The Gamble Paid Off
Back to: I Took A Gamble
Ezra Standish closed the door of the jail and started to cross the road to the saloon. He had just finished the morning watch and was now looking forward to some lunch, then seeing if anyone was interested in a poker game.
It had been several weeks since Larabee and he had been left to die in the desert by some horse thieves who had shot Chris's mount from under him and stolen Ezra's fine animal. Larabee had been wounded, and it was only Standish's determination to keep Chris alive that had got them to the shelter of some rocks. He had nearly killed himself by allowing the injured man to have the meagre water that had been left them by the laughing robbers, who had thought that giving them the water would only extend their torment.
They had finally been rescued by the others, but not before Larabee had slipped into a fever brought on by his injury and Standish had passed out due to exhaustion and dehydration. Yet, surprisingly, during that trial the two men had achieved an understanding concerning Standish's initial betrayal of the other six men, and from that seed a steady friendship appeared to have taken root. So much so, that Ezra now felt comfortable with his other companions and he relaxed his guarded emotional front that he had always worn whenever he had dealings with other people. He now considered the other six men to be as close to family as he would ever allow.
This was why, when he saw Chris Larabee standing in silence, head up and glaring into the distance as Mary Travis snarled at him, it caused the gambler to pause. He was aware that the last few days had been fraught with tension, as Larabee fought some internal demon and sought solitude in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. He was also aware that Larabee had promised to take Billy, Mrs Travis's young son, on a fishing trip earlier that morning, and - judging from Mrs Travis's expression and Larabee's stony stance - the trip had not materialised and the small boy had been disappointed... hence his mother's attack on the sullen gunslinger.
"It's not the fact that you promised to take Billy fishing and then disappointed him that I find hard to accept, Mr Larabee; it's the way that you shouted at him when he approached you this morning... that is what I find hard to reconcile. While the rest of the town seems to be accepting of your boorish nature, I would appreciate it if you would not include Billy in any more of your promises, as I no longer wish to make excuses for your actions when he comes home crying."
Larabee had stood silent during the tirade and now raised an eyebrow as he hissed back, his eyes as deadly towards the woman as any gunslinger who had drawn on him, "Well maybe you should place your son's interests slightly higher on your own agenda, and not leave it up to a virtual stranger to fulfil the role of a father figure."
"Believe me, Mr Larabee, you are the last person I would want my son to have as a father figure... unless I wanted my son to learn how to swim in a bottle of whiskey, that is." With that, she spun round and stormed off towards the Clarion's office.
Normally, Standish would not have passed comment on what he had just witnessed, but because of the new-found friendship he had formed with Larabee, he felt obliged to offer some comment of commiseration to his friend at the tongue-lashing he had just received from Mrs Travis. "It would appear that all is not well between yourself and Mrs Travis...." Looking after the woman, he finished, "It is never an easy task to raise a son alone...."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Larabee snarled, turning to glare at the slightly smaller man who had come to stand beside him, his own anger still a raw, smarting wound.
"Your altercation with Mrs Travis seems to be slightly more than your usual family tiff...."
"She ain't my family..." Chris protested, his tone one of outrage that Ezra would suggest such a thing. Then, as if really seeing the man before him for the first time, he snarled, letting loose his anger at an acceptable target, which Mary Travis had not been, "And what the hell would you know about it? The closest thing to a family you have is that green-eyed snake you call a mother. Hell..." Larabee was in full swing now and almost spat his words as he continued, "with her as an example, it's no wonder you hightailed it outta the Seminole village. I'd have more faith in my horse than I would in you...." He began to stride away but then turned and, stepping right up close to the totally shocked man, he finished, loud enough for everyone to hear, "I ain't got no family, and if I did... I sure as hell wouldn't want you to be part of it."
Ezra stood stock-still, his body frozen as the words washed over him. He knew that he had paled under the onslaught, and he was finding it suddenly hard to breathe. Slowly he turned... and cringed as he saw that Chris's tirade had been witnessed by not only the other five members of the law-keeping force of Four Corners, but also by quite a few of the townspeople, some of whom were smiling openly at his acute embarrassment and humiliation.
"Why the hell can't you just leave the man alone, Ezra?" Nathan stated disgustedly, shaking his head at the scene he had just witnessed.
"It would appear that Mr Larabee is seriously out of sorts today," Ezra calmly commented to no one in particular, before he turned and made his way quickly to the saloon. When he entered, he totally ignored the black-clad figure that now sat at one of the tables, a full bottle of whiskey already before him, and made his way upstairs to his room, firmly closing and locking the door behind him.
Ezra sat for several minutes, trying to take in what had actually happened and why he had been subjected to such a violent outburst from Larabee. Since the desert incident, the man had been almost warm in his friendship towards the gambler and, as promised during that time, had made no further comment on Ezra's initial desertion of the group. But today the fact of his betrayal had not only been thrown back in his face, but done so in front of a large number of people... some of whom, Standish knew, would take great delight in repeating and expanding it to others until the whole town knew of the altercation between Larabee and himself.
What was worse was the fact that Larabee had viciously abused Maude, who - while not being the finest of mothers - had done her best, in the only way she knew how, to bring up her son. Ezra frowned, not fully understanding why his stomach hurt; it was as if the man had physically punched him, driving the breath from his lungs.
Without thought, he stood and began to gather his things from the small room, opening drawers and removing the articles of clothing to lay them carefully on the bed. He was surprised at how few items he actually had. They made only a small pile, and he soon had them packed in his saddlebags and a small carpetbag that he kept for moving from town to town.
He knew that he could no longer remain in Four Corners; whatever respect he thought he had earned had been washed away with Larabee's harsh words, and he was not prepared to stay and be the object of further ridicule. He now realised what his mother had been trying to tell him on her first visit: he had been a fool to ever suspect that these men or the town would accept him - a gambler - as an honest person. He sighed; he had taken a gamble and lost, now it was time to count his losses and move on.
Sitting at the small desk in his room, he placed a blank sheet of paper in front of himself and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to write the words that were surprisingly hard to write. Finally he just settled for a few short lines, explaining that he had grown tired of the town and was leaving to seek greener pastures. He was in no doubt that Larabee would again see this as a form of betrayal, but Ezra now knew that, no matter what he did, it would have always ultimately led to this action. He had been a fool to even imagine that he would be accepted by these men as anything other than what he was. A con-man, a gambler and a cheat... that was all they saw him as and that was all they really required him to be - and, as such, that was what he would give them when he left the town under the cover of darkness... he would only be living up to their expectations.
Once the letter had been written, he checked that he had packed everything and then settled on the bed, crossing his hands behind his head as he looked up at the ceiling and swallowed hard. If leaving was the right thing to do, why was it so hard? Pushing that disturbing thought out of his mind, he concentrated on his next step and the town he would head towards. He knew that his mother was in Kansas City and she had recently written, urging him to join her there. When he had received the letter, he had smiled and pushed the idea from his mind... but now, lying on the bed alone, he decided that would be as good a place as any to head towards, and his mother would be pleased to see that he had finally come to his senses.
JD looked across the room towards the empty table where Ezra usually sat. "D'ya think one of us should..." he paused and looked at the other four men in turn, "go check on Ezra?"
Buck tossed a look across the room towards Chris, who had been drinking steadily since he had entered the saloon after his altercation with Ezra that afternoon. "Ezra's a big boy now. He won't appreciate us gettin' involved...."
JD looked down at his drink and countered angrily, "Gettin' involved... it's a bit late, ain't it, after the way Chris ripped into him in the street out there?"
Buck looked at the youngest member of the group and silently agreed with him, but his loyalty stood firm towards his old friend as he answered, "Chris'll apologise to him... but not today." He shot another look over towards his friend. "This week... ain't a good week."
"Why?" Vin asked, his own concern for his friend evident in his face. He never liked it when Larabee turned to the bottle; his normally level-headed friend became unpredictable and dangerous - far more dangerous than usual - as was evidenced by his vicious conversation with Standish. Tanner was also annoyed and frustrated with Larabee for his treatment of the gambler; they had spent the last few weeks slowly dragging the man out of his shell and, in one thoughtless moment, Chris had put all their efforts to waste.
Buck swallowed and looked uneasy as he finally said, his voice barely above a whisper as the memory of a barber's sharp razor held steady in his friend's hand filled his mind, "It's... it's Adam's birthday... the day after tomorrow. I think this is just hittin' too close to home at the moment, so the best course of action's to just give Chris some space and let Ezra lick his wounds in private...." He paused again, before he added, "I think givin' 'em both some space is the best idea right now."
"It'll be difficult to allow Ezra some privacy, since most of the town's talking about it," Josiah said, taking a sip of his beer - for some reason it had a sour taste this evening.
"Ezra didn't do anythin' wrong," Vin stated, his eyes flashing, as he knew the way the townspeople would be talking.
"No one's saying he did, Vin... he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Josiah stated. "But people are gonna talk, and in his case it's not always friendly."
"Well..." JD suddenly blurted out, "if I hear 'em saying anythin' about Ezra, I'll set 'em straight. After all, he's risked his life enough times for the people in this town." With that, he stood up and stormed out. The other men watched him leave in uneasy silence.
Nathan watched the young man leave before he added, "Ezra and I might not always see eye to eye, but he does deserve a little more respect from this town than they seem to be givin' him. So, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll just go even the odds a bit."
"Amen to that, Brother. I think I'll join you; sometimes it helps to have more than one person talk to the flock," Josiah agreed with a smile and, standing, he followed Nathan from the saloon.
Vin looked over towards his drunken friend, who was now slumped on the table, the last bottle of whiskey half-drunk beside him. "I'll catch you in the mornin', Buck."
The other man was left sitting in the saloon, suddenly feeling very lonely as he looked from a drunken Larabee to an empty space where Standish usually sat, to the staircase that led up to the gambler's room. He was unable to shake the feeling that things would never be the same again for any of them.
Ezra waited until well after dark before he departed his room and left the saloon via the back exit, not wanting to carry his few possessions through the bar. He saw no one as he headed towards the stable, and was able to leave the town of Four Corners unnoticed.
Standish made good progress as the night advanced, but with the loss of the moon behind a cluster of clouds he realised that it would be foolhardy to continue. With this thought in mind he stepped from his horse and, after seeing to his mount, set up a rough camp, with the intention of waking early and continuing on his way.
As he settled and pulled his blanket more firmly around him, he allowed the events of the day to wash over him again - to be honest, the thoughts had not been far from his mind. He once more berated himself for ever believing that he could belong, or that he would ever be forgiven by Chris Larabee for deserting him and his men at the Seminole village.
He had to admit that it had been nice while it had lasted, but he could not understand why riding out of the small town of Four Corners had been so hard. With this thought in mind, he allowed his weary body to be pulled into the arms of slumber.
Chris Larabee was not a happy man. His head hurt, his mouth felt like it had been dragged along Main Street for a couple of hours and the sun was far too bright. He squinted as he stepped from the boarding house where he roomed, pushing aside a frown as he wondered how he had got to his room last night, since he had no memory of it.
He squinted up the street and saw Buck just entering the saloon, no doubt in search of breakfast. Chris frowned, a sneaking suspicion about his transport to his bed starting to form in his mind, but he pushed it aside in favour of following his old friend. Instead of breakfast, however, he would be seeking relief from his painful symptoms... and that usually entailed swallowing more of the devil's brew that had got him into this state in the first place.
The saloon was cool and dark, and Larabee sighed in relief as he was able to open his eyes a little wider. He saw Buck, Vin and JD sitting at their usual table near the back and carefully made his way towards them.
As he slipped into his chair, Vin pushed a half-filled cup of coffee towards him. Chris scowled at him and gingerly pushed the cup back, swallowing hard and purposefully ignoring the smile that Tanner tossed his way.
"Have a good night?" the bounty hunter questioned, his tone slightly off. This caused Larabee to look more closely at him, and he realised with a start that Tanner was annoyed with him.
"Usual," he stated, looking to see if Inez was around, so that he could order his liquid breakfast.
"Ezra's gone," a voice suddenly announced from above them and, glancing up, they saw Josiah coming down the stairs from the upper rooms.
"What?" Larabee demanded, straightening in his chair as he felt a rush of anger flash through him at the preacher's words.
"Ezra's gone... his room's been cleared," Sanchez repeated, just as Nathan entered the saloon.
The healer added, "His horse is gone, too... must've left sometime during the night," he finished, taking his hat off and hitting his leg in frustration.
"Was his patrol... this morning..." Chris stated, squinting as he forced himself to remember.
He stopped as Josiah said, "Yeah... that's why I was lookin' for him. He never showed at the jail."
"Damn it..." Larabee suddenly spat out, rising from his chair, a snarl crossing his face as he ranted, "I knew I couldn't trust that low-down yellow-belly...."
He was stopped as Tanner suddenly shot up, his chair flying over backwards with the force of his rising. "Now wait just a minute there, Chris... ya don't expect the man to stay after the way ya spoke to him yesterday, do ya?"
Larabee's eyes narrowed as he hissed back, "I expect the man to do his damned job..."
"And I'm sure he expected a bit of respect from..."
"Not from me..." Chris interrupted roughly, finishing, "He ran the first opportunity he saw, and I'm surprised it took him this long to show his true colours again." He never saw the fist, but he felt its impact as he suddenly found himself looking up at a furious Tanner, who was being held back by Buck. Larabee rubbed at his bruised jaw and actually stopped to think. A man he had grown to consider to be closer than a brother had just hit him, and from the looks on the others' faces, he was not alone in this reaction. Blinking, Chris let his mind slip back to the confrontation with the gambler the day before. As he recalled what he had said, he suddenly swallowed and realised with a jolt that he just might have to accept some responsibility for the gambler's actions. "Ah hell..." he finally said, as he accepted Josiah's help from the floor.
"Ezra didn't deserve what you said yesterday... certainly not in front of all those townsfolk," JD suddenly voiced, totally ignoring the warning look that Buck flashed at him. He stood straighter and glared back at his moustached friend; they had been arguing about JD's opinion and his desire to voice it to Larabee for several hours now.
"Mighty hard for a man to hold his head up when a man he respects pulls the carpet out from under his feet," Josiah added his own opinion, and tilted his head at the sharp look that Chris gave him. He could tell from the suddenly slumped shoulders of the man he still held steady that his words had hit home.
"Ezra knows I didn't mean anythin' by it," Larabee tried to use as his defence, but wilted as Nathan snorted.
"That man saved yer life not so many weeks ago; you sure have a mighty fine way of showing yer thanks...."
"All right... all right, so I made a mistake..." Larabee suddenly acceded, holding his hands out. While he still felt terrible from the whiskey-induced headache, he had actually begun to feel worse about his previous day's actions. Then he shot a hard look at Wilmington and demanded, "What - you got nothin' to say?"
Buck just looked sheepish and finally, releasing Vin, he said, "He said what I was thinkin' when he hit ya...."
Larabee chose not to answer that, saying instead, "How long d'ya think he's been gone?"
"The stable boy said he was woken by Ezra goin' out just before midnight..." Nathan said, knowing that the boy would have got up from his bed in the loft to check on the movement below. It was part of his duties to check the security of the horses in his care, but seeing that it was only Ezra and that he was taking his own horse, the boy had no reason to report the incident until the healer had questioned him that morning.
"So he's not got much of a start..." Chris said, rubbing at the place where Vin's hard fist had caught him.
"What are you gonna do?" JD asked, a frown marring his handsome face.
"I'm gonna apologise, and then drag his sorry ass back..." Chris stated firmly, before he winced, the pain again flaring behind his eyes.
