Josiah watched as the little yard darkened with the coming night. In various spots around the compound, lanterns were being lit. They were hanging from various tree limbs and the porch of the old house. It just made his job that much easier. A ragged Navajo willow occupied the spot beside the little shed, its limbs also home to a lantern. It was perfect really. The outlaws provided the light they would need to see into the compound. However, the only indication they'd have of their attackers would be gunpowder flashes from the barrels of their guns. Those didn't make for easy targets.
The wood butt of the Winchester was cool against his unshaven cheeks as Josiah once more sighted down the barrel. He picked various objects around the shed mentally judging the distance. He was shooting slightly downhill. This just served to make aiming correctly a tricky matter. Vin was much better suited to this sort of sharpshooting. He wished Vin were here covering this position. Hell, he wished he were in the saloon right now enjoying a nice stiff drink. Or better yet, nailing some shingles on his church roof. The rainy season was coming. He'd be wishing he'd gotten that job done sooner than later. Well, there wasn't anything to be done about it. He best keep his mind on the job at hand.
JD eased his way through the mesquite and prickly pear towards the rope corral set up to fence in the horses. He winced as the spines of a cholla cactus dug into his arm when he passed to close. He'd learned early on in his first few days in the desert to stay away from the stuff. Local legend had it that the cactus would actually jump at anyone unlucky enough to pass within its reach. He pulled away from the cactus as gently as possible and moved down the slope toward the horses.
Most of the horses stood hipshot in the corral, drowsing in the cooling evening air. A few stamped lazily and swished at flies. As JD pulled even with the rope fence, one of the horse's nearest him nervously tossed his head and began to pull away. JD froze. The last thing they needed was to have a nervous horse alert the whole camp to their presence. Under his breath, JD began to soothe the goosey horse. The horse's ears remained pricked but the animal quit moving about and settled back down.
JD carefully lifted a hand and placed it on the rope fence. His left hand reached down to his waist where he had a knife stashed. He would like to cut the rope in such a way to run the horse straight through the compound. However, it would mean he'd have to make his way around the corral to the side closest to the house and barn. He probably couldn't do it undetected. Horses sometimes made too good a watchdog. He'd have to be content with just scattering them to hell and beyond. JD was just relieved to discover there were no real dogs among the thieves. Never taking his eyes from the animals in case another one decided to take offense to his presence, JD waited for Buck's signal.
Buck eased stealthily down the hillside, moving silently, all his attention focused on the guard he'd been assigned to take out. The tip of the man's cheroot glowed red in the darkness, allowing Buck to track him easily.
He was completely unaware of the danger he was in. Buck would have felt pity for the man, whose death was only moments away, except that he'd seen the blood in the stable. He'd seen Chris and Josiah's faces, when they'd come back from their surveillance. The guilt and grief on Chris's face, as Josiah painfully told them of the beating they'd watched. The beating that this man had cheered. Buck's eyes were cold, as he waited in the dark, an unseen angel of death.
Buck's thumb caressed the razor sharp knife blade as he watched the guard, waiting for the right moment. He didn't have to wait long before he was rewarded. The man had spat out the end of the cheroot and was rooting around in his jacket pocket for another smoke. Buck waited until the man placed the cigar in his mouth and brought out a match. As he was leaning over trying to shield the lit match from the small breeze, Buck struck.
Quick as a cat, Buck snaked an arm around the man's neck and clamped his hand over his mouth to cut off any sound. His other hand shoved the knife up into the man's diaphragm, just under the breastbone. The match dropped from the dead man's hand, the small flame dying, before it hit the ground. As Buck let the guard slide lifelessly to the ground, he was already planning how he'd get close enough to the barn to use the dynamite without being spotted. Kneeling beside the body he wiped the bloody knife on the man's clothes and resheathed it. The lady's man didn't think twice about the man he'd just killed. It had been the guard's life or Vin and Ezra's. The guard had never had a chance.
Nathan contemplated the sentry in front of him. The guard was alert and wary, carefully scanning the perimeter of the property. Nathan knew he'd have to kill the man without trying to move any closer. He unsheathed his best throwing knife. Measuring the distance carefully, he hefted the small knife in his hands. It would take a lethal aim, to kill the man before he could raise an alarm. The knife had to slice through the ribcage and pierce the heart. Nathan tried not to think about how he was using his medical knowledge to harm another human being. This man didn't deserve his sympathy. He was part of a gang, that had kidnapped, beaten, and probably tortured two good men. Men who didn't deserve that kind of treatment. If they were even still alive, Nathan blinked back tears, as he pushed the thoughts aside. Right now, he had to concentrate on the sentry coming closer to his position with every step.
