Magnificent Seven Old West
Fortune's Expensive Smile by Farad

Luck is not chance, it's toil; fortune's expensive smile is earned. - Emily Dickinson

Ezra says he doesn't like mornings – and for the most part, he's telling the truth. After a long night of playing cards and charming people he barely knows, he prefers the solitude of his room, the slow, safe coming into awareness of a quiet, uninterrupted solitude.

But true appreciation of such a morning, of languishing between the soft, clean sheets of his bed, luxuriating in the softness of a thick mattress, is more profound when he has the contrast of standing in the livery before dawn, the smell of horse sweat and leather sharp against the cold air of the night, the sounds of men muttering and horses grunting their annoyance as they are saddled and bridled and dressed for the road.

If he were riding on his own, as has been the vast majority of his experience, he would be determining what he absolutely had to have, taking the supplies that a single man in the wilds would need.

But he often rides with others now, and because of the nature of those rides, more things are needed and delegation occurs. It's a testament to how routine this is becoming that on this particular morning, he doesn't have to stop and consider who has what and what he himself feels he must take, also, 'just in case.' It's a testament to his foolishness that he has come to trust these men to bring the things that they need.

Buck will carry the heavy frying pan, large enough to cook beans and bacon for them all, if need be. JD will have the coffee pot, and several bags of oats for the horses. Josiah will have half the food, Buck the other half. Josiah will also have a large canvas that can be used to cover anything that needs covering, should there be the random but much-needed rain.

Nathan will have his medical supplies and for a mission such as this, he will have many bandages and most of his herbal concoctions. They don't know what they'll find when – if – they catch up with the raiders.

Vin and Chris will ride light – Vin, as tracker, will take point, and Chris will back him up.

Leaving Ezra to carry the heavy long rope, the pick axe for digging into the packed earth, and the small shovel.

Each of them carries his own necessities – bedrolls, a few clean shirts and things, in case of need, bandanas, rifles, bullets, Neatsfoot oil, canteens and hardtack in case they separate or get separated. And they each carry their own personal forms of 'medicine' – pain killers – just in case. Chris, Josiah, and Ezra have liquor, in well-wrapped bottles or vest-pocket flasks. Nathan has laudanum – not for himself but as part of his kit; for himself, he carries a cigar in one pocket and a vial of willow bark tea. Vin has herbs of some sort that he carries in a pouch that's probably in his saddlebags at the moment; if things get rough, Ezra will see it under his shirt, a small bulk just below his wrinkled bandana.

Buck has a tin of ointment, a jar of lotion, and a perfumed handkerchief that he pulls out for various types of relief; JD has taken to carrying a picture of Casey in his pocket watch. Ezra knows that he's not always checking the time when he pulls the small silver watch out of its pocket in his vest.

And they all have their gun belts and holsters securely attached, guns cleaned, loaded, and ready. Ezra himself had spent part of the evening oiling his holster so that his revolver will slide easily out of it. He has seen Chris and Buck doing the same thing on the boardwalk outside the saloon as they had prepared for the early morning. He knew the others had, too, their guns a necessity on this sort of mission.

Vin and Chris are the first to head out of the livery, and Ezra's not surprised to find them mounted and talking to each other. They already know which way they're going – south, toward the border, the raiders most likely headed toward Purgatory – so this conversation will be about tactics. As he mounts, he hears Josiah behind him murmuring some prayer, and Buck giving JD unwanted advice on how best to balance the weight of items on the saddle.

Vin and Chris separate, Vin turning his horse toward the road and cantering off as Chris draws over to them to tell them what they all know already: "Vin's gonna ride ahead, look for any signs that they're breaking off the trail we think they're taking. I'll ride behind him, you guys follow along."

"So, same as always?" Buck asks, his voice light despite the hour and the tension. Despite the situation. The raiders took women when they hit the Frye farm yesterday afternoon, two women, seven horses, and a everything valuable that Mrs. Frye had brought with them from back east. It wasn't the first place they'd hit in the area, or in the past few days. The two Frye women weren't the first women, either. There'd been a couple of women – girls, actually, one no older than thirteen – who'd been taken two days before, at a couple of farms outside of Eagle Bend. They'd gotten the telegraph from the Judge about it, just after the oldest Frye boy had come riding into town at a gallop, yelling for help.

"You get the Fryes settled?" he asks Josiah who's mounting up.

"They aren't happy about being left behind," Josiah answers, "but they're more worried about getting the women back."

"We'll move faster – a lot faster – without a posse," Chris says.

"Think they've got a right to defend their women," Buck says, and though he smiles, his teeth flashing in the light of the lanterns, his tone is hard. It's an argument they had last night and if Buck had his way, would probably still be having.

Chris makes a noise, sort of a grunt, which is all the answer he gives before he also pulls his horse around and heads out after Vin.

"Why don't we get to do that?" JD asks, spurring his horse to follow. "Why does Chris always go after Vin?"

"Cause he's Chris Larabee," Buck says, "and he's in charge."

It's true enough that Ezra doesn't think to argue as Buck follows JD, but as he glances to Josiah, he catches the look that passes between Josiah and Nathan. It's tired, worried, and a little amused.

It's the same way that Ezra feels. And he's a little more amused as he realizes that he's not the only one who sees the way things are.

It's a long morning, riding hard but not too fast; they stay back from Vin and Chris who pull ahead, often enough, but then end up doubling back when they realize they've lost the trail. Losing the trail happens less and less, though, the farther they get from the town and into the desert. The band of outlaws has not reckoned with the likes of an Indian tracker, something that Ezra finds both pleasing and, at times, unnerving. He tries not to think about Vin's time with the Indians, finding it unsettling.

Vin and Chris stay pretty far in the distance, often out of sight. Their job is to find the outlaws, but not to attack them – and more importantly, not to alert them to the presence of the posse. It's often frustrating to the other five, to be left back, to rush then have to slow down.

The five of them ride in small groups that switch out every now and then, but which are mostly Buck and JD, Nathan and Josiah, and Ezra somewhere between the others. Sometimes, he's envious of the closeness between the others: Buck and JD, brothers under the skin; Josiah and Nathan, men who know each other's thoughts; and Chris and Vin.

They stop a few times along the way, when they have to slow because of doubling back or to keep from riding over Chris and Vin. The horses, lathered by the speed and the hot sun, appreciate the breaks and the water they get served from hats or the frying pan. It's well after the sun peaks and starts down toward the west that they stop at a small stream, letting the horses drink and rest while they refill their own water supplies. They don't make a fire, not sure they have the time, but Josiah has cheese that goes well with their different biscuits and breads. Before any of them feel rested, Chris gallops in, slowing only as his horse draws close to the stream.

"They broke off, didn't go into Purgatorio," he says, dismounting as his horse steps into the water and drinks deeply. "Vin's watching them now – they have the Frye women and a couple others, and a whole string of horses. There are about sixteen of them – we couldn't get a clear count, but Vin should have it by the time we catch up."

"Why'd they stop?" Buck asks, holding out a cheese-filled biscuit to Chris.

Chris nods his appreciation as he takes it. "Food, maybe," he says with a shrug. "Might have more to do with the women they took, though, and hiding the horses."

Anger burns along Ezra's spine, roiling in his belly and churning the bread and cheese he's eaten. They all know what's happening to the women – what's already happened, what will continue to happen until they are rescued. The girl, especially, weighs on Ezra' mind. He has never seen her, but he envisions a slip of a thing, long dark curls framing a big-eyed, smiling face. He dreamed about her last night, only in his dreams, it had been his cousin Albertine, a girl he'd known years before, when he was just a boy himself. It was her voice that had spoken to him in his dreams – her screams that had awakened him well before the tread of Vin's boots on the corridor outside his room.

No other words are needed; they're mounted and on their way with Chris still taking big bites of his biscuit.

It's another good hour or so before Chris slows and then stops, waving for the rest of them to do the same. They've come up to the side of a low canyon and Chris stops them in a wide area in the shade. There's a path off to one side that winds along the wall to the top, and Ezra sees the signs that it's been used recently. "Wait here," Chris says, his voice quiet. "I'll ride up, see where we stand."

More waiting, but this time with expectation. Ezra sits on a boulder, shuffling a deck of cards in one hand. The other is on his pistol. He doesn't feel safe here, and he knows the others don't either. Even Buck and JD are subdued, Buck's jaw tight and JD's face pale. Nathan is sharpening his knives – unnecessarily – and Josiah is reading his Bible, his lips moving as he recites some prayer that Ezra suspects is for forgiveness for the things to come. The horses graze restlessly, picking up the men's moods.

Chris comes back after what seems an eternity. His eyes are hard and the lines of his face seem deeper than usual, casting shadows that make his face look almost skull-like. "The canyon isn't a box, but it's close. Vin's working his way around to get as close as he can to the exit, hoping to keep them trapped. Around the next curve, the path splits. Each path goes to the top, but puts out in different places. We leave the horses here, go up on foot. I'll take the left fork, which will put me behind Vin. Josiah, Nathan, you go right and keep working your way around the other side. Ezra, Buck, JD, follow me and space out as you go – once we reach the top, you'll see the lay of it. Stay low – I don't want them to know we're here." He looked at each of them. "When we're all in place, Vin will take the first shot—"

He turns suddenly, his hand pulling his gun from the holster so naturally that Ezra doesn't notice. He's drawn his own weapon, as have most of the others. But it's Vin, making his way down the hillside towards them on foot. He's sliding along, barely holding his balance or his rifle, his hat bouncing on his back. His face is as grim as Chris', his light blue eyes hard.

