Dead Man’s Pass

by Beth

Notes: The April 2004 Challenge (the Who's Who Challenge): offered by Lily of the West
For this one, I want you to get the boys all mixed up! Write a story in which at least one guy poses as / or is mistaken for at least one of the others. You can include as few or as many guys as you want. Comedy, drama, mayhem, tearjerkers...the why and how of this mistaken identity mix-up is all up to you. Let your imaginations go wild. You may use any open AU and write any length story.  Oh, P.S.: Lily luvs animals, so for a big fat bonus points and cyberkiss, include an animal in the story (other than a horse!)

Any similarities between NotTasha’s story, In Black, is purely coincidental (an awesome read, by the way!! You can find it at NotTasha’s web site, or the Challenge Library. I’ve emailed her and let her know and she was great about it...Thanks NT!!  

Special Thanks to Yolande, for your wonderful suggestions.

Please send comments to:

Chapter 1

Ezra entered the telegraph office and waited for the operator to finish with his message. Ezra rested with his back against the counter and looked out the window toward the street. Silver City wasn’t as large as it once had been, no longer booming with mines—as the name implied—most of the town’s inhabitants had left due to the lack of financial stability. With only a couple of mines still in use, unemployment on the rise, and businesses closing up shop, crime was on the increase.

It wasn’t unusual, at least out here.

He’d been sent for two reasons: getting out of Larabee’s hair, and for investigating the small possibility that someone in this town knew Vin...someone who could possibly prove him innocent of his ‘crime’. In all realities, Ezra knew the ‘witness’ didn’t exist; it was a ploy to get him out of town. With temperatures rising, so were tempers...and as usual, Ezra didn’t do well with his quick wit and sly comments. So the boys—Buck and Vin, had gotten together with the hopes of getting Standish out of Larabee’s wrath before the man in black blew.

Ezra didn’t mind—he needed the break just as bad as anyone. The ride to Silver City had been long, uneventful, and hot, but at least he was doing something, not sitting in the saloon drinking warm beer and watching farmers and ranchers come into town in hopes of purchasing supplies for their dying fields and livestock. Poker games were nonexistent, and cowboys stayed near swimming holes not gaming tables.

“What can I do for ya?” Bill, the operator asked, grabbing a pencil and paper.

“Ah need to send a wire,” Ezra replied, turning to look at him.

Bill nodded and handed over a pencil and paper. “Surprised to see someone stayin’ around these parts,” he acknowledged, watching as the stranger filled out the telegraph form.

“I’m leavin’ today,” he replied, reaching up to wipe the sweat off his brow. He handed the paper back and waited for the price.

“The name on the form?” Bill asked, as he pushed his glasses up onto his nose. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be.

“Chris Larabee,” Ezra replied flatly, not at all impressed. He heard a scuffle outside the door, but didn’t pay it any mind.

Bill nodded and finished his tally. “That’ll be two dollars.”

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

“Have to make a livin’ somehow,” Bill replied; smiling as the change was dropped into his hand.


“I’m tellin’ ya, that’s ‘im,” Toby said, shoving his friend behind the empty crates that rested against the telegraph office. “I hear’d ‘im say ‘is name was Larabee,” he forced a whisper past thin lips and crooked teeth. Sun spots marred his features and stringy blonde hair poked out beneath his black hat. A long nose that had been broken on several occasions rested bruised on his face...poking oddly to the left. Narrow eyes only accentuated his gaunt cheeks and boney features.

“He didn’t look like no quick-draw,” Percy replied, trying to peak around the corner of the box toward the street in hopes of not getting caught. Though younger than Toby, he was smarter, and less noticeable in a town that thrived on cowboys and ranch hands...gone were the miners, and farmers.  

Toby reached into his pocket and pulled out a poster and held it up for his friend to inspect. “This here says we get five-hundred dollars for killin’ Larabee—an’ that’s ‘im!” He pointed toward the street.

Percy grabbed the paper: “Where’d you get this?”

“Shelby done give’d it to me,” Toby answered. “That’s a lot of money for doin’ nothin’—I hear’d Larabee ain’t nothin’ but a cold blooded killer anyhows—so it won’t be bad for killin’ ‘im.”

“If he’s as fast as they say how are we gonna do it?” Percy took his hat off and scratched his head.

Toby smiled and leaned forward. “Wait ‘til he gets hisself out by Dead Man’s Pass an’ shoot ‘im with the long rifle...he won’t know what hit ‘im.”

Percy thought a moment and read the poster. “How do you know this is official like?”

“Fer five-hundred dollars does it have to be?”

“Sure wouldn’t mind not havin’ to shovel horse shit no more.” Percy looked up and nodded. “Okay.”

Toby smiled: “He said he was leavin’ today—if’n you ride out an’ find a good shootin’ spot, I’ll follow ‘im in an’ send you a signal or somethin’. Yer a better shot anyhow.”

Percy nodded: “Let’s go.”


Ezra stepped out of the telegraph office and shook his head: it couldn’t get much hotter. The sun bore down like an overweight prostitute without respite. With the ground being so dry it had cracked and flaked where mud puddles had formed over the spring months. On the well-traveled road, however, the dust picked up with any source of wind and the plant-life succumbed to its wrath. He’d opted for removing his jacket and vest, allowing his white cotton shirt to protect him from the sun. Not dressed to his usual standards, he’d decided mother-nature was not as fashionably sensitive as some might be, and he wore clothing more suited to the elements. His hat covered his face with shade, and it caused his head to sweat, leaving trails down his face and neck.

He grabbed the reins and quickly flipped them up and over his horse’s neck. Giving the animal a gentle pat, he mounted and started his tedious trek out of town. He’d thought about staying...just long enough to see what the town had to offer as far as gambling was concerned, but he’d decided against it when he’d overheard a citizen mention a good game in Cooper—only a five hour clip.

He hated the idea of traveling through Dead Man’s Pass again—the only way into or out of Silver City. Strange really, when he thought about it, a small section of land named after a man who’d lost his life protecting his home—and the way he’d died was deplorable. Skinned alive, or so the stories went...killed by white savages.

Ezra shrugged, thinking to himself and then reached up to wipe his brow with a handkerchief. He hated the idea of dust imbedding itself onto his skin, locked between teeth, up his nose, and in his eyes. But he knew when he moved out west that he was giving up city life—trading it for dusty jackets, worn boots, and clothes that were only new until they were out of the box. That was life, he thought, barbwire and windmills. He looked up and shook his head after hearing the squeaking of steel against steel. The large blades on the mill turned slowly and sporadically...offering nothing except an image of history for photographers and writers.

Ezra chuckled when he captured the glimpse of a chicken running from a puppy out of the corner of his eye. The hen squawked and puffed out her feathers, but the puppy continued his hunt: barking, yapping, and nipping. The gambler nodded, wishing he had its energy—he continued out of town, giving his horse his head, allowing him to walk at his own pace.

He wasn’t in too much of a hurry...and he certainly didn’t want to overwork himself or his steed.

