Five hours had past since Nathan operated on Vin, the young sharpshooter still in the grips of his high fever. Chris sat on the edge of the bed, his back resting against the bed rail, watching the slow rise of Vin's chest with every breath took. His own injuries suffered by Blackston and his cronies threatened his vigil by his best friend's side. Every inch of him ached, the worst being his head. Still, his pains were nothing in comparison to what Vin was going through. He stretched his stiffening back and gazed sadly at his unmoving friend.
Vin's eyelids began to flutter, sending a surge of hope through the black wearing gunfighter. "C'mon Pard...," Chris spoke softly, "open those eyes...."
He heard the voice speaking to him.... He knew that voice. Vin struggled to consciousness, wishing to see the face speaking to him. Two blue eyes focused hazily upon the figure hovering over him...he did know this man...Chris Larabee.
Sighing visibly, Chris relaxed as he noted the recognition in Vin's eyes.
Along with the face came the memories. Vin opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't find the strength to make a sound. He had to make his distress known.
"You thirsty?" Chris asked, confused by the look of panic in the younger man's eyes.
Vin tried to speak again...a mangled yell making it's way through his parched throat.
The door to the clinic burst open, with five men rushing inside. Nathan pushed the others back, hurrying to Vin's side, trying his best to calm the agitated man.
Looking into the worried face, Vin knew he was safe for the moment. Throwing a fearful glance in Chris' direction, Tanner pleaded with the dark skinned healer with his eyes.
"Thought I told ya ta git me when he woke," Nathan said to Chris.
Dumbfounded at Vin's reaction, Chris remained silent. He was so happy Vin was moving around that he hadn't given a thought to what Nathan asked of him earlier.
Fetching a glass of water, Nathan laid Vin's head up against him, giving the tracker some much needed fluid. "Take it easy, Vin...," he soothed.
"Don't...don't...let 'im," Vin battled to speak, "hurt...."
"Ain't no one puttin' a hand on ya while I'm around," Nathan promised, seeing his friend's features calm slightly.
"Ez...Ezra bring....bring me...home?" Vin asked wearily.
Hearing his name, the gambler inched toward the bed. "You are indeed home," Ezra answered with a warm smile, "and among friends."
"Stay?" Vin mumbled, his head beginning to sink further into the pillows as exhaustion overtook him.
Surprised by the request, Ezra pulled up a chair and sat beside the sleeping man. Wasn't this Chris' place? He gave a questioning look in Nathan's direction.
"Probably the fever talkin'," Nathan explained. "Yer the last person he saw when he was conscious before, and yer the one who got 'im back home."
Taking a quick glance behind him, Ezra noticed the disappointment in Chris' face, despite the gunman's best efforts to conceal it. Once the fever ebbed, Vin would want his best friend beside him.
Buck moved over to where his oldest friend stood. "Ya must've scared the boy silly with that sour puss of yers shoved in his face," the ladies' man teased gently.
Chris managed a weak smile. Vin was confused and in pain, probably fearing Blackston would appear. He'd stay nearby in case the sharpshooter needed him.
+ + + + + + +
The tall figure caught himself before he fell from the horse. It was the fourth time since he left Eagle Bend. Standish drugged the whiskey....that had to be the explanation. He straightened and urged the steed forward. He'd reach Four Corners in a matter of minutes...and then all hell was going to break loose.
+ + + + + + +
Finally giving in to the dull ache banging in his head, Chris reclined on a bed in the farthest corner of Nathan's recovery room, away from Vin's immediate sight. Even though he desperately wished to be near his best friend, he understood the trauma Vin was experiencing. Ezra represented safety, where his presence represented the beating the tracker received. After the fever died down, Vin would come to his senses.
Standish's head snapped up at his quietly spoken name.
Nodding, Ezra watched Vin's slow, even breathing. "Yes, Mr. Larabee, he is at that."
Motioning for the gambler to come over, Chris sat himself up in the bed. If he couldn't be by Vin's immediate side for the moment, he'd find out as much about his ordeal as he could. "Won't take long," he added when he noticed Ezra's hesitation, "you'll be back before he knows you're gone."
"And how are you faring?" Ezra asked Chris as he neared the blonde's bedside.
"I'm not the issue," Chris said dismissively. "I want to know what that sonovabitch did to Vin."
