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Ambush!
        By Kelly

 

"AMBUSH!"  Chris shouted.
 

The four men spurred their horses forward as shots whizzed by their heads and
ricocheted off the nearby rocks.  Chris brought his arm across his chest and fired
over his shoulder as Vin turned in his saddle and fired. Ezra and Josiah raced ahead.
Chris turned to see Vin catch a bullet and slump over his saddle, his horse never
breaking stride.  It was a miracle he managed to stay on.  Chris veered his still galloping
horse over and grabbed the reins of Vin's horse.  He could no longer shoot so he just
kept his head down and didn't look back, riding like the devil himself was on their heels.
 

Chris looked ahead to see Ezra and Josiah stop in front of a small broken down cabin.
They leapt off their horses and waved them off, immediately taking up position next to
the door and laying down cover for Chris and Vin.  Chris brought their horses up to the
front and yelled, "Josiah, grab Vin he's been hit!"  He jumped from his horse and took up
firing as Josiah quickly went to Vin who was sliding off his horse.  Josiah caught him then
half dragged and half carried the wounded man inside.  Chris and Ezra dove in after them
and closed the door, bullets tearing chunks out of the door wood.  Chris and Ezra sat on
the floor under the only window trying to calm their breathing as well as their pounding hearts.
 Josiah placed Vin on a cot that sat in the far corner of the one room cabin. Blood poured
through his clenched fingers.  Josiah quickly grabbed a rag and pressed it against the bleeding
wound causing an enormous bolt of pain to pass through Vin's body.  He sucked in his breath
and squeezed his eyes shut.
 

"Sorry Vin, I've gotta stop this bleeding," Josiah stated, as he worked diligently on the bleeding
wound.
 

Ezra quickly reloaded his gun as he tried to calm his breathing.  It had become very quiet
which made him very nervous.  Chris cocked his ear towards the window listening,
trying to pick up any sound in the now deathly silent world.  All he could hear was Ezra's
and his own rapid breathing inside the small cabin.  A deep, malicious voice finally broke
the late afternoon silence.
 

"How's it feel Larabee?  To watch your friends shot down."
 

"Friends of yours?"  Ezra remarked, his tone laced with sarcasm.
 

Chris shot him a dispassionate sidelong glance that Ezra ignored.  Chris holstered his gun
and crept over to Josiah and Vin, keeping his head below the window.  Josiah was carefully
opening Vin's shirt, the upper right corner soaked in blood.  The bullet had entered high through
his shoulder, Josiah felt underneath searching for an exit wound, but found none.  He resoaked
the rag with water from his canteen and pressed down on the still bleeding wound causing Vin to
gasp and bite back the pain, tears formed at the corner of his eyes.
 
 

"How ya doing, cowboy?" Chris asked, anxious blue eyes replaced his usual stoic gaze.
 

Vin managed a pain-ridden smile. "I've been better," he gasped.  Chris smiled slightly and motioned
to Josiah, the two moved away, as far as the confines of the cabin would allow.
 

"The bullet's still in there.  It's to deep, I can't get it out," Josiah said. "We need Nathan. There's
nothing more I can do."  The two looked back at Vin, who had become very pale.
 

Chris clapped Josiah on the shoulder.  "Do what you can to make him comfortable." And
returned to the window.
 

"How is our friend, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra inquired as Chris returned to his place by the window.
Chris glanced over at Ezra expecting to see a smug smile pasted on his face, instead, his face
was a mask of unfeigned concern.  The enigmatic gambler never ceased to surprise him.
One moment he appeared unconcerned about anyone other than himself, the next--was anyone's
guess.  You just never knew who or what Ezra Standish would care about at any given time.
 

"Not good," Chris replied rather plaintively.  "We have to get him out of here."  Ezra saw the
concern in Chris's face and knew it was serious.  It was rare that Chris showed any emotion
upon his harden countenance.   Ezra knew the two men were best of friends and wondered how
it felt to have that kind of camaraderie.
 

Ezra cleared his throat. "Your friends out there might prove an obstacle in that endeavor," Ezra
stated regretfully. "I don't think they're going to let us leave here alive."
 

Chris sat and stared at the warped floorboards of the cabin. He suddenly stood up next to the
window and yelled,  "What do you want?"  It was a moment before anyone answered.
 

