Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
[Comments: This is sort of a continuation of my story Blind. This story is sprinkled with a little inspiration from MOG and idea prodding from Carla.]
It had been a week since Ezra and JD returned to the odd fold that had become their family. Moreover, they were amazingly none the worse for wear considering what they had endured before the others managed to get to them.
Dunne's eyesight had returned to normal and none to soon since Buck's mothering was driving him crazy. Ezra's side was improving thanks to Nathan's medical care. Standish never learned that Larabee had watched over him for the two days he fought a fever. Against Jackson's advise Ezra returned to the solitude of his own room and resumed his normal activities, which included nightly games of poker.
It was almost noon when Ezra finally came out of his room. He stopped at the balcony railing, looking out over the barroom, noticing a few customers enjoying lunch. His eyes drifted to the six men he worked with to protect the growing town of Four Corners.
He trusted these men with his life and he knew they finally trusted him. He respected each and everyone of them, probably more than he respected himself. He had changed, he knew it and the others knew it too.
Oh, he still occasionally cheated at poker, mostly just to stay in practice. And the only cons he ran these days were in situations that benefited the law, rather than worked against it. However, one thing hadn't changed. Yes, he would give his life for anyone of these men, but not for the reason they might believe. Not out of friendship, or loyalty or a sense of bravado, but because he felt their lives were worth more than his own.
JD, Buck and Josiah were sharing a table, finishing lunch when Dunne glanced up to the second floor landing catching sight of Ezra. The young man couldn't shake the words that Standish had spoken, almost in passing. 'Some people's lives our of more importance than others.'
The southerner had been willing to give his life for him, ignoring his own life-threatening injury to get JD back to town. Now, Dunne knew any one of them would do the same thing, but Ezra's reasoning had been simple and to the point and disturbingly matter-of-fact. Because he felt his life was not worth as much as the others.
JD hadn't revealed to anyone else what Standish had told him. He didn't know that Nathan and Chris were also aware of Ezra's secret feelings about himself. JD was hoping he could somehow figure out a way to show the sometime presumptuous gambler that his life was just as important as anyone else and he was just as worthy of their respect. With a sudden realization that came with taking that next step up the ladder of maturity, JD recognized exactly how much of Standish's cool exterior was an act.
Seated at a second table with Vin, Chris surreptitiously watched as Ezra descended the stairs. It had shocked him that Standish believed that he would put JD's life over his own. But then, the two men had often voiced their dislike of each other at times.
It had taken a long time for Chris to get over Ezra's running out on them at the Seminole village. Larabee had been sure that the death wish he had pursued so fervently since the murder of Sarah and Adam would finally see fruition. Looking back over the situation, he realized it was at that moment his wishes had begun to reshape themselves. And he realized the ridiculous irony of dying just when there was a possible hint at something to live for.
And then, just like that, there was Standish. Larabee had unwillingly bet his life and the life of the other men in his company that the southerner wouldn't have returned, but he had returned and that in itself took a courage few men possessed.
Occasionally, the enigmatic con man still showed his selfish, self indulgent side, but Chris now knew this to be a trait instilled in him since childhood. A survival instinct. For Larabee, it had taken awhile, but the anger was slowly replaced with something else, respect and trust.
Ezra made his way over to JD and Buck's table and sat down, wincing slightly at the discomfort the motion caused to his side. He covered it smoothly as he withdrew an ever-present deck of cards from his vest pocket, shuffling dexterously through them.
"Gentlemen, might I interest you in a game of chance."
"Sorry Ezra, I'm tapped out," Buck replied, downing the last of his beer.
"Ah, me too," JD added when Ezra turned his green eyes to him.
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Larabee!" A young man burst through the batwing doors of the saloon, running up to Chris and Vin. The seven gunmen snapped to attention as the youth leaned against the table for support, trying to catch his breath. "Rustlers...at the Digby ranch."
"Let's go!" Chris rose from his chair, but paused as his eyes landed on Ezra and JD. "You two up for this?"
Standish exchanged a glance with the youngest member of their group. "I assure you Mr. Larabee we are quite fit."
Chris nodded and strode to the door, followed closely by Tanner and the others. Rustlers had struck three nearby ranches in the past month. Chris and Vin had set up several scouts to watch a couple of ranches they suspected might be next-it was about to pay off.
The D Circle Y Ranch lay a few miles east and it didn't take the Seven long to reach it. Perched on a scrub-covered rise overlooking the flat grazing pasture of the Digby south pasture they rested briefly on their horses while Vin scanned the surrounding terrain.
