Fork in the Road

by Beth

Chapter 9

Mercer finished his meal and looked directly at Sebastian who sat across from him at the kitchen table, "Mr. McKinley should be back anytime, for what ever reason he insisted these men remain alive," he looked directly at Tony who didn't look away from the cold eyes staring him down. "I do, however, want to know when the railroads gold will be shipped from Eagle Bend. I would imagine the young Mr. Dunne might have some idea of the date considering he was the sheriff. See what you can get out of the boy," he looked at Sebastian and Tony his eyes firm and intimidating, "don't kill him," he looked at Tony.

Tony smiled a devilish smile and looked to Sebastian, "looks like my talents will come in useful."

"I mean it Mr. Becker, he dies, and so do you." Mercer picked up his cup of coffee and finished it before getting to his feet and heading to the back room to catch a quick nap, he intended to play a few hands of poker with Mr. Standish and he wanted to be ready for it.

Sebastian knew he was there to be the mediator, make sure Tony didn't kill the boy. He'd seen Tony kill a man with his bare hands in a brawl at a saloon and he knew the man was eager to do it again. He didn't understand why Mercer kept the man on; he was too high risk for Sebastian's taste. It seemed to him that Mercer spent most of his time threatening Tony Becker with his life if he crossed the line he so boldly walked. Sebastian had killed men in the past as well; he was wanted in Oregon for the murder of two men. He wasn't however, brutal, he didn't kill to watch men suffer, he killed out of necessity, or so he reasoned. He'd known about the gold shipment. Every one of Mercers hired men did. The gold was the main reason for all of them to be there. Not only were they each going to receive $300 dollars for bringing in the seven gunslingers they had a chance to take down a huge shipment of gold headed for the Cattlemen's Bank in Colorado; they just needed to learn when the shipment would take place and how many men would be guarding the gold. The boy may or may not know, and Sebastian could feel a hint of regret if the boy didn't know anything, but then again there would be a lot of gold in that shipment and Sebastian intended to get his share.

Tony entered the barn with Sebastian and six other of Mercers hired men right behind him. Ezra looked up and knew immediately trouble would follow close behind. Tony smiled big stopping in front of the bound captives. The single guard that had been watching the men gave his riffle to another guard who seemed unhappy to take his place as babysitter to the seven gunslingers.

"Boys," Tony smiled looking down at the beaten and battered lot, knowing and pleased by the fact they would only be more so by the time it was all over.

"What in the hell is this all about?" Chris snapped demanding an answer like only he could. Ezra shook his head; diplomacy was not Chris's strong suit.

"Lets just say you shouldn't piss so many honest folks off Larabee," Tony tilted his head in a mock salute, "however, I'm after something different." He looked down at JD, Buck stiffened and looked at the kid knowing something was up. "I need some info on a gold shipment to Colorado."

"We don't know anything about a shipment of gold," Buck interjected.

"Now see, I just don't believe ya'll," Tony pulled a knife out of its sheath from his belt.

"There isn't any gold shipment," Chris yelled pulling at his restraints.

"I'm sure the boy will confirm that," JD backed away from the knife as Tony quickly cut the rope that bound his hands. Tony grabbed JD roughly by the shoulder and quickly pulled him to his feet, "take him outside," he pushed JD into the arms of Sebastian and they turned and headed out threw the barn doors.

"There isn't any gold!" Buck yelled as loud as he could at the retreating forms, he moved his shoulder and yelped in pain. "Damn," he swore not able to do anything.

"Try not to move Buck," Nathan warned seeing the fresh blood soak threw the bandage on Buck shoulder.

"What the hell else em' I spose to do!" Buck snapped loosing his patience with the situation, fighting with his restraints.

"You're not going to be any help Buck if you bleed to death," Chris argued loosing his patience as well.

Ezra watched as the guard ignored the argument and moved closer to the barn doors. He fought with his restraints his left shoulder was almost numb and he knew it was going to be painful when Nathan put it back into place. He watched the guard just as he had the one before. The men were preoccupied, he could see that much, possibly it was the thought of gold that had them thinking of things other than the prisoners and for that Ezra was thankful. He hoped the kid would tell if he knew anything about the gold shipment, but Ezra figured he wouldn't, he wasn't that kind of person. Chris was loosing his patience and he knew the black clad gunslinger would not be helpful when it came to talking their way out of the situation. As it was, he couldn't say a word and he was willing to do just about anything to get the gag out of his mouth and have a drink of water. The only hope any of them had was if someone could get free otherwise the cards were not in his favor.

