by Heather F.


The creature acted as it had been bred to do, as instinct dictated. It was in its genetic makeup. It had not conscious thought of right versus wrong. It held no anger toward the prey it hunted. The hound was made to hunt , to corner it's prey to fight if necessary. It would do so until it's masters arrived. The hound continued its offensive. It leaped onto Larabee's chest digging it's claws into the black coat trying to maintain its balance while attacking it's elusive prey.

Chris with only his left arm free lifted his forearm up to prevent the dog from going for his exposed throat. The dog never finished the lunge. Chris never heard the shot that saved his life.

"Nice shooting Vin." Buck slapped the tracker on the shoulder as the last dog fell from Larabee's chest in a heap. It's body was rapidly left behind by the sliding men.

Ezra felt himself slowing down. He managed to get his feet underneath him, his right ankle gave he went down on his right knee. Something grabbed his left upper arm hauling him roughly to his feet. He yelped at the sudden pain but found his feet. Together he and Larabee bolted for the river oblivious to the now dead hounds and oblivious to the five men who approached the river from the other side.

Chris and Ezra splashed through the icy water barely aware of its temperature, hell barely away they were even crossing it. Larabee slipped and went down. Standish with his right hand half dragged half lifted him to his feet. Both men pushed and pulled each other to the opposite shore.

They scrambled out of the water into bodies. Chris felt rather than saw someone grab him. He swung madly catching a jaw sending his attacker sprawling. Standish was fighting the hands that grabbed for him. He too connected with his target, a sloppy foot to the opponents knee. Someone went down with a yelp.

Josiah realized what was happening. He grabbed Standish from behind after Buck went down holding his knee and Vin holding his jaw in a daze. The giant ex-preacher wrapped his arms around the smaller man pinning the gambler's arms to his side. He was prepared for the fight but not the terror or ferocity in which both men turned on him.

Standish let out a growl and threw his head back connecting solidly with Sanchez's sternum. Josiah felt his eyes water. He did not let go instead he tightened his grip. Chris unable to use his right hand punched wildly at the form that had wrapped itself around the southerner. He hit the figure time and again a snarl escaping his curled lip in rage.

There were voices shouting names and suddenly more weight piled onto Larabee's back and soon the two desperate men went down in a heap but they still struggled. They struck when they could using feet, elbows, knees hands or heads as weapons anything that became free became a tool. They would not be denied their right to live they would not succumb to any easy defeat. They fought because they could not afford to lose.

They had been cold to long, had gone to long without food, they were tired and battered so the desperate fight lasted only a few minutes. It seemed an eternity. Soon Chris and Ezra were reduced to being pinned to the rocky river bank fighting for breath. Spittle and blood foamed from each man's cut lips. They heaved for breath still straining against the weight that held them.

"Will you two knock it off!"

Chris thought he recognized the voice. Nathan? Larabee struggled some more then rested his sweating forehead on the cool rocks trying to call up some reserve of energy.

"You boys through?"

Ezra relaxed a bit. Josiah?

"Chris, Ezra..It's us.," JD said kneeling down in front of the two pinned men twisting his head so that his long dark brown hair rested on the rocks.

Both Chris and Ezra stared at Dunne for a moment. Chris found his voice first, "JD?" Larabee watched amazed as the brown eyed boy nodded vigorously.

"Then would you be so kind as to remove yourselves from us," Standish whispered out fighting for breath. A large rock seemed to have embedded itself his diaphragm.

"You two gonna settle down?" Buck this time. Chris could not swing his head around to gaze at the tracker because someone's shin pinned his neck down.

"Let us up," Larabee hissed out. His relief at being found by the others was quickly disappearing under the annoyance of not being able to move.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan had both men seated under a twisted sun bleached tree. It's withering branches held no leaves and probably would not do so again. It's bark had long since been lost and its roots no longer absorbed water.

JD stayed with Nathan while Buck, Vin and Josiah decided to try and find Delany. Wilmington was itching for a fight.

Jackson sighed and faced the two men before them. He had seen better looking corpses. Standish sported a purple swollen right eye and a greenish bruise to his jaw. Larabee's nose was swollen and his left eye blackened as a result. Nathan was sure it was broken or very close to it.

He had them strip to the waist. That proved difficult, JD and himself had to assist. This angered everyone involved. Nathan immediately recognized the dislocated left shoulder on Standish. That needed fixing now. Without warning and with efficiency born out of pure repetition he grated the shoulder back into place. Standish yelped and groan in pain burying his head in the healers shoulder.

"Had to be done Ezra." His only response was tightly closed eyes and a tense shaking.

