Learning to Improvise…
Chapter 1

by Katherine

This is my first Mag7 fiction. I have written in other fanfic…gen stuff for Due South and Slash for Houston Knights. I even managed one gen story for The Sentinel quite some time ago. After reading a lot of M7 fanfic, this story sort of hit me. (Thank God, it wasn’t actually as painful as that sounds). In many ways, it actually wrote itself over the course of several days. At any rate, it is shaping up to be part of a much larger saga. This is the first chapter. Not to worry though, this chapter is complete in and of itself. As a complete story, I guess it would be best to regard this as a continuing series. Not exactly a work in progress, but close.

Suggestions and feedback are always welcome. It’s the only way I’ll know if I got something right, or if I got it all wrong.

Size: Approx 136K


Vin Tanner sighed silently, angry and frustrated with his current situation. It was supposed to be a simple job. Just take a prisoner, Cal Hoskins, to Bitter Creek, a three day ride from Four Corners, and leave him with the Sheriff there. Hoskins was a two bit drifter who was wanted for trying to rob the Bitter Creek bank. The bank teller had been foiled the robbery attempt and had been wounded in the process. Hoskins was being charged with attempted murder in addition grand theft.

Several witnesses had recently come forward implicating Hoskins in the murder of a local rancher. The angry citizens of Bitter Creek wanted justice to be carried out where the crime had occurred. His trial was set for next month when Judge Travis made his circuit through the area again.

S’posed to be simple. No fuss, no muss, no big deal. Except that the whole thing hadn’t gone according to plan. Vin was beginning to think he should just forget planning all together. You would think jus’ once things would come together like they outta.

Chris Larabee, the reluctant yet capable leader of seven gunmen assigned to protect the town of Four Corners, had sent Ezra Standish with him to help guard the prisoner. Because Hoskins had been a model prisoner the two weeks he’d been kept in Four Corners, Chris thought two men would be enough to handle the job. No one really expected trouble.

Vin hadn’t objected to taking Ezra. Despite his refined manners and dandy ways, Ezra was actually a good trail companion. When it was just Vin and Ezra, the man didn’t complain, or whine, or even sleep late. Vin had asked him once why, and Ezra had just shrugged and told him he was being accommodating. Vin hadn’t understood the word but decided it had to be a good thing if it made the trip easier.

Besides, Vin liked Ezra. He really did. He wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like a scruffy former tracker, turned bounty hunter, turned lawman had a lot in common with a sophisticated, southern gentlemen gambler. But over the past year, Vin had come to enjoy Ezra’s sly wit, his quick mind, and astounding ability to accurately read almost anyone or any situation. When it was just the two of them, Ezra had an easygoing attitude, and a relaxed approach that sat well with Vin’s own laid back nature.

Recently, Vin began to notice and appreciate even more about the slick conman. Things he wasn’t sure he was supposed to. Vin started looking for Ezra’s dimpled grin that was so openly playful, so honestly happy, and was so very different from his usual self-depreciating smirk, or tight-lipped smile that had more to do with displeasure and anger than anything else. He found himself enjoying just watching the way Ezra’s elegant, fine-boned hands handled a deck of cards with such easy, careless grace or a gun with deadly accuracy. He waited patiently to catch a glimpses of green eyes lit up with secret amusement that was almost never explained and rarely shared. He found himself listening closely to that smooth as honey southern drawl, not caring what was said, just enjoying the sound of Ezra’s voice.

He had spent so much time studying the man he could now tell whenever his mood changed, no matter how subtle. Ezra’s poker face might not give away much to the casual observer, but Vin was anything but casual in his study of the gambler. He couldn’t get enough of just looking at him.

Vin wasn’t sure what to make of his interest in his fellow peacekeeper. Having lived with several tribes he understood that it was not uncommon for a man to feel an attraction to another man. He just never had before. But then he’d never met anyone quite like Ezra before either.

He did is best to conceal his growing attraction to Ezra. Among the tribes it might be acceptable, under certain circumstances, for two men to become romantically involved, but it certainly wasn’t in the white man’s world. The last thing Vin wanted was to ruin the first home he’d found in years. He didn’t want to lose the companionship he’d found with the others.

And he was not quite sure what Ezra’s reaction would be if he knew that Vin had started fantasizing about what his lips tasted like, or what his skin would feel like under his hands. Vin was fairly certain that the gambler would not welcome his advances. He had come to think of Ezra as a friend, a good friend. He didn’t want to lose that by pushing for more.

His friendship with Ezra was one of the reasons Vin was so angry now. Their prisoner had cohorts that had helped him before. Five men who’d waited to ambush them halfway between Bitter Creek and Four Corners. Men who’d recognized Vin as a wanted man. They were eager to collect the bounty being offered for him even though it meant a long trip to Texas.

So far they had just tied up Vin and Ezra, leaving them in a near by shack while they took care of settling their score with the people of Bitter Creek. They planned to kill the witnesses who’d come forward, and make a second attempt at the bank. It was impossible to know when the six men would return, but Vin had no doubt they’d be back. With his hands tied behind him, and his feet similarly bound, there was little he could do to escape, or help his friend.

Iffen it weren’t for me, Ez wouldn’t be trussed up like some Christmas turkey.

Ezra had refused to leave even when there had been an opportunity for him to slip away. Outnumbered and outgunned there was little chance the two of them could win over Hoskins’ five friends. In less time than Vin had thought possible, he and Ezra were tied up and left to wait.

Vin had hoped that they might use the manacles that had formerly held Hoskins to bind Ezra. Ezra could pick that lock easily, but Vin knew his friend was lousy with knots. Vin tried again to move his hands enough to twist his bonds loose. No luck. Aw hell.

