The fire burned low, but had captured the undivided attention of the two men that sat close by. Ezra and JD had set up camp only a few miles from town. JD stood up and removed the pot of water he was heating for coffee and to use on Ezra's back. The young gunslinger was not used to, nor did he particularly care for the silence that the gambler seemed to crave. He knew that Ezra had come out here to think, and so did he, but he also needed to talk to the cardsharp about what happened.
"C'mon on Ezra, I need to clean your back," JD reminded.
Ezra raised his head and gave the young man a you-got-to-be-kidding look. "Mr. Dunne, like yourself I resent being mollycoddled."
"This ain't mollycoddlin'. You don't want your back to get infected again, do ya?" JD paused and a wicked little smile appeared on his face. "You don't want to have to spend time back in the clinic?"
Ezra glared daggers at the young man and released a resigned sigh as he carefully removed his jacket and shirt. JD carefully began unwrapping the bandages that were swathed around his torso. Even though JD had seen the cuts at their worse, he still winced at the sight of them now.
"Do they hurt?" JD quietly asked.
"Only a little."
Ezra laid his useless hand in his lap and leaned forward slightly as JD gently washed the wounds. He reached around and handed Ezra the small bottle that Nathan had given him.
"You want some laudanum?"
Ezra took hold of the pain-relieving medicine. He knew he was dangerously close to becoming addicted to the opiate. Reluctantly he handed the medicine back. "I believe I'll pass for now, Mr. Dunne, the pain is bearable."
JD shrugged and pocketed the medicine. He continued to try and make small talk and was soon frustrated by Ezra's single word responses. "How's your hand?"
Ezra stared down at the deadened appendage, sometimes his fingers tingled a bit, and he hoped this was a good sign. JD finished washing and putting salve on his back and began re-wrapping the bandages, a little more roughly than when he removed them. Ezra's silence was starting to eat away at JD's young patience.
"Damnit, Ezra, I'm having a hard time here myself," JD growled. He finished tying off the bandage and stepped around to the other side of the exasperating gambler. No wonder Chris sometimes wanted to shoot him.
Ezra looked over at JD seemingly stunned by the youth's sudden ire.
"God, I thought you could read people, know what they're feeling? You were hurt because of me," JD explained.
"You are over simplifying," Ezra calmly replied. "You had nothing to do with my happenstance."
"If Buck wasn't watching out for me you wouldn't 'ave been shot," JD retorted.
Ezra turned his attention to the glowing embers, could the young gunslinger really believe that?
"Mr. Dunne, most people would give their right arm to have someone who cared about them as much as Mr. Wilmington does for you. And although I have found his over zealousness to be painful, you can not begrudge him or the others because they worry for your safety. You can not change who you are and that is a man barely out of his teens."
JD mulled over what Ezra had just said. Maybe he expected too much from the others. Insisting on them treating him like an adult when he barely understood what that entailed. He demanded that they treat him as a man, but was he really ready for that?
"What about you?" JD abruptly asked.
"What about me?" Ezra smoothly commented.
"You know it was an accident."
"I know, Mr. Dunne."
"You think no one cares about you?" JD asked.
Ezra didn't answer preferring to return to his previous mute state.
JD would not be dissuaded. "You're wrong. They do care, more than you know. They just figure you don't like them to show or tell you how much they care. I know all of us, including me, would risk our lives for you. We all watch out for each other, yeah, maybe sometimes Chris worries a little bit more for Vin, and Buck for me, but you're never left out." With that brief statement JD felt he had taken another step on the long road to maturity. "You don't know how worried everyone was for you. God, Ez, when I saw you lying there, with a bullet hole in ya, I thought you were dead. Watching what you had to go through..." JD paused and took a deep breath to calm the sudden hitch in his voice. "Well, I just hope I never have to see a friend go through something like that again. I think it almost killed Buck."
The anger and frustration that both man had suffered for the past few days seemed to wash away, replaced with understanding.
"So, Mr. Dunne, have we been irrational?" Ezra quipped, a faint smile on his clean-shaven face.
JD ducked his head and grinned. "I guess I have been a little hard on Buck."
"As have I. I suggest we return tomorrow and resolve this with the others."
"I guess it ain't so bad having someone look out for you," JD quietly murmured.
"I wouldn't imagine it was," Ezra sadly sighed.
"LARABEE!" A loud booming voice broke the early morning quiet.
Chris looked up from his cup of coffee and out the batwing doors of the saloon. He glanced over at the four other lawmen who were also trying to enjoy their breakfast. Several other patrons lowered their eyes, hoping their day didn't start with a gunfight and dodging bullets.
