Disclaimer: This story is a piece of fanfiction containing characters which are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and CBS. I do not make any claims to these characters.
With a quick glance at the small crowd gathered around the stable's corral, Larabee crossed the street, headed for the saloon, nodding to various citizens as he passed, his hunger almost as powerful as his thirst after being on patrol since dawn. Being Saturday afternoon, the small town had quickly filled to capacity with farmers doing their weekly shopping for supplies, their wives and children visiting friends and cowhands looking to blow off steam after a hard week's work.
"Hey Pard! Take it ya didn't have no trouble." Vin grinned shoving a beer towards him as the man dropped into a chair.
"Nope." He gave Inez a grateful smile as she set a bowl of chili and several slices of buttered bread in front of him. "What's goin' on over at the corral?"
Before anyone could answer everyone's attention was drawn to a loud commotion coming towards the saloon.
"I swear I'm gonna put a bullet right through that bastard's brain!"
All eyes in the saloon turned to the man who angrily limped into the building, rubbing his thigh, the bat wing doors swinging furiously as he passed through them.
The five men seated at the peacekeepers usual table glanced at each other, tossing a quick anxious glance to the gambler at his normal table calmly shuffling his ever present deck of cards with dexterous fingers. They knew Ezra had spent the previous evening using those same cards to relieve Samuel Sims of what Nathan would call an obscene amount of money. It wasn't as if he couldn't afford the loss. Sims owned the largest ranch in the territory and with an ego to match he all too often acted as if he owned everything and everyone in the Four Corners area. They knew it was quite possible the arrogant man believed he had been cheated and had come seeking retribution.
From the very start there had been an almost instanteous animosity between the rancher and the law keepers, especially between Larabee and Sims. The high handed rancher had thumbed his nose at the hired peacekeepers, pushing and aggravating the seven with his attitude and actions. Chris knew it was just going to be a matter of time before the man pushed too hard and would find himself on the wrong side of the bars.
Larabee's hazel eyes momentarily settled on the cardsharp, wondering again what had changed the affable gambler into the sullen man he now saw. In the time the seven had been together watching over the town and its occupants Chris had learned to read the conman to some degree. Not nearly as well as Tanner or Josiah could, but even he could see Ezra's normal easy going attitude was nothing more than a facade. Something was definitely eating at the man.
Chris' gaze traveled to the swinging doors again as his oldest friend entered, a large grin on Buck's face, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand. One glance at the rancher and the mustached gunslinger began to chuckle again fresh tears of laughter replacing the ones he'd just wiped away. He moved to lean on the wooden bar as Inez drew him a beer.
"Something funny Wilmington!" Sims growled, tossing back the shot of whiskey and refilling the glass from the bottle Inez had placed on the bar in front of him.
"Damn straight! The thought of anybody payin' good money for that black devil is damn funny." Thanking Inez for the beer, Buck roared with laughter as he watched Sims rub his thigh again then wove his way through the afternoon patrons to flop into the chair, Tanner kicked out from the table with his booted foot.
Sims had been trying to sell the black stallion for weeks now, talking up what a powerful animal the horse was, expounding on his speed and stamina. What he had failed to mention was the creature's sudden penchant for biting anyone who tried to saddle him.
"Ya'll shoulda seen it. Sims thought he had a big fish on the hook. Some kid, greener than JD was when he stepped off the stage."
"Hey!" The young sheriff protested, punching his best friend in the arm. "I weren't that green."
"Shit kid, you's so damn green ya made the frogs jealous." Tanner grinned.
"Anyways," Buck continued. "He takes this kid over to the stables. Had that black bastard out in the corral checkin him over. Soon as the greenhorn lifted the saddle, that damn stallion took a chunk outta his backside. Ol' Sims there tried ta convince him the horse was just nervous because he was a stranger but soon as Sims hisself picked up that saddle that horse sunk his teeth right in his leg." The others joined his laughter. "He ain't gonna be able to give that critter away!"
Vin's smile widened as he watched Sims rub absently at his sore thigh. Like Larabee, the tracker had never liked the rancher and that dislike had grown immensely when the older man had bragged about capturing the wild stallion. During his solitary sojourns into the hills, Tanner had often sat watching the magnificent creature leading his herd, protecting them from predators. It had saddened him to think of the animal's proud spirit broken by a man like Sims who cared even less for animals than he did the gunslingers.
Chris kept a wary eye on the rancher. He could see the man's anger was continuing to build fueled by the alcohol and his embarrassment as the incident at the corral made its way through the town, growing in exaggeration with each retelling. He stiffened as the large man tossed back another shot of whiskey and pulled his gun from its holster at his side.
"Mr. Sims?" Harris, the Double S' foreman, glanced about nervously, silence once again engulfing the saloon, as his boss checked the cartridges in the weapon's chambers. "Whatcha got in mind?"
"Just what I said. I'm gonna put a bullet right between that black bastard's eyes."
"To destroy such a magnificent creature in an unconscionable act of malevience is unthinkable." Chris sensed Tanner, who'd been about to rise to his feet, relax slightly at the gambler's quiet statement. "You are taking extreme measures when a simple solution is all that is required of this particular situation."
Sims spun around to face the gambler, sneering. "And I suppose you have a simple solution fancy man!"
"As a matter of fact I do." Ezra kept his eyes on his poker companions. "One solution would be to find someone aware of the problem yet willing to take the animal off your hands."
"Like your buddy over there said, ain't nobody gonna pay good money for an animal they can't ride."
"Another solution would be to find a way to break the animal of its penchant for sampling human flesh."
"That's exactly what I'm about to do!" Sims growled.
"As I stated a moment ago, your solution is unacceptable." Ezra tossed his cards aside and tilted his chair back, giving the rancher his full attention for the first time.
"I suppose ya have an acceptable solution fancy pants." Sims sneered again.
"What the hell would a gambler know about breakin' horses." Harris scoffed, snickering as his companions laughed.
"Would you be interested in making a wager Mr. Sims?" The conman asked, ignoring the foreman.
Sims eyed the gamber, suspiciously. "What kinda bet?" He demanded
"I'll wager I can not only saddle that magnificent animal but I'll ride him as well before the sun sets." The saloon was suddenly alive with whispered conversation as the con man and rancher faced off.
"What kinda money we talkin'?" Sims eyes narrowed, appraising the smaller man.
"If I fail in my endeavor, I will return the hundred and fifty dollars you lost in our game of chance last evening."
Buck pounded on the younger man's back as JD, hearing the amount of Sim's poker losses, choked on his beer.
"And if you win?"
"I become the proud owner of that incredible creature."
"Done." The rancher grinned, certain when the sun sank below the horizon, he'd not only have his money back but the satisfaction of killing the beast that had made a fool out of him in the eyes of the town. What the hell did this dandy know about horses? Except for the young sheriff and this ne'er do well, the other peacekeepers were hard men who had done ranch work and survived off the land. He would have given a lot of thought before betting against one of them but while the gambler might be fast with a gun, he had the smooth uncalloused hands of one who led a soft life avoiding honest physical labor and Sims had never seen him when he wasn't seated in the saloon.
"I got five dollars says Ezra does it." Nathan shouted, bringing looks of disbelief from the other peacekeepers. Not only that he was the first of them to back the gambler as they were each digging for their money for just that purpose but that he was betting at all. Although he did sit in on the occasional poker game with them, the ethical healer had made no secret of his abborhence to the gambler's choice of maintaining a living. Vin's two dollars joined Nathan's and the saloon erupted into a cacophony of noise as patrons hurried to place their bets.
"I thought ya didn't believe in gamblin' Nathan?" JD questioned as the saloon emptied, the patrons all following Sims and Ezra to the corral, no one wanting to miss the entertainment.
"Like Ezra always says, it ain't no gamble when ya bet on a sure thing." The healer grinned. "Y'all seen the things he done taught that orney critter he rides."
"Amen brother!" Josiah roared with laughter clapping the man on the shoulder as they climbed up on the top railing of the corral.
"Mr. Dunne, a moment of your time please." Ezra pulled the young sheriff aside whispering quietly in his ear.
"Please tell me he ain't gonna cheat." Nathan groaned, glancing from JD hurrying down the street to Ezra.
"Oh, ye of little faith..." Josiah responded.
"If ya thought he needed ta cheat to win, ya wouldn't have bet on him in the first place." Vin pointed out.
While the stable boys ran to fetch him the requested curry brush and bucket of water, as well as the gambler's own saddle, Ezra removed his jacket, swiping at wrinkles only he could see before hanging the garment on the gate post, handing the derringer rig to Larabee and the silver brandy flask to Vin for safe keeping. "Mr. Tanner, would you do me the honor of having this ready."
A frown furrowed Tanner's face. "How am I gonna know when you're ready for it?"
"You'll know. I must request that y'all please remain as quiet as possible. The animal is already nervous." He turned to the rancher. "Mr. Sims, may I inquire as to whether that magnificent animal has been named."
"How... droll... I think we will have to find a much more appropriate designation for so fine a specimen of horseflesh.... Thank you Mr. Dunne." As JD returned, he took the package the younger man offered. "If you'll be so kind as to hold that pitcher until I have need of it, I would be most appreciative."
A hush fell over the gathered crowd as taking the procured items, the gambler slowly approached the skiddish horse, keeping his voice soft and soothing. He stood for several minutes talking to the animal, running a gentle hand over the horse's velvety muzzle.
Ezra was sure the rancher had used a heavy hand with the animal hoping to break its spirit. He could see the marks of a harsh bit and flinched at the pain he knew Sims must have inflicted on the creature. Reaching into his pocket he gave the horse a lump of sugar. The bucket of water sat on the ground within easy reach of the horse, allowing him to drink as much as he wished. The gambler kept up a litany of small talk as he used the brush stroking the animal's coat until it shone as blue black as a raven's wing, stopping only long enough to offer the horse one of the apples from the package JD had retrieved from the general store.
"Ya plannin on ridin' that critter or just makin' him into a dandy like yerself?" Sims called, bringing laughter from his hired hands. "We ain't got all day."
"As a matter of fact, he has until sundown." Chris pointed out, tossing a glare at the overbearing rancher.
"All in good time Mr. Sims." Ezra replied evenly, continuing the brushing, slipping the animal another lump of sugar. "And since you have deemed it necessary to comment on my appearance, might I say that taking a bath more than once a month is not only tranquilizing to the soul but it's also not so offensive to the orafactory senses."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"It means take a bath. Ya smell worse than a dead buffalo." Tanner quipped, "and believe me I'd know."
Sims turned beet red, unsure which of the men to direct his anger towards. "Why you...."
"I wouldn't start anything if I were you Mr. Sims." Larabee didn't need to look at the man. His hand resting on his gun was enough of a threat. "Ya can't see this corral from the jail and I'd surely hate for ya to miss Ezra here riding that horse." There were stifled snickers and exchanged smiles as the rancher backed down.
Inez and her barmaids traveled back and forth with pitchers of beer filling mugs as the crowd continued to watch the gambler who spent the next two hours, brushing the horse, walking him around the corral, feeding him apples and sugar cubes, keeping up a continuous string of soothing conversation speaking with the animal as if the horse understood everything he was saying.
Josiah squeezed Nathan's shoulder reassuringly as the dark healer's eyes began glancing nervously at the horizon
Ignoring the watching crowd, Ezra stepped to the fence and lifted the saddle blanket, turning back to the horse. Tanner would have sworn there was an evil twinkle in the black creature's large dark eyes as it warily watched the approaching gambler.
"Remember what I said." Ezra grinned, patting the horse's sleek neck. To anyone watching, the relaxed cardsharp seemed to be paying no more attention to the animal than if he'd been made of stone, yet his six friends knew Ezra was aware of every tense muscle, every heightened sense and probably even knew exactly what the horse was thinking.
Sensing the horse's intentions as he lay the blanket over the animal's back, Ezra sidestepped in time to keep the beast from doing more damage than taking a minor nip out of his thigh.
