Just A Gambler
JD loved his job, he really did. He found being the sheriff of the growing town of Four Corners exciting and adventurous, and this was only superseded by the friendship of the other six men he worked with. Between them, they had filled that vast empty space in his heart that his mother's lingering death had left.
He liked and admired the men he worked with, although even he had to admit that they were an assorted, complicated bunch of people. Chris - the gunslinger and leader; quiet, deadly, but always ready to answer the questions that the sheriff asked, with a patience that always astounded the young man. Vin - the tracker; clever and sharp, no finer shot in the group over the long distance, and he could track a rabbit on a bone-dry day across a hardened desert floor. Buck - the womaniser; he saw beauty in every woman, no matter how dark her soul or her secrets, and who had willingly taken JD under his protective wing and treated him like a younger brother, a brother JD had not even been aware he was missing until he met Buck. Then came Nathan - the dark healer; a passionate man who wore his compassion like a shield and his temper like a sword, yet he too would always find the time to talk to JD and answer his questions, much as Chris would. Josiah - the preacher; a man JD knew he could talk to about even the smallest of his concerns, and who would be there with a kind word, a helping hand and words of advice that had only ever been matched by his own mother's guidance. Finally came Ezra - the gambler; the enigma of the group, a man who had shown JD a friendship that he knew was as firm as the brotherly love that Buck showered on him, yet - JD had to admit with a slight shake of his head - out of them all, Ezra was the hardest to understand. Why did he stay with the group? What held him so firmly to their side? JD sighed; he knew that it was deep, firm friendship that held the group together... friendship and the knowledge that, maybe for the first time, they each belonged.
So here he was, on a cold, dusty, winter dawn, doing his morning round. It would be the first of the day, and he was on his way to relieve Chris, who had been covering the sheriff's office the night before. As he slowly made his way along the quiet street, he idly wondered why he was up on this cold morning, checking to see that the town had not suffered any damage during the night - since the seven men had begun to protect the town, very little trouble had occurred at night. With a weary smile, he realised that most of the trouble that hit the town did so during the daylight hours... yet Chris insisted that a walk of the town was made every six hours, and the others went along with his decision without argument.
A low groan caught JD's attention and he threw a look back up the dusty road. It was empty. He looked about and noted that he was next to the saloon. The sound came again, this time it was clearer: it was definitely a groan... a groan filled with pain.
Without a thought, JD rushed toward the alleyway that ran alongside the saloon and stepped into the shadows. There was just enough light to see the body that lay curled on the hard earth; the dark, blood-red colour of the jacket informing JD instantly who it was who was lying injured on the ground. "Ezra!" he cried out in shock and fear as he knelt beside the injured man and gently, carefully, attempted to tilt him over on his back.
This action earned him another deep, pain-filled groan, and JD winced as he noted the badly beaten face, the split lip, and the obvious bruising and swelling that covered the cuts on his normally handsome features. "Ezra..." JD breathed again in shock, as he took in the torn jacket, the ripped shirt, and knife damage to the clothing that told of further injury to the human body under his grip.
"Ezra..." JD gasped again, spying the blood that still seeped out onto the hard ground, staining it as the earth greedily sucked it up. Then, realising that the man was hurt bad and that he was just wasting time in getting help to him, JD fled from the alleyway, calling out loudly for Nathan.
JD's terrified cries brought forth a half-dressed Vin from his wagon, mare's leg in hand, a battle-ready Larabee from the sheriff's office, and a barely-dressed Buck from the room of the woman he had been spending the night with. Nathan also appeared, stumbling down the steps from his room in his haste to reach the younger man, frantically clutching the bag that he now carried his sparse medical equipment in.
Chris reached the panicked lad first and, grabbing at his arm, he pulled JD to a halt, his eyes frantically searching the street for the danger that JD has witnessed. He saw none and this only caused his gut to clench that much tighter as he demanded roughly, "JD... JD.... Calm down.... Tell me... what's wrong?"
The boy looked hysterically at his leader and friend before he blurted, pointing roughly behind him, back towards the saloon and the alleyway, "Ezra... hurt... in the alley... by the saloon...." He never got any further as the gunslinger took off at a dead run. Vin, seeing the direction that Chris headed, swerved his own path and began to chase after Larabee, while JD continued to race toward Nathan.
Chris threw himself down on his knees beside Ezra and winced as he took in the damage done to the gambler. "Is he alive?" came a fearful voice from behind him. Larabee spared a quick glance over his shoulder towards the tracker, before reaching out a shaking hand and gently resting it on the injured man's upper torso, sighing when he felt the uneven rise and fall of the other's chest.