"When Ah was there...Mr. Blackston was the most attentive host to Mr. Tanner," Ezra had to admit. "He was relaxing as comfortably as expected on a feather down bed...was given steady amounts of water...wiped down with cool rags...."
"You're telling me Blackston took care of Vin after he had the living hell beat outta him?" Chris asked incredulously. He frowned when Ezra nodded. "Why?"
"That elusive fact has been haunting my conscious since Ah left, and it still hasn't eased as of this moment."
"How did you get him back?"
"Actually Ah won Mr. Tanner."
"Ah won his release and the bank's stolen funds." A grin found it's way to Ezra's face at Chris' open mouth. "Ah told Mr. Blackston of my intentions to bring Mr. Tanner and the money back...and being a hero."
Chris found himself chuckling at the mental picture of Ezra doing just that. "Was it a hard sell?"
"Ah had no problems convincing Mr. Blackston to partake."
"What if he didn't agree?"
A full fledged smile broke out. "The matter of his consumption of a certain alcoholic beverage would have rendered Mr. Blackston and his henchmen senseless."
"You drugged some booze?" Chris' green eyes glistened with amusement. If Ezra didn't think of it all!
"A wire sent to the local sheriff should take care of their incarceration until you and Mr. Tanner are well enough to press charges."
"Where is Blackston...exactly?"
Ezra's face grew solemn. "Ah gave my word not to inform you or the others...."
Chris studied Ezra's serious countenance. "What else did you have to promise?"
"Mr. Tanner was not to receive any medical treatment until we reached Four Corners," Ezra said as he peered over his shoulder at Vin. "Mr. Blackston gave many fine reasons, but none of them rang true to me."
"What does your gut say his motive was?"
His emerald eyes unable to look at his friend, Ezra shrugged slightly. "Maybe he was anticipating a corpse returning to Four Corners...."
The answer burned in Chris' mind. It would be something Blackston would think of. He would get a dead friend back, and Ezra wouldn't obtain a hero's welcome. Surely the bastard wouldn't totally count on Vin dying on the way back. Was there more he had planned to do?
Seeing Larabee's fists clench, the gambler patted him on the arm. "Even if Mr. Blackston had other ideas...they are now foiled. Mr. Tanner will recover...and that despicable cretin will rot in jail."
"I'd rather see him dead," Chris muttered bitterly, easing himself back into a lying position. Watching Vin sleeping, the gunfighter soon closed his eyes. "But I'd rather see Vin alive...."
"That's what Ah assumed as well," Ezra said gently. He rose and sat back down in the chair near Vin's bed, the thought of closing his own eyes appealing. The last couple of days had afforded him little sleep, and the mental battle he waged with himself and Blackston were taking their tolls upon his tired body. It would only be a short nap, rejuvenating his sapped strength.
In a matter of minutes, Ezra was sound asleep.
+ + + + + + +
Those eyes haunted him through the fog...fearful and large. He reached a hand out, only to have Vin back away in terror.
"Why?" Vin asked, his voice devoid of any emotion. "Why did this happen? Why did you let it happen?"
Chris jerked out of his dream. Glancing around the dimly lit room, he ran a hand over his face, relieved it was only a nightmare. His rigid body protested as he slowly rose from the bed and walked over to his slumbering friend.
Footsteps.... They were coming nearer, the boards creaking softly under the pressure of the boots. Vin fought to open one of his eyes, straining to hear any signs of danger. Blackston had warned him of Larabee trying to infiltrate his town...to finish off the only witness to his crimes.
Where was Ezra? Tilting his head barely to the left, Vin found the gambler, his body slumped in a chair next to him. Had he been knocked out? Daring to scan the room, Tanner viewed the blonde man's approach. Larabee was only inches away! His muddled thoughts began to race as Vin tried to figure out some way to escape.
Seeing Vin wriggle in distress, Chris leaned in, placing a comforting hand on his young friend's arm. "It's all over," he said calmly.
Blackston's words echoed in Vin's mind. Everybody in the bank was murdered, killed by the man before him. Fevered visions flew in and out of Larabee's face, followed by hands balled into cruel fists, pounding him over and over.
"He'll stop at nothing to silence you for good." Blackston had told him before he was carried to the wagon. "Larabee will use his status as a sheriff to fool the others. You must not let your guard down. You must get him before he gets you! Do whatever it takes to make sure of that."
