A Simple Mistake
by The Immortal
Disclaimer: Don't own them, wish I did, Don't sue me, I'm a poor college student and I have no money, but you can have my homework if ya want :-)
Ok, well here is my first attempt at fanfiction.
J.D. leaned back in the rickety chair outside of the jail. He scanned the street for the hundredth time that day and still no excitement. It seemed that something interesting had happened in Four Corners every day since he signed on as sheriff, something interesting always happened and yet today, nothing. It wasn't that J.D. wasn't thankful for the rest, in actuality he was, but he needed the excitement. It was why he came west.
He let out a loud sigh and let the front two legs of the chair drop to the ground. He yanked off his bowler hat and ran his hand through his thick black hair. He scanned the street again, nothing. The sun was high above the horizon and it beat down mercilessly on the townspeople. The heat didn't help J.D.'s boredom any, in fact, it only worsened it. It was unbearable and it didn't show any signs of letting up in the near future. "No one in their right mind would try anything on a day like this," J.D. said to himself.
He scanned the street again, not even Josiah was about. He had the good sense of mind not to try hammering away on that roof. J.D. wondered where his friends were. Chris and Vin were probably in the saloon discussing. It seemed to J.D. that they were always discussing about one thing or another. Buck was probably with some woman whiling away the day. Nathan was undoubtedly helping those who had problems with the heat. Josiah would be working inside of the church. And Ezra, well, Ezra was more than likely trying to con someone out of some money or playing a game of poker. He was forever using his southern charm to get his way with people. J.D. let out another loud sigh. Today was going to be boring.
Ezra yawned. He was sitting at his usual poker table in the corner of the saloon shuffling his ever present deck of cards. The townspeople quickly learned that to play against Ezra meant losing money. Now he seldom had any friendly competition. Only strangers riding through town who did not know about Ezra's talent would play. Then they would quickly wizen up before they lost too much money. Ezra was bored.
He was also hot. A bead of sweat trickled down his back between his shoulder blades. He shifted in his seat. The red jacket that was his trademark was making the day even more uncomfortable. But Ezra refused to take it off. He was a gentleman and while he waited for a worthy opponent in a game of chance, he would wait like a gentleman.
He poured himself another shot of whiskey from the bottle sitting in front of him. He took a sip and immediately wished for the fine bourbon he was used to. But the whiskey was wet and it tasted good on a hot day. Ezra leaned back in his chair and stole a glance around the room. There were only three other occupants. A drunk man in the corner passed out on his table and Ezra's two friends Chris and Vin. Friends, that word was so unusual to Ezra that every time it crossed his mind he had to stop and think about it. Other words that were so much more elaborate rolled off his tongue daily but the simple word of "friend" was strange.
He thought of them as friends. A small part of him hoped that they thought of him as a friend as well. Friends were something that Ezra's line of work didn't allow. But he had risked his life for them and he was almost sure they would do the same for him. He was almost sure. His basic instinct still told him that they wouldn't care if he died tomorrow. However, his feelings were beginning to change and he found himself wanting to trust them. They had given him a reason to quit running and he had latched onto it.
His thoughts were interrupted when Josiah and Nathan walked into the saloon. "Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Jackson would either one of you like to indulge an old southern boy by participating in a game of chance?" He said while flashing his gold tooth.
"No thanks, Ezra," Josiah replied in his low rumble. "I want to hold onto what little money I have."
"And you, Mr. Jackson" Ezra drawled.
"Maybe later, Ezra. Right now, I need some whiskey." Nathan and Josiah sauntered over to Chris and Vin's table. Ezra frowned and began to shuffle his cards again. He heard the beginning of his compatriot's conversation but then recessed into his own thoughts again. It was too hot and he could feel the sweat accumulating on his forehead. He stopped shuffling his cards, threw them on the table in disgust and walked out of the saloon.
"What's gotten into him?" Nathan asked to no one in particular after Ezra had abruptly left the saloon.
"Probably just restless. Heat can do that to a fella." Vin answered in his soft raspy voice. Chris leaned back in his chair and took another shot of whiskey. Ezra was a hard man to figure out. Chris knew only a little of his past and didn't quite understand what exactly ran through the man's head but he did know Ezra had changed over the past few months. He had become one of the group. Chris was also surprised when he had shown up with the others to rescue him from the jail. It was that show of loyalty that made Chris feel obligated to find out what was bothering the gambler.
He pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. The action received three questionable stares from the other men at the table. "Like Vin said, heat makes a man restless." Chris grabbed the whiskey bottle and took one last swig before walking out into the oppressive heat.
The drunk man in the corner raised his head a little and took a look at his surroundings. Jake wasn't really drunk. He was just observing the room. He was looking for someone, a Chris Larabee but unfortunately he didn't know what Larabee looked like. He took a quick assessment of the room. The fancy gambling man had left and so had the man dressed in black. However, three other men remained in the establishment.
He let out a small grunt. How did his boss expect him to nab Larabee when he didn't even know what he looked like? He was also out of hearing range of the conversations so he couldn't pick out any names. Maybe, some friendly questioning of that boy pretending to be a sheriff could help his situation out. Even better, maybe one of his co-workers had done a better job of spying and knew which one Larabee was. The man stood up and began to walk toward the saloon door. He remembered to stay in character and occasionally wobbled a bit to give the appearance that he was still drunk.
He was about to the door when a strong hand rested on his shoulder. "Need any help, friend," a big man with gray hair and a low voice asked. "No thanks," Jake slurred, "I don't need any help. I'm just going to go sleep this off." The man hiccoughed.
"Are you sure," Josiah asked again. He got a good look at the man. He had brown hair and green eyes and wore the clothes of a ranch hand. What struck Josiah as strange is that there were no trail herders in town at the moment and this man was definitely a stranger to Four Corners. He suppressed the feeling of anxiety that this man brought up. Josiah met his gaze and burned his image into his memory just in case.
"Yeah, I'm fine," the man slurred again. This time he shrugged Josiah's hand off his shoulder. "I'm leaving now." And with that the man left the saloon and stepped into the sunlight.
Jake hurriedly walked toward the livery where he was to meet up with the other men in town looking around. When he got there, the unsavory bunch stood waiting. "Any luck," he asked the group. The men all looked at each other.
"Nope," one man replied, "The people in this town don't talk much and it's too hot to do any real good spying." Jake nodded. It was too hot for much of anything.
"If we don't come back with Larabee, the boss'll have our hides," another man chimed in.
Jake thought a moment. "O.K. we'll do one more hour of spying then we'll get out of here. How does that sound?" The ten odd men nodded. "All right, we'll meet back here in one hour." The group began to disperse and go back to their hiding places.
It was hard being in town without being seen. The men had all come in at different times of the night last night and had slept in various places in the town. Before sunrise they had met at the livery to discuss plans and to coordinate their hiding places so they wouldn't overlap. The boss had said that the Larabee gang was smart and if the group made any mistakes, they were going to be caught.
Jake thought about his boss. He had no clue as to why he was after Larabee. The boss had made him out to be a monster. But so far, Jake hadn't seen anyone in town fitting that description. In fact, all he saw were good, honest, hard-working people and couldn't for the life of him figure out which one Larabee was. Jake wiped his forehead with his sleeve and made his way toward an alley. Maybe from here he could figure out who was the infamous Chris Larabee.
Chris spotted Ezra easily, the red jacket giving a bright contrast to the brown of the pole he was leaning on. He was looking down the street toward the end of town while idly shuffling another deck of cards. It seemed that wherever Ezra went he had a deck. Chris often wondered just how many the gambler had. He sauntered over to where he was standing.
"Thinking of leaving?" Chris asked nonchalantly.
"Are you scared that I'll run out of town before our deal with the most honorable Judge Travis is over? If that is your concern then I assure you I'm not thinking of leaving." Ezra didn't even look at Chris when he answered. Actually, Ezra was a little bit annoyed that Chris had so rudely interrupted his thoughts.
Chris could sense that Ezra wanted to be alone. He knew what that feeling was like. After he had lost Sarah and Adam that was all he wanted. He wouldn't even let Buck, his closest friend near him for a long time. Chris just waited in companionable silence. If the gambler wanted to talk then we would.
Ezra didn't want the responsibility of being a friend. The fact that Chris even sensed something was wrong made Ezra uneasy. Had he lost his touch? Had his poker face failed him? Ezra rested his head up against the pole. He wondered why all these thoughts were surfacing now and not when he had first signed on to help that Indian village. The heat and the boredom had caused all the uncertainties to rush into Ezra's mind. He couldn't keep himself from contemplating this new issue of friendship. And the fact that Chris was there right now gave him an uneasy feeling.