JD was thrown harshly to the dirty ground next to the horse corral; he noticed all their horses were still saddled. Nobody had taken the time to care for them. He pushed himself up to his knees before someone grabbed his arm and brought him back up to his feet. "I don't know nothing about no gold shipment," he protested but was greeted with a fist to his midsection.

"Tell me boy, I know you have to know something, you being the sheriff and all," Tony grabbed a handful of JD's hair and yanked the kids head back.

"There ain't no gold," JD said again threw gasps of air and again he received a punch to his midsection.

"Try again."

"Listen Mister, I don't know nothing about no gold," JD pleaded his eyes watering from the lack of air to his lungs.

"Boys," Tony smiled before walking off to watch as JD Dunne was beaten. He sat next to Sebastian, "think he'll talk after this?"

"If his jaw ain't broke."

JD tried to curl up in a ball as he received punch after punch. Blood filled his mouth and he spit out what he could. He felt a couple of his ribs give out under the pressure from all the kicks and he wished he knew something about the gold they were so intent on getting.

"Enough," Tony yelled getting up and heading back to where JD now lay in a heap on the ground spitting up blood. "When is the gold being shipped boy?"

"T..told ya….," JD struggled to speak, "don't know…..about no….gold."

As Tony was about to kick JD in the ribs Sebastian stopped him by pulling him back away from the youngster, "if'n he knew anything he would have told ya already."

"I don't believe that," Tony protested.

"You beat him anymore you'll kill him." Sebastian started him down knowing he was not only saving the young kid's life but also Tony's. As bad as Tony was Mercer was deadlier.

"Fine," Tony threw his hands in the air and stormed off.

"Get him back inside," Sebastian snapped at the men standing around and before heading back to the house.

Josiah watched the men around him and silently prayed. He could tell by Chris's actions that the man was on the verge of getting himself or someone else killed, Chris didn't like not being in control of a situation and Josiah was concerned that he may act without thinking. At times all the anger Chris seemed to store up would appear out of nowhere, he himself had been known to let his frustrations rule his actions. He knew Nathan was worried about all the injuries that each one of them endured. Vin was trying to keep himself alert but was failing, he needed to be tended to and Josiah was worried for the tracker. Buck was worried about JD and Josiah knew the man wouldn't settle down until he knew the kid was okay regardless how bad he was hurt. Ezra, Josiah noticed, had been watching the guard, probably trying to figure out how to play the hand he had been dealt.

The doors to the barn opened once again and JD was dragged threw and thrown back against the boards where he'd been tied before. Chris fought again with his restraints upon seeing JD's appearance.

"Son of a bitch!" Buck choked out watching as JD was once again restrained. He was breathing hard, his face was battered, and his left eye swollen shut. "JD," Buck said trying to get the kids attention.

"I'm okay," JD responded threw clenched teeth. His ribs caused him more pain than anything, he knew he broke a few as well as bruised some others. He spit out some blood and Nathan's attention grew to a strong concern.

"JD," Nathan said leaning as far forward as he could to assess his injuries better, "you coffin up blood."

JD shook his head no, leaning back against the stall boards, "I think I just bit my cheek Nate."

Nathan leaned back in a sigh of relief, he knew he couldn't do anything for JD now but he didn't want to see the boy slowly drown in his own blood. He looked over to the guard who seemed pleased with the treatment of the seven, "can we get some water?"

"Not until the boss says so," was all the guard would respond before heading back to the barn doors to look out.

"Chris, we have to get out of here." Nathan pleaded, "Vin's got a fever, Bucks probably got one too, and now JD."

"Don't you think I know that Nathan!" Chris was surprised by the venom in his voice, he didn't expect to sound so harsh. "First we need to find out why were here." He swore under his breath and fought more with the restraints, his wrists were bleeding now but that didn't stop him.

Wade McKinley pulled his horse to a stop outside his own house and was pleased to see Mercer step out onto the front porch. "Mr. Mercer, may I presume you fulfilled your contract agreement?" he tied his horse to the hitching post and headed inside not waiting for an answer just expecting one.