"He may not want to come back," Vin said quietly, tilting his head as he considered the man before him.
"Well if he don't, then he's gonna have to tell me that to my face," Larabee snapped, before he stooped down and snatched his hat up, only stopping himself from falling flat on his face by sheer willpower.
As he made to walk from the room, Tanner offered, "Want help trackin' him?"
Chris considered the question before he nodded; it would be a damned sight easier to find the gambler with the tracker's help. He made to leave again, but stopped as Wilmington followed up the rear behind Tanner. "Where the hell d'ya think you're goin'?" Larabee demanded.
Buck smiled and responded warmly, "With you.... Hell, Chris, it ain't often I get t'see you eat humble pie, and I ain't gonna miss that for anythin'."
Larabee glared at his oldest friend and then, pointing to the other three men, asked, "Will you be all right to watch the town?" They nodded and he smiled sourly; he had been secretly hoping that they would insist Wilmington stay, but then - seeing the gleam in their eyes - he knew that he had been set up and was going to be fully punished for his harsh actions towards the gambler. Seeing Buck's insufferable smirk, he knew that it was going to be a worthy punishment. As he strode from the saloon, he hoped they would find Standish quickly so that he could get back to his bottle, as his headache was now back in full force and it was going to be a long day....
They had only been travelling for a few hours when Vin suddenly pulled his horse to a stop and pointed to a small shaded area off to one side. Chris looked at Vin, then over towards where he was pointing, then up at the sun; it had to be mid-morning at least.
"He's over there?" Larabee asked, surprised that the gambler had not gone further from the town before he made camp.
Tanner squinted up at the sun, then nodded as he explained, "Weren't much moon last night, with the clouds an' all... not easy to travel by horse with no light."
"So he camped here last night..." Buck stated, looking confused before he ventured, "but why's he still here?"
Vin smiled and replied fondly, "'Cause it's Ezra, and he never gets up 'fore noon."
Chris smiled and nodded his head in agreement, before wincing at the pain this action caused. For once he was grateful for the gambler's penchant of rising late, as it had saved them a hunt across the desert. "Come on... let's go round him up and get back to town."
They pulled their horses round and slowly headed towards the shaded area and their sleeping companion. They saw Ezra's horse standing off to one side out of the sun, slowly munching at the feeble grass that grew about its feet. It disinterestedly looked up at their approach before going back to munching. The three men slowly dismounted and tied their own horses up with Ezra's, and it was the noise of them doing this that finally penetrated the sleeping gambler's mind.
Standish groaned as his body protested the night on the hard ground, and he slowly pushed his blanket down to blink at the bright morning. Hearing a noise again, he sat up, spinning towards the sound as he did so. He froze when he saw the three men smiling at him, then slowly re-holstered his derringer.
"Looking mighty uncomfortable there, Ezra," Buck said, the laughter and relief in his voice clearly heard.
Standish threw him a dirty look as he scrambled from his makeshift bed. He yawned and stretched before he brushed at the dust that covered his jacket, but he knew that it was a lost cause. "To what do I owe your company on this fine morning?" he asked, bending down and picking up his blanket and giving it a brisk shake.
"Chris here has somethin' he wants to say to ya," Buck stated before the gunslinger could open his mouth. His words died as he caught the deadly glare that Larabee threw at him, and the annoyed frown that slipped across Tanner's face. He lifted a hand in surrender and took a couple of steps back.
Ezra had purposely not bothered to look at the handsome, dark-clad man, and continued not to do so as he answered, "I believe that Mr Larabee said all he needed to say yesterday." His words were short, his tone still laced with anger, which he used to hide his hurt very well.
"Ezra..." Chris began, then straightening he demanded, "Why the hell did you sneak out in the middle of the night?"
The gambler stood stock-still, his body now radiating anger, his fury just below the surface as he spat back, "What time I choose to travel is surely my own affair, Mr Larabee."
"Not when you had dawn patrol this morning and someone else had to take it for you..." snapped back the furious gunslinger, starting forward, his foot kicking some brush out of his way.
"Chris..." Tanner warned, also starting to move forward, at a total loss to understand where all of Larabee's anger and words suddenly came from. This was not the way to get the gambler to agree to return to Four Corners with them, and he was just about to point this out to Chris when events were torn out of his hands.
Standish glared at the blond-haired man who stood before him, still tired and sore from his night on the hard ground. He could not believe that Larabee had followed him, only to verbally attack him again. It was inconceivable that he would remain in the town after the treatment he had received the day before from Larabee, and he was just about to inform him of this when he saw a sliver of light reflect off a strip of skin, at the same time as the bush that Chris had kicked began to rattle and hiss. In the blink of an eye, his derringer was released and he fired at the snake that was rearing towards Larabee's leg.
In that same moment, Tanner also saw the danger to his black-clad friend and yelled a warning, as he too drew his weapon to kill the snake. It was this impression of an argument suddenly turning to gunplay that caused Larabee to draw his own weapon in reaction and fire at the perceived threat that was in front of him. It had happened so quickly, that barely a few heartbeats had passed from Tanner shouting Larabee's name to the gunslinger drawing and firing at the gambler.
Standish stood for several long seconds, the whole group frozen with shock as the sound of gunfire reverberated through the small shaded area. The snake twisted once and lay still, pinned to the hard earth by two bullets. Ezra found that he was unable to take his eyes from the man who was still holding the smoking gun pointing at him; he wondered briefly what Larabee had been shooting at, as the snake was by his own foot. Suddenly Ezra felt a grip of pain in his upper chest and realised that he was not able to draw a breath properly. He tried, gasping, but this only caused him to cough and that in turn produced an agonising slash of pain that flared through his whole body, nearly driving him to his knees. At the same time, his mind actually registered that he had been shot... by Larabee.
Even as he felt his knees give way and darkness crowd in on him, he heard his name called from a distance and his fall was broken by Tanner, who had somehow leapt across the space separating them and reached him in time to allow his tumble to the ground to be less painful. Standish coughed again, blinking up at the men who now surrounded him and noticing with an odd detachment that the blood that splattered Tanner's jacket was bright red. He wondered if Vin had been injured too. That was his last thought as agony and darkness caught up with him at the same time, and he went limp in Tanner's embrace.
"My God, Chris..." Buck cried out as he saw the shooting spin out of control before him. He pushed past the stunned gunfighter and hurried to assist Vin, who was pressing his bandanna against the wound in the gambler's upper chest, desperately trying to stop the flow of blood.
"I... I... didn't... mean...." The man in black looked totally shocked, swallowing convulsively as he tried to explain his actions, even as his mind tried to understand exactly what had happened. "The... his gun... I thought..."
"My God, Chris," Buck repeated, frantically looking from the injured man to the one who had shot him. "Y'shot Ezra...." The disbelief was clear to hear.
These words seemed to snap Larabee out of his stupor and he rushed to the gambler's side, throwing himself to his knees beside the injured man as he tried to explain, "It was just reaction... I saw his gun...." He stopped to swallow, as a fear he had not felt for a long time suddenly rose and threatened to strangle him.
"The bullet's still in there," Vin said, having withdrawn the pressure just enough to check the wound. "We gotta get him back to Nathan.... Now."
"Can we move him?" Buck asked, trying to see the injury over Vin's shoulder.
Tanner looked up at his friend and slowly stated, sadly, "I don't think we have a choice, Buck."
"We need to stop the bleeding..." Larabee stated, reaching over and pulling Ezra's saddlebags towards him. He shook them out and grabbed up a fine linen shirt, which he tore into strips. As he did so he ordered, "Buck... you head back to town - get Nathan and a wagon. We'll start heading back, but you can meet us on the trail...." Seeing the tall, moustached man hesitate, he shouted, "Go!" The other man was heading towards his horse before he realised it.
"Help me get his jacket and shirt off," Larabee demanded of Tanner, then - seeing the hesitating look the other man gave him - he snapped, "Vin, we don't have time for this.... Once we get back to Four Corners, you can throw me in jail for shootin' Ezra... but 'til then, we gotta try t'keep him alive."
Larabee's words were like a douche of cold water to the tracker, who roughly shook himself and did as requested, carefully removing Ezra's jacket and shirt. Chris helped him by supporting the unconscious man and making sure the rough padding of the bandanna stayed in place over the wound when necessary.
Once the wound was open to the air, both men could see that the bullet had entered but not exited the gambler's body. Larabee took a deep, unsteady breath and noticed that his hands were shaking uncontrollably as he attempted to secure the larger, cleaner pad of Ezra's shirt to the injury. Tanner, seeing this, reached out his hand and rested it over Larabee's shaking fingers, and without a word the gunslinger relinquished his hold on the cloth and took up the position of holding the unconscious man upright, while the bounty hunter finished tying the makeshift bandage over the wound.
Once that was done, Larabee jumped up and headed towards the horses. He paused once as he came on the dead body of the snake, looking at it for a long moment, then back at the gambler. He swallowed, forcing his fears and guilt aside until he had Ezra in the capable hands of Nathan. He pushed himself onwards and soon had the horses ready for travel.
He brought his own animal back to Tanner and Standish, then mounted, holding out his hands for the gambler. Vin hesitated for only a second before he nodded once, and with some struggling managed to help get Ezra up onto Chris's horse, to sit slumped in front of him. The gunslinger wrapped his arms around the unconscious man and, after checking that Tanner was now on his horse and had Ezra's mount's reins, he kicked gently into his own animal's sides and began the long trek back to Four Corners.
During it all, Ezra had remained unconscious; a fact that Chris was grateful for. He knew that if... no... once the man awoke, then Chris Larabee was going to have to face the raw fact that he had shot one of his own men. The gunslinger tightened his grip on the gambler, knowing that as soon as he reached the town and the others, he would not be allowed this close to Ezra again.
Ezra came awake slowly and wished that he hadn't; he could hear someone groaning, whimpering in pain, and it was starting to annoy him. It took a few minutes to realise that it was him. The pain was intense and with each breath and swaying movement it grew, until finally he forced open his eyes to see why he was suffering such agony. Blinking owlishly against the light, he saw that he was on a horse and felt someone holding him tightly. He groaned again, unable to prevent the sound from being issued from his lips; the grip around his waist tightened slightly more.
"Ezra?" a voice spoke gently into his ear, and he felt his body straighten in sudden remembrance as he recognised the voice as that of Chris Larabee - the man who had shot him.
"Why... why did...?" the gambler panted, before he swallowed and realised that whatever he was about to say really didn't matter, as the pain in his upper body totally eclipsed any conversation he might have wanted to have.
"We're heading towards town... Nathan'll meet us on the way...." Larabee was talking as if he was discussing the weather, and Standish recognised his method of distancing himself from his actions.
"Fine..." Ezra agreed, his head falling forward as he ran out of energy to keep it upright. He faded into a half-conscious state, allowing the gait of the horse to tremble through his body. He could not fight the pain this caused so, as his mother had taught him, he allowed it to flow around him and he was not even aware when he slipped again into unconsciousness.
"How is he?" Vin asked.
Larabee looked over the injured man's shoulder and stated, "He was awake a moment ago... but he's out again now." Chris looked over the trail and asked the bounty hunter, "How far?"
Tanner looked at the surrounding area and answered, "Another hour at least... is it bleedin' again?"
He leant forward to take a look for himself as Larabee said, "I can't see from here... can you?"
Tanner looked at the bandage and winced as he saw the bright red blood that soaked the hastily applied cloth. He bit his lip and replied, "Yeah, he's bleedin'... it looks bad, Chris." Then he threw his look forward and snapped, "Dammit! What's takin' Buck an' Nathan so long?"
Larabee swallowed hard and said, "Buck'll get back here as soon as he can, with Nathan...."
"This is bad, Chris... this is real bad," the bounty hunter finally said, looking at the two men who rode on the horse beside him. Ezra's head was slumped forward and Chris's face was etched with a pain that tormented nearly as much as the physical injury he had inflicted on the gambler.
"We'll sort this out.... Ezra'll be fine," Larabee stated, seeing the pain reflected in Tanner's eyes, "and then we can sort this out...."
Vin reached across, resting his hand on Chris's slumped, defeated shoulder, his expression unable to hide his growing concern for the demented look that was starting to settle across Larabee's features. "Yeah... yeah, we will..." he agreed.
Suddenly Tanner straightened in his saddle and looked into the distance, before he hurriedly said, "There's a wagon... it must be Nathan an' Buck." With that, he spurred his mount into a gallop and headed towards the distant figures. Larabee kept his pace steady, knowing that to move faster would only cause Standish more blood loss and pain. He knew that Tanner would bring the healer and the wagon to him. As he moved forward, Chris could not help but question if there would still be a team once the others discovered that it was he who had shot the gambler.
Larabee and Standish were soon joined by the others, Nathan and JD looking shocked as they stared at the unconscious man that Chris held tightly in his grasp. The gunslinger could tell that they had not wanted to believe Buck's words, but with the injured man before them, they were not able to deny it.
"Here... let me check that wound," Nathan said, swinging down from his horse and pulling his small medicine bag after him. He also grabbed for his blanket and swept it across the hard earth, as a place for them to lay Ezra. The other three men were quick to dismount and assist in lowering the gambler to the covered ground.
"Josiah stayed in town," Buck explained as he noted Chris looking around with some agitation, then paused as he suddenly realised that it was not Sanchez that Larabee had been looking for; he was simply avoiding looking at the wounded man. "He'll be all right..." Wilmington suddenly said, reaching out and grabbing at Larabee's arm as the other man unsteadily dismounted.
"No thanks to me," Chris snapped back bitterly, pulling roughly from his friend's support.
"It weren't yer fault... you just reacted to Ezra drawin' his gun and my warnin'. It was an accident, that's all... a terrible, unfortunate accident," Vin insisted, moving to stand on the other side of his friend. Now that Tanner had had some time to think about the events surrounding the shooting, he could see how the incident had occurred. Guns were an everyday part of their lives; a part where only the speed of a man's reactions to a threat was the factor that kept him alive. In those circumstances, deplorable accidents happened. It was unfortunate and, at times, bitterly regrettable, but not intentional. Vin was very aware that if they did not check Chris's guilt and place it firmly in the realm of the unavoidable, where it belonged, then they might very well lose more than one man from the bullet that had entered Ezra Standish that morning.
Larabee shook his head, as if trying to banish the sight of Nathan working frantically over the barely breathing man. "Yeah... an accident that could cost Ezra his life."
Their attention was drawn away from their conversation as Nathan suddenly let out a string of curses. "What?" Larabee started forward, unable to prevent himself from finally looking at the body under the healer's hands, his whole face and tone etched with concern and a terrible fear.
The dark-skinned man looked up and said, his tone harsh from his findings, "I've gotta get that bullet out, now." He began to fumble in his bag and pulled out several items that he would use, saying as he did so, "I'll need some hot water...." The other men rushed to comply as Jackson continued to doctor the injury. Soon the small, makeshift camp was prepared and Nathan was ready to begin.
"Ezra." Jackson spoke clearly and precisely as he called the gambler's name. He then gently patted the man's cheek. Standish groaned and tried to move his head, but it was a feeble attempt. "Come on now, Ezra... I need you t'drink this; it'll take the pain away, I promise. Now, just open up. That's it...." In his hand he held a cup in which he had mixed a concoction of water and laudanum. The gambler didn't really want to accept the liquid, but was unable to prevent the drink from slipping down his throat. He swallowed, coughed, and cried out all in one breath. Nathan gently rested his hand reassuringly on his uninjured shoulder, before lowering him back to the blanket.
