Disclaimer: Don't sue me, I'm just borrowing the boys for my story and I promise I won't keep them, well maybe Ezra. This is for pure entertainment and writing practice, so chill.
Copyright: August 1999
The three men raced their horses into the town, one rider voicing his exhilaration as they neared the stables. The chestnut stallion and gray pulled ahead of the paint and came to a stop just outside the huge stable doors causing a small tornado of dust to billow up around the horse's hooves. Both men grinned back at the young man who pulled up moments later, humbled annoyance showing on his boyish visage.
JD began to voice his displeasure at the outcome of the race, choking on the swirling dust. "Sorry JD, you know the rules, loser takes care of the horses," Buck laughed as he dismounted his gray gelding, proudly patting the horse's massive neck.
Ezra came up to the young Mr. Dunne, who remained on his horse, and handed him his reins. "Mr. Dunne my horse likes to partake in a little sugar and a good brushing after a long hot ride." An amused glint sparkled in the gambler's jade-green eyes. JD snatched the reins and glared at the smart-mouthed southern. Buck tried to hold in his amusement as he in turn handed JD his reins.
"We'll meet you in the nearby saloon, Mr. Dunne," Ezra added, not keeping the humor out of his own voice as he brushed dust off his red jacket.
"Don't take to long, JD you're buying the first round," Buck called back.
JD sneered as he dismounted. "I'll get even with you two," he shouted back at Ezra and Buck's retreating backs.
Ezra raised a hand without turning around. "We look forward to it, Mr. Dunne," he replied. Buck slapped Ezra on the back as he let out a laugh.
JD shook his head a small smile turning the corners of his mouth. He led the three horses into the stables.
The three peace officers had decided to stop in River Falls before returning to Four Corners. They were returning after delivering a couple prisoners for trial in Cedar Ridge and unanimously came to the decision that they deserved a little recreation and since they weren't due back until late tomorrow, what would be the harm?
Ezra had felt good this trip, especially with the camaraderie he now shared with Buck and JD, who he was feeling more and more comfortable with. It had been six months since fate had seen fit to throw seven distinct individuals together, the only common denominator between them being an over abundance of pride and stubbornness. It had taken Ezra longer than the rest to find his place within the eclectic group of gunslingers and even now he still found it hard to break from a life time of conning and lying. He had been taught to rely on number one, which made it hard to trust others, but slowly a bond was formed between the seven men and Ezra knew he could trust them with his life as they could trust him. Buck and him had grown especially close. Buck had actually shown Ezra what it was like to have a brother.
Buck and Ezra entered the lively saloon, Ezra immediately joining a poker game as Buck headed towards a pretty blond bar maid standing on the second floor balcony overlooking the crowd. Ezra noticed how the woman eyed Buck seductively and shook his head, never understanding the attraction that women seemed to have for the boorish cowboy. Now, he wasn't lacking in the feminine persuasion department and many a times both him and Buck found themselves in competition over the opposite sex, but where Buck relied on his crude wit and handsome physique. Ezra used his southern charms and handsome physique.
Buck had smoothly stepped up behind the petite young woman, removing his hat and smoothing down his mustache. The blond didn't acknowledge the virile cowboy at first. After a moment, she turned slowly around leaning back against the railing a faint smile coming to her face. She looked the ruggedly handsome man up and down not hiding her pleasure at what she saw, something that Buck was very familiar and comfortable with. Her long blond hair ran down to the middle of her back and was pulled back and held with a large red ribbon. She wore a red and black spaghetti strapped dress that revealed her ample cleavage. A black lacy shawl covered her slim, milky white shoulders.
"What can I do for you, cowboy?" Her voice was like a soft breeze with a hint of rustling leaves and Buck started thinking of answers to her question, most of which he couldn't verbalize in public.
Ezra glanced up from his seat to see the gregarious cowboy making his usual demonstrative moves on the fairer sex and grinned. His attention was brought back to the table as another player folded leaving only himself and another nicely dressed gentleman, who Ezra knew was cheating. The only reason he didn't call him on it as he laid down his full house aces high, was that he cheated better. Ezra raked in the pot under the glare of the man's gray eyes.
Buck was so enthralled with the young blond woman that he failed to notice a rather large, thick-necked looking man come up behind him until he heard the gravelly voice.
"Hey, fellow that's my woman!"
Buck waved him away without turning around, keeping his attention on the pretty young woman who laid a hand on his waist. "There's plenty of women, go find someone else." Buck ran a finger down the woman's soft cheek.
The slovenly man grabbed Buck by the shoulder and spun him around. Before Buck could voice or show his annoyance the man's fist connected with his jaw sending the bewildered cowboy somersaulting down the stairs. Ezra heard the crash and looked up to see Buck tumbling down the stairs. "Awww hell," he muttered and stood up only to have a revolver pointed in his face by the gentleman who had just lost to him. Ezra quickly grabbed the man's arm twisting and slamming it down upon the table causing the gentleman to wince. Ezra then ejected his derringer into the surprised man's face.
Ezra looked up momentarily to see how Buck was. He had reached the bottom and was rubbing his head as he sat up, Ezra could see that his friend appeared to be in one piece. From across the room another man raised his gun unnoticed and fired striking Ezra in the forearm. He yelped and grabbed his arm trying to stop the bleeding as he went down on one knee. Buck rushed to his side just as the Sheriff appeared with two deputies, both with guns drawn. The Sheriff was a middle aged man with salt and pepper hair. He had a slight paunch and his face was pockmarked giving him a puffy look, like someone who had found themselves in confrontation with a swarm of bees. Buck noticed how quiet the saloon had become when the Sheriff entered. He could heard Ezra's quick gasps as he tried to gain control over the pain. Buck grabbed a rag off one of the bar maids trays and tied off Ezra's arm as the sheriff and his deputies approached them. A smile on the Sheriff's face sent a shiver of dread down Buck's spine.