"They're all here and alive," Mercer lit the cigar he'd been holding and sat in the large leather chair in McKinley's office.

"Good," the old gray haired man said pouring himself a drink from the bar next to his desk. "What are your plans now that the job is finished?"

"Pay my men," Mercer didn't beat around the bush, he knew his men wanted to be paid, it would be an almost bonus before hitting the gold. McKinley took out his pocket book that was full of cash and handed the man in front of him enough money to pay himself and his men. "I was looking forward to a game of poker this evening," Mercer said getting to his feet. "Would you like to join me?" he smiled at the old man and was rewarded with a broad smile and toast.

"Sounds like a source of good entertainment," McKinley had to agree, he'd heard of Standish's reputation with the cards and looked forward to see what kind of ante Mercer would throw on the table. "Playing for the lives of his friends may sober the competition a bit."

"Unless of course it's his own life he plays for," Mercer said grabbing his hat off the desk and heading out the door. The smell of stew caught his attention and his stomach growled, he would eat first then get ready for a high stakes game of poker.

Chapter 10

Buck watched as JD painfully tried to make himself more comfortable, his own shoulder felt like it was on fire. Vin had finally succumbed to exhaustion and slept against Josiah's shoulder, the big man could tell Vin was feverish and it worried him, but he didn't want to say anything afraid of the emotions it would bring up. Nathan watched as he was unable to help and it tore him to the core, he had not seen such neglect of injuries since the war, and then it was usually southern soldiers who were being shipped off to prison camps, many of whom died on the way. Chris fumed, he was so angry he barley realized his wrists were bleeding steadily soaking the cuffs to his shirt.

Mercer came in threw the barn doors alone. With a tilt of his head excused the guard from his duty and walked over to the seven gunmen, "Gentlemen," he smiled.

"What the fuck to you want with us?" Chris yelled waking Vin from his short reprieve.

"I was paid to bring you in."

"By who?" Josiah asked.

"Mr. McKinley felt it would be in his best interest to get you boys out of the picture so's he could bring in the proper element," he grabbed a bucket turned it over and seated himself not far from Ezra. "You see Mr. McKinley can make more money with you boys gone than he can when your around protecting the town." He pulled out another cigar and lit it, "I intend to take Mr. Tanner in for the bounty on his head, Mr. Jackson will unfortunately meet his demise at the end of a rope, as for the rest of you," he took a long pull from the cigar letting the ashes fall to the ground, "lets just say it would be a waist of time to think to much of your futures, unless of course Mr. Standish here," he looked to Ezra, "can play good enough to win your lives back."

"Is this just a game to you, playing with men's lives?" Josiah asked not sure if he was surprised by the man's admission.

"I assure you Mr. Sanchez, this is no game, and the stakes are very real."

"Who are you?" Buck asked with a bitter taste in his mouth.

"Mark Mercer, at your service." Nathan sat up straighter at the sound of the man's name. Flashbacks of his time as a slave came rushing back to the healer, understanding now why he would hang. "You heard of me boy?" Mercer smiled knowing full well Nathan had.

"Yeah, I heard of ya," he admitted.

"Yes, I think you would have," he looked knowingly at Nathan, "I hunted a great many runaways in my time, made a good livin at it to." He was blunt and it was easy to read the former slaves emotions, anger, sadness, and despair seemed to fill him all at once. "Once the war started weren't no point in hunting down runaways. So I joined the army and got myself commissioned. You fight in the war Larabee?" Mercer turned his attention away from Nathan.

"Many men fought in the war Mercer." Chris didn't like where he was taking the conversation.

"What about you boy?" his attention now on JD, "you just hear stories about soldiers coming home from the war." JD looked at the man sitting almost directly across from him and shook his head yes. He had heard stories of the soldier's bravery on the battlefields. He had wanted to be one of the countries hero's but he was much to young. "Probably heard lots of stories how the yanks showed undying bravery on the battlefield." JD nodded, he had and had no intention of denying it. "Bet you never heard how the yanks stole, robbed, murdered, and raped our familys now did ya?"

