Seven unique men sat quietly within the confines of the saloon, the night was quiet with the last patron having left ten minutes ago. Inez finished cleaning up the bar than moved to the back room, the sudden silence only broken by the scraping of boot or clearing of throat. JD worried at his as he tried to control his growing anxiety. Buck smiled at his young friend as he and Josiah sipped at their whiskeys. Vin examined something under his nails as Chris rolled a whiskey glass between his hands. Ezra sat off by himself nonchalantly shuffling a deck of cards and debating whether to start a game of solitaire.
Nathan broke the silence scooting his chair back and asking, “So why are we waiting here?”
“Judge told us all to meet here at eight sharp,” Chris causally explained. He glanced up at the regulator clock that told him they had two more minutes. He then glanced over at the cardsharp knowing he was irked by the early closing of the saloon.
“Well, I think we all know why?” Buck piped up as he tilted his chair back. “In 4 hours our thirty days is up.” It didn’t show but all the men were tense with suspense. They weren’t sure what would happen after today. Would they still have jobs or would they all split up and go their separate ways.
Vin eyed the other gunslingers within the confines of the small saloon. They’d only been working together for 30 days, yet something unexplainable was happening between the seven men. Together they had worked, ate, rode and protected the small sleepy town, a smile ghosted over the tracker’s lips as he reflected, that at times, they even thought as one. They were becoming something more than just peacekeepers, each man realizing they needed the others. Maybe the preacher had the right of it, and they were destined to be together.
Buck and JD were like brothers already. He and Chris also felt a strange kinship of sorts. Josiah and Nathan had been long time friends. These relations supported and enhanced the whole, and Vin had no doubt that any one of them would protect the others and if asked to continue their peacekeeping duties they would say yes. Vin glanced toward the sharply dressed conman and frowned. He had to admit he wasn’t completely sure what Ezra would do. Unlike the others Ezra had been coerced into his duties with the promise of a pardon. Vin felt he and the others were slowly breaking through the cardshark’s defenses, but Ezra was raised to keep people at arm’s length and never let anyone in.
Vin’s reverie was broken by the Judge’s entrance into the saloon.
“Ah I see you all made it,” the esteemed judge exclaimed as he strolled over to the bar and turned to face the seven gunslingers he had hired a month ago. He unfolded a piece of paper and glanced at each of the seven regulators. “Sorry to keep you all waiting, but I had to wait for this message from the territorial governor. Travis had not been sure about his decision to hire Chris and the six other men thirty days ago. He now looked upon the seven men and smiled, knowing that it was the best decision he had ever made. The hiring of these men had proved beneficial to Four Corners and the surrounding territory and had not gone unnoticed by the territorial governor and the railroad.
Chris’ brows arched and he leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. Judge Travis was like the father he never had, he had grown to respect the esteemed man. The Judge had given his life purpose and united him with six other men who were fast becoming something more than just working associates.
“As you all know in four hours your duties as peacekeepers will come to an end,” Travis continued. He noticed the sudden dejected look on JD’s face and had to smile. Travis looked down at the paper he held. “The governor feels that we no longer need you as peacekeepers…” heads bowed and shoulders dropped, as the judge continued, “Instead he feels you all can be put to better use.” Travis smiled at the quizzical expressions on several of the peacekeeper’s faces.
"Buck, Chris, I'm offering you positions as territorial marshals," Travis exclaimed.
Chris’ eyes widened slightly, and Buck broke out into a smile.
“Now let me finish,” Travis raised a hand to stop any dispute. “Mr. Tanner, unfortunately due to your little problem you’ll have to remain a deputy and tracker on an as needed basis.” Tanner nodded his approval. “Mr. Dunne, you are to remain the town’s sheriff.” JD smiled and Buck slapped him on the back. “Nathan, this town needs your healing abilities and Josiah I believe your spiritual guidance as well as your gun savvy have proven beneficial, you all will be deputies and work with Chris, Buck and JD when needed.”
JD whooped, realizing his family would remain intact and everyone broke into smiles. Travis realized that the men had grown close. These were good men.
“Wait a minute what about Ezra?” Buck injected. He looked over at Ezra who was quietly manipulating his cards with a mask of indifference. He was happy for the others, knowing their paths would remain as one.
“Oh I haven’t forgotten, Mr. Standish.”
Travis made his way over to the conman pulling a piece of paper out of his jacket. “Here you go Mr. Standish, per our agreement, a full pardon.”
Ezra smiled as he took the offered paper. “Thank you, I believe I earned it.”
“Oh indeed you did. I hope you get that saloon you’ve been wanting. I hear San Francisco is a good place to start.”
“Now that I’m free to earn a more livable wage I believe that endeavor is closer at hand,” Ezra replied. He held the paper in his hand. He couldn’t explain the total lack of elation he felt. He held a relaxed smile as he looked at the six lawmen who he had worked with and his stomach clenched at the thought that it was over.
Travis turned and faced the others. “Well, I need to turn in I’m leaving for Silver City to oversee a trial there tomorrow. I’ll be leaving on the morning stage. I expect I’ll have an escort.” Travis threw a knowing smirk at Chris. He knew about the telegram that told of the threat on his life if the trial went forward.
Travis nodded and walked out of the saloon. Chris stared down at his empty whiskey glass, digesting what the judge had told him, had told all of them. He was happy on how things turned out for most of them. Chris looked over at Ezra who was staring down at his pardon. He couldn’t read the gambler, he had no idea what was going through the man’s mind. He knew everyone else was pleased at the outcome, was Ezra?
“Well gentleman, it appears I need to pack,” Ezra calmly stated as he stood, picked up his cards and headed towards the stairs.
The room was silent, everyone contemplating what they’d been told. They were all happy that their duties would continue, but there was a feeling of loss knowing their seventh would no longer be among them.
“Buck I’m not sure I like it, Ezra is one of us, ain’t he?” JD asked
“Yeah, kid he is, but...well we don’t even know if he wants to stay. That saloon’s been all he can talk about sometimes,” Buck replied.
Everyone looked up as Chris stood and strolled out the saloon doors.
Chris stopped just outside the saloon, is eyes adjusting to the quiet darkness. He allowed the cool breeze to flow over him and rolled his shoulders. He chuckled slightly to see Travis sitting outside the jail. He was getting to predictable.
Chris walked up to the esteemed magistrate and sat down.
“Figured you’d want to talk,” Travis said, enjoying a cigar.
Chris wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. He was glad they all still had a home, what surprised him was the fact that he wanted Ezra to be a part of that home and family. But did the conman want the same thing?
Travis inhaled deeply of his cigar and slowly exhaled the smoke into the dark.. "He only took this job because I offered him a pardon in return. I don’t believe he would have taken it otherwise," Travis explained.
True enough, but Chris had often wondered if Ezra wasn’t becoming a part of them, despite himself. Chris leaned the chair back onto two legs, until it rested against the jail wall, was the pardon the only reason Ezra stayed? Chris realized he had more questions about the suave southerner than answers.