Mouths dropped open in amazement, beer was spit out to keep from choking and laughter filled the air mixing with the horse's startled whinny as without a seconds hesitation the con man sank his teeth into the animal's hip. The animal jerked its head up, it's eyes rolling as it snorted loudly.
"Don't say I didn't warn ya."
Taking a swallow from the pitcher JD held, Ezra rinsed his mouth, spitting the water into the dirt and smiled as Vin held out the opened silver flask, a matching grin on the tracker's handsome face. "I told ya, you'd know when I was ready for it."
"Don't know what yer grinnin' about fancy pants, ya still ain't got a saddle on him, let alone rode him." Sims taunted.
"You really should attempt to break your annoying habit of stating the obvious, Mr. Sims." The conman reprimanded the rancher, approaching the horse once more.
Stroking the animal's neck Ezra stood whispering in his ear, much as he had with JD earlier that afternoon. Plucking the blanket from the ground, where it had slid from the animal's back, he shook the dirt from the cloth, making certain there was nothing caught in the weave to cause the animal discomfort and with a grin at Sims, gently lay the blanket across Satan's back, smoothing out any wrinkles.
He pulled another apple from the package allowing the horse to eat it as he retrieved the saddle. As if knowing it was what the onlookers expected the horse once again nipped Ezra, this time in the upper arm as he lifted the saddle and once again the gambler turned the nip in kind, biting him on the shoulder. Neither bite was as painful as the first. Retrieving his jacket, the gambler buttoned the coat, adjusting the sleeves as he crossed the corral. Ezra stroked the horse's neck, whispering in his ear and gave the horse a lump of sugar before calmly settling the saddle on the animal's back, pulling the cinch tight.
"Remember our deal, my fine friend." Ezra stroked the horse's muzzle once more and with a final lump of sugar and an infuriating grin at the stunned rancher swung gracefully up into the saddle, nodding at Buck who with a whoop of delight opened the corral gate allowing the horse and rider to exit. "Mr. Larabee, would you and Mr. Tanner be so kind as to collect my winnings. I shall meet y'all in the saloon shortly. Zeus needs to stretch his legs."
"Zeus?" Buck questioned.
"Ruler of Mount Olympus, king of the Greek gods. A name befitting such a magnificent creature don't you agree." With a dimpled grin and a two fingered salute the gambler gently touched his heels to the horse sending the animal racing down the street toward the setting sun.
"You got any idea what's botherin him?" Chris nodded to where the gambler sat engrossed in the card game, charming the other occupants of the table, quietly nodding his thanks as people congratulated him on his afternoon's winnings and success with the stallion.
"Nope but I'd say somethin musta happened in Eagle Bend last week." Tanner's own eyes were on Sims weaving drunkenly at the bar. "Noticed the change bout the time he got back.... He's tryin' ta pull away from us again."
The sun had set when Ezra returned to town, giving the horse a good rubdown and a measure of hay before settling the stallion in a stall next to Chaucer.
"No need to be jealous old friend!" He pat Chaucer's neck giving the horse the last of the sugar cubes and apples. "No one could replace you."
He entered the saloon accepting congratulations from the happy patrons who'd had sense enough to place their wagers on him, graciously refusing offers of drinks as he made his way to the table occupied by his friends, intending to collect his winnings and join them for a drink before resuming the earlier interrupted poker game.
"I don't know how the hell ya did it Standish but I know ya cheated!" Sims grabbed his arm pulling the smaller man to a halt. "When I prove it, you're a dead man!"
"A wise man would release his grip immediately if he wished to retain that hand." Ezra kept his voice low, his polite smile never wavering as his eyes traveled from the hand, that tightened its grip painfully before dropping away, to Sims eyes. "You weren't cheated Mr. Sims and I expect a bill of sale from you stating that I now own that proud animal before you leave here tonight. If you'll excuse me." With a tip of his hat, Ezra crossed to where the others tensely waited having observed but not heard the confrontation.
"What was that all about?" Larabee's expression clearly stated he expected nothing but the truth.
"The alcohol has affected Mr. Sims mental capacity. He apparently believes I acquired his property through unethical means."
"He says ya cheated?"
"I do believe those were the words he used."
"You watch your back Ez. He ain't nobody to mess with." Vin offered soberly, then stifled a smile as he noted Ezra pocket the money he'd been handed him without counting it. It was most definitely a show of trust on the con man's part.
"Thank you Mr. Tanner I will keep that upper most in mind. Now if you gentlemen will excuse me I believe there is currency to be made but first I feel the need to freshen up." Raising the shot glass in a toast, he swallowed the whiskey and taking the derringer rig, climbed the stairs to his room.
Larabee glanced around the table, receiving silent nods of agreement from the others to keep an eye on the con man without his having to ask.
"Thatun's gonna be trouble." Tanner nodded towards the rancher. "He don't like losin' and now the whole town's laughin' at him. He ain't likely ta take it lyin' down, Chris."
"Yeah and we all know who he's gonna blame." Larabee agreed, glancing once more at the gambler. "How we gonna get him to talk to us?" They'd worked too hard to bring the con man into the circle of their family to let the man draw away from them and pull back into himself.
Ezra had spent his entire life alone, taught by his mother that people were nothing but marks to be deceived and conned and trusting others was a weakness which left him vulnerable. The gambler was a walking bundle of contradictions, cynical, playful, deceitful, honest but the six men had learned to see past the myraid of masks Ezra wore. Gently but stubbornly keeping at the gambler they had managed to tear down a portion of the wall he had built about himself to protect his gentle, childlike heart. In their own time, they had each come to respect the cardsharp. Ezra took the brunt of their abuse with a smile, seemed to look for new and better ways to irritate the blond leader of their group and drove them all mad at times with his apparent self absorption but he was part of their family and Larabee didn't intend to lose another person he cared about.
"We ain't. Ya know Ez ain't gonna talk about anything personal less'n he wants to, and when have ya ever known him to want to." Tanner rationalized. "We do what we always do... wait."
"And be there to pick up the pieces."
"Yep." Vin glanced at his best friend in puzzlement at the slow smile that became a chuckle. Following his line of sight, his gaze came to rest on the gambler and he found himself starting to laugh as well, putting to voice what Larabee was thinking. "Only Ezra would think to bite him back."
"Mr. Tanner, might I request a moment of your time?" Ezra questioned as the tracker finished his beer, planning on making his way to the wagon he chose to live in when the weather permitted. The saloon had finally emptied as the patrons wandered off to their respective homes.
Chris had already called it a night, casually strolling out the door behind Sims, leaving Vin to keep an eye on the con man.
"Sure thing Ez."
"It can wait if you're too weary." Ezra slipped into the chair across from the sharpshooter, pouring them each a shot of whiskey. "I require your assistance with an upcoming endeavor."
"Anything ya need Ezra... I'd be happy to help iffen I can."
Ezra stared into the bright blue eyes, surprised the tracker had offered his help without question. It was as if there was no doubt in Vin's mind the gambler wouldn't involve him in a con. "Thank you Vin."
Tanner grinned at the southerner's casual use of his given name, certain the gratitude was for more than the extra few minutes he spent with the man.
"I remember your mentioning that on one of your many expeditions into the wilderness you happened across the herd of wild horses from whence Mr. Sims ensnared Zeus."
Vin nodded somberly. "Yeah I've seen 'em."
"Would you be willing to help me search them out again?"
"I guess so." Vin shrugged. "How come?"
"I gave my word to a friend," Ezra stared at the shot glass, "and wish to keep my end of a bargain."
"S'cuse...." The sharpshooter dropped his eyes to his own glass fighting the smile threatening to burst forth. All the quiet whispering done in the corral.... The con man had promised the horse if he won the bet he would return the animal to the wilds he loved. "I'm sure we can find 'em.... When ya wanna go?"
"As much as it pains me to suggest this, I think it would be prudent to leave as early as possible." The gambler grimaced at the thought of climbing from his soft bed before noon. "It would probably be wise if no one, especially Mr. Sims, knew to where that beautiful creature disappeared."
"You're right about that. Problem is, I got the patrol in the mornin' and you got the afternoon but iffen ya want we can head out day after tomorra."
"That would suffice, Mr. Tanner." Ezra gave the ex-bounty hunter a dimpled grin. "I had Mr. Dunne lock the receipt of my ownership provided by Mr. Sims in the jail safe and tomorra intend to have the animal's brand changed. Hopefully, a brand will give someone with intentions of once more capturing the animal, second thoughts."
"Think a everythin' don't ya?"
"I try, Mr. Tanner, I try." Ezra rose and with a tip of his hat started for the stairs, pausing on the bottom step. "Vin, I'd appreciate it greatly if this stayed between the two of us."
"Well, I gotta tell Chris we'll be gone so he can cover our patrols but no one else needs ta know." Tanner hesitated before closing the outside doors. "Hey Ez... this's a good thing yer doin."
The gambler shrugged. After all, he didn't have much experience in what people considered good. "I'll take your word for that."
Chris glanced at the men gathered around the table enjoying their breakfast, keenly aware of the absence of the other two men who made up their band of peacekeepers. Although Ezra was rarely up in time for breakfast and when he was, only indulged in a cup of coffee, grumbling about the early morning hours, the thought of the gambler not sleeping peacefully in his room above the saloon was unsettling to him.
Larabee had stood in the early morning shadows, sipping his coffee, his eyes on Vin and Ezra who was ponying the stallion until they were out of sight.
Buck and Josiah had discreetly followed Sims and his men when they started for home the previous afternoon, not wanting to take the chance on the rancher crossing paths with the gambler while Ezra made his patrol. Although the wealthy landowner seemed to have accepted the loss of the stallion, Chris couldn't shake the feeling this incident was far from over.
"I can't believe, Ezra actually got up before the rest of us without bein' threatened at gunpoint." JD laughed, reaching for another biscuit.
"Just shows all ya gotta do to get his ass outta bed is let him know there's money to be made." Buck grinned, unaware of Chris' disapproving scowl.
"Shoulda knowed he wouldn't a bet all that money without he had plans for that horse." Nathan grumbled. "Don't seem right."
"Seems to me we all made money off Ezra's little escapade," Josiah pointed out.
"Not nearly as much as Ezra." Nathan murmured bitterly half under his breath.
"Sure Ezra bet alot more than we did but that just means he had a lot more to lose. And the money he bet is just as important to him as ours is ta us." JD remarked, defending the absent gambler and bringing a small smile of approval to Larabee's face. At least Ezra had one champion at the table.
"Well ya got that part right. Ain't nothing more important to Standish than his money." Nathan sneered.
Chris, listening, felt a surge of anger directed towards the healer. The man was always down on the gambler and took pains to make sure everyone within ear shot knew it. The gunslinger took several deep breaths, not wanting to get drawn into the conversation, clenching his coffee cup tightly.
"Don't ya understand Nate.… Ya been saving that five dollars to buy some more medical books ain't ya?" Josiah waited for the healer's nod before continuing. "You're a little closer ta buyin' those books cos a him and the money Ezra bet was just as important ta him and his dream."
"Dream?" JD asked around a mouthful of pancakes.
"He wants to own his own saloon." Chris spoke up for the first time, reminding them. He'd made that dream come true for a few days only to have it crushed by his mother. It had frightened and even hurt Larabee when the obstinate gambler had seemed intent on forgetting the idea of one day becoming a business owner but true to his stubborn nature the con man had gradually rekindled the flame of desire.
"That's his dream and it's just as important as anybody else's." Josiah stated adamently. "Ain't no less a dream just cos it's Ezra's"
"Still don't seem right." Nathan knew the ex-preacher was right, but with a bent which would match the gambler's own stubbornness refused to concede. "He probably had a buyer afore he ever made that bet."
"Why don't ya'll just shut the hell up! Ya don't know...." Larabee's fork clattered loudly against the plate at Nathan's statement, his breakfast momentarily forgotten. His words trailed off seeing the other men staring at him in stunned silence. He desperately wanted to tell them what was really happening but had given his word to his two friends. Chris understood the necessity for keeping the stallion's destination a secret from the likes of Sims but why the gambler persisted in allowing the town people's misconceptions of him to continue was beyond comprehension.
