Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
[I have used some reference to a story by Joyce(SasseyJ), "It really was a good idea," with her permission. Again, I have to thank my wonderful beta NotTasha for all her help.]
Vin Tanner drew the knife across the stick, adding another notch to the already wounded piece of wood. Sixty-five days of oppressive heat--and no rain--that's what the notches on the stick represented. Sixty-five simple cuts denoting weeks of harsh existence and survival. The longhaired tracker watched from his place under the eave in front of the jail as yet another wagon, laden with household furniture, slowly made its way out of the drought-stricken town. More and more people were leaving every day now. Their faces were vacant from despair and sadness as they past by. Vin knew they didn't have any choice; many of the wells had dried up, and the river was barely more than a trickle. Any other town and he would have been long gone too, but this town had earned a measure of his loyalty, and in truth, he really didn't want to leave.
Vin leaned forward setting the chair down on all fours as he watched Chris stride across the street toward the saloon. Reluctantly, Vin had relinquished his buckskin jacket in favor of cooler attire and avoiding the possibility of passing out from heat frustration. Even the somber gunslinger had given in to the high temperatures, opting to don light colored attire, instead of his usual dark dress. Vin reckoned, seeing the stern lines on Chris's face as he past, that someone had increased the gunslinger's temper a degree or two.
Over the past few weeks, Larabee's temper had risen proportionately with the rising mercury, to the point that even Vin knew enough to keep his distance for fear of tempting his wrath. Josiah and Buck had already had the unenviable privilege of being seared by Larabee's fiery disposition.
The heat was also unraveling the friendship that the seven gunslingers shared, breaking under the strain of being unable to do anything to save the town, and the people they had sworn to protect and come to care about. Mother Nature had proven a formidable foe.
Vin stood and removed his hat, pushing his long hair back behind his ears. He tugged the sweat-covered slouch hat back on his head, pulling it down to shade his eyes from the noonday sun. He stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the saloon. Vin figured he'd better go after Chris and maybe try and mitigate his temper somewhat, or at least save the poor bastard who was about to become the recipient to it.
Chris Larabee's temper was being stoked by the incessant heat wave, watching a life he'd come to love slip through his fingers, and one fancy-dressing, indolent gambler. He couldn't do anything about the first two problems, but he sure as hell could vent his anger and hopelessness on the third.
Larabee paused in the entranceway of the saloon, holding the batwing doors apart. He allowed his eyes to adjust to the gloom that stretched throughout the whole room. The bar was stifling, offering little relief from the outside heat, except for a soothing darkness. Chris's fierce gaze traveled over the bar, seeing Inez slouched in a nearby chair, fanning herself; his gaze then moved across the room to settle on the only other person enduring the suffocating heat.
Ezra Standish sat alone at his usual table playing a game of solitaire and nursing a warm beer. Water was at a premium and being rationed. You never knew how much you took something for granted until it's suddenly gone or scarce. Ezra never thought much about water. Oh, he understood the necessity of the clear, liquid, especially in such an inhospitable and desolate territory. However, he rarely worried about its availability. Now, he'd give his gold tooth for a tall glass of cold water, and wondered how a tasteless, odorless and colorless liquid could taste so good when one was deprived of it.
The summer heat wave had also won out over the suave gambler's passion for finery and decorum. Ezra wore only dark pin striped pants and a light cotton shirt that was unbuttoned at the collar. Standish didn't look up when he heard Chris enter the saloon. He didn't have to see the somber leader to know he was angry. Lately that had become Chris's customary demeanor. Ezra inwardly smiled, the heat wave actually rivaled his own ability to enrage the quick-tempered lawman.
When Larabee couldn't control something, he tended to allow his anger to control him. It had its benefits, especially when under attack by ruthless gangs of outlaws, who would think twice before tangling with the enraged gunslinger. However, there were no outlaws, nothing tangible for Chris to direct his anger upon, well, almost nothing.
"Standish!" Chris growled and walked over to the table to stand menacingly over the placid gambler.
Ezra raised green eyes up from his solitaire game and allowed a faint smirk to crease his heat-flushed face. His Irish heritage and complexion did not take kindly to the harsh rays of the western sun.
"Damnit, why aren't you out on patrol?"
Ezra turned his attention back to his game, placing a four of hearts on a five of spades. He took a deep breath and exhaled. "Because Mr. Larabee, it is too hot, and any miscreant who would have the effrontery to do anything in this god-forsaken furnace would have to be mad."
Ezra didn't look up. He could hear Chris's exasperated breaths in the still air of the barroom.
"I want your lazy, good-fer-nothin' ass out on patrol in five minutes," Chris stated in a low and dangerous tone. Chris couldn't get over how composed Ezra appeared, hell the man wasn't even sweating.
Standish stopped in mid play and laid the cards he held down on the table. He was tired of being maligned by this man. Ezra pushed away from the table and slowly stood. The heat was withering even his patience. He cast a sideways glance to see Vin and Buck enter the saloon and stand off to the side.
'Thanks a lot,' Ezra inwardly chided, noticing that the two men were not going to interfere, at least not yet. When he was bleeding on the floor then maybe they'd carry him up to Nathan's. Inez had decided it was too hot to be caught in the middle of anything and went into the back room
"I refuse to put myself out in that inferno to protect what is nothing more than a ghost town with a few steadfast or foolish inhabitants."
"You refusin' an order?"
Ezra's eyes narrowed, and he thought for just a second about going for his gun. "Yes, I am."
Chris lashed out, striking the smart-ass cardsharp across the jaw and sending him to the floor. Ezra got up on one elbow and wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth. A wave of regret sparked in Chris's heart, but was quickly smothered by annoyance as he stared down at Ezra's smug façade.
Standish's haughty demeanor belied the ferocity of his gaze as he slowly gained his feet. Chris then grabbed him by his fancy ruffled shirt and pulled him close.
"You are sworn to protect this town," Chris reminded, his voice tightening with seriousness.
"This town is no more than kindling and will be returning to the dust from which it sprouted," Ezra drawled, his own voice carrying a strong note of disgust. "There's nothing left to protect. It is over!" The words hurt Ezra as much as they were meant to hurt Chris and the others.
Larabee shoved Ezra away as if his proximity sickened him. The gambler staggered backward, and his hand hovered near his gun. Buck and Vin came to attention, seeing the restrained threat. Chris chose to ignore it.
"You still have a job to do," Chris said, some of his anger diminishing as the words that Ezra spoke resounded in his head. Were they protecting a ghost town?
"No, I don't." Ezra picked up his hat and strode out the doors not even glancing at Vin or Buck.
Chris stared at the cards that the southerner had left on the table, and then headed toward the doors prepared to go after Ezra, not sure if he wanted to apologize or kill him. He stopped when Buck stepped into his path.
"Let'im go, pard. He might be right," Buck sadly said, prepared for any backlash. Instead, he watched as Chris's rage melted away. None of them wanted to admit that what the urbane cardsharp said could possibly be true. That their lives here might have finally come to an end.
Standish stormed into the stable, seeing that his horse was the only one left. He roughly started saddling the bay, his growing ire causing him to slap the saddle blanket on Chaucer's back then fling the saddle down. Chaucer snorted and stepped back as much as his stall would allow. Ezra stopped and hanged his head, realizing he was taking his anger out on the one thing that probably meant the most to him. He gently stroked the forgiving animal's nose.
"I'm sorry, old friend."
