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I didn't learn a thing from Sheriff Jack Davis except that his brother's name was Mark. Well that and the fact that he really was innocent. I've rarely met a more honest and forthright young man than that. I did pick up some concern when I mentioned his brother, so I was beginning to worry about having left Ezra to watch him alone. I had no sooner walked over to the saloon than a young boy told me he had a note for me. I gave him a coin as I opened the note, thinking it was from Ezra. My blood froze in my veins as I read the words on the note. And I did something I have never done before in my life; I panicked.
I spun around on the saloon boardwalk searching up and down the street for anyone or anything that would help me get my son back. My eyes fell on the forms of Buck and J.D. as they exited the town bank. "Buck! J.D.!" I yelled, my voice cracking hoarsely.
They both turned and with one look at my agitated state ran over to me. I waved my arms and the note up in the air. "He took him. It's all my fault. Shoulda listened to him. Thought I could show him a thing or two. But I was wrong. And he took him."
Buck placed his hands on my shoulders, his soft voice soothing as he said, "Maverick, you're babbling a bit. Let me see the note."
I nodded and handed the note over to Buck who read it with J.D. trying to read it over his shoulder. After reading it, Buck looked over at me, sympathy filling his eyes. "J.D. go get Chris and Vin now." J.D. nodded and ran off.
Buck pulled me over to a bench outside the saloon and sat me down on it. "Don't worry, ol' hoss, we'll get him back."
"I shoulda listened to him, Buck," I started, but Buck shook his head.
"Now, you know it's hard to listen to Ez. Man uses twenty words when one'll do. Hell, he'll probably let him go just to shut him up." Buck winced as he realized that we both thought of the other way they could get Ezra to shut up, permanently.
The sound of spurs on the boardwalk filled me with dread. Chris wouldn't give a damn that I was Ezra's father. I'd endangered one of him men and there was absolutely no excuse for that. His voice was hard and lethal as he asked, "What happened, Maverick?"
I filled him on everything and then he read the note.
I have your son. You get my men free and I let him free. If my men go on trial tomorrow,
your son's dead. Once I have my men, I'll let him go.
J.D. had also run off to get Judge Travis and Sheriff Davis and the three of them now joined us. Chris looked over at the sheriff. "Are you a part of this?" he demanded his voice telling the man that there would be no mercy if he dared lie.
"He's my half brother and I've never had anything to do with him. I figured he was part of this and was hoping that one of the others would finger him. But so far they haven't told me anything," he answered meeting Chris' eyes to prove his honesty and his bravery. I couldn't meet those glaring eyes at the moment. I feared I would melt on the spot.
"Well maybe they'll be a little more open with us. Vin, see if you can find anything," Chris said as he started for the jail. The slender tracker nodded and went for his horse.
"Chris," the judge stopped him. "Those boys are under the protection of the court. You can't go in there and force any information from them."
Disbelieving eyes fell on the judge, "They'll know where he took Ezra. So unless you plan on letting them go, that's the only way we'll know where that is." I could hear the strain in his voice at having to keep his rage under control.
I stood up. "Judge Travis, you can stop them from questioning those men, but you can't stop me."
It was Chris who stopped me. "You've done enough, Maverick," he said his voice full of disdain.
I faced him, my back straightening. All the rage that I had bottled inside me, all the anger I felt for having failed Ezra, failing to find out about him, failing to get to be the father he needed, failing to look after him when I finally got the chance, came pouring out of me. "I'm his father, Larabee. And it's my fault he's in this mess. If you think that you and your men can stop me from doing whatever it takes to get him back unharmed, you are mistaken. I'll face down the devil himself to get my son back."
Larabee eyed me, his hard eyes taking the very measure of my words and of me. "You are facing the devil himself, Maverick. We'll get him back. But you do anything to endanger him again and I will send you to Hell." He walked off and not even the judge dared to stop him this time. The others moved to follow him. Buck clapped his arms on my shoulders and steered my along with them.
"Chris can be a might overprotective, Maverick. We all can. Ezra's one of us, part of our family, too. Remember that," he said as he released me
Ezra was forced into consciousness by the impact of his body with the hard earth as Mark Davis pushed him from the horse. Through the agony, he managed to think that not only had all the healing his broken ribs had done had just been undone, but also that additional ones were now broken. He was struggling to breath through his nose and not hyperventilate from the pain. Finally Davis leaned over and pulled the gag from his mouth. "No one'll hear you now." Ezra forced himself to breath shallowly as every lungful of air made his ribs ache in pain.