"I’m sorry, Ez." Vin offered, feeling guilty.

Ezra looked at him, and raised one eyebrow in question. "For what?"

"Ya shouldn’t be here…like this." If I had been paying attention, instead of watchin’ how the firelight caught the highlights in yer hair, and made yer skin glow, I woulda seen them comin’. Shouldn’t a let them get the drop on us in the first place.

Ezra chuckled. "Indeed. Appalling conditions for a gentleman." Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "You think Hoskins and his associates have vacated the immediate vicinity?"

It took Vin a moment to puzzle out what Ezra had just asked him. He loved to hear those five-dollar words, but they often confused him. "Yeah, they’ve left the area." Haven’t heard any noise for a while. Don’t have any idea when they’ll be back. But I know they will be.

Ezra nodded. He shifted so that he could lie flat on his back. Vin watched his fellow captive with undisguised amazement. The cardsharp had drawn his legs up, stretched his bound hands behind him and wiggled enough to get his hands past his hips. It was then a simple matter of pulling his legs through his bound hands. In one neatly executed maneuver Ezra now had his hands in front of him.

"Didn’t know you could do that." Vin said, impressed. He’d known Ezra was graceful, but hadn’t realized he was limber as well.

Ezra flashed a dimpled grin at him. "There is a great deal you do not know about me, Mr. Tanner."

Vin’s breath caught. It was heady feeling to be the focus of that look. He wished he saw it more often. Vin bit his lip to keep from saying anything he shouldn’t.

Ezra bent his head and began to use his teeth to work at the rope. Vin was about to comment that he didn’t think chewing through the rope would work, when Ezra managed to work the knots loose and pull off the rope. Ezra then set to work untying his feet. His long, clever fingers that Vin had often watched deftly handle a deck of cards made short work of those as well.

Vin frowned. "Thought ya didn’t know anythin’ ‘bout knots?"

Ezra rolled his eyes as he moved to untie Vin’s feet. "It would be impossible to spend any length of time on a sailing vessel and fail to learn a thing or two about knots."

"You were on a river boat?" That really didn’t surprise him. Vin could see Ezra hanging out on those gambling boats that regularly worked the Mississippi River.

Ezra shook his head. "No, Mr. Tanner. Riverboats are steamers. Sailing vessels are typically found on open water." Ezra deftly loosened the rope. He would have Vin’s feet free in another moment or two.

"Ya mean like the ocean?"

"Exactly, Mr. Tanner."

This was the first time Vin had ever heard anything about Ezra being aboard a ship, but then as Ezra had already pointed out, there was a lot about the man he didn’t know. "How long were you on one?"

"Long enough to learn my way around a rope."

Vin frowned. That don’t really answer my question. He watched Ezra’s fingers working the rope. "Thought ya said ya couldn’t work knots."

Ezra pulled the rope free, and cast it aside. He regarded Vin steadily for a moment. "I never told you that."
Vin frowned. "Ya did. Ya lied to all o’ us." Vin accused. He knew it was stupid, but it bothered him that Ezra had lied. Man makes his living lying ta people. Shouldn’t oughta surprise me that he didn’t tell us…me, the truth.

"I have never lied to you, Mr. Tanner." Ezra stated firmly. His jade green eyes never wavered from where they held Vin’s sky blue eyes. Vin had no doubt he was telling the truth. "I may have said or done things to encourage a particular assumption. I may have omitted details on more than one occasion or failed to offer additional information. But I have never lied to you or to the others."

Vin considered that. "Why’d ya want us ta think you weren’t good with knots?"

Ezra moved one shoulder in a gesture to precise or graceful to be considered just a shrug. "I have found that it is often better to give one’s opponents a perceived weakness than to allow them to ferret out a genuine one on their own."

Ezra moved behind Vin to untie his hands. Vin thought over what Ezra had said. It didn’t seem right that Ezra had misled them. That he felt the need to do so at all.

"You think of us as…opponents?" He hesitated over the last word. He wasn’t sure but he figured it meant the same as being enemies.

"Let’s just say we haven’t always been allies, and I felt the need to act accordingly."

"You don’t trust us?" Vin asked, even though it came out as more of a statement than a question. It hurt to think that he didn’t trust them, him, even after all this time.

There a slight hesitation before Ezra answered. "Given that y’all felt the need to know if you could restrain me, to hold me hostage…" He took a breath before continuing. "Suffice it to say that I felt it wise, in the beginning of our association, not to put too much faith in any of you." A faint sound of satisfaction, and the a quiet, "Ah got it."

Vin felt a tug at his hands and then he was free. He brought his arms around front of him to rub his wrists. Guess I wouldn’t totally trust someone who wanted ta know how ta hold me down either.

Vin wasn’t sure if he should apologize for the rest of the seven or not. "We ain’t opponents, Ez." Don’t want him thinkin’ of me as an enemy. Ain’t right when I think of him as a friend.

Ezra stood and moved around him. He graced Vin with a quick, warm smile. "Not any more. You, Mr. Tanner, are a good and honorable man. It is a pleasure associate with you."

That comment stunned Vin, and warmed him all the way to his toes. Ezra didn’t say anything else, he just began searching the shack. Vin joined Ezra hoping to find something they could use as a weapon. Unfortunately, their captors hadn’t left much of anything behind.

Ezra pursed his lips in annoyance. "Miserable cretins." He sighed. "It was too much to hope they would leave us something useful." Ezra rubbed at his right arm, clearly missing the spring loaded derringer he usually wore.

Vin could sympathize. He missed the weight of his Winchester and his knife. Sons-o-bitches took everythin’.

