The Next Day:
Sippin' Whiskey II

by Heather

ATF Alternate Universe

Sequel to Sippin' Whiskey

Disclaimers: Don’t own ’em no money made.

Rating: PG (language)

Spoilers: Don’t think so, there are some quotes from episodes.

Thanks: to Wendy, Mitzi and Dina


ONE

Ezra Standish stood at the kitchen sink watching the snow fly. He leaned his arms stiffly against the cold metal rim trying to discern his next course of action. The wind howled ominously rattling the window panes. It was early morning, not his time of day. Dark moisture laden clouds obscured the sun. Ezra was curious if the sun would ever come out again. The way fate manipulated the cards lately, probably not. He watched the Aspens bend and lean against the wind almost to the point of snapping. He silently wondered, how much those white barked trees could take before they buckled under the stress. He peered over at a growing white mound near the barn. His Jag. His only means of escape. Not even his feet would spirit him away from this entrapment. He hung his head between his shoulders, gathering his wits, getting himself ready to face the others, to play the game. Larabee’s small modest ranch had become entombed in barrage of wind whipped snow. The city had practically shut down, hell the whole state. Alanta looked pretty good right about now. Standish smiled bitterly, jumping out of the frying pan into the fire would get him nowhere. Alanta had nothing for him. His immediate future appeared bleak, he was a prisoner in a house with six wardens. He had empathy for the Aspens.

"Ey’ Ez you all right?" Vin Tanner limped into the kitchen. He and Chris had watched the man of chance leave the barn, braving the weather to reach the house. The sharpshooter and leader had waited patiently for Standish to come into the living room, but after a prolonged time they knew they waited in vain. Chris without having to say a word sent the tracker into the kitchen. Tanner could not help but continue to wonder who was being conned, himself or the others. Standish was cagey on a good day, and these last couple had fallen under the auspices of rotten.

Standish stood with his back to the living room door. The well dressed gambler had been reduced to wearing borrowed clothing. They hung loosely off him, but between the other six they were able to outfit him for the winter blizzard. Through the whole ordeal ,last night, Ezra never complained once, never offered his typical satirical opinion on the collage of clothing thrust at him. Instead he smiled politely, spoke his gratitude and retired for the night back in the barn. The apartment did after all have a warm bed, something the main house was lacking, now that six men bunked within it. Vin ,suspected, the comfort lay in the solitude. The gambler’s bruises had yet to fade.

Vin smelled a con, but who? It was no secret Standish hurt, in all sense of the word. Vin, Nathan and JD did as well, but their discomfort arose from the mistreatment from a common enemy. Standish suffered at the hands of friends.

Vin could not help but notice the involuntary stiffening of muscles when he spoke, breaking the oppressive silence.

He waited a brief second and Standish turned around a dimpled smile plastered on his cleanly shaven face. He showered last night in an attempt to avoid the rush this morning. The smile was there, sincerity seemed lacking.

"Everything is fine Mr. Tanner." A short pause and the smile slipped just a bit and continued, "if one can over look the tempest that has imprisoned us here."

Tanner sighed pulling out a kitchen chair scrapping in slightly on the hard wood floors. His ribs and arms were still very much sore from the ordeal they endured the other day. "Yeah it doesn’t look like it’s gonna break anytime soon does it?"

"Are you asking me?" Ezra leaned back against the sink facing out into the room. Copper pots and pans hung from hooks over the counter to his left. A black iron skillet clung to a nail protruding from the aged bricks just below the pots. The refrigerator refused to hum, it’s life line cut by the intensity of the storm. The generator would supply only so much juice. A built in oven surrounded by fired bricks sat nestled in the wall left to the sink with a dishwasher embedded under the counter. The kitchen was not only functional but Sarah’s presence still had a strong hold. Embroidered pot holders hung from assorted nails near the stove and oven, trinkets still graced the kitchen sink window sill. Larabee did not strike Standish as a ‘trinket’ collector.

"Weather prediction is not my forte, Mr. Tanner. I would have wagered you more of a connoisseur in that department." Ezra stated without malice. Just conversation, keeping up the front. Was he mad at the men who formed this tight working team? No ,of course not, how could he be, they protected their own fiercely, without hesitation. Jealous? that seemed closer to the truth, he mused. When things flew apart, when disaster struck, the others scrambled to protect one another. Buck constantly sought out JD, Chris and Vin never far apart and never without each other’s back up, and Josiah and Nathan forever shadowing each other, taking glances making sure of the others safety. Ezra did not mind, never really did, he thought.

He was number seven, lucky number seven, though he did not believe in luck he did believe in stacking the deck. He stacked the deck with the best of his ability kept the others at a discreet distance, ensuring his own safety and theirs with his aloofness. He knew the others would back him up, he had no doubt, as long as their partner’s safety was assured. Buck always called out for JD first, as Chris did Vin and Josiah did Nathan, or visa versa. They never left Standish out, just included him in the end. Ezra found it touching they included him at all, that was his undoing.