The gambler suddenly remembered the flask in his jacket pocket. He willed himself to roll onto his back and forced a pleading look onto his face. "There's a flask in my coat pocket. Would you be so kind," Ezra started to ask having to force the words out slowly.
Davis looked down at him, considering his words for a moment. Finally he knelt down beside the gambler and pulled the flask from his coat. "This? This is what you want?" he asked, holding the flask close to Ezra's face. Ezra nodded, wishing desperately that Nathan had been kind enough to fill it with liquor instead. But, and he would never admit this to the healer, Ezra was eager for any relief from the pain he was in now.
"Well, how about I take a good, long pull from it first?" Davis said as he stood back up. Ezra opened his mouth to protest, and then clamped it shut. Maybe Nathan had supplied him with an ace up the sleeve, or in this case, in his pocket.
Davis tilted his head back and downed the entire contents of the flask. His faces screwed up with distaste as he threw the flask away from him. "What kind of swill do you drink down South?"
"I'll have you know that is some of the finest brew that has ever graced such uncivilized lands as these," Ezra said, his eyes narrowing as he watched Davis carefully.
"Well, I've tasted better horse piss!" Davis exclaimed.
Ezra's eyebrows drew together in confusion as he tried to understand why the man would admit to having drunk horse piss. For once, the gambler had the good sense not to goad the man and just ignored the comment. He would never understand these cowboys anyway. Ezra merely continued to watch Davis as the man removed his saddlebags and began to make a camp under the shade of the trees.
Davis sat down suddenly and heavily on the ground. "Just realized how tired I am," he said, his voice thick and mumbled.
Ezra craned his neck around, trying to keep an eye on the man. "Well, that's quite understandable. Plotting how to break your compatriots out of jail and planning your get away, can take a great deal out of a man."
When he didn't get a response, Ezra took a steadying breath and turned on his side. He was greeted with the sight of Davis sprawled out on the ground, oblivious to everything around him. Ezra wished he had learned a bit more about laudanum from Nathan, like how long a dose like that would keep a man the size of Davis out. He knew how long it worked on him, but he was a much smaller man than Davis. His flask had been full when Nathan had given it to him, and he had only had the small amount. But that small amount had been enough that he slept through the entire stage ride. He wondered if Nathan, knowing the most he would take was one swallow, had poured an extra strong batch in his flask and if Davis now suffered from an overdose.
With a shake of his head, Ezra put these thoughts out of his mind. It would serve the man right. His main concern was to get free of the ropes and back to his friends. They could come back for the man if they cared to. Moving fingers that he had long since lost feeling in, Ezra began to work on the ropes. But the pain in his sides was beginning to grow too overpowering for him to be able to concentrate on moving his dexterous fingers.
He lay still for a moment, gathering his strength and courage. Finally, with a massive effort, he rolled over and forced himself to hands and knees. He seemed to remember Nathan once telling him that the real threat of broken ribs was that one of them could puncture a lung, especially if the wounded person moved around too much. "I can assure you, Mr. Jackson, that at this moment I would like nothing more than to following your advice. But circumstances dictate that I extricate myself from this situation." Gathering strength from the sound of his own voice, he pushed himself to his feet. Swallowing hard, he took a moment to decide on whether to take the extra effort of disarming Davis or to just attempt to mount the horse and ride back to town. Looking over at the man and seeing no sign of breathing coming from him, Ezra decided on just mounting the horse. "Of course, that in itself will be no small feat. The indignities that I must endure," he mumbled as he took the reins and wound them around the saddle horn. Mustering his strength one last time, he lifted a foot into the stirrup and practically clawed his way up into the saddle. Leaning as far forward as he could, he wound the reins in his hands, hoping that it would be enough to keep him in the saddle as he turned the horse in the direction that he hoped the town lay in.
