by Sue Bartholomew
Disclaimer: The characters from the program The Magnificent Seven in this story are not mine and are owned by Trilogy, CBS and MGM. I am making no profit from their use. Honest.
Rating: PG-13 for violence and language
Warning: Physical abuse, female sexual abuse hinted at but not described.
This story contains spoilers for the episodes 'Vendetta' and Lady Killers'.
Author's Notes: This is the rough draft of a story which was published in 2000 by Kathy Agel's Criterion Press.
This story was the Winner of the 2001 Ezzie for Best Old West Fanfiction, for which I am profoundly flattered and grateful!
It was written as a birthday fic for Dina, who requested an Ezra h/c story. This is a rampant Ezra h/c and angst fic, with some Buck and JD angst thrown into the mix for good measure! All feedback is very welcome!!!
A lot of people helped me with this fic. I'd like to thank Carla and Dina for their great suggestions, and Cat, Chris, Kelly, Kathy, and my sister Sarah for being such wonderful betas! Y'all are super!!
Hope you enjoy the fic!!
He stared into the darkness, and waited.
The cold, filthy floor was rough against his skin as he shifted a bit, trying to find a comfortable position for his wounded, pain-wracked body. It was a futile effort, of course, but the motion at least let him know he was still capable of it.
A faint clinking echoed against the stone walls of his pitch-black cell, and a smile creased his bruised face. How absurd to chain him to the wall, he thought. He hardly had the strength to lift his head, let alone try to escape. But he knew it was a measure of control, not prevention. They wanted to make sure he knew they had him. As if there was any doubt...
A sigh escaped his lips as he curled himself up on the floor, shivers coursing through his body as he fought to stay warm. He had almost forgotten what it felt like, to be warm, or clean, just as he could not recall a day without pain. But he could not allow either thought to drive him to the despair which always lurked at the edges of his mind; he had to be sharp, and sane, for the day when his friends found and freed him.
Did they even know? he wondered as he tucked his head into his chest. How long had it been, anyway? It was impossible to know here, where no glimmer of light was allowed to penetrate. Except when his captors came to have their fun beating him, of course. He always suspected they made the torches and lanterns extra bright for their visits, just to torment his now-sensitive eyes. That would be just like them.
But there was no way to judge the passage of time, with no night or day to reckon by. It felt as if it had been a lifetime since that day this all started. His mind wandered back, as it had a million times since they'd thrown him in here. The stagecoach ride, chatting amiably with the charming female passengers. Then the holdup by an outlaw gang, there was almost a dozen of them; he'd tried to protect his fellow passengers, but it was no use. Here's a fancy-looking one, the robbers said. Bet his family'd pay a ton for him.
Then they were all brought here. An old army fort, he remembered that much, now used by this outlaw gang and the foul-smelling one-eyed cretin who ran it. He and the female passengers had been tied up and herded into the courtyard as the criminals laughed. There were other people there, hostages and prisoners too by the looks of it. And they were in the middle of nowhere, with no one to help.
He could still hear the hoots of the outlaws as the boss said, work's over men, now let's have some fun for our chores. And they'd come for the women, those bastards, ignoring their screams and pleas for mercy. He couldn't stand by and watch that, could he? It was a gentleman's duty to protect the fair sex, even when he was as helpless as they were.
Only they didn't know he wasn't helpless. Their men had done a poor job of tying the knots of the ropes; others may have been unable to free themselves, but he had learned early how to undo any knot even when tightly bound. It had proven quite helpful when pulling a con, or escaping jail. They also didn't know about his sleeve gun. So when two of them came to take the women, he was ready.
He sighed at the memory, frustration surging through his wracked body. He should've been able to save them, and kill more than one of the brutes. He'd thought he could get both of them and they could escape. But then more had shown up, just as they were running for the gate. It had been over too quickly, there had been too many of them, and they had not been saved. He should have spared himself the grief.
But no, he told himself firmly even as new pain stiffened his breathing, he couldn't allow himself to sink into that pit. He could not have stood by and allowed the women to be violated, not as a gentleman, and certainly not as a sworn keeper of the law. Chris and the others would not have tolerated it; how could he have held his head up, when his friends found him, if he had ignored their screams?
And they would find him. He had to hold on to that belief. Otherwise, he would allow the darkness to simply have him, and go mad.
That's what they want, he realized grimly. They'd been furious that he'd interfered with their fun. This guy needs to be taught a lesson, they'd shouted after the escape attempt was over. No ransom for you, fancy boy, the one-eyed outlaw leader had sneered. We got other plans.
And they had brought him here.
It was a small room, he knew that much, deep in the ground beneath the fort, where no light could reach. They left him here alone for days at a time in the darkness, giving him only enough food and water to stay alive until the next time they felt like beating him. Afterwards the bleeding wounds would be roughly tended to; didn't want him dying too fast, they'd say. But they did nothing for the pain.
And this had gone on, in a blur of days and weeks and possibly months, blinding intervals of searing agony separated by endless stretches of isolation and darkness. All attempts at escape had failed, and only brought new suffering. He tried to keep his mind busy, concocting elaborate cons that would have done his mother proud, and devising surefire poker strategies which would certainly assure his fortune. He had to be whole, and in his right mind, when his friends found him.
He knew they would, or at least he did most of the time. Sometimes, when the anguish of his torn body was almost unbearable, the crueler voices in his mind would tell him that they didn't care what happened to him and even if they found him, would just as soon let him rot. But he could not allow himself to believe that, and through sheer force of will drove the demons away. The men he rode with were an uncivilized bunch, and often rude, but he had seen them fight to protect their own.
And, he now realized, he was one of their own, and would fight just as hard to remain in their number. It would be so easy to give up to the agony and madness, or to allow himself to slip off into painless sleep forever, but he knew he had to force himself to keep fighting. Even if he died, he would know he had not taken the coward's way out, that he had found true courage in himself at last. And that knowledge would render his death as his triumph, not theirs. Even if no one knew but himself.
A sound reached his ear, and he froze. It was faint but familiar: the noise of the huge door at the top of the stairway being unlocked and swung open. Footsteps thudded on the stone stairs leading down to his cell. There were many of them, and under the door to his room he could see the glow of torches growing brighter by the second. Rough talk and coarse laughter floated through the air, disturbing the normal deathly silence of the room. Apparently it was time, once again, for fun.
He braced himself, burying his head in his arms for just a moment and praying to a God he had never really believed in before for the strength to endure. He would survive and return to his friends, get rich and end his days old and happy, and see to it that these bastards paid for what they had done.
Or die trying.
He stared into the darkness, and waited.
TO MRS MAUDE STANDISH GOLDEN LION HOTEL ST LOUIS REGRET TO INFORM YOU EZRA STILL MISSING STOP WILL SEND WORD IF THIS CHANGES STOP CHRIS LARABEE.
Chris scowled to himself as studied the words he had just written as he stood at the counter of the telegraph office. Damn, how he hated the message held in those seemingly innocent ink scrawls, but he'd promised to let her know.
He looked up to see the grizzled old operator eying him in bored impatience and dug into the pocket of his black pants for the money. With the other hand he pushed the paper across the counter, where the operator read it with nonchalance.
"Still ain't come back, eh?" the man grunted as he scratched his stubbly gray beard. His tone seemed bemused, without a trace of concern.
Chris fidgeted as he counted out the coin, his green eyes smoldering. "Nope."
"Huh." The old man shook his head. "Musta run off on ya, huh? Always thought he might. Can't trust them gamblin' fellers, y'know."
Chris's head shot up and he threw the coins at the man with an arm strengthened by angry disgust.
"I ain't payin' to hear your opinions," he snarled, his expression deadly. Without another word he turned and strode out of the office, his black duster swirling around his legs. As he walked away, he heard the operator say none too softly behind him, "Damn hired guns!"
Chris's anger continued to simmer as he made his way down to the saloon, his green eyes skimming the early morning crowds parading down the boardwalk of the small frontier town. Some folks just won't accept a man no matter what he does, he thought angrily, reflecting on how he and the other men hired to guard this town were still regarded with suspicion even after all this time.
Normally that was fine with him - he'd never paid much mind to what other people thought, long as the pay was steady and the company good - but it seemed downright cold how none of them cared what happened to Ezra. Their indifference made him wonder if they were wasting their time helping folks who couldn't even summon up the guts to be grateful.
They weren't all like that, of course, he remembered as he skirted around the tobacco shop. When Ezra didn't come back from his trip to Eagle Bend, Mary was certainly worried, and Inez and Mrs. Potter. And there had been some others who asked from time to time. But they'd stopped asking now, now that two months had passed and there was no sign of where the gambler might have gone. Chris could hear the talk in the saloons. Ran off, he heard them say. Or, got himself shot somewhere. Or fell in with another gang that offered more money.
None of it mattered. Ezra was gone, regardless.
He looked up the street, squinting in the morning sun as he neared the saloon. The damnedest thing was not knowing. Any moment, Ezra could come riding back, hopefully with a damn good explanation. Or, they might never see him again. Chris frowned at the twisting feeling in his gut; Ezra had proven himself to be a reliable gun and even earned a measure of trust among their hard-bitten group. Didn't seem right for him to just ride off with no word, and that meant he'd probably run into trouble. Worst part was, they'd most likely never know.
As he approached the building which housed Mary's newspaper, the door of the Clarion opened, and Mary stepped out, smudged with ink, her hair untidy from the day's labors. In her arms she carried a bucket full of inky water, and as she prepared to dump it into the street she saw Chris and stopped.
"Mornin', Mary," he said, giving his hat brim a tug. but he was not in the mood to even try to smile.
"Good morning, Chris," she replied, studying him closely. "Though from the look on your face, I'd say it hasn't been all that good."
"Ah," Chris spat, turning his gaze away, slightly embarrassed that his anger had been so evident. "Just fightin' the urge to knock some heads together, is all."
She gave him a quiet smile as she poured the dirty water onto the hot dusty street. "Well, since you don't appear to have been in a brawl, you must be winning the fight."
He shrugged. "Fight ain't over yet."
They stood silent for a moment, and Mary looked up the street where Chris had been walking from. "Were you telegraphing Mrs. Standish again?"
"Yup." Chris sighed, looking at her with soldering green eyes. "The old fool behind the counter just couldn't keep his damn mouth shut. Felt about ready to buffalo 'im."
She examined his angry expression, hugging the empty bucket to her as she nodded. "I'm glad you didn't," she said as she turned to go back inside. "It wouldn't have helped matters any."
"Would've made me feel better," he replied as he followed her into the printing shop.
Inside, the newly cleaned press stood ready for the day's work amid piles of blank newsprint. As Mary set the bucket down and wiped her hands on her ink-stained apron, Chris leaned on the doorway, his face thoughtful.
"Yes, but you know how folks around here think," Mary said as she prepared to ink the press. "Gamblers aren't looked on as the cream of frontier society, no matter who they are or what they've done for the town. Clubbing people to the ground won't change their minds."
"Neither will fightin' to save their miserable skins, apparently," Chris observed with a scowl.
Mary opened a jar of ink and looked at Chris while she stirred it with a wooden spoon. "You know not everyone here feels that way," she said in a soothing tone. "There are those here who appreciate what you and the others have done for us."
The light in Chris's eyes was doubtful, but he gave her a short nod anyway. "Maybe," he said quietly, "but they ain't talkin' as loud." He sighed, then straightened. "Best get on down to the saloon."
Mary nodded. "Well... if you hear anything, please let me know," she said in a soft, serious tone. "Billy and I both hope that Ezra comes back to us soon. And you know no amount of gossip's going to change that."
Chris tugged at his hat brim. "Yeah, I know," he said, and walked away.
Chris reached the saloon and stepped inside; it was still quiet, most of the townsfolk were at the hotel getting breakfast, but there were usually one or two of his men here visiting with Inez or getting coffee. Sure enough, there were Buck and Vin in the corner, and Chris made his way to them, bracing himself for another hard conversation.
As he walked over, the lifted their heads to silently greet him, and Chris studied Buck carefully. Buck had taken Ezra's disappearance hard; at first he thought the gambler was in trouble somewhere, but some hard searching had turned up nothing. Buck and Ezra had found an easy friendship together; Chris knew the wandering gunslinger enjoyed the gambler's sense of humor and amiable company, and truly missed the nights they'd spent together playing cards and joking in the saloon. Now, that seemed to be over, leaving only the painful question of why.
So, Chris looked Buck over to see if there were any signs of hard drinking or getting into fights just for the hell of it. But there were none; he seemed all right, if still somewhat less energetic than usual. So Chris turned his attention to what was coming.
"Send it?" Vin asked as he looked up at Chris, his blue eyes regarding him keenly over his morning coffee.
Chris nodded, glancing at the long-haired tracker as he sat down. "Yep."
Buck sighed. "Hell of a thing, Chris. Don't seem right not t'have that smooth-talkin' rascal around."
Chris nodded, his gut tightening again as he glanced at the area where Ezra usually held his poker games. "Sure don't. But it ain't lookin' good."
Vin shook his head, his handsome face somber. "Never thought he'd just run off, though. He was makin' good money at the tables, at least." He grinned a little, sadly. "Mostly ours."
Buck looked down at his hands. "I'm thinkin' of ridin' out again, takin' another look around. Men just don't drop off the earth, Chris, somebody's got to know where he is."
His friend sighed as he sat forward, folding his hands. "Unless he just don't want t'be found." He looked up at Buck. "Maybe he crossed somebody gamblin' an' had to run."
"Or the wilderness got 'im," Vin added softly. "This land ain't very forgivin' just yet. Lots of places for a feller to get lost in."
They sat in mournful thought for a few moments, listening to the sounds of continuing life as it rattled by outside. Then Buck shook his head.
"Can't see Ezra runnin' without sendin' word, at least to his ma," he said quietly. "An' if the land got 'im, well, then I reckon we oughta at least find 'im an' give him a proper burial. Beats sittin' here an' just wonderin'."
Chris sat back, his expression thoughtful. "Know how you feel, Buck. I'm thinkin' that way, too. Judge Travis is comin' to town tomorrow, we'll see if he can spare us for a while. If nothin' happens that he'll need us for, we'll ride."
The other two men nodded, knowing that the others in their number would agree, and hoping the coming day would prove quiet enough to free them to search for their missing comrade.
JD sighed to himself as he trotted alongside Nathan on the road home from Eagle Bend. It was a beautiful day, but he was hardly in the mood to pay any attention to it.
"Them bank robbers didn't look too happy to be carted back to Eagle Bend, huh?" he heard Nathan say as they rode along. The young man lifted his head to look at the healer and former slave, recognizing the strained tone in his comrade's voice which so closely matched the heavy feeling in his own heart. It was the tight sound of words spoken to avoid saying something else.
JD nodded. "Yeah, don't guess their sheriff was too happy to see 'em."
Nathan looked back a the road. "Yup."
Silence fell between them again, and JD directed his eyes to the west, where the traces of vegetation ended and the desert stretched out wide and wild as far as he could see. His throat tightened as he imagined what secrets it might hold, and the one secret he was truly interested in.
"Y'all right, JD?"
JD ducked his head, relieved; at last Nathan wanted to talk about it. "Yeah, doc, just... thinkin' about Ezra."
He looked back at the healer, to see a sad expression on his friend's face which mirrored his own feelings. Nathan sighed and shook his head, his dark eyes dropping to his hands.
"Yeah, I been thinkin' on 'im to," Nathan confessed. "We didn't always get along, but it don't seem right not t'have him around."
"Boy, that's the truth," JD agreed, guiding Hero around a fallen branch. "What do you think happened to him?"
Nathan sighed, rubbing the back of is neck with one hand. "Can't rightly say, JD. Gamblin's a hard life, he mighta run into someone he'd crossed before."
JD studied his friend carefully. "Think he ran off?"
Nathan looked over at the young man, startled.
"That's what folks in town are sayin'," JD said quickly, to explain. "Had a guy tell me just yesterday after we got the bank robbers, he said, 'Too bad that gambler ran off an' left you boys with all the work. Reckon he's livin' it up in Frisco by now.'" JD looked away. "Boy, that made me mad. They oughta know Ezra wouldn't do that."
The healer pursed his lips and studied the scenery as they rode by, his expression sad and knowing. "Some folks just don't want t'accept that a man can change, JD. He can work all his life doin' good, but all they see is what's outside."
JD was silent for a moment before he asked, "So, you don't think he ran off, right?"
Nathan gave him as reassuring a glance as he could. "Naw, JD, I don't. At one time, maybe, but not now. At the very least he wouldn't want Chris comin' after him."
JD smiled a little and nodded in agreement.
"An' too," Nathan went on, "I thought he was kinda likin' the life we had in town. But that just means he mighta run into trouble, an' that's even worse'n him runnin' off. Cause we can't help 'im."
JD nodded, his lip twitching in sorrow as he stared at Hero's mane. "I hope he knows we ain't forgot 'im, I mean, if he is still alive." He lifted his eyes to the desert. "I was just lookin' out there an' wonderin' if he was... uh... Nathan? You see that?"
JD had reined in and was staring out into the sandy wastes of the desert. Nathan followed suit, scanning the tan-gray stretches.
"You see somethin', JD?" he asked, squinting into the sun.
"Yeah," JD replied. "There - there's someone walking out there - look!"
JD pointed; Nathan followed his finger, and saw a small dark speck, growing larger, struggling and stumbling in the heat.
"Looks like they're in trouble," Nathan said, gathering up his reins. "Let's go see if we can help."
"Right behind ya, doc," JD replied, and together they rode quickly out into the desert.
As they rode closer, they saw that it was a young girl, no more than thirteen years old, staggering along in dire distress. Shoeless, her dress torn and bloodied, she appeared to have been walking for quite some time, and when she saw them approaching she lifted one arm and weakly waved, crying for assistance in Spanish. As they reined in beside her, she collapsed to the dust, her long dark hair tangled in her face as she sobbed.
Nathan was off of his horse before it stopped and beside her, helping her up. "Easy, miss, " he said gently, "We got you."
She looked into his eyes, and he was shocked at the bruises which disfigured her young face. Closer inspection found them all over her body; she had been very roughly used.
Swiftly Nathan pulled his canteen out and opened it, giving it to the girl. She clutched it desperately, taking long pulls of the precious liquid as Nathan held it up for her. Finally it was drained; she pushed the empty container away with a gasp, muttering "Gracias" several times.
Nathan smiled and nodded as he recapped the canteen. "You're welcome, miss. C'mon, we'll take you to town an' fix them bruises."
He tried to help her to the horses, but she pulled away, becoming agitated. In heavy, panting breaths she beseeched them in Spanish, weakly clutching at Nathan's dusty shirt.
"What's she sayin'?" JD asked as he crouched beside Nathan.
Nathan frowned as he pulled off his jacket and threw it over her sunburned shoulders. "She's been walkin' for two days across the desert," Nathan said. "Can't make it all out. We best get 'er back to town." He gently helped her to her feet with a few softly spoken words of Spanish. She began sobbing again, falling against his chest and covering her face in her hands.
JD helped her onto Nathan's horse, his face aghast. "She looks awful, Nathan, she gonna be okay?"
The healer sighed as he mounted his horse and wrapped one arm around the girl. "I don't know, JD," he said sadly, and with one flap of the reins they began their trip home at a faster pace than before.
"Here you are, chiquita."
Inez's voice was as soft and gentle as possible as she handed the frightened girl a cup of hot tea. They were in Nathan's clinic now, the girl sitting on Nathan's bed with Inez, her wounds now tended to by the healer's skilled hands, wearing a new dress. The sun was setting, the small room bathed in the orange glow of its final rays.
The young girl accepted the cup with a halfhearted smile and drank eagerly, her hand still shaking a bit. Behind Inez stood Chris and Vin, watching carefully from the corner, trying not to intrude, and Mary, her blue eyes filled with worry and horror.
"Gracias," the girl whispered, handing the cup back.
"See if she wants to tell us her name," Nathan suggested, leaning forward on the bed rail at the foot of the bed.
Inez nodded and said a few words in Spanish to the young girl. She looked up at them in reply and whispered, "Contessa Almarez."
Inez smiled and nodded, said a few more words, and received a few back. She turned to Chris and Vin.
"She says she is thirteen, and from San Lupe, a village near the border."
"Best try t'find her folks," Vin said with a nod.
Mary was writing down the name. "I'll send a telegraph right away,' she said, and hurried away.
"She ready t'say what she was doin' out in the desert?' Chris asked with concern, but before Inez could ask the question Contessa was plucking at her sleeve, becoming agitated.
"Senorita, senorita," she whispered urgently. Inez turned to the girl, taking her hand gently and listening as words tumbled from her mouth, quickly spoken, frightened, and pleading.
Nathan frowned, disturbed by the alarm which filled Inez's eyes. "What is it?"
When Contessa finished, Inez turned to them, her pretty face wreathed in anger. "She says she was kidnapped and taken to an Army fort in the desert. She was there for a long time, she is not sure how long. It was run by a one-eyed man and a woman, bad people, who had many men with them."
Chris sighed, fury building in his eyes. "A gang. Might've known."
"There's a old fort out past Eagle Bend," Vin said thoughtfully. "Troops cleared out long ago, might be what she's talkin' about."
More words, frantic and tearful now. Inez swallowed and looked at them all again. "She says they have many people there, prisoners like her. Some they hurt for fun, and the women are hurt even more. She was in a room with one of the bad men for this purpose when he was struck by the hand of God and fell dead, so she climbed out of a window and ran."
Vin shook his head. "Bastards."
The girl sighed and said more, the words less tumultuous, more sorrowful.
"She says they have no one to help those who are captive," Inez translated in a mournful voice, always keeping her eyes on the girl. "One man tried to protect them and he was taken away and killed, she thinks. No one dares try to stop what they do."
"That's gonna change," Chris said simply, shifting and placing his hands on his belt. "Tell 'er she's safe now, we'll get her back to her family, an' that them men are gonna pay for what they done to her."
Inez nodded with a smile, and repeated the words softly to the young girl. In response, Contessa threw her arms around Inez's neck, burying her face in the young woman's shoulder and sobbing with relief and gratitude.
"Think she'll be all right now," Nathan nodded, smiling a bit.
"Gracias, senors," Inez whispered, as she held the girl tightly to her, stroking her hair.
Chris and Vin nodded, and prepared to leave.
"You know the way to this fort?' Chris asked his friend as he opened the door of Nathan's room.
Vin fingered the Winchester which hung by his side and nodded his head, a deadly light in his blue eyes. "Been by there some. Reckon I can find it again with no trouble."
"I'll be comin' too," Nathan said. "Sounds like them folks will be needin' some help."
Chris nodded, his handsome face dark with rage in the last light of the setting sun. "Not as much help as these sons of bitches are gonna need, once we get our hands on them."
Dawn the next day found the six gunmen cautiously approaching the fort, alert and ready for anything. Vin led the way, his mind tracing the trail to the place while the others trotted behind. The sparse vegetation soon gave way to barren rocks and scrub brush, surrounded by lofty mesas and ringed by distant mountains.
"Sure wish we could've waited for the Judge," JD muttered as they moved forward.
"He ain't comin' in til the afternoon stage, JD," Buck replied, his expression grim. "Best we take care of these vermin now before they can hurt anyone else."
"Did that poor girl say anything else about the evildoer behind all this?" Josiah asked as he spurred Prophet forward to ride beside Nathan.
The healer shrugged. "Just that he had one eye, an' there was a woman helpin' 'im. That's all she knew."
"Least we know it ain't that Top Hat Bob guy," JD observed. "He's dead."
Buck looked over at him, his face suddenly white. "One eye?"
Nathan nodded, turning in his saddle to look at his friend. "Yup. Sound familiar?"
JD perked up. "Hey, yeah, that's right, Buck, you used to be a lawman. Maybe you've heard of these guys before."
But Buck quickly shook his head. "If it's who I'm thinkin' on, JD, I sure hope to hell I ain't."
With that Buck rode on ahead, an expression of dread blanketing his handsome face.
Vin held up his hand to signal a halt. "There it is, boys - Fort Gilbert."
The five other men halted beside him just beneath the lip of a small rise. Before them some distance away sat the unassuming wooden form of a large fort, its fence composed of spiked logs which reached silently for the clear blue sky. The scene was silent and motionless, except for a feeble plume of smoke which sputtered into the sky from somewhere within the fort's walls.
JD cocked his head. "Looks deserted," he said, glancing at the other men.
Chris's expression was grim, his green eyes wide with a horrifying realization. "Vin?"
The tracker nodded. "I'm thinkin' the same thing, Chris. Let's go have a look."
They rode forward slowly, meeting no resistance. No living soul appeared at the rim of the fort, no sound disturbed the eerie silence of the desert morning. Each man's heart pounded as they neared the structure, eyes gazing the walls for any hint of trouble.
They finally arrived at the gate, which stood slightly open. Quickly the men dismounted, guns drawn, eyes wide with dread anticipation. Chris and Vin went first, creeping low to the ground in a crouch as they approached the gate, expecting an ambush at any minute.
Chris arrived at the opening, gun held in the air as he stood preparing to peer around the gate. Vin took his position on the other side, Winchester primed and gripped tightly. After making sure everyone was ready, Chris very slowly peered into the courtyard of the fort.
There was a breathless pause as all the men tensed, prepared for a hail of bullets to greet their appearance. Instead, they saw Chris look inside for a moment, straighten and say loudly, "Damn!"
Vin was one second behind Chris, and also reacted to what he saw with grim resignation. "Aw, hell. Aw, hell."
The rest of the men relaxed as much as the dread in their hearts would allow, and stood waiting while Chris and Vin pulled open the door, all fear of an attack now gone. When they were all able to look inside, they could see the horrifying reason why.
Inside the fort was a bedlam of carnage, all still and silent under the merciless morning sun. Bodies lay everywhere, their blood pooling in the hard-baked sand, at least two dozen men and women of all varieties of age and description, their hands bound behind their backs. The deathly quiet was broken only by the monotonous buzzing of flies which swarmed over the bloated corpses in black, undulating clouds. Signs that buzzards had also visited the fort were apparent as well. Over everything hung a sickening stench, which promised to grow worse in the mounting heat.
Chris cursed as he looked around, his gun kept ready in case of a surprise attack. The other men fanned out, searching the bodies for any sign of life.
"What happened?" JD gasped, appalled.
"They killed the hostages an' lit out, JD," Vin said quickly as he stepped carefully among the bodies. "Shot 'em, looks like."
"Oh," JD gagged, turning completely white at the sight before him, "oh..." He whirled and stumbled away, ducking behind a stand of boxes to be violently, wretchedly ill.
"Merciful father," Josiah breathed, a heartbroken tone in his voice.
Chris grit his teeth, fury smoldering in his green eyes. "Look around. See if anyone's alive."
The other men were already performing this task, but the search proved fruitless.
"God above, Chris," Buck whispered in shock as he checked the bodies. "Ain't never seen anythin' like this."
Chris could say nothing but, "Let's check inside."
All of the doors to the fort were hanging open. Inside were more scenes of depravity, rooms where women lay bound and shot, and a few corpses of men whose limp forms hung from the walls where they had been chained and, from all appearances, brutally tortured. The horrific smell of blood was everywhere.
"Looks like they kept some prisoners," Vin said in a rage-choked voice as they studied these rooms. "Didn't let them live neither."
Speech soon became impossible as the awful sights continued. JD reappeared, pale and shaken, his wide hazel eyes unbelieving at the extent of brutality he was witnessing.
In the last hallway they encountered a passageway choked with at least twenty bodies, but these were different than the pitiful remains in the courtyard. They were all men, rough-looking and clad in dirty clothes worn through with hard work and hard living. They all wore gunbelts and still possessed their weapons; a few were grasping their holstered guns in their stiff hands, as if they had been killed in the act of trying to draw. Like those in the courtyard, they had all been shot dead.
Josiah surveyed the scene with despair. "Looks like the leader didn't want nobody talkin'," he observed with sorrow.
"He shot down his own men?" JD gasped.
At that moment a groan split the air, issuing from the pile of bodies before them.
Nathan sprang forward, stepping over the sprawled corpses of the outlaws. "One of 'em's alive," he announced, pushing the stiff bodies aside to find the survivor.
"Won't be for long, by the sounds of it," Vin said, following him.
Beneath a heavy-set corpse they found a younger man, ugly and stubble-faced, blood saturating his shirt, but still with enough breath in him to moan aloud. As light broke on him and he gazed up at Nathan, he cried aloud in surprise.
"He send you t'finish me off?" he cried weakly.
Nathan reached down and began pulling the man from the pile of bodies which threatened to suffocate him. "Not just yet. Hold on!"
The man was in no shape to resist, and was soon propped up against the wall, surrounded by the grim-faced gunslingers as he guzzled water from Nathan's canteen.
"What happened here?" Chris demanded, careless of the man's condition.
The man ignored him, gasping as Nathan took the canteen away. "Am I gonna live?"
"You don't deserve it," Buck growled, his blue eyes blazing.
"Easy, Buck," Nathan muttered as he examined the man's wounds. No words were spoken for a few moments, then Nathan sighed and sat back, his face grim.
"Sorry, mister," he said, with the barest tinge of sincerity, "Ain't nothin' I can do."
The man slammed his head against the wall in feeble frustration. "Aw, shit!"
Josiah knelt by his side. "I used to be a preacher, son. You want to unburden your soul, you can tell us what happened here an' maybe help us catch the men that did it."
The man looked at him skeptically. "You'll never catch Wolf."
JD frowned. "Wolf?"
The man nodded. "Got no reason t'save his skin now. One-Eyed Wolf Parsons. He's the man who done this."
Vin was nodding slowly. "Heard of him. Used t'run wild in Montana territory. Real hard case."
The dying outlaw nodded. "Him an' that gal of his, Rio, they ran this whole fort."
Chris suddenly surged forward, grabbing the man by his collar and hoisting him up until their faces almost touched.
"You bastards been hurtin' women an' killin' folks?" he snarled in a lethal whisper, his wide eyes showing no hint of mercy.
The man gasped, pain filling his eyes. "Yeah, mister, I - I guess we did. Paid for it, too. When one of the prisoner gals ran off Wolf thought we'd get caught out so he told us t'kill all the hostages an' then we'd leave. Had us meet 'im in here, then him an' Rio shot us all an' lit out."
Vin scowled. "How'd two people shoot all these men without gettin' gunned down?"
The dying man coughed and gasped. "Three of the men helped him, I think... he told them they'd be leaving with him. Probably promised 'em a bigger cut of the money. But in the end they were done in, too."
Chris's grasp tightened. "Where'd he go?"
His captive thought for a moment. "I... I dunno. Purgatory, maybe, he likes it there. Look, mister, I been lyin' here dyin' for a whole day, so if you're gonna kill me I'd be obliged if you'd do it quick."
The expression on Chris's face did not soften as he flung the man back to the ground. "You ain't suffered enough," he said angrily, looking around.
"You got anythin' else to say, son?" Josiah asked.
The man coughed and shook his head. "Wolf shot the prisoners, then us, an' rode out. That's... all I know. You really a preacher?"
Josiah smiled. "Was once. Could be again, if need be."
The man's face was becoming white. "Then I got to talk to you. I been... thinkin'. Want to try an' set a few things right before I die."
The other men drifted away, reluctantly giving the dying man his privacy with Josiah. Chris walked, seething, into the courtyard, seeking privacy of his own for the time being.
JD joined Vin. "We gonna go hunt this guy down?"
Vin was watching Chris carefully, not looking at JD as he nodded. "Think that's gonna be the plan, once we get these folks buried. If the Judge agrees to it."
The young man looked around, his face ashen. "I - I never seen nothin' like this, Vin. It's..." He paused, looked around again, puzzled. "Where's Buck?"
Buck gasped for air as he leaned against the wall of the empty hallway. his heart hammered within him, his chest tightening until he thought for sure it would crush him.
Wolf Parsons. Damn him to hell.
His mind swirled, a scene playing before his memory of an incident long buried in the past. A younger Buck Wilmington appeared, smiling, cocksure, a lawman's badge pinned to his shirt. The dangerous criminal Wolf Parsons in jail, put there by Buck's able hands. And he was happy to have caught such a notorious killer. It was a real prize, enough to catch the attention of a beautiful red-haired woman in the saloon. A newcomer to town. She and Buck hit it off instantly.
Then, that night in the jail a few days later, watching over Parsons. The knock on the door, the beautiful woman entered, confessing that she just couldn't stop herself, she had to be with him. He smiled, feeling flattered, he'd been wanting her since they met. An empty cell provided the perfect place. She was wonderful.
Then, the hard blow to the head, and waking up hours later to find the woman and Parsons gone, his cell door open wide. She'd been working with him. Buck had searched for weeks to find them, but they were gone. The badge was tossed away; he didn't think he deserved it any more. Time had eased the pain of that incident, but he had never been able to repair his mistake.
Now it had cost other people their lives. Those women...
Buck started, and wiped the sweat from his face as he turned to see JD jogging towards him. Concern shone in the young man's face as he neared.
"Jesus, Buck, are you all right?"
The other man sighed deeply and rubbed his face. "Yeah, kid, just - this is bringin' up some bad memories, that's all."
JD's eyes were somber. "Yeah, well, we'll catch that Wolf guy. I think Chris is about ready to chase him all the way to Brazil."
Buck nodded. "Hell's more like it, kid."
JD shook his head. "That too, I'll bet." He gulped and directed his eyes down the hall. "This is the worst thing I've ever seen, Buck. Never felt so sick to my stomach in my life."
Buck sighed and stood up. "That just means you're human, kid. We ready to move?"
JD nodded. "Yeah, Chris wants us to check all the rooms."
Buck nodded gravely, not sure he could take any more grim sights. "Let's go then."
They searched the rooms in the hallway and found nothing. As they headed back to the courtyard, JD suddenly stopped, frowning, as he studied the walls.
Buck looked at him. "What's wrong, JD?"
"I think we missed one, Buck," JD said, heading towards a dingy curtain which hung on the wall. "There's a door behind here - look!"
He lifted up the heavy green fabric, and sure enough there was a door there, thick and wooden with a padlock on its handle.
"Huh," Buck grunted in curiosity as he drew his gun. "Must be where they stashed their loot. Let's take a look."
He pointed the gun at the lock and fired. JD ducked as the device exploded into a shower of metal bits. As the smoke cleared, Buck holstered his gun and pulled the door open, peering inside.
"Looks like a stairway," he muttered. "Mighty dark too. Better get us a lantern, else we'll break our necks goin' down these stairs."
A light was soon procured, and they soon found themselves descending into the deeper regions of the fort. The stairs were carved from the desert rock itself, and the air became noticeably cooler as they descended.
Another door appeared at the bottom, similar to the first.
"Must be a cellar or somethin'," JD offered.
"We'll know in a minute," Buck replied, pulling out his gun once more. "Look out, kid."
Another loud report, and the door swung open, only a little ways this time. It was thicker and heavier than the first one, and Buck had to pull to open it wide enough for him to pass through it. Once inside, he held up the dim lantern and strained to see where he was.
It was a room, no larger than twenty feet square, and completely devoid of light. To his right was a wall, the sight of which froze Buck's blood in his veins. Two manacles hung limply from its grimy surface, about four feet apart, and the gray wall between them was stained with a sickening red-brown substance. In one corner nearby sat a tin bucket containing a few implements Buck could only glance at; he didn't really want to know what they were.
Sick sons of bitches, he thought, and turned his gaze to the rest of the room.
And stopped in his tracks.
There was someone lying in the corner of the room, a man by all appearances in the flickering lamplight, curled up tightly with his back to them. A long chain tethered the prisoner to the wall, but Buck could see little else, besides the fact that whoever it was had been savagely beaten.
Another dead prisoner, Buck realized, and took a few steps towards him.
Then stopped, and looked again.
"Jesus," he breathed, almost dropping the lantern. For an instant he couldn't move, then he bolted across the room, falling to his knees frantically in front of the motionless figure.
JD watched him, puzzled. "Buck, what-"
"JD, get Nathan!" Buck almost screamed as he bent over the prisoner. "Now!"
The young man whirled, and Buck heard his footsteps pound up the stairs as he ran off.
He was shaking now, beside himself with shock and sorrow at the sight before him. He quickly studied the still figure for some unwounded place to put his hand, to try and rouse the motionless form, but there was nowhere on the prisoner's body that had been left untouched by the outlaws' brutality. Some of the wounds had been crudely bandaged, others were still healing, and they all looked painful.
"Aw, dammit," he breathed, still stunned. "Aw, hell... Ezra?"
The form didn't move, didn't react in any way, and Buck's heart sank. He's dead, he thought, those bastards killed him, and for an instant he felt as if he could murder those responsible with his bare hands. Christ, how long had Ezra been here? He was covered with blood and dirt, his clothing reduced to grimy rags, he was almost unrecognizable, and all Buck wanted to do now was let him know they were here. If only Ezra could hear him...
"C'mon, now," Buck whispered, when he finally could speak again. Very carefully he placed one hand on Ezra's shoulder, hoping it wouldn't startle him too much. "Ezra, buddy, it's ol' Buck-"
The body shuddered to life, and the shoulder jerked away in an agonized reflex. From where Ezra's face was buried in his arm there arose a choked, muffled noise, almost a sob.
Buck bent over him, wondering what the hell was keeping Nathan. "Ezra, listen up, it's Buck." He hesitated, then gingerly placed his hand on Ezra's head, trying to show that he wasn't going to hurt him. "It's okay."
There was a moment of silence; Buck could feel his friend trembling under his hand, although he couldn't tell if it was from fear, pain, or the clammy cold which pervaded the air of the small room. In the dim light he saw the gambler's eyes blink open a little, his breath coming in very short, stabbing gasps. But at least he seemed aware.
"There, that's it, c'mon now," Buck urged.
He heard Ezra draw a sharp, almost frightened breath, and very slowly he lifted his head to stare at Buck. He looked horrible, as if he'd been in the worst barroom brawl imaginable. The gunslinger's heart fell into his boots at the sight of Ezra's pale face disfigured by blackish-blue bruises and swollen cuts, the deep purplish circles under his eyes, and the way he was squinting terribly in the dim lamplight, as if he was staring into a blinding sun. Dried blood was caked beneath his nose and at one corner of his lips.
Buck grinned, trying to encourage him even though the last thing in the world he felt like doing was smiling. "Hey, there ya are," he said gently. "C'mon now."
Ezra said nothing, still staring at him and trembling. In the flickering glow of the lantern Buck saw tears glisten at the corners of Ezra's eyes.
"Buck?" he whispered in a rough voice, one hand reaching up slowly to weakly clutch at the other man's sleeve. He frowned. "Is this-" he swallowed, "-a dream?"
Buck smiled, despite the tightness in his throat. "If it is, buddy, you gotta put us in Frisco next time."
A small smile touched the corners of Ezra's lips, his fingers convulsing as he gripped Buck's sleeve. An instant later his grip tightened and he slumped back to the floor with a groan, unconscious.
"Ezra? Aw, dammit," Buck breathed, quickly putting out a hand to keep his friend's head from hitting the filthy straw-covered ground. From outside came the sound of footsteps pounding down the stairway, and a second later Nathan appeared, followed by JD and the rest of the men.
"Find a live prisoner, Buck?" Nathan asked as he ran in.
Buck looked up, fear in his blue eyes. "Nathan, you gotta hurry on over here. It's Ezra."
An electric shock seemed to run through the small group. Nathan almost stumbled in surprise, his eyes growing wide as he ran the last few steps. "Ezra? God Almighty!"
The other men watched, amazed and horrified, as Nathan bent over the unconscious body of their friend.
"Aw hell," Vin whispered, aghast at the sight before him. JD was leaning against the wall, stunned and looking ill as he stared at the bloodied form. Josiah paused, an expression of deep sorrow settling on his face, before he stepped quickly over to stand by Nathan and Buck. Chris hung back by the doorway, observing the scene with smoldering green eyes, his fury mounting with every passing minute.
"Ain't never seen nothin' like this," Nathan whispered in horror as he looked over Ezra's beaten form, "not even on the plantation." He licked his lips and looked over to JD. "JD, run an' see if you can find some sheets an' water."
JD stood rooted to the spot for a moment, his hazel eyes glued to the scene. Then he nodded, turned, and ran up the stairs with staggering steps.
"He say anything?" Nathan asked as his hands gently felt the gambler's arms and ribs, looking for broken bones.
Buck sighed. "He knew I was here, but he didn't stay awake for long." His voice caught in his throat. "He gonna make it?"
Nathan bent over, looking at Ezra's whip-scarred back. "Think so, Buck, but he's in a mighty bad way. Looks like they were treatin' him just enough to keep him alive."
Vin ducked his head in anger, then looked at Chris. The black-clad gunslinger was staring intensely at Ezra, his expression lethal.
"We're goin' after 'em, Vin," he whispered. "No matter what it takes, they're gonna pay for this."
Vin nodded. "Right behind ya, pard."
JD appeared, holding a bunch of sheets and a bucket slopping over with clear water. "Found these just upstairs, doc. An' I think these might be the for that, uh, that chain." He held up a rusty set of keys.
He handed the armload to Buck and Nathan. While Nathan busied himself ripping up the sheets with Josiah's help, Buck carefully tested the keys on the old rough metal manacle enclosing Ezra's wrist. With the third key, there was a hollow click, and the cuff loosened and gave way. Gently Buck eased the chain away, wincing at the sight of the raw skin beneath it.
"Aw, hell," he whispered, then threw the chain against the wall. It landed harmlessly with a clatter and lay forgotten as they turned all of their attention to Ezra.
"Best bind 'im up quick as we can an' get 'im back to town," Nathan said. "We can wash his wounds best at the bath house."
Josiah nodded, and he and Buck gently helped the healer wrap as many of the gambler's wounds as possible. Throughout the operation, Ezra remained deeply unconscious, uttering no sound as his battered skin was tenderly bathed and bandaged. Josiah held the gambler in his arms while Nathan worked, but there was no indication that Ezra knew anything of what was happening.