Chaucer nickered as if in acceptance of his man's apology. Ezra smiled and ran his hand down the massive arched neck.
Larabee and the others thought he didn't care, that he would rather return to his previous life style. They didn't know how wrong they were, and Ezra knew it was his own fault. He never let on how much he had come to love his life in the growing backwater town. A life so different from what he was accustomed to, but that he found much more fulfilling. He had come to care for the people, who lived and worked here, and he had come to care for the six other gunslingers he worked with. Ezra laid his forehead against Chaucer's neck. "Oh, Chaucer, what are we going to do? I don't think I can go back to being a conman, but I don't know if I can stay here either."
Ezra finished saddling his horse, not sure whether he was only going on a soul-searching ride, or one where he never returned. He gave Chaucer a little water and started out at a slow leisurely pace out of town. He looked past all the boarded up shops, not wanting to be reminded that his time here was done.
Tanner watched as Ezra rode off, wondering if he'd ever see the enigmatic conman again. He wouldn't blame Ezra if he left. What was there for a gambler in a ghost town? Vin knew he would stay as long as Chris did and so would Buck and JD. Vin frowned, why did they think that everyone but Ezra would stay?
It was mid morning and the world was silent. It was a strange feeling, not hearing the songs of birds or the scurrying of animals in the underbrush, most having moved on to greener pastures or succumbed to the desiccating heat. Mother Nature had ways of silencing a noisy world.
Ezra rode up the dry riverbed, seeing signs of death all around. From the withered trees and brush along the banks, to the picked over skeletons of some hapless animal.
There weren't many ranchers still hanging on. You could only lose so much stock or so much of your crop before you finally conceded defeat. Ezra looked up into the clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight. He used to love the azure color, but now, he wanted nothing more than to see granite-gray clouds cover over the admired blue and bring relief and life back to the area.
Ezra continued to travel unhurried up the dry river path, not wanting to tax his horse. He had been giving Chaucer some of his water rations, wanting the animal to be fit in case he had to depart. Ezra rubbed at his sore jaw, maybe the time to depart was now. Larabee couldn't accuse him of running out--there wasn't anything left to run out on. He knew the others would eventually be moving on. Why hang around and go through the mock stoicism they would all display when saying good-bye?
Ezra pulled up his horse and frowned. He looked around, realizing he was on Dwight Weller's property. The ranching man didn't take kindly to trespassers, and most people stayed away. It was a fairly large spread, which was situated up against the foothills. Weller's was the first ranch to receive the waters from the snow-capped mountains; the river cut a path right through the middle of his property. Over the years, as more and more people filled the west, Weller's ranch had become trapped in-between other farms and homesteaders, striving to etch out a living. The lawmen had been called out on numerous occasions to quell disputes over cattle and property lines.
Ezra wasn't sure why, but he felt the need to continue. He had no desire to return to Four Corners and face Larabee's irritation, once again. Ezra inwardly chuckled, thinking he might have to wait for the heat wave to end before he could safely return. Maybe he should just keep going all the way to St. Louis. These thoughts instantly left him as he came around a slight bend. He dropped the reins and his horse stopped. Several yards in front of him stood a solid log wall, blocking any further progress. Ezra stared perplexed at the solidly built, watertight barrier. It had been erected across a narrow spot in the river, about thirty feet from bank to bank. It rose slightly over six feet high.
"Don't move, mister," a voice rose out from the right. "Don't do nothin' stupid."
Ezra knew where the voice was coming from, but he couldn't see anyone. He slowly raised his arms, regretting that without a jacket he couldn't wear his derringer. Two men stepped out from the brush, rifles pointed directly at him. Ezra recognized one of the men as Larry somebody-or-other; Weller's right hand man.
"Toby, get his guns," Larry instructed the younger man that stood next to him. Larry was a solidly built man of average height; a slight accent reflected his eastern upbringing. The other man, Toby, was much younger and smaller.
Toby removed all of Ezra's guns, including the rifle he kept in the scabbard and returned to Larry's side. Larry dropped his rifle slightly, relaxing now that the gambler was disarmed.
"Well, well, Mr. Standish, what brings you out here?" Larry asked in a conversational tone.
"Mr. Weller ain't goin' to like this. We let someone get by us," Toby stated in a hushed tone to his partner.
Larry glared at the younger man, who cowered slightly.
"I surmise that you all are aware of this tributary obstruction?" Ezra sarcastically asked.
"Yeah, Mr. Weller had it built," Toby eagerly replied, figuring the southerner meant the dam.
"Shut up, Toby," Larry growled at the youth.
"And may I ask for what purpose?"
"You can ask Mr. Weller that yourself. Now git off your horse." Larry pointed over to the west side of the river where a gentle slope had been cut. Ezra cautiously dismounted and took up Chaucer's reins, leading the horse toward the far bank. He knew the two men kept their guns trained on his back, but he had no intention of running, at least not until he discovered what was going on.
As the three men climbed over the edge Ezra looked over his shoulder at the dam and marveled at its construction. It was five feet thick all the way across and each log fit perfectly within its neighbor, forming a tight seal. Water had backed up, creating a small lake still fed by the mountain run off. Ezra stared at the life-giving water, his mouth starting to salivate.
Standish remained quiet as they walked toward the large ranch house that he could see off in the distance. The huge structure lay spread out on the plains, its adobe walls gleaming under the bright sunshine. His mind was already racing through possibilities, ideas and strategies and wondering what he was walking into now.
Mary Travis entered the saloon to find Chris, Vin, Buck and JD sitting at a table trying to escape from the worst of the day's heat without much luck.
"Chris, I got a wire from Josiah and Nathan, they'll be back day-after-tomorrow," Mary stated.
"Maybe we should tell them not to bother," Buck morosely uttered, keeping his head bowed, knowing what he had said would not go over well.
Chris's head snapped up, and his mouth opened then closed. He'd already chased off one of his men.
Buck had always been a drifter, but he had no desire to leave just yet. He figured that maybe he just didn't like being forced out, but he knew that wasn't true. Since coming to this town he had never felt the urge to ride out. This town had become home for all of them.
"I sent Billy to his grandfather's," Mary began then paused a moment, not sure how she should phrase the next sentence. "I'm leaving next week to try and find another town that needs a newspaper editor." Tears glistened in Mary's blue eyes. She had held off doing this for a long as she could.
Chris only nodded.
"I'm sorry, Mary," Buck spoke up for Chris. "I'm sure you'll find some place."
"You'll have to let us know where you end up, Mrs. Travis," JD added.
"I will." Mary wiped the tears from her face and tried to force a smile. She would miss the seven gunslingers greatly, especially Chris Larabee. "What will you all do?"
The four lawmen looked briefly at one another. "Well, I guess I'll be headin' down to Tacosa and try clearin' my name," Vin stated. "No reason for puttin' it off now."
"I'll be goin' with ya," Chris added, raising his head. Vin smiled his gratitude.
"Well, JD and I probably'll tag along too," Buck said, his spirits lifting slightly, maybe they all could stay together after all, at least for a little while longer.
"Yeah, I might look into joining the Texas Rangers," JD replied, but the others could tell that his heart wasn't in it. None of them wanted to leave their newfound home, and none of them would admit it, but they didn't want to lose each other either. They had all found a family within each other and feared what would happen if that family was broken.
"We'll wait for Josiah and Nathan to get back," Chris intoned. "See what their plans are."