Larabee watched Nathan wearily as the healer switched his attention to the gunslinger. Ezra did not look so good after his so called 'help'.

"I'm fine Nathan," Chris said leaning back away from the healer. He moved his right arm causing Standish to hiss in air.

Larabee stopped.

"aahuh..That's why your pupils are two different sizes?" Nathan pointed out. Damn, that would be a problem. They would make it back to Four Corners by late afternoon but with Standish's shoulder and Chris's possible concussion it would not be easy. Not to mention the shackles that bound them. Getting them home would be a trick. He ran his hands over the gunslingers head finding a few lumps and a slight cut.

"Ezra how's the ankle?" Nathan asked.

"If I say fine will you leave it alone?" Standish asked cautiously. The shoulder was a dirty trick.

"Can't do much about it out here anyhow. Need to leave that boot on, we'll take a look at it when we get back to town."

"Riders coming," JD announced reaching for his gun. Nathan mimicked the boy and both stood placing themselves protectively between the riders and their two friends. Chris and Ezra struggled to their feet. They would not be caught sitting down.

Nathan and JD holstered their weapons when Vin, Josiah and Buck rode into the area.

"Any luck?" JD asked. He wanted to go but Buck had told him Chris and Ezra needed looking after. Jackson could not do that alone.

"Nope. They must have high tailed it out of here when the dogs went down," Tanner answered simply.

"We staying here tonight?" JD asked. Nathan was about to say 'yes' when to very definitive 'No's' rang out in unison. This surprised everyone.

"Damn, Josiah I think that's the first time those two have ever agreed on anything," Buck said speaking of Chris and Ezra.

"Tis the season for miracles," Sanchez intoned.

"I think it would be best if we stayed tonight while someone rides into town for a buckboard," Jackson explained to the two men.

Standish glanced nervously at Larabee. Maude was due into town late today.

"Sorry Nathan, we're going back now with or without you," Chris said. He and Ezra had gently shrugged back into their shirts and coats. Both men started walking in the direction of Four Corners. The other five stood dumbfounded watching the receding backs.

"Well iffen they're that determined..." Tanner said leaving the statement unfinished. He started out after the two men leading Peso. The others followed.


Mary watched from the front of the print shop as the seven men road into town. Her relief only belied her sudden concern. Chris rode double with Ezra on Peso. She noticed his right arm was twisted behind his back but she could discern why. Standish rode with his left arm apparently wrapped to his midsection. Both men appeared disheveled and worn. Chris was asking Ezra something and from the gamblers irritated expression he was determined not to answer. Vin and JD rode double on Dunne's bay while Nathan, Buck and Josiah flanked the group.

They rode past Ezra nodded pleasantly in greeting. Chris seemed dazed or lost and again asked Standish a question only to be ignored again.

She was greeted with various 'ma'am's as the others rode shadowing Chris and Ezra.

Hans gazed up from his forge when Josiah entered leading Larabee and the gambler.

"Brother Hans I wonder if you could do us a favor," Sanchez started off. The farrier listened to the proposition and readily agreed. He had the two men stretch the chain out over his anvil. In no time the chain was broken. Releasing the wrists was another matter but again Hans proved his versatility with a hammer and easily unhinged the iron bracelets.

"I am indebted to you kind sir," Ezra said smiling. The stage was due in two hours. He had plenty of time to prepare for Maude's impending arrival.

Chris rubbed his head while being led out of the forge area by Josiah and asked, "Why's my head hurt?" Standish shut his eyes, Josiah groaned and Buck laughed.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stared at the bottle of Laudanum. His shoulder ached mercilessly and the removal of his boot did nothing to facilitate pleasant thoughts toward the healer.

"You're gonna wanna drink that Ezra," Jackson said peering over at the hesitant cardsharp. He understood Standish's aversion to the thick ,sweet, medicine. "It'll help with the pain in the shoulder and it'll make your foot feel better." Nathan turned back to the task at hand. He and Vin were doing their best to get Chris cleaned up and settled into the cot. Larabee's stomach had finally fallen victim to the blow to the head and heaved on the way back to the clinic. He had dozed off quickly after they got him up the stairs.

Buck was down giving Billy a ride on his grey gelding. Billy for his part did not complain even though it was not the same as Chris giving him ride on his black.

Standish placed the bottle down untouched. He wanted both feet planted firmly on the ground when his mother arrived. He had no delusions about a comfortably slow holiday. That was not his mother's way. She was a whirlwind of activity, a scam, as well as an ace , was always up her sleeve. Ezra wanted to be lucid to deflect any hair brain schemes his mother might come up with on her travels here. The citizens of Four Corners did after all depend on him to protect them from people like his mother and himself.

