Chris Larabee glared at the red coated back. The other men held their breath. The storm had been brewing for days and now it seemed as if all hell was about to break loose. "Ezra I said lets go." The words were hissed between clenched teeth. Larabee stood behind the gambler in the middle of the saloon at Bitter Creek. They were a two and a half day ride from Four Corners. They had finally caught up with and captured half of the Winston gang. The Winston brothers and five comrades had robbed not only the bank in Four Corners but also Eagle bend and a few other outlying towns. Vin Tanner had taken a bullet to the midsection, protecting none other than Standish. As the other men rode out of town Nathan Jackson stayed behind to fix up Vin. The five men had been on the trail for just under six days and they captured one of the Winston brothers and a few of his cohorts. The gang had split up. The stolen funds were not on the group that had been captured, only Brett Winston survived the gunfight. The days hounding the outlaws had been hard on all the men. Larabee had been especially on edge. Tanner was hurt, Nathan had assured them all he would be all right, nothing vital had been hit. The healer's reassurances had fallen on deaf ears. Tension and boiling anger bubbled under the surface. For those five and a half days they tracked the outlaws, Ezra Standish glib sartorial manner and ever present cocky smile irritated the leader of the seven men beyond reasoning. The two men clashed from the time they started out after the bank robbers and has now reached a summit. Buck and the others constantly prayed Ezra just kept his mouth shut, and avoided any confrontation with Larabee. Their prayers were not heeded. The gambler's quick mind and quicker mouth landed him in a world of trouble with the deadly gunslinger. A few times Josiah and Buck had to physically restrain Larabee from hurling himself at the bitterly smiling conman. JD observed all this and wondered why Chris hated Ezra so badly and why Ezra for all his apparent brains was so stupid as to egg the deadly man over the edge. Now in the saloon of Bitter Creek after a 24 hour rest, it was time to hit the trail again.
"I said..." Larabee breathed out venomously
"I heard what you said Mr. Larabee." Standish cut him off mid sentence not moving his attention from the cards he just dealt himself, but unconsciously ran a hand over his bruised ribcage. "I am not prepared to leave just yet." The other players at the game watched the scene with apprehension. Some rechecked their cards wondering if the cards they were dealt were worth the risk of getting shot.
"you get your ass out that door or I'll...." Chris moved closer to the gambler. The fact that Standish had not even turned around to acknowledge him added fuel to his raging anger. He wanted nothing more than to wipe the smug smile off the clean shaven conman.
" Or what Mr. Larabee? You going to threaten to shoot me again? I grow tired of that fear, either pull your gun out and put a bullet in my head now or leave me be." Standish's normally soft southern drawl took on an icy edge, almost enough to rival Larabee's earlier tone. Ezra heard movement behind him and waited for the impact instead he heard Josiah and Buck haul the gunslinger out the batwing doors. Ezra did not see JD's shocked and hurt expression. The fear in the boy's eyes was almost tangible, Chris actually reached for his gun. The young sheriff watched in dismay as the conman continued his game, he had to realize just how close to dying he came and he did not care. JD was brought out of his revere when Buck tapped him on the shoulder. "come on kid."
"Buck he was gonna shoot Ezra." JD whispered in shock as Wilmington guided him out the door. "I know kid." Buck whispered back. JD could not let it go, "Ezra doesn't even care."
The lady's man paused and took a furtive glance at his red coated friend. "I know kid."
Josiah Sanchez took side long glances at the dark clad gunslinger beside him. He had never seen Larabee so angry. Amazing, the preacher thought, how easily Ezra could ruffle feathers. Sanchez had to admit, this time Standish had not started it, Chris had been in a foul mood and the gambler presented an easy target. The conman for his part ignored the harsh comments thrown at him by Larabee, for all of half a day. The preacher smiled in spite of the situation. Standish's smart mouth got him into and out of allot of hot spots before but these last couple of days he was on a roll. "Something funny Josiah?" Chris shot out quietly. The preacher merely nodded his smile spreading across his whiskered lined face, "Yeah, you and Ezra." Larabee was about to lay into the preacher when JD and Buck rode up with the prisoner. "You ready?" Buck said as cheerfully as he could. He could tell he interrupted something, and from the expression on Larabee's face and the amusement on Josiah's, it might have been a good thing.
"What about Ezra?" JD asked. They had met in front of the saloon. The young Sheriff could make out the red duck tailed coat still at the gaming table.
"He's gonna rest up a little here JD" Sanchez explained. The older preacher saw the hurt and betrayal in the young man's brown eyes. Betrayal because amongst these seven men the boy thought he found a family. Thought he found a home with six older brothers. Now the curtains came down revealing the sham of the relations. These were hardened men with differences as stark as their pasts. For the most part they were loners, especially Vin, Chris and Ezra, and for these solitary men, trust and friendship were not easily forged. Tanner and Larabee had seemed to have smelted together in a strong bound of friendship, as strong as JD's and Buck's and Nathan and Josiah's. That left Ezra. He bonded to no one kept his own company but floated between the others, in a simple friendship born out of having to work and live with the others. The weak tendrils of camaraderie he offered and accepted from the others was not strong enough, apparently, to stand the test of time. Josiah hoped Ezra would follow them. The preacher was aware that the gambler knew Chris reached for his gun. Standish watched out for himself, he would put his life on the line for the others, and had time and time again, but something had transpired inside the saloon today and that unselfish demeanor he had begun to expose had been quickly reburied. Josiah feared they would not see the conman any time soon.
"He had better not come." Larabee intoned icily. No one said a word and reined their horses in behind Larabee's and followed him out of town. The prisoner was ponied behind Buck and in front of JD. Josiah brought up the rear.
Standish sighed as he stepped away from the batwing doors. Larabee and the others had left only a few minutes ago. He cursed Larabee and then himself. He had a good thing in Four Corners. He had a home, and strangely enough friends. Strange to think of the other six men as friends, heck almost brothers. He never had brothers and very few friends. In one quick stupid remark he lost everything. He knew Chris reached for his gun but he did not truly believe that the gunslinger would squeeze the trigger. Chris Larabee was rumored to be a lot of things but he would not shoot a man in the back. Ezra had gambled on that when he had opened his mouth. He just did not expect Wilmington and Sanchez to interfere. Now he stood on the boardwalk watching the dust settle on the dirt main street as the four men, who made up part of his new surrogate family, rode off. He had heard Chris's undisguised warning, about not joining them. At first Ezra had no intention of going with them. He finally found a town naive to his gambling skills and was making a killing. He left the table when he heard the others ride off, Larabee's statement ringing in his ears. Standish hated being told what to do, or what not to do. Larabee had pushed him all week. This was the last straw. With new resolve he headed for the livery, he would be damned if that bull headed Larabee told him what he could or could not do, or where he could or could not go.
Gabe Winston watched as Larabee and his men led his brother out of town. Gabe and the others watched and shadowed the group. Bret Winston was his baby brother and he would do anything to protect him. The boys had been alone together, for most of their lives. Gabe knew, of the two, Brett was the one with a future. The younger boy had brains and a more forgiving nature where Gabe had the brawn and less tolerance. Both enjoyed life on the run, robbing banks, Bret did not like killing but he would if it interfered with getting his hands on cash. The other men in the group were basically loyal to the two brothers. Winston was not a fool, their loyalty was only as strong as the promise of cash. The take on the last few hold ups were enough to ensure their loyalty for a very long time. The older Winston boy watched his little brother for a moment. He seemed ok, they had not hurt him. Lucky for Larabee and his 'little brother', Winston mused as his gaze settled on the dark haired youngster who rode behind his brother's horse. They would shadow the small group until they hit the high ridge trail. The peace keepers would be hard pressed defend themselves let alone maintain their grasp on Brett. Gabe smiled shallowly he would give Larabee a taste of his own medicine, if he could he would take Larabee's little brother.
Standish rode casually, trying to control his frustration. He nimbly flipped cards between dexterous fingers guiding Chaucer with leg pressure. He knew the habits of the others, they would make camp when the sun set. Chris would push them hard, Vin had been hurt, and he had one of the brothers, they would be safer the quicker they returned to Four Corners. Standish smiled, Chaucer and he were used to long journeys at night, they would not have to bed down, and thus catch up to the others in short order. Besides Larabee and the others only had a twenty minute head start. Heck he would have to pull up so not to crowd them. Standish knew Larabee was still very angry, and would be for along time. The gunslinger might not shoot him in the back but Larabee may try to beat the belligerence out of him. Ezra cringed at the thought, Chris had hit him before, it hurt, in more ways than one. It was not a pain the gambler wanted to relive.
Gabe and two of his men camouflaged themselves amongst the trees on the upper slope. He placed Curtis on the lower slope, the long blonde haired Curtis was ruthless, the most merciless one of the group. He would not let anyone past him. Winston listened and faintly heard the distinctive clop of shod hooves on the rocks. Larabee and the others were almost upon them.
Chris warily surveyed the ridge trail they traverses. He still seethed over the gambler. If Ezra showed his cocky smiling face anytime soon he would beat him to a pulp. Larabee clenched and unclenched his fists, he ground his teeth trying to let go of his anger. The ridge was a good place for an ambush. The others knew it as well and kept their guns at the ready. Larabee gazed back at Buck who merely nodded, they others were ready.
Standish had not been paying attention to Chaucer. The horse picked the upper trail amongst the trees. The clearer easier way to traverse, the ridge trail lay about twenty yards below him. Ezra cursed silently to himself, he put his cards away and picked up his knotted reins. The gambler took in his surroundings trying to find an easier way through the steep wooded rocky slope back to the main trail. His jaded green eyes fell on a suspicious shape. He pulled his quarterhorse bay to a halt and peered at the silhouette. Noise on the trail diverted his attention, he watched as Chris, Buck, Winston, JD and Josiah came into view single file on the narrow trail. More movement in the wood to his left, grabbed the gambler's scrutiny. Ezra slid off his horse, pulling his guns. He could hear Chris's horse blow, and saw it swivel its ears with a nervous flicker. Standish knew Chris just became aware of the impending ambush.
Suddenly the area was filled with gunfire. Three figures emerged from the woods firing their guns. Ezra watched horrified as the one just below and to his left drew a bead on JD. Standish screamed "Jaaaayyy Deeee!!!" sprinting the short distance diving at the outlaw. JD heard someone scream his name and swiveled his focus to the steep embankment to his right. Suddenly two bodies flew through the air just in front of him landing on the far edge of the trail and then tousled down the other side. Dunne immediately recognized the bright crimson coat of the gambler. Dunne jumped off his horse firing up hill at the other would be ambushers. Buck pulled Winston from his horse matching Chris's aim firing up hill as well. Josiah came up behind the sheriff and rested a calming hand on the youngster, joining him in firing. Soon the area reeked of gunpowder, the horses pranced wildly about. Suddenly the firing stopped and a voice rang out.
"Larabee!" It came from below the trail. Chris and the others peered down the steep rocky slope. There stood a blonde man holding a crumpled unconscious form in a red duck tailored coat. Standish. Curtis knelt behind the unconscious gambler holding the smaller man in a choke hold. For all intent and purposes the conman appeared dead. Buck heard Chris utter a curse under his breath. Then ask to no one in particular, "What the hell is he doing here?"
JD and Josiah had crept up behind their two comrades and JD answered the question, "Saving my life." Larabee turned nailed the young man with a cold questioning stare, but he noticed Josiah behind the boy nod in agreement.
A voice rang out from below again but it did not belong to the blonde. Gabe Winston stood with his gun pressed to Standish's slumped head. "Send Brett down!" his meaning very clear.