"Change of plans," he says as he stumbles to a stop in front of them. "About five of 'em left, riding out through the opening. The others posted guards and they've got a couple of scouts out, prowling around. We can't get nowhere near 'em until dark."

Chris glares at Vin until Vin looks up at him. Then Chris sighs and shakes his head. "You got a plan?"

Vin does. He gathers them all together, using a stick to draw the formation of the canyon and the location of the raiders' camp. Ezra's reminded of their very first adventure together, the attack on the Seminole village. It seems like another life, though it's only been a couple of years.

"Camp's close to the back of the canyon, near a wellspring. You can't sneak up on it except at night. Nothing on the floor but a bunch of scrub pines and some tumbleweeds and some wild grass." He draws a circle near the base of the back wall of the canyon. It's the closest point to the camp but still pretty far away. "I think there's a stream or a water pool here – somewhere that they keep leading the horses to and they keep going themselves. I reckon it ain't much, but it's enough to draw them away from the camp, and it's also close to where they keep the horses – they're here." He draws a line that's about half way from the camp to the back of the canyon. "We got to get the horses away – just as always. Make it so they can't run away or come at us on horseback."

"We're going to be on foot?" Ezra asks, studying the lines in the dirt. He knows how he would do it if he had to, and he suspects that Vin and Chris were thinking the same thing.

"After dark," Chris answers, cutting in as Vin opens his mouth. "Vin and I are going in. We want to roust the horses, get the men out trying to control them while we get back and try to get the women."

"Just the two of you?" Buck asks, his voice low. "That's suicide."

Ezra has to agree. Not that he wants to speak up.

"Need y'all up on the ridge," Vin says, using the stick to tap three places at the top of the canyon. "Need to be able to shoot at 'em, to cover us, need some shots going off around 'em to let 'me know we got protection they can't see."

"Won't that put you two in a possible crossfire?" Josiah asks, looking at Vin. "It wouldn't be so bad in the daylight, but in the dark…"

Vin looks back at him, his gaze as direct as always. "Ain't got much choice. It won't be easy making it across the open ground between the canyon wall and the camp. I'd rather it was just me, but Chris is right – two of us will make quicker work than one, long as we don't get caught at it. And it'll be bright enough – moon's full tonight, and the fires are spaced pretty far apart."

"Four would be even better," Josiah persists. "Two to move the horses, two to get the women. Still leaves three positioned to attack them from the high ground."

It is the better plan – a variation of the one they'd used on the wagon train. They all know it. But it's also a lot more dangerous. Had to be if Chris wasn't ordering this plan.

"I'll go."

Ezra closes his eyes, not at all surprised by the offer. Nor by the immediate responses.

"This ain't no game, kid—"

"Now you think you're some kind of damned Indian—"

"Not a good idea, son—"

"No." The last is from Chris, cutting through Vin and Buck and Josiah as easily as a knife through hot bread. "Too risky, too many ways for you to get caught—"

"I'll go with him. We can come in from the opposite side that you and Vin are coming in on – we get the horses, you and Vin get to the women."

Like the others, Ezra turns to look at Nathan, who is sitting calmly, sharpening his knives, still, as if they are on a picnic. Nathan doesn't look away from what he's doing, his words as calm and even as before. "I spent most of my life sneaking around under white folks' noses – how the hell you think I got away from that plantation and to the North? And I did that in the middle of the day, bright as it could be. I can get JD into the camp. The way I see it, you gonna need your best shots up here, and with Vin down in the camp, that leaves Buck, Ezra, and Josiah. 'Sides…" He finally looks up, wiping the knife off on a cloth he carries with his sharpening stone, the Neatsfoot Oil pungent in the heat. "…no way to know what shape those women are in. You might need me before you can get them out of the camp."

Ezra catches the look that Vin and Chris share, and he knows that Nathan's words are truer than either man wants to admit. Truer than any of them want to think about.

Uninvited, the face from his dreams float through his mind, freckles on pale skin, hazel eyes full of mischief.

Chris doesn't like the plan, but Nathan's right and they all know it. Ezra's surprised to be included in the round-up of competent distance shooters, but then, with Vin leading the insanity on the ground, it's not as if there's a long line of competitors left for the title.

An hour later, he's settled into position. Buck, the better shot, is situated at the point closest to the mouth of the canyon. The sun is setting and they have hours yet to wait. The moon comes up slow but full, its light very bright in the utter darkness of the desert night.

Hours to wait in which the screams of the women vary, sometimes high and shrill, slicing into his gut and pounding in his temples, more times low and begging, making him sweat and shake. And curse. He uses every word he knows, invoking every horror he can think of on these men who do these vile things – and not once. Before the sun sets, he can tell that several of the men are visiting repeatedly, on different women.

Across the canyon, he suspects that Josiah is praying, and at times, as the interminable night wears on, he finds himself doing the same. When he's not cursing Vin and Chris for waiting to give the signal, and not fighting off the memories of Albertine. He'd only seen her cry once, one evening when they'd been out late, playing along the creek on the far side of the house. They'd missed supper, which he'd cautioned her about, but she didn't want to go back, said she wanted to stay out and eat berries. When it had started to grow dark, he'd insisted they return to the house. She'd cried then, a panicked sound that had made him scared, but she wouldn't tell him why.

Now, the shriek that fills the air is so young and so pure that he can no longer contain himself. He's up, his rifle cocked against his shoulder, and the only thing that stops him from firing is the fact that he can't find a target; there are three fires below in the camp, and while he knows the women are kept together near the largest one of them, he can't distinguish the attacker from the attacked.

A shriek comes again, and he looks around wildly, almost wishing he could find anything – even Vin or Chris – to fire at. How can they have let this go on? Have they taken complete leave of their senses?

A shot does come then, and for a heart-stopping moment, he's certain that it's someone in the camp, someone firing on the women.

But as the thought settles in his head, he sees the men in the camp looking around, searching past the light of the campfires. Then another shot comes, and a third, this one from a different rifle and he recognizes not only the sounds but the locations. Buck has fired the first two, Josiah the third.

The men below are scrambling now, some pulling up rifles and shooting wildly into the dark. Ezra looks to the horses, listens for the sound of stampede, expecting them to be moving, but while they are agitated by the gunfire, they remain in place, still tied to the tie line stretched between two long sticks shoved into the hard ground.

Like Ezra, Buck was no longer able to wait for the signal. Which means that Vin and Chris and JD and Nathan are fair game for the men on the ground, if the sentries are now paying attention.

They are. It's mere seconds before someone below shouts about an attack, and Ezra doesn't have to see into the darkness to know that they're looking toward Vin and Chris. And then firing.

There's one advantage to the early attack; Ezra can clearly see the men in the camp shooting toward Chris and Vin, and he has the distinct pleasure of taking down at least two of them and seeing three more fall from some combination of Buck's, Josiah's, and Chris' and Vin's bullets.

Or Chris'; as Ezra's taking aim for another shot, steadying the barrel of the long gun on a rock, he sees Vin rolling through the undergrowth. It takes him a second to recognize Vin, though; he's hatless, his long hair tied back and his face and hands are covered with something dark, soot or something else that hides his skin. He's carrying his long knife in one hand, the blade flashing in the firelight – until it finds a target. Ezra looks away from the scene, finding it distasteful though he is somewhat pleased to hear the scream of the man who caught the blade.

Eleven of them, there had been eleven of them at the beginning of this mess, and now they were down to five. As long as—

But as he thinks it, it happens. There is a cry, distinctly feminine, and he looks to find two of the raiders dragging two barely-dressed women from the dark, using them as shields.

They look pitiful. One is barely into her womanhood, her face streaked with something dark that might be blood, and dark splotches that might be bruises. Her hair hangs loose and wild, matted in places. She wears only a petticoat and chemise, and both are ripped, torn, and stained. She staggers as she is dragged along, unable, Ezra suspects, to keep her feet.

As she passes close to a fire, he can see that her hair is dark brown, the same as Albertine's, and for an instant, he is dizzy with fear. But as his breath catches in his throat, his mind snaps out of the memory, recalling that Albertine is older than he is now, no longer a girl.

And he sees the girl below, sees her as a stranger – and yet as a child.

The other woman is in much the same way, though older, perhaps in her early twenties. The two men drawing them along are calling out, demanding a cease fire. Around them, the firing slows but doesn't stop. Some of it is from the raiders themselves, who aren't aware of what's going on among their own; but some of it is coming from Josiah, and Ezra takes a few seconds to realize that so far, Nathan and JD have not been discovered. All of the firing is toward Chris and Vin and toward the three of them at the top of the canyon.

And Vin – Vin isn't there. He wonders if Vin has been hit and he didn't see, distracted as he was by the women. But he knows better; if Vin had fallen, Chris would already have forced a bloody path through the remaining raiders.