It was usually Ezra or Vin who could read people, but the Sheriff was like an open book and even JD would have been able to see that this man was dangerous.
"Okay you two, you're under arrest," he bellowed.
"What? We didn't do anything. That belly draggin' son of a whore up there threw me down the stairs and someone shot him," Buck yelled helping Ezra to his feet. The two deputies came over and stripped the men of their weapons as Buck stood unbelieving. What was going on here? He had been to this town before about a year ago, but this Sheriff and his deputies weren't here then. Buck hoped that JD didn't suddenly appear or things could get ugly in a hurry.
"What is the charge?" Ezra managed to ask through gritted teeth.
"Disturbing the peace," the Sheriff sneered a crooked smile on his puffy face.
"You have got to be kidding," Ezra said. "Why don't you ask some of these good people here what happened?"
The Sheriff glanced around the bar. Buck and Ezra didn't fail to notice how everyone turned from this man's glance. The Sheriff called out to a man dressed in a short dark coat and black pants.
"Harold! What happened?"
A slow smile formed on Harold's gaunt face and Ezra bowed his head in defeat.
"That one," he pointed towards Buck. "Was bothering a waitress and the gambler pulled a gun on Mr. Hanson." The Sheriff looked over to Mr. Hanson who had resumed his seat at the poker table. He also smiled and raised his beer to the Sheriff.
"Well, I'm satisfied," the Sheriff announced. Ezra's head came up, his green eyes narrowed as he stepped forward. "This is a gross miscarriage of justice..." Buck put a hand on Ezra's shoulder to stop him from continuing, he had a bad feeling about this.
The deputies prodded their guns into Ezra and Buck's back forcing them out of the saloon. As they left they failed to witness the man who had thrown Buck down the stairs hand the young blond woman several bills which she stuffed down the front of her dress then ascended the stairs to the upper rooms. The Sheriff nodded towards Harold who leaned against the bar, smiled and returned to his beer.
Tables were quickly righted and blood was moped up, everyone resumed their normal activities like nothing had happened. A few moments later JD entered, his brow furrowed as he saw no sign of Buck or Ezra. He had taken his time with the horses giving them a little extra care since he felt they deserved it. He didn't think Buck would leave without telling him where he was going. He thought maybe he had already made a conquest, but Ezra would still be at the poker tables. JD removed his bowler and ran his hand through his long dark hair in confusion. A petite dark hair girl who was trying to appear older than she probably was sidled up to the cute gunslinger sliding her arm through his. She smiled at his flustered expression.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" She quietly asked running her hand down JD's arm causing goose bumps to climb up his arm and his face to flush.
"Ah, I'm looking for two friends of mine," he stammered, pretending he was still searching the room for his friends, but stealing glances of the petite girl. JD saw the girl's face drop and her eyes dart around the bar room. She grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out the swinging doors and down a nearby alley way, looking over her shoulder the whole time.
"Hey, what are you doing?" He finally shouted pulling his arm free of her grasp.
The girl put her hands on JD's chest, he could see the fear in her large dark eyes. "Listen, forget about your friends."
"What! do you know where they are?" JD asked trying to keep the growing panic out of his voice.
"Sheriff Durham took them in for disturbing the peace," she explained to the young gunslinger.
JD relaxed and chuckled slightly, he couldn't believe it. He had been gone for thirty minutes and they had managed to get in trouble, it had to be a record. He'd never let Buck live this down. "Well, I'll just go and bail 'em out," JD intoned with amusement starting to walk away.
The young girl grabbed his arm stopping him. "No, you don't understand. The charges are bogus. It was a setup." The girl flashed frightened eyes down the alley afraid that someone would come down at any minute and see her talking to the young gunslinger.
"What?" JD ran his hand through his long dark hair trying to figure out what was going on. He thought maybe Buck had put this girl up to this, but the look in her eyes showed him she was really scared.
"The Sheriff arrests men to use out on his ranch and farm to clear land and plant. No one ever returns," she explains.
"Well Miss, your Sheriff picked the wrong men to arrest," JD said. The Sheriff didn't know what kind of trouble he just bought himself.
"If you go over there you'll end up just like your friends. The Sheriff has to many men and he's to powerful."
JD stopped to think, he knew many of his rash acts had ended with the Seven coming to his rescue and saving his butt. He realized if he was taken too there would be no one to tell the others. JD decided that he needed to get help if he was to save his friends and with this thought he realized he had grown up quite a bit in the past few months. He now knew when to ask for help and to stop trying to prove himself.
"I won't have to, I have friends who will stop him," JD stated placing his bowler back on his head. Before he turned to leave he asked, "Why are you helping me?"
The young girl's hazel eyes came up and stared into JD's brown ones. She gave JD a kiss. "Because you're cute and I hate what the Sheriff is doing." The smile left her face as she remembered something. "You better hurry, your friend, the fancy dressed one was wounded. The wounded never last long."
JD ran back to the stables and moments later came galloping out heading back to Four Corners, he only hoped he wouldn't be to late.
Buck and Ezra were thrown into the only cell and were the only prisoners. Buck ripped up the sheet which laid on the single cot. Ezra sat down and leaned back against the wall as Buck took off the blood soak cloth that he had put on in the bar and checked the wound. Luckily, the bullet had gone clean through. He wrapped up the wound finding that the bleeding had finally stopped. Ezra hissed as Buck tighten the bandage.
"I don't suppose you know what's transpiring here, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked with closed eyes. The throbbing in his arm easing slightly.
"Your guess is as good as mine." Buck went up to the bars and peered out, he could see the sheriff and his deputies in a conversation in the outer room. He didn't like the feel of this. He must be spending too much time with Vin and Ezra they were rubbing off on him he thought inwardly.