"What it comes down to is that he ran out on you, twice," Travis continued, feeling he had to justify his reason.
"He came back and saved all our lives. He saved Mary's life,” Chris defended, but his words lacked conviction. Chris had to admit he wasn't sure how much he trusted the gambler or where the gambler’s loyalty laid.
"I know and I'll be forever grateful," Travis tiredly replied. "But what if one time, when you really need him he runs out on you and doesn't come back in time?"
That thought had crossed Chris' mind on numerous occasions. How can you know a person in one month? He knew Buck of course, and he believed that he was coming to know the others. He trusted each of them with his life, but did he really think he knew the gambler? Could Ezra only have been manipulating them to ensure his pardon?
"Do you really want to risk your life and the others on someone so unreliable and self-serving?" Travis asked. “And honestly, besides his gun, are his conning abilities really that useful? They seemed to get him in more trouble.”
Chris couldn't answer for the others, but he knew the judge had a point and was only trying to look out for them.
"Standish did a good job, but he probably doesn't even want to stay on," Travis added, trying to soften the mood.
"Maybe," Chris quietly replied. Ezra had never stated a desire to stay and in fact had on more than one occasion told of his plans when his so-called indentured servitude ended. Had anyone asked the wily cardsharp if he wanted to stay?
+ + + + + + +
Travis finally turned in leaving Chris to his thoughts, although it wasn’t long before he was joined by his oldest friend and another who was almost like a brother.
“So what’s going on?” Buck asked taking the empty seat next to Chris. Vin leaned up against the railing, crossing his arms over his chest. Buck wasn’t sure he liked the idea of Ezra leaving. He was worried about what would happen if even one of them left.
"Travis thinks he's a liability that he'll run when we need him,” Chris explained.
"That's a lot of hooey!" Buck exclaimed.
Chris wished he felt as sure as Buck, but he couldn't afford it. He felt responsible for all of them. He just wasn't sure enough about the gambler to make a decision; although it looked liked it was out of his hands. Travis was pretty firm on his decision. Maybe it would be for the best if Ezra just moved on.
Chris looked over at Vin seeing that there was something on his mind. “Don’t feel right,” Vin quietly stated.
Chris nodded his head in agreement, what it all came down to was it, ‘just didn’t feel right.’
"What are we goin’ to do?” Buck asked
"Don't know," Chris said as he stood. “Not really my say. Travis is pretty dead set against hiring Ezra.”
Vin clasped the stock of his mare’s leg and bowed his head. He had come to like the suave cardsharp and believed he was beginning to know the real man under the self-serving facade. Although, he’d admit, how could you really know a person after only a month? Vin looked up at Chris, a man who felt like a brother to him. He believed that Ezra would lay down his life for any of them he didn’t think the others believed the same thing.
Chris chuckled. Vin and Ezra had taken a liking to each other, and Vin was probably the only one of them to tear a chink out of Ezra's egotistical armor.
"Ezra deserves the same as us. He’s risked his life just as much as we have. It ain’t right that he should be excluded,” Vin voiced.
Chris smiled at Vin’s growing vocabulary of which Ezra could take credit.
“Vin, you ever consider that Ezra has no intention of stayin' past his thirty days?" Chris exclaimed.
Vin’s brow furrowed in thought and he chewed at his bottom lip before he responded, “Maybe in the beginning Ezra always planned on leaving after he got his pardon, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. He’s one of us.
Chris nodded; he didn’t want the conman to leave either. They had started to develop something of a relationship it was a trying one at times, but Chris was growing comfortable with the flamboyant man and wanted to shoot him less and less, it was a start.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra folded the last of his shirts and placed it in his bag. He looked at his watch. Five minutes after six, the time disturbed him for two reasons. It was ungodly early and he was no longer a member of the seven peace keepers. He didn't understand why this distressed him so much. He remembered not so long ago when he couldn’t wait for this time when he would be free to travel to more profitable areas.
He sat down in his rocking chair trying to grasp what he was feeling and why. He never had attachments before. It was always easy to move on, he smirked, not even the charms of a woman had been able to hold him in one place for long. Why did six men and a backwater town cause his gut to ache like someone had punched him. He tried to understand, hoping that he could then rationalize the feelings and push them aside as meaningless. But the more he thought of leaving the heavier his heart felt. Damn, what was wrong with him? These six men barely tolerated him and he believed that Larabee would shoot him if given a good enough reason. He wasn’t wanted, was he?
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat in the saloon, his carpetbag at his side. His eyes were hooded, revealing his lack of sleep. He sipped at the coffee that Inez had brought him, surprised at him being up so early. He would miss the beautiful senorita, always wondering if there couldn’t have been more between them. He had decided to accompany Chris, Buck, JD and the judge to Silver City. He didn’t have any real reason, Silver City was just as good a place as any. It wasn’t too far and maybe it’d be easier if he eased away slowly. He would greatly miss the six stalwart men he had the privilege of riding with, he thought of telling them, but decided against it.
Buck stepped into the saloon holding onto the bat-winged doors as he pushed them aside. He was surprised to see Ezra sitting at his customary table. The gregarious gunslinger’s heart ached to know he would no longer see that shit-eating grin or colorful attire. Ezra seemed to accept the judge’s decision; maybe the conman really did want to move on.
Ezra felt Buck’s eyes and raised his head. “Mr. Wilmington, your scrutiny is unwelcomed.”
“Just wondering how you’re doing is all.” Buck continued into the saloon and sidled up to the bar, smiling at Inez as she cleaned glasses. Maybe now he would have a chance with the sweet Mexican woman, he thought.
“I assure you I’m fine, in fact I’ve just been contemplating my many options with my pending freedom.”
“Buck?” JD yelled as he rushed into the saloon with his usual exuberance. “Chris and the Judge are about ready to go.” JD noticed Ezra and smiled, “Hey, Ez.”
“Mr. Dunne.” Ezra nodded and raised his coffee cup slightly.
JD smiled tightly, he still hated the idea of the southern conman leaving, but it looked like Ezra wanted to leave.
“Mr. Dunne, I’d appreciate it if you would look after Chaucer for a while. I’ll compensate you for your time and trouble of course.”
“Sure Ez, but you don’t have to compensate me for nothing I love Chaucer too,” JD glumly replied. He still couldn’t believe this was happening.
“Are you leaving soon?” Buck asked.
“Yes, in fact I’ll be accompanying you on the stage this morning. I want to see what Silver City might have to offer.”
“Hey, that’s great we can spend a little more time together,” JD announced and jumped back out into the street.
Ezra smiled, ‘Lord he would miss that boy.’
+ + + + + + +
Chris stood outside the jail checking his rifle. Judge Travis was to preside over a murder trial in Silver City. The Silver City sheriff was holding Bill Chaney, who with his gang had been robbing banks and stages for the past year; several people had been killed putting them high on the wanted list.