"Why don't ya enlighten us Brother?" Josiah's blue gray eyes twinkled merrily at his boss' discomfort.
"Can't," Chris mumbled. Wishing to turn the attention from himself and really wanting to know he glared furiously at the ex-slave. "What is it about this that really bothers ya Nate? It can't be the fact he was gamblin cause ya was the first to back his bet so what's really eatin' at ya?"
Nathan met Larabee's glare steadily. Because of their respective backgrounds, he and Ezra's relationship had gotten off to a rocky start but fighting side by side, defending each other and the five men they worked with, the two had developed a tentative friendship and healthy respect for each other. The ethical healer had never hidden his feelings regarding Ezra's livelihood but even he had noticed the change in the con man since joining the peacekeepers of Four Corners. He was well aware of Ezra's skills at poker, knowing the gambler cheated only when necessary against another cardsharp intent on fleecing those who sat down at Standish's regular table. It wasn't the gambling. Ezra had won the horse fair and square. This objection was something totally different. Something he thought the other men should have noted as well.
"Vin!" His quiet declaration shocked Larabee who'd been expecting any answer but that. "Vin's what's botherin' me!"
"What the hell is that supposed ta mean?" Chris growled.
"I don't get it." JD looked to Buck only to receive a shrug of confusion. The womanizer was just as puzzled by the answer as his oldest friend.
"I think half the time Vin went on his jaunts up in them hills it was ta watch that horse. Hell, Vin don't talk much but everytime he saw that horse ya couldn't shut him up. Don't ya all 'member how upset he was when Sims started braggin' bout catchin' it. I thought Vin was gonna shoot ol' Sims right outta the saddle, the first time he rode that stallion inta town." The healer explained. "I can't believe Ezra had the outright gall to ask Vin to go with him ta deliver that animal ta some rancher or God knows who.… How's that supposed to make Vin feel... him bein' sorta attached to that horse like he is?"
Chris remembered the expression of disgust on Nathan's face the previous day when JD had asked the gambler about his plans for the stallion. It had been Tanner who spoke up rescuing the gambler from having to lie to the young sheriff who looked up to him, explaining he and Ezra would be taking the horse to his new home the next morning. Evidently, like himself, Vin had learned something about the art of misdirection from Ezra.
"We all know half the time Ezra can't see past the nose on his face but anybody with half a brain could see how Vin felt about that horse."
"Well... maybe Vin volunteered." Buck offered, snatching the last biscuit from the plate as JD reached for it.
"Don't anyone else think it's kinda odd Ezra had the brand changed afore they left? Seems like the new owner would wanna do that." The sheriff's eyes suddenly widened. "Aww damnit. I knew I forgot something. The receipt Sims gave Ezra is still locked in the jail safe. I meant ta give it ta him last night."
"Serve him right if he can't sell it."
"Nathan!" Josiah reprimanded before Chris could speak up. "That ain't fair and ya know it."
"Maybe not but admit it.... If anyone of ya had won that horse ya'd a give it to Vin, even knowin' he'd just set it free." He gazed at each man seated at the table daring them to deny his accusation. In truth they weren't sure but would all like to think that's exactly what they would have done.
Josiah and Buck were the first to notice, Larabee's sudden renewed interest in the food before him exchanging puzzled looks. Chris stuffed his mouth full almost choking as the smile he was trying to suppress continued to grow, lighting up his hazel eyes when he saw comprehension slowly dawn on the other four's expressions.
"You're shittin'!" Buck roared with laughter slapping his large hand against the table. "Oh this is tooo good!" He stared at Chris daring him to deny what was written all over the blond man's face. "They're not really...."
"I'll shoot the first one of ya who mentions a word of this to anyone... and I do mean anyone!" Larabee's glare left no doubt he meant every word.
"Listen. Do ya hear that?" Vin whispered. He and Ezra had settled themselves among the boulders, the tracker certain the herd they sought was in the vincinity, not only by the signs but also by the black stallion's actions. He smiled as Ezra's emerald eyes widened with delight as twenty or so horses entered the small ravine below their position, meandering along, munching the scrub grass and drinking from the trickle of water that passed for a stream.
Ezra seemed to have left his usual stream of chatter in his room above the saloon, the trip into the hills made in companionable silence. Seated beside the campfire, the first night, passing the time with a game of cards, Vin had hoped the gambler would use the opportunity to talk about what was bothering him but the silence had been filled with casual conversation about inconsequential subjects.
Never one to push or butt in where he wasn't wanted Tanner was worried about his friend and hoped if he turned the conversation in the right direction, Ezra would just naturally follow along. Right, he mentally berated himself knowing full well and mighty, following along was not one of Ezra's God given talents. If you expected the southerner to go left, the gambler would instinctivly go right.
Taking a sip of his coffee, the tracker debated, then softly questioned, "Ya have a nice time in Eagle Bend last week?"
"It was most pleasent indeed." The lie left Ezra's lips smoothly. 'And most enlightening,' he added silently. "I'm glad you brought it up."
"Ya are?" Vin couldn't hide his surprise.
"It reminded me the new jacket I ordered should be arriving on the next stage."
Vin shook his head in amusement. For a moment he actually thought the southerner was going to make it easy for him. Well maybe it was time to push... just alittle.
He took another sip of coffee, staring at the dark liquid for a long moment before voicing, "Thought somethin' might have happened."
Ezra's expression didn't change. "Whatever gave you that idea, Mr. Tanner?"
"Well when ya got back ya just seemed... different... sorta... I don't know... sad." Tanner hoped the gathering darkness hid his blush of embarrassment.
Ezra raised his gaze to stare at his friend, touched by the quiet tracker's worry over his well being. The gambler wasn't surprised the sharpshooter had seen past the front he displayed for the world. Tanner was one of the most observant men Ezra had ever met. He could read people almost as well as the con man himself.
The southerner had come to care for the other six peacekeepers, treasuring their association and wanting nothing more than their friendship and respect. The man seated across from him had, however, claimed a special place in his carefully guarded heart. Like himself, the sharpshooter had spent most of his life alone and even though Ezra knew Tanner considered the other six peacekeepers the family he'd never had, Vin still often kept to himself, but was always there if one of the others needed him.
"Thank you, Vin, but I assure you there is no need for concern." The southerner smiled, arranging and rearranging the cards in his hand.
Vin's blue eyed gazed locke on the man's agile fingers. This was something new. Tanner had played poker with Ezra or watched the man play poker since they'd first met. Ezra's usual habit was to glance at the cards once and turn his attention to the other players. Vin waited silently, sensing his friend wanted... needed to talk. The verbose gambler could and would speak eloquently on any number of subjects but so rarely spoke of himself .
"I encountered an old acquaintance who was also staying at the hotel, awaiting the train." The quiet words were barely audible. "It was just a bit of a shock." Ezra sighed. "Aunt Francis... I don't know if she's an actual relative or not... but she was one of the few people I looked forward to seeing in my younger days. A very proper and genteel southern lady. She always smelled of vanilla and had a grand collection of books. She used to read me the most wonderful stories...." His voice trailed off.
"Ezra?" Vin tilted his head a little trying to see the gambler's face. "It weren't nice seein her again?"
"Not hardly." Ezra snorted derisively. "To say she was less than happy to see me would be a gross understatement. She informed me in no uncertain terms I am indeed a great disappointment. That I have grown into an even more reprehensible reprobate than even she expected and was ashamed to admit she even knew my name, let alone had ever welcomed me into her home." The words were spoken with the emotional detachment of someone commenting on the weather but Vin saw the pain in the con man's eyes before Ezra tossed the cards aside and turned to spread his bedroll. "As you have a penchant for rising with the sun, I suggest we turn in. Good night Mr. Tanner." Crawling between the blankets, Ezra turned his back on the tracker, effectively ending the conversation.
"Why didn't ya tell her Ez...? Why didn't ya tell her how wrong she was?"
The gambler pretended to sleep, ignoring the softly muttered question. Not sure why he'd broken one of his cardinal rules and told the lanky Texan anything at all, Ezra had greatly condensed the story. He considered the man a trusted friend and hoped Tanner felt the same, maybe even to the point where he trusted him a little. He didn't want to chance losing that friendship by allowing the soft hearted ex-bounty hunter to see what type of person he was currently associating with. Ezra had a mulitude of facades he presented to the world but was always unfailingly honest with himself. He knew the type of man he was, knew how people saw him and was well aware his dubious past would always overshadow his present and his future.
Vin and the other five peacekeepers had changed Ezra's life and whether they realized it or even believed it, they had his loyalty... and his love. Aunt Francis was right.... Life was wasted on liars, cheats and gamblers. As he settled down to sleep, he was unaware of the questions he had stirred in his companion.
'Wished I'd been there! I'da set that ole bat straight right off.' Tanner thought. He rolled onto his side, staring at Ezra's form huddled in the blankets. 'Why didn't ya tell her Ez?' He wondered again. 'Why didn't ya tell her what kinda man ya really are? How come ya didn't tell her about all the good things ya done...? Cause ya really don't know do ya? Ya've hidden behind them walls for so long lettin' people think what they want ya started to believe them lies yerself. I wish ya could see what the rest of us do. Well we're just gonna have ta make sure you start learnin' just how important ya are ta us.'
"Vin, look! Lookie there!" The tracker's lopsided grin widened at the rare childlike wonder in the gambler's voice, as he pointed to the far side of the herd, where a black colt, a miniature version of Zeus, pranced playfully next to its mother. "Isn't he beautiful?"
"Sure is." Tanner agreed. "Seems ol' Zeus became a daddy while he was off on his adventure."
"Well I think it's time the fine gentlemen met his offspring." Ezra made his way back to the clearing and led the horse back to where Vin waited beside the trail leading into the ravine. A small smile graced his lips as he wondered what Chris would have thought if he'd known when Ezra was seeking a new moniker for the horse he'd given serious consideration to the name Larabee. The horse reminded the gambler of the gunslinger. Strong stubborn and spirited. A natural leader, protecting those he cared for.
His gaze turned to Tanner and he also gave thought to how much the horse brought to mind the sharpshooter. Both were a part of the wilderness and thrived on it. Both desperately needed their freedom in order for their souls to soar.
"Have a long and happy life my good fellow." Ezra whispered stroking the horse's silky neck. Feeding the animal one last sugar cube, he removed the halter. The stallion tossed his head and pawed the ground looking at the well dressed man as if uncertain what was expected of him. Ezra waved a hand toward the ravine. With a last shake of his head, his thick mane flaring about him, the stallion raced off, head and tail held high. "Go on friend. Take care of your family."
Ezra didn't turn at the gentle hand on his shoulder as he and Tanner stood watching the creature trumpet his return. Looking as if he were floating on air, gracefully, spiritedly, the black reclaimed his rightful place as herd leader. Ezra knew Vin, too, was blinking away the tears in his eyes as Zeus started the herd on its way, nipping the stragglers, the long legged colt racing at his side.
Chris leaned against the post and lit a cheroot, staring down the street, wishing for some sign of his friends return. Vin had said the two would be gone almost a week and it had only been three days but the sense all was not right with his world was growing stronger by the hour.
"Wanna go lookin' for em?" Buck asked as if reading the other man's mind as he approached. The happy go lucky gunslinger's demeanor was evidence he was beginning to worry about their absent friends as well.
Larabee glanced at the man who had been by his side through some of the happiest as well as some of the most devastating moments of his life, before turning his gaze back to the outskirts of town. He couldn't escape the nagging sensation something was wrong and the gunslinger had learned long ago to trust his instincts. He knew all he had to do was nod and Wilmington would have their horses saddled and ready to go. He knew the general direction Vin and Ezra were headed but it was already late afternoon and if they left now, they wouldn't get very far before having to make camp.
"Tell Nate and Josiah to be ready. Better have em bring a wagon. If they ain't back tonight we'll head out at first light."
