Buck and JD came out of the hotel, Buck told the group, but looked at Chris. "He was registered here. Didn't come back last night. Held the room cause it was paid for."
"Chaucer's not in the livery. Hand said Mr. Sanchez left early yesterday morning." Vin shared.
"Damn him, ran out on Josiah." Nathan all but spit as he spoke.
"Don't think so, Nathan. Don't feel like it." Vin said with conviction on believing his gut.
"Buck and I 'll go over to the jail, find out about Josiah and maybe he knows something." Chris told the others. "Meet you in the saloon." Vin, JD and Nathan nodded as Buck and Chris walked off in the direction of the sheriff's office.
As they entered the jail, they saw Josiah sitting across from the sheriff, not in a cell.
"Chris, good to see you." He turned to the sheriff. "I'll stop by later. Thank you." Josiah put out his hand.
The sheriff accepted it and he said, "Your friend did all the work, he saved Baxter's life, along with yours. Give him my regards."
Josiah turned and left with Buck and Chris. They went straight to the saloon and joined JD, Vin and Nathan already seated together. Josiah looked at the barmaid that had come in to clear him. He smiled and said, "Water." She smiled in return.
All the others ordered beer when she brought the water over. Chris looked puzzled and asked Josiah, "What happened, and where in the hell is Ezra?"
Josiah was disappointed that they didn't know where Ezra was. Josiah explained how he got into jail, briefly on the name exchange, and fully on Ezra's efforts to free him. "Sheriff thought at first that it was just an attempt on my friend's part to free me. But Ezra was like a dog with a bone, wouldn't let it go. Finally found a witness that came forward and told all of what happened. I agreed to stay in jail yesterday, to allow the doctor to continue to believe that no one suspected him. Sheriff caught him this morning, right before he finished the guy off. Which I would have been blamed for, except for Ezra." Josiah paused, the added in a serious voice, "I'm real worried, he never missed a meal for me and I haven't seen him since night before last."
"Still think he just took off." Nathan said.
A chorus of four no's rang out. With Josiah's definitive, "absolutely not."
Chris didn't voice an opinion either way. Just said, "Let's ask around town today, maybe he talked to someone."
+ + + + + + +
By mid morning Ezra was in more pain than he could remember for a long time. He wished that they had just finished him off last night. At that moment, he really wished he was Vin Tanner. For if he were Vin, he knew the others would be looking for him. Ezra now figured he would just die here and the others would just assume he ran out. He was glad that Chaucer got away. He'd go back to Four Corners. He knew Vin and JD would take care of him. The all liked his horse. Pondering how he could be jealous of a horse was his last thought before the blackness claimed him.
+ + + + + + +
They didn't find anything on Ezra, and Chris wanted to head back. Leaving Vin outside the sheriff's office, Chris, Josiah and JD went in to ask the sheriff to let them know if he should hear any information on their friend.
Just as they were about to leave, two men burst in the door and proclaimed, "We got Vin Tanner strung up outside of town. Hear tell, there's a bounty on the man. We're here to collect. How much?"
Sheriff walked over to a set of drawers and pulled out a bunch of posters. "Here you are, go through them." Handing the two men a stack of some three hundred posters.
Chris Larabee had frozen in place at the utterance of Vin's name. He knew he had just left him outside, not enough time to get him and string him up outside of town. But he moved enough so he could see for himself that Vin still stood outside the door. He was visibly relieved.
JD's eyes had flown open wide on hearing Vin's name, but before he could utter a word, Josiah moved close to the Kid. He silenced him with a shake of his head.
The three men thanked the sheriff and stepped out of the office. Just as Josiah was to step around the corner of the building he saw Dodson across the street by the saloon.
"Oh, hell and damnation." Josiah was mortified.
Vin noticed and asked, "What's wrong Josiah?"
"This is my fault." With head bent Josiah went away from the saloon. The others followed as he headed for the alley.
Josiah's face turned whiter as they walked. Vin spun him around, "What's your fault, what's wrong." Vin was a bloodhound on a scent.
"That demon, the one I mentioned earlier, must have taken Ezra, thinking he was me. For retribution. For killing his brother. My fault." Josiah was in pain.
Vin was the one to blanch next. He held on to a pillar as he realized what Ezra had done. "The fella that knew Josiah, knew Ezra wasn't him, so he musta tol' them he was me. Get the bounty off me. Oh, hell." Vin's voice was struggling for composure.
Buck and JD agreed, sounded just like something Ezra would do.
"Hah, Ezra's not that unselfish." Nathan just couldn't take anymore of saint Ezra.
"Nathan, where have you and Chris been the last year. He has gone through several changes. He has done many unselfish things. You both don't see the man now, you both hold the image of our first time together, two years ago. You accept JD's changes more than you've ever done for Ezra." Josiah was livid. The man had just saved his life, now his life was in peril due to him and they were two doubting Thomas', making everything harder.
