Truth and Friendship

by Hombre

Vin and Chris tensed as they heard approaching horses. They could hear voices and both men rose so they could look out from their hiding place. They watched as two men entered the building with a lantern which they hung on the wagon. The two peacekeepers ducked down again as the light threatened to expose them to the new arrivals. Chris had caught a glimpse of one of the men's faces and realized his earlier suspicion had been correct.

"You said he was dead!" Abrams bellowed angrily.

"I said I thought he was. He should have been after what we did to him. He wasn't moving when we left him back in his room. I told you we should have dumped him outside town. They would never have found him then."

"Should have been dead ain't good enough. You were supposed to make sure. You were also meant to check for anything that had been left behind or dropped when you took that damn gambler back to the saloon. They found one of his cufflinks you know. That's twice you've failed me. I knew I should've taken care of it all myself," the gunsmith hissed venomously.

Chris couldn't stand listening to any more, so he rose and walked into the light. "Well, well, Mr. Abrams. For someone who was dead to the world during the robbery, you've certainly resurrected now. Go on Mister, give me an excuse to shoot you. You're gonna pay for what you did to Ezra."

"Dear God," Abrams said as he saw who had spoken. He went for his gun, but Chris beat him to the draw and shot him in the hand. Abrams clutched the injured hand and raised his arms away from his weapons. Chris hadn't wanted to kill the man. Shooting him dead would not have been punishment enough.

Chris grinned nastily and said, "God can't help you, I'm afraid. You gotta deal with me and you'd better tell me the truth. I ain't as forgiving as the good Lord. Why did you beat Ezra? Why didn't you just leave him after you'd knocked him out?" No reply. Chris punched the man hard several times, eventually knocking him to the ground. "Not so good fighting someone face to face are ya? Only tackle people from behind do ya?" Chris shouted angrily as he pulled the man to his feet and then turned to watch Vin, who was also fighting his opponent. The sharpshooter had to punch the man in the face before he finally got control and could disarm him.

"We'll come back and collect the guns later, Vin. I wanna get these two in jail as soon as possible," Chris said, as he kept a firm hold on his prisoner's arm.

Vin and Chris took the two men to their horses and bunked them up into the saddles and secured them so they couldn't escape. The two peacekeepers then mounted up and took hold of their prisoners horses and started off back to town.

+ + + + + + +

JD entered Ezra's room humming loudly. Nathan and Josiah looked up and signaled for the kid to quieten down, but it was too late. The tune had reached Ezra on some level and he woke startled and breathing rapidly. The healer though did not connect the tune to Ezra's distress.

"Ez? What's wrong? Did ya have a bad dream?"

"I heard someone humming," Ezra replied as he put a hand to his ribs, wincing as his rapid breathing made his chest hurt.

Nathan frowned and couldn't understand why that should have upset the gambler. "It was only JD."

"Where did you learn that tune?" Ezra asked the kid insistently. JD recoiled from the gambler because the gaze he turned on the boy was so intense.

"A man was whistling it downstairs about an hour ago. Don't ya like it?"

"No." Ezra replied, paling considerably as he remembered where he had heard the tune before. He tried to rise but cried out in pain as his body protested at the activity. Nathan put out a hand and settled the gambler back down onto the bed.

"Ez? Come on, calm down and stay where you are. You look like ya seen a ghost. What is it?"

"One of the men who toted me back here was humming that tune. I'd never heard it before today and now supposedly two people in the same town know it, as well as JD."

"Would you know the man again JD?" Josiah asked, turning to look at the young man.

"I think so."

"Do you remember if you saw the second man who carried you back here, Ezra?"

"Only briefly, but I didn't know him. It's beginning to come back to me now. I woke for a minute while they were manhandling me, but the man's features are imprinted on my mind, believe me. That wretched ditty is going to haunt me for the rest of my days as well."

"JD? Go and keep an eye out downstairs again. See if you can spot the man you saw earlier."

