Webmaster Note: This is one of the earliest works of M7 fan fiction. Originally posted in the spring of 1998, it was relocated to this site in April 2001
OK, first a word of explanation: This isn't a complete story, more like a bunch of scenes that belong to a story. The overall plot is similar to the "Last Stand of the 7" story described in Legacies fic - Chris finally discovers who killed his family (Fowler's still alive and very much involved), and decides to go after them.
Naturally, the others aren't going to let Chris do this alone. In this version, Ezra has tuberculosis (it's just starting to get bad), JD and Casey are very close to getting married, and Vin's cleared up that unpleasantness at Tascosa. This story sort of constitutes what my sister and I feel would be the last episode (or episodes) of M7. Since these are mostly scenes, I'll put in explanatory paragraphs between the sections so it will at least bear a passing resemblance to a narrative. Someday my sister Sarah and I hope to write the whole story, but since it will be a major endeavor, and really long, we're saving it for when we both actually have some time!
This is the first M7 fic I wrote, so I was still trying to get the characters down-please forgive any bumps! Also, I hadn't written Shenandoah Waltz yet, so some related plot points are slightly different.
The opening of the story takes place soon after Chris discovers who killed his family (I'm still not exactly sure who that might be-somebody above Fowler, I guess). There has been a ferocious gunfight the previous evening, during which Ezra collapsed and was conveyed to his room by Nathan. Everyone in the 7 knows that Chris intends to go after Fowler and crew the next day.
On with the show!)
The morning sunlight burned through the dusty streets of Four Corners, threatening another hot day. Chris winced as he gazed into the already blazing sky; only May and it's already like July. These thoughts were soon replaced by the grim mantra which had run across his mind since the discovery of his family's murderers: even the heat of Hell wouldn't save them. And that heat would seem like Alaska once Chris got done with those bastards.
Ever since the indescribable moment when Chris learned of the deaths of his wife and son, he had lived for the day when he would be able to seek out and destroy the men responsible. Strange, now that the day was here, he felt oddly calm, as if this was the entire purpose of his life, and all he had to do was complete it. Chris had no thoughts now except for this; he might not survive the battle ahead, but even that failed to bother him. As long as I take them with me.
He chewed on his cigarillo as he leaned on the boarding-house post, formulating a strategy, when Buck came striding across the street, his expression dark. Vengeance was weighing on his mind, too.
"We going after 'em today?" he inquired in the low, growling tones reserved for his most serious moods.
Chris regarded him, frowned. "This is a personal matter, Buck. I can't ask you all to risk your lives over this. You got a job to do here."
"Hell, Chris," Buck spat, his face growing even darker," don't pull that damn crap on me. You're probably the only person on earth who wants those sonsabitches more than I do, and you know the others ain't gonna let you ride into this alone. Four Corners can take care of itself for a while. Anyway, our job is to see justice done, and I think this here is a fine opportunity to carry that out."
Chris chewed on the cigarillo, eyed Buck intensely for a moment.
"Well, I guess I can't stop you," he finally said casually, gratitude flickering in his steely eyes.
"Damn right," Buck nodded, pulling on his hat.
The black-clad man turned his attention back to the street, squinted, took another drag on the cigarillo as he allowed his gaze to travel up to the second story of the saloon. Buck followed his gaze, shook his head.
"Ain't no way Ezra'd survive this ride, Chris. Trouble is, he might not be able to stay out of it-even if it gets'im killed."
Chris blew out a thin stream of blue-black smoke and dropped the cigarillo to the ground, crushing it with the heel of his boot. The he returned his gaze to the saloon.
"Sometimes death's about the only reward a man can hope for."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan yawned as he drew aside the lace curtains and surveyed the street below. For a moment he considered opening the window; this room which Ezra rented on the second floor of the saloon was fancy enough, but it needed some light and air. As it was he could hardly see the elegant furnishings, on which he had already bruised his shin three times. He was ready to accept many sacrifices in the name of medicine, but drew the line at breaking his legs.
Then he regarded his patient and reconsidered disturbing the room's quiet. Ezra had finally managed to fall asleep only a few hours before, after spending most of the night in spasmodic fits of painful coughing He now lay propped up on a small mound of pillows, still in his day clothes but without the vest; the collar of his fancy shirt was open to ease his breathing and chest pains. Even in the dim filtered light Nathan could see how pale and clammy Ezra's skin was, how his face-remarkably peaceful now, considering the trials of the night before-had already begun to exhibit the sunken appearance typical of consumptives. No, the best thing to do would be to exit silently, leave word that noone was to visit his patient today, and join Chris and the others.