"We want you Larabee for killing our brother!" The reply came back.
 

Chris put his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.  How many men had he
killed?  More than he had wanted to and more than he cared to remember.
 

"Do you know what these gentlemen are referring to?" Ezra questioned still sitting on the
floor under the window.  Chris looked down at him with a you got-to-be-kidding smirk then
turned back to the window and peered out.  "Could you be more specific?" He yelled out to
the unseen men.
 

"You don't remember, you murdering dog..."  This voice was cut off and another
replaced it.
 

"We're the McCormick brothers, you killed our youngest brother Paul, last year in Nevada.
Now do you remember?"
 

Chris's brow furrowed in concentration and Ezra hoped that maybe this was all s some kind
of mistake.  Chris sank to the floor.
 

"Maybe these gentlemen have made a grievous error?" Ezra quietly asked hoping he
was right.
 

"No, I killed him," Chris stated matter of factly.
 

"I was afraid of that," Ezra murmured under his breath.
 

Josiah came over and squatted down next to the two men.  Chris looked over Josiah's
shoulder at Vin who laid motionless.  He couldn't even tell if he was still breathing and was
relieved when Vin let out a small moan.  He turned his attention to Josiah pushing his dark
hat back on his head.
 

"He's unconscious," Josiah answered Chris's silent question.  Chris dropped his head in thought,
then started to recount, his voice was meditative, but Ezra and Josiah could detect a deep, pulsing rage.
 

"It was over a year ago.  I was passing through a small town in Nevada.  A town that the
McCormick brothers ran using fear and murder.  The town had finally got a sheriff who
was willing to stand against them, Sheriff Coffey."  Chris smiled as he remembered the
large middle aged sheriff that managed to keep a twinkle in his eye.  "Paul McCormick
was the youngest and probably the worst of the five brothers.  There was Sam, the oldest,
Russ and Tom and one I can't remember.  Well, Paul decided he wanted another man's
wife, only one problem she didn't want him, which didn't deter him in the slightest."  Chris
shifted his position slightly on the floor keeping one ear tuned to the outside.  The three
men turned momentarily to a moan from Vin.  Chris continued keeping his eye on Vin's
inert form as he continued,  "Paul decided to take matters into his own hands.  He killed
her husband and dragged his body through town.  The Sheriff arrested him; he was tried,
convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.  Of course his brothers had other ideas. One
night they came and broke Paul out, there was a shoot out.  The sheriff was killed and I killed
Paul."  Chris relived that moment in his mind.  He had had a deep respect for Sheriff Coffey,
almost a fatherly admiration.  Chris knew he shot Paul out of pure anger and hatred.  "The four
remaining brothers scattered and I left town.  I figured it was finished."
 

"Apparently your assumption was far from correct," Ezra commented.
 

"Larabee!  How's your friend doing?" A voice called from the outside followed by  the sound of laughter.
 

"I'm sorry I killed your brother!" Chris yelled out in reply, Josiah and Ezra exchanged surprised
expressions.  "He should of hung like the low-life, scum he was.  I did him a favor by shooting him."


Ezra broke into a grin; Josiah bowed his head hiding his growing smile.  Bullets started to fly above
their heads in retaliation for the disparaging remark.  The three flattened themselves against the floor.


 After the shooting stopped Chris cautiously raised and peered out the window.  All he could see
was a rocky outcrop several yards away covered by a lot of dead brush.  He slid back down.
 

Ezra was counting the ammo he had left.  "I'm afraid I'm down to ten bullets in my paltry arsenal."
 

"I don't have much more," added Josiah.  Chris nodded contemplating the situation. How
many times had he and the others been trapped, against insurmountable odds and escaped,
this time he wasn't so sure.
 

"Larabee! We have a proposition for you," the detached voice called out from the
rocks.
 

"Yeah, what is it?" Chris called back a little reluctantly.
 

"We just want you.  Come out and we'll let your friends go.  We've had enough fun lets get
this over with."
 

Josiah and Ezra regarded Chris intently.  He turned to Josiah and asked,  "How's he doing?"
Nodding towards the injured bounty hunter who remained motionless on the small cot.
 