"Whatcha thinkin bout Ez?" Vin asked glimpsing a dimple as a small smile crossed the gambler's lips. The verbose con man still hadn't returned to his usual string of chatter but the tracker had noticed the man seemed more relaxed than in the previous week.
"Replacing the unyeilding stone strewn soil with my nice soft bed." Ezra's emerald eyes twinkled mischieviously. In actuality, his mind had been replaying the sight of the stallion enjoying his freedom, the first feeling of peace Ezra had felt since visiting Eagle Bend.
He could almost understand Tanner's desire to leave civilized society for the tranquility of this untamed world. The hills, this summer afternoon were cool and peaceful, the green beauty heightened by the symphony of numerous and varied birdsong. The ridge trail overlooked a study in contrasts as saplings stretched toward the sun growing strong among boulders and colorful wildflowers.
"Oh come on Ez, it ain't been that bad has it?" Vin grinned. "Ain't ya enjoyed it just a little bit?"
The gambler's dimples deepened as his smile widened. "In all honesty, Mr. Tanner, this is indeed a trip I will not soon forget and if you repeat that to any living soul, I shall deny it with my dying breath."
Tanner laughed moving his horse closer to Standish's chestnut and gently slugged the gambler on the shoulder. "I promise ya only got one more night Ez. We should be home tomorrow and I'll even tuck ya in that nice sof-"
The bullet slammed into Ezra's chest a half second before Vin heard the report of the gunshot, the force of the impact throwing the gambler into Tanner and toppling both men from their saddles. Gasping for breath as the air was forced from his lungs, wrapping his arms around the limp southerner, the Texan rolled away from the slashing metal shod hooves of the frightened horses. He lost his grasp on the smaller man as the ground suddenly disappeared from beneath them.
Tanner couldn't stop the scream of agony as he fell, then crashed into the rocky soil, his left leg snapping with a sickening sound on impact. His limbs flopped uselessly as the momentum carried him, rolling over and over down the rock strewn incline only to finally slide to a stop at the bottom, his body battered. He had felt several ribs give way and the numerous sharp rocks had sliced into his unprotected skin. His last thought before his head connected with a small boulder was thankfulness Ezra was unconscious, and unable to feel any pain from the fall.
What the hell happened? His stomach churned and pain exploded in his head as Tanner forced heavy lids to open. His ribs screamed in protest as he raised a hand intent on wiping away the sticky blood he could feel covering his face. Forcing himself to take small shallow breaths, Vin took a mental inventory of his injuries. Fractured leg, several broken or cracked ribs, cuts, bruises and unless he was mistaken, his blurry vision denoted a definite concussion.
Tanner searched his mind trying to pull forth the memory of what had occured to cause the pain wracking his body. Home. He was going home.... Ezra! The sight of blood spurting across the gambler's chest flashed before his eyes. Ezra!
Blinding pain shot through his head and the universe shattered into a thousand brillant lights as he turned his head searching for the southerner. Unable to stifle his groan of agony, Tanner rolled onto his side and emptied the contents of his stomach. He lay as still as possible trying to breath through the pain. As the world settled back into place, his blurry vision settled on a patch of red a few feet away, he was sure had to be Ezra's jacket.
It seemed hours before Vin had finally dragged his mangled body to where the con man lay motionless. The battered tracker pushed back the blackness encroaching on the edge of his vision, his muscles quivering with exhaustion, the sweat covering his body mixed with the cuts and scratches adding to the excruciating torture he was suffering. Only his need to reach Ezra had given him the strength to cover the short distance.
"Ezra?" Vin cleared his throat and licked at dry lips, his trembling hand coming to rest on his friend's soft chestnut hair. The con man had landed face down on a soft patch of grass nestled between a small boulder and sapling. The odd angle of his left shoulder and arm depicted dislocation and a broken wrist. "Ezra...? Can... ya hear...." The words faded as the tracker sank into unconsciousness.
The sun was much lower in the sky casting longer shadows through the gorge when Tanner once again forced open his eyes certain he'd heard someone call out his name.
"Ez?" At some point, the gambler had rolled onto his back, leaving a puddle of bright crimson blood on the grass. The sharpshooter pulled himself into a sitting position, bracing himself against the boulder, blinking rapidly and swallowing against the bile that threatened to erupt from his stomach as the spinning scenery finally ceased and his surroundings stablized.
"Ez?" Gritting his teeth and forcing back a scream Vin struggled to pull his friend to him, resting Ezra's head on his thigh. Ripping a large strip from the bottom of his shirt, the tracker pressed the cloth against the gambler's chest, hoping to stop the steady flow of blood from the wound, thankful his stubborn friend was still alive to bleed.
"V-Vin?" The weak word was followed by a spasm of coughing which had the southerner writhing in agony.
"Take it easy Ez... Just breath slow and easy now." Tanner continued to hold the cloth tightly against the wound, his free hand stroking Ezra's hair soothingly.
"Shush Ez... you're gonna be okay... just-"
"Ya... kay...?" The gambler relaxed as the pain momentarily eased.
"Yeah, I'm fine." Tanner assured him. "Just banged up a bit."
"Never try... to... c-con a... con man, Mr. Tan... ner." Ezra forced a tight grin. "You're m-much to honest... to lie... con… vincingly." His green eyes raked over the tracker intently, widening with alarm at the smears of dried blood staining the man's handsome face, the blue eyes unequally dilated. "Even I have... learned en-enough from... Nathan... to observe you... pro-probably have... a con-cussion."
Vin mentally shook his head in exasperation. For three days the man had hardly opened his mouth and now when he needed to remain quiet he wouldn't shut up. "Just bumped my head." He reiterated.
The ex-bounty hunter's heart began to race as he frantically searched for a pulse when Ezra's eyes drifted close and his head lolled to the side, slowing to normal when he finally felt the weak steady beat beneath his trembling fingers.
Vin sent a prayer of thanks to all the spirits and Gods he'd ever heard about, begging them to continue keeping vigilance over his friend.
Tanner jerked his head in the direction of the noise, immediately regretting the action as the pain in his head intensified a hundred fold. Hope flared in his chest as he concentrated on focusing his vision unsure whether the chestnut horse was just a just a figment of his imagination born out of desperation.
"Chaucer...? Come here Chaucer...." Although neither man was in any condition to ride, they could make good use of the bedroll and canteen. "Come on ol' son.... Chauce... Ezra needs ya...." He kept his voice soft and gentle.
The chestnut gelding tossed his head, his eyes showing white, rolling with fear at the smell of blood.
"Please Ch-Chaucer... just a little closer." Vin pleaded as easing the southerner's head to the ground, the sharpshooter groaned, attempting to scoot closer to the animal.
The skittish horse suddenly whickered lowly and stepped closer to the men as a barely audible whistle passed the lips of the gambler.
Vin glanced at the man shaking his head in stunned amazement at the horse's training. Tanner gripped the leather stirrup and after several tries pulled himself to his feet, grabbing the saddle horn for a security line as the world tilted dangerously, shimmering and wavering before his eyes as sweat poured from his skin and waves of pain washed over him.
The gambler's low request stunned the tracker. "Let Chaucer... take... you... h-home...."
His fingers fumbling with the ties holding the bedroll, Vin turned his gaze enough to see the con man looking up at him with pain glazed eyes, pleading with the tracker to ride out and save himself. "P-plea... se."
The beseeching tone tore at Vin, but strengthened his resolve."Ain't gonna happen Ez."
The bedroll finally dropped to the ground beside the canteen. Knowing he hadn't the strength to remove the saddle bags, his muscles shaking uncontrollably, Tanner settled for pulling as many items from the leather pouches as possible. A box of shells, a shirt, the silver whiskey flask, a tin containing the emergency biscuits and hard take, he knew Ezra wouldn't touch unless forced too. Losing his tentative hold, crying out at the unbearable torture as his broken body slammed into the ground, he didn't have the strength to fight the blackness that surrounded him taking him where he couldn't feel the pain.
"Vin...? Ya... gotta... wake up...." The weak, plaintive plea reached through the darkness drawing him stubbornly back to the light. "P-ple… ase... V-Vin... I don't... relish... facing Mr. Larabee's... wrath for letting ya... get hurt... cause a me."
Ezra smiled as the blue eyes fluttered open, staring about in pained confusion, surprised to see the gambler seated beside him weaving unsteadily. "Drink..." The con man pressed the canteen to Vin's lips, his trembling hand spilling the luke warm liquid down the tracker's chin, the left arm resting uselessly on his leg.
Taking a quick swallow, Vin set the canteen aside and struggled to pull himself into a seated position, leaning once again against the boulder, pulling the southerner against his chest as the man's face went deathly white. The sharpshooter struggled to breath through the pain caused by the man's slight weight pressed against his damaged ribs.
Somehow the obstinate gambler had not only roused himself to tend the sharpshooter, he'd dragged the supplies Vin had taken from the horse within easy reach.
Wrapping one arm tightly about his unconscious friend, Tanner lifted the remnants of the gambler's white shirt, realizing he, himself, now sported a loose bandage around his head. He fumbled with the torn shirt, pressing the cloth to the wound that had begun to seep, releasing the pressure only long enough to arrange the bedroll over the gambler.
"Sh-shoulda... left...." The soft southern drawl was painfully slurred.
Surprised Ezra was awake again, Tanner gently tilted Ezra's head up so he could look into his eyes. "What?"
The gambler struggled to force out the words. "Told ya... to go... Chaucer woulda... took... ya home"
"Who ya kiddin Ezra?" Tanner grinned. "That horse wouldn't leave ya here anymore than I would. He's just as loyal as you." Vin flinched inwardly uncertain if it was physical or emotional pain he saw flash in the con man's emerald eyes.
"Please don't... insult Chaucer..." Ezra smiled weakly. "He's a... most... sensitive... creature."
'Just like his owner.' Tanner thought, lightly brushing the unruly hair from Ezra's sweat dampened forehead, alarmed at the heat he felt eminating from the con man.
"Thank you... Vin... always... thought I'd be... alone... when..." Vin momentarily panicked, tears welling in his blue eyes as the con man failed to complete the sentence drifting back into the painless oblivion of unconsciousness.
"Ain't nobody dyin Ezra! Ya hear me! Ain't nobody gonna die here!"
Tanner continued to hold the gambler through the long night, fighting sleep, dozing only to be awakened by the violent shivers coursing through the smaller man's body.
"S-sorry... V-Vin... My fault... All... m-my f-fault."
"What are you talkin' about Ez?" Vin had kept himself awake by concentrating on the gambler's fevered mumblings piecing together the untold version of the conversation in Eagle Bend. He'd known Ezra hadn't told him everything. Although he'd been raised to respect women, only once had the tracker ever considered doing harm to a female but he'd gladly punish the old witch whose vicious words had ripped into the kind heart of the injured gambler.
"Francis, right... waste... all a waste...." The con man's head thrashed from side to side as he remained caught in his fevered dreams. "Bet... ter... not... born...."
"Ezra!" Shocked by the desolate hopelessness in the slurred words, Tanner lightly shook the gambler. "Ezra!" He was gratified to see the dark lashes flicker before green eyes slowly focused on his worried face.
"V-Vin?" Standish frowned in confusion.
"Need your help Ez." The sharpshooter attempted to smile at his ploy as he drew the canteen closer. "Ya told me ta stay awake... and I'm bout ta nod off here...."
"Nathan says... shouldn't... sleep too... long... concussion... might not wake... up." Ezra nodded in gratitude for the water, taking only a sip.
"Well then ya better start runnin that mouth a yourn cause I'm gettin awful sleepy."
"Just what... would ya... care to discuss?" He weakly pushed aside the biscuit Vin offered. "I'm quite certain... I can accomplish the... simple task... of keeping ya entertained... until our associates... come riding... to our... rescue."
Neither man chose to state they weren't due back in Four Corners for at least another day and the odds of a rescue party finding them in time were slim to none.
Yet at that very moment, miles away, four men rode in silence searching the trail for any sign of their friends. JD, unhappy but understanding had been left behind to protect the town.
