Magnificent Seven Old West
A Matter Of Family

by Michelle

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters that are know as The Magnificent Seven. If I did, we would still have the pleasure of watching them every week. I make no money from this venture. I have yet to have anyone offer me any sort of compensation for my minds musings. This is purely for mine, and yours enjoyment.

Note: I am not sure who it was who named Ezra's horse Chaucer, but I love the name. It seems fitting somehow. I hope they do not mind my use of it here.

Warnings: This contains mild descriptions of violence. Nothing major, although the actual injuries are worse than what's told on the page. Ok, that it then? Alright, here we go.

The sun was just beginning to set over the horizon as eight riders entered the town. The citizens of Four Corners were just making their way to their homes, and many watched the parade of horses in the street as they stood along the boardwalks. Chris Larabee led the way. Dressed all in black on top of a black horse, he held onto the lead of a cream colored mare that carried a man's form across its saddle. A bandage was wrapped around the man's shoulder. The large red stain that was spread across it gave evidence of the gun shot wound that he had received. He was alive though, and would remain so. At least until the courts saw fit to hang him for the crimes he and his brothers had committed. Robbery and murder among them. Ezra shifted in his saddle, trying to gain as much comfort as one could while sitting astride a large animal. They had ridden long and hard for two days, and his backside was feeling the strain of it. He wondered if he would be able to convince Inez that the chairs in the saloon would benefit from the addition of cushions on their seats. Lord knew his seat could use one. All horses came to a stop in front of the town jail. Chris jumped off his horse and proceeded to pull the body of their prisoner off his. The outlaw struggled in the grasp of the larger gunslinger.

"God Damn you. You shot me. Look at me, I'm bleedin' to death here."

"Oh, be quiet. The bullet just grazed you. Besides, I wouldn't have shot you if you hadn't have fired at me first." Chris pushed the man into the jail house and to the cell, where he locked him in.

"My brothers will come for me. They won't let me hang. They'll kill all of you first."

Chris turned to look into the man's face. He was very young; not much older than JD. It was said he had killed his first man at the age of 15, cause the man had accidently spilled a bottle of beer on him. Chris shook his head. It saddened him to see such a young man hang for any crime, but knew that justice must be served.

"Your brothers left you there all alone. They were more worried about their own sorry hides. They didn't give a damn about yours."

"They'll come for me," the man repeated.

Chris turned away from him and went to join the others who waited outside. Six pairs of eyes looked up at him as he walked out the door; waiting for him to lead them once more. Chris wondered how he ever got into the situation. Why was it him that the others so looked up to? When had they become so important to him? Those were questions that he had asked himself many times, and he was still no closer to finding an answer to them than he was a year ago when they had first started riding together. So, once more he pushed the thoughts from his mind and concentrated on the matter at hand.

"Our new friend Jace in there seems to think his brothers are gonna come riding in to his rescue. Can't say that I don't think they won't."

The Tilly brothers had gained quite a reputation over the last few months. Robbery, murder, and all around general mayhem. The oldest brother, Jacob, was know to be a sadistic S.O.B, but his family was his life to him. Chris did not doubt they would find a way to avenge their bothers arrest.

"We'll take turns keeping watch tonight, in pairs." He stressed the last two words. There was safety in numbers, and he didn't want to leave anyone alone in the jail with a killer. "Ezra, you and I will take the first watch. Buck and JD next, then Vin and Nathan. I'll go again with Josiah after that. Get some rest fellas, it's gonna be a long night."

The others; except for Vin, who decided to stay behind for a few minutes, drifted off. Either to the saloon, or to the boarding house where they all kept rooms.

"Excuse me, Mr. Larabee." Chris looked over at the gambler who was still holding the reins of his horses bridal.


"Would it be permissible for me to settle Chaucer in for the night before I join you in our vigil?"

Chris sighed. Sometimes he wished Ezra would just come out and say what he meant, instead of using all that fancy language. At times he could barely understand the southern man. "Alright. But don't be too long."

"10 minutes at the most, Mr. Larabee. When I return, shall we engage in a game of poker to pass the time?"

Chris smiled a little. "Not really much else to do, is there?"

Ezra grinned, and tipped his hat at them before leading his horse toward the livery. Chris and Vin went inside the jail. No one noticed the two shadowy figures that followed the lone member of the seven down the street.

"There we are, my friend." He smiled as he gave the brush one final stroke down the shiny hairs of Chaucer's mane. He took pleasure in this time. Funny how a man who liked the creature comforts could find joy at the simple task of brushing down his horse. Of course he could always pay the livery hand or a young boy to do it; Chris gave the Travis boy a quarter each time to brush his horse, but Ezra liked to do the chore himself. He put the brushes back into their cloth bags, and stored them in the small box to the left of the stall door. He had won the brushes in a card game from a rather wealthy horse breeder. The handles were solid silver, and carved with pictures of Arabian horses running free, their manes flying wildly behind them. He knew they were expensive, and could get him a lot of money if he'd sell them, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Chaucer had been with him through good times and bad, and Ezra liked to spoil the horse. He exited the stall, and closed and locked the door. Reaching his hand out, he stroked the animals soft nose one more time. Chaucer's head lowered until the beast's muzzle rested against Ezra's shoulder. He chuckled, and patted Chaucer's neck.