"It doesn't appear that this cell has seen much in the way of prisoners," Ezra casually remarked noticing several cobwebs which had formed in the corners of the cell and the thin layer of dust on the slab floor which he absently scuffed.
The sheriff and his deputies broke from their conversation and approached the cell door where Buck stood arms crossed over his chest. The Sheriff ignored Buck's obvious disgust.
"Gentlemen, I'm Sheriff Durham. Now, your stay here could be unpleasant or down right miserable. You can do your time with little trouble then get out."
Buck regarded the Sheriff with a sardonic grin. "Sheriff..." Buck began until Ezra jumped in interrupting what he feared Buck was about to say.
"And how much time are we talking about?" Ezra ventured to ask. The Sheriff turned to his men. "Oh, I haven't decided yet."
The Sheriff grabbed the keys from off the wall and unlocked the cell door. The two deputies, who looked almost like brothers with the same dirty blond hair and slim build, held their guns on the two men. "Okay, lets go," Sheriff Durham ordered.
"Where are we going?" Ezra ventured to ask.
"Out to the work farm where all my prisoners go." The Sheriff eyed the gambler hoping he would get some decent work out of him.
"What! We haven't even had a trial yet or talked to a lawyer," Ezra angrily replied not liking the idea of a work farm.
"Oh, we do things a bit differently here." The Sheriff motioned with his gun for the two men to step out. One of the deputies quickly slapped handcuffs on both men. Ezra could see the black prison wagon out front.
Buck was shoved in first then one of the deputies grabbed Ezra's injured arm and squeezed disappointed when he didn't get a reaction. When the door slammed shut, Ezra released the breath he was holding and clenched his jaw at the pain that ran up his arm. Buck checked the wound making sure it hadn't started bleeding. The wagon started, throwing the men back slightly.
"Ezra, I think we're in a world of trouble." Buck sat with his knees bent up to his chest. Ezra held his arm trying to peer out the four inch slit in the side of the wagon.
"We can only hope that Mr. Dunne discovers what has happened and wisely goes for help."
It was only about half an hour when the wagon finally came to a stop, which was none to soon. The midday sun had turned the black prison wagon into a sweltering oven. The heat sapped the strength from both men and as they were forced out had to grab hold of each other for a moment for support. They were in placed in front of a low, wooden structure, which looked like an army barracks of some type. Six other men of various ages were lined up in front of it. Buck and Ezra were shoved over to the end of the line. They looked down as one of the deputies came and put leg shackles on them then removed their handcuffs and coats.
"Shit, that was my best jacket," Ezra complained.
Buck noticed how dejected the men in line looked and wondered how long they'd been here. None of them said a word and they kept their eyes down as the Sheriff paraded past. He stopped in the center of the eight shackled men slapping a riding crop against his leg. "Okay, we have some new recruits, you all better enlighten them on the rules of survival here. You do your work and you live." A buckboard wagon pulled up behind the Sheriff.
The eight shackled men were ushered onto the wagon which traveled about two miles up a dirt trail which then opened up onto a rocky field. The sun was already heading for the horizon, but its heat refused to release its hold on the day.
The eight men were forced out and handed shovels and hoes. Five men, three on horseback all armed, watched every move. Buck and Ezra followed the other prisoners methodical moves. They stopped and watched as the six other men began breaking up the hard soil and unearthing rocks. Some were directed over to some uncompleted wooden fencing. A shot at Buck and Ezra's feet broke their reveries and they began to work.
A blond hair man who appeared older than he probably was sidled up to Buck. He continued to work and whispered out the side of his mouth. "Listen, you work and you eat and you're not punished and maybe you'll live long enough to escape."
"How long have you been here?" Buck asked using a shovel to dig up a large rock which Ezra grabbed and pulled out.
"About three months I've been here the longest, most either die or they disappear when they can no longer work." The nervous man looked around quickly then added, "I'm Cole." He nodded towards a black man who dug a few feet away. "That's my partner, Thomas."
"Well friend, I'm Buck this is Ezra and we don't plan on being here that long, we have friends who will come for us."
"Sheriff Durham has six heavily armed men here and several more in town who get him fresh workers. He uses us as free labor for his ranch."
"What did they get you for?" Ezra asked wiping his sleeve across his sweat covered brow.
Cole hung his head and chuckled. "For being nice to a bar maid." Ezra glanced up at Buck who closed his eyes in disgust. Someday he'd learn to not always trust a female. "Thomas tried to stand up for me and they got him too. Everyone here has a some kind of bogus charge. No one sees a lawyer or even a judge."
A shot threw dirt up at the three men's feet. "Get to work!"
Buck glared at the snarling guard until Ezra placed his hand on his shoulder. "Now is not the time Mr. Wilmington," Ezra whispered.
Cole drifted away as Buck and Ezra continued working. Ezra grimaced at the ache in his arm. The prisoners were forced to work for hours as the sun slowly slipped down towards the horizon. Buck stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow, licking his dry lips. He looked to Ezra and noticed, for someone who avoided menial labor he could work pretty hard with the right motivation. Buck smiled inwardly thinking that a bullet was pretty persuasive for anyone. Ezra leaned upon his hoe his whole arm now throbbing in protest at its use.
An elderly man faltered and fell to his knees a couple feet from Buck who stepped over and took his arm helping him up. The man looked up at the helpful gunslinger and smiled until he sees the guard over Buck's shoulder glaring at him. Buck can feel the guard's eyes upon his back.
"Are you okay?" Buck asked ignoring the guard behind him. Ezra tensed, fearful for his friend. The old man patted Buck's steadying hand.
"Thank you, son." Buck released his hold and turned to face the guard whose booted foot shot out striking him on the chin and knocking him to the ground. Ezra rushed to his side as fast as his chained legs would allow. Buck glared up at the guard rubbing his chin.
