't blame you," Nettie sternly stated, hoping to get through to the repentant tracker. She continued to wash the dirt from Ezra's chest mindful of the burns and scrapes, heedful of the nasty bruises. She laid a cool cloth over the two burns to clean and cool them before putting some salve on them. "He might have a broken rib," Nettie added as she pressed gently on his side. Ezra moaned and turned his head to the side, it was the first sign of life in hours.
"Ezra, do ya hear me? I need to get some of this water into ya before you dry up. Just open up a little," Vin coached placing a spoonful of water to Ezra's mouth. Vin smiled as the water slipped past the conman's lips and down his throat. He was able to get almost the whole cup of water into Ezra before he fell more deeply unconscious.
Nettie placed a hand over Ezra's heart. "Lord, he's lost a lot of blood and he's hotter than a tea kettle." She wrung out a rag and placed it on Ezra's forehead trying to cool the growing fever.
"What else can we do, Miss Nettie," Vin asked taking hold of Ezra's hand.
Nettie looked down at the dirty bandages wrapped around a swollen blood covered leg. "We need to see what we can do about this here leg. I'd rather not remove that bandage, but it's filthy."
Vin lifted Ezra's leg as Nettie carefully pulled away the bandages. The last one stuck to the blood soaked leg and, as she pulled, blood started to boil out.
Vin quickly grabbed a towel and pressed down on the open wound trying to staunch the flow. The towel quickly drank in the life giving fluid. Vin thought he could actually see Ezra fade away even more. Ezra gasped and his eyes snapped opened only to placidly slide shut.
"Damn, it ain't stopping!" Vin yelled out his frustration and fear as he applied all his weight to the gash. Nettie forced another towel over the one that was almost soaked with blood.
Casey and Chris rushed in upon hearing Vin's shout. Casey placed her hand to her mouth, tears watering her eyes and threatening to spill down her cheek. Everyone knew they were watching a friend slowly die and were helpless to prevent it. Tears unabashedly flowed down Vin's face as he frantically tried to stop his friend's bleeding. Chris suddenly raced out to the kitchen. He eyed the poker sticking out of the wood stove. He grabbed the heated rod and ran back into the room. Chris shoved Vin aside, pulled the towels away and laid the searing poker onto the open wound.
Ezra screamed and his back arched as the blood and flesh sizzled.
"I'M TANNER! I'LL BE TANNER!…STOP PLEASE STOP!"
Chris removed the poker noting that the bleeding had stopped. He swallowed hard at the smell of burnt flesh and staggered back as Nettie moved in wiping a cool rag across the tormented man's face, talking softly to him.
Vin dashed out of the room.
Ezra's eyes were vivid, searching the room, not sure where he was. His breaths came out in short sharp gasps as he tried to come to terms with the pain racing up his leg and throughout his body. His hands shook as they grasp the blankets beneath him trying to siphon off the agony that threatened to push him over the edge of sanity.
"Shhhh…it's over, it's over. Rest now," Nettie soothed, placing on hand on the side of his face trying to let him know he was safe. She wiped away the sweat beading up on Ezra's face her heart breaking as she watched the suffering man try and come to terms with the pain.
Chris ran a trembling hand down his face as he leaned against the wall the poker still loosely held in his hand.
"Mr. Larabee maybe you should sit down," Casey gently said as she took the cooling poker and laid it aside.
"Casey, hand me that glass of water," Nettie asked.
Nettie snaked an arm under Ezra's head. "Here, Ezra, you need to drink."
Ezra's eyes struggled to focus on the frontier-harden woman. He parted his lips to allow the water to pass through. The cool water felt good going down his throat. Nettie paused a couple times giving the conman the chance to catch his breath, but she worked until the whole cup was empty then gently laid Ezra back down.
