Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
[I want to thank my beta, Nottasha, for her wonderful work and my idea Guru, Carla.]
The morning sun was making itself known, easing its shafts of light into the small jailhouse through the single pane window. The sunlight touched on two weary men slouched in comfortless positions within the small jail. The two lawmen were awaiting the arrival of their relief from their mundane duty of guarding the only prisoner to be occupying their jail at the moment. Jonas Mickelson, had slept peacefully all night, which totally amazed his two sentries, considering the man was to be tried for murder and would probably hang.
Ezra Standish absently shuffled through a worn deck of cards, trying to at least keep his fingers warm. An involuntary shiver went through his sinewy body. The rising sun brought little relief from the pre-dawn cold, if anything, it felt colder. He wished his obliged duty could have been in more amiable surroundings, like Atlanta or Baton Rouge. Unlike the other six lawmen who protected the small backwater town of Four Corners, he was not use to nor did he have a fondness for the capricious Colorado climate. He fanned his deck of cards closed and laid them down, rubbing his manicured hands together. He glanced over at the youngest member of their coterie.
JD snoozed in a chair that was tilted back, on two legs, against the wall, an innocent smile twitched at his lips. Ezra had to wonder what the boy could possibly being dreaming about that would elicit such an expression. Whatever it was it seemed to be keeping him warm. He glanced at the regulator clock on the wall and cursed, they were late.
Ezra stood up and stretched, the chair squeaking its relief as the weight was removed from it. He moved stiffly at first, picking up a piece of wood to throw into the small stove, which sat in the center of the room. JD stirred slightly and Ezra smiled. He would give Buck the pleasure of waking the young man. He stepped over to the window, hoping to see Vin or Buck heading their way. He wanted to get some sleep before this evening's festivities; he needed to be sharp. Three businessmen had arrived on last night's stage, and by the looks of them Ezra thought he would finally engage in an interesting game, or at least a profitable one.
He peered out again onto the desolate, cold swept street, seeing no sign of his two compatriots. The cold was probably making it difficult for Mr. Wilmington to extricate himself from the warm embrace of his recent conquest. Ezra smiled at the thought, they all had their vices. He turned around, planning on making another pot of coffee for his delayed friends. Friends, the word still stuck in his throat, but he did consider the six gunslingers friends. He wasn't sure the feeling was mutual, well except for JD.
The door crashed open with the force of a booted kick. A cold burst of air paved the way for two scruffy-looking men. Ezra's finger's released the pot of coffee and instinctively went for his gun when a star-studded pain exploded in the back of his skull; he met the floor and oblivion at the same time.
JD jerked awake; his arms spinning wildly as his off-balanced chair crashed to the floor. He quickly scrambled to his feet. His eyes wide as his hands went instinctively for his guns. He stopped when he saw one of the invading individuals standing over Ezra's inert body, pointing a gun at the southerner's head. The second man, a smaller version of the first, stepped around the man holding the gun on Ezra. With a pleased grin on his face he took JD's guns and slipped them into his own waist belt. He then clenched his fist and drove it into JD's stomach, causing the young sheriff to fall to his knees, one arm wrapped around his gut, the other grabbed out for any life line it could fine.
Jonas stood at the bars, grinning. "Hank, Floyd! It's 'bout time you got here!" he admonished.
JD was struggling to regain the air he lost. He slowly stood, using the toppled chair for support; he couldn't believe they had been taken so easily. He berated himself for falling asleep, and knew that Chris would have his hide when he found out. Right now Chris' wrath was the least of his worries. Ezra hadn't moved, and JD didn't know if the gambler was alive or dead. He took as deep a breath as he could, trying to slow his racing heart, taking on the attitude of indifference, which the others seemed able to pull off with ease.
"Okay, boy!" Floyd sneered, stepping up to stand in front of JD, who could see a long ragged scar that ran down the outlaw's face. JD's heart began to race once again. He raised brown eyes to match up with dark gray ones. "Open that cell and let our brother out."
JD balked for only a moment then stepped behind the desk and withdrew the keys from the drawer. "You're not going to get away with this," he pointed out, his voice carrying a strong note of defiance. He was surprised at how assured his voice sounded, especially since the rest of him was scared shitless. He made his way over to the cell and unlocked the door. Jonas roughly pushed the door open, forcing JD to throw up his hands to keep from getting hit in the face. The freed outlaw walked up and stood alongside his brother, Floyd, who passed him one of JD's guns.
"Well, sheriff," Jonas spat, looking around the room and holding up his hands in mock deference. "I don't see anyone here who can stop us." Jonas looked over his shoulder at his other brother and smiled, then returned his attention to the young gunslinger. "You all ain't so high and mighty when you're not together." Jonas chuckled, his voice taking on a sly tone. He took his foot and nudged Ezra in the side.
JD's lips pressed into a grim line of worry when this action didn't produce a response from the prone lawman. He nervously swept his dark hair out of his face and tried to think of his options; he hated feeling so helpless. Vin would never of been caught off guard. Buck would of already shot his way out of this, and Josiah would of knocked the men unconscious. Chris never would be in this situation. Even Ezra and Nathan would probably be able to talk their way out of this. He had to think, for his sake as well as Ezra's. Buck and Vin were due any minute; he had to stall.
"What'cha want to do with 'im, Jonas?" Hank asked. The outlaw's dark, sunken eyes caused JD to shift uncomfortably under his gaze.
Jonas looked down at Ezra, then back up at JD, who chewed his lip in consternation. "Shoot 'im."
"In the jail, come out and drop your guns!" The sound of Chris Larabee's voice brought immeasurable relief to JD. Chris' voice was like a guiding hand to a man lost in a storm, evoking confidence in the men who followed him, and fear in the ones who preferred life on the outskirts of the law. JD immediately felt renewed hope. A slight smirk lifted the corners of his lips as he watched fear grab hold of the three outlaw brothers, causing their feet to shift nervously and gun hands to twitch. Then he looked down at the still form of his friend and anguished passed across his face erasing his smug attitude. There would be no reveling if one of their own were dead.