"Stop loafing and get to work," the guard sneered nudging his horse away. Ezra gave Buck a hand up.
"You okay, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Buck said as he continued to glare at the guard rubbing his sore chin.
Something catches Ezra's eye and he casually kneels down appearing to pick up a rock he brushes dirt away to reveal a two inch piece of barb wire. He smiles as he palms it.
As night finally descends the men are ushered back into the wagon and returned to the barracks. They had been given very little food or water throughout the long hot day and both Buck and Ezra were feeling the effects. They were marched into the long, low building. A single lantern illuminating twelve bunk beds which lined the walls, most with nothing more than a thin mattress to sleep on. Buck and Ezra grabbed two nearby bottom bunks. Ezra winced and grabbed his arm as he laid his aching and tired body down not even minding the dirty state of the mattress.
"Let me take a look at your arm, Ezra," Buck demanded.
Ezra sat up as Buck joined him on the bunk he helped Ezra ease out of his shirt and sees that the wound had bled slightly. "We need to clean that somehow."
The rest of the prisoners had already retired to their bunks and several soft snores resounded through the building. Ezra removed the piece of metal from his waist band and held it up.
"What's that?" Buck could just barely make out the piece of wire Ezra rolled between his fingers.
"Our salvation, Mr. Wilmington, our salvation."
"Why don't we just wait until the others come and rescue us."
"Because Mr. Wilmington, if our captors discover we are peace officers out of Four Corners I wouldn't give good odds on our survival."
Buck hadn't thought of that, then understood why Ezra had stopped him in the cell from revealing who they were. What the sheriff was doing was illegal. Buck knew that no one left here alive. If it was discovered who they were it would leave the Sheriff no choice but to dispose of them quickly. Buck and Ezra sat up part of the night discussing their plans. They decided to wait to the last minute to tell the others, since they didn't know who they could trust. Desperate and broken men did many things in captivity in order to survive.
At the crack of dawn the men were rousted back into the wagon. They were given a small drink of water and a piece of stale bread.
Ezra's arm throbbed and he realized he had a slight fever, but he kept silent, he didn't want to worry Buck. He planned on picking the locks on everyone's shackles during their mid morning break. Hopefully, they would be able to get the jump on the guards. It was a risky plan, but one they needed to take.
The men were again forced to clear the rocky field preparing it for planting in the spring. Ezra only noticed three guards watching over them. A whistle blew and the men dropped their tools and moved over to the wagon where they were given a cup of water and another slice of bread.
"Your menu has a lot to be desired, sir," Ezra sneered at the guard who was handing out the food.
The eight men sat in the only shade of several nearby trees. About thirty yards away stood a dense woods with a slight drop off to a stream. Ezra and Buck felt if they could make it there they would have a chance. Ezra gave his bread to one of the other prisoners who looked like he could use it more than him. Buck shifted his body placing himself in front of Ezra who pulled out the piece of wire. It took only a second for the multi-talented cardsharp to unlock his shackles, which totally amazed Buck. He quickly proceeded to free Buck then the others. The men were scared and beaten almost to the breaking point, but when Ezra unlocked their shackles it brought renewed hope to their faces.
"Okay everyone when I say run everyone scatter and head for the trees," Buck explained. Him and Ezra had planned on staying together and only separating if there was no other choice. Buck knew Ezra was weak from blood loss and the poor diet they were forced to live on. Ezra still believed he could hide his feelings behind his infamous poker face, but Buck had learned to read that face from time to time.
The plan almost worked. The guards came over to the men to get them on their feet, they hadn't noticed that they no longer were shackled due to the long grass. Buck and Ezra easily took out two of the guards, the others grabbed the third throwing him against a tree and knocking him unconscious. The eight men raced across the field, but stopped as several gun shots tore dirt up in front of them. Three more guards appearing from behind the trees.
The prisoner's hands were tied in front of them and they were all ponied to the back of the wagon. Ezra and Buck helped several stay on their feet as they were forced to run behind the wagon all the way back to the barracks. Sheriff Durham approached. He glared at the eight men who were forced to stand in line, gasping and exhausted, fighting to stay on their feet.
"Now, who picked the locks on the shackles?" The Sheriff held one of the opened shackles in his hands.
No one said a word.
"Okay have it your way, ten lashes for everyone and no dinner."
Ezra was about to step forward when a low voice from down the line rose up. "I did it!" Ezra turned a stunned face to look at Cole who had just admitted to the escape attempt. Then he heard another voice and this time his heart sank.
"I did it," Buck admitted.
Ezra bowed his head at Buck's foolhardy admission. Then Ezra heard others also admitting to his act. Ezra couldn't believe it, these men were trying to protect him. Five men admitted to the escape attempt.
Ezra was not about to let someone else take the blame or credit for his foolhardy endeavor. He removed the piece of metal from his waist band and threw it at the Sheriff's feet who looked down at it then gave Ezra a baneful smile. He motioned for his guards to take him. Buck lunged out trying to stop them. One of the guards brought the butt of his rifle into Buck's stomach forcing the air out of his lungs and bringing Buck to his knees. He still fought to stand and go after Ezra, but some of the other prisoners grabbed him saving him from further abuse.
Ezra was led to a weathered post in the center of the compound. His hands were then tied above his head.
"Since you all saw fit to protect this man, you all can be witness to his punishment," Sheriff Durham stated, staring at Buck whose fists were clenched in helpless rage.
A large guard appeared carrying a huge braided bull whip. The Sheriff came up to Ezra and took hold of his jaw forcing him to look at him. "You think you're pretty smart, pretty boy, eh?"
"Smarter than you, you sadistic son of a bitch." Ezra couldn't believe he had used such profanity, but he was scared. A cold sweat had broken out all over his body. He closed his eyes and tried to control the panic that threatened to overwhelm him.