However, Chris' presence had also given Ezra another feeling, one that he couldn't place right offhand. The fact that Chris was worried about him gave him the slightest feeling of self worth. Was he that important to the group now? Did his feelings actually matter?
Ezra sighed loudly and turned his green gaze upon the older man. "Is there a reason you're still here, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled not trying to keep the sarcastic edge out of his voice. The best way to get rid of these new thoughts of friendship was to act indifferent toward his counterparts and maybe they would start acting indifferent toward him. That was something he knew how to deal with.
J.D. had watched Ezra leave the saloon soon followed by Chris. He had also watched the little conversation that passed between them. He guessed that Chris was giving Ezra a lecture about conning people. J.D. smiled, at least he wasn't the only one who got lectures, but his were mostly from Buck and he would rather have a lecture from Buck than Chris, any day. J.D. couldn't pass this opportunity up to finally tease one of the older men.
"Hey, Chris," he yelled from his spot outside of the jail, "What has Ezra done now? He in trouble with the law again?"
Ezra turned his piercing stare down the street to the boy sitting in the chair. "Hardly," Ezra drawled back. Then he turned toward Chris and gave him a look of resentment. Chris grimaced. He would have to teach J.D. timing. Ezra turned and walked toward the livery. Maybe a ride would ease his troubled mind.
Chris looked back at J.D., sending him an admonishing look. J.D. stood up from the chair and began to walk toward Chris a confused expression plain on his face.
"What's wrong with him?" he asked Chris. "I was just teasing him."
"He's got some things to work out." Chris said thinking back to his own past.
"Maybe I should go apologize," J.D. said as he started to walk after the gambler. Chris put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"Let him be for a while. By tonight he'll be the same old Ezra." Chris said to reassure the younger man. J.D. nodded his head at Chris' reassuring tone. J.D. walked into the saloon to get out of the heat but Chris just stood watching the gambler's retreat toward the livery. He surely hoped that Ezra would work out whatever he needed to. Chris had to admit that Ezra's gun had come in handy more than once. He even considered him a friend and he always had a trick up his sleeve to lighten the spirits of the group, not to mention a derringer. Chris just hoped that Ezra would be ready if anything decided to happen later.
Jake squished himself flatter against the side of the building trying to conceal himself in the shadows. That young sheriff had yelled out the name he was looking for. He trained his stare on the two men in the street. The gambling man had answered. Jake almost leapt for joy. The fancy gambling man was Chris, he was the man they had been looking for! He didn't know what the boss wanted with a gambling man, but he didn't care. He was just happy that he knew which man to grab. The Larabee fellow was heading toward the livery. This was just going to be too easy.
Ezra walked toward the livery. As he neared, the smell of animal sweat mixed with that of the mildewed hay radiated from the building and accosted his nostrils. He wrinkled his nose and almost thought against going to get his horse but where else could he go? His only other options were to go back to the saloon or to his room. He wouldn't return to the saloon and give Chris the satisfaction of seeing him return. His room was too stuffy and confined. Ezra really needed to get out and be on his own for a while.
He walked closer to the livery and saw a group of men standing around. Alarm bells went off in Ezra's head. It was strange for a group that big not to be noticed coming into town. Even stranger is that they went unnoticed during their stay. That meant that they had wanted to remain unnoticed and that could only mean they were up to no good. Ezra thought about turning back and telling the others but it was too late. They had seen him. His next course of action was to act natural and pretend that a large group of disreputable men standing around was an everyday occurrence.
He casually walked toward his horse not giving the men a second look. The men, however, were eyeing Ezra cautiously. But they obviously weren't too bright and just stood and waited. Ezra just assumed they were waiting for another member and decided that hurrying to get out of there was a good course of action.
Jake rounded the corner and saw Ezra frantically trying to ready his horse. The gambling man had managed to get the bridle on and was about to throw the blanket on the horse's back. Jake couldn't let the Larabee fella get away. "That's him!" he shouted to the band of men. "That's Larabee!"
Ezra's head snapped up and looked around. Chris wasn't anywhere to be seen. Then he noticed the man was pointing toward him. They had mistaken him for Chris. The band of men surrounded Ezra easily. He looked for any kind of escape but there was none. The men had all drawn their guns and were pointing them in Ezra's direction.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Ezra drawled, "This is obviously a case of mistaken identity. I am most certainly not Mr. Larabee." The men looked around at each other then looked toward Jake.
"That's what he wants us to think," Jake said exasperated. "Just get him."
One of the group raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure Jake, if we come back with the wrong guy..." The man never finished his sentence. With the group's attention turned away from him, Ezra had managed to move toward the outer edge of the circle. He grabbed a short, stocky fellow and let his derringer pop out from his wrist. He pointed it toward the man's head.
"Nobody moves or he's dead." Ezra was slowly backing away from the circle with his hostage. None of the men moved and Ezra surely thought he was going to get away. What he didn't count on was one of the men being late for their meeting. The hit came hard, fast and to the back of the head. Ezra fell bonelessly to the ground.
Ezra awoke with a start. His head pounded and the rest of his body ached. He looked around at his surroundings. He was in a small tent, laying in the dirt with his hands tied painfully behind his back. He tested the ropes and wasn't surprised when they didn't give way. His red jacket was gone and so was his gun belt and hat.
He shifted himself to a sitting position and a wave of nausea swept over him. His vision began to blacken and he could feel himself beginning to pass out. The blow to the back of his head must have been severe. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths trying to keep the blackness from over taking him. He needed to think clearly if he was to ever get out of this situation. The problem was he didn't know what kind of situation he had landed himself into.
Ezra tried to think back to what had happened: the group of men, his failed effort at escape and being confused with someone else. But he couldn't for the life of him remember who they thought he was. He tried to think but he realized that thinking only made his head throb more. He decided to stop trying to remember for the moment and concentrate more on getting his hands free from the ropes.
He began to try and loosen the ropes. He could feel them begin to burn his skin and he felt his wrists slick with blood. He wasn't getting anywhere and it didn't help that he was on the verge of passing out. The tent flaps parted and a burst of sunlight streamed in the darkened tent, burning Ezra's eyes. He closed them painfully but the light had already seared his tender pupils leaving dots and colors that danced under his eyelids. He let a moan escape from his lips.
Ezra was hauled to his feet by the two men that had entered the tent. They laughed when they heard him moan and when they realized he was battling an unconscious state. "Are you enjoying your stay, Mr. Larabee?" Recognition thudded into Ezra's semiconscious mind. That's who they had mistaken him for, Chris. "Well, you're going to like it even better once we're done with ya."
Ezra wanted to cry out that he wasn't Larabee but his mouth wouldn't work. The words that did come out were a jumbled mass. The men laughed as they threw him outside of the tent. Ezra landed with a thud. He couldn't stop himself from falling to the ground and when he hit more pained racked his already aching body. He didn't know where he was, just that he was outside in the sun. It beat down cruelly and he could feel his shirt already beginning to cling to his body.
He tried to push himself up off the dusty ground by using his shoulders for leverage but the movement provoked a swift kick to his chest. He lost his ability to breathe and when air finally poured into his lungs it caused an immense amount of pain. There was another kick. He could feel the bones crack under the weight of the boot. Ezra could barely suck in any air and was quickly losing the little lucidity he had left. He heard footsteps coming toward the two men who had so rudely taken him out of the tent before he slipped into sweet painless oblivion.
Pierce Henner stepped out of his tent in eager anticipation of the sight that he had waited for, for so long. Chris Larabee, finally, in his little hideout, having no earthly clue, who had brought him here and no idea the fate that awaited him. He heard from his hired men that he had passed out again. A laugh rose in Henner's throat but he suppressed it. He didn't want his men to see him get joy out of this. That would be unprofessional.
Henner walked around his little tent city that he had fashioned. The city was easily moved and it was the base of all his illegal operations. Henner was a professional cattle rustler and his sons had helped him until they died. No, until they were killed by that loathsome Larabee. He shook with fury when he remembered that night that they persuading that family to move off their land. It would have worked until Larabee rode in and killed his sons. Both of them lay dead and Henner had vowed that he would avenge their murders. This little scene had taken place almost two years ago.
It had taken Henner two years to track down Larabee. Lately, he had been with six other men making it all the more harder for Henner to get Larabee to his hideout. But he had him now and he was going to inflict the same pain he had inflicted on his sons two years earlier. The laughter that was in his throat came out despite his efforts to stop it. He couldn't wait to see Larabee in pain.
Henner rounded the corner hoping to see Larabee knocked out on the ground or at least in great pain but that was not what he saw. Instead, he saw a man in a nice white shirt passed out on the ground. His wrists were bound behind his back by ropes soaked in blood. The man had dried blood on his neck from where the hired men and knocked him out and left a gash. The man definitely wasn't Larabee. Henner shook with fury at the obvious mix up.