"What now?" Buck asked, his face creased with worry as he leant in closer to see what was happening.
"Now we wait for the laudanum to take effect, then you all hold him down while I try t'get the bullet out...."
"Wouldn't it be better to wait 'til we reach town?" JD asked, his own expression a mirror of Ezra's suffering.
The healer sighed and slowly shook his head, as he answered, "No, there's already a chance of infection. The longer that bullet's left, the greater the risk...." As he spoke, he checked his instruments that had been soaking in the bubbling water. Once he was happy that all was as ready as he could make it and that his patient would not wake, he motioned for the other men to take up their positions around the unconscious gambler.
Jackson said nothing when he saw that Larabee steadfastly refuse to approach, purposefully hanging back and finally walking away from the group to stand lost, forlorn and alone with the horses. His back was to them, but his shoulders were hunched, almost twisted double, with his arms wrapped firmly around his middle, fists clenched as if he was suffering the same torment and pain that Ezra would have been feeling if not for the laudanum, showing all who witnessed his actions that he was not unaware of the battle that was taking place to save the gambler's life. Nathan realised that he would have to speak to Chris once Ezra was settled, but for now he pushed that unpleasant task from his mind and set about digging the reluctant bullet from the body of his friend.
Several long minutes passed where Nathan fumbled for the piece of lead that was deep in Ezra's upper chest. As he did so, he winced as he realised the further damage he could be doing. Suddenly he was able to scoop just under the edge of the slug of metal and carefully dig it from the injured man.
Ezra had groaned and twisted under the probing knife a couple of times, but the laudanum was doing its job and, while he felt the spikes of pain, Nathan knew that there would be no memory of the painful procedure.
Once the bullet was out, the healer allowed the blood to flow freely for several long minutes as he uncorked the whiskey he had brought with him and poured a liberal amount into the wound. This had Ezra arching up in agony, but the hands gripping him held tightly and he almost immediately slumped back.
"Buck... JD..." Nathan gasped as he worked to cover and bandage the wound. "Make up a bed in the wagon with the blankets, and make sure y'get the hay under where Ezra'll be restin'. Make the bed as thick as you can." The two men nodded and rushed off to do as the healer had asked.
"Nathan?" Larabee suddenly asked, having been drawn back to the injured man's side by the cry of agony that Ezra had issued with the pouring of the whiskey, and Jackson knew what he was asking.
Unable to prevent himself from being brutally honest with the other man, he sadly shook his head. "I don't know, Chris... I just don't know. Here, help me hold him," the healer said as he started to wrap the wound. Those few words were the only ones the healer knew that might bring the gunslinger back from his self-imposed hell. If he thought that Ezra needed him, it might just keep Chris sane long enough to realise that the shooting was not punishable by the sentence that Larabee would impose on himself. Nathan watched with barely a breath as Larabee swallowed hard, then knelt, offering his support to the injured man as Jackson securely bandaged the wound to keep it still. Tanner, agreeing with the wisdom of Nathan's actions, silently moved away to allow the healer to tend to both his patients in peace.
It took only a few minutes to lift the unconscious man and get him settled in the back of the wagon that had been filled with hay, with several blankets laid over it to make a very comfortable, deep bed. Several more blankets were piled on top of Ezra to keep him warm, as his body began to shiver and shake in reaction to his surgery and the fever that had been steadily building over the past few hours.
The trip back to town was slow, as Nathan insisted that any jogging would only cause further injury to the unconscious man and none of the group was prepared the risk the gambler's life any further. Dusk was just settling over the town of Four Corners by the time they arrived, and Josiah and Mary were waiting for them when they pulled to a halt at the bottom of the stairs that led up to Nathan's rooms that he used as his clinic.
"How is he?" Mary fearfully asked Nathan, as she watched Josiah and Buck carefully lift and carry the injured gambler up the stairs.
"Be careful of his right shoulder..." the healer said, slightly distracted as he watched Ezra carried upstairs, then he turned back to Mary and answered her question. "I'm sorry Miz Travis, but we should know more once his fever breaks. Now, if you'll excuse me?" With that he ran after the other men, the woman clearly forgotten already.
Mary Travis stood at the bottom of the steps and wondered at the devastating look of distress that had been written across Chris Larabee's face as he closely followed Buck and Josiah up the stairs with their precious burden. He had not even glanced in her direction, and she felt a shiver of fear course though her at the thought that he looked - if possible - in worse condition than the man who had been carried up the steps a few seconds before.
Once Ezra was settled on the bed, Nathan politely but firmly ushered the others from the room, asking for only Josiah to remain while he checked the wound. Larabee was loath to leave, but his angry protest wilted as a groan was issued from the bed. Jackson looked pointedly at the gunslinger as he said, "The laudanum's wearing off, Chris, and I really want t'give him some more before I remove that bandage." Nathan hated sending Larabee from the room, but he needed to tend to Ezra, and he knew that Tanner would watch out for their friend and leader.
Chris knew that he didn't have a choice, but he refused to go any further than the balcony outside the clinic. Buck and Vin looked at each other before the tracker shook his head slightly, warning the womaniser off from trying to force the gunslinger to move any further. Wilmington nodded in agreement before he caught hold of the youngest member of the team and said loudly, "Let's get the patrol started... and scratch up some food n' drink for these two while we're about it."
"I'm not hungry..." Larabee stated.
Tanner interrupted, saying roughly, "Won't do Ezra no good if you make yerself ill."
Chris attempted to glare at his friend but his misery prevented it from being effective, so he spun around and slumped against the wall, allowing his long body to crumple to the floor in a half-crouch where he stayed, totally ignoring the other man's attempts at conversation. Finally, after several long minutes, the bounty hunter moved to stand silently several feet away, leaving him to his moody reflections.
The night passed slowly. Buck and JD returned with food as promised, but Chris steadfastly refused to eat or drink. He only showed signs of life when the clinic door opened and Josiah walked out, his face pale as he said, "Nathan says he should sleep the night through, but you can go in if you want to...." He directed this last towards Chris, who leapt up and moved swiftly towards the door.
Just as he reached it he paused and, with a shaking hand carefully removed his gun belt, as if dealing with a dangerous snake, handing it over to the preacher and saying firmly, "Take care of this for me."
"When do you want it back?" Sanchez asked in some surprise; he had not witnessed the total desolation that had afflicted Larabee during the rough surgery and ride back to Four Corners.
Josiah felt a ripple of deep concern as Larabee met his look with dead eyes and, shaking his head and spitting the words out, stated firmly, "Never... no more." Then he was gone, into the room and to the bedside of the man he had shot.
"Buck?" JD questioned, his eyes wide with a fear that had been steadily growing since they had come across the other men earlier. He had never expected to witness Chris Larabee giving up his weapons and was scared by the implications of the action. Was this the end of the team, of their leader?
"I don't know, JD," Buck answered honestly, resting his hands lightly on the smaller man's shoulders to relay his strength and support.
Vin Tanner closed his eyes at the twisted expression that filtered across Sanchez's features before he snarled, "Damn it... damn it to hell." Swinging round, he fled down the stairs and headed straight for the saloon. Tanner had not felt the need to get drunk in a long time, but tonight... tonight it seemed like the only way to stave off the slow destruction of his world and the men he had come to depend on as family.
The next few days passed in a drug-induced haze for the injured man and a drowning pool of guilt for the gunslinger who refused to leave his side, except when Nathan threw him out and refused to have him back until one of the others reported that he had indeed eaten and slept. Normally Larabee would not have accepted this kind of treatment from the healer, but his deep remorse over the gambler's injury seemed to have robbed him of his ability to anger, and he meekly accepted being tossed from the room. He would go and eat sparingly, waiting until the others left him to sleep before the food rebelled in his stomach and he would rush to the outhouse to be violently sick. He would then spend a few hours pretending to sleep before presenting himself back at the room where Ezra still tossed and turned in high fever.
The relinquishing of Larabee's gun was never mentioned, as a small, hastily arranged meeting between the five other peacekeepers had determined that it should be left until Standish was on the road to recovery before broaching the subject. Larabee's instability was clear to anyone who looked at him, and the others were afraid to push too far for fear of losing him even further to the guilt that clearly shone from his exhausted eyes.
Time passed slowly. It took four days for the fever to finally break and the gambler lazily blinked open his eyes to find Larabee slumped by the bed, his eyes closed in weariness and his face etched with lines of tormented grief. Standish was surprised to see him sitting there, and blinked several times more before he admitted that the pain from his shoulder was enough to assure him that he was, in fact, awake and not dreaming.
Ezra attempted to move and discovered immediately that it was not a good idea, as he was unable to hold back the gasp of raw agony that was forced from his lips. Larabee was instantly awake and reaching for the gambler, the damp cloth that he had been using to cool the fevered brow still in his grasp. Chris paused, stunned, and looked at the conscious Ezra, who looked back at him, his face scrunched with pain.
"I'll get Nathan..." Larabee stated as he rushed towards the door. The healer had slipped out for a few moments of fresh air and was just outside the door. He returned as soon as he saw the expression on Chris's face and smiled when he saw that Ezra was looking at him with confused, but fever-free eyes.
"Welcome back," Nathan said with a smile, as he reached out and tentatively rested his hand on Ezra's brow to reassure himself that the clear eyes were, in fact, an indication that the fever had finally left the smaller man's body.
"Thirsty..." Standish ventured with a raw rasp, wincing, as even talking seemed to stretch his injury and cause him pain.
"Here." Jackson immediately turned to the small table and, after pouring a drink, he held the other man as steady as he could while he sipped at the concoction that he had brewed earlier and left to cool.
"That... is not..." Ezra gasped out weakly, "nice..." he finished around a gulping swallow that caused his shoulder to flare anew. He bit his bottom lip to hold back the trembling gasp of agony.
Nathan, seeing this, nodded in agreement, his features a mask of sympathy as he said, "Believe me, Ezra, you'll be grateful for this - no matter how bad it tastes - once it starts to dull the pain."
Grimacing, the gambler was inclined to agree with him, as he took a slightly deeper breath and gasped in pain again. He glanced beyond the healer and frowned when he saw Larabee standing frozen behind the other man. To Ezra, Chris didn't seem like the same strong man who had led them so confidently for several long months. Closing his eyes he asked, "How bad?" He was unable to use his long, fancy words; the pain was just too much and he was just too damned sore.
"Nasty wound in your upper chest - that's why breathin' and talkin''s so painful. But now that the fever's clear, you should be all right...." Nathan paused, then added firmly, "If you rest up and do exactly as I say."
Standish absorbed this information, licking his lips before he asked another question: "What...." He stopped, took another shallow breath and asked again, this time forcing the words out, "What... happened?" The silence that followed these words was heavy, causing Ezra to open his eyes again and look at the two men who were standing by his bed. Had he said something wrong? Seeing their totally shocked expressions and noticing the intense pain on Larabee's features, he felt a ripple of pure terror course through him as he tried to sit up and demand, "The others?" He never got any further as the pain flared, reaching such a pitch that his next conscious thought was that it had suddenly become dark.
This time he just lay there and let his mind float back to his last memory before being injured. He frowned; it was hard, almost like trying to capture mist as it whispered around him. He could remember being robbed, left to die in the desert. Chris had been with him, had been injured... shot by the men who had stolen his horse. Standish frowned; that could not be right, as he had seen Larabee earlier that afternoon and - while he had looked like hell - he had not appeared to be physically injured in any way. He also felt that some time had passed... he could vaguely remember being found, and laying in this self-same bed while he had recovered from the ordeal. Also, he was obviously recovering from a gunshot wound, and yet he could clearly remember that he had only been robbed and left to die of thirst in the desert. It was Chris who had been shot.... He felt his mind starting to spiral out of control as he tried to figure out what had happened and he forcibly stopped himself, allowing his mind to go blank, then he started the initial train of thought again. He swallowed, then hissed as this moved his shoulder and pain flared.
"Here," a voice suddenly spoke from beside him, and he tilted his head slightly to look into the concerned face of the tracker.
"Nathan... Chris?" Ezra demanded with some concern, but Vin just smiled reassuringly and held out a cup, offering the contents. The gambler relented, as he was thirsty and he secretly hoped that it contained the painkiller that Nathan had given him earlier. He allowed the bounty hunter to assist him in drinking almost half the contents of the mug.
Once that was done, Tanner said, "Nathan and Chris've... uh, gone to freshen up and get some sleep." He paused, remembering darkly that Buck and Nathan had virtually carried the gunslinger from the room as he all but passed out in the chair. Pushing that memory from him, Vin added, his tone clearly showing his concern, "You had us real worried there, Ezra."
The gambler weakly pulled a face before he asked, "What happened?" He was surprised at how weak his voice sounded to his own ears.
He noticed that Tanner's face took on a slightly surprised expression, before he cleared his features and said, "Might be best if you remember on yer own."
This caused another burst of fear to course once more through the gambler, but this time he was wiser and did not attempt to rise as he asked, unable to keep a quaver of fear from his tone, "Buck... JD... the others... is everyone all right?"
Tanner looked confused for a second, then his face cleared as he finally understood what was worrying the injured man. He rushed to reassure him, "Yeah, yeah... everyone's fine. You were...." He stopped, surprised at how his own voice caught before he saved it and stated more clearly, "You were the only one hurt, Ezra."
The bounty hunter's words seemed to reassure the gambler, as he nodded weakly before he felt his eyes slip shut. Just before he fell back into a healing sleep, he asked, "Then why... does Chris... look so ill?"
Tanner sat for a long while watching the other man sleep, wondering what they were going to tell him when he woke and questioned again his injury and Larabee's obvious ill-health. Shaking his head, he began to worry at his bottom lip with his teeth. He was concerned for both Standish and Larabee, but Ezra was healing and, according to Nathan, would grow stronger every day now that the fever had left him. Chris, though... he still carried the terrible guilt of his shooting of Ezra within him, and his recent collapse indicated just how successful he had been at hiding his depths of feelings from his friends. Buck had been unable to prevent a gasp of surprise as he had easily swung his long-time friend up in his arms. The gunslinger had always been thin but now, to see him, he looked almost skeletal. He had been crafty, and had hidden his weight loss from the others by continuing to wear his dark clothes and his duster, keeping his own company and hardly ever leaving the sick room. Nathan's attention had mainly been fixed on the injured man, and he was now cursing himself for not paying more attention to the gunslinger. Chris's weight loss was serious enough that Nathan had left Ezra's bedside to tend to Larabee in the boarding house across the way.
The night passed slowly, and Tanner was not surprised when, a few hours before dawn, the door opened and Larabee quietly slipped back into the room. He looked pathetically tired and drawn; it was obvious that he had not slept much. Vin wondered how the gunslinger had slipped by his two watchdogs, but knew that Nathan had nearly been exhausted himself, and Buck had more than likely ventured to the jail to check on the others and the town.
Tanner knew that to confront Larabee about his presence would only put more pressure on his friend, so he answered his question about the gambler and felt cheered when he saw him brighten slightly when Vin informed him that Ezra had awoken and was again lucid.
"I'll take over if ya want," Larabee offered, looking pointedly at the man on the bed.
Tanner slowly shook his head. "Nah, Nathan'd have my hide if I left you here to watch over him... yer in no better condition than he is, Chris," Vin stated, standing and carefully pulling an extra blanket and pillow from the pile that Nathan always kept close by for emergencies. "You promise to sleep here - and I mean sleep, Chris - and I'll let ya stay 'til Nathan or Buck realise yer missin'." Seeing the look this earned him, he relented and met Larabee half way. "Y'can keep me company if ya want, but only for a short while. Ya need to rest, Cowboy... yer not gonna do Ezra no good if ya collapse now, are ya?"
