A little after nightfall, hoping to blanket their activities, the six gunslingers gathered in the church. JD kept an eye out the front door, watching the jailhouse. They were worried. Since Ezra's attempted escape Chris had become even more solemn. He had sent Vin out to his cabin without an explanation, telling him not to return until night. The others were to perform their normal duties. Now, they all were gathered around their leader as he sat, his hands draped over the back of a pew and his head bowed. The single lantern flickered and stretched out their shadows, making it appear as if a panel of dark, disapproving judges surrounded them.
"What do you think happened?" Nathan quietly asked Josiah.
"Don't know, brother, but it must be somethin' powerful troubling to put our brother in such a state." Chris had barely spoken to any of them all day preferring to keep his own console.
"You know them two deputies been askin' about Vin all over town," Buck said.
"Yeah, but no one is sayin' a thing." Nathan smiled. Vin was welled liked and the folks who didn't like him feared Larabee enough to keep their mouths shut.
"Has anyone been allowed to see Ezra?" JD asked from the doorway.
Chris raised his head.
"What do you mean, JD?" Vin asked.
"Well, I tried to take him some food earlier and the deputy wouldn't let me see him. Told me he wasn't allowed any visitors 'cause of his escape attempt."
Chris turned around and looked at the five men whom he had come to trust and care about. They were becoming a family. Was Ezra part of that family?
"Vin, the sheriff's got your poster," Chris abruptly stated.
"Damn," Buck muttered.
"I think you should get out of town for a while," Chris continued. "At least until the sheriff and his deputies leave."
Chagrin flickered across the tracker's chiseled features. "I can keep a low profile, cowboy. I don't want t'leave with Ez still in trouble."
"Are you goin' to let them take Ezra?" Buck asked, looking directly at Chris.
Larabee exhaled, grateful for the dimness of the church. "Hopefully our wire will reach the judge before they leave. If not, Ezra will be making a trip to Fort Laramie," Chris firmly stated although guilt caused his gut to clench. "We can't take the chance of delaying them and risk the sheriff spotting Vin. The sooner they leave the better."
"Doesn't feel right lettin' them take Ezra like that," Buck commented.
Everyone was quiet for a moment trying to shake off the tendrils of uneasiness that slowly crept through them.
"Ezra will be fine," JD piped in from his spot by the door trying to relieve the tension. "He'll just be without his feather bed for a few days."
"It'll serve him right," Nathan snapped. "The sheriff wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. Maybe this'll teach him not to con."
"Yeah, but he's innocent of this con," Vin said.
"Are we sure about that?" Nathan asked trying to retain some measure of disgust toward the cardshark. If he didn't stay angry worry would overwhelm him. "He did try an escape."
"It was the judge's fault," Buck defended. "He should have wired Fort Laramie and told 'em he pardoned Ezra."
"There's no one to blame," Chris retorted. "And Ezra doesn't deserve this." His anger shocked the three men.
"What is it, cowboy?" Vin quietly asked, dread weighing on his heart.
Chris's shoulders slumped his face haggard in the golden light. "Ezra took your poster last night when he tried to escape."
It was like an electric shock passing through each of the men.
"Aw hell, he was tryin' to protect Vin." Buck roughly pulled his hat off and ran his hand through his dark hair.
"He was probably hopin' they'd chase after him," Vin added. "Get them out of town.
"Damn southern fool, always surprising me," Nathan sadly stated losing his battle over his growing worry.
Chris nodded, guilt quieting him.
Ezra opened blood shot eyes when he heard Tom and Mitch enter the jail. He had hardly slept, no matter what position he tried he couldn't find one that wasn't painful. He ended up sitting on the cot with his back against the wall. A sheen of sweat covered his face and he felt the dampness through his shirt. A chill chased itself through his body. His hands were cold, making it impossible to pick the lock on his cuffs.
"Ay, boys, what'cha find out?" Kane asked his two deputies.
"Nothing, boss." Mitch was angry and kicked at a chair. "No one in this town knows anything about a Vin Tanner. Either we're wrong or these people are protectin' him."
"No, we're not wrong," Kane confidently replied.
"Had a lot to say about that gambling fella though," Tom stated.
"Some folks even hinted that they would be very happy when we take him away. They didn't think he was worth even the dollar a day he made," Mitch added.
Kane looked over at their prisoner. Ezra was flushed with fever and glared at them through vibrant green eyes. He had listened to the man's restless groans and found himself enjoying the cardshark's discomfort. Standish had ruined his reputation back in Laramie. Folks snickered and joked behind his back at how he'd let a flashy conman escape.
Kane guffawed. This town's people would protect a murderer but would throw a conman to the wolves.
"Well, they leave me no choice then." Kane casually removed his Colt from its holster and walked up to the cell. "We're going to have to light a fire under Mr. Larabee."
He leveled his gun, giving the gambler credit for not flinching or even begging for mercy. Apparently, Mr. Standish was made of sterner stuff than most gamblers he'd known. "I guess we're going to find out how much you mean to Mr. Larabee."