"I'm going to let you rest," Nettie soothed as she ran her hand through Ezra's sweat drenched hair and watched as his green eyes disappeared behind heavy lids. She never thought she'd ever care for the self-absorbed, greedy conman or that he would ever fit in, or stay on past his thirty days. She had recently discovered the gambler had a heart when she spotted him fixing granny B's home after a storm. Now, seeing the cultured southerner suffering she was glad to be proven wrong. Ezra Standish did belong and she was determined he would survive.
Chris had sunk down into a chair and watched as Nettie cared for the injured gambler. Ezra was the most difficult to know or trust, but over the past couple months Chris and the others were slowly seeing glimpses of the real man behind all the pomp and circumstance. A man who shared a strength of heart with the others, but also hid all his insecurities behind a glib smile and smart-ass mouth. Watching Nettie, Chris believed she too had seen the true nature of the man who once wanted to charge her interest on a loan. The thought of losing the enigmatic conman was tearing a hole in his gut.
"I need to go check on Vin," Chris tiredly said.
"Go, we'll take care of him," Nettie replied, as she again picked up a wet rag and continued to clean Ezra's many wounds. She knew they would have to use alcohol to knock down the infection, but for now she just wanted Ezra to rest and have some peace.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had raced outside, trying to rid his mind of Ezra's suffering. He paced and circled around the water trough trying to sluff off his growing frustration and despair. His head resounding Ezra's words, 'I'M TANNER!' The smell of burning flesh remained in his nostrils and the image of Ezra's tortured body shaded his vision. He'd seen terrible things done to men throughout his life, but none had affected him so profoundly as seeing a friend so brutalized because of him. He knew it would be the same if it had been any of the others. They were all brothers, not by blood but by choice.
Suddenly, his eyes locked onto the source of his anger and guilt. He had a target. Vin launched himself onto Cal, his fists slamming into the Bounty Hunter's face. Tyler tried to distance himself as much as possible from the wild tracker's frenzied attack. Vin's hands wrapped around Cal's throat and began to squeeze. Chris stepped out on the porch to witness Vin's attack. He took a moment, not sure he wanted to stop the enraged tracker.
"Vin, let him go," Chris wearily said.
Vin continued to squeeze seemingly unaware of anyone else. His sole focus on the the man who had tried to destroy his family, his friend.
Chris grabbed Vin's arm and tried to pull the tracker off. "Vin, enough, let him go." Vin would not relent and Cal's face was going from crimson to a dark shade of purple.
"Damnit Tanner, Ez wouldn't want this let him go now!" Chris bellowed.
Vin growled and released his hold, pushing himself away.
Cal coughed and sputtered trying to force air into his deprived lungs. "That…son..of…a..bitch…tried to kill me," Cal gasped out, his nose and mouth leaking blood. Tyler was able to reach in his front pocket and produced a handkerchief for his partner and boss.
"Shut up or I'll let him finish," Chris snapped.
"Hey, we were just doing our job," Tyler cautiously stated. "We thought he was Tanner."
Chris glared at the young bounty hunter. "Don't give you the right to torture a man."
"That was all Jay," Cal coughed as he pressed the handkerchief to his nose.
"Well, you should have double-checked because the man you took and brutalized is a lawman, deputized by Judge Travis."
The color leached out of Cal and Tyler's faces as the two men realized they could hang for the death of a lawman. Cal swung his shackled hands at Tyler. "You idiot! You kidnapped a Lawman!"
The night passed slowly for the pain-ridden conman as well as for the friends working to keep him with them. Ezra's fever continued to rise and Vin and Chris had to hold him down more than once as pain and fever invaded his dreams. They had encouraged Nettie and Casey to get some rest telling them that Nathan would need them in the morning.
Chris splashed water on his face from the bucket he drew from the well trying the wipe the bone-weary, dead to the world feeling from his body. The sun had barely crested the horizon. He had given the two shackled bounty hunters each a biscuit and some water to curb their hunger. He had noticed fresh bruises on each of their faces. Chris smiled as he wiped his face dry--Vin had disappeared several times during the night while caring for Ezra. Chris breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing a wagon and a couple horses suddenly materialize. He greeted Buck and JD as they pulled up their horses in front of the house. Worry and fear evident on their faces as they dismounted.