Josiah drove a light wagon, keeping the men riding ahead of him in sight, praying their precautions and fears were unnecessary but unable to ignore the constant feeling of dread which had consumed him since Larabee had announced they were going in search of their missing comrades. The preacher knew the blond gunfighter and the long haired tracker had an unspoken bond between them and if Larabee felt the need to search for the man, he had been around the gunslinger long enough to trust his instincts. Somewhere out here, Josiah knew beyond a doubt Vin and Ezra were in danger and need of help.
"Ezra? Stay with me Ez." Vin had used a small amount of the precious water to wet a torn piece of the gambler's shirt and wiped the sheen of sweat from his friend's face. He could feel the con man growing weaker as the unmerciful sun made its journey across the sky. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Ezra had talked about anything that came to mind, determined to keep the tracker from slipping into a sleep, from which he might not awaken.
"My word... Vin... I shall remain... as long... as... needed... Till ya are... s-safe." Ezra mumbled, forcing his eyes open again.
Vin smiled, wiping the handsome face again. Ezra had already told Tanner about gambling on the riverboats, described the French Quarter in New Orleans and how beautiful the sky looked from the hills of San Francisco as the sun sank into the ocean.
After dozing for a couple of hours, the con man had awakened Vin, sounding just like Nathan as he questioned the Texan. How many fingers do you see? Do you know where you are? Do you remember what happened? What's your name?
Vin laughed remembering the startled expression on the southerner's face when Tanner had affected a southern accent and answered each of the questions as if he were Ezra before the gambler realized the sharpshooter was only make light of dire circumstances.
"I apologize Mr. Tanner... for puttin' your life... in such a precarious p-position... It has been a gr-great... honor to think... of you as m-my... friend." Ezra grimaced, his fingers tightening around Tanner's forearm. "Ya and... the others... have certainly... kept life... in-interestin'... Ya'll are... g-good men...."
Vin paled at the quiet comment, feeling as if he were somehow hearing a goodbye. Ezra was a fighter but Tanner had listened to the demons brought forth by the fever ravishing his weakened system and feared the gambler would succomb to the unfounded beliefs of Francis and the others who'd persisted in telling the man he was worthless, that his life was meaningless.
"Same here. Hell, we gotta lotta ridin ta do together yet... Ya know Ez, iffen ya hadn't been around, Sims woulda killed Zeus or beat the spirit right outta him." Vin pointed out. "That horse wouldn't be free if not fer you."
"And you wouldn't be... in need of medical... att-attention." Ezra reminded him. Vin tightened his hold, attempting to support the gambler as he was seized by another bout of coughing, hoping to ease his breathing.
"Easy Ez, ride it out...." He encouraged, feeling the man starting to relax. "Ain't none a this yer fault Ez... Ya know, ya never answered my question the other night and I know ya wasn't sleepin'...."
"And what question might... that be?"
"Why didn't ya tell that aunt a yourn how wrong she was?" Vin asked again, continuing before the gambler could answer. "She is ya know. Ya ain't the man she thinks... Hell, ya ain't even the man you think ya are... We all know it... We just been waitin' for you ta figure it out... Better face it Ez, yer one a us and we ain't goin away no matter how hard ya try and push. We'll be right beside ya."
"Ez?" Seeing the southerner's lax features, Tanner knew the man was beyond hearing anything else.
"Chris!" With a shout, Buck spurred his grey into a run, barreling down the trail to where a familiar black bay gelding stood grazing among the trees.
"Buck?" The trepidation in Larabee's voice sent a chill through Wilmington as he examined the ground around the animal. Thankfully he'd found no blood on the saddle and other than appearing tired, the horse didn't seem injured.
"Don't know Chris. Ain't no sign of Vin or Ezra." Leading Peso, Buck remounted his own steed, nodding his head to the southeast. "He come from that way."
"Don't know, but Peso don't spook easy. I don't think he'd run very far from Vin." Buck shrugged. "He's gotta be close by."
"Not close enough." Chris growled, turning his horse in the direction Wilmington had indicated.
Ezra swam through the thick blackness fighting for air, searching for light, searching for Vin. He had to find Tanner. He'd given his word to keep him safe. He couldn't let Vin die because of his actions. He wouldn't!
Lifting eyelids that seemed excessively heavy, Ezra struggled to focus his fading vision. "Vin?"
Receiving no answer, Standish shifted positions, his heart skipping a beat at seeing Tanner his head drooping forward his the strands of long hair obscuring most of his bloodstained pale face, the rise and fall of his chest depicting the shallow breathing of unconsciousness. "Vin...! V-Vin... wake up...! Wake up... V-Vin... p-please...."
Feeling as if he were drowning in despair he pinched the skin on the back of Vin's hand with a strength born of fear, his heart sinking with the lack of reaction from the tracker.
"S-sorry... so sorry...." Ezra fell into the blackness, the knowledge of his failure to keep his word weighing heavily on his heart.
"Son of a bitch!" His stomach twisting in knots, Larabee knelt and picked up Standish's hat. Peso's tracks had led them to a ridge overlooking a gorge now cast in deep shadows by the sun balanced on the horizon before beginning its nightly plunge behind the distant mountain peaks. Chris pulled his gun and fired into the air, his frustration causing him to squeeze the trigger repeatedly until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber.
Buck hung his head not knowing what to say to his friend to help. Nathan glanced at Josiah in time to see the older man wipe at the tears filling his eyes.
Fingers tightened around the reins as the horses jumped in fear when a seventh shot echoed through the canyon in answer to Chris'.
Ezra jerked awake crying out in pain as his instincts demanded he draw the weapon on his hip. "Vin...? Vin... lis-ten...."
Had he really heard the sound of gunshots or was it the fever and his own guilt making him delusional? His gaze settled on Vin once more. The Texan hadn't moved, hadn't reacted at all. Maybe the shots had been just his imagination but he couldn't take the chance. Vin didn't deserve to die because of misplaced friendship. Afraid the sound of the derringer wouldn't carry, he worked the weapon from its holster. The nerveless hand clutching the heavy gun fell weakly to his side.
Stubbornly concentrating on making his muscles work, Ezra jumped in surprise at the loud explosion as his finger squeezed the trigger and the sound rolled up through the ravine, echoing back to him... an echo he never heard as darkness once again drew him into its embrace.
Followed by Nathan, Larabee slid and stumbled down the steep incline leaving Buck and Josiah to find a way down for themselves, the horses and wagon. Cursing at the dark shadows which hid rocks and shrubs slowing their progress, Chris called out to Vin and Ezra pausing only long enough to listen for an answer. Praying for an answer. Any answer.
"There!" The healer, having scrambled down behind him, grabbed his sleeve dragging Chris to where their two friends lay.
"Oh God," Chris grit his teeth, swallowing his fear, his hazel eyes taking in the bandage encircling the tracker's head and blood stains covering his face as they gently eased Ezra from Vin's protective grasp. "Nate?"
"Get a fire started Chris... NOW!" Ignoring the blond gunslinger, the healer calmly and quickly set about assessing the men's injuries.
With a small fire kindled and adding fuel to the hungry flames, Larabee's gaze kept wandering to where Nathan knelt between the two men, ignoring his companions as he checked out the unconscious men. Buck and Josiah had finally arrived, quickly setting up a makeshift camp and tending the weary horses.
"We need to move them over to the fire." Nathan called. "Buck, Josiah help me with Vin. Be careful now he's busted up some. Careful there Chris, Ezra's left arm is broke and his shoulder's dislocated... again," he added with a shake of his head.
'Figures. Vin looks like he's been to hell and back and Ezra ends up with only a busted arm.' Chris was both thankful for and resentful of the gambler's luck. Flipping back the blanket, his breath caught, bile rising up in his throat at the sight of the gambler's bloodsoaked shirt.
"Aww hell Ezra...." Immediately regretting his earlier thoughts, Larabee gently lifted the smaller man's limp body certain Nathan just hadn't been able to bring himself to say this time they were too late to save the gambler.
Cradling Ezra in his arms while Buck quickly prepared the second bedroll, Chris glanced to where Nathan and Josiah were working on Vin.
"Nate?" He called the healer's name when the man wasn't distracted.
"Not now Chris. I think Vin's gonna be okay but I wanna set this leg while he's still out. " With a nod, he waited as Josiah got a strong hold on Tanner's shoulders and with a quick jerk and turn, efficently worked the pieces of bone back into their proper place, the four men cringing in sympathy at Vin's agonized outcry.
Grateful the tracker hadn't been conscious, the blond gunslinger's gaze returned to the man in his arms. Granted he wasn't a doctor but it seemed to him as damaged as Vin looked, Ezra was in much greater need of the dark man's abilities as a healer.
"God, Chris, he looks dead," Buck muttered, getting his first good look at the younger man as he helped Larabee ease the gambler to the ground.
"He ain't." Nathan stated curtly, kneeling beside the man on the bedroll, leaving Josiah to splint Vin's leg.
As if on cue, Ezra moaned, trying to twist away from the healers probing hands.
"Easy Ezra," Chris soothed, stroking the chestnut hair. "Nathan's gonna have ya up and back at the poker table in no time."
"Yeah Ez, we're here. Ya just lay still now and let Nathan help ya."
"Vin...? Vin?" The gambler began to struggle, his pain glazed green eyes searching frantically for the Texan as he painfully stammered, "Co-concussion... shouldn't... s-sorry... tried...."
"Nathan says Vin's gonna be fine." Larabee assured the younger man, lifting the con man's head so he could see where Tanner lay on the other side of the campfire hoping the sight of the tracker would somehow calm the gambler. "Ya just concentrate on gettin' better yerself... Vin's gonna be fine." Chris repeated, unsure if the words were registering.
"K-kept my... w-word...." Ezra smiled, his eyes slowly sliding closed. As his lips moved, Larabee had to lean down, to hear his whispered words. "Vin's... s-safe... kept... p-promise...."
Nathan gratefully accepted the cup of hot coffee, rubbing at the tight muscles in the small of his back, before taking several swallows and facing the three men. With their help, he'd spent the last several hours cleaning, sewing and bandaging the various injuries to the gambler and sharpshooter
"They gonna be okay Nate?" If they'd allow it, Buck would be as much of a mother hen to the other peacekeepers as he was to the young sheriff.
"Besides that busted leg, Vin's got several cracked and broken ribs but it don't seem like they damaged his lungs, thank God. There was signs of infection in a few of the cuts including the one on his head, but I don't think that's gonna be a problem. It's the concussion that worries me. He busted his head pretty good... We're gonna need to wake him up every few hours... if we can."
"Whatda ya mean if we can?" Buck turned worried eyes to where Tanner lay.
"Any blow to the head is serious Buck. I've told ya before, there's always the chance a person may not wake up from a concussion or..." His words trailed off.
"Or what brother?" Josiah encouraged, knowing they needed to be prepared for the worst.
"A concussion is a injury to the brain... He may not be the same when he does wake up."
"What about Ezra?" Larabee's quiet question broke the long silence following Nathan's statement and four pairs of eyes turned to the motionless form of the black sheep of their unusual family.
Nathan's gaze dropped to the cup in his hand as he blinked back the wetness filling his eyes. This was one of the times he hated having the others depend on him for the small amount of medical knowledge he'd acquired.
When they arrived, Ezra had been so weak from fever and blood loss, the healer had thought it imperative to immediately remove the bullet buried in the gambler's chest rather than wait for the man to grow a bit stronger. It worried him, Ezra had neither moved or made a sound during the procedure or when they had maneuvered his shoulder back into place and set the broken arm.
"It's up ta him now. The bullet didn't hit anything vital but he lost so damn much blood... I just don't know." Nathan admitted sadly. "I can help with the fever but he's gonna have to hold on long enough to give his body time to start healin'."
"And?" Chris persisted, sensing the healer had more to say.
Nathan looked away into the darkness unable to face the man's intense stare. "I just don't think he's strong enough."