"He's breathing... just..." he stated, feeling helpless to aid the other man.
"What happened?" Nathan gasped as he suddenly appeared beside them. Pushing Larabee out of the way, he began to check the injured man over. First he gently ran his hands over Ezra, checking for broken bones, carefully straightening out the limbs that he found to be sound. He paused at the left arm, which was twisted at an awkward angle. "Damn..." he muttered, before he added in a louder voice, "his arm is broken." He carefully manoeuvred the arm in question and winced in sympathy as Ezra let out an agonised groan and feebly tried to pull away. "Steady... steady... it's all right, Ezra.... We're here... you're going to be all right..." Nathan reassured, trying to gentle the other man with his quiet words.
"Where are his boots?" Buck suddenly asked, having come up behind the other men and spent a few seconds scanning the area in the growing light. At his words, the others looked towards the sock-clad feet of the gambler.
"Damn..." Vin snarled, before he stood and began to use his tracking talents. A few seconds later he stopped by a small, discarded pile of empty whisky bottle crates and, bending, he dragged out an old, well-used pair of boots, obviously not Ezra's, and stated with a growing rage, "They got his money... and stole his boots." To the men present, only the lowest, belly-crawling cur would steal a man's boots and leave him in such a condition. It was also obvious to the older men present that Ezra's injuries, combined with the bitter coldness of the night, were enough to kill the wounded man, and this had been the gambler's attackers' intentions.
"We need to get him up to my room... now," Nathan ordered, concern colouring his tone, making it sharper than usual, before he added, "He's freezing... and I need to sew up that knife wound... set this arm...." Then, almost as if talking to himself, he finished, "I need to check out his other injuries...."
"I'll get... get something to carry him on," JD stammered, before he shot off, closely followed by Buck.
"How bad is it?" Chris asked, still kneeling beside the injured man and Nathan. Now that the kid was gone, he knew that he would get an honest answer from the healer.
Nathan closed his eyes, mentally cataloguing the injuries before he answered, "Nasty knife wound... looks like it scraped along his rib - which is either cracked or broken - but it saved his life... deflected the blade from going deeper...." He took a breath before he continued, "His arm's definitely broke, and I'd hazard a couple more ribs cracked or broken... I'd have to say that whoever did this got in some forceful kicks... he's got extensive bruising to the upper body, a nasty bump to the head... and that's just what I can make out here.... I'll be able to judge more once I can get him up to my room and undressed..." he finished, letting his words hang. He knew that the other two men realised just how serious the beating had been; whoever had attacked the gambler had not intended the man to live and tell the tale.
"Who was he playing poker with last night?" Larabee suddenly demanded, his eyes shards of ice as he looked over towards Tanner. They had both been in the saloon last night, and he wanted the tracker to back up his own memory.
"Josiah, Buck and me had a game with Ezra earlier on in the evening, but that didn't last too long...." Vin grimaced as he added sourly, "He cleaned us out pretty quickly, then a couple of guys came in... joined the table... said they were on the trail, looking for cowhand work.... He played with them for most of the night... was still playing when I left."
"There were four strangers in the saloon last night," Chris remembered, squinting as he tried to place the men Vin was taking about. "The two men who played poker entered first, then a few minutes later another two came in, but didn't act like they knew each other.... The last two went to the bar, stayed there most of the evening, the other two played poker with Ezra.... Josiah and Buck were at the poker table as well..." Chris's expression had hardened as Buck and JD returned with the basket that they had borrowed from undertaker. "Buck..." Larabee ordered, watching Nathan prepare Ezra to be lifted, then shooting a flicker of a look towards the youngest member of the group, he continued, "take JD and check the boarding house; see if any of them had rooms... if they're still there.... Vin... go check the livery; did they stable their horses for the night... what time did they arrive, was it together...? You know what I'm looking for." The gunslinger paused, before he added in a quiet tone, "Be careful... whoever did this isn't afraid to kill." Chris shot Buck a hard look and got back a silent nod, that was missed by youngest of the group, in return: Wilmington would watch out for JD. Chris then looked towards Vin, who raised an eyebrow in question: Tanner always took care when hunting wild animals, and the men who had hurt Ezra were the most dangerous kind of animal to hunt. Larabee was reassured. "We'll get these bastards," he muttered, the glint in his eyes informing the others that Ezra's injuries would be nothing compared to what Larabee would do to the men who had hurt the gambler.
As Chris finished delivering his orders, he bent to help Nathan and JD carefully lift the injured man onto the stretcher. Ezra gasped out in agony and tried to twist away from the men abusing him further. As he was carefully laid in the basket, he slumped into unconsciousness on the wooden boards as the pain became too much for him to bear. Slowly, carefully, Chris and Nathan began their slow trek back to Jackson's room, the other three men peeling off to obey their leader's commands.