"There they are." He pointed over to his right, passing his telescope to Chris. "I count six. Looks like they got about twenty head, movin' 'em up the canyon. I'd bet we can cut them off at Jacob's Rock."
Chris handed the spyglass back over to Tanner. "Okay, Josiah, Ezra, JD head up to the north end. Nathan, Buck, Vin you're with me, we'll come up the south. We should be able to box them in. Let's go."
Josiah, Ezra and JD reached the north mouth of the pass and quickly found strategic positions along the cliff face. Ezra checked the ammunition of his weapons, catching Sanchez and Dunne out of the corner of his eye doing the same.
Vin, Buck, Nathan and Chris moved stealthily up the canyon, hoping to trap the rustlers between themselves and the others. One of the rustlers had stopped momentarily in the middle of the canyon, his horse having picked up a stone. When he mounted he caught sight of the lawmen coming up the canyon. He spurred his horse forward to warn his cohorts.
"Shit!" Chris yelled out, his voice echoing against the canyon walls. The four lawmen slapped their reins and raced after the fleeing rustler.
"CAL! It's a trap!" The rustler called out charging down the canyon towards the five men herding the stolen cattle.
Cal Withers was a tall, lanky man with thinning brown hair and a weathered long face. His features seemed cut from some aged oak tree, but his eyes shined with vicious intelligence. Him and his men had been very successful the past year stealing cattle. He attributed this prosperity to constantly moving, never staying anywhere to long. He knew he was pushing his luck with this last herd. Withers' swore and drew his revolver as he heard his man's warning. He shot it into the air startling the already distressed steers and sending them on a deadly stampede.
Ezra, Josiah and JD felt and heard the thunderous herd coming down the pass. "This is not good," Ezra murmured, looking toward his two friends. The three lawmen flattened themselves against the cliff face as the first of the herd appeared. The rampaging cattle churned up the dirt floor creating a dense cloud of dust, which rose and obscured the rustlers.
The three lawmen wiped dust from their eyes as they aimed and fired at brief glimpses of the rustlers mixed within the herd. Dunne was rewarded with one of the men tumbling from his horse only to disappear below the moving mass of horns and hooves. As the last of the herd went by Standish leapt away from the cliff face and fired at the last of the rustlers. He knew Larabee would want someone alive so he aimed for the man's arm causing him to lose control of his horse. The wounded rustler tried to regain control, but was summarily thrown to the ground by his confused and frightened steed.
The young sheriff smiled and glanced over to Josiah, who was reloading his revolver. He then turned his attention down the canyon hoping to see the others; instead, what he saw caused him to freeze in his tracks. A stray bull was taking aim at Ezra's back.
"EZRA, LOOK OUT!" JD shouted as he dove for the unaware gambler, the momentum sending both men out of the path of the enraged steer. Standish lay on his back trying to catch his breath, which was made more difficult by the young sheriff's considerable weight lying on top of him.
Chris, Vin and Buck picked that awkward moment in time to appear above them. "Are we interrupting something, boys?" Buck teased, leaning down over them from his saddle. JD groaned, realizing he had just furnished his fun-loving friend with more ammunition for his interminable wisecracks and shenanigans. He and the others would be hearing about this for months.
The entangled men quickly extricated themselves and stood up. Standish moaned, causing JD and the others to look upon him worriedly, thinking he had been injured. They all grinned at the meticulous gambler, who was fingering the newly acquired rip on his right sleeve. He inwardly hoped the seamstress, who had done wonders with the bullet hole, could also repair the tear. He began to think that the verdant jacket was cursed.
"Mr. Dunne just saved me from becoming a bovine door mat of which I'm eternally grateful." He smiled over at JD who was slapping the dust from his clothes. "It would appear, Mr. Larabee that there was a slight miscalculation in your plan," Ezra sarcastically remarked a faint smile on his handsome, dust covered face. Chris flashed the gambler an equally contemptuous smirk then turned his attention to Josiah, who was roughly pulling the injured rustler to his feet.
"Well, at least you guys managed to capture one," Wilmington jovially remarked, trying to defuse the sudden tension. No one could understand why Ezra felt the need to aggravate the highly explosive gunslinger. He seemed to take great pleasure at pushing the limits, but that seemed to be the way the brazen conman liked to live-always on the edge. Buck just hoped he wouldn't one day fall from that edge. He wondered if Ezra realized that they would all be there to catch him if he did.