"Now what?" Buck grumbled.
Chris pushed himself up and headed toward the door stepping to the side and peering out. He motioned for his men to stay where they were. Chris stared at a large, gruff looking man standing in the middle of the street, a smug grin on his grizzled face. His hands were clasped behind his back and he rocked back and forth on his heels. Chris also spotted three other men standing casually in doorways and alleys.
"What'cha want?" Chris called out, laying his hand on his gun. He wasn't in the mood for this. They had planned on going out after JD and Ezra.
"You and your six men think you're pretty tough, huh?" The gruff looking man called out.
"Tough enough, who wants to know?" Chris asked.
"The name's Welby, Grant Welby. You all killed my brother."
"Shit, I hate families," Chris murmured.
"Why can't we ever kill an only child," Buck added. "Let's just go out and shoot 'im."
Larabee turned his head and glared at his over eager friend. "There are at least four of them that I see."
"Well, good, the odds are about even then," Buck bit back.
"This guy doesn't know two of us are missing," Nathan noted as everyone began drawing and checking their guns.
"Larabee, I want you and your men to come out with your hands up." Welby grinned, he had always wanted to say that. "We're goin' to lock you up and then take over this town," Grant Welby boldly explained.
"Is this guy serious?" Vin asked.
Chris was getting a bad feeling about all this. This man was entirely too confident. "And why would we do that?" Chris asked. He watched as Welby nodded toward one of his men, who hid in the alleyway.
"Because it you don't a certain newspaper lady and her son might get hurt."
Chris noticeably stiffened as Keats pulled Billy out from the alleyway a gun pointed at the small boy's head. Chris could see the fear in Billy's eyes and his hand squeezed the handle of his gun.
"Dear Lord," Josiah voiced.
Chris turned to look at his four friends, whose expressions mimicked his own. Chris's gaze then drifted over to two cowpokes, who were desperately trying to disappear into the floorboards.
"Franklin, Cahill," Chris called out. "You two just became officers of the law."
"Now wait a minute, Mr. Larabee," Franklin nervously voiced as he stood up. "We don't want no part of this." The lean cowpoke stood and tried to put up a front of fortitude, one that wilted under Larabee's icy glare.
Chris and his men had protected this town with their lives. The gunslinger thought it was now time that some of the town's folk showed a little appreciation.
"They're expecting seven...we're goin' to give 'em seven. You either join, or I shoot you," Chris growled his ultimatum.
The two cowboys regarded each other and exhaled a resigned sigh. "Okay, Mr. Larabee, whatever you say," Franklin reluctantly replied. The two men didn't know who they were more afraid of...the outlaws that waited outside, or the gunslingers who confronted them inside. Cahill had decided early on that it would be safer just to remain quiet.
"Good, you can call me Chris," he glibly added and then turned his attention to his four other men.
"What are you doing?" Buck asked.
"Mary and Billy's life may depend on them getting exactly what they expect...hell, Ezra's and JD's might too," Chris replied. His mind was already going over potential problems. "We need Welby to think he has all of us locked up. It'll give Ezra and JD a chance, if no one is out gunning for them or expecting them. We don't know how many guns Welby has."
"What if Ezra and JD don't come back?" Nathan asked, shrinking back a little from Buck's angry glare.
They all wanted to believe that their two friends would eventually come back and they all hoped it would be in time. Larabee stepped out of the saloon first, his hands in the air. The others followed in suit and were quickly surrounded and disarmed.
Welby strutted up to Larabee and stood face to face with the dark dressed gunslinger. "So you're the infamous Chris Larabee," Welby chortled. "You don't look so tough to me."
"I don't understand why your brother couldn't take him," Keats jumped in, shrinking back as Welby glared at him for the insult. He slowly returned his gaze back to Chris, who stood silently, his face barely discernible beneath his wide-brimmed black hat.
"Apparently my brother didn't know of Larabee's soft spot for women and children. A very bad weakness for a peace officer to have, wouldn't you agree?" Welby used his finger to push back Chris's hat, revealing the gunslinger's cold, dismembering stare. Welby found himself involuntarily stepping back.
"Lock them up! And I want three guards on them at all times," Welby shouted out. The seven lawmen were shoved and prodded toward the jail. Welby took a deep breath to calm his racing heart.
"I told you he was a devil," Char said, materializing beside him.
"Well, we're going to send that devil back to hell," Welby sneered.
