At dawn the next morning the five regulators packed up their belongings and went over the plan one last time. Vin would stay on the hill above the camp where Chris had placed him to start with. The plan did involve one stick of dynamite, which the other four were alarmed to learn the gambler carried with him at all times. Chris had promised the southerner a one-on-one discussion about the contents of ones saddlebags.
At this time, Ezra was counting heavily on Vins shooting abilities. The sharpshooter would shoot the stick of dynamite, resulting in another distraction. During this time,Ezra would get to the children and start them up the hill to the side of the tracker. While the sharpshooter was shooting randomly into the group,the three regulators would ride up the backside of the camp and, by the time the twelve men in the group figured out what was happening,the five regulators would have them hemmed in with no options, but to surrender. If one of them was fool enough to try and shoot their way out,then so be it.
The five men rode to the bottom of the hill and tied up their mounts. Climbing to the top of the hill, they could look down on the camp, which was a good three to four hundred yards away. With the aid of Vins spyglass, they were able to see everything was the same as it had been the night before.
"Think you can hit that dynamite, Vin?" the leader asked quietly.
Chris wasnt really questioning his friends abilities, but it was a far off piece to try and hit something as invisible as that thin stick. Especially considering that thin piece of explosive would be rotating up in the air at the time it was to be hit.
"No problem, Cowboy," Vin answered cockily. Chris slanted his eyes over to his friends and shook his head at the sight of the lopsided grin. Between Ezra and Vin, they were going to make him an old man rather quickly.
Ezra slipped back down the hill and pulled his black coat out of his saddlebag. He had changed his shirt earlier. After trying repeatedly to smooth out the wrinkles, he was wishing he had paid more heed to his packing, but at that moment he had other things on his mind.
He then reached into his other saddlebag and pulled out the two Sharps. Tucking them into the back of his pants waist, he moved to the opposite side of Chaucer. The other men, being in a hurry and their minds elsewhere, had not noticed the change in the rifles. He ran a hand appreciatively over the stock. It was a fine piece of weaponry. Nodding to himself, he walked over to where the men now stood, since coming back down from the lookout point.
Holding out his rifle to Vin, he simply stated, "I believe, Mr. Tanner, you will find this acceptable in achieving your part of the plan."
Vin took the rifle handed to him and let out a low whistle he turned the rifle with reverence over in his hand. As he watched the gambler walk towards his mount, the tracker admired the handcrafted work. The silver plat screwed onto the shoulder butt identifying its make, the two scopes mounted at the precise place giving the shooter optimum sighting of object, the easy slide of the action mechanism.
Looking up, he shot the blond a questioning look, Where do you suppose he got this?
Josiah, along with Buck, had watched the transaction and the admiration quietly. Hoping that Ezra hadnt gone and done something rash and unexpected that he was known to do. The four remaining men watched the gambler mount up.
Chris couldnt stop himself from calling out, "Be careful." The gambler turned and gave his customary two finger salute before reining Chaucer about and heading for the camp and the children.
Picking up on the earlier unasked question and the sizzling change in the atmosphere the ex-preacher asked, "Whats wrong brother, Vin,"
"Nothin wrong," Vin replied evenly, but the timbre of his voice suggested otherwise.
"Vin," Buck asked sternly. He didnt need this I-know-something-you-dont game right now. His nerves were about as frazzled as he could stand them to be and this plan of Ezras hadnt helped calm them down none much.
"Its a Remington, One of One Thousand," Vin answered. This time awe could be clearly heard in his voice.
Seeing the others look at him waiting for an explanation he continued. "There was only one hundred and thirty-six of these made. The cheapest they sold for was for one hundred dollars, but this one has extras so it really was expensive.
A couple of low whistles were emitted. Chris cleared his throat and interceded before any more questions could be asked, "Probably won it in a card game."
The longhaired tracker shrugged with an odd look on his face, "Sure hope so," before turning and heading back up the hill.
Without turning around he flatly said, "Id hate to ponder why a man like him would need a weapon like this."
At that statement the others stilled. Their minds taking quick trips down a path none of them wanted to travel. Chris mind quickly going over all the gunfights he had catalogued away. Quick images of all the times that the gambler had used weapons, and used them effectively. Ezras abilities with his guns had always amazed the gunslinger, now he wondered how the man became so adept at using them.