Chris felt the others eyes on him. He knew what they were thinking. He would not meet their doubtful, hesitant inquiring gazes. Larabee would not willingly allow harm to come to one of his gang, his family. Standish proved to be a pain butt more often than not, but he was one of the family. Whether he wanted to recognize it or not.
Chris answered, "No deal!"
JD nearly jumped out of his skin. Buck grabbed Chris by the shoulder and whirled his friend around, "What the hell are you doing?" Wilmington nearly screamed. He could not believe his life long friend would willingly forfeit a man's life. Sanchez held his judgment. Larabee would not condone or allow the death of one of his, Josiah would wait.
Gabe could not believe his ears. He turned to Curtis seeking confirmation on what he thought he heard.
"I'll kill him!" Winston bellowed afraid his assumed threat had been missed.
Larabee wrenched his shoulder away from Buck throwing the gunman a warning look. Chris then turned his attention back to the people below, "How do I know he ain't dead already?" Standish had not shown any sign of life.
Winston none to gently prodded the gambler's sandy brown head. No response. He grabbed a fist full of the mopped head and jerked it back exposing the gambler's neck and slack mouth to the others above him. They watched as Gabe slapped the gamblers unresponsive features and then let the head drop back down to its chest.
Gabe looked up toward the trail cursing and then shouted, "You'll just have to trust me!"
Chris shook his head ignoring the imploring looks from Buck and JD, he shouted back, "No way!"
"Shit." Gabe muttered. He understood Larabee's dilemma. Curtis leaned over to his boss and asked, "Lets just kill him anyway." the blonde smiled at the prospect of killing the fancy dressed captive.
"We can't,we can use him to get Bret back" Winston kicked the ground in frustration. "Ok Larabee we'll trade tomorrow, at the clearing three miles from here." Gabe paused and added, "You're gambling friend should be awake by then."
Larabee did not like it but it was the best they could hope for, "Ok! Tomorrow first light!" He waited for Gabe to agree. The peace keepers watched with dismay as the blonde dragged the rag like form of the gambler by the neck into the cover of some trees. Gabe and his two other men preceded Curtis into the forest. Chris cursed the blonde silently promising revenge for the pain he inflicted on the gambler.
Ezra first became aware of the pain in his head. He made the mistake of opening his eyes and moving his head at the same time. Nausea exploded through him and his stomach violently emptied itself. Standish instinctively curled into a ball and passed back out as his stomach hurled. Curtis watched and laughed, not bothering to move the gambler from the sticky mess his face rested now rested in.
Curtis watched the others settle in for the night. He had first watch. The blonde rested his boot against the captives shoulder and rolled the smaller man onto his back. The gambler did not look so fancy now, blood adorned the side of his face from the cut on his head and vomit stained his shirt and coat not to mention that it had dried to his face. The captive moaned and moved. "ey boy you waking up again?" Curtis rolled the form with his boot. He got no more response and left the gambling man alone. He would not provide much fun tonight.
Chris stared at the small modest fire. JD and Buck had finally drifted off to sleep. It had taken all of Buck's persuasion to convince the kid it was not his fault Ezra had been caught. Buck had explained the crazy gambler was as unpredictable as stampeding cattle. Josiah had chuckled in his soft baritone way and padded the boy on the shoulder in confirmation. Larabee watched the exchange. He found himself smiling, unpredictable was not the half of it try controlling and reining in the stampeding herd of cattle. Josiah had shackled the young Winston brother to a sapling. "you comfortable?"
"Comfortable as I can be." Brett held up his shackled feet. The preacher merely smiled and shook his head. and said "They stay."
"You know your friend is in a world of hurt right now." Bret rested comfortably against the tree taking on a confidence he did not feel, "My brother is gonna get me back, he'll let Curtis kill your friend if you don't let me go."
Neither Bret nor Josiah saw Larabee melt from out of the darkness. He grabbed the young man by the throat and forced his head roughly back against the trunk of the skinny sapling. "If anything happens to that man you and your brother will pay....dearly" He tightened his fist throwing the young captive into fits of gagging.
"Easy brother." Josiah intoned laying a calming hand on the gunslingers clenching fist. "We'll get Ezra back."
He paused as Larabee slowly loosened his grip, "besides you don't want to wake JD or Buck up now." Chris nodded once sharply and shoved the prisoner against the tree and stalked off.
Josiah waited as the boy regained his composure, "You ok?"
"He's crazy." Then added somewhat quietly still watching the receding back of the blonde gunslinger, "Gabe just don't like it if he thinks I'm in trouble. He'll do anything to get me back, you know."
"Your brother and he have allot in common right now." With that Sanchez left Bret and returned to his bed roll.
Early morning found the peacekeepers on the northern edge of the clearing. The sun had just started to ascend into the sky even though it had been light for about 30 minutes. Josiah kept Bret beside him a few yards behind Larabee. JD and Buck flanked the leader a few yards to the left and right respectively. Wilmington kept an eye on his older friend. Chris had been on edge for weeks, Standish had provided an easy target for his dark rage, (not that the gambler did not provoke the gunslinger at times) but since Ezra had fallen into the hands of the older Winston and unstable Curtis Chris had become deadly silent. Buck had seen it before all to often just after the death of Adam and Sarah. Even JD had sensed it and steered clear of his hero. These men were going to pay with interest for any harm that befell the knavish gambler. Buck's musings were suddenly interrupted when he heard voices and saw people enter the clearing. A smile brushed Wilmington's face when he heard Chris mutter, "Doesn't he ever shut up?"
Standish, with his hands shackled behind his back, was talking ceaselessly. He had been continuously prodded to keep walking by Gabe. Curtis and the other men were nowhere to be seen. Larabee did not like it. As Standish made it to the center of the small grassy clearing, his unkempt appearance became alarming. Blood adorned the right side of his face. Something had stained the front and left side of his once brilliant red coat and bright white shirt. He seemed coherent enough and he walked with a steady step. Chris listened to what the conman was uttering. "Will you please tell me what in pray tell is so important that you've had to rouse me at this ungodly hour to come to this quaint little meadow?" Gabe halted the gambler with a restraining hand to the coated shoulder.
Buck and JD shared amused glances. Standish hated early mornings unless he still found himself engaged in a game of chance.
Winston shook his head. How could anyone talk so much and be so utterly confusing all at the same time. "We're gonna meet Larabee here and make an exchange." Gabe answered. For the first time in an hour the fancy gambler was quiet and then a question, "An exchange? What kind of exchange?"
Standish peered around the clearing trying to spot something that would indicate that one of the other peacekeepers were near by. He found nothing. This did not surprise the conman. He knew the men he rode with, they were very good at what they did, if he did see them then it would have been on done on purpose. Gabe answered his question, "We're gonna trade you for my brother."
The others had heard the whole conversation and did not expect the reaction that Standish gave them. A bemused smile cracked his dimpled face his shook his head in slow disbelief and then full blown laughter. Gabe stood back from the gambler as if the fancy man had lost his mind. Standish doubled over a full belly laugh breaking the quiet early morning. A few times he tried to compose himself and speak seriously to his captor only to start laughing again. Winston stared at him dumbfounded. Finally he prodded the gambler's shoulder, "hey knock it off." Gabe said nervously. Tears streamed down the gambler's emerald green eyes. Through the laughter he breathed, "Larabee....exchange....for me??" again Standish laughed dropping to his knees his hands shackled behind his back. "Hey I said knock it off." Winston roughly kicked the gambler in the upper arm knocking him to his side. This got Standish's attention. He rolled back up to his knees finally gaining some control, "Ok...Ok...ok...just give me a second." a few uncontrollable chuckles escaped. Gabe began to shift nervously, "What's so funny?"
Larabee and the others watched the scene somewhat shocked but slightly amused. The laughter would have been contagious except for the reason behind it. Larabee cursed. Standish truly believed Chris and the others would leave him behind. Well, maybe not JD, Larabee allowed. He felt the others staring at him. He shrugged they would wait and see how Standish played out this hand. Beside Chris was not sure where the rest of the Winston gang had secured themselves.
Standish, still on his knees, suppressed the few residual chuckles that bubbled up through him. He gazed up at Gabe Winston, sizing the man up. Curtis, the blonde, was vicious and deadly, but not overtly smart. The other two, Stan and Brandon, were of typical criminal intelligence, Ezra had met smarter circus bears. Gabe Winston on the other hand was a shrewd character. He had something backing up the hazel eyes that stared down at the gambler. "What so funny gambling man?" Gabe asked again now getting angry. Ezra gained his composure and started speaking, his soft southern drawl taking on a sincere tone, "Well you see, Mr. Winston." Standish explained wiping tears of laughter on his shoulder, smudging dirt and blood on his decidedly ruined coat. "Mr. Larabee and I do not observe the world from the same perspective. He had tried to persuade my view points with rather violent threats and innuendoes." Standish sat back on his heels staring around the small clearing still hoping to find a glimpse of one of his friends. A chuckle escaped again, an exchange indeed. He was pulled from his revere by a confused, "What?" Standish sighed with exasperation, "He hates my guts and just yesterday was going to blow my brains all over the saloon." Ezra peered once more around the clearing before making up his mind.
He saw no sign of the others. They were not coming. His guts twisted with despair. They abandoned him. Gawd he could not believe how much it hurt, it burned a hole in his gut, like nothing had before. He figured at least JD would have talked the others into getting him back or maybe convinced Buck to help him out. Nothing no one, he was on his own again. He had been on his own before, but this time it was different. This time it burned and ate his gut because, unlike all the other times before, this time he understood what it felt like to belong, to have friends. To lose those friends and that support to be stripped of that shelter found in family, to be suddenly thrust back out on his own, hurt. The lonely pain of ostracism seared through him like nothing he had ever experienced before. He realized he was truly alone. His despair blossomed and spread like a fever, gawd it hurt. He had to save his own precious neck, again. At least it was something he was good at.
"What are you talking about?" Gabe asked bewildered, afraid he already knew the answer.
"When were you supposed to meet our illustrious Mr. Larabee?" Standish asked stalling forming a plan. No answer. He gazed back up at Winston and answered for him, "He should have been here by now, correct?"
Gabe merely nodded, he to searched the clearing hoping to spot his brother and Larabee.
Standish tried another tactic, redirection.
"How much you make on those robberies anyhow?"
"huh?" Gabe gazed back down at the gambler and said, "this time or combined total?"
Standish was impressed, "who does your books?"
":Yes man." Standish said with exasperation, "Your ledgers if you are absconding with that kind of cash surely someone is keeping books and accounting for all the cash that is flowing through your quite capable hands."
"Oh, Theodore, he's back at the cave with the cache." Winston said distractedly still searching for any sign of Larabee.
"If you have made away with so much money in the past why continue to challenge lady luck, why not retire with what you have?" The gambler asked, silently wondering if he had gotten into the wrong business, apparently bank robbing had lucrative moments.
"We seem to run through it quickly,"
"It would seem to me you may need someone else to look over your books." Ezra answered his implications clear. Apparently his stint as peacekeeper had abruptly ended and this could be one way to avoid a quick bullet to the head. Gabe gave the gambler an inquisitive look considering the question, letting his guard down. Standish took this as a good sign. He saw an opportunity, Standish played his cards. Suddenly the southerner struck. He shot off his knees ramming his shoulder into Gabe knocking the man over and bolted toward the East, toward the river.