JD stayed in the doorway, appearing increasingly sick. "My God, Chris," he gasped, barely able to talk, "why'd they do that to Ezra?"
Chris drew a deep, angry breath. "Cause they're scum, JD," was the furious reply. "But they ain't gonna be free scum for much longer."
"Or live scum, if we can help it," Vin added.
JD looked on and said nothing more, horrified.
Finally they were finished. "Reckon we can take 'im out now," Nathan said. "Have to ride careful back to town, he can't take much jostlin'."
Buck reached up and began to untie the bandanna around his neck. "Hold on, Nathan - he's been in this damn hole so long he can't stand the light. Best tie this over his eyes so's he don't get blinded."
He whipped the bandanna off and beat the dust off of it. Folding the cloth carefully, he wrapped it over Ezra's closed eyes and knotted it in place. The expression on Buck's face as he did so was as lethal as Chris'; all of the easygoing nature normally found there was gone, replaced with guilt and rage.
"There you go, buddy," he whispered as he finished his task. "You're gonna be okay soon." He looked at Nathan. "Right?"
The healer's response was a worried look. "Let's get 'im home."
They gently wrapped Ezra in the last whole sheet, and as they stood Josiah carefully slipped his arms beneath the gambler and lifted him up. Solemnly they left the small, hellish room, determined to leave its darkness behind forever as they brought Ezra back into the light of day.
As Josiah eased Ezra back into the sunlight, the group grew even more appalled at their comrade's condition. In the full light every whip mark, bruise and gash was visible in all of its horror, and as they studied their injured friend it almost seemed impossible that he would survive it. He looked so frail and thin, much of his lean muscle melted away from his time in captivity. As the sunlight washed over his face, Ezra made a small, half-awake noise of surprise and pain, and he turned his face into Josiah's shoulder, burying it there to hide from the brilliant glare.
Josiah looked down at him. "Ezra?"
The gambler sighed, but said nothing more, relaxing completely in the preacher's arms.
"Is he awake?" JD asked, still ill at his friend's appearance.
"Don't think so, JD, least not any more," was Josiah's sad reply. "I'll take 'im on Prophet, he can bear the weight of both of us."
Chris nodded, looking around once more at the deathly still scene surrounding them. "We'll go tell the Judge about this, he can have the Army come an' bury the bodies. Then we ride."
This was assented to with mutual grim-faced silence by the entire group. They mounted up without speaking, Josiah wrapping his arms carefully around Ezra as Buck helped him settle the gambler on his horse. No words were spoken as they rode away from the grisly scene, each man knowing in his heart that this situation was far from over.
The sun was beginning to set as they rode into town, dusty, weary and deeply saddened by what they had seen. The ride had been slow so as not to disturb Ezra too much; the gambler was still perched before Josiah, profoundly unconscious.
As they rode towards Nathan's room, the townsfolk turned and stared, many of them openly shocked. Murmurs ran rampant - was that the gambler? It couldn't be, look at him, he's a mess. That fellow was always neat as a pin. Besides, everyone knows that guy ran off. But, you know, it does look like him...
They saw Mary coming out of Mrs. Potter's store. As she glanced up, her fair face turned white, and she quickly darted back inside. Within a moment she reappeared, followed closely by Mrs. Potter. Both women wore faces of dumbfounded shock, but neither flinched from the awful sight as they clutched one another for support. Billy appeared in the doorway of the store, staring with the grim fascination of a five-year-old, and Mary broke with Mrs. Potter long enough to hustle the little boy back inside.
They passed by where Inez was playing with Contessa on the boardwalk in front of the saloon. Inez met Chris's eyes as she realized what she was seeing, her expression turning to one of horror and grief. Quickly she put her hands gently on Contessa's shoulders, to lead the girl inside and protect her from such an awful sight.
Puzzled, Contessa twisted in Inez's grasp, consumed with a child's curiosity to see what she wasn't being permitted to see. As her eyes fell on Ezra she let out a gasp and turned to Inez, speaking quickly in Spanish and pointing at Ezra wildy.
Chris reined in, frowning. "She all right? What is it?"
Inez seemed almost on the verge of tears as she finally looked up at Chris.
"She is saying that this is the man who tried to stop the women from being hurt," she said with a gasp. "She... she wants to know if he will be all right."
The other men sat silent for a few moments as they absorbed this new information. Deep respect and admiration shone in their eyes as they once more regarded their wounded colleague, realizing the sacrifice he had made. But then, what else could they expect from the gentleman gambler?
Chris looked down at them, trying to sound optimistic. "He ain't gonna die if we can help it," was all he could say.
Inez nodded, understanding. "We will go to the church and pray for him," was her reply, and taking Contessa's hand she led her down the street towards the church.
Mary walked up, her eyes wide but her face set, ready to do whatever was required. "Chris, Mrs. Potter has offered whatever supplies you need," she said quickly.
Nathan waved her over. They talked for a few moments, the healer rattling off a list as Mary wrote down every word. Then she was off, her skirts flying as she ran back to the general store.
Chris watched her go, then turned to the other men. "I'll go wire Maude an' talk to the Judge, you go see to Ezra. We'll meet in the saloon later to figure out how we're gonna catch Parsons."
They all signaled their agreement, and parted.
The first thing Ezra noticed as he floated back to half-consciousness was that he was warm.
This seemed so peculiar that he dwelled on the subject at length. He was only barely awake now, unable to do much more with his foggy thoughts than form the most basic impressions. Everything was still dark; he did not have the strength to open his eyes or move, so he simply lay still, trying to piece together the sounds and sensations he was experiencing. It was all very puzzling.
Memories floated by his mind's eye - Buck, he'd seen Buck bending over him. Or was that just a dream? He'd dreamt of rescue so often during his torment that he could easily believe it had only been another illusion. He tried to struggle further into awareness, so he could open his eyes and see for himself, but it was no use. He was too exhausted. But he could feel and hear enough to hope that perhaps he truly was safe now.
The fact that he was warm was remarkable in itself, and a good place to start. He was awake enough to tell that he was sitting up, his torn back resting against what felt like down pillows. Surely the outlaws were too uncouth to know about such finery. As he drew further from the darkness of sleep the sound of distant splashing reached his ears. Water, of course. The splashing grew closer, then he felt a wet cloth being rubbed with the utmost care over his wounded skin. There was a minimal amount of pain, but Ezra mostly marveled at how wonderful it was - he had not felt the miracle of warm, clean water against his body for what seemed like an eternity.
Gradually he realized he was being bathed, and was sitting in a tub full of warm water, the pillows propped up against a wall or something which kept them out of the water. Confusion spilled into his mind again - who was doing this? Perhaps the outlaws had decided he should be cleaned up so he would last longer. Someone took his arm and held it out, and Ezra's heart began to hammer in wild bewilderment. Weakly he tried to pull away, if for no other reason than to give the beings around him an opportunity to tell him who they were.
A hand wrapped itself gently around his head as another was placed on his shoulder. The grip on his arm loosened a little, but did not let go, and after a moment Ezra felt a warm, soapy cloth gently dab at his bloodied skin.
"Easy now, it's all right," a low voice whispered gently into his ear, and Ezra's heart leaped a little. Josiah. Then maybe it was true, maybe he really was free.
"He wakin' up?" another voice said, one he instantly recognized as Nathan. Either he was truly home, or he was still lost in the dream, and in his weak, half-asleep state he could not truly say which was more likely. For the moment, the dream was infinitely preferable, and he accepted it gladly, grateful for even the temporary illusion of peace.
"He might be," he heard Josiah say, and felt the hand move slightly against his damp hair. "You with us, brother?"
I am most certainly with you, he wanted to say. The question I have is, are you with me?
He had only the strength, however, to turn his head a little and let out a very feeble moan.
"That's all right, Ezra, you just hang on," he heard Josiah say softly; the voice was becoming very distant and hard to hear. "We'll have you back at the tables in no time."
The dimly perceived surroundings began to fade away, leaving only feelings behind, the water cleansing his abused body, the soothing motion of Josiah's hand as it stroked his hair, the slight pain as Nathan cleaned his wounds. He felt himself start to slip back into slumber, lulled by the warmth of the water and the impossibly soft pillows cradling his back and head.
He drifted for a while, then awoke enough to realize that the bath had ended. Soft, dry towels were dabbing at his skin now, followed by a cool lotion which eased his pain immeasurably. He could feel bandages being wrapped around the worst of his wounds; he knew this process should take quite a while, but it seemed as if only a very short time elapsed. Then a soft, warm blanket was folded around him - or at least it felt very soft and warm, to him - and he sensed that he was being carried somewhere. Thoroughly puzzled, he forced himself to stay awake at least long enough to see what was going to happen.
By now he was aware enough only to sense that he was moving; then, being lifted up a flight of stairs. Remembered scents reached him, the smell of cigar smoke and whiskey and cheap perfume. The Standish Tavern, he realized, although he had to think very hard to remember the name.
They stopped moving, and he felt himself being lowered onto something incredibly yielding and comfortable. Vaguely he recognized the feel of his old featherbed, and the down pillow which so gently cradled his head. No sensation had ever felt so marvelous to him after spending all that time sleeping on the cold stone floor of his cell.
With a deeply relieved sigh he nestled into the soft, warm bed, a solemn rejoicing sounding in his heart. It was true, it had to be, they had found him and he was home again and safe. His weary soul felt ready to weep at the thought. When he recovered enough he would have to tell them just how much that simple fact meant to him.
For now, however, he could resist the call of sleep no longer, now that his wounded body was finally allowed to rest. As someone pulled the eiderdown quilt over his shoulders, he nestled as far as he could into the featherbed and slipped quietly back into unconsciousness.
Chris watched with intense satisfaction as the puzzled telegraph operator looked over the message. Finally the man looked up at Chris, his ugly face wrinkled in confusion.
"Ya found 'im, huh?" he asked, clearly embarrassed.
The gunslinger's expression was grim. "Yep."
There was a pause, during which the man read the words again, as if he thought they'd changed in the meantime. Then he lifted his small eyes to Chris.
"So he, uh, didn't run off?"
Chris didn't move, but the green eyes continued to stare. "Nope."
"Oh." The man coughed. "Ah. Oh." He cleared his throat and stamped the outgoing message with unusual vigor. "Well, you, uh, boys must be awful relieved."
"Feel better when he's walkin' again," Chris muttered in a heavy tone, looking away as anger stabbed his heart.
"He ain't walkin'?" the operator asked casually as he straightened some already straight papers in his hand.
Chris fixed the man with an icy stare. "He's spent the last two months chained up an' beat like an animal by a bunch of no-account scum. So no, he ain't walkin'."
The man seemed shocked, then infinitely chagrined. He glanced up at Chris with a shamefaced expression but said nothing.
"Well, don't worry," Chris said as he straightened and looked the man square in the eye. "We got every hope he'll be up an' around again soon. Who knows, one day he might even be able to save your ungrateful ass."
With that, Chris gave his hat brim an overly vigorous tug, turned and walked straight out of the telegraph office. This time the man he left behind stayed silent.
With long and angry strides Chris headed straight for the jail, knowing that Judge Travis waited for him there. He was eager to tell him what had happened, anxious to get after these animals who saw fit to beat and rape and rob. He simply couldn't wait a moment longer to get on their trail; it was already growing cold, and his building rage had to be released soon, or he would go mad. And the only release which would satisfy him would be to see One-Eyed Wolf Parsons at the end of a rope.
He glanced at the townsfolk as he walked by; they had all seen them bring Ezra home, and Chris hoped they all felt like shit about the sight which had met their eyes. He hoped those who'd said Ezra had run off got a real good look at the gambler's pale, broken body, and the horrible wounds which had been inflicted on him. Next time don't be so quick to judge a man, he wanted to tell them all, knowing that some of them would never trust him and his men. If it had been up to them, they would not have cared if Ezra died in that squalid cell.
Sometimes, Chris mused, he hated this job...
He reached the jail, pulling the door open with a jerk, the enraged words on his lips as he prepared to tell the Judge of the atrocities they'd seen. he walked a few feet into the office - and stopped.
Judge Travis was there, looking as wise and official as ever, but so was another man, an Army sergeant Chris didn't know. But something about the tall, broad-chested, red-bearded man struck him as wrong instantly, and he felt himself bristle. For his part, the sergeant seemed to recognize Chris and regard him as an unwelcome necessity, like a garden spider kept to kill insects.
"Ah! Chris," the old Judge greeted him, shaking his hand as a friendly smile creased his weathered, handsome face. "How's Mr. Standish? Is he resting comfortably?"
Chris nodded, not taking his eyes off of the Army man. "He'll live," he replied tersely.
"Ah, good, good." Judge Travis indicated the Army man. "Chris Larabee, this is Sgt. Trevor Stephenson. We were traveling together, and when Mr. Tanner told us about what happened he offered the services of his troops."
Stephenson nodded a little and offered a cold smile. Chris didn't nod or smile.
"That's great," Chris said without enthusiasm, not liking where he thought this was leading, "we could sure use the help."
Stephenson coughed and smiled, an oily grin which slid across his face like a snake. "I think you misunderstand, Mr. Larabee," he said; his voice was thin and nasal, full of lofty officiousness. "You needn't risk your men in tracking Parsons, my men will handle it."
Chris's green eyes began snapping, and he took a step towards the sergeant. "You're the one misunderstandin'," he said in a whisper. "We're lookin' to take the risk after what they done to them folks an' Ezra."
Stephenson chuckled a little and glanced at Travis. "Hot-headed, isn't he?"
Travis held up a hand to stop Chris when the gunslinger took another step towards the smiling sergeant. "Now, Chris - just calm down. The sergeant here can cover a wider range of territory than your men. Plus, it's an Army matter now - those men destroyed Federal property."
Chris glared at him. "An' you're agreein' to this?"
Stephenson smiled. "The Judge is quite venerable, but I'm afraid this is now out of his jurisdiction. My commander has said this man is ours to find, and so be it."
Chris frowned. "How long you plan on lookin'?"
The other man shrugged. "As long as necessary."
"Yeah?" Chris was skeptical. "Scum like Parsons, they can hole up for months. Your men know where to look?"
Stephenson scowled. "I assure you, we're quite skilled at tracking this sort of vermin."
"You get even better skills when you do it every day," Chris replied, and looked back at the Judge. "Judge, we got every right to go lookin' for Parsons."
"I'd advise you not to interfere, Mr. Larabee," the sergeant said in a stern tone of voice. "This is no longer your concern."
There was silence as Chris stepped up to Stephenson and stared at him with open fury. "You go take a look at what that bastard did to Ezra an' tell me it ain't my concern."
The sergeant fidgeted a little, but held firm. "I'm sorry for what happened to your colleague, Mr. Larabee, but I must insist you stay out of our way. I don't think you would find our stockade very comfortable." He looked at the Judge. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go organize my troops for the burial of the victims and the search."
With that, he retreated out the door. Chris watched him go, his face contorting with rage, and finally looked at the Judge.
"This is bull," he spat. "You're really tellin' us we can't go hunt down those bastards?"
Travis sighed, looking very weary as he sat down at the sheriff's desk. "Sorry, Chris, but Stephenson's powers override my own. I argued like hell for him to budge, but he's an old Army hand and doesn't like civilians interferin' with the Army."
"Army!" Chris snarled, beginning to pace. "They don't know nothin' about trackin' a man like Parsons. hell, they ride into Purgatory, he'll see 'em comin' a mile away and ride out the other end."
Travis nodded slowly. "That's what I'm afraid of. But as a sworn upholder of the law, I'm afraid I can't officially sanction any action on your part to assist in the hunt for Wolf Parsons."
He rose slowly and made his way towards the door. Then he paused, and placed his hat on his head while he turned to face Chris.
"Unofficially, I hope you catch the son of a bitch."
Buck sat alone that night in the corner table of the Standish Tavern, awaiting the others and consumed by his own thoughts. Most of them were very unwelcome company.
Wolf Parsons, he thought bitterly as he stared into his half-empty mug of beer. Who'd have thought he would turn up here, now, after Buck had searched for him all this time with no luck? And he still had Rio with him. Damn.
His mind flew back to that night, and that woman, one of the few who had truly amazed him. She was remarkable, full of fire, and so experienced that she even taught Buck a thing or two. It had been a wild night, there in the jail, so wild that everything including the prisoner had been forgotten in the burning oblivion of passion. Yes, Rio had really been something.
And one of the things she was, was a killer.
He could still feel the burning shame of that morning, when he woke up to the angry shouts of the sheriff and a head pounding from the blow he'd taken. Where the hell is Parsons, his boss was shouting, his cell's empty. Parsons was gone, and Rio was gone, and it didn't take long for him to realize that she and Parsons worked together. It had all been a trick, and he'd fallen for it completely.
Buck shuddered and took a drink, but the images in his mind wouldn't go away. All those people dead, because of his mistake. Ezra beaten to within an inch of his life. Who knew what else Parsons had been up to that he didn't even know about. And Rio, still with him, just as evil as he was, probably still laughing over that stupid lawman she fooled so long ago.
He drew a deep breath and set his jaw. You ain't gonna get away from me this time, Parsons, he vowed. An' as for you, Rio darlin', you're gonna find out ol' Buck don't fool so easy no more.
It was JD, looking very tired but still awake enough to slump in a nearby chair and toss his bowler hat onto the large round table.
"Hey there, kid," Buck sighed, picking up his drink. "Hope you don't mind, I ain't feelin' too sociable tonight."
JD shook his head, dragging one hand through his thick black hair. "Naw, that's okay. I'm still, uh, kinda shook up myself." He swallowed and looked away, and Buck noticed fear in the young man's hazel eyes.
"Don't you worry, JD, Nathan's gonna fix Ezra up just fine," Buck assured him before draining his glass. "He'll be back in here cleanin' us out before you know it."
His friend nodded. "Yeah, I know," he muttered, his tone indicating that this was not the source of his anxiety. "I just - I ain't never seen nobody beat up like that, Buck. It looked like they got him with just about everything."
Buck eyed JD solemnly and nodded very slowly. "''Fraid they did, JD. But he hung on, he's a fighter." He smiled a little. "Hell, he's one of us, right? Takes more'n a few bruises to put us away."
JD looked uneasy, then nodded once, as if to hide his discomfort. "Yeah, guess so," he said, in a halfhearted voice.
Buck frowned, puzzled by his young friend's behavior, but further inquiry was prevented by the arrival of Josiah, looking very worn out.
"Evenin'," Josiah sighed as he settled into a seat and swung the whiskey bottle in his hand onto the table with a hollow thud. It was already nearly half empty.
"How's Ezra?" JD asked, leaning forward as Josiah took off his huge hat and mopped his brow.
"Deep in the Lord's slumber at the moment," the preacher replied in sluggish tones, leaning back in his chair. "Nate an' I washed 'im up an' put him to bed. Inez said she'd watch 'im while we're over here."
"He wake up at all?" Buck asked in a sad voice.
The preacher sighed. "A little, I think. We tried our best to let him know he was safe. Sure hope he heard us."
"Wonder how he wound up in that place," JD murmured.
Buck looked at his young friend. "Reckon we'll find that out when he's ready to tell us, JD. At least now he's back where we can help him."
The young gunslinger glanced at him, nodded, then looked around. "Where's Nathan?"
"Sent him off to get some rest too," Josiah yawned as he rubbed his eyes. "He was workin' like a demon over Ezra. There wasn't hardly a spot on that man's flesh that wasn't tore up or beat black and blue." He shook his head as an expression of pained sorrow crossed his face. "I swear he had an angel watchin' over him, to survive it. But it must've been hell."
JD shuddered, and Buck's expression was deadly serious.
"We'll send Parsons to a deeper hell, once we find 'im," Buck swore quietly, his blue eyes burning with determination.
"That might not be so easy, Buck."
It was Chris's voice, sharp and serious, and those at the table looked up to see the black-clad gunslinger walking towards them, his own eyes smoldering.
Buck furrowed his brow as his old friend joined them. "Hell, Chris, we've tracked scum like him before."
"Doesn't the Judge want us to find him?" asked JD, who was just as puzzled.
Chjris leaned forward, folding his hands and speaking in a deliberate manner. "Judge don't have a say in this no more. The Army's in charge of it now, an' they don't want us goin' anywhere near Parsons."
The other men sat up quickly, shocked.
"Damn, Chris, after what he done to Ezra, we got all the right in the world to take Parsons down!" Buck cried, infuriated.
"They can't mean we're supposed to just sit on our backsides an' wait for them to find him," JD exclaimed in an amazed voice.
Chris glanced at them all. "That's just what they want us to do," he replied quietly, "an' the Judge can't do nothing about it." He took a deep breath. "But I ain't aimin' to let no Army bullshit around while Parsons gets away."
Josiah studied his friend carefully. "You goin' against the Judge, Chris?"
Chris paused, thinking as he stared at his hands. When he spoke, his words were slow and laden with anger.
"I don't like doin' it," he confessed, "but the Army don't know nothin' about trackin' men like Parsons. They'll look for a few weeks, then call it off. That don't sit right with me." He looked each man in the eye. "Tomorrow Vin an' I are headin' out to find him ourselves. He's out there lookin' for the trail right now. We're actin' on our own, an' I ain't askin' noone else to join us. It'll be hard ridin', an' if we're caught Stephenson will have our asses in irons in two seconds. An' the Judge won't be able to help us."
Buck returned the gaze firmly. "Hell, Chris, you got to know we're with you. I'll ride wherever it takes to bring that bastard down, an' I reckon we can handle the Army too if it comes to that."
His friend nodded. "Best if it doesn't come to that, Buck." He looked at Josiah. "I think you an' Nathan should stay here, Ezra might be needin' you an' someone needs to look after the town."
Josiah's blue eyes shone somberly. "We'll help Ezra along, Chris. But if you need help, you know where to send for it."
A hint of a smile touched Chris's lips as he nodded.
JD shifted in his seat. "I, uh, think I'll stay here," he said, a little nervously. "Help Josiah an' Nathan out."
Buck glanced at him, confused; the kid usually was the first on the trail when they were riding out.
JD noticed his concern. "It's all right, Buck, just feel like stayin' in town, that's all."
The words didn't sound too convincing, and Buck thought he saw the fear rekindling itself in JD's hazel eyes. But now was not the time, so he merely nodded and aid, "All right, kid."
"We'll leave at dawn," Chris said as he stood up. "Could be gone a while. we'll telegraph when we can. You can let us know how Ezra's doin'."
Josiah smiled. "He'll be doin' fine once we catch Parsons. Justice is a remarkable medicine."
Buck rose as well, his expression grim in the dim lamplight.
"Amen, Josiah," he said with feeling, "an' we're gonna give Parsons a damn big dose of it."
The faint golden light of dusk still glowed slightly on the western horizon, battling the encroaching darkness in a valiant but vain manner. The wide and rocky desert plain was slowly being swallowed up in the purple-blue gloom of evening, soon to be the stage for the nocturnal appearance of its wild night-loving inhabitants. The quiet of the warm twilight was broken only by the soft chirps and skitterings of the nightly creatures as they scurried from their holes and burrows, eager to begin their appointed fight for survival.
As the snakes and scorpions began scouring the barren rocks and scrub plants for food, a faint noise stirred the cooling air, growing louder with every pasing second. Hoofbeats, two riders, pounding swiftly across the burning rocks. The unthinking beasts cared little for such trespassers, except when they were foolish enough to try and assert their superiority. But these riders had no intention of disturbing the poisonous witnesses to their journey; they simply gallopped over the rocks and left the scene as fast as they had entered it, intent only on flight.
The first rider was a man, very thin and tall, his waist-length black hair trailing after him as he rode like the tail of a comet whose coming foretold only evil. The wind ruffled over his wolfskin vest, and the moon glinted over the three wolf's teeth which hung from his neck on a rawhide string. His long, lean face blazed with intensity as he rode bent over his mount's neck, his large hands gripping the reins tightly. Two guns bounced on his hips, and a full bandolier was slung across his chest. He had only one eye, green and deeply set. It swept the desert as he rode, his coiled posture indicating that he was expecting a fight at any moment, and was more than ready for it.
Slightly behind him rode a woman, as beautiful as the man was frightening, dressed in a torn and dirty duster which billowed after her as she rode. Beneath the duster could be caught glimpses of a blue traveling dress, its hem spattered with dark reddish-brown stains. Her thick red hair was tightly arranged against her head, ending in a mass of curls which bobbed against the back of her head. Like her partner, she wore an expression of the severest intensity, her gaze set on the horizon and the promise of sanctuary it held.
At the top of a small rise, he reined in, and she stopped behind him, their horses panting and blowing at the rare chance to rest. The man scanned the landscape, his single eye studying each rock and stand of brush with the careful diligence of a practiced fugitive.
After a long, silent while, he turned to the woman, his face set in a smile of smug triumph. "Almost there," he said, his tone deep. "And no one to stop us."
She wiped the sweat from her brow and returned the smile, her heavily-lidded eyes sparkling with malevolent arrogance. For a moment they stared at each other silently. Then, with animal ferocity, he reached over and drew her to him. She leaned forward eagerly, and they shred a brief, passionate kiss, groping at each other in the deepening twilight. Then they parted, sharing grins of self-assured victory as they settled back into their saddles.
She picked up her reins and said in a throaty voice, a soft smile on her full lips, "Let's go, Wolf. I can't wait any longer for the fun to start again."
His sadistic smile indicated that he shared his companion's sentiments. He spurred his horse on, and they galloped away into the night towards the ever-nearing border of Mexico and the walled criminal sanctuary of Purgatory.
Buck's legs seemed so heavy as he climbed the stairs leading to the second floor of the Standish Tavern. He felt exhausted, and it was well past midnight - he should be in bed resting for the ride tomorrow. But sleep had evaded him, and he knew why. There would be no rest, tonight or during the long journey ahead, if he did not do this. It would hurt like hell, but not doing it would hurt more.
He reached the landing and paused, staring at the door to Ezra's room as if it concealed a horrible nightmare. One hand dragged nervously through his hair, the noise from the crowd downstairs suddenly seeming very loud in his ears. Maybe this was a mistake - maybe he should just go-
No, he thought firmly, arguing against his inclinations. If I don't do this, and something happens while I'm gone, I won't never forgive myself.
He took a deep breath, then stepped over and very quietly knocked on the door. After a few moments it opened, revealing a weary-looking Nathan.
Buck was surprised. "Hey, Nathan. Thought Josiah sent you home for some shut-eye."
Nathan tried to shrug it off. "I can sleep just as easy in Ezra's ol' rockin' chair. 'Sides, don't feel right goin' off when he ain't out of the woods yet."
Buck sighed, looking at the floor for a moment sadly before raising his blue eyes to meet Nathan's. "Still not sure, huh?"
Nathan hesitated, but he knew they had both been through too much, and seen too much, to think that lying would help things any. "Didn't want to say it before," he confessed, "but... he's still plenty weak, Buck. They didn't feed 'im right, an' that cell gave 'im a powerful bad chill. An' with the beatin's they gave 'im on top of that..." His voice trailed off, and he wiped his face angrily. "Damn, Buck, I'm with Josiah on this one. It's a miracle he's alive at all."
Buck nodded, swallowing against the hot feeling rising in his throat. "Look, Nate, why don't you go on down an' get yourself some food an' a cup of Inez's coffee? I'll... watch things for a bit."
The other man considered this idea, then nodded. "Thanks, Buck," he muttered, his brown eyes weary and grateful for the rest. He slipped past his comrade and headed towards the stairs. Buck stared at the open door for a moment, petrified, then braced himself and slipped inside, closing the door behind him.
Inside it was very dark and warm; a small lamp on a far table, its wick raised to afford the barest amount of light, was the only illumination. For a few moments Buck was blind in the dim room; then very slowly he could make out the dresser, the rocking chair, the heavy curtains arranged across the window to protect the gambler's still-sensitive eyes. Buck noticed these things only superficially; his full attention was drawn to the bed, and the wounded figure which lay sleeping in its soft embrace.
Ezra lay on his side, his back being too badly lacerated to bear his weight without excruciating pain. The gambler appeared to be deeply asleep, his face half-buried in the folds of the down pillow. There was no sound except the slow rhthym of his labored breathing, no motion except the gentle rise and fall of the bedcovers.
Buck couldn't see much of his friend's condition - what wasn't covered up by the eiderdown quilt or the fancy nightshirt was hidden by bandages. But even in the dim light he could tell how much damage the past two months had done, and his anger grew to bursting. Ezra had always been tough; Buck could remember the gambler regaling him often with highly amusing tales of the quick getaways he'd had to accomplish, and the brawls he'd fought to defend his honor and escape one bad situation or another. He even told Buck once how he'd broken his tooth in a boxing con which had gone awry - that was where he'd gotten the gold one - but Ezra had then boasted that his boxing prowess was really very good, and if need be he could do it again.
And now... Buck sighed as sorrow overwhelmed him. Pain and deprivation had stolen almost all of Ezra's strength; he looked so damn hollow-cheeked and thin, like the war prisoners Buck had seen after the conflict ended. It would be a long time before Ezra would be able to hold his own in a fight, and it galled Buck to think how much Ezra would hate that.
Buck sank into the rocking chair next to the bed, his eyes sadly traveling over his friend's face. The lines of pain were still very evident, even in sleep, and when he looked closely Buck could see that Ezra was shivering ever so slightly, despite the warm covers which enfolded him. The bandages hid the wounds and scars, but deep black, blue and purple bruises still marred the Southerner's handsome face, and his closed eyes were sunken in dark circles. Looking over, Buck noticed a blindfold on the table beside the bed, and his gut churned with rage. Even though he was free, Ezra still couldn't look on the light of day. Not yet, anyway.
He bowed his head, consumed with outrage and guilt. Finally he looked up, gazing at Ezra with sorrowful eyes as he spoke, his voice just barely a whisper.
"Been waitin' a long time to see you again, buddy," he said softly, fiddling with his hat in his hands as he spoke. "Hope you knew we never gave up on you. Didn't know where you were, but we knew you didn't run off. We..." he glanced around the room, "...we saved your things, knowin' you'd want 'em. Waited an' waited. Fought the bad guys, won some an' lost some. Same as usual."
He smiled slightly to himself and leaned back, looking at the ceiling. "Well, now, it weren't really the same as usual. We didn't have that smart-assed Southern sass of yours t'liven things up, or them damned quick fingers shufflin' us all out of our weeks' pay. I didn't have nobody to contend against when it came to sparkin' the ladies. We didn't have them bullshit stories, or that quick trigger finger." He sighed and bent forward. "Guess what I ought to say is, we sure as hell missed you, pard. Some day I'll tell you that, when you can hear me. We all will. Might not come out right, an' it might sound mighty foolish, but you'll know what we mean. I can promise you that."
His eyes took in the bruises and welts, and he sat still, his eyes blazing now. "An' I got to promise you somethin' else, Ezra. We are gonna get the bastards that did this to you, an' all them folks in that fort. Y'see... y'see, most of this is my fault, an' I'm gonna make it right or not come back. Bad enough findin' out Wolf Parsons done that to them ladies, but when we found you in that damned hellhole, an' I saw what that son of a bitch did to you..."
Buck choked, shook, fought to control himself. "Well," he said swallowing, "I got to confess my heart just about broke with rage, at them an' myself. If Wolf was there I woulda ripped his throat out. But his day is comin', an' Rio's too. You got my oath on that. An'..." He paused, swallowed, unsure if he could talk. "I just got to say, before I ride out tomorrow... I'm sorry, Ezra. God, I'm sorry. If I don't come back, I wanted you to know that, even if you can't hear me."
He rubbed his face vigorously with one hand, feeling very weary all of a sudden. Taking a deep sniff to compose himself, he looked once more into his slumbering friend's face.
"Anyways, Ezra, just wanted to come here an' let you know what we aim to do. That's my end of it, but you got to fill your part of the bargain too. You ain't dyin' on us, okay? I wanna see your sorry ass back in that saloon quick as you can. I wanna lose my pay to you, an' hear some more of them damn lies you call stories. That's your end of the deal, an' I ain't gonna put up with no excuses."
He rose stiffly, as if he had been sitting for a very long time, and put his hat on as he looked down at Ezra.
"Me an' the boys are gonna bring 'em in for you, Ezra, an' for all them people they hurt," he whispered, his voice rough and broken. "Maybe that'll give you the strength to get better an' ride with us again. An' then maybe you'll forgive me."
There was nothing more to say. Buck drew a deep breath and opened the door, giving his friend one last look before slipping outside and shutting it noiselessly behind him. He leaned against the door for a moment, spent and slightly shaken, staring at the wall as he tried to pull himself together.
At the soft calling of his name, Buck turned to see Nathan climbing the stairs. He was giving the gunslinger a look of concern.
Buck nodded in reply to the unasked question and pulled himself up. "I'm all right, Nathan, just... kinda rattled."
Nathan nodded sympathetically as he stepped up to his comrade. "Yeah, seein' Ezra shook me up, too. All this time we been wantin' t'see him again, but... never thought it'd be like that." He gave Buck a sharp look. "You best go rest up, else you ain't gonna be in no shape t'catch them folks that done this."
Buck straightened, his exhausted blue eyes burning anew as an expression of determination flooded his face. "Don't you worry, Nathan," he breathed as he began to walk away, "we'll bring them devils in, even if we got to ride to hell to do it."
Every inch of his body echoed the truth of this remark, and Nathan could only nod a wordless 'good night' as Buck gave a slight wave and headed down the stairs. He looked after his friend for a moment, still worried, then silently opened the door to Ezra's room and went back in, to continue the night of watching and hoping.
The citizens of Four Corners were just beginning to stir as Vin walked slowly out of the livery, saddlebags slung over his shoulder as he headed for the saloon. Dust clung in sandy layers to his skin, his fringed buckskin coat, and fell from his long brown curls as they danced lightly in the morning breeze. As he trod down the boardwalk, he ignored the startled expressions of the townsfolk as they regarded his rumpled, dirty appearance. He never gave much of a damn for his looks, and right now he could not have cared less. Not when justice was calling so loudly for help.
Vin's mind worked furiously as he walked on through the growing crowds, staring sightlessly ahead. He had searched the grounds around the fort long and hard; Wolf knew well how to throw off any pursuers. But he had not reckoned with Vin's determination to avenge his friend and the innocent civilians he had murdered. The trail had been hard to find, but Vin had located it at last, and it confirmed what the tracker had suspected: One-Eyed Wolf Parsons was heading for Purgatorio.
He reached the livery and walked inside. The stables were dim, the air dusty and cool. Sire blew and stamped at his master's arrival, as eager for the hunt as Vin was. Vin gave Sire a pat and saddled him up, his handsome face still wearing a grim expression as he contemplated the task ahead. It would not be an easy ride, or a safe one, with both Wolf and the Army to worry about. But for Ezra's sake, and that of the others who had suffered, the journey had to be undertaken. It was as simple as that.
He finished his task, and taking the bridle in hand gently led the horse back into the bright morning sunlight. Standing in the street, he settled the saddlebags and bedroll on Sire's back, glancing up above the livery at Nathan's clinic occasionally and wondering if the healer had in fact gotten any rest. Concern gripped Vin's heart as he worked; as long as the road ahead of them was, Ezra's road was twice as long, and even more uncertain. It would take all of Nathan's skill, and Ezra's strength, to see them both safely to the end of it. He could only wish them well and hope that they would all find success waiting for them at the end of their travels.
"Excuse me... Mr. Tanner?"
It was a strong, high-pitched woman's voice, and it caught Vin by surprise. Turning, he saw two of the townsfolk standing behind him. He recognized them immediately: Mr. Kline, the owner of the bakery, and his wife. Both of them were thin and close to fifty years of age, sharp-featured and quite officious in their dress and demeanor.
Vin was taken aback that they were talking to him at all; they had been one of the most vocal opponents of his presence in town, his and the other hired guns. A scene flashed in his mind, not long after Ezra's disappearance, in which Mr. Kline stood in the saloon and told everyone who would listen how he'd known all along that the Southerner was a scam artist who had run out on them, and good riddance.
This stance had not abated during the following two months; whenever Ezra's disappearance was discussed, Kline was in the middle of it, loudly berating the gambler's character for all to hear. The wife had been busy gossiping as well; Vin recalled passing her several times in the street, where she had been with a knot of other townswomen all clucking their tongues over Ezra's unreliable behavior.
He nodded and tipped his hat to them, but his blue eyes narrowed with caution.
"Mr. Kline, ma'am," he said politely, looking from one of them to the other. "What can I do for you?"
Mrs. Kline stepped forward, clearing her throat loudly. "We just wanted to express our concern for Mr. Standish," she said, her voice reedy and somewhat strained. Vin noticed she glanced to the side a few times, to see if anyone was watching them. "Mr. Kline saw him when you boys brought him back yesterday. We thought he might like to have this."
Vin looked down and saw that she was holding something out to him. It looked like an apple pie, and not a very fresh one at that. One edge of the crust was slightly burned and broken off, and the pie rested in a tin whose bottom showed the early stages of rusting.
The tracker looked up at them, his blue eyes beginning to smolder. "That's right generous of you," he said, his voice rough, "considerin' how you been sayin' all along Ezra was a no-good con who'd run out on us."
Mr. Kline didn't bother to hide his scowl. "I had every right to that opinion, Tanner," the older man shot back. "And as you know I wasn't the only one who held it. But I'm willing to admit to you I was wrong."
"How 'bout them people you talked Ezra down to?" Vin replied, cocking his head. "You gonna tell all them you was wrong?"
Kline huffed and straightened the lapels of his tailored suit. "I'll tell who I please what I please. In the meantime, you might be a gentleman and accept our gift."
Vin glanced down at the day-old pie, then looked Kline squarely in his watery hazel eyes. "You givin' it cause you mean it," he asked slowly, "or cause you're just feelin' guilty an' want to think better of yourselves, an' look good in the eyes of other folks?"
Mrs. Kline gasped. "Mr. Tanner! Of - of course we want Mr. Standish to know how much he's appreciated around here. It's our Christian duty."
Vin's eyes widened slightly in anger as he stepped closer. The Klines stepped back, a little afraid.
"I didn't see too many of you actin' Christian when he was gone," Vin replied heatedly. "Did hear a lot of you jawin' about what a mangy lyin' dog he was an' what a good thing it was that he was gone. You didn't appreciate him none then or come to his defense, so you'll forgive me if I'm findin' this sudden change of heart a mite hard t'swallow."
The Klines stared at him, shocked.
"How absurd!" Mr. Kline finally coughed. "This is a fine way to treat us, Tanner, after we've come here in a show of good faith."
Vin fixed him with a blue-eyed stare. "Ezra needed that good faith a lot more when there wasn't nobody believin' in him, Mr. Kline," he pointed out. "You an' your friends spent the last two months sayin' Ezra was scum, an' now you think bringin' round a day-old pie's gonna fix that right up."
Mrs. Kline snorted. "Well, what else would you have us do, Mr. Tanner, we're not doctors!"
Vin studied her. "No, ma'am, but I heard tell you were a nurse once, durin' the war."
She started. "Uh - well - I did do some nursing in Washington-"
Vin nodded. "Ezra's gonna need a heap of care t'get back on his feet again, ma'am. Nathan's a good man but he sure could use some help. Reckon he wouldn't mind you givin' him a hand."
She sputtered, then recovered, her vice becoming smooth and patronizing. "Well now - well, that's impossible, Mr. Tanner, simply impossible, I have far too many obligations as it is. No, no, I just can't."
Vin eyed her sadly for a moment, then looked at Mr. Kline. "I was just on my way over to the saloon. Maybe you could join me, an' tell all them men you was wrong about Ezra."
Kline frowned. "Now Mr. Tanner, you know I have to open the bakery."
The tracker glanced at the sun. "Bakery opens at eleven, that's two hours away yet. This wouldn't take more'n a minute."
Kline glared at him. "It can't be done. I'll tell them - later."
Vin sighed and nodded slowly, his blue eyes traveling over their faces. "Sounds t'me like you're here t'make yourselves feel better, not Ezra." he tugged at his hat brim and turned away.
"Don't you want the pie?" Mrs. Kline asked sharply.
Vin looked back at her, and without a word accepted the aging confection from her hands. He gave her a slight nod which she did not return.
"Let's go, Norma," Mr. Kline said, taking her arm and shooting a final insulted look at Vin. Vin did not react and watched them as they walked away, both of them muttering loud enough for him to hear.
"I told you, Norma, they're all like that, ruffians, all of them! Travis is insane to keep them on here."
"Well, we've done all we can do," he heard her huff back. "The idea! That I would touch that awful gambler - you know what they say about those men, they get such vile diseases from those gambling halls-"
A loud clattering noise commanded their attention, and they turned back to Vin. The tracker had tossed his grooming brush into a nearby bucket, but this action had clearly been performed just so they would turn around. He didn't look at them, but simply took the stale pie and placed it on the ground in front of Sire. The horse bent its head down eagerly and began munching on the pastry as its master straightened and walked back into the livery, throwing one last look at their shocked faces before disappearing into the dusty shadows.
"And he can have a few of these shirts too, I'm sure his old ones won't fit him, poor soul."
Mrs. Potter's voice carried a busy, efficient tone as she placed two fine white mens' shirts on the counter in front of Josiah. He was her only customer in the small general store at the moment, but the expression of genuine concern in her brown eyes revealed that the stout proprietress would be giving him her full attention, even if she were surrounded by a dozen other patrons.
The former preacher nodded at the small mountain of wares which lay before him, mostly toilet articles and clothing. "Thank you, Mrs. Potter, I'm sure Ezra'll be right grateful to your for your kindness."
"Well, he deserves it," she replied firmly. "You just tell him we want to see him up and about quick as possible, and that the whole town missed him terribly. Well," she averred, "some of us, anyway. And he's not to give me a penny for any of this, it's my contribution to his gettin' better."
Josiah smiled gently. "He'll sure appreciate that, ma'am."