Chapter 2

It was a wonder as to why anyone would want to claim any portion of the land known as Dead Man’s Pass. Nobody knew for certain what had transpired to cause the trees to lose their leaves, or the plants to dry up and eventually blow away. The Indians blamed it on an evil spirit of some kind—saying it was not ground for men to tread.

But they did, and would continue to do so.

It was located three days ride from Four Corners, and served as the only road to Silver City. According to legends, the land had been a haven of sorts: lush trees, ample grass, and a steady stream. It was a place for animals to flourish and men to thrive, but somehow that had all changed.

It was a flat land, surrounded by mountains and cliffs embedded with rocks of pastel colors. The greens and bright colors of flowers had been replaced with browns, reds, and magentas. It contained a beauty all of its own, but for some reason it lacked the lustfulness of its oral history.

Dirt swirled and scattered when a dust devil moved across the terrain. Ezra’s horse continued to walk with steady hooves over the barren ground, creating hollowed sounds of clip clops as metal shoes connected with the hardened earth. The large animal flung his tail up and around his flanks and back legs, mostly out of boredom. His head nodded and swayed with the motion of his body, rocking like a raft on peaceful water.

Ezra heard the blast a brief second before his body was violently pushed forward. The waist of his pants and belt were caught on the saddle-horn, preventing him from falling. His horse jumped and another blast echoed before the large animal stumbled forward. His knees buckled and his head went down in a sad attempt to maintain his footing. The horse’s hindquarters pushed him forward onto his shoulder, head, and neck before coming to a complete halt on his side. He kicked out with his hind legs and scraped the dirt with his front. The animal groaned and went still; except for his harsh breathing.

Ezra lay with his right leg trapped beneath his steed. His belt had come loose from the horn of the saddle when he hit the ground. He continued to lay unmoving, genuinely unaware of his circumstance. His hat had landed a few yards away, laying rim up toward the brutal sun.


Toby squealed in delight. It had been so easy. He waited for Percy to ride down from his position, before offering him a high-five. The slap echoed briefly, and both men headed toward their prey, content with themselves and excited about their $500 reward.

They dismounted and walked toward the deceased horse and rider.

“Ya nailed ‘im good,” Toby said, squatting down beside the still form.

Blood soaked the earth from the bullet hole in Ezra’s back that continued to seep. His white shirt seemed to illuminate red. His face was turned toward his horse, his right cheek laying flat with the earth. His hair was matted and coated with sweat and muddied dirt. His right arm lay behind him, fingers and palm up, his elbow bent. His left foot was still in the stirrup of his saddle, rising and falling with every breath his horse took.

The dying gelding turned his head toward the sky, grunting as his breathing became more labored. His head fell back to the dirt, sounding harsh as it landed; causing dust to bloom into the air.

Toby stood and pulled out his sidearm. “Shame lettin’ ‘im suffer.” He cocked the hammer back and fired. He watched as the horse jerked and succumbed to the well placed bullet.

Ezra remained oblivious.

“How’re we gonna get ‘im back to where we gotta take ‘im?” Toby asked, reaching up to scratch his head. He quickly adjusted his hat and looked around the area.

“Got to get him out from under that horse first,” Percy replied.

Toby reached into his pocket and pulled out the poster. “Says here they j’st want proof—”

Percy grabbed the poster, ripping the top corner. “Burgess wants his body or sig...signif...sig-nif-fia-gant....significant proof taken to him and the reward money will be given.” He looked toward his partner. “We have to go to Eagle Bend to get it.”

“Hell, that’s four days ride,” Toby sighed. “He’ll stink like ol’ Joe’s outhouse by the time we get ‘im there.” He shook his head in disgust. “Every scavenger ‘round these parts is gonna be followin’ us.”

“We could take his head,” Percy said, looking down at the still form. He watched a moment as blood continued to seep from the wound on Larabee’s back.

“I ain’t doin’ it!” Toby snapped, taking a step back.

Percy pulled out the knife he carried in his boot and looked at the trivial size of it. Not exactly a Bowie Knife. Years of abuse had caused the edges to dull and the blade to rust near the handle. It would take some work—decapitating a man with this. He knelt down and took a deep breath...trying to find his courage...$500 was a lot of money to throw away. He grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked Ezra’s head back, exposing his neck. Percy jumped up when he saw a faint flicker of skin move. “He ain’t dead!” he squealed, feeling chills run up and down his spine.

Toby bent over and looked at the man carefully. “You’s just scared...he’s deader ‘an a doornail.”

Percy jerked and danced a moment before collecting himself. “We could take his trigger finger...won’t be as nasty as cuttin’ off his head.”

“Will that be ‘nough?” Toby scratched his head with long jaded fingers.

“I seen men come apart after layin’ in the hot sun—skin tears like old onion skins and the stench is somethin’ awful.” He curled his nose at the thought.

Toby shrugged his shoulders. “Hell, if’n you’re thinkin’ it’ll work—we might as well try.” He watched as Percy knelt down beside their target and rubbed his hands on his pants before picking his knife up off the ground.

“Gi’me ‘is ring,” Toby said excitedly, looking at the turquoise and gold with lascivious eyes.

Percy pulled the item from Ezra’s finger and tossed it up to Toby, watching as the wonton cowboy tried it on his own hand.

“Fits!” he announced, looking at the ring under the watchful sun.

Percy shook his head and grabbed the limp right hand. “I figure if this Larabee fellow was as mean as they say...” he pulled limp fingers apart and carefully placed his knife against taunt skin, “...we done some good here today.” He started to saw.

Chapter 3

Bryce Milner led his old mule ‘Bitchy Betty’ through the dry bed of the Lost River. He listened to his dishes clang and clatter with every step she took, wishing on some level he’d been born deaf. He’d walked the hills and plains of Dead Man’s Pass for 30 years and had no desire to stop now. He knew the land’s history like the back of his hand, and he respected it.

His hat hung low on his head, drooping like a tablecloth over a table edge. A long grey beard hid his age and face, but bright wizened eyes peaked out beneath his hat rim. A pair of worn overalls hid his wilting frame, and old boots protected tired feet.

He’d been headed back to his homestead after a failed attempt of finding silver in an old abandoned mine. It wasn’t much, but it kept him busy. He’d heard the first gunshot echo off the rock walls and he shook his head, figuring it was just a bunch of kids out hunting rabbits. He couldn’t blame them; rabbit stew was a hardy enough meal. When he heard the second shot he knew something was didn’t shoot like that, if they had to shoot more than once it usually took them a while between shots to readjust.

Bryce moved back toward his pack and removed his Remington. The long elegant rifle shined, as though it had been polished. He licked his thumb and checked the chambers making sure they were loaded. He shook his head when he heard the third shot. Carefully, he cradled his weapon under his arm and led his mule toward an outcropping of dead trees. He tied her up and made his way to the clearing where he could see the spot of land known as Dead Man’s Pass.