Chris smiled weakly and took the offered larger, more comfortable seat, then the blanket and pillow. Within minutes he was lying slumped against the side of the deep chair, sound asleep. Vin watched him silently for a few moments before he rose and carefully laid another spare blanket over him, making sure that he was warm enough against the bitter chill that crept in with the night. He then returned to his vigil beside the bed, a frown still marring his handsome features.
The next time Ezra awoke he actually felt better, and with his returning health came the memory of how the injury had happened. He had woken and accepted the drink and broth that Nathan had offered, and had just settled back to sleep some more when Larabee crept back into the room, having been awoken by the healer's return that morning. Tanner had accompanied Chris to the restaurant to ensure that he did just as Nathan had ordered: get breakfast, and not return until he had eaten a full meal. The tracker, realising what Larabee had been doing the past few days, made sure that he stuck close to him and that the meal was light enough so that he actually managed to keep it down. He had then taken Chris back to his room and ensured that the gunslinger had slept the rest of the day away. It had not been hard, after Vin had slipped some of the potion that Nathan had given him into Chris's coffee: the man had practically been out on his feet as he had helped him up to his room.
Just as Larabee turned to close the door, Standish opened his eyes to see who was entering and, in a flash, was back at his campsite with the snake. His shot and the returning gunfire flashed before his eyes and then stopped, frozen, as he remembered how the gunslinger had looked, holding his smoking gun. Then the pain hit. The memory was so real that it caused Ezra to rear up in shock, and both Nathan and Chris reacted to his sudden movement by rushing to stop him. The gambler snarled and tried to move instinctively away from the man who had shot him, and this in turn caused more agony to flare.
Nathan, suddenly realising what had happened, reached for the injured man again, snarling at Larabee, "Get out, Chris... just get the hell out," he continued, when he saw that Ezra was not quietening down as Larabee moved nearer. Chris, seeing that Ezra was shying away from him, knew that he had to do as the healer asked and, spinning round, he almost sprinted from the room, slamming the door behind him.
Once Larabee was gone Jackson was able to quieten Standish and, after much encouraging, managed to get some of the herbal tea into him, which in turn soon had him slipping into sleep. Nathan noticed with some concern that Ezra was fighting the herbal drug, but soon his weakened condition was too much to overcome and he was resting quietly.
Nathan knew that Chris would be waiting impatiently outside the door so, after checking his patient one more time, he washed and wiped his hands and went out to meet the tornado that awaited him.
"How is he?" Larabee asked as soon as the door opened. Jackson was slightly surprised to see the other four men also waiting with the gunslinger.
"He's restin'," Nathan replied, suddenly uncomfortable with the look the gunslinger was giving him.
"He remembered," Chris stated, his tone weary beyond his years as the appalling guilt once more rested on his shoulders.
"I think we knew he was gonna," the healer retorted dryly, then sighed when he saw how the gunslinger absorbed his words, almost like an expected blow - he had not meant it as a criticism.
"He'll be all right..." Buck said with forced enthusiasm; over the past few days he had seen a change in his friend that he desperately wanted to revert. The sight of Chris Larabee looking so ill and lost and - worst of all - without his gun, concerned him greatly. "Once we explain it was an accident. That... that...."
He stumbled to a halt and looked towards Josiah and Vin for help, but he was interrupted by Chris as he snarled back, "Yeah... explain how he drew his gun to save my life and I thought he was drawin' on me, so I shot him. Cold-bloodedly cut him down." He sighed in frustration and said, "Some trust I've shown him."
"Aw, Chris," Tanner spoke up, "it were an accident... the gunplay coming so close on yer argument. You'd been drinking, had a hangover.... It's normal to defend yerself."
Larabee actually rounded on the bounty hunter, his face twisting almost out of recognition as he ranted, "That's a hell of an excuse, Vin: I got drunk the night before, so it's all right to shoot Ezra. After all, he's only a gambler... a royal pain in the ass most of the time. But you know what...?" He had almost backed Vin into the wall as he spat into his face, but when Buck and Josiah would have gone to the tracker's aid, Nathan held out his arm to prevent them; this was the first time the gunslinger had truly released his emotions since the shooting. All listened as he continued, seemingly without drawing breath, "It ain't normal to shoot a man who's supposed to be a friend - someone I trusted to protect my back... someone who actually risked his life to save mine. What kind of a friend - a man - am I? Just stay away from me. All of you... just stay the hell away. I'm cursed and everyone...." He stopped on a sob, but forced himself to carry on, "Everyone I care about - love - dies... an' if you," he looked at the shocked faces of his friends, "if you stay near me... it'll kill you, too." With that, he roughly pushed past his friends and stormed down the steps, making his way angrily over to the saloon.
The other men stood frozen, silent for several long minutes as they watched him. He had not turned to drink the entire time Ezra had fought the fever, but now... now that his crime was recognised by the man he had shot, he felt the need to be supported by alcohol.
"Guilt is a heavy burden to carry, brothers," Josiah said, watching the man go, not sure what help he could offer his tormented friend.
"Ezra is gonna be all right, ain't he?" JD asked, his tone quavering with fear at Chris's reaction to Vin's words; the gunslinger rarely - if ever - lost his temper at the bounty hunter.
"Yes," Nathan said firmly, wanting to put the younger man's fears to rest. "He'll be in some pain for a while, but he'll be all right... so long as he does as he's told."
"What about Chris?" JD went on to ask, looking in the direction that Larabee had headed.
"I'm not sure, JD, but I don't think slippin' into the bottle is the wisest thing for him to do just now," Nathan answered honestly.
"Damn right it ain't," snarled Vin, surging off the wall as if his legs had suddenly been given strength. Turning, he moved determinedly towards the steps.
Buck caught his arm and asked, "What you gonna do?"
Tanner glared at the hand on his arm and saw Wilmington hastily remove it. "I'm not gonna let Larabee run and hide from this... not this time. 'Specially not in the bottom of a whiskey bottle."
Again Buck tried to intervene: "Vin, Chris... Chris can get mighty nasty if you try t'stop him from drinkin'."
"Nasty?" Tanner snarled, his own eyes flashing with the frustration he'd felt over the last few days. "You ain't even seen the meaning of nasty... an' what the hell is he gonna do? Shoot me? Not with Josiah still holdin' his gun." He raised a contemptuous eyebrow as he continued, "Fight me? He's as weak as a day-old kitten right now." Then, nodding towards Nathan, he said firmly, "I'll be takin' Chris back to his room; you'd best get yer bag and meet me there in half an hour." Then he was gone. Buck and JD waited just a few heartbeats before they were both running after the bounty hunter, concern clearly written on their faces.
"Do you think Vin's course is a wise one?" Josiah asked, looking after the three men as they marched across the street.
Nathan wiped a tired hand over his face and replied, "Well, nothing else we've tried has worked, so what we got to lose?"
Josiah rubbed over his right eye and stated dryly, "A gunslinger, a tracker, a ladies' man and a kid." He then looked towards the closed door and added quietly, "And maybe a gambler."
The healer accepted his words before he added, "And if we do nothin', we could lose it all anyway. Will you watch Ezra while I go make sure Vin don't cause too much damage?"
"Vin won't hurt Chris," the preacher stated clearly.
He frowned as Nathan smiled and agreed, saying, "No, he won't... but he might take a piece outta Buck if he tries to interfere."
Opening the door to the sick room, the other man nodded in agreement and stated, "You have a point there, brother... you have a point."
It seemed that every person in the saloon stopped breathing when Vin Tanner stormed into the room. He glanced around briefly and spied Chris sitting in his usual chair, an unopened bottle of whiskey and an empty glass in front of him. He didn't hesitate, just walked right up to the table, sat down opposite his friend and looked at him. For several long minutes Larabee ignored him, and the bounty hunter felt rather than saw Buck and JD enter the room. They paused on the threshold before slinking over towards the bar, where they stayed, watchful but silent.
"Can't you just leave me alone?" Larabee finally asked; the anger was gone, only the deep-rooted pain remained.
"No... and this," Tanner gestured towards the bottle, "ain't the answer."
Chris let out a bitter bark of a laugh and stated clearly, "Don't you think I know that? After all this time, and all the bottles I've crawled into... don't you think I damned well know that?"
"Then why... why come here? Why get so drunk Buck has to carry you to yer room - so drunk that ya can't even remember it happenin' the next day. Why, Chris?"
The gunslinger contemplated not replying, but he knew that the bounty hunter would not leave until he had his answers... so he gave him what he wanted. "'Cause it's better'n waking in the night, rolling over an' reaching for her... only to find the bed cold. 'Cause it's easier to dream of playin' with Adam when yer mind can't turn it into a nightmare of fire an' screams, and 'cause sometimes... just sometimes, in the bottom of that bottle... the pain goes away."
"I never thought you were a coward, Cowboy," Tanner stated, leaning forward and keeping his tone low so that only the man in front of him could hear.
Chris raised an eyebrow and leant forward, sneering as he retorted, "And I never thought you could be such a malicious bastard." He leant back in his chair and concluded, "I guess we all learn somethin' every day, don't we?"
"D'ya honestly think hiding in that bottle's gonna make what you did to Ezra any less real?" Tanner shot back. "Or that it'll go away?" The colour drained from Larabee's already too-pale features as the barb struck home, but he looked at the bottle in question and determinedly refused to meet Tanner's gaze.
Finally, painfully, the bounty hunter realised, as if in a revelation that he could not make the gunslinger's decisions for him, and that dragging him out of the saloon would only make matters worse. He looked towards the bar and knew with sudden certainty that Buck had sat in a similar chair, in a similar saloon, and had come to a similar, bitter conclusion... and all he had ever been able to do was to carry his friend, whenever Larabee had allowed it. So Tanner slowly stood, his parting shot again just loud enough for the gunslinger to hear: "You accused Ezra of deserting ya... us... but if ya crawl into that bottle, then who's really deserting who here?" With that he turned and was gone, the saloon doors closing after him with the bang of a destiny finally shutting out the soul of Chris Larabee.
Buck and JD slowly followed, and the gunslinger knew that - for the first time since Sarah's and Adam's deaths - he was sober enough and released from grief to make a decision. It had taken the shooting of a friend to make him realise that, whilst he walked among the living, he still allowed the dead to hold too much of his soul within their grasp, and the bottle in front of him - and others just like it - opened the door that allowed them to transgress into his mind, dreams, and nightmares.
Slowly he reached out and ran a finger almost lovingly around the neck of the bottle, allowing his hand to drift up and slowly, almost sensually, pull the stopper from the opening. Around him the noise of the saloon swelled and people began to bustle about again. Chris Larabee was back where he belonged, and nobody noticed that, while he poured his drink, he didn't actually raise the glass to his lips and swallow, as he contemplated the last few months - and especially the last few days - and the friends he had made while in the small town of Four Corners.
The next few days passed tensely for five members of the Seven, the other two being blissfully unaware of that fact: Ezra because they took great pains to keep their worry and growing concern for Chris and himself hidden, not wanting to add to the stress of the healing man who seemed to have slumped into listlessness with the return of his memory; and Chris because he remained at the table at the back of the saloon, sitting there silently and nursing a glass of whiskey.
Ezra accepted every nasty concoction that Nathan offered him without a grumble, weakly eating any broth or food that was placed before him, but at other times he would just lie and stare at the ceiling, or shut out the others and their attempts at conversation by closing his eyes.
From what the others could tell, Chris did not drink to excess. He did not cause any problems, did not speak to anyone, nor did he attempt to fulfil any of the duties that befell the protectors of the town. He refused to leave the saloon until he was the last to do so, and was back at the table before Inez had completed opening the doors the following morning.
Several times Buck and Vin had attempted to talk to him, but he had sat and just looked at them. He appeared to allow their words to wash over him; the only time they saw a flicker of light in those cold eyes was when they mentioned Ezra, and each man made a point of dropping in for breakfast and in the evening to inform their friend of the gambler's progress. At those times, they also made sure that the gunslinger was eating, even though sparingly, the food that Inez prepared and placed in front of him. Nathan had visited the Mexican woman and given her some idea of the food that would be best for Larabee, as he still was not eating enough and the spicy food she normally prepared would not be tolerated by his weakened stomach. After the first day, they made no attempt to divert his guilt or rationalise his actions at the shooting of Standish, as the men knew enough to understand that those were Chris's devils to deal with.
JD, Josiah and Nathan kept their distance, willing to agree that contact with Larabee's volatile temper would not necessarily help the situation - not that any of the other five actually knew how to handle what had happened. They were just as shocked and confused as the two men who, while they appeared to be further apart than they had ever been, were in fact closer in their musings than any two brothers ever could be.
So Ezra slowly recovered in Nathan's small room and never asked to return to his own, and Larabee sat in the saloon and brooded over recent events, appearing more ill by the day. Each man, in his own way, was building walls that could easily destroy the foundation of the Seven's friendship more effectively than any bad element that strayed into their town.
Nobody took much notice of the two young men who rode slowly into Four Corners just as the sun was setting. They stabled their horses, paying extra to make sure that they were given additional feed and, after getting a room at the hotel, they treated themselves to a large meal in the small but clean restaurant. To all intents and purposes, they were just two young men who had ridden in for a rest from the trail.
As they stretched their legs after the large meal, Jess and Pat Summers took their time to gauge where everything was. They were in this town for a reason, and Jess was determined to ensure that nothing stood in the way of what was rightly his... and if killing Larabee meant getting that, then he was more than prepared to shoot the man in cold blood if he had to.
"This should be a piece of cake," Jess said with a grin, as he lit a cheroot and leant back against the wall, watching the town as it settled down for the night.
"Larabee's in the saloon... heard he's been there all day," Pat stated, wiping his hair back off his forehead. "He's got a bottle in front of him, and this ain't the first day he's crawled into one. He should be an easy kill."
Jess spun round and, grabbing his older brother, tossed him up against the wall he had been leaning against and snarled, "Larabee's fast; maybe the fastest gun I've come up against so far. Takin' him out'll get us taken seriously and we can demand whatever we want - that's why I want him."
Pat swallowed hard; he might be two years older than Jess, but the younger man was taller, stronger, and much more deadly with his gun. Pat had fallen under his leadership when, one dark night, Jess had cold-bloodedly shot in the back the man who used to beat them up as he staggered home after drinking in town - Jess was only fifteen at the time. The fact that the young gunslinger had shot his own father only heightened Pat's loyalty to his younger brother.
"Yer faster'n him... hell, I know that," Pat placated, his face clearly showing his adoration. Out of the four men Jess had called out, only one had died in an honest fight; the other three had been helped from the land of the living by a well-placed bullet from brother Pat's gun, fired from an alleyway where he had hidden shortly before the fight.
Jess paused, feeling the welling anger that always seemed to ride in his chest lessen some and, breaking into a smile, he gently slapped the face of his older brother, saying, "Course I am... and when I shoot Chris Larabee dead, everyone else'll know that as well." He let out a bark of laughter at the thought of the notorious gunslinger lying dead at his feet, before he added, "And then we'll be set: the man who shoots Larabee'll be able to demand his own price." He looked back at Pat and finished with a wide smile, "That's gotta be a damn sight better'n followin' behind a bunch of damned cows, eh?"