Knowing he wouldn't get any sleep until certain of the fate of his friends, Chris took first watch, insisting the others try and rest.
Seated on his bedroll next to where Vin lay, Larabee's haunted hazel eyes turned to the gambler. Nathan's earlier assumption that he'd been inquiring about Vin cut into Chris as sharply as one of the healer's throwing knifes. Yes, Vin was his best friend, there'd been an immediate connection between the two but over time and his own inner doubts about the man, Ezra had also become his friend and a part of this strange family which now surrounded him.
The two men's personalities often clashed like cattlemen and sheepherders, but when it came down to it there was nothing they wouldn't do for each other. Chris thought the gambler's greatest pleasure in life was finding numerous new and diverse ways to irritate the gunslinger, his green eyes twinkling merrily when he managed to do so and, like Vin, he rarely backed down not at all intimidated by the famous Larabee glare which sent other folks scurrying for cover.
While it was true, Ezra had abandoned them during their first venture together, it was also true he had the courage to return and pull their sorry asses outta the fire, saving their lives and risking his own. Although Larabee denied it, he had recognized that courage and seen the man hiding behind the self absorbed act. For that reason alone he had given the con man a second chance to become part of their group of misfits.
In their time at Four Corners, Chris had learned quite a lot about the gambler, keeping silent out of deference for the younger man. Like Ezra himself, the gunslinger had never contradicted other's somewhat skewed opinions of the con man.
He realized, staring at the unconscious man, it disturbed him that Nathan had truly believed he cared more for Tanner's survival than that of Standish's. Hell, did the others think it as well? Worse still, was it what the silver tongued southerner believed?
Damn! Why had he never hesitated to back Ezra with his gun but had never stood up for the gambler against the misconceptions of those around them. Had he simply believed the gambler knew how he felt, without it being voiced? He castigated himself. The cardsharp read people so well, he had assumed like Vin, Ezra just naturally knew. Thinking on it, had he ever actually told the southerner he was proud to know him? Did Ezra know how happy Chris was that he'd chosen to stay in Four Corners? Stayed to be a part of their little band of lawkeepers. The others all knew how the gunslinger felt about them but did the con man or did he still believe Chris thought him a liar and cheat?
More importantly did Ezra believe Larabee valued the others over him?
A low moan from the tracker beside him drew his attention and the sound had the others crawling from their bedrolls to check on Vin as well.
"Hey Cowboy," Chris forced a small smile supporting Vin's head holding to his lips the cup of tea Nathan handed him. "How ya feelin'?"
"Like I... fell... off... a cliff..." Vin managed a wan ghost of his lop sided grin.
"Ya look like death warmed over." Wilmington grinned, a small amount of relief surging through him. At least Nathan hadn't been right about Vin... Now if only....
"Nathan got the bullet out and patched him up." Not wanting to upset the sharpshooter, Larabee settled for stating the only part of the truth Vin needed to hear. "He was awake earlier... Said somethin' bout keepin his word and ya bein' safe now."
"NOOO!" Tears spilled from Tanner's blue eyes.
Stunned by his reaction Chris and Buck held him down as the sharpshooter fought to rise. "Ezra...! Ez...! Don't do it...! Chris don't... don't let him go...." Vin begged, his struggles growing weaker. "Please... Ez... Make him... s-stay Chris... Make him... st..." The tea, exhaustion and his injuries combined to drag the lanky Texan back into a painless sleep.
"What the hell was that all about?" Wilmington's eyes reflected the tracker's fear. Had Nathan been right after all, about the concussion affecting Vin's mind. "Where'd he think Ez was goin'?"
"He's still runnin' a fever" Nathan placed a hand against Tanner's forehead. "Probably didn't know what he was sayin'"
Larabee looked from Vin to Ezra, his mind whirling. Vin's words hadn't seemed like the product of fevered mumblings. He'd been lucid just seconds before. It was almost as if he were afraid....
"Oh shit!" Chris scrambled to Ezra's side as the pieces clicked into place. "Ezra! Ezra wake up!"
"Chris...!" Nathan grabbed the older man's arm as the gunslinger violantly shook the gambler. "Chris, stop it! Damnit what's gotten into ya...."
"Let him be brother." Tanner's words having brought them to the same conclusion as Larabee, Josiah and Buck pulled Nathan away from the gunslinger.
Nate struggled in their grasp. "Josiah, he's gonna-"
"It's gotta be done." Buck whispered. They watched silently as Chris knelt beside the gambler, and cradled the con man to his chest gently slapping the smaller man's face in an attempt to awaken him. His no nonsense tone proved he would accept no less from the southerner.
"Ezra Standish, I'm not playin! Ya wake up and listen to me...! Now!" The gambler's dark lashes fluttered but his eyes didn't open. "Now Ezra! Open them damn eyes and look at me you stubborn southern son of a bitch!!!"
Sending up a silent prayer of thanks, Chris was gratified to find himself looking down into a pair of emerald eyes he hadn't thought to see again.
"V-Vin?" The name slurred from the con man's lips.
"Vin's fine Ezra. He's safe... ya both are... Ya kept yer word to him but ya gotta listen ta me Ezra. Ya gave me your word too Ezra! Ya promised me ya wouldn't run out on us again and ya damn well better keep that promise! Ya listenin' ta me Ezra? I won't let ya welsh on it ya hear?" Chris put as much force into his voice as possible. If guilt and intimidation would keep the gambler alive that was what he was going to hear.
"T-try...." The southerner's one word was nothing more than a breath of a whisper.
"Ya try damn hard Ez," Larabee's hold tightened, his own eyes swimming with tears as the long lashes returned to their resting place on the con man's colorless cheeks. His voice softened as he spoke in Ezra's ear. "Ya ain't a Tanner but I know your word is just as important ta you as Vin's is ta him. Ya don't give it lightly or take it any less serious. Ya made me a promise Ezra and I want ya to do your damnedest to keep it... Ya hear me Standish?"
Nathan and Josiah turned their attention back to Vin as Buck wandered away from the campsite, none of the men wanting to witness the strong willed gunslinger threatening and begging their friend to continue fighting for life.
"M... ad?" Larabee twisted the hushed, slurred word around in his mind, uncertain what the gambler was trying to say. Was the man calling for the only relative he cared about? Ezra had rarely spoken of his mother, and the relationship between Maude and her son was a source of puzzlement to everyone. No, Chris didn't think he was calling for his mother.
'M... ad?' Realization dawned.
"You're damn right I'm mad Ezra! I'm mad as hell at whoever did this to ya!" Chris assured him. 'And God help the man when I get my hands on him.' "I ain't mad at you though... I know you're hurtin and tired but Nathan says ya gotta hold on. Ya gotta keep fightin. Can ya hear me Ez? If ya lose this battle fair and square, I'll understand but you listen ta me... If ya just fold your hand and cash in your chips, I'll never ever forgive ya! Ya listenin' ta me Standish! If ya just give up I'll go to my grave hatin' your guts! I give ya My word on that!"
He saw the con man's eyelashes flicker and something like a tiny ghost of a dimple formed on the man's cheek. Knowing the gambler was hearing him on some level, Chris lowered his voice and went on.
"It mighta been a mistake, us lettin' ya go on pretendin' ta be a sneaky lyin' cheat but ya know ya ain't foolin' none a us! We all've seen what a good man ya are Ezra even if ya won't admit it to yerself. We know Ezra." Chris continued to talk to the southerner, stroking his hair and rocking the slender form slightly just as he used to do when Adam was ill. He didn't know if the cardsharp could hear him any more, but he didn't want to take the chance on Ezra dying without knowing how much he meant to them. He'd repeat it all over again if the gambler survived. He wasn't going to allow the gambler to keep them at arm's length any longer. "We're all here for ya! Vin, Buck, JD, Nate, Josiah... me... We're gonna see ya through this Ezra. We're gonna help ya all we can... We'll do whatever we can but this is your fight... I know ya ain't no quitter Ezra. Hell I think the only word in the English language ya don't know the meanin' of is surrender... Ya keep fightin... Ya call on every sneaky, underhanded trick ya know if that's what it takes for ya ta win this one... cause we need ya...! You're part of our family Ez... A member of my family, maybe not blood kin but one a my family just the same and I ain't lettin' ya go without a fight...." He pulled his hazel eyes from the gambler's face and looked around at the men nearby. "None of us are."
The sun was once again filling the gorge with light when Vin awoke, blinking rapidly to focus his vision. His stomach rolled in protest as he moved his head, his feverish blue eyes searching the campsite in confusion as he heard quiet conversation nearby. Fear ran rampant as his gaze frantically searched the area again. Only one person was in his line of sight and he recognized the blond hair of the still form huddled beneath the blanket near him. He tried to call out for Ezra, but the simple word came out as nothing more than a dry croak.
Yet at the low sound, the blanket fell away from Chris' shoulders as he jumped to his feet. When Larabee had finally succombed to his body's need for sleep, dozing off with his cheek resting against the top of Ezra's head, Josiah had eased the injured man back to the bedroll and made Chris as comfortable as possible covering him with a blanket to keep away the night's chill.
Agreeing the previous evening they needed to get their injured friends back to the clinic, as soon as possible the men had quietly begun preparing the wagon and breaking camp with the rising sun. Josiah and Buck had already gently settled the con man on the pallet made up of their bedrolls in the back of the wagon.
Noting Vin had awakened, Nathan hurriedly prepared a cup of herbal tea, as Chris grabbed the canteen laying nearby and knelt beside the sharpshooter.
"Where's... Ez?" Vin pushed the container aside when the cool water had soothed his raw throat enough to allow the question. "C-Chris?"
"Don't worry brother, our errant sheep is still with us. We've already moved him to the wagon for the trip home." Josiah watched as the visable fear washed away from both men's faces at his quiet words.
As Nathan approached with cup in hand, Vin sucked in his breath, hissing in pain as Josiah and Chris lifted him into a seated position supporting him as Nathan helped him drink the tea.
"Aww hell Nate! That's worse 'an usual! No wonder Ez ain't woke up... It's so he don't hafta swallow that vile stuff!" Tanner groused fighting the nausea as the brew hit his empty stomach.
He saw Larabee's expression. "How's Ez?"
He had noticed Chris' reaction to the gambler's absence, unaware the man had spent most of the night, cradling the gambler, urging him not to release his tentative grasp on life.
"He's holdin' on." Nathan stated matter of factly, knowing in his heart to assure them the con man was going to be fine would only give them all false hope.
"C-Chris?" Vin began fighting to keep his eyes open, struggling weakly in Josiah's strong grasp.
"Nate?" Fear laced Larabee's voice as the sharpshooter's chin dropped to his chest.
"Laced his tea with laudanum. Make the trip back easier on him." The healer explained. "Ya ready Buck?" At his affirmative answer, following Nathan's instructions, Chris and Josiah helped carry Tanner to the wagon where Buck settled the tracker on on the pallet beside Ezra.
Larabee moved over to the side of the wagon gazing down at the too pale features of the gambler, the flush of fever the only color in the young southerner's cheeks, his labored breathing the only sign of life.
Josiah drove the horses at a steady pace as they pulled the wagon down the main street toward Nathan's clinic, alert for anything that might impede their progress. He saw JD rush from the saloon, hurrying along the boardwalk calling out to them. It had been a long slow trip back. Chris had barely taken his eyes off their injured friends and Josiah knew that was the only reason the gunslinger hadn't noticed another vague presence standing just inside the bat wing doors.
"Oh my God...! Buck?"
"They're alive JD." Wilmington nodded tossing him the reins and climbing into the wagon. "Take care a the horses. Make sure Chaucer and Peso get some extra feed. A good rubdown wouldn't either of them."
"Buck...?" The young sheriff's face paled as his best friend carefully settled the gambler's limp body in Chris' waiting arms.
"Go on JD... It's gonna be alright." Buck spoke quietly, trying to reassure the youngest member of their group.