Larabee and the others listened to the exchange and watched as Standish kept taking surreptitious glances in their direction. The southerner had been searching for some sign of them but they did not tip their hands. Chris wanted nothing more than to gun Winston down and get the gambler back but Curtis and the others had to be out there somewhere. Larabee could not be sure that Ezra would not get gunned down before they could reach him. Chris turned and faced Sanchez, the older preacher, always proved steadfast and level headed, unruffled by events that befell the group. Sanchez merely shrugged. They had heard what Standish had said, had seen the betrayal that flashed across the desperate green eyes. Chris knew Ezra thought he had been hung out to dry, had been abandoned. He would make it up to the gambler somehow. Larabee even chuckled silently when he heard Standish fish for a new form of employment. Gabe actually considered the disguised request. The southerner could sweet talk the devil out of ice water. The gunslinger knew Standish was resourceful and as he listened to the conman whittle his way into the confidence of his captor a plan began to form in Larabee's mind. Then Standish acted, like a snake, quick without warning, he struck and sprinted across the clearing, his arms falling free of the shackles that had once bound his wrists. Larabee watched the red coated fleeting back, legs and arms pumping for all their worth. Everyone waiting for the tell tale gun shot. None came. No one was more surprised than the gambler himself.
Buck and JD watched as Ezra sprinted out of the clearing. They made to follow, let Chris get Gabe. Larabee stopped them with an upraised hand. Wilmington knew a plan was in the making. He forced JD back down and turned his attention back to Gabe Winston who pulled himself back to his feet. "Curtis!! Stanley!! Brandon!!" He yelled. Suddenly three horses galloped into the clearing. "Git'im!" Winston screamed, pointing in the direction Standish had just headed disappearing into the wooded acreage. Gabe grabbed the blonde's bridle bringing the dancing horse up short, "I want him alive, he may be useful yet." Curtis nodded once curtly and galloped off.
Larabee and the others breathed a sigh of relief. Standish still held a trump card, if Curtis followed orders.
The peacekeepers ran to there horses quickly mounting up, shadowing the outlaws and their fleet footed friend. They held back, watching from afar catching glimpses of the running red coat, dodging between trees, diving over windfalls, scrambling under brambles. "He's fast, he's very fast." Sanchez marveled, directing his comment toward Larabee. Chris smiled tightly holding back any kind of comment. The watched as Standish broke out of the cover of the woods onto a rocky ledge. They stood on higher ground still amongst the trees out of sight. The iron shackles had long since been discarded. JD wished Ezra would teach him how to do that trick with the locks. They watched as Standish sprinted down the rocky ledge that hung over the white water river that roared twenty feet below. Larabee cursed when Curtis cantered out of the woods only a few hundred yards behind the gambler. Standish turned saw the blonde and without hesitation leaped off the ledge into the raging waters below. "hope he can swim as well as he can run." Buck commented dryly. The four peace keepers and their captive trotted off in the general direction Standish now headed.
Ezra coughed, gagged sputtered and spit as he broke the surface and fought the churning rapidly moving river. Pain had shot up his left leg when he entered the water, a large boulder had abruptly halted the downward drive of his leg as he hit the water. The pain had been momentarily forgotten as the gambler tried to get his bearing and quickly alleviate himself of this violent watery environment. Standish did not mind a good swim, in a quiet lake or slow moving stream but this was ridiculous. Swimming the best he could he angled himself down stream toward the nearest shore. Water logged and heaving fresh water from his stomach, he weakly crawled from a gentle eddy onto a small patch of coarse sandy beach. He collapsed taking in great gasps of air, hacking all the while. Standish did not like to take chances, did not like to leave his fate up to lady luck but on those few times that he had been forced to, he was forever grateful she did not disappoint him. Standish smiled to himself, his eyes closed against the sunlight as he soaked up the warmth enjoying his new found freedom. "Enjoying yourself?"
Standish recognized the malicious voice and steeled himself against reacting. The man had violent tendencies and Ezra seemed to be his only target. "Up until now." He drawled back.
"On your feet gambling man. Boss wants you alive but don't tempt me." Curtis returned his voice smiling at the prospect of inflicting pain.
Gabe sighed in relief as he watched Curtis coming up the trail. He had the gambler. The red coat and vest were missing and he limped obviously favoring his left leg. Standish had his wrists bound securely by rope. A lariat led from his tied wrists to the saddle horn. He had to jog to keep up with the horse. Standish cursed his luck as he clenched his jaw against the pain in his leg. Winston peered angrily down at the southerner. The gambler had better be worth the effort. He still believed the gambler could be used to get his brother back. Larabee probably headed back to Four Corners to deposit Bret in the jail. If Standish had ridden with the seven, now six, peacekeepers then he would have intricate working knowledge of their habits. It could keep Gabe and his men one step ahead of the law.
"You aren't looking to fancy right now." Standish ignored Winston's remark. Instead he stood with his weight on his right leg his hip cocked to the right taking the weight off his left leg trying to appear unruffled. Gabe turned his attention back to his men, "all right we're heading back to the cave." He paused and turned to Standish, "since your so full of spit and vinegar you get to walk." Standish cursed silently to himself as Curtis clicked his horse into a quick walk jerking the conman into painful step behind the horse.
"There they are!" JD shouted to the others excitedly. The other three men turned and followed the exuberant pointing of the young sheriff. Buck wiped his brow, and peered accusingly up at the sun. Not a cloud spotted the light blue sky. It was going to be another scorcher. Wilmington followed JD's gaze. Across the semi arid plain four horses picked their way down the trail. Alone figure stumbled on foot a few yards behind the last horse. Larabee removed Tanner's borrowed spyglass from his saddle bags. As he stared through the instrument he swore softly. Josiah reached over and took the spy glass. He focused it, allowing his eye to adjust to the magnification. He cursed. Gabe lead the way followed two of his men. Curtis brought up the rear, the preacher became dangerously angry, as he followed the pony line and saw Standish tethered to the end of it. The gambler appeared disheveled and battered, but he gamely kept up. Tough SOB, Josiah thought. He handed the spy glass back to Chris both men exchanging promises of revenge. The peacekeepers held back, not wanting to be spotted by the felons, but remained close enough to watch Standish.
Ezra limped behind the horse, the ropes dug into the tender skin of his wrists and the constant tugging of the lariat on those ropes only bit further into his skin. The sun beat down on him, his head burned as did his shoulders. His left ankle had become a persistent dull ache. If he did not step on it just right, pain would shoot up his leg to his hip causing him gasp with pain. Curtis would turn and yank on the rope pulling the gambler forward more off balance forcing the prisoner to put more weight on the injured foot. Ezra had long since given up on the ropes. He had tried everything, even chewing his way out of them, every time he fussed with his bindings he would misstep and hiss in pain attracting the blonde's unwanted attention. The gambler cursed, why had no one properly instructed him on the nature of knots. Locks were child's play, ropes and knots escaped him. So in the arid semi desert heat he concentrated on the next step. One foot then the other, this went on for hours. His thirst grew, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, it felt as if someone had shoved wool into his mouth. His world had been reduced to the few feet that lay immediately in front of him, that encompassed his next ataxic stride.
Standish walked right into the back end of the horse in front of him before he realized they had stopped. He dropped heavily to the ground. His tongue felt as if it had swollen to the size of his left foot. His head bobbed to his chest, his wrists had become swollen and raw, blood drying to them and the binding ropes. Where were the others? Why'd they leave him in the malicious hands of these neanderthals? His sunbaked conscious did not hear someone calling his name. The next thing he knew someone dragged him a few feet, forced him into a sitting position tying his hands to saguaro cactus. They left him enough of a tether so he could keep his distance from the needles. "Here drink some of this." A face floated in front of him holding the back of his head steady as a canteen was tilted toward his lips. The tepid water hit his dry lips and he began to drink greedily grabbing for the canteen. "Whoa hold on Mr. not so fast you'll just get sick." Standish tried to comply to the warning but his thirst hit new levels as water cascaded down his throat.
"Ok that's enough for now." The canteen had to be forcefully pulled away from his desperate hands. "I'll be back. Don't worry. The boss wants you alive."
"Thanks." Standish whispered, a dimpled smile creased his suntanned features, "Mr..."
"Thank you Mr. Stan." Ezra smiled half heartily. Maybe Lady Luck still followed him.
"Looks like their setting up camp." Buck said as he peered through the spy glass. He watched, grateful as the tall lanky hand in the chocolate brown hat offered the gambler water. "they've got him tied to a cactus," Wilmington added. The sun had set an hour ago but it would remain light for another few hours. He turned his attention back to Larabee, "You think this plan of yours is going to work?"
"Hope so." Chris replied.
"You think Ezra will understand." JD asked from his perch on his bed roll the ground was way to hot to sit on just yet. Chris met his innocent brown stare and lowered his gaze and quietly said, "I hope so."
Josiah watched Larabee without trying to appear so, he knew Chris wanted to ride down there and free the southern conman, but he could not. He held a responsibility to his men yes, but also to the judge and the community they protected. With the bank cleaned out, the dreams and aspirations of the poor souls who kept their fortunes there were also cleaned out. Larabee felt a responsibility toward them as well. Standish gave them the unique opportunity to recover and restore those futures. Josiah just hoped that the conman knew or at least suspected that they had not abandoned him, had not left him behind, left him to the mercy of the likes of Curtis.
Standish curled tighter into himself. The night had become increasingly cold. The small campfire stood and agonizing few yards away. It's taunting flickering dancing flames offered him no warmth. His left ankle burned persistently. His boot had become uncomfortably tight. He shifted his position trying to ease the pain. It failed. As he laid there shivering trapping his arms between his knees he thought of Larabee and the others. Why had they left him? Did he really irritate Larabee so badly that he left him to die. Standish prided himself on his ability to read people. He thought he knew Larabee and the others, figured he could predict their actions and even their motivations but this was beyond him. He had misread them, misgauged their characters. He wondered how he could have been so blind. Standish cursed himself, cursed his fate, and cursed the cards he had been dealt. Silently he threw a tantrum, berating himself for his foolishness in trusting the other men. He calmed himself, trembled slightly and gazed up at the stars. Not a cloud in the sky, no moon. He had never seen so many stars before in his life. Ezra smiled, he loved the night, it was his time, his world came alive in the darkened hours that most people slept. Except he sighed he normally reveled in noisy smoke filled saloons. Saloons were places where men lost fortunes and men, men like Standish made fortunes. Night was the best time of 'day'. Tonight under the star blanketed sky Ezra Standish started to seriously reconstruct the events of the day.
Larabee gritted his teeth seething in unrelenting anger as he watched Curtis kick Standish awake. The peacekeepers had noticed early on the gambler had injured his left leg, now the blonde kicked it savagely. Larabee watched as Ezra bolted up in agony grabbing at his leg and rolling over. Curtis laughed. Chris gripped the spy glass tighter. "You're not careful you're gonna break that." Buck said. He could just make out what was happening but from the feral expression on Larabee's face Wilmington knew he missed some transgression that must have befallen the gambler. "Don't worry pard' we'll get Ezra out of this." They watched as the outlaws broke camp and headed back down the trail. Standish hobbled doggedly behind the blonde's quarterhorse. On the second night Curtis yanked off the gambler's custom made boots. Standish had screamed as his injured foot had been cruelly wrenched and twisted. He faced the second day with only socks on his feet.
This went on for another day. By late afternoon they finally came to an out cropping of rocks. A small pool of water stood a few hundred yards to the west of it surrounded by small splattering of leafy vegetation. Larabee and the others shadowed the small party. Both Chris and Buck had heard of this particular little haven but neither had ever been able to find it. It seemed they had reached their destination. None to soon either. Standish could barely keep his feet.