"Buck, you and Vin go and see if the cattle are still around?" Chris ordered, watching as Standish fastidiously brushed the dust from his own clothing. He often wondered why this man could so easily get under his skin. He dismounted and walked over to the young rustler who held his bleeding arm. Nathan followed the dark-clad gunslinger to administer medical attention to the boy. The young man was probably not much older than JD with blondish hair and hazel eyes. Even at such a young age, he had a hardness about him that was more common in men twice his age.
"What's your name, boy?" Chris asked. His mood not improving with the boy's silent, steady gaze.
Larabee grabbed a handful of the boy's shirt bringing him up close. The boy tried to keep his eyes steady, but Chris's cold stare sent a slight shiver down his spine and a cold sweat broke out over his smaller frame. He tried to swallow the large knot in his throat and hoarsely replied, "Cody...Cody Withers."
"You're Cal Withers' boy?" Chris asked, releasing his hold on the boy's shirt.
"You know these miscreants?" Ezra asked, coming up from behind to stand beside the blond leader.
"I know of 'em, the Withers' gang was rustlin' over in Kansas last year when I rode through. They had posters all over for any information on the gang," Chris explained, still glaring at the young rustler whose own eyes had suddenly discovered the dirt at his feet very interesting. The five lawmen, who surrounded him, were almost suffocating in their presence. Even the youngest gunslinger had a confident air about him, which made him appear older than he really was.
"It must 'ave gotten to hot for 'em in Kansas and they decided to move to greener pastures," Josiah remarked, his huge hand still on the boy's shoulder holding him in place.
Vin and Buck returned moments later. "Chris, they left the cattle at the mouth of the canyon. We'll take them back to Digby," Vin said.
Chris finished tying Cody Withers atop a horse. "Do it later, I don't want anyone out here after dark. Cal Withers isn't going to take kindly to us having his son," Chris explained.
"His son!" Buck whistled and pushed his hat back on his head as he eyed the boy.
Cody's courage had slowly returned and he glared at the mustached cowboy. "You got that right, mister. You best just let me go and save yourselves a lot of trouble."
"Oh, we like trouble," Buck chuckled, reining his horse around to come up alongside JD.
Chris ignored the boy's threat, grabbing up his loose reins. "Let's take him back to town."
They locked Cody up in one of the cells. "When my pa gets here there's goin' to be hell to pay." The boy had not stopped boasting throughout the trip back to Four Corners. Explaining in gory detail what his father would do to each and every one of them and how he'd enjoy watching. "Lord JD, I thought you talked too much," Vin finally uttered.
"Please refrain from entertaining us with your litany of mock threats," Ezra growled wearily, growing annoyed at the boy's constant yammering and developing a serious headache to boot.
"Uh?" Cody asked, a bewildered expression coming to his young face.
"SHUT UP! The other six gunslingers shouted causing the young boy to fall back onto his cot.
"Okay, we need to stay alert. Buck, you and JD watch over the Withers' boy, Vin and I will relieve you later," Chris said. "I don't want him left alone for a minute. We'll set up a schedule for the others."
Buck nodded to his old friend. He looked back over at the boy who tried to glare menacingly out from the bars. "You have my permission to gag him if he starts talking again," Chris abruptly interjected.
JD and Buck both grinned, and Wilmington removed his bandanna from around his neck in preparation. Cody was about to say something, then reconsidered when he saw the look in the lawman's brown eyes.
Standish headed toward the saloon, sitting in one of the chairs outside instead of going in. His eyes followed Josiah and Nathan as they walked toward the church. He heard the ex-preacher's deep belly laugh at something Nate said, slapping the healer on the back. Wilmington and Dunne stepped out of the jail with Buck gesturing wildly at the boy. Ezra smiled as the brotherly cowboy took a swipe at the younger man who ducked with practiced ease. Ezra smiled at the two men, who had become as close as brothers. Then there's me, the intuitive gambler thought, trying to dismiss the melancholy feeling that had just past through him. He wasn't envious of the others, well, maybe a little. He was use to watching out for himself, always on the outside looking in. However, he had developed sort of a kinship for the six men he found himself associated with. He didn't want to stay on the outside anymore, but he wasn't sure how to get in.
Chris shook his head, a faint smile creased his somber face as him, and Vin strode past the fancy dressed gambler. Standish was a mystery to him, which he was slowly trying to unravel. What Ezra portrayed on the outside: self-seeking conman, cheat, liar, was far from the true man inside. Larabee knew the gambler believed his life was not held in the same regard as the others, and he believed the others also held this opinion. What the conman didn't know or understand was how far from the truth that really was. Somehow, Ezra Standish, rogue extraordinaire, had managed to weasel his way into their hearts, but Standish made it difficult for anyone to show him.