Outside, three men stood oblivious to the cold that was wrapping icy fingers around the small town. One of the stable hands had seen two suspicious looking men enter the jail and had warned the other members of the Seven. Somehow these men had got the drop on JD an Ezra. At the moment, Chris was only worried about getting his men out of this alive. He could see the composed anguish playing across Buck's face. Buck and JD had almost a brotherly relationship and if anything happened to the young gunslinger, the devil would be rejoicing this day.
Jonas looked out the window and swore at the sight of the three lawmen. The dark-dressed gunslinger caused a cold hard fear to ball up inside him. He looked over his shoulder at his two brothers, both looking to him for answers. They had broken him out of jail, because they knew they couldn't make it without him. He was the brains of their little nefarious trio. "Grab the kid, we're making a break for it."
Floyd wrapped a meaty hand around JD's upper arm and forced him towards the door and into Jonas' grasp. JD took one last look at Ezra before being thrust out the door into the early morning cold.
The door to the jail was thrown open; Chris, Nathan and Buck went for their guns only to drop their hands away -- empty. JD was forced out first, a gun pressed against his head. Chris stood slightly in front of Buck and Nathan, the bottom of his black duster flapped in the increasing wind. He ignored the bite in the air as his eyes narrowed and his hand hovered near his gun. The sky had turned a dusky gray, blocking out the ineffectual sunlight, casting a dark and desolate pallor on the whole area, which only seemed to add to the magnitude of the situation that was unfolding in the street.
"Alright, unless you want to be known as the Magnificent six you better drop your guns and let us ride out of here," Jonas commanded as his forearm applied pressure to the young gunslinger's throat. "Where are the rest of your men?" His eyes darted back and forth looking for the missing lawmen.
"They're 'round," Chris calmly replied.
JD reached up taking hold of the forearm around his throat. This only provoked the cocking of the gun next to his head. Something about the sound of a gun hammer being pulled back in one's ear caused a man's blood to run cold. JD couldn't stop the fear that grabbed hold of his heart and revealed itself on his young face. He swallowed down the bile, which rose in his throat and hoped it wouldn't go in the other direction.
Hank and Floyd flanked their brother, both with guns drawn. The four slowly stepped off the boardwalk, forcing their reluctant hostage forward. JD concentrated on keeping his feet under him, but he also kept an eye on Chris.
Buck gripped the butt of his holstered gun tight, murmuring to himself for JD to stay calm. A knot had formed in his throat, swallowing was hard and so was breathing. His throat was so tight, and his emotions so close to the surface that he feared a deep breath would make him lose what ever fragil control he had.
They all knew what Jonas and his brothers were capable of. Jonas had been arrested for killing a farmer and stealing his horse. They were not about to let him get away, but neither were they going to risk JD's life.
Where was Ezra? Chris' blue eyes scanned the front of the jail looking for any sign of the wayward gambler. He didn't have to look to know Vin and Josiah were covering them from the roof, waiting for an opportunity to end the standoff.
"Damnit Chris, what do we do?" Buck murmured out the side of his mouth, the agitation thick in his voice. Chris knew he wouldn't be able to hold the ladies man back much longer. If anything happened to JD, Chris knew he'd lose his friend.
Chris stepped forward towards the three desperate men and JD. "Let 'im go!" he snarled, his tone laced with deadly intent that caused all three of the outlaws to give pause. Hank pulled at Floyd's arm, until he shrugged him off.
"Why don't you go to hell," Jonas snarled at the darkly-dressed lawman. The temperature seemed to drop in response to the virulent threat.
Ezra moaned and slowly opened his eyes to an askew scene; his left cheek rested on the rough hewed boards of the jail floor. He slowly struggled to his knees then blindly reached out and grabbed the edge of the desk, pulling himself to his feet. His hands stayed attached to the edge of the stationary furniture as the world spun around him. His head pounded in retribution for the abuse it had sustained. His stomach rolled and he swallowed back the bile that rose up his throat. He could hear voices, but they were muffled and the words were garbled, so meaningless.
He dropped his head, and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to concentrate, but this only caused the pounding in his head to increase with a ferocity that rivaled any hangover he had ever endured. He looked bleary eyed around the jail, seeing the empty cell, but not quite sure why this wasn't a good omen. His head lolled over to the closed outer door, and he took a deep breath. He could see fuzzy shapes moving just outside. He wondered for a moment why no one had found him lying in such a deplorable state.
Jonas kept his heavy forearm around JD's throat. He stared into three pairs of deadly eyes, then looked up to see Vin and Josiah on the roof across the street. He stared back at Chris and knew he wasn't going to get out of here without a fight.
JD saw the look in Chris' eyes; he didn't want to be responsible for any of them being hurt. He would not be Jonas' hostage any longer. Jonas' arm loosened slightly and JD took full advantage. He did something he hadn't done since he was a kid being tormented for being the son of a chambermaid. He bit down into the outlaw's arm as hard as he could, tasting the blood that seeped through his teeth.
Jonas yelped in surprise as much as in pain. He shoved the source of his pain away. JD turned to see the smile on Jonas' face, one that foretold of dire intent. Chris saw it too and drew his gun as Jonas' bullet tore through JD, driving the young man backwards before he turned and pitched forward into the dirt; Chris' shot ended the outlaw's life.
"Noooooo!" Buck yelled as he fired and ran towards his fallen friend. Floyd paused a moment, watching his brother fall. He raised his gun until a shot from Vin's rifle ended any further movement. Both Nathan and Buck's bullets ended the third and last brother's life. When the echoes of gunfire finally died, five lawmen looked upon four bodies. Buck was already on his knees next to JD. He gently turned the young man over, lifting him up by the shoulders and cradling him. Buck pushed JD's long dark hair out of his face, looking into a face that seemed far to young and looked far too peaceful. His eyes misted at the sight of the blood that covered the front of JD's shirt. Vin strode by to check on the bodies that littered the street, a gasp catching in his throat at the sight of JD. He squeezed his eyes shut; he didn't want to know if the young man was dead.
Buck didn't even sense Nathan at his side. "Buck, let me look at him!" Nathan urgently demanded, trying to break Buck from the fear that held him as strong as he held the young gunslinger. Chris placed a hand on Buck's shoulder as they all crowded around the wounded lawman. Nathan applied pressure to the wound on JD's shoulder, trying to stop the bleeding.
"Nathan?" Buck asked in a quivering voice.