He felt a twinge of conscience at the idea of leaving without saying anything to Ezra; after all, this would undoubtedly be the hardest ride of the gang's career. Chris would stop at nothing until they found his family's killers, and neither would the gang-they would continue even if only one was left to bring the murderers to justice. But Ezra would never survive this journey-hell, he barely survived last night. Better to let him sleep and try to explain later-if there was a later.
Nathan packed up his instruments as quietly as he could and made for the door, studiously avoiding the treacherous bed and chair legs as he threaded his way along.
"Leaving without saying goodbye, Mr. Jackson? How uncharacteristically rude of you."
Nathan glanced up in surprise to see Ezra gazing at him from the bed; he hadn't moved much but he was definitely awake.
"Now what you doin' up?" Nathan chided his patient, moving to the foot of the bed and leaning on the ornately carved footboard. "You go on back to sleep, it ain't even been a few hours yet."
His companion groaned and struggled to a sitting position, stretching his arms and casting a look of annoyance in Nathan's direction. "I've had enough of this damned bed, thank you, doctor. And I assure you my body has been trained to refresh itself with but a mere-"
Without warning Ezra erupted into a fit of ragged coughing, its violence doubling him over. Nathan rushed to his side, pressing a clean rag into Ezra's hand. The gambler clamped the cloth to his mouth obligingly; in a few minutes it was over.
"You know," Ezra rasped, plopping back onto his pillows, "I am really starting to hate this."
"Yeah, well, that's why you gotta take it easy," Nathan cautioned. "Plenty of bed rest, and no more of that carousin', and you can see yourself clear to a good long life."
Ezra cast a disparaging look at his surroundings and moaned sarcastically, "Oh, joy, "
Nathan smiled, knowing Ezra's penchant for drama. "Aw, it ain't so bad. Might be more than the rest of us have to look forward to."
His comrade looked at him, guessed his meaning. "Y'all are going after the vermin who killed Sarah and Adam?"
Nathan nodded grimly. "We owe it to Chris, I figure. I arranged for Dr. Harrison from Eagle Bend to look in on you while we're gone. Don't know when we'll get back."
He didn't say "or if," but both men heard it anyway. Ezra pursed his lips in frustration, and Nathan instantly deciphered the look on his face.
"Don't you even think it, now!" he ordered. "You'd be ridin' into your grave an' you know it."
With effort Ezra swung himself to the side of the bed, regarding Nathan with a bitter smile. "Perhaps I do know it, Mr. Jackson, but I do believe I'll do it anyway." He hauled himself to his feet and began buttoning his shirt.
Nathan scowled. "Why you want to kill yourself?"
The other man stopped his preparations, regarded Nathan silently for a moment, dropped his eyes to the ground, then looked back up again, a small bitter smile twisting his lips. " Perhaps, Mr. Jackson, because I feel more inclined to die for something than to live for nothing."
"But you don't got to die," Nathan pressed; he hated to see anyone, even a grown man like Ezra, act in a way reckless enough to take his own life. "I've seen consumptives live for years and not get sick til the very end. You ain't all that bad yet-maybe you oughtta go to Eagle Bend or San Francisco-they could maybe help you out."
During this time Ezra had been rifling his wardrobe for clean clothes and seemingly paying little heed to Nathan's words. Finally he emerged from the cabinet with a few shirts and a pair of pants, and eyed Nathan as he folded them into small neat bundles.
"Your concern is touching, sir. May I inquire as to the reason for your refusal to allow me this indulgence?"
Nathan paused, shrugged. "Just hate to see a life wasted when it don't got to be, is all. Even a card-cheatin' life like yours."
Ezra looked up at the words, saw Nathan's gentle smile, gathered his meaning. He thought for a moment, one folded shirt in hand, then finally spoke, his voice serious.
"Mr. Jackson, when we first met, you will recall that I was not exactly eager to ride with you. I would like to make amends for that now by saying that, should it be my fate to die in your company, the honor will be entirely mine."