Just as they reached the stairs that led up to the healer's room, Josiah appeared, slipping his suspenders over his broad shoulders as he ran up. "What's happened?" he demanded, but on seeing Ezra he paused; explanations could wait until their friend had been treated. With a grateful sigh, both Chris and Nathan allowed the stronger man to lift the unconscious gambler and carry him up to Nathan's room, much like a parent would a small child. Nathan followed close by his side, making sure that the broken arm was supported and the rough bandage stayed in place over the bleeding wound.
Once Ezra had been laid carefully on the bed, Nathan shooed both Chris and Josiah from the room, firmly closing the door in the other men's faces, saying, "I'll let you know... as soon as I'm finished." The gunslinger frowned; there was nothing he could do now except wait, and he hated waiting... and judging from Josiah's expression, he felt the same way.
JD and Buck arrived back first, the womaniser snarling as he reached the top of the steps, "Two were booked in... it looks like they didn't use the room, though.... They arrived in town early yesterday afternoon...."
Chris felt a slow anger start to build. He was now certain that two of the men had played poker with Ezra, and then either they or the other two men had somehow got the drop on the gambler and had viciously beaten and robbed him. He had been around long enough to know that they had not needed to hurt Ezra to such a ferocious extent to get his money: the gambler was too much of a survivalist to place his life over money.
Vin came bounding up the steps and paused. Looking at the other men clustered together, he asked anxiously, "Any news?"
"Nathan is still working on him," Chris offered, wiping a tired hand over his face; he had been awake for over twenty-four hours now.
JD turned wide eyes on the group and asked, his tone barely above a whisper, "He will be all right... won't he?"
Buck reached over and gently rested a firm hand on his shoulder, saying, "Sure he will... Ezra's too ornery to leave us just yet."
Tanner traded concerned looks with Larabee, before he stepped near to the group and offered up his findings: "The four men rode into town together early yesterday afternoon... but parted outside the livery, according to old Jack." Old Jack was the ancient stable hand who looked after the horses; he lived and slept in a small hut attached to the large wooden building. "He said they were pretty friendly when they left the stable, which he thought was strange, as when he saw them in the saloon last night they acted like strangers.... All four must have rode out early this morning... they didn't wake Jack, so he doesn't know what time they lit out." Vin paused for a few seconds, letting his words sink in before he continued, "I went back to the alleyway on my way here... it looks like Ez got in a few blows himself... and his derringer was there." He held out the small gun as he spoke. "One chamber is empty... and there was some blood... didn't belong to him."
"Could you tell how many men there were involved in the attack?" Chris commented, his face falling into a frown.
Vin squinted his eyes as he thought back, using his expert judgement before he commented, "Three... maybe four.... I'd say two lay in wait... behind the crates... others likely joined later... during the scuffle...."
"Three... maybe four against one.... Damn, he never stood a chance..." Larabee snarled, his face twisting with rage as his blue eyes flashed chips of ice at his friends. "And I just sat in the jail house and let it happen," he finished bitterly.
"Chris..." Josiah spoke up, "you had no way of knowing what was happening... nor a reason to suspect that those men were up to no good." Larabee waved the preacher's words aside; the guilt was his and he would deal with it by himself. He didn't witness the concerned look that passed between Buck and Vin.
"What are we going to do?" Buck asked, his own features set in stone at the thought of his friend being attacked, and wanting to distract Chris was his self-flagellation.
"We wait," Chris stated firmly, coldly, "find out just how badly Ezra's hurt...." An evil smile split across his face as he continued, "Then we go after those bastards... and show them exactly what happens to anyone who hurts one of our own."
An uneasy silence descended on the group, all unwilling to voice their growing concern at the time it was taking Nathan to treat their friend. The door opened once, but only for the healer to demand more water to be fetched. JD and Buck rushed to comply with the request, but were not allowed into the room; Jackson just snatched up the two buckets before slamming the door closed once more.
All of the men started when a cry of pain came from the small room, but as the door remained firmly closed, no one dared enter. JD paled even further at the cry, and Buck was swift to reassure the younger man that it was more than likely Nathan setting Ezra's arm that had caused the gambler to cry out in pain. This did little to reassure the young sheriff, as he sank further down on the floor and began to nibble at his bottom lip in worry.
Mary appeared at one stage, carrying a tray of food and coffee for the men; they accepted the cups gratefully, but no one was hungry and the food went untouched. Chris slowly shook his head when she asked if there was any news. JD promised to let her know as soon as Nathan was finished; she smiled her thanks and, unable to hide her distress, she quickly left.