The Sheriff smiled and grabbed Ezra's wounded arm squeezing until the blood flowed freely. Ezra bit back the scream refusing to give this man any more sick pleasure. Durham soon lost interest and turned away waving his hand at the large guard who stepped forward. "Proceed with the punishment."
Ezra heard the crack of the whip next to him and tensed in dread of the pain to come. His face rested on the rough post and he closed his eyes.
The whip licked at his back tearing at the tender flesh. Ezra's biceps bulged as he tried to pull up and away. The whip came again across his shoulders, it only lasted a second, but the pain burned into his brain. Another lash came over his right shoulder, he could feel the skin being ripped open. Buck winced every time the whip struck at Ezra's back, he wanted to scream out for him as Ezra had refused to make a sound.
The prisoners were forced to stand in the early afternoon heat to watch Ezra's tortured body twitch in unconscious pain as the last of the lashes was administered. Buck's cheeks were streaked with tears as
he looked upon Ezra's bloodied back. His shirt in tatters soaked in his blood. Ezra's head rested on his left shoulder. The ropes cutting into his wrists as his body hung limp.
Tears clouded Buck's vision as he watched two deputies go over to Ezra's limp body and cut him down. His chin fell to his chest, as they dragged him over to a small black box which sat a few feet away. Buck had not noticed the strange cube object until now. It was barely big enough for a man to sit up in. Buck stared in fear as Ezra was forced inside the small box.
"You're going to kill him!" Buck cried out. Sheriff Durham came up to Buck slapping the riding crop across his barreled chest causing Buck to flinch. Two guards aimed rifles at the mustached cowboy keeping him back.
"That's the idea," he sneered. "I can't allow a troublemaker to stir things up I'm going to make an example of him."
Everyone was forced back into the barracks. Buck went to one of the small windows and stared out at the black box in the compound. Cole came over and placed a hand on Buck's shoulder.
"Why did you all try and protect Ezra?" Buck asked his eyes still on the box.
"Because Buck, both of you gave us the first glimmer of hope that any of us have had in months."
"How long can he last in there?"
Cole bowed his head and sadly replied, "Most don't last more than two days, and your friend was not in good shape."
Buck continued to look out the window staring at the black box even as night fell.
Ezra jerked awake gasping for breath. He didn't know where he was, the pain of his tortured back and arm being of more concern. His knees were bent up almost to his chest. He was slouched down, his shoulders resting against the hot metal. He could feel the box getting hotter, the air stifling. He fingered the only two holes in the top allowing what little air and light could force its way in. He hoped Buck was alright. Ezra tried to remain conscious, but the suffocating heat and his weaken body was too much he succumbed to blissful unconsciousness.
As night came the box cooled and Ezra regained consciousness striking his head on the ceiling of his restrictive prison. The darkness was almost as suffocating as the day's heat. He felt alone and very vulnerable. He knew he had lost a lot of blood as his shoulders and back stuck to the floor and wall of his small prison. He tried to keep his breathing even and maintain control. His muscles were cramping with being in the same positions for so long. With night Ezra couldn't
even have the slight comfort of the two holes which allowed some light and air in. It was like he was in a empty void, he couldn't hear a sound, but his own labored breathing.
Faces appeared, seeming to float in front of him. At first it was Buck's jovial, mustached face, grinning at him, then JD and Chris, Ezra chuckled slightly. His fever climbed and tremors began to take control of his body. He wrapped his arms around himself. The faces distorted into the disapproving countenance of his mother and cruel sneer of his uncle. Ezra tried to shake away the visions, trying to hold on to his sanity.
He saw himself moving towards the edge of a cliff trying to stop himself from going over. He heard his uncle's laughter the same laugh he heard
as a child when his uncle beat him. He looked down from the top of the
cliff into a foggy abyss, he continued to fight as his foot slipped past the edge. Ezra screamed as he felt himself falling.
Buck bolted up in bed striking his head on the upper buck. He didn't know what woke him at first until he heard the scream and his blood ran cold.
The next morning everyone was once again shackled and forced onto the wagon. Buck hadn't gone back to sleep he listened as Ezra screamed
and ranted for two hours before becoming silent. All day Buck toiled under the relentless sun, ignoring his aching muscles and the hunger in
his belly. His thoughts only of Ezra hoping the others came soon.
The five gunslingers rode into River Falls early that afternoon and pulled up in front of the sheriff's office. Chris Larabee dismounted and tied his horse to the railing followed by the others. JD stepped up to the dark-clad man.
"So what's the plan, Chris?" JD asked anxiously. He had rode hard to reach Four Corners and the others and it showed on his tired visage. Dark circles underscored his dark eyes.
"You say the Sheriff is behind this?"
"Okay, we get him to show us where they are?" Chris pushed back his black hat giving JD and the others a knowing smile. No one messed with his men.
The five formidable men entered the Sheriff's office to find Sheriff Durham sitting behind a large wooden desk with two deputies on either side.
"What can I do for you gentlemen?" He asked looking up.
"I'm Chris Larabee the unofficial law of Four Corners."
"Ah, yes I've heard of you and your assorted lawmen." The Sheriff looked at the five men leaning back in his chair. "But I thought there were seven of you?"
"There are, that's why we're here. Two of my men seem to of disappeared and we have reason to believe they were last seen here."
"Really?" The Sheriff asked trying to sound incredulous, but not really pulling it off.
"You don't have any problem if we take a look around?" Chris asked, his steel blue eyes locked onto the Sheriff's until he dropped them away from the sedate gunslinger.
"Not at all, what do these lost souls look like, I'll have my men keep a look out."
"One's a cocky cowboy type, the other's a gambler, dresses real fancy."