It took him a while, but when he got there he saw a sight that made his blood boil. Two men were standing over another, a dead horse lying atop the man. Men were stupid—expendable...but a horse. Bryce shook his head in anger and carefully placed his weapon against his shoulder. He patted it lovingly and carefully gripped the trigger.


“I can’t cut through the bone,” Percy said, frustrated with the slick blood that made his grip falter. His knife had sliced through the skin on the inside of the finger well enough, but he couldn’t cut through the bone. He looked up in time to feel his breath forced from his chest as he was thrown backwards.

Toby screamed and rushed for one of the fleeing horses, not thinking about anything except escape. The big bay was on the move before Toby got mounted, but he was a cowboy for a good reason. He grabbed the saddle-horn and swung himself up. He never looked back as he rushed from the area.


Bryce stood and dusted his clothes off before heading back to collect his mule. He didn’t think much of what he’d done, but he figured it was for the better. Bitchy Betty brayed when she saw the old man come down off the knoll, her ears flopped when she shook her head to chase off the flies.

“Hold your cotton-pickin’-horses!” Bryce yelled. “I ain’t as young as I used to be.” He quickly replaced his rifle in the scabbard and untied the old bitch from the tree. He pulled her forward and she stalled, refusing to move. In exasperation he planted both feet and pulled with both hands. “There could be some grain in this for you if you move your sorry ass!” He pulled, and the mule stepped forward, causing Bryce to fall on his butt. “Should have traded you in for a pig!”

Bitchy Betty brayed again and started walking toward the pass, leaving Bryce in the dirt.


The scene was enough to cause most men to cover their mouths in horror. Buzzards, with a keen sense of perception—and an infinite knowledge of the land, were already starting to circle above. Bryce shook his head in disgust when he spotted the cowboy he’d killed. The Remington had done its job well.

“Well ain’t this a fine mess,” Bryce sighed. He walked toward the dead chestnut and started searching through the saddlebag that wasn’t hidden beneath the beast. He tossed out a leather bound book, a clean white shirt, and a leather pouch full of girly things: hair comb, tooth brush, tooth powder, and soap. Unsure if he could use them, he rested the pouch on the dead horse’s belly. He looked up when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye; a finger, or maybe it was the sun playing tricks on him—that was known to happen. He froze in place, waiting for the movement again.

A finger, one covered in blood, moved slightly and then went still.

The stranger still trapped beneath his horse wasn’t dead.

“Shit,” Bryce snapped, standing up. “Things can’t never be easy!” He looked around, hoping somebody else would be traveling through the pass and then they could take care of the problem. When he didn’t see anyone he looked at the stranger. “Ain’t this your lucky day,” he muttered, walking toward Bitchy Betty to grab his rope.

The mule remained where she was at...waiting...watching. The smell of blood didn’t bother her, but the heat did. She stomped her hoof in protest, acting like a child who hated to wait.

Bryce looked at her and snarled. “This is your damn fault,” he replied, looping the rope around the dead horse’s front pasterns. “If we’d left when I’d wanted to we coulda by-passed this mess and been home by now!” He reached up and unhooked the stranger’s foot from the stirrup and then led Bitchy Betty out in front of the steed. He tied the rope to the pack saddle and pulled the mule forward.

Ezra’s body jerked as his horse was slid out from between his legs. His right leg no longer trapped with the weight of 1200 pounds. His left leg dropped to the ground while he remained on his side, not bothering to move or awaken.

Once the horse was moved free of the stranger, Bryce untied the rope, only to roll it back up and replace it. He moved slowly for good reason, hoping the stranger would die before he had to take him back to his cabin. But it didn’t look as though he was going to get that lucky—at least not today.

Bryce squatted next to the man and pushed him gently forward, just enough to look at the wound on his back. “Lucky my ass,” he whispered, looking up, hoping someone would come by. He ran his hand over his face and silently swore. He looked toward his mule and stood. “We’ve got some work to do,” he called toward her, more for himself than Bitchy Betty.

Chapter 4

His temperature raged, blood clotted, and his knee continued its renovation of colors. The bullet wound to his back had been cleaned and bandaged, as well as the cuts along the right side of his face. His hand was wrapped with white material; just a hint of blood soaked through.

“I built this place for my wife,” Bryce said, despite knowing his patient couldn’t hear. He collected another washcloth and dumped it into a basin of cold water. “We moved out here durin’ the gold rush—figured we’d make it rich—made a hundred dollars my first year here—should’ve stayed in Kansas.” He grabbed the bowl and headed toward the bed. “Lost her and the boys to scarlet fever ten years later...been wanderin’ this valley ever since.” He set his items on the small table next to the bed and then took a seat on the straw mattress next to his charge. “Had two boys...Ezra and Isaiah—Ruth named ‘em...said she wanted Bible names...didn’t put up much of a fight, but I always liked the name Herb...mind if I call you Herb?” he continued to rattle on, not thinking much of the situation, just enjoying the company of someone who couldn’t argue.

He wasn’t by nature a kind man. He lived life hard, because life was hard on him. He didn’t have friends because they never lived long, so he did what was safe: stayed to himself and built up a wall of callousness.

Bryce rung the cloth out and applied it to Ezra’s forehead. “You best take that fever down,” he shook his head, “...don’t want to bury you out here...already buried one man today—don’t have the energy to bury two.” He looked toward the cast iron stove and the old black dog that slept beneath it. “Max!” he yelled, causing the dog to jump to his feet. “Let’s go hunt us down some dinner.”

The dog slammed his tail onto the dirt floor and rushed for the door. He jumped up and rushed outside when the door was opened, looking forward to the hunt.

Bryce looked toward the bed. “Don’t you go dyin’ on me before I get back.”


Ezra caught his breath in his throat as he felt the surges of pain reach every section of his body. Too weak to move, he cracked his eyes just a bit...just enough to get a visual of where he was. With his back on fire, his hand throbbing, and his knee sending spears into his thigh and calf he figured he’d been run over by a stampeding herd of buffalo.

Maybe Vin had taken up hunting again? No, that didn’t make sense...the buffalo were gone, for the most part anyway. Ezra remembered a puppy chasing a chicken...a hen protecting her young? He remembered an argument with Chris...Vin and Buck ordering him to leave...had he been forced out? Had he finally worn out his welcome? He took a breath and felt a sheering pain through his least he wasn’t choking on his own blood.

He tried to lift his hand and failed. He felt as though his memory was coming to him in parts...jagged parts. Self-doubt, unease, and a sense of loss weighed on him...confusion at its best. He couldn’t remember how he got here...had he been shot, robbed, had he finally forced Larabee’s hand enough to kill him? His chuckle turned into a violent cough.   

Ezra looked to his right when the door to the cabin opened.

“Good to see you ain’t dead,” Bryce said, tossing two skinned rabbits onto the table. “Weren’t sure you’d make it.” He motioned for his dog to lie down. “I’ll fix us up some stew.”

“Wh...” Ezra wanted to talk, but his throat felt as though it had been scrapped raw.