Once again the minutes slowly ticked by. The town was now awake and the streets had started to fill as Four Corners continued its daily life, as if uncaring of the fears and concerns of the five men who waited outside Jackson's small room. Larabee closed his eyes. He could not believe that they were waiting to hear if Ezra would live or not... he had always imagined that if one of his men died, it would be due to some street battle, or a fight against a gang of outlaws... not... not due to some cut-throats who cornered the gambler in that dark alley to rob him.
"He's stronger than he looks," Vin suddenly spoke out, his own face twisted with concern. He too was shocked at how close he had grown to the other men, and the churning emotions that now flooded him; he spun from pure outrage that Ezra had been attacked, to blinding fear that he might never see the man play a hand of cards at the poker table again.
"Yes... yes he is," Chris agreed, although the haunted look in his eyes belied his words. He could not seem to get past the fact that he had sat quietly in the sheriff's office all night, while Ezra had been attacked and lay bleeding in the alleyway by the saloon. Why hadn't he gone on an earlier patrol? He had been restless, and usually when he was restless he would go on a four o'clock stroll about the town, but last night... last night he had been thinking of his family and had not wanted to leave the warmth of the office, as he knew that the cold of the night would only emphasise the chill in his heart that he felt whenever he thought of Sarah and Adam. So he had sat there, safe and in the warmth, and wallowed in self pity while one of the men he was responsible for had laid bleeding... maybe to death.
Finally, after what felt like several hours but was in fact only just over one, Nathan opened the door and came out, wiping his hands on a cloth. None of the waiting five dared to look at the blood that covered that cloth.
"Well?" Larabee demanded, coming to stand before the healer, no longer able to wait.
Nathan looked weary and, heaving a sigh, he offered, "As you could tell, he's been beaten pretty badly.... His arm is broken, and he has extensive bruising to his back and side.... At least three... maybe four ribs are cracked, maybe two broken... I can't be sure... but I've strapped them; he needs to remain still in case they puncture a lung.... I'd say that it's a pretty good bet he has a concussion, and I had to stitch that nasty cut in his side; he also had another cut at the back of his neck...." He stopped and took a steadying breath. "He's lost a fair amount of blood... and..." he paused again before he gathered his weary strength and pushed on, knowing that the others were not going to like what he had to say, "there could be internal injuries - the bruising is extensive enough - but I won't be able to judge that until he wakes up.... He's unconscious at the moment... a bit feverish... but that's to be expected...." Again he threw the men before him a tired look before saying, "I expect that to rise a mite more before I see some improvement, but rest is the only thing we can offer him now."
"Will he live?" Chris demanded, his face having turned to granite as he listened to the list of injuries.
"I don't know..." Nathan answered honestly. "If he survives the next twenty-four hours... if he doesn't have internal injuries... if he even wakes up from that blow to his head...." The healer shrugged, frustrated at his own lack of knowledge and doctoring ability. "I'm sorry, Chris... but I can't honestly say.... I've seen men recover from injuries just as bad as these... and others not even wake from the fever.... I guess it's really up to Ezra now."
Larabee closed his eyes and gritted his teeth so tightly that he could almost feel them crumble under the pressure. Then, opening his eyes he snarled, flashing fire from his ice blue orbs as he spoke, "Vin, Buck, with me.... Nathan... keep an eye on Ezra.... Josiah and JD will look after the town.... We're going after those bastards...."
Suddenly a loud groan came through the open door and Nathan spun about and darted back in, this time closely followed by the others. "He's waking." The healer dashed towards the bed. Ezra was indeed fighting against the darkness that held him: his head was twisting from side to side, as he muttered feverishly under his breath. Then his eyes flickered open and he blinked owlishly, trying to sort out where he was.
"Ezra..." Nathan said, leaning over the other man. "Ezra... can you hear me?"
The man in question blinked up at the healer and then frowned as the pain registered. "What... hit me?" he gasped, then grimaced as his face protested even the movement of asking the question.
"You were attacked and robbed last night," Chris put in, coming to stand on the other side of the bed.
"JD?" Ezra demanded in feverish distress as he attempted to rise, causing the other six men to look at him in some confusion: why was he asking about JD? Then Chris's words may have registered as he continued, "My money!" As he spoke, a hand attempted to reach for his leg and the boot that was missing. He groaned and slumped back, defeated by the pain, before Nathan could push him back.
"Don't try to move..." the healer warned, determined to keep the injured man as still as possible. "Your arm is broken, and you may have some busted ribs...."