Just a few more steps, Nathan thought grimly. He pulled himself into a crouch as the sentry neared the spot where his walk would bring him closest to Nathan. Wielding the throwing knife by the blade, Nathan let it fly, when the sentry was within a few feet. A soft grunt followed by a hiss of spent breath, escaped the guard. Both hands were wrapped around the hilt of the knife and and he was staring at it in disbelief. He fell to his knees, dead before he sprawled forward into the dirt. Nathan said a silent prayer for the dead man's soul, before he reclaimed his knife. He might need it later.
Nathan cautiously made his way to a small rise behind the house. Just a gentle swelling in the desert sand, it provided him a small measure of safety. Undetected he studied the rear of the house carefully. It had been a long time since anyone had used the back entrance. The desert had slowly reclaimed the rear of the property. Wind-blown sand had covered the bottom two steps of the stoop.
Chris eased his position leaning his weight onto his left knee. He absently rubbed at an aching muscle in his back never taking his eyes off the compound. From where he knelt down, he could hear the occasional sounds from the horses as they stamped at flies or milled in the corral. Laughter drifted across the compound from the old barn, intermingled with the occasional curse. Chris hoped like hell that they were good and soused. Be a lot easier to take on a group of drunks than men who are stone cold sober.
Chris tried to make out Buck's form as he moved up behind the barn. He wasn't able to see him. Good. If you couldn't find him and you knew he was there, it'd be even harder for somewhere unaware of his presence to see him. Looks like all that time spent skulking around during the Civil War would actually be useful.
Chris drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Where the hell was Buck? His eyes searched the compound below him. He knew if Buck or one of the others was discovered a general alarm would be raised. As long as the night remained quiet, his men were safe. Chris shifted restlessly to kneel on his other knee when an explosion rattled the night. Before the next heartbeat, Chris was moving through the night. He passed quietly from shadow to shadow.
A stand of yucca marked the demarcation line between the vast wildness of the desert and the ranchyard here the native vegetation had been cleared some time ago. To Chris, it also marked the beginning of "enemy" territory. It was where he would leave behind the relative safety the desert provided. He crouched down in the cover provided by the desert plants and scanned the movement in the compound.
Ezra settled back against the wall next to Vin's pallet. He winced as he fingered the swelling along his jaw. It still hurt. According to Vin, he had a stunning purple bruise to match. Ezra leaned his head back and closed his eyes. A soft moan from Vin caused him to drag his eyes open again. The tracker was unconscious again. Ezra reached down and tried to soothe him with the touch of his hand and a softly spoken word, as he'd done so often in the last two days. This time, Vin didn't quiet. He tossed his head restlessly from side to side, and muttered incomprehensible words.
Ezra put a worried hand on the sharpshooter's forehead. Damn! Vin's fever was alarmingly high. Ezra searched the gloomy shadows of the shed for the canteen and the rag he'd been using to wipe Vin's face and neck. The rag was lying where he'd left it on his saddlebag. Feeling around in the twilight, he found the canteen. It was empty. Bitterly Ezra tossed the canteen and rag into a corner.
So, the gambler thought. Vin would die. Hurting and fevered, and not a damn thing Ezra could do to help him. Hopefully death would be merciful and claim the tracker while he was still unconscious. He fervently hoped, that Vin would not be able to attend Earl's "party."
Ezra finally drew his knees up to his chest and placed his forearms across them. He leaned his head down on his arms and contemplated his misery. Vin was dying and he would be alone.
Buck reached into the interior pocket of his coat where he'd stashed two sticks of Josiah's dynamite.
Grinning to himself, he began to make his way stealthily to the barn door at the rear of the small property. The sliding rear doors of the barn hadn't been used in a very long time. They sagged now on their tracks leaving a gap of about six inches where once they had snugly closed. Just as well, Buck thought, it makes my job easier. He eased himself up the side of the old barn. The walls were rough against his back as he squatted near the old doors. He could hear voices from the interior of the barn towards the front. The rear of the place was empty.