She peered at him sharply as her practiced hands swiftly wrapped the goods. "And if you don't mind my sayin' so, Mr. Sanchez, you're looking a trifle peaked yourself. Did you stay up with Mr. Standish all night?"
He barely stifled a yawn. "'Fraid so, Mrs. Potter, but I'll be all right. The Lord worked for six days straight, reckon I can too."
She eyed him with disapproval. "I believe the good Lord has a bit more stamina than you do, Josiah." She handed him the large paper-wrapped bundle. "Now if you or Mr. Jackson need anything else, just let me know. I'll be more than happy to sit with Mr. Standish for a while if it'll relieve the burden on you boys any."
Josiah accepted the parcel with a somber expression. "That's right Christian of you, ma'am, but-" he hesitated "-well, I should warn you, you'd be mighty shocked at the way Ezra is right now. Might not be a sight you ought to see."
She met his gaze with clear eyes. "I know he's in a bad way, Mr. Sanchez, but after everything he and all of you have done for us, I want to help in any way I can. I believe I could bear the shock, if I knew my bein' there was helping him. He shouldn't have to suffer alone."
Her concern brought a somber smile to Josiah's face, and he nodded slightly. "With such souls as yours around, ma'am, I'm sure he won't. Much obliged."
He gave his battered hat brim a brief tug as he regarded her with a grateful expression, settled the bundle in his arms, and left the store. As he stepped outside onto the busy boardwalk, he took a deep breath, his mind full of reflective thoughts. It never ceased to amaze him that brutality and compassion could exist together in such degrees without one destroying the other. Another riddle of God's, he supposed as he hastened down the street towards the saloon, and as such he could not hope to understand it. He was too weary to try anyway.
As he strode down the road, he saw Chris walking towards him, head down, smoking a cheroot and looking intensely occupied. As they drew near to each other, something - perhaps his gunslingers' instinct - caused Chris to look up, and he nodded to the preacher as they met.
"Bout ready to ride?" Josiah asked, noticing his friend's alert expression. The man's green eyes were fairly glowing with energy.
Chris took the cheroot from his mouth and blew a thin stream of blue-gray smoke angrily into the air. "Been ready since we rode into that fort," he replied. "Vin figures they're headed to Purgatorio, that's where we'll start."
Josiah shook his head. "Amazin' how they call it Purgatory but the sinners there never get cleansed," he observed.
"We'll clean out Wolf Parsons soon enough," the other man promised, placing the cheroot back in his mouth. He glanced at the package in Josiah's arms. "Spendin' your wages?"
"Hm? Oh," Josiah looked down at the bundle. "Few things from Mrs. Potter for Ezra. She wants to help, even offered to sit with 'im, but... I don't think she should see 'im yet. Not til he's healed up some."
Chris nodded, looking away at the growing crowd bustling around them. "Might want to take her up on it later, you likely won't be gettin' too many offers like that from this bunch."
"Just might have to, at that," his comrade agreed sadly. "He's got a long journey ahead of him. Now I reckon I best go see how our friend is farin' today. God speed you on your journey, Chris."
He nodded at Chris and stepped off the boardwalk towards the saloon.
"Josiah?" Chris called.
The preacher turned back and looked at Chris expectantly. The other man was regarding him with a deadly expression.
"Tell Ezra we're gonna find the scum who did this to him," Chris said in a low and lethal whisper. "Maybe that'll help."
Josiah smiled a bit. "I'll be sure t'tell 'im, Chris. But I bet he already knows."
Buck pushed his way through the batwing doors of the Standish Tavern and stood for a moment, taking stock of the room. He sighed and ran one hand through his thick, unkempt black hair; he hadn't slept well at all, but was determined to shake it off. They had work to do.
He finally spied JD seated alone in the back corner and began making his way to the table. Concern clouded his eyes; JD almost never sat in the back to eat. The kid loved the bustle and activity of the morning and rarely shunned people. Damn, he thought wearily, something's up with the kid and I got to ride. Can't any of us find some good luck for a change?
Quickly he sidled up to the bar where Inez was scraping some plates. She looked up and flashed a pleasant but busy smile.
"Buenes dias, Senor Buck."
"Howdy, Inez," Buck replied in a preoccupied tone, still studying JD. the young man was picking absently at a plate of food, but eating nothing, and that really worried Buck. Normally the kid had the appetite of a horse. "Gimme a coffee, darlin', I'm ridin' out."
"Very well," she said, laying down her chore and picking up the coffee pot and a clean cup. When she saw Buck reach for his money, she stopped him with a small, sharp sound. "This one is on the house, Senor. You are going after those evil men, and I want to make my contribution to your fight in any way I can."
Buck sighed as he leaned on the counter. "Thank you kindly, Inez. How's that little gal doin'?"
"Well enough," was the cautious reply as she poured the coffee out in a brown, steaming stream. "We have wired her town, her family should be here soon. But she still cries in the night and cannot sleep." She set down the pot with an aggravated thump. "It will be a long time before she is well again."
Buck's mouth twitched with sorrow as he dropped his eyes. The guilt burning his gut was painful, but he accepted it, determined to draw strength from the anguish.
Inez's brown eyes were dark with anger as she handed the cup to Buck. "You must find them, Senor. I want her to know they will not be coming after her in the night."
"Don't you worry on that, Inez," Buck promised her, as he sipped the strong brew. "We won't be comin' back without 'em."
She drew a deep breath and wiped her brow. "I pray you do not. She wants to see Senor Ezra too, but... he is not well either, such a sight will only upset her."
He winced, remembering how the sight of Ezra had cut him to the soul. "You're right on that, darlin'."
She shook her head. "My heart aches for him so much, Senor." She glanced at the corner and sighed. "Then there is JD. He has been staring at that food for an hour, and not taken a bite."
Buck frowned. "Now that ain't like the boy." He picked up the cup. "'S'cuse me, Inez. Reckon I ought to try an' get to the bottom of this before I leave."
"I wish you luck, Senor," Inez said sadly, and went back to cleaning the plates as Buck moved off.
Buck took another sip of coffee and walked over to the corner table, trying to read JD's mood. The boy seemed upset, no doubt about it, and so preoccupied that he didn't notice Bucks' approach.
"Hey there, JD," he said as he sat down at the table.
JD looked up in a rather apathetic manner. "Mornin', Buck," he said in a tone of forced friendliness. A false smile pushed onto his lips. "Ready for the ride?"
Buck looked at his young friend closely; the kid looked like hell, all baggy-eyed and tuckered out. "You look 'bout ready for the undertaker there, JD. You feelin' all right?"
JD pretended to be surprised at such a question. "Huh? Oh yeah, sure, fine. Uh, just a bad night is all."
Buck put down his cup and straightened himself in his seat, his face settling into stern lines. "Looks like a bunch of bad nights t'me, son. Look here, JD, if I'm gonna ride out of here leavin' you to help watch after things, I got to know if you're up to it. Ol' Buck's been around enough to know a shovelful when he hears it. Somethin's eatin' you."
He saw JD wince and look down at his plate, as if he wanted to hide.
"Is it 'cause of what happened to Ezra?" Buck pressed.
An uncertain look crossed JD's tired face, and he swallowed, growing slightly pale.
Buck nodded. "Thought so. Now don't you worry, Nathan'll have that ol' hustler back here fleecin' folks before you know it."
JD sighed angrily and faced Buck, his hazel eyes snapping. "Dammit, Buck, I ain't a child!" he said in a frustrated voice. "Everyone keeps tellin' me Ezra's gonna be just fine, like I wasn't there. Like I didn't see what they... what they did to him. He ain't gonna be fine, Buck, not for a long time, is he?"
This caught Buck by surprise, and he sat back, considering. Finally he drew a long breath.
"I know you ain't no child, JD," he said quietly. "They hurt Ezra pretty bad, there's no denyin' that, but Nathan's doin' all he can to see he gets through this. You an' Josiah can help too, an' when we get Parsons back here we'll see he swings for what he done. An' I reckon that's all we can do."
JD nodded absently, but his eyes were distant as he whispered, "I know. But... I don't know if I can help Nathan any, Buck. I - I don't think I can stand to go in that room, and see Ezra all tore up like that. It makes me sick to think..." his voice trailed off, and he looked away, his face wreathed in anguish. "I can't stop thinkin' about what we saw in there, Buck, all them dead people shot down like they was cattle. I don't want to think about it, but I can't make it stop. I - I've never seen nothin' like that."
Buck eyed his friend sadly, knowing that he was witnessing the death of some of the young man's illusions. It always hit a man hard to learn firsthand about the existence of cruelty in the world and realize just what he had to face. JD's lesson had to come sometime, but damn, this was a tough way to learn.
"I'm sorry, kid," he finally said in a hushed voice. "But that's what we're fightin' out here. I know it's rough, but if you want to join that fight, you best get used to it."
JD sighed and rubbed his face as he looked back at Buck, the anger still shining in his eyes. "Get used to what, Buck? Seein' my friends beat up, an' dozens of innocent people tortured an' shot to death?" He shook his head as he dragged one hand through his hair. "Don't think I could get used to that, Buck. Not ever."
Silence fell between them for a long time, JD staring morosely at his cold food lost in thought, while Buck watched him carefully. More people filtered into the saloon; in the glare of sunlight streaming through the doors, Buck saw the dark figure of Chris approaching them. It would be time to go soon.
He leaned towards JD. "We got to ride son, kid. You gonna be all right?"
JD didn't look at him as he nodded, pushing a few stray strands of long black hair out of his eyes. "Yeah, maybe. Just... have to do some thinkin', I guess. Have to admit it's a part of bein' in the West that I didn't count on."
His older friend gave him a sympathetic nod as he put his hat on. "Yeah, I know, kid. I know."
Chris walked up to them, full saddlebags slung over his shoulder. "Vin says they're headed for Purgatorio," he said in greeting.
"Then so're we, I reckon," Buck replied, and drained his coffee cup.
Chris looked over at JD. "JD, you an' Josiah an' Nathan can watch things here." He looked closer. "You feelin' all right?"
JD nodded quickly, after a sharp glance at Buck. "Yeah, just tired. What should I tell folks if they ask where you went?"
"Just tell 'em we went ridin' an' you don't know when we'll be back," was the firm reply. "Don't imagine they'll be curious, unless somethin' happens."
"Don't you worry on that, ol' pard," Buck assured him as he rose. "Let's just go get on Parsons' trail an' make him do some worryin' for a change."
Chris nodded to JD and turned, making his way back out of the saloon.
"Shouldn't be gone too long, kid," Buck said, giving JD a whap on the shoulder. "You just do the thinkin' you got to do, an' we'll see you when we got Parsons' ass in irons."
JD looked up at his friend, and Buck could see the concern there even in the dim light of the saloon. "All right, Buck, but... This Parsons, he seems like he's crazy for blood or somethin'. Watch your back, okay?"
Buck gave him a solemn nod. "Don't worry, JD, I won't go doin' nothin' foolish with Parsons around." To which he silently added, "not this time."
Few of the townspeople bothered to watch as Chris, Vin and Buck rode out of town. Most of them were too busy speculating on how the gambler had gotten so badly injured, with the comments ranging from a stagecoach accident to a particularly nasty barroom brawl. None of them ventured the opinion that his wounds had been sustained by anything resembling a selfless act; that seemed too fantastic.
They trotted by the Clarion. Mary was on the porch sorting out the remainders of her weekly issue; as Chris rode by, their eyes locked. Since they were disobeying the Judge's official wishes, Mary could not give any hint that she knew where there were going, lest suspicion be aroused. But there was enough contained in that glance to convey her wish that their journey be successful, and that they all might return unharmed.
The men tapped their brims to her without a word, continued onward, and were soon thundering away from the edges of town, into the desert and the dangerous prey it held spread wide before them.
As Ezra left the dark confines of oblivion, he realized something was terribly wrong, something which froze the blood in his veins and set his heart to pounding with beast-like terror.
The first thing he felt was cold, rough stone scraping against his face. A damp, all-consuming chill enveloped his body, accompanied by deep and total pain burning through his entire being. Confusion swamped his half-conscious mind; what was happening? It felt like - like-
Like he was back in his cell.
He tried to move, and found that it was impossible. Sharp iron manacles bound his wrists to the stone wall he was facing, spreading his arms out to almost their full breadth. He could feel their malicious bite as they ate into his wrists; it was a familiar feeling, one he had thought was over for good. Almost panicked now, he opened his eyes, then quickly squeezed them shut again as they met a painfully blinding glare - the glare of lamps and torches made purposefully bright.
"He's wakin' up!" one remembered voice called.
"About time," he heard another grunt.
Oh Lord, Ezra moaned to himself, trying to struggle. Oh Lord, he was back in the dungeon room, but that was impossible. His friends had rescued him, he'd seen them, this had to be a dream. Unless... that was the dream, and this was the reality.
His heart sank at the hellish prospect, and he couldn't prevent a broken moan from escaping his bloodied lips.
"Hey, he is awake!" a third voice laughed, and he felt someone grab his hair, pulling his head back in a sharp, agonizing gesture. "Ready for more, are ya, Reb?"
Ezra could only open his eyes for a moment, tears streaming from his eyes, and not only from the brilliant light which seared them. But he could see that he was in fact in his cell, which he had thought he had escaped forever, surrounded by the men who had tortured him. They were regarding him with mocking faces.
He tried to shake his head, despite the iron grip of his captor. "No," he whispered, closing his eyes again, "no, this... can't be real..."
The man laughed. "Real? Course it's real, you Southern bastard, and in a minute you're gonna feel just how real this is."
"Bet he thought he'd been rescued," one of the other men sneered. "I've heard they dream that sometimes an' think it's true."
"That it?" the first man grinned, shaking Ezra's head. "As if anyone would come after a piece of shit like you. Well, you can forget that idea. You ain't learned your lesson yet."
Ezra's throat was so dry it burned; no, he kept telling himself, that can't be true, I saw Chris and the others, they were here. I know they were. Lord, am I going mad?
The man let go of his hair, and Ezra sagged in the chains, momentarily stunned. This felt real, as real as the other experience, and he started to believe that maybe it was true. He'd dreamt the whole thing, and was still a prisoner.
Oh God, he thought as he choked back a sob; he didn't want to break down in front of these vermin, but it was almost too much to bear. He'd been so relieved, so glad to be home, only to find now that none of it had been real. The pain would continue, and he didn't think he could hang on anymore. A few tears trickled down his bloodied cheeks as he fought the urge to scream, to cry out, to just let go and the hell with dignity. He could hear them laughing behind him; they were really enjoying this.
He shuddered, trying desperately to control himself. He couldn't let himself go mad, although his heart was broken with despair. There was still a chance, as long as he was alive, that they could still find him. His rescue had been a dream, but perhaps he could remember that dream and use it to give himself strength. It might be true, someday, as true as this was now. But it was so hard, and his weary soul felt so heavy...
The cold became freezing, the bright torches like blazing suns even to his closed eyes; for a moment his entire body was consumed by a single sensation of agony, such as he had never felt before. He filled his lungs and cried out, unable to stop himself, and pulled once more on the chains which bound him to the wall, his anguished soul calling for the friends he knew would come, if they could only find him.
As he pulled on the chains, they suddenly gave way, and he felt himself falling backwards, unable to break his fall to the hard rock floor. None of his captors came to his aid, and he braced himself, dreading the agony to come. A blast of cold wind whipped his falling body, extinguishing the torches, and he found himself falling in darkness.
Terror seized him as he felt himself plummet backwards through the seemingly endless abyss. The darkness around him was so thick he could almost feel it wrapping around him, grasping at his torn body and pulling it down.
He continued to fall, and a strange sensation overtook his exhausted form. His descent slowed, it seemed, until he felt more like he was floating downwards. The harsh chill of the surrounding darkness changed as well, becoming very soft and warm. And still he did not strike the floor. He frowned; what as happening? Perhaps he had finally gone mad.
Arms wrapped around him, and he gasped. They had him; soon he would be bound to the wall again, and it would continue. It remained dark, and he could not see who held him. His struggles were ineffectual, but he felt compelled to make them nonetheless.
These arms, however, did not seem intent on torturing him. Instead, they continued to hold him in what seemed like an embrace, cradling his bruised and bleeding body in their comforting touch. Ezra lay for a moment, panting and puzzled, shaking violently from the pain and fear.
"Easy there, brother," he heard a voice say. Ezra gasped to himself; Josiah! Oh Lord, had he been brought to this hell on earth as well? It was bad enough to suffer himself, but if he had to endure watching Josiah suffer too... Gingerly he reached up, taking a handful of Josiah's shirt in his hand. He was real, and here. Here...
"It's all right now, Ezra," he heard his friend say; the embrace tightened a little, and Ezra found the motion indescribably soothing. He clutched weakly at Josiah's shirt, the burning sobs in his chest rising to his throat as he lay powerless to stop them. But he had to control himself, his captors were probably still nearby, watching...
"Got that tea ready, Nate?" he heard Josiah say, and Ezra's heart almost stopped. Nathan! Was he here too? God, they'd kill him. It was more than he could take, to see Nathan suffer too. But how could Nathan make tea here, and in the dark?
"Almost," he heard Nathan say. "Should keep them nightmares from comin' back for a while. Sounds like this one was powerful bad."
"He might be wakin' up again," Josiah replied. "C'mon now, Ezra, you got nothin' to shout about. You're home, remember?"
Ezra frowned to himself; now that really didn't make sense. He settled, still trembling, in Josiah's arms and tried desperately to assess the situation. He could feel his mind beginning to clear, the terror and pain dissipating. He was lying - not on the floor of his cell, but on something warm and yielding. His featherbed. He felt the smooth cotton sheets rubbing his healing skin, and the eiderdown quilt tangled around his bare legs. It all felt real, but so had the cell.
God, he thought, what on earth is going on here? Was this a dream, or had he been trapped in the worst of nightmares? He tried to open his eyes, but found he couldn't. Something was wrapped around his head. A blindfold.
He coughed, choking on the tears of anguish still burning his chest. He gripped Josiah's arm. "Josiah?" he said; it was no more than a whisper.
A voice reached his ear, gentle and welcome. "Yeah. Just relax, you were dreamin'."
Ezra gasped, disbelieving. "Have... to see..."
"Your eyes can't take the light just yet," Nathan cautioned; Ezra felt a restraining arm lightly placed on his shoulder.
But he shook his head as strongly as he could, trembling even more now. "Take it off, please," he whispered firmly, "just... for a moment."
There was a pause. Josiah said, "It's dark enough in here, Nathan, it should be all right. He seems a mite confused, we got to let him know he's safe."
"All right," Nathan said, and Ezra felt him loosening the knots at the back of the wrapping. "Just for a moment. Open 'em nice an' slow, Ezra."
The cloth came away, and Ezra winced as the dim light struck his closed eyes. But he had to see for himself; he was feeling more awake, and a joyous suspicion was building in his heart. He had to know if it was true.
Very slowly, he opened his eyes.
The light in the room was very dim, but still it pierced his eyes like a sun, and for a moment he closed them again, unsure if he could do this. Then, gradually, he forced them open again. It would only be for a moment.
In the glare he could see his room, a sight which had not met his gaze for what seemed like an eternity. Through an uncertain haze he could make out only a few things, but enough to see that he was lying on his bed, in his room above the saloon. Heavy curtains over the window masked the sunlight; only a few rays dribbled in at the edges. He looked up to see Josiah bending over him, and Nathan sitting nearby.
For a moment he could not move, overwhelmed with emotion. This was real, he realized; he could tell, he was awake now, enough to know that he was not trapped in the nightmare any longer. It was true, they had found him and he was home. The desperate prayers he had uttered in agony and isolation had been answered; his torment was over, and he was free.
He stared at them for a few moments, then choked; the burning sobs which had lay in his chest came bursting out as he buried his face in Josiah's shoulder. It was unseemly for a gentleman to give way so, he knew, but his joy and relief were too great to bear any other way. The anguish of his ordeal poured from him in a hot, unstoppable flood, and as he clung to Josiah he gave vent to his agony, the tears wrung from the depths of his soul.
The preacher seemed to understand; he simply held Ezra as he sobbed, stroking his hair slightly and murmuring words of comfort. Ezra accepted the touch with the desperation of a soul which had known only horrific pain and loneliness for so long, a soul which now rejoiced that its ordeal was at an end. There were no words to tell them the feelings in his heart that they had found him, no voice he could use to tell them what it felt like to gain sanctuary after suffering the torments of the damned. Ezra could only hang on to Josiah and endure the violent sobs as they tore through his frail body, every tear cleansing his weary soul.
How long he wept in Josiah's arms, Ezra had no idea. The sobs died down; Ezra blinked back the hot tears as they slowed to a trickle, suddenly ashamed of himself for such a display.
"You all right now?" he heard Josiah ask.
Ezra took a few deep, very shaky breaths, and slowly nodded. "Yes," he whispered, "I... was simply..." He faltered; what words could he use to describe it?
"Don't worry on it, Ezra," he heard Nathan say, in a voice which suggested to Ezra that the former slave had some idea of what he was enduring.
The gambler nodded, grateful that he didn't have to explain, and tried to squeeze his closed eyes more tightly shut; the light, though dim, was beginning to trouble him, now that the explosive emotion of the moment had passed.
"I'm gonna put you back down now, Ezra," Josiah said, and Ezra felt himself being lowered very carefully on his side back onto the featherbed. Drained and exhausted, Ezra sighed as he felt the welcome embrace of the bed once more enfold him. A cloth gently dabbed his face, cleaning away the tears.
Ezra licked his lips. "I... apologize for the outburst," he breathed, the shame returning. "Most... unmanly of me..."
"Hell, Ezra, what you been through would make most men wake up screamin'," he heard Nathan say. The cloth disappeared. "Got some tea here that should keep them nightmares away for a while. Hold on."
He felt someone gently lift his head, and the blindfold was tied back around his eyes, plunging him once more into darkness. But this time it was welcome; it promised rest, and relief from the glaring light.
"Is this... permanent?' he gasped, touching the blindfold, suddenly afraid.
"Naw, just til your eyes get used t'light again," Nathan assured him. "Here."
He felt the cold lip of a tin cup touch his mouth. He parted his lips a little and drank the sweet brew eagerly; the relentless torrent of tears had left him parched. As the cup was taken away he settled back down.
"Bet you got a million questions," he heard Josiah say as the covers were arranged over his shoulder.
"Million and one," Ezra yawned, nestling his head into the down pillow and reveling in its reality. His fears now soothed, Ezra wanted only to sleep, and whatever Nathan had put in the tea was working rapidly to fulfill that wish.
"They'll be answered," was the reassuring reply. "Just get some rest now an' don't worry. You're home."
A few more words were spoken, but Ezra was too overwhelmed by the tea's powerful effect to make them out. An overpowering drowsiness consumed him, and he did not resist as it bore him swiftly into a soft darkness too deep for dreams.
Josiah sat up, watching with worried blue eyes as Ezra drifted off.
"Think he'll be all right now?" he asked Nathan as he straightened his tear-stained shirt.
Nathan drew a heavy sigh, placing the empty cup down on the nightstand. "Can't rightly say, Josiah. I can give 'im this tea for a while, but sooner or later he'll have t'stop drinkin' it. Otherwise he'll get to where he can't do without it."
His friend nodded, dropping his gaze to Ezra's peaceful face, still so gaunt and battered. "He won't much like what we got to tell 'im about the fort, neither. That he an' Contessa are the only ones who survived."
"Best to take this one step at a time," Nathan cautioned. "Now that Chris an' Vin an' Buck have gone after Parsons, maybe we'll have some good news to give t'Ezra before long."
"I think he'll be needin' it," Josiah observed as he stood. "I'm goin' over to the church an' get a clean shirt, Nate. Be right back."
Nathan's expression was thoughtful as he nodded. "Only time I ever saw men weep like that was durin' the war, when the slaves got their freedom. Never thought I'd see Ezra cry like that."
The other man's face was solemn. "Salvation has the power to drive the hardest man to tears, Nathan. We can only hope that Ezra's time for tears is done."
He opened the door and slipped out. Nathan watched him leave, then sat back and prepared to keep watch over the slumbering gambler, his mind deep in contemplation. The former slaves' tears had not ended when freedom came, and he could not quell the fear that Ezra's path would follow the same difficult course.
The desert wind gently ruffled the tall prairie grass as it strove to cool the hot summer afternoon. It was a beautiful day, full of azure blue skies and bright sunshine, but all of the efforts of nature could not distract the three riders as they rode through the landscape without paying the slightest bit of attention to its grandeur. At this moment, the only part of the land they had any care for was the ground, which they were all studying with intense concentration.
"We're on the right track," Vin announced. "They came this way."
"Can you make out how many?" Buck inquired as he mopped his perspiring brow. "They mighta got the idea of pickin' up some new guns on the way South."
Vin shook his head. "Looks like just two, Buck. Must be Wolf an' that lady of his."
Buck's blue eyes grew grim. He nodded and said nothing.
"I know it'll be hard, but we got to take 'em alive," Chris said in a voice tight with anger. "These bastards don't deserve nothin' but the noose."
"Hangin's too good for 'em," Buck whispered, mostly to himself, as he rode along.
Vin and Chris glanced at him, and Vin shook his head. "Never thought I'd hear Wilmington say the rope was too good for a lady," he observed with mild surprise.
Chris merely shrugged. "Reckon Buck don't think she's a lady. I'd agree."
They rode on for a while in silence, Vin keeping a close eye on the trail, Chris and Buck watching the surrounding rocks and hills for any signs of their prey.
Dusk was still a few hours away when they crested the hill overlooking the border crossing into Mexico. As they did so, each man glanced at the landscape, careful to determine what lay before them.
"Aw, hell," Chris muttered.
Spread before them in the near distance was a small army of blue-coated Federal army troops, mostly cavalry, camped at the edge of the United States line. They could make out the dark forms of the men and their horses as they stood in small groups, talking and eating, but Chris and the others were too far away to be seen by the soldiers.
"Dang, that Stephenson fella moves fast," Buck noted sourly, leaning forward in his saddle and looking over the troops with a frown.
"Looks like he's stopped movin'," was Chris's remark as his green eyes flicked over the bluecoats.
"Reckon he's bein' careful goin' over the border," Vin noted as his blue eyes darted up to the area where Mexico lay. "If he just marched into Mexico he'd risk startin' a fight."
"He's doin' it nice an' safe, all right," Chris said as he sat up. "Meanwhile, Parsons is gettin' away." He looked at the others. "If we get caught it'll be the stockade, so we'll have to go around 'em."
Vin nodded and pulled his hat low. "I know a few back ways in. C'mon."
He rode away, followed by his two comrades, both of whom carefully glanced at the soldiers who were still unaware of their presence.
They had ridden some distance when the jangling of an approaching horsemen set them all on edge. Chris looked up and saw a Union rider trotting towards them from the camp, rifle in one hand. As he neared, the men could tell he was a private, young and fresh-faced, barely nineteen.
"Great," Chris sighed in a tight voice as the boy drew closer. Well aware that trying to outride the soldier would only lead to pursuit and possible arrest, the three men reined in and waited, Chris's eyes darting furiously as his mind worked.
"Halt!" the young trooper shouted when he was close enough; his voice was thin but strong, full of naive confidence. He seemed to get younger as he got closer, and as he reined in his mount in front of the three lawmen, they could all see that the boy was even younger than JD. Unruly blonde hair insisted on tugging itself from underneath his kepi, and his fair skin had yet to feel its first bad sunburn. But his blue eyes were bright with eagerness to do his duty well.
"Just ridin' by, son," Chris replied in a calm tone as the soldier steadied his horse.
The young private's eyes swept over them, and he sat up in his saddle a bit, as if to add authoritative stature to his still-growing form. "This is a Federal Army campground, sir. The commander has deemed it off limits to civilian riders. I'll have to ask your business."
"Is that really necessary?" Chris replied smoothly, giving the young man a dangerously steady glare.
The soldier winced a bit, losing some of his puff. "Yes, sir. The, uh, commander demands it."
"What's your name, son?" Buck inquired with a slight grin.
The private glanced at him, then sat as straight in the saddle as he could. "Private Henry Thomas, U.S. Cavalry."
Buck nodded a little and smiled wider. "Got you pullin' guard duty, huh? You musta just got out here."
Pvt. Thomas gave a slight shrug as some of his enthusiasm seemed to drift off. "Yes, well, it's a small price to pay for the honor of serving my country. At least that's what my uncle tells me."
He suddenly recollected himself, and pulled himself up a bit. "All right, now, all I can tell you gentlemen is we're after some mighty bad desperadoes, so if I don't get some answers I'll have to take you before our Commander, and he's not the type to go easy on anyone even if they are civilians."
"Fair enough, Private," Buck replied. "We're just passin' by on our way south an' will be more'n happy to ride around your army."
Thomas nodded, then glanced over at Chris, his eyes widening. "Hey - are you gunmen?"
All three men tensed. Chris said nothing, but Buck saw a muscle in his jaw twitch slightly.
"Sorry if you're not," the soldier said quickly, "it's just, if you are, I've heard of men like you, from the papers. All them wild stories about life out here, you know."
Buck grinned. "Hate t'tell you this, Private, but most of that stuff's pure hooey."
"Well, even if only a small part's true, it'd be enough for me," was the excited reply. "Are you men cattle drivers or Rangers?"
"Sorry, kid," Vin said quietly. "Nothin' quite that interestin'." He was becoming worried at the long detention.
"You want excitement, Private, I'm sure you'll find enough in the Army t'last you a lifetime," Buck assured him as he gathered up the reins.
Thomas shrugged. "That's what my uncle tells me, but it's been pretty boring so far."
"You want it to stay that way, trust me," Chris admonished him. "We through here?"
The soldier hefted his rifle against his shoulder. "You can ride around the perimeter of the camp. And remember, you're traveling at your own risk. We think there's a murdering outlaw somewhere close by. But as soon as we get permission from the Mexican government we'll be going down there to catch him."
"We'll be sure to keep our eyes out," Buck said with a nod, and the three men rode off into the dust. The private watched them go with a slightly wistful expression, then spurred his mount along to continue his patrol.
"Looks like JD ain't the only one fooled by them dang dime novels," Buck muttered as soon as they were out of earshot.
"Least he didn't shoot us," Chris remarked.
"Best get to Purgatorio before the Army does," Vin said. "One look at that bunch an' Parsons'll know he's bein' chased. It'll make 'im that much harder t'find."
"We'll find 'im," Chris promised, and kicked his horse into a run with a loud, angry shout. Vin and Buck followed, a plum of golden dust swirling in their wake as they tore towards the border and Purgatorio.
Josiah carefully trimmed the wick of the small oil lamp, turning it down as far as it would go without being extinguished completely. The dim glow from the tiny, flickering flame threw the barest illumination upon the walls of Ezra's room, and the preacher knew it would be difficult to read by. But it would serve. He carefully placed the glass chimney over the fragile light and sat back, ready to keep his watch from the corner of the small rented chamber.
It was night now. Down below in the saloon, all was the usual noise and laughter could be softly heard through the polished floorboards and closed door. As Josiah settled into the rocking chair, he glanced with concern at Ezra, hoping the ruckus from below would not interrupt the gambler's much-needed rest.
From all appearances, however, there was no need to worry. Ezra continued to sleep undisturbed, still firmly huddled beneath the soft quilt. The blindfold lay on the table next to the bed. No more nightmares had tormented his rest, but as Josiah endeavored to read his book by the faint lamplight, his heart lay far from easy. It seemed too much to hope that the worst was over.
Two hours passed; the crowd below grew more vigorous in their revels; Ezra slept on. Midnight came and went, and the noise finally began to abate as the drunk and disorderly patrons passed out or staggered home to bed.
As Josiah checked his pocketwatch a short time later, he heard a slight rustling sound. He glanced up, and saw Ezra beginning to stir beneath the warm covers. Quickly the preacher lay down his book and drew closer, unsure of what frame of mind his friend would be in when he opened his eyes. He braced himself, prepared for anything.
Ezra's gentle motion stopped, and Josiah watched as the gambler nestled his head into the down pillow, paused for a moment, then very slowly blinked open his eyes. He winced at first, squinting severely against the glow streaming from the barely-lit lamp, but after a few moments managed to open his eyes wide enough to see. He lay unmoving as his eyes traveled around the room, their expression one of amazement. There was no confusion in those ice-green depths this time, only the faint cloudiness of the newly awakened.
Josiah smiled a little as Ezra's gaze rested on him. "Evenin', Ezra," he said softly, encouraged by the awareness in his friend's expression.
Ezra shifted a little in the bed as he licked his lips. "You'll forgive me if I am somewhat at a loss for words, Josiah," he whispered. "I fear my social skills are a little... out of practice."
"Aw hell, that's all right," was the easy reply as Josiah reached behind him for a cup of water. "I think I can promise absolution for that sin."
He lifted the cup to Ezra's lips, holding it carefully while the gambler drank. He knew Ezra would be thirsty, but it still surprised him how eagerly his comrade gulped at the cup's contents. But then, he thought sadly, it had probably been a while since Ezra had been able to have all the water he wanted.
Ezra sighed slightly as he settled back into the bed on his side. "I never thought water would taste better than brandy," he murmured.
"Fraid you'll have to wait a while til you're up to the brandy again," Josiah replied. "But it'll be waitin' for you."
Ezra gave a slight nod as his head sank back into the pillow. His bruised face now wore a distant, thoughtful expression, and Josiah prepared himself for the hard questions he knew were coming.
"How long?" Ezra finally asked in a soft whisper.
Josiah's face was solemn. "Two months."
The green eyes went to Josiah's face sharply, a somewhat shocked light burning in them. "Two months?" he breathed.
Disbelief flashed across Ezra's face. "Is that all?"
Sadness stabbed at Josiah's heart; the surprise in Ezra's voice spoke immeasurably of the timeless agony he had endured. How many months or even years had passed for the gambler, locked alone in that dark cell undergoing the harshest cruelties? Here Josiah had been thinking how long those two months had been for them, but how much longer it must have been for Ezra, who did not even have the luxury of light or company to distract him from his suffering.
"I would have thought it a year, at least," Ezra continued with a sigh, closing his eyes again.
Josiah leaned forward. "I hope you knew we were sufferin' with you, brother," he said quietly, "an' not a minute of that time went by when we didn't miss your bein' here."
Ezra swallowed, his eyes staying closed. "I knew it, Josiah," he said softly, then opened his eyes a little as a smile touched his lips. "Well, most of the time, anyway. But it was quite... trying." The smile died, and a new, darker expression was born behind his eyes. His breathing hitched a bit.
"Easy, Ezra," Josiah said quickly, gently touching his friend's hand.
The gambler squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, weakly shaking his head. "I apologize, Josiah, it's just..." He swallowed once more, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes. "I'm still having a little difficulty believing it's over. It... felt like forever."
Josiah nodded a little, his blue eyes shining with sympathy. "You'll believe it soon enough, Ezra. We're still gettin' over it ourselves. We all went near crazy lookin' for you, wonderin' where you went. All we knew was you were goin' to Clariston."
The other man's bruised face wrinkled in thought as he struggled to remember. "Yes," he said softly, "yes, I made it that far. While there I came across a gentleman who was selling his stagecoach ticket to Merrills Crossing; he couldn't use it, why I don't recall. I was feeling bored and bought it from him, thinking to inspect some saloons there for possible purchase. That's when our coach was robbed, and we were taken."
The words were faintly and slowly spoken, and by the end Ezra's voice had become laden with sorrow and a hint of fear at the recollection of how his suffering began.
Josiah leaned forward and gently gripped his shoulder, concerned. "You all right, Ezra?"
"Yes, yes," was the whispered reply. Ezra closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then opened them and gazed at Josiah, the haunted light gone now. He let his head sink farther into the pillow. "Does Mother know of any if this?"
Josiah smiled a little. "Yeah, she's been drivin' us crazy the whole time, wantin' to know where you were. Chris sent her a telegram, she should be here before too long. She's been mighty worried about you."
"Hm." Ezra's expression was pensive as he contemplated this idea; it seemed to be a mixture of surprise and puzzlement. Then he looked up at Josiah. "How on earth did you find me?"
"Nathan an' JD found a gal named Contessa wanderin' in the desert," Josiah replied, taking his hand from Ezra's and sitting back. "She told us what was happenin'. We rode on out to the fort, an' JD found the stairway to where they were holdin' you."
Ezra nodded a little, his eyes distant. "Hm. Did you find the vermin responsible?"
The preacher shook his head. "They rode off long before we got there, but Chris an' Buck an' Vin are after 'em. Shouldn't take 'em too long t'round 'em up."
"I should hope not," Ezra murmured, then chuckled a bit. "I imagine poor Nathan's gone about insane carin' for all those people."
Josiah glanced at him. "People?"
"Yes, you know," Ezra said as if it were obvious as he shifted a little in the soft bed. "All the others who were incarcerated with me in the fort. Lord, there must have been at least twenty. They were holding them for ransom, I believe, when I-"
He stopped and suddenly looked keenly at Josiah. The preacher gazed back, dreading the question that was probably coming.
"Josiah, what's wrong?" The words were softly whispered, a note of dire fear running through them.
His friend took a deep breath, hoping he could conceal the horrible news from Ezra just a little longer. It was too damn soon for him to have to know. "Ain't nothin' wrong. Now you best just lie-"
The wounded gambler lifted his head, a horrified gleam in his green eyes. "You are too fine a man to also be a fine liar, Mr. Sanchez," was the reply, "and I am receiving the distinct impression that you are hiding something from me." He licked his lips, a sudden, terrible thought occurring to him. "Is one of our number dead?"
"No, no," Josiah insisted. "We're all fine."
Relief flooded Ezra's pale face, but was soon replaced by dread. "Then... may I assume it has to do with those you rescued from the fort?"
Lying seemed impossible; even if Ezra hadn't been trained from infancy to be able to perceive the slightest falsehood, it would have been beyond Josiah's abilities to mislead his injured friend in such a way. But the truth seemed hardly less cruel, and he could find no words to frame it in.
He looked earnestly at Ezra. "I just don't think we ought to talk about it, Ezra. Not til you're well enough."
He never knew where Ezra got the strength, but the gambler managed to grasp Josiah's arm with one weak, trembling hand. The expression on Ezra's face was one of pure pleading as he looked up into Josiah's eyes.
"Josiah, please," he implored, "I promise you I can bear it, but I will not be able to close my eyes again until know the truth. I believe I have earned it."
Josiah thought for a few moments, then slowly nodded. "Yes, you have, Ezra, but it ain't a truth I want to share."
Ezra's insistent gaze compelled him to continue.
Josiah drew a deep breath. "The little gal, Contessa, told us about the fort. But when we got there the leader was gone, an' the woman he was with, but... they didn't leave anybody alive when they left."
The green eyes were round with horror as the implication of the words sank in. "Do you mean," he whispered in a rough voice, "that... out of all those people, even the women, no one else escaped alive?"
His friend uttered a very deep sigh as he folded his hands and gazed with the utmost compassion into Ezra's eyes. "I'm sorry, Ezra. You an' the gal were the only ones."
Ezra went pale as he slumped back against the pillow. "My God," he breathed, his wide gaze directed at nothing. One trembling hand came up to cover his eyes. He turned his face into the pillow, and for several minutes neither man said a word. Ezra's shoulders heaved repeatedly, and when he finally lifted his eyes they were wet with tears.
"Bastards," he whispered, looking past Josiah as he fell back wearily against the pillow, "bastards..."
Josiah reached out and gripped his shoulder. "If it'll help any, Ezra, most of the evildoers were sent to hell by their boss's own hand. So the men who tormented you have already met with more justice than we could hope t'dish out."
Ezra wiped at his eyes with one trembling hand. "A hundred Hells could not hold enough punishment for those... those..." He swallowed hard. "There were two women, I met them on the stagecoach... I was... hoping they'd somehow found their way to freedom..."
Josiah shrugged a little. "Maybe they did, Ezra. It's been two months, an' we ain't sure who all the outlaws shot."
Ezra gasped a little and shuddered. "Forgive me, Josiah, but I am feeling less than optimistic at the moment." He huddled down into the bed, tears still glistening on his face. He glanced up at Josiah after a few moments, calmer now but puzzled. "But... if they executed all of their prisoners... why was I spared?"
The other man shook his head. "Don't know, Ezra, but I plan to thank God for the next ten years that you were. I reckon in all the fuss they just forgot you were down there."
Ezra gazed at him for a few moments, his eyes wide. Then the eyes moved away, but Ezra continued to lay completely still, contemplating what had happened and trying to comprehend it.
Josiah kept his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "I'm sorry you had t'be burdened with all this so soon, Ezra," he said quietly as he leaned closer. "But you know you don't got to carry it alone. Nathan an' JD an' me, we'll be by every step of the way. All you got to do is say the word."
For several moments Ezra didn't move, speak or react in any way. Just before Josiah became alarmed, the Southerner took a deep breath, and without looking at his friend whispered. "Thank you, Josiah, but for now I... I believe it would be best if I were left alone for a while."
Josiah hesitated. "You sure?"
Ezra closed his eyes tightly, as if fighting off a wave of intense emotion. "Yes, please. Just for a while."
Silence fell as Josiah contemplated the request, then slowly nodded. "All right then," he said as he rose. "One of us'll be just outside, though, if you need anything." He reached for the lamp. "Want me to douse the light so's you can get some-"
"NO!" The cry was almost panicked as Ezra's head shot up from the pillow, his eyes staring at the feeble light which was about to be extinguished. Josiah eyed him, worried, as the gambler regained control of himself. "No, it's... the light is fine, Josiah. Forgive me, but... I have had enough darkness to last the rest of my life."
"All right," Josiah said quickly, stepping away from the precious light as he took hold of the doorknob. "You just get some rest. We'll be by later. Cover your eyes, now, the light in the hallway's pretty bright."
Once he saw that Ezra had obeyed him, he carefully opened the door and stepped through, closing it once again softly behind him. He stood in the hallway for a short time, then walked slowly towards the stairs, contemplating with heavy sorrow the notion that while Ezra had finally been released his cell, it would be some time before the darkness which imprisoned him there would be fully lifted.