When Vin had stepped off the boardwalk, his keen eyes had immediately noticed the set of hoof prints that led behind the saloon. He had watched the others move off to the jailhouse as he led his own horse back into the alleyway. Squatting down behind the saloon, his sky blue eyes read the tale of Ezra's abduction in the dust. Standing, he looked out to where the tracks led off. Making an instant decision, Vin turned back to get the others. Knowing Ezra as he did, Vin knew that time would be very precious. The southern gambler could get on a man's nerves instantly and that could very well get him killed. Vin allowed himself a smile. The gambler could also grow on a man real quick.
The tracker stepped back into the town's main street and called to the others as they started to enter the jailhouse. "Hey, Larabee!"
Chris stepped back into the street, his duster blowing around his legs. Vin could almost feel the intensity of his glare even from this distance. "I've got their tracks!" he yelled.
Chris nodded as he and others moved back toward him. Vin mounted his horse and waited for them to get their own mounts and join him. Chris and Maverick were the first to reach him. "He took Ezra back here. Looks like they're ridin' double. We should be able to catch up to 'em quick."
Chris' made a sweeping gesture with his head as he said, "Let's ride." Buck and J.D. were close behind them as they set off.
Vin was thankful for and amazed at the stupidity of Davis. The man had made no attempt to hide his tracks at all. The tracker glanced over at Chris and Maverick. Both men's faces were set grimly. Whoever took Ezra was going to pay dearly, twice, of that the tracker was certain.
Vin's practiced eye was the first to spy the horse, seemingly just standing in the middle of their path. As they drew closer he spied the form draped over the horses neck and the reins held slackly in his hands. "It's Ezra," he said as he spurred his horse on, the others following suit. But it was Chris and Maverick who reached the gambler first, both men practically jumping from their mounts.
As gently as they could, they managed to lower the unconscious gambler to the ground. Seeing the even rise and fall of his chest, Chris said, "He's just out." Maverick grabbed a saddle roll and placed it under Ezra's head, his hand brushing the soft brown hair off his forehead. Then he quickly began to untie his hands.
Chris stood, "Vin, you and Buck follow the trail, see what happened out there. J.D. you go back and tell the judge and sheriff. Then come back with a wagon."
"I'll stay with him, Chris. You can go with Vin and Buck," Maverick said.
Chris shook his head as he squatted back down on the other side of Ezra. He did not say a word, but Maverick finally got a clear read of those green eyes. Chris saw Ezra as his responsibility and would protect him as fiercely as if he were flesh and blood related. Maverick nodded his understanding, not just at Chris' sentiment, but also at the knowledge of what he would soon have to do.
J.D. returned with the sheriff and a wagon at about the same time that Vin and Buck returned with Davis draped in front of Vin. Buck shook his head at Chris' questioning look. "Don't have any idea, pard. There's no wound on the man, but he's out cold."
Vin held up Ezra's flask. "Found this, but it's empty. Didn't know Ezra kept spirits that strong."
Maverick took the flask and sniffed it. He laughed uproariously as he suddenly put the entire thing together. He stopped suddenly as he noticed the irritated looks from the others. "That's not whiskey. That's laudanum. When Chris and I walked over this morning Nathan had just given something to Ezra. I didn't see what it was, but I can only guess that he had filled Ezra's flask with laudanum since he knew the trip would be painful even in the stage. Ezra must have gotten Davis to drink it."
Vin and Chris simply grinned as Buck and J.D. joined Maverick in his renewed laughter. Each man could only imagine how the verbose gambler had managed to con the man into drinking the laudanum. They looked forward to the interesting tale the southerner would surely make of the incident.
Davis, extremely confused and angry, finally came around just in time for his trial the next day. Ezra was pressed into service as a witness and he was almost grateful or that duty as it offered him some respite from his father's constant attention to him. At the conclusion of the trial and sentencing, the judge had treated the eight of them to a dinner as a way of thanking them for their work. The judge had also wanted to remind Ezra that for all the disagreements that the two of them had, he, too, considered the gambler to be a valuable member of the seven.
They rode back into Four Corners a few days later. Judge Travis had decided to travel on from New Haven so Ezra shared the coach with Maverick this time. Regardless of the pain, Ezra refused even the slightest taste of laudanum. But, in truth, he felt very little of the jostling of the stage as Maverick took the opportunity to tell him of his grandfather, who had gone by the name Zane Cooper and who had been a lawman. Ezra listened to his father, heard every ounce of the love and respect the man had for his own father and somewhere deep within him he felt those same emotions growing within him. He began to dread returning to Four Corners and the decision that ultimately awaited him there.