Vin spied the pearled handled colt .45 hanging in Larabee's holster. If he could only reach it....
"Settle down," Chris spoke quietly, not wishing to startle the tracker or wake the slumbering Ezra. He placed both his hands on Vin's shoulders, while he sat himself on the bed beside the younger man. "Struggling won't do you any good."
'Cocky bastard,' Vin thought to himself. He was helpless and his predator knew it, even taunting him with that fact. The gun holster came to rest near his right hand, giving Vin the only hope of rescue. Reaching into the deepest reservoir of his physical being, Tanner summoned enough strength to grasp the butt of the revolver and pull it out.
"Vin?" Chris asked in alarm. "Give me the gun...you can't even use it...the shape you're in." The words were slow and soothing. He had to be careful not to spook Vin, causing the gun to go off accidentally.
The weapon trembled in his hand as Vin began to drag it up towards his chest. Before Chris could take possession of it, Vin raised it at eye level, Larabee's head facing the open end of the barrel.
Chris locked onto the blue eyes that could read into his soul, only to stare into the frantic determination of the fever seized man. "Vin don't," he implored, hoping to break through whatever nightmare Vin was held captive in as he reached out cautiously for his gun. "You know who I am...."
"Damn right," Vin growled.
A single blast from a revolver shattered the still of the night.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan bolted up from the cot in the small room next to his recovery area. Did he just hear a gunshot?
Josiah stopped his praying when he heard the strange, but familiar sound echo in the night. A gun? Visions of an unknown danger had wakened him from a peaceful nap, causing him in turn to sit in one of the church pews asking for guidance. Was this what he was dreaming about?
Buck smiled happily as his female companion for the evening snuggled closer. A loud bang stirred both of them from their contentment. Buck flew from the bed. That shot came from Nathan's clinic!
JD looked around baffled into the inky blackness of his boarding room. Did he just hear a gun go off? Fumbling for his clothes that lay draped over a nearby chair, the youngest regulator hurried to where he thought the shot came from.
Concealed from sight, the tall figure grinned. He watched the doorway of the black healer's clinic, seeing the other members of the seven lawmen charge towards the building. The grin turned to a sinister smile...the gunshot could only mean one thing....
+ + + + + + +
The barrel of the colt .45 was still aimed at the ceiling when Vin's arm fell limply to the mattress. What had he almost done? The moisture building in his eyes obscured his vision as he tried to find the one face he prayed would still be there.
"Chris?" Vin managed to utter, his consciousness fading fast.
Ezra gently disarmed the sharpshooter while Chris retook his position beside Vin, grasping the forearm of his best friend and applying a light pressure.
"I'm right here, Vin," Chris answered. "It's okay now...."
Vin wasn't ready for absolution. "I-I almost...damned...damned near killed ya," Vin replied weakly, his eyes slamming shut to keep the tears of guilt and shame from spilling out. He could feel Chris' hand attached to his arm, the comfort and trust behind the gesture making his own actions seconds ago more unforgiving. What would possess him to try and kill his best friend? Confusing images blurred in and out of his mind, words and faces resounding unmercifully as Vin grappled to make sense of all around him.
"You didn't recognize me, Vin," Chris said patiently. "You pulled the gun up before it went off...."
"I-I knew...," he whispered. Vin collapsed deeper into the bed, his fever and injuries demanding rest. "Coulda'...killed...." The words trailed off as blackness overtook his senses, for a blissful moment making the sharpshooter forget his almost fatal deed.
"He's out," Nathan surmised as he hastened into the room. He glanced between Chris and Ezra while checking Vin's pulse. "Who the hell's gun went off?"
"Don't matter," Chris said tersely, re-holstering his revolver.
"Don't matter?" Nathan shot back. "Hell, Vin coulda been shot! That's what I was fearin'."
Chris gave Ezra a warning glare to stay silent, the gambler happy to comply. "How's Vin doing?"
"Unconscious, and the fever's still high." Nathan gave the gunfighter an angry look. "And yer carelessness with yer gun didn't help matters! Vin needs his rest. Do ya wear that damn gun ta bed too?"