+ + + + + + +
The rest of the day past slowly and the sun was halfway below the distant horizon when Nathan and Josiah entered the still quiet saloon heading for Ezra's table. Without waiting for an invite, Jackson sat down opposite the suave southerner. Josiah grabbed a chair to his right, he didn't know what was going on, but was looking forward to it nonetheless. Nathan had asked him to come and talk to Ezra with him, refusing to elaborate. Standish glanced up and poured himself another drink. He was waiting for the late night crowd hoping to engage in a little poker.
"And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"
Nathan leaned forward clasping his hands and laying them on the table. He had been thinking about Ezra's words for the past week, ever since that night when the injured gambler woke in his clinic. He finally decided to confront him about what he had said.
Jackson figured the best approach was the direct one; maybe he would catch the smooth-talking conman off guard. "Do you honestly believe your life is worth less than JD's?"
Sanchez's blue eyes widened at Jackson's question, but Ezra appeared unfazed by the challenge.
"Sir, there is nothing to believe, it is just a fact," Ezra casually replied as he tossed back the shot of whiskey, and then locked eyes with Nathan's dark orbs, throwing the question back into his face. "Do you think my life is worth more than our young sheriff's?"
Nathan was ready; he was not going to let the suave southerner best him in verbal combat. "Not more, but not less either," the knife-throwing healer answered, his dark eyes trying to see the truth behind Ezra's impassive facade.
Standish's eyes narrowed as he tried to figure out what Nathan was up to. He noticed the rather pleased smirk on Josiah's visage. "Mr. Jackson, you have on more than one occasion reminded me of the primeval ooze of which I supposively crawled out of."
Sanchez bowed his head to hide the smile that tugged at his lips. Both men wielded sharp tongues as skillfully as a swordsman brandished a rapier. Jackson always questioning the gambler's motives and ethics, as Ezra denounced the ex-slave's sometimes holier than thou attitude and high moral standards. Josiah didn't know what had brought this on, but he was happy it was finally getting out in the open. For too long he knew the solitary southerner tried to keep everyone at a distance, convincing himself that they didn't care what happened to him. The ex-preacher knew this was to protect himself from getting hurt. But sometimes people had to take a chance, lay all the cards on the table sort to speak and just hope everyone played fair.
Nathan bowed his head in guilt. He knew at times that he was too hard on the sly conman. "Ah, Ez, you know I don't mean half of what I say. I know you're a good man even if you try and hide it at times."
"Mr. Jackson, what is the purpose of this conversation?" Ezra suspiciously asked.
"I just don't want you thinkin' you're not important here."
Ezra chuckled as he stared at the amber liquor in his shot glass. "I do not need you or anyone else telling me where my lot in life lays." The vehemence in his voice surprised even him. He wanted to believe, he truly did. What was stopping him?
Josiah decided it was time to toss in his two cents. "What's it goin' to take to convince you, your life is just as important as anyone else's?"
Ezra's green eyes narrowed as they switched over to the spiritual man. "A miracle Mr. Sanchez, a miracle." Ezra pushed himself away from the table and headed for the stairs suddenly not in the mood to play poker.
Nathan and Josiah watched their friend ascend the wide stairs seeing the slight slump in the gambler's shoulders. For all his arrogance and smug attitude, the man had a fragile soul.
+ + + + + + +
Cal Withers crept into town unnoticed during the night with three of his remaining men. He was a vindictive man; the seven lawmen had made their worst mistake taking his son. And he would enjoy dealing out retribution.
Chris and Vin were surprised when they exited the saloon to see Standish sitting quietly in the same chair he was in yesterday. The mid morning sun had finally vanquished the chill in the air and the bright blue sky gave promise to a beautiful day. Larabee was concerned about his seventh man. Why did he and the others always think of the gambler as the seventh man? --The odd man out? Ezra believed that the others thought his life was of less importance than theirs. Chris feared this would get the smooth-talking man killed one day.
The circumspect leader had decided to have two men at a time make the rounds in and around town. Tanner was to take up position atop the saloon and keep watch, until relieved by Josiah, both men being crack shots with the rifle.
"Ezra, you're with me on rounds," Chris said, a cheroot clamped between his teeth. Standish took a deep breath and rose, straightening out his jacket.