Vin noticed one of the Sheriff's men shift nervously, his hand resting upon his gun. Vin turned his body so his cradled mare's leg now pointed directly at the man, who then slowly moved his hand away from his gun.
Chris noticed the silent battle between Vin and the deputy. He tipped his hat and walked out followed by the others. Vin and Josiah not turning their backs on the Sheriff and his deputies.
The Sheriff slammed his fist on the desk and turned to his deputies. "Get out to the farm and have the men brought in. We might have to get rid of all of them and lay low for awhile. I'll meet you at the compound." The Sheriff didn't like this, he was going to lose time. He'd probably have to hire help now to finish getting his land ready for planting season, that meant lost profits. He came to this town ten months ago and took the job of Sheriff. A month later he was given the opportunity to buy a ranch just outside town. The idea of using prisoners as free labor was a common practice, but Sheriff Durham realized he'd never have enough prisoners at any one time to do all the work, that's when he decided to arrest any newcomers on bogus charges. He had hired
a gang of desperadoes to keep the town's people in line and help gather
workers. Now it appeared his little enterprise was threatened.
Buck knew something was up when he saw Sheriff Durham's two deputies come tearing across the field. It was still fairly early the sun riding just above the distant horizon. Everyone was rushed into the wagon and they headed back to the compound.
When they reached the compound Buck stared at the black box realizing it was becoming Ezra's coffin. The men were forced into line and looked up as Durham approached with six armed men. The hair on the back of Buck's neck prickled.
No one noticed the five men up on the slight rise overlooking the compound.
"What do you see, Vin?" Chris asked crawling up next to the tracker.
"I see Buck and six other men, all shackled. I count six armed men with the Sheriff." Vin paused a moment. "No sign of Ezra." Vin saw the Sheriff and his six men move towards the prisoners. "Chris, I think we better do somethin' and fast."
Chris removed his revolver and checked the chambers the others doing the same. "Well let's make ourselves known."
The five mounted their horses and as one charged down the hill with guns blazing.
Gun fire erupted all around bringing a smile to Buck's face and surprise to Sheriff Durham's. The Sheriff and his men turned to see the five gunslingers charging down the hill. He swore and drew his pistol.
"Get down!" Buck yelled at the prisoners. Everyone dropped to the ground covering their heads.
The Sheriff and his men returned fire then scattered, taking cover.
Buck crawled over to the black box ignoring the gun fire around him, bullets striking the ground just inches from his head.
When he reached the box he stared at the padlock. Chris had watch in bewilderment and fear as Buck dragged himself across the compound heading towards a black box. Chris didn't know why, but he kept him covered just the same, shooting one of the guards who was taking aim at him. Chris raced up to Buck jumping from his horse shooting, keeping the guards pinned down behind the building.
"Chris! shoot the lock, Ezra's in here!" Buck shouted.
Chris swore and turned his gun as Buck rolled to the other side. The shot blew the lock open then Chris returned his attention to the guards and protecting Buck. Buck paused a moment afraid that Ezra might already be dead. He then removed the lock allowing the side to fall open. Ezra tumbled out his eyes closed. Buck collected up the limp form of his friend and slouched down behind the box for protection.
The gun shots slowly faded as the guards realized they were beaten and surrendered. Chris and Vin forced three of the Sheriff's men over towards Buck. Three more laid where they fell, JD quickly checking to be sure they were dead. Josiah shoved the Sheriff into his three remaining men. Looking at Buck, Ezra and the other prisoners Josiah never wanted to kill a man so badly in his life.
Nathan raced up to Buck and slid to the ground next to him.
"Ohmygod, what happened to him?" JD asked now standing over him. Buck refused to relinquish his hold on the pallid gambler, his arms covered with Ezra's blood. Buck looked down into Ezra's slack face, his hair hanging limping against his scalp. Josiah had found the keys to the shackles and removed Buck's leg irons then threw the keys to one of the other prisoners.
"Buck, I need to look at him," Nathan talked quietly. He didn't think Buck was in to good of shape either. He noticed his blood torn ankles. Ezra started to shake violently and Nathan could see his arm and back were seriously infected and he was dangerously dehydrated, his skin pale and dry.
"How long was he in the box, Buck?"
It was a moment before Buck replied the words seeming to not register. "Since yesterday morning," he finally replied with a detachedness that worried both JD and Nathan.
Josiah came over to JD and Nathan to help, Chris and Vin kept their guns trained on the four men before them.
Ezra's eyes snapped open and he started fighting and screaming. Buck, Nathan and Josiah grabbed the thrashing man who was yelling incoherently. He was still seeing the demons that plagued his fevered mind, refusing to release their hold on him.
"JD get my bag, quick!" Nathan laid on top of Ezra's legs as Buck held him tighter against his chest.
"Nathan what's wrong with him?" Chris yelled above Ezra's ranting. He could see the fear in Ezra's wild green eyes and was suddenly very afraid for the conman. He looked at the Sheriff wanting badly to pull the trigger of his gun and the Sheriff saw this, bringing fear to his own face.
"He's hallucinating," Nathan explained. JD returned with Nat's bag and took over for Nathan holding on to Ezra .
Nathan removed a bottle of ether and a cloth. He placed a couple drops on the cloth then moved to place it over Ezra's mouth and nose. Ezra's eyes rolled up into his head and he settled down. Nathan searched for a pulse, finding a quick weak beat under his fingers. His breathing was shallow and labored and Nathan could feel the heat rising off his tortured body.
Josiah noticed the strain and exhaustion on Buck's face and gently pushed him out from behind Ezra and took his place.