"Jake," he yelled through his teeth making his spittle fall like a rain shower, "Jake!? Where are you?"
Jake came sprinting from out of the tent that he was in, his lanky, youthful frame swaying a bit from his awakening from a much needed nap. "Yes, Mr. Henner" Jake stuttered trying to keep his brown hair out of his eyes. Henner walked up to the taller man and drew himself up to his full height. Jake looked down at him obviously confused.
"Who is that?" Henner asked pointing emphatically at the passed out gambler.
"That's Larabee." Jake stated. Henner reached up and punched Jake hard in the jaw. He took a few steps back to keep from falling. For a short, stocky man, Henner could punch.
"That's not Larabee." Henner said menacingly. He couldn't believe that these hired men had denied his long sought after revenge. He was so close to the release that he needed, to kill Chris Larabee and yet they had brought the wrong man. He knew he should've trusted his own men and not hired out to do this job, but Larabee would've recognized his help. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He balled up his fists until his knuckles turned white, bottling up the rage. Henner took some deep breaths and tried to calm himself before he spoke.
Jake was watching with fear and a hint of amusement. He had never seen Henner truly angry and the sight was almost funny. That is until he realized that the anger was directed toward him. The older man looked quite ridiculous with his teeth clinched, fists balled and face red. Jake almost let out a chuckle but he swallowed it when he realized that would only bring another punch.
"Jake, you take your little band of good for nothing thieves and spies and find Larabee! And don't come back until you do."
Henner turned around and was about to walk away when one of the two men that had dragged Ezra from the tent spoke. "What do you want us to do with him?"
"Kill him. He's of no use to me."
Jake froze. They were going to kill an innocent man. He couldn't allow that but what could he do? "Mr. Henner" he yelled. "This man was talking to another man. And then this young fella, the sheriff, called out a name. Well, this man responded and I thought..."
"Is there a point to this Jake?" Henner asked still seething from his rage.
"That means the other guy was Larabee and this guy acted like his friend so maybe, you could drag Larabee here by holding this guy?"
Henner turned around and gave Jake a cold stare with his ice blue eyes. He ran a hand through his white hair. Jake began to shift under Henner's gaze. "Well, maybe it wasn't such a good idea." Jake mumbled.
"No, Jake. It's a marvelous idea. I can't believe I didn't think of it." Henner smiled but there was no warmth in it. He looked at the two men who stood near Ezra. "You two know what to do to create some evidence that we have this poor man. Make it look good please."
The two men smiled back. "Yes sir, we know what to do."
Ezra awoke to find himself in an even worse predicament then before he blacked out. He was tied to a pole stuck out in the middle of the tent city. His hands were still behind his back but this time they were tied tighter than before, a feat that Ezra didn't think possible. His head still pounded but added to this was a parched throat and bruised ribs. It didn't help that his boots and shirt were missing too. He opened his eyes carefully to keep the sun from repeating what it did before. It was so hot out. He could feel the sun searing his tender flesh.
He looked around and saw a guard sitting about five feet away. "Water?" he asked. The sound that came out was barely above a whisper. The guard turned around and smiled cruelly. He pulled out a canteen and walked slowly over to Ezra. He pulled off the cap and took a long swig. Then he held it in front of Ezra's face and slowly tipped the canteen over spilling the precious water onto the ground. Ezra lunged forward, trying to get to the water and testing the ropes that held him to the pole. The canteen was still too far from him. He stuck out his tongue in hopes of catching a small drop but the more he inched closer, the farther away the guard held the canteen.
The guard laughed when the last bit of the water spilled to the ground. "Oops," he said. Ezra let his head droop. The heat was so intense and his throat was so dry. The guard turned to walk away then spun back around and punched Ezra hard into the ribs. He let out a small cry when the fist connected in the same spot where he was kicked. Again, the wind was knocked out of him. After a minute he inhaled sharply and pain rushed through his body. The guard laughed then punched Ezra again, connecting in the same spot as before.
Ezra could feel his consciousness slipping away. He tried to fight it but there was so much pain. His head throbbed, his ribs hurt and the sun beat down mercilessly. His head began to droop again but this time the guard grabbed his hair and slung his head back against the pole. "Nope, no passing out. That would be too easy."
"What do you want with me?" Ezra managed to rasp. "I'm not Larabee."
"Oh, we figured that out, you're just the bait." The guard let go of Ezra's hair and walked away.
The bait. Ezra was the bait. "Some bait," he thought. If only they knew that Chris wouldn't come for him. Ezra didn't want Chris to come for him. He didn't want to be the reason that Chris Larabee died. He didn't want to live if it meant the demise of a man that five other men looked to for support and leadership. Sometimes, Ezra looked to Chris, if not for help but for reassurance that the world wasn't completely filled with bad guys, with men like himself, looking out for their own personal gain. The other men thought he had changed but deep down inside he knew he was still the same old Ezra.
He sighed. The sweat was pouring out of his body. He had to shift every once in a while to keep from sticking to the wooden pole. He could feel his skin burning and he could feel his throat getting drier. He surely hoped he would pass back out soon.
His dreams were dashed when another man started approaching. Ezra squinted to see what he was holding but the glare was too much. As he got closer, Ezra could clearly identify the two objects, his shirt and a knife.
"Great, more abuse," he thought ruefully. The man walked up to him, grinning like he knew something that Ezra was not privy too.
"Enjoying yourself," the man asked.
Ezra would've replied if he could but his throat wouldn't let him. "Oh, cat got your tongue, or maybe the sun does." The man laughed and Ezra was getting thoroughly annoyed. "Well, here's the deal. I've got to make it look convincing that we have you and aren't afraid to kill you so your friend Larabee will come here. Well, this is what I've come up with. I'm going to cut you somewhere, I think your pretty face will do, then I'm going to let the blood run on this shirt. What do you think?" The man paused, waiting for Ezra to reply. When no response came, he continued talking. "Well, it doesn't matter what you think. Now does it?"
The man grabbed Ezra by the hair and lifted the knife to his face. He pushed the blade into his skin, near the eye and trailed it down to Ezra's chin. Ezra closed his eyes and fought off the pain as best as he could. He would not give the man the satisfaction of crying out. He could feel the blood begin to run down the side of his face. The man held the shirt up to the laceration and let the blood run onto it. "Thanks for the donation, friend," the man drawled putting emphasis on the word friend.
Ezra's head fell when the man let go of his hair. He could feel the blood running down his face and dripping onto his bare chest. Before the man left he gave Ezra a blow to the ribs. Ezra could feel the ribs break underneath the blow. "What is it with their obsession with my ribs?" he thought before he passed out.
Back at Four Corners, J.D. was getting a little worried. The sun was getting low on the horizon and his friend was not back yet. He surely thought Ezra would have untangled his mind by now. Well, that's what Chris had said. He leaned back in the chair that he had been sitting in almost all day keeping his watch on the town. Nothing had happened, as he had predicted when the day first started. He tried to think of something to do but his thoughts kept returning to the gambler. He knew Chris had told him to leave Ezra alone but curiosity got the better of him and he headed toward the livery.
He walked briskly toward the building where he had last seen Ezra headed. The stench of animal sweat radiated from the building. J.D. didn't even notice the smell. He had grown up around stables and nothing about them was unfamiliar. He stepped into the low lit area. "Ezra," he called, "You in here?" There was no response. J.D. stepped further into the building.
He looked around and to his surprise saw Ezra's horse standing in its stall. He walked over to it slowly, trying to not scare the already skittish horse. "It's all right boy," J.D. crooned trying to get the horse to calm down. The bridle was on the horse and so was the blanket. J.D. looked around to see if he could catch a glimpse of the gambler. There was no one. When he found Ezra, he was going to give him a lecture about putting his horse away. But J.D. knew Ezra wouldn't just leave his horse in that state. It was the only thing he trusted. J.D. was beginning to grow uneasy. "Ezra" he called again. He looked around the building, searching for any sign that the gambler was there.
Then his eyes fell upon the all too familiar hat. He walked over to it and slowly bent down to pick it up. His eyes widened and his gut wrenched when he felt the stickiness clinging to the brim. Blood. Ezra's blood. J.D. took off toward the saloon in a sprint clutching the hat in his hands.
J.D. wasn't the only one worried about the gambler. The sun was sinking fast and Ezra hadn't returned to his usual poker table. Chris glanced out the saloon doors searching for any sign of him. The other four men were surrounding their usual table stealing glances at Chris.
"He's probably just blowing off some steam Chris," Buck called from the table.