Ezra's eyes widened. He had time to bite down to keep from screaming, and then he felt a searing red-hot pain streak down his leg. The pain doubled him over and he fell to the floor in a tortured heap.
Vin was pacing in Ezra's room above the saloon. He wondered how Ezra could stand the confines of the four walls. The room was sparsely furnished, mostly dominated by a huge feathered bed, which Vin had to admit was quite comfortable. It still felt like a cage and he hoped that the sheriff left soon or he would have to leave for a spell.
A soft knock on the door announced Buck's grinning visage. "Ay pard, how you doing? Brought you some grub." Buck stepped in carrying a tray. Chris followed moments later, checking to be sure that no one was watching him enter.
"Mrs. Wells fixed you up a nice meal," Buck said setting the tray down on the dresser.
Vin's mouth watered at the smell of fresh bread and homemade jam. He lifted the napkin that covered the food and his stomach rumbled. Vin grabbed the slice of peach pie first.
"Ay, pard, didn't your ma ever teach you to save your dessert for last?"
Vin smiled through his mouth full of pie. "No." He swallowed the bite and turned to Chris. "Any word from the judge."
Chris shook his head. "No, not yet." He removed the saddlebags from the chair next to the door and laid them aside. "JD sent the wires again, if we don't hear somethin' soon I'm going to send Buck and Josiah out to find him."
Chris, Vin and Buck were at the window before the echo of the gunshot died.
"It came from the jail," Vin answered wiping his mouth with his sleeve and laying his hand on his mare's leg.
"Vin, you stay here," Chris stated, checking his gun and glancing at Buck before they raced out of the room. Vin clenched and unclenched his hand that was wrapped around his gun. God, he hated this!
Chris and Buck met the others just outside the saloon. The five gunslingers stared at the jailhouse. It was quiet, the whole town suddenly felt strangely silent, like a ghost town.
"What do you think happened?" JD whispered.
Chris stepped off the boardwalk and started walking toward the jail, his blue eyes scanning the area, looking for any hidden danger. Just as the five men neared the jailhouse Kane pulled open the door and stepped out.
"Gentlemen, everything is u
der control," Kane assured holding up his hands.
"We heard a gunshot," Buck stated.
"Yes, just something to get your attention."
The five lawmen regarded each other with mixtures of confusion and fear. What was going on?
"Is Ezra okay?" Josiah asked.
"As I said there's no need for concern."
This did not appease the preacher, and he stepped forward. When Tom came out holding a rifle Josiah stopped.
"Mr. Larabee, I need to speak with you privately," Kane said turning sideways in the door and sweeping his arm across his body in invitation.
Buck grabbed Chris's arm and leaned over to him. "Chris, I don't like this."
"Let me see what's going on." Chris walked up to the jail and pass the sheriff.
Chris's heart dropped into his stomach when he entered the jailhouse to see Ezra laying on the floor of his cell, unmoving, a bullet hole in his leg bleeding profusely. Mitch sat on the floor outside the cell, his gun loosely held in his hand. Ezra's face was bruised and bloodied and he seemed to be having trouble drawing a decent breath. No one was helping and the blood continued to pool underneath him.
Chris started toward Ezra until Tom blocked his progress with a gun aimed at his heart.
"What the hell is going on?" Chris snapped.
Kane smiled, easing his mass into the chair behind the desk. "Well, Mr. Standish tried to escape again and we had to shoot him."
Chris glared at the sheriff not buying the story for a moment.
Kane's smile grew and infuriated the gunslinger more. "That's my story and I'm sticking with it," Kane quipped. "I have two witnesses."
"What do you want?" Chris asked, keeping his voice low and even.
Kane smoothed out the familiar poster that lay on his desk. Chris glanced down at the face of his friend; then shifted his gaze back to Ezra. Kane followed the gunslinger's gaze glad to see the worry in the blond gunslinger's face. He wasn't sure this would work. He didn't know what the cardshark meant to this man.
"What's Ezra got to do with this Vin Tanner?" Chris asked.
"I have a problem that I think you can help solve. We're both smart men who uphold the law, but I realize that in certain situations, for whatever reason, a man sometimes has to be forced into doing what's right."
Ezra was barely conscious and fighting to control the waves of pain that assaulted his senses and his growing weakness. He heard Chris's voice and tried to concentrate on what was being said.
"We're leaving tomorrow," Kane calmly said.
"What about Ezra?" Chris asked, bringing his icy gaze upon the sheriff.
"Oh, he's coming with us, just as he is. It's a long way back to Fort Laramie, and well, if Mr. Standish doesn't make it..." The words fell off as Kane's smile grew, scrunching up his eyes.
"Now, maybe, if you could offer me a distraction, say someone I need to take to Tacosa..." Kane patted the poster in front of him. "I might be of a mind to just forget Mr. Standish."
Chris stared back at Ezra.
"He ain't goin' to last much longer if'n you don't stop that bleeding," Chris said as he watched the pool of blood slowly grow around the conman.
Kane glanced over at Ezra. "He'll last long enough," he quipped and looked back over at Larabee. "Your answer, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris took a deep breath and turned to face the devious and ruthless sheriff. "You can go to hell. I already told you, I don't know Vin Tanner and even if I did I wouldn't hand him over to you."