Nathan regarded him for a minute, his smile fading into a more thoughtful expression, before he finally said, "Ain't nobody gonna be doin' any dyin', 'cept maybe them men we're after. But there's some lives that could stand some wastin', in my opinion."
"My sentiments precisely," Ezra replied, stuffing the shirt into his saddlebag.
Nathan shook his head, but smiled a little at his friend's determination. "Well, looks like your mind's made up. Don't forget to pack your medicine."
"Certainly not, "Ezra assured him, grabbing his silver hip flask full of brandy from the nightstand. "Tell Mr. Larabee I will be down presently."
Nathan started for the door, hesitated, glanced at the bloody rags on the bedside table, then at Ezra resolutely tugging on his red jacket. Then he opened the door and sped outside, quietly closing it behind him.
+ + + + + + +
JD paced nervously in the empty jail, running a million thoughts through his mind as he glanced out the grimy window, waiting. If only he could quiet his heart pounding and the blood rushing dully through his ears, he might be able to do this right.
He flipped his pocket watch open, checked the time, winced. It was getting late; if she didn't come soon...
The door to the jail banged open, and JD spun around, his heart leaping into his throat. In the blazing light of the doorway stood Casey, clad in her usual dusty coat , her denim skirt ending just above her mud-caked boots. In one hand she held her wide-brimmed hat, her chestnut hair loose and streaming in disarray about her shoulders.
JD swallowed, fighting the urge to abandon his original plan and stay behind. It was a desperate struggle.
"Hi," he finally breathed, frightened and happy at the same time.
She returned his smile cautiously, but seemed happy too. "Hi."
An awkward silence followed as Casey eyed him expectantly.
"Got your message," she finally said. "You really goin' after those killers?"
JD nodded grimly, not meeting her eyes. "Yup."
"Sounds awful dangerous," she continued. "You want me to come with you?"
His head snapped up, his eyes wide. "No!" he exclaimed quickly, then, taking a breath, he said, "This ain't gonna be an easy ride. I can't watch Chris' back and yours too."
"You don't got to watch my back," Casey said defiantly, tossing back her head. "I can shoot better than your gunmen friends, I bet."
JD sighed; she sure could be stubborn. Finally he shook his head.
"Chris'd never hear of it. We're lucky he's lettin' us along."
Casey regarded him quietly for a moment, her face sad in the jail's gloomy light. "Then I guess-you wanted to say goodbye."
He looked into her face, pained by her downcast expression. Affecting a smile, he took her hands and tried to speak as sincerely as he could.
"Now, it ain't gonna be goodbye," he assured her, looking into her eyes. "We'll be back before sundown, probably. Chris and me'll have those guys hogtied in no time."
She said nothing, just searched his face, tears starting in her eyes.
He bit his lip and cast his eyes downward, looking as he dug into his pocket with one hand. "But, uh, the reason I asked you here is I'd like you to hang onto somethin' for me, til I get back. The way I've read it, a fighter always gives his girl a keepsake before he goes off to fight, see. It's always somethin' real special of his. So I, um-" he stopped digging, having found what he was looking for, and looked once more into her eyes, his gaze serious. "-I wanted to give you this."
He pressed something cold and hard into her hand. She opened it and looked down, surprised to see JD's silver sheriff's badge gleaming back at her. She looked up at him, startled.
"Well, now, I know it ain't nothin' a girl would want," JD said quickly, almost as an apology, "but it's pert near about the only nice thing I got. I sure won't need it out there, but I'll ride better knowin' it's safe with you. I wanna be able to find it, when I get back."
"Gosh, JD," Casey finally breathed; she knew how proud JD was of having that badge. "You ain't makin' me the sheriff, are you?"
JD had to laugh, in spite of the situation. "Aw, no-we got someone else doin' that. Not that you wouldn't make a fine sheriff," he added quickly, to avoid offending her now, of all times, "but see, bein' sheriff is a dangerous job, an' I got to know that you're OK."
She stood looking into his eyes for a moment, then said quietly, "I'll be OK."
"JD!" Buck's voice sliced through the dusty air. The young man jumped slightly, looked out the window to see Buck in the street, mounted on his horse already.
"I gotta go," he said quickly, pulling on his coat and grabbing his bowler hat from the top of the desk. Casey jammed on her hat and followed him outside into the street, which was just beginning to stir.
Buck's expression was serious. "Fraid it's about time to saddle up, kid."