He said a silent, heartfelt prayer for his friend, and went downstairs.
JD watched the saloon crowd empty out from his solitary bench on the boardwalk across the street. None of the patrons seemed to notice him, probably because it was dark where he was sitting, and they were far removed from the ability to recognize even their own mothers. The young man watched them leave with sad diligence, prepared to tell anyone who asked that he was up this late only to keep an eye on things.
He could only hope the questioner would be too drunk to detect the lie.
JD shivered, even though the night air was still warm, and almost reluctantly let his gaze wander to one of the upper windows. Only one of them was shuttered; that marked the location of Ezra's room. JD felt a familiar, dreadful sadness settle over him as he contemplated that window. He really didn't want to think about it, but ever since the moment he stepped through the gates of the fort, he had been unable to put his mind on anything else.
It rose up again before him, the gruesome sight which had haunted him for the past two days. He'd seen dead bodies before, but only one or two at a time. These were... there were piles of them, all over, covered with blood and flies. Nausea almost overwhelmed him, but he couldn't stop the images. They'd even shot the women, and although JD didn't know for sure, it appeared that the women had been brutally used before their deaths.
God, JD groaned to himself, pulling off his hat and running a hand through his hair, no longer caring who saw him. God, why would someone do something like that? It was the worst thing he'd ever seen.
And the men they'd found locked up, they'd been tortured, actually really tortured. JD had heard about such things, but never thought he'd ever see someone who'd suffered through it. It had seemed a distant concept, something nobody really did, except maybe the Indians, and who knew if even that was true. Oh, sure, he and Chris and the others had sometimes scared the bad guys they'd caught, but they'd never hurt anybody, that he knew of, anyway. So he was completely unprepared to see what the outlaws had done to their victims.
It was far worse than he could've imagined.
That was all bad enough, but then they had found Ezra. JD tried to shake off the sudden surge of grief which swept through him; he didn't want to think that Ezra had suffered like that. Ezra was too smart, too strong, too quick. And Ezra was his friend. Sure, the gambler had been impatient with him at times, but he had never turned JD away from his table. Many evenings had been whiled away at the saloon, gambling and laughing and telling dubious stories. It was usually fun to have Ezra around.
And now... JD cringed. He couldn't, just couldn't think of his joking, clever friend locked up in that awful cell with no light. He didn't want to think about his friend yelling in pain or bleeding under the beatings he'd received. Such things had never happened to anyone so close to him. There had been woundings, of course, and several times one of their number had almost died. Gunshot wounds were expected out here, however; even JD had had a few of those.
He never expected this.
Guilt kept his eyes riveted to the closed window. He should see Ezra, let Josiah and Nathan get some rest, but he couldn't bring himself to climb those stairs. He couldn't bear to look at Ezra like that. Maybe later he could do it, but not yet.
And the man who did this was still out there. JD turned his eyes westward, past the edge of town, as if trying to penetrate the dark desert which lay beyond. Chris would catch him, JD knew that, but did that matter? It didn't seem possible that the capture of One-Eyed Wolf Parsons would stop such a monstrous evil. Next week they might find someone even worse. Now that JD knew this sort of savagery existed, had seen it with his own eyes, it seemed everywhere, and too immense to stop. What chance did the seven of them have against something so powerful?
He blinked and glanced again at the window, fear swelling through him. Ezra, who was smart and strong, had still been unable to prevent his capture and torment. What if it had been himself that had fallen into Parsons' clutches? It easily might have been. JD's stomach turned as he pictured facing such horrible suffering. If it had almost killed Ezra, it would certainly kill him. And, except for a capricious turn of fate, it might have.
JD shivered again and wrapped his arms around himself; this was not a new thought, and had been increasingly troubling him. The mesas and valleys of the West harbored as much evil as beauty; who knew what would happen? Parsons had proven that such a terrible fate was possible, and that someone like Ezra - or JD - could easily meet it. They might catch Parsons, but there might still be other, even more depraved souls out there, and JD could not shake the haunting thought that one day he might face the same anguish as Ezra had. Or even worse.
Stop it, he yelled at himself, shaking his head. This is crazy, there's no reason to think you're going to be tortured to death someday. But the answer always came: Ezra didn't think it either, and look what happened. This is the West, such things are real here. Best prepare yourself for the possibility if you want to stay.
A memory pushed its way to the forefront of JD's mind, of the day he was brutally beaten by the racketeering Nichols brothers. Well, that had been painful, he pointed out to himself, but he'd survived it. And the time he got shot in the side by that crazy Mattie Stokes, he'd toughed that out too. He'd already been tested, and passed, so why the hell was he so worried?
Because, the young man told himself, what he was facing now was a lot worse than a small band of big-city toughs or a loco female bounty hunter. It was as close to pure evil as JD ever hoped to get. How could he fight it without knowing what drove it, and how could he learn that when the mere thought of having to deal with such horrors drove his stomach down to his boots?
And he wasn't a coward, he knew that. He'd faced danger several times with no problem. But he had been able to understand most of the desperadoes they'd fought against. He didn't understand the thinking behind evil like this, and was pretty sure he didn't want to know. But it was the not knowing that knotted his gut.
He stood, stretching his sore muscles. The drunks were pretty much all gone now; only a few lights remained in the saloon. Inez was closing down for the night. Soon Josiah would be coming out, and JD didn't want to answer any questions right now. He was still sorting it all out for himself.
With weary steps JD hastened to his boarding-room bed, still deep in thought and profoundly troubled. The monster who had gotten Ezra still lived beyond the shadows of the desert, and Chris, Vin and Buck were riding straight into its jaws. JD had every confidence they would succeed, but he was rattled enough to contemplate other, darker possibilities. But he shook these away, or tried to; he was having enough trouble just coping with what had happened to Ezra. If any of his other friends met the same fate...
He firmly pushed this terrible thought away and hurried down the street, as if trying to outrun the fear which nevertheless seemed to dog his every step.
It promised to be a long night.
Buck sighed to himself with fierce frustration as he hefted the saddle off of his horse. The roundabout route they had taken had enabled them to avoid running into any more army, but it had also prevented them from reaching Purgatorio ahead of the slashing rainstorm which was now soaking the landscape. They had managed to find a cave large enough to harbor them, with a stand of sheltering trees nearby for the horses, but the break in their journey still rankled Buck. Every moment's delay meant that Parsons was getting farther away.
As Beauty blew a little and bent her head down to munch on the prairie grass, Buck carried her saddle away a short distance and plopped it on the ground, still thinking. Sure, it was foolish to ride in the rain and the darkness, but dangit, if Parsons got away from him again - well, he just wouldn't be able to take it. He'd have to quit the group and track the bastard down all by himself, if necessary. It might take the rest of his life, but if that was what was needed...
"You gonna tell 'im?"
Buck jumped a bit and looked up to see Chris standing nearby, without his hat or duster. A lit cheroot glowed between his teeth, illuminating his face with a faint red light. Behind him, Buck could see the flicker of light as Vin started a fire in the cave.
Buck scowled as he stood. "Tell who what, Chris?"
His friend jerked his head a little in Vin's direction. "Vin. You gonna tell 'im about what happened in Kansas City, with Parsons?"
Buck's eyes widened a little bit as he stared at the gunslinger, stupefied, his heart hammering. God, Chris knew about what had happened with Parsons and Rio! Shame flooded him, followed quickly by confusion. His eyes narrowed a little. "Mind tellin' me how you know about that?"
Now it was Chris who looked at him, startled. "You don't remember?"
"I reckon not," was the flat reply.
Chris paused, and took a few steps closer, keeping his voice low. "You told me all about it when we got together in Butte the winter after it happened. You was drunker'n all get - out an' spent three solid hours cryin' on my shoulder on how Rio'd double-crossed you and sprung Parsons."
Buck could only blink. "Dang. Really?"
The other man nodded. "Wasn't sure if you remembered it, an' I didn't think you'd want the others knowin'. Y'seemed mighty sore about it at the time."
Buck threw him a furious look. "Hell, Chris, don't I got every right t'be?" he said in a low, pained voice as he took a step back. "This whole thing is my fault. If I hadn't let Rio turn my head, Parsons would be rottin' in a cheap coffin six feet under Kansas soil, them folks would still be alive, an' Ezra an' that little gal would be walkin' around just fine. It ain't somethin' I'm real proud of."
Chris nodded as he took a long pull on the cheroot. After a few moments he removed it from his mouth and looked away, blowing out the smoke in a languorous hazy stream. "I know how a mistake like that can eat at a man, Buck. I'm just makin' sure you don't go an' blow his head off the minute we find 'im."
Buck knelt down and began fiddling with the saddle. His expression was lethal. "Can't promise that, Chris. Not after what he's done." He glanced up. "I'm surprised you'd show them monsters the slightest bit of mercy."
"I ain't talkin' about mercy," Chris replied, putting the cheroot back between his teeth. The glint in his green eyes was as hard as steel. "But we got to make sure they go to trial an' hang for what they did. An' we can't give that rat Stephenson any excuse for lockin' us up. He'd do that in a minute if we killed Parsons before the law had a chance to."
Buck thought for a moment, then sighed and nodded. "Yeah, he would."
Chris paused, then looked at Buck, his expression serious. "I also," he continued, "don't want you goin' off an' gettin' yourself shot tryin' t'get the drop on 'im. Parsons is a crazy, sick bastard, an' we got to go after him together if we're going to bring him down."
Buck looked up at his old friend, understanding and accepting his concern for him. It was just his way of letting Buck know that he'd personally kick Buck's ass if he let himself get hurt. He'd seen the violent, reckless side that Buck showed to precious few people - most of whom dearly regretted it - and was simply saying: Be careful.
"Don't worry, Pard," he assured his friend with a somber nod. Chris said nothing, simply returning the nod, and the deal was set.
Buck looked over at the fire, where Vin was skinning the rabbit he'd caught for dinner. He drew a long, slightly nervous breath and blew it back out. "Yeah, guess I better let Vin in on all this mess. We're ridin' together, best he knows what he's ridin' with." Buck chuckled slightly as he stood and dusted off his hands. "He'll probably think I'm a damn crazy lovesick fool."
Chris grinned a little around the cheroot. "Hell, we all do that already," he said. Buck mustered enough good nature out of his sour mood to laugh slightly at the joke, and they walked back to the cave as the thunder and rain rolled about them.
Josiah strode slowly out of the Standish Tavern, a steaming cup of coffee held in one hand as he blearily regarded the new day. The night before it had been so long he had begun to imagine the sun would never rise.
He leaned againt a wooden post and sipped at the brew, watching as the townfolk went about their business but paying little attention to the scene before his eyes. Worry still ate at his gut, a persistent ache which he feared would be unpacking its bags and staying for a long time. There was, after all, so much to be worried about.
Ezra had passed a bad night, barely sleeping, and haunted by nightmares even when he did close his eyes. Inez had found him screaming in his room after the lamp had accidently gone out; he had awakened in the dark, convinced once again that he had come to consciousness back in his cell. Mary was with him now; Josiah had passed her on the stairs, carrying a tray of food. Ezra had a great deal of esteem for Mary. If anyone could help him, it would be her.
Then there was JD, Josiah mused as he eased himself into a chair on the porch. Something was bothering the boy, but he didn't seem to want to talk about it. Of course, the boy had seen enough in the past few days to unnerve anyone; it wasn't a matter of what was bothering him, but which of a host of potential nightmares was the most likely choice. With any luck, he thought, JD would decide to talk soon and let someone help him. Keeping such dark thoughts to oneself could drive a person mad.
Then there was Chris and the others out after Parsons, he thought to himself, glancing out to the east along the street his freinds had ridden out on. They were in danger as well; Parsons may have found a new band to do his evil work. There were plenty of men who'd gladly follow such a man if he promised money, power and the freedom to be as depraved as you wanted. A bitter helplessness clawed at Josiah's throat; if only they could have all gone. But as it was, he could only pray for their safety and hope God heard. If God wasn't too sick from hearing Josiah's voice already...
"Scuse me, sir? You the preacher?"
Josiah looked up, startled. Before him stood a slight, brown-haired man, clean-shaven and clad in worn clothes dusty from traveling. His hat was in his hand, his lean tan face weary but respectful.
"Reckon I am, sir," Josiah replied, putting aside his thoughts as he stood and extended his hand. "Josiah Sanchez."
"Mitchell Gardner," the man replied, shaking Josiah's hand firmly. "I was told t'talk to you, Father, uh, Sanchez..."
Josiah smiled gently at him. "Just Josiah'll do, friend."
Mr. Gardner seemed a little surprised, but nodded. "All right. Josiah. Me an' my family was travelin' through on the way t'homestead, an' my Pa passed on not five miles back. He's at the undertaker's now, an' I was wonderin' if you could say a few words over 'im so he could have a decent Christian burial? I'd sure be much obliged, an' it'd mean a lot t'Josie an' the young ones. They're over prayin' at the church right now."
Josiah's face settled into solemn lines. "I'll be happy t'help, Mr. Gardner. Right sorry about your pa."
The other man nodded a little, emotion twitching his mouth. "Thank you, Josiah, he... well, he weren't never a rich man or nothin' but he was always good t'us. Had a hard life but never blamed nobody." He stood silent for a moment, lost in thought, then sniffed and looked up. "Anyway, I don't got too much cash, but whatever you want is yours for helpin' us."
He motioned to Josiah, and they stepped into the street towards a wagon hitched nearby. It was quite large, its back taken up with a few trunks, some small pieces of furniture and bedding, and boxes of food.
One item caught Josiah's attention right away. It was a large chair, covered with red padded leather, its back hinged in a most peculiar way.
"Never seen a chair like that before," he muttered as they walked to the back of the wagon.
"That was pa's," Mr. Gardner informed him. "Well, we got it for him anyway, but he never really used it. Picked it up in Phoenix. It was dang expensive, but he insisted, an' hell I couldn't never talk him outta nothin'. They called it an invalid's chair."
"Is that right," Josiah said softly, his voice edged with interest.
His companion climbed into the back of the vehicle and picked his way past a few trunks to where the chair sat. "See, y'can bend the back an' the bottom so's the person in it can stretch out." He pulled on the back of the chair, which responded by tilting backwards almost a foot. Reaching down, he yanked the footrest up a similar distance. He stood, gazing at the contraption sadly. "We was hopin' t'sell it. Pa sure don't need it no more, but I don't reckon nobody out here'd want it."
Josiah's face was bright with eagerness. "Mr. Gardner, if you're willin', I'll be glad to take this chair off your hands in exchange for doin' your pa's funeral, an' give you a few dollars besides for it."
The other man's weary face lit up as he climbed back out of the wagon. "That'd suit me, Josiah. I know Pa'd be happy someone had a use for his chair."
The preacher helped Gardner out of the wagon, his face reflective. "Yeah," he murmured, a touch of sadness in his voice, "we got a use for it. But you'll forgive me if I say that I dearly wish we didn't."
Gardner reached the ground and nodded, fully understanding the sentiment. Josiah glanced on last time at the chair, then he and Gardner moved off towards the church to make the necessary arrangements.
Mary carefully balanced the small tray of food in one hand as she approached the door to Ezra's room. Her blue eyes looked once more over its contents: a tin cup of weak tea, a small bowl of broth, a slice of bread. Simple, bland food, but nourishing at least, if Ezra would only eat it.
Concern plucked at her heart as she neared the door; she had helped Nathan and Josiah with Ezra the night he was brought back. It was amazing, to her, that he was even still alive, considering his appearance then. But then, he was a fighter, as they all were; her father-in-law, Judge Travis, would not have entrusted her safety and that of the town to Ezra and his friends if he had been anything less.
She reached the door, and holding the tray in one hand knocked on the smoothly painted white wood with the other.
After a few moments the door quietly opened, and Nathan appeared.
"Mornin', Mrs. Travis," he said quietly, and with a small hint of surprise.
She gave a tiny smile of greeting. "Hello, Nathan." She lifted the tray a bit. "I brought some food up for Ezra, if he's awake enough to eat it."
Nathan glanced behind him. "Should be soon, ma'am, he was stirrin' a bit just now." He looked back at her. "If you'd like to bring it on in, y'can sit with 'im while I go get the bath ready. It's gonna be time soon t'wash his cuts again."
He opened the door a little, allowing her to slip in. Inside it was still dark, but not as gloomy as it had been the day before. As she set the tray gently down on the dresser, Mary glanced at the bed and saw Ezra curled up in the quilt, almost buried in its folds with his back to her.
"I won't be long," Nathan promised. Then he paused. "Did Inez tell you what happened last night?"
Mary's expression became thoughtful as her blue eyes dropped their gaze. "Yes," she replied simply. "It sounds like Ezra's going to need all of our help to get through this."
"That he will, ma'am," Nathan said with a nod. "Just wanted t'warn you, he might be powerful surly when he wakes up. Just let him come 'round himself. An' don't be surprised if he don't feel like eatin'. Josiah told 'im what happened in that fort, an' it done broke his heart."
She sighed, folding her arms as if suddenly cold. "I understand," she whispered, looking away, knowing that she couldn't truly understand, ever. How much pain would the gambler have to bear? Then she took a breath and looked back at Nathan, trying to smile. "I'll be all right, Nathan. I just... wanted to make sure Ezra knew there are those of us in town who want to help."
"Well, I sure 'preciate it," was Nathan's reply as he softly opened the door. "I'll be right back."
He slipped out of the door, and was gone.
Mary had just settled into the chair near the bed when Ezra began to stir, his slow motions filling the air with the gentle noise of soft rustling.
She stood and walked to the foot of the bed, eager not to startle him with her presence. She could see that he was awake, his eyes open as he stared for a few moments at the wall, blinking. She felt her heart race a little with empathy as she saw once more the dark, deep bruises which marked his face. In this light it was hard to tell it was even Ezra.
After a short pause he looked down at her, frowning in puzzlement.
"Mrs. Travis?" he muttered, lifting his head up slightly.
She smiled and walked around the bed to face him. "I came to see how you were doing," she said in as gentle a voice as possible. She desperately hoped she was successful in hiding her horror at his appearance; the closer she drew, the more apparent his suffering became. He looked so thin and weary it almost frightened her.
He regarded her for a moment, then let his head sink back onto the plump down pillow, still keeping his eyes on her. "My thanks," he said in a small voice, "but propriety would frown on your being alone in here with me, you know." His lips curled in a ghost of a smile.
She folded her hands. "I think propriety can forgive a few things in the name of mercy," she said firmly, and nodded towards the dresser. "Inez prepared some breakfast for you."
His face fell, and he settled further into the pillow as his eyes looked away. "A thoughtful gesture, but I'm afraid I'm not hungry."
Silence fell, and Mary could see a haunted expression fall across his gaunt face. She stepped a little closer, worried, wondering what to say. If Ezra didn't eat, he would never gain enough strength to recover.
"I hear Contessa is doing very well," she finally said, hoping that would help.
Ezra looked up at her, his veiled eyes confused. "Contessa?"
"The young girl JD and Nathan found," Mary explained. "She wants to see you so badly. She thinks you were very brave for fighting those outlaws."
Nothing was said for several minutes. Finally Ezra drew a ragged breath and closed his eyes. "What she should do is go home and be with her family," he whispered. "I am hardly deserving of such adulation."
Mary leaned closer, hoping her words would reach him. "I think she'd dsagree," she repleid softly. "Contessa says noone else ever tried to stop those men. What you did took quite a lot of courage. You shouldn't regret doing it."
There was a pause. "If I had not tried to save those women," Ezra muttered, keeping his eyes closed, "they might have been dealt with less harshly, and I would doubtless be in a much healthier state." He drew another deep sigh. "If I had only waited, perhaps I might have devised a way to save us all."
Mary could think of nothing to say. The pain and defeat which suffused every word Ezra spoke betrayed a suffering far deeper than any wound could cause.
Finally she licked her lips and looked at him. "Ezra, I'm planning to do an article on what happened at that fort. I want to let everyone here know to keep a lookout for Wolf Parsons. Miss Almarez has consented to my telling her story; may I tell yours as well?"
Ezra seemed to wince a bit, and he opened his eyes to look at her. "I would rather you didn't, Mrs. Travis. It is not a story I'm proud of."
She regarded him with sympathy. "But, Ezra, you did nothing wrong."
He frowned. "There are some who would disagree on that," he murmured, "and others who would see it as a reason to look on me as an object of pity. I truly believe I could not bear that, Mrs. Travis. My apologies."
She sighed to herself. "You don't have to apologize, Ezra," she said softly. "I understand. You have my word that I'll respect your wishes. Will you at least allow me to welcome you home?"
Ezra considered it. "As long as no details are given, that will be... acceptable."
Silence fell again, and Mary began to get the impression that Ezra was becoming tired. Maybe it was time to go. She straightened and took a step towards the door, opening her mouth to say her goodbye.
The word was spoken so softly that she wondered if she'd really heard it. When she stopped and looked at him, she saw Ezra staring at her.
"Yes, Ezra?" She drew closer.
"May I ask you a rather... personal question? You don't have to answer it."
She paused. "If it will help you at all, Ezra, I'll do my best."
The gambler nestled his head a little deeper into the pillow, pausing as he framed what he what about to say. "Following your husband's death," he finally said, in a quiet, reflective voice rife with sorrow, "did you ever regret the fact that you survived him?"
Mary was startled by the question, and it took her several tries before she could form a coherent reply.
"Well," she said in a low and husky voice, "there... were times I thought my grief would overcome me, but... I knew Stephen would never have wanted me to give up on my life. And I had Billy to think about, and be strong for. But I still miss him every day, and there were many times when I questioned why he was taken from me so soon."
Ezra swallowed and closed his eyes. "Just as I am wondering why I was spared."
Her heart sank at the despair in his voice, but she struggled to sound hopeful. "You were spared to come back and protect us," she said, gently touching his hand.
She felt him shudder beneath her fingers. "Somehow I find that thought highly unlikely," he replied bitterly. "Now if you'll forgive me, I am too weary for further conversation."
He turned his face deeper into the pillow, his eyes resolutely closed.
Mary frowned, more concerned than ever. "Ezra?"
There was no reply.
She stood by the bed, uncertain, until the door opened once more and Nathan appeared. He looked down at Ezra, then motioned Mary into the hallway.
"Reckon he didn't eat nothin'," the healer surmised once Mary had closed the door behind her.
She sighed, shaking her head. "No. I tried, but... it's like he's consumed with sadness. He's blaming himself for living while everyone else at the fort died."
Nathan glanced at the door, a flicker of sorrow in his dark eyes. "Yeah, Josiah said it's weighin' heavy on 'im. I seen this durin' the war, too. Sometimes the men who lived through battles couldn't stop thinkin' about the ones who didn't an' never got over the grief of it."
Mary felt a coldness clutch at her heart at the thought that Ezra might stay like this. "Is there anything we can do?"
The healer looked back at her, his gaze sad but steady. "Just keep tendin' to 'im, ma'am, an' try to find 'im a reason not t'give up."
Despite the very early hour, the cantina of the outlaw town Purgatorio was swarming with activity, its unwashed patrons wolfing down whiskey and food with equal abandon. The sun filtered feebly through the dense smoke and dust into its adobe interior, trying in vain to cast some light into its dark proceedings. The most valiant attempts on its part were sadly doomed to failure; there were always dark places in the cantina even on the brightest days, always some murky corners where no illumination would ever reach.
It was in these places that Vin and Chris decided to begin their search for One-Eyed Wolf Parsons, while Buck investigated the town's other dives.
"Better watch your step, Vin," Chris muttered as they pushed through the dangling beaded curtain decorating the cantina's doorway. His green eyes searched the gloomy room sharply, missing nothing. "Bound to be a few desperadoes here who'd know you're a wanted man."
"I always keep an eye out, pard," the tracker assured him, sweeping the area with his own keen glance. "Lucky for us most of these desperadoes are too drunk t'see straight."
As he spoke he stepped carefully over one unconscious reveler who lay sprawled on the floor, disregarded by most of the populace. Those who did notice the hapless drunkard were content to casually shower him with their cigar butts.
They went further into the cantina, studying every wayward shadow which might prove to be their prey. Few gave them much attention, beyond a couple of suspicious looks. Those who recognized them appeared satisfied to keep their distance.
Within a few moments they were at the bar, elbowing aside an amorous couple to make room for themselves.
"Two whiskeys," Chris muttered to the bartender, tossing a few coins onto the grimy countertop. As the drinks were prepared he folded his hands and leaned forward, his head barely moving as he looked around.
Chris and Vin both turned in mild surprise to the amorous couple next to them. The woman, a scantily-clad and rather sweaty working girl, was regarding Chris with a smile of sweet recognition.
Her patron, a grubby, flabby-looking man with a thick blonde mustache, seemed less than pleased. "Hey, darlin'," he snarled, "I paid fer you, you best not be throwin' me over."
The pretty young woman gave Chris a wide-eyed smile, then said something rapidly to the man in Spanish, pointing at Chris as she talked. At the words "Chris Larabee" the stranger's eyes grew large.
"Shit, Chris Larabee!" he sputtered, almost dropping her as he pulled away from the bar. "Hey - I'm sorry, mister - I, uh-"
"Mind if we talk a few minutes with Maria?" Chris said with a barely suppressed grin.
"Aw, hell no!" the man replied quickly in a breathless voice, and hurried off. Vin downed his whiskey with a smirk as Chris gave the young woman a sharply suspicious look.
"What'd you tell that guy, anyway?" the gunslinger asked, amused.
Maria stepped towards him, her large eyes watching him. "I told him only the truth, Senor Chris. With you it is all that is needed." Deftly she entwined one arm around his, her lips mere inches from his face. "I have missed you," she whispered, and before he could stop her she devoured his mouth in a long, sensuous kiss.
Chris waited a few moments, then very gently pulled away from her, taking her hand in his. "Been missin' you too," he returned in a low voice, "but I ain't come for that this time. We're lookin' for an outlaw name of Wolf Parsons. Real thin, tall, long black hair, got one eye, might be travelin' with a red-haired gal named Rio."
Disappointed, Maria stood back and thought for a moment. Vin and Chris watched her eagerly, hoping. "We have many one-eyed men come through here, but none like you describe. What has he done?"
Chris's face grew dark with disgust as he turned to the bar and lifted his whiskey glass. "Killed a lot of innocent folks an' nearly beat one of my men to death," was the ice-cold reply. He slammed the whiskey down his throat as if to wash away the images of evil he had been forced to describe.
"There was a young gal escaped from 'im an led us t'the fort where he was holed up, then we tracked 'im to the border," Vin continued. "Rain washed away his tracks so we ain't sure where he got off to, but we heard he was comin' here. Figured he's hidin' an' waitin' t'get a new gang or ride down into Mexico."
Maria's expression softened. "I am sorry to hear of this. Your friend and the young girl, will they all right?"
"They're restin' up back home at Four Corners," Vin assured her. He could not honestly say, however, if they would be all right or not.
"Reckon we best take a look around town an' see if Buck's found anything," Chris said in a rough voice as he stood. He turned to Maria. "You see these people, you come an' find us. But be careful." With one swift movement he pressed a gold coin into her hand.
She stared into his face for a moment, an expression close to amazement in her eyes over his concern for her. "I will be careful, Senor Chris," she promised. "I hope you find this man. There are too many bad people here already, we do not need any more."
Chris gave her a smile and a quick kiss, then glanced at Vin. They moved towards the door, still looking around the cantina as they went. As they passed the fat man Chris glanced at him and said, "Treat her right or you're gonna be meetin' me again."
This seemed to completely rattle the man, who jumped up and pulled his hat on. "Uh, that's all right, Mr. Larabee, I just remembered - I gotta be gettin' home to th' wife."
With that he sped out of the door ahead of them. Chris and Vin watched him go, then Chris turned to the working girl and shrugged. Maria, however, did not seem too distraught, and they stepped back out into the street to continue their search.
Ezra lay in his room, staring at nothing as he lay lost in thought. The heavy curtains had come off of his window; his eyes had now recovered fully, and sunlight was once more allowed to stream in unabated. The room was bathed in its deepening orange glow as it began its descent to the western horizon, but Ezra did not even seem to notice the first sunset he had been able to witness for two long months. There was a darkness on his soul which no amount of daylight could wash away.
He shifted in the bed, clutching the pillow tighter against his bruised face as if to pad himself against the sorrow flooding his mind. There was pain, the annoying ache of healing wounds, but he paid little attention to it as he continued to brood, seeking answers which he believed would never come.
This is madness, he told himself as he settled down into the soft bed. For the past two months (could it have really been only two? Impossible...) he had dreamed of nothing but surviving his ordeal and coming home. He should be joyous over his rescue.
But he could not feel joy, or relief, or anything but an agonizing confusion over what had happened. How could he rejoice over his own good fortune, when those who had shared his imprisonment had not been spared? He thought of the two young women he had tried to protect, so youthful and lovely, certainly undeserving of the harsh fate dealt to them. He might have been able to free them, if he had not acted so rashly. If he had only waited...
He closed his eyes briefly as weariness overtook him; he was so damn tired, but he didn't want to sleep. The faces of his fellow prisoners loomed before him when he closed his eyes - he had seen them only briefly, they were really more shapes than anything else. But there had been so many, that day he'd arrived. Husbands and fathers, mothers and sisters, all held by the outlaws' cruel whims.
Now all dead. But he had been spared, with no one to answer the question which would not stop echoing through his soul: Why?
He sighed, opening his eyes, unwilling to gaze into the blank faces of the bleeding ghosts in his mind. So many people, surely the odds would dictate that among them would be family men and women, people with loved ones waiting for them somewhere. But they had been slaughtered, and Ezra, who had no wife or family, was allowed to live.
The heaviness pressed on Ezra's heart, a curious weight made more unbearable with each passing thought. Self-examination had never been one of his favorite pastimes, and usually he acknowledged his sinful past with a dismissive shrug. But now it all seemed to come crashing down on him, every dishonest action, every con, every immorality he had ever used in his pursuit of gain. There seemed no heavenly reason why he should have been saved, no clue as to why his stained soul was lifted above the carnage while other, more worthy lives were ended. It was an accident, after all, wasn't that what Josiah had said? They had forgotten about him.
But Ezra did not believe in accidents any more than he believed in luck. There had to be a reason. But as he lay thinking, he could see no logic behind what had happened, only a blind and bloody tragedy with no shred of possible redemption. He had survived, but lived burdened with pain and the crushing memories of what he had endured and the unanswerable questions.
Perhaps that was the reason he'd been condemned to live, he thought with a shudder. To pay for his sins by continuing to suffer. The pain of his companions was over forever, but his... He felt as if his anguish might never end. And too, he had shamed himself by allowing himself to give way in front of his comrades. A true gentleman, he had always believed, never lost his composure no matter how emotional the circumstances. It was so undignified to display his feelings so openly and violently. He had to be careful not to let it happen again - not for joy, or sorrow.
The worst part was, there was no one here he could turn to. No one could possibly comprehend the horrors he had endured, the agony and loneliness and eternal fear. Only someone who had shared his fate would understand - but everyone else who had shared his fate was dead, except for that young girl, Contessa.
She must be quite a courageous child, he mused; it was fortunate indeed that fate had spared her so that mankind might still benefit from her gifts. He could talk to her, he supposed, but that would be too painful for her; she should go home, and forget what had happened to her. Besides, why did she want to see him, as Mary had said? He had done nothing remarkable, only committed a foolish act, suffered for it, and survived by being forgotten.
The sunlight began to fade. Ezra sighed, tired of thinking; soon someone would be up with food, asking him how he was doing. And he would nod and say he was feeling better, and maybe even smile a few times, so they'd see he was doing fine.
It would be the greatest con of his career.
The fat man who had been Maria's customer looked behind him as he mounted his horse. Few noticed how quickly he spurred his steed forward; fast getaways were common enough in Purgatorio. As he tore through the crowded, filthy streets and through the front gate, no one paid him the slightest bit of attention.
Great clouds of dust swirled in the air as he pounded across the sandy soil. His destination was not hearth and home, however; instead, he guided his horse's steps to a craggy mesa overlooking the wilderness which surrounded Purgatorio. To the hiding place of an old friend met by chance on the desert, who'd asked a favor of him...
The fat man reined in as he approached a particular outcropping of boulders, slowing his steed as his brown eyes searched the barren rocks. Carefully he directed his mount a short ways up the face of the slight slope, until he heard a sound which he had been expecting. But it still made his heart thump with dread.
A gun, close by, readied to fire.
He sat up in the saddle, pushing back his floppy tan hat. "Wolf, it's me, Peters," he said quickly in reply to the threatening sound.
There was a pause. Ten feet away a slender figure emerged from the rocks, gun in hand, its long black hair dancing in the hot wind.
"That didn't take long," the armed man said with quiet surprise, not moving from his perch. Behind him, a red-haired woman rose with graceful silence, her eyes sharp and watching.
"Good thing y'sent me in there t'scout the place out, Wolf," Peters responded. "You was right, they're after you."
Wolf Parsons scowled. "Suspected as much after seein' that damn Army at the border. How many?"
"Two, fer now," was the casual reply as the man hooked his thumbs into his belt. "But they ain't Army. One of 'em's Chris Larabee."
A grin spread over the tall man's face as he looked back at his companion. "Hear that, Rio? We got the famous Chris Larabee on our tail."
"Maybe he's lookin' t'join up with us," the woman replied smoothly as she holstered her gun. "I heard he's a hell-raiser."
"Don't think so, gal," Peters said, shaking his head. "If what I heard's true, he an' his pal are on a blood hunt for you two. Looks like a couple folks made it out of your hands alive an' put 'em on your trail."
Wolf and Rio both looked up sharply.
"Oh, shit," Rio breathed, looking at her mate. "That little Mexican bitch that got away. I told you we should've gone after her, Wolf!"
Peters nodded. "Yeah, he said it was a young gal an' one of Larabee's men that you were beatin' on. Can't see how they got by you, Wolf, but they're the ones bringin' down the law on you."
Wolf stood unmoving for a few moments, one hand massaging the fisted form of the other as he stared at Peters just long enough to make him uncomfortable.
"Damn!" he finally spat, and turning on his heel he began walking briskly back to the campsite. Rio and Peters were close behind.
"Do you think you can find Larabee and his friend again?' he asked Peters as he strode to where the horses were tethered.
The large man considered the question, then shrugged. "Well... yeah, Purgatorio ain't that big. You want me to tail 'em?"
Wolf was at his horse, preparing to mount up. "No, I want you to kill them."
Rio smiled and began her own preparations.
"Kill Chris Larabee!" Peters barked, stunned. "Shit, Wolf, you ain't serious. That man's a born gunman."
"Fifty dollars in gold will tell you how serious I am," Wolf replied, glancing at him as he cinched his saddle. "Meet me here in a week with proof of his death and that's what you'll get. Hire all the guns you need - I'm sure there are plenty of men there who'll work for a drink and a few dollars. But I want him and his friend dead and out of my way."
Peters mulled it over, then watched as Wolf mounted his horse. "Hell, I don't reckon even Larabee could fight off a whole squad of hired guns. But why don't you do this yourself, Wolf? Killin' folks is what you like best. Don't figure you gone soft."
Wolf took his reins in hand and looked at Peters with an even, deadly glare. "If I had the time to take care of Larabee and his bastard friend, I would. But I got other blood t'spill. Did Larabee say where that young gal was, an' his friend that got away from us?"
Peters thought a moment. "Heard that long-haired fella say Four Corners."
A killing gleam came into Wolf's eyes as he scanned the horizon. "Then that's where we'll be ridin', once we steal us some supplies. Can't let nobody live who'd say a word against me, can I?"
An ugly chuckle rose from Peters' throat. "Reckon not, Wolf. hell, what they might tell a judge could get you hanged."
Wolf's mouth twitched. He looked down at Parsons as Rio mounted up.
"One week," he said, and spurred his horse away. Rio followed him, an eager smile on her ruby lips, and Peters watched as they sped into the twilight, riding away in the direction of Four Corners.
The saloon was quiet as JD stood by himself at the bar, slowly nursing a shot of whiskey and trying to get up the courage to fulfill a promise he'd just made to Nathan. Maybe that hadn't been a smart idea...
But what else could he do, when the healer stopped him in the street, obviously in a hurry. Hey JD, he said in a rushed voice, I got to go, Mr. Keller broke his leg. Can you do me a favor an' check on Ezra? Josiah's doin' a funeral an' nobody's been to see 'im all afternoon.
Then he was gone.
JD had been too embarrassed to say no, but now he was wishing he had. Fear ate at his heart, he didn't want to see Ezra looking - well, like he did when they found him. It had broken his heart then, and he'd been across the room. What would it be like when he was just a few feet away? How would he be able to bear the sight of his friend in so much pain?
"JD? Are you all right?"
He looked up, sightly startled, into the large, concerned eyes of Inez, who was watching him closely from behind the bar.
He sighed and stood. "Oh, uh, yeah. Just... thinkin'."
"They must be very sad thoughts, from the look on your face," she replied with sympathy.
He tried to shrug. "Oh, well, nothing us gunslingers can't handle, right?" But he swallowed at the end of his words and nervously rubbed his hands on his jacket. "Well, I gotta go, uh, check on Ezra for Nathan."
Inez nodded as she began to wipe the bar. "That is good, he had been alone all day. He will be happy to see a friendly face, I'm sure."
JD dropped his eyes to the whiskey. "Yeah," he whispered with uncertainty, and picking up the shot glass quickly poured its contents down his throat. he grimaced as he put the empty glass back down - God, he really didn't like whiskey all that much, but maybe it would help him face what was waiting for him. Without another word he nodded to Inez and made his way up the stairs to Ezra's room.
He hesitated at the door, his heart pounding. He felt like running back down the stairs, but did his best to quell the urge. He could do this, it wouldn't be so bad. Check on Ezra, that's all, a quick look in the door. He's probably just sleeping anyway. No reason to think there's anything to worry about.
No reason to think that might well be you lying broken and bleeding on a bed someday, thanks to the outlaws you're trying to fight...
He shook his head, determined to dispel that haunting thought, and very gently opened the door.
Ezra's room was softly lit by the oil lamp now kept constantly burning on the dresser. JD stepped inside, bracing himself, hoping to face his fears by proving to himself that they were groundless. But what he saw didn't help matters much at all.
Ezra was indeed asleep, and oblivious to JD's presence. The young man stared at his friend, horrified; he looked even worse now than he did in the cell, if that was possible. There JD had only a glimpse of his injuries; now he could see every bruise and cut on his friend's face, how almost his whole body was wrapped in bandages to hide the deeper wounds. He'd never seen bruises like that on anyone, they were so dark it appeared they would never heal.
JD felt sick to his stomach; he'd never thought Ezra could look so thin and exhausted. Even asleep, the pain was still evident on his face, lines of agony which no amount of care could erase. He looked ten years older than before; the change was so drastic it frightened him. This Ezra wouldn't be down in the saloon any time soon, laughing and playing cards like before. He didn't look as if he would ever have the heart to laugh again.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw that Nathan had left some of the more minor wounds unbandaged, probably because they were healing faster than the others. But nothing about those wounds seemed minor to JD, as he looked with horror at the long, red stripes on Ezra's arms and chest. There were others he couldn't see, he was sure of it. The more he stared, the more seemed to appear. They looked like whip marks.
JD gulped and shuddered, suddenly feeling very cold. He'd never seen anyone who'd been whipped before, and the fact that it was someone he knew made it unbearable to even think about. How could Ezra have survived in that cold, dark cell, all alone, with pain like this? An unwanted image seared itself into JD's mind, of his friend in torment, alone in the endless night. He thought of what he had seen in the cell when they found Ezra, the wall with that horrible red stain, those chains...
God, JD gulped to himself as he stood rooted to the spot, staring as he began to shiver. God, what did they do to him?
And what if it had been me?
Ezra began to murmur fretfully in his sleep, stirring a bit.
The young man swallowed as he came to himself with a start, a small gasp of surprise puffing from his mouth. His heart began to hammer, and he suddenly felt like getting as far away from seeing Ezra in pain as he could. But there was no one else to look after Ezra now; Inez was busy downstairs, and Josiah and Nathan weren't there.
The murmurs grew louder and more agitated.
"Uh, Ezra?" JD said, thinking it best that he try and wake Ezra up and let him know he was there. "Take it easy - I-"
A feeble, strangled cry wrenched itself from Ezra's throat, and he began tossing more violently.
Oh geez, JD thought, and impulsively he reached out and placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder, wincing at how bony it felt beneath his fingers. "Ezra?"
Another wail, louder than before, rent the air, and Ezra tore himself away from JD's touch as he covered his face with his hands and began sobbing aloud.
Terrified, JD stumbled backwards, his hazel eyes wide. Not knowing what else to do, he raced out the door and down the stairs, Ezra's screams following his every step. The screams he couldn't bear to hear.
He stumbled onto the landing of the saloon, and witnessed the miracle of Nathan coming through the doors, followed by Josiah.
"Nathan!" JD cried, waving behind him. "Quick! Ezra - he's-"
Nathan and Josiah shot past him and up the stairs before his tightening throat would allow him another word. He heard more shouts, mingled with Nathan and Josiah's voices, but he was too dizzy and frightened to try and make anything out. His legs were trembling fiercely, and he made his way to the nearest table and collapsed into a chair, his head dropping into his hands.
He had no idea how long he sat there, gasping for air, trying to regain control of himself. He was barely aware of his surroundings until he felt a touch on his shoulder. With a slight yelp he whirled, to look into the concerned blue eyes of Josiah.
"What's wrong, son?"
JD blinked, embarrassed, and unconsciously backed away a bit. He was still shaking a bit, and his eyes felt wet, but he did his best to hide any signs of discomfort. "How's Ezra?" he gasped.
Josiah didn't take his eyes from JD's face. "Nathan's takin' care of 'im. He was just havin' a bad dream."