"How's Ezra gonna see if it's the same person that attacked him?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Nathan said as JD left the room.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin escorted their prisoners to the jail and then hurried back to the saloon to check on Ezra. They nodded in greeting to JD as they passed by his table and headed for the stairs.

"Hey Nate. Everything okay?" Chris asked as he walked into the gambler's room.

Nathan put a finger to his lips and indicated that Ezra was asleep. The healer rose quickly and ushered the two men back out so he could talk to them without disturbing his patient. He'd only just managed to calm the gambler down and he didn't want him distressed again.

"Ezra woke up earlier very upset. JD had just come in the room and was humming a tune. Anyway it woke Ezra up and he remembered one of the men who carried him back here had also hummed the same tune. Ezra had never heard it before so we think the man JD saw and Ezra's attacker are one and the same."

"We caught Abrams and another man outta town red-handed with the guns. There were only two men who beat Ezra, weren't there?"

Nathan frowned and said, "Look, why don't you take JD down to the jail to look at the second man to make sure. If not, it means we could be looking for a third man 'cause JD only heard the tune in the last hour."

"Jeez. I'll take him now," Vin said. The tracker turned and hurried downstairs. He stopped beside the kid and got hold of his arm. "JD come with me will ya?"

"But I'm looking for someone."

"I need ya to take a look at someone in the jail to see if it's the same man yer looking for now."

"Okay. Did you arrest someone then?"

"Yeah. Abrams and someone we don't know," Vin informed the kid as they strode along to the jail. They went inside and walked up to the cells and JD looked at the stranger.

"Is it him?" Vin asked.

"No, he wasn't the man in the saloon earlier."

Vin turned his attention to the two prisoners. "Who was yer accomplice?"

"There was no one else."

"Don't lie to me. We know there were three of you."

The two men stayed tight lipped and Vin knew he wouldn't be able to get an admission out of them. They hadn't said anything when they were punched earlier so why would they now? He left the jail and took JD back to the saloon to resume his vigil and the tracker then continued on upstairs on his own.

"Chris? It's not the same man. There's three of 'em, but I can't get them to tell me who the other one was. JD's back downstairs keeping watch so we may get lucky."

Chris pondered what he had been told. "Hopefully we can keep the arrests secret. Not too many people saw us bring them in. We need to let the third man think he's safe. Where's Buck?"

"He was helping Mary last I heard," Nathan said.

"Vin, go and get him and send him to the jail to keep guard. Can you then get a description of the man from JD and go and see if he's keeping a horse in the livery. Talk to Yosemite, he'll know for sure. If he is, check that the animal is there now. We also need to bring the guns back to town before someone else discovers them." The tracker nodded and went to carry out his orders. He returned within quarter of an hour.

"His horse is in the livery. It's been there all afternoon but was taken out this morning."

"Right, I'll go down and sit with JD. Josiah, Vin can you go now and collect the wagon? You be alright on yer own Nate?"

"Yeah sure." The men split up to go their different ways.

Chris took a seat next to JD and asked, "Seen him yet kid?"

"Na. What if he doesn't come here?"

"He's gotta eat, don't he? He's bound to come back here again. I'll stake my reputation on it."

The two men settled back to wait and after an hour JD sat up straight and looked across at Chris. A man had just walked through the batwing doors and was scanning the room as if he was looking for someone.

"That him?" Chris asked quietly.

"Yeah." The two men stood and followed the man to the counter. They split up and each man took up a position on either side of their suspect.

"Sir?" Chris said.

The man turned toward him and met the gunfighter's gaze before turning to the kid on the other side. "What do ya want?"

"I believe you know a friend of ours. He's waiting upstairs to see you."

"What's his name? I've only just come to town and I don't know anyone here."

"That's funny. He swears he knows you. I also thought you knew Mr. Abrams, the gunsmith."