JD's enthusiasm had been replaced by a dark foreboding mood. He had heard Ezra's screams of agony when Curtis yanked his boots off. It aged the youngster, beyond his years. Chris had wanted to protect the youngster from any form of brutality. Now as they hounded their prey from a safe distant, the young sheriff had to live through the prospect that he may loose a friend. He had faced that threat many times before in gunfights and saloon brawls but never like this. Never, when so many opportunities presented themselves where they could safely rescue the southerner. To risk loosing a friend, a brother almost when they could have saved him so many time over, seemed beyond reasoning. Ezra had become an ends to a means, a tool to be used to get a bigger prize. JD had never understood what Ezra must have felt when his own mother used him in cons as a child, but now the young sheriff had a better understanding. He and the others were no better, JD chided himself, they were using the conman no differently than others had used him in the past. They were supposed to be friends, family, but then this is what Ezra had always expected of friends and family. Ezra had been raised to believe this is what he was to expect from others. No wonder he had been slow to become loyal, slow to trust, and now that he had, they used him. JD glanced at Buck and Chris his gaze resting on Josiah. Sanchez looked up and met the young man's questioning gaze. "You ok JD?"
"Josiah can I ask you something?" The sheriff asked quietly.
The preacher picked up the meaning and left the small camp resting a fatherly arm around the troubled youngster, leading him to a quiet semi private area. Buck and Chris exchanged glances. JD had been brooding for two and a half days. It was about time he opened up. Buck was glad the kid picked Josiah, because Wilmington had a sneaky hunch what the kid wanted to ask and he did not have any good answers.
Standish collapsed in a heap on the cave floor. His left foot had become useless. It barely supported any weight. Stan, as had become custom, propped the southerner up and offered him more water. This amused Curtis to no end. It allowed the dandy to linger, he would have died by now if it had not been for the charitable Stanley. Curtis would have to thank his partner in crime. Brandon and Curtis went about securing the horses and checking the supplies in the large cavern they called home. The cavern was huge, and meandered back in a maze of empty blind corridors for more than a couple of hundred yards. It was easily defended, only one way in and one way out. With a fresh water supply rapidly churned in the very back of the cavern they could out wait any posse. That is if a posse had ever dared cross the semi arid ground they just traversed. Even the small oasis outside, sat well within pistol range, and offered no cover. The boiling cold river buried itself back underground just at the wall of the cavern. Its dangerous turbulent current would prevent any fool from trying to swim up it to gain entrance into the hideout. The hide out was perfect, it had fresh water, protected against sun and weather, and not easily discovered. Gabe could not have been more secure in his home except he missed one glaring fact. The dark undulating meandering high ceiling cave offered many places to hide if the enemy already gained access to the abode. The rushing turbulent water hid any sound of unaccounted for boots scraping on rock, or the metallic click of unwelcomed guns being checked. The hideout was perfect if the enemy was not already there.
"Theodore!" Gabe yelled over the sound of the rushing river. From the main chamber the river could not be seen, it lay hidden in the very back recesses of the cave, obscured by imposing craggy half formed walls.
Winston shouted again and waited. He swore the darn book keeper always going off on his own. His precarious nature bothered the leader somewhat, but the number man, loved the desert and did not complain about being left behind alone for weeks at a time. He said he cherished the time alone. He said he could commune with nature. Gabe did not care who he communed with as long as he kept the books and the money straight. But Winston had been thinking on what the southerner had said. They had taken in quite a haul over the past few years but it always seemed like they were broke. As much as Gabe and Bret liked the cave they certainly did not want to live like moles the rest of their lives. They wanted to be wealthy respected men, they should have been there by now. The more Winston thought about it the more he suspected Theodore might be cheating them. Winston gazed back at the folded gambler. He was only a shadow of his former self. His tanned features had burned somewhat, lucky for him he started out with a tan. (His natural Irish heritage would have broiled beet red in the sun. ) His white shirt had become grey tan stained with sweat, though his body had stopped sweating earlier in the day. Blood and dirt caked his hands, face and hair. In the past few days Stan had given him water, Gabe saw no reason to interfere. Curtis had teased the gambler with offerings of food only to throw it just out of reach of the hungry man. At first the gambler had ignored the food but as the days crawled by and his stomach tightened he reached hungrily for the scraps that lay just out of reach. Today, however, he showed no interest in wanting to eat. Curtis lost interest in the game. Gabe did not see any reason to feed the gambler until they were sure he could work the books. Water was not as rare a commodity as food, once they had attained the security of the cave. Winston picked up the ledger and brought it over to the gambler. "Ey Standish sit up."
Ezra gazed up at Winston, spied the ledger and decided to put the effort into sitting up. It made him dizzy.
Winston dropped the ledger onto the gambler's lap. "Start figuring."
Standish rubbed his swollen dry eyes with his roped hands and peered up at the leader of the gang, "Kind sir," he croaked a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, "I would be delighted to go over your ledger, but I would do allot better if I had a chance to freshen up and get more to drink." He could hear the raging river somewhere behind him, all he could think about was getting a drink. Strangely he was no longer hot but somewhat chilled. Gabe studied the gambler, he certainly could not run from them, even if he had the strength, plus there was no where he could go. "All right go ahead you've got a few minutes." He paused helping the unsteady man to wavering feet, "but then we go over the numbers."
Standish gave him his best reassuring smile and hobbled off toward the back of the cave, following the roar of the river.
Standish knelt down by a gentle eddy while the white water stream roared by, and without preamble stuck his face into the dark surface, taking huge gulps of water. He came up for breath and then dunked his head under the icy stream. Standish sat up and ran quivering hands over his face. The cold water felt like a thousand tiny knives pricking his skin. It hurt but felt good. He drank his fill. Satisfied he sat back and dangled his feet into the creek. The cold water cramped his calf muscles. His stocking left foot cried out in protest when eased into the water. Standish bit back a gasp and tried to relax, lowering his blistered burned feet into the near frozen stream.
"You might want to go easy with the water." Larabee's soft tone rang out quietly. If Standish was surprised to hear him he hid it well. Standish looked around found the owner of the voice and then spotted the silhouetted forms of Buck, JD and Josiah. The gambler smiled sardonically cocking his head slightly sideways and asked, "Are you here to shoot me Mr. Larabee?"
"Could have done that anytime." Chris answered his smile matching the conman's. Larabee had watched as Standish hobbled to the stream. His anger reached new heights when he took in Standish's battered appearance up close. He waited to speak until it seemed the gambler relaxed.
"I imagined as much." Standish leaned back on his elbows his feet still in the water. "I presume you do not want to go home without the cache?"
"You presume correctly." Chris answered. So the sly conman had figured out what was going on after all, at least that was one less obstacle Chris and the others would have to explain.
"I'm glad my life is worth something." Standish remarked dryly. Suddenly his stomach decided it did not like all the water. "Aww hell," he moaned quickly shifting position as his stomach violently heaved. Larabee cringed but did not make a move, he had to be able to conceal himself if someone should drop in on them. Chris waited as Standish spit a few times trying to rid himself of the gastric juices that tinged his mouth. It did not work successfully so he sat up shakily and slurped water into his mouth with his roped hands, swilled it around and spit it back into the river. Larabee watched and figured it was the first time he had ever seen Standish actually spit.
"You think you can get them to show you where the money is?" Chris asked. He wanted nothing more than to pull Standish out of this mess and take the others out. The money was important, it held allot of futures and promises. He just hoped it did not foster the premature demise of the gamblers future.
Standish glared up at him, a devilish smile crossed his dimpled darkened features, "You think you can effect my emancipation from these cretins alive?"
"Not a problem." Chris answered.
Standish shrugged his boyish cunning smile cracked his features again and answered, mimicking Larabee's voice and body language nearly perfect, "Then not a problem."
Larabee chuckled. "Wise ass." His blue eyes held a hint of amusement.
"Pain in the ass." Standish returned, sighing, wrestling himself to his feet. He swayed unsteadily as he balanced precariously on his right foot. He gave Larabee a searching glance, hoping he did not really have to do what they were asking him to do.
"I won't let them hurt you Ezra, I promise."
"Ah huh." He paused and asked, "Theodore the book keeper. You have him?"
A knowing smile etched itself across Larabee's features, almost matching the gambler's and merely nodded.
Gabe watched as the gambler limped and hopped back to him and the ledger. Both men settled down on the fine dirt and began to dissect the accounts. The older Winston brother became impressed with the gambler's quick mind. He worked numbers in his head quicker than Gabe could with a pencil and paper. In no time at all they began to find discrepancies within the ledger. The two men sat side by side in the dirt with Curtis, Brandon and Stanley busying themselves with setting up a comfortable living area. The more Ezra explained the altercations in cash flow the more Gabe swore. He promised himself over and over that he would kill the book keeper with his bare hands. Finally after an hour or so Standish asked for a break. Winston did not argue, all this figuring had made him tired too. Gabe stood up and gazed down at the still sitting conman, "You want a job?"
Standish merely raised his eyebrows in question.
"Working the books." Winston explained, slightly exasperated.
"What about Mr. Theodore?" Standish drawled out innocently.
"He's going to retire permanently this evening."
"Before I agree to make amends with this mess." The gambler tapped the ledger purposely, "I need to see and count all the cash you now have and start from scratch."
Winston immediately became suspicious.
"Look good man, Surely you realize I cannot keep an accurate description of your accounts if I do not know where we are starting from." Standish sighed with exasperation, "You're going to want to be present when I count the cash because you, as leader of this potentially profitable little group, needs to know where you stand as well." Ezra leaned back, his wrists still tied in front of him, hiding his smile, he had seen the shift in body language and acceptance in Gabe's features. To put the icing on the cake so to speak he added, "besides I cannot partake in any endeavor to try to affect my own release. I have no horse, and my leg isn't up to any demanding physical activity."
Winston's resolve finally gave way and he nodded.
Josiah and JD sat side by side behind a craggy outcropping of rock. From their vantage point fifteen feet in the air they could make out the whole cavern. Buck and Chris had picked and climbed their way slightly to the left and a little closer to the ground. "how's he do that?" JD asked of Josiah. The preacher shrugged turning a bemused smile at the young sheriff. "I don't know JD, I honestly don't know." They had heard the whole conversation between Ezra and Gabe Winston. Sanchez had been impressed with the gamblers ability and speed to crunch numbers in his head. Josiah did not understand half of what Standish was saying and felt secure Winston understood even less, but in the end the bottom line came out way to short. That was something everyone could comprehend. Josiah smiled as Standish easily set Gabe up and manipulated him into bringing the money out of it's hiding. The smooth talking southerner could talk a preacher out of his bible before Sunday mass. A unique and misdirected gift.
Buck and Chris sat obscured from view behind a large jagged grouping of boulders set a few feet from the craggy cavern walls. They too had an unobstructed view of the whole cavern and its occupants. They could not discern what Standish and Winston spoke about but the sudden outburst from the gang's leader and exasperated body language, the two peace keepers knew Standish was weaving his magic. Then Winston stood up and a few more words were exchanged Gabe nodded in resignation and left the immediate area.
"here we go, get ready." Chris whispered to Buck. Wilmington nodded curtly. He kept his eye on the blonde. The ever smiling gunslinger would do what he could to keep the blonde away from the gambler. A minutes later, Gabe and Brandon came back carrying a few leather bank bags of money. They dropped them at the southerner's stocking feet a few more words were exchanged and Winston shrugged. All their months of work, robbing banks this was all they had left. Standish nodded in seemingly saddened understanding.
Larabee stood up. No one below noticed him at first and so he spoke. "All right boys, give it up. Your through." The taunting confident tone rang clearly above the din of the river. Standish slowly shook his head, Mr. Larabee really had to work on his diplomacy more. "Larabee!!" Gabe screamed in frustration. Winston pulled his gun. Chris fired. Standish threw himself flat on the ground making himself as small a target as he could. Winston spun around, his mouth dropped open his eyes wide with shock and crumpled to the ground a few feet from the gambler. Gunfire rocked the suddenly small area. Standish buried his head in his arms, waiting for a bullet to make its home somewhere in his body. It never happened. He heard screams, smelled gunpowder and the occasional soft thud of a body hitting the ground. Ezra silently hoped Stan would be smart enough not to reach for his gun.
