Shattered Spirits

by The Buffalo Gals (Sue Diver & Colleen Newton)

After packing a few possessions in a carpet bag Victoria slipped out the back door of the hotel and keeping to the shadows headed towards a rooming house where two of her men were staying, waiting for instructions.

They'd rode into town earlier in the day pretending to be cowboys just passing through. Like Cassidy, they were ready to take on the six remaining men who watched over the town.

Victoria knew the time was now. Larabee, wherever he was, and Ezra Standish, were both under the influence of the drugged alcohol. Wilmington and the boy were still recovering from their injuries, which left the preacher and healer; easy pickings.

While the two men in town kept watch, she'd ride out to the homestead. By morning, she'd be back with Cassidy and Eli and the town would be theirs.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra groaned as he became aware once more of his surroundings. He played the bizarre scene over and over in his head until at long last he was able to make his limbs respond to his wishes. He lurched unsteadily to his feet and threw the drugged brandy bottle to the floor, then he headed off towards the stables looking to all the town like a man with a gut full of liquor.

It was a wrong move. In the stable, Victoria was waiting while the men saddled a horse for her.

+ + + + + + +

Mary had been working late on the newspaper and was looking forward to collecting Billy from Mrs. Potter and spending some time with him before he went to bed.

While she was locking the office door she noticed Ezra making his way down to the stables. He swayed like a drunkard, which disappointed her, unless, she thought, he'd heard some disturbing news and wanted to drown his sorrows.

The chilling thought frightened Mary as she realised she'd seen nothing of Chris during the day. Deciding that the only way to find out what was happening was to ask, Mary followed the gambler. But first she had to call in at Gloria’s to ask if she would watch over Billy for a while longer.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stumbled through the stable door, stopping dead in his tracks. Two men stood before him, their stance menacing. The gambler staggered slightly, hit by a dizzy spell. The two men multiplied into four before his eyes. He blinked away the crazed images and dropped his right arm to draw his hidden gun to the fore. Before he could complete the action a whip cracked, and a stinging length of leather bit into his gun arm. He pulled back but couldn’t free himself. He overbalanced and fell onto his knees. Like lightning, the two thugs were upon him, pushing him face down into the dirt floor before he had a chance to react.

As Ezra lay gasping, he looked up to see Victoria smiling wickedly.

"Well Mr. Standish, what brings you here?" She settled her hands on her hips and waited for his answer.

Ezra swallowed and stared mutely at her, knowing any answer would bring pain.

She walked around him then put her toe against the gunshot wound in his side, pressing down until he cried out.

"I think you'll do very nicely," she crooned, "In the absence of Mr. Larabee."

She knelt beside him and drew out a blood stained knife she’d used on Larabee. The two men held him down, and Ezra watched helplessly as Victoria slowly cut the buttons from his shirt, and blood seeped into the white material.

Victoria wasn't finished. She cut away the top part of Ezra's undergarment then told her men to strip him to the waist and tie him up. Ezra struggled, but in his half paralysed state he was no match for them.

While they worked, Victoria finished tacking the horse up, ready for a quick escape.

Eventually Ezra found himself on his knees, hands tied behind his back. One of the hired thugs was behind him, pulling his hair back so that his neck and chest were exposed.

"Good work," Victoria complimented the man, running her fingers over the gambler’s throat. She clicked her fingers and the other man handed her a large buckled luggage belt.

Victoria ran her hands over the leather, "It's a nice piece," she told Ezra, " and will serve my purpose well." She slipped the belt around his neck, passing the end through the buckle and pulling it tight.

Ezra gagged as the pressure threatened to choke him and he struggled against his captor.

The woman hit him across the face with the handle of her whip, cutting his eye. Ezra almost pitched over, but was held in place by the painful grasp on his scalp.

"We don't have much time," Victoria said after she was warned that someone was walking down the street towards the stable. She tied off the belt, rejoicing in Ezra’s struggle to breathe. Blood pounded in the gambler’s ears and he began to feel faint.

He stared fearfully at Victoria. She'd moved five paces away from him.

"Get out of the way," she told the man standing over him. Ezra fell backwards into the straw the moment he was released.

He knew what was coming; knew it was going to hurt. He cried out as the first agonising cut was made, but hardly made a sound, the belt acting effectively as a gag. It was also impossible for him to take a deep breath and brace himself for the next attack.

Victoria managed five lashes before she heard Mary Travis’ voice calling for help. She threw down the whip and quickly mounted the horse, urging to trample the prone southerner. The animal lurched forward fearfully but would not touch the man. Victoria snatched cruelly at the horse’s mouth, turning it towards her escape.