"He's still alive, Buck, we have to get him up to the clinic so I can get the bullet out."
Chris turned when he heard shuffling footsteps on the boardwalk behind him. His blue eyes narrowed as he looked upon Ezra standing outside the jail house, seemingly unconcerned with what was happening in the street. His expression would have been comical if not for the seriousness of the situation.
"Where were you?" Chris asked, taking a couple steps towards the confused conman, his fists clenched at his side.
Josiah and Vin looked over at Ezra, who did appear detached from the whole situation. Josiah bowed and shook his head. He knew that Ezra still felt the outsider, but he thought the aloof conman was coming to care about them, think of them as family.
Ezra only stared, his face a mask of indifference. The impassive expression only infuriated Larabee all the more.
Buck laid JD down and stood up. "What the hell happened, Ezra?" he hissed out sharply, striding over towards the two men. Chris grabbed Buck before he could get close to the gambler. This was not the time to give Ezra a lesson in compassion. They would have to wait to get their questions answered. Chris only hoped he wouldn't regret the answers.
"I don't know," Ezra absently muttered. The simple statement was missed by the others when JD groaned as Josiah lifted him up, cradling him in his arms the ex-preacher headed towards Nathan's clinic.
Buck snorted in disgust, pulling at his gunbelt as he turned on his heel to follow Josiah.
"Get out of my sight!" Chris snarled at the man who continued to stand by the jail, his tone taking on a decidedly icy tone. He then abruptly turned and walked towards the clinic.
Ezra couldn't comprehend what had happened, or what was happening, but he understood Chris' venomous words as they stabbed through him like a knife, shredding his heart to pieces. He was being kicked out; he always knew it would happen eventually. He just didn't know it would hurt so much.
Josiah gently laid the wounded man down on the bed and moved aside as Nathan expertly removed JD's shirt. He probed the wound taking a cloth and gently wiping around the still bleeding hole in his friend's shoulder.
"I'm going to have to cut the bullet out."
Nathan heard Buck groan on the other side of the bed where he sat, holding his young friend's limp hand. Vin and Chris hugged the wall incase they were needed. For some reason, JD being hurt brought out paternal and brotherly feelings from the six other gunslingers, or at least five of them. Chris was still contemplating Ezra's actions. Where had he been? Had he left the young sheriff alone? And why didn't he help? Vin glanced over at the somber leader, knowing what thoughts were going through his mind. He wondered if Ezra would still be a part of their little band in the morning.
Nathan grabbed his scalpel and began to cut into the tender young flesh. JD's head rolled side to side and he tried to unconsciously pull away. Buck placed a firm, but gentle arm down across his other side, calming his feeble attempts at eluding the pain. The bullet had entered high in JD's shoulder, breaking his collarbone and wedging next to the bone. Nathan was able to extract the deadly foreign object without causing any more undue damage, but the young gunslinger had lost a fair amount of blood.
He had Josiah raise the youth up as he bound both his right arm and shoulder securely.
Buck's face showed the distress everyone else was feeling. He bowed his head, allowing his forehead to come in contact with the hand he still held. Nathan released a breath and plopped down in the nearby chair.
"He'll be okay. He just needs to rest and recoup some of that blood he lost," Nathan explained, hoping to relieve some of the anxiety that filled the small room. Everyone visibly relaxed and found a comfortable spot on the floor, not willing to leave until JD woke and reaffirmed Nathan's diagnose.
Chris stared down at the young gunslinger. He wanted to know what had happened. Ezra had not come by to check on JD, and Chris actually found that odd. He had thought if there was anyone that Ezra would be worried about, it would be JD. The young easterner looked up to the southerner in a way no one could explain, somehow JD saw something in the conniving conman that the others didn't. Chris bowed his head and rubbed at his tired eyes, maybe he had figured Ezra out all wrong. He had thought the suave gambler was starting to allow himself to become part of their eclectic family; apparently, they had all been conned.
Ezra's head felt as if someone was forging implements of war for the entire 6th Army between his ears. A shiver ran through his body and he wrapped his inadequate maroon jacket tighter around his body. He slowly made his way over to the stables, not noticing the darker, more ominous clouds peeking up over the distant mountains behind him. The sun managed to cast a faint glow throughout the impenetrable gray cloud cover, seemingly trying to escape the darkness that was slowly filling the sky.
Buck sat in the somber quiet of the clinic, gently rubbing JD's hand. Nathan continued to mop his heated brow. The fever came quick, but it didn't seem to be getting any worse. It had been almost three hours since he removed the bullet and they were all hoping the young lawman would wake up soon.
Buck's thoughts drifted momentarily to Ezra. He looked around the room knowing the urbane gambler was not among them. This only caused the ball of anger, which sat in the pit of his stomach, to grow. Why hadn't the conman done something? Buck had wanted to tear the man's heart out as he stood, obviously unconcerned, as JD lay bleeding in the dirt. His gaze drifted over to Chris, who stood against the wall his arms folded across his chest his head bowed.
"What happened?" Buck queried, his own anger not hidden in his tone. His question opened the flood gates, everyone had wondered about the man they thought was a friend.
Chris didn't answer right away and when he did the words were tinged with his own hostility towards his seventh man. "I don't know, but I'll find out."
"Why isn't he here?" Vin then asked. He had thought the self-serving southerner was finally coming around, finally accepting them as family. Vin's brow knitted in confusion, something didn't feel right.
Before anyone could venture a guess, or continue their thoughts JD stirred. Buck squeezed the young man's hand harder as if trying to pull him from his dark exile. "JD, c'mon kid, we're all waitin' for ya," Buck chided, wiping a stray hair off JD's brow.
JD's brown eyes fluttered once then slowly opened to look up at the smiling and relief filled visages of his friends. He winced as pain surged through his shoulder.
"Easy, JD," Nathan warned. He placed a huge hand behind JD's head and gently lifted it, bringing if forward to the cup of water and herbs that he held. JD took a few swallows, grimacing at the taste, but not saying a word. Nathan carefully laid the boy back down into the pillow. JD closed his eyes, gasping at the exertion and pain the simple movement caused.
"How you feelin' kid?" Vin asked as he stepped up alongside the bed.