"He's still alive," Chris assured. "But he ain't good."
Buck released the breath he'd probably been holding since he left. He looked over at the two Bounty Hunters tied to the railing and noticed Cal's colorful visage.
Buck chuckled, "Who messed him up?"
"Vin, and he wanted to do a whole lot more than that," Chris stated as Josiah pulled the wagon up to the cabin.
"Is Ez going to be okay?" JD suddenly asked.
Nathan jumped out, bag in hand anxious to see his patient. He ignored the two shackled men, even though he thought one probably had a broken nose. Josiah was quick on his heels.
"I think only Nathan is going to be able to tell us that," Chris stated as he followed after the healer.
Chris, Buck and JD stepped into the room as Nathan was taking Ezra's pulse and checking his wounds. He was shocked at the damaged done to the wily conman. Josiah stood silently his hands clenched into fists at his side.
"Had to do it, wouldn't stop bleeding," Chris explained as Nathan examined the cauterized leg wound.
Nathan nodded. He could tell the wound had been deep and might have cut an artery. He was worried that Ezra might have already lost too much blood.
Vin quietly stood just outside the room. He watched his friends hovering around the bed and in the spaces between them Ezra's naked torso, his gut sucking in with each labored breath. Vin slipped into the room and returned to the chair beside the bed, taking up Ezra's hand, hoping to convey some of his strength to the weaken man. JD had paled at the sight of the sophisticated gambler. He had never seen another human being so violently abused and the fact that it was one of his friends made it worse.
"Those men outside the cause of all this?" Josiah abruptly asked. Everyone looked toward the preacher whose massive size seemed to have increased with his growing anger.
"I killed the one who dragged and burned him," Chris answered. "But them two had a part."
Josiah's face darkened and he rolled his shoulders. He had grown fond of the gentleman gambler and his heart squeezed in his chest at Ezra's ravaged body.
"You can teach bible class later, Josiah, I need you here," Nathan ordered as he began to pull herbs and medicine out of his bag. Nathan didn't need more patients to tend or bodies to bury.
"We got some water in him and I put salve on his burns," Nettie explained. "Can't seem to get his fever down."
"It was good you all brought him here. He probably would've died before he reached town," Nathan explained. "You did good by him, Miss Nettie. I'm going to have to use some alcohol to knock out this infection and I have some herbs that should help with his fever."
Nettie smiled even as tears welled in her eyes. "You all are my boys, even this fancy pants peacock." Nettie rested a hand on Ezra's shoulder.
"So, Nathan, how is he?" Chris warily asked.
"He's lost a lot of blood, maybe too much. The body shuts down if there's too much blood lost. We're going to have to watch that leg wound and make sure it doesn't get infected. I may have to reopen it if that happens."
"So what do we need to do?" Buck asked, eager to help in any way.
Nathan looked up at all the expectant faces. It still at times amazed him at the faith and trust these people had in him. He knew even Ezra trusted him. He wasn't sure there was anything they could do, but he needed to give his friends hope and maybe Ezra would surprise them. "I have to sew up some of these cuts," Nathan quietly mentioned as he removed a bandage and examined a laceration. He knew the head wound would need to be stitched closed. Nathan noticed that Vin had been especially quiet his whole focus with the man on the bed. "Vin, why don't you try talking to him? See if you can get him to come too." Buck had explained to them what had happened and how Vin was blaming himself. Nathan knew he had to keep Vin busy so he wouldn't lose himself in guilt.
Nathan turned his attention to the others in the room. "I'm going to make a poultice for his leg. We need to keep all these wounds clean and I need to get some medicine in him to help fight the fever," Nathan explained. "We have to give him something to build him up whenever he's conscious."