Ezra attempted to smile, but it was very weak and he winced again, before he panted, "I can... assure... you... that... it feels... like... I have... at... least two... broken... ribs...." He grimaced and offered weakly, but in some surprise, "I feel... rather... strange.... Tired..." he gasped, before his words trailed off and he slipped either into sleep or unconsciousness once more.
"Nathan," Chris said quietly as he reached out and almost touched the bruised face, his expression torn between anxiety and anger. "Look after him... we'll be back soon." Then he spun about and was gone, followed closely by Vin and Buck.
"I'll go and let Mrs Travis know," JD said, following them out, unable to watch the man on the bed as he slipped further and further into his fevered dreams.
Larabee checked his bridle one more time before turning to JD and Josiah who were waiting outside the sheriff's office, quietly watching them as the other three got ready to go after the men who had attacked Ezra. "We should be back in a couple of days..." Chris said, "in the meantime, keep an eye on the town... and...." He stopped, letting the sentence die; what could he say - keep Ezra alive...? Unfortunately that was not within their power.... So, instead, he climbed on his horse, nodded towards Vin and Buck, then roughly pulled on his reins and, yanking his horse about, he headed out of town, closely followed by his two companions.
JD waited until he could no longer see his friends before he turned to Josiah and asked, "Do you think they will find them?"
The preacher was still looking after the other men, even though he could no longer see them. Finally he turned bodily towards the youngest member of the group and, nodding, he offered, his voice full of a cold, sad web of detached pity that only a man of God could have felt for the men who had attacked his friend, and the retribution that awaited them - he had seen that reckoning written clearly on Larabee's face, "Yes... and may the Lord help those men when Chris catches up with them."
After scanning the area just outside of town, Tanner quickly picked up the trail of the men they were hunting and they set off in pursuit at a full gallop.
Several hours later, Tanner called a halt and slipped from his horse. As he followed the tracks, he offered with a detachment that spoke of his Indian training, "They rested the horses here for a short while... didn't bother with a fire.... Looks like they took off that way..." he glanced up and added, "four horses... they ain't hurrying...." He frowned and looked up at the sky; they had left Four Corners around lunchtime, and it was now growing dark. "We could push on tonight, I'd say they're only a couple of hours ahead of us... we could catch up with them where they've stopped for the night?" It was phrased as a question and he was looking towards Larabee when he spoke. "I don't think they're expecting to be followed... they ain't attempting to hide their tracks... and they don't seem to be in a particular hurry."
The gunslinger considered the other man's words and, slowly nodding, he said, "Let's carry on... I want to catch up with them before they hit the next town, and I want to get back to Four Corners as soon as possible." He didn't need to add that he was still concerned about the gambler; it was very clear in his eyes.
Tanner climbed up on his horse and, after nodding towards Larabee, he started off at a trot which soon broke into a canter as he closely followed the clear trail that the robbers had left. He knew that he would need to slow down with the setting sun, but in the meantime they would use what remained of the light to their best advantage.
They caught up with the attackers a few hours later. Just as Vin had surmised, they had set camp for the night and a cheery fire was burning in the middle of a clearing, coffee brewing, and the smell of bacon and beans still hanging in the air. They slipped back a fair distance from the camp to make their plans, talking in harsh whispers so as not to have their words carried on the night air.
"Buck..." Larabee said, leaning in close and whispering his plans to the other two men, "you take the other side of the camp.... Vin, you stay this side.... I'll go into the camp... talk to them... you wait for me to give the signal." When the others would have protested his plan, he continued, his voice firm with determination, "I want to make sure that these are the men who attacked Ezra.... If we go in with guns drawn, it could turn nasty before we discover that... then either they're all dead and can't answer our questions, or they clam up tighter than a Sunday school virgin in a whore house."
"Yeah... or they could blow your head off before you can get one foot into their camp," Buck shot back hotly, not liking the plan one little bit and not afraid of Larabee's temper to point it out.
Chris felt his own temper rise as he snarled back, "They aren't idiots; they'll want to check who I am first and whether or not I'm worth rolling... besides, four against one seems to be the odds they like... it'll give them a false sense of security."
"Chris..." Vin began, seeing and also not liking the holes in the plan, but Larabee silenced him with one look.
"It's a done deal..." the gunslinger hissed. "I'm not letting those bastards get away with this... but I'm also not going to take the chance of killing them if they're innocent.... Besides, that kid with them doesn't look any older than JD... do you want to shoot him first and then ask questions?" When neither man would meet his look, he knew that he had won the argument, but he also knew that it was a nasty, underhanded way to win. He felt like he had somehow betrayed their belief in him, and it left a bitter taste in his mouth. Pushing that aside, he moved back to his horse and finished stiffly, "Be ready for when I give the signal." With that, he mounted his horse and, after giving his men a few minutes to get settled into their positions, he headed into the camp, making a lot of noise as he did so.