Ezra watched in silence as Chris took the blame for Vin's near fatal shot, not once mentioning the tracker's delirium. Whatever had happened before the gun blast woke him, the southerner knew that Chris said or did something to upset Vin enough to grab the gun. Chris probably feared admitting it would get him barred from the clinic.
One by one the other regulators came inside the room, afraid Blackston had come back to wreak even more havoc. Nathan threw his hands up in aggravation, shooing the men out. Questions were the last thing he needed to deal with tonight.
"He's fine..., Chris' gun went off. Needs ta sleep!" Nathan muttered to the worried men as he pushed them to the door. Chris stopped the forward motion.
"I'm staying," the gunman stated simply, moving to the chair vacated by Ezra.
"Oh? So ya can shoot some more an' wake everyone up again?"
Without a word, Chris removed his gun belt, placing it on the night stand. "All of you go back to sleep."
Nathan frowned in displeasure, but conceded. "If I hear anymore noise comin' from here...."
"You won't," Chris reassured him. The men began to leave, one retreating back catching the gunfighter's attention. "Ezra," he called out, "come back inside for a minute."
"Of course, Mr. Larabee."
Once the others were gone and the door closed, Chris turned to the con man. "Did Blackston seem to have Vin's trust?"
"Mr. Blackston made some glib comment to that effect, but he also mentioned Mr. Tanner's condition would make him trust Satan himself, if it alleviated his torment." Ezra paused, reading the concern growing on Larabee's face. "Why do you ask?"
"Vin almost shot me."
"But it's the fever," Ezra reminded Chris. "He recognized you in time, and directed the bullet elsewhere. He probably confused you with Mr. Blackston."
"You said you wired the sheriff?" Receiving Ezra's affirmative nod, Chris glanced at Vin's sleeping face. "Wire him back and make sure he caught Blackston and his men."
"Ah will do as you asked." Before he closed the door, Ezra looked back at the black attired man, his unease growing. Surely Chris knew Vin would never shoot at him on purpose....
Hearing the door shut, Chris ran a hand through his hair, remembering his friend's whispered words. Vin knew who he was shooting at...at least the Vin Tanner who left Blackston's tender mercies.
+ + + + + + +
The more he watched, the more he became furious. Why weren't they carrying out Larabee's body? That tracker must have missed! His teeth ground together in agitation. All his planning....
Blackston slunk back into the shadows, waiting for the right moment to strike. He was going to make sure Larabee was taken care of once and for all...but not before punishing his former hostage for failing.
He observed with interest a figure leaving the clinic. The inky blackness of the night obscured the man's face from his view. Blackston smiled. That only left the black doctor, Larabee and his little friend.
He could handle those odds.
Seth Cumberland squinted as he stumbled to the door of his home. A noise that sounded like a gunshot had woke him earlier, so he wasn't surprised to see Ezra Standish standing outside his doorstep. He was used to being roused all hours of the night by these make-shift sheriffs.
"Mr. Standish," Seth greeted with a yawn. "Is Barth asleep on the job again?" His young assistant was known for sleeping on the night shift. The telegraph operator kept someone at the office at all hours in case an urgent message came in or one needed to go out.
"He didn't answer the door when Ah knocked," Ezra explained. "Of course the door would be locked due to safety precautions."
"Yep," Seth acknowledged. "Probably sleepin'. I'll go'n get my keys, and meet ya at the office."
"Sorry to have disturbed you, Mr. Cumberland, but it is the of the upmost urgency Ah reach Eagle Bend with a telegraph."
The older man nodded, and closed the door. Ezra then hurried to the telegraph office, the hairs on back of his head standing on edge. Something was amiss....
+ + + + + + +
Feeling Vin's brow, Chris breathed a sigh of relief. The fever had abated a little. He felt Vin stir under his hand, tensing as he awaited the greeting he could receive. Two blue eyes slit open, a look of puzzlement shadowing Vin's handsome face.
"Right here, Pard," Chris smiled, reaching over to get Vin some water. "How you feeling?"
"Hot," Vin muttered, grateful for the cool liquid. His eyes slowly scrutinized the room. "At Nathan's?"
The tension he felt seconds ago left as the gunman nodded. Vin was back to himself. "Remember anything?"
Vin crinkled up his nose as he searched his fuzzy memory. The sapphire orbs widened when one crystalized. "The bank...you were hurt...."