“My name’s Bryce,” he said, grabbing a pot, acting as though he hadn’t heard anything. “Found you out in the pass...looks like some cowboys was tryin’ to rob ya.” He looked over, just to see if the stranger had gone back to sleep. He took a deep breath when he realized the man had. “I ain’t cut out for this, Max.” He grabbed a butcher knife out of the drawer and started cutting at the carcasses.

Chapter 5

Four Corners was suffering just like the rest of the southwest. Dry heat and dust had farmers and ranchers back in church praying for reprieve. Few worked during the heat of the day, most finding solace in the saloon, bath houses, or the whore house. Even the swimming holes were drying up, causing people to consider moving...California perhaps.

Toby had headed south...not caring where he went or how. He only wanted to get his a trip that normally took 3 days, took him a day and a half. He wanted to stay in Four Corners overnight...maybe get some sleep before he went to Eagle Bend to collect his $500...he still had Larabee’s ring—that should be proof enough.

He pulled his horse to a stop in front of the Standish Tavern and dismounted. He tied his exhausted; sweat drenched, and overrun horse to the hitching rail and started toward the batwing doors for a drink.

“Take that horse to the livery,” Vin said, looking at the animal that was covered in sweat and foam. He turned to look at the cowboy who was stalled at the saloon entrance. “Don’t make me force you.”

“I don’t know who the hell you are, but that’s my horse—an’ I’ll treat ‘im anyway I see how.”

“Not in this town,” Buck said, pushing the batwing doors open, shoving the cowboy backward.

Toby squared his shoulders and cocked his head to the right. “You goin’ to force the man who killed Chris Larabee?” He didn’t give the two men time to answer as he shoved Buck aside and entered the saloon. He took a seat at a table and ordered a beer.

“Did he say what I think he said?” Buck asked, leaning toward Vin.

“Sounds like it,” Tanner replied. He moved past Buck and entered the saloon, spotting Chris and JD leaning against the bar.

Buck grinned; this was going to be interesting. He turned and followed Vin, watching as the he spoke with Chris before taking a carefully positioned place near the far wall.

Chris turned and looked toward the table, sizing the man up—trying to figure out his motives for lying. He stepped forward and leaned against a support beam adjacent to the chair where Toby was sitting. “So you killed Chris Larabee?” Chris asked, kicking his booted foot onto a chair. He waited for an answer, exposing the finely crafted weapon at his side—a weapon for gunslingers, not cowboys.

Toby didn’t notice. He smiled and cocked an eyebrow. “Damn straight...shot ‘im out—blew ‘is head clean off.” He leaned back and pushed his hat down and over his eyes, like a man taking a nap.

“Why’d you do it?” Chris asked, slightly amused.

“Money,” came the answer. Toby leaned forward and removed the poster from his pocket and handed it to the man in black. “That money’s mine.” He smiled widely, exposing crooked teeth and bad gums.

It was his overconfidence that did him in.

Chris glanced at the poster and handed it back toward Buck. “Pretty impressive.” Chris smiled, like the Cheshire cat baiting his prey. “That poster says you need got it?”

Toby smiled wider. “Damn right I do.” He slipped his thumb and forefinger into his breast pocket and pulled out a ring. “Damn near took off ‘is finger, but ‘fore I could cut through the bone another son-of-a-bitch tried to kill me—but I got what counts.”

Josiah, sitting at a far table with Nathan, swallowed hard and said a quick, meaningful prayer. Ezra’s ring caught a ray of sunlight and glimmered.  

Chris laughed. He turned and looked at his men, laughing...laughing like a man would laugh before he faced the inevitable. He turned quickly and threw his left cross at Toby’s jaw, dropping him back against the saloon floor. Chris had his weapon out before anyone could blink.

“What the hell!” Toby yelled, holding his hands up in protest. He dropped the ring and let it roll away from him. If he could seep into the wood-floor to disappear he would have.  

Chris stood over Toby with his revolver pointed directly at his head. Chris’ smile was gone, replaced with a look of death. It wasn’t his features: the finely chiseled jaw, smooth lips, angular nose, or the shadows his hat created over his face that caused men to question their mortality. It was those eyes. Eyes that had seen the darkest places available to man…eyes that had faced the Devil and won…eyes that wouldn’t die.

Toby wished he’d never come to town. His heart raced in his chest…heading for the door before his body could. He couldn’t pull his eyes from the man standing above him…the man that could end his life with the twitch of a finger. Those damn eyes…cold, haunted, deadly…

The sound of a gunshot echoed and smoke snaked out of the end of Chris’ revolver.

Toby cried and grabbed his bleeding ear. “What do you want?!” he pleaded, forgetting about the money, the ring, or the man he’d helped kill.

Chris snarled like a panther guarding its food. “The next one will take off your head,” he promised. “Where is he?”

“Who?!” Toby pleaded, shaking like a newborn calf on unsteady legs.

Chris smiled, but it wasn’t a smile of hope or peace…it was a sinister smile, full of warning and necessary promises.

“Dead Man’s Pass!” Toby confessed. “I didn’t kill ‘im—Percy did—shot ‘im in the back for the money—it was all ‘is idea—I didn’t want to have nothin’ to do with it—but he made me—I just took the ring.”

Chris looked toward the narrow stream of urine flowing across the floorboards from the cowboy’s pants, and he took a step back. He looked toward the door as Nathan rushed from the saloon. Josiah followed and sprinted toward the livery. “JD!” he yelled.

The kid stepped forward.

“Lock him up and don’t give him shit—watch him while we’re gone.”

JD pulled his revolver and kicked the cowboy’s thigh, motioning for him to get up. Toby stood slowly on shaky legs. “Need anything else, Chris?”

“Chris?” Toby asked, backing up toward the door. “You’re Larabee?”

The black-clad gunslinger sent him a look of warning that silenced him for good. JD escorted him out and toward the jailhouse.

“Vin,” Chris ordered, heading toward the batwing doors, knowing his men would follow. “You and Josiah head to Eagle Bend—find this Burgess and get him here.” He looked hard at Vin, handing him the wanted poster. “I don’t care how.”

Vin nodded and started for the livery, but he stopped suddenly, holding one of the swinging doors, somehow losing his grip on the poster. “You’ll need me along,” he said, turning back toward Chris, unwilling to back down. Chris wasn’t always right—not when it came to his past. “I can track faster ‘an Buck an’ I ain’t waitin’ to hear if Ezra’s dead or not—I want to go...I need to.”

Friends, comrades, or didn’t matter. Somehow, they’d all been stitched together with leather the thread through a Dream Catcher...woven in their own paths, but crossing, binding, and braided for strength. Friends with stories and experiences that were shared, not hidden: comrades with loyalties that were expressed not forced, and family bound by life not blood.  

Chris looked at the faces of Buck and Vin...knowing the tracker was right. “Go help Josiah with the horses.” He turned toward Buck. “Go help Nathan...if he thinks there’s a chance Ezra’s still alive...”