Buck hefted one of the dynamite sticks Josiah had given him. With a quick twist, he broke off the detonator wire. He pulled out a match striking it against the heel of his boot. Buck was careful to keep it cupped as it flared to life. No sense alerting anyone wandering around outside that he was there. He briefly touched the match to the wire as he gingerly eased himself closer to the opening between the sagging doors. Deftly, he rolled the dynamite through the doors. The fizzing wire briefly lit up the surrounding area before it rolled behind a stack of old loose hay. Buck tensed slightly expecting a cry of alarm from the front of the building. It didn't happen.
Hastily, considering the length of the detonator wire, Buck made his way from the back of the barn to the rear of the old house. His presence went entirely unnoticed. He quickly made his way behind the old house. Soft glows from windows whose coverings had long since dry rotted in the sun threw patchy shadows onto the rear of the property. The back stoop sagged in the center and sand had reclaimed the first two steps leading to the rear porch. No one had been back here in a long time, Buck surmised. Buck squatted under the only window and waited. He didn't have to wait long.
Buck drug out the second stick of dynamite and another match he'd stashed in his hatband. He poised his hand ready to strike the match when a boom from the general direction of the old barn shook the night. The relative quiet in the house ended as chairs were scraped across the wooden floor. Voices, too muffled to understand, could be heard. Buck waited a few seconds longer until shouts from the yard drew the attention of those in the house. He struck the match and lit the wire. Reaching up, he used the butt end of the dynamite to break an old windowpane and throw the dynaMite into the room. Pulling his six shooter Buck quickly made his way back into the desert night and to the spot where he'd secreted his rifle.
The ranchyard came alive. No flames were visible from the old barn but smoke was beginning to billow from the location of the rear doors. Barely visible to Chris it roiled from the barn. Black and oily it seemed to swallow up what little lantern light managed to reach it. Men poured from the front entrance to the barn. Some men were wildly waving guns and others pausing outside the door to cough the retched smoke from their lungs. Chris ducked reflexively as gunshots sounded below him. He grinned wryly when he realized the men were shooting at shadows. Just made his job easier.
JD took a slow deep breath as he tried to calm his shaky nerves. He almost wasn't ready when he heard the muffled booms from Buck's dynamite. In his haste, he dropped the knife he'd been gripping too tightly into the dirt. Cursing, JD scrambled frantically in the dirt. He almost sobbed in relief when his hand came into contact with the bone handle of the knife. Grabbing it up with both hands he scrambled towards the fence.
Dust kicked up by the agitated horses caught in his throat. He forced down a cough. It probably couldn't be heard over the milling horses and panic in the yard but no sense tempting the fates. Grabbing the rope fence in one hand, he quickly began sawing through the hemp. The sharp knife made short work of the rope and the free end sagged to the ground. JD threw down the end he'd been holding.
With a war whoop, he jerked one of his pistols free of the holster and charged the horses. The nearest animal shied violently away from him bumping into one of its corral mates. A chain reaction ensued, with each animal becoming more agitated than the last. In a matter of seconds, the first animal rushed past him and the herd quickly followed. JD yelped as one of the leaping horses brushed him in its rush to get by. He jumped clear of the panicked animals as they ran into the desert night. JD stumbled and landed hard on his hipbone. Wincing he pulled himself to his feet and began moving as quickly as possible back into the desert.
Buck had barely reached the cover of the sage where he had left his long gun when the first volley of shots rang out. He re-holstered the Colt as he dropped to his knees in the dirt. Praying a rattler hadn't taken up residence, he fumbled under the thorny brush and dragged the Winchester into view. A small tight smile creased his face. Nestling himself into the soft sand he carefully sighted into the compound looking for his first target. Looked like the ball had begun.
Colter was startled out of his bed by the muffled boom that shook the dilapidated house. Years of living just one step ahead of the law and time served with the Union armies during the Civil War, had taught him the value of instant alertness. Colter threw the bedroll back. He shoved his stockinged feet into the boots set carefully by the bed and snatched up his gunbelt from the corner post of the old iron bedstead. He could hear yelling from the porch as his men called out to one another. Their questions going largely unanswered.
Colter left the lantern wick trimmed as he quickly left the bedroom. No sense in pointing his position out to their attackers. If indeed there were any attackers. More than likely some drunken idiot had set off an oil lamp. The tall man threw the door open. The warped wood and rusty hinges squealed in violent protest at the abuse. Being careful to shield himself behind the doorjamb, Bob called out to one of his men.