"Like hell. What happened?" he rasped, keeping his eyes closed and trying not to show how much pain he was in. His shoulder throbbed incessantly and he felt so weak.
"Well, apparently the Mickelson brothers decided to emancipate their older brother from jail," Josiah explained.
"Did they get away?" JD croaked, trying to clear his throat.
"Only as far as the graveyard," Buck replied with a smile.
A slight smile creased JD's boyish face. He turned his head to look over at the other bunk, expecting to see Ezra. His brow furrowed at the empty bed. The thought that Ezra had been killed showed on his face.
"JD, what's wrong?" Buck quickly asked, seeing the distress on the young man's face.
"Where's Ezra?" he asked, the fear causing his voice to break.
Buck relaxed and exhaled. "Probably sleeping for he's well rested for tonight's activities," Buck sneered the anger in his voice, not lost on JD.
"Buck," Josiah quietly reprimanded. He didn't want to upset JD, he knew how much the young sheriff looked up to Ezra, but Buck was not about to be stopped. When it came to JD, rationality was sometimes ignored, overridden by blind fear and a desire to protect him. When the impetuous gunslinger's mouth engaged, there was very little short of a raging stampede that could stop it.
Buck glared at Josiah, directing his anger to the ex-preacher. "What? You saw the way he acted. It was like he didn't even care that JD was shot. Why wasn't he watching out for him?" Buck ranted. "Where is he now?" Buck swept his arm to encompass the five gunslingers that stood vigil over their fallen friend.
"He was okay?" JD interrupted somewhat relieved, but still not understanding Buck's animosity. His eyes darted around the room, not seeing the familiar flamboyant apparel that denoted the gambler. He brought his good hand to his forehead and rubbed, trying to ease a sense of foreboding that washed over him.
Buck tried to calm his growing rage, not wanting to upset his young friend. Chris had stepped up to the bottom of the bed.
"Yeah, he was fine," Buck curtly scoffed, returning his gaze back to JD.
JD struggled to sit up, stopping when Nathan's hand appeared on his chest.
"Whoa, what do you think you're doing?"
Everyone noticed JD's sudden agitation over the missing gambler. Chris swore under his breath, thinking this was something more that Ezra had to answer for.
"Did Nathan check him?" JD more urgently asked, ignoring the pain in his shoulder as sudden anxiety twisted his stomach in knots. He was trying to fathom why everyone was so riled at Ezra and why he wasn't here.
The five men exchanged bewildered looks, before turning their attention back to JD.
"Why would Nathan have to check him?" Buck asked, his anger immediately turning into something akin to apprehension.
"What happened in the jail, JD?" Chris broke in, his blue eyed gaze meeting JD's worried brown eyes, which caused the hair on the back of his neck to prickle.
JD turned to Nathan ignoring the others. "Nathan, you didn't look at him?"
"No, JD, I was busy tending to you," Nathan explained. He had glanced up when Ezra appeared on the boardwalk and gave him a cursory once over with his eyes. JD lay bleeding under his hands, and Ezra was standing, so he had dismissed him and returned his attention to the person who obviously needed his help. Now Nathan began to think he might have been too hasty.
"But he was hurt," JD finally announced. His eyes were starting to grow heavy and he could feel his shoulder going numb. He knew that Nathan's herbs were starting to take effect.
"What?" Chris prompted.
"He was unconscious. I think one of the Mickelson's must have hit him over the head or something." JD ran his good hand down his distaught face and looked up into Nathan's dark eyes. "I thought he was dead."
Nathan's face fell and he lay a dark hand on the back of his neck, massaging the growing tension in his muscles. "How long was he unconscious?" he asked worriedly. Damn, why didn't he check him? Buck had stood up and turned his back, staring at the wall and mentally kicking himself.
"He was still unconscious when they dragged me outside," JD explained. "I think they hit him real hard."
"Nathan?" Josiah prompted, swallowing hard and berating himself for ever doubting the enigmatic man. He rubbed his long face triedly and slouched heavily against the wall.
Nathan closed his eyes and shook his head. "He probably has a concussion, it would explain his behavior."
Chris shook his head slowly. "Vin, go check his room. Josiah go check..."
"I know the saloon," the baritone voice finished as he pushed himself away from the wall and headed towards the door.
Chris turned to his long time friend. "Buck, go see if he's been to the restaurant or if anyone has seen him in town. We'll meet outside the saloon in twenty minutes."
"Don't worry, JD, we'll find 'im," Buck assured as he walked out the door. JD watched his four friends leave then his eyes slid shut unable to fight the effects of the drug Nathan had given him.
"Damn, nothing," Buck voiced, coming up to the others outside the saloon. Their faces revealed their own lack of success in their search for the elusive conman. The wind had kicked up and the four gunslingers were now wearing heavier coats and gloves as the weather continued to deteriorate.
Chris clenched an unlit cheroot between his teeth, glancing over towards the stables. "C'mon."
The four gunslingers strode across the empty street towards the livery. The sudden temperature drop was clearing the streets faster than a bunch of rowdy cowboys in town after a six-month cattle drive. You could taste the impending storm riding in on the air. Vin looked out over the distant mountains and frowned, seeing the smoke gray clouds swallowing up the rugged peaks.
As the four gunslingers neared the stables a spry, white-haired man with a pudgy nose that looked like a huge button in the middle of his weathered face came out of the stable leading a pack mule. His face was lined with time and hardship, but his blue eyes sparkled with mirth.
"Where you headin, Jasper?" Josiah's booming voice cut through the short distance to the stable door.
Jasper looked up and smiled at the huge ex-preacher. "Hear tell they're still findin' gold up near some town in the north mountains. Thought I'd go and try my luck."
Vin pushed back his slouch hat as he eyed the old man. "You wouldn't happen to of seen Ezra?" he asked.
Jasper pulled out his gold pocket watch and flipped it open to look at the face. He snapped it close and looked up at the lean tracker. "Yeah, he rode out of here a couple hours ago."
"Shit," Chris murmured under his breath.
"Did he seem okay?" Josiah asked, hoping they were all worrying for nothing.