The two men melted back into the shadows of the barn, ready to do battle with whoever came looking for the injured man.

+ + + + + + +

As Mary neared the stables she heard a muffled cry of pain, then heard the distinctive sound of a whip cracking.

The street was deserted, but there was light coming from inside the church. Running towards the steps she called out to Josiah and prayed that he'd be there.

Nathan came running out the door and after a quick explanation they hurried towards the building. Josiah followed, gun drawn, ready for any possibility.

Nathan pulled Mary back before she could enter the stables. "You stay out here, until we say it's clear; understand?"

Mary nodded; she'd learnt it was prudent to follow their commands. She hid behind the water trough and waited. Josiah indicated to Nathan that he was going around to the back. Nathan nodded in understanding. They all knew each other well enough now to work as a team.

The healer walked through the open door, gun poised and glanced around the poorly lit stable. The horses were agitated; something bad had happened here. He could smell blood, but couldn't see anyone. Then he heard a half strangled cry coming from inside one of the empty stalls. Edging quietly towards the noise, he kept a wary eye on the horses; they'd be aware of any movement in the shadows.

He nearly tripped over Ezra's foot in the straw and stared down, appalled by the vision before him. Dropping to his knees he pulled at the belt around Ezra's neck and quickly loosened it.

"My God, what happened to you?"

Ezra took great gulps of sweet air, gasping in pain and shock. He startled when a shadow passed near to Nathan.

The black man saw and understood the look on Ezra’s face and turned, surprising the thug about to pistol whip him. Nathan shot point blank, killing the man instantly. All hell broke loose then; gunshots sounding around the barn, mixed with the sound of distressed animals, Nathan threw himself over the prone gambler, praying that Josiah would deal with the other shooter.

Seconds later silenced reigned and Josiah called out, “You alright Doc?"

"Yeah ... are ya sure there's no one else in here?" Nathan sat up, aware that Ezra was struggling under his weight.

"I'm sure. This one's alive and he's more than happy to tell me the truth, 'specially if he wants to stay that way." Josiah dragged the injured thug forward. " What's wrong Nathan?"

The black man moved aside and Ezra came into view. Josiah looked heavenward, trying to contain his anger, "Dear Lord, why are you doing this to us? " He took a length of rope hanging from the stall and tied his prisoner up. There was no time to deal with him now. Then he knelt down next to his injured comrade.

Ezra reached up and clawed Nathan's shirt with his fingers, "Na ... than, it's ... Vic .tor ...ia." he panted out.

"Take it easy," Nathan told him, trying to still his writhing body.

Mary rushed in, no longer able to contain her curiosity. "Oh my God," she cried falling down by Ezra's side. She ran her hands over his bloodied face. "Who did this to you?"

Josiah explained that it was Victoria's handiwork. This was no surprise to Mary and she felt guilty for not acting on her suspicions earlier.

"We've got to get him out of here," Nathan told Josiah. The preacher moved Mary aside and together he and Nathan carefully lifted Ezra. Despite their care, Ezra cried out pitifully. They rushed him to the church, Mary going into Josiah's private quarters to put kettle to boil and gather bandages.

Josiah sat on the floor by the altar, Ezra in his arms. Nathan was massaging the southerner's throat, trying to stop the panic attack Ezra was suffering. Both men wondered where Chris was. Surely he'd heard the commotion; unless he'd gone on another of his lone searches for Vin.

Mary returned, loaded down with a basin full of water, towels and bandages. She sat down next to the healer and watched him work. "Wouldn't he be better lying down?" She asked urgently.

"No," Nathan countered, his voice steady, "He'll be more comfortable sitting up." He continued to massage, listening as Josiah spoke to Ezra.

"Ezra, can you hear me?" The preacher asked, his own voice calm.

Ezra didn't speak or open his eyes, but there was the slightest nod of the head.

"Good. We've got to get you to relax some; ease your breathing. I'm goin' to turn you a little, so you're on your good side. Can you help me?"

Again, there was a nod of the head then Ezra shifted in nervous painful jerks almost kicking over the water.

"Steady!" Josiah soothed, holding Ezra's heaving body gently, while helping Nathan shift him into position. Now the gambler lay with his head against Josiah's broad shoulder, leaning slightly forward.

Josiah ran his hand over Ezra's spine and soon, with the continuance of Nathan's soothing hands and Josiah's quiet words, the tension began to leave the injured man and he rested easier against his friend.