"Leave the boy alone," Josiah demanded knowing they were all at the breaking point, but he didn't want JD to be at the brunt of it all. Ezra kept his head down resting on his knees, he'd lived threw the war already and didn't want to live it threw someone else's eyes.

"You fight Preacher?" Mercer looked angrily at Josiah.

"No, my fate lay elsewhere."

"Good answer," Mercer laughed. "What about you reb?" he turned his attention to Ezra, "is that how you lost your family?" Ezra raised his head quickly not wanting to hear anything more, Josiah caught a hint of sadness in his eyes before he lowered his gaze back to the ground. "I'm right, aren't I," Mercer got to his feet and squatted down in front of the conman, "what did they do, rape your wife butcher your children?" Ezra shuttered at the memories of his buried family and refused to look any of the men in the eye, he would be too easy to read. Too many emotions come rushing to the surface, emotions he'd long since rid him self of. "Or maybe they perished in a fire," he looked to Chris, "hell maybe they got lucky and died of disease." He stood back up and walked to the far stall in the barn and patted the old workhorse, who ate peacefully in his stall.

"Are you going to kill us or just use us for entertainment," Buck snapped tired of the games.

"Hell," Mercer raised his hands in surrender, "I'm up for a poker game." He cut the ropes that bound Ezra's hands to the support beam and pulled him up to a standing position. Ezra leaned heavily against the beam trying to regain his balance; with his hands still tied behind his back he was unable to steady himself fully. "Hope you're up for a long game Mr. Standish," Mercer pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the gambler, "here are the stakes," he looked to the rest of the men, "you loose one of these fine gentlemen dies." He grabbed Ezra by his right arm and roughly forced him towards the door.

"Beat the shit out of him Ez!" Buck yelled craning his neck to watch the gambler leave.

"What if he looses?" JD asked looking to the men for an answer.

"Lets pray he doesn't Brother, lets pray he doesn't."

Ezra's mind was racing, he knew this man had the upper hand and the key was not letting him know it. It was obvious to Ezra that Mercer was thorough, he'd watched all seven of them and knew their pasts or at least part of them. He also knew Mercer would have been watching him play poker and Ezra hadn't seen Mercer play. This would put his skills to the test and he knew if he didn't play better than he ever played before they were all going to die, they were all going to die anyway he just wanted to postpone the enviable for as long a possible.

Ezra walked into the house and was forced into a small office the fire in the fireplace felt worm and inviting for him as he walked closer to the flames. A table with a deck of cards and four chairs had been set up in the center of the room. Mercer came in behind him and roughly cut the binds behind his back. Ezra groaned as his shoulder swung heavily to his side. He grabbed his left wrist and gingerly brought his arm up and used the now empty shoulder harness to support his arm.

"It's gonna be interesting watching you play with only one hand," Mercer smiled pouring himself a scotch.

Ezra removed the gag from his mouth, "I'm sure I will manage," he said dryly. His tongue felt thick and his throat was dry. Mercer handed him a tall glass of water and Ezra took it gratefully.

"Have a seat Mr. Standish. Mr. McKinley will be down shortly my partner you might say will also be joining us for this evenings events."

"Might I enquire as to your partner?"

"Sebastian, the tall fellow who fixed you and your friends earlier."

Ezra gingerly seated himself in the chair closest to the fire, "what are the stakes?"

Mercer smiled and sat across from him, "I win you tell me about the gold shipment. If Mr. McKinley wins you will all die, so it would be prudent that I win? If Sebastian wins you tell him about the gold shipment and he will help you all to escape."

"What if I win?" Ezra looked to the man. Mercer raised his eyebrows in question and Ezra continued. "If I win you let Mr. Jackson free to treat the wounded, feed them and get them some water."

"For a man in your position Mr. Standish you seem to be overly confident."

"Don't confuse confidence with experience Mr. Mercer."

"I am truly looking forward to this game," Mercer laughed and turned in time to see Sebastian and Mr. McKinley walk in followed closely by Tony.

"Are you going to deal me in as well?" Tony looked to his boss and then at Ezra he noted how the gambler still had dried blood on his face and the dirty bandage on his head.

"Any objections?" Wade McKinley looked to the other three men and smiled when nobody said anything, "grab a chair Mr. Becker."

"Five card stud, deuces are wild," Mercer said looking directly at the gambler as he shuffled the cards.