He slid slowly from the other bed testing his foot. It twinged and burned but held some weight.

"Just where do you think you're going?" Nathan asked fixing blankets around Larabee.

"To get a hot bath and a change of clothes." Ezra returned limping toward the door wearing only one boot and his dirty ripped clothing from the last few days.

Nathan stared over at Vin who nodded slightly indicating the healer should let Ezra go without a fight.

"Fine just don't get your bandages wet," Jackson conceded. Hell maybe Maude would show up after all.

Standish nodded and limped out the door.

Josiah sat in a chair outside the mercantile working on his sermon. Ezra smiled, "You'll do fine Mr. Sanchez if you just don't ......" Standish stopped himself and continued on smiling ignoring the preachers plaintive, "don't do what??"

Ezra laughed to himself and waved to Billy who reined the large appaloosa under the watchful eye of Wilmington. Both waved back. The large gelding walked lazily up and down the street paying more attention to Buck's leg commands than the sporadic commands from young Billy Travis.

Standish passed the telegraph office. Stanley saw him and came jogging out from behind the counter, "oh Mr. Standish..wait Mr. Standish..." Stanley uttered as he rushed out onto the boardwalk. He handed the folded piece of paper to the gambler and explained, "this came in for you on today's wire."

Ezra nodded his head and quietly thanked the man. The telegraph operator hesitated a moment before scurrying back inside to his work.

Ezra contemplated the folded piece of paper in his hand. He stared at it, his hand shook slightly. He knew what it was, knew what it would say...Still he could not be sure. Maude said she was coming. She would be here. It was her idea she initiated the whole thing.. Maude was coming...damn it.

Ezra sat down on the cold wooden bench just outside the telegram office. The dark winter sky had turned slate grey snow threatening again. Stanley stood quietly inside watching the gambler. The sense of foreboding could not be ignored and the operator was curious. Though he could not read the words the sudden slump in the shoulders and the drooped head foretold of disappointing news.

Standish unfolded the paper. "Ezra, dear...stop...Have met a promising prospect on stage...stop.

Will not be able to join you...stop....You understand..stop... Love always Your Mother.

Ezra read the note three times. The hollowness inside only seemed to blossom. He neatly folded the paper and slid it into his coat pocket. He gained his feet and headed toward the saloon. The hot bath and changed of clothes could wait a few minutes. He wanted a drink.

Josiah gazed up as the conman strode passed again. Sanchez noticed the lack of spring in his step. "You all right brother?"

Ezra smiled reassuringly and answered, "Yes of course."

The preacher watched the younger man for a moment. The last few days had been hard on him. He was rightfully tired and slightly down. Sanchez turned back to his immediate problem, his sermon.

Ezra slid into the saloon. The raw ,damp, cold of the past few days had seemed to seep into his core. He had been chilled for to long. He walked along the bar his left arm tightly wrapped to his chest his clothes in dirty tatters. He could feel the eyes of the taverns few customers looking him over then returning to their drinks. Standish limped down the mahogany bar to the end and reached behind it. Seth watched him closely. Inez had left to visit family a little south of here and had asked the tall lanky man to watch the bar in her absence. Ezra squatted down searching the sticky shelves directly under the bar top. He pushed aside a few selections of whiskey and reached for a hidden bottle. Seth recognized it immediately and made a move to step forward. The bar keep stopped.

The green eye that met him seemed as cold as the closing day outside. The right eye was still discolored and swollen shut. Seth stopped and watched the gambler. He had never seen Standish lose his temper before, had never even worried about it. The man had a contagious smile and an easy laugh always on his lips. Even when playing poker he remained laid back and cheerful. When he appeared close to becoming angry he would push away from the table and leave. Today, however, fury burned in the one green eye. A challenge lay before the barkeep. Seth was no fool. Standish was a part of the seven for a reason. The man could be as deadly as Larabee or any of the others. The barkeep held his tongue.

Tanner watched Standish limp into the saloon. He could immediately sense something was wrong. The tracker kept his seat and watched the southerner make his way down the bar. He had a determination about him that kept anyone from interferring with his progress. Tanner knew enough about the six other men he rode with when to back off and wait. Something had happened to Standish in the last few minutes that suddenly made him very upset. The tracker watched as the barkeep made a move toward the squatting gambler. The barkeep had stopped suddenly unsure what to do. Vin had not heard Ezra say anything but something had transpired between the two men that made the barkeep back up a step. Seth glanced quickly over at Tanner as if seeking advice. Tanner shook his head slightly. Leave Standish alone. The barkeep backed off.