The dawning of the bright sun shone into the one-room clinic. Nathan, who had dozed off only minutes earlier, was awakened by a low moan. Raising his head off the bed where three-year-old Sammy still lay unconscious, he twisted in his chair to check on the other patient. To his surprise and immense relief, half-lidded hazel eyes met his gaze. The healer quickly made his way to the other bed. He noted JD had, also, fallen asleep. The young sheriff had recruited two bachelors from town that he knew well to take turns watching over the town last night so he could come help Nathan.
Nathan smiled down at the woman as he poured a cup of cold water. Using one hand to raise her head, the young woman tried to stifle a painful moan, but couldnt. The sound had JD upright and helping Nathan support Oleta as he helped her hold the cup to drink. Nathan finally pulled the cup back, not wanting to put too much in the empty stomach too fast.
Oleta nodded as the two men lowered her head back down. "Thank you," she managed to whisper. Nathan couldnt really hear the words as much as he read the message on her lips.
"Youre welcome," the healer replied.
He knew it would only be a short time before the woman with the long chestnut hair fell back to sleep. He noticed JD had picked the womans hand up and was lightly stroking the back of it. Nathan wondered at the black-haired mans protective act. It was a trait of Bucks that was apparently rubbing off. Buck may be the resident ladies man, but he was also quite protective of them. Buck had a way with women just like their gambler had a way with kids, and apparently JD was picking up the habit.
The healer watched as the womans breathing evened out signifying she was indeed asleep. Nathan looked down at his young friend and smiled. "Thanks for coming last night. I appreciate the extra help."
JD blushed at the compliment, and then grew even redder at the thought that he blushed in the first place. He didnt know why, but when people complimented him on doing something anybody else would have done if in his place he just naturally blushed from embarrassment.
"Aw shucks, Nathan. It wasnt any big deal," JD said as he rose from the chair. "I knew you were going to need help and everyone else was needed at home so I just got R.N. and Jack to patrol the town last night."
Nathan merely nodded; boy couldnt take a compliment any better than Ezra. "Well, just the same I appreciate it," he said, pausing for a minute while he readjusted the covers over the fragile chaperone.
"If you need to get going, I can manage for awhile, alone. Mrs. Kingston wont be waking up for a good long while again and the boy " Nathan stopped there was no need to go on.
Everyone, but especially Nathan was awed by the fact that this was the third day and the little tyke was still holding on. The healer would have bet everything he had owned that the boy wouldnt have made it until dark that first night and certainly not lived to the next morning. Nathan could only hope that the Sammy continued to stay alive and heal. The healer shivered as he remembered the look on Ezras face when the gambler handed him the little boy. It would be a look he would never forget.
Picking up his hat, JD said, "Well, I best be going then. Ill stop by later and check on ya." The young sheriff words shook Nathan out of his reverie.
"By all means. And thanks again, JD," Nathan said with a smile as he walked the other one to the door.
Nathan walked back to the center of his clinic rubbing a hand over his face. He thought of his comrades and dearly prayed they would return unscathed, both physically and emotionally. He didnt believe he could adequately care for another critically wounded patient. He could only hope they were strong as a team as JD and Josiah believed them to be. Shaking his head to throw off the depressing thoughts, he went over to his worktable. When Inez came to bring him breakfast he would have her help him change the chaperones dressing. He would also, send a message to the Tulleges that it would be alright to bring Sammys sister, Layton, by later this morning.
+ + + + + +
Mrs. Potter was busy like she always was first thing in the mornings. Her children had already had done their chores, been fed and sent outside to play. The storekeeper looked over at the young lady she was keeping; seventeen, sweet and had been looking for adventure. The woman shook her head at the thought the poor dear got more than she bargained for.
She remembered her own experience at seeing her husband being gunned down by some rich mans nephew, just because he thought he could get away with it. Well, the seven regulators that protected this town had taught him differently. But, she still suffered nightmares from the ordeal. She, too, could have easily gone into a shell and hid, but the needs of her children kept her going.
Thats what this girl needed, she decided, a reason to come to herself and start living again. All she had to do now was find that something, or someone, that would help young Melissa.
Nettie Wells couldnt have been happier right at this moment if the good Lord himself came and sat her table. After two days of complete silence, little Emily Fleming was sitting down at the table eating her breakfast by herself, enjoying the commotion Casey and Swann were making. It was obvious the little girl was coming back to them.
The old woman had done nothing, but rock the shut-off child the first day she had bought her home. Yesterday, Nettie had done some baking and household chores, all the time singing, humming or talking to the child. Asking questions about her life in the big city, about her brother, anything she could think about. Last night, well after she had tucked the child under the covers with her she had been awakened by the smallest of sounds. Living where she had for the numerous years, she knew every sound there was, so the new sound had her awake instantly.