Ezra opened his eyes and smiled as he looked up at Chris. He hid the feelings that were churning up inside him. He was responsible for this. If anything happened to Vin he'd never forgive himself and he doubted the others would either.
Chris glanced over to see Ezra looking at him with approval. He could tell that he was just barely hanging on. He had put Ezra in this position. He should have let him escape. Chris tried to reassure the injured man with a look but knew he wasn't pulling it off very well.
Kane shrugged. "Oh well, either way I'm taking someone in. Tom, go and tie off that wound, but that's all." Kane glared at Chris. "You have till tomorrow to change your mind."
"You're not going to get away with this," Chris growled.
"Oh, I think I will. It's our word against the word of a hired gun who is harboring a wanted man. Mr. Standish is legally wanted, and he tried to escape," Kane stressed. "The people of Fort Laramie won't care if I bring in a dead fugitive. It'll save them the time and cost of a trial."
Ezra tried to move back when Tom entered the cell. The deputy grasped his injured leg and Ezra groaned in pain. Tom pushed the gambler back to the floor. He wrapped a bandana tightly around the bullet wound and tied it with a brutal yank. Ezra's back arched over his cuffed wrists and he rolled to his side. Chris balled his fists and stepped toward the cell, stopping when he saw Mitch cock his gun and take aim at Ezra's head.
"You'll never make it, Larabee." Kane sat back watching the surge of emotions ripple across the gunslinger's face.
Chris gave one last glance at Ezra, turned and stalked out the door. Tom stepped up to the doorway watching the gunslinger storm across the street his black duster flapping behind him.
"Mr. Larabee will never trade my loathsome life for another," Ezra gasped.
Kane frowned. He really didn't want to drag Standish all the way back to Laramie. Tanner was a much bigger fish and one who would greatly further his agenda. He was betting on Larabee's loyalty to his men. He knew men who worked together sometimes developed more than a passing alliance, especially in jobs where your life depended on another's trust.
"You better hope you're wrong, Mr. Standish."
Chris seemed to cut a heated swathe through the icy air as he exited the jail, his angered strides kicking out his black duster. No one said a word as they fell in behind him. They entered the saloon and Vin, who had his mare's leg ready, met them.
"What the hell is going on?" Buck yelled out after checking to be sure that the saloon was empty. He watched as Chris went up to the bar and stopped, his shoulders heaving.
"Kane shot Ezra!" Chris blurted out, turning around to face his men.
"He shot Ezra! Is he alright?" Nathan was the first to ask.
Chris remained silent his gaze distant.
"Dammit, Chris, what the hell is going on?" Buck demanded again. Chris's eyes focused on his friend, and Buck saw the turmoil within those icy orbs and fear strangled his heart.
"Kane plans to leave for Fort Laramie in the morning," Chris explained.
"Shouldn't I go over there and take care of Ezra?" Nathan asked. He didn't understand. Why wouldn't Chris have him tend to the southerner? Sure, they had their differences, but Nathan never wished any harm on the arrogant conman. Maybe Ezra didn't want his help.
"Kane won't let you. He wants Vin." Chris looked over at the tracker. Vin met his friend's regretful gaze. "He won't let anyone help Ezra until you turn yourself in."
"Ah shit, how bad is he?" JD asked his eyes wide in disbelief.
Chris removed his hat and wished for a whiskey. "Bad, looks like they beat him some too. He lost a lot of blood."
"He'll never make it to Laramie," Buck said.
"I think that's the general idea," Chris answered.
"I can't let Ezra die because of me," Vin stated.
"Vin, you're innocent," JD replied.
"So's Ezra," Josiah countered.
"I don't know I bet there's something in his past..." Nathan absently spoke, instantly regretting the slander. "Sorry, but Vin will hang if he turns himself in."
Vin glared at the healer. He knew Nathan had a hard time with Ezra's way of life, but sometimes the moral healer could be so damn mule-headed and self-righteous he wanted to slap him upside the head. "We all have things in our past we're not proud of, Nathan. Y'all think Ezra deserves this more than I do? Just because I'm innocent of one killing..."
This brought a ripple of guilt that caused heads to bow and eyes to shift.
"It's just that Ezra, sometimes, would rather hide his good qualities," JD warily added in way of justification. He liked the wily cardshark and knew he was a good man, but he also liked Vin. How could they surrender one for another?
"Unless you count his gift of gab," Buck quipped.
"Sometimes a man's talent can be a double-edged sword," Josiah said.
Vin shook his head. They hadn't seen it. Maybe it was his mother's sensitivity that allowed him to perceive what people were really like and enabled him to learn what was underneath Ezra's protective shell.
"I know we've only known him a few weeks." Vin's voice was meditative, seeming to concentrate on what he was going to say. "I'll be the first to admit the man's a hard person to get to know, but I have learned one thing. Except for maybe Nathan, whenever we all git in a situation, the first thing we do is go for our guns. It's second nature to us."
Everyone paused and thought for a moment then nodded in agreement.