When things went awry and mishaps occurred the finger pointing started. With noone to defend him, Ezra stood alone and took the pointed stares or off remarks, without comment or ire. It just became one more stone added to his fortified defenses. Sometimes one of the others would come to his defense, always as an after thought , always with quiet tones, but sometimes noone did, sometimes he suffered a guilty verdict because he was Ezra. Or so he thought. The other night he was tried, convicted and hung without any chance of defense. Their loyalty to him only ran as deep as his supposed actions. No benefit of the doubt, no learning curve as so often granted to JD, nothing. Standish had been able to run from the brutality of the group in the shack only to face a more severe judgment and punishment at the unforgiving hands of his teammates. It was the way of life, the way the cards fell, it had always been that way even before he joined Mr. Larabee’s team. He should not have suspected anything different. The fact that he had, only drove home how naive he had truly become, how comfortable he had become and as a result got burned, burned badly. His fault really noone else’s. He knew better, Maude had taught him, Mr. Larabee and the others just reiterated the lesson for him. A lesson he was sure not to forget anytime soon. He held no malice but his heart still ached. The familiar loneliness seemed to much to bear, a familiar burden. He did not wish to carry that yoke any longer.

Being angry at them would get him nowhere, six against one did not leave the odds in the houses favor. Acting out on the hurt only gave him a hell of a hangover. He chose the next best solution, play the game, hedge his bets and stack the deck. They wanted forgiveness he gave it to them. He would not, however, divulge his trust. The bruises and physical aches would fade away, his left eye had already started to open. The churning of his guts the burning in his chest, at the memory of Josiah, Buck’s and Chris’s anger, still felt like a physical blow. He would get passed this, remain with the team, he had nowhere else to go, no other options. Vin’s question echoed in his mind, ‘ are you all right?’ No, he was not all right, his world had been shaken again, his faith stomped on, and it hurt, it physically hurt and he had no idea how to ease the pain. He wanted out, wanted off this blasted mountain, away from the camaraderie the others bestowed on one another. He wanted his solitude and his deck of cards, he wanted very much to be left alone.

TWO

Vin sat in the kitchen watching him. Ezra knew he would not beable to find his solitude ,not with these six men, they would continue to push until they assured themselves forgiveness was at hand. And it was, he did forgive them, they loved one another as brothers. Brothers protect each other fiercely from the brutality of the outside world. How could he fault them? He kept them out as much as they kept him at bay, it was neither here nor there, a miss understanding, deal with it.

"Yeah well the weather in Denver does whatever it wants." Tanner smiled helplessly and opened is arms in greeting, "Welcome to Colorado." His simple explanation was met with a short laugh.

The kitchen doors swung open as Buck and JD pushed their way into the room. "Hey Vin," JD said noticing the tracker right off, "oh, hey Ezra." JD paused and then added, "ain’t it a little early for you?" The kid made his way over to the refrigerator hoping to scarf the last of the orange juice. There was only a bottomful left. Dunne lifted the carton and started to gulp down the last of it when he stopped and sheepishly turned to the others. "Anyone want some OJ?"

Collective ‘no’s echoed around the room.

"So Ezra what’s for breakfast." Buck asked elbowing Vin in the upper arm.

" I’m not sure what would you like?" Ezra asked with a concerned expression on his face. He steeled himself for the day. Masked his trumped cards, shuffled the deck and got ready to deal. Today was going to prove to be long game.

Buck glanced at Vin with raised eyebrows. Tanner could only smile. He wondered if the other shoe would drop now. Everyone loved Buck, he was bigger than life, and lived life to it’s fullest. Sometimes, however, he put his foot in a trap and snared himself before noticing the warning signs.

Tanner had finally decided Standish was a stick of dynamite with a dwindling fuse. Vin wondered if Buck was going to be the match.

"Well heck Ezra whatever you’re gonna have." Buck said smiling pleased he had escaped kitchen duty once again.

Standish nodded, turned around and filled a glass of water and placed it before the lady’s man. Ezra smiled and resumed his position against the sink. JD smirked and Vin did not bother trying to disguise his amusement.

Buck gazed down at the water and then over at the sharpshooter who merely raised his eyebrows, then back to the undercover agent. "This is it? You call this breakfast?" Buck said indignantly. He shook his head with exasperation. He really did like Ezra. He just did not understand the southerner. The man was a walking puzzle. Buck tried to figure him out, tried to reach him, in his own fashion, but Ezra eluded him. Wilmington never had problems making friends, never had difficulty reaching people until now. Standish parried all his attempts and seemed to enjoy doing it. Buck had finally decided to take the gambler at what he saw, independent and aloof. That was just fine with Wilmington not everyone could have his sparkling personality he only wished he understood the conman better. "Didn’t you know breakfast is the most important meal of the day?" Buck asked incredulously.

"Yes, I remember Josiah saying something about that along time ago." A devilish smile crossed the conman’s face and added, "it’s to early for breakfast."

" Ya eat breakfast in the morning Ezra." Buck pointed out simply, "it’s morning now."

"Your powers of observation are astounding Mr. Wilmington," Ezra sipped some coffee, "you never cease to amaze me."

"Who’s amazing?" Josiah asked filing into the kitchen behind Chris and Nathan.

"Oh Buck," JD answered lounging against the refrigerator, "he just figured out it’s morning."

"Good for you Buck," Chris said very seriously, "then you can make breakfast."