The two men rode in a more comfortable silence, with JD breaking the quiet with some remembered anecdote about Buck. As they neared the town, what they heard made little sense and they instinctively reached for their guns. The sound of boisterous laughter and random gunfire was not a good omen in the two lawmen's book and something they both knew Chris Larabee would not tolerate.
"What'cha think is goin' on?" JD asked as he checked the chambers of his Colts.
"I'm afraid we'll have to ascertain that as I have no idea." Ezra fumbled with his gun, using only his left hand. He could shoot left handed as well as right, but found it hard to load a gun with any swiftness.
Both men knew that Chris and the others would never allow the wild behavior they were now hearing, which meant something had happened to them. Ezra and JD dismounted and quietly led their mounts toward the town coming up along the backside of the church. They peered down the main street, not believing what they were seeing. Many of the windows had been shattered and furniture and possessions now littered the street and boardwalks. Men staggered drunk in the streets as others smashed bottles against the front of buildings. The two friends watched as several men exited the mercantile their arms laden with supplies.
"I don't recognize any of those men," JD whispered to Ezra, who stood directly behind him. "And I don't see any of the regular townsfolk."
"It would appear our fair municipality has been overrun with miscreants." Ezra hoped that all the good citizens were able to escape without harm.
"Where's Chris and the others? I don't see any sign of them," JD worriedly asked.
Ezra's brow furrowed as he wondered the same thing. He then noticed two men sitting outside the jail house, not indulging in the destructive gala around them.
"I believe our fellow comrades might be incarcerated in their own jail," Ezra surmised.
"Well, let's go and get them out!"
Ezra grabbed JD by the collar to restrain the eager gunslinger, wincing at how the action pulled at the stitches on his back.
"We must first find out how this happened. I find it hard to believe that Mr. Larabee and friends walked willingly into the jail. Something forced their hand, it would be prudent to know what that was."
JD licked his lips than wiped them with the sleeve of his coat. He was worried. If anything happened to Buck before he had a chance to talk to him...well he just didn't want to think about it.
"I believe a little resourcefulness is in order," Ezra said.
JD stared back at the southerner, not sure what he meant.
"I need you to stay here," Ezra began.
"No way, you're not leaving me out of this," JD immediately interrupted.
"Mr. Dunne, please."
"No, you're treating me just like Buck."
Ezra hanged his head a moment, and then raised his eyes, realizing the truth in that statement and becoming more sympathetic toward Buck. He had automatically wanted to protect the young man. Ezra relented to JD's determination to prove himself. "Maybe between the two of us we can find out what happened. Can you check around unnoticed? Try the surrounding woods maybe some of the good citizens are hidden there," Ezra explained.
"Sure, but what are you going to do?" JD asked.
Ezra straightened his jacket and adjusted his sling. "I'm going to be noticed," he slyly replied, with a mischievous glint in his eye.
JD watched as Ezra mounted his horse and then rode plainly down the middle of the street, garnering only a few curious stares.
Wilmington paced the small cell maneuvering around the others as he tramped out his frustration on the wood floor. Chris stood near the window, watching as their town was suddenly overrun with outlaws. He had counted twenty more men entering the town over the past hour. The majority of the town's folk had fled or were holed up somewhere. The outlaws laughed and hollered in the street, celebrating their conquest. Chris and the others ignored the curses and threats thrown in their direction. Chris ducked back from the barred window as a bottle of whiskey came crashing through, dispersing glass and liquor all over the cell.
"What now?" Buck asked, stopping his pacing and leaning against the cell door.
"We wait and hope JD and Ezra git back and know what to do," Chris calmly replied, stepping away from the only window. If he had stayed a few minutes more, he would of seen a sight that would bring a smile to his face and fear to his heart as the fancy dressed gambler rode down the street in plain view.
Standish pulled up in front of the saloon and dismounted smoothly, not showing any sign of pain that the maneuver had caused. He was now wishing he had taken some of that laudanum earlier. He tied his horse, hoping he would still be there when he returned. If any of these miscreants ran off with his mount, there'd be hell to pay.
Ezra stepped into the saloon and ducked as a bottle flew by his head and smashed into the large plate glass window. Ezra winced at the sound. He inwardly cringed at the current condition of his favorite haunt. Men in various stages of inebriation lay scattered about the bar room floor, stairs and balcony. He was grateful that it appeared Inez was nowhere around. Hopefully, the town's folk all managed to leave. Ezra's gaze stopped on a table in the corner of the room that held four men playing cards.
The cardsharp audaciously stepped up to the table. "Gentlemen, can I interest you all in a game of chance?"