Chris was uneasy, they had Bill Chaney behind bars but the rest of the gang was still on the loose, although no stages or banks had been robbed since Bill’s capture two weeks ago. Chris hoped without their leader the gang would disperse, but he also knew there was a strong allegiance within the gang and Chris wouldn’t doubt if Bill was far from an only child. They were taking every precaution to assure that no one knew when and by which route they would travel. He was fearful for the judge's life.
"Sure you don't want more help?" Vin asked, leaning his long frame against a post. He had a bad feeling about this, but wondered if it wasn’t because Ezra was leaving.
"Shouldn't need it,” Chris exclaimed. “Need you to watch over the town.”
Vin rolled his eyes
“I don't want to leave the town undefended." Chris left the rest unsaid. Vin nodded in understanding. ‘If anything happened he wanted Vin safe and able to help them.’ The seven had survived by watching out for each other and not being a single target. Chris’ brow furrowed, what will happen when they were six? It gave Chris a bad feeling.
Chris turned to see JD, Buck and Ezra approaching the stage. His brow furrowed as he noticed Ezra’s carpetbag.
"Mr. Larabee, I find I have business in Silver City there may be some saloon prospects," Ezra explained before the gunslinger could ask the obvious question.
Chris eyed the gambler suspiciously. Ezra had remained aloof almost as if he was trying to disassociate himself from the others. He knew that Josiah, Buck and JD had tried to change the judge's mind, without success.
Chris glanced over at the stage. "Are you sure? Thought you were headin’ to San Francisco?" Vin had told him last night that he didn’t think the conman really wanted to go to San Francisco. Chris contemplated asking the southerner if he wanted to stay, but this thought was angrily interrupted.
"Sir, you no longer have jurisdiction over my comings and goings," Ezra snapped. He clamped his mouth shut surprised at his vehemence. He felt betrayed by Larabee and the others, no one seemed to care that he was leaving.
Chris glared and held back his own angry retort, he didn’t want to end on a bad note and he had to admit he liked the idea of an extra gun. “Have it your way.” He climbed up onto the stage to join Buck.
Ezra climbed into the stage ignoring the faint astonished look on the judge's face that quickly dissolved. JD jumped into the stage sitting next to Ezra. He was still thinking of what he could do to keep his family together.
The stage jerked and pulled out, kicking up dust that swirled into the coach.
Ezra glanced over at the judge who sat and stared out the window, then turned his eyes and thoughts to the desert. He watched Four Corners grow small and wondered if he would ever see it again.
+ + + + + + +
"Why you think Ez is really riding with us?" Buck asked.
Chris continued to scan the horizon. "Not sure." Chris was uneasy about the whole situation, maybe Ezra was too. He just didn’t know what the conman wanted. He wondered if anyone had asked him to stay, maybe try and start another saloon in Four Corners.
The stage swayed lightly and if not for the stifling heat would have been very relaxing. Ezra continued to stare out the window still trying to come to grips with leaving. He always thought he’d leave, didn’t he? His thoughts were interrupted.
“Hey, Ez, it would be great if you could find a saloon in Silver City. It’s not too far and we could still see each other once in awhile,” JD remarked.
Travis smiled at the young sheriff.
“That is a consideration, Mr. Dunne.” Ezra was not sure how he would feel seeing the others and not being a part of them. It would hurt to have one of them killed knowing he was not there to help prevent it. No, if he couldn’t be a part of them he would have to totally disassociate himself. Maybe he should consider San Francisco.
+ + + + + + +
They were about an hour outside of Silver city and the trip had remained uneventful. The lawmen started to believe that maybe they would make it to Silver City without any trouble. Ezra and JD still kept a vigil as the judge dozed.
A sudden gunshot ruined that belief and had Chris taking up his rifle, he looked over at Buck who nodded and snapped the reins breaking the horses into a gallop. Chris looked over the top of the stage to see twelve men charging down on them. He returned fire and smiled as one of the bandits fell from his horse.
JD pulled his colts and started shooting out the stage window along with Ezra who forced the Judge down on the floor of the stage.
“Damnit, Standish! Let me up!” Travis complained.
“My apologies your honor, but you are probably the reason we’re being shot at. I would prefer you not being a target,” Ezra explained as he shot out the window watching as one of the men fell from his horse and into the dust.
JD yelled out as a bullet to the shoulder slammed him back against the seat. Ezra pulled out a handkerchief and forced JD to hold it on his wound as he continued to shoot. The stage rocked and filled with dust, making accurate shooting a challenge.
An explosion rocked the right side of the stage almost tipping it onto its side. Chris grabbed one of the stage rails to keep from being thrown. One of the outlaws rode alongside the stage threatening with another stick of dynamite in his hand. Chris grabbed Buck’s arm. “Pull over we can’t risk the Judge.”
Buck glared at his friend, but knew he was right. He pulled back hard on the reins trying to halt the terrified horses.
Ezra watched as an outlaw threaten the stage with dynamite. “It appears out luck has run out gentlemen.”
He allowed the judge to resume his seat. “JD, are you okay?” Ezra asked.
“Yeah, but I think the bullet is still in there,” JD answered as he continued to hold the handkerchief to his bleeding wound.
“I suggest we try and be as non-threatening as possible,” Ezra instructed, as he double checked his hidden derringer.
+ + + + + + +
The tracker was relaxing outside the jail when he looked up to see Nathan jogging toward him a worried looked on the healer’s face caused him to tense. It was coming onto noon and the others had been gone about four hours and Vin was getting restless, he had just returned from rounds and had hoped the feeling of dread would lift, upon seeing Nathan’s face he knew that feeling was about to get a lot worse.
“Sheriff from Red Rock telegrammed that Chaney’s gang was spotted heading this way a couple days ago. Thinkin’ it’s too much of a coincidence.”
Vin rubbed his chin; Red Rock was between here and Silver City. “You thinkin’ the others are in trouble,” Vin asked.
Nathan rolled his eyes, “It is Chris, Buck, JD and Ezra we’re talking about.”
Vin smiled. “Let’s get Josiah and head out. The town can fend for itself for awhile.”
+ + + + + + +
The stage was quickly surrounded by the seven remaining outlaws. "Okay heroes, throw down your guns," commanded a large man, in a voice that was angered, he had lost five men. Black eyes glared up at Chris and Buck. "Any funny business and I'll blow this stage to kingdom come." He nodded toward a thinner man who loosely held a stick of dynamite.
Chris glared at the remaining outlaws. His muscles tensed, ready to respond if it looked like any of the gunmen were even thinking of firing.
"Harker, Beck get those people out of the stage."
"Right boss," A wiry long faced man acknowledged as he followed a younger man off his horse.
Chris scrutinized the seven outlaws who surrounded the stage. He couldn't risk the judge. He reluctantly threw down his rifle.
"Now come down nice and easy."