New noises, different shouts, then the thunder of hooves and the noises of spooked horses. JD and Nathan have done their part, freeing the horses which are now running away, hurried on by shouts and gunshots.

Ezra turns back, trying to find a target, but things below are in utter disarray. The two men holding the women as hostages are confused, not sure what to do. Then, suddenly, one of them, the one holding the girl, is pulled backwards. Ezra watches as a dark figure rises up behind the raider, a flash of light as the flames from a fire catch the metal of the knife blade – then the man is falling backwards, a rush of dark liquid streaming out before him.

He recognizes the shape only as it moves – Vin, slipping past the girl who has fallen to her knees, already on the second man. He moves so fast, the blade hardly visible, but the blood, oh the blood. Even from this distance, Ezra thinks he can smell the meaty, charnel smell of it.

The remaining raiders are confused, some running toward the horses, some shooting at Nathan and JD and Chris and – there's Vin, trying to get the two women he's freed to somewhere safe. From what Ezra can see, he's scaring them more than helping them, the two women clinging to each other as they stumble away from Vin, but they're moving.

Chris yells, "Drop your guns, drop your guns!" and a couple of the raiders do. But two others turn from the horses back toward Chris' voice, shooting at him. One of the shots misses, but the other doesn't, and Ezra watches disbelievingly as Chris Larabee spins round, his gun falling from his hand as he crumples to the ground.

Everything seems to stop. Ezra has no sense of time as he stares at the scene below, Chris stretched out on the ground, the firelight dancing obscenely in the spreading pool of blood, turning it from black to bright red but never hiding its growth. Ezra is deaf, the sound of that one last shot echoing in his ears as if it is the last thing he will ever hear, and he cannot breathe, his lungs burning for air but his body has forgotten how to function. All he can do is stare at this image that his mind cannot take in, cannot fathom.

The image explodes then, movement and sound returning simultaneously and with a degree of intensity that is painful. He blinks, his eyes burning with grit and gun smoke, and the weight of his rifle is heavy in his hands, but his arms no longer ache with the strain of it and he no longer feels the bruise in his shoulder from the repeated recoil. With no thought, he aims at one of the raiders, peripherally aware that the man is lowering his gun, but Ezra is uncaring; he sights on the man's chest, no thinking involved, and his finger closes on the trigger. He's aware of other gunfire, aware of the bodies falling faster, of the screams and yells of the injured, but they are passing annoyances, flies buzzing along on the breeze.

The man, his target, fumbles at the pocket of his jacket with one hand, while the other turns the gun to one side. It's a motion Ezra knows, the preface to reloading, and he squeezes the trigger.

But as the bullet launches up the barrel of his rifle, the man shifts – no, the man jerks backwards, his gun arm flailing, the hand in his pocket caught and that arm flapping. Then blood gushes down the front of his shirt, a torrent so dark and thick that Ezra can no longer make out the plaid lines of the shirt. The man's head hangs to one side at an unnatural angle against Vin's chest before the man slides down to the ground.

Ezra stares at the man he thought he knew. The front of Vin's shirt is black and glistening and Ezra knows that it's blood. Even this far away, Vin eyes are wide, almost glowing against the black-ash on his face. His features, though, are contorted into an expression that Ezra has never seen on a human. It's the face of a demon, or a wild animal.

Or a crazy man. Vin lifts his knife, the blade as black as his shirt, and instinctively, Ezra's rifle is pointed in Vin's direction. But Vin is already moving, the blade held out defensively as he runs toward Chris. Ezra sees the kick of dust at his feet as a bullet misses and hits the ground, but the sounds of the gunfight are slowing. Then Nathan rushes over to drop down beside Chris as well.

Ezra looks around, worried about who could be firing at them. But two other bodies fall away and the only raiders he sees are running away, after the horses or into the darkness. The sound of voices yelling at each other, some of them screaming with pain, fills the void left as the guns fall silent.

All four women were huddled together now, the youngest one hidden among the others. Ezra knows the Frye women, but it still takes him a couple of tries to match his memories to the women below. He looks around, searching as far into the shadows as his eyes can see from this distance. The raiders are, as far as he could tell, neutralized or gone. He gets to his feet but keeps looking along the barrel of the gun, searching for any threat.

He has to look away a number of times as he makes his way carefully down the slope of the canyon. The going is hard in places, and more than once he ends up sliding down sections of it on his ass. But he hurries, not caring about his clothes or his appearance or anything except getting down to the others.

He's not the first one there – Buck's already storming around, yelling at the raiders as he and JD and Vin – still wide-eyed and scary – tie up the ones who aren't incapacitated. Josiah comes in soon after Ezra, his face as lined and angry as Buck's.

"If it weren't his head," Nathan says eventually, wiping his hands on a rag, "I'd say he was going to be fine." He looks down at Chris, who has a thick white wrapping around his head. Blood's already starting to seep through it near the wound, and his face has a red cast from the blood that Nathan's rag didn't wipe away. "The bullet grazed him, cut a groove in his skull but didn't break it. But I don't know how much it shook up his brain. Gonna have to see how he is when he wakes."

Vin drops to his knees beside Nathan, and reaches out to touch the bandage. His fingers are almost black with blood, and it's a relief when Nathan's hand catches Vin's wrist, stopping the touch.

"Best leave him be for now," Nathan says, pushing to his feet and drawing Vin along. "Rest is the only thing for it – he'll wake when he's ready. Who else needs tending?"

"The women," Ezra says, but he looks back at Chris; his face is pale, almost white under the red stain, and his lips are a thin, blue-ish line. His stillness is unnatural, and Ezra has to reassure himself that Chris' chest is rising and falling, as it should be. A memory from the war comes unbidden, a man he had served with who had been caught by a musket ball in the side of his head. That man hadn't died, but he'd never been the same. He'd had no memory of what had happened, or of the war itself, or the men he had served with. He'd wandered about the camp for weeks, asking everyone to tell him something about himself, until finally the company's captain had relieved the man of duty and had him sent home. Ezra wonders of the man's memory ever came back.

The idea of Chris like that, not knowing who he is or anything of his past…

"Leave him be," Nathan repeats, and his hand falls on Ezra's shoulder, turning him away. "Where are the women?"

Ezra knows he's being cajoled, but he allows it, needing to think of something else. Nathan doesn't really need him; the women are easy to find, huddled together and clinging to each other. Buck is already there, on his knees at a distance, trying to reassure them that he and their 'rescuers' are not looking to replace the men who had hurt them. His sincerity seems to be getting through to them; only one of them is crying, the youngest one, and she seems to be slowing.

"We're going to need to get back to town, soon," Nathan says quietly. "Best get back as many of those horses as we can."

Ezra nods; they'd already discussed the possibilities and problems of what to do after taking the camp. JD's gone to get their horses, Josiah's watching over the captives, and Vin's off trying to get the raider's horses back under control. They'll need some of them, hopefully the stolen ones, to get back to town.

Buck leaves the women to Nathan, and he and Ezra help Josiah. Buck's angry, no humor in his eyes and no gentleness in his hands. The unconscious fare the best as they do not feel the rough treatment.

"Should just finish the job," Buck snarls at one point as he pushes one of the raiders to the ground beside the others. "Be a damned sight easier on us – and it ain't as if these sons of bitches deserve anything else after what they did." His fingers tighten on the arm of the man he's pushing along – a man who has a bullet in the very spot that Buck's pressing.

The man cries out, but he knows better than to argue. Ezra winces, but not in sympathy so much as memory of his own experiences with being wounded. The things they'd heard about these men made him think that a trial and prison sentence, even in Yuma Prison, was too good for them. Except that there was the possibility that in Yuma, they might experience some of what the poor women had suffered.

It's good that they all carry the different things they need as a team. Over the next few hours, all of the different pieces are called to service. Vin returns leading a number of horses that he's lassoed together, some of them belonging to the raiders, but more of them ones that the raiders had stolen. He still looks wild, the ash on his face now streaked with sweat and splattered with dark spots that Ezra knows to be blood. More of his hair has come lose from the tie so that it floats around his face, giving him an otherworldly appearance that brings to mind memories of demons and ghosts and other things Ezra thinks he has put behind him.

"Maybe we should put Vin in charge of the prisoners," Buck says as Vin slides off the back of a horse, using its mane to led it. JD swallows, staring at Vin, and Ezra understands his fear.

"I need some help over here," Nathan calls before Ezra can decide if he agrees. The women have let him do very little, preferring to care for themselves, so he's moved on to the injured raiders.

It isn't often that Ezra serves as Nathan's assistant. More often than not it's Josiah or Vin, both of whom seem to have more experience with wounds. Fortunately, most of what Nathan needs is someone to strip apart cloth for bandages. It's not long before Ezra's having to scrounge through saddlebags, his own and those of the others, looking for clean shirts and other things that they can use. There are only a few truly serious wounds – or, more to the point, only a few survivors of the truly serious wounds. As he's tearing one of Vin's worn flannel shirts into sections, he's aware of Josiah and Buck moving through the camp, covering up bodies or moving them to places where they're not quite as visible.

Every now and then, he hears Josiah's low voice rumbling out last rites.

"Press here – hard," Nathan snaps, drawing Ezra's attention back to the matter at hand. "If we don't stop this bleeding, he's gonna die."