Buck nodded in understanding. “I’ll hurry.” He rushed through the batwing doors and disappeared.

Chris watched the doors swing slowly and then stop all together: lost in thought and blame. He looked at the poster that had floated to the floor...the poster that had caused all of this...all in his name. A name that had been associated with death for a price...he’d do what nobody else would...he’d do it and drink the money he earned, only to realize he’d have to kill again for another drink...a cycle that never ended...suicide disguised as grief.

The poster lay still under a chair, moving gently with an outside breeze. A simple piece of paper that had caused so much damage and pain—and it wasn’t even finished yet. To think—it might never end...would he ever be lost in the growing stories of the West...would Larabee ever be free from a life forced on him—a life he’d forced.

“...Chris...?” Inez said, carefully approaching.

Chris turned his expressive blue eyes toward the barmaid and nodded. “We’ll be back,” he said confidently. He glanced toward Mr. Parker, the saddle maker. “Can you watch the prisoner while we’re gone?”

Dave stood and nodded. “Bring him home,” he said softly.

Chris nodded his thanks and moved like rolling fog through the exit. His black duster blowing against his legs, and spurs rang hauntingly into the wind. 

Chapter 6

Bryce wasn’t used to company, particularly company that was as close to death as the man lying unmoving on the narrow bed in the rundown cabin. He’d been there three days, unable to talk, sweating like a stuck pig, and burning with a fever that wouldn’t stop. But somewhere in that bitter, cold heart, Bryce had been kind enough to change sheets, continue with cold water baths, and forcing the stranger to drink. He wasn’t sure if it was working, but it seemed to help.

“I weren’t never one for folks—never liked their lyin’ or cheatin’ ways. I always liked a man who was honest, upfront, and plain like. Folks nowadays is just different.” He applied another wet cloth to the man’s forehead. “When I was a boy,” he smiled, “I had some friends—six of us—we’d go out huntin’, fishin’, you name it, we did it...”

His touch was gentle, like a father to a son. He knew and understood hardships—he’d lived through them, survived them...and though he chose to close himself off from the world, he’d allowed memories and animals to fill his heart.

“My folks were dirt farmers,” he said, removing the cloth and soaking it again in cold water. “Had thirteen brothers and sisters and all but two of ‘em are dead...course I don’t know if they’re still livin’, been some time since I seen ‘em.” He pulled the sheet away from the man’s right leg and checked his knee. “Still a bit black, but it don’t look like you broke it.” He covered the leg again and decided to change the day-old bandage on Ezra’s hand.

Slowly, Bryce got to his feet, allowing his back to pop and knees to crack. “Came off a horse one day, crushed my thigh under his hoof—that’s why I don’t walk right no more...don’t think it healed right.” He grabbed an old tin from the cupboard and then a pile of ripped sheets. “Traded my horse in for a mule...” he moved toward the bed and retook his seat on the edge of the mattress. He gently reached out and grabbed the stranger’s right hand and removed the old bandages.

“Your hand is lookin’ good...gettin’ color back into that finger.” He pulled Ezra’s trigger finger and middle finger apart to get a better look at the scabbing. “Thought for a while I was goin’ to have to cut it off...but I think it’s okay.” He smiled, and opened the round tin. Gently he applied the salve to the wound and then wrapped the hand. “You’re one lucky man, lucky man.”

Bryce replaced the hand on his patient’s chest and then he took a deep breath. “Now,” he said, with a shake of his head, “let’s look at that gunshot wound.”


Buck covered his nose and mouth with his handkerchief, trying his best to disguise the smell of death. He looked toward JD who was keeping his hand over his though he become sick.

Vin pulled his horse to a stop when the animal snorted and stalled, refusing to move any further. JD’s little bay did the same, instinctively wanting to flee.

They could see in the distance the form of a horse. Scavengers had eaten out the body cavity, and started work on the legs and hindquarters. Buzzards fought at a distance while coyotes dug, pulled, and tore at decaying flesh. 

“How often are we to die before we go quietly off this stage? In every friend we lose a part of ourselves and the best part.” Josiah spoke softly, like a whisper in a gentle breeze. His heart had clenched and fought valiantly with his gut. Despite the heat, his hands went cold—like ice in midwinter. His feet suddenly felt heavy and isolated, and his mind whirled around the knowledge of loss....


“Won’t know nothin’ for sure ‘til we get there,” Vin said coldly, yet, needful. He tied his mount to a tree and started the gut-wrenching trek toward the inevitable. He wanted to mount his horse and ride to Four Corners and tell himself it wasn’t happening. He wanted to convince himself that Ezra had stolen a pot of money and sprinted toward his dream. That damn saloon on San Francisco’s waterfront. The dream had to be better than the ‘knowing’. It was easier that way...he tried to tell himself...believing Ezra was fine, enjoying the high life, drinking his best whiskey with a beautiful woman hanging off his arm, while standing in that gold-lined saloon...better than had to be. Vin ran his hand over his face, pulling himself back to the present, back to reality.

He watched as the scavengers scattered like cowards.

Nathan wasn’t a doctor, and for the first time in his life he understood that at this very didn’t matter. He couldn’t save a life that had already been taken, and he couldn’t create a miracle with a title. He understood the words Josiah had spoken, and he understood the urgency in Vin’s voice, but it wasn’t the same... It would never be the same again. Josiah had explained to him that the number seven was undivided, whole—perfect. It was the number of days in a week, it was the number used by Jesus to explain his love for his people, it was...complete. Six wouldn’t be the same. Nathan followed, having left his horse with the others, feeling the need to find closure...wishing, by chance, it wasn’t Ezra out here.

“I bet ol’ Ezra’s sittin’ in some saloon, drinkin’ his damn whiskey, and cheatin’ some fool out of his hard earned cash,” Buck said, trying to keep the faith, trying to avoid the reality of life. He’d known a lot of men, some good, others not so good...but they all had a will—an instinct of sorts, that kept them alive when the odds were impossible. He knew in his heart that Standish was alive...he had to be, for all their sakes. They’d all come together to save men, women, and children, but in the long run—they’d saved each other. Seven lonely individuals had come together in hopes of finding a meaning in life, in hopes of rediscovering their passions, and finding out what made them the men they were. Ezra wasn’t dead...Buck tried to convince himself...he couldn’t be.

JD was the kid, but Ezra for the most part had treated him like an adult, forcing him to look outside Buck’s protective demeanor, while allowing him to grow in a land that wouldn’t accept naivety for very long. Buck had lived what JD desired to experience, and Ezra had understood that. The west was a cold place, full of death and loss, and it was only natural for a friend to protect another from the hardships of it. JD had embraced it, grown from experience and watching those that knew. Ezra had known, more than what the rest had given him credit for. But that was Ezra, hiding those little things, creating an atmosphere of question, and employing his lust for life. JD wiped his eyes...not wanting to believe the gambler was gone, not wanting to understand what had happened and why...