Jasper ran long thin fingers through his long white beard. "Well, now that you mention it, I thought he was drunk. I was packing up Izzy here, and he didn't so much as tip his hat at me. He had a hard time saddlin' his horse too, and he kept muttering to himself." Jasper looked over at the ex-preacher. "Kept jawin' somethin' about goin' to Atlanta or something."
Josiah smiled pensively, guilt re-igniting within him.
"What was he wearing?" Vin quietly asked.
"Just that fancy red jacket, thought it strange with the coming storm and all."
"Did he have any packs?" Chris asked, trying to gather as much information from Jasper as he could.
Jasper further wrinkled his already wrinkled brow. "Nope, I don't believe he did."
Josiah clapped Jasper on the shoulder. "Thanks Jasper and good luck."
Jasper smiled and looked fatherly at the four men who stood before him. "It's been real nice knowin' you boys. You all take care."
"You're not plannin' on going now?" Josiah asked.
"Nah, I was just getting Izzy shod and some more supplies then hole up at my place until the storm passes." Jasper looked back over at Josiah. "Josiah, take care of my place if'n I don't come back in a year, it's yours.
"I'll take care of it," Josiah assured the kindly old man.
"C'mon Izzy." Jasper pulled at the halter urging the reluctant mule to follow him.
Vin's blue eyes looked out towards the now snow vanquished mountains. "Chris, we better find him quick. There's a bad storm comin' and it doesn't sound like Ezra's prepared."
"You and Josiah get the horses saddled," Chris explained. "Buck, come with me; we're going back to Nathan's."
The first snow flake fell as the two gunslingers made their way back to Nathan's clinic, their steps and hearts heavy with the culpability of their actions. Both men had judged Ezra on perceived appearances and past attitude. They had inadvertently put the southerner into danger, with their inaccurate observations. Why did they always think the worst of the cocky gambler? Of course, Ezra made it easy and seemed to prefer the mistrust over concern or friendship. It was something he was use to and knew how to deal with.
They entered the clinic to find JD deep in a drug-induced sleep. Nathan placed an extra blanket on him, trying to fend off the encroaching cold. He stepped away from the bed to meet with Chris and Buck their faces telling him what he didn't want to hear.
"Ezra took off," Buck remarked, solidifying their fears. Nathan bowed his head; he had hoped they would have found him passed out somewhere.
"Jasper said he appeared drunk and was muttering to himself," Chris explained.
Fear twisted in both gunslingers' guts, when Nathan swore things were bad. "It sounds like he might have a bad concussion, probably confused and disoriented," Nathan explained.
"We're going after him," Chris countered.
Nathan moved towards his dresser, picking up a dark bag and placing it on the chair. He grabbed several vials and placed them in the bag. Then turned back to Chris and Buck.
"I'm coming too," Nathan voiced.
"What about JD?" Buck complained, shifting and looking down at his feet, a little guilty over his concern for JD over Ezra.
Nathan looked over at the peacefully sleeping gunslinger. "He'll be fine; I'll have Inez watch over him. It's Ezra I'm worried about. He could get himself in a passel of trouble in the condition he's in." He didn't tell them his own guilt was eating him up inside; he had to do something.
Ezra wrapped his coat tight around his lean frame. When did it get so cold? His head hurt so badly he couldn't hold on to any one thought. He had been kicked out of another town that thought was sound enough. He thought the others were accepting him. What happened? An image, almost like a dream, of JD lying motionless on the ground, blood covering his chest, flashed before his face. Was he responsible for that? Ezra closed his eyes and tilted his face up to the heavens, feeling the featherweight flakes melt on his warm face. He shuddered as Chris' somber face appeared. Ezra flinched at the dangerous tone as he was told to 'get out of his sight'. The others silently stared at him, condemning him. What had happened? Lord, his head hurt.
Ezra reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his silver flask, taking a long soothing swig of the smooth liquor inside, warmth burst outward as the amber liquor hit his gut. The snow had been falling for over half an hour, covering the ground in a tranquil blanket of white. The flakes were huge, fluttering down like confetti. Ezra let out a long breath, swaying slightly in the saddle from the sudden dizziness that washed over him. He straightened and nudged his horse forward, realizing that the animal had come to a standstill without direction from its rider.
Vin was bent low over the side of his horse, trying to pick up the quickly disappearing trail. He straightened up in his saddle and pulled up, staring straight ahead into the white nothingness. He was worried about the city-bred gambler, who was more at home in the confines and unseen perils of a saloon, then the open wilderness. Now, normally, Ezra was resourceful enough to survive, but in his and the weather's present condition Vin didn't think he would survive the night. Chris pulled up beside him, breaking him from his unsettling musings. He glanced over at the blond leader and knew Chris was suffering from the guilt of not seeing that one of his men was in trouble.
"Anything?" Chris asked the perceptive tracker his icy blue eyes scanning the slowly altering terrain.
Vin inhaled the frigid air and slowly exhaled a warm breath. "He's not riding like he's in a hurry or even like he has any destination in mind," Vin observed.
Chris looked back over his shoulder at the others, who were hunched down low in their saddles, trying to escape the bone numbing cold. Ice formed in Buck's mustache. Josiah pulled his scarf up over his mouth. Nathan reached down, running his gloved fingers through his horse's mane, trying to rid it of the ice and snow that was tangled within the hair.
"We've got to find him soon; he won't last long in this cold," Vin added.
Chris pulled the collar of his duster up around his neck and softly clicked his tongue to get his horse moving. "We'll find him," he replied in a curiously flat voice.
Ezra didn't know where he was or where he was going and his horse started to sense his indecisiveness. When he tried to get the animal to traverse a rather difficult hill the animal balked and reared. Ezra's numb fingers couldn't hold on and he was unceremoniously dumped onto the snow-covered ground. He grunted as his left leg struck a rather large rock protruding from the hard ground. His horse took off in disgust, leaving his dazed owner withering in pain and cold.
Ezra curled into a ball his leg cramping, sending sharp pains up his thigh; he warily raised his head. He shook so bad he couldn't focus on anything, not that there was anything to see besides the white covered mounds that surrounded him. He gasped as an enormous bolt of pain went through his head, bringing tears to his eyes. He started to feel the snow soaking through his clothes. He struggled to get up, reaching out and grabbing a white ash sapling within the swirling snow. Only the dark splotches of stripped bark breaking the invisible continuity of the small tree. He slowly gained his feet, grabbing hold of a lower branch of the tree. He leaned against it gasping, then tried to put weight down on his left leg. He almost went down again as a sharp pain invaded the fog of his mind. When the pain abated he searched for his next support. When did it get so dark? Ezra took a deep breath and hobbled over to the next tree. This was the way he continued, his sights only on the next tree, not caring what direction he was going just reaching the next tree.