Chris jumped from the stage followed by Buck, their guns were quickly removed and they were shoved together next to the stage door.
Judge Travis cautiously stepped out of the stage, “What is the meaning of this, do you realize you’re holding up a judge and three peacekeepers,” Travis explained.
“Oh we know who you are Judge Travis,”
“Ezra stepped out holding onto JD who still held the handkerchief to his wound. Buck’s eyes went wide, “JD, you alright!”
“I’m fine, Buck,” JD lied. His shoulder felt like it was on fire.
“Untrue, Mr. Dunne.” Ezra looked toward Buck and Chris. “The bullet’s still in him.” Ezra securitized the large man who appeared to be in charge. He was probably only a little younger than Larabee and carried an even darker quality than the esteemed gunslinger. Ezra knew they would have to be very careful if they were to get out of this alive. He knew he was no longer a lawman, but he still felt obligated to these men.
Two of the outlaws grabbed Ezra and JD and quickly removed their weapons. Ezra threw up his hands to keep the men from discovering his sleeve gun. Chris noticed and bowed his head to hide his smirk, at least they would have an ace to use; hopefully they would get a chance to use it.
"Okay if everyone behaves you might all live."
"Who the hell are you?" Chris asked, already knowing the answer.
"James Chaney, Bill is my brother." James looked over at the judge.
“This won’t stop justice from being served,” Travis exclaimed.
“Yeah, well maybe when we tell ‘em there’ll be one less judge in the world and a couple of lawmen if’n they don’t release my brother,” James explained. James wanted his brother back. He was the leader of the gang, but Bill was the smarter one and had enabled them to acquire a lot of wealth and escape the law for a very long time. He wouldn’t allow his brother to hang or rot in prison. Bill was all he had.
Travis glared at the outlaw. “You and your bother are guilty of robbery and murder. You will not escape justice.”
“We’ll see about that,” James replied. “Right now it looks like I hold all the cards.”
Chris rolled his eyes when he saw Ezra smile, clear his throat and step forward. “Sir, you are making a grievous error.”
James shifted his gaze to the right looking upon the fancy dressed gambler. "Who the hell are you?"
"Ezra Simpson at your service."
"Are you a gambler or something," Harker exclaimed.
"What are you doing here?" James asked.
"Just a victim of circumstances. I was on my way to Silver City to check on the purchase of a saloon," Ezra stated.
James chuckled amused by the flamboyant gambler. “Well, that’s just your bad luck than.” He turned away, "Okay we might as well get comfortable we're going to be here awhile. Beck, Digger, Harker tie ‘em up."
Chris’ eyes narrowed as a mountain of a man loomed up alongside James Chaney. The man had black, dirty curly hair and eyes that appeared as black holes revealing an even blacker soul. The man carried a well-worn bull whip and a rifle.
“Brogan, you and Pete keep watch and if any of these gentlemen try and escape, shoot the judge,” James instructed.
Brogan smiled and walked over to a large boulder.
“Hey, let me take care of his wound,” Buck demanded, as JD was forced to the ground and his hands roughly tied behind him.
“Shut up!” the outlaw named Digger snarled bringing the stock of his rifle up and striking Buck alongside the chin.
Buck crumpled to the ground, dazed, but still conscious. Chris made to go to his friend but was stopped by the barrel of Beck’s rifle thrust into his face. “Sit down.”
“I’m okay, Chris,” Buck stated shaking his head as his hands were tied behind his back.
“Chris, I suggest we do as they say,” Travis said. He did not want to see any of these brave men killed.
“OK gambling man turn around,” Beck stated as he held the ropes
Ezra suddenly produced a wad of money, "Gentlemen, might I interest you all in a game of chance?"
"Whoa, look at all that money," Beck exclaimed, grabbing for the wad of bills.
Ezra jerked the money out of Beck’s reach earning the attention of several guns.
"Now, gentlemen as your boss stated we're going to be here awhile, a game would pass the time," Ezra smoothly suggested.
Beck scratched his chin his eyes glowing with greed. "He's right, let's have some fun. We can always take it later. Hey boss how about a game?"
James examined the gambler, wondering what his ploy was. He didn’t trust gamblers, but a game would pass the time. He was going to wait until the Judge was missed than send a couple men to state his demands.
Ezra smiled and pulled out a deck of cards, further enticing the outlaws. He wanted to get these men occupied and hoped that Larabee could come up with a plan.
James shrugged. “Sounds good, but you and Digger are going to have to watch them. Jefferies and I will play, Mr. Simpson. I used to be a pretty good card player.”
Beck and Digger’s shoulders slumped.
Chris, Buck, JD and the Judge stared incredulously at the gambler. Chris’ eyes narrowed wondering what he was up to. Damn, that man would play poker with the devil himself. He smiled to himself; Ezra was trying to keep them occupied, now it was up to him to come up with a plan for their escape.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat across from James Chaney on a make-shift table. A thin, wiry man who went by the name Jeffries sat to Chaney’s left, his pistol laid on the table. Ezra shuffled his deck as he glanced over to his friends who were about fifteen yards away. He noticed that Digger and Beck were taking their duties seriously. He casually took in that Brogan, Pete and Harker were maintaining guard over the perimeter of the camp, but were also glancing over to see what was happing. He needed to get their interest to give the others a chance to escape. He realized that James Chaney always expected trouble and made sure nothing unexpected happened. Ezra inwardly smiled, the peacekeepers of Four Corners were renowned for the unexpected.
James dealt the first hand. Ezra raised and watched as money was ante up, before Jefferies could add to the pot Ezra spoke up. “Sir, I’d like to make this a more interesting and beneficial game.”
James eyed the suave gambler his interest peaked. “Beneficial for whom?”
“Well, for both of us, of course. Now you only have a monetary interest, but I would like a more how you say altruistic award.”
James laughed; he knew the meaning of the word and shook his head. “Never knew a gambler who didn’t gamble for anything but money. What do you have in mind?”
“Nothing really, I abhor seeing anyone treated harshly.” Ezra glanced over at the four lawmen then returned his attention to James. “They allowed me to ply my trade in their small burg and I feel I owe them, and as I’m sure you’re aware most gamblers don’t like to be indebted to anyone.”
James smiled, a gambler with a conscious. “Sure, why not, if it lets me hang onto my money. So what is it you want me to wager?”
“If I win this hand could you allow medical attention be given to the young lawman.”
James scrubbed his chin, not seeing any harm. He’d plan on killing all of them anyway. “Sure, why not.”
Ezra held no illusion that James Chaney would let them live. He just had to buy time until the others came looking for them or another option presented itself.
Ezra began to deal out the cards, “five card stud, joker’s wild.”
+ + + + + + +
Chris straightened seeing one of Chaney’s men coming toward them with a bucket and some linen. He dropped the pail of water in front of Buck and laid the linen next to it. The man produced a knife from behind his back and went behind Buck. He looked up at the two guards who trained their rifles on Buck as his ropes were cut. Next the man cut JD loose.