"Not good, he's holding his own, but needs medical attention, soon.  I got the bleeding stopped,
but he lost a lot of blood and he's very weak.  If infection sets in he won't be able to fight it."  Josiah hated feeling so helpless and it showed on his compassionate face.  "And I'm almost out of water," he added shaking his partially filled canteen listening to the sloshing water.  Chris let out a long breath and leaned his head against the wall.  "I guess it's too much to hope that JD and Buck will come looking for us soon," Josiah ventured to ask.
 

"They don't expect us back from River Rock for at least two days.  I assume the
telegram we received requesting our assistance was a ruse and these men planned this whole
escapade," Ezra replied wearily.
 

Chris chided himself for not checking on the message first.  These men depended on him and he had failed them.  This one mistake might cost the life of his best friend.  His jaw tensed as he clenched his teeth.   "Okay, here's the plan, we wait for dusk then I make a break for it.  I'll lead them away and you two get Vin back to town."
 

"Chris you can't," Josiah protested, he knew Chris felt responsible, but was not willing to let him throw away his life for the rest of them.
 

"Mr. Larabee you will be committing suicide.  They most definitely want to do you great bodily harm," Ezra added rather nonchalantly.
 

Chris looked intently at Ezra and Josiah their concern evident on their faces.  "Look, we don't have
any other choice.  Help won't be here soon enough; we're almost out of ammo and Vin is almost out
of time."  Josiah and Ezra were momentarily silent knowing Chris was right but hoping to think of another option.
 

"There's no guarantee that they'll all ride away and let us go," Josiah pointed out.
 

"I know, but I'm willing to bet they want me bad enough to leave you alone.  Anyway it's a gamble
we'll have to take."
 

"The odds are definitely not in the house's favor, Mr. Larabee," Ezra calmly voiced, scratching the
side of his face.
 

Chris turned his back on his friends ending the discussion.  Josiah and Ezra stared blankly at each
other neither one knowing what to say.  Josiah returned to Vin's side. He hadn't realized the bounty
hunter was awake until he heard his weak voice.
 

"Josiah, you can't let Chris do this.  They'll kill him," Vin gasped, his eyes trying to focus on the
big man.  Josiah sat down wetting a cloth and placing it on Vin's brow, he then turned and looked
back at Chris who was staring morosely out the window.  His gun held loosely in his hand.  "I can't
stop him," his voice laced with concern, afraid that instead of losing one friend, he'll be losing two.
 

The light was failing as the sun began to sink below the far rocky hills.  Long shadows crept up,
like long dark fingers reaching to shroud the lonely cabin in darkness.  Ezra could feel the chill of the night seeping into cabin through the many cracks.  His light jacket giving him little warmth. Chris re-checked both his guns and took one last look outside.  The horses had strayed off to one side within the cover of a copse of saplings. Chris thought he could easily make the distance, there was a fairly large tree in between, which he could use for cover.  He went over to Vin.  It had been over an hour since any sound had been heard and he suspected the McCormicks were waiting for dark to move in closer.
 

Vin struggled to sit up. "Chris, you can't do this.  There's got to be another way.  Don't do this on
account of me," Vin grimaced, as the words rushed out taking what strengh remained, he settled back down.  Chris could see the fever burning in his eyes and glistening on his pale face.
 

"There's no other way Vin, I'd do this for anyone of you and so would you in my position.  We're a family. Don't worry, I'll probably beat you all to town."  Chris gave Vin an unconvincing smile.   Vin knew Chris was right, anyone of them would do the same thing, that's what kept them all alive for so long, but he had a bad feeling about this.  Josiah sat off to the side silently staring at Chris.
 

Chris turned to meet Josiah's troubled gaze, neither one said a word.  He bowed his head and returned to the window.  Ezra was up and leaning against the wall he seemed to be wrestling with some inner issue. Ezra had run out on them once before, but returned.  Chris was certain, the sometime self-seeking gambler, would not abandon them again, well, fairly certain.   Still, he sometimes wondered why Ezra stuck around. Chris knew it wasn't profitable or healthy for a gambler to stay in one town to long, he hoped it was out of loyalty to the rest of the men, but sometimes he just wasn't sure what motivated Ezra Standish.  Someday he hoped to find out.
 

"Its been awfully quiet out there," Ezra quietly stated, breaking from his reverie,without looking over at Chris.
 