"Hey, the camp," he called out the age-old greeting of approaching a stranger's encampment. "One rider coming... can I join your fire?"
"Who's there?" demanded a rough voice.
"Just a rider.... I saw your fire... it's going to be cold tonight... thought we could share food and some talk?" Larabee walked into the light of the camp, hands held out in front of him, away from his guns. His horse trailed behind him, reins lightly held in one of his raised hands.
"What food you got?" another one of the men asked, his face showing eagerness. Although his gun was still out and pointing at Larabee, he chose to ignore that and the other three weapons that were aimed at his midriff.
"Just some bacon and beans, biscuits... two days old... got me some more coffee."
A brief silence ruled before an older voice called out in forced friendliness, nodding to his men who slipped their guns away when he did, "Tie your horse to the line and come on up to the fire, stranger... and make yourself comfortable."
Chris did as requested and, returning to the fire, he squatted down, handing over some food to the man who stood ready to take it, then Larabee held out the cup that he had brought from his saddle bag. The coffee pot was lifted and poured.
"I saw you in Four Corners..." the oldest member of the gang suddenly said, his tone laced with suspicion.
Larabee just nodded calmly, saying, "Yeah... left this afternoon... got a bit too hot to stay on."
"Got hot?" questioned the youngest member of the group. He looked like a blond version of JD and Chris winced as even the eager tone sounded the same.
"Yeah, a gambler got rolled last night...." Chris noted the looks that each man tossed the other. "Not doing too well... sheriff and his boys were a mite upset."
"Over a gambler getting attacked?" the younger man asked, his face and tone expressing his surprise at Larabee's words.
"He was hurt pretty bad..." Chris commented, taking a sip of the burning brew, flicking his look from one face to the other; the three older men kept their expressions nearly blank, but the youngest was a book to easily read. They had committed the crime.
"Damned bastard gambler... took all our money last night... speaking his fancy words... while he robbed us blind..." spoke up the middle-aged man, his face scarred and pockmarked. This man had never been pretty, and Chris could see why he had turned to crime; his was not an honest face. "If you ask me, he got what he deserved," the man finished before he spat into the fire.
"Well, he's just hanging in there," Larabee offered, seemingly totally disinterested in the health of the luckless gambler. "The town protectors are running about like ants on a honey chase... didn't want them looking in my direction, so I lit out."
"He's still alive then?" the youngest one blurted out again, his expression one of hatred and disappointment, before he shot a frightened look towards the older member of the gang who had originally spoken. Larabee, getting a closer look at the man who was now seated near the fire, saw that he had a dirty rag tied about his upper arm. To the gunslinger, it looked like he had suffered a bullet injury: Ezra's spent chamber in the derringer came to mind.
"Was when I left... barely..." Chris continued, keeping his face clear of his anger.
"Well, that's none of our business," stated the older man, before he too spat into the fire, wincing as his arm protested his sudden movement.
"Apparently he had a wad of money on him... about seven, eight hundred dollars," Larabee mentioned casually. He knew that Ezra only had half that amount, but he wanted to see their reaction to this statement. It was everything and more than he hoped, judging from the startled expression of his companions, which swiftly turned from confusion, to anger, to finally rage.
"You lying piece of shit..." the man who had not spoken before shouted as he jumped up, going for his gun. "I told you what I'd do if you cheated me again...." He didn't even get his gun clear of his holster before the older, injured man drew his weapon with his other hand and fired. Then, just as swiftly, he swung his gun about to shoot Larabee, but it was too late. The gunslinger had his weapon out and the older man was already dead, the bullet splitting into his skull even as he completed his turn.
Before the scar-faced man and the young boy could react, Vin and Buck entered the fray, laying down covering fire at their feet. They both jumped back and let their weapons fall to the ground, their expressions one of terror, as they honestly expected to follow their two companions into hell.
Vin came into the clearing as Chris cautiously moved forward and checked the downed men. He shook his head; they were both dead. Then he patted them down before reaching into their pockets and pulling out the money rolls they both had. Larabee spun about and ordered, his voice barely above a snarl, "Empty your damn pockets... now." The glint in his eyes told both survivors that they had better do as they were told if they wished to live.
The youth could not empty his pockets fast enough; his whole body was shaking with fear and his eyes were as large as filled coffee cups. Chris totally ignored him and snatched up the hundred dollars that he revealed. The scar-faced man looked confused and demanded, "What the hell is this... are you robbing us?" He threw a concerned look at Vin, who was still covering them with his gun, then at Buck who had moved into the clearing, his gun also still at the ready.