"Polk, what the hell's going on?"
He barely registered the fact that Earl had joined him. He was pulling his suspenders over his bare shoulders. Tom Polk took the rickety stairs leading to he porch two at a time. "Don't know, Boss. Something blew up in the barn," he informed the two men as he flattened himself against the side of the house.
A shot rang out in the yard followed closely by another. Polk let loose a long litany of curses as the bullet buried itself in the dry rotted wood near his shoulder.
"Hold your fire, Goddamn it, hold your fire!"
Earl's men never had a chance to comply before he heard a faint tinkling of glass from the room he had just vacated. He palmed his Colt and turned toward the noise with Bob right behind him. They hadn't taken two steps forward when the little frame house was shaken to its foundations a deafening roar drowning out all other concerns.
With reflexes born of warfare and hard living, both men dove to the ground. Earl shook his head trying to get the ringing in his ears to ease off. In the small confines of the house, the explosion had been deafening. Dust and debris floated through the house. Thick dark smoke was started to drift from the deserted bedrooms. Earl pulled himself onto his elbows and searched frantically for the gun he had dropped. He turned onto his side. Bob was beside him coughing in the semi-darkness. A faint eerie glow was emanating from the bedroom. Fire!
Ezra had almost drifted off to sleep when the small building was shaken to its flimsy foundations. Ezra jerked awake when a loud explosion followed. Dynamite, Ezra thought. Did I just hear dynamite? Ezra listened intently as muffled shouts erupted in the yard outside the locked door. A man's shout was almost immediately followed by the sound of booted feet running past the shed. Ezra remained still and quiet as he listened to the disturbance in the yard. Although it was hard to track time in this jail, he thought only a few minutes had passed when a second muffled explosion shook the building.
This time the commotion roused Vin. Groggily, he searched the darkened shed.
"Ezra?" he called out in a hoarse voice when he failed to locate the gambler.
"Right here, Vin," Ezra called as he placed a hand on the tracker's shoulder.
"What's goin' on?" Vin's drawl was thick and pained.
"I'm trying to ascertain that, Vin. Hush," Ezra told the tracker gently as he tried to hear what the voices were shouting. Ezra rose to his feet quickly. Too quickly, when a stabbing wave of pain from his ribs protested the movement. Vin heard Ezra gasp audibly as the gambler had started to climb to his feet beside him.
"Ezra?" he called softly into the semi-darkness. "Ya okay?"
"I assure you, Mr. Tanner. It's nothing that a few days rest and some peace and quiet won't cure." Ezra gasped as he finally brought his breathing under control and the room quit spinning. He moved over to the door. The con man had just eased himself down by the door when the first gunshot was heard. The sharp spat of the bullet could be heard easily, over the noise. Ezra turned a grinning face to Vin.
"Well, Mr. Tanner, I fear our guests may have some unexpected visitors." At that point, an answering shot tore thru the shed wall a few feet from where Ezra sat. He immediately quit smiling as he realized the precariousness of their situation. Crouching as low as possible, he made his way back to Vin.
"I fear though, we may be caught between them and the welcoming committee."
To his dismay, the tracker was unconscious again. Ezra was alarmed by how fast the tracker's fragile reserves of strength had been used up. If their friends couldn't finish this fight quickly, for Vin it wouldn't matter if they ever finished it.
"Hold on, Mr. Tanner, hold on." Ezra whispered as he hovered over his oblivious friend.
"What the hell's goin' on?" Bob Colter demanded as he joined his brother. Tendrils of smoke were winding their way into the small front room where the two brothers had dragged themselves to their feet.
"I ain't got no idea. But, I'm gonna kill Tanner and that peacock." Earl barely glanced at his younger brother, as he headed out the screen door. He hit it so hard that the door slammed into the wall behind it narrowly missing Tom Polk. The bigger man flinched back staying well away from Earl Colter. He watched Colter tear down the porch steps on his way to the shed.
Chris froze when he heard the door to the house slam. He eased himself down behind the privy. The one of the lanterns strung about the yard lit up the face of the man briefly. It was a face he'd never seen before. Chris leaned into the boards that framed the back of the outhouse steadying himself with one knee in the dirt.