Standish removed a deck of cards from his coat pocket.
"Why'd we want to play someone like you?" An oafish man with oily brown hair asked.
Ezra then removed a small wad of bills, his larger roll tucked securely in his boot. He smiled at the glint in everyone's eyes; he was very familiar with that look. He hoped they just didn't see fit to rob him outright. Ezra raised his injured hand.
"As you can see, I'm at a slight disadvantage."
Faint smirks appeared on grizzled faces as the four men quickly conversed with one another.
"Pull up a chair," a diminutive man with long blond hair sneered.
Ezra sat down and started shuffling the deck with one hand then laid it down on the table.
Standish played for an hour, allowing each of the four men a winning streak, knowing if he didn't lose all the money they'd more than likely just take it. As he dealt out another hand. "However did you all overthrow the law here? I hear tell there were several gunslingers who protected this town?" Ezra casually asked.
Two of the men eyed him suspiciously, but one young dark haired man who went by the name Jack, was more than willing to boast about the take over.
"Hell, Mr. Welby and his men had them seven lawmen all locked up before we ever got here."
"Really, all seven?" Ezra incredulously asked. No wonder everyone appeared so relaxed and didn't seem overly concerned. They believed they had all seven of the famous lawmen locked up. And wasn't the outlaw that Vin killed named Welby? Lord, he hated dysfunctional families.
"Yep, saw them myself," Jack proudly continued. "He got Chris Larabee and all six of his men locked up as pretty as you please."
"This town is ours," the dark hair man added, staring intently at Ezra.
"I commend you all on your prowess."
The outlaw smiled at the praise, at least he thought it was praise. Ezra continued to play several more hands. "Well, I guess my disability is more of a hindrance than I realized." Ezra opened his wallet and showed that it no longer held anything of value. "So, if you gentlemen will excuse me."
The blonde haired man stood up and glared threateningly down at Ezra. "Since you don't have no more money, you won't be needin' that wallet."
Ezra sighed with relief. "How true." He handed the calf-skin wallet over to the desperado, tipped his hat and turned to walk out of the saloon.
Ezra waited for JD back behind the church, the one building the outlaws seemed to keep a distance from. He caught himself nervously pacing as the minutes slowly ticked by with no sign of his young friend. Damn, no wonder Wilmington was such an overbearing ignoramus at times, this worrying business would drive a person insane. It was definitely a new experience for the self-centered gambler. He never even worried this much about his own mother and doubted she gave much thought for his well being. Suddenly JD materialized, out of breath. Ezra quickly replaced his worried frown with his normal impassive façade.
"Ez, you ain't goin' to believe it. They got everyone locked up!"
"I'm aware of that, Mr. Dunne."
"But they think they have all seven of us," JD added.
"I believe our Mr. Larabee is probably responsible for that deception," Ezra replied. "The question is how did these desperadoes get the upper hand on our fellows?"
JD finally caught his breath and straightened. "They have Mrs. Travis and Billy," JD added.
Ezra pushed back his hat and exhaled, falling against the wall of the church. "Well, we know how they were able to incarcerate everyone. Do you know where they're keeping them?"
"I ran into Mr. Levi, hiding out in the woods. He says he thinks they're being held at the newspaper office."
Ezra started to feel very tired. Lord, if anything happened to that fine woman and her little boy.
"Ezra, are you okay?" JD asked.
"Yes, Mr. Dunne, I'm fine."
"Well let's go and free the others then they can help us save Mrs. Travis and Billy," JD explained.
"No, I assume the outlaws are using Mrs. Travis and her son to force the others to be on their best behavior. If the outlaws hear us breaking the others out of jail they're liable to kill them. We must assure Mrs. Travis and her son's safety first. Anyway, I doubt Mr. Larabee would even allow us to free him knowing that Mary and Billy were in danger."
JD thought this over a moment and knew that Ezra was right, they would have to get the Travises to safety first.
"And we do have the advantage," Ezra remarked.
"How you figure?"
"They think we're locked up," Ezra answered with a grin, thinking that this might be fun.
JD crept along the backside of the news office. He reached up and grabbed the doorknob of the back door feeling that it was unlocked. He released his hold and looked down at his watch. His eyes scanned the area, grateful no one was around. This plan depended on getting Mary and Billy out without forewarning the whole town.
Ezra walked into the newspaper office without hesitation, startling the two men who were sitting behind the counter. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted Mary and Billy sitting off to the side, Mary's arms wrapped protectively around her son. She gently placed her hand over her son's mouth as he was about to blurt out Ezra's name.