Chris couldn't hold back the sarcastic snicker. "Me hurt? Don't you remember getting pummeled?"
A soft moan escaped his lips. "Hell...don't...don't need ta remember that," Vin grimaced, "can feel it good 'nuff."
Grinning, Chris grabbed the pitcher to fill the glass again. "At least you're more lucid," he said while giving the water to Vin. "Don't worry about remembering the rest."
The tracker gave his best friend a worried glance. "Blackston?"
"In jail," Chris answered. "Guess Ezra pulled one over on him and his men."
Sinking his head back into the pillows, Vin relaxed. He did recall Ezra being at the small cabin. "Ez got me out?"
"Won you in a poker game."
Vin smiled sleepily as his head rolled to the side nearest Chris. "Is he 'round? Wanna thank him for riskin' his neck like that."
"He'll be back. Went to the telegraph office to find out more about Blackston's capture." The doorknob began to turn, drawing the men's attention to it. "That's probably him there," Chris pointed.
"Oh...it is me, Larabee," Blackston sneered as he cleared the door.
+ + + + + + +
"Open up, Barth," Cumberland called out as he messed with the keys. He muttered under his breath when he received no response. How was a man supposed to get a good nights sleep if he was being drug out at all hours? Finally finding the right key, the elderly man opened the door, his eyes searching expectantly for his slumbering assistant.
Ezra too examined the softly lit room, wondering where the young man was. To be asleep was one thing, to be absolutely gone was another. His anxiety began to rise a notch.
Irritated, Seth probed around the telegraph machine for his glasses, muttering about unreliable help. "Ya said Eagle Bend?"
"Yes, Ah would like confirmation of some miscreants' incarceration."
"If the bad guys are in jail," Ezra explained. Exploring the room, the gambler grew uneasy. "Is it normal behavior for young Bart to be absent from his duties?"
"No," Seth replied, scratching his head. "Wouldn't be the first time he fell asleep, but he was always here." Lighting the oil lamp, he sat down. "Maybe had an emergency at home.... What ya want ta send?"
"Wire the sheriff in Eagle Bend and ask if Blackston and his men are in his custody. Ah must receive a response as soon as humanly possible."
Cumberland nodded and began to tap out the message. He frowned and turned to Ezra. "Ain't no response at all. I'll try again." After several minutes, he shrugged. "Lines must be down, but there ain't been no bad storms or anything. Kinda strange...."
"Yes, it is," Ezra mused. "Ah do appreciate your attempts at contact. Ah'm afraid Ah will be forced to try later." Turning to leave, the southerner heard a faint groan coming from behind a nearby closet door. A twist of the handle produced the crumbling form of the telegraph assistant, Bart.
Instantly Ezra helped the dazed young man to his feet. "Are you hurt?"
Bart rubbed the back of his head, his disorientation evident. "Some man wanted to send a telegram, and before I could, I felt something hit me...I don't remember anything else."
"What did this man look like...?" Ezra was almost afraid to ask, the alarm shooting through him like an arrow.
"Real tall and thin...."
The gambler's face turned white as he ran from the office. Cole Blackston!
+ + + + + + +
Chris' hand flew to his right side, his fingers reaching for his gun. He only grasped fabric as he recalled to his horror that he had removed his gun holster. Swiveling behind him, the gunfighter attempted to retrieve his weapon until the click of another stopped him in his tracks.
"Move one more inch and I will place a bullet in Vin's kneecap," Blackston said, pointing his revolver at his former prisoner. "Hasn't the boy suffered enough?" Strolling over to the other side of Vin's bed, he grasped the sharpshooter's wool undershirt, dragging him closer. The card sharp then pointed his gun in Chris' direction. "Why don't you go have a seat in that chair across the room."
"Why don't you go to Hell...," Chris growled in response, not budging.
"Still haven't learned your lesson have you?" Blackston shrugged. His face became hard as he glanced over at Vin, causing Chris to throw up his hand in a show of compliance.
Chris scowled, not wanting to give Blackston another excuse to hurt Vin. Slowly he sat down in the chair, his eyes telling his friend to stay quiet and still.
Blackston eased his grip on Vin's undershirt, instead snagging the young man's chin and forcing his head up. "Where's the darkie?"
Vin shook his head. He didn't know much of anything, his mind still hazy. The pressure on his chin and jaw increased, as he felt the barrel of the gun against his left temple.