Wilmington groaned audibly and buried his head in his hands. Ezra slid on past Chris and patted Buck on the shoulder, "I like my eggs over easy, and bacon crisp."

Buck snapped his head up, "What? I thought it was to early for you to eat!"

Ezra merely raised his eyebrows and smiled devilishly , "I guess I lied."

Before Standish could exit the kitchen into the living room. The outside kitchen door suddenly burst open. Out of the snowy gale stepped three snow covered men. None in the house moved, greetings died on their lips as they spied the automatic weapons. The storm had finally encroached and encompassed the inner sanctum of the seven.

"Loaded a little heavy for hunting aren’t ya?" Larabee asked. He noticed JD’s shocked expression quickly switch to panic. The kid recognized the men. Dunne inched away from the refrigerator putting as much distance from the intruders and himself. There was safety in numbers and JD wanted nothing more than to be next to Buck.

"Not for the kind of prey we’re after?" The third man in spoke. The threesome wore white winter camouflage outfits. Though mother nature hit the area with everything she had, it seemed these men were unaffected by it. They moved as a synchronized team. An economy of motion, no energy wasted, they removed their head gear and lowered protective neck covers, never allowing the business end of their weapons to stray from the group of men.

"What would that be?" Josiah asked. He too noticed the reaction in JD, but the boy merely mirrored the same response of Nathan, Vin and even Ezra. These three intruders were the men that had delivered such hardship on the ATF members. Buck, Chris and Josiah had managed only to offer the other three respite from their captors hands now it seemed they fell right back into them. Sanchez took a protective step infront of the healer partially shielding him from the danger before them. JD managed to stand behind Buck and Vin, seeking comfort in the men around him. Josiah laid a supporting hand on the boy’s shoulder. The preacher could feel the taut muscles quivering. JD was scared.

Sanchez peered over his shoulder at the gambler. Standish stood partly separated from the group. Unlike JD he made no move toward the others. Josiah easily read the trepidation in the southerner’s bruised face. He was unsure, for Ezra that equated itself with fear. Sanchez turned back and glanced at Larabee, but his mind wandered to Standish. The gambler did not move closer to the team, he felt safer on his own. Had he always felt like that? Maybe in the beginning, but as time wore on Josiah felt confident they had managed to pull the gambler into the fold, one of the family. The other day had been the undoing, safety nolonger existed within the group, infact Josiah imagined, the southerner feared the six, almost as much as he feared the guns pointed at them now. It was a different kind fear which indeed produced a very different kind of pain. He forgave them but he no longer trusted them. Josiah wondered how things had gone so wrong so fast.

"Ahh you must be the preacher man." The third man spoke again. He moved forward. Even if he did not hold a gun Larabee marked him as a dangerous man. He moved quietly almost as if stalking forward. The other two gunmen discreetly moved aside, fanning out smoothly better coverage.

THREE

"Of course." Standish deadpanned. His day had definitely taken a turn for the worse. First Larabee had woken him up when feeding and watering the horses. The man made more noise than a marching band. Now this, he just escaped from these miscreants a few days ago. Fate and Lady Luck really played an underhanded game. Ezra felt a knot in his stomach. He feared for JD and Nathan and Vin. JD the most, however, he was just a kid. His birth certificate might have said he was in his twenties but his innocence and trust made him terribly younger. Dunne did not deserve nor should he have to endure this. Thankgod Buck was here this time to protect him, or at least comfort him.

The leader eyed Larabee with a scrutinizing gaze. The man was his counterpart, almost his equal. They were rivals with similar abilities. The leader of the threesome had studied this quiet man infront of him for months. The best way to break Larabee was through his men. They had started the process a few days ago, so close to Larabee’s house, that was the point. Damage his family when he could have just reached out and saved them. Poetic justice, it would have destroyed the man. Then the unforeseen had happened, one of their quarry had escaped and gone for help. The best laid plans of Mice and Men... the leader redirected his gaze to the southern man slightly away from the group.

Strange, the undercover agent had facial bruising, he had directly ordered his men to leave that ones face alone. He wanted something left for Larabee to easily recognize and remember when he found his dead men. He would take that up with them at a later time.

"Ahh so your the slippery one." The man purred out eyeing the smaller man, "hear you run like a jack-rabbit". The Colonel’s tone mocking. The team, he knew, referred to Standish as the ‘gambler’ last to join the group, last to develop ties. The gunmen had not meant to grab him but uncharacteristically Wilmington had not been at the kid’s side when the abductions occurred.

Standish merely raised his eyebrows and bit his tongue. He held a losing hand.

Larabee silently hoped Ezra kept his mouth shut. It seemed unlikely but with no snappy reply forthcoming Chris started believing in miracles.

The three gunmen ushered the seven into the livingroom. There hands were cuffed behind their backs and they were forced to sit on the floor beside the fire place under the picture windows. Chris sat closest to the giant stone piece, Vin beside him, staring defiantly up at his captors. Tanner bristled at being captured a second time. Beside him sat Ezra, leaning against the wall as if tired of the whole proceeding. Next to him Buck ,who protectively shielded JD with a shoulder. Dunne kept his mouth shut, proof of his fear. Nathan sat beside the kid nudging the kid behind him with his shoulder offering him what little protection and reassurances he could. They had both been here before and dreaded what came next. The cast on JD’s arm did not defy the cuffs but the additional pressure put an incessant ache on the fractured limb. Josiah sat with Nathan on one side, trying to shield his injured friend from the forces before them, and the outside door on the otherside.