Cal Withers watched from the alleyway as the two lawmen stepped off the boardwalk and headed up the street. They walked in unison side by side without even realizing it. He smiled as Tanner went up the back stairs to the saloon roof. He turned his attention back to Larabee and Standish, and his grin grew wide when as he witnessed them greet a beautiful blond woman standing outside the Clarion News office. An idea suddenly came to him, and he slowly made his way toward the back of the News office. He was going to get his son out of jail, no matter what the cost. And if he had to take out a few innocent bystanders or better yet a couple lawmen, then all the better.
Vin turned at the sound of one of Cal's men behind him unaware of the second until he felt the blow at the side of his head, but only for a moment. The two outlaws pushed the limp tracker aside and took up position on the roof waiting for their boss' signal.
Chris and Ezra dove for the ground at the sound of gunfire, drawing their own guns simultaneously. Several townsfolk ran to the nearest building to take cover. Chris raised his head enough to see the unfamiliar rifle barrel pointing down from the saloon roof. Buck and JD rushed out of the jail only to be forced back inside by several more shots. Josiah and Nathan also found themselves pinned down in the church by another rifle. Fear strangled Larabee's heart when he didn't hear the sound of Vin's mare's leg. He glanced over his shoulder and swore as Cal Withers stepped out of the Clarion News office, holding Mary Travis in front of him, his gun against her temple.
Chris and Ezra slowly stood, their guns still drawn, but realizing they couldn't shoot without fear of hitting Mary. Standish's attention was drawn to the men on the roof and one down the alley way.
Cal sneered as he smoothly moved his gun from Mary's head, taking aim at the fancy dressed lawman, who he thought made a nice target. Larabee's eyes widen as he realized that Withers was about to shoot Ezra. Chris shouted and leapt sideways as Withers squeezed the trigger. The sound of the gun brought forth a scream from Mary's lips. She watched as Chris took the bullet meant for Ezra and crumpled to the ground at his feet. She tried to wrestle herself free of Withers' grasp, but soon gave up, staring helplessly at the unmoving man lying in the dust.
Standish had caught sight of Withers out of the corner of his eye, but by the time he brought his revolver about Chris laid motionless at his feet.
Withers had a firm grip around Mary's waist and had placed his gun once more against her temple. A malicious smile spread across his face at the sight of the dark-clad lawman lying motionless in the dirt.
Sanchez had to grab hold of Nathan to keep the kind-hearted medic from racing to Chris's side, his fear for Ezra's life growing by the minute. All he and the others could do was watch the deadly scene unfold before them.
Wilmington made his way to the roof of the jail and saw his long time friend fall. He closed his eyes praying that Chris wasn't dead. Buck removed his hat and kept hidden, waiting for an opportunity to exact his revenge. He couldn't shoot until Miss Travis was out of danger; it was now up to the smooth talking conman.
Ezra kept his emerald eyes locked on the gunman, forcing himself not to glance down at the dark, unmoving form at his feet. He didn't know if Chris was alive or dead, and his heart raced at this unknown reality. He shut out the thought. Ezra shut out everything, only he, Withers and Mary existed. The world reduced to a long, narrow tunnel with death at either end. He regarded the outlaw through narrow eyes, as he kept his gun steady and level, pointed directly at the arrogant man's head.
Cal Withers glared confidently at the lone lawman. His voice took on a sly tone. "Okay, pretty boy, it's just me and you and the lovely lady." Cal buried his face in Mary's thick blond hair sending a shiver of disgust down her spine. "I want my boy, and I want him now!" Cal believed he had the upper hand in the situation and he was determined to get his boy back.
Ezra remained silent, stalling, waiting for the opportunity he hoped would present itself.
"You can't shoot me and risk hittin' this pretty little lady, so drop your gun or she's dead," Cal pointed out as he continued to move decisively forward, pushing Mary ahead.
Ezra concentrated on keeping his breathing shallow to keep his gun arm steady; he'd only get one chance.
Withers affixed a malevolent sneer on his ugly face. His gun moved from Mary's head to point directly at the unyielding gambler. A slow smile crept up the corners of Ezra's mouth.
Cal continued to move forward, forcing Mary to stagger ahead, but suddenly fate dealt the next card. Mary's feet got tangled up in the tatters of her petticoats, her ankle turned, causing her to drop a couple inches. Ezra shot, his bullet entered the outlaw's forehead. Cal's gun went off and Standish felt the bullet tear at the sleeve of his jacket. Cal Withers' was dead and forgotten before he even hit the ground. Ezra spun around and shot the man in the alley way. From the roof of the jail, Wilmington shot the man who was on the saloon roof. Josiah and Nathan came out of the church, guns blazing. The third man threw up his hands. This all occurred almost simultaneously.