Mary nodded, feeling lost and alone already. She didn't want to start over someplace else, but what other choice did she have. She turned around and headed toward the door then stopped and turned around. "What about Ezra?"
No one knew the answer and for a moment no one said a word.
"He might already be gone," Vin replied, although he wasn't sure he believed that.
"Probably already headin' for St. Louis," Buck pointed out with a noticeable sadness in his eyes. He had grown to like the conniving conman, and his easy-going nature, and had hoped that Ezra would of come along with them.
Standish was ushered inside the huge home of Dwight Weller. Elegant rugs lay scattered on the hard wood floors that were polished till they shined. It was remarkably cooler, bringing noticeable relief to everyone who stepped inside. Huge wood and cushioned furniture filled the large living area that sat off from the main entry hallway. A large unused stone fireplace dominated one wall. Ezra couldn't help but admire the fine art work that adorned the walls. He had met Mr. Weller several times in town; they had even played poker together a time or two. He found the man refreshing and intelligent, with a good sense of humor, a change from the usual plebeian individuals he was forced to associate with. But Ezra was also aware of the deep ambition that Weller harbored. You learned a lot about a man playing poker.
"Ah, Mr. Standish, welcome," a loud gruff voice carried out from another room seconds before a rather tall man with unremarkable features appeared. Dwight Weller was in his mid-fifties, sporting a thick head of salt and pepper hair. His physique denoted a man, who was not afraid of hard work. Weller's blue eyes lit up, as his smile seemed to take over half his face; it was a practiced smile and never looked natural.
Ezra stood silently with his hands behind his back, waiting to find out what was going on. An expressionless mask hardened his features and hid the questions that stirred inside his head. He had his own ideas about what was going on, but preferred to hear it from Weller.
"Please, sit," Weller sputtered as if realizing he was not being a good host. He pointed to a high back chair that was covered in red velvet. "Aren't you men supposed to be on duty?" Weller pointed out, glaring at Toby and Larry, who stood just inside the arched doorway.
The two men nodded and headed toward the door.
"Larry," Weller called out, causing the easterner to stop in his tracks. "I'll have a word with you later."
"Yes, Mr. Weller," Larry meekly replied and quickly left under Weller's reproachful gaze. Weller pulled his gun and aimed it at Ezra, who didn't even flinch and only stared passively back. He was not generally a person who liked violence, preferring more subtle interactions to get what he wanted, but this definitely put a crimp in his plans. He hadn't intended on anyone discovering the dam quite yet.
"Just can't git good help nowadays," the older man remarked after his two guards left. "They were suppose to keep people away, apparently you got a little too close to my pet project."
"It was entirely unforeseen on my part," Ezra quipped. "And your so called pet project is turning this territory into a wasteland." Ezra had to fight to keep the disgust out of his voice.
Weller smiled at the refined conman. "Wasteland is a little harsh."
"You wouldn't think so if it were your livestock dying from lack of water," Ezra remarked, keeping his voice unassuming, and without threat.
Weller stared at the slick southerner then burst out in a booming laugh, holstering his gun. The man definitely was not afraid to speak his mind.
"I like you Standish, you don't hold any punches. I built the dam so that my ranch wouldn't shrivel up and die, and I'm perfectly within my rights. The dam is on my property."
Standish's gaze followed the tall rancher as he crossed the room and stopped in front of a long cherry wood bar. He picked up a large decanter and poured dark liquor into two wide mouth glasses.
"That could be up for deliberation," Ezra countered to Weller's back. He knew there was more to it than that. "What about the water rights of the people who share the water way?"
Ezra took the glass Dwight Weller offered him and caught a whiff of the warm ambience of fine cognac. He took a tentative sip and thought his palate would suffer irreparable harm, being long denied the refined liquor.
"Yeah, but a judge would be needed to translate all that legal gobbledygook," Weller quipped. "By the time they got the wheels of justice turning it'll be too late."
"Too late for what?" Ezra casually inquired.
"Now you're playing me, Mr. Standish."
Ezra smiled and feigned innocence. He had heard that someone was buying up all the homesteads that had gone back to the bank or been abandoned.
Weller walked across the room and stood in front of a window. "I'll play your game. I've already bought up several of the ranches that border on my property. Some sold to me outright others abandoned them, and I bought them from the bank." Weller turned around, a self-satisfied grin pasted on his face. He took a swig of his drink.
"I assume you paid very little for all this valuable property?" Ezra asked.
"Of course, the bank doesn't think the property is valuable anymore without water. They were happy to get anything I offered."
"Why didn't you just buy them up legally?" Ezra's eyes swept the luxurious room. "You don't appear to be lacking in capital."
Weller snorted. "I tried for years, no one would sell. They all said they had come west to fulfill their dreams. Ha, those tenderfeet didn't know how to work the land. Most were barely surviving."
Ezra quietly sipped at his cognac. How could someone be so heartless as to ruin someone's livelihood and destroy their dreams?
"I've been working this land for over twenty years, building it bit by bit. By the time I had the finances to expand I found myself penned in, unable to grow," Weller continued, his voice growing husky with dredged up frustration. "When this drought hit, it was a god-send. I knew this German engineer, who came to my ranch and helped me build my dam. When the river ran dry everyone attributed it to the drought."
Ezra's manicured fingers stroked the fine crystal goblet. By the time Weller released the water it would be too late for everyone, including the town.
"So, now that I have been made privy to this elaborate scheme what is to become of me?" Ezra calmly asked. He never thought of Dwight Weller as the brutal type, but then again, anyone who could rip the life from a whole town had to possess a certain amount of callousness.
Weller shrugged. "You're free to go. There's nothing you or anyone else can do. I have the dam guarded twenty-four hours a day, and I have all the deeds of sale safely tucked away. The other ranchers will soon have no choice but to sell to me."
"And after you have acquired all this land, what then?" Ezra offhandedly asked.
"I'll release the water, of course."
"Then you'll have all the land and no competition. You'll even be able to round up all the strays and build up quite a herd," Ezra stated, his voice carrying a note of interest as he raised his eyebrows. He knew if he was to find a way to ruin Weller's plans he had to play the avaricious conman his friends believed he was.
"See, I knew you were the smart one of the bunch," Weller gleefully remarked, reaching for the decanter and approaching the suave cardsharp.
Ezra held out the empty glass, a faintly amused grin creasing his face, as Weller filled his glass, and then his own.
Weller studied the southerner a moment then returned the decanter to the bar. He had always liked the cocky southerner, believing he was wasting his talents as a lawman. Weller tapped the side of his glass as he continued to scrutinize the quick-witted gambler. He could use someone with Standish's talents.
"What are your plans for the future?" Weller unexpectantly asked.
"I currently find myself at a cross roads," Ezra answered. He knew he was being assessed. It was something a conman got very use too. Everyone was always trying to figure out what was really going on inside. It was that unknown factor that attracted most of his marks, thinking they would know what was really being laid out in front of them--that they'd see the con. 'Always keep them guessing' as his mother would say, 'that way they never threw you out of town until it was too late.'
Ezra was good enough at hiding the obvious, enough so that people believed what they saw on the outside was the real man inside. Only six men had seen through his outer falsehood and discovered a different man inside; one that didn't match up with the conniving and apathetic person he portrayed.
"I have a proposition for you, Mr. Standish."
Ezra cocked a sandy eyebrow in mock interest.
"I could use someone with your smarts in money matters to handle all my transactions and payroll and such. I can pay you more than what you made as a lawman, and you would have a greater chance for advancement."