When the stage pulled up it was met by Nathan, Josiah, and Maude, all of whom had been informed about what had transpired in New Haven by telegram. Ezra and Maverick both immediately noticed that all of Maude's bags waited beside her. Maverick stepped down from the stage only to be greeted by one of Maude's quick slaps. "What on earth was that for?" he asked.
"For leaving me and then endangering my son. I knew I was right in the beginning to not tell you about Ezra. You are not a fit father, Burt," she spat.
"That's hardly fair, Maude," Maverick attempted to soothe, but Maude pushed past him to where Josiah and Nathan were helping Ezra from the stage.
"Ezra, darlin', how are you feeling?" she purred, oozing motherly concern.
"I have broken ribs, Mother, and have just been forced to endure an arduous journey across rough country, how do you think I feel," he replied testily.
"Ezra, that's no way to talk to your mother," Maverick warned.
Maude whirled to face him. "Oh, now you're the one to dole out fatherly mandates?" she asked. "Ezra and I have managed quite well on our own. We do not need you interfering in our lives."
She turned back to Ezra as Nathan and Josiah settled him on the bench outside the saloon. Nathan wanted to get him up to his clinic, but knew Ezra would not leave until things had been settled with his parents. "I'm sorry, Ezra, darlin', but I can not remain in this town an instant longer with that man. I only stayed to see you with my own eyes and know that you are well. Well, as well as can be expected. I know you'll be in good hands with Nathan and Josiah."
Ezra took her hand in his, "But, Mother, surely you can't just leave now? I thought we would at least have the opportunity to know each other as a family." His words were thick, almost pleading.
"Now, Ezra, even you have to see that this family would not work, would never have worked. Maverick and I had our time together. You can get to know him, if you care to," Maude answered gently aware of the audience they had.
"Now, Maude," Maverick said taking her hand in his, "I thought you and I had reached a new understanding?"
With a laugh, Maude jerked her hands out of Maverick's hold. "That changed, Maverick, when you risked Ezra's life. I may not have been a model mother, but I am his mother and I will not have anything to do with a man who can so easily endanger my son's life. The only reason I'm not demanding that you leave this town is that I know that Mr. Larabee and these other men will ensure that you are not allowed to bring any more harm to him." With that she turned back to Ezra. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on his cheek and followed it with a gentle pat and caress. Then she turned and entered the stage without a backward glance to either Ezra or Maverick.
Chris and the others completed the set of seven as they stepped up on the saloon boardwalk. Maverick looked from them to the stage as it pulled away. He walked over to Ezra and waited for words from his son.
Ezra watched as the stage pulled away, taking with it any hope he had of getting to know his true family. His eyes fell on Vin who leaned easily against the boardwalk railing, but whose intense gaze nodded to Ezra, letting the gambler know that the tracker would back any play he made. Ezra smiled and looked next at J.D. and Buck. Both of them shuffled a bit nervously under the southerner's gaze, unsure of how to express their desire for him to stay, but Ezra read it easily enough in their eyes. Josiah found himself the next object of Ezra's scrutiny. The preacher knew that the gambler was searching for a reason to stay with them. He smiled encouragingly at Ezra as he walked over to him. Laying a reassuring hand briefly on Ezra's shoulder Josiah whispered for only him to hear, "I know that you will do the right thing," before moving into the saloon. Ezra nodded thoughtfully before turning to Nathan. The healer smiled down at him and Ezra was amazed again at the fact that the man, despite all their differences of opinion and beliefs, was still able to accept him as a friend. Finally Ezra met the hardened gaze of Chris Larabee. Ezra's head rose slowly as he was allowed for once to see plainly the emotions in his leader's eyes, in his soul. Chris was willing Ezra to stay, inviting him once again to be part of this team. Ezra had never understood his decision to turn around and return to the six men he had abandoned. But the same feelings he had then, filled him again. He could not let this man, or any of the others down. He nodded at Chris and the gunslinger gave a pull on the brim of his hat in reply, knowing what Ezra's choice would be. Chris motioned for the others to follow him into the saloon.
Ezra turned back to his father who was surprised to see understanding fill his sea green eyes, as he said, "She is an amazing woman."