"We all know Ezra is good with a gun but whenever he gets in trouble the first thing he does is try and talk his way out. There's a lot to be said for a man who doesn't always deal with a situation with a gun in his hand."
"That same smooth talkin' is what got him in this position," Buck stated without rancor.
Josiah chuckled. "True, but what Vin says has a lot of merit. I believe Ezra's questionable traits hide a great many redeeming qualities."
"Still, I can't let Vin give up his life," Chris said.
"I don't think we have any choice cowboy," Vin replied.
"Yeah, those ain't some no-account outlaws that we can just go over and shoot. That's a reputable sheriff and his deputies," Buck added.
JD snorted at the use of the word reputable.
"That's why what I'm about to ask you shouldn't be taken lightly." Chris looked at each of his men before he continued, "We can't let them take Ezra. He'll die out on the trail." Chris paused and took a deep breath. "Tomorrow morning I'm going to be in front of the jail."
"Chris, no." Buck's eyes went wide at what his friend was saying.
"I'm with ya, pard," Vin concurred. "Hell, I'm already wanted, might as well make it fer something I really did. Ezra deserves a chance."
Chris smiled. He knew Vin would be at his side forever.
"There won't be any hard feelings if'n anyone doesn't want to be involved." Chris looked over at JD. "JD, you're too young. I would favor you stay out of this." He then turned his attention to Nathan. He knew that there was no love between the ex-slave and southerner. He gave Nathan his out. "Nathan, your healin' is needed in this town, you should stay."
No one said a word. Chris glanced over at the others, men he had come to trust and who he was asking to give up a life they'd all come to cherish. Was it asking too much? Maybe, but Ezra was part of this family and Chris would not let him fall.
"Anyone who wants to do this be here before dawn with your bags packed."
"Chris, you do know what you're askin'?" Buck breathed.
"Yep, that's why I want you all to think long and hard before you make a decision. Chances are, people are goin' to die and we'll no longer be lawmen. We'll be outlaws."
The six men furtively left the saloon to seek out their own private solace, to make a decision that would irrevocably change their lives. It was a decision they could only make within themselves.
Josiah lifted his eyes off the bible he was reading to see Nathan walking up the aisle of the church. The healer's hand lazily swept over the tops of the pews. When he reached the front, he tiredly sat down his fingers now fidgeting with the brim of his hat. The thoughts and rebuttals that swirled through his head kept his fingers moving.
Josiah waited patiently for his friend, knowing Nathan was having a hard time coming to a decision. He slowly closed the bible resting his hand on the smooth leather cover. He was trying to find his own answers. He finally stepped down from the altar and sat down next to his long time friend. He owed Nathan his life, but he owed Ezra and the others more--his soul.
"Is it worth becoming wanted men and losing everything we've gained?" Nathan quietly asked, almost ashamed.
"No one but you can answer that."
Nathan looked at the former preacher. "What are you going to do?" He knew the answer but still wanted to hear it.
Josiah turned to his friend, his gray-blue eyes shining like a man half his age. "I think you know."
Nathan nodded. He didn't want to lose the family he had acquired and Ezra was part of that family, good or bad. They had been through a lot together and there were times when Nathan thought he could find some measure of commonality.
"Damn." The whispered curse brought a smile to the tracker's face. He turned his head to see Buck's dark form trying to traverse the slanted roof. The cowboy's bulk worked against him. Vin and Ezra's slighter frames gave them cat like grace and surefootedness and made the roof an ideal place to escape. Vin had only discovered this idyllic height when he had to find Ezra. It took the better part of a day to finally locate the missing gambler, relaxing on the rooftop just outside his window.
"Watch out for loose tiles," Vin helpfully warned, listening to Buck's scraping boots and muttered curses. He turned his face back toward the clear star-studded night. Heavy clouds would occasionally blot out a cluster of the sparkling lights.
"I don't know how you and Ez can do this," Buck stated as he cautiously sat down next to his friend. He was glad it was too dark to see the ground.
Buck took a deep breath then looked out over the street at the faint glow coming from the jail. "Probably 'fraid we'll bust him out." Both men chuckled at the thought.
"Haven't seen Ezra's head in the window all night," Vin morosely informed.
The others still couldn't believe that Ezra was actually trying to protect him, but Vin wasn't surprised. He was learning that the conman had more layers than an onion, and just when you thought you were reaching the heart, another layer was revealed.
"Make your decision?" Vin asked, looking over at the ladies man.
It was a moment before Buck answered. "Yep. Been followin' Chris most of my life, too old to stop now." Buck turned his head in Vin's direction even though he could barely see the longhaired tracker. "Sort of was getting use to this place, probably a good thing to move on." Vin heard the sadness as much as Buck felt it. Both men knew they had found a home here, but Ezra was part of their family and they would not let him down.
"What about JD?"
"I'm tempted to knock his fool ass out and tie him up somewhere till this is over. He's too young to be wanted." Buck glanced over at the buckskin tracker. Vin was to young too.
"He'd hate ya for it."
"Yeah, I know, but it'd be worth it." The thought of JD being wanted didn't set right with the gregarious cowboy, but then the thought that he'd never see his young friend again didn't set right either.