“You have fifteen minutes to fix ‘em up,” Pete said.
Buck quickly grabbed the pail of water and linen. He looked up to see the knife being handed to him. “Anything funny and we shoot Larabee,” the man explained with a smile. Buck nodded and helped JD remove his jacket and vest.
Buck gently pressed around the wound. “I think I feel the bullet, JD. I don’t think it’s too deep, but it’s still going to hurt like hell.”
“Just do it, Buck,” JD ground out his body already stiff from the pain.
Buck patted his young friend’s shoulder.
“Why has Mr. Chaney suddenly decided to grace us with his compassion,” Travis asked, suspicion narrowing his eyes.
Pete smiled. “You can thank that gambling man.”
A corner of Chris’ mouth curled up at Travis’ disbelief as Jefferies continued, “He didn’t want to play for money just demanded that we allow you to fix your friend’s arm.”
Travis looked over at Ezra who continued to play with their captors.
“Damnit Buck hurry up!” JD snarled. His eyes watered and he had to fight back the urge to pull away from Buck’s clumsy administrations. Lord, he would never complain again about Nathan.
“Hold still I almost got it.” Buck wiped his sweat covered face on his sleeve as he dug into his friend’s shoulder.
The young sheriff held his breath and ground his teeth against the pain.
“Got it,” Buck announced. Pete immediately grabbed the knife from his hand. JD lay gasping and turned his head as Buck started to clean and bandage the wound.
“Here JD drink,” Buck encouraged as he held a canteen to the boy’s lips. Water never tasted so good.
“Okay, sit back down,” Pete said. He re-tied Buck’s hands behind his back and then tied JD hands in front of him, of which JD was extremely grateful. He was weak from blood loss and the pain that came with removing the bullet. Buck definitely didn’t have Nathan’s skill. He leaned up against his mustached friend.
Over the next couple of hours all four captives were given water and food as Ezra continue to ply his trade.
Chris had to smile. Ezra was taking care of them. He noticed that the other outlaws were taking more and more interest in the game and weren’t watching them as closely.
“Mr. Larabee,” Travis whispered. “Do you have a plan.”
“Wait for Vin, Nathan and Josiah.”
“And what makes you think they are even on their way?” Travis asked.
Chris just smiled. He was suppose to send a telegram as soon as he reached Silver City, but he didn’t think Vin and the others would even wait that long, before they headed out to check.
+ + + + + + +
James threw down another losing hand and scowled at the cocky gambler. He didn’t understand the man. He’d never known a gambler who didn’t look out for number one. He started to think that there was more to this man than just a gambler.
James’s mouth twitched into a smile. He decided to test a theory.
“OK fancy pants last hand,” James announced. “This time, my rules.”
Ezra got a bad feeling. “Of course sir, and what is it you would like to wager?”
James looked over at the four men then back at the gambler. “You win and my man, Brogan, gets to whip one of those lawmen.”
Ezra’s heart pounded in his chest but his face gave nothing away. He looked over at a mountain of a man who sat upon a rock, smiling a toothy grin as he laid a hand on the whip coiled on his side.
“I’m kind of partial to whippin’ Larabee; maybe bring him down a notch or two. I do wonder how long the judge would last, or maybe the boy, he probably hasn’t been introduced to some of the more hasher aspects of life yet.” James sneered.
“And if I lose?” Ezra asked.
“Well than he whips you.”
+ + + + + + +
“What’s going on?” Buck asked, trying not to move without waking JD who was asleep against his shoulder.
“Don’t know looks like Ez is in some kind of discussion,” Chris stated as his eyes narrowed. Ezra glanced over at them with a look of sadness, which caused Chris’ gut to clench. “Damn, Ezra don’t do anything foolish,” Chris murmured. Ezra had managed to keep James occupied for several hours, he hoped that Vin and the others were on their way.
“And if I don’t accept your deal,” Ezra inquired, twirling a coin between his fingers and trying to show a demeanor of calm.
“I’ll kill one of them lawmen.”
“Well, it appears you give me little recourse but to play a very good hand.”
James knew that the conman was a very good poker player and was probably controlling the outcome of most of the games. He was curious about his little experiment. He handed the deck of cards to the wily cardsharp.
“Your deal, Mr. Simpson.”
Ezra glanced over at the four men as he slowly dealt the last hand. He knew what he had to do, but it was not going to be pleasant.
+ + + + + + +
“Well it does appear that lady luck has deserted me,” Ezra stated his mouth going dry. Lord his mother would be disappointed he had broke her number one rule, self-preservation above all else. He had made sure that James Chaney won.
James laughed and motioned for Pete and Jeffries to take the gambler. Ezra decided not to go without a fight. He gripped the edge of the table and flipped it then released his derringer and fired, his shot striking Jeffries through the heart. Ezra spun and ran until a shot rang out followed by the bite of a bullet through his leg.
“Tsk..tsk..can’t have you running out on a bet now can we,” James growled, as he approached the injured conman.
“What the hell!” Buck yelled out, seeing Ezra make a run for it. The four lawmen were surprised when Ezra suddenly jumped up and fired his gun. Travis wondered briefly if the conman was trying to save himself, but then immediately dismissed it.
When Ezra fell Chris and Buck tried to stand, but Beck and Digger kicked them back down and pointed their rifles directly at the judge and JD. “Just give us a reason,” Digger snarled.
The two lawmen remained sitting trying to see what was going on.
“Buck, what’s happening?” JD asked trying to shake the haze from his mind. He felt weak and it was a struggle to stay awake.
“Don’t know, JD,” Buck answered.
JD looked past their two guards, “Aw hell,” he stated when he saw Ezra on the ground.
Ezra glared, at James Chaney as the man squatted down next to him, he continued to try and staunch the flow of blood from his leg. The bullet had entered and exited mid calf. “Running out on a bet Mr. Simpson?” James tsked as he glanced over at his dead man. He’d already lost too many men. James returned his exasperated gaze back to the injured southerner and stated, “Jeffries was a good man. You know how hard it is to find good help these days?”
“Maybe a new profession would allow you a lesser attrition rate,” Ezra sarcastically replied through gritted teeth.
“You’re funny…let’s see how long that sense of humor lasts.” James stood. “Brogan, he’s all yours.”
“Damnit, what the hell was he trying to do?” Buck whispered. He watched as Brogan and Pete approached the injured southerner and roughly dragged him toward a tree. Ezra’s jacket was removed and tossed to the ground and his wrists were tied together with one end of a long rope. The other end was then thrown over a low hanging branch. Ezra was hoisted up onto his toes, stretching out his torso.
Pete stepped up to the helpless gambler. His fists struck Ezra’s unprotected stomach. “That’s for Jeffries.”
Ezra gasped for breath. He was growing weak from blood loss and his head spun. He wished that he would just pass out, he even tried a prayer.