Josiah and JD alternated in firing. Brandon quickly returned shots but Sanchez's aim was true and the bank robber with an ever widening blood stain on his chest joined his boss on the ground. Stan did not go for his gun he recognized a loosing battle when he saw one. Curtis recognized this cowardly action and shot the ambivalent outlaw. Stan was dead before he hit the dirt. Curtis dove over and behind Standish, hauling the fancy gambler to his feet. Using Standish as a shield with a gun to the sandy brown hair, Curtis cautiously maneuvered himself toward the cave entrance. "Larabee I'm walking out of here. And I'm taking your gamblin' friend with me."
"Let him go!" Chris yelled back jumping down from his perch. Josiah followed suit, leaving Buck and JD still concealed to back them up. "you aren't going anywhere, especially with him." Larabee's tone became soft and menacing. His intentions very clear.
"Mr. Curtis may I suggest..." Ezra started. If Vin were here Ezra would have been content with making himself as small as possible. Tanner had an uncanny marksmanship ability. Though Larabee and the others were good Standish did not like to gamble, especially with his neck on the cutting block.
"Shut up!" Curtis hissed slapping the side of his gun off Standish's temple.
With the gunbarrel redirected away from the conman's head, Larabee took his shot. Ezra heard the angry report of the gun and could not be sure who fired. His head exploded with pain, bright lights and stars flashed in his vision and he felt himself get thrown to the ground.
"He all right?" Chris asked as he kicked Curtis's pistol from the limp grasp. Josiah gently rolled Ezra over onto his back. Sanchez did not need to feel for a pulse, the green eyes were wide open but blinking slowly, but the large preacher felt for one anyhow. "He's ok."
"Speak for your self." Standish croaked out. He tried to curl into a ball and reached for his head with his tied hands. Sanchez easily swiped it away. "Leave it be." The large preacher effortlessly cut through the bloody bindings, peeling the ropes from the torn furrowed skin.
Larabee knelt down beside Standish and rolled the gamblers head so he could look into the green dazed eyes.
"He hurt my head." Ezra pointed out in a conversational manner with no hostility. Reminding Larabee of his earlier promise.
"If you kept your smart mouth shut he probably would not have hit you." Chris returned.
"Next time you make a promise give me all the conditions and I'll try to comply." Ezra countered. Josiah shook his head quietly these too never quit. The preacher tried to sit Standish up but the gambler groaned, bringing his knees up as a wave of dizziness crashed over him.
"Ok we'll just lay you back down." the preacher said lowering Standish back to the ground.
Buck and JD dragged the bodies out of the middle of the floor and then went to get Theodore and Brett. Once the two prisoners were back inside and secured, the four peace keepers settled in for the night.
JD knelt down beside Ezra. The gambler lay under a few blankets. He used Curtis's old bedroll for a pillow. Josiah had cleaned the two head wounds and peeled off the left sock. This was followed by a string of profanity from the gambler. Chris and the others let loose with low whistles as they saw the foot. It was grossly swollen from the ball of the foot to mid shin. A dark purple bruise wrapped itself completely around the foot including the toes and up to mid shin. "Is it broke?" Buck had asked. Josiah shrugged and went to reach for the ankle to test its range of motion. Ezra had seen this and pulled his leg back grimacing, "We're not going to find out." He smiled pleasantly but his tone did not mimic the smile. Sanchez agreed, besides there was not much they were going to be able to do about it. Now an hour later, JD knelt beside the gambler, the youngster thought he was sleeping so he placed the reacquired boots next to Standish. Dunne did not like pulling the custom made boots off of the corpse of Curtis but he knew how much they had meant to the gambler. Besides JD mused, breaking in new boots was hell on feet. He started to stand when Ezra stopped him, "Thank you Mr. Dunne."
"Hey Ezra I thought you were sleeping." The boy settled back down next to the card shark. Standish opened his eyes, he had a pounding headache.
"Anything we can get for you?" Chris asked leaning over the young sheriff. Josiah squatted next to a small cooking fire whipping up dinner. Buck and Chris hunkered down behind and beside JD.
Standish met Chris's gaze a sly smile worked its way onto his newly cleaned features, "Now, no. But don't worry I'm working on later." Chris shook his head smiling standing up, Buck patted JD's shoulder and said, "see I told you he'd be back to his old self in no time."
JD followed Buck saying, "no you didn't you said this would be the best time to play him in cards, said he'd be easy to beat."
"Mr. Dunne." Ezra said trying gamely to sit up. It required more effort than he was willing to expend, so he settled back down.
"Yeah Ezra." JD answered making his way back to the gambler. Ezra motioned JD down closer to him and whispered in his ear. Suddenly JD broke out laughing staring pointedly at Wilmington. JD nodded absently and went to help Josiah. Standish fell asleep listening to Buck hound JD, "What'd he say? What'd he say?"
Chris had second watch. It was well passed midnight. He stood at the entrance of the cave. The desert night had become raw and cold. Larabee pulled his duster tighter around himself. He stared back at the small fire and the circling forms of his friends. He watched them for a moment. Josiah snored softly, rivaled occasional by Buck. JD's black moppish hair was the only thing visible from under his blanket. Movement caught his attention. He focused on Standish's form. Larabee moved closer to the others. The gambler shivered under the blankets. Chris stripped off his lined duster and draped it over the conman. He rested a callused hand on Standish's forehead. He felt hot to the touch, Josiah had said, he probably suffered from some sort of heat sickness.
His body's temperature would be out of synch, hot and cold, like a fever.
Larabee watched the sleeping gambler for a moment. Standish was a walking enigma. An apparent loner with a sarcastic manner that could cut to the quick of a person. Larabee knew that first hand. The man with a simple glib response could enrage the gunslinger beyond reasoning. He could sweet talk a snake of its venom and convince the snake to pay him for the services rendered. It never ceased to amaze Larabee at the hidden talents the young gambler possessed. Few were admirable, an experienced pickpocket, unparalleled gift with locks, and of course his gambling went unmatched (except for a particular one legged gambler, but even he had to resort to slight of hand to beat the younger man) and the conning, Maude seemed to be the only one who could best her son. He had an innocent face, a disarming smile (as Mary labeled it one time) and an unassuming air. He exuded believability and trustworthiness with a dimpled smile. Chris chuckled those traits were so far buried that after eighteen months the other six men had just begun to expose them. Larabee had to admire Standish's gift with children. As he watched the injured man stir slightly and then settle back down into a deep slumber, Chris wondered where under his tutelage with Maude did he develop a repertoire with the kids. Josiah had told Chris once, Ezra's gift with children was spawned from remembering how he wanted to be treated as a child himself. Larabee did not care about the reason only admired it. Chris stifled a yawn and moved back to the cave entrance. He would get the others home safely. He would get Ezra to Nathan's and then their family would be whole again. Once back in town with the six others safely with him, the weight of responsibility for those six would lift slightly from his shoulders. Vin was going to be alright, and Ezra well Ezra was just to bullheaded and ornery to stay down for long. In a few hours Josiah would take watch and hopefully Chris could fall into a deep slumber like the gambler.
Sanchez quietly put together a hearty breakfast. He had to give the Winston's credit they had good supplies which were kept well stocked. Josiah saw no reason why they could not enjoy flapjacks if all the fixings were present. The preacher looked up from mixing the batter. Ezra gingerly shifted positions, trying to find a comfortable place to put his left foot. Josiah had noticed Chris's duster had been added to the pile of blankets that covered the conman. The preacher watched Ezra for a moment and then went to help him. He folded three saddle blankets and placed one under Standish's left knee, the other his left calf and third his ankle. "That better?" Josiah whispered softly flipping the blankets back over the leg leaving the foot uncovered. The weight of the blankets were enough to irritate the injury. "yes, thank you." Standish responded, never opening his eyes. Josiah rested his hand briefly on the gambler's forehead, slight fever. The gambler did not stir, he was exhausted.
Josiah returned to his fire, the morning sun had not yet crested the horizon. Chris would want to leave at first light. Larabee worried about Tanner and he now held a few thousand dollars in his possession, which added to his worry. It made for an uncomfortable and tense situation. Sanchez knew Chris was awake, the preacher watched the younger gunslinger, the responsibility Larabee carried was an awesome frightful weight. Josiah smiled slightly, Chris bore up under the burden well, better than most men. At times, sure he had his rough edges, dark moods and foul temper when sparked. Sanchez laughed outright, his eyes briefly falling on the conman. Standish always seemed to be the flint rock to get the blaze going. It was hard to believe, watching Ezra now, his face peaceful, curled slightly on his right side, arms folded in front of his face, he could cause so much trouble with just a few words or a simple look.
"Something funny Josiah?" Larabee asked sitting up.
"Just wondering why you and Ezra make such an explosive combination."
"Any answers?" Chris rubbed his face tiredly. He had not slept well.
"Nope" Josiah then grinned wickedly, "except you maybe to much alike."
"Cold day in hell" Larabee answered curtly, but a half smile softened his words.
"I concur Mr. Larabee." Standish muttered from across the fire, his eyes still closed. He shifted positions, adjusting his left leg slightly, grimaced and settled back down.
Both gunmen watched him for a moment, the eventual even shallow rise and fall of his chest indicated he drifted back to sleep.
JD shoveled flapjacks into his mouth like he had never seen food before. Dunne had had his fill of hard tack and cornballs, finally a real meal. Buck watched him amused, JD was young and though he may have stopped growing in height he still had to fill out some. "Slow down kid you're gonna choke." JD raised questioning eyebrows his cheeks stuffed and slowed his chewing, "Huh?" He asked with a mouthful. "Chew JD, don't inhale your food." Chris explained. The kid had an unsurpassed vigor for life, and apparently breakfast. Josiah nodded pleased, his cooking tended to be on the upper scale of good. After a few minutes JD reached for more of the pancakes and then stopped sitting back. "It's ok JD help yourself." Josiah stated, glad the kid had such a vivacious appetite.
"Naw better not, should save some for Ezra." JD peered over at the gambler. Standish still slept, his back to the fire. He had shook off some of the blankets, but Chris's duster remained. His foot rested on some blankets, exposed to the air. It appeared misshapen and horribly discolored. It had to be broken JD thought. Ezra would not let anyone touch it. Dunne could not blame him. That Curtis fellow had done enough torqueing and bumping of the foot to last a life time, especially when he wrenched Standish's boots off. That had infuriated JD beyond reasoning, he wanted nothing more than to kill the blonde headed thief. Josiah had calmed him down, answering many of the young man's asked and unasked questions. Some answers were not enough, and fell utterly short but Josiah had said it was all apart of growing up.
Sanchez nodded with approval, JD was a fine young man. Brave and loyal, dedicated to his job and his friends. Especially his friends, they always came first. To JD, friends meant more to him than anything, and in these six men he had found a family. Josiah chuckled quietly to himself, Buck sometimes filled the role of big brother and mother.
"No JD, Ezra ain't up to eating solid food just yet." Chris answered. Before Dunne could ask the next question, Josiah answered it.
"He hasn't had anything solid in his stomach for over three days. It would not take kindly if he were to suddenly drop flapjacks in on it. Besides with the heat," Josiah stood up and began collecting dirty dishes piling them up, Buck and JD had the honors of cleaning up, "he'll be too nauseous, and getting him to drink water slowly and holding it down will be a chore for sure."
"Oh." He paused and then shoveled the last of the pancakes on his plate and hurriedly polished them off.
Standish moaned, rolling onto his back. It hurt, the sun had burned his back through his shirt over the last few days. His whole body hurt. Buck shook him again, "come on sleeping beauty time to get going." Wilmington smiled at the deeply red tanned face. He watched the green eyes blink and focus. Standish swallowed trying to work moisture back into his mouth. "Oh gawd what time is it?"