Little Emily, who had been through so much, was softly crying. Nettie scooped the child closer to her and cradled Emily in her arms. She never would be able to imagine what it would be like for those children to be caught in a raid, and a raid was exactly how she thought of the ordeal. At least now, when those men who protected their town returned with those two children, the brother would have his sister back.
Nettie thought of the five men trailing the kidnappers. One could not have picked more different men if they had tried. Yet, internally they were alike in some degree. As far as she and the townspeople knew they were all alone in the world. She corrected herself; Mr. Standish did have a mother. Nettie shuddered, it was hard to believe that anyone could have had a mother like that woman and come through it as well as Mr. Standish.
The ranch woman smiled as she finished eating breakfast. The first time she had been in the mans presence he had informed them he didnt do manual labor and had called her a wizened old crone. He had reluctantly given Vin the necessary money to pay for her ranch. She had been around people long enough that she knew a lie when she saw. The man was nothing like he tried to portray himself to be. He had proven that theory over and over again. She had seen the look in his eyes when he had handed over the little girl and the devil himself couldnt have look any more sinister. She hoped for the sake of the town and the gambler the men riding with him were able to help him.
The four remaining men climbed back up the steep incline. They watched as the black dressed gambler rode towards the other camp. After awhile only Vin, with the use of his spyglass, could see their friend. Chris couldnt help but feel oddly connected to the rider. He was watching himself in the past. Riding into danger, hell-bent to ease some of the pain that had settled into his heart. He had to wonder when the time had occurred when he no longer felt the same desire that was driving the young horsemen. When had he come back to the living enough so that he was now responsible for keeping another man alive and from going over the edge? Much like Buck had felt responsible for keeping him alive for those three years after his wife and child had been murdered. The leader closed his eyes and shook the thoughts from his head; now was not the time to get philosophical.
Josiah watched the man he thought of as a younger brother ride away. He could only pray that once the man was in camp and saw the two children he could stay focused and not change the plans by doing something completely reckless. The ex- preacher chastised himself; no matter what the man did, he would see to the safety of the children first. After that it was it was up for grabs.
The black-clad leader turned towards the preacher and asked, "Well?
Josiah needed no explanation of what the gunslinger was asking him. Josiah shrugged and stated, "He seemed to back in balance and in control."
Chris nodded once, accepting the simple statement. All they could do was follow through with the plan and hope everything came out all right in the end.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra looked straight ahead of him, never looking back to see if he was being watched by the other four, he knew without a doubt they were up there watching his back. More like making sure I dont do something dumb, like shoot up the whole camp upon arrival, he thought to himself.
He might have fooled the others last night with his sudden clarity and willingness to be part of the group again. In truth he had been planning this little invasion since they left town. Going in alone gave him the chance to redeem the life taken from that little brown- haired boy, who had surely died by now. Yes, he told himself, at first he had expected Nathan to perform some kind of miracle to save Samuel. But, a few days in the saddle and he had to be realistic with himself, no matter how good Nathan was, he had seen the amount of blood loss for himself, up close and personal, and knew the tiny thing couldnt have survived.
So, this plot had simply been a subterfuge. He would go along with the plan as far as getting the children to safety, then nothing or anyone would stand in his way of exacting revenge for their deeds. Mr. Larabee would probably blow up, Ezra quietly smiled at the thought. The man had no right telling others how to live their lives when he himself had put them all in danger out at that Ella Gaines place. Ezra shook his head, Talk about the spider inviting the fly into her web. That little farce had almost gotten them all killed. No, the man had no room to preach.
Ezra mind leapt from the blond leader to the ex-preacher at that thought. The big man would have no right to condemn his actions. The older man said he had trouble himself turning the other cheek. It was why he left preaching. So, what was the big man who called him brother going to say? Hes ashamed of my actions as though that would mortally wound me. Mother has been saying that for years. The man on the horse mentally shook his head to clear this line of thinking. Did he really care what the others thought? Did it matter to him that Nathan had him pegged from the start? Nothing but a cheat and a liar who looked out for his own self. Well, who was looking out for those children, huh? Who?
The look of JDs face flashed before him when the kid learned of his conduct. Ezra once again shook his head. When did it start to matter what others thought of him? It didnt matter, he told himself. Those children deserved to have someone on their side. Sammy deserved justice. Then, like a light at the end of a dark hallway came on and Chris words came back to him, "Were bringing them back to stand trial." Was that what Chris was saying, they would get justice for those attacked at the wagon site.