"Yeah," Chris answered half-heartedly not turning around. He heard Buck sigh. Chris began to walk back toward the table not taking his eyes off the end of town. Finally, he completely turned and sat back down. He took the bottle that Vin offered and poured himself a drink.
"Have you checked his room?" Vin asked.
"Yeah," Chris answered after downing the shot of whiskey.
"How about the restaurant?" Nathan offered. Chris nodded his head.
"The church?" Josiah asked. The men around the table raised their eyebrows. Chris gave Josiah a questioning look then nodded in the affirmative.
The conversation continued until J.D. burst through the door his black hair all in his eyes. He scurried over to the table where the men were sitting. "I... I... I." J.D. tried say but he was still out of breath from the run over.
"Calm down, son," Buck advised. J.D. shot him a look at the word "son." But he followed his advice and took a few deep breaths and continued his story.
"I went looking for Ezra at the livery. His horse was still there, bridled but not saddled. And I found this." J.D. threw the hat on the table for all the men to see. Vin picked it up and felt the wetness that was clinging to it. He handed it to Chris. "Blood," he stated simply. The older man's eyes clouded.
"You still think he's blowing off steam, Buck?" Chris asked. He stood up and headed for the door, Vin following close behind. Darkness had already fallen.
"If they're any tracks, we won't be able to see them in the dark." Vin stated his voice nonchalant but his face etched with worry.
Chris nodded. "We leave at dawn."
Ezra had regained consciousness only to find himself still tied to the pole. The sun had fallen and with it some of the immense heat. He lifted his throbbing head to look around. There was a guard off to his left that appeared to be asleep. Numerous other ruffians walked around the city without giving Ezra a second look. He sighed and wished he hadn't. The action brought sharp pains from his torso. He knew almost all his ribs were broken and was just waiting for another person to come break the few remaining ones.
The guard must have heard Ezra sigh because he turned around and set his gaze on him. Ezra recognized the man as the one that fingered him for Larabee. Something flickered across the man's face. Ezra couldn't place it, was it pity? As soon as it was there, it was gone and the cold exterior set back in. He sauntered over to the pole. He looked around anxiously then the face returned.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered. "It's all my fault. You see, I thought you were Larabee. I didn't know that you weren't." Ezra just stared at the man his mind trying to register what he had said. Did he just say he was sorry? "I'm Jake." The man stuck out his hand then realized that Ezra couldn't shake it. He let it drop to his side. "And you are?" he asked.
Ezra couldn't believe the audacity of this man. He was making small talk when Ezra was in severe pain and too parched to talk. "Thirsty," Ezra replied his voice not much more than a rasp.
Jake gave him a quizzical look. "That's a strange name but whatever your mama wanted to call you." Ezra rolled his eyes and a light went on in Jake's. "Oh, you mean you're thirsty. I get it." Obviously this man lacked the essential wit that Ezra was used to. Jake ran over to his chair and picked up the canteen. He ran back over to Ezra. He pulled off the cap and raised it to Ezra's lips but he abruptly yanked it away.
"Wait, I heard that a man shouldn't drink water too fast after he ain't had any for a while. So don't drink too fast." Ezra nodded his head. He would agree to anything at this moment just to get some water. Jake put the canteen back to Ezra's lips. The water poured over them and Ezra drank greedily and quickly, ignoring Jake's instructions. The water slid down his parched throat then hit his empty stomach. Ezra coughed then his stomach twisted and everything he had just drank came back up. The bile burned his throat and all the water was wasted.
Jake stepped away to avoid getting wet. "I told you not to drink so fast. We'll try to get some water in you later." Ezra nodded. "So, what's your name mister?"
"Ezra," came the soft reply.
"Well, Ezra, I heard they're going to come cut you down in a minute. But don't go getting all happy. I also heard they're going to throw you into the pit for the night."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. Anything would be better then being tied to this pole. At least the sun went down but the damage had been done. His usually white skin was a bright red. Everything was burnt from his chest to the tops of his feet. Ezra was getting ready to pass out again. Jake, seeing he was about to lose his new found friend, brought out the canteen again. "You ready to try again?" Ezra nodded through fallen eyelids. Jake brought the canteen back to Ezra's lips. This time Ezra drank slowly and when the water hit his stomach it didn't heave.
Jake could hear the footsteps of the men sent to cut Ezra down. He took the canteen away and sat back down in his chair. He couldn't let the men see him treat Ezra as an equal. He would lose what little respect they held for him. The two men rounded the corner and Jake didn't hide the disdain that he held for them. They were Henner's men, not men from Jake's gang. There was a difference. Jake's men were men who did what they had to because they needed the money, Henner's men were a completely different animal. They did what they did because they enjoyed it. Jake shivered at the thought. He couldn't bare to see what they were going to do so he left.
The two men cut the blood soaked rope that was holding Ezra to the pole. Ezra took a step, then fell to the ground, his head spinning. They hauled him to his feet and half carried half drug him to a pit dug in the ground. "This is where you'll be spending the night." Ezra's eyes widened. Surely they weren't going to put him in there. It reminded him of the "hole" at the prison camp that Chris had spent many a night in.
The pit was a small hole in the ground about six feet deep. Ezra thought about the irony of going six feet under and wondered if this small hole was going to be his burial plot. It wasn't that big in diameter but big enough for a man to lie down in. The two men picked Ezra up and dropped him in. Ezra landed on his feet but his knees quickly gave way and he fell with a thud onto his side. The hole was dark and he couldn't see in front of him or behind him. However, he could hear. He could hear the scurrying of small creatures off somewhere in the darkness. Rats. He hated rats. The men above him laughed and they covered the pit with a crude piece of wood.
He pushed his back up against the wall and pulled his knees to his chest. He ignored the pain that was radiating from his ribs. The ground was cold and it gave some relief to his sunburn. He rested his head up against the wall and closed his eyes praying that sleep would take him. That was when he felt them. The rats that were on the other side of the hole came to greet their new roommate. They were scurrying around his feet and he could feel the sharp bites from their teeth. He tried to push them off but that only gave him bites on his hands as well. The rats reacted to the scent of fresh blood and more came to join their comrades in hassling the new resident.
Ezra stood up and wobbled. He tried to walk to the other side of the small pit but his head was spinning and he just rested up against the side. He could touch the wood with his hand and he tried to push up. His ribs rejected the action and he also found out that the wood was too heavy to budge. He hoped the rats wouldn't follow him but they did and he found himself constantly trying to move to get away from them. However, Ezra tired quickly and found that he could not walk forever. He slowly went back over to the side of the pit and again pressed his body against it. He drew his feet underneath him. Again the rats followed giving him more bites but Ezra was too tired to fight them.
Finally, Ezra realized, through the pain cloud that was hovering around his mind, that he would have to get them to stop. He grabbed one of them around the mid-section and began to squeeze. The rat let out a horrified squeak. Then Ezra threw it hard up against the other side of the small hole. The rat hit with such force that it instantly crushed its skull. His comrades ran over and began to devour their fallen associate. The rats left Ezra in peace after the threatening display.
Ezra closed his eyes trying to ignore the pain. He could feel himself slowly drifting off to sleep. He hoped that whatever Chris was planning he would get there soon because Ezra knew he couldn't take more of this. He would either go insane or die. He surely hoped that he would die.
Ezra woke up in the middle of the night because his stomach was rumbling. He hadn't eaten since breakfast and even then he hadn't eaten much. His throat was also becoming dry again. As if an answer to his prayers the slat moved a little. A voice called down into the pit. "Ezra," someone called. Ezra jumped up ignoring the shot of pain that raced through him and the dizziness that was almost a constant now. Was it Chris or maybe Vin? He would even be glad if it were J.D. calling to him. His hopes were dashed when he saw it was just Jake.
"Here," Jake said as he pushed a canteen of water and some biscuits down through the hole. "Don't tell anyone I did this." Ezra just nodded.
Jake pulled the big, heavy, wooden slat back over the hole. Ezra ravenously ate the biscuits. The crumbs that were dropped were greedily picked up by the rats. Then he took a small sip of the water. He went back to his place by the wall clutching the canteen in his hands. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
The sun rose slowly over the horizon bringing with it the heat of a new day. The six men had their horses saddled and ready. They were going to bring their seventh back. The horses stood outside the jail waiting for their riders to return with the last of the supplies. J.D. stood by them anxiously waiting for the others. He pulled off his bowler hat and ran his hand through his hair. He was worried. J.D. liked Ezra even when he used his fancy language and talked over his head. Ezra was the first one to shake his hand and he was the first one there when J.D. had gotten stabbed. J.D. dropped his hazel eyes to the planks under his feet. He surely hoped Ezra was all right.