Mary screamed and rushed to Chris's side just as Ezra dropped down to his knees to see how badly the blond leader had been hit. He slowly turned Chris over. Ezra placed his hands over the bleeding wound and applied pressure. "Larabee, don't you dare die on me, you son-of-a-bitch," Ezra spat out the words, trying to hold back the flood of emotion, which threatened to overtake him, as he tried to hold back the seemingly endless flow of blood from his leader's wound. He wasn't aware of the others until Nathan slid in next to him, pushing his hands aside and ripping open Chris's dark shirt. The bullet had entered his chest a little off to the right. Ezra was pushed further aside as Vin forced his way to Chris's side. Ezra noticed the dark purple bruise on the side of the tracker's head.
"Chris, do you hear me?" Nathan yelled at the semi-conscious gunslinger.
The voices sounded distant to the dark-clad lawman and to the stunned conman. Standish watched as Josiah grabbed under Chris's arms and Vin grabbed his legs. He saw the fear in Vin's face as they carried the limp form up to Nathan's clinic, Buck, JD and Mary following closely behind.
Standish suddenly found himself alone in the middle of the street. He looked down at his blood covered hands. Why would anyone, and especially Larabee take a bullet for him? He started pacing in the middle of the street.
His head spun he couldn't grab a clear thought only,
He was about to run his hand through his brown hair, stopping as his hand flew past his face. He stared at the blood--his blood. He looked up at Nathan's clinic. He spun around and headed for the jail.
"What happened?" Cody screamed as the flustered conman entered the jail cell and began his frantic pacing once again. "Where's my father?"
"Shut up. He's dead!" Ezra hated being so harsh, but he wasn't in the mood to be nice. He hoped this would silence the boy.
The young outlaw charged the cell bars, reaching out with his good arm. "You son-of-a-bitch. I'll kill ya all, I swear!"
Standish turned dangerous green eyes toward the young prisoner then as fast as a snake striking, he lunged out, grabbing the boy by the arm and pulled him into the cell bars. He let the boy fall to the floor unconscious, and then continued his pacing.
Nathan worked frantically to remove the bullet. Chris was losing way too much blood. Josiah and Vin held down the now thrashing gunslinger. The bullet was deep, and sweat appeared on the healer's brow. He managed to pull out the deadly metal, and then applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Nathan looked down into Larabee's wild, glassy eyes. His breaths coming out in short, quick pants. A sheen of sweat covered his pale face revealing the effort it took to hold back the scream that had wanted to erupt. Vin wiped his friend's face with a cool cloth seeing the faint smile of gratitude. Then Chris's pain-filled blue eyes closed bringing panic to the tracker's face.
Nathan quickly rose from the chair and checked for a pulse, releasing a nervous breath. "He's okay, just exhausted." He slumped back down in the chair for a moment, trying to slow his own fast beating heart.
JD stood back by the doorway and smiled in relief. He then noticed that Ezra was not among them. His young brow furrowed and he silently slipped out.
Dunne entered the jail to find Standish leaned back in a chair, a bottle of whiskey that Buck had hidden behind the rifle rack, in his hand. Ezra didn't even acknowledge the young sheriff's arrival. JD noticed the unconscious prisoner on the floor and went to check. He found a strong pulse and turned to Ezra.
"What happened to 'em?"
"He had an accident." Ezra's southern drawl was laced with sarcasm. A dark pallor shrouded the gambler's handsome face. He stared straight ahead and tipped the bottle of whiskey up, taking a long hard swig.
JD only shrugged, he'd send Nathan to check on the boy later. He stood and stared at the enigmatic conman. Chris could have died and here Ezra was sitting alone getting drunk.
Ezra suddenly stood and set the bottle of whiskey down on the desk.
"Since the proper authority has returned to guard the prisoner I shall depart," Ezra remarked matter-of-factly and headed for the door.
"Aren't you worried about Chris?" JD angrily replied.
Ezra froze, keeping his back to the young sheriff. He bowed his head his words coming out slow and precise. "I assume, since you nor anyone else has shot me dead that Mr. Larabee will survive."
John Dunne couldn't stand it any longer, now he understood why Chris got so mad at the arduous man. He grabbed Ezra by the arm and spun him around at the same time bringing his fist into the conman's jaw. The blow sent Ezra into the wall, but he managed to keep his feet under him. He brought his hand up and rubbed his jaw as he stared incredulously at the furious easterner.