"Goodnight now. I promise, tomorrow we will go out for a much more relaxing ride."

The horse snorted as if in understanding, and turned its attention to the fresh bail of hay in the corner. Ezra picked up the red coat he had laid aside, and his gun belt, and turned to leave. He gave an audible gasp of surprise to see a man leaning against the closed door of the livery. He had heard no one enter, and had not even heard the door close. The man stood in shadow, and Ezra could not make out his face. A sense of dread filled his stomach. He turned to look at the exit behind him and saw that it also was blocked by the large form of a man.

"Gentlemen," he said, trying his best to not sound nervous." May I help you?"

The man at the front entrance walked toward him, and as his face came into the light, Ezra saw the scar that marked the man's left cheek. Jacob Tilly. He knew with out a doubt that he was in very deep trouble. Tilly stood in front of him, staring at him with an evil sneer on his face. Ezra pulled his derringer from his arm harness into the palm of his hand, but kept his arm at this side.

"Which one 'er you?" Tilly asked him. His voice was deep and gravely, and obviously showed lack of education in his speech.

"Beg pardon?" Ezra decided to act as if he had no idea what the man meant. He had to stall, and the more time he gained on his side the better.

"I said," Tilly started, and walked slowly in a circle around Ezra, looking him up and down. The gambler followed the man's every move with his eyes. "'"

"I'm afraid I don't understand you, sir."

"The hell you don'. Yer one 'a those peace keepers in this 'ere town. The ones who put one 'a my brothers in jail." Tilly got up close to Ezra's face, his hands grabbing hold of the gold brocade vest he was wearing. Ezra winced at the filthy hands touching his fine clothes. He brought his arm up quickly, and pointed the barrel of the small gun into his attackers stomach.

"If you do not remove your hands from my person, I will empty this firing arm into yours." Tilly glanced down at the derringer and gave a laugh.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

A large arm grabbed him from behind, wrapping around his chest and making his arms immovable. Tilly wrenched the gun from his hand and threw it to the side. Ezra dropped his coat and gun belt, and tried to wrestle the arm off of him. He opened his mouth to yell out, but another hand clamped over his mouth. He struggled, twisting and turning in effort to throw off the attacker, but the man was larger and stronger. Tilly, with a sneer on his face that Ezra found frightening, grabbed a hold of the gamblers hands, and quickly tied them together with a rope he had pulled from his coat pocket.

"Now, I'm only guessin, but I think you an' yer friends are pretty close. Almost like family," Tilly said. "Well, I know when somebody messes with my family, I git angry. I will do anythin' to protect them. I sure hope yer friends feel the same way."

Ezra suddenly realized what the plan was. Tilly was not going to kill him, at least not yet. He was going to use him against the others to try and get his brother free. He obviously thought it would work too. Ezra would have told him just how wrong he was if the damned man-ape would let go of his mouth. Jerking his head back quickly, he gained enough space between his mouth and the large hand to sink his teeth into the skin. The large man growled in anger, and removed his hand. Ezra tried to lash out, but was still held tightly by the arm around him.

"Why you....," Tilly muttered, and then Ezra felt something hard connect with his skull. Everything in his world went black.

Tilly looked at his now unconscious prisoner still held up by Jerry's arm.

"Damn bastard bit me!" Jerry bellowed out.

"Shut yer mouth. We gotta git him outa here without causin' any attention. Take him outside and put him on yer horse," Tilly instructed his brother. "Don't hurt him just yet. Woundn' want the others to miss out on the fun." With that, Ezra was dragged out of the livery and into the dark night.

Chris glanced at the small clock on the desk table and silently cursed the no-account gambler who said he would return in 10 minutes. It had been about 20. Chris Larabee was not a man who liked to be kept waiting. How long does it take to brush a horse down, anyway?" he complained to Vin, who was still waiting for Ezra's return to the jail. "Damn him. I'm gonna give him a piece of my mind when he gets here."

Vin shook his head at Chris's ranting. It wasn't the first time Chris had complained about Ezra's comings and goings, and it wasn't likely to be the last. Out of all the men, Chris and Ezra seemed to have the hardest time with each other. Ezra was constantly trying to prove himself to Chris, and Chris had a problem trusting Ezra after the best forgotten incident at the Indian village. Chris sure knew how to hold a grudge. Ezra had shown his loyalty to the others, and to the town they watched over again and again; and yet Chris still could not let go of the thought that Ezra might run out on them again.