Chris glared hard at the proceedings as his heart pounded in his chest in fear for the wily cardsharp. Blood covered his wrists as he continued to try and break his bonds. “Let 'em go, Chaney!” Chris shouted starting to get to his feet only to be pushed back down. “I’m getting right tired of that,” he snarled at Digger who unconsciously backed up a couple steps. Larabee unnerved him.
James sauntered over to his captives. “Now, now, Mr. Larabee, a bet is a bet, Mr. Simpson understands that. He lost.”
“What bet?” Buck asked, his heart beating so hard he thought it would burst from his chest.
“Well, you all should be grateful; if he had won it would be one of you hanging on that tree.” James glared at Larabee, “And my money was on you, Larabee, and if you don’t behave it still could be.” The demented outlaw turned and laughed as he strolled back toward Ezra.
Travis stared in disbelief, had the self-serving gambler really sacrificed himself? Had he so misunderstood him?
“Chaney if you do this, you’re a dead man!” Chris yelled out.
“Mr. Chaney I’ll have your brother released if you stop this now,” Travis exclaimed.
James chuckled, it appears Mr. Simpson was more than he seemed. “Now, judge we all know you wouldn’t do that, but thanks for proving my theory.”
“What theory?” Chris called out.
“That there is more to Mr. Simpson than he was portraying. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t one of you.” James had heard of the seven lawmen who protected Four Corners and he knew that Larabee, Wilmington and JD were part of that seven, now he also suspected that Mr. Simpson was too.
Ezra smiled slightly hearing Chris’ threat and almost choked from disbelief at the Judge’s offer. He never realized that Larabee thought he was part of them. He had believed that he was an outsider and would always be so. His good feeling quickly disappeared as his arms began to ache.
James strolled over to the gambler. “Well, Mr. Simpson, I was only going to allow Brogan a bit of fun, four or five lashes, but seeing that you killed one of my men what kind of boss would I be not to allow a little retribution.” James turned toward the huge outlaw.
“OK Brogan, have your fun, and make it last,” James sneered.
Brogan’s dark face broke into a smile showing very few teeth. He approached Ezra running the huge, black whip through his hands, caressing it. Brogan brought his face close to Ezra’s. “You last awhile, ok, give me some pleasure.” Brogan laughed as he patted the gambler on the shoulder and walked back several feet. He allowed the whip to unravel and snapped it inches from Ezra’s body causing the gambler to flinch.
‘Lord what had he’d been thinking,’ Ezra mused.
Chris and Buck were still being held at bay by the guard’s rifles.
“Oh god Chris,” Buck breathed, he couldn’t believe what was about to happen. The only thing stopping him from charging the guards were the guns pointed at JD.
Chris ground his teeth and glared hard at Chaney, promising revenge. He hated feeling so helpless. Ezra may not be one of his men anymore, but he was a friend, Chris only now realized this as his heart rate increased and stomach churned. He wanted nothing more than to draw his gun and kill the man who was about to brutalize the suave southern.
Brogan took a deep breath, cocked his arm back and let loose with a barrage of strikes upon Ezra’s body. The strikes came fast and hard, giving Ezra little time to take a breath or even scream. He tried to pull himself up and away with each strike, but the pain was stealing his strength. His shirt was soon torn to shreds. He could feel his flesh rip. The pain radiated from his back and carried throughout his body. His eyes were squeezed tight and tears streamed down his cheek.
Travis flinched with each strike to Ezra’s bare back. JD turned away, wishing he could cover his ears. Buck only prayed that his friend would survive the next one. Chris’ anger ticked up a notch with each hit. He watched as the gambler’s body was brutalized, blood streaming down his back. Ezra could no longer pull himself up and hung lifeless as the strikes continued.
James watched as the gambler gave up. He raised his hand and walked over to his man. “That’s enough Brogan.” He was impressed that the gambler never made a sound, apparently he was made of sterner stuff than most conmen.
The large man stopped and placed his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. His sweat soaked hair hung over his face as he gulped in large breaths of air. Brogan straightened and stepped up to his victim. He nudged Ezra in the side with the hilt of the whip. The body swayed slightly, but Ezra never moved. Brogan shrugged and walked away to get some water.
Chris and the others didn’t know if their friend was alive or dead. Buck stared hard trying to catch any glimpse of life. His heart broke bit by bit as time passed with no movement from the wily cardsharp.
“Buck, is he?” JD breathlessly asked.
“I don’t know kid.”
Chris raised his head his steely gaze targeting the two guardsmen. Beck and Digger looked at each other, both growing uncomfortable at Larabee’s stare. They both took a step back and turned their backs on their charges. Chris stared at Ezra until the growing darkness shrouded him. Chris’ head dropped toward his chest.
+ + + + + + +
Vin, Josiah and Nathan cautiously crept up to the edge of the overlook. A fire burned brightly down below and Vin could make out several shifting forms. Their fears were realized as they caught sight of four familiar forms sitting on the outskirts of the camp, barely within the light of the fire.
“Damn, why do I always have to be right,” Vin quietly whispered. “I see the others over to the right.” He tried to count how many of the outlaws he could make out.
“I only see four of them,” Nathan interjected.
Vin continued to scan the area, the fire made it hard on his night vision. He pulled his telescope out and peered toward the far end of the camp. He could see the glow of white hanging from a tree.
“Shit, I think that’s Ezra.”
Josiah grabbed the telescope and tried to make out the shape in the dark.
“What if we just start shooting,” Nathan absently suggested. He wanted to get to Ezra as soon as possible.
“Nah, the others are sittin’ ducks as long as they’re tied, we have to get them free before we start shootin’.” Vin rubbed his eyes, how did he always end up as leader when Chris wasn’t around? The others trusted him and that sometimes weighed heavily on him, but he would not let them down. “Nate, think you can get close enough to get a knife to Chris?”
Nathan cautiously looked over the area noticing a small outcropping of rocks about thirty feet away from Chris and the others.
“Yeah, give me five minutes.”
Vin nodded and Nathan took off. Vin glanced over at Josiah who continued to stare at Ezra’s lifeless form. He could see the preacher mouthing a silent prayer or death threats.
“Has he moved?” Vin asked
“No.” Was the quiet reply.
Vin followed Nathan’s movements until he reached the outcropping. The healer knew how to move quietly and his natural coloring proved very beneficial. Vin kept his gun ready though, in case he was spotted. They needed to have Chris and the others free before they could attack.
“Damn, it’s getting cold,” Buck said as he leaned up against JD who was tucked down in his jacket.
Chris didn’t feel the cold, his anger and worry for Ezra was keeping him warm. As night fell they lost sight of their seventh and gave up trying to see if he was still alive. The sound of a distant owl caused a smile to break out on Chris’ face. Vin and the others were near. Chris rolled his shoulders to get feeling back into them and prepare himself. He wanted to be ready. Buck sat up straight as he noticed Chris’ demeanor. Something was about to happen, he gently nudged JD awake.