The other five men walked down the street toward their horses. Buck saw J.D. standing there, his hat in his hands and his stare toward the ground. He could tell the boy was worried. Buck shook his head. Even he was worried. No one knew what happened to the gambler. He was there one minute and gone the next leaving only his bloody hat behind. It surprised Buck how attached he had grown to the man. He hoped that they could find him in time.
The same thoughts were running through the other men's minds as well. No one voiced them because they didn't want to face the fact that Ezra might be dead. They wouldn't be the seven anymore. They wouldn't be whole. It struck all of them as odd how they had grown attached to each other. They were a family and when one member was threatened all were. Each man knew that as long as the others were around he would never have to face anything alone. They just hoped that Ezra realized this as well, wherever he was.
The six men, all lost in thought, did one more check on supplies. That's when they saw the rider. A single horse tearing toward them at breakneck speed. The rider slowed as it saw the men and walked his horse toward them.
"One of you Larabee?" he asked in a thick accent.
"Who's asking?" came the soft reply from Vin.
"I got important information for Larabee. It's about a friend." The man spat out the last word.
Chris stepped forward from the group of six men his eyes never wavering from the other man's face. "I'm Larabee," he stated simply.
The man looked at Larabee and got chills from the cold blue eyes that looked back at him. Just like Henner had said, the eyes of a cold-hearted man. The man on the horse took out some things from a satchel and threw them on the ground. "Come to the box canyons, south of here, tomorrow, alone. Or he's dead."
"How do I know he's not dead already?" Larabee said in a voice that would make any man's blood run cold.
"You wouldn't take that chance." The man laughed.
"Who are you working for?" Josiah's low rumble startled them all. He had been relatively quiet but the recent turn of events had made his blood boil.
The man looked directly at Chris and stated smoothly "Pierce Henner." Then he turned and rode off the way he came.
J.D. was the first to dive for the pile of things thrown on the ground. He picked up Ezra's gun belt, and his derringer. Then he picked up the last item. Ezra's white shirt soaked with blood. J.D.'s eyes widened at the amount of blood that was on the shirt. Buck stepped over to him and put a hand on his shoulder, paling at the shirt himself. He looked around meeting the gazes of the other men. Each had a look of determination that meant only one thing. They were going to get Ezra back.
Buck let go of J.D.'s shoulder and bounded toward his horse. "Come on, I say we ride after that son of a bitch and get Ezra now."
"No, Buck. Henner'll kill him if he sees us coming. I'm going alone."
"You can't be crazy." Buck stated emphatically.
"He'll kill you and Ezra and what will that accomplish?"
Chris strode over to Buck, his voice cold and his eyes burning. "If we don't play by Henner's rules then Ezra will be dead for sure. He's not dying because of me. I promised myself that would never happen again. And it won't."
Chris turned abruptly and walked toward the saloon. His mind was racing. His past was back to haunt him and an innocent man's life was in the balance. No, he couldn't take that chance. He had to play by Henner's rules even if it meant his own death.
Henner smiled around his cigar. He was looking over his profits in the last two months since they came to the canyon. Profits were up. This was an ideal location to pick off cattle from the drives that moved between Ridge City and Four Corners. He might even decide to put roots here and stay after he took care of Larabee. That was first and foremost on his mind. Larabee had plagued his dreams for two years. Soon, those dreams will be dead and buried next to the cold body of one Chris Larabee.
His thoughts were interrupted by a tall, lanky man scurrying into his presence. Jake ripped off his hat as he entered. Henner sighed. "What is it now Jake?" Henner didn't even know why he put up with this sniveling excuse for a thief. Well, he would take care of that after he took out Larabee. He smiled while thinking of the ultimate demise of three men.
"Well, that man you have in the pit, Ezra, well he's not going to make it if he stays in there longer."
Henner's head snapped up from the reports in front of him. "What did you say?"
"I said that he needs to get out of the..." Henner stopped him.
"No, you called him by his name! How do you know his name Jake? Have you been helping him?"
Jake backed away as Henner stood up and started walking toward him. "I. I. I. didn't do anything, Mr. Henner. I swear."
"You don't talk to him. You hear me. He's one of Larabee's friends. He is evil. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mr. Henner." Jake dropped his gaze to the ground. He couldn't understand how Ezra could be evil. He hadn't done anything. He was innocent. Does being a friend to someone who's bad make you bad too? Jake turned to walk out of the tent but Henner's voice stopped him.
"Jake, get him out of the pit. I want him alive and conscious when Larabee comes." Henner waved his hand in dismissal. Jake took the hint and half ran to the pit to get Ezra out.
Buck stood in the street watching the back of his friend. He bristled with fury. How could Chris be acting so dumb? Getting him and Ezra killed wasn't going to solve anything. He spun around and set his gaze on the others.
"Well, are we going to let him do this?" He asked to his colleagues.
"We can't change his mind Buck. You know that." Josiah replied.
J.D. stared in horror. "You mean we're not going to go save Ezra? He'd come after us." The statement hung in the air. But every man knew it was true. Ezra had been a card sharp, cheater and flagrant when they had all first met but he had changed. He had become the man that they all knew was deep down inside.
"This isn't something we should be discussing in the street boys. Let's head to church." Vin suggested. His voice didn't reveal anything but his eyes gave everything away. He wasn't going to let Chris get himself killed and he wasn't going to let Ezra be tortured to death. Nathan nodded in agreement. The group of five walked toward the church to discuss their plans.
Chris stared into his shot of whiskey. The memories of that night two years ago came flooding back to his mind. He could hear the woman screaming and he saw the fire that was consuming the house. He knew why he got into the middle of the fight. The sight of his house burned to the ground and the bodies of his wife and child among the wreckage. His gut wrenched when he thought about it. He downed the whiskey to try and make the memories go away but they came back. They would never go away.
Henner was trying to push the farmers off their land because he needed it to graze his ill-gotten cattle. Chris could remember the rage he felt when he saw Henner's men. He couldn't stop thinking about Sarah and Adam. Without using his better judgement, he rode in hell bent on stopping the destruction. He fired at every man he saw. He knew that one man against ten were terrible odds but he managed in scaring them away but not after the house had burned.
He had gotten there in time to save the family. The husband had gotten shot but he would live. The wife and children were shaken up but were fine. He had gotten there in time. He just wished that he could have been there for his own wife and child. He wiped angrily at a tear that rolled down his cheek.
He had found out later that he had shot Henner's two sons and killed them both. He didn't feel sorry about it then and he still didn't. They got what they deserved. He tipped the bottle to pour more whiskey. He was surprised when none came out. He had drunk it all.
Buck was right. What would getting himself killed do to get his friend out of trouble? He stood up and walked to the church. He knew they would be there discussing what to do. He was going to make damn sure he was in their plans. Sometimes he wondered how these men knew what was best before he did. He laughed to himself. Henner was in for a real surprise.
The sunlight streamed down into the pit where Ezra lay huddled against the side. Jake called down to him. "Ezra! Ezra!" He didn't move. Jake called again. "Ezra!" The figure stirred and looked up to the voice. He couldn't make out who it was. Chris? Vin? Buck? Ezra tried to stand up but wobbled and fell back to the ground. His breathing was erratic. Pain racked his tired body. Sleep was a long time in coming last night and when it did he was plagued with nightmares. Dreams of himself as a young boy being left alone in strange houses haunted him.
"Chris, I'm sorry, I won't ever run off again." Ezra mumbled. He tried to stand up again but only managed to get to his knees. Ezra rested his head in his hands and felt the dried blood that covered half of his face. He didn't know why he hurt, just that he did.
"Ezra, it's me Jake." Jake called down again. "I've come to get you out." Jake couldn't understand why the gambler kept mumbling about Larabee.
Jake gathered some of his men to the pit. He jumped down and put a hand on Ezra's shoulder. He could feel the heat emanating off Ezra's skin from the sunburn. He pulled Ezra to his feet and wrapped his arm around his shoulders. The rats scurried beneath their feet giving Jake a hard time getting his footing. He managed to lift Ezra somewhat so his colleagues could reach down and pull him the rest of the way out. After they had Ezra outside on the ground, they reached back in for Jake.
When Jake was out of the pit and in the bright sunlight, he looked down at his friend. He looked awful. He was burnt from head to toe. Bruises covered his chest and torso, rat bites were all over his feet and hands and one long gash ran from under his eye to his chin. Jake grimaced. Ezra looked up at him through slitted eyes. "I want to go home, momma." He said in a child like voice.
Jake looked at his men. "We made a big mistake."