"You should let him," someone hisses, and Ezra glances up to find one of the Frye women staring down at them. Her arms are drawn tight against her body, as though she's hugging herself.

"Maybe," Nathan says, not looking up from what he's doing, "but I reckon I'd rather not have to answer for it after I die. It ain't my decision to make."

The woman, Mabel, stares at him, then at the man on the ground. Blood has already seeped through the wad of cloth Ezra has pressed against the wound, and the man's face is turning white under the layers of dirt, grim, and whiskers.

The woman shifts, her skirt torn so wide that a long slice of it drags on the ground before her bare feet. "Can you spare any of those clothes?" she asks, her voice raspy but steady. "We'd like to cover up."

Ezra looks up to find her looking at him, not at Nathan. But Nathan answers, his voice as worn as hers. "Don't reckon any of us will mind. Take what you can use."

The generosity of it offends Ezra, but only for as long as it takes the idea to pass through his mind. These women are more deserving of the clean clothes that they have than the men that they have sacrificed their well-earned shirts for. Instead, as he presses harder against the man on the ground, he says, "I believe there are still several white shirts in my bags – over there," he tilts his head toward the collection of saddlebags nearby. "The shiniest ones. Take what you need."

Later, he finds the youngest girl wrapped in two of his shirts, wearing them as a petticoat and over-dress. One of the other women is wearing one of Chris' black shirts, and a third is wearing one of Buck's.

"Vin's got the horses tied together," JD announces as Nathan ties off the bandage around the white-faced patient. "He's worried that those other five might come back. He wants to know if you're ready to get out of here yet."

Ezra looks at Nathan who's frowning at the man on the ground. This wasn't the first time they'd had to take into consideration the wounded, but it was the first time they'd had this many and no wagon close to hand. It doesn't help that one of their own is among them.

"I'll stay here with the worst of the them," Nathan says. "Y'all take the women and the prisoners back to town."

"No." Josiah has joined them, his voice no longer holding the politeness of prayer. "We all go or we all stay."

Ezra pushes up from where he's been kneeling, wiping at his knees without thought. "I find myself in agreement," he says, his mind already calculating the odds. "While I suspect that the men who left will not return, I'm more concerned about the possibility that we might run into them out there." He waved a hand toward the opening to the canyon. "With the wounded and the women, we will need all of us."

"Some of these men ain't fit to travel," Nathan says. "I can't in good conscience—"

"Which is a damned sight more conscience than they have," Buck snarls, walking up to the group. "They don't deserve your worry, Nathan."

Nathan's face crinkles as he frowns. "That ain't for me to decide. I'm staying."

He's been obstinate before – it's a character trait that's proven beneficial when it's one of their own wounded, but it can be tedious. And right now, it's downright infuriating.

Because the man who can normally make Nathan see reason is stretched out on the ground with a bandage around his head.

"Y'all take the women and all the ones who can travel – just send back a wagon as soon as you find one," Nathan says, trying to sound reasonable. "At least three of these men need to stay still – there ain't no way they can ride horses. Reckon Chris can't either."

Nathan hasn't voiced that 'til now and it's the one argument all the others are willing to heed.

"I'll stay with him," yet another voice says from the darkness. Then Vin is there, appearing in the light of the nearest fire as if he had materialized there. Ezra steps back and reaches for his gun despite the fact that he knows the man. Well, recognizes him.

Vin's holding his knife again, and the flickering light brings out the crimson colors that attest to his activities. From nowhere, the idea blossoms in Ezra's mind that if he leaves Vin with Nathan and the three wounded men, it won't be long before Nathan and Vin show up, carrying Chris between them, the three wounded men no longer an issue.

Ezra glances to Buck. The other man seems to be confused, his angular face wrinkled in a deep frown. He's watching Vin, and Ezra has the sense that like himself, he anticipates that Vin's intentions are not the same as Nathan's. Ezra also has the sense that Buck's weighing this decision on a scale that Ezra – hasn't quite gotten to yet.

A great moral quandary, as Josiah might term it, but Ezra's not as worried about it as he is about getting all of them out of this alive.

'Never forget the goal.' The words ring through his mind as clearly as if Maude is standing beside him, a serpent hissing in his ear. 'Never forget who you are and what you've got to do to meet the goal.'

The goal is to get them out of this alive – all of them.

Including damned Chris Larabee. It is the goal, no matter what else he tries to consider. The women, the horses, catching the raiders – that's all secondary to getting Chris back to town and back on his feet.

Because in his mind, and in the minds of all the others, that's the chain of events. Nathan declared it so earlier, and no one's life is as important as Chris Larabee's.

And Vin Tanner would agree to that more quickly than anyone else here. Except maybe Buck, but in this moment, Ezra can see that Buck isn't quite as certain about the absolutes of good and evil as Vin is.

Or perhaps, like Ezra, Buck isn't as sure that Vin shares the same understanding of 'right' and 'wrong.' The way he holds the knife, the blade barely reflecting the light, perhaps the issue isn't 'right and wrong' so much as the nature of expedience.

"You think that's a good idea?" Josiah asks, his voice mild but unlike Ezra, he takes a step toward Vin.

Vin tilts his head, then he smiles. His teeth flash in the darkness, stark against the grime and shadows of his face. "I ain't gonna let nothing happen to Chris or Nathan – or anyone else," he says. "I ain't gonna fire before I need to," he says pointedly, looking past Josiah to Buck.

Buck stiffens, glaring at Vin harder now, but Vin looks back to Josiah, going on as calmly as before. "I'm taking my Winchester up to the ridge and I'll watch the opening of the canyon 'til yall get back. If you work at it, you can be back by afternoon tomorrow."

Ezra shakes his head, amused and impressed, despite himself. Vin Tanner, like Chris Larabee, can assess a situation in seconds – even one that involves others' perception of him. It is one of the things Ezra respects about the two of them.

Another thing is their ability to turn those perceptions back on others. "There are more prisoners than there are of you," Vin goes on, his voice low. "What you gonna do if they get restless?"

Buck's turned so that it's hard to see his features, but Ezra can see the way his long body tightens. But he answers truthfully. "Shoot 'em. No other way to do it."

Nathan makes a small sound, and Josiah sighs, but they all know it's the only way. If the captured raiders resist or cause trouble, they won't have any qualms about killing anyone.

"Best be on your way," Vin says, shifting his lean. "Nathan, let's move the ones you want to keep here down toward the stream. We'll need the bedrolls and anything else y'all can spare."

For the next hour, they work on getting things ready, moving the seriously wounded to an impromptu shelter near the small spring, getting everyone else ready to travel – which means using the long ropes to tie the raiders to saddles and the horses to each other, to connect them all so that no one of them could break away.

Ezra sits on his horse, his rifle resting against his right thigh, his reins in his left hand. He is riding on one side, Josiah on the other, with Buck leading the rag-tag procession. JD is in the back, riding drag. Two of the women, the two girls, the ones from outside Eagle Bend, refuse to ride, maybe because of being too close to the raiders, maybe because they just aren't up to it. The two women with them, Mabel and Esther Frye, are grim-faced and angry. Each one carries a gun and Ezra wonders if that's a mistake, if these women are more dangerous than Vin. But then, that does give the peacekeepers an advantage; with the women, they outnumber their captives by one.

"The good Lord will look out for them," Josiah says as Buck starts off, pulling on the leads of the others horses.

"I got more faith in your Indian friend," Mabel says, her voice cold.

Ezra agrees, though he doesn't say so. As they ride out of the canyon itself, moving as fast as they can at a walk, Ezra feels eyes on him. He hopes they're Vin's, but he worries.

It's hellish. They move as fast as they can, but it's still slower going than any of them would like. One of the raiders – 'Esteban,' Mabel spits as she says the name, her eyes bright with hatred – passes out and nearly falls off his horse. In and of itself it wouldn't have been so bad, but his horse is in the middle of the string of them and it would have caused more problems and cost more time.

"Could leave him," Mabel suggests. "Crows need food, too."

"Crows," Josiah says musingly, looking toward the dark sky. "Rather not have them circling about, giving anyone an idea of where we've been. Nah, for now, best keep him with us." He's the one who does the heavy work, trying unsuccessfully to wake the man, then, finally slinging him belly-down over the saddle and tying him on. He makes it look easy, as if the man weighs nothing, but Ezra knows better.

Well after midnight, it's a struggle to stay awake. Fortunately, right about the time Ezra finds his mind drifting back to memories of Albertine crying, his eyes closing, one of the raiders tries something. The one in the back, a young man who, so far, has remain uninjured, breaks away from the group suddenly. The movement is fast – it's only later that they realize he's had a knife hidden in his sleeve, probably, and he's used it to cut the lead rope.

He whirls his horse away, guiding it with his knees. Under other circumstances, it would have been an impressive feat, and Ezra hopes he can remember to ask Vin if it's something he can do. For now, though, there are more pressing concerns, not the least of which is trying not to get caught in the crossfire as Mabel and JD both draw down on the escaping man.

"No!" Buck calls as the two guns go off. "JD!"

It's hard to tell in the pale moonlight if the raider is hit – he's far enough away now that horse and rider are one shape. The horse keeps moving, though, its hoof beats slowly fading into the night.