"Josiah's right." Vin stepped next to Josiah.
"Well, I'm with them. I've always trusted Ezra." JD chimed in.
"I'm with them, pard." Buck said as he hooked an arm around JD's shoulder.
Chris looked at four men and silently agreed with them, this time. Ezra didn't run out and had helped Josiah. "We'll follow those guys that asked about the bounty. Vin'll go first, the rest of us will keep him in sight. I'll send a message home so no one gets concerned and sends something to the Judge."
They scattered into small groups, all keeping the sheriff's office in sight. Chris went to the telegraph office. He sent a message to Mary Travis, as she would be the most likely one to worry the Judge.
Chris was surprised that as he turned to leave the operator said, "Oh, Mr. Larabee, wait please. Let me see.....yes, right here, I have a telegram for you." He handed the folded piece of paper to the man with a forbidding stare.
Chris opened it up and thought, oh shit, to himself.Ezra's horse returned without him STOP Had been running hard for a long way STOP Mary
Chris walked to Josiah and Vin and showed them the telegram. Vin's only comment, "The feelin jus' keeps getting worse."
"JD and Buck took all our horses out around back." Josiah said as he watched the door.
They only had to wait a half hour before the two came out of the jail all excited. They headed straight for Dodson, talking at him before they reached him. "Five hundred dollars for him. Dead or alive. He's cut his hair, but it's the same fellow."
Dodson smiled and pointed his head toward home. The men rode off.
Vin let them pass, and them get just far enough away, before he started following them. Before he was out of sight, the other five were on his trail.
Josiah was feeling downright awful. He had told Ezra he had nothing to be concerned with. He caused the gambler to let his guard down and he was taken. If he dies, this would be the toughest one to endure, the loss of this soul. He listened to his own words to Chris and Nathan and realized that he too, was guilty of omission. He has not let the conman know that he was thought of as more than his occupation. If he lives, I swear, I will let him know, that he is held in value.
They kept Vin in sight as they rode west out of town. They'd halt each time that Vin would. Dodson's group were riding steadily but not as though they were being followed. When Vin stopped, the five stopped, but then Vin pulled out his scope and motioned to them quickly. Josiah rode ahead hurrying to catch up with Vin. He handed Josiah the scope. Josiah's whole person sank in the saddle. He handed the scope back to Vin and Vin continued on Dodson's tail.
Josiah remained bent over in the saddle, waiting for the others to catch up. As soon as he was close enough, JD yelled out, "What is it Josiah?"
Josiah pointed out to where both he and Vin had looked, "Body."
No one said a thing, just rode out silently, hoping, but not believing, that it wasn't Ezra.
Nathan was off his horse and hurried to turn the body, "It's not him." Looking up at the other four, "It's not Ezra. He's been here, bits of his clothes are all around." He bent to look at the whip still clenched in the hand of the dead man. "There's blood on the whip, and some of Ezra's red jacket."
That announcement was met with a wall of helpless silence.
Nathan looked to Chris, "What shall we do with the body."
"Leave it," Chris' voice was thick with disgust. He turned his horse and headed back on Vin's trail.
+ + + + + + +
Vin never lost sight of the men, his gut tight in fear, afraid that body back there was Ezra. He'd kill this bastards with his hands if it was. He'd learned a few things about painful deaths from the Kiowa.
When Dodson and his men crossed the property line into his holding, Vin held back and waited out of sight for the others to show. It was afternoon and he wanted to hit them with good daylight.
Vin had his scope out when the five men joined him. He didn't turn, just waited for news on the body. "It wasn't him, Vin." Josiah's baritone voice lacked its usual timber.
A quick nod was Vin's only acknowledgment. But both Chris and Josiah saw him release the breath he'd been holding.
"They're four out buildings and the homestead. He's most likely in the out buildings." Vin pointed as he spoke.
Six men rode on to Dodson's property, determined to find Ezra, praying he was still alive. As they neared the house, Dodson's men emerged from three of the buildings. Vin pointed to the two barns that no one emerged from and he and JD headed for them. The other four waited, guns drawn, for the owner to emerge.
JD went to one, Vin the other. Vin opened the door and was about to check through the hay bales when he heard JD's yell.
"He's here, oh shit." JD knelt beside Ezra's body. He was sprawled in an awkward angle, directly in the sun. He had shallow, labored breathing. "He's breathing," he called out as Vin entered the barn. Then as he touched the gambler's face, he called over his shoulder, "Hey look Vin, he'll be okay. He's not even sweating."
Vin swore, "Shit." Then he ran toward the barn door and yelled as loud as he was capable of, "NATHAN!"
Nathan turned his horse and galloped to where Vin was.