"No, you didn't Jake. You gave me a brilliant idea." Jake jumped at the sound of Henner's voice and spun around. Henner was standing there with his bodyguards. "You see, I lost my sons to Larabee, and now he'll lose his friend to me. Then he will die. I can't wait until tomorrow." Jake was now sure that Henner had crossed that fine line between determination and insanity. Henner turned to his bodyguards and pointed toward the man on the ground. "Pick him up, take him to a tent and tie him to a chair."
The two men lifted Ezra off the ground by his arms. They put him on his feet but he quickly began to sway. One of the guards caught him before he hit the ground. "Come on boy, stay on your feet." He said in a rough tone. Ezra didn't hear him. He was still in a state of deliriousness. It was like he hadn't completely woken up from his dreams. The two men decided to drag him to the tent.
Jake watched the two men drag the limp form toward the tent. He heard Henner's piercing laugh but didn't raise his head to meet the cold gaze. Henner walked away still laughing his cold inhuman laugh. Jake's gut wrenched. They were going to kill Ezra and he couldn't do anything about it.
The five men were gathered around a small table in the middle of the church. Their conversation was centered around two things, getting Ezra back and keeping Chris alive. They all looked up when they heard Chris enter. Buck looked at his friend hoping that he had come to the right decision. "I've got a plan."
Ezra came out of his semiconscious state when he felt a hard blow to his jaw. His eyes snapped open and he took a look at his surroundings. He didn't remember being taken out of the pit. But he didn't care, anything was better than there. He was now in a tent like the one he was in before. He tried to move his hands but they were tied behind his back. Ropes ran across his chest tying him to the chair and impeding his already labored breathing. He was staring up at a short, stocky man with grey hair and blue eyes. They were the only two in the room.
"What do you want with Chris Larabee?" Ezra asked through painful breaths.
"Well aren't you full of questions. Well to make a long story short, he killed my sons. And I'm going to get revenge."
Ezra blinked trying to clear the fuzziness of his vision. The blow to the back of his head that he had received yesterday had affected his vision and his balance. He tried to clear his head. Did he just say Chris killed his sons? No, he couldn't have. Henner started talking again about something that was happening tomorrow but Ezra was drifting in and out of the conversation. His eyelids fluttered closed and he fell asleep.
The rest of the day passed without incident for both Ezra and the men at Four Corners. Ezra slept peacefully in the chair except when he was awakened to have water and food. He didn't know what Henner was up to being so kind and generous all of a sudden but he figured he'd find out later. His friends in Four Corners were preparing for the ride ahead and for the imminent gun battle.
The day came and went and soon the sun was making its slow ascent on the horizon. Henner grinned wickedly. Today was the day he had been waiting for. Larabee was going to die and finally he would have his revenge. He stood up and stretched. He slept fitfully the night before. The dreams of the night that his sons died haunted him. But soon those nightmares would be replaced by dreams of Chris Larabee screaming in pain. Any minute now, he would come riding in to save his friend.
Ezra was pulled roughly awake. The ropes that bound him were being cut. He was yanked to his feet. He was still in a dream state but was rudely brought out of it by a punch to his gut. His eyes snapped open and a small moan escaped past his lips. His muscles ached from sleeping in an uncomfortable position and his head still throbbed. He wished for his own bed and for relief from his sunburn. Even though his skin was burning, he was incredibly cold.
"Wake up, boy." came a voice, "You want to be awake when your friend comes."
Friend? That's what Henner was up to. Chris was coming and Henner wanted Ezra to be awake when he arrived. Maybe to watch the demise of his friend, or for Chris to watch the demise of Ezra. He just hoped that whatever Henner was planning it was quick and painless but in the back of his mind he knew it wouldn't be.
They hauled Ezra out of the tent and into the bright morning sun. He blinked his eyes trying to get used to the sudden increase in light. They tied his hands behind his back again and tied his feet together as well. They threw him out by the pole to which he was tied the first day at the establishment. They propped him up beside it. "Now, you stay here and be a good boy." Ezra didn't bother telling them that there was no way in hell he was going to try and move. Everything hurt too much to even breathe. He thought about not breathing to stop the pain. Then he laughed his gold tooth glinting in the sun. He hoped Chris would get there soon so his pain would be ended, one way or another.
But the morning passed with no sign of Chris Larabee. Jake watched Ezra from his position behind a tent. Where was this Larabee fellow? Did he not even care about his friend? Was he that cold-hearted? Jake's stomach wrenched when he saw his friend sitting there in the sun. He could tell he was passing in and out of consciousness. Jake began to hate Larabee. Not just because of the idea drilled into his head by Henner, but by the fact his friend was waiting for him and he had the audacity not to show up.
The afternoon wore on. And still no Larabee. Jake could tell Henner was getting anxious himself. More than once he emerged from his tent and looked around. He pulled his men close to him and asked angry questions that they didn't have the answer to. Jake smiled. He loved to see Henner sweat. But if Larabee didn't show up soon, Ezra was a goner. If the sun didn't take him, Henner would.
Ezra sat there propped up against the pole, waiting like everyone else. Chris hadn't shown up yet. Would he even come for the gambler? Ezra was regretting the way he had treated Chris the last time they talked. Oh well, no use crying over the way you played the cards. Cards, he missed his cards. They were in the pocket of his red jacket that had disappeared. He began to wonder what had happened to his other articles of clothing. Oh well, he sighed.
Henner came striding out of his tent. He looked at Ezra with a cold, maniacal stare and made his way over. "Where's your friend?" he hissed.
Ezra smiled letting his gold tooth glint in the sun. "I conjecture that my associate Mr. Larabee will not be joining us this lovely afternoon." That comment earned Ezra a swift kick to the side. It hurt but he didn't show it. He was beginning to enjoy Henner squirm. Ezra was glad in a way that Chris didn't show up. He didn't want to be responsible for the death of one of the most honorable men he knew. He was also sure that if Chris died it would be blamed on him by the others and the town and he would have to leave. Maybe the man finally learned that he couldn't save everyone.
As soon as the thought crossed Ezra's mind he heard a yell. "Rider coming, alone." Ezra grimaced. He hadn't learned. Henner nodded toward some of his men. The walked over to Ezra, pulled him to his feet and pressed a knife to his neck. The rider got closer and entered the tent city. Ezra's eyes widened. It was Chris.
Buck paced around the saloon. He didn't like Chris' plan one bit but when Chris said it was final, and it was final. Chris would go alone and see if he could get Ezra back by himself. If he didn't return in two hours, they were to come after them. Buck just kept thinking about what could happen in two hours. He stopped and looked at the other men. Vin was staring into a shot of whiskey. Nathan was doing the same. No doubt thoughts running through his mind about the two men, he was definitely going to have to tend to after today. J.D. was leaning back in his chair, eyes focused on the ceiling. Josiah was just sitting there, hands folded, watching Buck pace.
Buck couldn't stand how calm they looked. "I say we go now."
"Chris said wait, Buck" Vin answered.
"A lot can happen in two hours. I, personally, don't want to have to bury two of my friends today. I say we go now."
Vin looked thoughtfully into his shot glass and abruptly stood up. "For once, I agree with you." The other men stood up too. They were all thinking the same thoughts. It only took one to voice it for them to move into action.
Chris ambled his horse toward where the men had Ezra. He looked into Ezra's green eyes and didn't see fear or relief. He saw apprehension. Then he looked at the rest of his friend. His skin was a bright red, a long cut ran from his eye to his chin, bruises covered his chest and torso and small cuts covered the rest of his body. Chris' eyes flashed anger. He was going to hand Henner some hell for doing this.
"Don't come any closer Larabee or I'll gut him like a fish." The man with the knife sneered. Ezra laughed at the corny phrase.
Chris raised an eyebrow. But he stopped the horse where it was. "Get off the horse," Henner ordered. Chris did as he was told. He didn't want any more harm to come to Ezra. Chris was instantly surrounded by Henner's men. "You have me, let him go." Chris yelled toward Henner. He smiled a cruel smile.
"Not a chance Larabee. You care enough for this man to come and try to save him. I cared a lot for my sons. He's going to die so you can feel what it's like to lose someone."
Ezra laughed again. Chris looked at the gambler. His green eyes were clouded. Had Ezra been tortured enough to go insane? Ezra looked back at Chris and grinned. "No, Mr. Larabee, I've not taken leave of my senses. I just know, as well as you, that if we die, there will be five other men coming to avenge our deaths. What a vicious cycle." Ezra stated simply. The man holding the knife to Ezra's throat pushed it harder into the skin.
Henner looked between the two men. "Well, at least you two will be dead."
The men that surrounded Chris took his guns and bounded his hands. They roughly pushed him toward Ezra and Henner. Henner grinned wickedly and nodded toward the man with the knife to Ezra's throat. He moved Ezra to a chair. Then tied him to it and his arms to the arm rests with the palm up, exposing the veins in his wrists.