One of these days Vin was going to lock the two of them in a room and not let them out until they worked out their differences...or they killed each other.....whichever came first. Two more minuets passed by, and still no Ezra. Vin admitted to getting antsy about the time it was taking Ezra to get there, but for different reason than Chris. He knew Ezra would never shirk his duty, nor would he waste time like this. Looking over at the livery, Vin noted the darkness and quite that surrounded it. Surly Ezra would have lit some lanterns?

He did! Vin remembered seeing the light from one of the windows not 10 minuets ago. He didn't notice the light going out. Vin got that strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was told once by a Fortune Teller that it was a 'sixth sense', a feeling that something was not right. Vin felt for sure that this time something wasn't just 'not right', but completely and horribly wrong.

"Chris, something's wrong. I'm going over there," he said, and removed his gun from its holster. Without another word, he made his way down the street to the livery.

Chris watched after him with confused eyes. Vin had looked so intense. It was like he knew something that Chris didn't. One thing was for certain, Vin did not go off half cocked about anything. If he thought there was trouble, there usually was. Chris suddenly felt like kicking himself for not having checked on Ezra sooner. He grabbed his gun and ran out the door of the jail. He started for the livery, but stopped short when he heard Vin yell out to him.

"Chris! Chris, he's gone!" Vin came into view. He held Ezra's coat, gun belt, and derringer in his hands. There was no way Ezra would have left them behind if he had left by choice.

Vin's words hit Chris like a brick. The sound of them echoed over and over again in his ears. 'He's gone, he's gone, he's gone'. Chris's emotions went into a tailspin. Fear, shame, anger, guilt. All took their turn in assaulting him. Ezra was missing, obviously not by choice, and he hadn't thought of the possibility. He should have gone with him, or send one of the others. He never should have let him go alone.

Damn! He turned back into the jail. He knew who took Ezra, and why. He would kill every last one of them for this. They had made the first move in the battle, but Chris would rather die than let them win the war.

They had been riding for hours, non-stop, with the moonlight their only guide in the night. Ezra had no idea where they were heading, and inquiries that he tried to make to that fact had only earned him a slap across his already aching head and an order to 'shut your damn mouth'. He was very pissed off, to say the least. He sat uncomfortably in front of the larger Tilly. Jerry was his name, not that that really mattered to Ezra. He could think of a few better things to call both of them. He'd like to call them dead; and if he could get his hands free, twist around and grab the gun in Jerry's holster, they would be. Yeah, sure they would. When he played the scenario in his head, it was always he who ended up dead. So much for his self-confidence. Either way, he decided not to chance it and hoped Chris and the others would be able to follow the trail they left to wherever it was they were going. The thought of Chris brought another fear into Ezra's heart. Would Chris think that he had run out on them again, and not bother to come after him? He had to admit that there was a strong possibility of that happening. Chris always seemed to watch him with a careful eye; as if he expected Ezra to turn tail and run at any minute. Ezra would never admit it to him, or to anyone, but the mistrust that he was sometimes treated with by Chris, and some of the others, hurt him very much.

'Oh stop all this wallowing in self pity!' he admonished himself. He had a crisis to survive here, with or without his friends' help!

The slightly pinkish light that peaked over the horizon in front of them told him that morning was upon them, and that they were heading east. He saw a town coming into view like a mirage in the desert. Could that be their destination? He wondered what sort of town would harbor a bunch of criminals. Would he be able to find any help among the citizens there?

As they got closer, Ezra felt any hopes he might have had get trampled over. Most of the buildings were in a state of disrepair. Boards missing and paint chipping. The main road was over grown with weeds. It was a ghost town. There would be no help for him here. The horses came to a stop at what looked to be an old hotel building. His captors' dismounted, and he was unceremoniously pulled off the horse and thrown to the ground. He hit the hard dirt with a loud thud. He struggled to get up, but his legs; tired and sore from the constant riding over the last few days, refused to cooperate with him. And his head hurt, and he was so completely tired. Helplessness was not a feeling Ezra Standish was used to. He did not like the feeling at all.

"Home, sweet home." Jacob's face looked down at him. "Ya like it? Found this place a few weeks ago. Real private like. No one will be botherin' us here."

"How wonderful," Ezra said, not bothering to hide the sarcasm from his voice. "Best news I've heard all day." The kick he received to his stomach from the steel toed boot made him curl up and groan. Jacob leaned down and grabbed a hold of Ezra's hair, yanking his head back. He pulled a knife from inside his coat, and held it to the gamblers throat.

"Here's the deal, pretty boy. You behave yerself, you don' give us no lip, and we don' hurt ya too much." Ezra's heart beat so rapidly he could feel it jumping out of his chest. Not hurt him much. He wondered what Jacob Tilly considered 'much'. He was already hurting as much as he wanted to at the moment. "I left a little note fer yer friends back in that there town. Told em' if they didn't release my brother, I'm gonna send you back to them piece by piece." He ran the blade of the knife up and down Ezra's neck.

Ezra was too scared to breath. He had no doubt this man would make good on such a threat. Still, his mouth managed to get ahead of his brain. The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.