"You attacked that gambler last night..." Buck offered, tossing his own glare at the two men, "we're just getting his money back for him."
"But... but..." the lad stuttered, totally at a loss to understand why these men would even bother to assist the card shark of the night before, "he's just a... a cheat... and a swindler...."
Larabee got right into the boy's terrified face and snarled, his eyes piercing the boy's, "He ain't no cheat, nor a swindler, boy... he's our friend... and nobody... nobody lays a hand on him without having to deal with us."
"But..." the boy tried to talk, but the look Larabee was giving him seemed to freeze him where he stood.
He shot a look over towards the scar-faced man, who swallowed hard and offered, "Look... you want the money... you've got it.... No one needs to know that you caught up with us... you can keep it.... Just let me and the lad go...."
"This isn't about the money," Larabee snarled back, his face twisting with fury, and it was only Buck's restraining hand that prevented the gunslinger from physically attacking the man.
The middle-aged man looked understandably frightened and offered, waving his hands in defeat, "Look, it wasn't Jamie and me..." he said, pointing over to the younger man. "Sure, we ain't got no love for carpetbaggers and swindlers... they up and stole our land from us... but... we... we..." he swallowed hard again before he continued, "we didn't know they were going to hurt that guy... but he shot Carson... and he just flipped...." Seeing that the men were actually listening, he hurried on, "Carson and Phillips, they thought it up... it was their scam...."
"What scam...?" Buck demanded, then seeing the other man hesitate, he said, his tone taking on an evil edge, "Well, hell... if you want me to just release Larabee here...."
The man's eyes widened at the name and he stammered, "Larabee...?" It was obvious that he knew the name and the reputation behind it, as he totally wilted and continued, "Look, they said they had this deal... this scam they pulled.... Each town has a card shark... a gambler... they'd drift into town... play a few hands... find out who was getting all the money, and then... well, they would jump them and take their money.... Those types nearly always carried it on them... don't trust anyone...."
"How many did you kill?" Vin demanded, his face twisting with anger at the thought that Ezra had been treated as just some common card shark; these men just hadn't a clue about whom they had played with the night before. Sure, he had taken their money, but Vin knew that Ezra would have left them enough to pay for their board and food. Ezra never cleaned anyone out, and the players always left his table after having played a good game.
"No one... we wasn't in it for that... we just rolled them for the money.... Only met up with Carson and Phillips a couple of towns ago.... No one cared if we robbed gamblers - hell, some of the townsfolk would have paid us to get rid of them... they were just stinking carpetbaggers in another jacket." The man's dislike for the carpetbaggers who had swarmed across the country after the war was clear to hear. They had left a lot of bitter men in their wake, but not all of them had turned to attacking and killing gamblers because of it. It was clear to the three protectors of Four Corners that neither of the men before them actually considered their attack on Ezra to be anything other than what the man deserved. Larabee sadly shook his head as he took in the sullen expression on the young man's face. They would take the two men in and let the judge sort out their crimes and their punishment. While he could feel sorry for the lad, he was not able to shake the memory of the hatred and the disappointment he'd seen reflected in the boy's eyes when he heard that Ezra was not yet dead. The boy had enjoyed hurting Ezra, that was obvious, and Larabee suddenly wondered how he could have ever thought that this person looked anything like their JD.
Vin and Buck snorted in disgust and set about tying their prisoners up. "What about them?" Buck asked Chris, looking towards the dead men.
Chris sneered and offered, "Leave them... let the other animals clear up the mess."
"We can't just leave them, Chris," Vin stated firmly, then swallowed at the hard look this earned him.
Then Larabee nodded, relenting. "Put them on their horses.... We'll take them back to Four Corner... then telegraph the judge... he can sort them out."
The ride back was mainly in silence and it was mid-morning before they arrived back at Four Corners.
"I'll toss this vermin in the jail and get these two sorted with the undertaker," Buck offered, dismounting as he spied JD coming out of the sheriff's office.
"JD," Chris demanded, his face drawn and etched with tiredness: he had not slept in over two days now, and he could feel it with every movement he made. "Any news?"
The younger man looked at the two strangers who sat dejectedly on their horses and slowly offered, "He's woken up a couple of times... that's all.... Nathan says that's a good sign... but..." JD shrugged, unable to hide his fears from any of the men who knew him.
Chris sighed and wiped his face with his hand before he said, "Telegraph the judge, let him know what's happened and also tell him this isn't the first time they've attacked gamblers.... He'll need to check with local sheriffs to see if there have been any other killings or attacks."