Ezra sat up straighter in the saddle, shaking the thoughts tumbling around in his head as the camp came into view. These men, whether they knew it or not, were going to determine their own destiny. He saw the guard turn his head back towards the camp and announce his arrival. This simple gesture assured Ezra that these men were on their toes for trouble. Smiling to himself, the gambler melded into his role.
"Hello the camp," he called cheerfully.
He was quickly met by three gentlemen bearing rifles, all pointed at him. He could almost hear the four men watching from afar on the hillside take a deep breath and unholster their weapons. Ezra sighed inwardly, As if that simple action would do him any good from here.
"What can I do for ya?" the middle cowboy asked, mildly, but Ezra could detect the hidden anxiety.
"Im merely a traveler on his way to the next town, Ridge City," Ezra said pleasantly. Still smiling he continued, "I was informed in the last town I was in that I would find adequate gaming there."
The gambler easily spotted the main guard giving him the once over and recognized him for what he was, a gambler. A moment later the guard, being satisfied Ezra wasnt trouble, nodded his acceptance and motioned with his head to the campfire. "Help yourself," he said.
Ezra smiled and returned the nod before slowly guiding Chaucer over to where the other horses were tied. Dismounting, he quietly conversed with his beloved steed for a moment. Roger walked up to the new visitor and watched as the gambler rubbed his horse down. He didnt notice when Ezra pocketed the stick of dynamite from his saddlebag, at the same time he came up with an apple for the steady horse. Cutting it in half, Ezra fed Chaucer his share. Roger studied the scene with curiosity and realized just how much the horse meant to the man.
After striking up an easy conversation with the man, Ezra let Roger guide him over to the fire. Squatting down on his heels, he graciously accepted the cup of coffee offered to him. All the while Ezra was inconspicuously searching for his two small quarries.
The green-eyes spotted the two small figures off to the side. It was obvious to him that the men of the camp had secreted them out of sight upon the noise of his arrival. Now that he had been invited into the camp and was no longer seen as a threat, the two were making their way back to the edge of camp. Ezra swept his gaze over them quickly, searching for any signs of injuries and not finding any. He let out a slow breath he didnt realize he had been holding in. The little boy had moved off to the side and was now currently peppering the man he was standing by with many questions. The look of irritation the man was presently trying to conceal made the gambler laugh inside. Children had a way of testing the most patient mans resolve.
Ezra glanced back to the eight-year-old girl and pondered her well-being. Her physical appearance aside, he wondered how this event had emotionally affected her. She was sitting cross-legged off to herself, still partially hidden by the foliage. The whole time he observed the children, Ezra had managed to keep up appearance before the men surrounding him and converse pleasantly with them. All the years of living with different relatives, all expecting different things from him, had taught the man to slip from one personality to another without thought.
Chris, Buck and Josiah breathed a sigh of relief when they received the nod from Vin that Ezra has made his way into the camp. The leader had worried about this plan ever since Ezra had laid it out the night before. Though, he could find flaws in it, there were less in this one than the others that had been discussed.
The blond reflected on the past few days, they had been filled with an avalanche of feelings and memories. How to reconcile a fathers need and desire for his child with putting the needs of the child, or in this case other children, first. He had tried to reconcile his own loss of his child for years now and was no closer to finding closure than in the beginning, but he could admit it was getting a little easier every day to go on with his life. The vicious cycle of thoughts and emotions would have easily overwhelmed him and sent him right into the bottle a few years ago. Now, he could deal with them sober. He let out the barest of grins at that thought. It was because of Buck, he rightly admitted. Buck had pushed his own grief to the side and helped him deal with his. The blond acknowledged to himself it was time he did the something for the long-time friend to show his appreciation.
As they mounted up, ready to put the next phase of the plan into action, the leader looked across his saddled steed and caught Bucks eye. Seeing a creased frown that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in the friendly face, Chris gave a slight grin and a nod, signaling he was up to the job. Buck returned the grin with a full-blown smile. The worry he had kept bottled up vanishing in a flash. Not for the first time did Chris wondered about this strong mans devotion to their friendship. That was another emotion that stormed the leaders senses; how had he become so blessed to have this man stay at his side? The three men mounted up and took off. Ezra had told them many times over the past couple of years how important appearances were, never was it so true than at this particular moment.
The three men circumvented the camp as planned. Riding close enough to gather attention and far enough away to not pose a serious threat to the camp. Ezra stood with the other men at the soft announcement of riders.