Chris stayed behind, as though his presence would make the discovery final. He watched five of seven walk toward the remains of one of his own. A man who’d grown in himself as well as his friendship to others, a man who’d saved the life of his friends on countless occasions, and a man who never let the life he lived change him. Chris knew he’d forever be branded a gunslinger, a man who could kill and not regret it. He was after all, born to this land like all the rest, living its birth and loving its potential. He hated what it could do, but he wouldn’t leave it...he couldn’t leave it. Ezra had been a friend, though trying at times, he never would fail to do what he was ordered—he may dispute it, but he’d do it...and usually more. This time, Ezra had lost his life because of Chris’ unforgivable name, with unforeseen consequences. He’d kill the man that did this, take joy in his death, and wash his hands of everything he cared about.

He was done playing leader. 


Vin looked at the ground, trying to decipher the events that took place. An unmarked grave rested under a dead tree. Rocks had been placed over the top, temporarily keeping the scavengers out. Josiah moved toward the grave and knelt on one knee, holding his hat in his hands, rolling the rim through his fingers. He bowed his head, not bothering to look up, knowing it was JD who was crying...and damn if he didn’t envy the kid’s ability.

Buck placed a consoling arm over JD’s shoulders, offering him the only comfort he could. “At least someone was kind enough to bury him,” he said.

“Maybe we should dig him up,” JD offered, his eyes pleading. “Just to make sure it’s him.”

Nathan shook his head. “Not in this heat, don’t want to see Ezra like that.” He looked to his left, hiding a stray tear.

What nature could do to a body....

Vin stepped closer, a leather book in hand. “It’s Ezra’s.” He handed it to Josiah. “Maybe...” Vin paused, collecting himself, “...maybe you could read somethin’ from it.”

Josiah nodded and then stood, allowing the dirt he’d grabbed to slip through his fingers as he took the leather object—Ezra’s last read. He fingered through the book, searching for that place where the gambler had left off...searching for that voice that would gently seduce the wind, take with it memories...take with it a friend. He spotted the inscription on the inside and chose to ignore it, feeling as though he were partaking in something that should be left quiet. He looked up when he spotted Chris coming toward them, his duster billowing out behind him, dust escaping his boot heels and spurs. When the gunslinger joined them, Josiah began, “Remember the condition of his mind. As we have just mentioned, all was now to him a dream. His understanding was troubled. Marius, we must insist, was under the shadow of the great black wings which open above the dying. He felt that he had entered the tomb, it seemed to him that he was already on the other side of the wall, and he no longer saw the faces of the living save with the eyes of one dead.” He paused and began again, “How came M. Fauchelevent there? Why was he there? What did he come to do? Marius put none of these questions. Besides, our despair having this peculiarity that it enwraps others as well as ourselves, it seemed logical to him that everybody should come to die...”

The words written were true, expressed on the faces of the men surrounding the grave. Saying goodbye was never easy...and it shouldn’t be.


“What do you think happened?” Chris asked, looking for Vin’s answer.

“He was ambushed,” Vin answered flatly. “Looks like two horses rode in from the west, but I can’t be sure, the dust an’ other animal tracks have covered most of the tracks. There’s a lot of dried blood where the horse had been...can’t be sure who bled what—”

“What about the other cowboy...Percy, or something like that?” JD asked, looking toward the east...the place where the cowards had hidden.

Vin shook his head. “Unless he left on the back of a mule—”

“That cowpoke said somethin’ about someone tryin’ to kill ‘im before he could cut....” Buck paused, not wanting to think about it, “...before he could cut Ezra’s finger off.”

“Someone with a mule?” Chris asked, looking toward Vin for answers.

“Makes sense,” the sharpshooter replied. “Mule tracks are easy to track...maybe he could let us know what happened.”

“Maybe he’d been the one to bury Ezra?” JD surmised.

“Could be...” Vin acknowledged.

“I want to take him back to Four Corners,” Josiah said, cutting the line of conversation.

“Josiah,” Chris replied, shaking his head.

“I’m not leavin’ him out here in an unmarked grave so coyotes and buzzards can finish him off—he deserves better than that—from all of us!”

“Josiah.” Chris stepped forward.

“Do you really want to fight me on this?!” Josiah asked, standing to his full height and broadening his already expansive shoulders.

“I think we should track down the man with the mule first,” Vin said, “so he can tell us what happened. Then we’ll come back for the body.” He stepped forward. “We’ll come back for him, Josiah.”

The big man ground his teeth and nodded in acceptance. He clenched the leather bound book in his hands and slowly followed the others toward their horses.

It could never be easy.

Chapter 7

Bryce stood under the canopy of his home guarding the door, and dumped another bucket of warm water. He could only shake his head when he thought about the still unconscious man laying next to death in his cabin...a man that by all rights should be dead. He didn’t understand how someone could linger so long with a raging fever. The stranger never moved, except for the occasional quiver of eyes behind closed lids. He was fighting for someone, or something.

Bryce leaned against a pole after resting the iron bucket on a chair and then lit his cheroot. He needed one, after the day he’d had. Having someone around didn’t bode well when they couldn’t talk, walk, or for that matter...move, and he was wishing he could share a conversation...maybe even a meal. He wasn’t that bad of a cook, and the stranger seemed to take his broth okay.

Max stepped out and rested on his hindquarters and looked out toward the small outcropping of trees. His ears perked forward and he cocked his head, hearing something his master couldn’t. He stood suddenly on all fours and started barking.

Bryce reached for his Remington and pointed it toward the trees. “What is it, Max?” he asked, staying close to the door for cover if it came to that.

The hair on the back of Max’s neck bristled and he bore his white K-9s.

“You best come out now, so I can see ya!” Bryce yelled, readying his weapon.

“We don’t want no trouble,” a voice called back, carefully coming into view. The newcomer led his dark gelding behind him, with five other men following, all with their own horses. “We’re the law from Four Corners.”

Bryce chuckled. “Don’t mean shit out here!” He kept his rifle ready to fire.

Vin stopped his horse. “We’re friends of the man who was killed out on the pass.” He ducked when a bullet whizzed by his head.

They all scattered.  

“Get the hell off my land! Don’t want none of yer kind out here!” He fired another shot. “I’ll shoot the next man I’ I’m a spitfire shot!”

“We ain’t here to cause no trouble!” Buck yelled back, taking up a position behind a tree. “Who in the hell is this bastard!” he yelled, searching for his friends.

“I seen what your friends tried to do to that fella!” Bryce yelled, taking another shot at a tree branch. “Don’t want your kind here!”

“What fella?” Nathan whispered, looking at Josiah.

“Who are you talking about?!” Josiah asked, searching his pockets for a white cloth. He looked at Buck. “Give me your handkerchief.”


“Just do it!”

Buck shrugged and tossed the cloth over.

Bryce reloaded his weapon.

Chris took off his duster and tossed it to the ground. He removed his gun-belt next, dropping it atop his duster and then moved out from his hiding position, causing Josiah to pause behind a tree. Chris held his hands up and away from his body. “The dead horse on Dead Man’s Pass belonged to a friend of ours...Do you know what happened to him?” He slowly made his way toward the narrow path leading to the house.