"I already have Casey making up my special egg nog. It helped my sons whenever they were sick," Nettie added.
"That will help if we can get it down him, maybe also some beef broth. He's very weak and it's going to be a struggle for him."
"Josiah I'm going to need lots of hot water."
"I'll see to it, Nathan."
"Ez, do ya hear me?"
Everyone's attention was drawn to the soft question. Vin wiped back the hair from Ez's face and observed eagerly as the pale brow creased in pain. Ezra's eyes fluttered a moment and his head turned toward the sound of the familiar voice.
"C'mon, Ez. It's time to wake up," Buck pleaded, he badly needed to see the gambler awake to dispel some of his growing fear.
Nathan grabbed a wet cloth and wiped it across Ezra's eyes.
"Hurt," Ezra breathed out.
"I know, Ez. Open your eyes and I'll give you something for it, okay?" Nathan urged. He reached for his bag to pull out a bottle of laudanum.
It took all of Ezra's strength to open his eyes. He felt so weak and his body was unduly heavy. He managed to look around the room and see the pleased expressions on his friends' faces. He frowned as he looked into Vin's worried visage. "Okay?" He quietly asked.
Vin shook his head and forced a smile. Ezra was hurting and looked like a herd of cattle had trampled him, yet he was asking if he was okay. "Yeah, pard everything will be okay as soon as we get you back on your feet," Vin assured.
"Ez, we need to get fluids in you," Nathan interrupted. "You've lost more blood that a man should." Chris grabbed a glass of water as Vin raised the conman up by this shoulders mindful of his injuries. Ezra gasped as his ribs pulled and he gripped Vin's arm tight. Chris gently placed the glass to his lips. Ezra managed to swallow half the water.
Nathan handed Chris the bottle of laudanum. "Here you go, Ez, this will help with the pain."
Ezra managed to take a healthy dose of the opiate and Vin eased him back down, resting his hand on the gambler's forehead.
"You work on getting better it's all you have to do," Chris ordered.
"Someone's going to have stay with him at all times and get water in him whenever he wakes up," Nathan instructed as he pulled the comforter up to the sleeping gambler's neck. The healer hadn't realized how much he had come to care for the exasperating southerner.
"I'm going to see to the horses' then get more water on," Josiah stated, glancing at the quiet form before leaving.
"JD, I need you to watch over the prisoners," Chris said. JD frowned and was about to protest but then changed his mind and left. There wasn't much he could do for Ezra and he couldn't stand to see the man in pain.
"Vin I need you to get some rest," Nathan said. He could tell the tracker was near exhausted and probably hadn't eaten. He looked toward Chris hoping the gunslinger could convince the tracker to rest.
"Vin, let's go. We all need to rest if we're going to help Ez," Chris urged. "Nathan don't need no more patients."
Vin glared at the gunslinger but slowly stood. "Be back soon, Ez."
As the laudanum took effect Nathan and Nettie worked quickly to apply a poultice to the leg wound and used alcohol to clean up the gash on Ezra's head, and tend to the other wounds. Nathan sewed up several of the gashes. He constantly checked the gambler's heartbeat. "He seems to be holding his own." Nathan pulled a blanket back up to Ezra's chest and was about to sit down when he felt Nettie's hand on his arm.
"I'll sit with him for a while," Nettie said. "You go and get something to eat."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan joined Chris, Vin and Buck in the small area kitchen where Casey was preparing a stew. Vin stood apart his lean body resting against the wall his head down.
"He's strong Vin, we just need to help him fight for awhile," Nathan said placing his hand on the tracker's shoulder. Vin raised his head and nodded his thanks.
Screams and the angry neigh of a horse sent all four men rushing outside. Tyler and Cal were cowering as far back as their restraints would allow trying to avoid the gnashing teeth and sharp hooves of the horse that pawed the earth in front of them.