"Why bother with all the theatrics? I'm sure a resourceful man such as yourself could come up with a much easier way to dispense with my life."

The laugh that emitted from Tilly's throat sent shivers down Ezra's back. Why, oh why couldn't he just stay silent? What was it about fear that made his mouth run off? Ezra closed his eyes and waited for the knife to sink into the sensitive skin of his throat. Instead, he felt himself being hulled to his feet.

"That I could, believe me. But if yer friends are smart, and yer real, real lucky, you won' find out." He shoved Ezra back toward Jerry, who wrapped one large arm around his neck.

"Hey Jacob. You're back. Where's Jace?" Two more Tilly brothers emerged from the hotel, looking just as disheveled and dirty as their siblings. Both of their eyes landed on Ezra.

"Still in jail. But don' worry, we'll get him out." He stroked Ezra's cheek with the knife. "Won' we?" he whispered.

Ezra thought he was going to be sick. He would have loved to have thrown-up all over the bastard, but he settled for spitting in his eye. Jacob punched him in the stomach. He doubled over, loosening Jerry's arm from his neck. He fell forward, and felt more punches connect with his eyes and jaw. All brothers joined in on punching and kicking him until they had exhausted themselves. Ezra lay on the ground, not able to move. He could not open one eye, and his vision was bleary out of the other. He knew the sweet taste in his mouth was blood. Lord, he just wanted to go home.

Once more he was pulled to his feet, and shoved toward a brother. He cried out from the pain in his ribs. He knew that some of them were broken.

"Take him inside. Tie him up in my room. I'm goin' off for some supplies." He heard Jacob say. He was pulled inside the building and dragged up the stairs. Each step had him wanting to pass out from the pain it caused him. He was pushed into a room and forced to sit on a wooden chair. His hands were untied momentarily, only to have his arms jerked behind him. The movement had him biting down on his lip to keep from screaming. He hands were retied and secured to the back of the chair. More rope was wrapped around him, and his ankles were tied to the chair legs. Ezra could not stand it anymore. The pain was too great. He let the darkness take it away from him.

Jace Tilly was only pretending to be asleep. He heard every thing that the two law keepers said. He knew when he heard of the disappearance of their friend that his brothers had been there. They had taken the fancy talking man. He wished they would have freed him from the jail, but he knew that Jacob had a plan; and Jacob's plans had always worked out before. He smiled in his likeness of rest. He would be out of here by morning. The sound of heavy footsteps came across the wooden floor and stopped at the cell door. Jace heard the jingle of keys, then the sound of the cell door opening. Could it be they were going to release him already? He would have thought it would have been awhile, but no matter. He would meet this brothers at the ghost town, and they would kill their hostage and leave his body in a place were his friends would be sure to find it. Jace would make sure the sight that greeted them would not be a pretty one. The anticipation of getting his hands on the man shivered through him. He was going to enjoy this.

Hands grabbed him and lifted him off the cot, then threw him to the floor. He looked up to see the angry face of the leader glaring down at him.

"Where is he?! Where did they take him?!" Chris's voice sounded almost feral, as if he was an angry wolf whose pack had been threatened. One wrong move on Jace's part, and the wolf would attack.

"I don't know what you're talkin' about," Jace spit out at him.

"You son of a......." Chris was about to hit the younger man when he felt someone hold his arm back.

"Chris! Chris stop it. It's not gonna help us find Ezra," Vin shouted at him.

Chris looked from the man on the floor to Vin, and back again. His face still twisted in an angry frown, he stomped from the cell and out of the jail. Vin quickly closed and locked the cell door.

"He's probably already dead." Vin looked at the prisoner, who stared back with a grin of pure evil.

"You better hope you're wrong. Or I swear, I will kill you myself," Vin threaded the man in a voice devoid of any emotion. He turned and ran after Chris.

Chris was not thinking rationally at the moment, and Vin was afraid he would do something foolish. He saw how right he was when he saw Chris mounting his horse.

"Where do you think you're going?" he asked, grabbing a hold of the animal's reins.

"Where do you think? I'm going after them." Chris tried to pull the horse away, but Vin held on tighter.

"Chris, it's too dark. You don't know which way they've gone, and you'll never be able to track them at night. For Gods sake, I'm angry too, but we have to think a little here."

Chris shook his head in frustration. He knew Vin was right, but he couldn't just sit around while one of his men was in trouble, possibly hurt and maybe even....... He shivered , leaving the last thought unfinished. That was one possibility he would not except.

"What are we supposed to do then?" he asked the bounty hunter. If Vin had some words of wisdom to fix this situation, Chris was ready to hear them.

Vin held out a piece of paper that Chris didn't notice he had before.

"I found this stuck to Chaucer's stall door. I understood some of the words, but......."

Chris nodded in understanding. Vin had only just begun to learn how to read. Mary had been giving him lessons for about a week, and while Vin had shown progress already, he was not skilled enough yet. Chris took the paper from him and scanned the words written on it.