"You mind telling us what’s going on?" Chris asked. His anger and frustration held in check. It would not do his team any good to loose it now.

The three gunmen had split up. The leader held his gun pointed directly at JD. He knew this would keep everyone in line. The other two gunmen had disappeared only to reappear shortly. "Sir communication have been permanently disabled, as well as the vehicles and their CB’s." The second man reported in coming back in from the kitchen, "electricity is being furnished by a generator. Well pump is working, and there is enough supplies to last us out the storm.

"Good work." The leader stated and turned his attention to the Larabee. "Mr. Larabee, let me introduce myself."

"Well at least he has some manners." Standish muttered out annoyed. One of the gunmen purposely strode up to the sarcastic conman and kicked him solidly in the chest. Ezra’s body was forcefully smashed into the wall the air wooshing from his lungs. He slid sideways to the floor.

"Do not interrupt the colonel when he’s speaking." The young man bellowed out, making sure the gasping man heard him over his fight for breath.

Standish curled up on his side shutting his eyes wondering if his lungs actually stuck to his ribs like deflated, flattened balloons or if it just felt that way.

"’Ey! Leave’im alone!" Buck hollered back enraged trying to scramble to his feet. Noone hit one of his family.

The gunman made a move to strike him but the ‘colonel’ stopped him, "That’s enough for now sergeant."

"Easy Buck." Chris intoned softly. He would extract the proper revenge when this was all over. "Ezra you alright?" Chris was forced to wait a few moments before he heard the forced but satirical, "never better Mr. Larabee." This brought a half smile to Chris. Standish despised authority, bad manners, and worst of all bad cheaters. The threesome before them fit two out of three. He hoped Standish could keep his mouth shut.

"Now as I was saying, before we were rudely interrupted by Mr. Standish," the colonel stood up, squaring himself to his full height, "I am Colonel Norton," he waited for recognition to flood the faces of his captives. Frustration flooded him as he watched questioning looks pass between the six men. (standish still lay balled up)

"Colonel Samuel Norton."

"You ‘suppose to be famous or somethin?" Jackson asked. The sergeant made a move toward the healer. Josiah forced Nathan behind him, but the Colonel stopped his man.

"It’s alright sergeant that is a fair question." the colonel turned his attention to the black man. Nathan Jackson, ex military medic, chemist, one of the first on Larabee’s team. His Magnificent Seven Team as they had been dubbed by their peers.

"Your Mr. Larabee and I are old acquaintances." Norton turned his attention to Larabee. He found Chris studying his face trying to drudge up a memory. The Colonel smiled when Larabee’s eyes widened and fear momentarily flashed across his features. He remembered. "Ahh I see you remember me now Mr. Larabee."

"You’re suppose to be dead." Chris breathed out. Tanner stared over at his best friend. The tracker could not help but notice the fear in the words and the change of body language. Larabee actually started to draw his legs up closer to his body but had stopped himself. Tanner marveled at his control but wondered what unnerved his friend so much.

"Ahh, yes and so are you, but instead your wife and son paid the price." The Colonel laughed harshly seeing the sudden rage engulf Larabee.

It was Vin who reacted. Tanner hissed out, "you son of a bitch," and nimbly leaped to his feet but before he could launch himself forward the sergeant planted a front kick to exposed ribs sending Tanner crashing into the windows. The tracker melted to the floor ,already bruised and battered ribs finally cracked, and he crumbled in a heap next to the southerner.

"Ah Mr. Tanner I see you’ve been working on your tact." Standish replied through clenched teeth, a rueful smile played on pale lips.

Vin nodded and breathed out quietly, "yeah, well you I couldn’t let you have all the fun, besides you looked so damn comfortable I thought I’d give it a whirl."

Buck made an attempt to move but Chris halted him with a simple shake of the head. Larabee swallowed his anger. If his team was to get out of this alive they needed him thinking straight. Buck and Chris exchanged glances. They had been friends for almost a life time, seen too much carnage and lived through to much damage. Chris knew he would never have survived the loss of his family without Buck. Wilmington nursed his battered soul and body back from the destructive edge and helped get his life back on line. Buck, never failing Buck, mothered him almost as much as he now hen pecked Dunne. Amazing Chris had not killed him earlier in life. So with a simple imperceptible shake of his head Chris asked Buck to wait.

FOUR

Wilmington read Chris’s expression. He would bide his time, wait to see what Larabee had planned. Gawd forbid the colonel attempted to harm JD. Wilmington would throw caution to the wind and kill anyone who hurt his kid brother. For now he redirected his energies. "Ezra? you gonna sit up?" The lady’s man watched the gambler try and struggle into a sitting position. Buck using his shoulder gave him some leverage and helped him up.

"Better?"