Finally, with a small nod, the young man hurriedly led the horses down the street to the stables, glancing back as Josiah, Buck and Nathan carried Vin up the stairs, careful not to cause more damage to the broken bones. Issuing orders to the stable boys who worked there, giving instructions on tending his injured friends animals, he stayed a moment longer to make sure the young boys did as he asked before hurrying back to the clinic.
JD slowed, then hesitated on the clinic landing his gaze transfixed on Sims still standing in the saloon doorway, staring at the building that housed the makeshift clinic. Fighting an irrational surge of anger at the rancher's smug expression, JD took a deep breath, pushed open the door and entered Nathan's room.
Ezra had been placed on the cot next to the wall, Vin needing the larger bed, to keep his leg elevated on pillows. Both patients were pale and feverish and JD turned dark frightened eyes to the large gunslinger who had become his friend and big brother knowing there was only one reason, Chris would remain at the gambler's side leaving Buck and Josiah to get the tracker settled.
As much as they teased him about his naivety, there were some things JD was all too aware of. He knew although Vin was Larabee's best friend and Buck his oldest, the blond gunslinger didn't care any less for the rest of them. While JD didn't have Vin or Ezra's talent for reading people, he could tell Chris and the others were thinking the con man wasn't going to survive this journey into the wilderness.
"Come on kid, let's go get some grub. I think everybody could use something ta eat." Laying a gentle hand on the younger man's shoulder, Wilmington steered him toward the door as Nathan turned his attention to Ezra and began removing the bandage covering the chest wound
As they entered the saloon, JD was unprepared for the expression of murderous rage which had replaced Wilmington's normal smile at the sight of Sims leaning against the bar, sharing a moment of laughter with his foreman. The young sheriff was totally unprepared to stop the affable man when with a roar of anger, Buck lunged at the rancher, wrapping his large hands around the man's throat, their momentum carrying them across the room until they slammed up against the far wall.
"You fuckin' bastard!"
The rancher's eyes bulged, his face turning several shades of red, as he struggled to draw oxygen into his lungs as Wilmington's hands continued to tighten.
"Buck!" JD desperately tugged at his friend. "Buck! Stop it...! You're gonna kill him!"
Buck's grip loosened slightly as Dunne's words slowly seeped through his madness. His hands moved to Sim's shoulders effectively pinning the large man still gasping for air, against the wall. "You sorry bastard! Sims, I know it was you that ambushed Ezra and Vin! Ya better start prayin' cause if they don't make it I'll kill ya myself!" The low threat carried through the now silent saloon.
"I don't know what the hell you're talkin' about," Sims coughed, a smug smile crossing his lips. "Even if I did have somethin' to do with it, ya ain't got no proof."
"Proof or no proof, they die... you die... It's that plain and simple." Buck's dark eyes were blazing with murderous rage, adding deadly emphasis to his words.
"Sheriff I want that man arrested." Sims looked at JD, anything to pull his gaze away from Wilmington's cold eyes. "I got me a room full a witnesses that'll say he attacked and threatened me."
"Funny... I was standin' here and didn't see any such thing." JD shrugged, glancing at the young barmaid who was watching Buck intently. "Did you see anything Inez?"
"I witnessed nothing unusual senor." The Mexican woman smiled with a shake of her head. Seeing the others carrying the injured members of their group, Inez had fully expected one of the peacekeepers to take their anger out on the landowner, so her statement wasn't a lie.
JD raised his voice. "Anybody else see anything?" he questioned the still deathly quiet room.
Only Sim's foreman spoke up, as the other patrons suddenly found their drinks extremely fascinating. The residents of Four Corners and the surrounding area liked the peacekeepers, especially the shy, quiet Tanner and although they may not have cared much for Standish's arrogant self confidence, none of them wished him harm. One thing most of them did have in common was a strong dislike for the wealthy rancher who at one time or other had trod on all their toes. Buck could have probably shot the man where he stood and most in the room would have bought him a drink.
JD turned back to Sims, who was seething. "Seems to me the judge would have my ass iffen I arrested somebody on your say so. 'Specially since outta this room full a people the only witness to the supposed attack is somebody you pay." The sheriff lowered his voice, the words carrying only to Sims and Buck as he vowed. "And if Vin or Ezra don't make it, ya better hope Buck gets to ya afore I do. And God have mercy on yer soul if Chris finds ya afore either one a us." He warned, satisfied to see a flash of fear in Sims' narrow eyes at the mention of Larabee's name.
His chest swelling with pride at his young friend's bravado, Buck turned the boy... no, young man... toward the bar and throwing another angry look at the rancher, ordered food for the men waiting in the clinic.
Hearing Vin's low moan as he began to stir back to consciousness, Chris forced his eyes open and dragged himself from the chair where he'd been dozing, reaching for the glass of water on the table even as Nathan's hand closed around it.
While the other men had spent time in the clinic taking turns sitting with their friends or helping when their assistance was needed, neither Nate or Chris had left the small room for other than personal reasons in the three days since their return to town. Nathan had known ordering Larabee back to his own room was an exercise in futility but he still had to waste his breath at least once.
"Ya look like shit." The Texan's drawl was gruff.
Chris grinned at the comment. Each time Vin had awakened, he had seemed confused, asking again what had happened, why he was in the clinic, remembering the incident only after being told. Each time his concern turned immediately to Ezra. "How's Ez?"
"Still with us." There was more hope in Nathan's voice than the healer was feeling.
Of the men, only Josiah knew the true depth of Jackson's concern for Ezra's survival. The southerner's fever had lowered but not disappated totally and the gambler still had shown no sign of regaining consciousness. Worried about dehydration, Chris had supported the con man while the healer carefully trickled water down Ezra's throat.
Nathan not wanting to worry Chris further, waited for the blond gunslinger to doze off or be otherwise occupied before taking Ezra's pulse, his own heart breaking at the steadily weakening beat.
Nathan moved for the door. "Gonna go get ya somethin to put in yer belly, knowin' yer bound ta be hungry."
"Anything but tea." Vin tossed the healer a lop sided grin as the dark man reached for the door. "A steak would be right fillin'"
"Beef broth it is then." Nathan laughed, as he closed the door on the tracker's grumbled complaints.
Vin's worried eyes turned to the gambler on the cot. "How's he doin...? Really?" He questioned Chris, turning back to study the gunslinger's expression as he answered.
"Not good... but like Nate said, he's still with us." Chris took a deep breath, struggling to get his emotions under control as he added. "What made ya think he was gonna give up?"
At the sharpshooter's look of confusion, Larabee quietly reiterated the incident the night they'd found the two injured men.
Tanner thought for a moment, then swallowed hard. "H-he said goodbye...." Vin's blue eyes shimmered with wetness. "Not outright but... close nough... said how he was glad to think a us as friends and we was all good men...." Knowing how closely Ezra guarded his emotions and his past Vin procured Chris' promise of silence before telling the gunslinger about the gambler's encounter with Francis in Eagle Bend. "I get the feelin', his whole life's been like that... People tellin' him he ain't no good... and how he... Awww hell Chris... I think he's happy here... Maybe happy for the first time in his life and that ol' bitch just...." Tanner trailed off swiping at the tears which had escaped and were trailing down his cheeks. "We gotta make him believe he's worth wantin' around."
"He'll know it. I promise... If I hafta spend the rest a my days beatin' it inta that stubborn southern head a his, he'll know it." Chris quipped, attempting to hide the seriousness of his words. His mood turned dark as he realized again, they were all still guilty at one time or another of judging Ezra without knowing the true circumstances behind his actions. He couldn't help but wonder how many times they had unintentionally hurt the gambler with thoughtless words and actions?
Larabee leaned against the wall, gazing out the small window, resentful of the unknowing residents who went about their daily business while his friend, a man who'd helped defend this town and their lives lay dying.
Chris wearily rubbed the back of his neck, massaging the tight muscles, as the silence became oppressive. Each of the peacekeepers had spent time sitting by Ezra's sickbed, talking with the gambler, describing the daily going ons, coaxing him to stay with them, urging him to come back, all the while praying and watching for any sign of wakefulness.
The blond gunfighter watched JD, his shoulder's slumped with dejection slowly make his way along the boardwalk stopping to talk with business owners and citizens, on his way to the saloon where he would no doubt find Buck. As if he could see through the wooden walls, Chris knew Wilmington would be sitting alone at their usual table, nursing a beer and half heartedly flirting with the barmaids, in a vain attempt to convince everyone he wasn't worried about gambler's chances of surviving to see the following morning.
Larabee had finally forced Nathan from the sick room, insisting the healer get some fresh air and rest. As much as he harrassed the young con man about his livlihood, there was also a deep respect and friendship between the southerner and ex-slave. Chris had no doubt, Nathan would trade places with Ezra if that were at all possible just as he knew Ezra would never allow him to. Larabee was well aware the worried healer hadn't gone farther than the balcony just as he instinctively knew Josiah was at the church, praying for the survival of the young man he'd come to think of as a surrogate son.
He cast a worried glance over his shoulder at Vin.
Nathan was almost as worried about the tracker as he was Ezra. A bad patient at best, like the gambler, by the second day of confinement, Tanner usually persisted in pestering the healer into allowing him to leave the clinic. Yet, even now he still laid in the bed, allowing the others to care for him, his worried blue eyes on the con man as if by staying near him, he could keep his friend alive thru sheer willpower alone.
"Chris...." Tanner lifted his head, from the pillow, uncertain if he should believe his own eyes. "Chris... Look..."
The quiet hope in the Texan's voice drew Larabee's attention to the cot, his heart beginning to race as the gambler's slim finger's curled in the blanket.
As if of their own volition, Larabee's legs carried him back to the cot, his hazel eyes raking over the gambler, his breath catching in his lungs as he waited for some other sign of more movement.
"Chris?" Vin's soft word was prayer-like and full of hope, pleading for the gunslinger to reaffirm what he saw and felt.
"Ezra...?" Chris crouched down beside the small bed. "Ezra...? Com'on Ez... wake up...! You can do it."
"Nathan! Nathan!" Behind him, Chris heard the tracker's frantic cries which brought the healer, rushing into the clinic. "Get the others! Hurry!"
"Ezra...? It's time to wake up now." He gently pat the smaller man's cheek, hearing Nathan shout from the landing for JD to fetch Buck and Josiah. He continued to coax the southerner ignoring the pounding of boots rushing up the stairs and into the room, not seeing the three men's faces lighting up with relief as Ezra's fingers once again clutched the blanket's ragged edge, his brow furrowing as if concentrating on lifting the heavy eyelids.
"I know ya like yer beauty sleep Ez. but it's been damn near a week." Buck knelt across from Larabee. "Nobody's that damn ugly!"
"Come on Ez, let's see them pretty green eyes that keep givin Buck a run for his money with the ladies in this town." Chris joked, his eyes glowing with happiness as the gambler's dark lashes fluttered. "Come on, my friend... that's it... we're all here waiting for ya...."
The long lashes fluttered again and whoops of joy filled the small room as the lids finally lifted revealing vivid emerald eyes.
Gently supporting his head, Nathan held the glass of water to Ezra's lips urging the gambler to take it slow. The smaller man's expression changed to a look of horror as he studied the peacekeepers.
"What's wrong Ezra?" JD asked worriedly when his gaze once again traveled over each face of the men gathered around the bed, fear filling his eyes. "Why's he look so scared Nathan?"
"It's alright Ez... I'm here...." Vin called from the other bed. "I'm right here Ez."
Ezra smiled at the sound of the reassuring western drawl, his eyes closing as he slid into a peaceful healing sleep.
Larabee stood silently in the clinic doorway watching the gambler. The young man's expression was one of intense concentration as Ezra fumbled one handedly with the vest buttons.
"Ya bout ready to get the hell outta here?" Chris grinned apologetically as the con man jumped at the question, belatedly realizing Ezra's attention had been so focused on the task he hadn't heard Larabee enter.
"Indeed I am Mr. Larabee, however, I promised our illustrious healer I would await his return before attempting to traverse the stairs."
"Told Nathan I'd come get ya. Thought ya might like ta have this." The gunslinger held out Ezra's royal blue jacket.