JD nodded, turned to Casey, looked into her face awkwardly. He'd hoped it wouldn't be like this. "Well-don't forget, now, I'm gonna want that badge right back."
Casey tried to smile, swallowed instead. "I'll be here waitin' to give it to you."
They looked at each other a moment longer, then kissed, wrapping their arms around each other in a desperate, tender embrace. JD held her close, tried not to think that this might be the last time, and hoped that she wouldn't think less of him because of the tears stinging the corners of his eyes.
Buck watched the small scene quietly from his horse, his eyes looking past the young lovers.
Damn, you're lucky, kid, he thought solemnly. You an' me scrapped pretty often about how I always got the girls, but none of 'em ever looked at me like Casey looks at you, and that's a hell of a lot better deal than any I ever had goin'. Take a good hard look at that little girl, kid, cause you just might need that memory to get through what's ahead. And I'm gonna make sure you get through it - even if it means I don't.
Finally the two parted, looked at each other uncertainly; then JD nodded, tipped his hat, and swung up onto the saddle behind Buck.
The young girl looked up at Buck. "You goin' too?"
He nodded and flashed a jaunty smile. "Yes, ma'am. Course, with JD along, I reckon all I'll have to do is watch while he and Chris do all the rough stuff."
"Well, " she said, glancing at him in embarrassment," don't you go gettin' shot up neither."
Buck smiled, genuinely touched at her concern. "Why, ma'am, don't you know I got to survive? Somebody's gotta be around to throw JD his bachelor party!"
All three smiled, knowing the sentiment behind Buck's remark. Then he touched the tip of his hat and trotted off towards the livery. Buck couldn't see JD but he knew the boy was turned in the saddle, keeping his eye on Casey until she was no longer in view.
"Y'know what, Buck?"
"This really, really stinks."
Buck's jaw set as his gaze traveled past the town to the forbidding horizon ahead. "Yeah, I know that, kid. I know."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra pulled the straps of his saddlebag shut and took one last look around his small room, wondering if he had forgotten anything. Amazing to think, he mused, that there was an excellent chance that he would never set foot in this room again. Nothing in it was really his except for his clothes, the furniture was all rented, even the portraits on the wall belonged to someone else's family. But this room, and the town, had been more of a home than anywhere else he had stopped.
He smiled, trying to shake off the maudlin thoughts; with any luck he'd survive the ride and live for many years in gleeful disarray. Up until now, his luck had been rather good - perhaps he could even sneak in a quick hand of poker downstairs before hitting the road...
Suddenly another coughing fit seized him, more wracking than the last. He grappled for a rag as he collapsed beside the bed, trying to stifle the hacking lest it bring Nathan back into the room; it would be impossible to persuade the healer that Ezra was fit for travel if he saw him in this condition. The fit quickly passed, although to Ezra it seemed like ages until he regained his breath. He leaned, exhausted, against the side of the bed, his head reeling from the force of the attack, and fixed his weary gaze at the ceiling as he waited for the room to stop spinning and the crushing pain in his chest to ease.
Perhaps I should heed Nathan's advice, he thought, panting as the world slowly righted itself. His eyes dropped to the blood-spotted rag in his hand. Perhaps I should stay here...
In the dead silence of the room he could make out the sounds wafting up from the saloon below, soft piano music mingled with hoarse profanity and the high-pitched laughter of the working girls. As Ezra sat and listened, he realized that it was his life echoing in the indistinguishable roar, a life of hollow pursuits and gold-tinged futility. He had once sat at those tables, rejoiced in the unforeseeable turns of luck, and never once imagined that there was anything beyond the moment of winning, never planned past the next hand, the next drink. Why bother, when your life seemed as inexhaustible as your good fortune?
It had all seemed so perfect, so right then, but now...Ezra painfully hoisted himself to his feet, sat on the edge of the bed. Now the emptiness of his old life galled him, and the prospect of ending his days in a similar state of worthlessness seemed worse than suicide. A vision danced before his eyes, of himself lying in his bed, waiting to die, alone, counting the faceless days as they passed in unceasing monotony, while the hollow gaiety of the saloon below him reminded him of the wasted years. The others would probably be dead; certainly the murderers had left little doubt about their desire to exterminate them all. The scene made Ezra shudder, and solidified his resolve.
