JD entered the restaurant looking like he had slept in his clothes, which he had. He had stayed at the jail all night, keeping Ezra company and losing a month's wages in the process. He plopped down in a chair next to Buck, who was hungrily gulping down some eggs. Vin and Chris had finished their breakfast and were sitting back, trying to enjoy the temporary early morning quiet above their ravenous friend's slurps and burps. Vin inwardly grinned, knowing that Buck was noisy during any and all pleasurable activities.
"What are you doing here, JD?" Chris asked.
"I'm hungry," JD replied rather perturbed. He looked over at Buck. "Someone was suppose to bring me breakfast this morning and spell me."
Buck slumped down in his chair as he swallowed his last bite. "Sorry JD. I over slept. I guess this bump on the head affected me more than I thought."
"Whose watching Ezra?" Chris nonchalantly asked, interrupting before Buck and JD could go into one of their daily tirades.
JD didn't say a word as he realized what Chris was asking and why. His face showed them all they needed to know, and they raced out of the restaurant already knowing what would be waiting for them back at the jail.
The four lawmen looked upon the open door and empty cell that earlier had held the perplexing gambler.
"Damnit!" Chris swore under his breath. Buck took his hat off and hit JD over the head knocking his bowler to the floor. JD retrieved his hat and glared up at Buck.
"How many times do I have to tell you, you can't leave Ezra alone in a locked room if you want him to stay there," Buck reprimanded the youth.
"Hey, if you had relieved me like you were suppose to..."
Chris cast them both a look, effectively cutting off any further verbal feuding. "It's not his fault, Buck. JD, go check and see if his horse is still here." Chris paced the jail floor, hoping that Ezra was not walking into trouble that he could not handle.
"Where do you think he'd go?" Vin asked.
"Who knows? He could be half way to St Louis for all we know," Chris answered, but he didn't really think the southerner would run out.
JD returned shortly. "His horse is still here."
Chris nodded, glad the gambler didn't see fit to leave town. "Okay, we split up and search the town. Vin, go find Nathan and Josiah we're going to need their help. We'll meet up at the church later."
The six men searched the town and surrounding areas with no sign of the elusive gambler. It was getting late and Chris and Vin were heading toward the church when they caught sight of Jake entering the hotel.
Jake stood in the lobby as if expecting them. "Lose something?" He sneered at the two gunslingers.
Chris did not like this man. There was something not right about him. His jaw muscles knotted as he glared at the smug man and sneered, "Yeah, and if we find out you know somethin' I'll personally tear your heart out."
Jake flinched and laid his hand on the butt of his gun. "What's between me an Ezra is none of your business."
Chris stepped up closer to Jake, who was the same height as he. "Sorry, it doesn't work that way here. We protect our own."
"Then you protect a traitor and a murderer," Jake snarled and headed upstairs to his room, leaving Chris to seethe in quiet frustration and anger.
Vin and Chris met up with Josiah in the church. A few minutes later Buck and Nathan plopped down in one of the pews.
"We've searched everywhere no sign of 'im," Buck tiredly exclaimed. He rested his head in his hands. He had a headache as big as Texas and planned on talking to Nathan about getting some of his herbal remedies.
"That man sure knows how to not be found," Jackson quipped. He was worried about the smart-mouth conman. He'd heard the talk and knew some of the townsfolk believed what Jake was sayin'. Nathan was afraid Ezra would have to leave town. How could someone be a lawman for a town that no longer trusted him?
JD strolled into the church and looked upon the five weary men, a knowing smile teased the corners of his mouth.
Buck looked up at his young friend, throwing him an annoyed expression. "What are you grinnin' at, JD?"
"Did anyone check the saloon?" JD smartly quipped. Everyone regarded each other with the same dumbfound look--it was too obvious. They all got up and walked over to the saloon.
Ezra was sitting at a corner table a half-empty bottle of whiskey next to him. "He's been there all night by himself, just getting drunk," JD pointed out to the others. The six walked over to the table, grabbing extra chairs along the way.
"I don't believe I requested company," Ezra muttered in a husky voice, tossing back a shot of whiskey.
"Ezra, we're just trying to help. We want to know what's going on." Chris's voice revealed his frustration, but also something else, a measure of concern.
Ezra tried to focus on the six men that encircled him. He still had a hard time trusting anyone, even friends, and he did consider these men friends. "Do you all believe I'm a traitor?" Ezra looked at each one of them. Chris and Vin looked back at Ezra, and then Vin bowed his head. JD and Buck didn't know what to say and looked away. Josiah leaned back in his chair exuding an unassuming manner.