"Earl!! Dammit Earl, come back here! You're going to get your fool self killed," Bob Colter called from the house. He had moved out onto the porch but remained under the relatively good cover it provided. Earl waved him away dismissively, never breaking stride or looking back, as he quickly covered the distance to the shed. Bob spat derisively, damn fool, never could tell him a thing.
Josiah spotted Earl Colter in almost the same instant that Chris had. Chris was making his way slowly to the shed, crouching low in the darkness to avoid being spotted. Josiah's sharp eyes scanned the yard, searching for anyone trying to get near the shed. He watched as a dark figure made its way from the desert into the barnyard slipping easily from shadow to shadow. Chris. The door of the house slammed open and and a tall man wearing only his pants charged bullishly down the steps and into the yard. The man's course never wavered and Vin and Ezra's prison was obviously his destination. Josiah's finger tightened around the trigger of the Winchester as Josiah breathed a soft prayer.
Tom Polk hunkered down in the shadows thrown by the sagging porch roof. He heard Bob calling to his brother. Desperate to stop him from performing his foolhardy mission. Not that it never did any good, Polk knew. Earl Colter had been rampaging through life doing exactly what he pleased for a long time. At least, until the day he met up with a bounty hunter named Vin Tanner.
Polk had sat in the back of a crowded saloon in Mesilla and watched as the young Tanner had brazenly confronted Earl Colter. Fortunately for Polk, Tanner had not known of his association with Earl. Colter had resisted Tanner briefly. Right up to the point that Tanner's mare's leg had connected with this temple. By the time Colter woke up he was trussed up like a turkey in the city jail waiting for extradition to Yuma Prison. Tanner was 500 dollars richer. Polk had ridden back to Bob with the news.
Polk spat a long stream of tobacco juice on the rotting floorboards as he watched Earl dash across the barnyard. Earl never indicated he even heard Bob's pleas to return to the house. Nope, you never could tell that old puke a cussed thing, Polk thought. He'd been secretly relieved when Earl was no longer part of the gang. Bob Colter tended to be less hot-headed than his older brother. Bob Colter was going to live a hell of a lot longer than his brother.
Josiah didn't notice Chris raise his rifle. His own shot rang out a split second before Chris's. Both bullets were instantly deadly. Earl Colter's long stride was broken and he stared down at the crimson stain growing on his chest. The six-shooter dribbled from his hands as he pitched forward face first. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Two rifle shots rang out in such quick succession that they almost sounded as one. The noise had barely begun to fade when Earl Colter pitched forward in the dirt. Polk didn't watch the man fall. He was too busy trying to gauge where the shots had come from. Bob Colter must have spotted one of the riflemen. An angry yell was almost drowned out by the sound of Colter's Winchester. He spotted the dark figure as it was flushed from its hiding place behind the privy. Polk immediately brought his gun to bear. He cursed in frustration when his bullets fell just short of their target.
Then, it seemed like a hell of a lot more guns were shooting than just the two from the house and the two rifles that had taken Colter's life. A bullet thudded into the ground a few inches from the blond gunslinger followed by an enraged roar from the direction of the house. Abandoning his crouch, Chris made a dash for the shed. His boot heels dug into the packed sand of the yard. Bullets seemed to come from everywhere peppering the ground around him. A bullet flew by so close to his face Chris could swear he felt the heat of its passing. Slamming into the door, Chris fumbled with the iron latch finally freeing it. He dove inside, just as another bullet whizzed past him to bury itself harmlessly in the frame.
"God dammit!" Colter yelled frustrated when the elusive figure in the barnyard dove unscathed into Tanner and Standish's prison.
A volley of shots from the yard stopped JD abruptly. He turned frantically searching the yard. A figure lay sprawled in the middle of it halfway between the house and the barn. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized it wasn't Chris or any of the seven. He was about to résumé his path back to where his rifle was stashed when another volley of shots caught his attention. JD sucked in his breath and felt his stomach clench as he watched Chris Larabee make his mad dash to toward Vin and Ezra's prison. He nearly whooped with delight when Chris clawed his way into the little shed, apparently unharmed. With a grin plastered to his face, JD made his own dash for his long gun.
A firefight had broken out in the yard. However, it was nearly impossible to tell who was shooting and what they were shooting at. The figures hidden in the desert had the cover of a pitch black night while Colter's men were sitting ducks in the lantern light.
"Shoot out those damn lanterns!" Colter yelled at him.