Chris nodded solemnly then exclaimed,  "It's our move."  His face grim as he bit his lower lip and removed his pistol from it's holster.
 

Ezra turned and met Chris' blues eyes, he gave Chris a wry smile, and clapped him on the shoulder.
He stepped behind the dark-clad gunslinger palming his derringer.  Ezra paused, turned and struck Chris across the back of the head he dropped bonelessly to the floor.  Josiah stood up and yelled, "What the hell are you doing?"
 

Ezra ignored Josiah's outburst and proceeded to remove Chris' duster and hat, and checked to be sure that he hadn't struck Chris to hard.  Josiah stopped as he realized what Ezra was about to do.
 

"Ezra," Josiah spoke quietly. "Do you know what you're doing?"  The words rode on a breath of disbelief.
 

"Well, it appears, either Mr. Larabee gives a very inspiring speech or I have lost whatever reserve of self-preservation I still held on to. And no Mr. Sanchez I don't know what I am doing and if I thought about it I'd call myself a damn fool, so I refrain from thinking about it."  Ezra donned the black duster and hat. "Can't say much for Mr. Larabee's fashion sense."  Josiah stood silently developing a whole new respect for the somewhat presumptuous gambler.  "I've seemed to have developed an indomitable spirit, something I'm sure I can blame on the company I keep."  Ezra's ramblings hid the apprehension he felt underneath.  "I shall attempt to lead these desperadoes away and you must quickly remove yourselves from the premises, as I have no idea how far I'll get."
 

"What if you get caught?" Josiah asked still slightly dumbfounded by Ezra's action.
 

"The thought had occurred to me.  I believe I'm better qualified to talk my way out of the situation than Mr. Larabee would be.  Hopefully, I won't get the chance to find out. Now if you'd be so kind as to give me as much cover fire as possible."  Josiah paused a moment looking down at the unconscious Chris then over to Vin, then drew his gun and picked up Chris' loaded gun off the floor and walked over to the window. Ezra seemed to say a quick prayer then opened the door and quickly darted to the side.  Bullets immediately began to fly and Josiah returned fire with a vengeance.  He watched as Ezra made his way to Chris' horse and gallop away.  Moments later the sound of several galloping horses raced past the cabin.  Josiah waited a moment, listening.  He then cautiously went out and gathered up the horses bringing them to the front of the cabin.  He looked in the direction that Ezra had taken and wished him luck. 

 



 

Ezra did a pretty good job outrunning the four men.  He managed to stay off the main trail and hoped to circle around and head back towards town, but every time he tried a shot would divert his travels.  He kept them at bay for almost two hours until Chris' horse stumbled, throwing him to the ground.  As he sat up he found himself surrounded by four angry men, guns drawn, all looked cut from the same piece of rawhide.
 

"That's not Larabee!  We've been tricked."  Ezra smiled up at the enraged men.
 

"Well, this is very easy to explain, gentlemen.  It's just an honest mistake."  Ezra reached over and picked up Chris' black hat.
 

"Shut up!" One of the men fired a shot ripping the hat out of Ezra's hand.  He gazed up the smile gone from his face.  There was no talking his way out of this one. "Oh Mrs. Standish's boy does manage to get himself in some rather unhealthy predicaments," Ezra murmured to himself.
 

Dawn was breaking behind them as Chris, Vin and Josiah reached the outskirts of Four Corners.  Chris had awaken to a throbbing head.  Vin had remained unconscious throughout the trip, Josiah sharing his saddle to hold him up.  Chris had not said a word, his thoughts ranging from anger at being waylaid to downright fear for Ezra. Why had he done it?  He hoped to have the chance to ask him.  They rode in silence into town three riders on two horses and one lone horse being lead.
 

As they pulled up to the saloon JD and Mary raced towards them their smiles replaced with a sense of foreboding as they looked upon the weary men.
 

"JD get Nathan, Vin's badly hurt," Josiah said hoarsely.  JD raced away and past Buck who helped Josiah lower Vin off the horse.  They carried his limp form into the saloon.  Chris carefully dismounted as Mary approached him.  He steadied himself by leaning against Vin's horse.  Mary placed a hand on his arm and looked towards the riderless horse.
 

"Isn't that Ezra's horse?"
 