'Free Jace Tilly, or the fancy dressed one is dead.
 Once Jace is back with him brothers, we'll let you know where you can find your friend.'

The note wasn't signed, but it didn't need to be. And it didn't say that they would find Ezra alive either. He read the note aloud to Vin.

"We gotta come up with somethin' quick," Vin said.

Chris got off the horse, still angry and upset, but much calmer than before. "Get the others back in here. Tell them what's happened. We're gonna have to get our friend in there to tell us where the meeting place is."

Vin nodded. "Then what?"

Chris looked him up and down. "You're about the same size as him. As soon as he gives us the information we need, you're gonna take his place."

Chris was shocked that it took so little to get the outlaw to talk. All he had to do was let a ready-to-kill-with-his-bear-hands' Buck into the cell with him, and he was telling them his life story. Sure, Buck had to throw a few punches, but it produced the desired effect. Ezra had been taken to an old ghost town known as Hope. If Chris had been in a better mood, he would have seen the irony in the name. Hope was about a half a days ride from Four Corners. Chris remembered that it was once a boom town, having been built from the money of a prospector who found gold in the nearby mountains. For a while it was a nice place, friendly and welcoming, until the gold mine went bust. The town emptied out in less them a year. Now all that was left were empty buildings and the echoes of days long past. It made the perfect place to hide out at.

Morning had come, and Chris was no longer content with sitting still. He had to get out there and make sure for himself that Ezra was still alive and well. The others were starting to look anxious too; especially Vin, who had switched clothes with their prisoner and who as at the moment trying to stuff his long hair underneath the hat. They would ride out to Hope together until they got near, then Vin would go on ahead. Dressed as their bother, Chris hoped Vin would be able to distract the gang long enough for the others to come in. It was not the best laid plan, but desperate times........Well, Chris just hoped that Ezra would still be alive when they got there. If he wasn't, heaven help anyone that was near him. Chris could still not be sure just when it had all happened, when they all had stopped just being fellow gunfighters, when they all became friends and , eventually, family. That's what these men were to him, Chris realized. After loosing his wife and son, Chris had tried to lock away his feelings. If he didn't let anyone get close, then he wouldn't ever be broken hearted again if he lost them. Little did he know that all it would take would be six other men, each as lost in their own way as Chris was in his, to break down that emotional wall. Chris Larabee finally had a family again. He was not about to let anyone take that away from him.

It was agreed that only four of them would go, and two would stay to guard the prisoner in case his brothers decided to come back. Chris was not going to leave another man alone again. After much argument and a lot of cussing, it was decided that Nathan and Josiah would ride with Chris and Vin. Josiah was a strong man with impeccable aim, and Nathan........they all knew why they might need Nathan along, they were just all too afraid to give voice to that fear. JD and Buck would stay behind. Needless to say, Buck was not very happy about that.

"Gole damnit, Chris. I should be going with you, not staying here twiddling my thumbs while you guys ride to the rescue. Ezra is my friend too!"

"Buck, I know how you feel, believe me. But I need you here. Do you really want to leave JD alone? What if those bastards come back?"

Buck gave him a dirty look, but Chris knew he had won. All he had to do was mention JD, and Bucks' protective side kicked in. He didn't like it, but he would stay.

"Bring him home," Buck said to the four men as they saddled up for the long ride.

"We will," said Chris. Indeed they would. One way or the other. Although, 'one way' would be better than 'the other'.

"Josiah, could you pray to whatever deity that will listen to send a little luck our way?"

"Already working on it," the soft-spoken preacher answered.

"I packed as many supplies as I could," Nathan spoke. "Not sure what Ezra will be needing."

"God willing, not much," Vin said, but they all knew there was a chance of Ezra being really hurt.

"Alright, lets go," said Chris, and the four men rode out of Four Corners toward a town called Hope.

Ezra felt himself coming too again, and groaned in protest. Being awake meant feeling. Feeling pain, feeling the overwhelming sense of fear and despair that had grabbed a hold of his mind. He was unaware of the time, it had ceased passing for him. He could have been there days, weeks; it no longer mattered to him. All he knew was that he was sick, he was tired, and he was more ticked off than he had every been before in his life. The muscles in his shoulders ached. He longed to move them, to do anything to make himself comfortable; but he had long sense given up on trying to move. The pain in his ribs made him scream out in protest each time. He cold no longer feel the ropes as they cut into his skin. All sensation had left his hands and feet. He wished they would either kill him and get it over with, or at least untie him. There was no way he could escape anyway.

The door opened and Ezra lifted his eyes to see Jacob Tilly enter. He felt his stomach tighten. This man seemed to thrive on the physical abuse of others. He disgusted Ezra to no end. Tilly walked over to him, a canteen of water in his hand. The thought of water, cool liquid sliding down his parched throat, was the most sensual thought his fevered mind could imagine. Tilly must have caught his longing gaze at the canteen, for he waved it underneath Ezra's nose.

"Thirsty?" he asked.