"Time to go." Buck answered handing Chris his duster and pulling blankets off the conman.
"Not important." Wilmington answered the bewildered question. He knew Standish was not fully awake, hell Ezra never fully woke up 'til around nine or ten in the morning. If he happened to be moving around before then, he tended to be surly and saw the world through half hooded eyes. Buck hauled Ezra to his feet. The conman's right knee immediately buckled and he toppled into Buck. "Hold on pard' give it a second." Bucked breathed out under the sudden weight. Larabee grabbed Standish's left upper arm and pulled him upright.
"Thanks Chris." Wilmington muttered. Larabee merely nodded, trying to keep the dangerously weaving conman on his feet. JD brought Chaucer over. They had gathered up Ezra's horse right after he had saved JD's life. With combined effort Chris and Buck practically tossed the conman into the saddle. Dunne had held onto the reins, but Chaucer had never moved. JD marveled at the horse, he was as well mannered as his master. "How ya doin, pard'?" Buck asked peering up at the clenched features. That obviously had to have hurt.
"Much better thank you." The sarcastic retort. It was bad enough having to wake up with the sun, but then to be roughly thrown onto a horse, did nothing to help his attitude.
"good" Buck said good naturedly, slapping Standish's right leg in encouragement.
Chris led the group, followed by JD, Ezra, Josiah ponying Brett and Buck ponying Theodore. Sanchez watched as the gambler shifted position in the saddle trying to make himself comfortable. He wore only his right boot, his black hat had long ago dried. JD had soaked it in the stream before they left the cave. Even at sunrise it proved unreasonably hot. They had traveled half a day. Chris pushing them hard. He did not want to be caught out in the open with all the cash and Vin's condition remained unknown. They had made good time, by the time they made camp that night they were only a full days ride away from Four Corners. If they could repeat the day's performance tomorrow then they should be in town enjoying drink in the saloon just after nightfall. The preacher watched with concern as the gambler began to sway in the saddle. His head had dropped to his chest long ago, Josiah had figured the conman had dozed off. But now he wavered unsteadily, "Chris!" Josiah shouted. Larabee had dismounted finding a suitable place to camp. Larabee swung his head around his hand dropping to his gun at Josiah's warning. The gunslinger spotted Ezra about to topple off his horse and ran over. " Hang on Ezra." Chris stated between clenched teeth as he grabbed the conman sliding him from the saddle. He heard Standish mumble something and then both hit the ground with a thud.
"Not very graceful but effective." Buck said chuckling from his horse. Larabee was pinned under the unconscious weight of the conman, but managed to throw his old friend a withering gaze. Chris wiggled free, while checking for pulse, "He's ok just out." JD breathed a sigh of relief, he too felt wiped out. He could only imagine how Ezra felt. It had been a hard hot ride, they did not even stop to eat. They watered the horses in few places that underwater streams broke to the surface, other than that it had been a straight bone jarring ride. JD busied himself with brushing the horses down, checking them over making sure they were sound. Buck set up a small camp, while Chris secured the prisoners. Josiah did his best to manipulate Standish to a more comfortable position.
They settled into the night. Chris set up a watch schedule as the preacher whipped up a quick supper, it was to hot to eat and they were to hot to be hungry. Larabee watched as Dunne sat down between Buck and the sleeping Ezra. The boy looked wiped, shoot Chris figured Buck did not appear much better. It seemed Josiah bore up well under the punishing pace. Larabee stole a glance at the prisoners, they seemed ok, a little worse for wear. The gunslinger's gaze then rested on the gambler. Josiah had rested a cold compress on the fevered forehead and placed more blankets under his injured foot. Even from across the campfire Chris could clearly see how grossly swollen the ankle and foot had become. Riding in the saddle had to be torture, blood pounding into the foot, rubbing against the stirrup and the horse. Standish never uttered a complaint. He had not said a word all day, instead he rode with his jaw clenched in determination against the pain. Larabee had not missed the frequent shifting of position in the saddle or the white knuckles wrapped tightly around the saddle horn. If Ezra had asked them to stop Chris would have in a minute, but if the gutsy conman could keep going then they would. They could make town by the next evening.
Josiah settled down by side Larabee and followed his gaze, "Tough S.O.B. ain't he?" Sanchez remarked.
"Yeah." Chris breathed out, not proud of himself for pushing them so hard. He saw no other way.
"I don't think he'll make another day like today." Sanchez added. He had been somewhat surprised the gambler had made it through today, but then again, when the chips were down, Standish always pulled more out of his sleeve.
"We'll see." Chris answered, it sounded colder than he intended.
The next morning Buck loaded the prisoners on their horses in the light of the false dawn. The sun would not be up for another hour or so, but the light grey sky offered enough light to travel. JD held onto Chaucer expectantly, as he watched Josiah and Chris forcefully wake the gambler. Standish did not respond readily. After a few moments of calling out his name and shaking him he finally slapped a weakly raised arm against the hand that slapped his face repeatedly. With minimal signs of coherent life they tossed him onto the saddle. JD reached around to the right of Chaucer to prevent Ezra from sliding off the right side. Josiah left a steadying hand on the conman's lower back.
"You ok?" He asked trying to get a good look at the heavily hooded green eyes. His only response was a string of incoherent sounds. JD looked worriedly to the preacher. "You stick close to him ok JD." Dunne nodded his head quickly, brown eyes full of concern. Sanchez threw him a reassuring grin and turned to his horse. They started off on another grueling arid trail.
The trail meandered through the desert. The trail made up of packed dirt and rock, small cacti lined the area with the occasional tumble weed. A curious coyote would occasional make itself known watching the humans with pricked forward ears, and trot off, the intruders offering no threat nor a meal. A few boulder formations would appear on the horizon as dark shadows but slowly their looming presence would gradually become closer. The rocks harbored little respite from the ever broiling sun and radiating heat. Larabee pushed them on. Men rationed their canteened water. Horses drank their fill at the scattering of watering holes they traveled too. JD, as promised to Josiah, rode beside the gambler. Standish muttered to himself frequently but Dunne could not make out anything he said. JD for his part tried to engage Ezra in conversation to no avail. The gambler would just gaze at him and answer with one word responses. After a bit the young sheriff simply offered water to the hunched conman. Josiah and Buck exchanged worried glances. Wilmington brushed sweat from his eyes and peered accusingly up at the relentless sun. Not a single cloud dotted the light blue sky. He gazed back at his prisoner, Brett. Brett and the bookkeeper each had their own canteen and rationed their own water. Sanchez finally spoke up, "You think Chris'll stop this afternoon?"
Buck let his blue eyes fall on his life long friend who led the group. Larabee had a determined posture, he let his horse pick it's way down the trail but kept his legs to its sides, gently urging the animal onward. "Nope."
Sanchez watched as the gambler continuously shifted in his saddle trying desperately to relieve the pounding pressure in his bad foot. It had taken a bit of convincing the night before but Sanchez had finally managed to get some wraps on the swollen ankle. Any kind of pressure sent the conman into a litany of ungentlemanly obscenities. Lucky for the preacher, Standish had been too tired to put up much of a fight.
It reached late afternoon. The sun hung lazily in the pale sky, baking the earth. Everyone had resigned themselves to the fact they were not going to stop until they reached town. Suddenly without warning, Standish ungracefully dismounted his horse. "Whoa Chris hold up." Josiah yelled. Larabee eased his horse to a halt and turned to see what problem had arisen. When he saw Ezra handing his reins to JD, Chris rode back, "Ezra what do you think your doing?"
Standish peered up at the gunslinger using his hand to block out the piercing sunlight despite the fact he wore a hat. "I cannot take another moment in the saddle." Standish replied wearily leaning heavily with one hand on the stirrup, keeping his left foot slightly bent and off the ground.
"Ezra get back on your horse, we only have a few more hours to go." Larabee explained trying to disguise his command. He did not want to fight with the gambler not now.
"No, Mr. Larabee. You gentlemen go on a head. I know my way home from here." Ezra sighed, he did not want to argue with Chris. Standish hurt too much and had no energy left to fight. So he offered an honest explanation, "The stirrup and horse rub mercilessly on my leg. It'd be easier to walk."
Chris bristled at the flat refusal. He glared at the conman. Standish did not meet his gaze, but hung his head tiredly, holding onto the stirrup for support. The others watched the confrontation silently.
"All right, we aren't leaving you behind. We'll slow up a bit." Chris compromised. Ezra merely nodded his head in agreement. The gunslinger took the lead throwing occasional glances at the hobbling gambler. Standish for his part supported part of his weight with the stirrup as he limped gamely beside Chaucer.
"How long you think he's gonna last?" Buck whispered to the preacher. Wilmington was pleased a fight had not erupted between his two friends.
"Not long he's got nothing left to give." The preacher answered sadly. Both men were stubborn. Larabee would push until they could go no further. Standish would keep up out of pride, to prove to Chris he could take any cards Larabee dealt him. Sanchez watched the gambler's arm shake with excursion as he forced weight onto it to offer respite to his left foot. Ezra would loose this hand. Josiah just hoped Chris would recognize the effort.
Chris Larabee kept taking surreptitious glances back at the others. He cursed himself for pushing so hard, but he did not want to be caught out in the open with the bank haul. They were just too vulnerable. His mind kept racing back to Vin. Last he saw Tanner the tracker had blood stained bandages encircling his abdomen. Nathan told him Vin would be fine. Yet when Larabee stared at the pale still features he could not help but have his doubts. Vin Tanner was like a brother, a kid brother who did not need watching over like JD, but one who would listen and defend his older brother blindly. Yet Vin did not follow blindly, he spoke his mind to Chris, tactfully pointing out the gunslingers short comings or occasional bad idea. Much like Josiah, but in a less than imposing manner. Vin and Chris clicked, they knew each others thoughts and actions and actually understood most times what motivated them. Larabee watched as Standish doggedly trudged on. He would set his left foot down only to immediately hop off it to avoid putting any weight on it. He wore his turnout coat to protect himself from the sun, but it was a double edged sword. He had to be unbearably hot. With his head bowed, Chris could not make out his face, but the gunslinger was sure he had his teeth clenched in painful deviance. He had been walking for over an hour. Larabee was about to turn forward when he noticed Ezra's right leg begin to buckle, and his grip on the stirrup falter.
Chris leapt from his horse, and grabbed the crumbling conman before he hit the ground. "Hey easy there." Larabee said. He snuck under Standish's left arm draping it across his shoulders. The gambler's head bobbed to his chest. "Ezra you in there?" Chris tried to get a good look at the drooped face.
"I'm fine Mr. Larabee." He mumbled. His voice held no scathing tone, just a simple lie no one would believe.
"Huh huh." Chris adjusted Standish's weight grabbing the conman's waist trying to give him more support.
"JD give me your canteen." Dunne immediately complied. He handed Chris his half full wooden canteen. Larabee pulled the cork out with his teeth and tipped some water up for the gambler.
"Here Ezra drink some of this." Standish greedily grabbed for the water. "Easy, easy does it, that's enough for now." Larabee pulled the water away and handed back to the young sheriff.
"We camping here, Chris?" Buck asked about to dismount his horse. Larabee froze him with a gaze and said with unbrooked authority, "No. We keep going."
"Our brother there has nothing left." Josiah intoned. Ezra had his back to them and Larabee had to peer over his shoulder to speak to Buck and Josiah.
"I'm alright." Standish muttered quietly. The gambler, embarrassed by his lack of strength had to prove to these hardened men that he could match them. He could/would make it to town, show Larabee he could keep up, not be easily beaten. He would not be the weak link in the chain, like they all assumed him to be, he would not be a liability.