"Oh much," Ezra answered with closed eyes. His chest burned. No ribs broken he was sure of that, but damn that hurt, he would probably have matching boot prints. Well something could be said for symmetry. Standish opened his eyes and found Buck staring at him concerned. Ezra smiled and simply said, "thankyou." Two day’s ago Buck acted no different that the sergeant, Ezra just did not understand these men.

"What’s going on Chris?" Josiah asked leaning forward looking down the line to the leader of the seven. Sanchez concern for the group had sky rocketed. This had become very personnel for Chris. When things concerned his family, his brain clicked off and a maniacal rage took over. It did not manifest itself in a flurry of destructive action but instead, cold dead eyes fell into place, the jaw became set and anyone who stood in his way became a potential victim. In that mode, Josiah was sure someone was going to get seriously hurt, maybe even dead. Sanchez had to keep Larabee rational.

Chris did not get a chance to speak instead the Colonel laughed mirthlessly and started in on a twisted tale of vengeance. The seven men listened in hushed silence as Norton, wove an incredible plan of deceit and pain, hoping to leave Larabee a shell of a man. The worst thing being, had it gone as planned it would have succeeded.

With Vin, Nathan, JD and Ezra left for dead in the shack, Chris would have become distraught. Would have blamed himself. The colonel planned on taking out Buck, and Josiah later after the joint funeral. This would have thrown Larabee over the edge. The plot had not stopped there, Mary and Billy as well as the Judge would suffer a similar fate and in the end Larabee would not longer be able to contend with life. When the Colonel finished he smiled pleased with the shocked, repulsed expressions that crossed the features of the proclaimed ATF team.

"Your plan hit a snag." Buck managed to utter out. He watched the anger wash through Chris in waves. Vin still lay curled on the floor, but he too seethed. Buck figured the sharpshooter must have finally broke some ribs. Wilmington remembered Norton now. A sick SOB, from Buck and Chris’s early days together. They were a duo to be hold, held onto life with both fists and took whatever came at them head on. Not that that had changed very much, just tempered, there were consequences for every action. Norton being alive, to carry out his sick revenge was an unfortunate consequence. Larabee had taken down the Colonel’s son, shot the meth. head before the kid could shoot Buck in the back. It had been reported a few days later that Colonel Norton unable to deal with his only son’s death, took his own life. Apparently not.

"Yes, yes it did," Norton stalked toward Wilmington and Standish, pointedly staring at the mustached man, "you were suppose to accompany the young Mr. Dunne." He turned his attention to the southerner, "Imagine our surprise when you showed up instead."

"Yes, imagine." Standish returned, badly concealing his disrespect for assumed authority. The Colonel reached down and grabbed the gambler by the front of his borrowed shirt and hauled him to his thick wool socked feet.

"You will learn show some respect." Norton hissed out, his ire acidly laced his words. This southern man had proven to be more of a problem than inticipated. It riled him that his carfully layed plans were disrupted so easily by such an insolent, insignificant, ill trained person.

"I highly doubt it. " The sardonic drawl sounded almost bored. He had been down this bumpy road countless times before. Being an adult did not bring about the changes and protection a lonely child longs for when frightened and isolated.

Standish saw the blow coming and rolled his head. The fist smashed down on his cheek bone driving molars into the soft tissues of his cheek. It hurt, it always did, always would. Blood filled his mouth and drooled out clenched lips.

The others watched helplessly as Norton rained blow after blow to the gambler’s midsection. In a few seconds he had become winded with his exertion. He allowed the southerner to melt to the floor. Standish crumpled in a boneless heap. Playing opossum sometimes was the best defense.

Norton stood partially bent over trying to get his wind back and recover his composure. He glared at Larabee who met the gaze with a deadly one of his own. "You will pay for your indiscretions, for the death of my son. But we will wait, wait for the Travis’s to arrive. Rest assured they will be here, as soon as the storm breaks. I have seen to that myself." With one last disgusted look at the folded form of the southerner he turned back toward the kitchen.

Buck leaned forward trying to gaze over Ezra’s shoulder. The gambler had landed partially on Wilmington, his head and shoulders rested on the Lady’s man’s upper legs. Vin barely avoided the sliding feet. "’ey pard, talk to me. You in there?" Buck watched the green eyes open and blink, they were glazed and seemingly unfocused.

"Ezra, talk to me Ezra?"

"What," the soft thickly accented voice softy asked, "would you like me to say?" Buck watched him close his eyes and try to control his ragged breathing. Wilmington glanced over at Chris and nodded reassuringly, Standish was going to survive, for now. He turned his attention back to the southerner, "you sure do have a way with people, don’t you?"

There was a painful chuckle and a quiet, "It’s a gift." A slight pause followed by, "you want it?"

"Oh no, Ez it’s all yours." Buck chuckled, trying to offer comfort to man who would not normally accept it.

JD finally found his voice, "Hey Ezra?" Dunne waited until he saw Standish flex his neck slightly in the direction of the young man. JD smiled and asked, "you learn anything?" there was soft laughter even from Ezra.

"As usual with these kind of lessons, No." Standish relaxed the best he could not bothering to move off of Wilmington’s legs. The presence of another body brought some comfort to him. It struck him as strange but he did not try to figure it out. He hurt and had been hurt before but now someone offered consolation, where was that comforting presence a life time ago?