The man blanched and stepped away bumping into JD as he did so and the kid grabbed his arm so he couldn't escape. The man struggled violently and Chris punched him in the stomach before drawing his gun and holding it to his head. They forced him up the stairs and frogmarched him along to Ezra's room.

Nathan could hear the commotion outside in the hallway and he stood and took up a position in front of Ezra, expecting trouble. The gambler woke at the noise and Nathan turned and put out a comforting hand. "It's alright, Ez. It sounds like Chris to me."

He was proved correct when the gunfighter and JD manhandled a stranger into the room. Chris looked over at Ezra. "Is this him?"

Ezra studied the man with his one good eye, paled and nodded silently in confirmation.

"Okay." Chris and JD took the struggling man back downstairs and along to the jail to join his two accomplices. Buck stood up when he saw his two friends had brought a prisoner with them. He collected the cell keys from their hook and opened the door of the spare cell. The man was thrown roughly in and the door slammed shut behind him.

Chris stepped back and looked over the three prisoners. "Who's gonna be the first to tell me the truth about what happened to our friend?"

The most recent prisoner stepped forward and grabbed hold of the bars with his hands. "Look I didn't have nothin' to do with the beating. It was them," he said indicating the other two men.

"Why should we believe you?"

"I was driving the wagon. Abrams and Taylor did that to him before I arrived. I helped load the guns onto the wagon and then Taylor and I carried yer friend back to the saloon. They told me no one would get hurt. I wouldn't have got involved otherwise. They said they'd kill me if I didn't continue with my part of the bargain. I didn't like it but Abrams said he had everything under control and I stupidly believed him."

"Why weren't you with them today when they went to the move the weapons again?"

"I'd gone to arrange the sale of the guns. There's a gang of outlaws who were buying them. I went to get the first payment because I didn't trust them not to steal the guns before they'd paid for them."

"When were you delivering them?"



"Five miles outta town. The Olsen ranch."

"What time?"

"Mid morning."

Chris and Buck walked outside onto the boardwalk to confer, leaving JD to watch the three thieves. Chris looked back through the door at the prisoners while scratching his neck. "What do ya think? He telling the truth?"

"I think so. You wanna go after the gang too, don't ya?" Buck asked, knowing Chris was on a trail of retribution.

"Yeah. Let's get the others." Chris opened the jail door and called through to JD to meet them in the saloon. He then accompanied Buck back to the saloon, collecting Vin and Josiah along the way. The tracker and preacher had just arrived back in town with the wagon and had pulled up outside the livery barn.

Once all the men had arrived, Chris began giving his orders. "Josiah, Buck, empty the wagon of the majority of guns. Leave just enough to convince the outlaws that the wagon is full. Pack other empty boxes in to make it look like the whole consignment if there. JD get some supplies ready will ya? Vin, what do ya think about us taking Abrams along with us? Do ya think we can trust him? We need one of them along or the gang will be suspicious."

"I 'spect we can convince him to behave himself," the tracker replied smiling slyly.

"Okay. Let's meet up again in an hours time to get some sort of plan for tomorrow worked out." Chris nodded and all the men disappeared to help with unloading the wagon. Chris climbed the stairs and wandered along to the gambler's room once more. He walked in quietly to discover that Ezra was awake and talking to Nathan.

"Hey Ez. Good to see ya. How do you feel?"

"Past my best."

Chris laughed, "Well you've still got yer sense of humor so you must be feeling better."

"That's debatable but I'm still alive. So I must be thankful for that at least."

"I just came to tell you we're going after the gang who were gonna buy the stolen guns. They're collecting them tomorrow at the Olsen ranch. We'll take Abrams with us to allay the gang's fears."

"Abrams was implicated?" Ezra asked surprised.