"He doesn't know," Chris ground out between his teeth. "Nathan's asleep in the next room. Let him go."
With a smile, the tall man did just that, his hand moving to Vin's forehead. "My, my...you're temperature has dropped considerably since the last time we spoke." The gun traced it's way down the side of Vin's face. "You remember our little talks don't you, Vin? Is that why I heard a gunshot before?" Blackston grinned broadly at Vin's perplexed look.
"Stop it!" Chris protested, rising slightly from his chair. Blackston's gun shoved into Vin's jaw canceled the gunman's forward motion.
"You were supposed to shoot Larabee...," Blackston continued, his victim's drowsy eyes growing large. "Is that why Larabee's gun's over on the night stand? So you can't get another chance to shoot at him?"
"Leave him alone, Blackston," Chris snarled. "My gun went off...and I put it over there to please Nathan."
"There's no need to protect him," Blackston said smoothly. "He'll remember soon enough...won't you, Vin?" With his free hand he reached under his coat and pulled out some strands of rope he had stolen from the livery, throwing them at Chris' feet. "I'd like for you to tie up your little friend. I would, but with this gun in my hands...."
Glowering at his enemy, Chris stayed seated. "I'm the one you want, Blackston...leave him out of it. He couldn't stop you if he tried."
The con artist viewed the small pieces of plaster on the floor, and looked up at the ceiling. "He managed to steal your gun, and shoot it, even though it was not the target of my choosing. Tie him up."
"I told you my gun went off," Chris persisted, the ropes still lying on the ground.
"You don't strike me as the careless type. Did you have to struggle much to push the gun up in the air at the last moment?"
Green eyes flashing murderously, Chris remained stationary.
Sighing, Blackston patted Vin on the head. "If I'm forced to secure your friend, I will render you useless to stop me, Larabee...."
"I give ya my word not ta try anythin'," Vin managed to say.
"You couldn't handle a simple request," Blackston retorted.
"What is all the damn racket?" Nathan mumbled sleepily as he came in the side door that was adjoined to his little room. He stopped his tirade when he saw the gun Blackston had pressed to Vin's head.
"Maybe our good doctor would assist," Blackston suggested with a wicked grin.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra raced to the clinic, stopping short of bursting through the door. He had to think of some plan before facing Blackston. There was no doubt the tall killer would descend upon Nathan's recovery room to get revenge.
Voices coming from behind the door caused Ezra's heart to sink. He was too late...Blackston was already in inside. Warring thoughts battled for finality. Should he get Buck, JD, and Josiah? If he did, would his friends be alive when he got back? Blackston was a powder keg ready to explode...he couldn't afford to leave.
He closed his eyes, trying to think of any possible plan to foil Blackston once and for all. There was no way he could sneak up on the con artist, not without a stand-off or something more disastrous. Blackston held all the cards this time.
His eyes narrowing, Ezra pulled the brim of his hat lower in determination. There was more than one way to bluff a winning hand.
+ + + + + + +
"Surely you can tighten the ropes more than that," Blackston said mockingly to Nathan. "I want to make sure he's secured for the trip."
"He's been in surgery...could bust him open again," Nathan protested.
"I'll take the upmost care of him," Blackston replied.
"You ain't going nowhere with him!" Chris threatened.
"Since I'm a fugitive, I need a hostage for safe passage," Blackston smiled smugly. "Just like at the bank."
"Take me," Chris offered, watching Vin struggling with consciousness. "He'll slow you down."
"And you'll be a constant thorn in my side," Blackston returned. "Besides, Vin is feeling much better. Does he have a suitable pair of pants to travel in? He can't go out in only his long johns can he?"
"You sonovabitch!" The gunman spat out, his fists doubling, wishing he could pound the man in front of him senseless.
"Don't...Chris..," Vin said almost inaudibly, "won't help...."
"He's right, Larabee." Blackston smirked and lifted the tracker up off the pillows.
"If ya don't want Chris, take me," Nathan suggested. "I give ya my promise not ta cause trouble."
Blackston shook his head vehemently. "I think Vin here will make the best choice. Besides, we became fast friends back at my cabin...."