"Good," Nathan said at last, turning to the wound in Ezra's side and the slashes across his stomach, "Now we can look at your other injuries." He glanced at Mary, who wanted to help, but was in the way. "Why don't you go and tell Buck what's happened. He probably heard the shootin’. Be careful Mary, we don't know where Victoria is. She could still be in town, though I doubt it. If JD is up to helpin’, get him to take that piece of dirt that's tied up in the barn over to the jail. Ask Buck if he knows where Chris is. "

Mary nodded, pushing a stray wisp of blonde hair behind her ear. She touched Ezra gently on the arm, her heart going out to him. Then she hurried out of the church, she could already hear Buck's booming voice getting near.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra endured the humility and pain as best he could. He had little thought but for two things. Had he brought a similar fate to Chris and if Chris were taken what would Vin's chances of survival be. He felt the weight of responsibility lie heavily upon his shoulders. He'd fallen into the simplest of traps; even JD would have seen through it.

Somewhere over his tortured breathing, he heard Josiah speak to Nathan.

"Why don't you go and see if Buck's turned Chris up yet. Ezra and I will meet you over at the hotel in say, half an hour."

Nathan's long fingers ran along the crown of the gambler’s head and down the nape of his neck. When he spoke his tone was gentle, "You goin' to be alright?"

Ezra swallowed, his voice hardly a whisper, "Ah'm fine Nathan. Thank you.” Staying in the comfort of his resting place, he added, "Ah was drugged .... so was Chris ... don't know where ... he went."

"Ssshhh ...." Josiah soothed as he wrapped a blanket around Ezra's shoulder, hardly noticing Nathan leave in search of Buck.

Silence descended on the tiny church, broken only by Ezra's pained attempts to draw breath. Josiah stroked his back in slow circles, trying to ease the spasms that left Ezra trembling weakly in his arms. Josiah knew there was something more than the cruel beating was bothering the young man; he raised his head to the heavens, asking silently for guidance.

As always, his prayers were answered. Ezra shifted in his arms and sighed, his body losing some of its tension. Josiah looked down at his pale features and hooded eyes and waited for him to speak.

Ezra's words were slow and heavy, without his customary flare, "Ah walked her into his path Josiah. Could be Ah've signed both their death warrants."

Josiah grimaced, speaking silently to his God, 'Not fair, Lord.' He tucked the blanket around Ezra's shivering body.

"It could have happened to anyone of us, Ezra. We're only human. No one is looking to apportion blame." He let his words sink in before continuing, "Don't under-estimate Chris, he's cheated death many times before."

Ezra opened his eyes and stared emptily at the floor; "Do you believe he'll survive the night?"

Josiah replied with as much conviction as he could muster, "Of course he will. And don't be surprised if he don't bring Vin home with him."

These words captured Ezra's attention; he sat up and looked at the priest, his eyes pooling with torment, "Ah hope you're right, Josiah. Ah truly do." He swallowed down the threatening emotions and wrapped his arms around his aching stomach.

Josiah touched his shoulder, gently rubbing the flesh there. "Ezra, you, Vin and the others are as close a family as I have ever known. Together we are strong." He watched the southerner turn away from his words. He knew Ezra didn't really believe he belonged to the Seven, that he would never be accepted.

The preacher sat up and pulled the blanket closer around Ezra's shoulders. He waited until the younger man was looking at him before continuing, his tone fond; "Before this ordeal is over you are going to know that you are one of us." He smiled getting stiffly to his feet, "Now, shall we make our way to the hotel?"

Ezra's heart leaped at the promise, did he dare to hope that Josiah was correct? He held out a hand and the older man pulled him to his feet. Together they limped across the street to the hotel.

Ezra shrank back into Josiah's arms as Buck came rushing towards him. He was stunned to be taken into the big man's arms and severely hugged until the breath was squeezed from him.

"We're gonna get the bitch that done this to ya," Buck promised him, his eyes filled with anger and grief.

Ezra coughed weakly, his face pinched, "Chris?"

Buck shook his head sadly, adding as Ezra fell against Josiah, "Don't worry none. I'm goin' after him at first light." He squeezed Ezra's arm, "I'll find him."

"I’m goin’ too!" Nathan added, "Josiah?"

Josiah sighed, "In that case we'd better get some sleep." He wrapped an arm around the southerner’s waist and pointed him to the stairs. "You included Ezra. You and JD'll have to stay behind tomorrow."

The four men made their way slowly upstairs, the three helping Ezra into his bed. He curled into the pillows, an arm protecting his injured stomach.