"No, I don't," Nathan voiced.
"You would have been the last person I thought would believe me, Mr. Jackson, it's sort of ironic," Ezra chuckled slightly.
"Ezra, give us a chance," Chris asked his eyes meeting Ezra's rather glassy green ones.
A smile tugged at Ezra's lips. He struggled to find the words that would make concrete the thoughts that were swirling about in his head. He took a deep breath, and poured another shot. He stared at the amber liquor and in a slow, indolent southern drawl answered,
"I was and still am a loyal southern gentleman, proud of my heritage." Ezra downed the shot, hoping it would give him the courage to continue. "What does a man do when proud of his roots, yet not of certain long embedded traditions and attitudes? Namely the enslavement of men, women and children."
Ezra paused, casting a sideways glance at his friends before continuing, "Even some of my more prosperous relatives dealt in slavery. When I was young and deposited at these relatives doorstep I was always uncomfortable around it but accepted it as a fact of life. As I got older I tried to avoid it, but it was always there. Every time I'd see a child working out in the fields get whipped for moving too slow I was reminded of it."
A sadness entered the gambler's eyes. For some reason children were always Ezra's weak point, maybe because they never hid behind false facial masks. Chris started to feel a little guilty as he began to understand.
Ezra took a deep breath and slowly exhaled as everyone waited silently. "Billy and I were young Corporals, Jake was our Sergeant. I kept telling myself I was fighting against the invasion of our homeland, the burning of our homes and taking of our land. A year or so into the war I was captured. Fortunately, by a very good-hearted Yankee soldier. While I was his prisoner we had a lot of time to talk. I was a pretty suave conversationalist even back then." Ezra smiled at this reminisce.
"I can believe that," Josiah good-naturedly quipped.
"I was offered my freedom for information. Now, I would never give information that would hurt any of my southern brethren, but what they wanted was locations of any large groups of slaves, and they wanted to know when certain areas were free of troops so they could transport slaves to the north. Many plantation owner's had hidden and locked away some of their slaves for safe keeping." Ezra chuckled at this. "I basically made sure the back door was open."
Josiah looked over at Nathan, who stared at Ezra as if he was a two-headed cow. "You were part of the Underground Railroad," Nathan exclaimed more as a statement than a question, the surprise evident in his voice.
Chris's brow furrowed as he took in what Nathan had said.
Ezra smiled and nodded, "At the time I was not aware that I was. I saw no harm in this and it served my purpose. I disliked the practice of slavery and could not accept it as part of my heritage. I convinced myself that this was a way for me to right a wrong. I never gave details of confederate movements or strength, only information concerning slaves."
"What about this murder Jake accuses you of?" JD cut in his voice soft with wonder and amazement.
"There was a Lieutenant Dillon, who said he had proof that I was passing information to the enemy. I knew he was going to the commander with it and I fully expected to be executed. I was planning on making a break for it and take my chances elsewhere. However, as my good fortune would have it Lieutenant Dillon was killed the next day in a skirmish. I just figured lady luck was watching out for me, but by then many of the men suspected something, including Jake."
"Lordy, Ezra, you were lucky you weren't shot by one of your own men," Buck said, total amazement in his voice.
"The lord sometimes protects those who protect others," Josiah said, a kindly smile on his face, as he looked at Ezra in a whole new light.
"Well, good or bad, luck would have it that though I never gave troop movements the union soldiers knew the location of my regiment. A couple months before the end of the war my whole unit was captured. I fortunately was separated from my unit and sent to another prison camp for the remainder of the war."
"Why didn't you just tell us?" Chris asked. Vin turned his head as he actually detected admiration in Chris's voice.
"Because Mr. Larabee," Ezra paused and looked straight at Chris. "Chris, sometimes I'm still not sure I did the right thing." Ezra turned to Nathan. "It's hard to explain. I loved the south, hated what they did, but how could I separate the two. Doubts and questions would run through my head. Did my information in some small way tip the scales in favor of the North?" Ezra took a swig of whiskey, and then his eyes locked on Nathan whose dark eyes glowed with respect. "When I first met Mr. Jackson, he brought back a lot of the guilt."
A tight smile came to Nathan's lips. He finally understood the perplexing southerner, probably for the first time.