Maverick nodded, seeing that Ezra had made the decision he had hoped he would. It made things easier for him, but it was still difficult to get the words out, "I need both of you in my life. But if I lose her now, it may be another thirty years before I find her again."
Ezra smiled, his gold tooth flashing in the sunlight. "Then you'd best hurry. Mother is very adept at getting lost when it suits her."
Maverick stepped forward and hugged him as best as he could without hurting him. Maverick's lips pressed close to his ear, he whispered, "I love you, son."
Ezra's arm came up and clapped him on the back. The words were hesitant, foreign to him as he replied, "I love you, Father." When Maverick finally stepped away he looked over the batwing doors and met Chris' gaze. The man in black tipped his hat to the old gambler, letting him know that he was indeed doing the right thing for his son. Maverick walked over to his horse and mounted it. With one last look and nod at Ezra he turned the animal and set off after Maude.
Chris and others immediately walked back out on the boardwalk, not wanting Ezra to feel at all abandoned. The gambler smiled and nodded to each of them, grateful for their show of support. Maybe it would be possible to have both his families. This is where he belonged, the seven of them had had their destinies entwined somehow and if he turned his back on them, he was turning his back on fate. But Maude and Maverick were a part of it as well.
As if sensing his thoughts, Buck said, "I hope he catches up to her. They belong together."
Ezra laughed deeply, much to the amazement of the others. When he finally spoke, his grin still filled his voice, "I don't believe that my father will have any problems accomplishing that, Mr. Wilmington." He shook his head and grinned again, looking out to where both of his parents had traveled, "No problem whatsoever."
As I waited impatiently for Maude's stage, the knowing smile that Ezra had shot me as I turned haunted me. Could he possibly know what I had done? I don't see how, since Maude had me absolutely fooled. I would still be wondering if Maude, when she had her back to Ezra, had not flicked her teeth in her old tell when she was bluffing. I wasn't sure she would go along with the scheme I had telegrammed her. But apparently deep down, she did want what was best for our son. And while the two of us would do anything and everything for him, we both knew that his place was now in Four Corners with the six men who had claimed him as a brother. And maybe when she and I reestablished our relationship and truly discovered what it was meant to be, we could return together to Four Corners and our son. Oh, I'd be back; I hadn't lied to Ezra about that. And I was certain that Maude would be back, too. We would just do it separately until Ezra either called us on it, or we finally decided to settle down in the dusty town and make our family as whole as a family of gamblers could be.
When the stage pulled up, I leaned casually against the hitching post and erased any hint of concern from my face. But when two people exited the stage and there was no sign of Maude, I quickly jumped up to the stage and peered inside.
Maude's brilliant smile greeted me. "Did you think I'd run out on you, Darlin'?" she asked with a teasing smile.
I smiled back, "You've done it before." I extended my hand to her and helped her from the stage. "I've already arranged for your hotel room," I said as I paid a young man to carry her baggage.
"I trust it is the finest room this town has to offer," she asked.
I nodded, "Of course. I only like the best myself." I wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her close to me. "Thank you, Maude," I added softly.
"Whatever are you thanking me for, Maverick?" she asked innocently.
"For doing the right thing for Ezra, for our son."
She shrugged. "I can't run his life forever, like you said. But I can make sure that he doesn't ruin it for himself. But my real intention was to force you to come chasing after me like some little ol' puppy dog and here you are."
I laughed, "Yes, here I am." I sobered momentarily, "Do you think he saw through us?"
"Ezra? Of course he did, Maverick. I did not raise a fool. He just on occasion has to be reminded to not act foolishly," she said with a deep measure of pride in her voice.
I nodded, again amazed at this woman and the son she had raised.
Maude smiled up at me, "Shall we see what kind of game they have in this town. We'll need to sharpen our skills together before we head out to the river boats."
I laughed again. Life with Maude would be interesting to say the least. But it felt right and for a moment I felt as if Pappy were smiling down on me, pleased with how I had managed things. We were all where we were supposed to be. Maude and I were together, scheming away again. And Ezra was with the people who could most accept him for the person he was, and who could best help him become the person he should be. Ezra had been right, between the three of us, we could manipulate the deck anyway we wanted, even if it was stacked against us.
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