JD and Josiah appeared having heard the commotion from the barn.
"Hey, it's Chaucer," JD happily stated. Chaucer still had on his saddle and was making a concerted effort to stomp the two Bounty Hunters into the earth.
Buck scratched his head. "How the hell did he know Ezra was here and that these two varmints hurt him?"
"It's Chaucer," Vin simply explained.
"Animals know evil when they see it," Josiah added, not in any hurry to rescue the two men. He was rooting for Chaucer.
"Damnit, git this loco horse away from us!" Cal yelled, having to pull his legs closer to his body to avoid them being stomped.
Chris smiled. "JD, get Chaucer."
"Alright, alright." JD calmly stepped off to the side of Chaucer making sure that the horse spotted him before he cautiously moved up and stroked the animal's neck. His hand slowly moved up to the bridle as he talked calmly to the outraged equine. "C'mon Chaucer let's git you taken care of. Ez will have a fit if he sees you in this condition." Chaucer snorted as JD gently drew his head away, when the two men were no longer in his scope of vision he allowed the young sheriff to lead him toward the barn.
"Vin, go help JD take care of Chaucer," Chris instructed. He knew the horse would need care after wearing a saddle all this time, maybe giving Vin something he could fix would help mend his spirit.
"Larabee, you got to get us out of here. It ain't safe," Cal suddenly stated. Between the sharp angry glares and fists of the lawmen and now a crazy horse, Cal and Tyler truly feared for their lives.
Chris glared at Cal. "You ain't going anywhere til we know about Ezra." The dark-clad gunslinger stooped down so he was face to face with the lean bounty hunter. "You hurt one of mine. If he dies I'm dragging your bodies out to the desert for the vultures or I may just let Chaucer have another go at ya." Chris callously whispered.
Cal swallowed a lump that had formed in the back of his throat. Tyler had noticeably paled. Both men slumped back resigned to their fate.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan, Josiah and Nettie worked feverishly on the injured gambler. Nathan prepared teas to help with the pain and broth and egg nog were prepared to help build up Ezra's body. Someone was always talking to him letting him know he was not alone and not to give up. More often than not it was Vin. Ezra's fever grew with each passing hour and everyone helped in bathing and keeping him cool and his wounds clean. Nathan was thankful that the leg wound seemed to be healing with no sign of infection.
Ezra's fever finally broke the evening of the second day, but he had yet to awaken. Nathan had told the others that with the blood loss and pain it would take time for Ezra to regain his strength.
It was early morning, the sun having yet to make an appearance. Nettie found herself sitting in her rocker next to the sleeping conman. Vin's head rested on his arms on top of the bed next to the sleeping gambler. She smiled sadly remembering her own lost family, but realizing she had acquired a whole new one. Her niece and the seven gunslingers who slumbered within her walls were becoming her new family. She began humming an old lullaby that she had sung to her sons when they were babies.
The pain was still there but muted. Somewhere in the nothingness Ezra heard a sound and wanted desperately to reach it. He moved closer and could hear that someone was humming a lullaby, it reminded him of a time long ago. Once, when he was very young and staying with a distance Aunt, he actually felt cared for and loved. Ezra's eyes fluttered open, at first confusion filled his sight. He turned his head to see Nettie Wells smiling fondly at him. Ezra, hesitantly, returned the smile.
"Ez?" The gambler rolled his head back to see Vin looking happily at him. "How you feeling, pard?"
Ezra thought a moment. His body ached and felt weak, but the fiery pain that had encompassed his body seemed to be gone. "Tired, but better."
The lines of stress eased on the tracker's face. He lifted his friend's head as Nettie brought a cup of water to his lips.
"Thank you. How long?"
"You've been pretty much out of it for three days," Vin said.
Nathan slipped into the room upon hearing the voices. He grinned when he saw Ezra awake and alert. "Stay awake, Ez, we need to give you something more to build up your strength." Nathan handed Nettie a cup of Egg Nog.