Polk glanced sideways. Colter was kneeling just behind the door of the small house. An eerie glow lit up the darkness behind him. The house was on fire, Polk realized. Pretty soon they were going to be flushed from this hiding place. The uncouth gunfighter didn't figure that shooting the lanterns out was going to help much. Pretty soon, the light from the fire would turn night into day. Polk took steady aim and the lantern hanging from the beam closest to him disappeared in a small flash of flames.
When the door slammed open Ezra jumped to his feet, putting himself between Vin and whatever intentions the intruder had. Steeling himself to face death with as much dignity as possible, Ezra was amazed when the dim light from the moonlight streaming in the small window, revealed the familiar black clad form of Chris Larabee. The gunslinger was on his knees with a gun in hand, peering around the tiny shed. An overwhelming sense of relief washed over the gambler.
"Mr. Larabee, since you are apparently here to rescue us, I believe it would be considered bad form to shoot us," Ezra drawled ruefully. However, the smile that was beginning to light up his face, bespoke the extent of his joy at the undeniable presence of one, Chris Larabee.
Chris blinked and realized that his gun was pointed directly at Ezra's head. He lowered it slightly as he climbed to his feet and kicked the door shut. He could barely make out Vin lying on a pallet in the corner of the shed. Vin hadn't moved, he realized, since his rather ungraceful entrance. Jerking his head toward Vin, Chris demanded impatiently. "How is he?"
"Alive, Mr. Larabee," Ezra sighed.
Chris nodded tightly and started to turn towards the door. His concern would have to wait until they were safe. Ezra's hand on his arm stopped him. "Mr. Larabee, if you would have a spare weapon, I'll assist you in making certain, that our insentient companion remains alive."
Chris studied the gambler for a moment, before expertly flipping his Peacemaker, until the butt of it faced Ezra. Without a word, he offered the weapon to Standish who took it firmly from his grasp. He handed Ezra some extra ammunition, and turned his attention back to the fight. From the sounds of it, the battle outside was livening up. Chris hoped the flimsy shed offered some protection, because it was obvious that Vin couldn't be moved.
Chris hefted his long rifle and turning cautiously opened the door about six inches. Standing well to the side of the small opening, he had a perfect view of the front porch of the main house. A huge man was crouched to the side of the door partially covered by a newel post. Flames were just visible behind the windows to his right. Wouldn't be long before the whole house was engulfed.
Chris never flinched when two shots in quick succession buried themselves in the door next to him. They were answered quickly by the sharp boom of Josiah's Winchester. Another spat indicated that one the other Seven was helping the preacher keep the outlaws occupied, and hopefully pinned down in the burning barn and house. Probably JD, judging from the location of the sound.
Kneeling beside Larabee, Ezra fired the revolver with a calm that didn't match the flurry of emotions he was feeling. Relief, fear, gratitude, amazement, all mixed with the adrenalin of the fight. He spotted one of the outlaws behind JD, about to end the youth's dream of being a famous marshall like Bat Masterson. Taking careful aim, the southerner fired and the outlaw's pistol fell harmlessly from his hand, a fraction of a second before it's owner keeled over.
"Nice shootin' Ezra." Larabee offered, even as he spotted a huge man hunkered down on the porch. Chris drew a bead on him and slowly releasing his pent-up breath, Chris squeezed the trigger. The big man jerked aside, it seemed to Chris almost as soon as he released the trigger. He stumbled up clutching his side above the bone handled knife and staggered backward through the door of the burning house. Over the increasing din in the yard, Polk never heard that shot that would signal the end of his life. One second he was kneeling on the porch desperately seeking targets, and the next his side erupted in a flood of pain. Polk yelped and staggered upwards, his hand reaching for his left side. In disbelief, he stared at the fingers that came away wet with blood.
Panicking he stumbled sideways, not even noticing the two bullets that buried themselves in the wood he had been leaning on. He fell into the empty doorway of the house almost tripping over Colter. Colter cursed and shoved him backwards and out of the outlaw's line of sight. Polk staggered backwards tripping over the saddlebags lying in a heap beside an old chair. His head slammed soundly into the wood floorboards. Smoke had filled the room, and the flames roaring in the next room lit it up in an eerie orange haze. Polk's hands clutched at his side wildly. Pain ripped through him and he tried to draw breath to scream, but the smoke set off a bout of coughing. The pain clawing at his side became even more ferocious and Polk welcomed the oblivion rolling towards him.