"I just don't get you! You save my life at risk to your own. Chris saves your life and you act like you don't care even if he lives or dies?"
Ezra cringed slightly at the last remark. He still had a hard time believing that the highly regarded gunslinger had actually saved his life. No one had ever done that--ever. No one ever cared enough about him to do that. He didn't even think his own mother would do that.
"You still think your life is not worth saving that we don't care what happens to you." JD ranted, not expecting a reply as his voice rose with his growing frustration and anger. "Well, I care damnit, and don't go blowing it off because I'm some naïve city boy and easily influenced or conned." The young gunslinger stepped back and took a breath, strands of his dark hair falling into his red face. He took another breath and calmed his voice. "I've found a family here and so have you, you're just too afraid or stubborn to allow it to happen. You don't have to prove yourself, we know what kind of man you are, and you are just as worthy as any of us."
Standish hadn't said a word; he didn't know what to say. He never believed these men cared anything for him, past his use with a gun and maybe his occasional slick prattle to get them out of a jam. He knew they trusted him to protect their backs in a gunfight. But here stood a boy, no a man, who was telling him he was part of a family. He gave his jaw one last rub then walked out of the jail.
JD bit his lip, not sure if what he said was the right thing or if it made a difference. He watched as Ezra headed toward the stables.
+ + + + + + +
"It should have been Standish that got shot. It wouldn't be no loss with him. What are we going to do if we lose Larabee?" A large sloppy looking man quipped to another. "Yeah, why would Larabee go and do a fool thing by saving the likes of that fancy dressin' cheat." Ezra pushed between them, turned and shot them a glare that caused both men to take a step back.
Ezra placed his head against his horse's neck finding solace in the faithful animal, who had been with him for a great many years. He began saddling him, not sure if he was going for a ride to clear his head or one where he never came back. He had just finished cinching the saddle when he sensed that he was not alone. He turned, drawing his gun, then relaxed as he made out the lean form of Vin Tanner. "Mr. Tanner, that is a good way to get one's self killed," Ezra sneered.
"Goin' somewhere?" Vin calmly asked.
"I think Mr. Tanner, that I would rather depart quietly and with some measure of dignity. I've been chased out of enough towns, thank you."
Vin didn't have time to react as Ezra came at him, slamming him against the stall door and throwing his forearm across Vin's throat. Vin didn't fight back; instead, he looked into fiery green eyes, eyes filled with anger and turmoil. "I'm tired of that mistake being thrown up in my face time and time again," Ezra spat. He glared back at the tracker not seeing any malicious intent in his blue eyes. He released his hold and turned his back.
Vin rubbed his throat and watched as Ezra's shoulders rose slightly as he took a deep breath, trying to release the anxiety that had built up inside him. Things were simpler when he only cared about himself, when he only had to look out for himself. Why had he allowed these six men a part of his heart?
The horses settled and the livery grew quiet.
"Why would Mr. Larabee take a bullet for me?" Ezra quietly asked.
"I think you need to ask him that," Vin simply answered. "You saved Miss Travis, and for that everyone is grateful."
The skeptical gambler seemed to deflate. He flopped down on a bale of hay; his head down, looking like a child who had just heard his best friend was moving away.
Vin sat down on an adjacent bale; his own head bowed, allowing his long hair to obscure his face. "You don't think I know what it feels like to not be wanted," Vin abruptly said. "I was passed around from family to family after my ma died. No one really wanted me. I finally got tired of it and decided I could do better on my own. And I did alright on my own, at least I thought I did, until I met up with all of you."
Ezra had never heard the taciturn tracker say so much at once and he found himself listening.
"Being a part of something, being there for each other through good times and bad, that's what was missing from my life, a family, people who care," Vin continued. He desperately wanted to get through to his friend that he mattered. "And I don't know about you, but since I've found it I don't want to live without it."
Ezra turned grateful green eyes toward the suddenly insightful man beside him. He never realized how much they had in common.
Standish stood brushing the hay from his jacket. "Mr. Tanner, would you mind unsaddling my horse there's something I must see to."
"Not at all."
Ezra entered the darken room to find Buck and Josiah sitting vigilant over their fallen friend. The two men looked up when Ezra entered. Buck stood, relinquishing his spot next to Chris's head. "Here Ez, I need to take a break." The ladies' man smiled at the gambler's stunned disbelief. He squeezed Ezra's shoulder on the way out.