+ + + + + + +

Larabee surveyed his men. It had been over three hours since the Colonel had taken them captive. Even handcuffed and threatened the men had begun to get restless. JD had begun wiggling his feet back and forth. Nathan tried persistently to get a look at Standish and Tanner but both men obstinately refused. Vin had managed to sit up, but Chris could tell some ribs must have snapped. Standish had eventually sat up he remained tight lipped. Buck passed his time talking to JD and sending furtive glances to Chris. Josiah leaned calmly back against the wall as if nothing bothered him. Larabee knew better, the giant man had the patience of Job and would act only when the proper time dictated.

Chris had feared Sanchez would jump the gun when the Colonel had taken his anger out on the southerner. Josiah could become very old testament when one of the seven became the target of violence. Especially the conman, Josiah watched over the younger man almost paternally. Larabee had never been able to fathom why. Standish did not acknowledge it nor did he welcome the attention, but as typical with Josiah he cared little for what others thought. Larabee realized the only time Josiah stood by and condone the violence was the other day. Chris knew it was not lost on the cardsharp.

FIVE

The sergeant sat on the couch facing the men. The colonel and the other gunman had retired to the kitchen for sometime. Chris glanced back at the gambler and then to the soldier, a plan quickly forming in his mind. He gently nudged Vin, "I need to talk to Ezra." Tanner merely nodded, his face taut with anger and discomfort. The sharpshooter despised any form of confinement.

"'Ey Ezra Chris needs to talk to ya." Vin whispered not facing the southerner. With peripheral vision he noticed the subtle nod.

Ezra shimmied himself up against the windows. "Sit back down!" The sergeant barked out, jumping up off the couch. Standish, in apparent haste side stepped over Tanner and fell back down next to and on top of Larabee, all the while keeping his eyes fearfully on the guard. Tanner scooted over sidling up next to Buck, creating room for Standish near Chris. Vin wanted very much to rip the soldier’s head off with his bare hands. Larabee having the wind knocked out of him by the stumbling conman huffed out, "Real gracefully done Ezra."

The sergeant saw the fear in the southerner and smiled. A few blows and the coward already shied from him. It felt good. "You best stay put or I’ll teach you another lesson." The sergeant glared meaningfully down at the conman doing his best to look intimidating. He slowly backed away taking his seat on the couch.

Ezra silently wondered if the neanderthal infront of him ever had to face an icy glare from Larabee or Judge Travis. Those Standish had been privy to many times, and still they sent fear down his spine. This idiot looked just like...well an idiot. Ezra diverted his defiant gaze.

The other four men watched the exchange. Buck knew something was up, a plan was forming, he just wished he was party to it. Josiah and Nathan leaned forward trying to get a better glance at the threesome down the row causing all the trouble wondering what they were upto. JD prayed Ezra would not get himself killed doing something stupid.

Chris waited a few minutes and then started, "How ya feelin’ Ezra?"

Ezra did not turn his attention to his boss, "Surly Mr. Larabee you did not risk more brutality on my person to inquire about my health?"

"Shut up Ezra and answer the question." Tanner intoned softly but firmly from the otherside of him.

Ezra shook his head those two were always in cahoots with one another.

"I’m fine." Standish answered Chris’s inquiry not hiding his annoyance.

"Good, you think you can pick these cuffs?" Larabee asked watching the closed kitchen door trying to discern what was transpiring behind it.

"What do you think?" Standish returned suddenly very wary. This conversation sounded very familiar.

"Shut up Ezra and answer the question." Vin again. The damn man could not answer a simple yes or no question.

"Yes." Standish answered slightly peeved. It was always two against one or more, never one on one.

"Good your gonna make a run for it and get help." Chris smiled when the conman dropped his cool facade and faced him with an astonished expression on his bruised face.

"Like hell I am." All mannerism dropped. It was a flat hissed refusal, no room for discussion.

Chris made room. "Yes you are. You’re gonna get free of those and run for help."

Ezra tried another tactic. He had done that escape and run for help before. It did not turn out as well as he had hoped. Someone had turned the tables on him, and he paid the price. Now the ante had been raised, six lives lay on the table waiting to see how the cards fell. Ezra did not want that responsibility, he abhorred gambling, and left nothing to chance. Now Larabee was asking him to take the biggest gamble of his life, but it was not only his life on the table but the others as well. He could handle playing the odds to save his own neck he had done that time and time again, but this, this was different. The others were betting their lives on his foot speed, his ability to negotiate the terrain. It was a foolish bet, a bet born of desperation, a bad time to lay anything of value down on a wager. Hell, he did not even have shoes on, and they expected him accept the wager. No, he would not risk six lives on this foolish game. Let someone else play the hand, he knew when to push back from the table, to reshuffle his deck or just change the cards. No, this was not his game, not his kind of con. How could he deal from the bottom of the deck if he did not control the cards? How could he pull the ace from his sleeve if he could not even locate the ace? He had tried this once before, the other day and though he had won the hand and found help, he lost the game. He had lost any faith and trust he might have had in the others. Now Chris wanted to up the ante, put six lives in the pot, and send him out in search of aid, in search of the ace in the hole. Ezra could not even be sure a trump card existed within the secluded mountain top he and the others found themselves. He would try to persuade his misguided leader with logic, "And where would I run to, Denver?" The city lay over 40 miles away. To far to expose a winning ace. " I appreciate your faith in my legs and lungs but that’s abit far."