Ezra watched Polk fall into the burning house. "You too, Mr. Larabee. Now, if you would be so good as to make sure none of the miscreant's shoot me, I'll be in your debt." Like quicksilver Ezra slipped passed the gunslinger and through the door. Chris's "Goddamn it Ezra." ringing in his ears. Ezra knew that Larabee would be angry with him for his foolhardy action, but it couldn't be helped. He'd made a promise to himself that he would get it right this time. And by God, he was going to do just that.
Both of the windows in the back of the house and the door were completely engulfed in flames. Nathan knew that the danger from anyone trying to use those exits to escape, or to ambush his friends was over. Cautiously, he slipped out from behind the rise and began making his way around to the front of the yard.
The healer could hear the screams and curses of men dying all around him as he peered around the corner of the house. He hoped to God that none of them were from his friends. Bodies littered the ground between the house and barn. He counted six men. Nathan grimaced. Somebody was paying a high price. And for what?
"Good to see ya, pard." Buck's eyes sparkled with excitement as he put a hand on Nathan's shoulder. The healer started slightly but quickly brought his shaky nerves under control.
"You too." Nathan said softly. He knelt against the side wall of the house as Buck squatted behind him. Buck peered over the healer's shoulder letting out a slow whistle as he surveyed the carnage before him. He squeezed Nathan's shoulder again, his eyes meeting Nathan's.
"Now, let's finish this fight." Buck grinned at the healer.
Nodding grimly, Nathan turned his attention to the fray. He winced and jerked back when a hail of bullets embedded themselves in the wall around him. Buck swore softly behind him. Nathan twisted around keeping himself flattened against the wall until he could see Buck. The tall gunslinger was pulling his hand away from his cheek. Small splinters of wood had embedded themselves below his right eye.
"Damn that was close."
Ezra crouched as low as his injured ribs would let him, and moved steadily towards the house. His mind was fixed on his goal, but his eyes were in constant motion scanning the yard for anyone who might impede his arrival at his destination. Ezra's sharp eyes picked out JD using the meager cover the fenceposts of the corral provided. He was keeping up a steady covering fire forcing the remains of Colter's men to keep their heads down. Ezra only hoped that JD didn't decide he was on of the bad guys. The boy was sometimes imbued with far too much zeal. Buck and Nathan were side by side on one corner of the house. Two of the outlaws sent a steady stream of bullets their way, keeping them pinned down and unable to return fire.
Throwing himself down behind the well in front of the house, Standish hefted Chris's Colt Peacemaker and took careful aim. The ivory butt of the gun was slick with the sweat from his palm. Releasing his breath slowly, he fired. His target staggered backwards no longer interested in attacking Buck and Nathan. However, the remaining outlaw quickly turned his attention to the gambler. His gun quickly moving into a firing position. Ezra fumbled with the hammer of the unfamiliar gun. He tried to fire, but the revolver merely clicked on an empty chamber.
So this is how I'm going to die, Ezra thought, oddly calm. He never took his eyes off of the man he'd tried to kill. He'd always expected to die at the hands of some angry mark. Someone who had more skill with a gun than with cards. Well, he wasn't going to die crouched down, hiding in the dirt. Straightening up, Ezra prepared to meet his death with as much dignity as it was possible to summon in the middle of a gunfight.
The shot, when it came, didn't kill him. Ezra jerked reflexively before he realized the unwelcome bullet hadn't even hit him. Ezra's confused mind tried to grasp what had happened. And then, he realized why, even as Chris yelled.
"Ezra. Get your ass under cover."
"Happily, Mr. Larabee." Ezra gave him a two fingered salute and scrambled behind the porch on the opposite end of the house from Nathan and Buck. There were only two men left in the compound with any fight in them and Chris and Josiah made quick work of them. With the death of their leader, the rest of the group quickly lost their will to fight.
"Woo, boy. That was some fight." JD's adrenaline was running high after the bloody battle. He carefully moved up from behind the scant cover the fencepost had provided. He resettled the bowler hat on his head a quirky grin lighting his face as Josiah moved up to join him.
"Whew," he blew a breath through his mouth as he began to reload his rifle. Seeing Chris easing open the door to the little shed, he began to quickly make his way towards the gunfighter.