Chris nodded once and stopped, the movement caused his head to pound slightly.  JD and Nathan raced by and Chris called out, "JD, tell Josiah and Buck I need you all out here now!"  JD waved and raced inside.
 

Chris could feel Mary's hand on his arm, it was the only thing that felt real to him right now.  All he could think of was his best friend seriously wounded and Ezra who was running for his very life because of him.
 

"Chris, what happened?  Is Ezra..." Mary choked back the word.
 

"I don't know," Chris kept his head down; his voice was flat, emotionless.  "But I intend to find out and God or the devil help them if he is."  He raised his head and faced her, his blue eyes now the color of a stormy sky, sent a chill of dread through her.  Mary swallowed and stepped back as Josiah, Buck and JD came out of the saloon.
 

"How's Vin?" Chris asked.
 

"Nathan thinks he'll make it.  He said it's a good thing we got him here when we did," Josiah stated.
 

"Okay, Josiah get fresh horses I'll explain everything to Buck and JD."  Josiah headed off to the stable.  JD and Buck looked anxiously towards Chris.
 

"We were ambushed, the telegram we received was a fake.  It was the McCormick
brothers," Chris wearily stated.
 

"Oh man!" Buck groaned.  Chris had told him the story sometime ago, and in fact, him and Chris were together in that Nevada town, until Buck decided to go and call on an old acquaintance a few miles south.  They were going to meet up sometime later that week.
 

"How did they end up going after Ezra?" JD asked.
 

Chagrin flickered over Chris' face. "It was suppose to be me they chased, but apparently Ezra had his own ideas."  Chris rubbed the back of his head.  "The man picks the worst time to get heroic," Chris remarked.
 

Josiah appeared with four fresh horses.  "Chris, you should rest maybe get something to eat," Mary worriedly suggested.
 

"No time, it may already be to late," Chris replied a little more sharply than he intended.  He immediately looked towards Mary and reached to place a stray hair back in place, she gave him an understanding smile.  The four quickly mounted and rode out.  They picked up the trail a little south of the cabin.  JD rode ahead and after about an hour of riding shouted back to the others.  "Over here!"  Chris and the others quickly caught up to JD who was dismounted and holding a battered black hat with a hole in it.  Chris stared at the familiar hat then jerked his horse around and continued.  Buck pulled his horse up alongside Josiah's, the horses snorted in acceptance.  "Why do you think he did it, Josiah?"
 

Josiah looked up to the sky as if searching for an answer, he pulled his hat off letting the shifting breeze ruffle his hair.  "Who can tell what makes a man do the things he does.  And why are we so surprised? We always knew Ezra had it in him, no matter how hard he tried to hide it."
 

"Well, I know, but Ezra?" Buck shook his head in disbelief.  "I sure hope he's all right!"
 

Josiah turned to the gregarious cowboy.  "So do I Buck, so do I."
 

 



 

The four men sat around a campfire passing a bottle of whiskey around and laughing quietly.  Off to the side just at the edge of the fire's light Ezra laid barely conscious.  He had endured several hours of fierce beating.  The men taking their anger out on his body.  At first he tried to protect himself and then he succumbed, just hoping he would survive.  A kick to the head plunged him into darkness, he was sure the men continued, but he was far removed from it.  He was then dragged behind a horse for several yards until the rope broke, probably saving his life.  His clothes were in tatters.  He could barely make out what the men were saying a few feet away and he wasn't sure what was real and what were just the figments of his tortured mind and pain-ridden body.  During brief moments of blissful unconsciousness his mother was there saying how proud she was of him one moment then how disappointed the next.  It would always end with her walking away from him as he cried for her.
 

"So Sam, what do you want to do with Mr. fancy pants?"
 

A medium height, pudgy man with an irritable temper, who was now wearing Chris' dark duster, finished off the last of the whiskey, tossed the bottle aside and replied sourly, "Send his body back to Larabee in pieces."  The other men chuckled in unison.
 

"Why did this guy pretend to be Larabee?" A man who looked to be a younger version of Sam added as he stirred some embers to life.
 

"Maybe he was expendable," another added.
 

"Or maybe Larabee's a coward," another voice answered. "I don't like this we should move out."
 