Pat laughed along with his brother. The plan was simple: kill Larabee, not necessarily in a fair fight, and use that fame to reel in the money. "So, when'll ya kill him?" he asked, wiping at his face, his eyes gleaming. Larabee would not be the first gunslinger they had murdered, but for some reason Jess wanted to face him one on one, in an honest fight, when he put the hot lead into his belly.
"Tonight, when he leaves the saloon." Jess leant back against the wall and took out another cheroot to light, the last having been lost when he attacked his brother. Jess was all for having a fair fight, but if the man he wished to kill chose to drink and add to his chances of being killed, then that was really Larabee's fault and Jess's advantage, which he was not opposed to benefit from.
Pat frowned and said, "It'll be dark then, Jess... how can ya have a fair fight in the dark?" The elder Summers' main concern was not necessarily that a fair fight take place, but that he would not be able to slip away like he had in the past and offer his brother the protection of his extra gun from a hidden alleyway.
Jess looked at his brother and smiled; it was cold, never reaching his eyes as he answered firmly, "I'll shoot him down in the middle of the street, Pat. These people'll know who killed Chris Larabee, take my word for it."
"I heard he's not wearin' his gun," Pat continued, a frown marring his handsome face.
"Hell, Pat, you don't wanna go believing all that town's gossip. A killer like Larabee don't take a leak in the outhouse in the middle of night without his gun." The younger Summers laughed at his own humour.
"Why can't we do what we usually do? I'll wait in the alley across from the saloon and you call him out. I don't like ya not having backup, Jess, and it'll be too dark for me to see clearly from across the street," Pat insisted, not liking the rumours he had heard about the town - the rumours that said six men walked by Larabee's side and would die to protect him.
Seeing that his brother was still uneasy with this change to their usual plans, Jess slapped the other man on the shoulder and said, "Pat, I could take this drunken bum twice before he even gets his gun out. You heard what they're sayin'..." he pointed towards the saloon, which they had visited earlier and eagerly listened to the town's gossip. "He's a has-been, and he's about to go into one of those dime novels as the fifth man that Jess Summers killed." Seeing that Pat was still looking uncertain, he slapped his shoulder again and snarled, his previous good humour drying up, "Let's go get a drink, then see what other entertainment this town has to offer. We can check out them rumours of yours and see how much hot air's really bein' blown about this town."
"What if the rumours are true... about Larabee and his gun?" Pat questioned, still not liking the idea of his younger brother going up against the famous gunslinger. It seemed as if, the more men they killed, the more Jess was starting to believe in his own speed with a gun... which, while Pat admitted it was fast, he was not totally convinced that it was fast enough to beat a man like Larabee.
Jess considered the question about the gun, then smiled broadly and said, "Hell, if he ain't got a gun when we shoot him, he will have by the time he hits the floor."
Pat frowned, before the meaning of Jess's words sunk in and he returned his brother's grin, knowing that - if necessary - he would ensure a gun was lying in the dust beside the dead body of Chris Larabee.
Vin Tanner stepped out of the sheriff's office and, leaning back, he smiled at Josiah as he said, "Have a good night."
"Thank you, Vin," Sanchez shot back, before he smiled and settled back on the chair behind the desk.
Tanner tipped his hat and slowly closed the door, then, checking his mare's leg at his side, he began to casually stroll down the street. He planned to make one more turn of the town before turning in for the night.
As he walked, he considered the continuing problem of Chris and Ezra. Neither man had advanced further in the past week and it was now becoming a major concern to the other five; Larabee still made no effort to leave the saloon or put on his gun, and Ezra still refused to leave the clinic.
"Vin... Vin!" a voice called from behind, and he turned to see Wilmington heading towards him. He could tell from the man's intense look that all was not well with him.
"Buck?" Tanner questioned as he reached him.
"That damned man will not listen to reason..." Wilmington fumed as he fell into step beside the tracker.
Vin smiled. Buck had been talking to Chris again and, like the previous two nights, Wilmington had made it his duty to inform Larabee of his stupidity in giving up his gun. Tanner had been nervous about Wilmington's decision at first, but seeing that Larabee listened to the womaniser rant and rave and then just dismissed him, the tracker had soon realised that this was not the first time they had argued over a decision that affected the gunslinger's life, so the bounty hunter had left them to it.
As they passed the general store, Tanner leant over and tested the door - it was firmly locked - then he moved on, only half-listening to Wilmington as he moaned about his lack of success with the gun-less gunslinger.
"Chris has to make his own decisions, Buck, an' I don't think we should push him," Tanner stated quietly.
Buck glared at him and snapped back, "I thought you were supposed to be his friend, yet you seem damned determined to sit back and let him drop dead from starvation and guilt."
Tanner swung round and, even though he was smaller than Wilmington, his stature seemed to grow as he forced the other man back a step, saying with barely hidden anger, "There's nothin' any of us can say to help Chris now. When Ezra's back on his feet, then we'll see what happens."
"What... you think just 'cause Ezra survived, that's gonna magically make everything all right?"
"No... no, I don't think that. I just think that once Ezra's better...." He stopped and closed his eyes, finally opening them again and saying, "This is between Chris an' Ezra - us buttin' in ain't helpin' any."
Buck chewed his upper lip before he stated, "Y'don't know what Chris was like, after... after Sarah and Adam died. He got so thin back then, that at one stage I don't think he could actually stand. But after a while he came back... slowly. This... this is just another one of those times."
"Buck," Vin said, interrupting the other man, who he could see was talking more to persuade himself rather than Vin. "Has he ever - ever - given up his gun before?"
Wilmington looked slightly ill at ease before he confessed, "No, he ain't never given up his gun before. If anything, he used it more, practising with it day after day, like he was driven...."
"Then this ain't another little setback...." Seeing the man's face fall, Vin sighed and said, not really believing his own words, "Look, Buck, we're all tired and worried about both our friends. Ezra's gettin' better every day. Why don't we wait and see?" He wanted to reassure the other man, who was now getting desperate in his attempts to reach his friend. Tanner strongly suspected that, in the past, the womaniser had always been able to pull Larabee back from the brink of the destruction that he now seemed determined to head towards... but not this time. Vin stopped, frowning when he saw a movement on the outside stairs of the hotel. He checked the street and slowly began to cross. Buck, seeing the change in Vin, also quietened and followed his friend, his own hand resting on his gun.
As they reached the sidewalk Buck broke into a smile as Molly suddenly appeared, but the smile faded when he saw the fear that was plastered across her face. She was looking fearfully over her shoulder, and she walked right into Vin. She gave a squeal of fear and attempted to flee, but Buck was there and reached out a steadying hand, saying as he did so, "Molly... Molly, honey... what's wrong?"
Molly, hearing a voice she recognised - in fact, hearing the voice of the very man she was going to look for - melted in his arms and said, "Oh Buck... oh Buck...." She leant against his strong chest and whimpered.
"Molly, honey," Buck repeated, his protective instincts coming to the fore at the young woman's obvious distress, "what's wrong?"
The lady of the night gasped in more air before she drew herself up and, pushing the broad chest away from her, stated, "I was...." She paused, licking her lips and tilting her head before speaking again, this time with growing courage, "I was... doin' my... uh, job, and I got, uh... speakin' to a drifter, Pat...." Seeing the looks this earned her, she stated, "That was his name, Pat. Anyways, he was braggin' about how his brother was gonna make a name for hisself...."
"Make a name for himself, how?" Buck asked, a sudden feeling of dread infusing his being as he reached over and grabbed the woman, demanding again, "How, Molly?"
"Buck..." Vin warned, also moving forward, his own face creased with concern.
The ladies' man stood back and released the woman, saying, "I'm sorry, Molly... please, go on, honey."
Molly smiled; it was fractured and forced, but she was determined to continue her story. "He said his brother was gonna call out Mr Larabee... in a gunfight," she clarified, before she bit her lip in her own worry. "Everyone knows he ain't wearing his gun no more, but that didn't seem t'bother Pat none."
"A gunfight," Vin repeated, then asked, "When?" His own mind was thinking ahead: they had to warn Chris, either get him back to wearing his gun or get him out of town for a few days... anything that would place the other man out of harm's way while they took care of the brothers.
Molly shrugged, then said, "I don't know. He was with me, y'know, doin'... it...." She paused, then blushed before she rushed on, "Anyway, soon as he finished, he left... said he was late and had t'get back to his brother. But," this time she paused and wiped her hair out of her face as she continued, a tremble in her tone, "he said when he saw me tomorrow, his brother would be famous." She stopped again, then seeing the look of shock the men gave her, she hurried on, "I waited 'til I thought it was safe and then I was coming to tell ya, Buck, honest," she insisted, her face blotchy with her concern and tears.
"Course you were, honey," Buck agreed, running his hand gently up and down the woman's arm in an attempt to calm her. "Now, you just go back to yer room and wait for me... I'll call by later."
Molly suddenly switched from a frightened woman to a seductress, and she smiled at the tall, handsome man. She batted her eyelashes and opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Vin interrupted, saying harshly, "Buck...." He pointed up the street, and all three could see Larabee leave the saloon and begin the short walk to the boarding house where he had a room. He was staggering slightly, but both men knew it was not drink that was affecting him, rather the lack of food and sleep.
The night was clear, and it enabled Buck and Vin to see the two men who followed Chris out of the saloon; they were moving before they even registered that they had. Vin rushed straight out onto the street and called out, "Larabee!!" It was a desperate banshee cry that tore across the town and seemed to echo and vibrate.
The unarmed gunslinger reacted to the cry and, crouching, he began to turn, looking as if he was going for his gun that was not there. Jess also reacted to the cry, his gun coming out, a flash of light and the sound of a shot informing all that he had fired. Larabee cried out in shock and surprise and tumbled to the ground. Tanner, racing towards the would-be killers, had drawn his own weapon and returned fire. Jess cried out and dived for cover at the same time as his brother, who had been taken totally by surprise by the sudden gunfight.
Buck was also now returning fire, and he tried his best to cover Vin as he raced towards Chris who was lying deathly still in the middle of the street.
Suddenly Josiah, JD and Nathan were there, bursting from different locations to also lay down covering fire. It was too much for the startled and pain-ridden Jess, who yelled out loud that he was giving up, and then threw out his gun from behind the water trough where he had sought shelter. JD and Josiah advanced on the wounded assassin and soon had him under their guns.
Vin and Nathan rushed to Chris, and the tracker was relieved when he sprawled down beside his friend to find the man gritting his teeth and clutching at his bleeding arm. "What happened?" the dazed gunslinger gasped, looking up at the two men who leaned over him.
"Couple o'cowboys wantin' t'make a name for themselves," Vin informed him, as he anxiously watched Nathan work.
The healer ripped at Chris's shirt and quickly inspected his bleeding arm. Leaning back, he grabbed a makeshift bandage and said, "Looks like it went clean through, but we need t'get him up to my room. I need the light so I can clean it up."
Chris was already moving to sit up and the other men willingly assisted him, holding him upright when he would have fallen. Buck offered his support, then moved in to take Larabee's weight as the man slipped into unconsciousness - the shock of the injury, plus the lack of food and sleep over the last few days taking their toll. Between Tanner and Wilmington, they managed to get the injured man across the street and up the steps to Jackson's small room.
JD and Josiah roughly manhandled the bleeding and protesting Jess to his feet and pushed him forcefully in the direction of the jail. The boy had also been hurt, but his injury seemed to be more of a flesh wound - although, to listen to him, it sounded like a fatal shot. Josiah, seeing this, gave the young man before them another shove and headed him towards the jail; he would do his own first aid once they had the lad in jail, then Nathan could come and inspect his handiwork after he had tended Chris.
Pat, meanwhile, had managed to escape behind the saloon, and now watched as the street was cleared and calm slowly returned to the town. He bit his lip and knew that he had to get his brother out of jail if they were to continue with their life of fame. He was convinced that Jess's shot had fatally wounded Larabee, and that it would only be a matter of time before Jess's fame was asserted.
He kept his gaze on the street and began to chew his bottom lip. The attack had been too sudden and he had not been prepared for it. In his mind, it was Larabee's fault that Jess had been hurt. They had followed the man from the saloon with the intention of jumping him once they were away from its lights. Pat still clutched the cheap gun they had had ready to drop by the body once the deed was done, but now it was useless.
He had to get his little brother out of the other men's clutches. As he stood leaning back against the wall, trying to figure out how to help his brother, he recalled a conversation they had heard earlier; one in which Larabee had reportedly shot a close friend. The man had not died, according to gossip, but the gunslinger was pretty torn up about it; torn up enough that he had taken his gun off. Pat knew that to have done that, he must care for the other man. If that was the case, then the injured man might just be Jess's ticket out of the jail. With that half thought-out plan in mind, Pat staggered away from his hiding place and knew that he would have to find somewhere to hide until morning, if he was going to be of any use to Jess.
Ezra looked up from the bed as the door burst open and Chris was carried in between Vin and Buck. He opened his mouth to question, but snapped it shut when Nathan followed them in. Without a thought, he clambered carefully off the cot and stood to one side, allowing them to lay Larabee on the bed that he had recently occupied.
Nathan quickly moved to Larabee's side and immediately began removing his shirt. As he did so, he snapped at Buck, "Get Ezra a chair, then get another bed up here."
The gambler was about to protest, but fell silent as the womaniser did as asked and he found himself sitting weakly in the large comfortable chair while he watched Nathan tend to Chris.
First the healer removed Chris's shirt and then checked to ensure that the bullet had, in fact, gone right through. He let out a sigh of relief when he noted that it had. He applied a temporary bandage and then moved around the clinic, quietly preparing the poultices that he would use on Larabee. He looked up at Vin, who had stayed in the room, and smiled reassuringly as he said, "He should be fine, it went clean through, but in his present state I don't wanna take no chances."
"I believe that I should leave, Mr Jackson," Standish suddenly spoke up and, standing, he started to make his way carefully towards the door.
Nathan was instantly beside him, saying firmly as he guided the man back to the seat, "No. Tomorrow mornin', if you want, then you can go back to your room... but not tonight."
"I can assure you..." Ezra began to argue.
Nathan spun on him and shouted, his anger clear, "Not now, Ezra... I've gotta stop this bleedin'." He motioned to the bandage that was now soaked through with Larabee's blood. The gambler paled and fell silent as he watched the healer work. Chris suddenly reared up and Nathan immediately leant over him, saying clearly, "Chris... you've been shot. Went clean through your arm, but you need to stay calm."
Larabee looked confused for a moment, then slumped back, losing strength. He tilted his head to look owlishly at Tanner, who was still standing by the bed. "What happened?" he gasped, disorientated and feeling sick with dizziness. He winced as the healer continued to work on cleaning his arm.
"Molly said one of her men was boastin' 'bout how his brother was gonna make a name for hisself by shootin' you...." Vin paused, then continued, forgetting that Ezra was in the room as he said, "We had to git to ya before he could call ya out, you not wearing yer gun an' all." Tanner was unable to hide his anger at his friend for placing his life into such danger. While he fully understood why Larabee had given up wearing his gun, he also knew that Chris was a notorious gunslinger who could be called out at any moment, by any drunk cowboy passing through town wanting to make a name for himself. As far as Tanner was concerned, Larabee was displaying a death wish, and that made his blood boil.
Neither the healer nor the bounty hunter was prepared for the chair to crash over as the gambler staggered to his feet and glared at them both, his face so pale that Vin actually thought the man was about to faint. Tanner suddenly realised that the gambler hadn't known that Larabee had given up wearing his gun, but the man was intelligent enough to realise why Chris was going bare and his expression informed the tracker that he was shocked by the knowledge.