Vin stepped outside. He grinned when he spotted Peso and Chaucer standing side by side not more than twenty feet away. Maybe not everythin’.

"Hey, Ez?" He called back over his shoulder.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"They did leave us somthin’ useful."

Ezra stepped out, and looked to where Vin pointed. Vin felt his breath catch for a second time when Ezra grinned, his dimples readily visible. God, but he is so beautiful.

"Excellent." Ezra slapped him lightly on the arm. "Come, Mr. Tanner, our coursers await."

Vin swung up in his saddle, and watched Ezra mount Chaucer. "We gonna go after ‘em?"

Ezra frowned. "No guns." He reminded Vin.

Vin couldn’t resist smiling. "We’ll think of somethin’, Ez."

Ezra snorted. "Improvisation? That’s your plan?"

"Don’t know what that means." Vin admitted. Sometimes it really bothered him that he couldn’t understand Ezra. Of the group, only Josiah Sanchez seemed to understand the gambler, and even he didn’t understand all the time.

"You plan to make it up as we go." Ezra clarified. "To improvise."

Vin grinned. "Yep." Improvise…have ta remember that word.

Ezra shook his head. "Wonderful." He heaved a long suffering sigh that Vin knew wasn’t for real. The sparkle in those green eyes was a dead give away. Vin wondered if Ezra knew just how incredible his eyes were when he was planning mischief.

"I suppose I must accompany you on this fool’s errand if for no other reason than to retrieve my possessions." Ezra nodded. "Very well, Mr. Tanner. Lead on."

Vin studied the tracks on the ground for just a moment. He knew the outlaws were heading for Bitter Creak, but he wanted to be certain just which route they’d chosen to take. With a little bit of luck and some hard riding they just might be able to set up an ambush of their own. He figured he owed it to Ezra to get his stuff back to him. It was the least he could do for getting him into this situation in the first place.

Vin followed Hoskins tracks long enough to know which route they were taking. He considered what the signs were telling him as he rode. Ezra stayed off to his right and slightly behind so as not to disturb any signs he might need. He appreciated the fact that Ezra stayed quiet letting him focus his attention on the job at hand.

Vin nodded to himself, satisfied that he knew where Hoskins and his gang were going. He stopped Peso and waited until Ezra had moved up along side him. "Know which way they’re headed. We should be able ta take a short cut, and get ahead o’ ‘em."

"And when we do?" Ezra raised an eyebrow.

Vin shrugged. He couldn’t resist smiling ever so slightly. "Well, see, I reckon since I took care of trakin’ ‘em down, you could take care o’ what we do when we get there."

Ezra shook his head, and sighed. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped. His green eyes narrowed, and he looked way. Vin recognized that calculating look. He could almost see wheels turning, and knew Ezra had come up with something.

"I believe, Mr. Tanner," Ezra paused and tapped his index finger against his lower lip. He nodded once. "Yes, I do believe, that I will be able to handle that portion of our dilemma."

Vin eyed him suspiciously. "What are ya plannin’?"

"I’ll let you know when we get there."

+ + + + + + +

Vin had stared at Ezra in disbelief when he heard the gambler’s plan. "You carry dynamite ‘round with you all the time?"

"Just a few sticks. It should be all we need."

Just a few sticks, he says. Jesus. "Ez, do ya know how dangerous that stuff is?"

"Naturally." Ezra said calmly. He didn’t seem at all concerned that he routinely carried explosives in his saddlebags.

Vin rolled his eyes. "Any other surprises ya got in those bags?"

Ezra winked at him. "It pays to always be prepared."

Vin shivered, momentarily distracted by that wink. He refocused his attention quickly. "Tell me this plan again." Wanna be sure nothin’ goes wrong.

Ezra took a stick and drew two lines on the ground. "This is where the trail narrows. Not quite a canyon, but definitely restrictive."

The trail Hoskins and his gang were taking meandered through what was an ancient riverbed. There was only one point at which it narrowed from over a mile wide to just ten feet. Vin guessed that the ancient channel was only a dozen feet deep at most where it narrowed, and the constricted area lasted for less than a quarter mile. It wouldn’t ordinarily be considered a dangerous area for men riding in a group. Surrounded by open dessert, there was little in the way of protection for someone planning an ambush.

Ezra moved his stick to a point just outside the lines he’d just drawn. He moved the stick forward to the mouth of the narrowed area. He tapped it against the ground once or twice.

"Once Hoskins and his cohorts enter the breech, here, we need to convince them to continue forward. They must not be allowed to back out or go around. We are ill prepared to handle them on open ground."

"Ill-prepared!! Ez, we’re unarmed!"

Ezra raised an eyebrow. He seemed amused by Vin’s outraged statement. "Not entirely. As I already stated, a few sticks of dynamite at the right point should do the trick."

Vin sighed. "Dynamite. Right." He waved a hand telling Ezra to continue.

"If we play them correctly, Mr. Tanner, they will believe themselves to be out numbered, and caught in very dangerous ground. The only solution will be for them to continue forward."

Ezra moved the stick to where the area came to its most narrow point. On one side, several Juniper trees had managed to gain a toehold in the rock face just beyond that point. On the opposite side were half a dozen boulders large enough to conceal a grown man and a horse.

"Between the trees and the rocks we string a rope. Once they have started down the funnel, the rope is pulled taut." Ezra frowned. "Under more ideal circumstances, the goal would be to simply unseat the riders. In this case…" Ezra sighed.

He waved a hand in an empty, meaningless gesture, and looked at Vin. "I believe it would be best to attempt to bring down the horses. If we can take down the leading animals, it will create a living bottle neck. At least for a few moments. And it will unseat, possibly stun, more than half of our opponents."

"How we gonna take down the rest?"