Chris looked toward his friend. He could tell that Ezra was only vaguely aware of what was going on. One minute he was awake, green eyes clear and alert and the next he could barely keep his eyelids from sliding shut. He didn't even bother fighting.
The men took Chris to the pole and tied him to it. He was facing Ezra and could watch with painful closeness what was going to happen to his friend.
"I watched my sons bleed to death, Larabee. You are going to watch your friend do the same."
Chris lunged against the ropes that held him. "So help me, Henner, I'll kill you. I'll rip you apart." Henner laughed at Chris' efforts. "Don't worry. You'll be joining him soon."
Jake watched with fear. They were going to kill him. No, he couldn't allow it. He had to stop it. He jumped out from behind the tent where he had been watching all along. "No, Mr. Henner you can't do this. He's an innocent man." Jake said while gesturing toward Ezra.
"I can do anything Jake. Anything at all."
"No, now, I know Larabee killed your sons in cold blood but..."
Chris interrupted him. "In cold blood? Is that what he told you? Why don't you tell them the real story? About how you were trying to push that family off their land, how you were going to kill them all, how their house was set on fire, why don't you tell him about that?"
Jake looked into the shorter man's eyes. "It wasn't in cold blood?"
"No, it wasn't. I was protecting the family from his men. His sons were going to kill them. I was just trying to stop it."
Jake looked between Henner and Larabee not knowing which one to believe. Then he looked over at the pitiful form of Ezra, bruised, broken and soon to be bleeding. He turned back around to face the men. "You can't kill him Henner."
"Wrong answer, Jake." Henner let his name slide over his tongue. Then he pulled out a gun and fired at Jake. Jake's eyes widened and looked down at his shirt. A spot of crimson appeared on his chest, soaking his shirt and it slowly began to spread. He stumbled backward and fell to the ground, eyes glazed in death.
"He was a good man, for a while, but then he developed a conscience." Henner sighed, looking at the still frame of Jake. "Oh, continue with the ceremony." He said as if snapping out of a trance.
The man slowly slid the knife over Ezra's right wrist. A line of crimson appeared that quickly spread. It began to run down Ezra's arm and then it plopped on the dusty ground. Chris tugged at his ropes, desperately trying to get free. He looked at his friend. Ezra wasn't looking at his own wrist that was letting blood flow freely. He was looking at the dead body of Jake.
His eyes moved slowly from the body to meet Chris' blue eyes. Chris looked into the green eyes and saw nothing. There was nothing there of the gambler. His body had survived the torture so far but his spirit had been broken with the bullet from Henner's gun. Ezra looked down at his own puddle of blood and seemed not to recognize that it was seeping from his body. Chris looked away, not being able to bear seeing his friend so far gone. Chris wondered that if Ezra did survive would they be able to restore his spirit.
He looked back to the man he called a friend. Ezra had helped to save his life twice. He had ridden with the others to the Travis' place where Chris was surrounded and wounded. He had gone to Jericho to get him out of the prison. Chris owed Ezra his life and now that his friend's was slipping away, he could do nothing. Ezra's eyelids slowly fell and Chris could tell he wouldn't last much longer.
Henner began pacing. He looked at the man that had just cut Ezra's wrist. "Is he dead yet?" The man placed his hand on Ezra's neck searching for a pulse. He found a very faint one. He shook his head toward Henner. Chris' eyes widened. He was still alive. He didn't think Ezra would make it this long. He had turned very pale and had been unconscious for around twenty minutes now. "This is taking too long. Cut his other wrist."
Chris lunged against the ropes. "Leave him alone, you bastard." Henner ignored Chris' outburst. He began to regret just not killing him outright. Chris began to regret telling the others to stay behind. He should've learned by now that he couldn't do everything alone. And now Ezra was going to pay for his mistake.
The man raised the knife and began to push it against Ezra's skin. The gambler didn't even flinch. He couldn't feel anything that was happening. The man began to drag the sharp blade across the delicate skin when a shot rang out. He stopped, and fell forward in death. The knife he was holding was pushed into Ezra's wrist when he fell because of the force of the man's body weight.
Henner's men drew their guns and looked around. Chris was looking too. Who had fired the shot? Another rang out and another one of Henner's men fell to the ground. A third shot, a fourth, a fifth. Henner ran toward his tent and his men began to disperse firing toward the canyon crevices around them. They were looking frantically around for the unseen enemy. Whomever it was had hidden themselves well.
Chris lunged against the ropes. During the course of Ezra's torture he had been working the ropes, trying to loosen them. Finally, he managed to get one hand loose. He slipped out of the ropes and ran to where Ezra was tied. He checked for a pulse. A very faint one thudded in Ezra's veins. Chris untied him and picked up the limp body. He had to get them out of the line of fire. A stray bullet could hit either one of them. He managed to drag Ezra beside a tent.
Henner's men were getting picked off one by one. Chris scanned the rocks and brush for his friends and spotted Vin with his sawed-off shot gun. "Thank God," he muttered. He turned his attention back to Ezra. He had to stop the bleeding. He ripped the sleeve of his shirt and wrapped it tight around Ezra's wrist. The other wrist was going to be difficult. The knife was sticking out of it. Chris was scared to pull it out, afraid that it would only cause more damage. He took another strip of his shirt and carefully wrapped his wrist going around the knife. He would have to get Ezra to Nathan soon or they were going to lose the gambler.
Ezra moaned and his eyes fluttered open. His entire body ached and he couldn't manage to form any words. He wanted to tell Chris that he was sorry. He wanted to say 'thank you' but the pain was too great. He managed to mutter a few incoherent phrases until he felt a hand on his shoulder. "You're safe now," came the words. They were strangely comforting and Ezra let his consciousness go.
The firing had stopped abruptly. Chris came out from the side of the tent and surveyed the damage. All of Henner's men were laying in their own pools of blood. Some other men from the camp had thrown down their guns and raised their hands in surrender. One walked over to Chris. He glanced at the dead body of Jake on the ground and Chris could see tears in the man's eyes.
"My group of men had nothing to do with this. Jake was our boss." He said as he gestured toward the body on the ground. "We didn't know what Henner had planned. We lost our friend and leader."
Chris nodded. "Ride away," he said coldly. The man nodded his head and turned toward his friend. He picked up the body and walked away. He walked to the group of men and gestured toward where the horses were stabled. They left following the body of their fallen comrade.
Chris saw his friends coming down from around the canyons that circled the tent city. Vin had his gun trained on the still figures of the men just in case some were still breathing. After establishing that they were all dead he turned his gaze toward Chris. Buck, J.D., Josiah and Nathan joined Vin. "Nathan," Chris called, "Over here." Nathan jogged to Chris.
"How's Ezra?" Nathan asked. Chris gestured for Nathan to follow him. He walked back to the side of the tent where Ezra lay. Nathan gasped when he saw the gambler. He rushed to Ezra's side and felt for a pulse. "He's alive, but he won't be if we don't get him back to Four Corners, now." Chris nodded.
He walked back on the other side of the tent. Josiah, Vin, Buck and J.D. were coming toward him. "You all right?" Vin asked in his soft western drawl.
"What about Ezra?" J.D. asked. The kid looked eager to see the gambler. Chris just avoided his gaze. "Where is he?"
"Josiah, Buck, you two go help Nathan." Josiah and Buck nodded and began to leave the group. J.D. went to follow them. Chris put a restraining hand on the youngest of the group. "No, J.D., no man your age should see that." J.D. straightened up indignantly.
"I can handle it." He said as he side stepped Chris. He walked back to where the other men were. He looked at Ezra on the ground and turned his head. He could feel the bile rising in his throat. It took every once of his composure to keep from retching on the ground. Chris was right. He couldn't handle the sight. Buck guided the young man away from Ezra and back to where Chris and Vin were standing. Then he went back to help Nathan and Josiah. They had to prepare the gambler for the ride back to Four Corners.
Chris ambled toward the group of bodies that his friends so easily took care of. He searched for one face but he already knew it probably wouldn't be in there and he was right. Henner was not one of the dead. Anger grew in Chris' gut. The bastard had gotten away. He looked around at the tents. There were only about ten of them.
He pulled a gun from one of the dead bodies and checked the ammunition that was still in it. It was a long shot but he hoped that maybe Henner was still in the camp, somewhere. He nodded to J.D. and Vin and pointed toward one of the tents. They pulled out their guns and stood outside the tent flap. The three burst in, pointing their guns and looking around. No one. Just cots and sleeping bags lay on the floor.