"Ezra, you did what you felt was right. It's as simple as that," Josiah exclaimed.
"I wish it were, Mr. Sanchez, my brain knows you're right, but my heart is another story." Ezra's gaze took on a faraway stare. "If you'll excuse me gentlemen," he choked as he rose unsteadily from his chair and headed up to his room, grabbing another bottle along the way.
The remaining six lawmen stayed seated, all lost in their own thoughts.
"It must be hard to live with something like that, not sure if what you did was right or if you betrayed your own," Vin's soft Texas voice spoke the thoughts that lay in the forefront of everyone's mind.
The next day Ezra rode off for a late morning ride to break in his new saddle, and hopefully clear his head. He actually felt better after telling Chris and the others his story, but guilt remained. Ezra didn't notice Jake and Billy watching him ride out from the hotel doorway.
"Jake, why don't you just let it go," Billy pleaded with his older brother, knowing it wouldn't do any good.
"Not until I get my revenge," Jake sneered.
Ezra was the epitome of everything that had gone wrong in his life. Jake stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the stables, hate etched in his weathered face and eating away at his soul. Jake had changed considerably since the war, but Billy felt he owed his brother his loyalty. His older brother had kept him alive through the war and taken care of him after their parents passed away. However, Billy also held a certain allegiance toward Ezra and doubts were beginning to chip away at his devotion toward his brother.
Billy's lips pressed together in worry as he reluctantly followed his brother, fear for the gambler gnawing at his insides.
Ezra was enjoying the open spaces and rhythmic movement of his horse beneath him; the air was fresh and clean after last night's rain. The saddle creaked with the newness of the leather. He pulled his horse up, looking across a small meadow of wild flowers, which a light breeze caused to gently sway. A shot rang out, and Ezra fell from his horse to violently impact with the ground.
Jake spurred his horse out from behind some brush and headed to where Ezra had fallen. Billy paled and jerked his horse around to follow.
Ezra was unconscious when Jake reached him, a pool of blood already forming under his shoulder.
Billy pulled up his horse, fear causing his eyes to go wide. He jumped off his horse and was going to help his injured friend until Jake grabbed him by the collar and threw him to the ground.
"What do you think you're doing?" He yelled at the younger man.
"Jake, you can't do this. Ezra had nothing to do with you losing your ranch or Liza," Billy yelled at his older brother. He couldn't believe he had allowed this to happen. He stared at Ezra's motionless form and hoped he was still alive.
"Shut up, he's a traitor and a murderer, and I'm goin' to dispense some southern justice. Now, help me get 'im on his horse," Jake ordered as he dismounted.
Billy stood and dusted himself off, glaring at his brother. "No!"
Jake flinched slightly, shocked at his younger brother's open defiance.
Before Billy could stop what was happening Jake swung the butt of his rifle around, striking his brother on the side of the head. The young Orrson crumbled to the ground. Jake frowned, regretting what he believed he had to do. He knelt down beside his kid brother and checked that he hadn't hurt him too bad. "Sorry little brother, but I have to do this."
Jake gathered up Ezra's limp body and threw him across his horse and mounted his own. He then led them away, not even looking back at the lifeless form of his only brother.
Chris, Vin and Josiah were in the saloon enjoying the cool, afternoon breeze that passed through. They all had developed a new respect for their charming gambler. They had also managed to calm the town down a bit. It had helped that the Orrson brother's apparently had decided to leave, although, Chris wasn't entirely at ease with this assumption.
Buck came strolling into the bar room. "Hey, has anyone seen Ezra? I'm up for a little poker," he inquired, rubbing his hands together. He still had the money that Ezra had left at his table when the Orrson's had first arrived.
"I saw 'im ride out late this mornin'. Think he was breakin' in that fancy saddle of his," Vin casually replied, not thinking anything of it until he saw the worry look cross Chris's face.
The worry turned instantly to cold hard fear as Billy Orrson came staggering in almost falling on the floor until he managed to grab a table for support. Dried blood covered half his face, and Nathan quickly came to his aid, guiding him to a nearby chair to examine the wound. Billy pulled back as Nathan probed the deep cut on the side of his head.
"What happened to you?" Buck asked with mild concern, he had hoped that the Orrson's had left town for good.
Chris remained seated, fear stirring in his gut. His breathing quickened to keep up with his pounding heart.
Josiah gave the young man a glass of water, which he greedily drank.
"It's Jake," Billy gasped. "You gotta stop 'im."