"I'm tempted to just go over there and give myself up," Vin stated.
"Then we'd just have to break both of you out," Buck said without hesitation. He heard the soft chuckle.
JD steadily brushed his horse, relying on his familiarity with the stable to get around. He didn't want anyone trespassing on his thoughts. His bedroll sat in the corner of the stall along with his saddlebags. He had avoided the others, especially Buck, knowing they would try and to talk him out of coming along. He wanted the decision and consequences to be his own. He knew he wanted to be with the others and he wanted to save Ezra. He liked the conniving cardshark. Ezra treated him like an equal instead of some kid. JD halted his brushing and looked up. His mother would be disappointed. She would not want him throwing away all he had achieved. JD exhaled a quivering breath and a single tear slid down his face. "Sorry, ma," he whispered and began brushing with a vigor he hoped would chase away the fear and doubt.
A calm fell over him and he stopped his grooming and smiled. No, his mother would be proud of him. He was taking a stand willing to risk his life for a friend.
Tom stood up from the top step and gripped his rifle as the dark healer materialized in front of him. "What'cha you want?" The disgust dripped off the words and Nathan hung his head, wondering how someone so young had developed such hate.
"I want to see Ezra." Nathan held his bag in front of him and kept his hands away from his body.
"Why?" Tom eyed the man suspiciously.
"I'm a healer I want to help him."
Tom's eyes grew wide. Now no one would believe this one, a darkie doctor who actually wanted to help a reb. A mirthless laugh burst out of the deputy's throat.
"I can't let you in," Tom finally managed to voice.
Tom rolled his eyes. "Sheriff Kane has commandeered this jail and only us and prisoners are allowed inside."
Nathan looked past the deputy knowing that Ezra was probably bleeding to death. "Then arrest me!" Nathan said.
"For this." Nathan balled his fist, jumped up to the first step and swung, connecting with the deputy's jaw and knocking him aside. He went for the door only to be forced back by Sheriff Kane and a gun pointed at his head.
"Mr. Jackson, I commend your loyalty and sense of compassion but that was truly foolhardy."
"Just let me check on him," Nathan pleaded. He forced a long practiced face of submission to surface, hoping to get the sheriff to show some mercy. Kane stared at the earnest healer. He didn't like what was happening and at times wondered why it had gone this far. He was a lawman and his duty demanded that he bring in desperate men.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson. Mr. Larabee knows what it will take, good night." The sheriff disappeared inside as Tom resumed his position in front of the door glaring at the healer.
"You better get your black ass out of my sight," Tom sneered bringing one hand up to rub his jaw.
Nathan matched the deputy's icy stare then turned and disappeared into the dark.
Larabee sipped at his coffee as he sat in the darkened saloon. He tried to soak in the feel of the rustic tavern, trying to fill himself with its ambiance. He wanted to give himself something to hold on to. The people of this town had managed to break through three years of self-pity and grief. The six men he rode with reminded him what it was like to be a part of something and to care about something. After today, he wondered what his life would be like. Would he go back to his days as a drifter? A shiver went down his spine and some of his coffee slopped over the cup.
Buck and Vin crossed the floor and sat on opposite sides of Chris. "Coffee's still hot," Chris stated.
Vin got up and went to the bar to retrieve the pot and several cups. Chris looked up as Vin placed three extra cups down on the table. "Pretty confidant, huh?" Chris chuckled.
The gunslingers' hearts filled with remorse when JD walked into the saloon. The young gunslinger stopped and looked at the three men he most admired. The morning sun was rising, creating an ethereal glow throughout the bar room. JD looked at Buck's forlorn face.
Buck's heart was torn in two. One half wanted the boy not to get involved, and the other half wanted him nearby. Buck figured he could live with half a heart. He forced a smile at his friend and pushed out a nearby chair.
Josiah's expected mass entered, followed shortly afterward by Nathan.
"Hell, someone's goin' to have to patch his sorry ass up," Nathan replied to everyone's disbelief when he entered the saloon.
"So, what's the plan, Chris?" Buck asked.
"Vin, go to the roof and stay out of sight." Chris raised a hand to curb any arguments. "I'm going to try once more to talk sense into Sheriff Kane." Chris looked over at JD and his heart ached for the young gunslinger. He shifted his gaze to Nathan. "Nathan, what shape can we expect Ezra to be in?"
Nate's brow furrowed. "Blood loss, dehydration, shock, maybe infection if the wound hasn't been tended."
"Ah jeez," Buck murmured.
"Alright, Nathan, when you get a chance get Ezra on a horse and ride out. We'll meet at Squire's Rock. Do what you can for him until we get there."
"We'll try not to kill anyone but if it comes down to us or them..." Chris left the rest unsaid. "We'll head on down to Mexico for a bit. If no one gits killed, maybe we'll be able to come back later."
"What if we do..." JD cleared his throat. "You know...kill one of them?"
Chris bowed his head.
"We learn to speak Spanish kid." Vin rested a hand on the young gunslinger's shoulders. "We're goin' to 'ave to split up. Seven men together are too visible."