Ezra sipped some of his liquor and then ran a thumb over his bottom lip, a habit he had acquired from Vin Tanner. He then let his hand stroke the place on his chin where Larabee had punched him. Maybe this could be beneficial to everyone.
"I do find myself recently unemployed," Ezra stated. "I accept your offer, Mr. Weller."
"Please, call me Dwight." Weller smiled and the two men raised their glasses in silent salute.
Vin and Buck walked into the jailhouse to find Chris sitting behind the desk, staring at the empty cells. Ezra had been right, since a couple weeks into the heat wave there hadn't been so much as a drunk detained in the cells.
"Ay, pard, been looking' fer ya," Buck said.
Vin sat on the corner of the desk. He knew his friend was hurting inside. It had taken three years for Chris to find something worth living for again and now it was being taken away just like his wife and son.
"Ezra never came back last night," Vin finally stated.
Chris took a deep breath and looked up at the tracker, a man who had become a valued friend. He then looked over at Buck, a man he had known over half his life. He wondered what would happen to them now, what would happen to all of them.
"We thought we might go and have a look around, just in case he got himself into some kind of trouble," Buck added. None of them believed that Ezra would go off to St. Louis without telling anyone, and Buck had checked his room and found that all his fancy clothes were still there.
Chris stood up. "Well, let's go find him." At least it was something constructive to do, he thought.
Chris, Buck, Vin and JD all headed in the direction that Buck had seen the wayward gambler take. They kept their mounts at a slow even pace and followed in a line along the west bank of the river. The smell of dead fish that wafted up on the occasional breeze, only reminding them how desperate the times had become. Four Corners was practically a ghost town; only a few die-hard residents remained. Even if it started to rain now, most of the people had sold out or given their land back to the bank.
"You don't think anything bad happened to Ez, do ya Buck?" JD asked as he took a small sip of water from his canteen.
"I don't know. Without water this land is even more unfriendly than usual."
Buck and JD suddenly pulled up as they realized they were closing in on Chris and Vin's mounts. All four then stared in disbelief at the huge dam.
"What in the hell?" Buck was the first to voice his shock.
A gunshot threw dirt up in front of Chris's mount, causing the animal to dance nervously. Chris pulled his gun as he regained control of his frightened mount. The others also had their weapons drawn to the unknown threat.
Vin swore as three men broke from the brush with rifles aimed. "Turn around and go back you're on private property!" The oldest of the three men ordered.
Chris knew whose land they were on, and his features grew taut as he growled back. "I want to talk to Dwight Weller, now!"
"Who are you?"
There was silence for several moments and the three men regarded each other with clearly indecisive looks.
"Okay, drop your guns here and follow me."
Chris nodded for the others to comply. He wanted to get to the bottom of this. He couldn't believe someone would actually build a dam during a drought. Now his rage had something real to lash out at.
The four lawmen rode their horses and followed the three men along the bank. Vin noticed more guards lining the banks of the river and figured they must have caught these three napping to get so close without detection. When they neared Weller's house the rancher stepped out followed closely by Ezra. Several armed cowhands quickly surrounded the four gunslingers.
"Hey, Ezra, you okay?" JD shouted, happy to see the gambler was alright and preparing to dismount his horse until a rifle appeared in his face.
"Stay on your horse," the man attached to the weapon ordered.
JD sat back down in his saddle.
Chris glared at Ezra, trying not to jump to conclusions, but it was hard. Obviously, the gambler was not being held against his wishes, and he appeared none the worse for wear. Chris turned his deadly glare back to Dwight Weller.
Before Chris could say anything, Buck's mouth jumped into gear. "What's going on here? Why the hell is there a dam across the only source of water?"
"You're forcing everyone out so you can buy up the land cheap," Chris knowingly stated, barely able to keep his voice steady.
Weller glared back at the menacing gunslinger. He would definitely have to get better help. Although it really didn't matter anymore who knew about the dam. "It's all perfectly legal," Weller answered.
"We'll see how legal it is," JD barked, but as the words left his mouth he realized how moot a point it was. Weller had already succeeded in driving most of the residents away.
"What's your cut in all this, Standish?" Chris growled.
Ezra inwardly winced. He knew what Larabee and the others were thinking. He didn't blame them; he was good at what he did. "I believed my employment as peace officer was at an end. Mr. Weller was gracious enough to offer me a job."
"A job!" Buck angrily exclaimed. "With this land-grubbing, self-important son-of-a-whore. He just destroyed a whole town. I thought you were better than that."
Ezra pressed his lips together a moment and stared back at his friend. "I guess you were wrong, Mr. Wilmington."
Weller stepped forward. "Now, Mr. Larabee, I want you, and your hired guns off my property and the next time one of you trespasses I'll have you shot. Oh, and just a friendly warning, I'll be increasing the guards around the dam."
Chris clenched his jaw and squeezed the saddle horn until his hand ached. He couldn't believe it; this man had brought to ruin a whole town. He couldn't believe that Ezra would be a part of this, or maybe he could. They hadn't known the urbane gambler long, and Chris supposed he couldn't always be right about someone.
Vin eyed Ezra, who refused to meet his gaze. He also didn't want to believe he had misread the cardsharp. Vin had thought he had finally figured out who the real man was under those fancy duds, but when life got hard people sometimes returned to what they were most comfortable with.
The four lawmen, seeing that they were only wasting their time, turned and spurred their horses, galloping back the way they had come. As they left Weller's ranch they all slowed to a walk. Buck came up alongside Chris's mount.
"What are we going to do?"
"We're going to get a hold of the Judge first and see what we can do," Chris replied.
"I can't believe that Ezra would be a part of that," JD remarked in disbelief as he looked over his shoulder.
The heat had not only robbed the life from the town's folk, but it also seemed to steal the energy from the day. Hours seemed to drag by with excruciating slowness. The dust was already trying to claim the town as hot wind blew sand everywhere, covering parts of the boardwalk and filling in the doorways of boarded up buildings.
JD stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon where Buck, Vin and Chris sat trying to formulate a plan.
"Chris, we got a telegram from the Judge." JD handed the piece of paper over.
"What's he say?" Buck asked, pushing his hat back on his head. He was angry and frustrated. Mostly because all the women had left town, including a few that he had been very friendly with. Most of the town's folk had headed to Cedar Ridge, which still had a water supply. They all knew that eventually everyone would scatter from there.
"Says he'll see what he can do and be here in a week," Chris answered after quickly reading the wire.
"Damn, by then this town will be dried up and blown away," Vin replied.
Larabee crumbled the piece of paper in his hand. There had to be something they could do to save their way of life.
The four lawmen glanced up as three riders slowly entered the town, one wearing a bright red jacket.
"I guess he did take some clothes," Buck murmured, shaking his head. "Hope he comes down with heat stroke."
JD turned upon hearing the anger in Buck's voice. He didn't want to believe that Ezra had betrayed them.
Standish and two other riders pulled up in front of the bank. Ezra looked across the street to see his former associates and friends watching him.
"Wait here. I'll be right back," Ezra told the two men who had accompanied him. Weller had asked him to deliver some funds into his account. Ezra knew it was a test of his allegiance.
The others watched as Ezra entered the bank.
"Lord, Weller trusts him with his money," Vin observed. The other three lawmen were surprised at the tinge of disgust in Vin's words. They all felt betrayed.