All eyes were now on the young man as fear gripped each one of them.
Chris pushed his chair back and brought his over six-foot frame upright.
Billy looked up into Chris's stern façade and stormy blue gaze. Billy could see the veins in the gunslinger's neck stand out as he clenched his jaw. "He's got Ezra," Billy nervously stammered. He winced as Nathan put salve on his head wound.
"Where?" Chris asked his voice low.
"I don't know." Billy dropped his head a moment, unable to look at the reproachful stares directed at him. He raised it again. "I tried to stop him, but he hit me with his gun," he explained.
Chris turned to Vin. "You're going to have to do some trackin'."
"No problem," Vin confidently answered already heading for the door.
"I'm goin' too," Billy uttered, standing a little unsteadily. Chris just glared at the young man, then turned and walked out. Josiah came over and placed a steadying hand on Billy's elbow, leading him out.
Jake had taken Ezra to a small broken down cabin a couple miles outside town. He pulled Ezra off his horse, allowing the barely conscious man to fall limply to the ground. Ezra let out a groan as his body made impact with the hard packed earth. He was becoming way to familiar with the ground lately, was Ezra's first coherent thought.
Jake pulled off Ezra's fancy green jacket and relieved him of his derringer and other weapons, and then bound his hands in front of him. He then went over to a well for a bucket of water, which he threw on him.
Ezra sputtered and became fully awake. He grimaced as pain shot up his arm. He sat up looking into the maniacal face of his one time friend and comrade in arms. Jake knelt down in front of him, bringing his face to within inches of Ezra's. Water drops streaked down Ezra's dust covered face. He wiped at his eyes to clear them and ended up staring at the long red scar on Jake's cheek.
"It's time to dispense justice Ezra. You and I both know you deserve it." Jake's menacing tone sent a slight shiver down Ezra's spine.
Ezra inwardly laughed, because for a moment he believed he did, but then his brain took over. "Jake, I had nothing to do with you losing your plantation."
"Sure you did old buddy, you were passing information to the enemy."
Ezra shook his head. "It's not what you think. I was only telling them where slaves were being kept."
"Doesn't matter you were collaborating with the enemy," Jake calmly stated.
Jake grabbed the helpless cardsharp's bound hands and jerked him up to his feet. Weak from blood loss, Ezra had a hard time keeping his feet under him. Jake half dragged Ezra to a nearby post, mumbling incoherently as he tied his bound hands up above his head.
Ezra rested his face against the weathered post, taking a deep breath to calm his growing panic. He watched as Jake walked into the nearby shack and returned with a very large bullwhip, which caused Ezra's eyes to widen in horror and his heart to race at what was about to happen.
Jake caressed the large leather-laced bullwhip, pulling it through his hands and relishing the feel of the aged rawhide. "You know, Ez, they used this whip on me in the prison camp. I stole it when we were released. I saw a man whipped to death with it--it took thirty-two lashes. They say it varies with every man."
Jake ran the hilt of the whip down Ezra's spine, smiling as his shoulders tensed. Jake then grabbed hold of Ezra's white shirt and ripped it apart, revealing his smooth muscular back.
"I wonder how long it'll take you to die," Jake hissed next to Ezra's ear. He expertly cracked the whip on the ground; again, taking pleasure at the small flinch that Ezra was unable to control.
Standish's stomach muscles clenched in terror, and a cold sweat broke out down his back. He could feel the burning rays of the sun on his bare skin. He took a deep shaky breath and then released it, trying to maintain control. 'Don't let them see inside,' he could hear his mother's voice instruct. 'Don't let him break you, son.'
Billy led the six lawmen to the spot where Ezra was ambushed. Vin and Chris dismounted as Buck scanned the surrounding terrain. JD, Josiah and Nathan hung back and watched as the tracker bent down touching something wet on the ground. He stood up, his fingertips coated in blood.
"How bad was he hurt!" Chris angrily approached the scared young man, grabbing and pulling him off his horse. He held Billy off the ground by the throat.
"I don't know he was unconscious. Jake wouldn't let me check him," Billy answered in a strangled voice.
"Brother Larabee, let's not kill the messenger," Josiah stated in a low voice that cut through Chris's rage. Chris reluctantly released his grip on the young man who dropped to the ground gasping for breath.
Chris was angry, more with himself than anything. Billy had warned them, he just didn't take it serious enough, and now Ezra was paying the price for his carelessness.