Before Josiah left he turned in the doorway and asked, "Is this enough of a miracle for you, brother?" He didn't wait for a reply, but closed the door. Ezra never would have believed that Chris Larabee would risk his life for him, if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. He had no doubt that the stalwart leader would throw himself in front of a train for Vin or Buck or any of the others and vice versa, but him?
Standish watched as the injured gunslinger struggled through pain and fever. He knew better than anybody how fevers could open old doors in the mind, releasing long pent up demons. Ezra sat and stared morosely out the second story window, watching the sun slowly sink past the vista, shadowing the desert floor in its orange glow. He watched until only a sliver of orangish-red remained, seeming to try and hang onto the edge of the world for as long as possible.
Chris's eyes fluttered open and a soft groan escaped from his lips.
"Mr. Larabee, Chris?" Ezra softly called, placing a cool rag on the blond leader's heated brow. The sedate leader looked pale and worn as he gazed intently up at the southerner's concerned face.
"Ezra?" The voice was weak and unsure. It was usually Vin or Buck he saw at his bedside when he was wounded. He tried to move and winced from the pain.
Ezra grabbed a cup of water that Nathan had left. He snaked a hand behind Chris's head and slowly raised it up, allowing the man to take a couple sips of water and then settle him back down. Ezra set the cup down and fell back into the chair.
"Why did you take that bullet?" There was a slight edge to the southerner's voice.
Chris cocked a blond eyebrow; it was the only thing that didn't hurt at the moment. "What was I suppose to do, let him shoot you?" He replied in woozy annoyance.
"It would have been better than you." Ezra could see that the wounded gunslinger was fighting to stay awake.
"Why?" Chris was growing tired, but he forced himself to stay awake wanting to convince the curious gunslinger that he was just as important as any other member of the group.
"Do you always answer a question with a question?" Ezra asked sounding slightly annoyed.
"I learned from the best," Chris chuckled.
"You are the leader, Mr. Larabee. This group of rather unique individuals would wither and die without you," Ezra explained.
"That's not true and you know it," Chris replied. "You're needed too, and you're just as important as any one of us. Without you JD would have died."
"Anyone would have done the same thing," Ezra countered.
"But it wasn't anyone it was you, you did it," Chris replied sharply. He was growing angry that Ezra thought so little of himself.
Ezra sat back in his chair. "Why should I believe you?"
"I think taking a bullet for you makes me a pretty good authority." Chris grinned, thinking he had won the battle of wits with the sharp con man. His face sobered as he looked directly into the cardshark's green eyes. "We need you Ezra, and I'd do it again if I had to and I know you'd do the same. Even if you're not sure you would." Chris's blue eyes fluttered closed and his breathing took on the smooth rhythm of sleep.
Ezra smiled down at the scrupulous lawman grateful to be a part of his group of misfits and lost souls. He smoothly stood pulling the blanket up to the injured cowboy's shoulders. His eyes had finally been opened, probably for the first time in his life. He now understood what it meant to be a part of a family. These men believed his life was equally important; he was worth something in their eyes. It was a new feeling, but one he could readily get use to.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat at his usual table, enjoying a winning game of poker with JD and Buck. He furtively eyed the young gunslinger who appeared older, more discerning than before. Made all the more so, when Wilmington leaned back in his chair, giving one of the waitresses a wolf whistle, earning him a slap across the face and causing both men to shake their heads in obvious embarrassment.
"Hey Ez, looks like that jacket of yours has seen better days," Vin called out, as he strode by with a tray of food for Chris who was still recuperating in Nathan's clinic.
Ezra casually fingered the rip in his verdant jacket and the bullet hole from Cal Withers' gun. He had thought the jacket cursed until he realized after all it had been through, he was still alive wearing it and not buried in it.
"I have come to the conclusion Mr. Tanner, that after everything this jacket and I have been through I'm still here to talk about it."
"You sayin' that jacket is lucky?" Buck taunted the man sitting across from him, a sly grin peeking out from under his mustache. He knew Ezra never relied on luck and would never admit to believing in it, even though at times everyone wondered how the troublesome conman survived some of the predicaments he got himself into.
"Think what you want, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra smiled as he laid his royal flush down to the groans of the men sitting around the table. JD leaned over and whispered to the gambler, "Hey Ez, can I borrow that jacket."
[As you noticed I gave Ezra a reprieve, a chance to heal from all the various injuries everyone enjoys inflicting upon him. Hope you all still liked it.]