Vin feebly twisted away from the tall man's fatherly stroke against the side of his head, the bile building in his throat. If only his hands had been tied in front instead of behind, he could make a grab for the gun. Grab the gun? A sickening feeling coursed through Vin's body...a hazy dream becoming reality. He had tried to kill Chris!
+ + + + + + +
Ezra listened intently outside the door, doing his best to imagine the room, and exactly where the voices were coming from inside. He surmised Chris was nearest to the door, Nathan and Blackston near Vin's bed.
It was time to act.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan and Chris watched helplessly as Blackston forced Vin up to a sitting position, the sharpshooter barely able to move due to the pain. Chris began to leave his chair when the door burst open, Ezra storming inside and staring intensely at him as if no one else was in the room.
"Ah will not be treated in such a manner!" Ezra snapped at Larabee. "Ah risked my life to save your unfortunate friend...and Ah am then denied the thousand you promised to reward me with! Ah warn you....Ah am not one to be trifled with!"
Chris sat there a moment, too stunned to speak. What the hell was Ezra talking about? A cynical laugh brought the gunman back to the situation.
"You did all that for money?" Blackston commented with a grin. "Glad to see you haven't truly changed your ways."
Ezra feigned shock. "You? Ah thought...."
The grin disappeared. "Thought you had tricked me? Was the drugged whiskey for knocking us out to provide easy capture?"
Ezra shrugged. "Actually for insurance, in case Ah couldn't convince you to part with your guest. Of course informing the law would be the next logical step while you were incapacitated."
"You broke your word, Standish. Said you wouldn't tell anyone where we were."
"No, Ah promised not to inform Larabee and his cohorts. Which Ah did not." Ezra studied Blackston. The card sharp did look exhausted, but the adrenaline rush from escaping and the need for revenge was keeping him standing. He hadn't drank enough of the sedated alcohol to render him unconscious...yet...it could have slowed down his reflexes.
"Take off your gun belt, Standish," Blackston ordered.
"Why would Ah do something as asinine as that?"
"Cause if you don't, I'll blow your little prize's head off."
"Thanks to Mr. Larabee, Ah now don't give a tinker's damn what befalls that unkempt ruffian."
"What the hell?" Chris roared behind Ezra, getting into the game. "You pompous sonovabitch! Take the damn gun off! You wonder why you don't get the money? Damn double crossing bastard!"
The gambler whirled around to face his accuser, giving a wink only Chris could see. "You will have to remove it from me personally," Ezra challenged. "Hit me, take gun," he mouthed to the gunfighter.
The punch missing Ezra's face by mere inches, the southern gentleman fell to the floor, Chris quickly disarming him.
"I ain't letting you endanger Vin's life," Chris growled, turning to face Blackston, but keeping his body in front of Ezra.
"Very good, Larabee," Blackston praised as he grabbed the gun thrown towards him.
"Ah for one am not willing to die!" Ezra cried out, throwing himself into Larabee, sending both men crashing to the ground. They pretended to wrestle viciously for Blackston's benefit, the tall killer viewing the fight with amusement.
Blackston lowered his gun, waiting to see who would win this battle. He shoved Vin to the side, the tracker landing sideways on the bed. Motioning for Nathan to back away, the cruel card sharp felt he had the situation in his control, even toying with the idea of shooting the loser of the fight. If the other peacekeepers showed up, he had his hostage to ensure safe passage, and a dead body to show his seriousness. His money was on Larabee to win.
Watching Blackston's relaxed stance through flailing arms and legs, Ezra whispered his readiness to Chris, the gunman allowing the gambler to roll over him, the hidden derringer snapping to attention from under Ezra's jacket sleeve.
One shot through the middle of Blackston's heart stopped the cold blooded killer, his lean body crumpling to the floor like a boneless mound of flesh.
"Nice shot, Pard," Vin half smiled as Ezra and Chris drew near.
"Dreadful..., Ah was aiming for his face, but Mr. Larabee blocked my view," Ezra tipped his hat and grinned, the gold tooth flashing triumphantly while he undid the rope tied across Vin's wrists.
"You all right?" Chris asked Vin, the worry thick in his voice.
Two pained eyes looked up at his best friend, unsure how to apologize for what he had almost done. How could he have fallen for Blackston's lies? Vin struggled to speak, but pain and fatigue were nullifying his strength.
'I nearly killed ya...,' he spoke through silent communication.