A knife suddenly imbedded itself in the dirt inches from Chris’ thigh. Chris quickly threw his leg over it as Beck and Digger turned around. Buck struck the dirt with the heel of his boot and smiled up at the two guardsmen. “Foot fell asleep.” Beck and Digger glared at their captives and turned back toward the warmth of the fire.
Chris glanced around, seeing a small outcrop of rocks to his right. Nathan’s accuracy always astonished him. ‘The man must have eyes like an owl,’ he thought.
Chris quickly cut his bindings and past the knife to the judge who was sitting next to him. The judge then passed the knife to Buck who quickly cut his bindings then cut JD free, leaving the bindings loose around JD’s wrist. He then past the knife back toward Chris. They were free, but kept their hands behind their backs. Chris was grateful for the dark as JD kept his hands hidden in his lap.
Chris leaned over toward the judge and whispered, “Judge, be ready. I need you to take JD over to them rocks.” Chris knew that Buck would cover them. “Nathan is there and he can see to JD’s wound.”
JD was about to protest until the pain in his arm reminded him that he would only be a detriment. He had learned how to work as a team and rely on the others when needed; it was how they all had survived.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Larabee?” Travis asked.
“I’m going for Ezra,” Chris exclaimed. “And he damn well better be alive.”
The four captives were ready and waiting for the signal they knew was coming.
+ + + + + + +
As soon as Vin was sure that his friends were free he took aim at the two outlaws guarding them. Vin took a breath and held it then fired twice, killing the men instantly. Chris scrambled toward the downed outlaws, grabbing up their rifles. He tossed one to Buck and the other to the Judge. He grabbed the pistol from Digger’s holster and tore off across the compound as all hell broke loose.
Travis helped JD up and the two raced towards the cover of the nearby rocks. Buck shot, as he backed up behind a tree, covering his retreating friends, and knowing that Vin and the others would cover Chris. The camp was thrown into chaos as James’ men dove for cover and tried to figure out where the shooting was coming from. It felt like an army was trying to overrun them. Harker made a dash for his horse only to come up short, by Josiah’s rage filled gunfire. He tried to return fire only to have a bullet cut through his shoulder knocking him to the ground.
Vin watched as Chris made his way over to Ezra, he kept his friend safe, dispatching his own form of justice.
Chris pulled the knife and quickly sliced through the ropes above Ezra’s hands, the conman’s limp body fell forward over his shoulder. Chris bent over with the weight but made his way back toward the safety of the rocks. He couldn’t tell if Ezra was alive or dead.
Nathan and the Judge laid down more gun fire to keep the outlaws pinned down. Nathan handed the Judge his gun as Chris came around the rocks with Ezra over his shoulder. He helped to ease the conman to the ground, laying the man on his stomach with his head lying on JD’s legs. It was hard to tell in the dark how much damage had been done. But the fever already burning through the southerner was not a good sign.
“Damn, what happened to him?” Nathan asked, it was hard to see in the dark, but what he could see was not good. He feared what else the dark might be hiding.
“He was whipped,” Chris explained as he took up a position to continue the onslaught and protect the others. He looked over his shoulder at Ezra’s inert body, unable to see the damage but knowing it was there. He turned around to search for the man responsible. His eyes caught sight of James trying to make it to the horses, Vin was making it difficult.
As the shooting began to diminish Josiah strode through the camp with his rifle ready. He came upon Brogan who stood out from behind a tree. The ex-preacher noticed the whip at his side. Josiah pointed his rifle directly at Brogan who only smiled and dropped his weapon. The two large men sized each other up. Josiah slowly lowered his rifle only broadening Brogan’s smile.
“That was my boy you hurt,” Josiah growled
Brogan’s smile dropped slightly hearing the menace in the ex-preacher’s voice. He suddenly knew the feeling of getting between a mother grizzly and her cub.
+ + + + + + +
Chris made his way to James Chaney’s position and as the man tried to make a run for it Chris fired. Chaney grabbed his bleeding arm as his gun was thrown from his grasp. He slowly raised his uninjured arm and turned around. “Now, Mr. Larabee, wouldn’t you of done the same if it was your brother in jail?”
“No, I wouldn’t have tortured an innocent man,” Chris growled. “And you are right, Ezra is one of mine, and no one hurts one of mine.”
James Chaney swallowed as he looked into eyes more dangerous than his own. He hadn’t thought the gambler was that important.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan did what he could for the injured conman as he listened to the gunfire wishing it would end. He looked over at JD. “How’s the shoulder, is the slug still in there?”
“I’m okay, Buck got the bullet out.”
Nathan’s eyes widened and he grimaced at the thought, at least, JD survived.
JD continued to rub Ezra’s head, he looked up into the healer’s dark face. “Nathan, is he going to be alright?”
“I don’t know JD,” Nathan replied. He had seen men die from such whippings, the pain, shock and blood loss was just too much.
Nathan began by removing what was left of Ezra’s shirt and wiping away as much of the blood as he could. Ezra stirred slightly for the first time.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan suddenly noticed the silence and jumped slightly when Chris appeared practically dragging James Chaney by his arm.
“ow…ow…ow…ow that’s my hurt arm,” James complained as he was thrown to the ground.
Vin silently appeared next pointing his mare’s leg toward the outlaw. “Got the others tied, they’re injured but they’ll live.”
Buck looked over at Ezra and his heart sank. He couldn’t get the sound of the whip hitting his friend’s flesh out of his mind. He figured it would be a lot of nights of hard drinkin’ before he’d be able to sleep.
Josiah came next dragging the unconscious Brogan behind him.
“Man, Josiah, what the hell happened to you?” Vin asked.
The preacher’s face was bruised and bloody but he couldn’t stop the grin, until he looked down at Ezra.
Chris knelt down next to Ezra and looked over at Nathan. “What do you need, Nate?”
“I need him near the fire and lots of hot water,” Nathan instructed. “I got to get a good look at him.”
Chris stood. “Judge you mind getting some blankets, Buck get some more wood. I’ll get some water.”
“Chris, I can help,” JD said.
“You already are, JD, you need to keep Ezra quiet,” Nathan said. He didn’t want JD doing anything that would start his own wound bleeding.
Chris smiled. “You do as Nathan says. Vin, take care of our prisoners.” An evil grin formed on the tracker’s face as he looked down at the two outlaws.
A hard lump formed in James Chaney’s throat and he suddenly envied Brogan’s unconscious state. “Larabee you’re a lawman and you have to protect me.”
“I am, I’m not letting Josiah take care of you,” Chris replied.
Judge Travis stepped up to James. “I look forward to seeing you in my court, Mr. Chaney.” Travis glanced over at Ezra. “And if he dies, I’ll see both you and your brother hang.” Travis turned on his heel and walked off to fetch the needed blankets.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Chris quickly got a fire going and water boiling. Travis found as many blankets as he could and made as comfortable a pallet as he could by the fire.