"Yes. Sorry Ez, it's hard to remember what we've told you and what we haven't. We arrested Abrams and Taylor at a building where we found the stolen guns. We then arrested the other man that you identified. He has since told us a bit about what happened. As far as we can make out by fitting together what we've been told by you and him is that Taylor was the man in the store and Abrams was the lookout in the alley. Abrams hit you from behind and they beat you and left you at the end of the alley while they moved the guns. Abrams went back to the store and the new man helped Taylor load the wagon and move you back here. You only woke when they moved you so you never got to see Abrams from first to last."

"You know irrefutably that he was there?" Ezra asked, still not really believing the man could have been involved.

"Yes, he was the mastermind behind it all." He paused as he looked at the gambler. "Are you alright?"

Nathan turned and studied Ezra as well. "Ez?" he asked concerned. The gambler looked a bit green around the gills.

"I'm just a bit shaken. I can't believe Abrams would have been involved in such a display of turpitude. I even liked the man, bigger fool me. He seemed the epitome of a good citizen."

"We all liked him, Ez. You weren't the only one taken in by his quiet manner and friendliness. They say the quiet ones are the most dangerous." "I beg to differ. Our resident tracker is a quiet man and he hasn't a nasty bone in his body," Ezra paused. "Oh well, no use losing sleep over it. What's done is done. All I can do is wish you good luck with your foray into enemy territory."

"Yeah. Look after yerself. See ya Nate."

Chris rejoined the rest of his men in the saloon to discuss their plan of action. It was decided they would all go to the ranch that night to set up, except Josiah, who would take Abrams out the next morning. Chris didn't want to be worried about looking after a prisoner all night when he had other concerns on his mind. The preacher went along to the jail to watch the prisoners after seeing the other men off from the livery.

The big man walked up to the cell which housed Abrams and said, "We've got a job for you which may help save your hide. If you help us catch the outlaw gang tomorrow, we may put in a good word for you at your trial."

"What do you want me to do?"

"I'll take you out to the Olsen ranch tomorrow and Chris will fill you in then. Of course if you're not willing to help, I bet one of these other gentlemen would jump at the chance."

"No. I'll do it. I'll do whatever you want," Abrams agreed eagerly.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and his men arrived at the Olsen ranch in the early evening. Buck took the wagon and hid it in the barn while the other men decided what to do the next day.

"Vin? I want you to cover things from the roof. When the gang have collected the guns, I want you to take out the driver. Buck, JD? You go to the barn and deal with things from there. Abrams and I will be in the house and will deal with the handover. Vin? If Abrams gets away from me after the deal, kill him. There are only about five in the gang so we're evenly matched. Get some rest and we'll set things up properly tomorrow."

The men bedded down for the night and took turns with guarding the wagon. Josiah turned up just after dawn and locked Abrams in the cellar. The men then got into position to wait for the gang to arrive.

"Do as we tell you," Chris advised Abrams when he retrieved the man from his temporary prison. "I'll have my gun aimed at you the whole time and Vin has orders to kill you if you try to escape." The black clad man walked to the door as he heard riders approaching. "Right they're here. Remember what I said."

Chris took hold of Abrams arm and led him onto the porch and down into the front yard. The outlaw leader dismounted and wandered over, eying Chris warily. He turned his attention to Abrams and asked, "Who's your new friend Abrams? Where are the other two men who were with you before?"

"They disobeyed my orders and I killed them. I recruited Tom here because we've worked together before and I knew I could trust him."

"Are the guns in that wagon?" the man asked, accepting what he had been told.

"Yes. Everything's ready for you when I get the rest of the payment," Abrams replied.

The gang leader turned and shouted to one of his men. A swarthy man dismounted and took the saddle bags from his horse. He threw them toward his leader who caught them deftly before putting the bags on the ground at Abrams feet. Abrams bent down and checked the contents thoroughly. He looked up and nodded. "It's all there. The guns are yours. It's been a pleasure doing business with you."

"I'll just check the guns before you leave." The man turned and signaled for one of his men to check the wagon. Chris held his breath expecting his deception to be discovered but the man waved to say everything was in order.