He took a few deep breaths and stood, feeling his head clear as he reached for his black hat and gunbelt. Insanity it may be, but he could see where his duty lay, as plainly as a gold coin among poker chips. He owed Chris Larabee and the others a lot more than his life; any good he had ever done had been due to them, and it was time to settle the debt.
He was almost finished. One last thing. Striding to the handsome secretary, he pulled out his last sheet of good stationery and a fine-tipped pen and inkwell. Sitting himself down, he dipped the pen into the ink, placed its tip against his lip for a moment in thought, then began to write, "My Very Dear Mother..."
+ + + + + + +
Chris leaned against the post of the livery, his black hat pulled over his eyes as he watched the others prepare their horses for the ride. There was little conversation as the grim-faced men strapped on bulging saddlebags and dripping canteens; even JD seemed serious and occupied. Nathan was carefully attaching his homemade medical kit to his saddle; Chris noted darkly how it was stuffed full of bandages. He thought for a second about Nathan's news that Ezra was coming, and scowled; could be a problem. But it was Ezra's decision, and Chris had his own concerns...
Vin was checking his ammunition and securing his extra rifle under his blanket roll; during the preparations he locked eyes with Chris for a moment, but no words were needed to express their thoughts to each other. Josiah was softly conferring with one of the local men, probably making arrangements for the caretaking of the church, should he not return. Chris smiled tightly around the cheroot in his mouth; still seeing that crow, Josiah? Maybe I've seen it too.
The preparations finished, they led their horses into the street and mounted up without speaking; only the dusty creak and rattle of the horses' tack disturbed the air. Mary stood nearby, watching wordlessly, her face frozen with anxiety. She and Chris locked eyes, but exchanged no words; nothing more could be said at this point. Chris would return having wrought his revenge, or not at all.
As the black-clad leader prepared to mount his horse, he heard the others emit exclamations of surprise, and turned to see Ezra trotting up, fully prepared for the ride. The gambler reined in Chaucer as he approached Chris, and flashed the gunslinger a dazzling smile.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," Ezra called cheerfully, seeming to enjoy the consternation his appearance had caused. "Might I make an addition to your party?"
Chris eyed him warily. In the full glare of sunlight Ezra looked more pale and haggard than ever; as the two men regarded each other Ezra stifled a small cough.
Finally a small smile curled the ends of Chris' lips. He had Ezra pegged as fairly useless at first, a con out for gain who'd bolt at the first opportunity. But the man had proven himself now, many times over, and here at the end he was offering all he had, his life probably, and that took grit. Had to respect that, even if it was insane. Maybe because it was insane. For a man who left nothing to chance, Ezra was sure taking a hell of a big one.
"We can't wait up for you," Chris said at last, squinting up at the gambler. "You get sick or fall behind, you're on your own."
They were harsh terms, but exactly what Ezra had expected to hear; Chris was never one to coddle his men, especially now. He touched the tip of his black hat, bowed slightly.
"My gun is at your service, sir," he replied; Chris nodded in return, a gesture of respect, then turned his attention to his tack. Ezra guided Chaucer to stand beside Buck, who was eyeing him in concern.
"You know what you're doin'?" Buck whispered to Ezra, leaning over in his saddle. Ezra shot him a glance, then smiled a little.
"He knows," Nathan assured him. Ezra and the former slave exchanged looks, small smiles; they both knew that Nathan would keep the cardsharp in the saddle as long as possible. Then Buck noticed that Ezra's gaze had shifted, his expression serious now, and turned to see that Josiah was looking at the gambler, too.
Healer or preacher, Buck thought, feeling his gut twist a bit. He'll need one of 'em before this is over-and we might too...
Chris was the last to mount, and he rode out to stand his horse before the line of determined men who had shared his pain for the last three years and now wanted to end it as much as he did. He wanted to tell them they didn't have to do this, to follow him on his quest for justice-it was his fight, not theirs, after all. But looking at the men who gazed back at him in silent expectation, he knew, after three years of shared pain and spilled blood, that their battles were all one now, that the storms they had ridden through together in the past had only strengthened them for the one ahead.
Behind them, he saw Mary, who had been joined by Casey now; the two women were watching sadly, wearing expressions of dread. Damn, Chris thought, looking at Casey, I hope JD doesn't turn and see her here. It'd tear the kid apart.
"Ready?" he said finally, his eyes resting in turn on each of the six men before him. They returned his gaze with determined expressions, every one answering without a sound.