"Denver if you have to but you should meet a snow plow on the way." Larabee answered matter of factly, his way of ending a discussion.

"Like Hell..." Standish did not bother keeping his voice low. His maddened southern drawl rang out like a thunder clap in the silent room.

The sergeant jumped to his feet. He strode purposefully over the the southerner. "I warned you before." He reached down with a massive hand and hauled the gambler to his feet by the front of his shirt. "Are you stupid!?"

He raised his fist to smash down on the southerner. Three things happened.

First ,the right cuff fell from Standish’s wrist, freeing both hands from behind his back.

Second, he blocked the punch.

Third, Standish’s forehead smashed down on the bridge of the sergeants nose, shattering it. The sergeant was tougher than most men ever dreamed of being, and so Ezra was forced to bring his knee up to the taller man’s groin. There was the sickening sound of crumbling cartilage.

Before anyone knew it, Standish leaped over the downed guard and headed toward the couch for the discarded weapon. He saw the kitchen door begin to open as did Larabee. Standish veered from the couch and sprinted for the outside door.

The colonel pushed open the kitchen door and spotted a body heading out the outside door. His professionally trained eye immediately recorded his surroundings, his mind processed the information and a reaction was created. The automatic weapon was brought up and he fired at his escaping prisoner.

Standish hit the snow running. The relentless wind had whipped the immediate area bare of the powdery stuff. The southerner headed for the forest adjacent to the driveway all the while waiting for the impact of a bullet in his back. He heard the report of gun fire, heard wood splinter under impact. The colonel’s frustrated scream filled the area. Then a single ominous gunblast sounded. Chris’s agonizing scream, "Vinnn!" drowned out everything.

SIX

Ezra came to a stop within the shelter of the trees. He heard Chris. He stared dumbly at the log cabin he had just emancipated himself from. But at what price? ‘Vin’s life, oh God ,not Vin. please God not Vin. Oh no, Oh no, Oh no. What have I done? My God, I’ve killed Vin.’

Standish could not move, could not fathom the depth of his foolish maneuver. He should not have listened to Chris. He should have waited to play his own hand and not force the cards. ‘Oh my god I killed Vin.’

The front door open and the colonel stepped out searching left and right. Standish stood rooted not caring if he would be spotted or not. He killed Vin, ‘my God I killed Vin.’

Then JD’s voice rang out. "Run Ezra! Run!" Standish could make out the dark head in the window. The kid had spotted him, standing like a foolish statue, amongst the pines. "Ruuunnn!" Dunne’s voice rang out. Then his head suddenly disappeared from the window. Replaced by the second soldier. It was enough to galvanize the gambler. He started running.

Ezra Standish ran through the snow bogged forest as he had never run before. His legs pumped and plowed through the snow. His arms waved trying to maintain balance as he burst through drifts scurried under windfalls and over downed trunks. How many times he tripped and fell, the southerner lost count. Each time he scrambled to his feet, pushing himself onward. ‘My god Vin was gone! Run you sonofa bitch, run. You killed Vin you worthless bastard, run!’ He kept running, he never noticed the tears stream down his face or the branches that tore at him. ‘Run you damn bastard! Do something right! God Damn you run!’ He did not stop, would not stop.

He ran downhill from the house weaving his way through the trees unthinking, no planning. He ran, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the carnage back at the house. He killed Vin. He weaved amongst the bull pines hiding from the death and sorrow he created. His ears roared with the pounding of his pulse, his lungs screamed with fiery agony. The freezing air biting and constricting his chest with each breath. His heart felt as if it would explode. ‘Run you sonof a bitch run. You killed Vin.’

Standish broke through the trees and hit a flat tree sparse spot. He ran down it, leaving an easy trail. He had found a road, an unplowed road. It did not matter, he had killed one of the six, as sure as if he had pulled the trigger himself. He had killed the indomitable Vin Tanner. Nothing was going to help him nothing could save him. Fate had turned a cruel hand toward him. Why Vin? Why could it not have been him?

JD’s young voice rang in his head, loud and hopeful telling him to run. There was chance to save the others. If he could move, if he could breath, then they had a chance. He was their ace in the hole. If they had only come to realize that their trump card was no more special than the two of clubs. Whatever he maybe, whatever kind of failure he had become he would finish this, see this through. Standish dug in running straight down the road not bothering to disguise his direction. He no longer feared a inevitable bullet, but almost welcomed it.

Chris Larabee knelt over Vin Tanner. Chris despised the handcuffs that trapped his arms behind his back. Tanner lay unconscious on the floor. The sergeant had struck out at the closest target. Vin. In an insane rage the captor beat the captive. Tanner had reduced himself to rolling in a tight ball. The blows pummeled him for an agonizing minute or less. Chris had screamed when the first meaty fist slammed against the sharpshooters eye. Chris had kneed the attacker in the ribs trying to shift his attention to another target, instead in only enraged the sergeant even more. He struck Larabee with a knee of his own sending the handcuffed man reeling backward toward the fire place. Somewhere amongst all this brutality JD’s voice rang out urging the missing conman to run. The ominous cocking of an automatic stopped all activity. Vin remained curled on the floor, blood and vomit mingling freely together. JD slowly melted back down next to and behind Buck.