Ezra licked his lips as Nettie removed the glass.
"Delightful," Ezra exhaled.
Nathan smiled. "Well let's see how it tastes with a little laudanum."
"Mr. Jackson, do you have to defile such a wonderfully delicious beverage?"
Nettie and Vin chuckled as they watched Nathan grin and add the opiate to the remainder of the nog.
Ezra just closed his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
Chris glared at the two shackled men noticing all the bruises on each of their faces. He knew there were even more hidden underneath their clothing. Like the others he had restrained himself just short of murder. He'd noticed the dangerous look in Josiah's eyes and doubted the huge preacher would be so inclined. He would need to get these men to the jail or risk finding their broken bodies. They were lucky, Ezra had woken and it appeared the gambler had once again beaten the odds. He was going to need lots of care but should make a full recovery.
"JD, Buck you need to take these two back to town and wait for the Judge," Chris said as he untied the two men. He yanked them both up to their feet. "If by some miracle you escape the hangman and get out of jail you better never touch one of my men and that includes Tanner or I'll hunt you down and stake you out with your innards spread out on the desert floor."
Both men vigorously nodded in compliance as Buck took hold of the rope a malicious smile stretched across his handsome face.
"Git them there alive, Buck."
"Sure, Chris, whatever you say," Buck responded, pulling the two men towards his horse. "But, don't mean it's going to be easy. You all are walking back to town and we're taking the scenic route."
Chris smirked at the bounty hunters' groans, realizing their suffering was still far from over.
+ + + + + + +
Nettie had insisted that the gambler remain till he was stronger so Nathan headed back to town to collect more supplies. Josiah remained to keep hot water available and make sure that Ezra stayed in bed. Chris decided to go back to town to ensure the two bounty hunters remained alive.
"I'm leaving Ez," Vin said.
Ez struggled to lever himself higher in the bed. Vin quickly assisted then sat back down.
"Are you going back to town?"
"No, I'm leaving Four Corners, leaving for good." Vin kept his head bowed, fingering the fringe on his jacket.
"Why? Ain't that obvious? Look what happened to you cause of me." Vin stared at the conman. "You were nearly killed."
Ezra remained quiet for a moment. He could sense his friend's anguish. He never blamed Vin.
"Mr. Tan….Vin this could have happened to any one of us…" Ezra started.
"Ez, if I wasn't 'Wanted', or didn't know you all this wouldn't have happened."
"Really?" Ezra snorted. "There are quite a few persons who would rejoice in my demise and I'm sure there are even more who would take great pleasure at dragging Mr. Larabee's carcass across the desert."
"Ain't the same," Vin quietly replied.
Ezra continued, ignoring Vin's denial. "Then there are probably more than a few husbands who would love to get their hands on Mr. Wilmington and there are certain individuals who would hang Mr. Jackson just for the color of his skin. We all know Mr. Sanchez has a dark past that will probably catch up to him someday and JD…" Ezra paused a moment. "Well, he is a sheriff. And as I was saying this could have happened to any of us for any number of reasons. But I'm alive because all of you were there for me, that includes you Vin."
Vin shook his head as he stared down at his hands. Ezra reached out and laid a hand on Vin's arm garnering his attention.
"Vin, we…all of us are meant to be here, at this time, to help each other stay alive and to help others. We're a family."
Vin's eyes widen at this admittance. It was the first time Ezra had actually claimed them as family.
"Don't tell me you're starting to believe in Josiah's destiny notion?" Vin questioned.
Ezra leaned back into the pillow. "Near death experiences have a way of changing a person's views," Ezra replied as his eyes slowly closed. "You can't leave--none of us can," Ezra quietly added as a small knowing smile broke across his face.
Vin grinned and quietly left the room only to find Nettie standing just outside the door.
"See, what I tell ya, he knows whats what."
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