Ezra with agonizing stiffness pushed himself back to his feet. His legs, back, shoulder aww hell his whole body hurt and ached. With a brandy bottle in hand he headed back along the bar and out the bat wing doors. Tanner pushed himself wearily to his feet and approached the bar, "What'd he take?" The Texan drawled out slowly.

"Best bottle of Brandy the house has got," Seth said watching the batwing doors swing slowly closed, "Inez ordered it last week for him. Suppose to be for him and his mother when she comes."

Vin nodded his thanks and followed the conman out the door.

Buck came trotting up from the livery. Billy had found JD soaking Chaucer's foot and wanted to help. Dunne had promised Ezra he would continue to look after his horse until he was feeling better. Standish had actually refused the boy, saying he should tend his own animal. Dunne was not hurt he understood about caring for your animal but JD explained it was his Christmas present to Ezra. Standish had remained quiet for a moment. On the wages the Judge gave them JD could not afford to buy gifts for everyone. Buck and the others had actually been afraid the southerner would refuse. Chaucer meant to much to him and sometimes Standish did not see the writing on the wall so to speak. Instead the gambler surprised everyone by saying it was not necessary but thanked the boy for the gift and accepted it. Ezra knew Chaucer was in good hands.

Wilmington spotted Vin on the boardwalk outside the saloon and came jogging up. " 'Ey Vin." The large mustached gunslinger wore a grin from ear to ear. Tanner had to smile Buck would probably be visiting Sheila tonight again. The tracker was amazed Buck had not gotten himself killed yet.

" 'Ey Buck," Tanner said. He turned his head and watched the gambler hobble up the bathhouse steps bottle in hand. His whole demeanor was off.

"What cha looking at?" Buck asked following the tracker's blue gaze. Wilmington only could see Standish limping gamely up the stairs to the bath house. That reminded Buck he should grab a hot bath before seeing Sheila and trying to cheer her up. "He all right?"

"I don't know..." Tanner trailed off watching Ezra disappear into the bathhouse. "Nathan says he and Chris just need rest, shoulder and ankle will give'im trouble for awhile...could just be tired..." Vin trailed off

Buck did not let it go, "But..." He prodded the normally quiet tracker on hoping he would finish his thought. Vin did not miss much and when he thought something was wrong the young man was normally right. Wilmington had learned to listen to Tanner's observations and to back them up. Sometimes, the other and himself included, missed things Vin easily observed. His quiet manner and almost background presence made him a natural for picking up subtle changes in people and the environment. The only one who matched his ability was the gambler. The difference of course was Ezra tried to make a profit off his observations and usually succeeded.

"He just took the Brandy he ordered for him and his ma and headed up for a bath," Vin explained.

Buck was about to write it off. Half the time Maude came to visit Ezra either tried to skip town or stayed involved in poker games. Buck liked Mrs. Standish she was not his type of course, but she had a sense of humor and was not above embarrassing her son. The many stories she told of his childhood exploits Buck knew to be construed but the unmistakable embarrassment that crept into the smug gambler's face was priceless. Maude could turn the town upside down and have people catering to her before the day was out. She was a masterful conwoman and incredible with a deck of cards. Ezra had followed closely in his mother's foot steps.

When Buck had learned Maude was coming for Christmas he almost felt bad for Ezra. Standish hated sharing any kind of potential mark or profit. With his mother in town she would out shine, out do and out manipulate her son. She would do it just to keep him on his toes, keep him sharp. Buck knew she did it to protect him. Yet instead of fretting over his mother's visit the gambler actually looked forward to it. He had gone to great lengths getting things ready for her arrival. Wilmington had even offered his advice, which of course Ezra ignored.

"Hell I'm going up there. I'll see what I can find out," Buck said. He practically jogged down the boardwalk.

Tanner watched him go and then shouted, "Try and be subtle Buck," Vin chuckled when Buck held up his hand waved 'ok' without turning around.


Josiah watched Buck stride past and heard Vin's suggestion. Sanchez sat dejectedly on the bench the weather finally sapping whatever fortitude he might have had about completing his sermon. He stood up slightly frustrated and decided to forget about his blasted services. If people did not like it then that would be fine they did not have come next year.

"What's Buck trying to be subtle about?" Josiah asked slipping by the tracker entering the saloon. He needed a drink. All this thought over the gawd damn holiday mass was giving him a headache.

Tanner followed him a smile playing at his lips. JD, Buck and Ezra had really done a number on the giant man. Josiah looked ready to shoot someone.