Sam reached down and picked up another bottle of whiskey.  "You worry too much, Tom.  Let me do the thinking here."  He grabbed the cork with his teeth and spit it out taking a long swig from the bottle.
 

Ezra had caught the word expendable and chuckled silently thinking that was probably one of the reasons why he was in this position, at times he thought of himself as expendable.  He tried to move to a more comfortable position, but couldn't find one.  His wrists were tied and covered with dried blood where the rope had cut into them when he was dragged.  They hadn't bothered tying his feet, it hardly mattered, he barely had the strength to lift his head.  He could still feel every rock he struck and thorn he brushed over.  His body felt raw, his back took most of the punishment and he didn't think he had much skin left on it.  One eye was swollen shut and he knew he had some broken ribs he only hoped they wouldn't puncture a lung.  His head spun and throbbed constantly.
 
 
 
 

By nightfall Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD had found the McCormick's camp.  Buck silently crept under the underbrush that ran alongside a small creek.  His legs stretched into the cold water as he made his way as close to the camp as he dared.  He peered out and took note of every man's position. He could barely make out the motionless form on the other side of the camp fire.  He watched for several minutes hoping to see some movement, any movement.  He slowly made his way back to the others.
 

They had hidden themselves behind a small knoll several yards away.  When Buck returned he related what he had seen.  "There's four of them, it looks like they've been drinking.  One seemed to be standing guard, he carried a rifle, but they didn't look like they expected any trouble."
 

JD whispered the question that was on everyone's mind. "Did you see Ezra?"
 

Buck paused a moment and a sad look came to his face, not that anyone could see it in the dark, but they could hear it in his voice. "Yeah,  he wasn't moving and they didn't seem to be paying him much attention."  Buck left the thought unsaid.  JD swallowed hard and bowed his head halting the tears that threatened to fall.
 

Chris closed his eyes holding back the intense feelings which threatened to come to the surface; anger, sadness, despair.  He quickly pulled himself out of his private black hole knowing if there was a chance Ezra was still alive he had to have all his wits about him, and if he wasn't, well, he'd let his anger take over then.
 

"Do you have a plan, Chris?" Buck asked his silent friend.  Clouds had moved aside allowing the the moon's glow to reveal the maleficent smile forming on Chris' lips.
 

"Sometimes the best approach is the direct one," Chris exclaimed in a voice that sent a slight chill down Josiah's spine.  Buck just smiled.
 

One of the McCormick brothers casually walked over to Ezra. He used his boot to nudge the semi-conscious man, who groaned. "Well, you're still with us, uh? You're pretty tough for a fancy pants," Russ commented, taking a swig from a bottle of whiskey, he squatted down. Ezra's eyes were full of anger, despite the violent tremors, which shook his body. Russ, whose eyes were the color of a winter sky, studied the handsome gambler like someone studying an insect he's about to squash.  Russ could tell Ezra was in a lot of pain which didn't bother him in the slightest, in fact he rather enjoyed watching someone suffer.  He took another swig and wiped his mouth on his sleeve a huge grin showing his lack of dental hygiene.  "Don't worry now, we'll put you out of your pain soon enough."  Russ stood up. "We'll talk some more later, if you're still with us," Russ chuckled.
 

"I look forward to it," Ezra managed to say in a quiet hoarse voice, which completely stunned Russ.  He stared at the injured man whose face was showing no emotion, Ezra was very practiced at maintaining a poker face.
 

Russ's bewilderment was interrupted by a shout from Sam, "Hey Russ, come here!"  Russ slowly walked away still keeping his eye on Ezra.  As soon as Russ was gone pain twisted Ezra's face and he whimpered slightly.
 

The desert can get mighty cold at night and Ezra already felt the chill slowly draining his remaining strength he doubted he'd make it through the night.  But if at all possible he would try and disappoint his captors.  He heard the soothing sound of a distant owl, then a moment later another bird call, closer this time.  He became suddenly alert and raised his head, the four men still mingled around the fire.  Ezra heard a rustling in the brush behind him and tried to focus with his one good eye.  He hoped his mind wasn't playing tricks on him.
 

Larabee stepped out of the brush so quietly that it was several moments before the four men realized he was there.
 