Nathan pulled the blankets up around his shoulders after touching the dark bruises around his neck. He glanced back at the two concerned faces of his friends. "He'll be fine," he said, a sad smile touching his lips, "He's gonna need some help though." He stood up and walked back to the two men, "Damn!" He cursed softly at the pitiful sight on the bed.

Josiah placed a hand on Nathan's shoulder and gathering Buck, they left Ezra to rest.

+ + + + + + +

Cassidy and Eli, bored with watching over Vin, had been drinking whisky for much of the evening. Once inebriated, they'd swaggered over to the barn to taunt their hapless victim, but the stench coming from Vin's room had turned their stomachs. Once Cassidy had kicked the injured man in the ribs to check that he was still unconscious, they'd moved into one of the stalls, flopped down on the hay bales and continued to drink themselves into a stupour. The chains were no longer necessary on the prisoner, he was too sick to attempt an escape.

Vin lay in his own waste; he'd long since stopped sweating due to dehydration. He was caught in a nightmare and unaware of the men until Cassidy's boot came in contact with him. The nudge started a fire in his bruised side that sharpened his mind and brought him back to the present.

He listened as the men mumbled drunkenly before they fell asleep. His eyes were well adjusted to the gloom but they would not focus. He swallowed thickly; he'd not tasted water for over a day, yet there in the shadows, not ten strides away was a canteen that had been dropped by Cassidy as he'd stumbled in the dark. It was temptingly close for Vin, if only he could crawl that far.

He managed half the distance before his arms gave way, then lay there for another hour, before finding the strength to try again. His only thought was to reach water, all other rational had fallen victim to this one, basic need.

Finally he lifted the canteen from its resting place and took a long drink. The water hit his tender stomach and threatened to come back up. Vin swallowed it down, there was no way he was going to lose precious fluid. Time passed and Vin, feeling stronger, crawled nearer the drunken men, the canteen clutched in his hand. Eli's gun was just an arm’s length away.

Eli sniffed the foul smelling air and woke up to the fright of his life. Before him a filthy, emaciated man was trying to lift his gun and shoot him. He cried out in terror and knocked the gun away from his face, easily overpowering the frail prisoner; knocking him to the ground and lying on top of him.

Vin lay like the dead, every ounce of energy gone. Eli surged to his feet, the stench clawing at his lungs. He kicked Vin in the ribs, cursing him loudly. The noise woke Cassidy who reared up shouting, "What the hell happened?"

"The little bastard ain’t as weak as we thought." Eli landed another kick. “He was just about to shoot me!"

"God, but he stinks. Throw him back in the store room and lock the door, he won't last much longer." Cassidy got to his feet, holding his head as he did so, "Boy, do I feel bad."

"Why should I move him?"

Cassidy, still having his gun holstered, pulled it out, saying coldly, "Because I said so.”

Eli grumbled but did as he was bid. He dragged Vin back into the room by his hair, after deciding that was the cleanest part of the prisoner. Vin made no move, his final attempt at freedom had failed, and he accepted death as his only option now.

Afterwards the two men washed themselves down and sobered up; relieved at their decision to do so, when Victoria came galloping in.

"Saddle up, we're going into town now. There's only two of them fit for fighting. This is our best chance. By the time Larabee gets back, he'll find his men dead."

"What about that?" Cassidy pointed to the barn, referring to Vin.

"Is he fit to travel?"

Cassidy snorted, "He's hardly alive .... the journey to town would kill him."

"Then leave him. Once Larabee is in our hands we'll bring him here; show him what happened to his little friend." Victoria swung the horse around, "Come on, I want us to be in place by morning. Thompson and Jake are waiting, with a bit of luck they've already taken out the preacher and healer for us."

"As long as they save Wilmington for me. I want to wash that smug smile off his face, once and for all.”

The two men were soon in the saddle and following Victoria back to town.

+ + + + + + +

Chris woke up in the early hours of the morning; his head was still thumping, but the pain in his side had subsided to a dull ache. He sat up gingerly, allowing his eyes to find their focus in the dark. He could hear a rustling noise to his right. He pulled his gun out and turned towards the noise, sighing with relief when he saw his horse standing there, quietly grazing, its former panic subsided.

"Good boy," Chris soothed as he struggled to his feet and walked over to it and blessing his lucky stars. He checked the animal first, to make sure it had suffered no injury during the mad gallop through the undergrowth. Thankfully there was nothing more serious that a few cuts along its flanks; the horse's legs were sound. Chris lifted the water canteen from the saddle, tore a piece of his shirt off and poured water onto it, then he cleaned the wound in his side as best he could.