Chris spared a nod to the boy. The kid had done a man's work today and he had a right to be excited. Motioning to JD and Josiah, Chris relinquished the task of rounding up the remaining outlaws. He hastily scanned the yard till he picked up Nathan and Buck. He itched to get back inside and check on Vin but he had other responsibilities and Nathan would do Vin more good than he could for the moment. Buck was heading for JD and Josiah and Nate was already making his way toward the shack Vin lay in. Where was Ezra?
Chris scanned the yard trying to ignore the worry that clenched his stomach. Last he'd seen Ezra had taken cover near the burning house. The flames coming from the shattered windows of the house lit up the yard around it. The gambler was nowhere in sight. Surely, he hadn't, Chris thought all the blood draining from his face.
"Damn him," Chris thought. He threw a worried glance at the shed behind him but there was really nothing he could do to help Vin at the moment. And Nathan didn't need any distractions. He took off for the burning house, quickly becoming an inferno, calling the gambler's name.
With the danger of being shot passed, Ezra ignored the bustle of activity around him. He was focused on one goal. Stepping over Bob Colter's body, Ezra darted into the burning house.
He couldn't see a thing. His first deep breath of the smoke filled atmosphere almost sent him choking to his knees. He landed hard driving splinters into the palms of his hands. The smoke wound its way down his throat and into his lungs cutting off his body from its much needed oxygen. The irritating smoke caused tears to well up in his eyes. Squinting in the odd orange light thrown by the fire Ezra began to move slowly across the floor. The southerner could feel the heat from the flames, as he crawled on the floor searching. Searching for the only thing that mattered in the world at that moment.
It seemed to take forever, but Ezra couldn't quit. He wouldn't quit. He shoved down the panic that was beginning to rise inside him. His view was almost completely obscured now by the roiling oil smoke. If he didn't know better, Ezra would swear it was a living animal whose goal was to suffocate him. He had to find . . . and Ezra's left hand brushed up against a form so large it could only be Tom Polk.
The elation he felt was tempered with the knowledge that in a very short time the entire house would be in flames. And those flames wouldn't distinguish the living from the dead. There was no time for joy, or fear, or anything but a hasty search of the big man's pockets. The southerner was sure that Polk would still have his prize on him. He was a murdering thief and his associates were thieves and Polk wouldn't leave anything of value for them to find.
Maybe today is my lucky day, he thought to himself. He inhaled more of the noxious smoke, which almost sent him into a paroxysm of coughing. Trying to breathe as shallowly as possible, Ezra began to search the body. Almost immediately he found his ruby ring but it took a few seconds longer before he came across the real object of his search. Relief poured through him.
In a shirt pocket, Ezra's hands closed around the small object and the chain it was attached to. Joy surged through the gambler's heart, when his finger's closed over the fragile chain. Clutching it tightly in his hands, Ezra turned to crawl out of the shack, only to realize, horrified, that he didn't know where the door was. Somehow, he'd gotten turned around. If he didn't find the door . . .
Hands grabbed him roughly from behind. Ezra started violently visions of Ol' Green Teeth rising up from the dead to reclaim the locket assaulting him. A calm voice in his head informed him the lack of oxygen was giving rise to his hysteria. Rather lightheadedly, Ezra decided he had never in his entire life been so glad to hear anyone's voice as he was to hear Chris Larabee's.
"Come on, Ezra." The gunslingers voice grated roughly in his ears. He was hauled unceremoniously to his feet and dragged forcefully from the building. The fresh air of the yard was a welcome relief as they stumbled from the inferno that was the building behind them. Chris supported Ezra a few more feet from the house before they both collapsed to their knees. The gambler swaying slightly. Breathing deeply, Ezra coughed again, as the fresh air rushed into his smoky lungs.
"Ezra! What the hell did you think you were doing?" Chris demanded angrily. He wasn't mad at the gambler. Hell, anything but. However, Ezra's foolhardy act had certainly robbed him of a few more years of life.
Ezra looked up at Chris. He grinned at Larabee his teeth white against his soot covered face. "Vanquishing a ghost, Mr. Larabee. Vanquishing a ghost." Ezra answered him cryptically, before succumbing to another fit of coughing.
He felt Chris's hands gripping his arms as he steadied him. Chris's eyes narrowed and he scrutinized the con man for a long moment, before turning and heading for the shack where his best friend lay helpless.
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