Vin brought out his eye-piece and searched the area for a moment. Then without a word mounted his horse and headed west. Chris mounted his horse, which pranced under his owner's growing anxiety.
Billy slowly picked himself up and grabbed the loose reins of his horse. He watched the six men ride out and actually envied Ezra his friendship with them. He mounted and followed, determined to help Ezra anyway he could--He owned him that much.
Jake continued to taunt his hapless captive. Ezra was having a hard time concentrating; growing light-headed from blood loss. His wound throbbed as the blood ran down his shoulder and covered his side. Ezra's mind started to wander, and he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Jake's voice seemed to be growing fainter, and then there was silence.
Ezra bit back the scream as the whip licked at his back, it only lasted a second, but the agony seared into his mind. His arm muscles bulged as they tensed, trying to pull him up and away from the pain. The next lash struck between his shoulder blades. He squeezed his eyes tight, causing tears to stream down his cheeks. His breaths started coming out fast and hard. The next strike came across his right shoulder, tearing into the tender flesh and leaving behind an angry red furrow.
"Not bad, Ezra. I'd thought you'd be screamin' for mercy by now," Jake mocked.
"Sorry... to disappoint you...," Ezra managed to gasp out. He was not going to give this man the satisfaction.
Jake removed a bandana from his pants pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. "See you haven't lost that smart-mouth of yours. Well, let's see how long it lasts, shall we."
"Go to hell," Ezra breathed out.
Jake was surprised by the gambler's tenacity. He didn't think the urbane southerner had it in him, figuring he'd be begging for mercy, or at least for death by now. Oh, well, all the better, it would make his vengeance all the sweeter when he broke him.
With every lash Jake Orrson was feeling vindicated. He believed Ezra was the cause of all his misfortune, even his wife leaving. He knew Ezra was a traitor, and he was going to destroy him bit by bit.
Another lash--Ezra no longer had the strength to stand, the ropes bit into his wrist as they were forced to take more of his weight. The whip tore open his left shoulder, and Ezra had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming--from begging for the pain to stop. His head fell forward, his left ear resting alongside the rough-hewed post. He stood on the edge of a black void all he had to do was to take a step forward and his pain would be over-forever.
Jake splashed a bucket of water on Ezra to revive him. He came up and grabbed the gambler by the hair, forcing his head back. "C'mon Ez, we're only up to twelve, we still have a long way to go."
Ezra swallowed as he tried to get his voice to respond. "Why don't you... just shoot me... and get it over with."
"Now, what fun would that be," Jake laughed stepping back and preparing for another bout. Ezra steeled himself for what was about to come, knowing he wouldn't last much longer.
Jake raised the whip, but then turned at the sound of horses. He pulled his gun and moved behind Ezra, who was fighting to stay conscious, but his whole world was melting around him as he heard a voice call out.
"Let him go, Jake!" Larabee yelled. The others had dismounted and spread out, taking cover behind various rocks and trees.
"Ohmygod," JD murmured to Buck, who was scrunched down beside him. "Look what he's done to him."
Buck peered out from behind the rock they were both using for protection. He swore as he looked upon his friend's beaten body. He couldn't even tell if Ezra was still alive. Buck glanced over at Chris and saw his face and the look in his eyes. "Jake is a walking dead man," Buck whispered, more to himself than to JD.
Jake placed his gun against Ezra's head. "You come any closer and he's dead!"
Nathan noticed the pool of blood at his feet, and knew Ezra couldn't afford to lose much more. He automatically began cataloging the various injuries and what he would have to do first.
Out of the corner of his eye, Josiah watched as Billy tentatively approached Chris. The huge gunslinger held his breath, afraid that Chris might take out his anger on the young man.
"Let me talk to 'im, Mr. Larabee," Billy pleaded.
Chris looked into Billy's penitent brown eyes, and then back at the wild-eyed man threatening one of his men. He squeezed the handle of his gun.
"Please, he's my brother," Billy softly said.
This seemed to strike a familiar chord with the stoic gunslinger. Chris grabbed Billy's arm, forcing the young man to look at him.
"You have one minute to get him away from Ezra, or I kill him," Chris threatened.
The young Orrson nodded in agreement and swallowed the lump that had jumped into his throat.
Billy cautiously stepped out from behind the rocky outcrop. He held his hands out as he approached his brother.
Jake smiled in relief at the sight of his little brother, but kept the gun pointed at Ezra's temple. "Billy boy, I knew I could count on you."