He mounted the horse, speaking softly to it at all times, then began to wind his way back through the trees, hoping to find a track. After thirty minutes he could see the trees thinning out and open countryside emerging. He could also see three horsemen riding parallel to the tree line towards the direction of town. Not wanting to be seen, he jumped off his horse and stood by its head, quieting it; the other animals could become aware of its presence.

Chris' blood ran cold when the riders passed by; he could easily make out the outline of a woman; it was Victoria.

He waited until they rode out of sight then slid back in the saddle and rode in the direction they'd just come from. A feeling of dread was beginning to gnaw at him. What would he find at the end of the trail?

He was surprised that the trail ended up at the McKinley place. It wasn't the usual route taken from the town to homestead. They'd passed close to the place when they'd first started looking for Vin, but it had looked deserted and Mary had told him that it was getting new owners at any time. Chris seethed in anger at himself; had he been too complacent in his search?

There was no sign of life but he was still careful as he rode up to the house. He dismounted the horse and strode up the steps to the door, knocking loudly with one hand, gun held in the other.

No lamps were lit, no noise was made, so he kicked open the door and entered. There was an oil lamp on the table, which he lit before he scoured the small house. No one was there now, but the place was being lived in; the stove was warm, embers burned in the fireplace.

Certain he was alone, Chris caught hold of the horse's reins and they walked over to the barn. Instinct led Chris to the farthest corner of the building; to a small store room. Buck had mentioned that Vin was in such a place.

The door to the room was securely locked.

"Vin!" He called urgently, throwing himself against the wood. At the fourth attempt the door collapsed inwards, thudding on the dusty floor.

"Vin!" He called again, his eyes squinting in the gloomy depths until they adjusted to the dark. He gagged at the smell in the room and in all honesty couldn't wait to get out of there.

The faintest sound of metal on metal reached him from the shadowy corner of the room and as he walked forward he saw Vin cowering in the corner.

Chris dropped to his knees and reached out to turn the tracker’s face towards him, "Hey, partner. It's me, Chris," he said gently, his fingers cupping the other's jaw as Vin opened his eyes.

Vin trembled faintly, "Chris." He slumped forward, caught in Chris' arms. The older man was alarmed to find his friend burning up with fever, the heat from his exposed chest and back, foretold trouble.

Not knowing how long it would be before Victoria and the others returned, Chris urged, "We've gotta get out of here, fast! Can you stand?"

Vin began to struggle upwards so Chris stood up and pulled the young man to his feet. He half held, half dragged the injured man outside and was soon heaving him up and throwing him over the saddle. He ignored the pain from his wound, there was no time for self pity.

With help, Vin managed to sit astride the horse and move forward enough so that Chris could get up behind him. Wrapping an arm around his injured friend, Chris urged the horse back onto the main trail, praying that if Victoria did return, she'd use the secret path.

Twenty minutes into the journey, Chris knew Vin wasn't going to make it back to town. He was virtually unconscious, his body hot and so heavy that Chris doubted he could hold onto him for much longer.

The main trail skirted a small lake and it gave Chris an idea. He turned his horse towards it, rushing to meet the sandy shore. He urged the horse on at the water's edge, plunging into the cool depths of the lake until the animal was up to its withers. Then he tipped himself and Vin into the blue void. For a moment they went under, Chris struggling under Vin's dead weight, then he surged to the surface, clutching his friend tightly, turning him, to make sure Vin was breathing. He managed to find purchase on the sandy floor and settled Vin better against him. The young man was gasping, half choking on the cool water that was reviving him. Chris ran a hand over Vin's face, trying to remove the excess water.

Vin shied from his touch, the wounds on his face coming alive under his friend's fingertips. He opened his eyes a little and gazed at the complicated man, then he leaned forward and placed his face next to Chris'.

"You came fer me," he whispered. "Thank you." Then he settled himself against Chris' neck and relaxed, his fear and anxiety diluted by the gently rippling water, his battered body cradled in the arms of the only man he truly trusted.

Chris closed his eyes, disarmed by the simple gesture.

While they were in the water, Chris managed to wash some of the dirt from Vin's clothes and body, but they couldn't stay there too long. The water was cool, it had done its job in easing Vin's fever, but there was a strong chance he'd catch a chill.

They struck out towards the shore, where Chris dragged Vin out of the water to lie in the watery rays of early morning sunlight. The gunslinger’s horse had also returned to the beach, quite close to them. As soon as Vin had regained his breath, Chris helped him back on board, then swung into the saddle behind him. He turned for home, holding the young man close as Vin's fever returned.