Bryce placed his weapon against his shoulder ready to shoot. “I seen enough!” He watched a moment and paused. “Don’t come any closer!”

Chris stopped, keeping his hands in the air. “I just want to know what happed to our friend.”

“You, and YOU alone can come forward!” Bryce called out, carefully warning the others not to move.

Chris nodded and walked the fifty feet to the front of the cabin. He could see better now, dusk taking the majority of his vision. He stood a few yards from the open barreled rifle pointed at him. The dog bearing his teeth didn’t help. He didn’t want to press his luck.

Bryce nodded and slowly lowered his weapon, but he kept his finger on the trigger—just in case. “There was two men that took down another,” he motioned with his head toward his cabin, “shot Herb in the back. Figure they was leavin’ him for dead, goin’ through his things. I seen them pokin’ with the body so I did the only thing I could.” He paused. “I shot one and the other run off—don’t care where he went as long as he stays away.”

Chris clenched his jaw, fighting for the strength to ask. “The man you helped—”

“Alive, but barely—”

Chris sighed. “Can I see him?” Could that slimy bastard have escaped death...again?

Bryce looked the stranger up and down and slowly nodded. “You try anythin’...I’ll gut you.”

Chris nodded in agreement, and slowly headed inside the home.


It was difficult to see in the darkened cabin. Only one lantern was lit, and that was sitting on the table across from the bed. Chris entered and slowly allowed his eyes to adjust. Hesitantly he looked around.

“Ezra?” he questioned, swiftly walking toward the figure lying like death on the mattress. Chris pressed his palm to the Southerner’s forehead and took a deep breath. “How long’s he been like this?”

“Since I brung him home—four days ago.” Bryce lowered his weapon. “He your friend?”

Chris nodded, feeling his heart racing in his chest. “Yeah...he’s my friend.”

“Well,” Bryce nodded, “if one of your friends is a best get him in here.”

Chris looked up and smiled. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet, son,” Bryce said, slowly heading out the door. He jumped slightly when he heard: “NATHAN!”

Chapter 8

The pain was fierce, like a branding iron through his skin. Someone shoved him forward, keeping him on his side, while someone dug into his back. His body tensed in defense, but he was too weak to fight.

“We’re almost done, Ezra”.

The voice was deep, soft, gentle…Nathan?

Ezra felt someone grasp his shoulder; a hand was run over his head—through his hair. Cold hands continued to pry at his back, and he groaned. He reached out and grabbed a hand…or a hand had grabbed his. He could hear voices, but they blended together, as though he were in his room above the saloon. Was he there? Suddenly he was rolled onto his back and then someone unceremoniously pulled at his shoulders, lifting him into a sitting position. “St…sto…stop,” he muttered, gasping for breath as he choked on his own saliva.

“I’ve got you, brother,” Josiah said, gently arranging his charge in a comfortable position on his chest.  

“That goin’ to be comfortable for you, Josiah?” Nathan asked, carefully positioning Ezra’s head between the crook of the big man’s neck and shoulder.

“He’ll be fine,” Josiah sighed, not bothered by the weight on his chest or the heat radiating from the Southerner. It was the rattling in his chest that had him worried.

Nathan nodded, and then drenched a washcloth into the basin and placed it on Ezra’s forehead.

“How is he?” Chris asked, standing with his arms crossed in front of his chest. He’d been pacing the floor, listening in agony as the gambler whimpered, gasped, groaned, and choked with every poke and prod.

Nathan shrugged, hoping to have an answer, but finding the words weren’t forthcoming. It wasn’t going to be an easy ride, and Ezra was already pushing himself to the point of death…and all he’d done was try and stay alive. “His hand looks good, healin’ nice, and so’s his knee…but that bullet wound to his back has had a while to fester and that fever runnin’ through him is what I’m worried about. Lung fever’s already set in—but as long as we keep him upright, keep him cool…then maybe…” he let his words linger like a bad odor.

“That bullet was in him pretty deep,” Bryce said, sitting at his table, looking and feeling odd with all the company.

“It’s a good thing you dug it out when you did,” Nathan said, picking up his supplies. “He would have died if you hadn’t.”

Bryce nodded and quickly stood. “I’ve got to get to the mine…just leave the place like you found it when you leave.” He grabbed his bags of supplies and headed toward the door. Unused to so much company, he needed his space.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done,” JD said, keeping his position near the back wall. His heart had raced when he learned Ezra was still alive, but then it quickly sank when he saw the condition of his friend.

“You boys take care,” Bryce grabbed his rifle. He paused a moment and turned. “I heard you callin’ him Ezra...that his given name?”

“Ezra Standish,” Vin replied firmly, confidently.

Bryce nodded: “It’s a good name.” He sighed and quickly disappeared though the door.  

“Sure ain’t the friendly type,” Buck acknowledged, moving toward the bed where Standish lay. He looked up and met Josiah’s eyes, finding strength and faith.

Chris nodded and walked toward a window, watching as Bryce packed up his mule. With morning’s dawn creeping up over the tree tops it wouldn’t be long before the sun would heat the ground with fiery vengeance. “It’s not easy...livin’ alone all your life, wishing for friends, and too damn scared to find any.” His words were whispered, but clearly understood.

Vin looked at Chris, knowing he was talking about himself as well.

Chris turned and looked at the faces of his men. “Buck, I want you and JD to ride into Silver City and wire Mary...let her know we found Ezra, and we’re not sure how long we’re going to be here.” He paused, glancing at the gambler. “Let her know he’s alive...they’re a few people who’ll be pleased to hear it.” He thought of Maude and how quickly news traveled, particularly when it regarded one of them.

“Grab some bandages,” Nathan said, wishing he’d brought more.

Buck nodded and slapped the kid on the back of his shoulder. “We’ll hurry back,” he said, forcing JD through the door.

“Vin,” Chris said, strapping his gunbelt on. “Let’s take care of the horses and get some food.”

Vin nodded and glanced toward the bed, watching as Josiah kept a firm hand against Ezra’s forehead. He tipped his hat and disappeared without saying a word. Chris followed his stride longer, more confident, and more determined.

Josiah looked at Nathan. “How is he really?” he asked, now that the others were gone.

Nathan shrugged and shook his head. “It’s up to him.”

Josiah nodded. “Hand me that book.”

Nathan reached out and grabbed the leather bound 1st edition of Les Misérables. It was heavy, like a dictionary, and the print on the cover seemed elegant beneath the worn leather. It wasn’t the kind of book a gambler or con man would carry...try and pack with him when he had to make a quick escape out of town. And yet, it looked like a book that had been well used...well traveled. Nathan handed it to Josiah who awkwardly held it, searching for the place he’d left off. “You plan on finishing it?”