+ + + + + + +
The wind had picked up, swirling the huge flakes into a frenzy and practically blinding the five riders, who continued to push their horses through the growing drifts of snow.
"If it gets much worse we're goin' have to stop and find shelter," Vin called over to Chris. He couldn't see the stoic leader's face as it was buried in his coat.
Chris raised his head up slightly, his eyes red from the cold. "We're not stopping until we find him," he vehemently declared. His voice muffled within his black duster.
"Chris, Vin's right, we'll all freeze if we stay out here much longer," Buck added, riding up between the two men.
"I'm not stopping!" Chris repeated, glaring over at Buck.
Buck hung his head. He knew Chris was feeling the weight of guilt. "Chris, it's not your fault. We didn't know Ezra was hurt." Buck tried to convince his long time friend and leader.
"I shouldn't have said what I did to him," Chris morosely answered. He knew Ezra still thought of himself as an outsider. The man's cocky attitude always opened him up to abuse even from people he considered his friends, and who considered him a friend.
"I was mad too. We were all worried about JD and not thinking straight," Buck explained, trying to ease his own burden of guilt.
Chris' blue eyes met Buck's brown ones. "I'm not stopping." Chris spurred his horse ahead.
"Damn stubborn cuss," Buck murmured.
JD pulled himself out of bed and reached the window sill gasping for breath. His shoulder was bound to his chest and he felt as weak as a newborn foal. His mouth went dry when he looked out the window onto a winter squall, the likes of which he had never seen in these parts before. He couldn't even see the buildings across the street. The wind whipped the snow up into a dense screen of ghostly white, blotting out everything. Inez entered the room carrying a tray of food.
"Senor Dunne, you shouldn't be out of bed," she kindly scolded.
JD smiled contritely and made his way back over to the bed. "Has there been any word?" He eased himself back down into the bed.
Inez set the tray down and came over to him, pulling the blankets up to his chest. "No, but I don't expect any. They're probably holed up somewhere waiting out the storm."
JD could see the worry in her beautiful dark eyes. He looked back over to the window, which was icing up. He hoped they found shelter, and he hoped they found Ezra.
+ + + + + + +
A dark shape broke through the brush and trudged a determine path through the deepening snow.
"That's Ezra's horse," Nathan voiced for everyone as the animal crossed their path and continued.
"It came from that direction." Vin pointed out as he eagerly turned his horse towards a copse of ash trees huddled at the bottom of a slight hill. The wind had died down a little, but the snow still fell.
Ezra had stopped to rest against a stout sapling. He didn't feel cold anymore and the silence of the falling snow was comforting. His left leg kept stiffening up on him and slowing him down and his flask was empty. He peered out through the snowy curtain, catching glimpses of dark shapes that slowly materialized out from the trees, breaking through the veil of white. With a shaky left hand he pulled his revolver. His right arm was stiff, the metal of his derringer rig, frozen.
As the five riders neared the grove of trees a shot rang out, breaking the silence and causing everyone to drop from their horses and take cover. Buck swore as he dropped into a four-foot drift of snow shivering as some of it fell down his collar. Nathan grabbed his bag, not wanting to loose the medicine inside; he had a feeling that Ezra was going to need it.
The five gunslingers scattered, and then slowly crawled and made their way back together.
"Who'd be shootin' at us?" Buck asked as he peered out from behind a tree, trying to get a glimpse of who was using them for target practice. Josiah crouched down next to Buck's legs, trying to penetrate the wall of white. He pulled his scarf down from his mouth, the moisture on his face almost immediately freezing.
"Don't shoot. It's Ezra," Vin yelled out, catching a glimpse of the conman's red jacket. They all peered over to the right to see Ezra leaning against a tree, his gun held in a shaky hand.
"What the hell is he doing?" Chris asked, holstering his gun.
Nathan lay flat on the ground next to him, raising his head just enough to look out. His heart turned cold at the sight of the enigmatic conman. His skin was almost white, and he didn't appear to know where he was, his eyes darting back and forth. Nathan also noticed that the cold didn't seem to be bothering him. "Between the concussion and the cold we'll be lucky if he remembers his own name," Nathan explained.
Chris pulled back as a bullet whistled past, noticing that the conman's aim didn't seem affected.
Nathan noticed how Ezra seemed to be favoring his left leg and thought that he must have taken a fall.
"Nathan, what if I just wing him, get him to drop his gun," Vin suggested.
"In his condition even that could be dangerous," Nathan replied.
"He can't last much longer," Chris muttered. The man had to be freezing. He was only wearing a light dress shirt and his short tailed jacket. His dark hair and pants were already encrusted with ice and snow.
"By then it might be too late."
"Geeze Nate, you're just full of inspiration!" Buck quipped.
"Okay, we have to get to him and we have to get to him now, without hurting him; or any of us being hurt." Everyone turned their attention to their scrupulous leader. "Buck, Josiah, circle around and try and come up on either side of him. I'm going to distract him."
Vin's gloved hand grabbed Chris' arm. "Ah, cowboy, what if'n he don't know you?"
Chris smiled. "Well, that would be a good thing. I probably won't get shot then."
This produced tense grins and a couple chilly chuckles from the others. They all knew the strained relationship the cardsharp and gunslinger shared; although, at times, it seemed more a friendly battle of wits, which both men seemed to enjoy. Chris had no intention of watching the obstinate gambler freeze to death.
Chris stepped out from behind the tree. They had all holstered their guns, having no intention of shooting the befuddled southerner. Josiah and Buck broke their way through the mounting drifts, grateful for the cover of the falling snow.
"Ezra," Chris called, frowning as he got closer to his friend. He did consider Ezra a friend; an obstinate, and at times irritating friend, but a friend nonetheless. Ezra stood motionless, his gun arm extended and his revolver pointed directly at Chris' chest.