"Now, Ezra..." Nathan began, but stopped when the door flew open and Buck and Josiah staggered in, carrying a second bed. Bedlam ensued, added to by the fact that Larabee started to struggle to get up. By the time the bed was settled and Nathan and Vin had managed to subdue Chris enough to allow Nathan to finish his job, Standish was able to slip unnoticed from the room.
"What happened to the brother?" Vin suddenly asked, looking around the room as they realised that Ezra had vanished, the second man coming back to Tanner's mind by the gambler's actions.
"Who?" Josiah asked, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"Molly said the guy who shot Chris had a brother - it was him who was boastin' to her. Where is he?" Vin demanded, looking round as if to find him hiding in Nathan's clinic. A feeling of unease started to grip his stomach.
"We never saw anyone else when we got to the street," Josiah said, frowning as he tried to remember the earlier gunfight, "only the boy in the jail." He then went on, "Once you're finished here, Nathan, it might be an idea to check him out. I think it's only a flesh wound, but you'd best take a look - he's makin' enough fuss to think that we've mortally injured him."
"I just want t'get this bandaged and Chris settled, then we need t'find Ezra..." Nathan said, looking around the room, worried by the gambler's departure. So much had happened so fast.
"He's more'n likely gone back to his room," Buck said. "I'll go look for him."
Several minutes later, when Nathan had finished tending to Larabee, he looked down at the now-sleeping gunslinger. "Vin, you stay here with Chris." The man had passed out again during the struggle to get out of bed when Buck and Josiah had burst into the room. "I'll go check on the boy; meantime the rest of us oughtta look for that boy's brother an' Ezra."
The night passed slowly. Nathan checked the boy, finding that his wound was indeed only superficial, although - by the time the healer left the jail in the capable hands of both JD and Josiah - he almost wished that it had been the boy's mouth he had stitched and bandaged. It was decided to leave two men in the jail, as it was felt that Jess's brother - an unknown factor - might attempt a rescue. The most worrying aspects of the night's events for Nathan were the disappearance of Ezra, and Chris's rising fever.
After checking Ezra's room at the saloon and leaving a message with George, the barman, to keep an eye open for him, Buck had headed for the livery. All their horses were still in their stalls, however, and the stable-hand had not seen the gambler. The womaniser then spent the next hour frantically searching every place where Standish might have sought refuge, including the church, which was as quiet as the grave, but to no avail. He was starting to consider getting his horse and riding the outskirts of town in his search for the other man.
Suddenly a voice called out to him and, turning, Buck spied Molly. She was moving towards him, her face creased with concern. As she reached him, she held out a hand and gently rested it on his arm, saying, "Mr Standish... I just saw him enter the saloon and go up to his room." She paused and then continued, "George asked me to find you."
"Now, Molly," Buck scolded, "you shouldn't be walking out here all alone, 'specially with that boy in the jail's brother still at large."
The woman smiled warmly and replied, "I ain't alone...." As she spoke, she rubbed her hand up his chest, admiring the ripple of muscles under her touch. "'Sides, I heard he hightailed it outta town... an' George said you wanted to know about Mr Standish."
"You sure he headed for his room?" Buck asked, licking his lips and smiling warmly at the woman who was gently setting his body on fire.
Molly licked her own lips in reply before she answered, "Yeah... he was lookin' a bit worn, but I saw him head up the stairs."
"Well then, guess I'll just let the others know where he is and that we'll need to go lookin' for the kid's brother tomorrow, then I'll need t'escort you home... and make sure you stay there, safe and sound."
Molly giggled and, slipping her hand through the offered arm, she smiled warmly and swaggered along with Buck, her thoughts turned to the pleasant night in front of her.
Nathan, hearing that Ezra had returned to his room considered going after him, but then - looking at the fitfully sleeping man on the bed before him - decided that Ezra might get more rest in his own room. He therefore decided to leave it for the night and tackle the problem of the gambler in the morning, once they were all rested.
Ezra lay on his bed, wishing that the throbbing pain in his shoulder would stop. With every beat of his heart he could feel it pulse and he hated that; he hated being reminded with each thump that he was wounded and weak, hated the fact that he was not able to just saddle his horse and leave this accursed town. He had tried - had stood hidden in the shadows of the corral outside the livery as he fought against his desire to flee the town - but he knew that, if he did, he would not get very far before his wound would overcome him. He was wise enough to know that to be injured out on the trail was asking to die and, of the many things Maude Standish's son was, being a fool was not one of them. So he had slowly made his way back to his own room, being unwilling to return to Nathan's clinic and rest beside the man who had shot him - the man who had given up his gun, if what Vin had said earlier was true.
Slowly Ezra opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling, barely seeing it in the moonlight, wishing that he could sleep as he felt so exhausted. The walk from the healer's room and the wait near the livery had taken more of his energy than he thought, and yet now, lying in his own bed, he was unable to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he would see the flash from the barrel of the gun just before the bullet slammed into him, and above that he would see the look in Chris Larabee's eyes as he slowly lowered his smoking gun.
He also could not shake the feelings that were caused by the fact that Larabee had given up wearing his gun - that just didn't seem right to the gambler, who fully realised the risk Chris was taking by not having his gun to defend himself. Standish found it hard to believe that the gunslinger would give up his weapon just because he had mistakenly shot the wrong man.
Ezra sighed again, and wondered where that stray thought had come from - that Chris had shot him by mistake. Since his memory of the incident had returned, he had been laying in the bed at the clinic, determined in his indignation that the gunslinger had shot him on purpose; that the man had never liked him and had just been waiting for an excuse to get rid of him. These confusing thoughts swirled around his mind as he lay there, trying to work out what he was going to do next.
With a start, Ezra opened his eyes and sat up, forcing back a yelp of pain. Daylight was streaming though his window and he realised that he had fallen asleep after all, though his rest had not been easy as he had dreamed of Larabee and his gun, and of his own flesh being torn by bullets. The other members of the Seven had stood by and idly pointed while Chris had used the hapless gambler for target practice. Buck had even gone so far as to place bets on how many shots it would take from the gunslinger to mortally injure the conman.
Sweat stood out on Ezra's brow and his body shook with shock and a continued exhaustion. He wanted to slump back on the bed, let his body's weakness overcome him, and yet he knew that only nightmares awaited him. He shuddered, pushing away his fears, and stumbled to his feet. He could take this no more: the dreams, the confusing thoughts.... Some time during the night he had made up his mind; he was going to leave town. Today. He knew that it was dangerous, but he also knew that he could not remain - the bottom line was that he no longer trusted the men who had sworn to protect the town.
With that thought in mind, he decided that he would have to return to Nathan's room to collect his few belongings, which had been taken there along with himself. This gave him pause, as he really did not want to come into contact with the healer, who, he knew, would insist that he was not well enough to be travelling. He also did not want to run into Larabee, who might still be in residence at the clinic. If it were not for the money that he had hidden in his saddlebags, he would have seriously considered leaving his belongings where they were. But, knowing that he could not leave his gambling stake behind, he decided that it would be safest for him to travel the back route to the clinic and wait until he saw Jackson leave before he would venture in to gather his few meagre belongings. He only hoped that Larabee would have left the healer's room, or be asleep. With this barely thought-out plan in mind, he quietly left his room.
With the coming of dawn, Chris was awake and determined to leave the bed where he had rested the night. While his wound had been slight, his lack of care for himself over the past week or so had left him susceptible to the fever that had now caught hold of his body, but - foolishly - he fought against it and the men who tried to help him.
On waking he had demanded to know where Ezra was, as the gambler was not resting in the extra bed that had been brought in and he was concerned for the other man's welfare. Vin firmly informed him that Standish had returned to his own room and was resting there. The bounty hunter also stated that, once Nathan finished checking the prisoner's wound, he would personally be seeking out the gambler and insisting that he return to the clinic. This seemed to satisfy Larabee, who smiled weakly before snatching up his torn shirt and glaring at Tanner when he attempted to stop him. The tracker knew that he would not be able to prevent the gunslinger from leaving, although Vin did intend on taking Chris over to the jail for the healer to check on him before he left his side. He felt sure that Nathan would have a method of getting his reluctant patient back in his sick bed where he belonged... although Tanner pitied the healer, as Larabee was in no mood to be crossed.
As Vin and Chris descended the steps to the main street, they saw that the town was waking; storeowners were starting to open their shops, and people were drifting out onto the street. They began making their way slowly over to the jail, Larabee cursing the weakness that seemed to have taken hold of his body. They were about halfway there when JD suddenly appeared with Buck by his side. Seeing Larabee, the two men headed in their direction, both pleased to see him up and about, but also concerned by his unsteady gait and pale features.
As they approached, JD said out loud, his temper frayed by having to spend the night with their endlessly moaning prisoner, "Would you believe that guy in there," he pointed back towards the jail, "is yellin' his fool head off about still callin' you out?" The other men could all hear the indignation in the younger man's voice.
"He'll lose some of his voice when he stands before the judge," Vin said, his eyes glittering as he remembered seeing Chris spin towards the earth the night before, totally unarmed and unable to defend himself.
"Who is he, anyway?" Larabee asked, frowning at JD's words. The fever was making it hard for him to concentrate, the ground was looking slightly unsteady and he was beginning to feel sick. He still had no idea why he had been attacked the night before, although Tanner had tried to explain it to him earlier, but he had pushed it aside in favour of getting up and out of the clinic.
"Jess Summers," Buck supplied, before he continued in disgust, "He came to gun you down so he could make a name for himself... still reckons he's fast enough to take you on. Damn fool ain't got much more brains than a day-old calf."
"Day-old calves don't carry guns," Larabee stated coldly, his temper fraying at the realisation that he had nearly died the night before because some kid reckoned he could take him out. It was a fact he had lived with for several years now, but the last few months in this town and the protection of his friends had allowed him to become relaxed, and - with his previous profession - that was deadly. He knew that the only way Chris Larabee could survive not wearing his gun was to live out his life hidden away on his small patch of land, hoping that no one called him out, or else die gracefully. Larabee was unable to push aside the fact that the latter option had the greater appeal to him at the present time.
"What about his brother?" Vin suddenly asked, his face showing concern as he looked around the town.
"Rode out late last night, far as I can tell. A horse was stolen," Buck supplied. "He won't stop runnin' 'til he hits the sea," the womaniser stated with a smile.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that. If they wanna make a name for themselves, it's a good bet he won't leave his brother behind - not if he's the one with the fast draw," Larabee retorted, his own eyes scanning the street. Unthinkingly, he wiped at sweat that had gathered on his face. He felt uneasy about the whole sequence of events that was being revealed to him: if the boy had come to town to make a name, then it seemed wrong that his brother would just leave him.
"Hell," Buck said, "I was comin' t'get Vin and Josiah so we could light out after him. If he's as green as his brother, he should be easy t'find."
Just then a shout went up from behind them, near the clinic, and all four men swung round, three producing guns easily from their holsters, while the fourth reached uselessly for a gun that was not there, with an arm that flared with pain as he attempted to use it. The shock of that pain nearly set him on his backside in the dusty street.
They all froze when they saw Ezra stagger out into the main street from the alleyway beside the livery. It was not the fact that the gambler was unsteady on his feet that had them frozen, but the tall, powerful youth who stood behind him, holding the other man tightly to his body as he firmly held a gun pressed tightly under Standish's chin.
A short while earlier, Ezra had witnessed Chris and Vin leaving the clinic, staying hidden in the shadows of the alleyway while he waited to see if anyone else left. He was fairly certain that he had seen Nathan enter the jail, but he wanted to make sure the coast was clear, so that he could slip into the small room and retrieve his belongings. He was starting to sweat under the strain of remaining upright when his body desperately wanted to rest. From his vantage point, the gambler watched as Chris and Vin walked slowly towards the jail, then saw JD and Buck moving across the street to greet them. He was prepared to wait until they had all entered the jail before he made his move, but the choice was taken away from him as he felt himself being spun around and roughly forced up against the building, his breath being knocked from his body and his injury screaming at the brutal attack.
The man in front of him was little more than a boy, but he was large - large enough to easily slam Ezra against the wall again, saying as he did so, "You must be that fancy-dressed gambler everyone's been talkin' about. You bastards are gonna let my brother go, y'hear?" The lad's fetid breath almost had the injured gambler passing out as much as the rough treatment did, but he swallowed his bile and held his tongue. He had no idea why the boy had attacked him, but the gleam in his eyes informed the gambler that he would not hesitate to use the gun he now held firmly in front of Ezra's eyes.
Suddenly the boy cuffed him across the face with his gun and Ezra would have slumped, stunned, to the ground if not for the strong grip around his chest. The arm sent lancing agony through his wound as it clamped tightly across it and Ezra was forced out onto the main street, a gun shoved painfully under his chin, almost passing out from the rough manhandling.
"Let him go!" yelled Buck furiously, taking a threatening step forward, but he stopped when Chris grabbed him back with his good hand. The gunslinger could see fear and excitement in the boy's eyes and knew that that alone made him a dangerous and unstable element.
"You get my brother outta jail, now!" the boy yelled back, using the building behind him as cover for his back. The gambler's body firmly protected his front; the injured man's feet barely touching the ground as he was swung around like a broken rag doll. "Otherwise, he's dead." To emphasise his words, Pat pushed the gun deeper into the skin just under Ezra's chin; the others could all see the way the gambler attempted to cry out at this action, but was prevented by the weapon.
"Go get the brother, now..." Larabee snarled towards Buck. When the womaniser would have protested, the gunslinger turned fiery eyes towards him and hissed, "Now, Buck!" The other man, seeing the demented, fever-fuelled look, slowly nodded; if Chris wanted the boy, it was to use him to get Ezra to safety and he was prepared to go along with that. With that thought in mind, he spun round and raced towards the jail.
As Buck approached, he saw that Nathan and Josiah had left the jail and were now standing just outside the door, watching the scene unfold before them in horror. The preacher, hearing Chris's words, followed the womaniser inside and between them they released the prisoner from his cell and frog-marched him out of the jail, heading towards Larabee and the others who were standing frozen in the middle of the street.
Nathan had slowly approached the three men and was now standing slightly to the right of them, his total attention fixed on Ezra, trying to gauge the man's present state. He could see that he was not doing very well: a fresh patch of bright red blood now plainly stood out on his ripped shirt. His wound had obviously been torn open by the rough manhandling and was freely leaking blood over the swaying man. Nathan was also very conscious of the fever-bright eyes of Chris Larabee. Neither man was in a fit condition to face this kind of stand-off, and yet they were helpless to prevent it.
The main street was suddenly deserted except for the players in the drama, but the protectors of the town knew they were being watched closely from behind the safety of windows and doors. Once Jess was standing near the others, securely gripped in Josiah's large hands, Larabee called out, "Let Ezra go, then we'll release yer brother."
"Hey Pat, what you got there?" Jess suddenly called out, smiling cockily at his brother standing behind the gambler, pleased to see that Pat was effecting his release.
Pat Summers, seeing Jess, smiled jubilantly before he replied, "Just that gambler we heard about... you know, the one Larabee shot." Seeing that his words had an effect on the group who stood before him, he smiled broadly and asked, "Hey, Larabee, you want me t'finish the job ya started?"
"You harm him and I'll kill ya with my bare hands," the wounded gunslinger snarled, unable to prevent himself.
Pat, not liking the way Larabee answered him back, jabbed the gun into Ezra's neck, causing him to cry out in pain. "You let Jess go, then we'll see about this here fella...." He clipped his gun roughly across Ezra's head, causing the other man to yelp and stagger slightly. The others could see that Ezra was not in a fit state to effect his own release, nor could he take much more punishment as he hung stunned in the gunman's arms.