Howard Fleming cast a suspicious look at the newcomer. The last thing he needed right was more trouble. "Friends of yours?" he asked, with a raised brow.
Ezra remained cool and calm. Standing there he watched until he could clearly see the riders pass by. Turning towards the man who was no older than himself, and replied, "I believe, sir, those men are part of the seven regulators from Four Corners."
Ezra waited to let this news work its unnerving magic before adding, "I was just in that town and I have to say, the townspeople were very angry. Apparently some low-life rubbish viciously and unmercifully attacked two wagon loads of innocent and defenseless children."
He watched the mens faces around him. The words stinging their faces and hearts worse than any fists could, he was pleased with the results his words had caused.
Continuing, Ezra added with a sad tone in his voice, "Killed both drivers and wounded the woman chaperone." He waited a heartbeat before finishing, "And a small boy."
The gambler watched the faces go pale at the mention of the child. Several eyes shot over to a young man standing at the forefront edge of the camp, watching the riders disappear from sight. The old saying if looks could kill popped into Ezras mind. It suddenly dawned on him that none of these men knew about the wounded boy. This implication gave something new for the quietly seething man to think about.
The gambler felt a small tug on the hem of his black jacket and looked down into the terrified eyes of Vivian. Bending down to her level Ezra flashed the fragile-looking girl a reassuring smile. "Yes, dear? What may I help you with?" he asked kindly.
"Which little boy?" Vivian asked, fear showing through.
Ezra realized he couldnt appear to have too much knowledge about the children. "Well, young lady I am unsure of his name, but I did overhear that he was possibly only two or three years old."
Vivian broke into tears. "No! Not little Sammy! Hes too little to get shot," Vivian exclaimed.
The hard looks being shot towards the young man increased in intensity. Tim Wakefield turned a pasty color, making the bruises on his face more apparent, and became obviously nervous. Ezra, seeing the riders had been out of sight for a long enough time to begin circling back, clasped the small hand of Vivian, who was still standing beside him and began walking towards the back of the camp. Retrieving a handkerchief from his pocket he held it out for the girl. After the girl wiped her tears Ezra tipped his hat at her thank-you. Pretending to put the used item back into his pocket, Ezra, with his back to the group, pulled out the stick of dynamite. Targeting where the boy was, the gambler tightened his grip on the small hand and threw the dynamite up and away from him as far as possible. In that instant a multitude of things happened and Ezra hoped that the Fates were on their side.
The sharpshooter had put aside his spyglass after Chris and the others took off. Picking up the handsome rifle Ezra had given him to use, Vin sighted in on the black jacket so far away. Looking through the scope he was awestruck at the clarity and sharpness that was there. Vin watched his friend very closely, knowing the timing would be crucial. He watched as the gambler handed the hanky to the little girl and knew from his movements that the time was close.
Vin sighted again and put his finger to the lever. With the tipping of the Stetson, Vin tensed and let out a slow breath. He watched the next few scenes play out in slow motion. Ezra slipped the lone stick of dynamite from inside his jacket; half turning the man threw the explosive. Vin pulled the trigger at the same moment that Ezras hand extended. Adjusting for where the dynamite would be in just the milliseconds that occurred after its release. Still examining the scene through the sight, the sharpshooter saw the bright fiery explosion and the chaos that soon followed.
Everyone in camp turned their attention to where the explosion came from. Guns drawn, eyes wild, tension tight, they scrambled for cover. Hearts racing from fear, the outlaws searched for the assailants on their camp.
One of the men who had been standing at the back of the camp near the brush, spotted Ezra grabbing young Matthew. "What are you doing?" he yelled.
"Seeing to the young peoples safety," Ezra answered back calmly.
Whistling loudly, Ezra was hurried to get to Chaucer, who was waiting impatiently a few feet into the brush and trees, unseen by the others. Quickly grabbing Vivian, he practically tossed her into the saddle. Matthew was given the same treatment. Looking up into the wide frightened eyes, he briefly explained, "Itll be alright. Just hold on and he will take you to safety. Ill follow shortly."
The brown-haired girl simply nodded. As with all children, she immediately trusted this man. He would see them back to the other children. She knew this for a fact as sure as the sun would set tonight. Ezra gave a light slap to Chaucers rump and the horse took off, trotting further into the trees, heading back to where his man and his friends had split up earlier. Watching Chaucer move into the dense foliage Ezra turned back to camp and stifled a laugh at the comical scene going on in camp. The men had yet to discover the source of the explosion, when Vin blew something up he left nothing behind.
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