+ + + + + + +

JD carefully closed the door to Ezra's room and tiptoed to the bed. The early light filtered through the curtains and cast an eerie gloom in the room. Ezra was hardly visible in the bed, his small frame was curled up in the blankets, his face lost in the downy depths.

Happy to have work to do at last, despite the danger, JD settled on the bed by Ezra's side and pushed his guns under the pillows. It was hardly light and JD was still weak. He lay down on his back and sighed. The noise brought a very jumpy Ezra back to the present. He pushed himself away from the sound and instantly regretted the sudden movement, the cuts on his stomach pulling the healing flesh apart. He gasped in pain.

"I'm sorry," JD whispered, "I didn't mean to wake you.”

Ezra slumped back on the pillow and ran a hand over his face, his voice no more than a wheeze, "Ah wasn't asleep. What are you doing here JD?"

JD sat up and looked at Ezra, unable to keep his eyes from the marks on the other man's neck. Ezra self consciously pulled the sheets up around the bruises and waited for JD to stop staring. The younger man soon remembered his manners.

"Buck told me to come and watch over you. He, Josiah and Nathan have gone lookin' for Chris." JD looked crestfallen and added guiltily, "I wasn't supposed to tell you that."

Ezra shook his head and smiled, "Ah'm not a baby JD," he added softly. "Thank you for telling me."

JD settled on the bed. "Are you all right?”

Ezra nodded this time, his eyes closing against unchecked emotions. "Ah'm fine." He swallowed before continuing, "Try and get some sleep."

Ezra's answer did nothing to placate JD. He slithered down the bed and rested uneasily against the pillows. Despite his fears he was soon sleeping soundly.

+ + + + + + +

There was no sign of Thompson or Jake when Victoria and the others rode into town. She told Cassidy to go to the livery stables to see if there was any sign of struggle from the night before.

Yosemite was already there, making sure the horses were fed and watered. He welcomed company and was soon relaying to Cassidy details of the previous evening’s gun battle. The town’s defenders had killed one man and injured another; the injured man locked up safely in jail, awaiting trial.

When Cassidy cautiously mentioned the men watching the town, Yosemite told him that three of them had rode out early, looking for Larabee. And that the fancy gambler was at the hotel, recovering from his injuries he’d sustained the night before.

Victoria was furious when she heard the news. Her plans were falling apart, but at least with the seven men split up, she had a chance to wreak vengeance on some of them. She was particularly looking forward to seeing Ezra again.

The hotel lobby was deserted as she and her men made the way upstairs.

+ + + + + + +

The door burst open and before JD was half awake, Eli threw himself across Ezra's prone body onto the youngster, pinning him to the bed. Ezra groaned in agony as Eli's feet caught him in the stomach and he rolled onto his side. Cassidy was right behind Eli. He pushed Ezra onto his back then sat astride him, waiting for Victoria to enter the room.

"Get off me, you oaf!" Ezra cried hoarsely, writhing under the painful weight. He stopped struggling, his body seized by a deep dread when Victoria entered the room, closing the door behind her.

She stepped up to the bed and smiled down at him. "Well, well, if it isn't my old acquaintance, Mr. Standish." She motioned for Cassidy to move behind Ezra and pin his arms above his head, waiting until the man complied.

She removed a glove and ran her finger down Ezra's throat, across his chest, to his damaged middle. Then she curled her fingers into claws and with her nails biting into his flesh she tore the bandage downwards, exposing the bloody wounds and re-opening the already savaged flesh.

Ezra arched away from her touch, a strangled cry tearing from his throat. Across the bed, JD began to struggle against Eli. The big man wrapped a hand around JD's throat and squeezed until the youngster’s only thought was to continue breathing.

Ezra was drowning in his own nightmare, his agonised cries eventually stopping Victoria's progress. She sat by the gambler’s side and pulled a scarf from her hair, chastising Ezra softly. Tying a knot in the centre of the material she pressed the scarf into his mouth, then holding his head gently, she tied the fabric tightly at the back of his neck. Ezra watched her helplessly, knowing he was about to suffer all the more for causing a delay.

"Can't have you waking the hotel, darlin' " Victoria purred, taking a small pouch from her bag. She ignored the struggle next to her.

Eli had grown tired of holding JD by the throat. He pinned him down on the bed, having to use brute force because the youngster fought valiantly despite his own injuries.

In contrast, Ezra lay passively under Victoria’s influence, his body laid bare for her pleasure. He watched her pour a handful of white crystals into her palm, his brow knitting as he tried to understand her intention.