Dodson looked at the three men, "You're not thinking of running off with my bounty?" Derision thick in his voice. He moved his head and three of his men pulled their guns. Before Buck or Josiah could pull the trigger on their weapons, Chris had shot all three men's guns out of their hands. The three men then trained their guns on the remaining five. All of whom kept their hands off their weapons.
Dodson stepped off the porch and bellowed, "Who in the hell do you think you are?" He looked closely at the men in their saddles. Then spit on the ground, "Sanchez, you killer," and he reached for his gun. His other men did also, but Chris and Buck disarmed them before any got a shot off.
It was just Dodson and Sanchez. "You filthy sack of shit. You killed my brother and I'll kill you now."
Josiah said sadly, "Your father killed your brother, using my bullet. You don't have to end up like him."
"No, but you do." Dodson drew his gun and Josiah shot him before as he finished pulling the trigger and Dodson's shot went way wide.
Dodson looked at his bleeding arm, then drew a gun from the back of his waist and pointed it Josiah. Josiah looked at him pitifully as he shot him in the chest.
Chris looked to those left standing, "What was done to Vin Tanner?" The lethal venom in his look had the men falling over themselves to speak.
"The fella who whipped him is dead. He was horse dragged, and the boss there, rifle butted him in the ribs three times. Broke some ribs. He's still alive."
Chris looked to Buck and Josiah and they nodded to the silent command to secure these men and Chris headed to the barn and Ezra.
Inside the barn, Vin looked up at Nathan as he entered, "He's hot, in the sun and not sweatin', that's bad, ain't it."
Nathan frowned, 'yeah,' he thought to himself, 'real bad.' "Last stage of dehydration."
"Is he gonna die?" JD asked worriedly.
"Don't know, JD." Nathan said with fear in his voice. "First, we gotta get him outta here. Into some shade and he needs water." He looked at his face, blood dried on his ear, lips puffy. He touched on the only part of his shoulder that didn't have whip marks. "Ezra.....Ezra can you hear me?" Nathan called down to the man as he tapped him.
"No, I'm not Ezra. I'm Vin Tanner." This was said with a shallow, raspy voice. He added, "I'm Vin Tanner. They'll come for Vin Tanner." The small, entreating voice said it knowingly.
Vin sucked his breath in, "Hell."
Chris Larabee stood just inside the door. He momentarily closed his eyes at the forlorn quality of the voice, the loneliness.
Nathan looked down, then looked at Vin, "Vin, let's carry him outside."
As Vin grabbed his legs, Ezra let out a loud moan. "Just hang me now. I'm Tanner, you can get the five hundred dollars." Then softly he mumbled, only Vin and Nathan heard, "Clear his name."
Josiah walked in and gently lifted his body. Nathan held up his legs as they took him outside. Buck and Chris followed.
JD looked at Vin, his eyes held almost as much pain as Vin's. "He thinks we wouldn't come for him. God, Vin....."
Vin put his hand on JD's shoulder, "JD, we're gonna have to tell him different."
"That could be tough, he knew we didn't come when we thought he was in jail." JD shook his head sadly. He knew at the time, that it would hurt Ezra.
Vin looked out at Ezra lying under a tree. "Then, JD, we'll just have to let him know that things change. We'll be coming for him from now on." Vin nodded his head once, as though he were talking to himself. They went to join the others.
Nathan was dribbling water into Ezra's mouth very slowly, but he was having difficulty swallowing. Nathan then looked at the numerous injuries on the gambler's body. "We have to get him in the house, into a tub, wash the cuts on his back before we can tape the broken ribs. We have to get his body temperature down right away. Or, we'll lose him."
Josiah's expression was stricken at the thought of losing this man now, he gently picked up Ezra again and carried him slowly up to the house. Nathan and JD ran up ahead, scouting for what they needed. Nathan found the tub out back and JD started bringing water up from the well to fill the tub. Josiah and Vin removed Ezra's clothes and laid him in the water. Vin bathed his face, Nathan mixed an herb mixture and Buck was hauling up more water, giving JD a rest.
They got his temperature down and began working on cleaning the lacerations. The gravel burns had little pebbles embedded and the whip marks had dirt packed in them. They all heard the whimpers and moans of pain. They all heard him proclaim that he was Vin Tanner. They all heard his wish to be Vin Tanner and why.
After his back and chest were cleaned, Josiah brought Ezra into the house and laid him out on the bed. Nathan wrapped his ribs, hoping that would ease his breathing. The healer bandaged the deepest cuts. Then began on cleaning the gashes and cuts on his legs. Nathan could see that he had been whipped there as well. By the time they tended all the abuse inflicted on the gambler's body, the sun had been down for several hours.
Buck and Chris put together enough grub for all to eat and had kept the coffee going all through the day. Buck watched his old friend smoke his cheroot pensively outside the Dodson house.