Ezra exited the bank moments later and headed toward the stable. He slowed as he neared the livery, hesitating as the large stable owner blocked his path.
"Your stall was given to someone else," the owner growled. He had heard what the gambler had done, gossip spread fast when most of the people were gone and there wasn't much else to do.
Ezra smiled, knowing this was not true.
"Sir, I only wish to retrieve some property I left in my tack box."
Ezra stiffened as he felt the presence behind him. He didn't have to look to know who had caused the hair on the back of his neck to prickle. Chris Larabee had his own special aura, one, few people wished to experience, or lived long enough to tell.
The stable owner moved aside, allowing Ezra to enter, probably due to a look from Chris than any threat he could pose. Ezra went to his horse's stall and opened the huge tack bin that sat across from it. He pulled out a saddlebag and flung it over his shoulder.
When he exited the stable Chris, Vin, Buck and JD stood in front of him. The two men he came with stood nervously off to one side, not sure what they should do. Ezra had hoped to avoid any confrontation between him and the others, unfortunately that was not to be.
JD stepped forward. "We thought you changed, that you were one of us."
Ezra's features didn't alter as his gut clenched when he looked into the disillusioned brown eyes of the young gunslinger. He hated to destroy JD's fantasy world.
"You believed I changed?" Ezra mocked softly. "So, you all believed that I was some no-account, cheating, cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch?" Ezra looked at the others for a sign his words spoke the truth. "And by taking up alliance with you all I instantly became this noble, upstanding citizen. Is that what you all believe?" Ezra glared at the four men. His southern accent rich with the condemnation he now felt. For the first time he actually felt betrayed.
JD lowered his eyes, appearing regretful and this eased Ezra's sudden resentment.
"No, I guess...well, no." JD stammered, raising his head to meet Ezra's green-eyed stare. "I just thought together we all had found something that we all needed."
"No, Mr. Dunne," Ezra spoke softly, allowing some of the hurt to show through. "You all found something. I was merely along for the ride. I was never a part of your perceived family." A sad smile creased his face.
Standish turned to leave and stopped as Chris stepped in his way. Ezra's smile changed, turning self-deprecating and ironic. Controlled tension surrounded the two proud men.
"Sold your soul and the lives of these people for money," Chris spat out, his fists clenched at his sides. "We trusted you, depended on you, and you go and side with the man who's the cause of all this."
Vin stepped up alongside Chris's gun arm.
"Mother Nature also played a part," Ezra reminded.
Weller's two men had moved up and stood next to Ezra. They were suppose to protect him and also make sure he didn't take off with the money he had been entrusted with. Ezra had no choice, but to continue to keep up the pretense.
"That's bullshit and you know it," Chris snarled. "If we still had that river we could have out-lasted the drought."
Chris took a step toward the gambler, who stood his ground. Ezra rested a hand on the saddlebags over his shoulder and held the other away from his guns. He didn't want to tempt Larabee's anger or find out who was a faster draw at this time.
"We all do what we have too," Ezra simply replied. "Life doesn't always deal us a royal straight."
"You're nothing but a connivin', self-absorbed son-of-a-bitch," Chris spat out through clenched teeth.
Ezra flinched slightly and a malicious grin spread across Chris's hardened features, as he knew his words had hit a chord.
"Believe what you will, Mr. Larabee." Ezra's southern drawl cracked slightly as he tried to maintain his composure. He tipped his hat and stepped around the disgruntled gunslinger, hoping to quickly defuse the situation before someone did something they would later regret. For a second he fully expected a bullet in the back.
And for a second Larabee contemplated it.
JD made a move to go after him until he felt Buck's hand on his shoulder. "Let'em go, maybe he's right. Maybe he never was one of us."
Ezra's mood darkened on the ride back from Four Corners. Weller's two men noticed the sudden change from his earlier easy-going manner to one that sent a chill of apprehension down each of their spines. The two guards wisely decided they would live longer if they remained out of the southerner's line of sight. Ezra's mind went through the things that were said over and over again. Maybe he should consider taking Weller's job permanently; according to his so-called friends it was all he was good for.
Ezra sat in Weller's study, trying to enjoy the aroma of a fine cigar and put aside some of his more disturbing thoughts. He raised his head as Dwight entered the comfortable room. The man was practically giddy with power and it sickened Ezra to his very core.
"Ezra, I'm glad you're here I want to talk to you."
Ezra hoped he wasn't asked to do anything else that would put him in the path of his former associates. He realized that the outcome probably would not be very favorable.
Weller cheerfully dropped into the chair opposite him and ran a hand through his salt and pepper hair. "As you know I never had any children. Was married once, but she couldn't handle the rough lifestyle." Weller laughed slightly. "Well, unfortunately it left me alone and without anyone to inherit the legacy I'm building."
Ezra shifted in his chair, getting very uncomfortable with the path this conversation was taking.
"Well, I'm not much for pussy-footin' around so I'll just say what I want to say," Weller continued. "I'm offering you the ranch."
Ezra's eyes widen, and his mouth dropped open. This man barely knew him and was offering him his ranch, there had to be a catch.
"Now, I know you're not the manual labor type, but you don't have to be," Weller added, seeing the shock on the southerner's face.
"Dwight," Ezra cleared his throat. "I also know nothing about running a ranch."
"All you have to do is pick the right people, and I think you are capable of doing that. I'll teach you everything I know and the financial aspect I'm sure you'll probably do better with than I ever had."
"Ah, I..." Ezra began, for the first time his vocabulary failing him.
The older man leaned forward in his chair and clasped his hands together on his knees. "You don't have to make any decision now. I plan on being around awhile." Weller chuckled. "I like you Ezra, and I think you could keep this ranch running and growing." Weller stood up. "Just think on it. All this could be yours." Weller smiled and walked out of the room, leaving Ezra with his open astonishment.
The cigar Ezra held had burned halfway down, completely forgotten. He looked around at the opulence that surrounded him--Civilization in an uncivilized environment. The ranch was comparable to many of the fine southern estates he had visited in St. Louis. Could he run a ranch of this size? Sadness lit his green eyes. What Weller offered him just made what he had to do all the harder.
"I never would have believed that Ezra would do such a thing," Josiah sadly remarked upon Buck's account of the last few days. The ex-preacher had grown quite fond of the solitary cardsharp, thinking of him almost as a son.
"I would, just hoped he wouldn't 'ave," Nathan added. He had never trusted the southerner, but he had been coming to like him. There was something about the obstinate gambler that rubbed off on a person, and you couldn't help but like. But Nathan guessed the old saying was true, 'a leopard can never change its spots.' He knew Ezra to be an arrogant, devious son-of-a-bitch. He just thought the man also had a heart and sense of responsibility under that shallow exterior.
"So, what do we do now?" Nathan asked.
"I think Chris plans on trying to sneak over to that dam and blow it up," Buck explained. "It's pretty heavily guarded, but we just can't sit here and do nothing."
"Maybe if we get the water back some of the town's folk will come back," Josiah said.
"What about the ones who sold their homes to Weller?" Nathan asked.
Buck could only shrug. "One problem at a time."
Ezra listened to the laughter of the three guards, who sat huddled together near the dam. He had counted twenty men up and down the embankments and around the ranch. Weller was no fool. He knew Larabee and the others would try something. Ezra knew they'd wait for word from the Judge first, and he also knew the Judge wouldn't be able to do anything fast enough.