More immediate is the reaction of the other raiders. Another one tries to pull away, turning his horse and trying to kick it to a gallop. Buck's still got the lead rope tied to his saddle horn, and the raider's horse, trapped between contradictory leads, rears, startling the other horses who were already unsettled by the gunshots.

"Damn it!" Buck snarls, but he thinks quick, urging his horse a few steps forward. The movement causes the horses behind to have to drop down and come into line.

Understanding, Ezra guides his horse in as close as he dares, then slams the butt of his rifle between the shoulder blades of their rebellious captive. The man grunts, falling forward onto the neck of his horse. His wrists are tied together and to the saddle horn, so for a few seconds, he wavers precariously, almost falling off, until he catches his balance.

"That," Josiah intones, "was the hand of God. I was just going to shoot you." It's a line he's used before, but it's still good for making the other captives realize how close they've come to dying. It's also a statement to Mabel, as Josiah has moved his horse alongside hers and his big hand has closed over the Colt revolver she's still holding outstretched. He takes it from her, nodding as she glares at him. But she's not shooting fire, as she had been before.

"I think I hit him," she says instead, as she lets go of the gun.

"He deserve it?" Josiah asks.

She shifts on her horse and in the darkness, Ezra can see her look away. "They all deserve it," she says, but there's no heat in her tone. The one who got away hadn't been one to take advantage of the women, which is a slight consolation.

"He'll try to find the others," Ezra says, voicing his main concern. "It would be wise to be on our way."

The do pick up the speed, partly out of concern and partly because the faster pace keeps the captives from having as much time to plot.

The faster pace keeps Ezra from thinking too much, but every now and then, he remembers Chris stretched out on his bedroll, the white bandage on his head soaked through with blood. Before that image clears his mind, it is replaced by Chris' face, eyes open but empty, mouth hanging open and drool sliding down his sharp chin, the same as the man from his military unit.

The thought of it makes his belly burn with bile. There are things worse than death, things worse than losing someone he cares about. He wonders how Vin will respond if Chris isn't the same when he wakes up, wonders if Vin will be able to accept Chris if he needs that sort of caring, if his mind is gone. If he's not the Chris Larabee they know now.

Then a different memory returns, of the flashing knife, the fall of blood. For the first time, Ezra's worry for Chris isn't about the five raiders returning before they get back.

The sun is well up when they reach town, slowing as they enter. They go to the jail, but it's far enough away that by the time Buck draws up in front of it, there's a crowd of townspeople gathering around, some calling questions. Mary and Gloria Potter have pushed through to the front, but before they can get to the Frye women, Garnett Frye eases through the back of the crowd, followed by his two oldest boys and his brother, Liam.

"Mabel?" he calls out, and Ezra turns in time to see her face as she hears his voice. The cold, angry woman who had been with them for the past night disappears. The hard lines of her face seem to slip away, and her eyes grow larger, filling with tears. As Garnett stops beside her horse, looking up at her, the tears start to fall. She reaches down to him with a desperation Ezra would never have believed possible just minutes before.

Liam has already pulled Esther off her horse and is holding her close.

"Let's get these boys inside," Buck says, but his voice is low. Josiah has already dismounted and he pulling the first of the raiders off his horse.

"Where are the others?" Mary says, coming up to Buck as Ezra dismounts.

"There were some badly injured folk," Buck answers, and though his tone isn't as hard as it has been, his body is still tight with anger and worry. "We need a wagon to take back. Can you get someone to round us up one while we get these boys locked up? And ask Tiny and Yosemite if they can watch the jail – I don't want these bastards getting out." He glances over one shoulder, to where The Frye men are clustered around their crying women. "Or them getting in, not now."

Ezra only catches parts of the rest of it, but he knows the way it works, as does Mary; the Judge will have to be wired, to get here as soon as possible. They need get these boys off to prison – or hung – as soon as they can, before there are any rescue attempts or lynchings.

They don't have but two cells in the jail, so it doesn't take long to situate the prisoners. Ezra and Josiah stay with them while Buck heads over to the livery to help readying fresh mounts and the wagon. JD is sent off to get supplies, as per Nathan's list.

The prisoners are surprisingly pliant. Tired, Ezra supposes, and preoccupied with their injuries. He sighs when Josiah suggests providing them with water, but he guards the door as Josiah gets pails of well water and leaves one inside each of the cells with a battered tin mug. They'd untied the men as soon as they'd let them into the cells so they could tend themselves, at least for the moment.

For one of the few times he can remember, Ezra drinks Josiah's coffee without complaint. In truth, he has to stop himself from suggesting that it should be stronger.

Buck doesn't take long to return, but they're not ready to leave just yet. "JD needs some help with getting Nathan's stuff together," he says as he walks into the jail, the door slamming back against the wall. His hands and pockets are full of boxes of bullets, and Ezra wonders if they're going to war. "Josiah, can you give him a hand?"

Josiah lurches to his feet. In the bright rays of the morning sun streaming in the window, he looks old and very tired, the lines of his face deeper than Ezra remembers every seeing them. "I made the coffee," he says, a warning that he usually doesn't give, but today isn't like most days.

"Reckon that's a good thing today," Buck says. He tries for a grin, but it doesn't quite settle on his face. "Tiny and Yosemite will be here soon as they have the horses ready. Coddington's going to come see to the injured."

Ezra smiles despite himself. Coddington is the barber, but he also serves as a healer when necessary. Sometimes, he also serves as the town's undertaker.

The boxes of bullets clatter as Buck drops them on the scuffed desk. He steps past to the woodstove, where he uses the old rag that's been in the jailhouse longer than they have to pick up the coffee pot.

As he fills a mug, a question comes to rest on Ezra's tongue. He knows he's tired because under other circumstances, the words would never have gotten that far, much less out into the air. But as Buck puts the pot back on the stove and turns, Ezra's mouth opens of its own will. "Do you think Chris will be all right?"

The mug is on the way to Buck's lips, but it stops abruptly, coffee spilling over the sides and Buck hisses as it burns his fingers. He puts the coffee mug on the desk, more coffee spilling over at the impact, but he's already shaking his hand and cursing in half sentences. Eventually, he snaps, "He'd better damned well be."

But under the anger, Ezra hears the fear. Buck has known Chris the longest, has shared a dark, painful past.

"I suspect we'll have little need of the Judge, if Chris isn't hale and hearty by the time we get back to Vin." Ezra's meant it as a means to loosen the tension, but it fails. He can't dredge up a smile of his own and the expression on Buck's face shifts, the anger still there but muted now.

"Something wrong with him," Buck mutters. "How in the hell could he— how could he— hell, what the hell is wrong with him? And Chris – how could they wait so long, let all that— that—" He breaks off, but Ezra knows that he's thinking once more of the screams, of the pain that finally forced Buck to do what they'd all wanted to do.

Even if it had cost them the plan and possibly, just maybe, been part of why Chris had been shot.

"Did you see him?" Buck goes on, his voice stronger. "He was like a… wild thing, like a savage—" He stops again, catching his breath, then he takes a deep drink of his coffee. It has apparently cooled enough that he doesn't burn himself. "I don't understand him," he says eventually. "Guess I can say the same about Chris, though I never thought I would."

Ezra looks down into his own coffee cup, finding no answers there. Instead, he hears someone speaking, and it takes him a time to realize that it's himself. "I had a cousin to whom I was very close as a child. I spent quite a bit of time with her over the years – purely as family, nothing more. She married a number of years ago and I haven't seen her in a longer time than that. But after what we heard last night, what happened to those women, I find I can't stop thinking of her." He sips from his own mug, finding the brew bitterer yet, the taste of it heightened by its coldness.

"I dreamed about my ma last night," Buck says softly. "She— well, I guess I recall too many things from when I was a boy, when things in the house got out of hand."

Ezra glances at Buck, surprised, but then again, not. All civilized men have nightmares when it comes to the bad things that could happen to the people they care about. To their mothers and sisters and kin.

At one level, it makes him feel better to know that he is not alone. At another, he wonders if he is allowed any fear that is his alone or if he must share everything with someone else.

But he doesn't dwell on it; there will never be another time like this, or at least not one he wants to anticipate. "We need to get back before—"

"Yeah," Buck cuts him off, his voice hard. "Before Vin has all the fun."

The ride back is a haze. He's tired and the urgency quickly gives way to the rhythm of the horse's gait, the heat of the sun burning into his face as they ride west, and the melodic sound of the wheels of the wagon. He dozes despite himself, jerking back to awareness when the stride changes or the wagon squeaks. Every now and then, an image of Albertine slips through his mind. Once, she thanks him for what he's done for the women. Another time, she reminds him that there are still two women at the camp with Nathan, Vin, and Chris.

He wonders if Buck's mother admonishes him the same way. He suspects she might; they move faster the closer they get to the canyon.

They move faster still when they hear the first faint sounds of gunfire.

The five who left yesterday have returned, or so Ezra assumes; there are at least six different guns sounding, one of which he recognizes as Chris' rifle. Vin would be using that from the top of the canyon, holding the outlaws at bay. It has a longer range than his Mare's Leg. Or he could be out of bullets for his own gun.

They stop so as not to draw the attention of the outlaws just yet. Catching them in a crossfire is optimal but only if they can sneak up. There's little cover in the flat lands leading to the canyon opening.