"Buck ain't subtle about anything," Tanner said. The tracker silently apologized to Ezra for siccing Wilmington on him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat in the steaming hot water doing his best at keep his bandages dry but failing miserably. He could care less. He slid deeper into the water submerging his injured foot and shoulders. The hot water felt good to the cold bones and aching muscles. Ezra had been cold for so long he had begun to think he would never be warm again. Standish fumbled but managed to unwrap the top of the brandy bottle and then pull the cork out with his teeth. It was really a crime to drink sophisticated liquor in such a manner. His mother had taught him better. Ezra contemplated getting a cup then thought better of it. To hell with his mother and sophistication. The warm water, the sweet smell of the bottle's contents and the emptiness created by the telegram deemed it ok to ignore proper etiquette. He tilted the bottle back and took a large swig. He closed his eyes leaned back against the tub and swallowed. The fiery passage of the smooth liquor felt good cascading down the back of his throat. Ezra could almost hear it splash in his empty stomach. He would have to remember to get something to eat later. He took another long pull and settled down in the water, his right hand resting on the neck of the bottle which sat on the rim of the tub. The hot water loosened tense muscles and seemed to wick the aches from his body. Ezra closed his eyes. He had spent most of his holidays without family. What was one more Christmas?

"Ey Ezra what cha doin?" Buck exclaimed as he slid into his own tub next to the gambler's. Standish merely groaned.

"Are you truly befuddled Mr. Wilmington or do you just want to engage in witty conversation?" Ezra did not bother opening his left eye. Buck sat to his right and Standish did not feel like rolling his head to glance at the gunslinger.

Buck raised his eye brows and a frown creased his mustached features. Tanner was right something was definitely amiss. Ever since they had found Chris and Ezra the gambler had been in good spirits. Well, that is considering he had been shackled to Chris for two or three days and chased by hounds. Ezra seemed to have taken it in stride, until now.

"Ezra ya wound me. Witty conversation is my specialty." Buck leaned across the tub and nudged the gambler's bruised forearm. He waited until Ezra gazed at him with his left eye. "The women love witty." He winked at the conman and settled back down in the tub.

Standish sighed and took another long swig. This was not going the way he had planned it. So much for the quiet bath and drink. He still might make a quick get away to Eagle Bend. He would spend Christmas there engaged in games of chance. He would have to keep an eye out for the Sheriff there however. The sheriff had verbally warned Larabee that the gambler was not allowed back in city limits without some kind of watch dog attached to him. One little brawl and your labeled for life. The injustice of it all, Ezra mused.

"You gonna share that with yer ole pard' Buck?" Wilmington asked taking the bottle from the conman before he could refuse. Buck eyed the gambler as he took a swig. The southerner merely watched him unconcerned. Wilmington took a couple of gulps. The stuff tasted really good. Sweet, smooth, better than whiskey almost, must be expensive. "Not bad," Buck said staring at the label reading it. He would have to remember the name of this stuff.

"Are you going to stare at the bottle all afternoon Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra held his right arm outstretched and accepted the bottle back. He too took another drink. Ezra could feel the alcohol already begin to take effect. Between the hot water bath, empty stomach and weariness the brandy quickly flooded his system. Good. He felt his muscles tingle and his cheeks go flush. He wanted to be numb, match how he felt on the inside.

"That's good stuff," Buck pointed out. He settled back down in the tub staring straight ahead. Subtle, be subtle....He would be discreet. "Thought you'd've saved something like that and shared it with yer ma."

He glanced over at the gambler and saw the shift in body language. The droop in the neck the clenching of his right hand and sudden resignation on the closed eyed features. Buck knew he found the source of the problem.

"Yes, well...," Standish paused. Everyone knew his mother was suppose to come for Christmas. He had tried to disguise his elation but knew he failed miserably. His mother had conned him, not on purpose, but conned him none the less. It was embarrassing. She had done it to him again. Now everyone would realize just how far down on her list of priorities he came. They would try to cheer him up, try to include him in their planned festivities, another plate would be added to an already crowded table because once again Little Ezra Standish was dumped by his mother.

Except he was not little anymore, he was not a kid. He was a grown adult and no longer dependent on his mother. He did not need her company during the holidays he had bequeathed that so few times in his life why would he expect that to change. Deal with it Standish, you mother does not need you or depend on you so quit expecting the same of her. Ezra took another pull on the bottle. He leaned back against the tub and started to explain, "she met a potential paramour and will not make it."

Buck watched and listened to him. That had to hurt, hell Buck knew it did, it was written all over the normally impassive face. Even the jovial southern drawl came across beaten and tired. One more straw on the cart.


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