They went to the next tent and had the same result. Four more tents and still no sign of Henner. But they had found Ezra's boots and red jacket and Chris's gun belt. Chris was about to give up until he heard movement in one of the tents they had not searched yet. Without thinking he barged in. J.D. and Vin had to rush to keep up with the older man. Sure enough, there was Henner, stuffing his money into a small satchel. He was surprised to see Larabee.
"It's all over Henner. You're going to jail." Chris sneered.
Henner smiled. "I wouldn't give you the pleasure Larabee." He pulled out a gun and brought it up to his head. He grinned again.
"No, don't" Chris yelled. But it was too late. Henner pulled the trigger splattering his brains on the side of the tent. J.D. turned his head and again felt the bile rise into his throat. This was the second time today he had almost lost his lunch. Even Vin averted his eyes. Chris left the tent in disgust.
He saw Josiah carrying the battered, bruised and broken Ezra toward their horses in which Buck had brought down from their hiding places. Chris turned around and took one last look at the tent in which Henner's body lay, then went to join his friends for the ride back to Four Corners.
Buck carefully lifted Ezra out of Josiah's arms. He carried the gambler to the boarding house to Nathan's room. Occasional shivers would rack the gambler's body. Buck's heart broke and pulled him closer to his chest, hoping that would give him some comfort. The commotion around Ezra's return brought attention from almost everyone in the town. Even Mary Travis who disapproved of Ezra's gambling ways came to see if he was going to be fine.
Nathan turned to face her. "We don't know if he'll survive," was all he said. Then he followed the parade of six men toward his room. They laid Ezra on the bed. Nathan turned to Josiah, "I'm going to need your help." Nathan cast a glance at J.D. who was paler than normal. Then he looked at Buck. Buck took the hint.
"Come on J.D., let's see if anything happened while we were gone." Buck led the younger man out of the room. Vin followed knowing he wouldn't be of any help.
Mary walked into the room, gasping when she saw the full extent of Ezra's injuries. "Is there anything I can do to help?" Nathan looked at her and nodded. He needed all the help he could get. Chris left the room and headed toward the saloon.
Nathan ran a hand over Ezra's forehead and winced when he felt the heat radiating from his skin. He couldn't quite tell if it was from the sunburn, a fever or both. The shivers that ran through Ezra's body confirmed that it was both. Nathan washed all the blood off his body and removed the knife from Ezra's wrist. Then took a cold washcloth and laid it on the gambler's forehead. Then he went to work. Josiah lifted Ezra so Nathan could bandage the broken ribs. Nathan then poured antiseptic on the bites from the rats and the cuts on his wrists and face.
After he was done, he pulled all the covers up to Ezra's chin and hoped he would survive. Josiah prayed. Mary went to go tell the others that they had done the best they could. She also went to tell them to come and visit, now, just in case Ezra didn't make it through the night.
She easily located J.D.,and Buck who were in the telegraph office wiring the federal marshals to tell them of the events that had happened. Vin was in the livery taking care of the horses and gathering Ezra's belongings to take to him. Chris was in the saloon staring into a shot of whiskey.
Chris looked at the shot intensely. His thoughts drifting back over the events that started two years ago and just ended now. He couldn't live with the thoughts that he had caused Ezra's death. A man who just a few months ago had been a con man and now who was part of a group Chris trusted with his life. It wasn't fair. He would've been better off staying what he was than becoming what Chris wanted him to be. It would be better for all of them to go their own ways then to stay with him. They would get killed. He didn't know what he would do if anything happened to J.D. who was just a boy, to Buck who had been his friend through thick and thin, Vin who he could trust with everything, Josiah, who stopped searching for his own faith to help the others, or Nathan, who was one of the finest men Chris knew.
What sort of sick twist of fate brought them all to him. He closed his eyes to keep the tears from falling when he thought back to Sarah and Adam. They were his family and they died because of him. These six men were his family now and he prayed they wouldn't suffer the same fate. It would be better for him to leave.
Mary walked into the saloon and over to Chris. He raised his gaze for a second, then returned it back to the glass. "Nathan's done everything he can. We just have to wait it out." Chris nodded. "Well, aren't you going to go see him?"
"No, ma'am. I'm not."
"Why not, Mr. Larabee?" He turned his ice cold stare on her. She didn't waver. "These men look up to you. They are your friends. Not by obligation, but by choice. I think you owe it to him." She turned on her heel and walked out of the saloon.
Chris thought about her words. Friends, by choice, not by obligation. He did owe it to Ezra. He owed it to them all. He downed the shot of whiskey quickly, before walking toward Nathan's room.
Over the next week, the six men took turns watching over the gambler. His fever still raged and he would shiver violently. Other times Ezra would scream about rats and thrash around in the bed. The probability of survival was still slim. His fever hadn't broken and he had lost so much blood. At times Nathan thought that keeping him alive to endure the constant nightmares was cruel. He wished he could end them for his friend but nothing could. He would have to bring himself out of it.
Chris was standing by the window of Nathan's room looking out on the town. He could hear the labored breathing of his friend in the bed. Nathan had said that was normal for someone with broken ribs. He saw Buck using his animal magnetism on a young woman while J.D. was sitting in the rickety chair outside the jail laughing. Josiah and Nathan were working on the church. Vin was keeping a silent vigil on the town leaning up against a post.
His thoughts were interrupted when a familiar voice called out. "Mr. Larabee, how long have you been standing there?" Chris turned around to see Ezra struggling to sit up. He managed to get halfway into a sitting position then plopped back down. He was out of breath from the simple act of moving. Chris could tell that his ribs still hurt too badly.
"I'll go get Nathan." Chris moved toward the door.
"Wait," Ezra said still out of breath. "I just want to say, well, thank you." Chris looked into the green eyes of the gambler and Ezra looked into the cold blue eyes of the gunslinger. A small exchange happened between them in that moment. A feeling of closeness passed between them and as soon as it was there it was gone. Chris nodded. "Get some rest, Ezra." He walked out the door. Ezra closed his eyes and drifted off to dreamless sleep.
Three weeks later, J.D. was leaning back in his rickety chair outside of the jail. He looked down the street for the hundredth time that day. Nothing. He let the front chair legs drop to the ground while the sweat dripped between his shoulder blades. The day was another scorcher.
He wondered where his friends were. Chris and Vin were probably in the saloon discussing. Buck was probably whiling away the day with some woman. Josiah would be working on the church and Nathan would be helping those that were having trouble with the heat. And Ezra, well, Ezra would be in the saloon shuffling his ever present deck of cards and looking for someone to play. He let out a loud sigh. Yep, today was going to be boring. Ezra yawned. He was sitting at his usual poker table in the corner of the saloon idly shuffling his cards. He couldn't shuffle them for long because his wrists would ache. Right now his whole body ached but he had been in bed for practically four weeks and he thought now would be the best time to get out. Nathan had told him to take it easy and in essence he was but the simple act of sitting at a table made him tired. The heat didn't help either. Ezra gingerly touched the long cut that ran the length of his face. Nathan had told him it would heal and he certainly hoped so.
Chris and Vin were over at a table discussing. No one else was in the saloon except for the bartender. Ezra sighed and wished he hadn't. It brought sharp pains from his ribs. They still hadn't healed completely. He turned his gaze back to the cards he was shuffling, the Ace of Spades tumbled out. The card was his trademark. However, he had taken a liking to another card in the deck, the seven of spades. He pulled it out, looked at it and slipped it back into the deck with the Ace and continued shuffling.
His attention was diverted when Josiah and Nathan walked in. Ezra grinned flashing his gold tooth. "Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Jackson, would either one of you like to indulge an old southern boy by participating in a game of chance?"
"Not today, Ezra. I need to hold onto what little money I have." Josiah replied.
"Maybe later, Ezra." Nathan mentioned.
Ezra turned his attention back to the cards he was shuffling. He heard the beginning of the conversation that started when Nathan and Josiah joined Chris and Vin. Then he recessed back into his thoughts. He put the cards down and slowly, painfully stood up. And headed for the door.
Chris watched the gambler walk outside. He wondered what was bothering him. He stood up and got three questionable stares from the other men. He just smiled and took a bottle of whiskey outside with him.
Ezra was leaning up against a pole looking toward the end of town. He heard Chris walk up next to him. "Thinking of leaving?"
"Actually, no I wasn't. I think I might stay around and make sure that you and the others don't get in trouble with all your shenanigans."
Chris laughed. "Is that what you call them?" Ezra turned to face him, green eyes met blue and an understanding passed between them for a second time. Chris offered the whiskey bottle to Ezra who took a long pull and handed it back to the gunslinger. He then pulled out a deck of cards and began to shuffle. They headed back into the saloon, together.
"Anyone interested in a game of chance?"
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