"That way," Buck said, pointing with his chin in the direction of the canyon rise. Sweat trickles down his face, leaving a dark path in the coating of dust that covers him, covers them all. "Ezra, you and me – we ride fast, try to get up to help Vin. Josiah, you stay with JD, protect the wagon. Keep an eye out for one of those bastards sneaking around, looking to do exactly what we're doing. Get them before they get us."

Ezra's awake now, his heart beating fast but his mind calm. The horse he's riding is one of the livery's best, but he misses his own as he follows Buck at a gallop. They're kicking up dust but unless the newcomers have had the time to think of contingencies, then they won't be noticed, not yet.

Not unless the one who escaped last night has caught up with the others.

That's the thought that has him drawing his rifle even as they cross the distance to the side of the canyon. He's still listening for gunfire in the distance, still listening for the sound of familiar reports.

They come in close to the canyon, not able to see the men themselves but only the clouds of dust as they move. It's enough for Ezra to know that their approach, too, can be seen by the desperadoes. Hopefully, though, their dust clouds will cover up for JD and Josiah.

There's a trail that winds up the canyon, wide enough to take the horses. Buck leads, letting his horse take his head, and Ezra follows, watching behind. They know they can only climb so high – the path gets steeper and thinner the higher they go – but they're in it for speed now.

Halfway up, Buck pulls to a halt, holding up his hand. Ezra starts to ask what's wrong but then he hears it, too, the sound of a horse moving ahead of them. He nods as Buck looks back at him then slides off his horse. Ezra dismounts, too, quickly tying off his horse to a nearby bush then following as quietly as he can.

It's not far ahead, just around a curve, that they find the horse. It's tied off to a shrub, munching on the leaves. It's sweaty and tired, and they both recognize it – it's the one from the night before, the one their young man fled on.

Movement above catches Ezra's eye and he turns fast, his gun up – to find their fugitive standing with his hands outstretched, a knife in one. But before he can use it, he drops it, spreading his fingers wide.


"What the hell?" Buck snarls. He doesn't lower his own rifle but uses it to gesture for the young man to come down toward them. He doesn't appear to have a gun, but as soon as he is close enough, Ezra takes the cue from Buck and searches him.

The young man speaks, his English broken. "I come back to get her. To get her out."

"Who?" Buck snarls, stepping in close as Ezra steps back, empty-handed from the search. "You ain't man enough to court a woman, let her decide on her own?"

The young man steps back, or tries to. The ground is uneven and he stumbles, almost falling. "No, I not hurt her, not ever," he says between gasps of air. "I try to stop them, the others, but they not hear me. Not care." He lifts one hand to his cheek and for the first time, Ezra notices the bruising on his brown skin. "They no listen."

Buck glares down at the young man, but his body loosens. "What's going on in there?" he demands. The gunfire is slowing.

"Men on ridge," the young man says, "they fire on Alessandro's men."

"The men who returned," Ezra says.

The young man looks at him, his dark eyes tired. "But Alessandro – they step back, away. Too far."

"Vin can't reach them," Ezra translated, though he knew it was unnecessary.

The young man nods. "Alessandro no give up," he says. "He… he loco. Mucho loco."

"Yeah, we know," Buck says dryly. He's looking toward the top of the hill, and Ezra knows he's wondering what to do.

"Even if we could find a back way in – and out," Ezra says, thinking it through himself, "we would end up in a battle with women and wounded, held back by a cart. We have to take them out now."

Buck sighs but nods.

The young man speaks. "He will send men this way," he uses one hand to indicate where they are. "In back."

"So we wait," Ezra says. "You wouldn't be misdirecting us, would you?"

The young man's wide brow scrunches as he tries to make sense of Ezra's question, but it's Buck who answers.

"He ain't lying. He ran after the horses last night, only came back when he realized Vin was with the women." He shakes his head, but turns around to look behind them. Turning his back on the young man. "He's probably right. Best thing we can do is wait – and keep an eye out for Josiah and JD. If we can a few more of them out of the way then it's fewer we have to figure out how to get to out there."

It doesn't take long, though Ezra is sure that the day is never going to end. About the time that they hear the rattle of the wagon in the distance, they also hear a rifle shot, very near, then the yell of a man as he calls out very bad English for the wagon to stop.

Ezra peers through the brush that hides him. In the distance, he can see Josiah and JD, stopped before two men. One of them is on foot, the other still on his horse.

Yards away and to Ezra's left, he sees the glint of Buck's rifle as Buck sights along its barrel.

The young man, Pero, as he had introduced himself, is farther down the hill, behind a low rock. They had allowed him to keep his knife, but placed him in front – not behind them.

"We have nothing you want," Josiah says, his voice hard. "Just an empty wagon."

"For the whores?" the man on the horse spits. He laughs as JD sits up straighter, his hand moving towards his gun. "You take offense, chiquita?"

Oh, JD does, there is no mistaking the set of his jaw and the way his chin lifts, ready to say something he shouldn't. But before he can speak, Buck calls out, "I reckon we all do. Put your guns down now, before you end up as dead as your compadres."

Ezra's rifle is against his shoulder again, the bruise burning as the stock presses against it. He doesn't relish the idea of pulling the trigger again, but that isn't under consideration at the moment.

The man of the rifle twists in the saddle, looking toward the hillside, but it is his friend, the one on the ground, who takes a step forward, toward the wagon. His arm straightens just a little, but just enough to let Ezra know he is about to take the shot. Ezra starts to squeeze on the trigger, aiming for the man's arm but not really caring if he misses – as long as he stops the man from shooting JD or Josiah.

Before he pulls the trigger home, there is a flash as something spins through the air. Then the man advancing on JD groans and goes down, the hilt of a knife sticking from his back.

Ezra glances to Pero, surprised. He hasn't seen the young man move, but Pero is in a crouch now, balanced on one knee and a foot, and his arm is still outstretched. The image of Vin, knife extended and dripping blood, flashes through Ezra's mind.

"Traitor!" the man on the horse calls, pointing his revolver at Pero.

Ezra isn't aware of firing, but the kick of the stock against his shoulder makes his breath catch. His ears ring with the sound of the shot, but also with the lower, deeper pitch of another rifle going off – and a third, higher shot, from a handgun.

The man on the horse falls backwards, then he rolls to the right, falling off his horse onto his face. His horse rears and bolts, leaving Ezra to stare at Josiah, whose pistol streams smoke towards the sky.

The stillness is broken as JD comes to life, drawing his pistol with the same speed and grace of Chris Larabee. "He's the one who got away!" he yells, aiming at Pero.

"And who just saved your life," Ezra says, lowering his rifle slightly as Buck makes his way down the hill to check on the two outlaws.

"Put down the damned gun, JD – or better yet, keep it out but aim it at the right people," Buck calls out as he reaches the one who'd fallen off the horse. He kicks the fallen pistol away before leaning down to pull at the man's shoulder, rolling him over.

There's no question but that he's dead, half his forehead gone, his shirt covered in blood. Buck's already moving to the second man, where he's met by Pero who pulls his knife from the body. The second man is dead also, and Ezra wonders if there's some magic the natives know about using the weapons.

He hears the murmur of Josiah's prayers for the dying, but he's more concerned with what they're going to do next.

"Three of them," Buck says, thinking the same thing. "One of us needs to get in there, see how things stand for Vin and Nathan. And somebody needs to stay here, in case they decide to lose another man or two back here."

"They'll wait until dark if they decide to do that," Ezra says, glancing to the sky. "That gives us about five hours."

Buck nods his agreement. "Josiah, you and JD stay here. Try to find somewhere to hide the wagon, at least get it as much out of sight as possible. We'll be back as quick as we can. Maybe Vin has a plan."

It seems like a long-shot, but then, Vin Tanner does have a certain flare for the unexpected.

It's silent as they climb up the hill to the ridge. Below, Ezra can see the camp, but he sees no one stirring. The turned earth, where they had buried the dead the night before, seems larger now, and the knot in his stomach returns, bearing the name 'Larabee.'

"Where the hell is Nathan?" Buck asks, his tone sharp. "And the women – Jesus, if Vin let anything happen to them, to Chris—"

A shot rings out from the far side, near the opening. Chris' rifle. At least Vin has that – or someone does.

"Let's get over there," Ezra says.

They don't go down – no sense in wasting time with that when they can move faster along the ridge line. And save themselves the worry of what they'll find if they go to the bottom. The way is rough; they have to make their own path and in some places, the ground gives way, causing slides down the side of the hill, lost time as they pull each other up. It doesn't take long for Pero to take the lead; he's smaller and more agile and he seems to be able to find a path that neither Buck nor Ezra can see, despite the brightness of the blazing afternoon sun.

It seems, as with everything as of late, to take forever. The heat is dreadful, and after a point, it takes all of his conscious effort to put his feet in Pero's tracks, to make himself look up from the path every so often to see where they are.

It's a surprise when Pero stops in front of him and drops into a crouch. "There," the young man says, pointing.

And not so far away, Ezra sees Vin, stretched out on his belly at the crest of the hill. Beside him— Beside him, sitting with his knees pulled up and his rifle resting across them, his head bent low and resting on his hands, is Chris Larabee. There's a white bandage wrapped around his head, and from here, Ezra can see the dark stain on it that can only be blood, but he's sitting, and doing more, if the gun is any indication.