Ezra licked his dry, cracked lips. Yes, he was thirsty. He wanted the water so much. So very much.

"Ifn' ya ask real nice, I may let ya have some."

Dear God, this man delighted in torture. Not only of the body, but of the mind as well. He was determined to drive Ezra out of his skull. Ezra had never really noticed before that water had a smell. A seductive, tantalizing scent of sweetness and moisture. He couldn't stand it.

"May I have some water?" he asked, his voice coming out in barely more than a whisper.

"What's the magic word?" Tilly swung the canteen in front of Ezra's face, his smile taunting the bruised and broken man in front of him. Ezra couldn't believe that he was going to be made to beg. It was humiliating. He was a grown man, and was reduced to begging for water. When this was all over, he swore he would kill the a**hole. Till then, he had to do what he must to survive.

"Please." He forced the word out between clenched teeth.

"Please what?" There was that sneer again. To Ezra it looked like a rabid dog baring its teeth. He wondered if Tilly was going to start foaming at the mouth.

"May I please have some water....Sir?" God, how he hated this man.

"There, now was that so hard?" Tilly brought the canteen to Ezra's lips and tipped it back. Most of the water spilled over his mouth, running down his chin to soak into the collar of his shirt, but he managed to sallow enough without choking.

"What do ya say now?"

The bastard was talking to him like he was some disobedient child who must be punished.

"I say you are by far the sorriest excuse for a human being I've ever seen."

The slap he received across his face snapped his head back. Tears stung behind his eyes from the force of the blow. Tilly grabbed Ezra's chin, and forced the gambler to look him in the eyes.

"Ya got yerself a smart mouth. Can't think why no one hasn't killed ya for it already."

"Pure luck, I assure you." Ezra's eyes were two cold and blank orbs, betraying nothing of the terror that raced through him.

"Well, yer luck has run out."

"Why don't you just dispense with all this torture and terrorism, and kill me already. I'm getting a little bored with this monotony."

It took Tilly a minute to figure out what exactly Ezra had said. When the meaning finally became clear to him, he laughed.

"We will, don't ya worry about that. Just thought yer friends might want to watch is all."

"They are not going to give in to your demands. There is no way they will allow a murdering miscreant like your brother go free. Not for me."

It was obvious that Tilly did not believe him. He actually thought his brother would be sent back to them in exchange for Ezra. No amount of explaining would change his mind on that.

"Don't you understand? I'm not important enough to them." The words had been an unspoken fear that had lived inside Ezra's heart for a long time, ever since it had become clear to him that the other men he rode with were indeed important to him. Years of living on his own, not caring about of needing the fellowship of anyone else, and suddenly Ezra finds something that he didn't even know he had been missing. Friendship. Caring. Oh yes, he cared about his fellow law keepers. What he didn't know was just how much they cared about him. He was about to find out.

"Hey Jacob! Rider comin' in.", a voice yelled up from the street below. Jacob grabbed the spy glass that he kept by the window sill, and brought it up to his eyes to survey the area around them. He saw a rider approaching. He could not make out the features on the riders face, for the hat was pulled down low, but he recognized the clothes.

"It's Jace!" he called back down to his brother, who then let out a loud 'whoop!'. Jacob turned back to look at Ezra. The smile on his face was one of victory. "Looks like ya was wrong 'bout yer friends."

Ezra didn't, couldn't, believe it. They had let Jace Tilly go? That action went against everything that Ezra knew about them. It didn't make any sense. It just couldn't be. Jacob came over to Ezra, knife in hand. He smiled when he saw the flinch in his captives eyes. He knew that despite the man's bravado and sarcastic comments, he was scared shitless. Jacob loved fear. He loved to see it deep inside the eyes of others. It made his blood pump faster in his veins. He would make sure the last look in this ones eyes was one of complete terror. He stooped down and cut the ropes that held Ezra's ankles to the chair, then removed the ones that wrapped around his chest. The bonds around Ezra's hands were loosened long enough to remove them from the chair, then quickly tightened again behind his back.

Tilly held the blade of the knife to Ezra's throat. "Won' be long now. How do ya think yer friends would like to find ya? Shot in the head? Stabbed in the heart? Or how about hanging? Yeah. That sounds good. I think finding you swinging from a tree branch would be poetic justice. After all, they were gonna hang my brother."

"But it seems that they haven't," Ezra said, his voice calm despite the rapid beating of his heart. "Why don't you return the favor to them, and release me."

Tilly laughed in amusement. He dragged Ezra to his feet, and pulled him to the door. "I don' need to do anyone any favors. See, I wanna kill you. I wanna see the expressions on yer friends' faces when they find you. It will be the most gratifying moment of my life."

"You are a completely twisted son of a bitch." 'There you go. Way to state the obvious,' he thought to himself. He was totally at a loss for what to do. There was nothing he could do to stop them. No amount of bargaining would save him. They did not want money or any other sort of material gain. All they wanted was revenge. He pulled Ezra along down the stairs and to the front of the hotel. When they reached the outside, he looked around. The street was empty.