With that, he wheeled his horse about and, taking the reins of Buck's mount, he headed towards the stable. Once the horses were settled, both Chris and Vin headed towards Nathan's small set of rooms.
They entered to find the healer leaning over his patient and carefully offering him a drink, sip by sip. Nathan spun about, and then relaxed when he saw who it was. "How did it go?" he asked, before turning back and tending Ezra, who was looking only slightly better than he had yesterday - in fact, if anything, the bruises looked even worse.
"We found them..." Chris offered, then added dryly, "two came back slung over their horses."
"I trust..." came the weak but determined voice of the gambler as he squinted up through blackened eyes, "you... gentlemen... were lucky... in your... endeavour... to... retrieve... my... money?"
Chris smiled and offered sarcastically, "Yes, we did manage to capture the men who attacked you... and no... none of us were injured, but thank you for asking." Larabee smiled, taking the sting out of his words as he finished, leaning close to emphasise his words, "And if you do as Nathan tells you, exactly as Nathan tells you... then you just might get it back."
"Mr Larabee..." Ezra began with some of his old fire, but slumped back, too tired to argue as he nodded his agreement. Then he said, "Whilst I am glad... no one... was injured," he wore a concerned frown, "I would... have been... sorely... disappointed... if you had... not been... able to handle... them.... After all... I had given... you a helping... hand by injuring... one of them.... That... only left you... two... three?"
"Three... and you only injured one in the arm... he was still pretty damn fast with his gun..." Larabee shot back, pleased to see the fire flash back in the gambler's eyes, but also upset to see just how weak the man really was. But he was content to play the battle of wits with the man until Nathan put a stop to it; the healer would have stopped it before it began if he thought that it was detrimental to his patient.
"I knew... the man had... to be good..." Ezra stated, somewhat smugly, "otherwise... they would... never have... taken me."
Larabee paused at this, then asked, "So how did they get you, Ezra?"
Ezra looked totally disgusted, before he winced and offered tiredly, "I was just coming back... from my evening ablutions... when I heard... what sounded... like a fight.... It looked like... two men were... attacking a younger, smaller man.... I foolishly went... to see if I could help...." He paused and closed his eyes, pushing aside the vision he'd had, that it was JD who was being hurt, before he continued, his tone almost accusing, "I do... believe that you... are having a very bad effect on me... Mr Larabee."
Even as he said the words, he fought back a gasping yawn and Nathan moved forwards, saying, "That's enough, I think... Ezra, you need to sleep... regain your strength."
"I feel... perfectly fine..." the gambler retorted, fighting the medicine that the healer had been giving him when Larabee and Tanner had entered the room.
Chris smiled, relieved to see Ezra fighting Nathan; that at least meant that he was on the mend. Leaning back towards tracker, he asked in a loud whisper, "So, what do you think we can do with three hundred and fifty dollars, Vin?"
Ezra's eyes flew open in shock, then he recalled Larabee's original words about doing as Nathan said, otherwise he would forfeit his money. He snorted loudly, giving his opinion of that, firmly closed his eyes, and within seconds was softly snoring.
The healer looked over at Larabee and smiled, saying with slight awe, "Damn... this might be the first time he ever does what I tell him when he's sick."
Chris smiled and offered wisely, "Make the most of it, Nathan, it might also be the only time.... I get the feeling that he's not going to be keeping his money in quite such an accessible place in future."
Nathan shuddered at the thought and then shooed the other men out of the room, saying, "Go get some sleep, Chris... you look like hell."
Chris paused on the threshold and asked, his tone unable to filter out his concern, "He is going to be all right... isn't he, Nathan?"
Nathan nodded and stated firmly, "Hell, yes.... He's already moaning about being here - that's always a good sign with Ezra... but he is going to be off his feet for quite a while; those bruises and broken ribs ain't going to let him rush into health, and that arm is going to keep him out of action... but he should be all right."
Larabee nodded, satisfied with the answer. Turning, he made his way out into the bright sunshine. 'Funny how a dull day can suddenly look so much brighter,' he thought as he made his way down the steps and headed towards the hotel restaurant with Vin for a large dinner, then he was heading to his own room and a bed that he had not seen in far too many hours.
Just before they entered the hotel they saw Buck, who was heading over towards Nathan's to check on Ezra for himself. Chris called out and waved to his friend, who he knew would join them for dinner once he had finished. Turning to Vin, Chris commented, taking out the money they had retrieved for Ezra and peeling off a ten dollar note, "I think this meal's on Ezra." Tanner burst out laughing and slapped the other man on the back as he followed him into the restaurant.
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