Yes, Ezra thought, Weller was no fool. Increasing the guard on the dry path leading up to the dam was a very wise idea. Of course, only three men guarded the dam itself.
Clouds had finally obscured the moon. Ezra adjusted the saddlebag over his shoulder and stepped out from the brush, startling the three men into drawing their weapons.
"Evenin' gentlemen, I just brought you a little something to pass the time with." Ezra walked up to the low burning fire and revealed a bottle of whiskey.
"Ah, I don't know 'bout that, drinking on-duty," one of the guards remarked.
Ezra rolled his eyes. He would have to run into a conscientious sentry.
"Well, if we split it between the four of us, say over a game of chance. I don't think your faculties will become overly impaired."
The three men stared at the southerner with bewildered expressions, wondering if the southerner was speaking English.
"You won't get drunk," Ezra pointed out.
"Yeah, okay," they all agreed at once.
Ezra dealt out a hand, accepting the shot that was poured for him. He watched as each of the men down their shots. He had put a little something extra in the bottle, something he had lifted from Nathan's clinic. He always thought that sleeping potion would come in handy someday. Ezra surreptitiously dumped his shot and dealt out another hand. It wasn't long before all three men were snoring quietly.
Ezra checked the guards to be sure they were out, and then made his way over to the dam. He quietly slid down the embankment. Ezra approached the engineering marvel and laid his saddlebag down next to it. He quickly flattened himself against the dam as two roving guards passed by on the other side of the river. When they disappeared he quickly dug into his bag and pulled out several sticks of dynamite.
The dynamite had been left over from his and Vin's previous explosive escapade, one where half a mountain ended up on top of them, through no fault of their own. He and Vin had devised a plan to even out the odds, during gunfights, when they found themselves out-numbered by the outlaws. It entailed the use of a slingshot, and Tanner's expert marksmanship. It really was a good idea, although Chris had wanted to tack their hides to the wall for pulling such a foolish stunt and almost getting themselves killed. Ezra chuckled lightly at the memory, and wondered if he and Vin would ever have the opportunity to incur Larabee's wrath of concern ever again. Standish's heart ached as he wondered if his friendship with the others was irrevocably shattered. He knew he should have found a way to tell them what he had planned, but he hadn't known until just recently. Ezra shook away the self-pity and concentrated on the task at hand; he had no intention of blowing himself up in the process.
Ezra had studied the structure and knew about where he wanted to set the charges. He placed several sticks into a small hollow a quarter way across and ran a long fuse to the middle of the riverbed. He then planted several more close to the other side and again ran a long fuse to the middle. Ezra buried the end of the two fuses under some small sticks and debris, and placed a rock right in front of it so he could find the location in the morning. He wished he could just blow up the dam now and be done with it, but there was one more thing he had to do. He also wanted to be sure he was safely away. He didn't think Weller would look kindly on him for blowing up his prized possession. Standish hoped his planned worked. If it did Four Corners would have water and maybe he would have his life back, or he would be heading to Frisco. He was surprised how much the latter disturbed him. He really wasn't sure if his friendship with the others could be mended.
Ezra returned to the guards, who were all starting to stir. He pretended to deal out a hand. "So, you all like working for Mr. Weller?" he asked, eyeing the still groggy men.
A rather large, blond-haired man shook his head and stared at Ezra. He wasn't sure what had happened. "Whoa, that whiskey has some kick."
The other two agreed with him. Ezra smiled, none of them would admit to passing out, so no one was the wiser to his little demolition set up.
Weller had given Ezra one of the rooms in the main house. The insufferable sun was slowly making its ascent into another cloudless sky. Ezra lay on his bed staring up at the ceiling. He listened to the sounds outside his door and waited until he was sure the house was empty. Weller had made few demands on him. The older rancher had spent the last couple days explaining the workings of the ranch. Ezra had to admit he was greatly tempted. He started to believe he could run this ranch and even make it prosper. The thought of being a wealthy and respected landowner brought a smile to his weary face. Well, maybe respected was reaching, considering how the land was attained. Was respect all that important when you were rich and powerful anyway? The smile faded from his face as the answer reverberated within his head--Yes, it was.
Ezra quietly made his way into Weller's study; a pang of guilt at betraying the older man actually caused him to pause. Ezra shook it away, Dwight Weller trusted him because the older man thought he was like him--would do anything for a buck. Ezra made his way over to the huge ornate desk and started going through the drawers. When he came to one that was locked he smiled. The gambler poked his head up to be sure he was still alone then went to work picking open the drawer. The drawer gave easily to his expertise and Ezra pulled out a large stack of papers that sat inside. He looked at the top page seeing the words, "Deed of Trust" written on the top. He quickly stuffed the valuable papers into the saddlebags. Before he left, Ezra opened the small box that sat on the desk and pulled out a cigar, running it under his nose and breathing in the delicate aroma.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and the others were slowly making their way toward the dam, the morning sun throwing its first rays of light across the imprisoned water. Vin and Buck had already quietly taken out several guards and everyone was now kneeling down in a small clearing a few yards from the dam.
"Okay, here's the plan, we all split up. Take out as many of Weller's men as possible and keep them busy. Try and avoid killing anyone," Chris explained. "Vin and I have the dynamite, and we'll try and get to the dam and set it."
Vin patted the saddlebags over his shoulder that carried the sticks of dynamite. He had thought that there had been more left over from the escapade with Ezra, but the stuff had disappeared.
"What do we do if shootin' starts?" Buck asked.
Chris bowed his head. He didn't want to kill anyone, but he was determined to destroy that dam. "Shoot back."
Buck and the others nodded and split up.
Ezra stepped outside, nodding to one of Weller's men who strode by. He had left Chaucer saddled and casually walked up to the animal, flinging the bags over the front of the saddle. He tightened the cinch and took one last look at the magnificent ranch house, and a life style he could easily grow accustomed to.
Ezra patted Chaucer's neck. "Easy, boy, I'll be right back there's just one more thing I have to attend to." As Ezra turned to head for the dam gunfire erupted.
"Aww hell!" Ezra knew the others had come and were trying to take out the barrier. His plans had changed. He untied Chaucer and wrapped the reins loosely around the pommel. He pointed the horse toward town.
"Home!" Ezra slapped the steed on its rump and sent him on his way. If anything should happen, he at least wanted those Deeds in safe hands. Ezra then rushed toward the dam, knowing his friends would be severely outnumbered and out gunned, and prayed that none of them were killed.
Gunfire had started when one of Weller's guards panicked and shot at JD, knocking off his hat. JD returned fire, striking the guard in the hand and knocking the gun from his hand.
Ezra came up alongside Dwight as he directed his men to surround and protect the dam. Weller knew that Larabee was making a desperate attempt at destroying the barrier. The rancher was confident that his men could hold the gunslingers' back. He still needed the dam. There were two holdouts that had adjacent ranches. They couldn't last much longer. He just needed a little more time.
Chris was determined to take out the dam, and Vin followed to cover him. Both men grabbed cover as bullets started to fly in their direction. Tanner brought up his rifle and suddenly found Ezra trapped in his sights, several yards away, across the river. He watched as the fancy dressed gambler stood at Weller's side. Vin's finger rested on the trigger.
"Vin, Vin." Chris shook the tracker, breaking him from his conflicting thoughts.
Tanner lowered his rifle and looked over at Chris who stared worriedly at him. "I'm going to make a try for the dam, cover me," Chris said.