Chris and Josiah gently lifted the injured gambler off of JD’s legs and moved him as close to the fire as possible. “Lay him on his side,” Nathan instructed. “JD, I need you to sit alongside ‘im and make sure he don’t roll over onto his back.” JD gingerly sat on the blankets cradling his arm. He bumped up alongside Ezra’s stomach and rested a hand on his arm to keep him from moving.
Ezra had yet to regain consciousness, a fact that worried the healer, but one he was also grateful for. He knew the pain the conman would face once he regained consciousness. He had to clean the lashes.
“Lord, Nate, he looks terrible,” Buck quietly spoke his eyes unable to leave Ezra’s brutalized back.
“I know, as soon as the water cools a little I’ll clean him up some, get a better look at the damage.” Nate laid a hand on Ezra’s forehead feeling the heat. “He’s developing a fever.” Nate reached into his bag and pulled out a small packet, which he handed to Buck. “Find a cup and mix this in with a little water.”
Chris came up to the healer. “Nate, I want it straight.”
“We need to get him back to town. I’m going to do what I can for him now, but I really need the bath house to clean those wounds proper. He’s lost a lot of blood and his body may go into shock. We need to keep him warm and try and get some fluids down him.”
Chris exhaled and wiped a hand down his face. “We’ll use the stage and leave first thing in the morning.”
“Nate I think he’s comin’ around,” JD exclaimed. This brought the others quickly to the cardsharp’s side.
“C’mon Ez, I need you to wake up for just a minute,” Nate cajoled. He grabbed the cup from Buck and knelt down beside the pain-ridden gambler.
Nathan placed a hand under Ezra’s head and holding a cup of water and laudanum urged the conman to drink. “Ezra…come on you need to drink this it’ll help.” Ezra’s eyes remained closed, but he drank the noxious concoction. Nathan laid a hand upon his head. “Just rest, don’t worry about a thing.”
Ezra’s hand grabbed Nathan’s arm and he slowly peeled open heavy eyes. “Is…is…everyone ok?” he quietly asked.
“Everyone’s fine, you just do as Nathan says,” Larabee answered, laying a hand on the conman’s leg. Ezra looked over at the gunslinger and smiled as his eyes closed.
+ + + + + + +
After almost two hours of tending the southern, Nathan had done all he could. Ezra’s torso was completely wrapped and Nathan had managed to get a cup of water and herbs down him. JD was asleep after Nathan had checked his wound and given him some laudanum to help him sleep. He now stared into the flames picking at some rabbit that Vin had managed to snare.
“How are they?” Chris quietly asked as he squatted down next to the kindly healer.
“JD’s going to be fine; it’s a good thing that Buck got the bullet out instead of it festering.”
“That’s thanks to Ezra,” Chris quietly commented. “The man really knows how to play poker.” Chris smiled and bowed his head. Ezra had played the game of his life and used his abilities to protect his friends.
“Yeah, Buck told us what Ezra did. I still can’t believe it,” Nathan said.
“I can’t believe he lost on purpose,” Buck added, as he bit into a piece of rabbit.
Chris turned his head toward the healer, “Really.” He over at the others. “Can we really be that surprised.” Chris looked over at his seventh man. Ezra was one of them, they needed him as much as he needed them.
“Is he going to be alright?”
“I don’t know,” Nathan replied bowing his head. “He’s lost a lot of blood and the shock.” Nathan raised his head to meet Chris’ worried frown. “ We need to get him back home.”
Travis entered the close circle of men and sat on a log. “It appears that some conning abilities are useful,” Travis exclaimed. Chris smiled at everyone’s bewildered looks.
“Yeah, Ez took care of us in his own special style,” Chris replied. Chris turned dark eyes toward the judge. “Judge, none of us will accept the positions unless it’s all of us.” He didn’t have to see the others’ nods to know they felt the same way. They would remain seven even if it meant leaving Four Corners.
Travis stretched out his legs and released a long breath.
+ + + + + + +
Morning brought renewed vigor as the men prepared to get their wounded home. Ezra and JD were placed into the stage with Nathan inside to see to them. It had been a restless and pain-filled night for the conman. By mid day the group of tired lawmen made their way into town. Chris led the dejected outlaws to jail. “When are we going to get fed?” James asked as he was shoved toward the jailhouse. “When I start to feel generous,” Chris replied.
“Damn, boys you may starve,” Buck laughed.
Josiah and Nathan carefully carried Ezra toward the bath house. Vin had rode ahead and prepared the water for the conman.
Nathan turned his head. “Buck, make sure JD finds his way to the clinic.”
Buck grabbed the young gunslinger by his collar as he tried to make his escape. “Buck, damnit I’ll go, let go. I’m fine.”
“Sure you are kid,” Buck said as he guided the young lawman toward Nathan’s clinic. “But a day or so in the clinic won’t hurt and you can keep Ezra company.”
JD shook his head. His shoulder was sore and he was tired, maybe a little rest wouldn’t be so bad. He was also very worried about Ezra. He still couldn’t get the sound of the whip hitting his flesh out of his head.
Buck continued to guide his young friend towards the clinic. “C’mon, we can get it nice and spiffy for Ezra. I’ll even break into his room and get his pillow.”
+ + + + + + +
“I feel awful.”
It was three days before those three words were heard. Buck pressed between Josiah and Vin at the foot of the bed.
“'Ey pardner, it’s good to see you awake,” Buck happily exclaimed.
JD moved up to the side of the bed next to Chris. “God Ezra I can’t believe what you did.”
Ezra closed his eyes for a moment. “It was self preservation that went awry.”
“Don’t buy that for a minute,” Josiah proclaimed.
Ezra looked up surprised. Was it possible these men could see behind his subterfuge?
“OK, I need to unwrap these bandages and clean those wounds. Josiah, can you give me a hand and everyone else out.” Nathan glanced over at JD who was turning to leave. “Not you JD, take the cot over there and don’t move until I get a chance to check your wound.”
Travis suddenly appeared at the door. “Can I have a moment, Mr. Jackson?” Travis stepped up to the bed and looked down at the tortured conman. The other lawmen remained just outside the door. “Mr. Standish I believe your talents are needed here and I’m offering you a position as deputy and gambling overseer.”
Ezra’s brow furrowed
“Make sure all poker games are above board,” Travis clarified and smiled.
Chris stepped up to the bed. “You belong with us whether you know it or not and I…” Chris glanced over his shoulder. “All of us want you to say.” Chris crossed his arms waiting for an answer. Everyone held their breath.
“I would be honored,” Ezra exclaimed a smile coming to his face as his eyes began to mist. He hadn’t been sure that he was wanted or needed, but felt privileged to be a part of this magnificent band of men. Ezra took a breath and quickly wiped at his eyes. Chris bowed his head to hide his smile as a devilish glint came to his friend’s eyes.
“Now, Judge about my pay?”
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