Buck hung his head then slowly raise it to see Sheriff Durham among the others. His rage took over. Before anyone could stop him or knew what was happening, Buck lunged at the Sheriff the two men falling to the ground, Buck's hands around his throat. The Sheriff's eyes wide in fear as he stared up at the deranged man who was intent on killing him. Buck felt hands on his shoulders, but shrugged them off then the hands got stronger and began pulling at the enraged gunslinger, but his rage was stronger. Vin and JD were unable to break his hold. Chris could not move to help, his gun still trained on the three guards. Josiah passed Ezra's limp body to Nathan and quickly moved to Buck bringing his face down next to his.
"Buck, let him go. Ezra wouldn't want this," Josiah said keeping his voice even and calm. Behind his back he turned his gun around taking hold of the barrel, prepared to strike his infuriated friend if he didn't relinquish his hold. Josiah didn't want Buck to have to live with the thought of strangling a man with his bare hands.
Vin and JD stopped trying to pull Buck off the Sheriff hoping that Josiah could calm him. JD had never seen his high-spirited friend so incensed.
Tears fell down Buck's cheek as his hands eased their death grip on the Sheriff's throat. Sheriff Durham rolled away coughing and choking as he rubbed his freed throat gulping in much needed air.
JD and Vin helped Buck up continuing to hold him, feeling just how unsteady he was. Buck slumped in JD and Vin's grasp and they slowly lowered him to the ground. Josiah placed an arm across his shoulders.
"Thanks, Josiah," Buck quietly said.
Chris forced the Sheriff and guards into the building, shutting and locking the door. He returned to Nathan who was trying to clean Ezra's wounds.
Chris had to swallow the vile that came up suddenly in his throat as he
looked down at Ezra's ripped and torn back. Nathan answered Chris' silent question. "He's severely dehydrated and running a fever we need to get him to some shade."
Cole stepped forward. "There's a stream and tree cover behind the building." The other released prisoners watched from a distance, not wanting to intrude, they could see how these men took care of their
own, almost like family.
Josiah and Vin carefully lifted Ezra and carried him to the nearby stream. They laid him down on his stomach so Nathan could clean the wounds on his back. He saw that some of the lashes were deep and would require stitches. Ezra moaned softly but didn't regain consciousness.
"We have to get fluids into him," Nathan instructed. Buck had managed to walk over with JD's help. He sat down leaning against the tree staring as Nathan administered to Ezra. After he had done all he could on Ezra's mutilated back he turned him over leaning him up against Josiah to keep his back out of the dirt.
Nathan brought a cup of water to Ezra's chapped, dry lips. He was only semi-conscious, but his body's need for water was enough to allow him to drink. Nathan looked over at Buck whose brown eyes glistened with impending tears. Nathan laid a hand on the cowboy's leg. "Buck, he'll be okay," Nathan tried to assure. Buck only gave him a half smile.
Chris paced the ground like a caged animal his fists clenching and unclenching. He stopped in front of Vin. "Vin go to Cedar Ridge and get the law, tell them what happened, we'll wait for you."
Vin took one more look at Ezra and turned away heading for his horse.
Chris realized some of them could of taken the Sheriff and his men to Cedar Ridge, but Buck was in no condition to travel and would probably not leave Ezra's side anyway. Ezra and needed Nathan and Josiah. Chris also had to admit he had no desire to leave Ezra's side. He knew Vin was also reluctant, but knew it was better this way.
Chris knelt down beside Ezra, his face slack and pale it was hard to even ascertain if he was breathing. Josiah ran a cool cloth over his face as he continued to support him.
"Nathan, will he be ready to travel soon?" Chris asked staring at the handsome face looking for any sign of life.
Nathan placed his hand on Ezra's fevered brow looking at the pale color. "If we can get enough water into him and his fever doesn't get any worse, maybe tomorrow. I'll clean his back the best I can. He would be better off in town where I have more supplies to treat him."
Chris nodded his understanding.
Early the next day Vin returned and Chris turned over the Sheriff and his men. The Sheriff never realized how lucky he was that Larabee hadn't shot him outright. Buck said he would return to Cedar Ridge next week to testify. Cole also said he would return, of which Buck was exceedingly grateful. The other falsely accused prisoners slowly went on their way to continue the lives that were so grievously and brutally interrupted.
The Seven rode out, Josiah sharing a saddle with Ezra who was now wearing one of his shirts. He had remained unconscious throughout the night with only occasional moans and rants. Buck fought to stay awake, but after a good meal and plenty of water he too succumbed to his body's weaken state and need for rest. They had to stop often for Nathan could continue to give Ezra water. He still kept having delusions of being in the box and dying alone.
Buck rode up alongside seeing Ezra's tortured and fevered mind lay claim to his body. Ezra's knees would come up to his chest and he would tremble, Josiah would hold him a little tighter until he went limp. Josiah looked over at Buck with sad eyes.
Chris came up alongside Buck seeing the torment he was going through. He knew the fun-loving gunslinger was blaming himself.
"It's not your fault, Buck," Chris said solemnly.
"I couldn't stop it, I could only watch as they whipped him." Buck squeezed the saddle horn tighter as the vision of Ezra's body being ripped apart replayed itself in his mind.
"There was nothing you could of done, if you'd of tried you would have been killed, then where would Ezra be? Do you think he would of wanted to live with your death?" Chris told the distraught gunslinger. He knew that Buck and Ezra had grown close over the past few months, which in itself was a major accomplishment. Standish did not make it easy for anyone to get close. Chris promised himself to make more of an effort to get to know the stalwart gambler. Hopefully, he could do it without both of them killing each other.
The Seven rode solemnly into town, Ezra's fever had risen and he was refusing to take anymore water. Josiah carried his limp body up to Nathan's clinic.
"Buck I want you up there too, I need to check you over," Nathan said.
"I'm fine Nathan, take care of Ezra." Chris came up alongside placing a hand on the mustached cowboy's shoulder forcing him to follow Nathan.