"I know," Chris replied. "As soon as we fix Ezra up, we'll split off and go our separate ways for awhile."
Sadness enveloped the six men like a funeral procession marching through their hearts. This was how it was going to end, with them becoming outlaws to save one of their own.
Chris picked up his hat and rose from his chair. "Everyone ready?" The others all stood ready to follow him to hell and back. Chris checked his gun and then holstered it, knowing there wasn't any going back.
"May God ride with us all," Josiah cited.
"Amen," Buck murmured and followed Chris out the door.
Vin stole up the back stairs and onto the roof of the saloon. The morning dawn bathed the street in golden rays. He looked up and down the familiar street knowing that soon nothing would look the same.
Chris and the others strode together toward the jail, stopping in the middle of the street. JD wiped his palms down his jacket and jumped when Buck's hand grasped and squeezed his shoulder.
The door to the jail opened and Kane stepped out. He stared at the five men and saw their intentions in their stance. He obviously misjudged Larabee's sense of justice and his feelings toward the gambler.
Tom and Mitch came out dragging Ezra between them.
"Shit," Buck whispered as he looked at the limp man held up by the deputies. JD hissed and Josiah mumbled a prayer of retribution.
Chris's jaw clenched at the condition of the gambler. Why hadn't he trusted him? Ezra's right pant leg was soaked dark red. No one could see Ezra's face as his chin rested on his chest.
Tom paled at the sight of the five gunslingers. He thought they would just let them ride out with the gambler. Maybe they were bluffing. Tom met Larabee's stare and knew this was not a bluff. Someone was going to die.
Nathan's brow furrowed at the sight of the southerner. He barely looked alive.
"Mr. Larabee, I hope you know what you are doing. We are officers of the law," Kane stated, trying to hold back his growing fear. He didn't think that Larabee and his men would take it this far.
"Let Nathan tend to Ezra and this can all be avoided," Chris firmly stated, pulling back the corner of his duster to reveal his revolvers.
"Sorry, not until I get Vin Tanner," Kane stressed.
"It ain't goin' to happen," Chris confidently replied.
Kane rested his hand on his gun hoping to show them that he was not going to back down.
Mitch leaned over toward the sheriff. "You know, sir, I ain't so sure that was Tanner I saw in the saloon," he stammered. He didn't want to die.
"Shut up!" A bunch of no-account hired guns was not going to intimidate him. It would ruin his reputation. "You would risk your lives for a wanted man and a gambler?" Kane yelled to the five men.
"No," Chris answered. "For our friends."
Vin stared intently at Ezra, trying to see if he was breathing. He exhaled and closed his eyes a moment in thanks when he saw the conman stir.
Ezra's mind rose slowly up to some level of consciousness. His body remained disconnected, although it was beginning to awaken. He felt the deputies holding him up and his arms and shoulders were slowly starting to burn. He opened his eyes and looked at his pant's leg, which was stained dark with blood, and was grateful for the dissociation, for however long it lasted. He heard the sheriff's voice but couldn't make out what he was saying. Chris's distinctive tenor growled in return. Ezra slowly, and with great effort, raised his head. He was able to make out Chris, Buck, JD, Josiah and Nathan standing in the middle of the street. His brow furrowed wondering what was going on. Ezra watched the sheriff lay his hand on his gun; he then noticed that his friends stood unyielding, prepared for gunplay. What were they doing? This was completely irrational. They were going to risk becoming wanted men or worse, die. For what? For him? Ezra took a deep breath and began to put weight on his good leg.
Chris and the others looked at the pain filled expression on their friend's face fortifying their resolve. Ezra's dull gaze swept over his friends and his heart filled with respect for their steadfastness. He'd never had anyone go to such extremes for him.
Nathan could tell that Ezra was fighting to stay conscious. How much blood could a man afford to lose? He wondered if all this would be for not. Were they playing a losing hand?
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra's voice was barely above a whisper and trembled with pain. He wished he'd expire at this moment and end this foolishness before it was too late. "Please, don't do this." Ezra collapsed within the deputies' grip the last of his strength deserting him.
Larabee's jaw clenched. He knew men would die today and all their lives would be irrevocably changed.
A bead of sweat ran down between JD's intense eyes as he concentrated on the melodrama in front of him. Hands hovered near revolvers and muscles tensed as eyes narrowed and breathing became shallow, trying to compensate for loud pounding hearts. Everyone waited for someone to make the first move. Seconds ticked by and JD would swear that time froze, and ten men teetered on a void between life and death waiting for someone to make the first move and push them all over the precipice.
A shout and the jarring rattle of a racing stagecoach seemed to come out of thin air and punched a hole in the silent and ultimately deadly performance. JD and the deputies were the only ones to flinch and look toward the stage coming down the street. Only experience and a sense of relief kept anyone from drawing. The stage stopped just past the jail and the coach door flew open allowing Judge Travis to disembark. He held a shotgun loosely in his arms as he walked down the street, stopping in the middle of the two groups of men. Eyeing the situation, he glared at Chris then the sheriff.