Tanner looked towards Larabee and saw his muscles tense. The tracker knew they were in a no-win situation, as there was no chance of the two brothers allowing Ezra his freedom once they escaped; they did not seem the type of men who honoured their agreements. Vin knew that Chris could only attempt to buy time for the gambler now.
"Let him go, Josiah." Larabee spoke quietly, his face tense and drawn as he fought to control his emotions. He just wanted to take the prisoner and his brother and beat them for the pain he could see that Ezra was in. The preacher looked at Chris. Noting his expression, he nodded once and slowly released his grip.
Buck, seeing JD about to react, reached over and rested his hand on the boy's arm. Drawing his attention and his gaze, Buck slowly shook his head; this was Larabee's hand, and it was up to him to play it out as he saw fit.
Jess, feeling his arm released, sniggered and swaggered towards his brother, making a great show of acting as if he had all the time in the world. On reaching Pat, he punched his brother playfully on the arm and, reaching down, drew out the weapon that was resting in Pat's other holster.
"Now let Ezra go," Larabee demanded, his anger rising as his vision suddenly blurred. He fought to keep his senses under control; he could not afford to show any sign of weakness now.
"No, I don't think so," Jess replied, smiling sweetly at the same time, which only made him appear even younger. This was the first time he had ever felt such a rush of true power, and he held it over these men... he wanted it to last. "I think we'll keep him fer a while longer... maybe drop him outside o'town, once we're sure you ain't followin' us."
"No!" Chris shouted, taking a step nearer, his eyes filling with fear. He knew that once the boys were out of town they would kill Ezra; they would have no reason to keep him alive, and he could tell from the look in Jess's eyes that Standish's death would not be an easy one. "No, take me... I'm the one you came here for." Seeing the brief flicker of interest in Jess's eyes and, desperate to remove Ezra from danger, he pushed his advantage as he continued, "I'm the... the one you want, not him."
"Jess?" Pat questioned, seeing his brother hesitate. Now that he had effected Jess's release, he just wanted to get out of the town. They could always come back for Larabee at a later date.
His interest aroused and enjoying seeing the more powerful man pleading for the gambler's life, the younger man waved his question aside as he asked, "What d'ya have in mind, Larabee?"
Chris let out the breath he had not been aware of holding and hurried to push home his advantage of having the boy interested in his suggestion. "Let him go and I'll go with ya. Think of it... the famous Chris Larabee - your prisoner."
"Chris, no...." Ezra was awake enough to know that the gunslinger was making a deal for his life, and also that the dark-clad man would not survive if he left town with these two.
"Shut up, you..." Pat snarled, slapping Ezra again with his gun; the slap was lighter this time, as he didn't want the man unconscious when they made their escape. The gambler gasped and felt his legs start to buckle, but the arm around him refused to allow him to fall.
Larabee felt rage fill him at this treatment. His eyes glowing in anger as he turned his attention from Jess back to Pat, he spat out, "You hurt him again and I'll...."
"You'll do nothin'," Jess snarled back, his own madness flaring in his eyes as he raised his gun and clicked back the hammer, the barrel pointing directly into Ezra's stunned face. The gambler swallowed hard and flicked his panicked look from the gun to Larabee.
The gunslinger felt his terror increase, but knew that he had to pull the situation back. "Wait," he cried, reaching out his hand, beseeching the other man. "You want to make a name for yerself?" He saw that he had captured Jess's attention again, so he pushed on, desperately thinking about how to get Ezra away from these deadly men. "Killin' him won't give ya that... it won't mean a thing. I'm the one you came here for... me."
Jess slowly tilted his head towards the gunslinger and said, his voice indicating that he knew he was in charge, "Ya know I can beat you in a draw, don't ya, Larabee? Y'know I'm faster'n ya...."
"Yes," Larabee said without hesitation. "You proved that last night," he added, holding up his injured arm. "You can beat me... fairly. But, like this..." he pointed towards the gambler, "if ya do this, people'll always say ya couldn't, that ya had to cheat to win."
"I don't need t'cheat," Jess snarled, waving his gun away from the gambler and towards Larabee.
"I know that," Chris confirmed, as if it were fact, "but others don't. They..." he pointed towards the windows and the half-hidden faces that peered out at them, "they'll see a different story... d'ya want that?"
"I wanna shoot you... dead," snapped Jess, then added, "I'm faster'n you."
"Then prove it! Take me instead of him, then once we're outta town... then we can have our fight. It'll be fair... just you an' me.... You'll win, y'know ya will." Again Chris held up his injured arm, the bandage clearly showing. He didn't stand a chance of outdrawing the other man, not with his bullet wound.
Jess rocked back on his heels and looked from the wounded gunslinger to the man that his brother held, an evil thought coming to his mind as he considered the power he now held over this very famous gunslinger. "This man's gotta be mighty important to ya if yer prepared to exchange yerself fer him."
"He's nobody," Chris stated, hoping that Jess would leave Ezra and take him instead, but the boy's next words stunned him completely.
"Nobody, huh? Would ya beg for him, Larabee?" Seeing the confused look this earned him from the man in question, Jess pointed his gun again at the gambler and snarled, "Would ya come here..." he motioned to just in front of him, "and beg on yer knees in the dirt for this worthless piece o'shit? Well, would ya?" The silence could have been cut with a knife, and the other men each held their breath.
Slowly, Chris Larabee took a few short steps forward, moving to stand just in front of the other man, his arms outstretched as if he could stop the bullet from leaving the gun. Then, with awkward grace he slipped to his knees and, looking up directly into Jess's pale, cold eyes, he asked, "Please, I'm begging you... don't shoot him. Please don't hurt him. Take me... I'm the one you want."
Jess sniggered and, moving forward slightly, he pointed his gun into Larabee's face and said, "Kiss my boots, Larabee.... Kiss my boots so that everyone here'll know I'm a better man than ya'll ever be."
Larabee looked up past Jess and into Ezra's pain-filled, shocked eyes. Pat still had his gun resting under the gambler's chin, but it was looser now as the other man leant forward to witness Chris's humiliation at his brother's hands. Without pausing, Larabee leant down and pressed his lips to the dust-covered boots.
"Now, beg again... and this time make it louder - I don't think the townsfolk heard ya the last time."
Larabee licked the dust from his dry lips and swallowed a cough that threatened to choke him, as he raised his voice and shouted as loudly as he could, "I'm on my knees, begging ya not to hurt him."
Jess laughed and looked at the men standing behind Larabee, their faces etched expressions of hate as they witnessed their friend's total humiliation. "That's a right pretty beggin' speech ya've got there, Larabee... bet it ain't the first time ya've begged, and ya sure know how t'kiss a man's boots."
Chris closed his eyes as the shame of his actions swept over him, but he pushed that aside: he had no real interest in his own comfort; his only priority was to get Ezra safely away from these men. "He'll only slow ya down," he said.
Jess lifted his leg and, with a sharp shove, sent Chris sprawling back on the street. "Get the hell up, Larabee... don't ya know how pathetic you are, kneelin' in the dirt?" Chris placed his arms out behind him to prevent himself falling further, but his injured arm gave out under him and he hissed in pain.
Jess, meanwhile, was growing bored with Larabee's willingness to do whatever he asked to save his friend's life. The youth knew that the men standing behind the downed gunslinger were just waiting for the chance to take them out; he could see the hatred shining in all their eyes as they looked from the sprawled gunslinger to the prisoner that Pat still held firmly.
Chris awkwardly clambered to his feet, his eyes never leaving those of the boy in front of him who still held his gun steadily on the struggling gunslinger. Slowly Jess motioned Larabee back, and he took a step backwards, then another, until he was again standing beside his friends. He felt, rather than saw, JD on his left. The boy moved instinctively closer to offer his support.
"You don't need to hurt him," Larabee stated again, his face creased with pain. "Not now these people've seen me beg. They know you're the better gunfighter. Hell, Chris Larabee's never begged before in his life." There was a sudden flash of the old Larabee as he spat the words out. "Ya can take me outta town now and shoot me... hell, I'm shaking at the thought of even facin' ya." As if to emphasise his words, he held out his injured arm, biting back the whimper of pain that wanted to fall from his lips.
Larabee honestly thought he was starting to sway the man but, in a flash, the reasonable man was gone and the cold-blooded killer was back. Raising his weapon, ready to kill, aiming for Larabee's heart, Jess snarled, "I don't give a damn what these people think. I'm faster'n you... here... now.... You're gonna die, Larabee." Before the words were fully out of his mouth, he was being slammed back against the wall by a well-placed bullet from the gun that had appeared seemingly miraculously in Chris's hand. Pat, seeing this, attempted to react but was too slow, not even having the chance to blink after his brother's death before he was spinning down into hell after him.
Ezra stood frozen, unable to move as the two men standing so close to him were tossed back and died violent deaths. He felt his world starting to slip sideways and swallowed hard as he clearly homed in on the gun that was held unsteadily in Larabee's hand, his arm shaking from exertion, his own wound slowly seeping blood through the once-white bandage. Taking a deep swallow, Ezra managed to open his mouth and say clearly into the frozen scene, "Mr Larabee, I am glad to see that your... aim... is as effective... as always...." With that, his eyes slipped closed and he tumbled bonelessly to the ground, to lay on the man who had been threatening his life just minutes before.
When Standish dropped into unconsciousness, it spurred the others into action; both Nathan and Josiah rushed to his side and Nathan began to check the gambler. Meanwhile Vin, Buck and JD looked at Chris in utter amazement. While bringing his arm down from showing Jess his shaking hand, he had drawn JD's right-side holstered gun as quickly as he would his own and used it to kill the two men who threatened Standish. The act had been performed so quickly that Vin and Buck still found it hard to absorb the fact that the danger had passed.
Larabee turned and, without a word, offered the gun back to the stunned teenager, unable to prevent his hand from shaking. JD looked from the gun to Larabee and back again, his expression showing that he was unable to comprehend that his own weapon had been removed and used before he had even thought about drawing. Chris's speed had astounded the youth once more and he felt his admiration sweep up another notch, but his words of praise stalled in his mouth as he watched the torment that filtered across Larabee's handsome face. Slowly he turned to follow Chris's look and gasped when he saw the grotesque sprawled bodies of the dead men, their eyes staring sightlessly up at the sun. Josiah was carefully lifting Ezra away from them as the healer fussed around him, making sure that the rough bandage he was applying to the wound would stay in place as the gambler was moved.
"Chris?" Vin asked, moving to reach out and touch the other man, not liking the look he could see in his eyes. Larabee still did not look as if he was with them, and this worried the tracker more than he liked to admit.
The sight of Chris begging so shamelessly for Ezra's life had stunned the entire group. They felt awed when confronted with the knowledge of just how much they had come to mean to the gunslinger, as not one of them doubted he would have acted any differently if it had been them.
"You had no choice," Buck said, moving to stand before the other man.
Whether he was speaking about the killing of the two men or the begging, Larabee did not know, but he did know that he couldn't handle their expressions at the moment, so he pushed Buck's words aside along with the man and snapped, his tone barely concealing his rage, "Get those damned bodies off the street." With that his eyes suddenly rolled up and he partially collapsed against Vin, who swiftly moved in to prevent him from landing hard on the ground as his legs buckled.
Vin supported the semi-conscious gunslinger and assisted him as they slowly walked after Nathan, Josiah and Ezra, who were already making their way up to Nathan's room.
Buck and JD watched them go before they turned back to the two bodies.
"What's wrong with Chris? I mean, why was he angry? I mean, he begged to save Ezra's life. He had no choice but to kill those two - they were acting like... like mad dogs. What the hell's wrong with him?" JD finally demanded, running out of steam and taking off his hat and wiping his forehead with his arm. As far as the youngest of the Seven was concerned, Larabee had only begged to save Ezra's life: it was a justified killing, and the speed with which Larabee had reacted was phenomenal. It was really all too much for the youngster to take in.
Buck felt his anger rise at JD's words, but then he pushed it aside: after all, the boy could only see that the dead men had threatened one of their own and Larabee had taken the steps to remove that threat. Wilmington knew, however, that to take the lives of ones so young, even if they deserved it, would not sit easy with his long-time friend, especially as the gunslinger had once more placed Ezra Standish in mortal danger.
"JD, don't you worry none; he ain't really angry, son. Chris, he'll be all right... he just needs time. It's not an easy thing for a man like him to do... to beg like that. Just give him some time," Buck said, just before he moved to catch up with Vin and Chris.
Larabee tensed when he felt his old friend approach and offer to take up a supporting position on the other side of him, as he could see that Chris's legs were still threatening to go under him. Larabee suddenly confronted Wilmington, snarling, "How many, Buck? How many chances will we get before my being here actually causes the death of one of you?" Seeing the denial on Wilmington's lips, he decided to fight dirty as he continued, "That..." he motioned towards the cooling bodies, "that could be JD, Buck. Take a good look, 'cause if not today... maybe tomorrow or the day after, that could be him, you or any one of the others... lyin' in this street, dead. Hell, with my ability to fuck things up, I might even be the one who shoots ya... just ask Ezra about that." There was an underlying note of hysteria in the other man's tone, and Wilmington reacted to it in the only manner he knew.
Buck reached out and grabbed Larabee hard. For a moment he looked like he was going to hit the other man, his temper so frayed by recent events - and, especially, by the last few minutes. He had never thought to see the proud man that was Chris Larabee kneeling in the dirt, kissing another man's boots. He would carry that image with him to the grave, but he was unable to voice why it concerned him so much. Larabee was a proud man who had faced many demons in his life, not the least of them during the last few weeks, and now Buck was genuinely worried about how Chris would react once his actions became common knowledge around the small town. Wilmington suddenly realised what he was doing and let go as he sensed JD walk up to stand behind them. He was breathing heavily, and gasped, "I'm sorry.... You did what ya had to do, Chris; what ya would've done for any one of us." He closed his eyes and wiped a shaking hand over his face as he finished, "Those boys could've been after any us: Vin for his bounty; Ezra for supposedly cheatin' 'em; hell, even me if they thought I'd... well, y'know not all women are truthful about their bein' married. Damn it all, when ya first met Nathan they were gonna string him up for tryin' to save a man's life!" He stopped and walked away a few steps, needing to put the distance between himself and his long-time friend. JD, standing nearby, reached out and rested his hand gently on his shoulder, showing his support for what the other man was trying to do. Buck glanced at him gratefully for his understanding.
"Hell, Chris," Buck continued, "I guess what I'm tryin' t'say is that it could've happened to any one of us, an' ya did save Ezra's life today, back there." He pointed back towards the bodies and the slowly gathering townsfolk, who had finally sneaked from their safe hiding places to gawk at the dead men. "Ya shot him, Chris, but it was an accident. It was nothin' like what happened here today - it was just a genuine, pure gold nugget accident. Ya didn't mean to hurt him - that can be... you can explain that to him. He'll listen to ya, Chris, I guarantee that... even if I have t'hog-tie him down." He paused, then swallowing he continued, "Then, if he still wants to leave...." He stopped again, feeling the threat of that biting at his guts. "Then we'll have to let him go. We can't... we can't hold him here, can't force him. If we try, we'll lose what little friendship we have left and it'll split us apart."
"Buck," Chris began, suddenly looking very old and tired, "it ain't that simple...."