Nathan closed his eyes, trying to shut out the wrong doings to the tracker. A detached part of his mind, cataloged the injuries and how best to treat them. He hoped Ezra found help. The slippery conman always managed to pull the preverbal rabbit out of the hat, hopefully today would be no different.

Josiah watched impassionately. He would reek his revenge. His wraith would fall apon these others and nothing was going to stop him. Revenge was going to be his, they would pay dearly for this attack.

Buck protected the kid. When Chris went down he put himself between the tracker and the sergeant. Vin had had enough, he would not beable to withstand much more. Gawd please let Ezra find help and quick.

 

Ezra slowed his jog, his breath coming in short gasps. His feet had become numb clubs. The knee deep snow mired his moments. He heaved for breath, his ribs seemingly not able to expand far enough. He had failed. His jog petered to a walk, then stuttered to a stop. Not a sound could be heard over the blowing wind. There was no sign of civilization. Sweat ran down his back in rivulets, cutting cold trails against bruised skin. A shiver ran up his spine, the physical cold did not compare to the cold emptiness in his soul. He fell to his knees and let out a mournful agonized scream. His breath crystallized in the air. He had failed them, failed Vin. Ezra knelt in the snow buffeted by the wind the sweat freezing in the air. No tears escaped the despondent man, he had nothing. The others had gambled on the wrong man. He held the Joker, hell he was the Joker. No value.

Standish stared up at the grey sky wishing someone else had been chosen, someone else held his cards. Chris had trusted him to get them out of this mess. All he had managed to do was put distance between himself and his friends. He spirited himself away to safety while they still sat in the clutches of the gunmen. He had run out on them again. He broke his promise to them, to himself. His shoulders hunched under the frightful realization. He fought for breath with burning lungs, it paled compared to the searing pain in his heart. He did not ask for this! He did not bargain for this, why him? Why did he always become the scapegoat? Why him?

His anger began to grow. Standish did not play to lose, whether or not he chose the game, whether or not he dealt the cards. Whenever he sat at the table he played to win, to out manipulate his opponent, to take advantage of every situation. He would not accept a losing hand. To hell with the hand he had been dealt.

Larabee put him in this position. The colonel had forced Chris’s hand. Standish’s anger grew exponentially. He regained his feet. The Colonel had dealt the cards, the Colonel had upped the ante. The Colonel had put the bets on the table, he had stacked the deck. Standish gazed up the wooded slope. To hell with the Colonel, to hell with the others, he wanted the deck back he wanted the cards back in his control.

Standish started back up the mountain, back toward the house. He hated losing, he hated not being in control, most of all he hated bad cheaters. The colonel had not played fair from the start. Ezra figured he might be the Joker, but even the Joker could be a wildcard. The game just changed.

Chris and Buck did their best to roust the sharpshooter. The colonel saw this and stood over Larabee menacingly.

"He’s gonna die before tomorrow, let him rest."

"You’re the only who’s gonna die today, you bastard." Wilmington hissed. The colonel halted his men before they descended on the lady’s man for his insolence.

"Your southern friend will not find help. There is noone around for miles." Norton stepped away from his captors and added, "and how far do you think he’ll get with no shoes or coat in this?" He indicated out the window to the brutal winter weather. It was for that reason he did not send one of his men out after the gambler. Standish held a bum hand.

Josiah and Nathan both peered out the window. The colonel’s words rang hard and true. The southerner hated winter, and had very little experience with it. Jackson leaned back dejectedly. He did not want to think about the possibilities. "Don’t worry Nathan, Ezra will be back, and he’ll have the calvary." JD’s confidence brought a weak smile to the medic. "Besides he’s gonna be pissed he had to be outside in this weather, and will want revenge."

Sanchez leaned forward and met JD’s reassuring gaze. Josiah wished he had the youngster’s faith. JD found good in everything, and everyone. He saw it in the others, even Josiah, and without knowing it, brought it to the surface. In return the others had adopted him as not only a reliable highly skilled team member but also a little brother. Still naive to the cruel ways of people. He gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, even when Ezra had run out on them that first time. JD had already made an excuse for the conman, had an explanation. JD was not ignorant of the world but chose to pick out only the good things.

The preacher nodded to the young computer genius, "Indeed Brother indeed." Ezra and winter did not belong in the same sentence.

Josiah glanced one more time out the window, watching the snow swirl, the afternoon sun had yet to show itself, the day was at its lightest. Darkness would fall in a three or four hours. He prayed Ezra found some help or at least some shelter. Movement in the barn caught his eye. He searched for it again and nearly broke out laughing.

Sanchez could not see the cocky dimpled smile but his minds eye visualized it. The preacher did notice the salute and a slight bow. The cocky SOB came back. Where was the calvary? Where were the sirens and the SWAT teams? Sanchez slid back down and settled against the wall. He elbowed Nathan and simply said, "JD must have a crystal ball."

CONTINUE

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