Billy shook his head, stopping several paces away. "No Jake, it's over."
"No... no...Come on, together we can rebuild, get the plantation back," Jake ranted, his dark eyes looking past Billy into the past.
Billy Orrson sadly realized that his older brother was completely and utterly mad.
"I just need to take care of this traitor then everything will be like before," Jake added with a smile, a smile that saddened Billy even more.
"You have to let him go," Billy said.
"I can't do that. He needs to be punished," Jake exclaimed.
"Jake, Ezra didn't do anything. Your wife left you because she knew you lost everything. Renegades burned down your plantation. Ezra was in a prison camp just like us when it happened," Billy explained, trying to reason with his brother.
"But he's a traitor. You know that, we all did," Jake said, his brow furrowing in confusion.
Billy licked his lips and looked straight into his brother's matching brown eyes. "If he's a traitor, than so am I."
Ezra was trying to comprehend the conversation, but his head kept spinning, causing the words to fall away. He could feel the gun barrel against his head, but his tortured back demanded more attention, and his wounded shoulder was a close second.
Chris watched as Billy tried to reason with his brother. He didn't think it was working, and he had Vin prepare to shoot Jake at his first opportunity.
Jake brought a hand to his head, rubbing his temple, trying to fathom what his younger brother was saying. He stepped forward, but kept the gun to Ezra's head.
"Please Jake, put the gun down," Billy begged. "I can't let you kill him. He's my friend."
Jake grew angry at this declaration and glared at his younger brother. Billy then knew he had no choice. Jake dropped his gun away from Ezra's head, giving Billy the opening he needed.
Billy drew his gun.
The bullet slammed into Jake's chest. Billy's eyes dropped away from Jake's stunned expression, until he fell to the ground face first. Jake died never believing that his own brother would shoot him.
Billy Orrson stood over his brother's body, a single tear sliding down his face. His gun hung loosely at his side.
The six gunslingers quickly raced to Ezra's side. Vin brought out a knife and sliced through the ropes that held him. Ezra crumbled toward the ground, but Buck and Josiah were there to grab him, and lay him gently down on his side.
Nathan quickly began a check of his vitals as Chris looked on; his lips pressed into a grim line of worry. He turned slightly and saw young Orrson still standing over his brother. Knowing there was nothing he could do for Ezra, at the moment, Chris went over to the suffering young man. He placed a hand on Billy's slumped shoulders.
"Thank you. You probably saved Ezra's life," Chris softly said.
Billy could only nod.
"I'm sorry about your brother," Chris added.
"He was a good man once, the war changed him." Billy turned to look into Chris's cold but compassionate face.
"The war changed everyone," Chris answered.
Chris came up alongside Nathan, who was busy assessing Ezra's wounds. The healer's experienced hands and eyes taking in every wound. His heart was breaking, and he was fighting to maintain control. Ezra needed him. Sweat and blood covered Ezra's whole upper body, making it difficult to discern the damage done by the whip.
"How is he?" Chris asked.
"Not good. He's in shock and he's lost a lot of blood. We have to get him back to town," Nathan explained. "I'll stop the bleeding and wrap his wounds as quickly as I can." He turned, searching for JD. "JD, get some more water."
"Right," JD eagerly replied anxious to be of help.
Josiah held Ezra up by his shoulders as Nathan tied off the blood flowing from his arm. Ezra moaned and his eyes fluttered halfway open. The ex-preacher held him tighter. He brought his huge hand up and laid it upon his friend's fevered brow, rubbing softly, trying to comfort the younger man.
"Ezra? Can you hear me?" Nathan asked. Bringing a cup of water to Ezra's dry lips, Nate smiled to see the beaten gambler take a couple careful sips.
Ezra coughed and winced at the pain that wracked his whole body.
Chris's brow furrowed in concern at the southerner's pale complexion. He laid a hand on Ezra's leg. "How ya' feelin', cowboy?"
Ezra's eyes opened a little wider, and a faint grin lifted the corners of his mouth as he heard Chris's use of the familiar moniker, and then he slipped away into blissful unconsciousness. Fear sparked in Chris's eyes as Nathan checked his pulse. The healer looked up at Chris, grave concern marring his dark features. "We have to get him back to town now."
Buck and Vin helped Billy cover and secure Jake's body onto the back of his horse. Nathan finished bandaging Ezra's many wounds, checking to be sure that the bleeding had stopped. His deeply furrowed brow told everyone that Ezra might have lost way too much blood.