"Sheriff Kane, what are your men doing with Mr. Standish?" He quickly took in the gambler's condition and half wondered if the deputies held a corpse.
"He's under arrest for jumping bail, sir. I'm returning him to Fort Laramie for trial," Kane explained.
"Sheriff Kane, I pardoned this man."
"We didn't receive any word."
"Did Sheriff Dunne fail to inform you when you arrived?
"We told 'im, Judge," JD quickly replied.
"He didn't have any papers," Kane interjected.
Travis glared at the sheriff. "And why is Mr. Standish in such a state?"
"He struck one of my men and tried to escape."
"He wouldn't 'ave had to escape if'n you didn't arrest him in the first place," Buck defended still ready to shoot their way out.
Josiah stepped forward. "Actually, Judge, Sheriff Kane and his men were bringing our brother over to the clinic."
"Is this true?"
"Yes Sir," Kane reluctantly admitted biting his lip.
"Well, you better get to it."
Vin breathed a sigh of relief and disappeared from his aerial post.
Kane stepped aside and allowed Tom and Mitch to drag Ezra across the street following the healer toward the clinic. Chris tipped his hat to the judge and quickly chased after the others.
Travis stepped up to within a foot of the sheriff. Before the esteemed magistrate could say anything Kane spoke, "Sir, are you aware that Larabee is harboring a known fugitive?" The judge's face settled into stern lines as Kane shoved the poster into his hands.
"Vin Tanner," Kane pointed out.
The judge inhaled, held it, and then exhaled. His calm demeanor belied the ferocity of his gaze. "Have you seen this Mr. Tanner?"
"Well, no I haven't, but one of my men thinks he saw him in the saloon."
"Thinks," Travis repeated. He leaned in closer to the sheriff. "If this Vin Tanner is around I'm sure Mr. Larabee and his men will take care of him."
Kane's eyebrows lifted as his mouth fell open. "Sir, I don't think..."
"That's right, you didn't think," Travis growled. "And the only reason I'm allowing you to keep your badge is if Mr. Standish dies it might be the only thing that'll save your life. I would advise you to leave immediately."
"Get those cuffs off him," Nathan yelled at the two deputies. They immediately complied and then rushed to exit the clinic.
"JD, Buck, massage his arms," Nathan urgently instructed. "They've been bound too long." Nathan grabbed a jar and tossed it to Buck. "Put this salve on his wrists."
Nathan pulled open the gambler's shirt and swore at the bruises that covered his torso. "Damn, they must have used him as a punching bag." Nathan lifted an eyelid and then checked the head injuries. "Get those clothes off 'im."
"How is he, Nate?" Chris asked as he walked into the clinic.
JD gently pulled off the gambler's boots as Nathan ripped open the blood-encrusted material of Ezra's pants leg. Everyone gasped at the angry wound. It looked like a miniature volcano erupting with pus and blood.
"Aw hell, the bullet's still in him."
Ezra moaned and tried to pull his leg away from the healer's probing.
Josiah quickly wrung out a cloth and began wiping the cardshark's face.
Ezra's eyes flashed open and he panicked for a moment. Then he took in his surroundings and was relieved to find himself in Nathan's clinic. Chris saw the growing alarm subside in the gambler's face.
"What happened?" Ezra managed to gasp.
"The Judge arrived."
"Remind me...to thank him...on his impeccable...timing."
"Shush now, save your strength." Nathan slipped his hand under the conman's head and brought a cup of laudanum-laced water to his lips. "You need to drink this. I have to get the bullet out."
Ezra drank the contents of the cup his eyes remaining locked on Chris's form.
Chagrin flickered across Nathan's dark features as he laid Ezra's fever stoked body back onto the pillow. He was so weak.
Vin slipped into the clinic and paled at the sight of his friend. Nathan picked up his scalpel and nodded for Buck and Chris to hold Ezra's upper body. Josiah and Vin moved in to hold his legs. JD wet a cloth and held it ready for the healer.
Ezra grabbed Nathan's wrist in a weak grasp and looked at Chris.
"Why?" His eyes fluttered fighting the effects of the laudanum.
"You're one of us, Ezra, even if it's only for another week. We take care of our own."
Ezra slowly released his grip and Nathan pressed him back into the bed.
The healer took a deep breath, and checked to make sure that everyone was in place. He began to cut into the festering wound. Ezra screamed. It was a primal sound that echoed in the room. He fought against the grips of his friends and they added more weight to hold him still. Torrents of pain radiated through his body and the agony was clear on his face.
The healer kept his concentration on finding and removing the bullet, but he could feel Ezra trembling and knew that he was in danger of going into shock.
"Hurry Nathan!" Buck grunted, straining to keep the gambler still.
"Ezra!" Chris spoke in a hoarse whisper. "We don't want you to go. Stay with us." Suddenly Ezra fell limp and fear flashed on everyone's faces. Nathan didn't stop from his task. The sharp knife dug deeper into the wound. JD turned away from the gruesome sight. Finally, with a grunt Nathan pulled the bullet out then quickly pressed a clean cloth to the injury. He checked Ezra's pulse. The men relaxed their holds but Nathan shook his head. "Hang on to him. I gotta clean it."