"Yes," Wilmington roughly interrupted, "Yes, it is that simple! Dammit, Chris, you... we have a home here, now, friends.... That's worth fightin'... beggin' for.... Ain't it worth fightin' those types of men for?" Buck pointed back at the bodies, then seeing that his words were getting through, he pushed on, "That's the difference between us and them, Chris - we don't need t'have men beg to show us we're strong... but we're strong enough to beg when we need to. I saw Ezra's face when you were on yer knees... no one'd ever done that fer him - never begged fer his life. That showed him more'n any apology ever could just how much he means to ya... to us. Don't waste that now. Don't lose yerself in this belief that you're the reason this happened, 'cause you're not. They..." again he pointed back at the two bodies, "they were the ones at fault, not you."
Larabee closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he slowly opened them again and looked at each of his friends in turn, thinking of their group. Buck: a man he had known for many years, who had stood by his side when others would have fled; a man who would not leave his side even when he had tried his hardest to push him away. Vin: the tracker who had become closer to him than any brother could be, who always seemed to understand him. JD: the kid who was growing closer and closer to Chris with each passing day; a lad who Larabee hoped his son, if he had lived, would have grown up to be like. Nathan: a healer who selflessly gave of himself, even though birth had given him a colour that would always put him in danger and at odds with people who automatically saw him as lower than themselves. Josiah: the preacher who had faced his own devils and walked the pathways of hell, and yet he was finding his faith again and was willing to guide other lost souls to their own beliefs, no matter what religion they followed. Finally, Chris let his thoughts wander to Ezra....
Ezra Standish, the gambler, was a man who was as complex as the rays of sunlight at dawn. He infuriated and questioned Larabee at every step, and yet he had never, since that first time, left Chris in any question that he would be there to back him up. And yet, Larabee still doubted him; in a hidden corner of his heart he knew that he always would, for that was the type of man he was. In the desert, Ezra had risked his own life to save Larabee's. He had tried to comfort him, in his own way, when Mary Travis had laid into the gunslinger just a short while ago. He had been attempting to reach out of the self-imposed shell that he had firmly wrapped around himself... and how had Chris greeted him?
Pushing the guilt and fear aside, Larabee came back to the present and knew that he had go check on Standish; it had suddenly become an overwhelming need. He reached out and, grasping Wilmington's shoulder with his good hand to show he appreciated what the womaniser was trying to do, said, "You're right, Buck... what we have here, it is worth fightin' for."
The tension seemed to drain out of Wilmington as he rocked back on his heels and smiled broadly at his long time friend, before he replied, "Damn right I am."
"I'm gonna go check on Ezra now," Larabee said, forcing a smile towards each of the men in turn. He could see the concern in both Tanner's and JD's expressions, and he was suddenly sorry he had put that look there. "We'll get through this," he suddenly said, wanting to reassure them, "the same as we always do... together. Right?" He smiled again when he noted the relieved looks that filtered across Vin's, JD's and Buck's faces.
"Together, Pard," Buck agreed, before he nodded, understanding Chris's need to go and check on the gambler, and wanting to get Larabee up to the healer because of his own recent near-collapse and still-bleeding wound. "Let's get you up to Nathan's, then we'll clean up out here." He motioned back towards the small crowd still gathered round the bodies.
Larabee looked towards Vin and JD and both men nodded to him. He smiled in return before he nodded once in agreement and allowed them to help him up to the small clinic that Nathan called home.
As Chris slowly climbed the steps, he was surprised at how nervous and shaky he actually felt. He was sure Ezra would recover from his wound - that was not what was making him worry; it was the reception that the gambler would give him. He had not truly spoken to the injured man since shooting him.
As he entered the clinic, he was thrown by the darkness that stepping from bright daylight into the room caused. He paused on the threshold, letting his eyes adjust as dizziness assailed him; it was only the support of Buck and Vin that once more kept him on his feet. He could see Nathan by the bed, working on the injured man. Josiah stood by the window, looking out on the town below.
"How's Ezra?" Larabee gasped as they moved him further into the room and placed him firmly on the second bed. He gratefully sank into it, a sure sign to the others of just how awful he must actually be feeling, if he was allowing them to place him on the bed and staying there. With a nod towards Nathan and Josiah, the other three men left to clear up the street below and reassure the townspeople that the danger had passed.
Nathan glanced up, his frown mostly one of frustration, which was accounted for when a southern voice answered Chris's question.
"I can assure you, Mr Larabee, that I am perfectly fine... and would be all the better if Mr Jackson would refrain from prodding and pulling me about." The gambler peered around the healer, seeing the smile of relief that threatened to break across Chris's face as he was now speaking to him at least, and continued, "Your assistance in getting me out of here would be gratefully appreciated." The raised eyebrow informed the gunslinger that the gambler knew he was chancing his arm.
Settling back on the bed, still fighting the dizziness that was whirling around him, Chris smiled and retorted, "I don't think I'm in much of a position to help ya out here, Ezra." He knew he would be the next person to be prodded and pulled about by the healer.
"You ain't goin' anywhere, Ezra." Nathan totally ignored their bantering, but did shoot Larabee a quick, concerned look to see how he took Standish's joking words. Seeing the other man rest his good arm over his eyes, he said, "And from the looks of Chris, neither's he... so you both may as well settle down." Done with tending to Ezra, Nathan took his blood-red bowl of water and moved away from the bed, finishing, "Neither of you are gettin' outta here 'til at least tomorrow... and not before I see you eat a full meal, Chris," he added with determination.
"Mr Jackson..." Standish began, spluttering at the other's harsh words.
He stumbled to a halt as the healer spun round and snapped, his eyes blazing, "Ezra, you ain't gettin' outta that bed! Now, do I have to keep Josiah here t'make sure you stay there?"
Standish looked over towards the man in question. The preacher just raised his eyebrow and shrugged his shoulders: he would do as the healer asked him, and the gambler knew he would get no help from that direction. He turned his beseeching gaze towards Larabee - who, he had to admit, really did look the worse for wear - but the gunslinger just removed his arm from across his face and smiled weakly before he pointed a shaky finger towards Nathan, saying, "In here, what he says goes, I'm afraid." Seeing the look this earned him, he said without thinking, "Sorry Ezra, no amount of boot kissing is gonna get either one of us outta here any sooner." All movement in the room stilled, then both Nathan and Josiah turned to look at Chris, but his full attention was fixed firmly on the injured man in the other bed, his own expression one of horror that he had actually said the words. Had he just blown his chance of apologising and coming to an understanding with the gambler?
Ezra licked his lips, remembering clearly the sight of the other man on his knees in front of him, kissing Jess's boots and begging for his life, willingly offering up his own. It caused him to shiver as he recalled the act of courage it had taken for Larabee to do such a thing. Slowly, choosing his words with care, Ezra gathered himself and, turning a bright smile on Chris, offered the biblical branch of peace and friendship by saying, "Why, that would be most generous of you, Mr Larabee, but not necessary in this case. I do, however, think your company would be much appreciated - if only to divert Mr Jackson's attention from myself." The gambler paused, motioning towards Larabee's pale, worn features and obvious injury, before he added, "And you do appear to be in need of Nathan's healing abilities."
"No, I'm fine..." Larabee feebly started to protest, but fell silent as Jackson calmly poured water into his now-clean bowl and, picking up his bandaging and poultices, made his way towards his other protesting patient. Several long, painful minutes later, Nathan finished tending and re-bandaging Chris's wound. He then rested a hand on his fevered brow and frowned; while it was not desperately high, it was high enough to warrant his concern.
Nathan paused, looking at the two men before him. He could sense Josiah moving to stand behind him and he finally said, "Well, I think we should go help the others, then I'm gonna get some food. You two both need t'eat properly and rest up. I'm trusting each of ya t'watch the other... can ya do that?"
Larabee closed his eyes as he felt another meaning to the healer's words wash over him: he had proven himself to be a very lax friend where caring for the gambler was concerned. He had made a promise about never again mentioning Ezra's first desertion and then broken it, and then he had accidentally shot him. How could he ever expect Ezra to forget or forgive him that?
"We shall be perfectly capable of that, Mr Jackson, don't you worry," Standish said, his expression one of polite understanding as he waved the other two men from the room.
"Then I'll be goin'... but I won't be away too long, so don't go thinkin' ya can get up to mischief while I'm not here," the healer said, still looking unsure. The two men before him desperately needed time to talk and, with both their defences down, now would be the best time for that discussion.
He waved Josiah out of the door in front of him and, just before it closed, he heard Standish's voice call out, "Mr Sanchez... if you could see your way clear to bringing back a bottle of whiskey, I would be eternally grateful."
Nathan paused, his hand on the door as he leant back in and said, after glaring at Josiah and daring him to bring the drink back as requested, "Not a hope in hell, Ezra." Then they were gone.
Silence filled the room for several long minutes before Chris moved on the bed, trying to get comfortable. His arm was throbbing and a headache was thumping behind his eyes, but he suddenly felt better than he had in a long time. He shot Standish a quick glance and saw Ezra slip a deck of cards out from under the covers. Larabee looked at him in shock and raised an eyebrow before he asked, "Where did you get those?"
The gambler looked up and smiled, saying, "Now that, Mr Larabee, is a trade secret."
Chris looked down, suddenly feeling that he did not deserve the smile the other man offered him. He licked at suddenly dry lips and said, his tone low but his determination clear, "Ezra, I owe... I owe you an apology. Hell, I owe you a damned sight more, for...." He stopped. The words were a lot harder than he expected, but he was a brave and honest man, and he needed to do this. He took another breath, and this time did not pause as he said, "Ezra, I owe you an apology for shootin' you. It was an accident; I guess I've just been around guns too long... though that's a poor excuse for hurtin' a friend... but, I only saw you...." He closed his eyes as he relived the moment when he had shot the gambler; it was painful - very painful. "I saw you release yer gun... felt the tension... heard Vin shout, and I reacted. I fired. I shouldn't have...." He slowly opened his eyes and looked straight at Standish as he finished, "I also owe you an apology for what I said to you in the street. I was angry, and...." He paused; this was going to be the hardest confession; even harder than begging Jess Summers not to kill the gambler, like he had that morning - that had been easy compared to this, but he knew he owed this man the truth. "I was angry and hurt by what Mary said, and I... I took it out on you. Y'didn't deserve that... you were only tryin' to be a friend, only tryin' t'help...."
He opened his mouth to say more, but Ezra reached out and gently rested a hand on the edge of the bed that was closest to him, his embarrassment at Chris's words clearly heard in his tone. "Mr Larabee... this really is not necessary. Not between friends."
Larabee was swept away by the words he had never hoped to hear directed at him from the gambler, but he knew the truth of what he had to do and he stubbornly pushed on, saying, "Yes, this is necessary... 'specially since we are friends. Ezra, you were prepared to leave us... your friends... this town... because of what I said, because my words thoughtlessly hurt you. After everythin' I said back in the desert, after all we came to understand... I turn right around and do it again, and that... that's not right. You don't have t'keep proving yer friendship to me... and I don't deserve to have you keep forgivin' me." He suddenly swallowed hard and knew what he had to say; the only words that could solve this problem between them once and for all. "You shouldn't be the one to leave, Ezra, I should. I was the one at fault, the whole way down the line. I was wrong, so I should be the one to go."
Standish looked at the gunslinger and saw he was serious, really serious, and it threw him; he was not used to such an open and raw display of emotions, to such a confession of friendship. Yet he could not deny Larabee's words. He had been leaving; had been running away from what Chris had yelled at him in the street that morning... and yet, with every step his horse took, he had begun to realise that he was wrong and that leaving was not an answer - that it was only a way towards being alone again. If there was one thing this particular conman was, it was honest with himself, and he knew that he had lost the gamble in the town of Four Corners. He had gambled for a pardon - thirty days for his freedom - and now, several months later, he finally had to admit that he had been the one conned... and yet he didn't mind one little bit. In fact, he quite liked the feeling of losing this particular game.
"Mr Larabee... Chris," Ezra began, slowly shuffling the cards as he spoke. "I willing accept your apology." Seeing the pain that flashed across the other man's face at the thought that Ezra was accepting his offer to leave town, Ezra hurried on, "Because that is the one thing friends can do honestly for each other. And, if I had any doubts about where I stood concerning our friendship, they were quickly dispersed this morning, after you..." Ezra could not bring himself to embarrass Chris further by mentioning Larabee's act of begging, so he continued instead, "offered to trade your life for mine." Ezra looked down at the blanket, suddenly unsure of his own emotions, before he finished, "I think that only a friend... a very good friend would have done what you did this morning." The events had been a revelation for the gambler, as he had also realised that he was the reason why Larabee was looking so ill. It was the guilt he had been feeling that had caused this proud man to look like a pale ghost of himself. In fact, it had shocked Ezra when he had really looked at him during the altercation in the street; saw how thin and wasted he looked. No one that he could remember had ever cared enough about him to let guilt eat at them like that, and for Larabee to be so affected only indicated just how much the gambler had come to mean to him.
Ezra would never really be able to put into words what he had felt seeing that, nor did he honestly believe they were going to be able to just push recent events aside and gain the even footing they once had. But today... today was a start, and the gambler was wise enough to know that you only ever stood a chance of winning the pot if you were prepared to play in the game.
"Nor will I accept your offer to leave town," Ezra continued, his tone again getting rough. "That will achieve nothing except deny Four Corners a very brave man. I think we have both learned a lot over the last few weeks, not least is my distress at hearing that you have given up your gun." The gambler gave Larabee a hard look, fire suddenly burning in his green eyes. "I do not believe that to be the wisest of courses you could take."
"I shot you, Ezra. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel... to shoot a friend?" Larabee stopped, suddenly unable to talk past the lump that had appeared in his throat.
Standish slowly shuffled his cards as he replied honestly, "I have no idea how that would make you feel, but do you have any idea how I felt this morning? When I saw you go to your knees in front of that boy... when you kissed his boots and begged for my life...." This time he did mention it, as he knew there was a very real chance that they could all still lose this very special, tortured man. Glancing up, Ezra saw that Chris was refusing to meet his look, was instead staring intently at the pattern on the blanket that covered his legs.
"Chris." The sound of the gambler saying his name so determinedly forced the gunslinger to look up and meet his eyes; he was captured by the expression he saw in them. "I know now that I do not want to leave Four Corners, and I do not want you to leave... and you can do more good for this town by wearing your gun. That has to be the most important factor here... we can't allow what happened this morning to happen again, and," he held up his hand when he saw that Larabee was about to protest, "together we can ensure that it doesn't."
Larabee let out the breath that he had not been aware he was holding and nodded once; he would do as Ezra asked, and would be glad to do so. Even after all his brave words in agreement with Buck that morning, he was not sure what he would have done if Ezra had still been insistent on leaving the Seven. For him, it would no longer have been a complete family, as one of the brothers would have been missing.
"So, Mr Lara... Chris... how about a game of poker?" Ezra wanted to push the tumbling, high emotions away again, lock them secure in the safe place in his heart, as it made him nervous to express his feelings so openly.
Larabee, realising this and the fact that he had been given a second chance, smiled warmly and pulled the small table that sat between the beds closer. Standish smiled his appreciation and began to deftly deal the cards, not hindered in the slightest by his recent injury. As he did so, he said firmly, "Just because you saved my life today does not mean that I am going to let you win."
Chris looked up and smiled as he said warmly, "I wouldn't have it any other way." Larabee paused, watching Standish finish dealing the cards before he stated, "And I know where Nathan keeps a bottle of whiskey... just for medicinal purposes, of course."
Their eyes met and the look of brotherhood that passed between them was enough. No mere words could express the bonds that true friendship holds.
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