"Then let's ride."
He turned his horse and led the way, the others trotting behind. As they made their way down the street towards the open expanse before them, Chris knew the women were watching and praying, just as Sarah had watched and prayed as he rode away from happiness a hundred lifetimes ago. Could she hear him now, as he swore on his life's blood to finally finish his weary search for revenge and peace? Chris had no idea but swore it anyway, and fixed his eyes on the horizon as they thundered out of town.(Me again! After this would probably come a lot of exciting stuff, with Chris and Co. tracking Fowler, and Fowler tracking them-somehow or other it would all end up in a gunfight between Fowler's men (but not Fowler himself) and the Seven in a shallow desert canyon. Now somehow - and neither Sarah nor I can decide exactly how this happens - Ezra saves the lives of the entire gang through a noble and self-sacrificing gesture which ends up getting him shot full of holes. Or maybe he could just save Chris, I'm not sure. He managed to take one of Fowler's men down with him, but is nevertheless fatally injured. As the scene opens, the gunfight is over, and the men are assessing the damage, unaware that Ezra's been shot.)
Vin reached the outcropping first; he surveyed the scene and lowered his rifle, his face a mask of sorrow.
One dead man lay nearby; the hired gun of Fowler's, another nameless corpse to add to the pile in the valley below. Beyond this man, however, Vin saw Ezra, lying on his back, hatless, his shirt stained deep crimson from several bullet wounds.
Vin felt something drain from him. Damn.
Turning, he hollered, "Nathan!"
Everyone below looked up.
"Yeah?" Nathan replied, as they stared at him.
"Come up here," the tracker yelled, looked at Ezra, then back at the group. "It's Ezra."
There was a pause; Chris said something, threw his cheroot away with a fierce violence. Then they all began to climb the precipice, the setting sun casting long shadows from their bodies as they moved against the jagged face of the hill.
Nathan was the first to arrive; he had his kit in hand, but one look at Vin, who was kneeling next to the stricken gambler, told him that the tools would not be needed. Nathan bowed his head for a second, then joined Vin, who was cradling the back of Ezra's head in one hand, keeping it off of the hard, stony ground.
"He still alive?"
Vin looked up, his face grave. "Uh-huh. He ain't awake though."
Nathan bent over the still form, counted the wounds. Three, all in vital places, and Ezra was weak already. There was nothing he could do. He shot Vin a look; the tracker only nodded.
"Yeah," he said in a rough voice, his eyes piercing Nathan with a bitter stare,"I know."
As the healer wadded up the discarded red jacket and gently placed it beneath Ezra's head, he heard the gambler shudder and draw in a deep breath, awakening.
"Take it easy, now," Nathan said softly. Ezra's eyes blinked open, squinted against the sun, looked at the grim faces surrounding him.
"Did we succeed in expelling those bastards?" he finally inquired, forming the words between gasps for breath. Nathan nodded.
"Oh yeah, we whupped 'em."
Ezra looked around.
"Anyone else injured in the fray?"
"Nope," Vin said tersely.
Ezra nodded, relieved, then closed his eyes. He remembered being shot several times, felt some pain, but it was dull and distant, as if it were happening somewhere else. The fact that he was going to die soon wandered through his mind, but he regarded it with little interest; he's been aware of this moment's approach since the day he first saw the coughed-up blood on his handkerchief, prepared for it since the day he first saw Dr. Harrison, and now that it was here it was almost a relief. After a few moments he opened his eyes to meet Nathan's solemn stare.
Nathan drew in a deep breath, wondering how he was going to tell Ezra the wounds were mortal. Before he could say a word, he saw Ezra gazing at him steadily; upon seeing that he had Nathan's attention, the gambler closed his eyes and nodded; he already knew.
Nathan and Vin exchanged glances; there was something new in Vin's eyes, a cold glimmer that Nathan knew was in his own gaze as well. Fowler would pay for this, six times over.
The scuffling of boots on the rocks caused both men to look up; there stood Chris, with the others clambering behind him. Ezra opened his eyes and exchanged looks with the black-clad man, who regarded the dying gambler with a piercing gaze.
"Well, Mr. Larabee," Ezra finally gasped, "it appears I have broken my promise to you."
Chris approached and knelt behind Vin, his eyes full of respect for the man whom he had once considered the least reliable of the group. "What promise was that, Ezra?" he asked, his tone light.