The gunfire finally stopped, and Ezra drew in an audible breath as he watched two of Weller's men approach with Chris Larabee hanging by his arms between them, his chin resting on his chest.
Ezra shook his head, can't anything go as planned.
Chris moaned slightly and tried to raise his head. Blood trickled down the side of his face from a cut that ran down the side of his head, where a gun butt had connected and ended his attempt at blowing up the dam.
Ezra exhaled, grateful that the stalwart gunslinger had an uncompromising head.
Larabee slowly struggled to bring his feet up under him and support his weight. He glared at Weller through dazed blue eyes, as the two guards continued to hold him.
"Mr. Larabee, a valiant attempt, but futile," Weller mocked. "You are trespassing, and I believe I gave you fair warning." Weller pulled his gun and pointed it directly at the blond gunslinger's head.
The other lawmen had re-grouped, and were now watching, with fear-filled hearts at what was taking place across the river. When Weller pulled his gun, Buck and Vin both swore, and Josiah had to grab Vin before the impulsive tracker could rush out.
The ex-preacher stared intently at Ezra, hoping the cardsharp was going to do something. Vin also watched and promised himself that if Ezra let Chris die he would personally kill the two-timing southerner with his bare hands.
"So, Mr. Larabee, I know this is cliché, but any last words?" Weller scoffed.
"Go to hell," Chris growled.
Ezra rolled his eyes. Didn't Chris ever believe in a little diplomacy to get out of a tight situation? Ezra suddenly stepped in front of Weller's gun.
"Dwight, I believe you are making a grievous error in judgment. If you kill a representative of the law you could lose all you've worked for," Ezra calmly explained.
Dwight Weller considered this a moment and then lowered his gun. "You're right. I guess I just got caught up in the moment." Weller glared at Larabee. "I guess you have Mr. Standish to thank for your life."
"Don't do me any favors, Standish," Chris bit back with the same decidedly icy tone he had used on Weller. Chris's fury was evident in his face, and Ezra gritted his teeth to hold back his normal sarcasm.
Ezra turned back to Weller. "Let me take him back across the dam to his friends," Ezra asked.
Dwight Weller smiled and holstered his gun. "Sure, I think we've squelched this little rebellion."
Weller stepped forward into Chris's face. "You better watch yourself, Larabee, next time Ezra might not be here to save you." Weller laughed, and stepped back as Chris growled at him.
Ezra pulled his gun, and then pulled the cigar from his coat pocket. "Do you have a light?" He asked Weller as he put the cigar in this mouth. Weller produced a match and struck it on heel of his boot. Ezra drew deep of the smoke, and then turned around to face Larabee.
"Mr. Larabee, if you please." Ezra used the barrel of the gun to demand movement out of the reluctant leader.
The two guards released Chris, who tottered slightly then turned around and slowly made his way across the dam.
Ezra didn't pay attention to Chris as they made their way across the dam. His eyes searching the riverbed until he saw the rock and small pile of tender. Just as they past the halfway point, Ezra dropped his cigar down onto the burnable tender. He continued to watch, hoping that it caught and smiled when he saw a wisp of smoke rise up. When Ezra turned his head back around it was met with Chris's fist that knocked him to the ground, his gun skittered across the dam and into the water.
Weller stopped his guards from interfering. This was perfect. If Standish managed to kill Larabee his troubles would be over. He didn't think on if Larabee managed to kill Ezra. He always tried to think positive.
Buck and the others stared in disbelief as the two men fought it out on top the narrow wall. Weller's men were keeping them from interfering.
"Chris, listen to me..." Ezra exclaimed as he climbed to his feet.
Chris swung out his leg and caught Ezra at the knee. Ezra gasped as he came down hard on his right side. When Chris approached, Ezra lashed out, planting his foot into Larabee's mid-section and causing the enraged gunslinger to double over.
"Damnit, Larabee, we need..." Ezra tried again to warn of the impending explosion, but was cut off as Chris jumped on top of him. The two men rolled across the dam locked in mortal combat.
Ezra felt Larabee's hands wrap around his throat, cutting off his voice and his air. He grabbed at Chris's hands, trying to wrench them off his throat. Blackness started to swim at the edges of his vision, and he started to believe that he was going to die and at the hands of a supposed friend. Then one final thought came to him that if he died so would Chris--blown up with the dam. Ezra did not want to be responsible for this man's demise.
Standish's eyes began to flutter as his oxygen starved lungs screamed for air.
Ezra ceased his struggles and forced his eyes to open, fighting the blackness that wanted to overcome him. He looked up into Chris's enraged face.
For a second, Larabee thought Ezra was pulling some kind of trick, but when he looked into the gambler's green gaze it was if he was slapped. He quickly released his hold on the gambler's neck. Chris stared down at his hands like they were not a part of him. He couldn't believe what he was about to do.
Ezra sat up coughing and rubbing his throat. Chris didn't know why he had stopped, but when he looked into Ezra's face, he was reminded that they were once friends.
"We...need...to get off...this dam...it's going to blow," Ezra exclaimed in short gasps.
Chris's blue eyes snapped up, and he searched the gambler's face for any trace of a deceit. "Shit," Chris muttered as his own visage proclaimed his apology and regret. He grabbed the still gasping conman up by the arm and the two men jumped into the river and started swimming toward the bank.
Weller stared bewildered at what was taking place, then his brow furrowed. "Shoot them!" he yelled to his men, who were standing around him. Weller's men started firing at the two lawmen who were swimming frantically toward the nearby shore. Ezra felt a bullet bite into his leg, causing him to lose a stroke and flounder.
"What the hell is going on now?" Buck stated, getting very tired of constantly be left in the dark. He had been relieved when Chris had let go of Ezra's throat. He didn't want to see the gambler die by his friend's hand. But Wilmington expected Chris to throw the gambler into the lake, instead the two men jumped in together.
"Hell with it," Vin said and rushed out from under cover, the others quickly following suit. Most of Weller's men had lost interest in keeping the five lawmen restricted to the other side of the river.
The explosion ripped through the dam, throwing Vin, Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah to the ground.
Weller's bewilderment turned to anger as his prized structure was turned into maelstrom of logs and debris. He watched as tons of water rushed by, filling the deprived riverbed with life giving substance.
Larabee managed to reach the bank and grab hold of an exposed tree root. His arms ached as the river pulled at him, trying to drag him into its surging depths. Keeping hold of his tree root lifeline, he looked down the bank expecting to see Ezra clinging nearby. Panic and fear rose up, as Chris saw no sign of the cardsharp.
Ezra was still a foot away from the bank when the dam blew; the rushing water grabbed and pulled him away. He found himself churning within the freed waters and heading downstream. Ezra was a strong swimmer. You had to be when you gambled on the riverboats of the Mississippi, as you never knew when you'd be asked to leave. But the raging river was a different story. He felt like he was in a vat of laundry that someone was vigorously trying to clean. Ezra struggled to keep his head above water.
The river seemed to be taking out its anger, at being held back, on the fragile form that fought within its body. Logs and debris pummeled the helpless man that tried to make it to the shore. He was going to die and it was a sobering thought. Ezra then wondered if he was going to die friendless?
Chris felt hands grab at his arms and looked up to see the smiling faces of his friends. He quickly climbed up the bank with their help. "We have to find Ezra!" Chris yelled over the roar of the liberated river. He took off at a jog the others quickly following him.
"What the hell is going on?" Vin asked.
"Ezra blew up the dam," Chris explained as he raced along the bank.