"Who the hell are you?" Keats asked, staring at the audacious conman. Neither of the outlaws were overly concerned. The town was theirs. It was only some fancy-dressed gambler. This overconfidence would be their downfall.
"No one of any importance, I assure you," Ezra drawled.
"Then get the hell out!" Keats yelled and returned to his chair.
Ezra saw JD in the back room.
"I feel I would be remiss if I didn't inform you of the imposters you hold in your jail."
Keats looked at the other man who sat next to him. "What the hell are you talkin' 'bout? What impostors?"
"Why the lawmen," Ezra quipped. Both men now stood and looked directly at the provoking conman.
"You better come up with some answers there, fancy man," Keats said, not liking where this was going and laying his hand on his gun. Before Keats could put his dislike into action, Ezra drew his gun and leveled it at the agitated outlaw.
"It's quite simple really, two of the men in jail are imposters as two of the Seven are right here," Ezra flippantly stated.
Keats's mouth fell open, but before he realized what Ezra was telling him JD came up behind and struck his partner over the head. Keats watched as his companion crumbled to the floor.
Keats yelled with raged and lunged out at Ezra. The gambler hesitated to shoot, afraid of bringing the whole town of outlaws down on them. Keats came down on top of Ezra, slamming his back to the floor and going for the conman's gun. The pain that screamed at Ezra was almost too much, but he managed to hang onto his gun as Keats fought on top of him.
JD kicked Keats in the side, stealing away the outlaws breath and forcing him to bring an arm up around his stomach. The young gunslinger then brought his gun down on the outlaw's head. Keats fell heavy on top of Ezra. JD rolled the unconscious man off the gambler.
"Are you okay?"
"Very well done, Mr. Dunne," Ezra gasped as he pushed himself up on an elbow. He looked over at Mary.
"Mrs. Travis, are you and young Mr. Travis unharmed?"
Mary's shoulders slumped and a smile blessed her face. "Yes, we're fine."
JD helped Ezra gain his feet the gambler shook from the strain and his face seemed to pale. Mary came up beside the southerner. "Ezra, are you sure you're okay?"
Ezra smiled at the blonde woman's concern. "Yes, Mrs. Travis, I'm fine. You and master Billy must make your way to Mrs. Wells abode. You'll be safe there."
"What about the others?" Mary asked.
"Don't worry we will extricate our fellows shortly."
Mary and Billy quickly left through the back door. JD followed their progress until they reached the safety of the woods. He came back into the office to see Ezra, his teeth clenched and sweat trickling down his face, holding onto the back of a chair for support.
JD was going to ask how he was, but then quickly closed his mouth. It wouldn't matter. He needed the conman's help and Ezra would only tell him he was fine anyway. Ezra straightened and forced a mask of indifference to take over his pained features.
Ezra and JD crept along the outside of the jail. Ezra winced as pain shot up from his back, causing him to crouch over slightly. He wasn't feeling very well. He stopped a moment, as his vision suddenly blurred. He knew his fever was returning and it was slowly robbing him of his strength. He leaned up against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut. His whole body hurt, and he could feel the stickiness of blood soaking his shirt. He must have broken some of the stitches. Mr. Jackson would be upset.
It was a second before the gambler recognized that he was being spoken to. He opened his eyes to peer into JD's very concerned visage.
"You alright? You don't look too good."
"I'll survive," Ezra assured.
"What's that for?" JD finally asked about the bottle of whiskey that Ezra had procured from his room.
The unsteady conman uncorked the bottle with his teeth and took a long draw of the fiery liquor, and then sprinkled a little on his coat. "Tricks of the trade, Mr. Dunne."
JD stared at the southerner, wondering where this fit in to the plan they had come up with. Ezra was going to get the others out of jail, how, was never made very clear to the young man. JD was to stay hidden behind the jail and wait. He wasn't too sure about the last part; it felt like he was being put somewhere safe again.
"Now, you will have to give me twenty minutes. I doubt our Mr. Tanner's lock-picking skills are on par with mine. Although, I have taught him everything I know," Ezra proudly boasted. He noticed the reluctance in JD's brown eyes and laid a hand on his shoulders. "Mr. Dunne, I'm counting on you. I will need impeccable timing for this to work."
JD stood a little taller and placed his hands on his guns. "I'll be there."
Ezra took one more drink of the whiskey and then staggered out of the alleyway, he stopped at JD's utterance, "Hey, Ez, be careful." Ezra didn't turn around, but smiled and nodded as he continued.