Chris mounted his horse and looked down at Josiah, who still held the unconscious gambler by the shoulders to keep his back out of the dirt. Buck leaned over his saddle horn looking down at his injured friend.
"Give 'im to me," Chris quietly voiced from atop his horse. Nathan and Josiah each got under an arm and brought Ezra's pale limp form up to Chris's horse. Vin came over and helped to get the gambler up in the saddle, placing him in front of Chris. Larabee wrapped an arm around the gambler's waist, careful not to cause him any more pain. Ezra's head lolled against Chris's left arm as he slowly turned his horse around and headed home.
Billy met up with Chris and Buck, in the upstairs hallway of the boarding house, as they were preparing to enter Nathan's room to check on Ezra's condition. He had stayed out of sight for the past two days, afraid that these men might blame him for what had happened, but he finally gathered up the courage to face them.
"Can I talk to Ezra?" Billy asked, trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice. "There's somethin' he needs to know." Billy paused and looked at both men. "Somethin' you all need to know."
Billy, Chris and Buck quietly entered Nathan's room. Ezra was propped up in bed, his eyes closed. He still looked pale but much improved. His shoulder was bound and bandages were wrapped around his middle, securing the poultice that was on his back. Josiah was sitting in the corner of the room leafing through an old bible as Nathan was busy preparing some herbs, both men looked up as Chris, Buck and Billy entered.
Buck and Chris moved off to the side as Billy stepped forward. Ezra's green eyes opened and a smile came to his face as Billy sat down beside him.
Billy had removed his hat and was now running his hands around the brim. He was finding it hard to look Ezra in the eye.
"I'm sorry about your brother," Ezra said in a weak voice.
Billy raised his head and gave a slight nod. "Ezra, there's somethin' I've been meanin' to tell ya' and I wish I hadn't waited as long as I did."
Nathan joined Chris and Buck quietly against the wall. Josiah closed his bible and rested it on his chest, folding his arms protectively over it.
"This ought to be good," Buck whispered over to Chris, who good-naturedly elbowed the wisecrackin' cowboy.
"You remember Lieutenant Dillon?" Billy asked still playing with the brim of his hat.
"Of course," Ezra replied, not sure where this was going.
There was a moment of silence. "I killed him," Billy admitted.
Ezra was not sure what he heard and continued staring at Billy in stunned silence.
"See, I told you it would be good," Buck repeated only to be shushed by Nathan.
"You, why?" Ezra finally asked, being brought out of his daze by Buck's comment.
Billy's brow furrowed as he exclaimed, "Did you think you were the only southerner who was against slavery?"
Ezra had to think on that a moment. He didn't think Billy expected an answer, but yes, at the time, he did believe he was the only southerner who hated slavery. He remembered feeling very alone, which was something he was used to anyway. He hadn't felt there was anyone he could have confided in.
Ezra broke from his reverie as Billy continued, "There were a few others in our unit, but we were to afraid to say or do anything. When we discovered that you were actually helping to free slaves, something we also believed in, we figured the least we could do was protect you."
Ezra stared in disbelief trying to digest what he was hearing. He had thought himself all alone in his endeavor, now he was hearing that this was far from the truth.
"Didn't you ever wonder why you were never shot in the back?" Billy smiled as he asked this. "One of us was always behind you. Private Willis actually took a bullet for you. When I found out that Lt. Dillon was going to turn you in, I had to kill him."
Chris, Buck and Nathan stood dumbfounded by this revelation. Ezra could only stare unbelieving at Billy's brown eyes, for the first time at a loss for words. His head sunk back into his pillow. He owed this man his life and had never known it.
"What are you going to do now?" Ezra asked, trying to bring reality back.
"I'm going to re-join the cattle drive. It paid good and I feel like doing a little traveling," Billy pleasantly replied as he stood up. "Take care of yourself Ezra."
"Do stop by our town again someday. Maybe we could even get into a friendly game of poker," Ezra remarked.
Billy laughed. "Hell, Ezra, I still owe you from all the games I lost to you during the war."
"Consider your debt paid," Ezra replied, extending his hand, which Billy proudly took. He nodded to the others and left.
Josiah rose out of his chair and stepped up to the bed, "How ya' feelin'?"
Ezra looked up at the ex-preacher and over at his three other friends and smiled. "Better than I have in years."
Re-Edited Dec 2001