She held them under his nose, "Here's something I had in mind for Mr. Larabee, but as he's not in town right now I thought you might like to sample it." She ran the crystals over his lips, delighting in his reaction to the salty taste.

"No!" He cried weakly through the scarf as she thrust the sharp, stinging crystals into his broken flesh. When his voice gave out completely he was still writhing in pain, his body arching from every touch of her evil fingers. She laughed hysterically at his misery, taunting his very soul.

"Ezra!" JD cried out, repulsed by the cruel torture. He managed to dislodge Eli and was fast enough to grab one of the hidden guns. He pumped three bullets into the big man and as Eli fell backwards, JD leaped up and turned his fire on the retreating Cassidy and Victoria. He could have hit Victoria but carried on firing at Cassidy, pulling the second gun free and firing while scrambling over Eli's body. He continued to fire, unaware that the gun was empty.

He stopped when he felt a shaky hand on his arm. JD looked down. Ezra was trying to sit upright, one hand on JD, the other wrapped around his middle. Blood coursed down his face, a sure sign he'd bitten his tongue during the ordeal.

JD dropped the gun on the bed, gasping in delayed shock.. Ezra shook his head; his tear stained eyes narrowed in fury. He took his hand from JD's arm and tore the scarf from his mouth, leaving the fabric hanging in a bloody mess around his neck.

"They're gone, JD, for the time being," he rasped. Kicking his legs off the bed, he gasped in agony as he grabbed his pants and pulled them on, listening to JD's sobbing breath behind him, "Get mah guns, son," he croaked, doing his best to pull his boots on.

JD handed the holster to him and Ezra shrugged into it, pulling his green coat over his bare chest.

"What are you goin' to do?" JD asked in a small voice as he helped Ezra to his feet.

"We have to be ready for their return. " He limped towards the door, JD following in attendance.

+ + + + + + +

Downstairs, in the lobby, they set up an ambush. No one else had ventured from their rooms, the earlier gunshots making sure of that.

JD hid behind the bar, while on the other side of the room Ezra slumped against a large travelling trunk. They had little time to gather themselves before hooves were heard galloping towards them, the horses halting outside the hotel doors.

Ezra took a deep breath to still his jangling nerves and looked across at his partner. JD was ready, his panic forgotten and he faced the doors with his usual bravado. The thump of a big hand on the door made Ezra jump. He raised his gun and waited.

Buck flew through the door, throwing a table on its side as he came to a halt, gun ready. Ezra sat down hard on the cold floor, his relief draining his meagre strength.

"Buck … Buck, it's me, JD!" The youngster cried, jumping up and down behind the bar until Buck sat up and stared at him.

"What the hell are you doin' kid?" He asked, striding across the floor to grab him by the collar.

JD didn't care; he hugged his friend, hanging around his neck as Buck dragged him over the bar.

Josiah and Nathan sauntered into the room behind Buck, astounded by JD's show of affection.

"Where's Ezra?" Buck asked for the seventh time, "JD, where is he?" He said, shaking the babbling man gently.

JD looked towards the travelling trunk. Ezra's gun arm was slumped across its surface, his forehead against the leather.


Buck, Josiah and Nathan followed his gaze, the latter men quickly crossing to Ezra's side. Josiah sat by the injured man, gently cradling him while Nathan took a look at the new wounds.

"Ah, Ezra," Josiah lamented, "How much more can a man take?" He held the gambler’s arms while Nathan passed smelling salts under his nose, bracing himself as the unconscious man lurched back into life.

"Steady ... steady..." Josiah soothed, hugging Ezra close as the other man coughed weakly. Together, he and Nathan helped the gambler to sit on the edge of the trunk, Josiah staying and supporting him until Nathan stemmed the bleeding.

JD was trying to explain to Buck what had happened, but his explanation was little more than a babble of garbled sentences. Buck shook his head in exasperation. He told the youngster they'd turned back to town when Mary had rode out after them, having seen Victoria ride into town with two men.

The sorry gang turned their thoughts to getting Ezra back upstairs. They had just got him to his feet when they heard a horse approaching. Buck, JD and Nathan rushed to the door while Josiah pulled Ezra into the shadows and shielded him with his own body.

JD let out a whoop of delight. "It's Chris and he's got Vin with him!"

The three men ran out into the street, leaving Josiah half supporting, half dragging, Ezra towards the door, then Nathan called out, "Josiah, I need some help here!” His tone was urgent.

Ezra pulled free of the preacher who was torn in his duties. "Go," he said, "Ah'll be fine." He leaned heavily against a chair back, avoiding Josiah's eyes.