"Can anyone join this party or is it a private affair," Chris stated, a contemptuous smirk on his normally impassive face. The three men sitting around the fire jumped up.  The fourth man turned, his rifle in hand, and froze as they stared at Chris who stood just outside the camp's firelight.
 

Ezra could barely hear the commotion by the fire and he thought he heard Chris' voice, the last thing he remembered was two large hands reaching out from the brush and grabbing him.
 

"So you decided to face us, huh?"  Sam asked laying his hand on the butt of his gun, gray eyes stared at Chris' blue ones.  "I heard you were fast?"
 

Chris just stared at the man silently, which started to unnerve the rest of his little coterie.  He then quietly remarked, "I've heard that too."
 

"We still have your friend," Tom declared rather quickly.
 

"Are you sure about that?" Chris gave a knowing smirk.  One of the McCormicks, the one who Chris couldn't remember his name turned around.
 

"Sam, he's gone!" That's when the four realized Chris was not alone, but it was too late.  The McCormick brothers went for their guns.  Chris dropped to the ground and fired hitting Sam square in the chest, he rolled and continued firing as JD and Buck also fired from out of the wilderness.  It lasted only moments and as silence returned Chris stood to look upon four men lying in the dust.  Two groaned and slowly sat up.  Buck and JD walked over to them, kicking their guns away.  They pulled the two roughly to their feet.
 

"This isn't over, Larabee!" Russ remarked venomously, holding his injured arm.  The other man had suffered a bullet graze across the temple and was a little dazed.
 

Chris stepped up to within inches of Russ's face. "Oh yes it is, we're taking you to stand trial for the attempted murder of two peace officers."  Russ dropped his eyes at Chris' stoic stare. "And if one of them dies I'll hang you myself."  Josiah had brought Ezra over to the fire and was trying to make him as comfortable as possible. When Chris looked upon Ezra's beaten body, for a moment he thought they were too late.  JD and Buck shot looks of disgust at their prisoners and forced them over to a nearby tree where they were tied.
 

JD cocked his pistol shoving it into Russ's arrogant face, but Buck forced it down. "Now JD you're the sheriff you have to be more civilized, show more restraint than that."
 

"Did you see what they did to him," JD blurted out, his anger causing his whole body to shake.
 

Russ's eyes narrowed in contempt.  "Yeah, be a good lawman.  You should have heard your friend scream when we dragged him."  Russ laughed.
 

Buck's eyes flared.  "Well I'm not a sheriff!" he replied, as his fist connected with Russ' jaw snapping the man's head back into the tree.  Buck grabbed Russ by the collar his eyes unable to focus on the enraged gunslinger.  Buck took a deep breath and released his hold on Russ's collar whose head slumped down to his chest.
 

JD grinned.  "How'd it feel, Buck?"  Buck's anger quickly subsided replaced with his usual carefree demeanor.
 

He placed his arm across JD's shoulder and led him away.  "Great kid!  There's a lot to be said for releasing one's primal urges."
 

JD and Buck returned to Josiah who was tending to Ezra the best he could.  Buck's smile vanished as he and JD stood helplessly by the dying fire.  Chris went over to Sam's body and removed his duster.  He took it and placed it on Ezra.  Ezra moaned slightly his eyes flickered open and the hint of a smile crossed his features.  Josiah propped him up and gave him a sip of water which brought some relief to his parched throat.  Chris knelt down beside his injured friend whose body was already burning with fever.  His face ashen, his expression a taut mask of controlled agony.
 

"That was a damn fool thing to do," Chris good-naturedly admonished the stalwart gambler.
 

Ezra sighed, cleared his throat; his words slow to form and punctuated by deep rasping breathes, "Ah, well...Mr. Larabee...sometimes foolish works....  In this case I'm not so sure."  He looked up at Chris who could see the question in his eyes.
 

"Vin's okay, he owes you his life, we both do." Chris placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder. He knew from that day forward he would never doubt Ezra's loyalty.
 

"Well maybe you two could bring yourself to join me in a friendly game of poker, later."  Ezra smiled and slowly sank into darkness.
 

Chris flashed a worry gaze at Josiah who checked to see if Ezra was still breathing.  He nodded.  Chris turned to JD who stood motionless. "JD ride up ahead and tell Nathan what's happened, we'll follow as quick as we can."  JD just nodded acknowledgment and raced off into the dark.
 