Vin looked at him in confusion. The only sling Vin was familiar with was the kind Nathan Jackson put his arm in when he’d been wounded. "Ya said that ‘fore. Didn’t understand it then, don’t get it now."

Ezra nodded. "Perhaps a demonstration is in order."

Vin watched with avid curiosity as Ezra pulled a length of rope from his saddlebag. The rope was folded in half, and in the middle sat a small leather pouch. Ezra bent down and picked up a small stone and placed it in the pouch. He twirled the rope at his side. The speed and momentum kept the rock positioned in the pouch until Ezra released one end of the rope. The rock flew from the pouch, striking a near by tree with enough force to shatter it. Vin whistled, impressed in spite of himself with the amount of force such a simple weapon could exert.

Ezra took a slight bow. "The ancient Romans used such weapons when the went to war. As did many of the armies of the middle ages until they perfected other long range weapons. And it was a similar weapon which young David used to slay Goliath."

"How long does it take ta get good with that thing?" Vin guessed that Hoskins was only a few hours away, at most.

Ezra shrugged. "It depends on the abilities of the user. You’ve got outstanding aim, Mr. Tanner. Not to mention a truly refined sense of coordination. I suspect you will master it in very little time."

Vin felt his face heat at that compliment. He wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that Ezra had noticed things about him. Hell, everyone knows I’ve got good aim. Vin tried to convince himself it didn’t mean anything.

He reached out to take the sling, careful not to let his fingers touch Ezra’s. "Best let me try it then. Don’t have a lot of time."

Ezra handed it over. He coached Vin a bit, but as he predicted it didn’t take long for Vin to get the hang of it. His aim wasn’t quite as accurate as he’d like, but he was impressed with the range he could get with so little effort. He hadn’t expected it to be able to shoot so far or with so much force.

Loading the sling for yet another shot, Vin asked, "When did ya learn ta use this thing?"

"When I was a child. I’d read about such things as a young boy and wanted to see if I could make it work. My uncle Malcolm had a passion for history. He introduced me to the idea of ancient weapons. And their subsequent evolution into modern ones."

Vin was thrilled to get such a detailed answer. He never knew Ezra had an uncle. Wonder if findin’ out stuff is a simple as jus’ askin’? Can’t hurt ta try. Deciding to test his theory, Vin asked another question.

"Yer uncle, Malcolm, what did he do?"

Ezra tipped his head slightly, not quite hiding a small smile. "He taught military history and strategy at West Point for a number of years."

Vin filed that detail away for further consideration. It explained why Ezra seemed to know so much about the art of war. Vin readied the sling for another shot. His aim improved each time. It was getting easier to time his release so that he could hit his target right on. Wonder if Ez would let me have this when we’re done.

"Ya ever use a bow?" Vin had learned to use a bow while living with the Comanche and the Kiowa. Would be nice if we had somethin’ in common.

Ezra nodded. "A few times. Although, the bow I learned to use was not much like those the Indians use. Uncle Malcolm had a long bow that he graciously allowed me to try."

Vin raised his eyebrows. "Long bow?"

"Most of them are longer than I am tall, hence the name. The draw is substantial and it takes many, many years of consistent practice to perfect one’s aim." The grin that Ezra gave Vin was reminiscent of a little boy. "However, a weapon of that size is difficult to conceal. I could hide a sling far easier."

Vin knew there was a story there, but didn’t get the chance to ask any more. Ezra walked away carrying a rope over his shoulder. Vin watched Ezra tie the rope securely to one of the Junipers. He shook his head, surprised that he had ever thought his friend didn’t know anything about knots.

Don’t know how I missed how easily he handles rope. Course, I ain’t seen him handle it much ‘fore now. Vin clearly remembered Ezra stating, "A gentleman does not engage in manual labor."

Ezra laid the rope out across ground over to the boulders. He looped it loosely around one of smaller boulders twice. Wrapped around the stone should help secure and hold it against the weight of several horses hitting the rope at once. He left the end lying where whoever pulled it taut would be easily hidden from direct view.

"Gonna be me holdin’ the rope?" Vin asked.

"Unless you’d rather handle the dynamite." Ezra raised an eyebrow. Vin could tell he was offering him the choice, even though he clearly didn’t expect Vin to say yes.

"Nah. Stuff makes me nervous." He didn’t trust it to not take his hand off.

Ezra nodded. "A healthy respect for it is a good thing. Particularly if one is not intimately familiar with its fickle nature."

"Where ya gonna be?"

Ezra moved back toward Vin. He pointed to his drawing still visible in the dirt. Shortly before ancient channel began to funnel into the narrows there were two other drainages that entered from the south. Ezra drew them both on his sketch.

"I’ll be concealed here." He pointed to the first drainage. "It will provide ample cover for one man to remain unseen until Hoskins and his associates have passed."

Ezra pointed to the second drainage. "I will attempt to continue to move forward. There should be sufficient dust and debris to conceal me."

"Should be?" This worried Vin. What if they don’t keep movin’ forward like they’re s’pposed to? What if there ain’t enough dust ta hide in? What if they back out or see Ez? He’s got no where ta go.

Ezra shrugged. "There are no guarantees, Mr. Tanner." He focused his green eyes on Vin, his expression intense and concerned. "Your own position if far from secure. Even less so than my own. The rope may not be sufficient to disable their mounts. Or may not disable enough of them to generate the confusion needed."

Ezra frowned. He reached out hesitantly, as if to touch Vin, but pulled back before he did. "Vin, you could very well be a sitting duck. From your position there is no where to retreat. And a sling is not nearly as fast or as deadly as a gun."