Standish fell through the door of the jail, causing the three outlaw guards to jump up and draw their guns. Chris and the others also jumped, startled by the gambler's abrupt appearance.
The guards glared at the seemingly intoxicated gambler.
"Ah, my good men," Ezra slurred. "You are missing out on all the festivities. Here, I brought you a little something." Ezra set down the bottle of whiskey.
"Gee, thanks, mister."
Ezra grinned as the three men eagerly passed the bottle between them. Ezra had noticed how everyone was overconfident and disregardful of basic security, believing they had all the lawmen locked up. "You gentlemen wouldn't be familiar with Hamlet, would you?" Ezra conspiratorially asked.
All three men stared at him with open mouths and blank expressions.
"Who's he? Is he from Purgatory?" One of the men asked.
Ezra chuckled and shook his head. It figured, he thought as he staggered toward the cells.
"Hey, mister don't get too close," one of the guards warned. "Them are dangerous men." The three guards broke out into uproarious laughter.
Ezra stopped, swaying somewhat in the center of the room. A smug smirk stretched across his face as he eyed his compatriots. It was nice to see Larabee behind the bars for a change.
"Ah, not so magnificent now are they?" Ezra slurred back toward the guards, causing another bout of laughter.
Chris glared at the gambler, knowing he was enjoying this a little too much. He would get his revenge later for the slight, and the glint in his eyes passed this threat on to the suave southerner, which only widened the gambler's smile. Vin ducked his head to hide the grin that suddenly appeared on his face. None of them had said a word to the cardsharp, waiting to see what Ezra was up to. They didn't want to give him away.
Buck came up and grasped the bars, his face revealing the worry he had for JD.
"Yeah, they ain't so tough," one of the guards said. "We're going to hang them tomorrow morning."
The two conscripted cowboys stood up abruptly, catching the guards attention. Josiah quickly shoved the two men back down and glared at them, silencing any protest. They didn't need these two giving the whole thing away and putting Ezra into any more danger than he already was.
Nathan's brow furrowed as he took a good look at the seemingly intoxicated conman. Ezra's eyes were sunken and glazed, and he seemed to be struggling to stay on his feet, of course this only reinforced his ploy at being drunk.
Ezra ran his fingers along his waistband and pulled out a long thin piece of metal. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing the guards intent on their recently acquired bottle of whiskey. He quickly flipped the metal into the cell. Ezra laughed as he turned toward the outlaws, covering the distinctive 'ping' as the metal bounced on the floor.
Without looking down Chris covered the piece of metal with his boot and kept his eyes on the guards across the room.
"To be, or not to be; that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms up against a sea of troubles, now that pawns are liberated. To plot: To escape: by means provided: and by escape to say we wait the distraction, and the admirable assistance of that constable, who awaits the given hour momentarily to arrive," Ezra recited with a wave of his hand.
He spun around laughing, barely keeping his feet. His performance was only partially an act. In reality, he was fighting desperately to keep from passing out. His head pounding incessantly.
The guards laughed and applauded the gambler's soliloquy and Ezra bowed.
Buck and Vin stared at their friend in bewilderment, thinking maybe he really was drunk. Nathan watched in concern, seeing the affects of too much exertion on a man who really shouldn't have gotten out of bed.
Sanchez smiled and nodded knowingly to his friend. He was well versed in Shakespeare and noticed the impromptu changes in the famous soliloquy. Josiah looked over at the guards grateful for their illiterate, confused expressions. He watched as their expressions then turned to disregard as they each made sure the others were only taking their fair share of the beverage. Chris had also understood the oblique message within the verse and breathed a sigh of relief that Mary and Billy were safe. The pretentious southerner returned to the three guards and pulled out a deck of cards.
"Gentlemen, may I interest you in a game of chance?" They shifted unenthusiastically until Ezra pulled out a wad of money from his left boot, bringing that familiar greedy light to all three men's eyes. Ezra sat down and started dealing the cards. He needed to keep the men occupied to give Vin a chance to pick the lock. He just hoped the tracker had learned well; they were running out of time. If Mary and Billy were discovered missing, all hell would break loose.
Vin squatted down behind Chris, and Josiah, who blocked the guards' view. Larabee lifted his boot, and Vin retrieved the liberating piece of metal. They all were aware that Ezra had been teaching the tracker how to pick locks, both men figuring that if Vin was ever taken by bounty hunters the skill could come in handy. Tanner had proved a most apt pupil, leading Ezra to accuse him of being a conman at one time. Vin moved forward, keeping his eyes on the men playing cards. He hoped Ezra could keep them busy long enough.