"Oh," JD gulped, looking away, knowing how worried he looked but not caring much. He could think of nothing else to say.
After a few moments, he looked over to see Josiah still sitting beside him, watching him very closely. He swallowed. "Uh, what?"
"I can see you're troubled, JD," was the patient response. "Just wonderin' if I could help, is all."
JD sighed sharply and looked away again, suddenly ashamed of himself, although he didn't really know why. "I'm fine, just - well, worried about Ezra, I guess."
Josiah lifted his brows a bit and cast a backwards glance up the stairs. "Ezra'd be mighty touched t'know you were this concerned for 'im."
The young man felt his heart thump a little; something in the tone of Josiah's voice told him that he knew JD's anxiousness was not for Ezra alone. He looked over at Josiah, afraid he'd see condemnation there. There was none, only concern and a touch of sadness.
JD looked away, his heart pounding again. He didn't want to tell anyone how frightened he was by all this, he had to be tough and callous if he wanted to survive here and be a lawman. Lawmen weren't scared by evil, they fought it, and you couldn't fight something you were afraid of. He couldn't let any of them see him afraid.
A motion beside him caught his attention. Josiah was preparing to stand.
"Since you're fine, guess I'll be goin'," the preacher was saying.
Something caught in JD's throat, and before he realized it he said, "Wait!"
Josiah hadn't even cleared his seat. He looked at JD, an expression of patient expectation on his face.
JD stared back, thinking rapidly. Why did he want Josiah to wait? He couldn't tell him what was eating at his heart. But another thought occurred to him, saying that he was sick of all this, sick of trying to pretend nothing was wrong when it felt like his guts were being tied into knots. Maybe talking to Josiah would help. He seemed to know something was wrong anyway.
Josiah settled back into his seat and leaned forward a little. When he spoke, his voice was soft. "You ain't fine, are you, JD?"
JD sighed and slumped in his chair, gazing miserably at the table. He took a deep, shaking breath and shook his head. "I shouldn't have run out on Ezra like that."
"Ezra's in good hands," Josiah assured him.
"Yeah, I know, but..." JD pursed his lips, trying to organize his confused thoughts. Finally he brought his hazel eyes up and looked squarely into Josiah's face. "It tears me up seein' him like that, Josiah. I've never looked at someone so bad off so close before, an' the fact it's one of us makes it even worse."
Josiah's eyes were full of sad knowledge. "You mean you've never seen evil so close before," he said quietly.
JD sighed and sat back, taking his hat off and plopping it onto the table. "Not like this," he replied with an agitated voice. "I mean, we've fought some pretty mean folks, but none of 'em shot whole groups of people or - or whipped and beat them. When we took up this job, I never expected to see that."
The older man nodded a little, sitting back with a sorrowful expression. "Seein' evil ain't never easy, JD. Especially when you're not used to it."
JD looked at him, surprised. "You ain't used to it, are you, Josiah?"
Josiah considered the question and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and folding his hands. "Not used to it, JD, but - it doesn't surprise me as much as it used to. Which affords me no end of sadness."
The young man swallowed, hoping to relieve the heaviness on his chest. "I keep thinkin'," he said softly, not daring to look Josiah in the eyes, "if it happened to Ezra, it could happen to any of us. An' I can't stop wonderin'... what if it was me?" He cast a quick, shamed look at Josiah. "I know it sounds dang selfish, but it's all I can think about."
His friend eyed JD with a somber expression. "That's somethin' every lawman had to ask himself sooner or later, JD," he replied. "Takes a lot of courage to fight this kind of evil, an' only you know whether you've got enough."
JD sighed and looked down at his hands. "T'tell you the truth, preacher, I ain't so sure I got that kind of courage. Every time I think about all this, my heart goes clear to my boots."
"That's nothin' to be ashamed of, JD," Josiah remarked, putting one hand on the young man's shoulder. "A man like Parsons'd scare even the hardest lawkeeper. Now you've got to decide what to do about that fear - run from it, or use it to give you strength for the fight."
"Hm." JD nodded a bit, his eyes distant. Then he looked at Josiah. "Well - what do you do?"
A small smile crept across Josiah's lips. "Pray to heaven an' fight like hell, I guess. Seems to be workin' so far." He rose, placing one large steadying hand on his young friend's shoulder. "Now you've got to find what works for you, JD. An' you just might surprise yourself at how strong you really are."
The young man nodded, grateful for the advice, and watched Josiah as the older man walked back upstairs. All seemed quiet up there now; Ezra was probably asleep again, or Nathan had simply succeeded in calming him down. A small voice told JD that maybe he ought to go see how Ezra was, but he knew he couldn't do that just yet. He had a lot of hard thinking to do first.
He stood, put his hat back on, and slipped quietly out into the warm desert night.
Buck stepped out into the bustling, filthy street of Purgatorio and downed the last of the warm beer from the mug he held in his hand. The sun had just set, most of the sky still afire with its dying light, and as he looked up and down the muddy thoroughfare he scowled with frustration. He'd hit every bar in town except the one Chris and Vin had gone to, and found no sign of Parsons and Rio.
He tried not to let himself get too angry as he leaned back and set the empty mug on a table just inside the door. Parsons could be anywhere by now, but he'd find him. Even if Chris and Vin gave up, even if the army gave up, Buck never would accept defeat. He'd already decided to resign from the lawkeeping job and ride out on his own to look, if need be, until he was too old to ride any more.
If only that damn rain hadn't washed away Parson's tracks, Buck mused bitterly as he straightened himself and wiped his lips. Parsons might be a hundred miles from here an' we'd never know it. Damn.
He began to walk slowly back to the cheap rented room and his rendezvous with Chris and Vin. Wonder how ol' Ezra's doin', he thought sadly as he walked, always keeping a sharp eye out on the crowd swirling around him. He hated to think how long it would be before he saw his friend back in the saloon, joking and playing poker again. If it ever even happened - it was possible the Ezra he knew had been killed long ago in that damned cell, even though his body was still alive. He'd seen it often enough during the War.
Buck felt his fists tighten involuntarily at the thought. Hangin's gonna be a mercy for you, Parsons, when we finally find you, he vowed. And if Ezra had been doomed to suffer for the rest of his life for what Parsons did to him..well, damn the Judge, Buck would be hard pressed not to kill the bastard himself.
"Psst! Hey, you! Mister!"
Startled, Buck looked up and stopped. He was coming upon another of Purgatorio's cantinas, and in front of it stood a weaselly-looking little fat guy with a bushy blonde mustache.
He frowned and looked the man over suspiciously. "Don't much take t'bein' whistled at, friend, unless it's by a pretty lady, which you ain't," he said in a sour voice.
The other man shrugged. "No time for niceties, stranger. You lookin' for some quick money?"
Buck's frown grew wider, and he began to brush on past. "Sorry, mister, not interested."
The man grabbed Buck's sleeve as he passed. Buck halted and shot the man a fierce look, but the harsh words died on his lips at the man's next whispered utterance.
"Not even so's you can say you're the man who killed Chris Larabee?"
Buck blinked; what the hell was this all about? He kept his face perfectly straight as he backed up a little, his eyes riveted to the stranger's ugly face. "Go on," he said quietly.
"Heh, thought that'd get ya," the other man cackled. "Name's Peters. I'm lookin' t'hire some guns t'take out Larabee an' this long-haired tracker he's with."
"Uh-huh," Buck said patiently, folding his arms and trying to look intrigued, even though he was dying to slam the guy against the wall. "Why you lookin' t'kill Larabee?"
"Ain't me, friend," Peters replied. "It's - well, call him a friend of mine. Name's Parsons, an' you'd be doin' right good t'have him owin' you a favor. Larabee's on his tail, but that don't concern you. I just need a few guns t'help me out. Want in?"
Buck's mind was whirling, although outwardly he merely appeared to be assessing the situation. Parsons must have hired this little creep.
His heart began to pound.
"Yeah, mister, I'm in," Buck sniffed, throwing an arm around Peters' shoulder. "In fact, I got a few friends who'd just love t'join too."
"Yeah?" Peters grinned. "That'd sure help me out. More guns the better. Hey, you know, the tracker's even got a bounty on his head, I hear. Don't tell your friends and I'll split it with ya."
Buck grinned as he began walking towards the west end of town where the rented rooms were. "I won't say nothin'," he said with a smile, "but I got a feelin' one of 'em might know about it."
Before long they arrived at a set of squalid, filthy rented rooms on the edge of town. Drunken drifters and bandits wandered by but paid no attention to Buck and Peters as they approached. Twenty feet away from the building, they stopped.
"You wait here," Buck said. "My friends, they're a mite skittish around strangers, so I got t'go tell 'em what's goin' on. Otherwise, hell, they might just shoot you."
"Oh, okay, fine," Peters said. "You sure they're gonna want t'know about this?"
Buck grinned. "I can personally swear to it," he said, and slipped quickly into the rented room, closing its wooden door behind him.
Try as he might, Peters could hear nothing beyond a few whispers from Buck. After a few minutes, Buck opened the wooden door a bit and motioned Peters over.
"C'mon in," he said with a smile as Peters approached the door.
"They interested?" Peters asked, stepping up to the threshold.
There was a thunderous crash as the door was thrown open, and before Peters could tell what was happening, two huge fists closed tightly around his collar and hauled him into the room. Gasping and choking, Peters felt himself thrown roughly onto a hard wooden table, the noise of breaking earthware filling the air as it tumbled from the table to the ground. After a few dizzying, terrifying moments the world righted itself, and Peters found himself in a dimly lit rented room, staring into the insanely furious eyes of Chris Larabee.
"Aw SHIT!" he cried.
Unimpressed, Chris lifted him a little and slammed him back onto the table. Buck and the tracker appeared behind him, watching calmly.
"Where's Wolf Parsons?" Chris cried.
"God!" Peters rasped, his hands clawing ineffectually at the iron hands around his throat. "I - don't know - who-"
Buck folded his arms. "Might as well give it up, friend," he said, "if y'want to live, that is."
Peters' small eyes widened. "You gonna kill me?" he squeaked.
Chris's grip tightened violently. "He won't, but I might," he said through clenched teeth, his face demonic in the flickering yellow lamplight. "Parsons hired you t'kill me, didn't he? Where'd he go?"
Peters stared at them all, but stayed silent.
"Sounds like he's gonna be stubborn, Chris," the tracker said without emotion.
Chris took a deep breath and drew his gun, keeping one hand tightly around Peter's throat. "Good," he whispered, and put the cold barrel of the gun against the man's temple.
Peters' eyes widened. "Hey - uh-"
"Feel like talkin' now?" Chris said in a louder voice. "Y'know, we could always do some of the things t'you that Parsons did to Ezra Standish an' his other prisoners. Maybe you'd like t'know what kind of scum this friend of yours really is."
The other two men stepped closer, scowling.
"Hey, wait!" Peters cried, trembling. "I - uh-"
"Ready t'talk?" the tracker demanded.
Peters hesitated. "You think I'm afraid of you guys?" he blustered. "If Wolf ever found out-"
"Fair enough," Chris said softly. There was a loud metallic click as Chris cocked his gun.
"For God's sake!" Peters screamed. "He's goin' t'Four Corners! Don't shoot me, I hardly know the guy!"
There was a shocked pause, then Chris shoved his cocked gun harder against Peters' temple. "Why's he goin' there?" he snarled.
"Jesus!" Peters cried. "He's goin' after that gal an' that guy. The ones he didn't kill. Now let me up, I can't breathe!"
Chris looked up into the wide, horrified eyes of the tracker and Buck.
"God'lmighty, Chris," Buck whispered, "that sonofabitch is goin' after Ezra an' Contessa."
Chris was motionless for a moment. Then he snapped back into motion, his eyes ablaze as he pulled Peters up from the table.
"He ain't gonna get there," the gunslinger vowed as he shoved the hired gun towards Vin. "Tie this weasel up, we'll drop 'im at the nearest jail."
"I'll go get the horses ready," Buck said, and sped out the door, his face pale and anxious.
Peters coughed as Vin roughly trussed his hands behind is back. "Y'ain't never gonna catch Wolf," he spat, catching his breath. "He's been ridin' for hours."
Chris eyed the man for a second, then yanked him up by his collar and stared right into his eyes.
"One more word an' I'll just blow your worthless brains out right here," he said in a cold and deadly tone. "I don't think the neighbors will mind. What do you think, Vin?"
"I think Wolf shoulda picked himself some smarter friends," was the drawled response as Vin tightened the knots around Peters' hands.
"OW!" Peters wailed. Chris shook him once by the collar, regaining his attention. They were staring eye to eye again.
"We'll catch up to Parsons," Chris told him, his green eyes full of lethal confidence. "Even if we have t'break our backs - and' yours - t'do it."
Peters gulped to himself, cursed his rotten luck, and said nothing.
Private Henry Thomas surveyed the surrounding grassy plains, and sighed. Another boring day in the Army.
The young man squinted at the sun overhead; the sun had only just come up, and he supposed he should be breathtaken by the beauty of the rolling desert hills before him. But to him it just signified the fact that he and his comrade were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, guarding a supply wagon on the road halfway back to camp.
Speaking of his comrade... He threw a glance behind him, beyond the wagon to the sheltering boulders at the edge of the road. "You 'bout done, Wes?"
"Yup," was the reply as the other soldier, a skinny red-haired young man with a thin mustache, came back into sight, straightening his jacket.
Thomas smirked and stood up from where he had been leaning on the wagon's wheel. "Told ya not t'drink so much coffee."
The other private laughed. "Go on with ya. Only had two cups."
"Yeah, well, we're gonna be late already," his friend observed as he walked back to the front of the wagon where Wes stood. "Wanna split some rations before headin' out again? They'll prob'ly make us go right on to picket duty when we get back, we won't even get no breakfast."
Wes grunted. "Yeah, wouldn't be surprised. See if we got somethin' besides hardtack an' jerky."
"Okay." They began to open the several boxes stored in the back of the wagon, surveying their meal choices. "Hey, I tell you 'bout them gunmen I met up with few days back?"
Wes barely glanced at him. "Yeah, think so. Damn, there ain't nothin' good in this box. Lord, I could sure go for my ma's collards right about now."
Thomas chuckled. "Know what ya mean. Think there's some dried beef in here. Dang, them men must have fun ridin' out there facin' down outlaws. Sure wisht I coulda done that. Maybe when my enlistment's up."
Wes grinned as he looked in Thomas's box and saw cans of dried beef stew. "That'll do fine. You really wanna be a frontier lawman, Henry?"
Thomas shrugged as he pulled out a few cans of food. "Sure. Looks more excitin' than the Army, an' I bet they eat better, too!"
The two young men pried open the cans with their bayonets and prepared their meal, carping about Army food and any other subject which came to mind. Neither of them noticed the dark forms which crouched in the grass nearby, a man and a woman, eagerly studying the heavily laden supply wagon and waiting for the opportunity to strike.
The morning sun was warming the desert air as Nathan stepped carefully out onto the porch of the saloon, a cup of tea and a cup of coffee carried carefully in his hands. Beneath one arm was a folded copy of the latest Four Corners Clarion. He looked around a bit; the streets were not too crowded, which relieved him. It wouldn't do for Ezra to have too much excitement on his first day outside since his return.
He turned his steps and his attention to the figure huddled beneath the thin blanket on the porch of the saloon, watching the scene before him with apparent disinterest. Josiah had set up the invalid's chair with a minimum of trouble, and now the injured gambler was reclining in it. Nathan had to admit, the chair sure seemed to be a remarkable invention, but it did not seem to be impressing Ezra very much.
He's still too pale, Nathan thought as he approached. Here in the sunlight, the gambler seemed even whiter, his bruises more pronounced. And there was something else, a heartbreakingly familiar expression lurking behind those melancholy green eyes. Nathan had seen it before, in the faces of his tormented fellow slaves. It was the look of mute resignation, a decision to let the soul die without a fight.
And damned if he was going to let Ezra go that easy.
"Got your tea, Ezra," he said out loud as he sat down next to his friend's chair.
Ezra's only response was a slight turn of the head, and a strained voice saying, "Thank you, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan eyed him sadly as he set the cups and newspaper down on a nearby table. Mr. Jackson, he noted sadly. Not Nathan. He's shuttin' himself off already, hidin' away. Damn.
To Ezra, he just smiled a little and said, "Don't got to be all formal, Ezra. Just plain ol' Nathan'll do. Like it did before, remember?"
Ezra blinked a bit and seemed to pull the blanket tighter around himself. "You must forgive my rather rusty social skills," he replied in a dull voice, without meeting the healer's eyes.
Nothing else was said. After Nathan waited a few moments, he licked his lips and picked up the tea.
"You got t'let me hold on to it for you," he said as he leaned forward to help Ezra drink the brew. "It's sort of weak, but Inez put some sugar in it for you. Not like they serve at them fancy places you go, I bet, but it's still plenty good."
After a few moments, Ezra shifted in the chair enough so that he could take a few hesitant sips from the cup held in Nathan's hands.
Nathan smiled a little, encouraged. "That's it. You'll be back t'whiskey in no time."
Ezra took two more swallows and pulled back, turning his head away. "That's enough."
Nathan scowled, looking down into the still-full cup. "You got t'drink it all if you want it t'do any good, Ezra."
The gambler sighed, still staring down the street. "I have had a sufficient amount, Mr. Jackson," was the response, the feeble words tinged with anger. "Drinking an entire barrel of it would likely have the same effect as a few swallows, at any rate."
Nathan paused, trying not to let his irritation at Ezra's stubbornness overrule his judgment. He didn't want to excite the still-fragile gambler; such an exertion as arguing might be dangerous. So he gently set the cup down and picked up his coffee, his mind working all the while to find a way of easing his friend's pain.
"Got you some readin' material," he said, nodding at the paper. "Mary wrote a mighty big story about what happened at the fort. Everyone in the territory's gonna be lookin' for Parsons now, he won't get far."
Ezra winced a little and glanced over at Nathan in a very tentative manner. "She... didn't mention me, did she?"
Nathan frowned and picked up the paper, scanning the front page. "Nope, don't think so. Just Contessa Almarez. Oh - it does say here, 'Ezra Standish, one of our brave lawmen, has returned to town following a long absence, and we welcome him back with thankful hearts'."
There was a slight rustle as Ezra shifted in the chair. "How wonderful," he muttered flatly.
Nathan studied him with a worried frown. "Y'know she means it, Ezra," he insisted.
The gambler didn't look at him. "I am sure she does, Mr. Jackson, but I would have preferred to return in as quiet a manner as possible. I'm afraid..." His voice trailed off, and he swallowed. "I am not feeling particularly 'brave' at the present time."
Nathan sighed to himself in frustration. "I'd say standin' up to them men was brave, Ezra."
Ezra eyed him bitterly. "If torture is the reward for bravery, Mr. Jackson, I will happily spend the rest of my life as a coward." He sighed and looked away. "It... accomplished nothing."
They fell silent. Nathan hesitated to carry the discussion further; Ezra clearly was in no mood to listen, and he didn't want to wear the gambler out. Hopefully, a better opportunity to ease his friend's dark mood would present itself.
"How you like that chair?" he asked, taking a drink. "Sure looks mighty comfortable."
Ezra looked down at the contraption. "Yes, I suppose it is," he muttered. "If only my fellow prisoners could enjoy such comfort now."
Nathan felt a cold knife go through his gut. His brown eyes looked at Ezra seriously as he said, "You best not be thinkin' on that, Ezra. You got t'put your mind t'gettin' better so you can ride with us again an' win all our money in that saloon."
Ezra gave a short, bitter laugh. "Yes," he said, still looking away, "and the families of the slain can come and ask me why I remain alive to cheat and swindle, while their loved ones were put to death. And at night the faces of the innocent dead can continue to grace my dreams as they did last night. A remarkably attractive existence, wouldn't you say?" He finally turned to face Nathan, his pale face distorted with grief and shame.
Nathan studied his comrade for a few silent moments, their eyes meeting until Ezra blinked and turned away once more.
After a pause Nathan bent forward, his words soft and low enough for only Ezra to hear. "Look, Ezra, God above knows you don't got an easy road ahead of you," he said. "But there's a fork in that road, an' I ain't aimin' t'let you go down the wrong way."
Ezra didn't move, so Nathan swallowed and leaned closer, his voice low and full of sad recollection.
"When I was eleven, me an' a few other slaves tried t'run off. Didn't get far, an' when they caught us I thought for sure they was gonna shoot us dead right there. But them patrollers, they said dyin' was too good for us. They wanted us t'be... examples."
Nathan paused; God, how he hated to talk about this. So far Ezra was not reacting, but he didn't seem to be growing any more distant either. Might as well tell it all, Nathan decided.
"Never knew what happened to the others," he admitted with a sigh, folding his hands. "They took 'em into a barn while I was bein' tied up to a tree. Had t'stand an' listen to their screams all night long. In the mornin' it was my turn. I can still hear the overseer tellin' me I was lucky t'be so young. All they was goin' t'do was whip me."
He stopped, rubbing his hands together nervously. It was so long ago, but the pain of telling it was agonizing. But it would be worth it, if it would help Ezra at all. A slight smile crossed his lips; now that was funny, that here he was reliving his sorrows to help a white Southerner like the ones who had caused them.
But Ezra wasn't like them, not really. That was why he was doing this.
"I can still feel every lash," Nathan said quietly. "Passed out after a while. When I finally woke up all I wanted t'do was die. Had a lot of time t'lie in bed an' think about it, an' feelin' mighty low that I had t'live knowin' how my friends suffered. My pa tried t'help me, but I was too scared an' angry t'want anyone else close t'me again. Made up my mind that I was ready t'quit the world. But my pa, an' my family, were too stubborn t'let me do that. They couldn't give me no answers, but they made me see that they cared too much t'let me slip away from them. An' they gave me the hope that I might be able t'find the answers myself someday, if I just got up the gumption t'look."
Nathan looked up at Ezra. "I've stared down that dark road you're lookin' at, an' it might look nice an' safe, but it ain't. I seen too many folks go down it, an' they never come back. An' there ain't no peace there, only more pain. An' for myself, I think you done suffered enough."
Silence fell between them. Then slowly Ezra turned to face him, and Nathan could see some softening in those gaunt features as the gambler lifted his haunted eyes.
"A harrowing tale, to be sure, Mr. Jackson," Ezra whispered. "I admire your courage in sharing it."
Nathan gave a small shrug, trying to hide his disappointment that Ezra still seemed so far away. "Just wanted t'let you know you ain't alone, Ezra. You got folks here, just like I did, who ain't gonna just let you slip away."
His friend's eyes flickered, and he looked over at Nathan, an intense light in his pale green eyes. There was an urgent sorrow in his expression, as if he were wrestling with an agonizing question. Nathan bent closer, hoping that Ezra had heard his words and understood the full weight of their meaning.
Ezra took a deep breath and said in a quiet, halting voice, "Nathan, I..." The words faltered, and he stopped, as if suddenly reconsidering his actions. There was a pause, then he pressed his lips together and turned away. "Thank you," was all he said, in a cold, impersonal tone.
Nathan sighed to himself as he sat back, fighting a feeling of discouragement. The barrier was there again, and Ezra's soul was in too much pain to surmount it. Ezra had heard him, he could tell, but it was still too soon for him to truly come back to them.
He was about to say something else when Ezra leaned back and closed his eyes. "I would like to return to my room now, if it would not be too much trouble," the gambler said in a weary voice.
The healer hesitated, then nodded slightly. "Sure, Ezra. Josiah's just inside. I'll let 'im know."
"Much obliged." The eyes remained closed, the face turned away.
Nathan sat still for a moment, sadly eying the still, weak form of his friend. Finally he stood and sauntered into the saloon, walking straight to the bar where Josiah and Inez were speaking softly.
"How's he doin?" Josiah inquired, observing Nathan's troubled countenance.
Nathan folded his hands and leaned on the bar. "He's askin' to be took back upstairs."
The preacher gave a short nod. "I'll take care of it," he said, downing the last of his whiskey.
"Does he still shut himself away?" Inez asked, her eyes sad.
"Yup," was Nathan's regretful reply. "Thought for a moment he might feel like talkin', but..." His voice trailed off into wordless dejection.
"Y'can't blame yourself, Nate," Josiah said, turning towards his old friend. "A man who's been through what Ezra has ain't gonna come back all at once."
"Yeah, I know," Nathan replied softly, leaning forward on the beer-stained counter and staring sightlessly beyond Inez. "I know. Reckon it's just that I always hoped that if he came back, he'd be fine an' everything'd go back to normal. Now I'm startin' t'think that ain't gonna happen for a long time, an' it's eatin' at me." He paused. "Guess I missed that ol' gambler more than I thought."
A melancholy silence fell for a few moments.
The healer looked up to see Inez eying him carefully. "Hm?"
Inez licked her lips. "I was just wondering... perhaps Ezra is feeling alone because he thinks no one here knows what he has suffered. But there is one who does. Do you think he is well enough to see Contessa?"
Josiah and Nathan looked at each other.
"It is just that she is so eager to visit him," Inez pressed, "and she is the only one alive who has seen the true horrors of that place that still haunt him. Perhaps if he could see her, and talk to her, it would help to finally free him."
Nathan pondered the idea. "He's still mighty bruised up," he muttered. "Don't want his appearance scarin' the poor gal."
The pretty Mexican woman sighed. "I am afraid such a sight would no longer frighten her too much, Senor. And I promise you I will prepare her. But I believe just seeing him, and speaking to him, will help them both."
Josiah shrugged and raised his eyebrows as he looked at Nathan. "Couldn't hurt."
After another moment's thought, the healer nodded. "All right, Inez. I'll let you know when you can bring her up. He'd better rest a while first."
Inez allowed a relieved smile to cross her face. "Gracias, Senor. Contessa will be so happy to see that he will be all right."
Nathan sighed a little as he turned to look out of the saloon window at the motionless figure sitting on the saloon porch. "He's gonna live, ma'am. But I wish I felt for certain that he's gonna be all right."
The thunder of the three horses' hooves rumbled over the desert plains as Chris, Vin and Buck tore back towards Four Corners, leaving clouds of yellow dust behind to dance in the morning sun. Since they had forced the truth from Peters they had been riding, stopping only long enough to dump Peters in the first available jail. Now they were racing to catch the devil.
Chris bent over Valor's neck, his dust-covered face grim as he kept his eyes on the path ahead. This was the fastest way back to town, but Parsons had had a head start of several hours, even if he did go hunting for supplies like Peters had said. If he reached Four Corners first... Chris shook the thought from his mind. That simply would not be allowed to happen, if any of them were alive to stop it.
They had just crossed the border a few miles back; it would not be long now.
He looked over at his two companions, each also dusty and exhausted but driven to reach their goal.
"When we get to town, I'll look for Parsons," Chris shouted over the relentless pounding. "You see that Ezra an' the girl are safe."
Vin gave a curt, wordless nod, never taking his eyes from the trail.
"He'll likely be sneakin' 'round the edges, lookin' for a way in," Buck yelled back. "If we're lucky he'll wait 'til night to try anythin'."
Chris wiped the dust from his eyes as they rode up a small, grass-covered hill. "Got lucky findin' Peters," he observed. "Maybe we'll-"
The shot startled all three men as they halted, their hands flying to their guns. At the top of the hill directly before them, eleven forms appeared, all toting rifles and wearing the blue uniforms of the United States Army.
Chris was too furious to even speak as he reined in his nervously dancing horse.
Another figure rode into view, taller and straighter in the saddle than the soldiers. Chris recognized him instantly.
"Stephenson," he spat, his green eyes blazing.
"Well, Mr. Larabee," the officer returned with mock politeness as he rode forward to join his men. "I see you've still got a slight problem respecting authority."
"We ain't got time for this bullshit, Stephenson," Chris shot back. "Parsons is headed to Four Corners."
The red-bearded sergeant cocked his head. "And how would you know that, Larabee? By going against the wishes of your Judge and the command of a Federal Army officer?" He shook his head. "You outlaws think you run this whole territory, don't you?"
"Stephenson, dammit t'hell, listen to us!" Buck exclaimed, leaning forward in his saddle. "We got to catch Parsons before he kills Ezra an' Contessa Almarez. While we're jawin' he's probably there already."
Stephenson sighed and eyed them all sharply. "Since you're in direct violation of the law here, not to mention on a personal vendetta against Parsons, forgive me if I question your word. For all I know you're sending my men on a wild goose chase so you can find Parsons and work your own bloody vigilante justice on him. But you'll find that mighty hard to do from the stockade."
Chris's mouth twitched as he half pulled his gun from his holster.
Several tiny clicks filled the air as thirteen weapons were cocked and aimed straight at Chris's heart, including the revolver Stephenson held in one gloved hand.
Chris stopped as Vin and Buck sat, tensely watching.
"Careful, Larabee," Stephenson said with the slightest of smiles. "Remember, if I shoot you, I'll be defending my men and ridding the West of one more worthless desperado. You shoot me and you'll face the end of a rope for murdering a Federal officer. If my men don't kill you first, that is."
Chris paused, his breath coming in quick, angry gasps as he stared with hatred at his adversary.
"Easy there, ol' pard," he heard Buck whisper. "Gettin' shot ain't gonna help. Reckon we can figure a way out of this if we just stay alive."
"Good advice," Stephenson added.
Chris thought it was total crap; every minute they sat here was another minute Parsons had to draw closer to Ezra and Contessa. But one look at Stephenson told him that little more incentive would be needed for the officer to put a bullet through his heart. Then it would be jail for Buck, and probably a noose for Vin once they learned he was a wanted man.
Even as he gazed with blind hatred into Stephenson's small eyes, he knew Buck was right. They needed time to think of a way out of this.
With a cold heart, Chris dropped his hand away from his gun.
A slimy smile crossed Stephenson's face. "Good choice, Larabee," he said, holstering his revolver. "Pvt. Billings, take these men and see that they're locked up. I'll be over to question them as soon as I return. And if they give you the slightest bit of trouble, feel free to do what you feel necessary."
"Yes, sir," was the dutiful, enthusiastic reply which implied that the 'necessary' action would be quick and lethal. Stephenson whirled and rode off with one of the soldiers, leaving Chris and the others under the guard of ten men. Within moments they were stripped of their guns. They said nothing but exchanged looks of angry determination: they couldn't allow themselves to be detained for long.
"C'mon, you," Billings said in a gruff voice which told Chris he was every bit as trigger-happy as Stephenson was. The soldiers surrounded them, guns aimed at their heads and hearts as they began trotting towards the army camp.
Chris rode along silently, sizing up the situation. Ten to three-rotten odds, there was little chance they'd all survive if they tried to run for it. Buck was right - the only thing to do was go along until they found a way to safely make their escape.
And that way would have to be found damn fast.
Ezra sighed to himself as he watched the early afternoon sun trace its slow journey across the wallpaper of his room. It had been several hours since Josiah had brought him back up here, and during that entire time he had done nothing but lie against the soft pillows and stare sadly at the walls.
What could he do now, he wondered idly as one graceful hand plucked absently at the edge of his fancy quilt. If he managed to regain enough strength to continue his lawkeeping duties, would he do so? A frown tugged at his mouth as he wondered if he'd ever feel like trying to fight against the 'bad guys' again. He had seen all too ample proof that it could be a vain effort.
He leaned back against the pillows, trying to ignore the twinges of his still-sore back, and put one arm behind his head as he gazed glumly out of the window. He knew his mother would be here soon, and Maude would doubtless waste no time trying to lure him back to St. Louis. Back to the relative safety of the gambling hall, the con job, the quick fix. He could hear her already, wheedling in her honey-sweet voice: Come on now, darlin', she'd say, surely you've done your duty. Come back east with me. You don't want this to happen to you again, do you?
And right now he knew he wouldn't have a good reason to say no. It would be so easy to just leave it behind him, the pain, the nightmares, the stares of the townspeople. Go back to the life he'd known, where you never got punished for trying to help people because the only person you ever helped was yourself.
Maybe then the ghosts would go away...
There was a gentle rapping on the door, and Inez's voice floated through the wood: "Senor Ezra? May I come in?"
Ezra sighed, too bored and miserable to give a damn if he had company or not. He shifted a little on the pillows and said in a tired voice, "Come in, Senorita."
The door opened partway, and Inez appeared, looking vaguely nervous. "Are you resting, senor?"
He gave a small shrug. "That's not exactly the term I would use, Inez, but I am unoccupied at the moment."
She took another step into the room. "Would you mind a visitor? I have someone here who is very anxious to see you."
The gambler frowned a little, puzzled. "Is Mother here already?"
"No, no," Inez replied. "Not Senora Standish. It is Contessa Almarez, the little girl JD and Nathan found. Do you remember?"
A small hole of dread began burning in Ezra's stomach. Of course he remembered hearing of the young girl, the only other survivor of that hellish outlaws' hideout. How she had survived that place astounded him; she certainly had to be a very strong young lady. He knew she wanted to see him, but felt almost ashamed to face her. She had done an amazing thing, escaping from her abusive captors and crossing the desert to find help. He had done nothing but delay the inevitable for those poor women and earn himself two months of horrific agony. What could she possibly want from him?
He looked into Inez's eager eyes. Well, he sighed to himself, maybe it would be best to see this girl now and get it over with.
"Very well," he said, pulling himself up a little and being mindful of his stitches. He'd have to be careful and not allow any more undignified displays, even though what happened to this child almost broke his heart.
Inez beamed. "Thank you, Senor! Will you need me to translate her words for you?"
Ezra settled into his pillows, a slight smile on his bruised face. "That will not be necessary, thank you. I am quite fluent in your lovely language."
Inez nodded and stepped out into the hallway. After a moment she returned, bringing with her a slight, pretty Mexican girl no more than thirteen years old. Her dress and hair were clean and properly arranged, but dark, ugly bruises still shadowed her face and arms. She was regarding Ezra with an expression of shy awe.
Ezra swallowed, unprepared for the sudden emotion clutching his heart. She looked so much more fragile than he'd anticipated. How the hell did she survive? But aloud he simply said in a faint but pleasant voice, and in perfect Spanish, "Good Afternoon, Senorita Almarez."
Inez stepped back into the corner as Contessa remained motionless, staring at Ezra with her large brown eyes. A few times she seemed about to speak, but then hesitated. Finally, she abandoned the idea and ran to kneel by Ezra's bedside, taking his hand in hers and covering it with kisses as she sobbed.
The gambler was amazed and embarrassed. Unwilling to frighten her by pulling away, he sat up and reached out his free hand to gently smooth her hair, trying to soothe her. "Now, now, my dear," he said in mild alarm. "There's no need for this - you must calm yourself-"
She gulped a little and lifted her head, her thin face wet with tears. "I'm sorry, senor," the young girl gasped as she loosened her grasp on his hand. "Have I hurt you?"
"No, no," Ezra assured her with a smile, "but - you are still healing and should not become excited. Besides," he added, a trace of self-reproach in his voice, "I'm not the sort of man anyone should kneel to."
Contessa didn't move, still looking up at him with complete, heartfelt sincerity. "Please, senor, do not say such things. I don't want you to be sad, now that God has saved our lives."
Ezra looked at her, a bitter response on his lips, but the earnest expression in her tear-filled brown eyes halted the words before they fell. She was still so young and, incredibly, innocent. How he wished he could share her simple gratitude at still being alive, instead of wondering if it was a curse.
He swallowed and tried to smile. "I will try not to be sad, but I'm afraid it's very hard for me," he replied as he helped her to her feet. "But I am happy for you, senorita, because you will be going home to your family soon."
The young girl's face brightened a bit at the thought. "Will you be going home soon, too, senor?"
Ezra smiled faintly. "This town is my home, my dear."
"Are your mama and papa here?" Contessa asked quickly, excited. "I would like my mama and papa to meet them."
The gambler stifled a grin at the thought. "My... mama will be here soon, senorita, but I am not convinced a meeting would be for the best. Particularly if your parents have any sort of cash on them."
The young girl only frowned, puzzled. Ezra considered his words, then gave a small cough, shamed by her innocence. "If she arrives in time, senorita, we will see."
She smiled again. "I hope she does. We are having a festival in our village next week, maybe you can bring her."
Ezra's expression turned serious. He looked down as he gently grasped her hand, angry that he would have to disappoint her. "I'm afraid that may be difficult," he said sadly. "I will not be able to travel for a long time."
Contessa's gaze faltered, and she dropped her eyes. "Yes, I heard they hurt you very badly," she said softly, the tears forming again. After a few moments she lifted her eyes and looked at him, her expression shy and hesitant. "Were... were you scared?"
Ezra nodded a little; there was no reason to lie. "Yes, senorita."
She paused, her eyes falling to her hands. "I was scared, too," the young girl confessed in a small whisper, one hand fiddling idly with the edge of the quilt. She looked up into his eyes. "What did you do?"
He thought for a moment, unprepared for the question. "I thought about my mother," he said, "and the friends I knew were looking for me." He glanced over at Inez for a moment, meeting her eyes. She was watching very closely. His gaze went back to the girl, and he gently smiled at her. "What did you do, Contessa?"
Contessa looked at him solemnly. "I... I thought of you, senor."
Ezra started, shocked, his green eyes widening a bit. "Me?"
She nodded emphatically. "I saw you try to save those ladies from the bad men the day you came. I remembered how brave you were, and I thought if I tried maybe I could fight them too. Then I would be able to go home and see my mama and papa again."
Small tears formed in her eyes as she grasped his hand once more. "That is why I wanted to see you, so I could thank you for being so brave. I would not have had the strength to escape if you had not shown me that it was possible to fight them." She paused and eyed him solemnly. "I owe you my life, senor."
Ezra sat silent for a moment, stunned. This remarkable child, who surely had suffered even more than he had, had survived because of the very actions he had been cursing himself for undertaking. He had been wondering where she had found the strength to escape her captors, never dreaming that the answer was himself. The prospect was overwhelming, but he could not deny the truth of it. A lump of amazement formed in his throat.
"I am truly touched by your words, senorita," he whispered, when he could talk again, "and I am thankful that we have both been allowed to come back to our loved ones again."
The little girl leaned closer. "And are you happy now that you're home?"
Ezra sighed, knowing it would be impossible to explain. "I am very happy to be home, but I am also sad for those we left behind. I wish they could have lived to go home to their families, as you are going to do."
Contessa's expression grew thoughtful. "I'm sad for them too, senor. Sometimes I have dreams about them, and that place." She looked at him. "Do you dream about it too?"
He nodded very slowly. "Yes."
She paused, then swallowed. "Do you - do you think the dreams will stop one day?"
He gave her as gentle a smile as he could manage. "After you've been back with your mother and father for a while, my dear, and feel safe and loved again, I'm sure the dreams will go away."
She looked at him with a serious expression, then lifted one hand and very gently touched his bruised face. "Will they go away for you too?" she asked in a somber voice.
Ezra pursed his lips. "I hope so," he replied quietly. "Your visit has helped a great deal."
A tentative smile touched her lips. "I guess - I just wanted to see that it was really true that you were alive. I have been praying for you ever since I saw them take you away."
He smiled. "Perhaps that is what kept me alive, senorita."
This thought seemed to please her. After a moment she leaned forward. "My mama and papa will be here soon to take me home."
"A most fortunate occurrence," Ezra noted.
Contessa nodded. "Yes, senor, but-" She hesitated, then looked up into his eyes. "If I feel afraid again, will you let me write to you? I know your words will give me strength, and there is no one else now who knows what we have seen." She bit her lip and looked away. "Unless - you think that sounds foolish."
Ezra was silent for a minute as he realized how closely the loneliness in the young girl's words mimicked his own. She had felt it too, he thought, the cold isolation their shared suffering had created. And she was looking to him for strength, when he had been marveling at her own. Perhaps together, they could put the ghosts to rest.
He gently placed his hand over hers. "Ours is indeed a sad and solitary bond, my dear child," he said in a melancholy voice. "But if my words can in any way ease your burden, I will be more than happy to share them with you."
A warm smile brightened her bruised face. "Gracias, Senor Standish," she said with sincere gratitude.
He returned the smile, feeling a strange, muted joy in his own heart.
Inez stepped forward. "We should go now, Contessa, Senor Standish needs to rest."
The girl sighed, pouting for a moment, then looked back at Ezra. "Good-bye, senor. And please, if you ever feel sad again, please remember that there is at least one heart in the world that will always pray for you, and that will thank God that you were spared to come back to your home."
She rose, and kissed him lightly on his battered cheek. "Vaya con Dios, senor," she whispered.
Ezra stared at her, slightly stunned, for a brief moment, before saying "Good-bye, senorita," in a very quiet voice.
She gave him a little smile before taking Inez's hand and walking out of the room.
Ezra watched her go, his head still spinning from the emotions which had been running fast and deep through his heart. His body gently trembled as he realized that his suffering had not been in vain. No matter how foolish his escape attempt had been, it had helped to save at least one life - that of this brave young girl. And now he - he, Ezra Standish, gambler, con and sinner, who had called no man friend and no place home in all his life - would find a home in her prayers forever, loved and esteemed as a brave man. The idea was at once awesome and humbling; he hardly felt worthy of it, but could not turn away from its blinding light as its glorious rays filled the darkest corners of his soul.
Alone finally, and unbound by any thoughts of maintaining the proper facade of dignity, Ezra dropped his face into his hands and wept with humble, uncomprehending awe before the vision. The tears fell until, exhausted in mind and soul but feeling oddly cleansed, he settled back upon the soft pillows of the bed, and slipped into the first comfortable sleep he had enjoyed in a very long and painful time.
The heavy soles of Buck's boots thudded endlessly on the hard floor of the jail cell as their owner paced back and forth, unable to be still. His blood felt ready to leap out of his skin.
The army camp had had no jail, so Buck, Chris and Vin had been deposited in the nearest available town, whose one-room prison had suited the need of justice quite handily. Now the three men were behind the single wall of steel bars, staring with mute fury at the scruffy jailer who sat at his rough-hewn desk nearby, holding his rifle in one hand and watching his charges with mild amusement.