Vin had jumped a bit when Ezra used his first name. It was a sure sign of how serious this situation was. He tried to bury his regret that Ezra had not completed his reach. Wish he didn’t wait until it was bad ‘fore he called me Vin. Would like ta here him call me that more often. Woulda liked for him ta touch me too.

Ezra regarded him steadily, pulling his thoughts back to the situation at hand. "This is risky, and not without some potential hazards to you. Make no mistake, you will be in harms way."

Vin noticed that Ezra didn’t say anything about the potential danger involved for himself. Acts like it don’t matter if he gets hurt. Like it only matters if I get hurt. "You think it will work?"

Ezra nodded once. "I would not have suggested it if I thought it wouldn’t. But if you have concerns, now is the time to pull out, before we are committed to a course of action. Another opportunity, a safer one, may present itself."

Vin doubted that would be the case. Out here, in the middle of nowhere there was no chance of an innocent bystander being hurt. And he wasn’t sure they could get to Bitter Creek in time to warn the town or set up a plan to bring down Hoskins there. He wasn’t even sure of how much help they could rely on there. No, there best bet to recapture Hoskins, and prevent a possible blood bath was right here and now.

Vin nodded. "Let’s do it." Ain’t like I got any better ideas. And if he thinks it’ll work…guess we go with it. "I trust ya, Ez."

Ezra looked at him in disbelief. He smiled that tight, self-depreciating smile that Vin hated. "You really shouldn’t, Mr. Tanner. Ask the others. I am not trustworthy."

"They trust you."

"No, they do not." Ezra stated calmly, his tone leaving no room for argument.

Despite the unconcerned tone of voice, Vin could easily read the momentary flash of pain and sorrow in those jade green eyes. It was quickly hidden, but Vin knew it had been there.

Ez can read people. Makes his livin’ doin’ it. Wonder if he’s right ta say they don’t trust him? He’s got no reason ta trust us if he thinks we don’t trust ‘im.

Vin hoped Ezra was wrong. He really thought the others trusted Ezra, but he suspected that the cardsharp might be right. The others seemed to hold him to a different standard, judged him more harshly, said and did things to Ezra they wouldn’t dream of doing to each other.

Nathan’s all the time raggin’ on ‘im ‘bout cheatin’ an’ stealin’ even though Ez don’t cheat or steal. Josiah’s always actin’ like Ezra oughta be better, be someone else, like who he is ain’t good ‘nough. Chris and Buck both act like they’s jus’ waitin’ for ‘im ta run out. Act like he can’t be relied on, checkin’ up on him all o’ time. And JD…well, he’s jus’ a kid, but he follows everyone else’s lead. Don’t exactly set a good example fer him either.

Vin sighed silently. Whole bit with the Seminole village shoulda been forgiven and forgotten. Same with that money. Weren’t any o’ them made a big deal outta me losin’ my head over Mrs. Richmond or taken that assassin’s rifle.

Vin started examine his own behavior, trying to work out what he might have done, or failed to do, that had made Ezra seem so surprised to hear Vin say he trusted him. Have ta make sure I let him know I like him. I do trust him. He’s my friend, damn it. Need ta make sure he knows that.

Vin reached out and laid a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. He squeezed once trying to communicate physically what he wasn’t sure how to say. Vin decided it had to be his imagination that the gambler leaned into that touch, almost seeming to ask for more.

"Don’t go getting’ yerself killed. Ya hear?" Vin shook Ezra slightly. "Ain’t got so many friends I can afford ta lose one."

Ezra rewarded him with a warm smile. His whole expression transforming from his usual poker face into something more relaxed. It was an expression Vin had never seen before, but would love to see again. It reminded him of a flower opening up for the sun. Musta said somethin’ right.

"I shall endeavor to come away unscathed. See that you do likewise, Mr. Tanner."

A moment later Ezra seemed to reluctantly pull away from Vin’s grip with a quiet sigh. "We had better get into position. They will be here soon, and it wouldn’t do for us to be caught unaware a second time."

With that he moved away, sweeping away evidence of his presence as he moved toward his chosen hiding area. Vin did likewise, settling in to wait. He was patient by nature. He got comfortable and settled in. Vin forced himself to maintain his focus, to not let his mind wander back to Ezra, but to concentrate on listening and looking for Hoskins.

Half an hour later Vin could hear riders coming. He was glad that he’d found a hiding place, out of harms way, for both Peso and Chaucer. They should be able to retrieve their horses without too much trouble once they were done. Vin readied his grip on the rope waiting for Ezra.

He heard the first explosion as Ezra lobbed a stick of dynamite. Then a second. Horses were coming closer, moving fast. A third explosion signaled that Ezra had made it to the second drainage. Good. Least he’s got cover. Don’t want ‘im out in the open.

Vin could just make out the riders coming toward him through the dust. Several of them had pulled guns and were firing blindly behind them. Vin pulled the rope taut, bracing himself with both feet against the boulder, just seconds before the galloping horses reached it. At that distance there was no way they could see it in time and avoid it. The rope rose to catch the horses at knee level. Rapid forward motion came to an abrupt and sudden stop.

Vin winced as he heard the one horse scream as it went down. He was pretty sure it had broken a leg when it tripped. It had slammed into another horse on its way down, both animals falling, hoofs flailing in a vain attempt to stay upright. Another animal went down hard, rolling head over heals. The horse got up, but its rider didn’t. A third animal attempted to leap the downed horses in front of it, but mis-stepped, coming down with all four feet on one of the human riders before falling sideways slamming its rider against one of the Juniper trees as it went down. Another came to a rearing stop, unseating its rider as it did so. One horse managed to come to a complete stop avoiding the tangled mass of bodies.