The man was familiar, but Ezra's frost covered brain wouldn't allow him to latch onto a name. He just continued to stare, not sure if he should pull the trigger, or if he even wanted to.
Chris got close enough to see the dazed confusion dancing within those green eyes. Lord, why didn't he see it before; he inwardly berated himself for the twentieth time.
"What 'cha doing, Ez?" Chris spoke, his voice slow and concise, trying to penatrate the gambler's confusion and hoping to hold the man's attention until Buck and Josiah got closer.
Ezra cocked his head and smiled. A smile that sent a tickle of dread through Chris' chilled body. Ezra shook his head and chuckled, not believing what he was seeing. Had Chris Larabee come after him? Probably just to shoot him. This thought wiped the smile from Ezra's face and brought his guard up. The change was so sudden that Chris flinched and for a second believed he might be a dead man. Vin's breath caught in his throat at the sudden transformation, but he didn't draw his gun.
"Ezra, it's me, Chris. We have to get you out of this cold."
Ezra grimaced as he eased his left leg down, his right hand holding onto a lower tree branch. "I'm fine. I don't need any help, especially from the likes of you."
Nathan worried over the lack of Ezra's five-dollar words and he seemed to require a lot of concentration just to get them out.
Chris bowed his head for a moment, then slowly raised it, taking another tentative step forward, trying to close the gap between him and the freezing lawman. "Ezra, I'm sorry. We didn't know you were injured."
This seemed to soften the angry emerald eyes some. Ezra stared back at the rugged face of the man he respected and loathed. He saw the truth and the regret in his piercing blue eyes.
Chris caught sight of Josiah and Buck out of the corner of his eyes and waved them off. He reached out and took hold of the barrel of Ezra's gun, slowly forcing it down and away. Ezra's face relaxed and he allowed Chris to take his gun. His anger melted, now there was nothing keeping him warm. Ezra turned and started limping away much to everyone's astonishment. Chris looked over toward Buck who only shrugged. Then Chris saw the leg Ezra was relying on start to buckle. He quickly moved in, catching the crumbling gambler in his arms and gently settling him down.
Ezra looked up into Chris' face seeming to see the stalwart leader for the first time. Confusion returned to his face when he saw the frown of concern on Chris' rugged face.
The others quickly surrounded the two, giving way for Nathan. He checked Ezra's pulse and looked into his eyes, seeing the abnormal pupils and confusion that filled those green orbs. Ezra smiled as he looked upon his friends then his eyes slowly closed. Chris flashed a worried frown over at Nathan.
"If we don't get him warm soon, he's not going to make it," Nathan informed them.
Chris seemed to hold the gambler tighter, trying to force some of his life giving warmth into the freezing man. Vin appeared with blankets and they cocooned him up in them.
"My cabin isn't far from here," Chris said.
Josiah bent down, removing the nearly frozen gambler from Chris' gasp, feeling how rigid he was. Ice crystals melded in Ezra's russet hair, and his clothes were stiff from the cold and ice. For a moment the thought that he could shatter flashed through the huge gunslinger's mind.
Buck jumped up on his horse and with Chris' help, Josiah handed Ezra up to him. Buck wrapped an arm around his frozen charge. "You just hang on Ez, you hear me," Buck whispered sharply through the blankets to his friend. He could see part of the icy white face and his heart almost stopped in his chest.
It was slow going through the drifting snow. The road no longer existed and they all, except Buck, had to dismount and lead their reluctant mounts. Chris grabbed hold of Buck's gray, urging him on. Nathan shot anxious glances up at Buck, who only shook his head slowly at Nathan's silent question. Ezra hadn't moved; Buck wasn't even sure if he was still breathing. The ice had melted from his brown hair and drained down the gambler's slack face in little rivulets.
+ + + + + + +
Chris opened the cabin door, moving aside as Josiah entered carrying his frozen burden.
"Move the bed to the fireplace and put him there," Nathan instructed coming up behind. "We need lots of wood." Buck and Vin both turned and headed out towards the shed where Chris kept a supply of dry wood. Josiah laid the near frozen gambler down on the bed and Nathan quickly freed him from his wrappings. "We need to get him out of these clothes." The slight warmth of the cabin was already making the frozen clothing more pliable.
When they removed Ezra's pants the three men winced at the huge bruise that covered his left thigh. Nathan probed it slightly, ascertaining that it wasn't serious, but that he probably wouldn't have use of the leg for awhile, right now that was the least of his worries.
By the time Josiah and Nathan got Ezra wrapped up Buck had a fire going in the fireplace. Vin had remained outside to tend to the horses. Nathan sat on the edge of the bed, taking hold of Ezra's wrist and wishing the weak pulse he felt would grow stronger. Buck placed several folded blankets down on the hearth to warm them his eyes drifting to Ezra who was buried under a mound of blankets. He cared about he slick cardsharp. Why had he treated him like an enemy? Buck and Nathan both turned as Vin slipped in, having to put his entire weight against the door to close it against the driving wind.
"I put the horses over in a stand of trees for protection," Vin commented, removing his unyielding gloves. Chris nodded his approval and continued looking through his cupboards for any source of substance. He didn't want to look over where Nathan worked fervently on the motionless form on the bed. Ezra looked dead; there was no other way to describe the lack of color or movement from the urbane gambler.
Ezra started to violently shake and Josiah quickly climbed in behind him, wrapping his massive arms around and pulling the shivering man up to his chest.
"Nathan, what's wrong with him?" Buck asked the fear in his voice filling the small confines of the cabin.
"His body is trying to warm itself up," Nathan explained, wrapping one of the heated blankets around him.
Everyone had removed their coats as the small cabin had grown comfortably warm. They listened as the blizzard outside continued to batter at the walls of the small building and listened to the ragged breathing of the man fighting for his life within.
Night fell, cloaking the storm outside in darkness, but not taming its ferocity. Ezra lapsed between unconsciousness and periods of stupor, tossing and turning on the small bed. Buck and Vin busied themselves keeping the fire going and warming up blankets. Josiah continued to hold the gambler, hoping to bring him some measure of comfort. Chris prepared a soup from the supplies he had on hand as Nathan busily mixed up some herbs he hoped would help.