The gang moved to the wagon. The leader climbed up into the driver's seat after tying his horse to the back. The other outlaws took up positions on each side of the wagon to act as an escort. The wagon started moving and Chris waited until it had gone out of the yard before whistling loudly to his men. Vin shot first and took the driver out, but the horses were frightened by the shot and started to run away with the wagon bouncing along behind them. The other peacekeepers took out the remainder of the gang quickly and when the dust had cleared they could see all their opponents lying dead on the ground.

Chris saw Abrams making a bid for freedom and shouted to the fleeing man, "Stay where you are or I'll shoot you where you stand." The man paid no heed so Chris carried out his threat. He had no qualms about killing the man after his brutal treatment of Ezra.

Chris turned his attention to the driverless wagon and saw Vin chasing after it on his horse. The sharpshooter got alongside and leant over to grab the reins of the lead horse. He pulled hard and brought the wagon to a shuddering halt. He dismounted when the horses had completely stopped and tied his mount to the wagon before climbing into the driver's seat to head back to the ranch.

Chris met him on his horse halfway. "Nice move. Just don't take such risks in the future, okay? I've already got one injured man and I can do without another. I'm going grey as it is with all the worry you lot cause, without you attempting to frighten me to death as well."

"Fuss, fuss, fuss. Yer worse than a mother hen," Vin complained while grinning relentlessly.

"I thought I told you to take out Abrams if he tried to escape. I had to do the job myself," Chris complained.

"Well, that just proves you didn't need me. He hadn't run too far and I figured you could handle him. The guns though were rapidly heading for the horizon so I went after 'em. You didn't wanna lose them did ya?" Vin said laughing.

"Alright, you've made yer point. Let's get back to the others."

The two friends went back to the yard and helped to load the outlaw's bodies onto the wagon. They had to unpack all the empty boxes to accommodate the dead and the guns but by early afternoon they were able to set off back to town.

After leaving the bodies with the undertaker and taking the guns along to the jail for safekeeping the men took the wagon and horses back to the livery. Until a new gunsmith could be found, the guns would have to remain in the jail under lock and key until they were collected by the army.

The tired men walked along to the saloon and wandered up to the counter. Buck put his elbows on the bar and looked at JD who was standing next to him.

"What ya wanna drink JD? Cow juice?"

"What?" JD asked.

"Cow juice. You know, milk?" Buck said smiling.

"Yeah thanks. Who'd you learn that from? Ezra?" the kid replied laughing.

The rest of the men ordered their drinks and they all made their way upstairs to see how the gambler and healer were coping.

"Hey Ez," Chris greeted as he stepped into the room. "How are ya?"

"I'd be all the better for a strong whiskey, which I see you've neglected to bring me," Ezra said as he eyed the man's drink enviously.

"No alcohol for you at the moment. Can't stand you being drunk as well as injured," Nathan said smiling. "Did you get the gang?" Nathan asked as he turned to Chris.

"Yes we certainly did. They won't be bothering anyone else again. Neither will Mr. Abrams. He got his justice in the form of hot lead." Chris thought the gambler looked much better and his speech had improved now that the swelling in his jaw had gone down slightly.

"Well, I just want to put the whole nasty episode firmly behind me. Just so you all know, I won't attempt to intervene in any more trouble on my own, even if it is only to stop someone spitting in the street. I've learnt my lesson," Ezra said sighing.

"Good. I don't think I could bear to find you beaten to a pulp again," JD said. "It's not the sort of thing I want to see after I've just eaten breakfast."

"From now on I'm going to repose before dark and rise as it gets light. How does that sound?" Ezra asked.

"Well, I won't be holding my breath. The first chance of a poker game and you'll be up all night," Chris said laughing

"Oh ye of little faith," Ezra said disparagingly before smiling too, knowing damn well he wouldn't be able to keep to his word either.