The preacher patted him on the arm and strode towards the door. "I'll be back soon."

Ezra watched him go then taking a deep breath, limped towards the door. His heart thumped painfully in his chest as he neared the portal. He was afraid of what he might see. Would Chris be bringing Vin's body home, the young man having succumbed to Victoria's cruelty?

Would Vin be battered and torn and coming home to die? Would his eyes accuse Ezra of a thousand sins? A cry left the southerner's throat as he rushed through the doorway and stepped out into the light.

The sight before him almost bowled him over. Riding slowly down the main street with Vin in his arms, came Chris Larabee. Buck, JD and Josiah were walking by the horse's flanks, carefully guiding the animal towards Nathan’s clinic.

The healer had gone on ahead to prepare for his patient. As the procession neared, Ezra could make out Vin's face. His eyes were closed but his brow was furrowed with pain, suggesting he was conscious.

Chris was wrapped around the injured man, his own face set in lines of fatigue.

Ezra's heart leaped when Vin opened his eyes and gazed down at him. He made no sign that he recognised Ezra, but the very gesture assured Standish that his suffering had not been in vain, because Vin had survived.

The group disappeared into the shadows, leaving Ezra standing alone at the front of the hotel. He waited impatiently for Josiah to return, afraid that the longer the preacher stayed with Vin, the more likelihood there was of bad news. However, Sanchez was soon back in view, hurrying towards him, a smile on his face.

The injured man half ran half limped to meet him, throwing himself into Josiah's embrace,

"You were right!" Ezra croaked with joy, "You said he'd bring him home." He laughed almost hysterically against Josiah's chest.

The preacher held him close and said in a bemused tone, "Beginners luck!" Holding Ezra's arms, he pushed him away so that he could look down on him. "One day, Ezra, you and I are going to have a drink to this."

"Ah'll second that."

"But right now, we're going to get you inside and check you over, agreed?"

Ezra nodded, still beaming.

Josiah placed an arm around his middle, supporting him as they moved back to the hotel.

+ + + + + + +

Once Vin was settled on the bed, Nathan shooed Buck and JD out, with a promise to inform them of the tracker’s condition as soon as possible.

Only Chris remained in the room and Nathan accepted it would be useless trying to extricate the gunslinger from Vin’s side. So after putting water to boil on the stove, the healer prepared the potions and salves he’d be using.

Without being told, Larabee began to strip the tracker of the filthy remnants he still wore, ready for bathing him.

By this time, Mary Travis had arrived, having seen Chris ride into town with his injured companion. She’d brought fresh towels and bed linen, knowing Nathan would be in need of both. She glanced across at the gunslinger and offered to tend to the knife wound; it was clear he was suffering in silence.

Chris squeezed his eyes shut, he badly wanted to lie down, but not yet, " He’s more important…” he answered in a whisper, gazing down at the younger man.

She nodded in understanding, and crossed the room to bring hot water, towels and washcloths to the bedside while he continued to strip away the remaining ragged vestments that covered Vin's emaciated body.

+ + + + + + +

Vin moaned softly as gentle hands turned him onto his back. He opened his eyes; Chris and Mary were working together, bathing his naked body with infinite care. He closed his eyes, floating under their touch for a moment, then he opened them again.

Mary was washing the wound that bore his tormentor’s initials, low on his stomach. She finished her task and moved lower, stopping when Chris covered her hands with his. Vin watched fascinated, as the two looked at each other. Eventually Chris shook his head and took the washcloth from her, cleaning Vin's lower body himself, his touch as gentle as the woman's.

Vin closed his eyes again and awoke to find himself turned on his stomach. The gashes on his back were swollen and painful but he didn't murmur, he could feel Mary's hands working carefully around each wound and didn't want to disturb her.

Once they'd finished, they turned Vin again and Chris pulled a sheet up to his waist. Mary busied herself washing Vin's chain damaged wrists while Chris took up a clean cloth and moved to sit by the tracker’s shoulders, gently removing the blood and dirt from his face. The young man managed a smile and accepted the water held to his lips.

Settling back on the pillows, Vin noticed how thin Chris had become and how pale! His own private nightmare was at an end, but where would his friend's end? He nodded to the man, saying in a tired but gentle tone, "Y’should get some rest."

Chris gazed sadly at the man in the bed and longed for the release his words implied. "Rest yourself," he said eventually.

Vin closed his eyes. "Oh, I will... I will." He settled down and drifted away, safe in the knowledge that six men would die before letting the woman take him back.

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