 



 

Nathan and JD met Chris and the others as they rode in.  Ezra was riding in a travois behind Chris' horse and had not regained consciousness.  JD helped Buck take the prisoners over to the jail.  Nathan quickly checked Ezra's pulse and  was shocked at his appearance.  JD had told him what had happened but nothing could prepare him for this.  He had only seen this done once before to a runaway slave and that slave had died.  "Get him inside, I have a tub waiting we need to clean these wounds!"  Nathan ran ahead as Chris and Josiah carefully lifted the unconscious man and carried him inside and up the stairs.  They placed Ezra into a tub of warm water he groaned slightly but remained unconscious.  Josiah and Chris held him as Nathan gently cleansed his many wounds. "How can a man do this to another man," Nathan murmured to himself.  Red welts and deep gashes crisscrossed Ezra's pale and sweat-covered body. Purple and blue bruises covered his chest and arms.
 

Afterwards Chris and Josiah laid Ezra gently down in the bed next to Vin who was sitting up, the shock evident on his face. "Oh my God, what did they do to him?"  Vin was up and at Ezra's side.
 

Nathan pushed him back down.  "Did I say you could get up!" The dark man scolded.  Vin sat back down like a berated child.  His shoulder was bound and it still throbbed slightly and getting up to quick made him light headed, but looking at Ezra's bruised and raw body his own wounds seemed minor in comparison.
 

JD and Buck quietly entered the room looking over Chris's shoulder.  Nathan placed a cool clothe on Ezra's head and checked his pulse and breathing.  He lifted an eyelid and checked his pupil. The bath had eased his irritated body somewhat and he seemed to be in a more restful sleep even though his body still remained hot to the touch.  Nathan turned to Chris and the others.  "I think he has a concussion, he could come out of it tomorrow or never.  We're just going to have to wait and pray that infection doesn't set in.  The herbs in the tub should help numb some of the pain."  Chris nodded without saying a word his mouth held in a firm straight line.  Josiah placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
 

For two days and nights, a fever burned through Ezra's weakened body.  Each member of the seven took turns administering to the injured gambler, keeping his wounds clean and his fever down.  Vin found himself talking more than he had ever talked before, even though it was to someone who might not hear him.  Finally on the third day Ezra slowly came around.  Nathan smiled down at the pale and worn man and sent JD out to inform the others.  Nathan cursorily checked over Ezra as the frail gambler tried to bring things into focus.  Nathan then handed Ezra a mug.  "Here, drink this, it'll help with the pain."
 

Ezra drank the noxious concoction, coughed and settled back down.  "I do believe you're trying to kill me Mr. Jackson," he gasped.  Nathan grinned, that was exactly what he wanted to hear.
 

Chris and Buck entered the room as Nathan remarked, "Now I know you'll be okay Ezra."  Vin who had been up and pacing the room like a caged animal, smiled with relief at his friend's recovery.
 

"Ezra you had us scared to death!" Buck announced his smile stretching from ear to ear.
 

Chris turned to JD.  "How are your prisoners?"
 

JD grinned, "Oh they're fine, probably hungry though, Buck forgot to feed them yesterday."  Buck gave Chris a guilty grin and shrugged. Chris returned with a faint grin and turned his attention back to Ezra.
 

Ezra smiled at the familiar banter he thought he would never hear again.  Chris stepped up to his bedside.  Prepared for a severe reprimand, Ezra was surprised when Chris said,  "You owe me a new hat."  Ezra returned Chris's smile.
 

"Okay, everyone out, my patient needs rest!" Nathan commanded.  Everyone started to walk out.  "Not you!" Nathan grabbed Vin by the collar and forced him back down with little resistance.
 

"Ah, Nathan how much longer do I have to lay here?" Vin complained.
 

Nathan thought this over.  "Tomorrow."
 

"Mr. Jackson I do believe you're enjoying this," Ezra commented.  Nathan turned to hide a smile and walked out to get some more water.
 

Vin stared at the gambler like he was seeing him for the first time.  "I'm not much on words but, thanks, Ezra."
 

Ezra turned his head to face the other man.  "No thanks necessary Mr. Tanner, that's what family's for.  You'd of done the same for me."
 

The End (Mar 1999)
 

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