The air in the jail was hot and stuffy, the dust hanging in transparent columns as it drifted by the small, barred windows. The three men had been watching that sunlight all day; now it was beginning to slope away and fade. Twilight was coming, and they were running out of time.
Buck had been pacing ever since they had been thrown in there, his mind racing furiously. They could not allow Wolf and Rio to get away - hell, he couldn't allow it. If those bastards got hold of Ezra, or Contessa Almarez, or anyone they cared about in Four Corners, Buck knew he'd never forgive himself. But they could stop them, if only they were free.
He glared at Chris and Vin, who were seated on the ground, staring intently at the smirking warden.
"If anyone's got a plan, feel free to speak right up," Buck offered angrily, scuffing his boot on the floor.
"I'm workin' on it," Chris muttered softly, still glaring at the guard.
"Too bad we ain't got Ezra's lock-pick," Vin sighed, rubbing the fingers of one hand together as he studied the bars.
Buck snorted. "Hell, even if we did have it, it'd be hard t'use it with ol' Eagle-Eye there watchin' us. An' you know there's two more soldiers outside."
"Stephenson must think he got a real prize in us," Vin murmured, shaking his head.
"He's just soothin' his damn pride," was Chris's angry reply. "Men like that don't like bein' bested. Just as easy for him to lock us up as listen to us."
Buck sighed and leaned against the wall, dragging his hand through his hair as he looked at Chris. "Tell y'what, Chris, I can't just sit here knowin' Wolf an' Rio are headin' t'town."
Chris drew a deep breath, frowning as he thought.
He was still thinking a few minutes later when the sound of several horses' hooves reached their ears. The three men looked at each other as a squad of Federal soldiers stopped outside and dismounted amid a clatter of spurs and swords. A few of them entered the small jail, led by Billings, who instantly fell into conversation with the jailer.
Chris and Vin stood as Buck frowned, watching. "That didn't take long," he said quietly, puzzled.
The other two men said nothing.
"All right," the scruffy jailer said as he took out the key and opened the cell door. "You boys get a move on, these here soldiers're takin' you now."
"That a fact?" Buck snarled, not bothering to be polite as he scowled at the young men in blue. But something stopped his anger; there was an odd light in their eyes, something off in their expressions. There was none of the smug bullying nature in their faces now, as there had been earlier. They looked very serious, almost sad.
Billings nodded as he looked at the men. "You're wanted back at the camp," he said without bravado. "Commander's orders."
They were ushered outside, where to their surprise almost twenty soldiers were waiting to escort them.
Buck was amazed. "This guy sure wants us back bad t'send all these men for us," he observed.
Billings mounted his horse and gathered up his reins. "Yes, sir, he does," he said in a somber tone. "He needs your help."
It had been a long time since Chris had been in an Army hospital tent, but as he stepped into the facility set up next to the camp the memories came flooding back in an unwelcome tide. The awful smell was the same, the general air of disease and death similar, if not nearly so intense. But the tents he'd seen during the war were all crowded and noisy, full of bloody, wounded men screaming to die. This tent was very quiet and almost empty, except for the cot in the corner where Chris, Buck and Vin were being directed.
A man sat there, next to a cot occupied by a small figure wrapped in bloody bandages. The seated man had his head in his hands in an attitude of grievous despair, and didn't move as the three men and Billings approached. It was only when they were almost there that Chris realized that the injured figure lying so still on the cot was Pvt. Henry Thomas, and the distraught man next to him was Sgt. Stephenson.
Chris glanced at his comrades, whose expressions were also deeply puzzled.
"Sir?" Billings said finally, after they had stood for a few moments without acknowledgement. "Sir, I brought them."
Stephenson didn't react for a moment, and then the only sign of life was a deep, painful sigh. He didn't lift his head or look at them. "Where did you say Wolf Parsons was going?" he asked in a voice roughened by anguish.
Chris stared at him, recognizing the agony of deep grief. "Four Corners," he replied simply.
"Four Corners," Stephenson echoed, dropping his hands and lifting his head. His face was pale, his eyes red and staring off across the cot at nothing. "Then I want you to take your men and as many of mine as you need and go bring that bastard down."
For a moment no one moved, and Chris glanced at Thomas lying on the cot. The boy was barely visible beneath all of the wrappings swathing his youthful frame, but what Chris could see was in terrible shape. His face was white and deeply bruised; the one eye he could see was black. Blood seemed to be seeping through all of the wrappings. It looked as if the boy had been mauled.
Buck leaned towards Billings. "What happened?"
Billings' face was sober as he eyed his former prisoner. "Parsons attacked Henry an' Wes an' robbed their supply wagon," he replied softly. "Tore Wes's guts out an' damn near killed Henry. We found 'em a few hours ago, an' Henry was just alive enough t'tell us who done it. We... we figure it happened not too long after we stopped you."
Chris grit his teeth, furious. They could have prevented this, dammit. If they'd just listened... He was about to voice his bitter opinion when a look at Billings' guilty face stopped him. It was clear the soldier knew this too, and couldn't even bear to look Chris in the eye.
Vin studied Stephenson with curiosity. "Your Sergeant sure must care for his soldiers, t'take on like this," he observed quietly.
Billings shot the tracker a sharp look. "It ain't that," he whispered. "Henry's his nephew."
The three men looked at each other in surprise. Damn, Chris thought, Thomas had mentioned his uncle, but he never thought the young man was talking about that ass Stephenson. He looked again at the stricken officer, his drooping shoulders and agonized expression. Stephenson was still an ass, but it was impossible for Chris not to feel a small measure of pity for the man. After all, his nephew was probably dying, and he could have stopped it.
And Chris knew what that sort of anguish felt like.
Chris took a step forward. "Sergeant," he said evenly, "we're mighty sorry about your nephew. Give us back our guns an' horses an' you won't have t'worry about Parsons gettin' away again."
Stephenson heaved a heavy sigh, staring at the mangled boy on the cot. "You've got to find him, Larabee," he said in a broken voice. "Henry is my sister's son, he's all they've got, if he dies and Parsons gets away..." The sentence ended in a choked gasp. Stephenson paused, trying to collect himself, then took another breath and rose, straightening his jacket as he looked at Chris with grim hazel eyes.
"You'll have your guns, and your horses, and whatever you need," he said. "And... my..." he paused, then steeled himself, swallowed and looked Chris square in the eye. "...apology." He hesitated, then broke, his gaze wandering as he began to gasp. "If I had listened to you..."
Chris cut him off. "You paid enough for your wrong, sergeant," he said, as Bllings appeared with their guns and began handing them out. Chris strapped his on with an expression of deadly intent. "Now it's time t'make Wolf Parsons pay for his."
The desert sun was almost down, its dying rays searching in vain for life on the rocky plains outside of Four Corners. This far outside of town, however, nothing usually stirred, except the skittering prairie wildlife. This twilight's glow, however, found a lone figure moving stealthily against the wilderness landscape, being careful to stay hidden by the rocks.
The shadows lengthened, the sunlight slipped into its final radiant guise. In the fading sunlight another form appeared, riding swiftly towards where the first form was hidden. It rose in greeting.
"Did you cut the wires?" the first figure asked harshly, in a deep man's voice.
"Easily," was the silky purred response, framed in feminine tones as the rider slid from her horse. "They won't be sending out any telegrams about us, if anyone finds out we're here."
"Perfect," he muttered, crouching down.
"Wish you'd let me go to town with you, Wolf," the woman pouted.
There was a sigh. "Dammit, Rio, you know I work best by myself. Two of us'll just attract attention. You got to watch the horses."
"But I wanted to kill that little bitch who got away," she replied in a disappointed tone.
He thought for a moment. "Well, maybe after I kill that fancy fella, I'll bring the bitch out here for you. I'll get what I missed before from her and then you can have her. How's that?"
"Wolf, you sure know how t'please a gal!" was the delighted response, punctuated with a sensuous laugh.
They were quiet for a while. The sun went down, the sky bursting with the glowing purple-pink beauty of a Western twilight.
"You think it'll be safe t'go into town?" she asked.
Wolf snorted. "Hell, darlin', after midnight it's always safe for men like me. All I gots t'do is find a drunk who's willin' t'spill his guts for a few bits about where they are. An' if he don't know, hell, I'll just look. It's a small town, can't be too many places they'll be."
There was a pause, then she laughed softly. "Too bad y'can't make that fancy fella holler before ya kill 'im. That stubborn son of a bitch never hollered enough for my likin'. He was holdin' back just to vex us, I could tell."
He shared her laugh. "Don't worry, darlin'. When this is over, we'll go to Mexico an' get back t'work, an' you'll get all the hollerin' you want. How's that?"
"That'd be right nice," she agreed, and they settled down to wait for midnight.
Chris, Buck and Vin tore across the plains, riding fast as the night began to gather around them. Behind them rode a small group of Federal soldiers led by Billings, the young men just as grim-faced as the hardened gunslingers they followed.
No words were spoken as they raced along. Every now and then one of them would look up with mute dread at the sky, silently cursing the falling darkness as it spelled the passage of irretrievable time. A full moon would light their path, and that was something to be thankful for, but there was still the dire possibility that their journey would end in the worst possible way.
For the moment, none of the men wanted to contemplate this fact; their only thought was to get to town. They would face what came after when it happened.
They thundered on into the night.
JD guided Hero carefully over the desert rocks as he rode the usual route of patrol. His hazel eyes carefully scanned the surrounding hills, their menacing forms becoming shrouded in the gathering gloom. He looked up with slight impatience, wishing the full moon would come out so he could see better. Well, soon enough, he sighed to himself, and rode on.
His thoughts turned sadly to Ezra again as he continued on his circle, and what Josiah had said to him about finding the strength to fight evil. It had been a lot to think over, and JD had done nothing but that since their conversation. And he still wasn't sure how it all fit together.
Did he have the strength to fight evil? he wondered as he bobbed along on Hero's back. Well, he'd always wanted to battle the bad guys, and so far had proven to be rather adept at it, he thought with a small, proud smile. He knew he wasn't the naive, wild-eyed kid he'd been when he got here; he'd seen too much, and felt too much, to remain unchanged by it.
But was he now prepared to make the kind of sacrifices Ezra had made - or any of his other friends, for that matter - in the name of justice? Was that what he wanted to do with his life? Because if it was, he'd have to live with this threat until he retired or died. It was a daunting challenge, but in his heart he knew it was truly what he wanted to do. No other life held any appeal for him.
And if he took up that challenge, could he also bear the idea that it might lead to a horrifying end, as it almost had for Ezra? JD turned the unpleasant question over in his mind, his stomach clenching at the thought. He didn't want to face the possibility of that sort of a fate, but there seemed to be no getting around it. He didn't want to give up being a lawman, but he also didn't like the idea of putting himself into the path of bloodthirsty scum like Wolf Parsons.
JD sighed and looked up at the rising moon, scratching the back of his head as he thought. He was so dang tired of trying to puzzle this out. Maybe there was no real answer. Or maybe it was the sort of question that would only be answered when the situation stared him in the face. Either way, he didn't feel like thinking about it any more tonight.
He rode on towards the dry river bed, and tried to put his thoughts on happier subjects.
The rough soles of Nathan's shoes thudded dully on the wooden steps leading up to Ezra's room, their repetitive rhythm drowned out by the noise of the revelers below in the saloon. It was time to check Ezra's bandages, and as he mounted the stairs he tried to quell the dread in his heart. He hadn't had a chance to ask Inez about Ezra's visit with Contessa Almarez; maybe it hadn't gone well.
S'pose I'll know soon enough, he thought, and opened the door.
The room lay quiet, lit only by the dim, small lamp which was always kept burning. The gambler lay huddled in the bed, almost hidden by the quilt as he lay on his side. Nathan hurried in and closed the door, anxious not to startle Ezra awake.
He looks all right, he thought as he bent down closer to examine Ezra's face for any signs of anxiety or exhaustion. There were none, but Nathan was surprised to see traces of dried tears on his friend's face. His gut tightened; more nightmares? But Inez would have heard, and Ezra seemed to be sleeping peacefully... He settled into a chair to wait and see if the gambler would awaken on his own.
A short time later, Ezra stirred, let out a deep sigh, and opened his eyes a little. After staring at nothing for a moment, he noticed Nathan, and stared at him instead.
"Hey," the healer said quietly, leaning forward, unsure of the gambler's mood.
Ezra looked at him for another second, then closed his eyes and stirred a bit more extensively, as if trying to shake himself from sleep. "Good evening," he yawned as he pulled his thin arms from underneath the tangling covers. Once in a comfortable position he stopped moving, plopping his arms weakly at his sides and blinking with confusion into the dim light. "I assume... it is evening?"
"Yup," Nathan assured him, pulling up his bag, "an' it's also time for me t'look at them bandages."
He braced himself for an angry comment, a lethal look, anything which would denote that the foul mood which had haunted his comrade that morning still had him in its grip.
Instead, Ezra merely nodded in a distant manner and said, "Very well."
Nathan hesitated, then began, starting with the wrappings on Ezra's arms. As he carefully untied and undid the long linen strips, he noticed Ezra wasn't looking at him, but was instead gazing off at some invisible point. Concerned, Nathan studied him, trying to discern if Ezra was cutting himself off further. His expression, however, was not one of anger or bitterness; rather, it was one of profound contemplation.
"Did you see Miss Almarez today?" Nathan inquired as he took off the bandage. Inside he winced at the red stripes and blue-black marks beneath its healing folds.
Ezra didn't even seem to notice that the wrapping was gone. "Yes," he murmured, still looking away. "It was a most... enlightening visit."
His voice was calm, with a hint of what sounded like wonder in it, and it puzzled Nathan even more. As he looked over the still-angry cuts and bruises, he nodded, trying not to seem like he was prying too much. "Hope it wasn't no bother," he said.
There was a gentle rustle as the gambler turned his head to look at Nathan. "Actually," he said after taking a long breath, "she proved to be quite a remarkable young woman."
Nathan turned the arm a bit to examine it further, and Ezra grimaced a little at the motion.
"Sorry, Ezra," Nathan said quickly. "Just relax an' don't talk no more, that'll help. I'll make this as fast as I can."
His friend obliged, and the healer continued his operations in silence, cleaning Ezra's wounds and changing bandages where needed. His patient seemed elsewhere, sometimes gazing off in thought, other times closing his eyes and lying so still that Nathan wondered if he was asleep. He didn't ask about the tracks of tears as he gently washed them from Ezra's face, thankful only that they did not appear to be tears of anguish.
As the healer worked he could sense that the heavy melancholy which had plagued Ezra had lifted somewhat; whatever Ezra was contemplating so thoroughly, it seemed to be helping him. His expression as he lay thinking appeared to be one of quiet amazement.
"There now, you're all done," Nathan said at length as he began packing up the used bandages and supplies.
Ezra was settling down back into the soft bed, fatigue plainly visible now in his green eyes. "Much obliged," he said in a drowsy voice.
Deftly Nathan tied the ends of the bag closed, smiling a little as he nodded. "You're healin' up proper, Ezra. An' I'm glad to see you ain't as sour as you were this mornin'. The folks downstairs will be glad to know you're feelin' fine."
There was a pause as Ezra regarded his friend quietly. "Not fine, perhaps, just yet," he said softly, "but... better, Nathan. Better."
Nathan looked up, quick to notice that Ezra had addressed him by his first name. That was certainly encouraging.
He stood and looked down at Ezra with a smile as he picked up his bag. "That's right good, Ezra," he said. "You go on back t'sleep, I'll see you in the mornin'."
Ezra nodded, then looked up. "Oh, Nathan?"
The healer stopped and dropped his gaze to his friend's pale face. "Yeah, Ezra?"
The gambler seemed to hesitate, then he sighed and said, "I... merely wanted to express my regrets if I was rude to you this morning. I fear my experience has... somewhat eroded my civility."
Nathan bent a little closer to him. "Don't worry on it, Ezra. Save your strength for gettin' better."
A moment of silence fell, then Ezra took a breath and added, "And despite my cold response, I... did appreciate what you were trying to tell me, with your story. I am aware of its moral, I assure you, even if it is still a mite overwhelming for me to believe."
"You can believe it, Ezra," Nathan replied firmly. "Best to face it now, we just ain't gonna leave you alone."
A slight grin tugged at Ezra's lips. "An annoying fact, Mr. Jackson, for which I am profoundly grateful."
Nathan laughed a little, and opened the door.
"Oh, and one more thing?"
The healer looked at him and waited.
Ezra glanced at the feebly burning lamp. "Would you mind terribly, er, extinguishing that light?"
Nathan was delighted but surprised. "You sure?"
The other man hesitated, then nodded. "Yes. "
"Okay." Nathan walked over and turned down the wick. Darkness swiftly fell in the small room. Concerned, Nathan eyed Ezra as he walked past the bed, but the gambler seemed determined to see this through.
"You get some rest now," the healer warned. Ezra settled down into the bed in response, and Nathan went quickly through the door, closing it behind him.
Outside, he paused; perhaps he should wait a bit, just to make sure.
Five minutes passed. Nathan listened carefully for any sounds which might indicate that Ezra was in distress, but there was nothing. Finally he opened the door a crack and peeped in, to get sure proof that Ezra was all right in the dark.
In the dim filtered light from the hallway, Nathan could see Ezra curled up in the bed, his gaunt face untroubled as he lay in the gentle hold of deep slumber. Satisfied, Nathan closed the door, marveling at the fact that Ezra had not dropped off to sleep so quickly and easily since his return.
Turning, he picked up his bag and went downstairs, hopeful that perhaps now the worst really was over.
"It was quite remarkable, senor. I feel sure it helped Ezra a great deal."
Inez smiled happily to Josiah as she continued to put away the beer glasses. Around them the night crowd of the Standish Tavern flowed and ebbed, but the preacher seemed riveted to what the attractive Mexican woman was saying, and it brought a smile to his face as well.
"I'm right glad t'hear that, Inez," he said with a slight nod as he lifted his half-empty glass. "I imagine Ezra was pretty amazed to know he helped save that little gal's life."
"Yes, he was," was the firm reply as she put the last of the mugs away and shelved the tray. "I think it would surprise any man. But it only shows that everything we do is seen by someone, and has more effect than we can ever guess."
Josiah chuckled. "That's downright philosophical, Miss Inez. Not to mention true. How's Contessa doin' now?"
Inez threw a glance behind her. "She had to rest for a while after the visit, but she is fine now. She's playing in the kitchen with some of the children, but it will be her bedtime soon." She shook her head. "It will be hard to get her to sleep tonight. Her parents are coming tomorrow, and she will be going home before too long."
The preacher sighed and leaned forward, propping both elbows on the counter. "Good. She needs to be with her folks. Now all we need is for Maude to show up, an' everything will be fine. Should be here any day."
Inez pursed her lips as she leaned over to clear away a few empty glasses from the counter. "I hope she minds herself with him, senor. Senora Standish can be a little... strong. I know she loves her son, but some of the things they do to each other puzzle me."
"Puzzles all of us, ma'am," Josiah smiled. "But don't worry, I think between all of us we can keep Maude from smotherin' Ezra too much."
Inez nodded, occupied with filling a customer's glass as Nathan walked up, his leather bag in one hand.
"How's Ezra tonight?" Josiah asked as the healer set the bag down and leaned on the counter.
Nathan gave a positive shake of his head. "Right fine, actually. Just changed his bandages, an' everything's healin' up like it should." He looked at Inez. "Don't know what that gal said to him, Inez, but it seems to have perked him up some. He didn't say much, but I could tell he ain't as troubled as he was the other day, an' after I was through with 'im he went to sleep easy as a baby. Even asked me to put out the lamp."
Inez smiled as she poured Nathan a shot of whiskey. "It was quite remarkable, senor. She told him he helped saved her life."
Nathan's eyebrows went up. "That a fact?" he said, impressed. "Guess you'll have t'tell me about it over supper. What do you got on the menu tonight?"
Inez sighed. "Sandwiches, I'm afraid, senor. The stove is not working again."
Josiah frowned. "That's the third time this month, Inez. Ain't Mr. Haskell fixin' it right for you?"
Her only answer was a shrug. "Every time I light it, the kitchen fills with smoke. He insists it is fine."
Josiah scoffed and looked at Nathan, who seemed equally disgusted. "That don't sound fine," he remarked, taking a drink. "Mind if I take a look at it? I've fixed a few parish stoves in my time."
"I would appreciate that very much, senor," was the grateful reply. "Perhaps you can ask God for a miracle."
Josiah smiled a little. "With what happened with Ezra today, Miss Inez, I got a feelin' that we've used up our share of miracles for right now. But I'll surely do my best."
The Four Corners post office was a small, dusty building, with little in it to interest anyone outside of the mail-delivering line. A small wooden counters, a few rows of cubbyholes with names scrawled beneath, a couple of musty address books arranged in neat rows behind the window, empty mail bags drooping in one corner. A dull, dry place, and on this dark summer night, completely deserted.
A small clicking sound soon disturbed the quiet, warm air. No one was there to hear the gentle scraping as the lock to the back door was quietly, expertly picked. After a few moments the lock gave way with a muffled click, and the door swung quickly open. A single dark figure slipped in, shutting the door fast behind it. A tall, slim figure with long black hair.
The man moved swiftly to the mail boxes, studying the names of each one in turn. There was no hesitation as he found the one he was looking for; one thin hand plunged in and pulled out the box's contents, studying the address carefully: Ezra Standish, Room 4, Standish Tavern. He wasn't interested in the rest.
The letter was shoved back. The man paused, pulled a discarded newspaper from his hip pocket where it had been jammed earlier, and quickly read again the only part he gave a damn about:
"...Miss Almarez is now recovering under the care of Senorita Inez Roscios, proprietress of the Standish Tavern."
The man crammed the paper back into his pocket, went back to searching the boxes, found his goal again, and repeated his earlier actions, with even greater visible satisfaction than before. Once finished, he slipped back outside as quietly as he had entered, leaving nothing behind to indicate his presence but the minute traces of disturbed dust which glittered and danced as they moved from the darkness into the moonlight and back again.
The Standish Tavern was dark and empty, the chairs turned onto the tables, the drinks put away for another day. The only light in the place streamed from a few lamps in the kitchen, where Inez sat puzzling over the books at the rough table. Nearby, Josiah lay on his back on the floor in front of the partly dismantled stove, sleeves rolled up, both hands buried in its inner chamber. He was covered with soot.
Inez glanced at the preacher as she wrote down a few numbers. "You do not have to stay so late, Josiah," she said in a low voice. "I can do without the stove for another day."
Josiah shook his head, still staring resolutely into the stove. "Think I almost got it, Inez," he whispered. He glanced at her, concerned. "I ain't bein' too loud, am I? Don't want to wake up your guest."
Inez looked over at the closed door which guarded the room where Contessa slept. "No, senor, she is a very sound sleeper," she assured him. "But surely you must be very tired by now. It is past midnight."
Josiah grunted as he twisted something inside the stove. "I'm fine, Inez," he said firmly, gritting his teeth. "I ain't never let a stove lick me yet, an' I ain't gonna start now. I'm gonna fix this for you if it takes all night."
She smiled and went back to her book. "Gracias, senor," she whispered.
He shook his head as he continued to struggle with the stove. "Just fightin' the good fight, sister," he muttered, and kept working.
The full moon bathed the alleyway behind the Standish tavern in a bright, silver glow. Between the shadows of that light skulked a slender, long-haired form, darting from darkness to darkness as it moved towards the back door of the building. It paused only long enough to glance carefully into windows as it passed, searching.
Finally at one window it stopped, long enough to study the sight visible through the dusty glass. On the other side, a young girl lay asleep, her face peaceful despite the bruises and cuts it bore. The figure stopped, hesitated, then moved on. It would return here later, when its more important task was done.
The shadow slid up to the back door of the saloon, long fingers wasting no time in producing and employing a glistening lock-pick. This time the instrument made no sound as it was used. It success was quick; almost before anyone had a chance to notice, the tall man quickly and quietly opened the back door, sped inside, and closed it again, leaving the alleyway once more silent and deserted.
The saloon was dark inside, save for the meager slivers of light escaping from the closed doorway of the distant kitchen. Darkness, however, hardly bothered the slender intruder; he knew it well, and liked it. He paused only long enough to find the stairway, and with ghostly stride he ascended it, making no noise as he made his way towards the rooms on the second floor.
As he counted off the door numbers until he found the one he wanted, the long-haired one-eyed man went through his strategy for this kill. Using a gun wouldn't do, he thought as he found the door he was looking for and began to pick the lock in complete silence. Too noisy; he had to be in and gone before anyone knew he was there. Better to use his knife; with any luck his victim would be asleep and would have no chance to stop the blade before it plunged into his heart. The man knew exactly how and where to stab someone so that death was quick and certain; he'd done it many times.
So, the fancy man would die, he decided as the door swung open without a sound. Then he would go and collect the girl for Rio, and be gone.
It was dark inside; Wolf quickly closed the door to block the waking light, leaving it open only enough for a fast departure. He studied the motionless figure slumbering soundly on the bed; his position was perfect. On his side, facing the door, one quick thrust between the ribs and no one the wiser.
As he silently drew the large, glistening knife from his belt, Wolf failed to notice the one flaw in his plan.
Ezra was awake.
The gambler had been annoyed as he surfaced from his healing rest; he was rather enjoying it. The day had been very tiring.
But as he began to gather his wits about him, a series of realizations alerted him to a potentially dangerous situation. It had been a very long time since his instincts had drawn him from sleep, and as they did so now he recognized the message they were trying to send to him. Trained from an early age to be a light and cautious sleeper, this habit was now returning, and Ezra knew at once that something had to be very wrong. So, as he had always done in such cases, he roused every sense and quickly assessed what was happening.
He opened his eyes; the room was dark, nothing seemed amiss. The small ticking clock beside his bed indicated that it was only a little after midnight. All was still; why had he awakened?
Then he heard it, a slight scraping at his door. His heart began to quicken its pace; then as quickly as he realized the danger, the door swung open. Ezra quickly closed his eyes to a slit and lay in wait, studying the situation so as to gain its best advantage.
The intruder entered, and Ezra recognized him immediately. The hateful form was burned deeply into his soul, and for a brief instant the gambler was afraid. Was he dreaming? he wondered, as One-Eyed Wolf Parsons drifted into his room and closed the door behind him. But Ezra knew this was no dream, and his heightened awareness made perfect sense out of what he saw: the bastard had merely returned to finish the job.
His mind worked quickly as he lay motionless in pretended sleep. Wolf was here, and after him; that meant Contessa Almarez was in danger too. Or had he killed her already? Anger swiftly replaced the fear. He had been helpless before, but he wasn't helpless now, even if he was still weak from his wounds. He had recovered enough strength, he was sure, for at least one decisive blow.
He knew he had little chance against Wolf, but if he made enough noise it would surely alert others to the menace in their midst. Inez would still be awake, as she rarely retired before one o'clock. Perhaps she could get Contessa away and alert his comrades before it was too late. Perhaps, too, he could hold Parsons here, just long enough for someone to take him, and put the cretin to the miserable end he deserved.
In any case, he was not about to let Wolf Parsons skewer him like a pig in his own bed.
The knife was lifted, its blade flashing in the moonlight. Ezra watched it carefully through barely open eyes, a plan swiftly forming in his mind.
A pause, and the knife was brought back to begin its plunge downwards.
Ezra sprang to life, throwing himself with all of his strength from the bed and wrapping his arms around Wolf as he threw him to the floor. The fall took them, as he had intended, right into the nearby washstand and its fine porcelain china basin and ewer; both crashed to the ground, along with the men, with a thunderous explosion of noise. As they fell, Ezra twisted the knife from Wolf's hand, and it spun away out of Wolf's reach.
Wolf let out a yell of surprise and began grappling with his opponent amid the water-soaked debris. For a moment Ezra stared into his tormentor's face, and the old fear surged back, the icy terror which was forever linked to this man in Ezra's mind. Seeing him face to face again brought a host of unwanted memories flooding back, the pain, the isolation, the endlessness of it all, until the gambler almost buckled from the horror.
The moment swiftly passed, however, and it was replaced by a fierce determination to prevent this monster from ever plying his evil trade again. He knew he had no hope of winning, only of keeping Parsons occupied until he could be arrested. Terrific pain and numbing dizziness assaulted him, but they only fueled his efforts; the bastard who had caused this agony for him and others was in his grasp, and he'd be damned if he let him get away now. From somewhere deep inside of him poured all of the helpless fury which had plagued him during his captivity, giving the wounded man the power to defend himself against the pounding fists of his adversary.
Time seemed to slow as they fought, giving the gambler occasion to gain keen awareness of the passing of every second. He did not feel the blows Wolf aimed at him, did not hear the threatening curses and cries. He heard only his own shouts of anger, and felt only tremendous release as the agonies of the past two months were repaid as much as his healing body would allow.
Then, slowly, the struggle grew more difficult, the pain increasingly intrusive. Ezra's cries of warning grew weaker as the surge of emotion which had sustained him began to ebb away. Sweat poured down his face as he tightened his grip on Parsons, determined to hold on to his last ounce of strength. But his head was swimming violently, his heart pounding, his vision dimmed by sweat and looming unconsciousness. All of his strength was gone now. Parsons recognized his opponent's growing frailty, and his efforts to escape grew more violent. Despite the increasing agony of doing so, Ezra held on, desperately hoping that someone, anyone, would soon come.
Josiah looked up from the stove, glancing at Inez. "You hear that?"
She said nothing, staring in puzzlement at the closed door. The concerned look on her face was his answer.
The distant sound of more crashing followed, punctuated with shouts and cries for help. Ezra's cries.
"Perhaps he is dreaming again," Inez said, putting down her pencil.
Josiah quickly stood, not bothering to wipe off his hands. The noise increased.
"You stay here with Contessa, Inez," he said, pushing his way out the door. "I'll just go make sure he's all right."
The preacher half-ran into the empty, dark saloon; dear Lord, he thought as the cries continued, he sounds scared to death. Maybe putting out the light was a mistake. Then, as he began climbing the stairs, the horrified realization came: there were two voices shouting!
"Ezra!" he cried, hurtling up the stairs two at a time, a vague, horrifying possibility suddenly coming into his mind. But it couldn't be... "Ezra!"
He reached the top of the stairs; the noise stopped, and there was a loud thud as something heavy was thrown to the floor. Josiah was halfway to Ezra's room when its door flew open, and a tall man with long black hair shot out and dashed for the back stairs.
"Hey!" Josiah screamed; dammit, why didn't he bring his guns? "HEY!"
He lunged after the man, grabbing his arm as he reached the top of the stairway. His opponent whirled and kicked Josiah fiercely in the stomach. As the preacher gasped for air a fist slammed across his jaw, sending him to the ground. As he tried to gather his wits about him, Josiah heard the back door bang against the wall as it was thrown open with tremendous violence, and the retreating footsteps of the intruder as he fled down the alleyway.
Josiah got to his knees, panting and rubbing at the blood trickling from his cut lip. Burning frustration seared through him as he stared at the open door.
"What's happening?" Inez called from the gloomy recesses of the saloon.
Josiah got to his feet, ran to the top of the stairs and looked down at her dim form as it stood half-lit on the landing. "Inez, go see after Contessa," he gasped. "I think Wolf Parsons just tried t'kill Ezra."
He turned, not waiting to see her run back to the kitchen. In three steps he was at Ezra's door, and in four he was inside the room.
The place was in shambles, broken pottery strewn across the floor, water soaking the floorboards and carpet. Ezra lay gasping by his bed, white-faced, covered with sweat and shaking violently from his exertion. A strange knife lay nearby, discarded in the struggle.
"Ezra!" the preacher exclaimed, kneeling by the half-conscious man and lifting him up. "God in Heaven-"
Ezra took a gulping breath and forced his eyes open; they were dim and glassy. "Wolf Parsons," he choked, one hand limply grabbing at Josiah's arm. Josiah could see blood seeping through his bandages from reopened wounds. "I... tried to hold him..."
His body trembled with one large shudder, and his eyes rolled upwards, his head falling back as he fainted.
Josiah quickly gathered the unconscious gambler in his arms and rose, carefully placing him back onto the rumpled featherbed. As he did so, a few of the other patrons came to the door, blinking and confused.
One of them, a thick-set blonde-haired older man, turned wide-eyed with shock. "What the hell!"
Josiah turned and recognized one of them. "Mr. Fahler!" he said quickly. "Go get Nathan Jackson. Hurry!"
Mr. Fahler took one look at Ezra's limp form, and Josiah's furious expression, and ran to obey.
Inez appeared, her eyes wide with horror as she took in the scene. "Contessa is fine, senor," she finally said in a voice strangled with shock. "There is no sign of the attacker." She looked at Ezra, let out a small gasp and went to his side, gently touching his face. There was no response. "I'll get some water and linen," she said, and hurried out of the room and down the stairs.
Josiah turned to the remaining man, and realized with a start that it was Mr. Gardner, the man whose father had died.
The older man seemed to see his surprise. "The hotel only had room for Josie an' the kids," he explained. He looked at the terrible scene before him. "Anything I can do to help you, Josiah?"
Josiah nodded quickly. "Yeah, you got a gun?"
Gardner bobbed his head once. "Yup."
"Then, Mr. Gardner, I'd be much obliged if you'd keep an eye on things here til I get back," he said quickly, walking out of Ezra's room into the hallway. "Nathan should be here soon, an' he'll be busy seein' after Ezra."
Mr. Gardner watched him head for the stairs. "I'll be happy to, Father," he said. "Where you goin'?"
Josiah only had time to throw him a brief glance. "To get my guns," he said, "and go after Wolf Parsons."
JD sighed to himself as he finished stabling Hero for the evening. Another quiet, boring night on patrol, he thought as he gave the horse a good-night pat and bent down to put away his tack.
Wonder how Buck's doing...
He was trying to decide whether to get a late dinner at the hotel, or just go up to his room to bed, when the noise of distant shouts caught his attention. They were very far away, but quite distinct against the stillness of the night. He looked up, puzzled; they sounded like they were coming from the direction of the saloon.
Ezra, he thought, a cold wave of concern quickly washing over him. More nightmares? He crouched down and hurriedly began to gather his tack, his mind wildly veering between going to help Inez with Ezra, or going to get Nathan. Nathan lived just above the livery; he could easily run upstairs and they both could head over to the saloon.
The shouting stopped. JD hesitated; maybe everything was okay now. Should he still get Nathan? God, he was too tired for this. Maybe it all had nothing to do with Ezra.
He finally decided to go to the saloon, just to make sure everything was all right, and was almost done packing up his tack when his ears caught the sound of footsteps running very fast towards the livery. He stood, surprised, and watched as someone tore into the stable, pulling the door closed behind him. The only light now was from the lantern hung near the door.
JD ducked down; he was in the corner stall and invisible, for now, to the intruder. Peering through a gap in the stall boards, he saw a very tall man with long black hair go quickly to one of the horses and begin to untie it. A horse thief! JD realized, one hand dropping towards his gun. Then, on studying the man, his blood began to run cold. JD had put together the 'wanted' telegram which had been spread to all the nearby towns, which had included a description of One-Eyed Wolf Parsons.
The man JD was now staring at.
A hundred thoughts tumbled through JD's mind at once, chief among them being: this was the man who had done all those terrible things. If JD was ever going to see a truly evil man, here he was, in the flesh, bathed in the glow of fire as he hastily tried to untie one of the horses from its stall.
Footsteps pounded on the wooden steps outside of the livery, leading up to Nathan's clinic. Still hidden, JD watched as Parsons drew his gun and crouched down, his one eye glittering in the darkness as he waited. There was a pounding noise, and voices, muffled by the wood, soon drifted down.
"Sorry to wake you, Mr. Jackson - Mr. Sanchez wants you to come to the saloon right away."
"Just lemme get my bag, mister. What's wrong?"
"Sanchez said some guy named Parsons tried to kill that gambler that's in the room next to mine. Guy's passed out, he looks real bad."
JD saw Parsons smirk.
"Damn!" Nathan said. "Where's Parsons now? Did they catch him?"
"Dunno. I think he's still in town somewhere."
Nathan swore again; more footsteps thundered down the stairs and down the street towards the Standish Tavern. Parsons seemed to relax enough to put away his gun and went back to untying the horse.
JD silently drew his guns. He knew he should probably be scared; the thoughts of what Parsons had done had haunted him ever since the day they stepped inside that fort. Now the man who had done those things was here, in front of him, in the flesh instead of inhabiting his nightmares. But as JD thought of the fort, and all of the suffering this man had inflicted on those people, on Contessa, on Ezra, he wasn't frightened.
He was angry.
Angry, and determined to stop Parsons if he had any power to do so. As he looked at the outlaw in the full light of reality, the nightmare aspect of the man vanished. He wasn't an all-powerful demon, after all, just a skinny, crazy man who liked to hurt people. And JD now had him in his grasp.
With quick, agile steps he swiftly padded over to the door, and before Parsons could notice him he stood up, aimed both barrels at the outlaw and said in a loud, firm voice, "Drop your guns!"
Parsons dropped to a crouch beside the horse, drawing his gun and squeezing off a quick shot in JD's direction. JD ducked it, and the bullet exploded in the dry wood behind him, sending small splinters flying in all directions. JD looked up; Parsons was gone, having hidden himself in the livery somewhere. There was only one door in or out, and JD was standing in front of it.
"Might as well give it up, Parsons," JD said, trying to find the desperado in the dim, flickering lantern light. "I got you covered. You're gonna pay for all them evil things you've done."
A muffled laugh erupted from nearby. JD looked in its direction and took a step towards it.
A shot rang out, grazing JD's head and nicking his ear. The young man dropped quickly to the ground, firing madly as a form shot past him. The figure stumbled once but kept running, barreling out the door and into the street. For a few moments JD sat, stunned and dizzy, until his senses returned.
"Dang!" JD cried, leaping to his feet and ignoring the stinging pain of his wounded ear. Dashing out into the street, he looked down into the dust and noticed a thin trickle of blood. Parsons had been wounded. Palming both guns, he followed the trail, impressed that the outlaw could run so fast with a bullet in him.
The trail led into an alleyway; JD's steps quickened.
The young man looked behind him to see Josiah way down the street, his shout reaching him only as a very small sound.
"Josiah!" he cried, waving one gun. "He went down this alley!"
He turned and continued to run; if this alley was as he remembered it, they had Parsons now. It was a dead-end, terminating in a high brick wall.
JD turned the corner which led to the dead end and was greeted with another round of gunfire. He ducked back quickly, gasping as another bullet barely missed him. Parsons was trapped, but like all cornered rats, still plenty able to fight.
JD waited a moment, then poked his head around the corner. A shadowy form was moving by one of the buildings. Parsons was trying to pick the lock; blood was pouring from a wound in his right leg. Absorbed in his task, he didn't see JD.
Quickly JD raised both guns and stepped into view. "Parsons!"
The man looked up, and with his free hand drew his gun, prepared to fire again. Someone ran behind JD, someone whose arrival made Parsons hesitate.
"Good job, JD," Josiah said. "There's four guns on ya now, Parsons. Might as well give it up."
Parsons straightened and stared at them, but didn't drop his weapon.
Instead, he chuckled.
"This town got anybody besides little boys an' old men guardin' it?" he chuckled.
"You got nothin' to laugh about, Parsons," JD said, his voice deep with emotion as he aimed his gun at the outlaw's head. "Unless you think gettin' hanged for what you done is funny."
"Drop your gun an' come on," Josiah added. "You ain't goin' far on that shot-up leg."
Parsons looked at them both and didn't move. "Now, boys," he breathed, eye flicking from one man to the other, "this don't got to go like that. Lemme go an' there'll be a hundred in gold for each of ya."
JD shook his head and took a step closer. "You ain't buyin' us off, Parsons."
Parsons glared at JD, his hand twitching around his gun.
"Careful, JD," Josiah muttered.
The young man shook his head, staring resolutely at Parsons. "I ain't scared of him no more, preacher," he said angrily, looking Parsons up and down. "This guy's just like Buck said - nothin' but a scrawny coward who likes beatin' up people."
Parson's eye narrowed. "Buck? Buck Wilmington?" he muttered.
JD didn't move, both guns still trained on Parsons. "He told us all about you," he said. "So you best just-"
In a move too fast for their eyes to follow, Parsons whipped his gun up and squeezed off three shots. Josiah and JD ducked down, returning fire as Parsons reared back and burst through the door of the shop, charging inside and closing it behind him. As the two men rose and ran for the door they heard a crash inside. JD tried to open the smashed door, only to find it jammed against a heavy object on the other side; Parsons had barricaded the door and was running through to escape out the front.
"Damn!" Josiah breathed, and they ran as fast as they could to head him off.
As they emerged, they found no signs of Parsons, only the battered remnants of the store's front door. There was no blood trail now; Parsons, it appeared, had found a way to staunch the flow.
Several townsmen appearing on their doorsteps nearby, blinking blearily.
"Get back inside!" Josiah yelled. "Wolf Parsons is on the loose."
"Wolf Parsons!" exclaimed one man, a thin red-haired storekeeper. "That guy that got Standish?"
"Yeah," JD replied, dancing in agitation, both guns at the ready as his hazel eyes studied their surroundings. "So you all best just get inside. We'll catch 'im."
Some of the men went back into their homes and shops and bolted their doors. A few, however, remained behind.
"Inside, hell!" one of them spat, a middle-aged man with a balding blonde head. "Look, I don't mind formin' a posse to help bring that Parsons in, if you want the help. We know what Standish went through cause of that outlaw, an' figure we owe him that much."
Josiah nodded quickly, realizing that some of the men who'd stayed had been among those who'd criticized Ezra. A guilty conscience is a wonderful motivator, he decided. "Much obliged. But move fast."
They scattered to get their clothes and guns, and Josiah and JD ran up the street. As they trotted quickly towards the east end of town, they heard gunshots and shouting in the distance.
"That came from Digger Dan's saloon!" JD cried.