Nathan had disappeared as the men were talking and Buck looked around frowning to see where the man had gone. He heard footsteps outside and the healer appeared in the doorway with a glass in his hand.

"There you are Ez. Drink that down."

"This wouldn't be one of your concoctions, would it, by any chance?" Ezra asked, as he sniffed the drink suspiciously. It smelt very familiar. He flicked a quick look at the healer before sniffing the drink again.

"Yes it would. Go on, drink it," Nathan encouraged.

Ezra put the glass to his lips and screwed his face up in expectation of a foul taste. His expression cleared though as he drank it and he sent a grateful look to the healer. "Not bad Mr. Jackson. Positively better than the horse piss you usually supply. Mr. Tanner's description, not mine, I hasten to add. I would never be so coarse."

Nathan winked at the gambler as he knew he had just given the man a glass of whiskey and not one of his herbal drinks and Ezra certainly wasn't going to let on to the others what he had just drunk.

The rest of the men settled down on the floor or on the bed to keep the gambler company. As Ezra closed his eyes and went to sleep Buck picked up the gambler's glass and put it to his nose. He took a sniff curiously and said, "You sly dog Nate. I hope you give us whiskey instead of your herbs when we're sick."

The other men looked up sharply after hearing the mention of whiskey. "Let him be Buck. Ezra deserves a bit of coddling after what he's been through," Chris chastised. His face suddenly lit up with one of his rare smiles as he said, "We'll just force feed Nate some of his own medicine until he agrees to add whiskey to his list of medicinal drinks for the rest of us."

The other men laughed quietly as Nathan threw a cloth at Chris which managed to hit him smack in the mouth. All hell broke loose as the others all joined in throwing things at each other. Ezra woke up and saw the mayhem going on around his bed. He sighed and said, "Good grief, can't an injured body get any peace around here?" He pulled a pillow from under him and put it over his head to block out the noise and went back to a whiskey induced sleep. The men, who had ceased their fighting when Ezra woke, burst out laughing again at the look the gambler had sent them before disappearing beneath his pillow. He certainly had a good line in dirty looks.

+ + + + + + +

After a week of bed rest Ezra was finally allowed up, although he was not back to full fitness by any stretch of the imagination. He was laying in bed one morning when he heard a knock on the door.

"Yes? Who is it?"

"It's me," Chris said as he opened the door and walked in. He carried a tray laden with food which he put down beside the gambler. The gunfighter sat down on the bed and studied Ezra intently. "There, don't say I never think of your welfare."

Ezra thought Chris seemed ill at ease. "Are you alright, Mr. Larabee?"

"Yeah. I just wanted to apologize."

"Whatever for?"

"When you were beaten last week......................I jumped to conclusions yet again and thought you were just lazing in bed. I was annoyed with you for being late....................I'm sorry." Chris came to a halt, unable to put into words what he was trying to say.

"Mr. Larabee if I hadn't been left in a bloody heap, I probably would have been lazing in bed. You don't have to apologize to me. I know I am tardy at the best of times and we don't always get on but I can't vilify you for that. We're from two completely different worlds and we were thrown together by circumstances rather than choice. We're bound to have the odd tiff. It would be a pretty boring world if we were all alike. God, fancy everyone being like me, or you for that matter?" Ezra smiled. "I admit it hurt when you and the others didn't trust me with that assassin's money a while ago but we got over that. We rub along together well enough now, don't we?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"There you are then. Nothing more need be said on the matter. Now, are you going to help me q

q with this sumptuous feast or just sit there looking sorry for yourself?"

"Geez Ez. I really don't understand you."

"The feeling is mutual my friend, but don't let that stop us continuing our odd relationship." Ezra poured a cup of coffee and passed it to Chris before pouring one for himself.

He raised his mug to the gunfighter and said, "To a very unconventional friendship. Long may it continue." Chris raised his mug and clinked it against Ezra's and both men starting laughing.

The End

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