"We keep going." Chris said. He hefted more of the gambler's weight onto his shoulders and started down the trail. JD now ponied two horses, leading the way. Chris and Ezra forged on a head behind Chaucer followed by Buck and Brett and then Josiah and Theodore.
Sanchez swore silently to himself. Then sent up a prayer, asking for protection for the proud and stubborn. They had made it another hour. They would be in Four Corners in just under three hours. Not bad, but the gambler did not have three hours in him. Even know Josiah could see the dragging scruff marks left by his right boot. Larabee continuously shifted positions adjusting his grip. The gunslinger was also getting tired. The conman had ceased trying to lift his head, instead he stumbled forward, one step at a time. Buck let out a curse as the gamblers fleeting strength had finally been sapped. Despite Chris's tremendous effort the conman buckled and melted to the ground, dragging Chris with him.
"JD! Hold up." Buck said slightly disgustedly. They had made it further than he thought they would. Damn southern grit. Ezra hated holding loosing cards, hell he hated loosing. Wilmington slid out of the saddle to help Chris. "Lets lay him out here." Buck said hefting the smaller unconscious man off the struggling Larabee. The lady's man eased the gambler flat out on the semi arid ground. The sun would set in an hour or so, but it still broiled the ground. JD tossed his bed roll over to Buck. Buck nodded a thanks.
"Looks like we camp here." Josiah said starting to climb out of the saddle.
"No." Chris breathed. This startled everyone. Then Brett spoke up laughing. "You might get farther if you tie him behind a horse and dragged him. Curtis did not have such a bad idea. huh?"
His comment and mocking tone cut Larabee to the quick. Before anyone could stop him he had his gun out and pointing at the younger Winston brother.
"Easy brother." Josiah said patiently stepping in front of the revolver, "no need wasting good lead on the likes of him." Sanchez paused and then added, "lets just concentrate on Ezra."
Larabee's gaze switched to the unconscious gambler and he lowered his gun.
"He can't go any further." Buck said softly as he poured water onto a wet cloth and lay it over the reddened tanned forehead.
Chris nodded slowly with resignation, "I know," He stared up at the others. Even JD appeared unsure. Unusual because he always had confidence that the others, especially Chris himself, would do the right thing.
"I want you all to get going. If you keep pushing you'll be in town early this evening." He could see the others were about to balk at the idea and added, " It's not safe to stay out here all night with the money, and besides Ezra's gonna need a buckboard. The quicker you get going the quicker we can get him back home."
"We just can't leave you two alone out here." JD implored.
"We're big boys, we'll be alright. Just leave our horses." Chris said. Buck and the others read the body language. Larabee would not be persuaded. Buck tethered the two horses and with Josiah shadowing him regained their horses. Larabee watched the slowly receding backs of his men. When they were out of sight he turned his attention to making the conman comfortable.
Nathan stood on the second story porch of his small clinic/apartment. Vin slept inside. The healer had finally forced the tracker to eat some beef. Jackson's thoughts turned outward however. He worried about the others. Buck, Josiah and JD were riding with a potential disaster. Chris's deep concern for the town's welfare was further burdened by the injury incurred by Vin. Nathan had done his best to assure the leader that the tracker would be fine, barring infection. The healer knew that was not enough. On top of that Chris and Ezra had been at odds again. More so than ever. Jackson bristled thinking about the war of words or more actually lack there of between the two men. Twice Vin, Buck and Josiah had to drag Chris out of the saloon, to keep him from pouncing on the smug gambler. Standish for his part had taken the initial verbal assaults without much ire, it lasted only a few seconds and then his alligator mouth, as always, landed his tadpole butt into a lot of trouble. What had sparked the sudden ill feelings no one knew. Nathan just wished Ezra would leave town for a bit to let things settle down and had even suggested it. He had been surprised by the gambler's sad smile and comment, "You too Nathan?" Jackson had only meant for the gambler to seek safety until whatever burned in Larabee's gut diminished. Then the Winston gang struck, Vin got hit, above all else protecting Ezra. This infuriated Chris and personally blamed the conman for Tanner's injury. Nathan had seen what had happened, Standish could not have prevented the turn of events. If he had left his post, JD would have been hit, so he stood his ground. Tanner broke cover protecting his friend. Larabee's blind rage had been boiling for over a week and now had an excuse. He dove on the smaller gambler landing a few quick well placed punches to the gambler's midsection, effectively knocking the wind out of Standish. Buck and Josiah finally pulled him off. Nathan had not had time to check Standish over, Vin had been in more serious need of attention. Things continued to spiral down hill. Nathan managed to stabilize Tanner, but Winston and his gang got away clean. Bad guys one good guys zero. Larabee's rage, turned deadly silent. The JD and Buck saddled the horses and prepared for the hard ride. Chris stood just with in the clinic door watching silently as Josiah and Nathan worked over Vin. Ezra had slumped dejectedly against the opposite door jam. Jackson had seen his set jaw, he would not be intimidated from the small room by the mere presence of his antagonizer. When Jackson had ascertained Tanner would be alright he assured the others. Only Standish appeared comforted. He graced the healer with a sad thankful smile. The guilt easily discernible on a normally unreadable face. Larabee nodded curtly.
"Alright lets go Josiah, Ezra." Chris had stood aside and let the giant preacher pass, but harshly slammed the gambler against the wall. The healer could not help but notice how the conman flinched grabbing his ribs. "Don't screw up on me again Standish." The gunslinger had hissed, his threat though unspoken very clear. Nathan held his tongue, he watched as Ezra had met the blue steely gaze unflinching. "Are you through Mr. Larabee?" He asked as if nothing were wrong. The gunslinger roughly shoved the younger man out the door.
Nathan's silent brooding was interrupted when a he heard horses and riders coming down main street. The sun had set and dusk had just started to become honestly dark, no longer grey. The healer immediately recognized JD and Buck. The twosome each ponied a prisoner. Larabee, Standish and Sanchez were missing. Something had gone wrong. "Buck where're the others?"
Wilmington heard someone call his name. He turned and made out Jackson's silhouette. "Hey Nathan how's Vin?"
Jackson sighed. Couldn't anyone answer a question with a straight answer, "He's fine. Where are the others."
"Josiah's getting a buckboard." Buck answered dismounting his horse. Jackson felt a lump grow in his throat. He voiced his fears, "Chris didn't shoot Ezra did he?"
He heard Wilmington chuckle, "No not yet, but I'm not promising anything." The Lady's man hauled his prisoner off his horse towed him into the jail behind JD and his charge.
Nathan cursed silently. He'd find Josiah and get some straight answers.
Jackson jogged into the livery to find Josiah hooking a team to a buckboard. "Josiah what's going on?"
Sanchez looked up somewhat surprised, "Oh hey Brother Nathan, How's Vin?"
Nathan bit back a short retort but instead replied, "doing fine." He eyed the preacher as the large man continued to fasten horses to harness and secure them to the wagon.
"Chris or Ezra hurt?" the healer asked trying to get to the meat of the matter, but the way the others had vaguely answered his inquiries he figured he'd try the simple yes no approach.
"Ezra's in rough shape," Josiah answered turning the team facing them toward the livery door. "Chris is with him."
Nathan bit back his surprise and apprehension, "You think that was wise?"
Josiah shrugged, "Chris's idea."
"What happened to Ezra?"
"He fell into the hands of the Winston's for awhile, things didn't go to well for him." Josiah motioned the healer into the seat beside him and filled him in briefly on the events since they left. He finished the story as he pulled up in front of the jail. "You better stay Nathan, Chris'll liable to flip if he saw you out there and not with Vin." Buck said trading seats with the healer. He had dallied his horse to the wagon's tail gate.
"Vin's gonna be fine, Ezra sounds like he needs help." Jackson said trying to argue his way back onto the wagon.
"Yeah he does but Chris will push even harder to get back to town if he thinks just JD is left to watch over Vin, the prisoner and the town." Josiah answered level headed, "it won't do Ezra any good." He smiled at the healer, "don't worry Brother Nathan we'll have Ezra in your capable hands in no time." With that he turned the team and headed out of town, melting into the night.
Chris gazed up from the small fire when he heard a moan. The gambler stirred sliding his leg and moving an arm. Larabee stood up and made his way over to the conman. It had been the first sign of life he had shown since the other left nearly five and a half hours ago. The night had become cold, so Larabee had dragged the unconscious man closer to the fire. In the flickering light he watched as the younger man began to come alive.
Chris watched as the green eyes opened blinked a few times and began to take in their surroundings. The confused dazed glance fell on the gunslinger. Chris could not help but notice the fear and recoil that flashed across Standish's features when the gambler focused on him. Larabee bit back a smile. The gambler had enough conscious thought to quickly hide his expression, but not soon enough. "How ya feelin'?"
"Where are the others?" A scratchy dry question, panic lightly tingeing the words. Chris grimaced and nodded, there was safety in numbers. Ezra knew this and lately those numbers had protected him from Chris's legendary wrath.
"Back in town." He reached over to remove the wet compress he had placed on the gambler's forehead. Standish flinched before he could stop himself. He had tipped his hand. Larabee knew he held the upper hand, knew he had Standish running scared, or so Ezra thought. Ezra cursed his own lack of control.
"Are you going to shoot me Mr. Larabee or perhaps settle for just pounding on me?" He smiled half heartily, not quite sure what the response would be.
Chris smiled tightly, he had not realized how wary the gambler had become of him. Not that it had not been earned, but the self assured southern cuss never let onto his fear. He hid it behind his glib devil may care attitude.
"Not unless your smart mouth kicks in before your brains." Chris chuckled reaching for the cloth again. Standish remained still but never taking his eyes off the gunslinger, watching for any hint of betrayal.
"I think then perhaps I may be courting danger." Standish replied trying to make himself comfortable. It proved very difficult on the hard desert ground and with Chris Larabee staring down at him
"You want some water?" Larabee asked reaching for a canteen. He knew Standish to be severely dehydrated. His skin remained tented when it was pinched. His gums had become pale and tacky and his eyes sunken.
"Yes, maybe slightly parched." Standish replied watching the gunman cautiously. He was out here all alone with Larabee, what would keep the gunslinger from killing him. He deserved it, Ezra knew, he got Vin hurt possibly killed. It was his fault he did not doubt it, and neither did Chris. If Vin died Standish knew beyond a doubt he would surely follow in the trackers footsteps.
"Ahh huh." Larabee eased the gambler's head off the over turned saddle and tipped water to his cracked lips. Chris knew Ezra watched his eyes for any hint of danger or malice. No trust existed, not tonight.
An hour later, Chris rested his hand on his gun when he heard the buckboard approach. He swept a furtive glance at the gambler. Ezra had drifted off to sleep just an hour or so ago. Chris smiled when he heard Buck call out, "Chris it's Josiah and me so don't shoot and ask questions later, ok." Larabee shook his head Buck could be as much a pain in the butt as the gambler. Josiah pulled the buckboard to a halt just a few yards of the small fire. Buck jumped down as Sanchez secured the team. Wilmington knelt down beside the gambler, but spoke to Larabee, "You didn't shoot him while we were gone did you?" Chris let out a small snort of disgust.
"That would be a 'no' Mr. Wilmington." a small soft southern voice rasped out.
"Hey he awakes!" Buck rested a hand on the gambler's forehead, it felt extremely hot to the touch. Fever or sunburn? the ladies man wondered. "how you feelin?"
"You're kidding right?" Standish asked once again shifting his position trying to ease the discomfort in his leg.
Buck laughed, Ezra had to be ok, his sarcasm was back. Josiah tapped Buck on the shoulder silently dismissing him from the gambler's side.