"Thank you but I'm afraid I will be unable to wear a coat until Mr. Jackson removes these autrocious splints. As it is I fear I shall have to rip the seams of my shirts unless I wish to walk around half nude."
"I don't think you'll have any problems with this one. Mary kinda did some tailorin' on it for ya." Chris explained, helping the gambler slip his arms through the coat's sleeves before quickly working the string tie hanging around the con man's neck into a bow.
Ezra, looking closer, could see where Mrs. Travis had removed the stitches from the sleeve's inside seam half way up giving room for the splints, carefully basting the cloth so it wouldn't fray and could easily be repaired. "Said she'll fix it up good as new when yer arm's healed."
"I thank you and Mrs. Travis, although an escort really isn't necessary." Ezra combed his fingers through his hair. "I do recall the direction of the saloon, sir."
"The hell it ain't necessary! Ya may know the way to the saloon but in case it slipped yer mind, there was a very good reason ya been in this room for almost two weeks. " Chris growled.
Larabee took a deep breath, seeing Ezra's poker face fall into place. The wall Standish placed around himself was almost visible as he seemed to prepare himself to face the onslaught of anger he heard in the gunslinger's voice. Larabee's voice went whisper soft. "Ya scared the hell outta us... We damn near lost ya Ezra...."
Seeing the southerner relax slightly, Chris changed tactics learning from Ezra himself. The best way to gain the upper hand was to keep your target off balance and unaware. "You're forgetting the most important part a your wardrobe ain't ya?" Unable to stifle an evil smile, he held up the sling, Nathan had fashioned.
The gambler grimaced. "You may return that apparatus to the table where you found it. I assure you I have no-"
"Forget it Ezra. Ya know as well as I do if ya don't wear it Nathan'll have your ass back up here so quick, ya won't know ya ever
left." Slipping the triangular cloth over the gambler's head, the gunslinger appeared to be concentrating on adjusting the arm into a comfortable position as he questioned. "How come ya still don't trust us, Ezra?"
"I'm sorry?" Ezra's mask momentarily slipped and confusion filled his green eyes. Surely the gunslinger didn't honestly believe he didn't trust the other peacekeepers. "I assure you Mr. Larabee, I would never endanger my person, if I had any doubts regarding my safety when encountering the miscreants of this territory. I am well aware, sir, yourself and the others would willingly step in front of a barrage of bullets to keep any member from becoming injured--."
"Just like you would." Larabee pointed out, causing Ezra to duck his head. "So how come ya don't trust us enough ta tell us when you're hurtin' here?" Chris hesitated, then gently place his hand feather light against the gambler's chest, rather than tapping it as he'd intended. "Why don't ya tell us, especially when we're the ones that cause the hurt... Except for JD, ain't none of us are real good at expressing how we feel but I don't want ya to ever think we don't care. Ya got that poker face down to an art, but we're all learnin' Ezra." He shook his head as Ezra grinned considering the comment a compliment, "but we can't help ya if we don't know what's wrong. Ya gotta start trustin' us and talkin' to us."
"Mr. Larabee, this conversation is getting a touch too maudlin for my tastes, however... I give you my word as a gentleman, I will give serious consideration to what you have said."
"I'll hold ya ta that." Larabee grinned jamming the con man's hat on top of his head. "Sure am glad ya kept your word last time ya give it to me."
"My motives were purely selfish Mr. Larabee," Ezra adjusted the flat crowned stetson on his thick hair. While recovering the gambler had recalled bits and pieces of what Chris had said, that night he and Vin had been found in the gorge. "I have no doubt, had I... folded my hand... when it came your time to leave this earthly existance you would have used that opportunity to make eternity unbearably miserable for my sorry soul." He tossed Larabee a dimpled grin. "I simply believed it wasn't worth that punishment. Shall we depart? I wouldn't want Mr. Jackson to think I'd changed my mind about no longer requiring his hospitality."
As the two men slowly moved down the boardwalk, taking their time in deference to Ezra's condition, Mrs. Potter came up beside them and fell in step with Ezra. "It's good to see you out and about again, Mr. Standish." She offered with heartfelt emotion. Since her husband's death, these men had become her family's guardian angels and she worried when any of them were ill or injured.
"Why thank you Mrs Potter. And might I say you're looking very lovely this afternoon. Is that a new dress? The color is exceptionally lovely and truly accentuates your eyes."
Chris smiled slightly at Ezra's words--that southern honeyed charm--and took the opportunity to step inside the saloon, holding aside one of the batwings.
Ezra halted beside the door and turned to Mrs. Potter. "May I have the pleasure of escorting you to your destination?"
"I'm afraid I've already arrived," The older woman smiled, taking Ezra's arm. "You could escort me inside though."
Larabee stifled a grin as the gambler's jaw dropped and he pulled back when the prim and proper Mrs. Potter stepped toward the saloon entrance.
Ezra was actually flustered, a sight Chris never thought he would see and enjoyed to the hilt. "Excuse me... but... this establishment is where you were going...? Perhaps Mr. Larabee and I could have the person you wish to see step outside... The saloon isn't a proper..."
"That would be fine except I know for a fact the gentleman I came to see isn't inside yet." She smiled sweetly at his obvious concern. No matter what the other women in town said about the gambler, she had always found him to be a proper, polite gentleman to her and her children.
"Then why..." The gambler frowned slightly his green eyes filled with puzzlement.
"Ezra, I'm sure Mrs. Potter has better things to do than standin' there in the heat gabbin' with you." Chris admoished, exasperation edging his voice. "And I know I got better things to do than standin' here bein' a door stop all afternoon."
"Of course. I do apologize to you both." With a slight bow to the older woman, Ezra stepped through the entrance and froze, his heart leaping to his throat as sudden applause filled the air. It seemed as if most of the town's residents had squeezed into the building. Several tables had been shoved together and were filled to capacity with a variety of pies and cakes. Ezra's green eyes came to rest on a carefully lettered banner strung across the back wall declaring 'Welcome back Ezra' in large bold letters. Only his usual gaming table and the one the peacekeepers used were empty.
As if sensing the con man was about to turn and bolt, Mrs. Potter's firm grip tightened on his arm pulling him further into the room, only releasing her hold when the other occupants had surrounded Ezra, barring any escape to the door. Everyone was talking at once letting the gambler know how much his presence had been missed.
Uncomfortable with the sudden attention, Ezra plastered his poker face in place, smiling and accepting the well wishes of citizens who had rarely done more than nod in his direction. Surprisingly it was Nathan who first noticed the panic in the southerner's emerald eyes as they flitted about the room, seeking out his friends. Taking pity on the overwhelmed man, the healer rushed to his patient's rescue.
"I said ya could leave the clinic Ezra, but I also said ya had to take it easy for awhile... That means until further notice, not just for five minutes." A false note of sternness entered his voice as pushing through the crowd, Nathan slipped an arm around the shorter man's shoulders and guided him to the chair next to where Vin sat, his splinted leg propped up on a stool.
"Sorry Senor Ezra but Senor Nathan said you could have only coffee to drink." Inez apologized setting the steaming cup of brew in front of him.
"That's right," Nathan snatched the cup as Ezra raised it to his lips. "And that don't mean, coffee laced with brandy."
"For heaven's sake!" Nettie Wells handed Ezra the glass of punch she'd been about to taste. "The man could die a thirst sittin' in the saloon." There was a definite glint in the old woman's eyes as she gave him a barely noticable wink.
"Glad ya decided ta stick around Ez." Vin said softly, raising his half full beer glass in a toast. Suddenly realizing everyone's attention had turned to him, their glasses also raised, the sharpshooter's cheeks flushed bright pink before he hid his face behind the mug and sank down further in the chair.
"Me too, Vin." Having seen the looks passing between Nettie and Inez, the gambler called on every ounce of his self control, giving the appropriate reaction to being forced to drink punch while the other men were enjoying their beers or whiskey, sending a slight nod of thanks and approval to the two women who smiled and winked in return. Their little ruse had worked and the healer was none the wiser, not knowing the gambler's drink was something other than just fruit juice.
Ezra stepped onto the shadowed boardwalk, taking a deep breath of fresh evening air. Despite himself, the gambler had enjoyed the afternoon festivities. He had laughed as Vin complained bitterly about only getting one piece of peach pie, blaming it on the fact he only had one good leg and couldn't serve himself. The gambler had hid his smile as leaning closer Nettie whispered to Ezra there was a whole pie waiting in the sharpshooter's room at the boarding house. That is, if Buck hadn't eaten it instead of delivering it as ordered. Until his leg was healed Nathan had refused to let the tracker use his wagon.
After an hour or so, the ladies had moved their visiting to the boarding house parlor allowing the men to relax in the saloon, enjoying themselves, drinking, gambling and flirting with the barmaids. The peacekeepers had joined Ezra in a game of chance, their seats eventually relinguished as one by one they drifted back to their usual table, allowing others the chance to lose their money.
Ezra's dimples flashed at the soft sound of a silent step behind him. "Decide to join me for a breath of fresh air, Mr. Larabee?" He asked without turning.
Chris chuckled drily. "Someday, Ezra you're gonna have ta tell me just how the hell ya do that."
"A man has to have some secrets." The gambler had learned to recognize the step of each of the peacekeepers, his senses as fine tuned to his friends as they were to his enemies. Larabee's were the easiest to learn for there was an aura of power and authority that surrounded Chris so strong as to have an almost physical presence. None of those perceptions were necessary now as the gunslinger had been hovering so close Ezra had known it was their leader who had come to check on him when he hadn't immediately returned.
"Ya okay Ezra?" Larabee leaned against the post, studying the young man as he lit a cheroot.
"Why did they do this?" The quiet question held a pensiveness the gunslinger had never heard in the cocky southerner's voice.
Chris thought about his answer for a moment. Standish wasn't foolish enough to believe everyone in the room that afternoon was there because they liked him or even gave a damn what happened to him. There were always those who hung around simply for the food and first round of free drinks. Those people Ezra could understand for their motives were blatantly clear. It was the others that had him puzzled. The con man's life had never allowed the gambler the luxury of permanent roots or the chance to let people he met become more than mere acquaintances. Larabee had to wonder if the gambler had ever had a close friend in his life. Someone not out to con or use him. Chris' little inner voice sagely pointed out, the past didn't matter for Ezra now had six close friends... and a home.
"They wanted to do somethin' nice... to show ya they care." He turned, his hazel eyes steadily meeting Ezra's emerald gaze willing the southerner to see his sincerity. "There's something ya better get into your head right now. Ya got friends in this town... People who care about ya and I ain't talkin' about just Vin and the rest a us... No matter how we ended up in Four Corners or why... We all found a home and family here Ezra... For some of us, it's a second chance and for some... like Vin... and you... it might be your first... We may not be typical but the seven of us are family and you're part a that family."
"The black sheep." The southern drawled words were laced with bitter irony and Chris couldn't help but wonder how many times that phrase had been used to the gambler's face, branding him in a sense, forever keeping him apart.
"Every family needs one. Makes life interestin' and keeps the rest of us on our toes." The gunslinger quipped, before becoming serious again. "You may be our family's black sheep but that don't mean you're cared for any less... I know ya ain't used to havin' people fret and fuss over ya but that's what families do... And that's what friends do too. Miss Nettie, Mary, Inez and the others, that party was their way a showin' a friend how much he means to 'em... And how much we'd all miss him if he weren't around."
When Ezra made no response, Chris finished the thin cigar in silence letting Ezra mull over what he'd said. Tossing the stub into the dirt he gave the gambler's shoulder a slight squeeze before returning to the saloon.
Ezra leaned wearily against the porch post, his emerald eyes moving over the quiet dusty street which was Four Corners. His gaze softened and a small smile touched his lips as he recalled Chris' words. 'People who care about ya...' He'd never had that before.
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Sassysouix would love to hear from you.
HOME | SASSYSOUIX'S FIC | TITLES | AUTHORS | UNIVERSES
This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
with corrections and additions