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when Parsons came charging around the corner on a stolen horse, barreling right for them. Both men dove for cover as he opened fire, returning it in kind. JD heard Josiah let out a shout, and the young man got off two more shots as Parsons wheeled the horse around and plunged between the buildings. There was a crash as he jumped through a low fence, then a series of fading hoofbeats as the outlaw disappeared into the surrounding desert.
JD jumped to his feet from behind the water barrel where he'd found shelter. "Josiah!" he shouted, looking around. From nearby he heard Josiah groan, and after further searching found him getting groggily to his feet from behind the water trough, holding a profusely bleeding arm.
"Jeez, preacher!" JD gasped.
"S'all right, JD, just tore the flesh up a bit," Josiah assured him, looking out after Parsons. He drew a deep breath and exclaimed, "Damn!"
The townsmen, led by the blonde man, appeared. "Don't worry, Josiah, we'll go after 'im," he said.
"Yeah, he won't get away from us," JD promised, holstering his guns. "You better go have Nathan fix you up, we'll take care of things out there."
"Be careful, JD," Josiah cautioned him, patting the young man on the shoulder.
JD nodded, a serious expression on his face, then he turned and faced the men behind him.
"C'mon, boys," he said to the posse, and they quickly ran to the livery to saddle up and head out.
Rio paced anxiously next to the horses outside the south end of town. Every now and then she turned her beautiful, cruel eyes towards the dark structures which loomed far away in the moonlight, wondering what Wolf was doing now. Maybe he'd killed that fancy fellow by now, she thought, and smiled, imagining the suffering her lover might have inflicted before dealing the final blow. Just as she'd do once she got her hands on that little Mexican wench who'd dared to slip from their grasp.
The thudding rhythm of hoofbeats reached her ears, and she ducked behind the rocks, startled and reaching for her guns. As she cocked her Colt and peered over the protecting boulders, she was stunned to see Wolf riding towards her, alone, a bloody length of cloth wrapped around one leg.
"Wolf!" she cried in disappointment as she stood up.
"We've got to ride!" was his reply when he got near enough to be heard. "There's a posse after us."
She snorted and went to mount her horse. "Shit, Wolf, we've handled posses before," she said, swinging into the saddle, the long tails of her dirty duster trailing behind her.
"I know that, gal," Wolf replied, swinging from the stolen horse onto his own. "Got to find a good place to hole up an' shoot it out. We'll come back here later an' finish our work."
She smiled in anticipation, and they tore away, leaving the stolen horse behind.
"Did you at least kill the fancy fella?" she asked as they rode.
Wolf nodded and smiled. "Think so. Lord, Rio, you should seen him. Gotta hand it to those boys, they really did a job on him. Too bad we had to shoot 'em."
She shrugged. "Not that bad."
They rode up a slight incline and reached the top.
"Oh shit!" Wolf cried.
Heading straight for them, and plainly visible in the bright full moonlight, were several horsemen, many of them clad in dark uniforms of Army blue. At the front rode three men in civilian clothes, one all in black.
"That's them!" they heard a distant voice shout. The horsemen began pounding towards them as the popping sound of gunshots rent the air.
Wolf and Rio quickly turned their horses, only to meet with another unwelcome sight: almost a dozen riders coming out of the town headed towards them as well. They were being hunted, it seemed, from all sides.
Without another word the two fugitives sawed their horses viciously around and tore off towards the nearby hills.
"Army! Damn!" Wolf hissed through clenched teeth. "How the hell did they find us?"
"Peters," Rio said as she leaned over the mane of her horse. "Bet he talked, that little bastard!"
Wolf growled. "I'll give him something to talk about, when I get my hands on him," he muttered.
More gunshots; they turned and sent a few in return.
"Wolf!" Rio cried suddenly, looking behind her, "I think that guy's with them - that guy, um, Buck! Wilmington, from Kansas City!"
"Really," was the hardly-surprised response. Wolf's eye was hard. "I imagine he's more after you than me, my darling, considering your past relationship with him."
She snorted in disgust and turned back around. "Damn, I thought he'd given up bein' a lawman."
"I'm thinking he just might want to wring your pretty neck, my dear," Wolf replied smoothly. "And I'm also thinking that, as it might slow them down on my trail a little, he should have it."
Rio whipped her head around to look at him, and saw the shining barrel of Wolf'd gun aimed straight at her gut. She lifted her own gun, but before she could squeeze the trigger Wolf's gun went off in a blaze of fire and an ear-shattering report. White-hot agony consumed her as the bullet ripped through her chest, and with a loud cry she toppled from her horse in a tangle of blood-smeared leather. She landed in the hot dust with a muffled thud and lay there, motionless.
Alone now and unencumbered, Wolf dug in the spurs and tore into the hills.
Buck's mind was going as fast as the horses as they pounded across the desert in pursuit of Rio and Wolf Parsons. Throughout the long dark ride the gunslinger's heart had been torn by a thousand awful questions. What if they were too late... What if Ezra and Contessa Almarez were already dead... What if he never got a chance to right the horrible wrong he'd committed all those years ago...
Every mile drew them closer, and the dread mounted in his soul. He was almost afraid to get home, terrified at the possible reality they'd find there. It was getting so damn late, Parsons had been hours ahead of them. Surely, surely he was there by now, there and gone.
Other nightmare scenarios took the chance to slide across his mind as well. What if Parsons didn't stop at just killing his intended victims? JD, Josiah, Nathan, Inez, Mary - no one was safe as long as Parsons was alive. Buck wasn't sure he could bear it if they suffered at that bastard's hand as well. He'd just plain go crazy.
They'd tried to warn them, sent the Army boys off to every nearby town with a telegraph. They all came back with the same answer: the Four Corners telegraph was down. No messages could get in or out. That's when Buck knew.
Parsons was there.
So they rode like madmen, charging towards the small frontier town which lay oblivious to the evil in its midst. And Buck's heart sank lower with every passing hour: Surely it was too late by now. It seemed almost too much to hope for, that they'd get there in time.
Then, almost there, clearing the rise just outside of town, and seeing in the moonlight those two forms desperately riding away. Even from a distance Buck recognized Wolf's tall, lean form. Vin whipped out his spy glass and confirmed it: a one-eyed man and a red-haired lady. They weren't too late to catch them.
And the chase was on.
Chris led the others, Buck at his side, as they rode after the outlaws. The scene was eerie, like a vision from a nightmare, the dark landscape lit by the brilliant white moon, the clouds of silvery dust kicked up by the horses, the urgent pounding of his heart as they closed in on the killers. They had to catch them and end all this.
Suddenly another surprise appeared in the night air, coming up to ride beside them. JD and men from the town had joined them, were matching their speed in pursuit of their prey. Buck took enough time to glance at his young comrade in mute greeting; the young man looked back, not smiling, his eyes glinting with determination. They had a serious job to do, and his expression revealed that he knew it, and was ready to face it unafraid. Buck nodded and bent back over his horses' neck, and they rode on, stronger now.
Gunshots exploded around them; the Army boys were firing at the pair.
"We want 'em alive!" Chris cried as they rode. Buck hoped the soldiers understood a bullet in the back was too good for Parsons and Rio. Only the hangman's noose could properly end their lives.
His hands tightened on the reins; they were getting closer, closer. Just let us get near enough for one good crippling shot, he prayed. Just to get 'em off their horses...
Then, another shot, from up ahead. Buck ducked a the sound, certain that Wolf was firing at them. A thrill of surprise ran through him as he watched one of the riders stumble, then topple from the saddle as the other continued at a much faster pace into the hills. Left behind, the injured figure hit the dirt and lay perfectly motionless as the trailing dust from its former comrade drifted silently over its still form.
"Damn!" he heard Chris spit. In seconds they were upon the victim, and Buck had no trouble recognizing the voluptuous form of Rio as she lay crumpled and bleeding in the hot dust. They reined in quickly, Vin and some of the soldiers and the posse shooting past to continue the chase. JD paused only long enough to glance at the fallen outlaw, his face revealing more surprise than sadness, before he goaded his horse to follow the others.
Billings jumped down and examined the heap of dirty leather and red hair.
In a few seconds he looked up. "She's dead," he said without sorrow.
Buck stared, confused, unsure how to feel. It was wrong to feel grateful that a woman had been brutally slaughtered like that, but damn if that wasn't just how he felt. He'd held that beautiful woman in his arms, enjoyed her infinite talents, but now as he looked at her tangled, lifeless body, all he could feel was relief. She couldn't hurt anyone anymore.
"Buck?" Chris was eying him, concerned but impatient, the great black horse Valor champing to follow the others in the hunt.
Buck took a breath and looked seriously at his old friend.
"One more to go," he said quietly, gathering up his reins. Billings swung back into his saddle, and they rejoined the pursuit, leaving Rio where she was. They would return later for the remains, if anything was left.
They quickly caught up with Vin and the others at the foot of the hills. Most of the soldiers had dismounted and were searching the moonlit area, rifles at the ready. Vin had his rifle in hand, and cast a quick look at his comrades as they arrived.
"Went off into the caves," the tracker announced, nodding at the large tangle of boulders that lay half-buried in the hills before them. They stretched on for almost the entire length of the hillside, providing the perfect place to hide and pick off pursuers.
"We'll flush 'im out," Buck promised as he hopped off of Beauty and drew his guns.
"Keep sharp," Chris warned, drawing his own weapons, and the men set off to comb the rocks and hills for the killer.
Silently they fanned out across the area, their boots thudding softly against the dusty earth and hard stones. Soon the area was alive with dark figures inching across the landscape, lit by the moon's pale glow as they went about their duty. The ground was very rocky and uncertain, small rocks giving way to immense, jumbled boulders, any of which could easily conceal a sniper. All was still and hushed except for the gentle sounds of their movement, until Buck felt he would go mad with anticipation.
A single gunshot shattered the illusory tranquility; one of the soldiers uttered a strangled cry and fell, his rifle clattering uselessly onto the ground. More shots, and the soldiers returned the favor.
"He's over there!" one cried; they concentrated their fire on one spot. In the darkness they could see a dim form moving ahead, between the huge boulders, running further into the sheltering maze, firing as it ran.
"Vin!" Chris cried as he hopped from rock to rock, his back duster flapping as he ran. "You got 'im?"
"Just about," was the reply as Vin dashed along further up the hill, slightly ahead of his comrades. The firing stopped, but the soldiers continued to run, converging on the area where Parsons had emerged. Buck was panting now, running close behind Chris, his blue eyes sharply searching the dimly lit caverns and outcroppings which surrounded them. Damn, he thought, he could be anywhere.
Then, a quick movement, too fast for anyone but the sharp-eyed tracker to see. In half a second Vin's rifle was raised to his shoulder, one keen blue eye sighting down the barrel; there was an explosion as he quickly squeezed off a shot. From somewhere in the rocks came a loud curse, and Buck saw a gun spin onto the rocks, shot out of its owner's hand not far away. The tracker got off another round, then lowered his rifle, his face twisted in anger.
"Damn, missed!" he said, and nodded towards a large cluster of boulders sheltered by an enormous dead tree. "He's over there!"
"Parsons!" Buck cried, gripping his gun as he charged ahead.
"Buck, wait!" Chris cried.
But Buck couldn't wait for this. He'd already waited too long.
He ran ahead into the maze of rocks. High stone walls towered over him as he plunged into the mass, an array of bright shafts of moonlight and the darkest of shadows. Buck slowed his pace, his heart pounding as he studied the depths for any sign of movement. Overhead the dead tree loomed, its lifeless branches dissecting the moonlight into a spidery mottled pool of light.
Buck kept walking, slowly, listening, his gun held in a tight grip. The maze opened up into a clearing just beneath the hill where the tree stood, bounded on three sides by the huge rocks, the fourth by the eroded, rocky soil of the dying hill. Buck stopped and looked around, listening. Then realized, and turned, a moment too late.
Someone grabbed him from behind and threw him to the ground in a fierce embrace, clawing desperately to get at the gun Buck held in his hand. Buck growled and struck back, twisting in his assailant's grasp until he saw the face he had not laid eyes on, except in nightmares, for so many years: the ugly visage of One-Eyed Wolf Parsons.
"Well," Wolf gasped, a hideous smile spreading across his thin face, "Buck Wilmington. Still playin' lawman, I see."
He reared back and struck Buck viciously across the face.
Transported by fury, Buck barely felt the blow, and returned one just as ferocious.
"An' you're still playin' at bein' smart," he replied, and threw Wolf off him. The taller man rolled a short distance away, then leapt to his feet and landed a solid punch to Buck's gut as the other man was getting to his feet. Buck gasped, and Wolf was on him again, both hands trying to wrench the gun from his fist.
Gritting his teeth, Buck drove his elbow into Wolf's chest, grimly satisfied at the pained grunt which resulted. He did it again, and as Wolf bent double he lifted both hands and brought both fists and the butt of his gun down on the back of Wolf's head.
Wolf staggered and fell, pushing Buck down with him, slamming the lawman hard onto the rocky ground. Buck gasped a pain jolted his entire body, and lay stunned for the briefest second. Seeing his chance, Wolf clambered over Buck's supine body and grabbed the gun, his face twisting into a leer of triumph as his fingers curled around the trigger.
Buck came fully awake and dove at Wolf, knocking him sideways back onto the ground. he gun went off, the bullet striking the rock and sending a shower of rock splinters over both of them. They fell to the ground and grappled wildly, clawing, punching, Buck using all of his strength to push the gun away from his chest while Wolf used all of his power to aim it there.
Violent tremors shook Buck's body as all of the rage carried within him boiled through his soul. Years of shame and anger, and new memories of the agonies caused by Wolf's hand, lent strength to his efforts, and he battled with a power he had never felt before. He fought like a man possessed, and even with a gun, Wolf Parsons was outmatched.
Transported with fury, he lunged back and struck Parsons across the face with one fist. Wolf shook, tried to bring the gun towards Buck's chest. Buck pushed it away as if it were of no consequence and struck him again, almost howling in savage fury in the memory of what Parsons had done, the people at the fort, Ezra, Contessa, Henry Thomas.
Parsons tried to aim the gun again; Buck grabbed his arm, trying to force it away, and for a moment they struggled in a mute battle of strength, staring at each other in open savage hatred. Both men shook with the effort, sweat dripping from their dust-smeared faces. After several tense moments, Buck let out a angry gasp and slammed Parsons' hand to the ground, wrenching the gun from his hand and tossing it far away.
Parsons uttered an oath and delivered a swift kick into Buck's side. Buck grunted but didn't move, and retaliated by quickly burying his fist into Parsons' gut. Parsons gurgled, blood seeping from his lips, and attempted a return blow. Buck met and deflected it, and reaching out grabbed the outlaw by a handful of his long black hair. With one hand keeping a grip on Parsons' scalp, Buck let fly with one more blow across the killer's jaw.
The blow landed with a crack which resounded throughout the small grotto; Parsons shuddered, stunned, his jaw streaked with blood. Buck grit his teeth and delivered one more punch, releasing Parson's hair as he did so. The outlaw tumbled in a heap to the dusty stone floor and lay there motionless, bloody and gasping, beaten down at last.
As Parsons tried to pull his senses together, Buck got to his feet, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Buck was spent and covered with sweat, but wasted no time in scooping up the gun and aiming it at Parsons.
Parsons struggled to his knees and stayed there gulping for air, his face a mass of blood, his long hair hanging in sweaty, tangled strings. A few of the soldiers arrived; two of them ran forward and quickly began to tie Parsons up. In moments the outlaw's arms were bound tightly behind him. Buck watched silently, glaring, and when the soldiers were finished he told them with his eyes that he wasn't finished yet.
They took a few steps back and waited.
"There now," Buck gasped as he regarded his prisoner, his chest heaving as he tried to draw breath. "Feelin' more cooperative? Huh?"
Parsons shook his head. "Go to hell, Wilmington," he choked.
"Soon enough, I reckon," Buck replied faintly as he panted. "But I think you're gonna beat me there." He paused, shaking his head as he studied Parsons. "Dang, I oughta just shoot you right now. hell with any trial."
He began walking slowly back and forth, not even noticing when Chris and the others arrived and stood at the mouth of the clearing, watching.
"Course, I could have some fun with you first. That's what you liked to do, wasn't it?" Buck snarled, pacing like a tiger perusing its future meal. "Yeah, reckon if I wanted to, I could make you howl. Just like you did to them poor prisoners at that fort. You wanna know what it feels like to scream your lungs out? Right now I bet I could let you know."
Parsons said nothing. Behind him, Chris, Vin, JD and the soldiers and townsmen watched silently.
Buck nodded as he walked, never taking his eyes off Parsons. "You like feelin' beat an' helpless, Wolf? Just like them people you an' Rio killed? I saw what you did to my friend Ezra Standish. Maybe you'd like to feel what he felt when you beat him almost to death."
Parsons grunted and looked up. "That guy was your friend?"
Buck stopped, his eyes blazing at the mocking tone in his voice.
"Huh." Parsons chuckled. "Wish I'd known that. Wouldn't have taken it so easy on him." He drew a deep breath and tossed his head back, a smug smile spreading over his face. "But he's dead now, an' all this bullshit talk of yours ain't gonna change that."
Buck looked at Vin and Chris, his expression surprised but skeptical. With a growl he charged at Wolf and yanked him up by his collar, pressing the barrel of the gun against the man's temple, their faces only a few inches apart.
"If that's true, you twisted son of a bitch," Buck said in a low, vicious whisper, "then you're gonna suffer everything he did, an' I'm gonna enjoy every damn minute of it." He shook Parsons once, violently. "You hear me?"
Parsons glared at him with his single eye and said nothing, his face a blank mask.
"Okay, Buck," Chris said, walking up, Vin and the soldiers behind him. Buck blinked a little, as if just remembering that they were there. After throwing one last foul look at Parsons, he slowly stood and backed away, leaving the wounded outlaw to the soldiers. The Army men surrounded Parsons, yanked him to his feet and dragged him off while Buck staggered off to one side, holstering his gun with a shaking hand and wiping his face with the other.
"You all right?" Chris asked quietly as he, JD and Vin came to stand by him, studying his old friend with concerned green eyes.
Buck took a deep breath and gave a curt nod. "Yeah, think so, ol' pard," he muttered. "Just... God, Chris, you got no idea. I just got to thinkin' on that fort, an' Ezra an' that Almarez gal, an..." His voice trailed away, and he let out a breath. "It just all came rushin' out an' I couldn't stop it." He was still gasping a little as his gaze landed on JD. "Hey, kid."
JD holstered his guns, nodded to Buck, and gave them all a weary half-smile. "Sure glad you fellas got here when you did."
"JD, what did Parsons mean about Ezra bein' dead?" Chris asked.
"That ain't true," Buck added, his expression plainly hopeful, "is it?"
JD hesitated, then let his shoulders droop. "I - I don't know. I heard some guy come and get Nathan to look after him, he said Parsons attacked Ezra and he looked real bad. I think he was alive when we left, but..." He didn't want to finish the sentence, so he let it fade away.
Buck's expression was murderous as he glanced over to where Parsons was being shoved onto a horse. "That son of a bitch," he muttered.
The light in Chris's eyes was no less lethal as he looked over his men. "Let's get 'im to town and lock him up," he said. The others nodded a little, all exhausted by the ordeal, and moved towards their horses, eager - and perhaps dreading - to get home and see the truth for themselves.
Buck's heart was pounding as they arrived in Four Corners, every nerve afire with apprehension. It seemed as if the ride into town had taken forever.
As they reined in at the jail, Buck turned to Chris. "You get this scum locked up," he said quietly. "I'm gonna go check on Ezra."
Chris nodded without a word, understanding in his green eyes, and went back to where the soldiers were pulling Parsons off of his horse. Vin and JD were already there, their guns trained on their catch.
Buck didn't waste a single glance backwards as the outlaw was hauled into jail, instead spurring his horse up the street towards the saloon.
As he neared he saw the lean form of Josiah amble onto the porch, one arm in a sling.
"How'd it go?" the preacher asked anxiously, too concerned for formal greetings.
Buck swiftly reined in and dismounted, out of breath. "Got 'im," was all he could say as he tethered his mount. "An' we're all alive to see 'im hang."
Josiah sighed and lowered his head for a moment, his expression somber. "Thank the Lord," he muttered.
Buck strode over to stand before his friend. "Josiah?" His voice was rough and tentative.
The other man lifted his head and looked at him, waiting.
Buck took a deep breath. "That bastard said he killed Ezra. Is that true?"
A mild look of surprise crossed the preacher's face, then he shook his head. "Gave it a good try, but no, it's not true. Ezra's still alive."
A soft gasp of relief escaped Buck's lips as he relaxed a little. He glanced up a moment later, meeting Josiah's blue eyes. "How's he doin' now?"
There was just enough hesitation in Josiah's reply to cause a new knot of worry to tighten in Buck's gut. "The fight opened a lot of his wounds an' took all his strength. Nathan was seein' to him, should be done by now."
Buck took a few steps towards the saloon doors. "Think he's awake? I'd... well, I'd like to tell 'im we got Parsons. Reckon he'd like to know that soon as possible."
Josiah shrugged as well as he could with the bandaged arm. "You can go see, but that fight with Parsons wore him out pretty bad. Another few minutes with him and he'd probably be dead."
"Damn," Buck whispered as he walked into the saloon. "That bastard's gonna have a lot to answer for come the trial."
Josiah nodded wordlessly and followed him in.
They climbed the stairs to the second floor, and Buck was surprised to see a couple of men gathered around the door to Ezra's room, watching something inside. One of them, Mr. Fahler, Buck recognized as a long-time resident. He couldn't place the lean older gentleman beside him, but right now he was too tired to really care.
The men stepped aside as Buck and Josiah approached, and Buck was the first to enter the room. One glance told of the recent struggle which had taken place there; a pile of broken porcelain sat in one corner, along with a bucket and mop. The floor was still damp and stained with water. Buck only barely noticed these things before turning his attention to Ezra.
The gambler lay on his back on the bed under a blanket pulled up to his chest, his face turned towards the door, and for one horrible moment Buck thought he really was dead. His skin was very pale and clammy, his eyes closed, the bruises even more ugly and pronounced. Nathan, his medical kit beside him, was buttoning Ezra's nightshirt and looked up as Buck and Josiah entered.
Buck paused before asking, "How's he doin', Nathan?"
Guessing the intent of his friend's question, Nathan answered quickly. "Don't worry, Buck, he's just sleepin'. The fight with Parsons took just 'bout all he had. Should heal up fine if he don't get in no more trouble, it'll just take longer now. Did y'all find Parsons?"
Buck nodded as he sat down in the chair next to Ezra's bed. "Chris's puttin' him in the jail now. With any luck he'll be hangin' soon."
A grim light flickered in the healer's dark eye as he nodded and finished dressing Ezra.
A few moments later, the gambler drew a deep, hitching breath. His eyelids fluttered and opened a little, and he stared at Buck in sleepy confusion. Heartened, Buck drew closer, hoping Ezra would be able to understand the important news he had to tell.
"Well, now, that's more like it," Buck said quietly in a rough voice as he grinned from ear to ear. "Hey there, Ezra."
Ezra stared at his friend with clear eyes for the first time in two months. His green eyes darted over Buck's filthy clothes and dirt-smeared face.
"You, sir," Ezra finally whispered, a faint smile on his lips, "are... in dire need... of a bath."
Buck laughed and nodded as he leaned closer; Ezra's voice was so soft he could barely hear it. "Yeah, guess I am. Been bustin' my ass, but now the job's done I guess I can go clean up."
An urgent light flickered weakly in Ezra's eyes. He lifted his head a bit from the pillow and licked his lips, fighting for the strength to speak. "Parsons..."
"Hey, easy there, buddy," Buck cautioned, placing a calming hand on Ezra's arm. "He's coolin' his heels in the jail, waitin' for the rope soon as you're fit enough to testify against him. Everyone's safe an' sound. Don't you worry about that no more. It's all over with now."
There was a pause as Ezra seemed to be trying to absorb this news. He lay back against the pillow and closed his eyes as if overcome at the thought, and lay unmoving for a few moments.
"Over," Ezra whispered, as if trying to grasp the idea that an end had come to the seemingly endless madness. Buck waited to see if Ezra would say anything else, but after a minute or two it fully appeared that the conversation was finished.
"Well," Buck finally said quietly, "I'll get on outta here an' let you get rested up." He prepared to stand.
The word was faintly spoken, but it caught Buck's ear anyway, and he looked down at Ezra. The gambler hadn't moved, and seemed to be asleep.
Buck leaned closer, unsure he had heard anything. "Yeah, Ezra?"
He saw Ezra stir slightly, and lick his lips as if summoning sufficient will to speak. At length he said, in a low but heartfelt whisper, "Thank you."
Buck swallowed. How could Ezra thank him when it was Buck's fault this whole mess even happened? He pursed his lips as the guilt plucked at his stomach, but left the angry words which sprung to his lips unspoken. It would be best to accept his wounded friend's gratitude, he decided, even if he didn't deserve it.
"You just hurry up an' get better now," Buck said softly, around the bitter lump in his throat. "I got two month's worth of pay waitin' for the day you get back to the tables."
Ezra didn't seem to react, except for a very slight smile which seemed to brush his lips. After a few moments his face relaxed and his breathing evened out into a slow, peaceful rhythm.
Nathan stood and motioned them out of the room, turning down the lamps as he went. Once they were all in the hall the healer softly closed the door.
"Best let 'im sleep now," Nathan advised in a low voice.
"I could do with some of that myself," Buck groaned softly. Now that his anxieties had been dispelled, he was beginning to notice that he was damn tired, and he needed some time to himself to sort out all that had happened. He glanced at Josiah. "How's that arm?"
Josiah shook his head. "Nothin' that won't heal up." He looked over at the two boarders standing nearby. "Thanks for your help, Mr. Fahler, Mr. Gardner. Looks like everything worked out."
"Glad to help," the man Buck didn't recognize mumbled, and they both went off to their own beds.
"Whew!" Josiah breathed as they went downstairs. "Been some evenin'. Wonder if Inez has any whiskey handy?"
"None for me," Buck said with a weary sigh. "I'm headin' for some shut-eye. Chris an' them soldiers got things in hand down at the jail."
"You'll have to tell us how you got hold of Parsons," Nathan said as he stopped at the landing. "Bet that was some fight."
Buck halted and thought a bit, then shook his head, a sad glint in his blue eyes. "Ain't nothin' worth recollectin', Nathan. Just doin' a duty I shoulda done a long time ago."
Judge Travis cleared his throat as he sat at his paper-covered desk in the Four Corners Grain exchange, a large, dusty building which served as the town's courtroom when the need arose. Its empty interior glowed in the early morning sunlight as the newborn rays filtered through the dusty air. As the older man settled into his creaking wooden chair, he adjusted his spectacles and gave a sharp glance to the two men standing before him.
Chris looked like hell. Dusty and exhausted, he had not slept all night, spending his time first getting Parsons locked up, then checking in on Ezra and Josiah. He wasn't surprised to find that Parsons had been lying about the gambler's demise, but he could tell with one look that the outlaw's attack had taken its toll. It had taken all of Chris's self-control not to go to the jail and simply break Parsons' neck.
Stephenson stood beside him, and to Travis's surprise looked almost as worn out as Chris, despite the fact that he had spent all night at his camp. His uniform was clean, if dusty from his morning's ride to town, but his expression was one of weariness. He had not said anything since his arrival.
"Well, gentlemen," Travis finally said, leaning forward and folding his hands, "it would seem the apprehension of Wolf Parsons has been successful. I've called this meeting to see about proceeding with his prosecution, and I'd like to thank you both for coming in."
"I got no reason not to," Chris said quietly, in a defiant tone.
"I'm sure you feel that is the case, Mr. Larabee," Travis replied evenly, "but there is a small matter of Army protocol to deal with here. Sgt. Stephenson?"
The sergeant looked up silently.
"I must confess that I agree with Mr. Larabee's action, but as a sworn upholder of the law in this territory I also must acknowledge your superior say in this matter. We do have a case of a civilian breaking martial law before us, and I want it cleared up with as little fuss as possible."
He coughed and picked up a piece of paper in front of him, glancing at it through his spectacles. "Now, I'm assuming you'll be filing formal charges against Mr. Larabee-"
"That... won't be necessary, Judge Travis." The words were said very quietly, in a voice laden with sadness, and there was silence as the judge glanced up at Stephenson in mild puzzlement.
The sergeant cleared his throat roughly and continued. "On behalf of the Army, Your Honor, I've decided not to bring Mr. Larabee and his men up on charges. I... was hasty in my earlier words, and formally withdraw them."
A slight curiosity flickered across the old man's face, but he seemed able to conquer it. Chris looked over at his former adversary, observing his stooped shoulders and pale expression. There was no triumph on the gunslinger's dusty face, only gratitude and perhaps even sympathy.
Stephenson seemed to feel the gaze, and turned his head to face the other man. He drew a deep breath. "I'm told Henry will live," he said in almost a whisper, "but his future is still highly uncertain. They're... not sure he'll ever walk again."
Chris eyed him steadily. "The boy's got grit," he murmured with a slight nod. "He'll make it."
Stephenson absorbed this remark, nodded a little, then turned back to Judge Travis. "Your Honor, since the only living witnesses to Parsons' crimes apart from my nephew are in your town, I've decided to allow his trial to be conducted here under your guidance. My men will be happy to supply you with any assistance you need."
Travis nodded once, firmly. "As soon as the witnesses can provide testimony, we'll get started. But I don't think there's going to be much suspense over the outcome."
"No." Stephenson nodded faintly, as if his mind was elsewhere. "No, I don't suppose. Well. I'm leaving to take my nephew to the hospital in Phoenix soon, my replacement will be Sgt. McCans."
"Very well," the judge agreed, taking off his glasses. "Thank you for your understanding, Sergeant."
Stephenson sighed. "I only wish to God I'd come to it sooner," he muttered in a heartbroken tone. He straightened and saluted. "Your Honor."
Stephenson dropped his hand and turned to go, catching Chris's eye as he did so. He paused awkwardly. "I wish I could be here to help you hang Wolf Parsons, Larabee," he finally said. "I... don't suppose I have to tell you not to show that bastard any mercy."
Chris shook his head. "He won't be gettin' none, trust me."
Stephenson nodded and began to go.
"Say, about your nephew-" Chris said.
Stephenson stopped and looked at him expectantly.
"When he gets to walkin' an' ridin' again," the gunslinger continued in a quiet tone, "you might want to think about lettin' him come back West if he wants. Maybe even let him join the Rangers, or be a lawman, if he can. I got a feelin' he's more of a mind for that type of life than soldierin'. Just an idea."
Stephenson seemed confused, but nodded. "All right, Larabee. I'll keep that in mind," he said. Then he put on his hat and walked quickly out to his horse, his expression sober and preoccupied.
"That was damn lucky, Chris," Travis noted from his desk as they watched Stephenson mount his horse through the window. "You could have wound up in the stockade."
"Can't call it luck after what Parsons did to his nephew," Chris replied, watching soberly as the sergeant trotted away. "Just a man learnin' the hard way."
"I suppose so," was the soft response. Then he looked at Chris. "Have to say, Chris, I'm glad you got back in one piece. What you did took a lot of courage, even if it was insubordinate. I've never been so glad to be disobeyed."
Chris leaned on one corner of the desk. "I appreciate your bein' fair minded about the whole damn mess. Don't know too many judges who would've been. When's Parsons' trial?"
"Well, we'll give Mr. Standish a little time to recover," Travis said in a conversational voice as he gathered up some papers on his desk. "I don't think he'll have to testify in court, a deposition should be sufficient and much less taxing. Same for Miss Almarez. Mary can help me with the paperwork, and we should be able to begin by the end of the week."
"Good," Chris muttered, sliding off of the desk to his feet.
Travis put the papers down and peered closely at Chris. "Go get some food and rest, Chris, you and your men deserve it. It's not every day we're able to deliver scum like Parsons to justice. It's too bad we'll probably never really know what drives men like him to do such horrible things."
Chris gazed at him with tired, haunted eyes which held the painful memories of a long-ago time. "I ain't too concerned with that, Judge," he confessed. "Got my hands full just tryin' to stop 'em."
With those words he put on his hat and walked out of the dark room into the brightness of the early morning light.
JD shook his head as he finished off the last of his scrambled eggs. "Gotta confess, preacher, I never thought it would happen that way."
The morning crowd in the saloon was sparse and quiet as Josiah and JD sat at breakfast, both still weary but satisfied. It was a later hour than they were accustomed to rising, but nobody seemed to begrudge them the extra rest, especially as the patrons around them buzzed about the capture of Wolf Parsons. Outside the morning sun had been replaced with a light, steely sky and spitting raindrops.
Josiah eyed his young friend as he lifted his almost-empty mug of coffee. "So now you can say you looked evil in the eye an' survived it, JD," he observed, taking a sip.
"It was so weird," was the quick reply as JD scraped his plate. "It was like... I knew I should have been scared, but I wasn't. Well... maybe a little. But most all I could think of was that he'd hurt people an' I had a chance to stop him. An' really, when it was just him an' me, he didn't seem so awful. Just a crazy guy lookin' to get himself hung." He lifted his forkful of eggs and paused, thinking, then laughed. "Or hell, maybe I was just too stupid to be scared."
Josiah smiled a bit as he set down his depleted mug. "Wouldn't say that so fast, JD," he said. "I think you were just findin' your way to let your desire to stop Parsons overcome your fear."
JD looked at him thoughtfully, chewing, then nodded. "Guess I was, Josiah. An' remember how I said I was so worried about him comin' after me? That never even crossed my mind. Not once. It was like I didn't care, long as I could stop him."
His friend sat back in his chair, regarding JD with a sage grin. "Reckon you're becomin' your brother's keeper, JD. Better be careful or you might find yourself doin' this for the rest of your life."
The young man swallowed his food and laughed. "Sure hope the pay goes up!"
A loud rattling signaled the arrival of the morning stagecoach, and both men watched as it pounded by down the damp street. Lashed to the top of it was a very familiar-looking set of French leather luggage. JD looked at Josiah almost with concern and rose, going to the doors and peering out as the conveyance stopped up the street.
After a few minutes, he stood back on his heels and turned to Josiah. "She's here."
By the time they reached the stagecoach most of the passengers were off, including one handsome, well-dressed woman of Josiah's age, her finely braided blonde hair topped with the smartest of fashionable hats. She stood in the street anxiously waiting, and as they approached her she faced them, her beautiful face creased with worry.
"Maude!" Josiah called.
She almost melted with relief as she recognized them and stepped forward. There was none of the characteristic smoothness and charm which normally marked her demeanor; instead of the usual flattering greeting, she said simply and anxiously, "Where is he?"
"Relax, ma'am, he's restin' in his room," Josiah said, taking her hand. "He's still alive. Your son's a fighter."
Maude Standish breathed a quick sigh and nodded. "Of course, Josiah," she replied, some of her normal spirit creeping back into her voice as she flashed an awkward smile. "If there's anything I taught that boy, it's how to survive."
JD had been standing by the coach watching, and saw the last passenger emerge, a short, thin, smartly clad gentleman with a sharp face and thick wavy white hair topped by a bowler. In one hand he carried a large black satchel, and as JD gathered Maude's luggage - only a couple of bags, far fewer than normal - the stranger wandered over to where Maude and Josiah were standing.
"Thank God that's over," the man muttered, wiping his dusty face with a blue handkerchief and managing a smile as he squinted through his small round spectacles at the group. "Are we ready, Mrs. Standish?"
"I think so," was the reply as Maude glanced at him. "Dr. Godfrey, these gentlemen are my son's associates, Josiah Sanchez and JD Dunne."
JD and Josiah nodded politely, but their eyes were puzzled and slightly apprehensive.
The doctor nodded back and smiled. "Gentleman," he said pleasantly in greeting.
Josiah looked at her. "You brought a doctor, Maude?"
She patted his arm. "I'll explain later, Josiah. Right now I want to see my son."
The hallway outside of Ezra's room was still as JD and Josiah stood in the half-light, waiting for Maude to come out. They had allowed her a private reunion with her son at her request, and she had spent twenty minutes alone with him before asking for the doctor to join her. In the forty-five minutes since, the two men had remained where they were, glancing at each other with questioning looks.
Suddenly the door opened and she appeared, closing it quickly behind her as she eased herself out, a handkerchief clasped firmly to her mouth. Concerned, Josiah took a step toward her, but she motioned him away almost angrily and quickly walked a few steps down the hall to compose herself. There was a stifled sob, followed soon by another one, and a few minutes later she turned to them, white-faced but controlled.
"My apologies," she sniffed, still trembling slightly as she stepped towards them.
"Ain't no need to apologize, Maude," Josiah assured her gently. "Any mother would cry if they had to see their child in Ezra's condition."
Maude gave him a sharp glance and sniffed again. "Well, I - I just... didn't expect it to affect me so. That's all," she said, as if she still felt the need to explain. She drew a deep breath and looked at them. "Have you found this Parsons yet?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am," JD said with a nod. "He's all locked up in the jail. We'll be tryin' him soon."
"Good." Maude's eyes grew distant for a moment as if she were planning something, then she blinked and looked at them. "After the trial I must speak to Judge Travis about releasing Ezra from his service. I want him to return with me to St. Louis to get his health back."
JD and Josiah both tensed; this was just what they thought Maude would do.
"Seems to me Nathan's takin' right good care of him," Josiah said softly.
Maude smiled. "Nathan's a darlin' man, to be sure, but - well, we all know he lacks the professional expertise in these matters. Dr. Godfrey's lookin' him over now, but I'm sure he'll agree with me that this dusty backwater is no place to regain one's strength."
The preacher considered these words. "Does Ezra get a say in this?"
"Of course," Maude replied easily, "but don't be surprised if he decides to return with me. He understands these matters just as well as I do."
Silence fell as JD and Josiah both stared at Maude.
The sound of the door opening shattered the quiet like a thunderclap, and all eyes turned to the white-haired doctor as he emerged, slightly perspiring. He softly closed the door and turned to them.
"Well," he gasped, wiping his face down again with the blue handkerchief, "gentlemen, your friend in there is very lucky. I've seen dead men in better condition. Now," he sniffed, stuffing the handkerchief into his coat pocket, "where's the doctor that's been treating him?"
JD shifted uncomfortably before Josiah said, "His name's Nathan Jackson, Dr. Godfrey, but he's not a doctor. Just a healer."
"He isn't!" the doctor exclaimed, looking through his spectacles at Josiah. "You don't say! Amazing work for a healer. Should be a doctor if he isn't, I'd say. Damned fine work. How'd he come by his learning?"
Josiah glanced at JD, surprised, then back at the doctor. "Worked in the field hospitals durin' the war."
"Incredible!" Dr. Godfrey breathed. "Worked in some of those myself. He's got more skill than some of the butchers I saw there, I'll say that. Well!" He turned to Maude. "Mr. Standish will be very weak for a long time, madam, but as long as he doesn't get overly excited he should recover fully in time. Dr. - er, Mr. Jackson has done an excellent job in mending him up." He gave her a comforting pat on the shoulder and turned to Josiah. "Now where the hell can I get a decent meal around here?"
"Dr. Godfrey," Maude said quickly, stepping around him to bring herself back into his sight, "what about the question of St. Louis?"
The doctor sniffed. "I assure you that would be unneccesary, madam. He's healing just fine here, and the trip might kill him. He's certainly getting better care than some of those St. Louis doctors can give him."
He paused, and looked at Josiah.
The preacher jerked his head down the stairs. "Try the saloon, they got a pretty good menu."
"Thank you, sir," was the congenial reply, and with a small wave the doctor headed down the stairs.
JD and Josiah watched Maude carefully as she stood still, her lips pressed tightly in furious thought. She looked up at them, her eyes bright and snapping.
"Are you still taking him away?" JD asked.
Maude took a quick breath and opened her mouth, then just as quickly closed it again. Her eyes flickered between JD and Josiah, and she seemed on the verge of an angry reply. After a few moments, however, she let out a sigh and went limp, her shoulders slumping.
"Oh, hell," she muttered, shaking her head a little as she turned away to stare at nothing.
Josiah took a step towards her. "You all right, Maude?"
She didn't answer right away and finally waved her hand at him. "Yes, Josiah, it's just..." She choked and sniffed. "I came here all ready to take him home with me, but if the doctor says he should stay here... well, I just don't have the strength to fight it."
"Two months of wonderin' must've been mighty hard on you, ma'am," Josiah said sympathetically, taking a step towards her.
She gasped and tried to smile as she turned to face them. "Oh, at first it wasn't - it isn't the first time one of us has had to disappear for a spell. But we always found ways to contact each other. After the first few weeks of no word, I knew..." She stopped, looking away. "Well, you know, it's been a very trying time since. I'm not going to drag Ezra away from here and cause a fuss. I'm just too damn worn out."
Josiah offered his hand to her. "You know you're more than welcome to stay as long as you like, Maude. I know Ezra would want that."
A long sigh escaped Maude's carefully painted lips as she looked up at the preacher and took his hand. "Thank you, Josiah, I believe that will suit me just fine. Right now I just need a nice room and a glass of good wine."
Josiah allowed a small grin to cross his lips. "I think Inez has some quality stuff tucked away somewhere. C'mon."
He offered his arm to Maude, who took it gracefully and together the group moved towards the stairs.
"How long will it be before the trial begins?" Maude inquired as they began their descent.
"Should be about ten days, ma'am, that's what the Judge says," JD replied.
Maude gave a firm nod. "Good. That should be plenty of time. Would it be possible for me to see Parsons privately?"
Josiah looked hesitant. "He's a mighty hard character, ma'am."
She laughed. "I am well used to dealing with that type, darlin'. I think I can handle him."
JD and the preacher looked at each other before Josiah asked, "An' why would you wanna talk to a man like Parsons?"
Her handsome face was hard, her eyes glittering like diamonds as she replied. "That man's going to go to the gallows knowing full well what I think of him," she said in a low and bitter voice.