"Jerry?" He called out. He held Ezra's arm in a vise like grip, and dragged him out to the street. "Joe! Where are ya? Where's Jace?"

"Jace couldn't make it, sorry. He sends his regards."

Tilly spun around at the sound of the voice behind him. He pulled Ezra in front of him and wrapped his arm around the gambler's neck, cutting off precious air supply. Quick as lightening, Tilly removed his gun from his holster and pressed the barrel hard against Ezra's head.

Vin looked down at them from behind a long barreled shot gun. Ezra had never been so glad to see the bounty hunter before.

"Why are ya wearin' my brother's clothes?" Tilly shouted at his adversary. He tightened his hold on Ezra, who gasped for air.

"He was lookin' to change his image, so we traded. Can't really say much for his fashion sense, but then who am I to complain." Vin's gun never wavered from the outlaw and his hostage. He thought he could get a shot at Tilly, but he ran the risk of hitting Ezra by accident. He couldn't chance that.

"Where are my brothers?" Tilly asked in a low, menacing voice. The gun moved down from Ezra's head, to the side of his neck. "Ya tell me, or yer gonna know what it looks like to see a man's head blown clean off."

"Your brothers are in the barn, contemplating the errors of their ways." Josiah walked around the corner, gun drawn. "I suggest you join them, before God decides you're too late for forgiveness."

Josiah! If he could have, Ezra would have cried out in relief.

"Ya let them go right now, or I swear I'll kill him." Tilly cocked the gun back, and Ezra's eyes snapped shut. He couldn't move in the man's tight grip and he was quickly running out of what little air his lungs could receive.

"You do, and I will tear your heart out of your chest with my bare hands," another voice came from behind them again, and Tilly whirled them around once more to face the cold, deadly stare of Chris Larabee.

"Chris," Ezra rasped. Larabee's eyes met Ezra's for a brief moment. The look he gave Ezra seemed to say 'Trust me'. 'I do, Chris. Indeed I do. Just please send this bastard to hell.'

Nathan also came out from hiding and joined Vin and Josiah, who had moved to stand behind Chris. The healer's eyes took in Ezra's bruised face, and pale complexion. They had really done a number on him. He wondered what other injuries Ezra had that could not be seen. He could see Ezra's eyes beginning to bulge out, and knew that the gambler could not breath. If this did not end now, Ezra would suffocate in the outlaw's grip. While Nathan's eyes looked over Ezra, Chris's had returned to glare into Jacob Tilly's. For the first time since the whole thing started, Jacob felt unsure of himself. He had no brothers to help him, no other way out of the situation except for the man he held hostage. Yet somehow he felt that might be all he needed.

"If ya don' wanna watch him die, I suggest ya move out of the way!"

To his surprise, Chris began to laugh. "Do you believe this?" he said to the men behind him. "He still thinks he's in charge here." Chris did not draw his gun. He merely stood before Tilly and Ezra; one hand resting on his gun belt, the other reaching up to push back the black hat on his head. A sardonic smile crossed his face. "Why don't you cut your losses, Tilly. You've already committed all the major crimes. Robbery, murder, kidnapping. I don't think there's much more out there for you to do." He took a step forward and reached out his hand. "Let him go. It's over."

"No." Tilly shook his head. "No. There's still one more thing. I'm gonna kill him. Ya all might kill me afterwards, but at lest I'll have the pleasure of seein' yer faces when yer friend here dies."

During all this, Ezra had managed to find the knife in his captors waistband. Grabbing the handle with his bound hands, he brought the blade up quickly. Tilly gave a sharp cry as he felt the blade slice his skin. The arm he held around Ezra's neck loosened, and Ezra lunged out. His legs could not hold him, though, and he fell to the ground. Tilly fired his gun, missing Ezra only by inches Another shot rang out, and Ezra screamed as the dead body of Jacob Tilly fell on top of him. He looked up into the eyes of Chris, who held a still smoking gun in his hand.

"About time that you arrived here, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said with a laugh born out of exhaustion before his eyes slid shut once more.

Chris heaved the dead weight of the outlaw off Ezra's unconscious form. A quick sweep of the gambler's body with his eyes showed no bullet wounds. He breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment he had been afraid that the bullet from Tilly's gun had found its mark. The absolute fear he felt at seeing Ezra's eyes shut was one that he would not mind never feeling again.

Nathan kneeled down next to Ezra, and began to move his hands down the man's sides, checking for broken ribs or other injuries he might have received. He winced when he felt several ribs move underneath Ezra's skin. "We've got to get him off the street."

Josiah gently picked Ezra up in his strong arms, and carried the smaller man back into the hotel. Nathan followed with his bag of supplies, and Chris brought in a heavy blanket and a canteen of water. Vin stayed behind to take care of the dead body of Jacob Tilly.

Ezra remained unconscious while Nathan cleaned some of the open cuts, and wrapped a bandage around his ribs. There was nothing he could do about Ezra's swollen and bruised eyes and jaw. Those injuries would have to heal on their own.