Vin hated doing it, but he had to agree with Ezra’s logic. It made more sense to take down the horses than try to unseat the riders, particularly when they didn’t have guns. He was amazed at just how effective something so simple had proven to be.

Hoping the sling Ezra had given him would prove to be just as effective, Vin snatched up one of the stones he’d piled near by, and let fly. He aimed for the men he could see still moving. The dust made it difficult to zero in on his target, but Vin did manage to nail one man in the head. He dropped and laid still. He got another in the arm as he raised his gun to fire. From the way he dropped his gun, Vin was pretty sure he’d broken the arm.

The one man still mounted wheeled his horse and headed back toward Ezra. Vin took aim. He cursed when he missed. He cursed again when he heard a gun shot. And then another. Shit. Shit. Ezra you better be okay.

Vin moved out into the fray. He kept a wary eye on the men and horses strewn about as he made his way toward where he thought Ezra would be. One man lay with his head at an awkward angle. Vin didn’t have to check to know he was dead. Another man lay moaning, cradling his left leg with both hands. From the way it looked, Vin was sure it was broken. The man he’d hit in the head lay still, unmoving. Vin couldn’t tell if he was dead or simply unconscious. The man the horse had landed on was breathing with a wet gasping rattle. Bright red blood bubbled on his lips, a tell tale sign that one or maybe both his lungs, had been punctured. Vin didn’t think the man would last much longer, and there wasn’t a thing he could do for him. A fifth man cradled his right arm. Vin watched that man carefully, relieved to note that he hadn’t moved to retrieve his lost weapon.

Four horses stood about, shaking, looking wild eyed, and panicked. The one Vin had thought broke its leg lay on its side breathing hard. It had tried twice to make it to its feet before giving up and laying still. Gonna have to put it down. That saddened Vin. Damn shame. Horse didn’t do anythin’ wrong. Don’t seem fair.

"Ez! You okay!!?" Vin shouted. "Ezra!" Vin moved to snatch up a gun lying nearby. He felt better holding a weapon he was familiar with. Where the hell is he?

"Ezra! Answer me, damn it."

"Mr. Tanner, I’m here."

Vin breathed easier when he heard that. He moved forward eager to catch a glimpse of gambler. He wouldn’t totally relax until he was sure Ezra was okay.

Ezra held a gun in one hand, covering the man in front of him, Hoskins. Vin noticed immediately that Ezra was holding the gun in his left hand. There was a splash of crimson Ezra’s right arm. It stood out against the white of his shirt.

Vin had convinced Ezra that his red jacket would be far too visible against the light colored soil. So Ezra had removed both his jacket and his vest leaving them with Chaucer. His white shirt had blended in with the surrounding area well, but it sharply contrasted with the red blood now marring its usually pristine surface.

"You okay?" Vin asked. He shot a venomous look toward Hoskins. If looks could kill the man would have died right then and there. Hoskins hesitated seeing that look.

Ezra shoved him from behind to keep him moving. "Just a scratch, Mr. Tanner. Mr. Hoskins aim is not very good. A fact I am decidedly grateful for."

Ezra looked Vin over. Vin could almost feel those sharp eyes running over him, cataloging every detail. "You are unhurt, Mr. Tanner?"

"I’m fine." Vin pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "You’re plan worked pretty good."

Ezra looked toward the chaos Vin had left in his wake. "Dear Lord!" Ezra took a surprised breath. "That worked far better than I had anticipated."

Vin nodded. "Yeah, kinda impressed me too."

Ezra shook his head slightly. "You managed to incapacitate the others then?"

"One dead. Looks like he broke ‘is neck. Got one I don’t ‘spect ta last too long. Horse landed on ‘im, probably stoved his ribs inta his lungs. One with a broken leg. One with a broken arm, and one I ain’t sure if he’s dead or just unconscious."

"Well, let us secure Mr. Hoskins then, and deal with the rest." Ezra shoved Hoskins forward again.

"What ‘bout yer arm?" He didn’t like seeing Ezra’s blood darkening his sleeve. The thought of the man being seriously injured made his gut tighten. Need ta bind that.

"I’ll have you see to it once the rest are taken care of. From the looks of things, they are in greater need than I."

Ezra forced Hoskins to sit down under a tree, and swiftly bound him to it. Vin covered him while he did so. He would feel a lot better once he had his own guns back, and all the gang was accounted for. Will feel better once Ez lets me take a look at that arm too.

Ezra looked toward the man with a broken neck for just a second before turning away with a shake of his head. He headed for the man still breathing bloody bubbles. He bent down and helped him sit up slightly, easing the man’s labored breathing. The unnaturally compressed nature of his chest confirmed Vin’s earlier theory that the horse’s hoofs had collapsed his ribcage and punctured his lungs.

Vin looked closely and realized the man in question wasn’t really a man at all, but a half grown kid. Aw hell. Kid can’t be more than sixteen. Vin crouched down. "Ez…he gonna be okay?"

Ezra looked up from the boy’s fear filled brown eyes, and sighed. "I am no doctor, Mr. Tanner." The resignation in his tone, and solemn expression, said it all. Vin’s initial assessment that the boy would not live long had been accurate.

The boy choked, and tried to move. "Easy, now. Easy." Ezra ordered softly, his drawl softening his voice to a gentle croon. "I know it hurts. Moving around will only make it worse. Just rest. Concentrate on breathing."

Ezra ran his fingers through the boy’s hair. It reminded Vin of seeing Mary Travis do the same thing for her young son, Billy. Ezra looked up again. "Mr. Tanner, perhaps you should see to the others. I’ll stay with him."