Chapter 11

"What do you think is happening?" JD said once again trying to get in a more comfortable position.

"Lets hope not much of anything kid," Buck adjusted the position of his shoulder.

The door to the barn opened and everyone sucked in a long breath of air fearing the loss of one of their own. Had Ezra lost? JD scooted closer to Buck for protection and the gunslinger sat up straighter ready to face any death they seemed fit to hand him. Chris watched as three guards entered the barn one with a rifle pointed at them the other two carried a bucket and what looked like a cooking pot. They set the bucket and supplies down and the guard with the full beard and mustache walked over and stood in front of Nathan.

"No," Josiah sighed watching as the guard pulled a key from his pocket and proceeded to unshackle the former slave.

"You can't do this," JD gasp trying not to let the tears fall, he liked Nathan and he considered him to be like a brother. He didn't want to see any harm come to the healer.

The guard looked down to the boy who seemed to be cowering. He pulled Nathan up to his feet, "you have an hour to treat their wounds, give em' water and feed em." He pointed to the bucket of water, fresh bandages and the pot of warm stew.

Nathan didn't hesitate he grabbed the water, cup and bandages and crept down beside Vin who seemed to be in the worst condition. "Vin," Nathan brought the cup of water to the trackers lips.

Vin smiled and opened his eyes, "Ez must be winnin."

"Lets pray he keeps doing so," Josiah smiled relief flooding his system.

Nathan treated Vin as best he could. He didn't want to remove the bullet and cause Vin to start bleeding again so he cleaned the wound and rebandaged it. Vin's fever wasn't bad but it would get worse before the night wore on. He forced almost two full cups of water down the tracker and was relieved when Vin actually said he was hungry and ate a few bites of the stew that had been provided. Nathan figured he would have eaten more if he'd been able to eat himself. The guards refused to release any of the men so Nathan was forced to help them eat and drink.

Nathan then moved to help Buck but the tall mustached man would have none of it until JD was taken care of. He wiped down JD's face and was rewarded with a protest from him. "I have to get a better look at your wounds JD," Nathan said quietly not wanting to hurt him anymore. His face was black and blue and Nathan knew he wasn't able to see out of his eye. His lip was cut and his right cheek pretty swollen.

"If Ez keeps winning do you think maybe they'll let us go?" JD looked to Nathan who could only shrug his shoulders. He knew Ezra was only buying them some time at best.

Nathan continued to check JD for injuries, he wrapped the kids ribs with the few bandages he had, there weren't nearly enough and he knew if they were to get out of there the boy would have to have his chest wrapped tighter than what it was now. Nathan was relieved when JD also took some food and drank quite a bit of water, the men needed to keep their strength up if they were going to try and escape.

Buck was feverish like Vin but he hadn't lost nearly as much blood as the tracker had and for that Nathan was relieved. The bullet wound to his shoulder was red and swollen and he knew the bullet had to come out, but he didn't want to do it in the barn where there was the possibility the infection could get worse. Buck drank several cups of water and just that seemed to help the man's mood Nathan noted feeding the gunslinger a few bites of stew before he protested.

Though Josiah and Chris were both unhurt they were exhausted. Both men drank the water they so very much needed and for that Nathan was thankful, however, they refused to eat. Nathan drank some water eagerly and then was shackled back into place without being able to eat any of the food. He wasn't concerned. He'd been able to treat and care for the wounded so he had some idea of how they were fairing. Now he could concentrate on trying to escape.

Ezra played the game of his life. Knowing if he lost, particularly to McKinley, things could come crashing down. Sebastian was and easy mark to make and Ezra had his poker faults closely identified. McKinley was also an easy mark and the considerable amount of alcohol the man ingested made his little idiosyncrasies even more obvious. Mercer was more of a challenge and Ezra focused on him trying to figure out his weakness at poker. Tony wasn't playing, Ezra noticed, he'd play out the hand he'd been dealt but before to long he'd fold. He'd watch Ezra, and Ezra wasn't sure if it was his way of intimidation but either way he didn't count the man out.

"As it is three a.m. I must take my leave," McKinley stood up throwing down his cards and finishing off the last bit of alcohol in his brandy glass. "It has been a challenge playing you Mr. Standish," he said it as though Ezra were a welcomed guest in his house and Ezra looked at him not understanding fully the reasoning behind his and the others abductions. He watched as the man left the room and headed upstairs to his bedchambers.