They reached the landing, and Josiah turned to her, his expression serious.
"In that case, Miss Maude," he said quietly, a slight grin tugging at his mouth, "I think we can get you in."
Nathan checked his tin pocket watch as he walked briskly up the street towards the saloon. Parsons' sentencing was due to begin soon, and he didn't want to miss it. But first he had to check on Ezra.
The past ten days had been rough on the gambler, Nathan reflected as he walked, but at least he was out of danger now. A steady regimen of sleep, food and the proper medicines has lessened Ezra's pallor and set him well on his way back to full health. It would be a long time before he was completely recovered, but now there was no doubt that it would occur.
At least he had the sense not to go to the trial of Parsons, Nathan thought gratefully. His testimony had been delivered by deposition, and the gambler had wisely spent the entire time resting, out of the heat and excitement of the courtroom. Maybe he's finally listening to good advice, Nathan said to himself optimistically.
He entered the saloon and headed towards the stairs. Dr. Godfrey was sitting near the bar reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar; he gave Nathan a jovial wave as he passed, and Nathan returned it with a grin. It was almost embarrassing the way the doctor enthused over Nathan's ability. But it felt great to get some respect, not to mention advice and a fine batch of medicines to aid Ezra's healing. It seemed as if the doctor would be around for a while, and when this was all over Nathan was looking forward to having a good long talk with the garrulous old man.
He reached Ezra's room and found the door slightly ajar. Pushing it open, he saw Josiah and Maude standing by the window. Sitting on the bed, to Nathan's amazement and annoyance, was Ezra, fully dressed and attempting to tie his cravat.
"What do you think you're doin'?" Nathan exploded.
Ezra glanced up at him, his pale face with its still-healing bruises barely registering an expression of pique. "And a cheerful good morning to you too, Mr. Jackson," he replied in a thin but steady voice. "As you can see, I am preparing to accompany you all to the courtroom."
"Like hell you are!" the healer said sharply, entering the room. "You ain't even s'posed to be sittin' up yet. Dr. Godfrey says you got to take it easy, no excitement."
"Yes, a very dear man, the doctor," Ezra said in a distracted manner as his thin fingers very slowly succeeded in knotting the cravat. "But I assure you and him that I will be indulging in no more excitement than sitting in a wheelchair."
Nathan let out a sigh of frustration and looked at the room's other two occupants. "Maude, Josiah, you gonna help me with this?"
Josiah leaned back. "Sorry, brother Nate. I ain't gonna tell a man he can't see his justice done."
The healer scowled at Josiah, then flicked his gaze over to Maude. "Ma'am, I gotta warn you, if Ezra does this he might get even more sick."
The golden-haired con woman glanced at Josiah, then walked over to Nathan, folding her hands as she spoke. "Nathan, you're a sweet darlin' man, but you have to know by now how bull-headed my son can be. I tried all mornin' to talk him out of this, but he just plumb won't hear a word I say. Thought I'd better stop before we both wound up in a hospital."
The softly drawled voice caught the healer's attention, and he turned to face Ezra, still angry. The gambler was eying him with complete seriousness, his clear green eyes grave.
Ezra licked his lips and began, his words low and carefully spoken. "I promise you, my friend, I am undertaking this under the most careful consideration. But I believe you of all people will understand my desire to witness the handing down of justice to the man who so violently abused others and myself and attempted to escape the hand of retribution."
Nathan realized the meaning behind Ezra's words; he was referring to the story Nathan had told him earlier, when the healer had been whipped as a child. Reflecting on this, he began to understand the power behind Ezra's determination; if there had ever been any way for Nathan to see his tormentors face justice for their crimes, he would have done so, even if it meant rising from his deathbed to do it.
Nathan looked up, noticing that Ezra was staring at him. The gambler still looked so pale, so thin, and he had not really been out since his return home. Hesitation gripped Nathan's heart; he knew why Ezra wanted to do this, but that didn't mean he could condone it yet. Watching Parsons receive his death sentence would be a small triumph if they had to bury Ezra right next to him.
"I know what you're sayin', Ezra," he said aloud, "an' I know you've earned the right to see Parsons get justice. But this courtroom's gonna be a mob scene, an' you ain't even strong enough to walk yet."
Ezra lifted his head sharply, an intense light in his eyes. He looked over to his mother and Josiah, then back to Nathan, his eyes even wider than before. Carefully he gripped the edge of the mattress and eased himself off of the featherbed, the soles of his boots gradually touching the hardwood floor.
Amazement flooded Nathan as he watched his friend brace himself, then very slowly push his thin body away from the bed, standing for the first time in two months on his own two feet. Ezra turned to Nathan, his face white and covered with sweat but wearing a triumphant gleam in his eyes. His healing body was trembling slightly from the strain, but there was an undeniable strength in his expression which more than made up for the lack of physical power. With cautious stride he painstakingly took two halting steps and stood before the healer, a grin spreading across his face.
"You were saying, Mr. Jackson?" he gasped.
Nathan eyed his friend in astonishment, then shook his head, laughing slightly in wonder. "All right, Ezra, you don't got to kill yourself! Go on an' sit back down now before I change my mind."
"A wise decision," Ezra breathed, and made his way back to the bed as quickly as he could manage it. Nathan watched with concern as Ezra sat himself back down, obviously exhausted but doing all he could to hide it. Inwardly, Nathan shook his head: same old damn stubborn Ezra never listenin' to a word I say an' causin' nothin' but trouble. As he watched his friend, he couldn't stop a wide grin from splitting his face.
Ezra sat up and noticed the healer's expression. "And what is the cause of such mirth, my friend?"
Nathan could only nod. "It's good to argue with you again, Ezra," he said with all honesty.
Ezra looked at him for a moment, then smiled back, his own eyes warm with unspoken emotion. Then he sat up and smoothed his hair. "Well, justice awaits."
"S'pose it does," Nathan said firmly as Maude and Josiah came forward. "I'll go get the wheelchair. But I got to say, Ezra, I'm glad t'see you able to walk again so soon."
Ezra pulled his vest straight and tilted his head back, regarding Nathan with a bemused expression, his face still shining with perspiration. "And I, sir, am thankful you were not standing one step farther away."
Nathan laughed, then left the room to get the oak wheelchair. Ezra had been waiting a long time for this day, and it would be a crime in itself if he should miss it.
The Grain Exchange was full, the crowd of mostly men packing every available seat and standing space as Judge Travis prepared to read the sentence of One-Eyed Wolf Parsons. It was a hot, bright afternoon, the sun filtering through the large windows in shimmering, dusty columns and splashing over its sweating occupants. It was an uncomfortable setting, but none of those present would have missed it for the world. Except, most certainly, Wolf Parsons.
The trial had been quick. The prisoner had been brought in, arrogant and defiant despite the certain outcome of his hearing. A few of the soldiers who had found Henry Thomas had testified, as well as the prisoner Peters, who proved more than happy to rat out Wolf. Chris gave a description of what he and his men found in the fort and described the dying words of the sole surviving outlaw they'd found there.
Neither Ezra nor Contessa Almarez appeared in court for any of the trial. Ezra had been too weak to withstand the rigors of testifying, but had delivered a deposition filled with such harrowing detail that Judge Travis had to read it to the jury in private. Publicly, Travis revealed only what he had to about the deposition - that Ezra positively identified Wolf Parsons as the chief perpetrator of the crimes at the fort, along with Rio, now deceased; that he had been imprisoned in an unlit cell and brutally beaten for two months under Parsons' orders, with Parsons often taking part in his torment; and that Parsons had tried on one occasion afterwards to kill him. Such testimony was more than sufficient to damn the one-eyed outlaw; the young Contessa Almarez, it was decided, did not have to undergo a similar questioning, although her suffering was acknowledged and added to Parsons' long list of crimes.
After hearing such words, there was little wonder at what the outcome would be. The greatest surprise on this day was the appearance of Ezra Standish in the courtroom with his mother by his side. Town gossip had had him at death's door, yet there he was, very pale and frail-looking as he sat wrapped in a blanket in a wheelchair guided by Nathan Jackson, but definitely very much alive. A small murmur went through the crowd as the gambler was brought in, followed by a hush of respect as he was taken to the side near his comrades to watch his tormenter receive justice. Despite the bruises and bandages, there was a clear spark of grim triumph in his green eyes, and no one there would dare say that he had not earned the right to be there.
Contessa Almarez was there as well, accompanied by her parents, both bearing the appearance of hard-working people used to a simple life. They were standing to the side as well, and as soon as Ezra was situated the young girl stole next to him and touched his arm. He looked up at her and took her hand, holding it for a moment as he smiled at the brave young girl. She gave him a shy smile in return, then slipped away to rejoin her parents as the judge gaveled for silence.
When all was quiet, Judge Travis cleared his throat and signaled the two Army men guarding Parsons to bring him forward. They reached down and each grabbed an arm, hauling Wolf to his feet with a clanking of irons. Parsons appeared, as he had throughout the trial, completely unmoved by the whole experience, and he seemed almost bored as he stood before Travis.
"Richard Mark Parsons," Travis intoned, addressing the outlaw by his true name, "after considering the evidence against you, I am prepared now to pass your sentence." He looked up briefly. "Before I do, I would just like to say that I am only sorry it could not be more severe. I have seldom in my career come across a record as vile and depraved as yours."
Parsons' only response was a small, proud grin.
Travis scowled and dropped his eyes back to the paper. "It is the decision of this court that you be taken tomorrow to a place of execution and there hanged by your neck until you are dead. In my opinion it is far too merciful a fate for you, but it is all the law will allow me."
Parsons chuckled. "Guess it's my lucky day then, huh?"
Travis stared at him furiously for a moment, then looked at his guards. "You may escort the prisoner back to his cell," he said in an icy tone. The soldiers seemed only too happy to do so, and they pulled Parsons out of the courtroom with as little gentleness as possible.
The crowd began to break up with satisfied murmurings; many were excited at the prospect of watching a hanging, but most were pleased that the outlaw would get his just rewards very soon. The town's lawmen were soon on their feet, surrounding their injured comrade.
"Damn fool stunt, comin' out here," Buck remarked as he studied Ezra's pale visage.
Maude shrugged. "I tried to talk him out of it, Buck, but you know how stubborn he is."
Ezra looked up, an expression of annoyance on his wan face. "It was not stubbornness, mother, I assure you. I believe I have earned the right to witness that vermin receive his sentence."
"I'd say you have, Ezra," Josiah agreed. He had been been present while the town clerk took Ezra's deposition; it had been in private and taken quite a while, as relating something so personal was very difficult for the usually closely-guarded gambler. Afterwards, a shaken Josiah had said nothing to the others, but remembered ordering a few more whiskeys than usual that night.
"Guess it's all over now but the hangin' far as Parsons is concerned," Chris noted, watching as the crowds filed out.
"He got off easy," JD griped.
Nathan smiled a bit. "You wasn't there when Maude came over an' lit into him." He looked over at Ezra's mother in admiration. "Couldn't hear everything you said, ma'am, but it sure sounded like you gave 'im a piece of your mind."
Maude tossed her head slightly. "They're words he'll take to hell with him, Nathan, if there is such a place. I simply told him exactly what I thought of him."
"A crueler fate than hanging, I assure you gentlemen," Ezra yawned.
"That's enough excitement for today there, Ezra," Nathan warned him. They were alone now, the last ones to leave. "Let's get you on back to bed."
Nathan had pushed the wheelchair only a few inches when Ezra suddenly and quietly said, "Wait."
The chair stopped, and Nathan, along with the other lawmen, turned and looked at him in expectant surprise.
The gambler was studying them with an earnest expression, his eyes lighting on each one as he spoke in a hushed but steady voice. "I... just wanted to express my gratitude to you all for your efforts in assuring Parsons' capture. I..." He paused, the strong emotion plain on his pale face as he struggled to compose his thoughts. "I know it could not have been easy. And also," Another pause, and a deep breath, "I do not believe I can adequately describe my feelings when I realized you had freed me from that dungeon cell. No matter how much of your money I may win at the tables in the months ahead, trust me when I say that I will be forever in debt to all of you."
He looked up at them, honest appreciation shining profoundly in his pale green eyes. His friends stood close to him, each man smiling quietly as a warm sense of camaraderie settled around them, binding them together.
"Hell, Ezra, you're welcome," Buck finally said, placing a hand gently on the gambler's shoulder. "You'd do the same for us. An' you'll probably get the chance to somewhere down the road, if our luck holds true to form."
Ezra allowed a grin to brighten his weary face, and the other men chuckled, the unspoken, deeper emotion lying just beneath the laughter.
After a few moments Nathan resumed his duties, and wheeled Ezra outside, followed by most of their comrades. Buck lingered behind, a wistful look on his face, and only looked up when he realized Chris was watching him.
"'Bout time to let it go, Buck," the gunslinger said in a hushed voice, taking a step towards his friend. "They've both faced justice now."
Buck's gaze fell to the floor as his heaved a deep, sad sigh. "Yeah, I know, Chris," he breathed, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand as he held his hat in the other. "But I carried this so long it's feelin' strange to drop it all at once." He looked up and shook his head. "Seems kinda hard to believe t's really over."
Chris regarded him for a moment. "It ain't gonna be over for a while, Buck," he said finally. "But it's gettin' there, an' you've fought like hell to make it that way. It ain't every day a man gets a chance to right somethin' he's done and has the guts to take it."
Buck drew one hand over his eyes. "I know what you're sayin', Chris, but still..." He paused, looked around, and sighed. "Wish I coulda done this sooner."
"You done it now. That's what counts." Chris gave him a slight whap on the shoulder. "C'mon."
Buck looked up, and their eyes met for a moment, each man's gaze holding a look of understanding. They both knew the difficulties of leaving the painful past behind, but they also knew the even more agonizing consequences of not being able to do so.
After a few moments Buck nodded and put on his hat, and they walked together out of the now-empty room.
The sun's morning rays had just begun to warm the dusty streets of Four Corners as Josiah walked down the boardwalk towards the jail, Bible in hand. Few people were about during this time, which suited the preacher just fine; he really had no heart in what he was doing, and this put him in a less than sociable mood.
He reached the jail, hesitated, then opened the door. It was dim and quiet inside, and JD had an expression close to relief as he saw his friend's large frame fill the door. Two armed soldiers stood nearby, watching Parsons carefully.
"Mornin', JD," Josiah mumbled. "Our guest been any trouble?"
"Mornin', Josiah," JD replied, standing up and glancing back at the cells. Wolf Parsons was sitting silently on his bunk, watching them both with patient anger. "Nope, ain't heard a peep out of him all night. He's just been sittin' an' starin'."
"Hm." The older man kept his eyes on the prisoner as he walked forward. Wolf followed his every move with his solitary eye, but the thin malicious features showed no expression other than vigilance.
When he reached the bars he stopped, and Wolf lifted his head slightly. "What the hell do you want?" he snarled.
Josiah eyed him sharply. "They're gonna hang you today, Richard Parsons, an' though I ain't too keen on doin' it, I thought I might see if you had any interest in gettin' your soul in order before you go."
Parsons gazed a him for a moment, then burst out laughing.
"God, that's rich!" he gasped. "You was the ones got me here, now you're tryin' to save my soul before you hang me."
Josiah seemed unmoved. "Your evil deeds put you in that cell, Parsons, not us," he pointed out quietly.
"'Evil deeds'," was the sneering reply, as Parsons sat back and propped one leg up on his bunk. "You damn gunslingin' outlaws think you're so high an' mighty." He pointed an accusing finger. "I ain't done nothin' you all wouldn't do, given the chance. You just don't wanna admit it."
JD shook his head and took a step towards the cell. "Who the hell do you think you are, spoutin' off like that?" he exclaimed, indignant. "I could never do what you did, killin' people like they were animals."
Wolf chuckled. "Ain't that what you're doin' now, sonny? Shootin' people? hell, you sure were tryin' to shoot me."
The young man stared at him, perplexed, and shook his head. "That's different," he replied.
The prisoner grinned. "Only difference is, I did it for fun an' never lied about it. An' I did have fun."
"Were you havin' fun when you shot Rio in the gut?" Josiah asked quietly.
Wolf glared at him, then shrugged. "Always told 'er I worked best alone," he offered casually. He looked back over to JD. "You think you couldn't ever be like me. You just wait, sonny boy. Life ain't got to you yet."
He turned his single-eyed gaze back to Josiah. "It's got to you, though, hasn't it, preacher man? Yeah, I seen that look in your eyes before. Bet you got some dark parts in your past you don't want folks like this kid knowin' about. If they did you'd be swingin' right next to me, I bet." He laughed softly to himself.
For a few moments no words were spoken as the prisoner and his guards studied each other, Josiah and JD wearing serious expressions, Wolf wearing a greasy smirk.
Finally Josiah straightened. "Reckon we all got some things to work out between ourselves an' God, Parsons," he said. "But we got time to mend our ways. Your time's just about gone. It ain't too late for you to avoid the fires of hell, but it's gonna be very soon."
Parsons cocked his head and grinned even wider. "I ain't worried, preacher man. So you can go on an' find some other fools to preach to. I'm gettin' pretty sick of your face."
With that he slid down the wall and pulled his hat over his eye, effectively ending the conversation.
Josiah stepped away from the bars, palming the Bible as he walked up to JD. "Well, I tried," he said without any regret.
JD was shaking his head. "I can't figure that guy out, preacher," he said, his voice still confused.
"You'll probably be happier if you don't try, son," Josiah said, patting him once on the shoulder. "Guess I'll go see about gettin' everything ready. We'll be back to fetch Parsons in about an hour."
JD nodded wordlessly, still watching Parsons with a pensive expression. Josiah tucked the Bible under his arm and walked out into the sunlit street, sparing not a single backwards glance at the doomed prisoner as he directed his steps down the street towards the gallows.
Ezra sat by his window alone, gazing out at the crowd as they made their way towards the end of town and the deadly instrument which waited there. He was dressed and ready to go; Maude would be there soon, and with Josiah's help they would go to the place of justice and watch One-Eyed Wolf Parsons hang.
The gambler dropped his eyes, wincing as a stab of pain tore through one leg. He should be used to pain by now, he thought, he'd lived with it for so long. At least this was the pain of healing. He could endure that without too much complaint, because of the promise it held. The promise that one day, he would walk from this room a truly free man.
He sat back with a sigh as his eyes danced over the crowds. It felt so strange to look at them now, the ordinary townsfolk who led ordinary lives, never seeing what he had seen or suffering what he had suffered. The feeling of isolation this reflection had previously produced was gone now, but the thought still caused a certain sadness. Did they realize how fragile this all was? he wondered. How the trial of a lifetime could descend at any moment, without warning, and force one to call on all available strength just to survive?
He paused and shook his head, smiling slightly at himself in amazement. God, he thought, I've been by myself too long. I'll be philosophizing as much as Josiah if I'm not careful.
He shifted a little in the seat, trying not to feel too hemmed in by his weakness. But it was so damn frustrating. He wanted to be strong and healthy again, and walk out into the crowds. He wanted to go down to the saloon and have a good shot of whiskey, and eat the finest steak dinner the hotel could serve him. He wanted to sit in the smoke-filled saloon with a good cigar, playing poker until the small hours of the morning.
Most of all he wanted to just live and enjoy it as he never had before, determined to appreciate every moment in defiance of the darkness which had failed to claim him. And if that was philosophizing, well, he could bear it. Nobody ever had to know.
As he watched the crowd he saw Vin and Chris walk by, keeping their own eyes out. Ezra studied them as they walked down the street unaware of his eyes on them. Over the past several days as he lay in bed, they'd told him everything, of Stephenson and the Army, and Purgatorio, and Peters. It amazed Ezra then, and now, that they had actually endured all that for him. Well, not just for him, others had suffered too, but he was a part of it.
Dark memories drifted back, of the endless nights waiting, hoping that one day his friends would find him and set him free. And they really had done that, a fact which could not fail to astonish him. He was so used to disappointment where trusting others was concerned that the simple fulfillment of his hopeful expectations was enough to send him reeling. A sense of belonging beyond description welled through him, and he settled back with a slight smile, enjoying the unfamiliar but welcome sensation as it blotted out all thoughts of pain.
The door opened, and Ezra composed himself quickly as Maude entered the room, her stylish bustle bouncing as she walked over to her son.
"Josiah will be up soon, son, and then we can go," she announced.
Ezra sighed. "Oh, the indignity of being carted around like a sack of potatoes," he muttered.
She cocked her head. "It trumps the indignity of trying to get that infernal wheelchair down a flight of stairs," she replied. She peered closely at him and put two fingers under his chin. "You sure you're up to this, Ezra? You're lookin' mighty peaked."
He gave her a reassuring smile and took her hand, gently guiding it away from his face. "Fine, mother, just waiting for this to be over so we can all go back to our lives."
She eyed him carefully, then looked down at her purse, as if uncomfortable in what she was going to say. "Yes, well, speakin' of that, I want you to know that Dr. Godfrey and I are leavin' for St. Louis tomorrow."
A hint of disappointment crossed Ezra's face as he gazed up at her. "So soon?"
She met his eyes and forced a laugh. "Oh now sugar, you won't even miss me. Both Nathan and Dr. Godfrey say you're healin' up fine, you don't need me here any more. And Inez says the Standish Tavern is doin' just wonderful business, so there's no need to fret over that. I just feel like it's time to go home."
He hesitated, gripping her hand loosely and looking away, his mouth twitching as he struggled to collect his thoughts. At length he sighed and returned his gaze to her, an aspect of sadness in his eyes.
"I had hoped," he said in as offhand a manner as he could feign, "that your visit might be longer. We have not seen each other for ages, after all."
Maude allowed a tiny smile to curl her carefully painted lips. "Now, Ezra, we've gone longer than two months between visits before."
The green-eyed gambler didn't move. "I was not reckoning by the calender, mother."
He saw her pause, and wondered if she was able to discern the meaning beneath his words. Of course, he could never tell her the honest truth - that he simply wasn't ready to watch her go yet, when he was still quietly marveling at the fact that he had lived to be reunited with her at all. If he had confessed to her that he had survived his ordeal partly through his desire to see her again, she would only become uncomfortable and probably laugh. The open display of familial love was not in their vocabulary. But it was still possible to express it, through carefully chosen words, and Ezra deeply hoped she would understand what he was trying to say.
After a minute's thought he saw her eyes flicker, and she relaxed a little. "Well," she breathed, "I suppose St. Louis would survive if I remained here a little while longer." The smile returned, slightly wider than before. "After all, someone's going to have to help you warm up your gaming skills."
Ezra grinned a little, feeling greatly relieved at the warm sentiment lying just beneath the gaily spoken words. "I assure you, madam, such an exercise, if it is needed at all, will be brief indeed," he said, holding her hand a few moments longer before releasing it. Someday, if he was able, he would have to tell her how much it meant to him that she had decided to stay.
A footstep sounded at the door, and both of them turned to see Josiah waiting, his figure clad in a dark suit appropriate for the somber occasion.
"Ready?" was all he said.
Ezra sighed to himself, preparing for the event which lay ahead. He had long yearned for Parsons to face his punishment; now that it was finally happening, it seemed impossible. But it was not an occasion for rejoicing. Instead, a solemn, melancholy spirit settled over him, at the thought of all those who did not live to see this day. At least he and Contessa could witness it for them, and hope that perhaps it would put their spirits to rest.
He lifted his head and gazed at Maude and Josiah with sad green eyes.
"Well," he said softly, "Let's not keep justice waiting."
The crowd was large and boisterous as the time for the execution drew near. The end of town near the gallows was jammed with all manner of spectators. Plainly dressed townsfolk pushed through the throng, some eager to see the man who hurt one of their lawmen hang, others just looking for some excitement. A few visitors were sprinkled throughout the mass, curiosity seekers who only wanted to see a man swing, caring little for his name or crimes. Blue uniforms moved through the crowd, friends of Henry Thomas and Wes, some of whom probably contemplated the sort of punishments Parsons might have faced had he been given a military trial. And here and there, families in black, newly arrived in the territory, there to collect their loved ones murdered at the fort, and eager to witness the death of the author of their grief.
At the back of the crowd sat Ezra, with Maude beside him, on the porch of a nearby business and out of the sun. Neither of them spoke, but every once in a while someone would address Ezra, offering words of admiration and encouragement. Maude said nothing but seemed impressed at how many people seemed genuinely affected by her son's situation.
The hour drew near. As Ezra waited he heard someone approach him from behind, and before he could turn he heard a soft, young voice say, "Senor Ezra?"
Surprised, Ezra turned to see Contessa standing at his elbow, her parents behind her. He smiled as much as the situation would allow and took her hand.
"Miss Almarez!" he exclaimed in Spanish, looking up and nodding at her parents in greeting. "How are you feeling today?"
She grinned. "I am very well, senor. The doctor says I am well enough to go back home."
A warm expression spread over Ezra's face. "That is truly a miracle, my dear. I could not be more happy for you."
"We wanted to thank you once again, senor, and your gracious mother as well," the father said, his stout face serious as he nodded at Maude. She returned the gesture. "None of us will ever forget your bravery."
Ezra fidgeted a little, embarrassed. "Many thanks, senor," he replied, "but I am sure your daughter's courage surpasses my own. She is a remarkable young lady."
The crowd stirred suddenly, a low murmur rising up. Ezra looked over, trying to see over the swarms of people, but he could guess what was happening.
"What is it?" Contessa asked, watching curiously.
Ezra took a deep breath. "They are bringing Parsons out to hang," he replied in a low voice.
A moment later this was proven true, as Parsons appeared at the end of the street, escorted by two soldiers, Chris, Vin, JD and Josiah. Boos and obscenities swept over the prisoner as he took the final walk to eternity, but he seemed to be completely ignoring them. As his long black hair whipped about in the warm morning sun, he allowed his single cold eye to play over the crowd, and smiled.
Contessa stepped next to Ezra and touched his hand. He looked at her and put his arm around her shoulder, and together the two survivors watched their enemy mount the fateful steps, taking courage from each other's strength.
At the top of the gallows stood Buck, his face set in the hardest expression, his blue eyes grim as they stayed riveted on Parsons. Parsons only grinned at him as they positioned him and placed the noose around his neck. When all was prepared Buck took out the black hood and stepped forward to drape it over the outlaw's face.
Parsons caught his eye and grinned. "See you in hell, Wilmington," he said lightly.
Buck glared at him for a moment. "Say hello to Rio for me when you get there," he said in a bitter whisper, and quickly pulled the hood over Parsons' ugly, smiling face.
The rope was pulled tight, and Buck stepped away. He glanced in expectation at Josiah, who stood holding his Bible a few feet from the condemned man. Josiah met his gaze, then shook his head; there would be no words of comfort given over Parsons' last moments. Buck nodded, understanding completely, and in one concerted motion reached forward and pulled the lever of the trap door.
The door plunged open with a resounding crash, and Parsons toppled through it, the rope bringing his body to a deadly halt. The horrific sound echoed down the street, and Contessa let out a gasp and threw herself into Ezra's arms, burying her small face in his shoulder. He held her tightly, stroking her hair and murmuring words of comfort as his sober green eyes watched the scene intently. He would remember this sight for the both of them.
"It's all right, darlin'," he whispered as he hugged her to him. "Just hold on to me and don't mind anything else. It'll all be over soon."
Parsons had not died instantly; he was jerking and bouncing at the end of the rope, the violent motion answered by the creaking and groaning of the gallows. Some in the crowd cheered and laughed; most of them watched in silence, willing to wait until he was dead to rejoice. The soldiers and lawmen of Four Corners were serious and somber, their eyes cold and without sympathy. The relatives of the dead clutched each other and wept.
Finally Parsons' body heaved upwards, shuddered, and fell back towards the earth, motionless save for the easy swinging of the rope. After a few minutes Josiah pulled out his knife and cut the rope in two; the body plummeted to the earth and landed with a heavy, lifeless thud. Nathan stepped from the crowd, which was now quiet again, and walked to where the body had fallen. He disappeared from Ezra's view, but there was little doubt as to his diagnosis when a cheer erupted from the crowd a moment later.
Ezra pressed his lips together and looked up at his mother, knowing that the grim satisfaction in her eyes was mirrored in his own. Then he turned to the child still held tightly in his arms and forced a small smile onto his lips.
"It's all right, senorita, it's over now," he whispered. She stirred and stood, blinking.
"Is he dead?" she murmured, staring at the now-empty gallows.
Ezra nodded, brushing her tangled hair away from her face. "Yes, darlin', he is," he said in the gentlest of voices. "He can't hurt anyone anymore."
Contessa listened to the crowd cheering, and looked at Ezra, confused. "Should I be cheering, too?"
The gambler took her hand and looked at her seriously. "I think you should be happy that you are going home," he said simply, "and perhaps sad that he did not use his life to a better purpose. But you mustn't think about him anymore."
She gripped his hand. "I'll try, senor." She looked behind her as her parents stepped forward, then back at Ezra. "We have to go now. Will you write to me?"
Ezra smiled. "I certainly will, my dear. Be a good girl for your parents and I'll come see you as soon as I can." He lifted her hand and kissed it.
"I will be," she promised, and throwing her arms around his neck gave him a small kiss on the cheek. "Adios, Senor Ezra!"
They embraced briefly, then she pulled away and began walking back towards town, waving all the while along with her parents. Ezra returned the farewell until they were out of sight.
As soon as they were gone his hand fell, and he let out a sigh as he dropped his face into one hand, massaging his eyes.
"Are you all right, son?" Maude asked quickly, bending over him.
"Yes, yes," he replied almost impatiently. "Just highly fatigued. What's happening now?"
Maude stood and looked over the crowd. "They appear to be taking Parsons' body away. To the vultures, I hope."
The crowd was beginning to disperse now, among many mutterings over what a splendid hanging that was. Nathan and JD emerged from the crowd and approached Ezra, their faces worn with concern.
"How you doin', Ezra?" JD asked, seeing his friend's pale complexion. Nathan walked swiftly to the gambler's side and checked his pulse.
Ezra looked up, his face white but wearing a look of satisfaction. "Now that Parsons has gone where he belongs, JD, I can say I've never felt better."
"You ain't gonna con me that easy," Nathan remarked. "Your heart's goin' fast as a rabbit's. Better get you on back to your bed."
"I won't argue, Mr. Jackson," Ezra promised as he settled in and closed his eyes. "I saw what I came to see."
The small group moved away from the porch and melted into the scattering throng. Behind them the rope which had ended Parson's life danced forgotten in the summer breeze, and none gave the unmourned outlaw's place of death more than a curious backwards glance.
Josiah and a few of the townsmen carried Parsons' body past the edge of town. A shallow grave was scraped in the dry soil, and the corpse carelessly pushed in. As the limp body fell the head dragged along one side of the small pit, and the black hood which had covered Parsons' head was pulled off, revealing his final expression, now frozen forever on his face.
Later that evening in the saloon, Josiah would tell the others that he had never seen such a look of wide-eyed terror on any dead man's face before. Although none of them could say what had frightened the outlaw so much in his final living moment, they all agreed that whatever it was, he deserved it.
"You busy, Mary?"
Mary looked up at Chris as she finished pulling the proof for that week's edition of the Clarion. The warm sunlight of morning streamed through the glass windows of the newspaper office, lighting the entire room with a golden, enticing glow.
"Good morning, Chris," she said with a smile, laying the sheet down carefully and wiping sweat from her brow with one gloved hand. "Come in, I'm just finishing the proof of the first page."
Chris grinned as he moved inside, leaving the door open. "Gonna be a pretty borin' front page, seein' that nothin's happened lately."
She laughed a little and wiped her ink-stained hands on her apron. "Well, the Parsons hanging was three weeks ago. Even I can't drag a story out that long."
"Best you don't," Chris grunted, leaning on one of the tables. "The sooner scum like him's forgotten the better."
She nodded, her golden hair bobbing in the sunlight as she bustled around getting ready to print her paper. "I agree. But you'd be surprised at how much attention the case has gotten. Orin wrote me that even the papers in Phoenix covered his hanging. I think the whole territory was after him."
"Wouldn't be surprised," Chris said, shaking his head as he glanced idly out of the window at the passing crowd.
"How's Ezra doing?" Mary inquired as she prepared to ink the press.
The gunslinger straightened. "Better. He's walkin' a little an' eatin' more. Nathan thinks he'll be able to ride by the end of next month." He paused, looked away, then back again. "It was good of the judge to agree t'give him backpay an' cover his board while he's healin'."
Mary smiled, a hint of sadness in her blue eyes as she looked at him. "Ezra earned it, Chris. Orin understands that everything he went through was in the line of duty."
Chris nodded, a slight smile brightening his expression. "The Judge is a fair man. I found that out, myself."
Mary met his eyes, and smiled in return.
He stood away from the table. "Reckon I better get back to work," he said. "Just wanted to stop by an' say thanks for all the help you were to us in all this mess."
Mary wiped some hair out of her face. "You and your men deserve our assistance, Chris. I hope the townspeople are treating you better, at least."
Chris shrugged. "Some are, some ain't. Same as usual. Can't worry about it too much when there's a job to do."
He tugged his hat in farewell and turned to leave.
He stopped and looked back to see her eying him with great concern.
She hesitated, then said, "Be careful."
He watched her closely for a moment, then nodded once with a look of gratitude before turning and heading out into the street.
Mary watched him go, her blue eyes thoughtful and worried. After a moment, she glanced down at the proof, full of stories about the cruel outlaws and evildoers still awaiting their justice. She shook herself and went back to work, trying not to think about what might lay in store for Chris and his men. Chris was right, after all.
She couldn't worry about it too much, because she had a job to do.
Ezra smiled to himself as he studied the cards he held. It appeared that things were looking up for him at last.
He shifted his weight a bit as he lay stretched out in the invalid's chair on the porch in front of the Standish Tavern. The warm morning required only a light blanket to cover his legs and lap, and he had elected to go without his jacket and hat in the balmy weather. Beside him, Buck, JD and Nathan were studying their own cards, looking from time to time at the small pot on the table between them and mulling over their decisions.
The gambler waited; he had become quite good at it, as he had done little else in the past weeks besides sleep, eat whatever Nathan allowed him, and count the days until he could once more be a useful member of their group. It would be a long and frustrating time until that happened, however; he was still weak, his wounds and bruises still healing. But it would happen, of that he had no doubt. Well, as long as he kept winning, he had no problem with being patient.
"I'm out," JD sighed, tossing his cards down. "If I lose any more money, Casey's gonna kill me."
"You could tell your sweet lady that it went to the continuing care of an invalid," Ezra offered with a grin as he sat back on his down pillow, cards still in hand.
"Invalid my behind," Buck chuckled. "You already won enough to pay for two of them fancy chairs. If I didn't know better I'd say you were playin' on our sympathies an' gettin' our guard down."
Ezra grinned, then his face fell a bit as he arranged his cards. "But you do know better, Buck."
The other man nodded sadly, looking away. "Yeah, I do."
Nathan eyed him sharply. "C'mon now Buck, you ain't still blamin' yourself, are you? You already done made amends for what happened with Parsons."
"And heaven knows I have more than forgiven you," Ezra added, giving Buck an empathetic glance. "I bear you no ill will for my misfortunes, and I am sure Miss Almarez does not either."
Buck looked at them all and shrugged, embarrassed. "That's right fine of you all to say that. Reckon I just ain't ready to forget about it all yet."
Ezra kept his eyes on his cards as he talked. "We all have aspects of the past we would like to forget, Buck," he said quietly as his fingers pulled the cards into neat alignment. "But unlike most men you had the opportunity to correct your mistake. Perhaps you should dwell on that fortunate occurrence rather than the unfortunate one which preceded it."
Buck mulled over the words and nodded.
"Speakin' of unfortunate occurrences," Nathan muttered, closing his cards, "I'm foldin'."
The rumble of hoofbeats sounded up the street, and the men looked up to see Chris and Josiah riding towards them. As they neared the saloon they reined in.
"Trouble?" Buck asked, seeing their grim expressions.
"Nothin' much," Chris replied as his horse danced slightly. "Heard that Blue Daniel McClellan just robbed the stagecoach on the road to Eagle Bend. They want us to look around, see what we can find. Vin's out there now."
"Blue Daniel!" whistled Buck. "He's one mean hombre, Chris. I wouldn't call him 'nothin' much'."
JD stood, his handsome features showing no sign of fear. "You fellas need any help?"
Buck looked back at the young man and smiled a bit, pleased that any misgivings over his chosen profession seemed to have been quelled.
"We can always use another pair of eyes," Josiah replied, apparently just as impressed as Buck.
"I'll be right behind you," JD said, and turned to the reclining gambler. "I'll see you later, Ezra, okay?"
Ezra smiled and nodded his farewell. "Best of luck in your pursuit."
There was only enough time for JD to wave his goodbyes before he hopped off of the porch and sprinted for the livery.
Chris looked at the remaining men on the porch. "We'll be back by sundown," he said, and he and Josiah spurred on up the street as puffs of hot dust trailed behind them.
Ezra watched them go, a dim light of frustration in his eyes.
"I s'pose I best get the clinic ready in case they run into McClellan out there," Nathan remarked, rising.
"A mere precaution, let us hope," Ezra noted.
Nathan nodded. "You take it easy," he said to Ezra in a cautioning tone, and went off in the direction of his room above the livery.
The gambler sighed to himself as his green eyes wandered over the cards in his hand. "If I take it any easier, I'll be unconscious," he muttered.
"Aw, don't worry, pard," Buck said lightly as he moved to a closer chair, "you'll be back in the saddle before you know it."
"That is what Nathan tells me, but it still feels like an eternity until then," was the weary reply. He sat for a moment, staring into the street and thinking.
Buck sat sadly, studying his friend closely. Then he glanced at the cards he still held in his hand. "How bout if I call? Would that help?"
The other man turned his head and looked at him, allowing a grin to slowly spread over his face. "Why, yes, Mr. Wilmington, it would."
"Right, then," Buck replied, and showed his cards.
"Quite an excellent hand," Ezra observed.
Buck nodded firmly with a confident smile.
"It so happens," the gambler continued, "that I have an excellent hand, too."
He lay his cards down one by one, and by the time he put down the last one Buck's enthusiasm was considerably deflated.
"Thank you, Buck, that was indeed a superior suggestion," Ezra said happily as he picked up the money at the center of the table.
"Glad I could help," Buck moaned, lifting his nearby mug and downing a drink to hide his disappointment. After he swallowed he put the vessel down. "Want to go another round?"
The smile faded from Ezra's pale face as he tucked the money in his vest pocket, picked up the cards and lay back against the pillow. "Perhaps later, Buck, I'm feeling a bit weary at the moment." He juggled the cards back into their usual neat alignment and shifted into a more comfortable position with a very slight grin. "The enjoyment of winning will only take me so far."
Concern darkened Buck's features. "Wanna go back upstairs?"
"No, no," the gambler insisted, "a short respite is all I require."
His friend considered this and nodded, picking up his coffee once more. "Fair enough."
They sat and watched the morning crowd move by in silence, Ezra resting while Buck leaned his chair back against the wall of the saloon and sipped his coffee.
"Looks like a quiet mornin' here," Buck observed. "Guess the other boys are gettin' all the excitement."
Ezra's eyes were closed, but he still mustered a smile. "As long as they do not run into any problems, that is fine with me," he murmured.
The other man nodded, his eyes sad. "Yeah, me too. Done had enough fuss for a while."
"As Josiah would say, amen to that," was the light reply.
Buck looked over at him. "You decided yet about stayin' on? I know your ma was tryin' to get you to quit after what happened."
His friend opened his eyes. "Oh, she made her arguments, but when the time comes I will be strapping my guns on in the name of justice once more."
A surprised smile tugged at Buck's lips. "I would've thought you'd take the chance to live it easy for a while," he exclaimed. "Lord know you been through enough. Nobody'd blame you if you wanted to call it quits."
The shadow of sad reflection floated over Ezra's pale face as he looked into the street. "As you might imagine, Buck, I had plenty of time to think during my ordeal. And one of the conclusions I came to was that if I was ever able to try and stop what was happening to me from happening to anyone else, I should take it. And too," he said in a quieter tone, his gaze dropping to his hands, "it was impressed upon me that my association with you gentlemen might be more important to me than I once believed."
Buck smiled at him, touched. "Is that a fact?"
"Yes," Ezra nodded. Then he looked up quickly. "But if you ever repeat this to any of the others I will deny it."
"Oh, don't worry," Buck assured him, throwing up his hands. "I won't breathe a word. But I'm much obliged you feel that way, pard."
Ezra shrugged, looking away. "It's not quite time for me to move on yet, Buck. I can't explain why, but the thoughts of our imperfect group sustained me more than I would have expected. I suppose I must now remain to find out why."
His friend contemplated this and raised his mug a bit. "Well, here's to it bein' a long search so you'll stick around a while. You got a lot more money to win off me yet, after all."
Ezra laughed, looking down at the cards in his hands to hide how moved he was by the sentiment.
There was a pause, then Buck's expression grew more serious. "We're sure glad you're back home, Ezra."
The gambler lifted his eyes and looked at his friend, a small, warm smile spreading over his face.
"So am I, Buck," Ezra replied softly, taking a deep breath as he nestled into the large, soft pillow, his entire body relaxing into a gentle repose. "More than I can ever express."
Buck returned the smile, and they settled back and continued to enjoy the lazy morning, mindful that the peace would likely not last. Ezra gazed thoughtfully at the passing throng, calmly enjoying the tranquil scene. He felt the darkness was truly moving behind him now, its ghosts settling to rest. There was still much to do, both in the recovery of his health and after, but he felt secure that he would be up to the task ahead. He owed it to those who had perished, and to the brave young girl Contessa, who had shown him the courage in himself that he had been blind to. For her, and them, he would once more take up the unfamiliar burden of duty and ride beside his friends into battle. Whether the journey would lead them to heaven or hell remained to be seen, but he knew he would not miss the ride for the world.
And he looked out into the brilliant morning sunlight, and smiled.
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