Vin hesitated. Ezra looked at him steadily letting him know that he would wait with the boy until he breathed his last. Vin nodded and swallowed hard. He easily understood the message in Ezra’s eyes. Nobody should die alone.

Vin really didn’t want to watch this boy slowly drown in his own blood. He did as Ezra suggested and moved away to check the man who he’d hit in the head with his first shot from the sling. He felt the man’s neck trying to locate a pulse. There wasn’t one. He’d suspected that the sling could provide enough force to kill a man, but now he knew for certain that it could be deadly. One more down.

He checked the man with a broken arm. Vin had set a few bones in his day. This break looked to be clean, and should be easy to take care of. Vin looked at the man and waited until he made eye contact.

"Ya want me ta set and splint it for ya?" Vin figured it would be easier to ask than try to fight with him.

The man took a breath, and sighed. He looked reluctant but agreed to let Vin set his arm. Vin deftly set the broken arm as swiftly and as painlessly as he could. The man had done no more than let out a breath in a hiss of pain. Vin made sure to the man wasn’t hiding any other weapons, and then helped him to his feet. He led him to a tree near the one where Hoskins was tied. A nearby tree branch provided what he needed to act as a splint. Once the arm was taken care of, Vin tied the man to the tree. He was careful not to jar the injured arm, but made certain he was secure, and not likely to go anywhere soon.

"I’ll get ya some water in a bit. Just sit here quiet like. Understand?"

A nod was the only sign that the man had heard him. Vin made his way back to Ezra. Ezra had laid the boy down, and ran a hand over his eyes, closing them. That gesture let Vin know without asking that the boy had finally died.

Ezra made a strange hand motion, and said something in a language Vin didn’t recognize. It sounded like Spanish, but it wasn’t. Vin thought it sounded like stuff Josiah said in the church. Latin…maybe.

Ezra sighed heavily, and looked at Vin. The sorrow in his eyes took Vin’s breath away. "He was far too young, Mr. Tanner. Far too young to die this way."

Vin agreed with that. Kid had no place bein’ here. "Was his choice ta ride with Hoskins. His choice ta be what he was. There’s a price ta be paid for makin’ that decision."

Vin knew he sounded cold, but he didn’t want Ezra to wallow in guilt over this. He didn’t want to feel guilty about it either. And as cold as his statement was, it was also the truth. They might feel sorry for the boy, but he was riding with men who had every intention of killing innocent people and hauling Vin back to Texas to hang for a crime he didn’t commit.

"Boy mighta been young, but he weren’t innocent, Ez."

"True." Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "I am aware that there are always consequences, Mr. Tanner. Always. No matter what choice one makes. I’m just not sure this young man was aware of that fact until now."

Ezra sighed softly. "He made a decision about how to live his life very early in the game. A decision that, today, proved to be irrevocable."

"You okay?" Vin didn’t like the sadness and regret he could hear in Ezra’s voice.

Ezra smiled sadly. "I will be. Rest assured, Mr. Tanner, this is not the worst I’ve had the misfortune to witness." Ezra appraised him with a quick look. "Nor would I wager, is it the worst that you have seen."

"No. It ain’t." Vin thought about his time in the war. He was probably close to the same age as the boy who’d just died when he’d signed up. He had seen things there that he hoped never to see again. "Don’t make it any easier though."

"No. No, it doesn’t." Ezra squared his shoulders, and his poker face again hid his thoughts and feelings. "We’ve got another wounded man to attend to."

They approached the man cradling his broken leg with both hands. He looked up when the approached, and snarled at them. "Goddamn you."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "All in due time, I’m sure." Ezra ignored the rest of the insults hurled his way. He looked at the man’s leg, and considered it. Vin could tell it was an ugly break. The bone was sticking out through the man’s pant leg. By all rights he should be unconscious.

Ezra stepped forward and pulled a knife from the man’s boot. He knelt down, and deftly turned the blade so he could slit the pant leg, making it easier to get to the wounded leg. The man reached out and slapped Ezra hard on his wounded right arm. Ezra dropped the knife with a grunt of pain, and raised his left arm to cradle his right.
The man snatched up the knife with a surprising amount of speed and lunged at Ezra. Vin shot him with the Colt he’d appropriated earlier. He didn’t have time to adjust his aim for anything less than lethal. He aimed to stop him, and that meant hitting the man at center mass. Vin’s shot caught him in the chest and the force threw him back and away from Ezra.

Seeing the man would never cause a problem again, Vin knelt down to check on Ezra. "Ez…He didn’t get ya did he?"

Vin had been certain that he’d managed to shoot fast enough to prevent Ezra from getting stabbed. But Ezra’s silence worried him. Maybe he hadn’t been fast enough. He was confident in his aim, but quick draws were something he usually left to one of the others.


"I am…unharmed." Ezra gasped. He still cradled his wounded arm. Fresh blood stained his fingers.

"Best let me see ta that." Unharmed, my ass. That blood says otherwise. Vin was determined not to be put off a second time. Shoulda took care o’ him first. No matter what he said.

Ezra nodded. He moved to get to his feet. "I would prefer if we could do this away from here."

Vin understood that. No one willingly stayed around the dead if they could be elsewhere. He helped Ezra to his feet. His concern went up several notches when Ezra swayed. "You okay, Pard?"

"I’m fine."

"Uh-huh. Let’s get ya sat down." Vin moved Ezra toward the boulders he’d hidden behind earlier. They were closer, and he didn’t want Ezra anywhere near Hoskins and his remaining companion.

He helped Ezra sit. As worried as he was that Ezra seemed to need his help more than he ought to, Vin couldn’t help but enjoy being so close. He took a deep breath and tried to imprint Ezra’s scent on his senses. God, he smells good. Wonder what that scent is.