"Now let the game begin," Tony smiled grabbing the deck of cards and shuffling them.

"You play very well Standish," Mercer said sipping slowly on his brandy, "but seeing how you have lost three games, all of them to me, why don't you indulge me with the time and place of the transport of the gold."

"I take it you waited to ask me after Mr. McKinley retired to keep the information from getting to him," Ezra said picking up the cards that had been dealt to him.

"One of the main reasons I decided to take this job was to insure, how should I say, a large bonus," Mercer smiled throwing down one card. "I'm sure you understand my reasoning, I have no intention of spending the rest of my life working for someone else. I shall be able to retire on this gold shipment."

"If you can find it," Ezra corrected throwing two cards on the table.

"Are you going to bet or are you going to talk?" Tony spoke up looking more aggravated than before.

"Where's the gold?" Mercer asked flat out looking Ezra in the eye.

"You haven't won yet," Ezra spoke up trying to buy more time.

Mercer smiled large and laid down his cards. A full house, Ezra sighed and folded his hand laying them face down on the table. Tony smiled, "what if I win?" he asked looking around the table and then back at Ezra before laying down his royal flush.

"I would suggest Mr. Standish you tell us where the gold shipment is," Mercer smiled letting his eyes drift back to Tony.

Ezra sighed knowing that if he didn't play out what they were asking not only would he suffer but the rest of the seven would as well, "if you presume to know about the shipment why would I know anymore than you?"

"You being a part of the law in Four Corners," he looked at the man sitting across from him, "it would be beneficial for the bank in Eagle Bend to notify the law in the surrounding areas to keep an eye out for possible problems."

"Hell," Tony jumped in, "why don't we just horse whip the bastard and get this over with."

"Tell us when the shipment is leaving from Eagle Bend," Sebastian jumped in.

"Let the men you have captive out in the barn go."

"You're a cocky bastard at best," Tony snapped wanting to end the brief conversation that he seemed to think was going nowhere.

"If you fail to tell us Mr. Standish, I will kill one of your friends, perhaps the boy."

Ezra clenched his jaw at Mercers last statement, "ten men will ride guard all fully armed, it would be my guess that they are army."

"When do they leave?"


"How will it be shipping it?" Mercer asked taking in all the information.

"Wagon," was all Ezra would say. There was no gold, but he wouldn't let the men sitting around them know that. If he could get Mercer and his men away from the farm then possibly he and the rest could escape. He knew McKinley would be out of commission until late in the morning. This was the first chance he and the rest of them had and possibly the only.

"Sebastian, get the boys ready to ride. Its six hours to Eagle Bend if we leave now will make it shortly after they head to Colorado." Mercer got to his feet and watched as Sebastian headed out the door to get the others ready. "If your lying, I will kill you," he looked to Ezra and Ezra knew he was serious.

"What about my winnings?" Tony looked to his boss for conformation.

"What do you want?" Mercer asked looking to Tony who only smiled.


"Fine," Mercer agreed, "just don't kill him, we may need him later. And make sure when your done getting your 'blood' you gag him, we don't need him telling the others about our plans." Mercer picked up his hat and headed outside to prepare for the ride.

"You ever seen a man horsewhipped?" Tony looked at Ezra expecting an answer. "Saw many slaves horsewhipped when I was down south before the war, saw a woman die from it. Did you ever horsewhip a slave reb?"

Ezra closed his eyes, he'd seen slaves whipped and beaten for nothing more than being a slave. He'd never partaken in the brutality, but he didn't do anything to stop it either. His Uncle had killed a slave for what he called insubordination and Ezra had been forced to watch. It was the way of life and in return Ezra had been relieved when his uncle had been turned over to the local law for excessive brutality and was later hanged for his crime. Surrounding slave owners had turned the man in and Ezra believed justice had been served. He didn't answer Tony Becker, he knew if he did he would only get backhanded, and right now he had to work on getting out of the situation he was in.

Tony stood up and grabbed Ezra by his shoulder and forced him out the door with a gun pointed at his back. "Boys," Tony chuckled, "lets have us some fun."


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