Josiah placed Ezra gently down on his side, on the bed, in Nathan's makeshift clinic. Nathan, Chris and Buck entered and looked at the pale form that curled up into a loose ball. Chris felt the tremor go through Buck as he let out a fearful breath. Chris guided Buck over to a chair and forced him to sit which wasn't hard. Buck was numb, completely detached just staring down at his friend hearing the screams in his head and unable to help. JD and Vin entered and quietly lined up against the far wall. Josiah helped Nathan remove his shirt from Ezra, then they carefully undid the bandages with Josiah holding Ezra up by the shoulders. Some of the lashes were deep and Nathan wanted to stitch them up, they laid Ezra down on his stomach hearing him mumble something.
Everyone watched as Nathan stitched up some of the worse of the lashes, Josiah was able to hold the weakened gambler still. Everyone heard the pleading in Ezra's voice when he begged not to be left alone to die. This broke their hearts, they knew this was Ezra's biggest fear. After Nathan stitched him up he tried to get Ezra to drink some water without much success. Buck and Chris moved in to help. Chris held Ezra's head forward and Buck pinched his nose until his mouth opened. Nathan quickly tipped the cup allowing a small amount of water to flow into his mouth. They did this several times until Nathan felt confident that he had enough for now. They laid him back down and Nathan brought the coverlet up to his chin.
"Is he goin' to be alright?" Buck asked.
"Physically, I think so, the infections seem to be clearing up. I just wish his fever would go down. Someone's goin' to have to watch over him, he might continue to have hallucinations and might hurt himself."
"We'll all take turns," Chris replied. "Except you Buck, you need to get some rest."
"I'm fine, Chris," Buck said rather brusquely not leaving much room for any discussion. He sat himself down in the chair next to Ezra's head he reached over gently pushing the brown hair back off his brow. Chris looked over at Nathan who nodded slightly. He knew Buck hadn't gotten much sleep lately. He had been plagued with nightmares, which didn't surprise anyone.
"You can stay only if you'll let me check you out, Buck," Nathan suggested. Buck nodded as Chris quietly exited the room. Nathan re-wrapped Buck's
chafed ankles and put more balm on the lash across his chest. He then gave Buck some birch bark tea to help with his slight fever. He slipped in something to make him sleep. Nathan waited for awhile until Buck dozed off in the chair next to Ezra. He then went out the door, not surprised to find Chris and Josiah sitting just outside, waiting. They carried the sleep deprived man to his room.
Throughout the day everyone took turns watching over the suffering gambler. Ezra's time in the box had thrown him back to a time when he was a child, left with an Uncle who would occasionally throw him into a small, dark root cellar and leave him for days. Ezra choked back a scream which brought him upright in bed. His eyes searching wildly in the dimly lit
room. His breath coming out in quick gasps, he could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest. His eyes saw the dark form of someone stretched out in a chair, but his mind ignored him. Then his eyes saw the pistol on the dresser, his mind didn't ignore this.
Buck, Chris, Josiah and Vin were relaxing down in the bar room all the other patrons having left earlier. A cool night breeze past through, wiping out the memory of the heat of the past few days. All of a sudden a slamming door and the sound of rushing feet got their attention as they looked up towards the stairs. Nathan came running down his lanky long legs taking the steps two at a time. "He's gone, Ezra's gone!" He yelled.
"What!" Buck shouted standing up. Then they heard the gunshots out in the street.
"Ah, I think we just found him," Vin remarked as the five men headed towards the doors. They looked out to see Ezra in the middle of the street with only his pants on waving a pistol.
"Cum out you son of a bitch, face me now!" Ezra yelled out to someone only he could see. His southern accent harsh and unrefined. He shot at a lantern which sat in a hotel window.
"How many bullets is that?" Chris asked.
"Four," Vin replied. Chris saw JD across the street and motioned for him to stay put.
"C'mon out uncle, are you afraid? What's wrong I'm not helpless for you anymore?" Ezra laughed deliriously. This sent a shiver down everyone's spine and Chris realized that Ezra could be very close to going over the edge. Someone had to be there to catch him. Ezra shot out a sign.
"Five," Vin quietly counted. Ezra walked down the street turned and shot at a shadow down an alley way.
"Six." Ezra's gun clicked empty and everyone slowly emerged from their hiding places. Ezra just stood in the center of the street the gun held down at his side. Buck saw his knees buckle and rushed to his side catching him before he hit the ground. Buck eased him down to the ground holding his shoulders up to keep his healing back out of the dirt. Ezra's glassy green eyes looked up at Buck.
"Please, don't put me back in there," Ezra pleaded, then his eyes slowly closed.
"Never, my friend, never," Buck replied.
Ezra remained unconscious for two days, when he finally woke he looked around to see five men sprawled out in various positions of slumber throughout the room. He smiled and moved slightly trying to get more comfortable. He then felt Nathan's hand on his forehead.
"How you feelin?"
Ezra tried to swallow, but found his mouth and throat to dry. Nathan eased a hand under his head and brought it up towards a glass of water which he greedily drank.
"Better," he whispered. "What happened?" His mind was fuzzy which for some reason he was grateful for.
"Oh you just took a little vacation to hell and back," Buck replied suddenly appearing at his bed side. The rest of the men slowly woke and surrounded his bed.
"How long?" Ezra asked.
"You've been out of it for almost five days," Buck told him. Ezra blinked unbelieving, throwing his arm across his eyes. He remembered the lashes and that was all. He knew he would start to remember in time so he didn't force it, he wasn't sure he wanted to remember anyway.
"I hope I didn't no anything to embarrass myself." He didn't see the smiles on the others faces.
"Oh nothing much, just shot up the town wearing only your pants," Chris added.
Ezra's arm came down and he groaned. "Next time gentlemen could you see fit to tie me down."
Everyone quietly chuckled as they realized that the steadfast gambler was going to be okay.
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