Vin couldn’t quite figure identify all the components. There was a hint of something floral, blended with a trace of musk, leather, and something uniquely appealing but unidentifiable. Vin took in another breath, deciding that whatever it was, it was very, very nice. He wondered if it was just Ezra. Has ta be. Don’t remember ever smellin’ anythin’ like it ‘fore.

Vin knelt next to Ezra. He took Ezra’s right arm, and laid it across his knee. Vin ripped the sleeve open from wrist to shoulder in one swift jerk. He noticed immediately when Ezra winced.

"Sorry, Ez. Didn’t mean to hurt ya."

"You didn’t, Mr. Tanner. It was just the sound on yet another fine article of clothing meeting its untimely demise that bothered me."

Vin chuckled. "Ya must be okay to talk like that."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "I believe I stated I was fine earlier."

Vin snorted. "Oh sure ya are. Last time I checked, someone ain’t fine that’s bleedin’."

The wound was shallow, little more than a bloody furrow that cut across Ezra’s bicep. It bled freely, and Vin used the sleeve he’d torn as a bandage. "Probably oughta have stiches."

"Neither of us have the tools to undertake such a task, Mr. Tanner."

Vin nodded, not happy with the situation, but there was little he could do about it. "Lemme just look for somethin’ ta clean it with, and I’ll bandage it up. Should do ya till we get ta Bitter Creek."

Vin quickly made his way to the horses. He was careful not upset them any more than they already were. Most of them had calmed down considerably. Vin glanced to the animal still lying on the ground. Taking care of putting the animal down for good was not something Vin was looking forward to.

Sorry, boy. I’ll be back ta put you outta yer misery in a minute. Promise.

It didn’t take him long to find a bottle of whiskey in one of the saddle bags. He was surprised to locate a clean shirt. It would work fine for a bandage. He tore off one sleeve, and then the other.

He went back to Ezra. Vin pulled the cork on the bottle. "This is gonna sting."

"I know." Ezra pulled away the bloody cloth he’d been holding against his arm.

Vin poured a liberal amount of alcohol over the wound. He was impressed that Ezra remained still, and other than a slight change in his breathing, gave no indication that it hurt. And Vin knew first hand that it had to hurt like hell.

Vin quickly wrapped one sleeve around the arm, and then used the second sleeve to secure the first in place. When he was finished, Vin patted Ezra on the arm. He tried hard not to notice just how good the skin beneath his fingers felt.

Ez might not hold with doin’ manual labor, but if his arm is anythin’ to go by, he’s rock solid. Always wondered what he looked like under them fancy cloths o’ his. Vin mentally slapped himself. Ain’t the right time or place fer that.

"Why don’t ya just sit here for a bit, Ez." Vin was still worried about how unsteady Ezra had seemed a few moments ago. "I’m gonna go take care of that horse, then we can decide what ta do with Hoskins and his buddy."

"It isn’t necessary for me to ‘sit here for a bit’, Mr. Tanner." Ezra stated calmly. His tone told Vin that he’d been insulted. He got slowly got to his feet. "I’ll see to retrieving our possessions while you attend to that poor animal."

Vin shook his head. He should have known better than to think Ezra would just sit still. The others, Nathan in particular, thought the gambler was lazy, but Vin knew he wasn’t. He’d never seen Ezra shirk any task he’d been assigned. Oh he might complain about it, but he never failed to do his duty. Hell, the man wore a dress for God’s sake. Don’t know if the rest o’ ‘em would done that. I sure as hell wouldn’t have.

Vin kept a careful eye on his friend as he went about riffling through various saddlebags, and examining each body. Ezra seemed steady on his feet now. He retrieved his Remington and derringer by the time Vin had managed to get all the equipment off the downed horse. Vin checked all four legs just to be certain there was no way to save the animal.

One leg was definitely broken, and the other looked as if the knee had become disjointed. Two legs busted up. No wonder it can’t get up. He frowned knowing he couldn’t put it off any longer.

Ezra approached him holding out Vin’s own weapons. "You accoutrements, Mr. Tanner."

"Thanks, Ez." Vin felt immediately better. He checked the action on his gun just to be certain it was clean and ready to fire. He slid one knife back into his belt sheath. The knife had been a gift and it felt good to have it back.

Ezra regarded the horse with sad eyes. His expression was solemn as he crouched down in front of the beast, and stoked its nose. Ezra bent his head to place his forehead against that of the horse. "You were never meant to suffer for the sins of your rider. Please understand that if there had been away to avoid this, I would have utilized it. Desperate times forced me to use desperate measures."

For a moment Vin was sure the horse had understood because it nickered softly seeming to respond to Ezra’s words. Ezra cupped the animal’s eyes, and then scratched it behind the ears. "You were a victim of circumstance. I’m sorry. Mea Culpa."

With a final pat, Ezra pulled away, and stepped back. Vin pulled his gun, aimed carefully, and fired once. Even though he’d been expecting it, the shot seemed incredibly loud.

Vin turned away. He hated having to put down a horse. He had considered asking Ezra to do it, but couldn’t force that burden on to him as well. Way he dotes on Chaucer, don’t know if he coulda shot it. No…he coulda done it, but it woulda been harder for him than me. Takin’ care of this is the least I could do. He stayed with the boy, wouldn’t a been fair ta ask him ta do this too.

"Now what?" Vin asked as he holstered his gun, steadfastly ignoring the tightness of his throat.

"Now we retrieve our own mounts, load up these men, and head for Bitter Creek. The sheriff there will undoubtedly want to know what happened here."

Vin nodded. If all went smoothly, they should be in Bitter Creek just before sundown. Sure hope the rest of this day goes accordin’ ta plan.


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