Nathan came up behind Chris and whispered. "He doesn't look too good. I think he's running a fever again."
Chris had seen the pain in the gambler's emerald eyes and knew the man was nearing the end of his endurance.
Ezra allowed the three outlaws to win, hoping to hold their attention. This rescue operation was becoming very costly, and he would have to talk to the Judge about reimbursement. Ezra glanced furtively back toward the cells and saw that Vin was working furiously on the lock. The tracker suddenly looked up at him and grinned as the lock clicked open. Ezra pulled out his watch. Vin's timing was impeccable as always. Ezra prepared for the second half of their plan.
Right on cue JD came running into the jail house yelling, " THE ARMY IS COMING!"
The three outlaw guards jumped up, and JD barreled into the one nearest the door. Ezra grabbed the edge of the table and flipped it over sending cards and money flying into the air. Chris and the others charged out of the cell and the three outlaws were subdued without a single shot being fired.
"Very well done, Mr. Dunne," Ezra praised. He held onto the side of the desk, his breaths coming out in labored gasps as he rode out the streaks of pain going down his back. Nathan was suddenly at his side.
"Mr. Jackson, I'm fine," Ezra curtly said.
Nathan ignored Ezra's falsehood about his condition and lifted up his jacket to see the blood staining the shirt underneath. "You're bleeding, some of your stitches must 'ave broke."
Ezra pulled away from the healer's fondling.
Buck caught JD's attention and the young gunslinger smiled at his friend, a smile that lifted a tremendous amount of weight from Buck's heart.
"How many are there?" Chris asked the young gunslinger.
"Too many, Mr. Larabee," Ezra broke in, still trying to pull away from Nathan's ministrations.
"We took care of the two outlaws holding the Travises and a couple others," JD answered.
"How are they?" Chris asked.
"Mrs. Travis and young Billy are safe at Mrs. Wells," Ezra replied.
Larabee looked around the room his gaze landing on the two drafted cowpokes.
Both men looked about ready to faint. Franklin threw up his hands. "No way. I got a family, wife and three youngins'," he stammered.
Cahill didn't have any family, but the only thing he'd ever killed with a gun was jackrabbits.
"Git out of here! I suggest you head for the woods."
"Thanks, Chris," Franklin replied
"It's Mr. Larabee now," Chris corrected. The two men nodded and left.
"Okay, we'll need to get the leader, Grant Welby. Ezra you're staying here..." Chris began.
"Sorry, Mr. Larabee, but that wouldn't be practical or prudent. We are greatly outnumbered. You will need every gun," Ezra remarked.
Chris bit his lower lip. Ezra didn't look good, but he was right. Hopefully, they could wrap this up quickly.
The Seven gunslingers gathered up their weapons and prepared to leave the jail. The one thought that went through everyone's mind, except Ezra's, was that they would watch out for the southerner. He looked as if he could barely stand-as if pure will power was the only thing holding him upright.
"Okay, we all ready?" Chris asked.
"Yep, let's do it," Vin said as he cocked his mare's leg. The seven men left the jail and immediately spread out. It was mid afternoon and many of the outlaws were passed out drunk on the boardwalk. When Chris Larabee appeared many of the outlaws took one look at the deadly gunslinger and took off. The ones that did attempt to draw quickly found themselves laying in the dirt bleeding.
Welby was about to learn how loyal his men were as most of them high-tailed it out of town.
Grant Welby stood up from his chair in the saloon and looked out the bat-wing doors. "Shit! How they git out!" He yelled. Several men behind him suddenly turned around and ran out the back of the saloon. "Come back here, you cowards!"
Welby looked over at Char, the Indian had a dark glint in his eye and a determined, evil smile on his face.
"Larabee is mine," the Indian sneered as he stepped out of the saloon and onto the boardwalk.
Chris stopped in the street as the half-breed appeared in his path, his hand hovering near his gun. Chris holstered his own gun and hitched his weight to his right leg. His face impassive as he stared back at the angry man.
No words were spoken between the two dangerous men, both understanding what was transpiring. Char went for his gun first. It barely cleared the holster when a shot rang out. For a moment, Char thought it strange that he could hear that single shot, among the multitude sounds of gunfire that surrounded them. He looked down at the red spot in his chest then looked over at the man who had just ended his life. Chris stared indifferently back at the man, holstered his gun and continued on, passing the Indian as he fell to the ground.
Welby stepped backward until his back was up against the bar. Larabee marched into the saloon and drew his gun.