Josiah smiled: “Need to pass the time, brother.” He opened the book to the page he’d left off and started reading, “The abundance of light was inexpressibly comforting. Life, sap, warmth, odour, overflowed; you felt beneath creation the enormity of its source; in all these breezes saturated with love, in this coming and going of reflections, in this prodigious expenditure of rays, in this indefinite outlay of fluid gold, you felt the prodigality of the inexhaustible; and behind this splendour, as behind a curtain of flame, you caught a glimpse of God, the millionaire of starts....”

Nathan listened to the words, listening as Josiah’s voice floated through the air like a soothing breeze. Ezra seemed still, almost content with the volume and strength the book created. Maybe, just maybe he’d pull though. He’d live another day and fight another fight. Maybe, he’d even get his kicks through a poker game, conning some cowhand dry. Nathan smiled, he’d love to see it...he’d love to sit back and watch in amusement and amazement as the self-professed confidence man worked his charm. It was a game after all, a game they all played—Ezra’s was just more visible, and it was a game he’d continue to play until the right time came...when they’d all say their goodbyes...when that last card was tossed onto the table...that damn winning Ace of Spades.

Nathan turned toward the stove...he’d make Josiah some tea, something to keep his voice smooth—to keep it from cracking. The healer nodded to himself in understanding. He wasn’t a doctor, and he didn’t want the title...he had enough with a small town, a girl, and a group of scoundrels that called themselves friends.

What more could he want?     

Chapter 9

It wasn’t easy on any of them. Listening to the Southerner seemingly cough up his lungs, and groan when the episodes ended. Each took turns, trying in some way of offer support while the wound on his back healed and the pneumonia cleared. It had taken three days of constant care before the fever broke, and they all worried that he wouldn’t be the same man they’d once knew. Nathan had warned them...fevers were not something to fool with, and they had a way of leaving their mark.

Buck flipped another page in the book, not reading aloud, but silently to himself at the table. The others slept peacefully with the realization Ezra wasn’t going to die...not this time. A lamp flickered, lighting the darkened room just enough to read by, but on occasion the woman-loving gunslinger would rub his eyes. The book was good enough not to put down—and he hated to read. He turned to his right, just in time to see a bare hand rise from the bed. Buck smiled and carefully stood, not wanting to wake anyone.

Ezra weakly brushed his face with his hand and allowed it to drop to his chest. Dear God, he felt weak.

“Hey,” Buck whispered, taking a seat on the mattress next to Ezra’s hip. “How’re you doin’?”

Ezra blinked a few times, trying to give his eyes time to adjust. He turned his head slightly toward Buck and nodded. “What...happened?” he asked, sounding gruff—like an old man.

Buck smiled and reached out for the cup of water on the nightstand. He slipped a hand under Ezra’s head and neck and helped him while he drank. “Got word you’d been killed by a couple of gunslingers wantin’ to make names for themselves.” He propped the pillow up when he noticed the gambler moving uncomfortably. “Nearly lost you.”

Ezra frowned, not quite understanding. “Where am I?” he asked, brushing his face again with his hand. He looked at the bandage and then Buck.

“They tried to cut off your finger.”

Ezra jumped and started to pull franticly at the bandages.

Buck reached out and grasped both hands. “You’ve still got can still deal a sly card.” He smiled, feeling his own heart race. “Took a bullet to the back an’ you tore up your knee a bit...might be some time before you can walk without a limp, but Nate says you’re almost as good as knew.”

“Mah chest hurts,” Ezra whispered, having to push his head back and strain his neck muscles in order to talk.

“Lung fever...,” Buck acknowledged. “You damn near died.”

Ezra chuckled. “Feels like it.”

Buck chuckled in relief. He placed his hand on the gambler’s shoulder. “Josiah’s been readin’ that book of yours...Les Misérables.”

Ezra raised his eyebrows in recognition. He closed his eyes, feeling his exhaustion to the fullest. “Jean Valjean...quite a tormented soul.”

“Can say that again.” Buck nodded. He stood up and retrieved the book. “Mind if I read aloud for a while?”

Ezra shook his head, and kept his eyes closed.

Buck smiled and retook his position on the bed, opening the book to where he’d left off. “Seems to fit you pretty good, Ezra,” he chuckled, and started reading from the book, “It seemed to him that he had just awakened from some wondrous slumber....”

Another day, another feat; seven strong, seven complete. Josiah smiled...damn those crows...He looked up from his spot on the floor and watched as Buck remained on the bed, reading, fighting with words that were complicated...but fighting all the same.

It was good to be whole.


Chris rested against the wall with his arms across his chest. He glanced from the gambler to the window, finding his courage...himself. “It’s my fault you were shot,” he said flatly, bluntly, and sorrowfully.

Ezra looked up from his book while he sat positioned on the bed. He was fully dressed, even opting for a light jacket. His booted feet were crossed at the heels and his weapons hung on the back of a chair. “I don’t mean to disagree—”

“My name,” Chris cut him off, “they were after my name for a price.” He shrugged and glanced out the window and smiled as Buck tossed JD into the water trough. “I’m worth five-hundred dollars to a man named Burgess in Eagle Bend—near as any of us can figure, somehow those two cowboys that took you down thought you were me.” He glanced toward the bed.

“An obvious mistake,” Ezra replied sarcastically.

“With that kind of money involved people aren’t goin’ to stop and ask for details.”

“I was thinkin’ more on the lines of our attire.” He pulled on his pant leg. “Though, as shabby as these look it is no understandin’ as to why the mistake was made.” He flipped a page in his book and went back to reading. “Really, we should approach the judge about such atrocities. A dollar a day is not nearly enough for a man keep himself presentable.”

Chris clenched his jaw and pressed a thin smile. He looked back out the window and found his friends saddling the horses for their trek home. “How many times have you read that book?” For reasons he couldn’t fathom he needed the conversation to continue.

Ezra seemingly ignored the question and continued reading. He sighed a moment and shrugged, only to look up and cock an eyebrow. “I took it off the body of a dead Yankee, durin’ the unfortunate dispute.”

Chris nodded and continued to look out the window. “Ruth?” He turned back toward the gambler, looking for his expression. “The name and inscription on the front cover?”

“Of inconsequence,” Ezra replied, returning to his book.

“I’m not a fool, Ezra,” Chris replied bluntly. “That’s not the kind of book a man like you packs around for because you like it.” Using his shoulder he pushed himself off the wall and turned toward the door. “I’m not blind either,” he glanced back toward the bed, “I’ve seen the ring.” He paused, pulling from his own strength.

Ezra searched Chris’ face for deceit, but he couldn’t find any. The gambler tried to hide his emotions, but his eyes spoke it for him.

“Josiah told me once that you’re the extreme left and I’m the extreme right.” He smiled, and shrugged. “I guess that puts us about two feet from each other in that circle of identity.” He opened the door and left.

Ezra watched as the door closed and he looked toward the book. He ran his hand over the cover. It’s just a book, he tried to convince himself, just a book.

The End!!

Notes: Buck and Josiah’s reading came from Les Misérables, complete and unabridged, by Victor Hugo.

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