"Son of a bitch," Buck mutters, but it's said with a certain awe. "Bet he feels like hell."

"Indeed," Ezra agrees, but he finds that he's smiling though he can't think of a damned thing to be happy about.

As if he's heard them – and maybe he has, Ezra is never sure of the strange abilities that Vin and Chris seem to have – Chris' head comes up and he jerks at the rifle, the barrel pointing toward them.

"It's Buck," Buck calls out, "and Ezra."

Vin glances over his shoulder, but it's only a glance. His attention is on what's going on outside the canyon, his eyeglass braced in his hand. From what Ezra sees, he's not had time to wash his face, though the blackening that covered it is uneven now, some of it wiped away, some of it washed away in trails of sweat. In the daylight, it reminds Ezra of stage grease from variety shows, actors who painted themselves to be Negroes. He wonders if Nathan took offense at Vin's appearance, but as quickly as the question comes, he knows better. Vin Tanner is many things, but an actor is most certainly not one of them.

"Well, now, ain't you a sight for sore eyes," Buck says, moving forward, toward Chris.

But Chris brings the barrel of the gun up a little more and he uses his chin to point toward Pero. When Chris speaks, his voice is weak, ephemeral, but there's no softness in his eyes. "What the hell's he doing here?"

Ezra glances to Buck, who's looking back at Pero, but it's Vin who answers. "He didn't hurt nobody," he says, sounding tired. "Reckon he came back to get the girl, and Buck and Ezra came up on him."

"The girl?" Chris asks at the same time Buck says, "You knew?"

Ezra knows, though. Vin had been the one to catch Pero when he'd come back – and he'd been the one to tie him to the horse, to the chain. Pero had been desperate enough to try to talk and Vin probably had understood the young man.

"He's a kid," Vin says shortly. "Ain't got a gun; he says he didn't ride with 'em when they made trouble, but stayed back at the camp with the horses. That's how he got to know the girl – the young'un. He never hurt her, and says he was trying to help her."

"By keeping her in the camp, holding her hostage when the others was gone?" Buck asks, his voice hard again.

"By trying to find a way to get her out of the camp. Says he was taking the horse so he could come back for her, then he got scared I was gonna kill her."

Ezra turns to find Pero nodding, his dark eyes wide with worry. He knows he's still in trouble, and Ezra wonders if the boy truly is stupid enough to be here for this girl who's going to go back to her family as soon as they can get her out of here.

But then, Ezra's here, trying to get her out of this, and he's doing it for a measly five dollars a week plus room and board, such as they are. Who really is the bigger fool?

"He's got a knife," Chris says, but the steel in his tone from earlier is gone, leaving behind irritation and exhaustion. "Reckon that's as good as a gun – it is with you."

Vin's turns once more, this time looking at Chris. He's grinning and Ezra recognizes the man he's come to know. "He ain't a killer, just a kid in with the wrong crowd. Still is, if he's with us." His grin widens, but it's contagious; Ezra sees the way Chris fights it, but his thin lips curl at the ends for a second.

"Speaking of the girls," Buck says, though it's more like a question. "Didn't see nobody around the area where we left 'em."

"Two of the bastards Nathan was tending died," Chris says shortly, looking back to them as Vin turns back to the desert. "Nathan and the girls moved the last man under a ridge near the back wall – can't see 'em as well from there. We figured they'd try to come around back, like you did."

"They did. We took care of 'em. Josiah and JD are still back there, with the wagon, keeping an eye out. But what are we gonna do about the three out there?"

Ezra looks over the ridge; in the distance, he can see the three men on their horses. They are spread out, just out of range of Vin's rifle, three statues in the afternoon sun. They are spaced far enough from each other to see the sides of the canyon. And by now they should be getting restless, assuming that their friends are either dead or making their way up the canyon. They should have heard the shots.

"Way I see it," Chris says, "we wait 'til night fall. They'll either try to rush us then, or we can rush them."

"Or we can draw 'em in," Vin says, his voice taking on the softness it does when he's thinking hard. "You say you took care of the boys they sent 'round back?"

"Yep," Buck says, looking to Ezra.

"Unquestionably," he agrees. "And we have Pero, here," he says. "One of them, or at least, the three men out there think so."

It was not the best of plans, but it was one that gave them the advantage, and it was one that kept them from having to wait until nightfall. Ezra wasn't certain he could stand any more waiting, and from the looks of Chris and Vin, he didn't think they were physically able.

But they had to depend on Pero, which no one, not even Vin, was happy with.

"He leads me out," Chris said, touching his head again. "We need you to do the shooting—"

"Buck and Ezra can do the shooting," Vin cuts him off. "We ain't got time to argue, Chris; they ain't gonna believe it if we wait much longer."

"Yes," Pero agrees, nodding. "Alessandro, he no trust no one. He shoot me first if he think it wrong."

"You screw this up, and I'll do it for him," Chris says, staring at the young man.

Pero swallows and nods. Ezra sees the boy's hand shake slightly. No one can intimidate as well as Chris Larabee, not even this Alessandro.

"Shoot, Ezra," Vin orders. "This needs to be fast and hard."

Ezra gets the first shot – he's got the gun he took off the first outlaw to fall at the back of the canyon. He aims at the ground and pulls the trigger, and almost immediately, Chris' rifle goes off – then Ezra fires again, Vin fires, and then Buck. The sounds echo in the canyon, covering the noise of Buck and Ezra moving into position along the ridge line.

Before Ezra has found his spot from which to cover, Pero is standing, waving Buck's big purple bandana and yelling, "Patron! Patron! We have them!"

Ezra drops to his belly, careful to slide his rifle into place – no need to let it flash in the daylight and warn the men below that they are still under arms.

Pero was right; Alessandro and his men are careful. Alessandro is apparently the one in the center. He remains still, only his horse showing any movement, its tail twitching, its head periodically jerking as it tries to drive away flies and sand fleas. The two men on either move toward Alessandro, but they are careful to stay out of range of any shots from the canyon.

"Pero, is that you?" The man's voice is loud and sharp, and Ezra can hear the distrust in it.

"Si, Patron! We have them! We have them!"

"Where's Enrico?" The other two men have joined him and Ezra can see their rifles in their hands.

"Below," Pero says. "In the camp. He is hurt."

It was a good lie and Ezra is both pleased and wary of it. Too much depends on Pero for him to be double-crossing them.

"And Carter?" Alessandro has trouble with the last 'r,' the name coming out 'Cartah,' as if he is a good Southern boy.

For a few seconds, there is silence. The men below stare toward Pero, and Ezra watches as one of them lifts his rifle to his shoulder. They, too, are out of reach, but the threat is there.

Then a voice calls out, "Here! Got this 'un!" The words are muffled, barely distinct, but they make Ezra smile. Buck is mimicking what he can recall of the man who'd been on the horse. Hopefully, from a distance, it will be enough.

The men on the desert floor confer, then Alessandro yells back, "Bring them down, then. Let us have hostages."

This is where it will get tricky. This is the part no one, especially Chris, likes, the part where Pero leads Vin down the hill, a revolver – empty – at his back. But he still has his knife, and he still has the ability to call out to Alessandro that it's a trap, with Vin directly in the line of fire.

Buck will have to play along as the absent 'Carter,' calling down from his position on top of the ridge. Too bad they hadn't thought to bring Carter's hat and coat – Chris, who is shadowing Pero and Vin, could have worn them, maybe buying them a few seconds of confusion. But it is too late now.

"So this is the sharpshooter?" Alessandro asks and his horse steps a few feet closer. Not yet close enough, but closer.

Ezra watches, hoping. If they can get him, then the other two will scatter. Alessandro is the leader, he's the key.

"Si, patron," Pero calls. "He shoots. See this." He holds up the eyeglass, its gold flashing in the sun.

"Carter!" Alessandro calls. "Come down! Let me see you and the other man."

Ezra frowns. This could ruin it. If they don't play this right, then Alessandro and his men will continue to wait outside – and this could go on forever. He wishes he were the one farthest away; he's the better mimic, having spent much of his youth learning the art.

But as the frustration builds in his belly, sweat ticking down the sides of his face and his hands slippery on the rifle, he hears Pero call out, the word unclear, then he hears the thud of a fist hitting flesh.

He starts to turn but in front of him, Alessandro's rifle comes up and his horse bolts forward.

The shot is right there, right under his finger, and for the briefest second, he thinks it's too late. But before the sound of the rifle-fire reaches his ear, before the stock slams back against his shoulder and his vision dulls as the pain of it flares through his mind, he sees Alessandro fall back and to one side, rolling to the ground. His horse moves on almost to the canyon before it slows and turns back.

The other two men scatter, as Ezra had predicted, falling back and away from each other. They fire toward the canyon, and he returns fire, hearing Buck do the same. But no one's aim is true and the bullets kick up sand at best.

A few minutes pass and then Vin moves in beside Ezra, Pero behind him. "Lemme see," he says, reaching for Ezra's rifle. "Let me see if I can— yeah, hold on." He aims at something to one side of the man on the left.