Ezra licked his lips. "I swore I would never again run out on you; and your words have proven prophetic. You did say I'd be dead if I deserted you once more, and so I am."
Chris cocked his head as he studied Ezra appraisingly. "I don't think I'm talking to the same man who ran out on me, am I?"
Ezra pursed his lips, considered. "No, sir, I guess it was someone else, after all." He drew another breath, with more difficulty. "Pleasure riding with you, Mr. Larabee."
The other man looked at him steadily for a moment, then nodded, a tribute to the first of them to fall. "Same here."
Chris remained motionless for a moment, then stood and walked back to the others. He locked eyes with Buck for a moment, and the other man's jaw tightened when he recognized the white fire that was burning behind them; Chris' need for vengeance had now grown.
They stood silent together in the deepening twilight, united in a bitter grief with which they were almost all familiar. After three years of riding together, the bonds seemed too deep for mere words to suffice. JD seemed most affected; he stared at Ezra with his mouth open in shock, his hazel eyes round in disbelief; his face seemed as pale as Ezra's in the fading purple light. Ezra saw him and smiled a little.
"Son, you might want to close your mouth, the flies around here aren't too tasty."
JD obeyed, but Buck noticed that his look was still stricken; the other men wore expressions of grim resignation-they had all known one or more of them might die, and accepted the risks-but JD had secretly hoped they would all survive. The idea that this was now impossible seemed ready to crush him. Poor kid, Buck thought, this is the first time he's seen a friend die, and there ain't a damn thing we can do to help him. Worst part is, it never gets easier.
Ezra peered at him, then said, "C'mere, son."
The young man scurried to Ezra's side, knelt down, whipped off his bowler hat, unsure what to do as he gazed into the face of his dying friend. He felt ready to throw up, and gulped,trying to quell his distress. Ezra noticed his bravery and thought, good kid.
"Now, JD," Ezra said evenly, "I have somethin' very important to ask you to do for me."
JD gulped again and sniffed, desperately trying to control himself.
"I'll do anything you want, Ezra," he promised.
"You lost your horse, correct?" He was addressing JD with a very earnest look on his face.
JD nodded. "Uh, yeah, those bastards, they shot her right out from under me."
Ezra nodded, coughed, looked down at his hands, then back up.
"Then you must take care of Chaucer for me."
The young man stared, surprised and obviously overwhelmed; he knew what that horse meant to Ezra.
"You'll do that for me, correct?" Ezra was saying. "As a professional I know I can entrust him to your care."
JD nodded, flustered.
"Sure, Ezra, you bet, he'll be the happiest horse in the territory."
Ezra smiled, coughed. "I've no doubt. Thank you, son."
JD nodded, pulled on his hat, then impulsively put his hand over Ezra's and gripped it for a second, just to say goodbye. The two exchanged glances, then JD rose and walked away, quietly wiping away tears and hoping the others wouldn't see him weep.
Nathan pulled out a cup and some medicine bottles while Chris looked at Vin and Buck.
"We can't stay with him," he said finally, his eyes gleaming hard in the light of the dying sun. "We got to follow Fowler."
The other two nodded; Buck pulled off his hat, ran a hand wearily through his black hair, sighed.
"It's a damn shame, Chris," he breathed. Chris nodded, his eyes clouded with memories. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder, turned to see Josiah standing behind him.
"I'd like to stay with him, Chris," the preacher said softly. "Reckon he's gonna need someone by, to bury him, at least."
Chris nodded, said nothing.
Behind them, Nathan had finished mixing something up in his battered tin cup, and offered it to Ezra, who eyed it with doubt.
"Jus' somethin' to ease the pain," Nathan explained. "You better take it, cause it's all the doctorin' I can give you."
With Vin's help, Ezra struggled into a sitting position and accepted the potion.
"I would have preferred a good brandy as my last drink, but my thanks anyway, Mr. Jackson," he said, before draining the container. He made a face as he handed it back to the healer, saying, "That's worse than Mr. Wilmington's coffee."
"Hey," Buck grinned, crouching beside him, "is that any way to thank a man who's financed at least half of your fancy duds?"
A smirk crossed Ezra's lips as he appraised his comrade. "If that's how you feel, sir, you may feel free to take possession of my remaining wardrobe. It should render your attraction of the fair sex positively irresistible."