"Ah shit," Buck said. "It was all an act to get close to the dam."
The six lawmen jumped on their horses and quickly raced down along the riverbank. All the times they wished for water were forgotten, now they wished for a dry riverbed again.
Six pairs of eyes searched both sides of the raging river, fear twisting at their guts. As the six gunslingers neared the town the river started to calm slightly, having now filled its prescribed course.
"Over there!" Nathan yelled, pointing at a still form laying face down on the shore.
"No," Chris breathed as he spurred his horse forward followed quickly by the others. Chris and Vin were the first to arrive and both men leapt from their still moving mounts. Vin dropped next to Ezra's head and put two fingers to the gambler's neck, then bent down close to his face.
Chris stared expectantly at Vin. He wanted to scream at the tracker to say something.
Vin's heart sank as he waited for that slight pulse that signified life. "Shit, I feel a pulse, but I don't think he's breathing," Vin exclaimed as the others surround them.
Nathan quickly moved in. Wrapping long strong arms under and around the gambler's waist, he pulled up sharply, bringing forth a gurgled gasp. The healer jerked up again on Ezra's stomach. Ezra started to cough and river water spewed from his mouth. Nathan gently laid the gambler down on the damp sand. "Easy, Ez, we got you," Nathan soothed. With Josiah's help he carefully turned the waterlogged southerner over. Nathan ripped open Ezra's white shirt, noting that his fancy red-tailed jacket was nowhere to be seen. Ezra was now breathing, but his breaths were coming out in labor pants.
"Ah geeze," JD exclaimed as Ezra's bruised chest and side were revealed to them.
"Shit, he's bleeding," Buck exclaimed, seeing the blood welling up under his leg. Vin pulled his knife and quickly cut up Ezra's left pant's leg, revealing the bullet hole.
"Ah, hell someone shot him," Vin exclaimed as he pulled off his bandana and applied pressure to the wound.
Nathan peeled back an eyelid then quickly checked Ezra's head for any wounds. He gently examined Ezra's battered torso, educing a low moan that parted the cardsharp's lips. Ezra started to cough, which sent shooting darts of pain throughout his body and caused him to curl up and hiss.
"Well, how is he?" Chris anxiously asked.
"He must have got caught up in some of the logs. He's pretty banged up. Broken arm, broken ribs and probably a concussion and it looks like he still has a bullet in him," Nathan explained then went abruptly quiet, running his hands down Ezra's side. Chris saw the look of concern on the healer's face, and his heart started to pound in his chest.
"What is it, Nathan?"
Nathan looked up at Chris and thought about what he was going to say. "He might have internal injuries these bruises are pretty bad."
Nathan didn't have to say anymore. They all knew what that meant. Ezra moaned again, and his head rolled to the side. Vin and Josiah held him down in case he tried to sit up.
"Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan prodded, hoping to get some response.
Ezra's eyes fluttered open, but he couldn't make out the blurred images in front of him. He swallowed and winced at how sore his throat was. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and then opened them again to a sharper image of Chris staring worriedly down at him.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Chris quietly admonished, placing a hand on his injured man's shoulder and squeezing.
Ezra smiled slightly. "Sorry, there wasn't time to apprise you of the situation." Ezra coughed slightly and tears welled in his eyes as pain erupted throughout his body.
"That was a damn fool thing to do," Chris choked slightly. "But, thanks."
Ezra's smile faded as his eyes slowly closed. Chris's hand dropped from Ezra's shoulder.
"Let's get him back to town and I'll do what I can for him," Nathan stated.
The next day still brought the heat, but also the refreshing sound of the river flowing down its intended coarse. Mary Travis had wired Cedar Ridge to let everyone, who was still there, know that they now had water, although, this would not help the people who had already sold or abandoned their ranches.
The six gunslingers stood vigil over their seventh, hoping he would pull through and wanting to be there in case he didn't.
"Man, Buck, we believed the worst about Ezra," JD exclaimed as he sat sullenly at the table in the bar.
"Don't remind me," Buck angrily retorted.
"Sometimes it's hard to know what a man is really about. Ezra is a perfect example of this," Josiah stated. He had been thinking a lot about the enigmatic conman--a person who wanted everyone to believe the worst, and hide the goodness he carried inside. They all now knew that Ezra didn't feel a part of them; they hoped for the chance to change that. Josiah knew it was as much Ezra's fault as theirs, but he was determined to pull the stubborn man into the fold.
Chris and Vin sat silently across from each other, both lost in their own thoughts. Chris remembering how he had wanted to kill Ezra for what he thought the man had done, believing him a traitor. Things are not always as they appear, as Josiah was fond of reciting, and that was never truer than with the suave cardsharp.
Vin's own thoughts unknowingly emulated Chris's. He had thought about pulling the trigger, thinking that Ezra had betrayed them. A shiver went down Vin's spine at how close he had come to killing a friend.
Everyone's attention turned at the sound of footsteps coming down stairs. Nathan stopped halfway down to look at the fearful expressions of his friends. He shook his head in disbelief as he realized no one had moved from their seats since last night. Josiah and him had worked all night on Ezra's injuries.
"I got the bullet out, and he's resting," Nathan replied to their questioning stares as he continued the rest of the way down and took a seat. "He hasn't spit up any blood so hopefully there's no internal damage. He developed a fever, but I was able to keep it under control."
Everyone released the breaths they'd been holding since they brought Ezra back to town yesterday.
"Can we see him?" Chris asked.
"Sure," Nathan sighed.
+ + + + + + +
The six gunslingers all crowded into the clinic. Ezra lay propped up with a bandage around his head and one around his torso to support his broken ribs. His broken arm strapped to his chest. He opened his eyes and smiled as his friends surrounded the bed.
Chris stepped forward. "I believe we all owe you an apology."
"No, Mr. Larabee, it is I who should apologize. I should have found a way to advise you of what I was doing." Ezra paused a moment to catch his breath. "To use to workin' alone."
"Well, we'll just have to remedy that," Josiah stated.
"That could be quite a task," Ezra drawled a lazy grin spreading across his face.
"I think we can handle it," Chris pointed out and smiled. They all laughed their relief.
"What about the ranchers who lost their homes to Weller?" JD suddenly asked, causing the good feelings to diminish.
Ezra smiled. "Has my horse come home yet?"
"Yeah, I put him in his stall last night," Vin replied.
"In the saddle bags are the Deeds to all the ranches that Mr. Weller stole," Ezra explained. "And I believe the Judge could convince Mr. Weller to give restitution to the ranchers to avoid any jail time."
"JD and I will go tomorrow and track down all the ranchers," Buck excitedly exclaimed.
Chris grinned at his friend knowing he was going to do more than track down a few ranchers.
"You did good, Ezra," Chris praised, laying a hand on the conman's shoulder.
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee."
Chris leaned over slightly and a sardonic glint flashed in his blue eyes. "And when you're up to it we're going to have a long talk."
Ezra's bruised face scrunched in dread, bringing more chuckles from the others.
"See what happens when you play with dynamite," Vin good-naturedly rebuked, wagging a finger at his friend and trying to hold back the grin that tugged at his lips. Ezra glared at the audacity of the tracker, lecturing him on the dangers of dynamite.
A long cacophony of thunderclaps rolled down from the distant mountain and a cool breeze blew aside the drapes, bringing smiles to everyone's face as they realized their town and way of life was saved.
"Now that's music to my ears," Josiah stated.