Ezra sees a faint burst of dust in the distance, and the echo of the bullet, as if it's bouncing around.

"Ricochet?" he asks, as Vin sights again.

"Noticed it this morning. Alessandro could ignore it, but his men, well, they ain't as brave."

It doesn't take but one more shot for the man on the left to turn his horse and run, heading south. Hopefully, back to Purgatorio. A few minutes later, the other man follows.

"Can't trust that they won't be back," Vin says, handing the rifle back to Ezra. "Best stay here and keep an eye out. Pero and I are going to get JD, Josiah, and the wagon. Sooner we get the hell out of here, the better."

Ezra can't agree more.

"What happened back there?" he asks, curious as to what had spurred Alessandro to come into range.

"I tried to escape," Vin answers, his lips quirking. "When I knocked Pero down, Alessandro did what comes natural – he moved to help Pero."

Ezra nods and grins, more amused than he knows he should be, but it's the first time in what feels like decades that something seems funny. "Good thinking," he nods.

Vin shrugs and glances to Pero who, Ezra sees, has a bruise growing around one eye. "Reckon it did the trick. Wait here. We'll be back as soon as we can."

It still seems like hours, though, that he sits on top of the canyon wall, watching the desert for the return of the desperadoes. As Vin drives the wagon around and then through the opening, JD and Pero following with Pero on Ezra's horse and leading Buck's, Josiah breaks off and goes to the body of Alessandro. The man's horse has moved into the canyon, following the scent of water, and Ezra watches as Josiah lifts the man and slings him over the back of Josiah's own horse. Dead, then. Ezra's not sure how he feels about that, other than relieved that he was able to make the shot and bring this thing to some sort of resolution – faster than if they'd had to wait for nightfall.

And hour or so later, the sound of the wagon comes from the other direction, the back of the canyon. It's moving slower now, and Ezra looks down to see JD once more driving it, Vin on his horse and leading a string of others. Pero is also on a horse, not Ezra's which Josiah is leading, and behind Pero – behind him is the youngest girl. She sits on a makeshift saddle of folded blankets, and her arms cling tight to Pero's waist. She's still wearing Ezra's shirt, and one of Chris', but she's added a pair of pants with the hems rolled up.

Chris is also riding, taking point, and he's the one who stops first, and calls up to Buck and Ezra. "See anything?"

'A circus, complete with painted clowns,' is what Ezra wants to say, but from this distance, he suspects it will be lost in translation. And Chris doesn't look up to the moment of humor. So instead, he follows Buck's lead and yells back, "Just the desert!"

"Get down here," Chris calls, his voice more strained this time.

But he's Chris Larabee, and he refuses to ride anywhere other than where is he.

So, once again, Ezra find himself riding drag, and once again he finds himself making this long trek back to town despite his body's exhaustion. They move as fast as they can, though the wagon moves more slowly than the line of captured men from the night before. Nathan is in it, looking tired and sorrowful. He's lost patients, and though they don't deserve his self-recrimination, he wouldn't be Nathan if he didn't feel every loss as a personal failure.

The fourth woman is also in it, huddled in a couple of saddle blankets, as if the heat of the desert doesn't touch her.

Alessandro's body is draped over the back of his horse, led by Josiah. Someone official will need to see it, to confirm that the leader of this gang is dead.

Hours after dark, Ezra realizes that Pero and the girl are gone. He pulls up short, looking around as much as he can in the light of the slowly rising moon.

"Leave 'em," Chris' voice says tiredly from nearby, startling Ezra. He hadn't noticed the change in position, his attention scattered. "She wanted to go with him, we made sure, and nobody argued more against it than Nathan. But the girl says her pa beats her and, well, worse. What happened with these men wasn't new to her." His voice is still tired, enough so that the anger is muted.

Albertine's face come sharply into view, outlined against the pale yellow moon. The very idea of such – the thought that a man could hurt his own daughter, that it could be so bad that a girl would rather ride off with a stranger – then he saw the tears, remembers how she hadn't wanted to go home.

Pero's face replaces Albertine's, the dark eyes full of worry and anger. Maybe full of love.

"She's a child," he says, his voice sharp. "She can't make that decision. How could you—"

"Reckon she's got more right to that decision than anybody else, 'specially after this," Chris' says mildly. "Says her pa will just sell her off to the first man who will have her at this point – 'spoiled goods.'"

'Spoiled goods.' The words echo in his head, but timber and pitch change as the memory of Maude using them rises. Maude has used the words too many times, and always with the same venom. Always about herself.

"Buck won't like it," he says instead, looking around one more time.

"He'll understand," Chris answers as he passes Ezra to catch up with the others.

Buck does. It takes a while, though. For the first hour after they arrive back in town, Buck curses and rails and at one point, he tries to take a swing at Vin. Josiah steps in, his own temper short from exhaustion and the work of helping Nathan settle the wounded man. The fourth woman, Constance, is taken by her family who have come from Eagle Bend. She doesn't try to explain about the missing girl – in truth, Ezra's not sure she actually understood what happened out there. Her eyes are vacant and her words are slow in coming, as if she's lost in her own head.

Perhaps seeing her is what finally calms Buck down. That, and seeing that the father of the girl isn't here to worry for her.

Inez, Mary, Gloria Potter, and the Frye women help out, and Tiny and his crew from the livery are up and settling the horses. Chris is moving, but slowly and only through his own strength of will.

"Need to get after those other two," he says, his voice hollow.

"Not tonight," Vin says firmly. He's finally washed his face and it looks very pale in the light of the watch fires as they walk to the saloon.

"The Fryes have offered to go in a posse to get them," JD says, and he sounds tired, which is a sure sign that it's been a long day. A long two days.

"Tomorrow," Vin says. His voice is harder now, and Ezra knows it's because of Chris. "We can think on it tomorrow."

Chris stumbles, and Vin catches him by the elbow, holding him up. "Best you get to bed," he says, easing Chris to the side of the road and toward the boarding house. "I'll bring you up some grub in a while."

Chris mumbles something and it sounds like an objection, but he lets Vin guide him away.

"Must be that knot on his head," Buck says. "I can't believe he let Vin talk him into letting that boy take off with her." He's still angry enough to move briskly, leading the rest of the way to the saloon where Inez is heating up food for them.

It's too hot to sit inside, and they scatter around in the chairs on the boardwalk. It's such a relief to be sitting and not moving that for a few seconds, Ezra feels weightless.

Then Mabel Frye is before him, holding out a beer, and though it's not his usual preference, right now, it tastes like ambrosia.

He's so caught up in it that it takes him a few seconds to realize that Mabel and Buck are talking, and that Mabel is finally making him hear what Chris has been trying to tell him.

"That boy? Sure, I took a shot at him last night, but, well, reckon I shouldn't have. He never hurt none of us, and truth be told, I think he was more help than anything. He ain't gonna hurt her, certainly not no more than she's already been hurt. That boy, well, I reckon he did love her. He sure tried to keep the others off her, even took a beating at one point from that bastard that led 'em. She'd already told us she couldn't go back, and I guess she found the best way not to." She pushes at Buck's chest, forcing him to sit down in one of the chairs on the boardwalk. "Just glad you got that bastard, may he burn forever in Hell."

"Amen to that," Josiah says, coming along the road to meet them. He takes the mug of beer Mabel holds out to him, nodding his thanks as he drops heavily into the nearest seat. "I'll take something back up to Nathan, soon as it's ready. Mary's says the Judge is already on his way," he goes on through a yawn. "Hopefully we'll have the lot of them out of here soon."

"Still gonna have to deal with her pa, whenever he shows up," Mabel reminds them as she goes back through the doors into the saloon.

"Leave that to me," Buck says darkly.

They eat quickly, or as quickly as they can, until their bellies are full enough to let the exhaustion overtake them. They drift off to bed, mumbling thanks to Inez and Mabel. Ezra finds himself heading into the saloon as Vin is coming out, carrying a covered plate with the last of the bean burritos. For Chris.

"Where will they go?" he asks, meeting Vin's tired eyes.

Vin studies him for a few seconds then answers quietly, "Back to his people. They'll be all right. She'll be all right."

"You know his people?" The memory of Vin rolling through the camp, the blade of his knife flashing as it dripped blood, made his stomach cramp. Was the girl going into that sort of life, that sort of violence?

"Know of 'em," Vin answers. "They're settled, farming people, live in the hills. She'll do all right. Ain't nobody there gonna do to her what her own kin did."

Ezra sighs but he lets Vin pass. He walks to the stairs, putting a hand on the railing, but as he starts to step up, he catches sight of Mabel through the doorway into the kitchen. She's wiping at something, and she's talking to Inez.

Then she laughs. It's a short, brittle sound, but it's not the sound from in the desert, not the bitter, angry laugh of a woman wounded.

It's only been a day since they brought her back, but she's already starting to put it behind her.

And it's time for him to do the same. He can feel his bed calling to him, the feather mattress soft and cool, the room dark and still and silent. Tomorrow will be another day, but today – today has been a good one. Chris is alive, they're all alive, and the women are safe. Perhaps, for one, safer than they had been before.

Tomorrow, he will start his inquiries about Albertine. Hopefully, she, too, has found a better life. And perhaps a letter to his mother. Perhaps even a visit.


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