"Here Ezra drink some of this." Josiah eased the conman's head off the makeshift pillow. He gently but persuasively forced Laudanum down the gambler. Ezra squirmed some, Sanchez eased the bottle back waited for gambler to catch up and forced more down his parched throat. Standish hated the foul thick liquid. Hated the way it made him feel, hated the smell, the taste even the bottle it came in. Standish tried wiggling out again. "Ok ok that's it, keep still." Sanchez admonished pulling the bottle back. He smiled watching the cool expression the gambler normally wore had turned into a childish grimace. "Gawd that's horrible." Standish sputtered. Josiah smiled and rearranged the blankets under the injured leg, relieving pressure from the extended knee.
"You'll be thanking me in a few minutes."
"I highly doubt that." Ezra mumbled. He could already feel his face tingle and go flush, his limbs suddenly become weighted, muscles refused to respond readily to command. He realized Josiah stared back down on him a full grin creasing his whiskered face, "Don't fight it Ezra. Just relax." Standish did not feel the hand on the top of his head, or easily recognize the concerned features of Larabee. Ezra fought to remain awake, he could not remember why he wanted to, he felt so tired, so heavy. Even his eyelids proved difficult to control. He tried to ask Josiah for water but only heard someone groan an inarticulate grouping of sounds. Who was that? He wondered
"Go to sleep Ezra." Chris said resting his hand over the fluttering eyelids forcing them closed. He let his hand rest over the heated brow for a few minutes. When he pulled his hand back, Standish had succumbed to a deep drug induced slumber.
Chris, Buck and Josiah sat around the small fire pulling their over coats tighter. It was cold at night in the desert. They filled Chris in on Vin's condition, the money had made it's way to the bank, even though they had to wake Mr. Chester Kendall. JD had secured the prisoner's in the jail. The only thing left to do was to get the two wayward souls home, without killing each other. Buck joked that would be the hardest part of the journey. Chris nodded smirking at the two men, glancing occasionally at the drugged gambler. Without the hazard of money, or prisoners the three men settled down for the night without posting watch.
Predawn saw the threesome loading the still sleeping gambler into the back of the wagon. While the others had eaten a breakfast of hardtack, Josiah woke the gambler and forced more Laudanum down him while he was still groggy. It would help make the bone jarring ride back to town easier for the possibly fractured limb. Ezra slept stretched out in the back of the wagon. Chris sat beside him wishing the wagon could travel faster. Buck drove the team while Josiah rode ahead.
Ezra did not remember much of the evening nor the wagon ride or the rest of the day for that matter. He could recall small scenes, coming to in the buckboard, Chris talking to him about something, reassuring him, telling him to go back to sleep. Then Josiah carrying him, cradling him in his arms, up some stairs. Josiah had just grinned at him, Ezra thought he had a smart comment but could not quite articulate what he had wanted to say. Then Nathan, leaning over him saying something would only hurt for a moment, Standish wanted to call him a liar, but suddenly pain erupted in his leg, he recalled screaming and then nothing.
Ezra blinked. Sun beat on his closed eyelids. He recognized he slept in a bed. It felt good. He tried to move, nothing responded. Then a voice from somewhere beyond the fading darkness spoke, "Hey I think he's coming around." Sounded like JD. Then someone was calling his name, a hand rested on his forehead. "Ezra." A pause, "Ezra can you here me?" Nathan's unmistakable concerned voice. Standish tried to answer, even his vocal cords refused to respond but he managed a groan. He heard someone chuckle.
"Come on Ezra, time to wake up." A cold cloth wiped his forehead and face. Standish's eyes unglued and slowly blinked open. Nothing focused. "That's it." Nathan said, "how ya feelin'?"
"aan't 'oove." A slurred drawled out response. Jackson watched as the dazed green blood shot eyes, fight to open and stay open. The healer sat on the edge of the bed he rested a comforting hand on Standish's shoulder.
"I know, that will pass, it's just the effect of the drugs, you'll be moving about in no time." Nathan tried to ease his friend's fears. To examine the foot thoroughly and then splint it, he had been forced to anesthetize the gambler. That was yesterday morning. Standish had slept the rest of the day that night and most of today. Nathan had begun to worry. Standish should have come too along awhile ago. "You gave us quite a scare." Jackson admitted, wiping the bewildered face with a cool wet cloth. "You remember what happened?" Nathan asked. Standish was obviously still suffering from the heavy effects of the inhaled anesthetics. Nathan watched him furrow his brow briefly and then, "no." It was a soft barely formed response.
"What's the matter with him Nathan?" JD asked bouncing back into the conman's limited field of vision. Buck pushed past the young man and sat on the opposite side of the bed, across from Jackson. "Hey pard' didn't think you'd ever wake up." He laid a large callused hand on the gambler's forehead, "how you feelin'?"
Ezra changed his view of focus and stared at Wilmington's mustached features. "Buck?" It took a tremendous effort just to roll his head to stare owlishly at the gunslinger.
"Yeah pard'. JD's here too." Buck heard the clinic door open and turned back to the gambler, "Josiah and Chris too." He watched the dazed green eyes close and struggle back open. Buck's face had been replaced by Larabee's
"Time to quit laying around, Ezra," Chris said. He watched Ezra try to focus on him, he fought to keep his eyes open to listen to what Chris had to say, but he lost the battle with sleep. Chris stared across the gambler to the healer, "What's wrong with him Nathan?"
Jackson shrugged, "The anesthetic should have worn off yesterday afternoon. I think he's just exhausted, his body's just trying to heal itself best way it knows how, sleep." To prove his point he indicated to Vin who slept on his right side, oblivious to the commotion in the room. "If we could only keep Vin down then we'd be a step ahead of ourselves."
Ezra rolled over and banged his foot. He groaned. Movement beside his bed cautioned him to open his eyes. It was dark in the small room. He immediately recognized it as Nathan's room. A soft voice grabbed his attention, "welcome back. How you feelin'?" It was Chris. Larabee rested a dimmed lamp on the floor beside the bed casting the room in long flickering shadows. Standish blinked at him, "better. When'd we get back?" His voice sounded hoarse and raw. Chris lifted Ezra's head off the pillow and eased water down him. "Thanks." Standish whispered as Larabee eased his head back. "We got back two days ago,"
He could make out Ezra's puzzled expression, so he explained, "Nathan had to knock you out to splint your foot, you nearly gave him heart failure. You slept through yesterday last night and most of today."
Chris read sudden shock on the gambler's features, he misunderstood until Ezra nearly bolted upright, "Vin!?" He hissed. Larabee smiled forcing the gambler back down. "Is fine. He's right over there," Chris said pointing to the serene sleeping form of the tracker. Larabee was not surprised by Standish's outburst. He had been somewhat delirious on the ride back to town, muttering about Tanner, trying to warn JD, he even cursed himself for allowing harm to befall one of the group. Chris had listened in rapt silence, having never realized that Ezra assumed a much greater responsibility than he had ever let on. He felt obligated, committed to the others, protecting them as fiercely if not more than himself. This had shocked the gunslinger, but as he contemplated the younger man's actions over the course of eighteen months, Chris acknowledge Ezra had shouldered more responsibility other than the concern for his own neck and well being. So now as Ezra struggled to sit up asking about Vin, Chris chuckled, forcing him back down, uttering soft reassurances, to a man who outwardly pretended not to care. Larabee sat quietly by the bed and watched as once again exhaustion lured the gambler back to sleep.
Vin let his eyes blink open. Judging from the sun and light in the room it had to be late morning. He focused on the empty bed beside him. Empty? Empty! Just yesterday they could not wake him from anesthetic.
"Nathan!" Tanner uncharacteristically hollered. Suddenly people burst into the room. Jackson followed closely by Chris. The tracker struggled to sit up. "Where's Ezra?" He sputtered. "He's not ..." He could not bring himself to say it. Chris stopped and started laughing. "Ezra?" Nathan asked seeing the bed empty. He turned his attention back to Vin, "No, he's not dead." He glared around the room hoping to spot the wayward gambler, "but he will be when I get my hands on him." The healer seethed. Bad enough he had to stay up and fret over the gambler while he slept like the dead but now Standish was up traipsing around on a bad leg. "I'll break his other foot I swear." Jackson hissed as he brushed pasted Larabee out the door slamming it behind him. Both Chris and Vin cringed when they heard Jackson bellow, "Ezra!!" from the top of the porch steps.
"Guess I should've kept my mouth shut huh?" Tanner said rather sheepishly. Chris laughed. "naw I'm glad to see Ezra can rile someone other than me."
Ezra heard Nathan call his name. Standish had snuck out of the clinic via the roof. His leg hindered him greatly but he would not be cooped up any longer than necessary. Now feeling suddenly exposed in the near deserted saloon, he turned to his only source of help, "Inez," He smiled dearly. Buck, Josiah and JD laughed. They sat with the gambler, enjoying their breakfasts. Standish for his part nibbled on some bread. They had been surprised to say the least when the southerner had suddenly emerged from the second story of the saloon. Josiah only commented, "the roof again, Ezra?" The conman shrugged, what else was one to do.
"Oh no Senor. You cooked your own goose." She hid her smile as she wiped out a dry glass in her hand. Suddenly the batwing doors burst open. "What the hell are you doing?" Jackson stalked closer to the table.
Standish raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes as if in shock, "Who me?"
"No JD!" Nathan said with barely controlled ire. Standish ignored the sarcasm, and turned to the young sheriff, "Mr. Dunne what have you done to madden our gracious healer so?"
"Me?" JD responded, jolting his head up from his breakfast, not sure how he got hauled into this conversation. Josiah and Buck moved slightly away from the cardsharp not wanting to be innocent victims caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Get your stubborn southern arse back up stairs." Nathan leaned stiff armed across the table, his brown maddened eyes matching the unflappable green ones. Standish, forever the professional recognized a losing hand. "now?" a meek smile crossed his face.
"Yes now!" Jackson breathed out with deadly force.
"I don't think I'll make the stairs." Ezra added still trying to finagle a trump card.
"Then I'll have Josiah carry you up them, again." Jackson offered an evil smile spreading across his face. He knew he won this hand. Standish's deeply colored cheeks managed to darken slightly with embarrassment. "I think I'll manage." The gambler struggled to his feet under the scrutinizing glare of the healer. Josiah and Buck shadowed him followed by JD. Jackson hid his smile until the four men left the saloon. He faced Inez, her bemused smirk nearly matching his triumphant grin.
Vin and Chris did not were not surprised when the door opened. Buck and Josiah both supported the gambler by his upper arms as he hopped one legged back into the room over to his bed.
"Welcome back." Chris smiled. Standish threw him a dirty look.
"What was it like?" Vin asked wistfully from his bed. He met Standish's confused expression as the gambler eased himself back onto the bed. "The freedom, what was it like?" Tanner explained, ignoring the healers withering stare.
"Glorious, Mr. Tanner," He paused and smiled a devilish gleam in his emerald eyes, "you should try it sometime."
"You had better not." Jackson stated matter-of-factly taking a threatening step toward the tracker. Vin hunched closer to the head board.
"You if I'm not mistaken, I'd think, Mr. Tanner, that our Mr. Jackson has been taken surly lessons from our Mr. Larabee." Standish said grimacing trying to maneuver his leg to a more comfortable position. He missed the rolled eyes and shaking tolerant heads.
"Keep it up Ezra and we'll knock you out again." Chris said, his benevolent, tolerant smile not matching the warning in his ice blue eyes.
"I'm outta here." JD said scurrying for the door. "Right behind ya kid." Buck pushed the kid out before him, both trying to avoid the potential explosion. Josiah laughed a thunderous roar, ushering Nathan and Chris out before they made good on their threat. Before the preacher left he turned back and gazed at Tanner, "Vin maybe you could try to impose upon our wayward brother the benefits of silence."
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