Buck laughed slightly, then reached out and shook Ezra's hand, his expression turning serious as he looked into Ezra's face; the grip was returned, not very strong but full of warmth, as Ezra regarded Buck with equal esteem. Buck rose as Vin and Nathan eased Ezra back into a supine position; as he made his way down to the horses, he passed JD, who was emerging from behind a rock, hat in hand, wiping his nose on his sleeve. The kid took one look at Buck and snorted in frustration.
Buck gave him a confused look, startled. "What, kid?"
JD sighed, looking very embarrassed. "Well, I-I didn't want you t'see me, y'know..." he sniffed and looked up into Buck's eyes, hoping he wouldn't have to finish the sentence.
The older man regarded the boy for a moment, then said quietly, "JD, trust me on this. It ain't wrong to cry when those you care for leave you, and I don't think none the less of you for doin' it."
JD shrugged, still uneasy. "Well, you ain't cryin'."
"How do you know, kid?"
The raspy tone of Buck's voice seemed to catch JD off guard; he swallowed, sniffed again, as he stared at Buck with obvious sorrow. Buck sighed, put an arm around JD's shoulder, and led him off to the horses.
"No, kid, ain't nothin' to be worried about in cryin' for friends. It's when you don't cry that it's time to worry."
Chris stood over Ezra, watching as Nathan gave Josiah some medicines. When he was finished, Nathan looked down at the gambler and pursed his lips.
"Gotta go," he said. Ezra nodded, his eyes still clear.
"Give them Hell for me, Mr. Jackson," he said, extending his hand. Nathan took it and smiled.
"Oh-" Ezra said suddenly, "and would you tell Mr. Dunne that if he looks in my left saddlebag, he'll find a flask of brandy that he's perfectly welcome to? I'm afraid the poor boy is going to need it."
Nathan nodded, shook Ezra's hand one more time, stood and walked away. Vin slapped Ezra lightly on the shoulder, smiled tightly.
"Reckon I'll see ya soon, pard," he said in his low, raspy voice, looking down at his comrade. Ezra chuckled.
"You must learn to curb that optimism, Mr. Tanner. I'll be sure to say hello to Eli Joe in Hell for you."
Vin's smile faded a little; he touched the brim of his hat, gave a nod which Ezra returned, then stood up, moved down the hill. Josiah locked eyes with Chris.
"I'll be along," he said simply. Chris nodded, looked down at Ezra, who lay with eyes closed, appearing to be growing weaker and paler by the minute. He looked out to the horizon, narrowed his eyes; he hadn't wanted it to end like this, had wanted them all to survive as much as JD did. But he knew better. He gave Josiah a parting look, then turned to make his way down the rocks.
The sun had set, and the clear violet sky was darkening to purple. Here and there a star or two blinked into view.
A few minutes went by, then Ezra opened his eyes.
"Ah, Mr. Sanchez," he said, his voice thick and drowsy; the medicine was taking effect. "Acting as the Angel of Death today?"
"Just his helper," Josiah replied, smiling grimly. "Anything I can do?"
Ezra seemed to consider it. "There's a letter for my mother on my desk back at the saloon. If you survive I wonder if you'd mind terribly mailing it for me."
The ex-preacher nodded, thinking that he'd telegraph Maude of the news as well, breaking it to her as gently as possible. At least he could tell her Ezra died well. "Anything else?"
A pause. "There is $500 in my strongbox which I would also like her to have. The key is in my right saddlebag."
"I'll see to it. That all?"
Ezra closed his eyes; it was getting hard to think, his mind was fuzzing up. Finally he forced his eyes open partway, looked at Josiah with an expression of sincerity.
"As you know, Mr. Sanchez, I've led what some may call a dishonest life."
Josiah shrugged. "No more'n most. Just more open about it, I'd say."
Ezra smiled weakly at his friend's words, then continued. "I recall that you once said you knew some prayers for the dying."
Josiah nodded. Ezra's gaze was steady.
"Then, sir, I wonder if you'd say a few for me."
Josiah sat still for a moment, then gently placed one massive hand over Ezra's as it lay on the wounded man's chest, bowed his head, and softly began to recite the most appropriate prayer he could think of. When he looked back up, Ezra's eyes had closed, his face relaxed.
Josiah sighed, and bowed his head again.
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