"Wait, wait, I surrender." Grant Welby raised his hands.
Chris wanted nothing more than to blow the man's head off, but he was still an officer of the law. He swore and disarmed the now pathetic man, shoving him toward the door.
Ezra made his way down the boardwalk, firing at the retreating backs of several outlaws, hurrying them on their way. Most of the desperadoes wanted no part of facing the Magnificent Seven and figured their fun was over. Ezra crouched and ran down the walkway, getting a terrible sense of déjà vu as he passed by a window that was still intact. A shot struck the wall where his head was moments ago and he dove into the mercantile store. He landed hard and a bolt of pain raced all through his back and brought tears to his eyes. Ezra cut off the cry that wanted desperately to pour out. He used his feet to push himself back against the far wall. His whole body felt like it was on fire and everything was blurring. A large indistinct form suddenly walked into the building and loomed in front of him. He tried to raise his gun, but the effort was too much.
"Well, well, look what I got." The huge outlaw raised his gun and pointed it at Ezra's head.
Buck had dispensed with two outlaws and watched as JD nailed one who was trying to sneak up on Josiah. Buck gave a short wave toward JD then his gaze went immediately to Ezra who had dove into the mercantile. His heart raced as he saw the huge form enter the store.
Ezra covered his face with his arm as something came crashing through the store window. The outlaw stepped back, startled as Buck crashed into him within a shower of glass. Both men went down to the floor. Buck was on his feet first and grabbed a handful of the big man's shirt pulling him halfway up off the floor. He threw two quick punches into the outlaw's face and let him fall back to the floor unconscious.
Wilmington stepped over the unconscious outlaw and slumped down next to Ezra.
"Ez, you alright, pard"
"How?" Ezra forced out.
"Just watchin' your back," Buck smiled.
Ezra noticed the blood that was slowly soaking the cowboy's right sleeve.
"Are you alright, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked, his voice full of concern.
"Yeah, just a little glass is all." Buck hissed as he tried to pull his sleeve away from his arm.
A faint smile came to Ezra's face. "A little poetic justice?"
Buck returned the smile, which disappeared as the conman slumped down unconscious unable to hold back the blackness that had been calling him.
Ezra slowly came back to the land of the living to find himself back in Nathan's clinic.
"Ay, pard, welcome back." A cheery voice filled his ears.
Ezra turned his head to see Buck sitting up on the other cot, his arm bandaged.
Buck stood up and grabbed a glass of water that sat on the dresser. "Here, Nate said you had to drink this as soon as you woke up." Buck raised the southerner's head and allowed him to drink the cool water.
"How you feeling?" Buck asked as he laid Ezra's head back down on the pillow.
"I seem to be recovering, Mr. Wilmington." There was no anger in Ezra's voice and Buck thought this would be the best opportunity to talk with him. Nathan had released him a couple hours ago, but he had decided to stay and wait for Ezra to wake.
Buck noticed that Ezra flexed his fingers on his right hand. "Is your hand okay?"
"It seems to be improving," Ezra answered with a faint smile.
Buck swallowed and fidgeted as he knelt next to his friend. It felt like they were strangers meeting for the first time, instead of friends who had worked and played together for months. Buck hope their friendship wasn't beyond repair. He and JD had already started on the road to repairing and re-developing their friendship, but they already had a strong bond, one that was not so easily broken. Ezra was a different story, he didn't appear to hold a tight connection to any of the others, or was that all an act?
"A...Ez...there's...something..."Buck stammered, then grew angry. This was Ezra! "Damnit, I'm so sorry. You have to know, me and the others, we all care 'bout you and things are goin' to change. You're a part of us and we wouldn't be the same without you. Hell, we wouldn't be a team."
Ezra's face remained unchanged, but inside his heart lightened ever so slightly. He cared very much for these six unique individuals. They were the closest thing he had ever experienced to having a real family
Buck couldn't read what was going in Ezra's head and for a moment he thought that what he was saying was all in vain. Ezra would never trust him or believe that he was a part of them. Buck ran a hand down his face and then noticed the faint smile tugging at the corners of Ezra's mouth.
"I believe Mr. Dunne has voiced similar sentiments." Ezra looked over at the ladies' man. He would have deeply missed the friendly cowboy's friendship. "I too am penitent. I know it was an accident, and I shall now endeavor to get used to someone watching my back."
"Well it's about time," Buck laughed and slapped his knee with his injured hand, bringing on a litany of curses that almost brought Ezra to tears with laughter.