Even unconscious Ezra's body jerked when Nathan applied alcohol to the cut. He pressed JD's hand over the clean cloth that covered the bullet hole and turned aside to thread a tiny needle. His stitches were quick and neat, lacing the laceration and putting a stop to the bleeding.
"We've got to keep him warm and get some water into him," Nathan said as he applied a gentle pressure to the wound. JD handed him more bandages and together they began to wrap the leg.
"Nathan, is he going to be alright?" Josiah asked, panting from the exertion of holding down the pain-ridden man.
Nathan swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. "I don't know."
Buck let go of Ezra's shoulder and watched the red marks from his fingers fade from the conman's pale skin. He stared at Ezra's tortured body. Had Ezra given his life to save Vin? Buck would not let him die in vain.
"C'mon Vin there's something we need to take care of."
Vin followed Buck out without question.
Kane had sent his two deputies back to Fort Laramie. He had decided to stay in town for a while. Now, as he watched the tall cowboy, across the street, from inside the jail, he was glad he did. Wilmington seemed to be waiting for someone. His eyes widen when Buck motioned and someone dressed in buckskins whipped around the corner toward the clinic.
"I gotcha now Tanner." Kane jogged across the street, pulling his gun. His first thought was that Tanner must be going to check on Standish.
Kane kicked in the door and was greeted by four guns drawn and aimed directly at him. "You can't hide him now, Larabee. I saw that sonofabitch come up here." Kane tried to look over the others shoulders. "Come out Tanner, it's over."
A buckskin-clad man with long hair stepped around from behind the others. Kane's smile dropped along with his gun. The man was at least fifty years old. "Who...who the hell are you?"
"Names Dyson, Larry Dyson. Don't know no Tanner."
Kane glared at the men standing before him and a shudder went down his spine. His eyes met Larabee's icy glare. The sheriff straightened and holstered his gun. "I apologize Mr. Dyson, apparently there has been a mistake."
Buck pushed himself forward his face flustered with rage. "Mistake! You call what you did to Ezra a mistake?"
Kane clenched his jaw. "I was within my right. At the time he was a prisoner, and he tried to escape."
"You go ahead and stick to that story if it makes you feel better, but if Ezra dies we're going to have a long talk," Chris calmly stated.
Kane looked over at the pale gambler. He looked as good as dead. His gaze shifted back to the five gunslingers that surrounded him. Kane knew his days as a lawman were over. He turned on his heel and walked out. He was leaving Four Corners, that was certain. But he wasn't going back to Fort Laramie. That would be the first place Larabee and the others would start searching for him when the conman died.
"How's he doing?" Chris asked. Nathan was wiping down the fevered man with cool cloths. JD entered, banging a bucket of water against the doorframe.
"Here's some more water, Nate."
"Good, put it over there." He looked up at Chris. "He's lost a lot of blood. We have to build him up or he won't have the strength to fight this."
Ezra groaned and his head rolled to the side. His hands fisted the sheets beneath him. Sweat pooled at the center of his chest and slid to the damp bed as he twisted in pain. Chris helped Nathan hold up his head as they coaxed him to drink more laudanum.
"My God, Ezra." Chris settled on a chair next to the bed, prepared to stay with his friend. "I'm sorry."
For three days the six gunslingers kept a constant vigil over the gambler, vacillating between the hope that he would recover and the despair of his death. They bathed him constantly, trying to cool the rampant fever and watched as the bruises on his torso began to fade to yellow.
On the morning of the fourth day Ezra opened his eyes and felt the warmth of a hand wrapped around his own. Josiah was asleep, his head on the open bible that was set on the edge of the bed. Ezra took a minute to breathe then squeezed the preacher's hand.
Josiah lifted his head and studied Ezra's expression. "Brother Ezra," he whispered. "Good morning. I'm glad that you decided to stay with us." Josiah watched as Ezra's face lit up.
Chris and Vin walked side by side down the boardwalk, heading to the saloon. Vin nodded at the figure ahead of them.
The gambler leaned back in a chair with his feet propped up on the railing. They had almost lost the enigmatic southerner and Chris discovered that he would have really missed him. They still wondered if they were going to lose him.
"Ay Ez, you know the judge gave you your pardon," Vin said as he sat down next to his friend. Ezra raised his head and looked at the two men. He winced as he lifted his leg and positioned it on the boardwalk.
"And I plan on having it framed and mounted on my wall." Ezra grinned.
Vin glanced over at Chris then back at the healing conman. "So, you plan on stayin' or what?"
"I find I have not fully recovered from my ordeal."
Chris smiled. He suspected the suave gambler didn't want to leave anymore then they wanted him too, but appearances were everything to the urbane gambler. Chris was willing to play along.
"You let us know when you've recovered," Chris said, making his way to the saloon doors.
"I will indeed, Mr. Larabee, but I find these things sometimes take time," Ezra replied, leaning back in the chair and pulling his hat down over his eyes. Chris nodded, smiling as he and Vin disappeared inside the saloon.