"What about the others in the barn?" Nathan asked Chris, after he put away all his supplies.

Chris thought for a moment. He had not really considered what to do with the Tilly brothers still locked up in the livery. If he had his way, it would be to just leave them there to rot. It was more than they deserved after all they had done to Ezra. But, he knew that could not be done. The men had to be brought to justice and tried in a court of law.

"The nearest town to here is Hillsboro. Josiah, can you ride out there and get the local law to help us bring those fellas back to Four Corners? We could use the extra help."

"I'll go right now," Josiah replied. He wanted the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. He stopped to momentarily lay a hand on Ezra's shoulder and said a silent prayer. "Take care, my friend," he whispered before heading for the door. As he exited, Vin entered.

"Buried the body outside of town," he said, leaving it at that. There would be no need to bring the body back with them. They had all witnessed the death. Chris nodded at him, then turned back to his silent study of his friend. He was hurt, but Nathan said the injuries would heal. What bothered Chris was that Ezra shouldn't have been hurt at all.

Vin watched as his friend kept vigil at Ezra's side. He knew Chris blamed himself for what happened. Heck, if he could Chris would find a way to blame himself for the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Vin thought a lot of the man, but could never understand why Chris seemed determined to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"He's gonna be okay," Vin said to Chris as he sat down in a chair beside him.

"I know," was Chris's answer. He sat back in the chair, legs stretched out in front of him, arms folded across his chest, and watched the steady rise and fall of Ezra's breathing. He wished the gambler would wake up. He felt the need to have a good long talk with him. Not that he would really understand Ezra's half of the conversation. A slight smile crossed his lips at that thought, then just as quickly disappeared.

"Ya know, Chris, Ezra is not going to blame you for this. I mean, you had no idea the Tillys would try something like this. None of us did," Vin tried explaining.

"It doesn't matter. I should have at least considered it. If I would've sent someone else with him, or at lest gone to check on him sooner, this could've all been prevented."

"Could have, would have, should have," the mumbled voice of Ezra said from the sofa. "Really Chris, I get quite tired of these guilt trips of yours."

"Ezra?" Chris went over to him and kneeled down. Vin and Nathan also quickly went to his side.

"I certainly hope so," Ezra said, opening his eyes. The pain that shot through his skull as the light came into focus made him wince. "Ooh. On second thought, I would rather be just about anyone else right now."

"Your head hurt?" Nathan asked, and leaned in to check the pupils of Ezra's eyes. He held up two fingers in front of Ezra. "How many fingers am I holding up?" he asked.

"On which hand?" Ezra asked, blinking a few times in attempt to get everything into focus. This only succeeded in making the pain worse.

"Uh-huh. Thought so. You've got yourself a pretty bad concussion there." Nathan went over to the fireplace were he had boiled some water. He poured water into a cup, and mixed in some herbs. "Here," he said, helping to raise Ezra's head. "This will help the pain."

Ezra sipped the concoction, then began coughing. "Nathan I do believe you are trying to kill me. This is the most horrible thing I have ever tasted."

The sound of laughter made Ezra slowly turn his head to see the smiling faces of Chris and Vin. "I'm very glad you two find this so amusing."

"Sorry Ezra," Chris said. "Just thought I'd never be so glad to hear you talk again."

Ezra smiled as much as he could. "The feeling, Mr. Larabee, is mutual." He struggled to sit up, but was restrained by Nathan's hand.

"Hold on there. Where do you think you're going?"

"I was hoping to leave. To go back to Four Corners with you."

Chris shook his head. "No way. Not until you're feeling better."

Ezra resisted the urge to roll his eyes, mainly because he thought the movement would likely make him pass out again.

"Besides," Vin said. "Its already getting dark. We'd be better to pass the night here than on the trail."

"Must you all gang up on me?" Ezra muttered mostly to himself. He had no intension to stay in this hell hole any longer than he had to. He wanted to leave, he wanted his own bed in his own room. He wanted to sit at his table in the saloon and play cards. He wanted........he wanted home. Funny how he now thought of that little backwater town as his home. He could not remember ever thinking that of any place he had lived. in truth, there was no other place he wanted to ever be again. Sleep was taking him over. He could feel his heavy eyelids forcing themselves shut. "When?" he asked before darkness could claim him.

"When what?" came Chris's voice.

"When can we go home?" The words were whispered and slurred, but Chris understood them. A smile tugged at this mouth as he watched Ezra relax into sleep.

"Soon, my friend. I promise. Very soon." Nathan checked Ezra again, and nodded. "We should try waking him every few hours. No tellin' if the head injury could get worse or not."

"You two go ahead and get some rest. I'll stay up with him," Chris said to Vin and Nathan.

Vin knew better than to argue with him. He and Nathan took two other sofas in the room while Chris remained in the chair next to Ezra. He watched the gambler sleep, and he smiled. His family was complete once again.

The End