"Do you think he'll be back to normal when he comes to," Buck asked Nathan, throwing another log on the fire.
"I don't know. That blow to the head was pretty bad and almost freezing to death just made it worse." Nathan took a deep breath then released it. "We're just going to have to wait and see when he wakes up and be prepared for anything."
Vin came up to Chris, who stood by the window looking out into the white speckled darkness, the soup heating on the stove. "It's not your fault, Chris?"
Chris turned and looked at the pale image that lay stretched out on the bed, then turned his face back towards the window. "I judged him on what I thought I saw. I thought he was okay when he walked out of that jail that he was just being his same old egotistical self."
"Buck was right, we were angry and worried about JD being hurt, and Ezra gave no clue that he was injured," Vin tried to ease Chris' guilt ridden conscious. The dark-clad gunslinger carried enough weight on his shoulders. Vin placed a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. "Ezra would understand."
"I wouldn't if I was him," Chris coldly replied.
The stormed continued to rage the following morning, throwing icy rain at the small cabin. It started to taper off by late afternoon, the sun trying to make at least a cameo appearance. Ezra had yet to come fully conscious, but Nathan had managed to get a little warm broth and herbs down him, which raised his hopes for his recovery. He started placing warm wet compresses on Ezra's bruised leg, hoping to take some of the pain away. He felt so bad, why hadn't he checked on Ezra was the question that seemed to elude an answer. Did they all automatically think the worse when it came to the pretentious conman. Tempers started to flare in the close quarters, but it only took a glance towards their injured friend to squelch any selfish regret they might feel for themselves.
Later that evening everyone surrounded Ezra's bed as he stirred under the mountain of blankets. Nathan was the first one at his side, pushing some of the blankets down away from his face.
"Ezra, can you hear me?"
Ezra's green eyes slowly opened, to be greeted by five men looking down at him with varying degrees of concern on their faces.
"What happened?" his southern drawl came out sore and raspy.
Josiah lifted Ezra's head and Nathan brought a cup of water to his lips. The warm liquid felt good going down his throat.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Nathan asked, laying him gently back down on the pillow.
Ezra furrowed his brow and a faint smile crossed his lips. "Cursing Buck for being late."
Buck smiled, realizing how much he had grown accustomed to Ezra's smart-mouth answers and how much he would have missed them. This lightened everyone's mood.
An image flashed in Ezra's fuzzy mind, one of JD bleeding in the street. The smile left his face as his green eyes darted around the room, looking for the young lawman. His heart started to pound frantically in his chest. "JD!" Ezra's voice rose and he tried to sit up his muscles screaming in rebellion at the impetuous act.
"Easy." Josiah grabbed Ezra's shoulders and gently forced him back down. "He's fine, back in town."
Ezra gasped, he was so weak. He looked around the room, realizing he didn't know where he was, or how he got here. "You're at my cabin," Chris informed him, seeing the confusion play across his face. Ezra wasn't able to hide his feelings at the moment, pain and bewilderment displayed on his face for everyone to witness.
A sadness came to Ezra's green eyes, like a light that had dimmed. "Was I..." he paused and swallowed. "Was I responsible for JD being hurt?" He closed his eyes afraid of the answer.
This cut through all of them like a knife, that the southerner would even for a moment feel he was in anyway responsible. Chris grabbed Ezra's chin, causing the green eyes to open and stare back at him. "You had nothing to do with JD being hurt," Chris sharply assured him.
He felt Ezra relax under his hand, his eyes closed and his breathing evened out as he fell into a restful sleep.
The next morning, Buck and Nathan were preparing to leave and head back to town. They knew JD would be worried and Nathan needed to check on him.
"Keep him here another couple days before bringing him back to town," Nathan instructed Chris. He looked over at Ezra, who Josiah was spoon feeding and spoke loud enough for him to hear. "And bring him right to the clinic," he stressed.
Everyone laughed at the groan from the conman.
+ + + + + + +
"Mr. Sanchez, can you remove some of these blankets I feel as if a grizzly has taken to hibernating on my chest. And do I have to remain so close to this inferno? And can't I have something with a little more substance to eat."
Josiah only rolled his eyes and smiled at Ezra's grumbling.
Chris entered the cabin with an armload of wood, seeing that Ezra was awake. Ezra had been barely able to stay awake more than a few minutes at a time for the past two days. "How is he?"
"Complainin'," Josiah informed him, not hiding the relieved grin on his long face.
Ezra threw the ex-preacher a scowl of mock annoyance and hurt. Chris smiled. "Good."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra hadn't remembered anything, and Chris and the others debated whether to tell him or not. They were not proud of what they had done, but weren't sure if it would further unravel their fragile friendship to inform Ezra that they thought he didn't care and was just thinking of himself. Buck was the most vocal against telling him. He still remembered how he wanted to tear the gambler in half and if Chris hadn't stopped him he would have had a lot more to feel guilty about.
What no one knew was that Ezra did remember. He had been trying to save his friends the embarrassment of having to explain their actions. He didn't blame them; he knew they didn't totally trust him. Trust needed to be earned, his past life made that difficult. He was a conman and that was all most people saw, or wanted to see.
Ezra sat up in bed, staring at the low burning fire. At the moment he was alone in the cabin as Vin, Josiah and Chris readied the horses for their trip back to Four Corners. He felt hollow inside, any hope of trust between him and the others, having been vanquished. He told himself he had forgiven his friends, but it still hurt that they thought he didn't care about them and only looked out for himself. He could still feel the anger of Chris' words, telling him 'to get out of his sight'. He also remembered the anger in Buck's face and the more subtle condemnation in the others. He remembered seeing JD bleeding in the street, but unable to react to it. It was like watching something from a great distance.
The door opened and Chris walked in, stomping his feet to rid them of the snow; blue sky and sunshine silhouetted his darkly dressed form. He slowly closed the door and removed his hat. Ezra noticed how deliberate his actions were as if he were forestalling or thinking.
Chris crossed over to the bed and sat down on the corner, leaning against the bed post. The blond gunslinger's head was bowed for a moment, then he raised icy azure eyes that for the first time held a measure of regret.
"There's something I need to tell you..." he began.
Ezra inwardly smiled and his heart filled with hope.
Re-edited Mar 2002