Chris shook his head gently, taking hold of Vin's forearm. 'Don't you even go there,' the gunman said directly from his green eyes. He felt Vin weakly return the grasp. The details would be sorted out later, but all that mattered now was Vin's recovery.
"You couldn't shoot me, Vin," Chris said quietly. "And you proved it by aiming the gun at the ceiling. If I ever hear or even suspect you're blaming yourself....I'm gonna kick your ass so hard...."
"Instead of threatenin' a sick man, how's about helpin' me carry out this dead one?" Nathan huffed, unable to hide a tiny smile peaking at this mouth.
Glowering at the man who had caused so much misery, Chris slowly came over to Nathan, lifting Blackston's legs and dragging the body unceremoniously across the floor. He stopped short of throwing the body out into the street, instead waiting for the black healer to help him carry his former nemesis to the undertaker's. Joseph Wellmen could now rest in peace, it was over.
Fighting the sleep that demanded to be obeyed, Vin looked up at Ezra. There was so much he wanted to say, but he could only manage a few words, hoping they could convey properly all he felt. A'Preciate what ya done, Ezra...got more gold in ya...," he smiled softly, "than yer gold tooth."
A small chuckle came from Ezra's mouth. "You would certainly be viewing a very wealthy man if that were the case."
"Reckon I am at that," Vin replied with a yawn, his eyes creeping shut. "Know I'm feelin'...mighty rich...bein' 'round ya."
He fussed with the blankets, to hide his emotions while pulling them up around Vin's neck . But Ezra couldn't help smiling as he watched Vin fall into a deep sleep. Yes he was a rich man...to have men such as this to call his friend.
+ + + + + + +
Things were definitely back to normal in Four Corners days after Blackston's death. Vin was healing from his injuries and sitting outside the jail with Chris as they did every morning. Buck and JD were teasing each other while Josiah kept his vigil for lost souls at the church, and Nathan dealt with some new patients at the clinic. Ezra too had returned to the saloon, relishing in games of chance, this time for money, not for his friends' lives.
Chris and Vin sat up straighter in their chairs, the sound of crashing bottles drawing their attention. They looked at each other.
"Dammit, it's too early in the morning," Chris groused, reluctantly placing his coffee mug down.
Vin rose stiffly and winked. "Want me ta handle it ol' timer? Me bein' hurt and all...."
Grunting, Chris stood up, sullenly walking over to the drinkery. Pushing open the swinging doors, he found Ezra holding off two disgruntled cowhands, fresh from a cattle drive.
"I says ya cheated, Mister," the biggest man bellowed, swinging a broken whiskey bottle in front of him.
"Ya got proof?" Vin asked, his mare's leg drawn and ready.
The man eyed the weapon, knowing it could blast a hole clean through him. "This here fancy city slicker cleaned me and Clem out!" he offered in defense.
"You got proof?" Chris reiterated.
"No," the man had to relent.
"Then you and Clem leave and stop messing up the bar," Chris said in a low tone. "And we better not catch you around this city slicker...might take it the wrong way."
The two men wordlessly left the saloon, not once looking back.
"Dammit , Ezra," Chris mumbled his previous complaint, "it's too early in the morning to be dealing with this."
"Then why pray tell, do you insist on being up at this hour?" Ezra asked innocently.
"So he can sit on his lazy hind quarters and drink coffee," Vin jabbed playfully. "Ain't 'possed ta be workin' or nothin'."
"It's too damn early in the morning for your mouth too," Chris grumbled toward Vin.
"Then why pray tell," Vin mocked Ezra's comment, "do ya insist on me bein' up at this hour?"
"Shut the hell up and get back to the jail before I kick your scrawny hide there myself!" Chris watched Vin's departing form before giving Ezra one of his lesser glares. "Ain't it past your bedtime?"
"In the thrill of victory, one forgets all aspects of time," Ezra said as he shuffled his deck of cards. "Ah shall seek the comfort of my bed shortly." He paused a tugged at his hat's brim. "Much appreciation on your assistance."
"Not as much as I appreciated yours." Chris gave a short nod and smile before exiting the building, stunning the gambler for a moment. The great Chris Larabee had expressed gratitude!
His heart soaring, the southern gentleman raked in his winnings. For the first time in his life, could trust in something other than money.
He truly was a rich man.
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