"Can't beat yourself up on this pard." Buck told his oldest friend.
"Hard to escape the fact that if I had acted on the telegram the way I woulda done if it had been about any of the others, he wouldn't be in there like that." The guilt weighed heavy on his voice.
"Can't change it now. Just make a point to act sooner in the future. That's all any of us can do. Try harder the next time." Buck parted with his words of wisdom, leaving Chris alone with his thoughts in the dark.
+ + + + + + +
All Ezra knew was pain, he figured this must be hell. Evidently, Mr. Jackson had been right. He had been hell bound. Then he heard voices and assumed he was still in the clutches of his tormentors. He heard them call his name. "No, I'm Vin Tanner."
A hand stroked his brow and a soft whisper in his ear startled him. "Does that mean I have to use a southern accent to be Ezra Standish?"
Vin! That sound like the real Vin Tanner. "Vin?" The hope in his voice got out before he covered it up.
"Yeah, Ez, It's me." Vin smiled slightly.
The mask in his voice slipped into place, "Mr. Tanner, it would not be wise to become Ezra Standish, Vin Tanner is a luckier man." The conman drifted off to sleep, enjoying the continued stroking of his forehead.
The next time he awoke, Josiah was sitting beside him, "Mr. Sanchez, how nice to see you without bars across your face."
"Thanks to you, Ezra," Josiah said simply. "You save that man Baxter's life, too."
"Ezra, you were there for me. I will be there for you. And...thank you, my friend." Josiah hoped he conveyed his sincerity.
Ezra tried to wave his hand at him, but he could seem to lift. His wrists were bandaged with rope burns.
JD exchanged places with Josiah, "Ezra, I'm gonna read to you, like you've done for me when I've been hurt." He took out a dime store novel on Wild Bill Hickock. He thought he saw Ezra smile.
Josiah walked outside and approached Vin. The two men stood side by side for more than ten minutes before a word was spoken. Vin broke the silence. "Ezra pulled himself into the sunlight today."
"What are you saying?" Josiah asked not understanding the cryptic manor of communication.
"Ezra knew what he was doing by pulling himself into the sunlight in the hot barn." Vin said plainly.
Josiah grew thoughtful, "He tried to end it."
"Yeah. He didn't think we would come for him. That he was dying. He was alone. He really believed that Josiah. He believed that we wouldn't come for him, but they'd come for me. How'd we all hurt him so bad?"
"Doing nothing." At Vin's puzzled face, "We have done nothing to lead him to believe otherwise. Something I intend change in the future."
"I too, Josiah." Vin said, Ezra's thoughts, still making him said.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan insisted that get Ezra into town. "We need to go to the bathhouse and wash all his cuts again. We need real hot water. Didn't use none before. He was already too hot then. But some could get real infected."
"How do we get him there?" Buck asked.
Josiah said firmly, "I'll carry him."
Nathan told him, "He'll get too heavy."
"Don't matter. This is my fault. Switching names. Won't hurt me none to carry him."
Chris looked at him and nodded. They made their way back to town slowly. Vin and Josiah went with Nathan to the bath house. Chris, Buck and JD went to the sheriff's office to inform him of Dodson.
Nathan was trying to figure out how to work on the gambler's back in the water. Vin volunteered, "I sit in there first, lay him on top of me. Then scrub his back. Did you give him more pain killer?"
"Can't give him too much, his breathing is still too rough." Nathan said as he mixed some herbs with the soap.
Vin used his knees to prop Ezra up enough so his ribs wouldn't be compressed and he held his shoulders in such a way that the gambler could rest his head on Vin's shoulders without too much weight on the injured chest. Vin held on to him for nearly two hours as Nathan worked methodically on all the lacerations. When Ezra would moan, Vin would whisper in his ear that he wasn't alone.
Nathan stood back. "Done. Vin, do you think you could handle him for a bit longer? I want to put some infection drawing poultice on the severe cuts, but they need to stay on 'till they dry. Could mean another forty five minutes." Nathan looked at Vin sitting in the tub of now cool water.
"Yeah, just do it Nathan. I'll just look all shriveled up." Vin grinned as he said the last part.
Nathan applied the herbs and then left with Josiah to find the room they were going to use for the next few days.
A short while after Nathan had left, Ezra tried to roll over. He was met with resistance and pain. His audible, "Ow, ahhhh," was easy to understand.
"Ez," Vin said softly in his ear, "Hold still, you're hurt bad and were letting some medicine stuff dry on your back."
"And you're holding me in a tub, why?" Puzzlement flavored his weak voice.
"Your ribs are broke and your back is purty raw." Vin told him gently.
"How....you found.....where...?" Ezra couldn't ask what he was curious about.
"They came into town to find out about the bounty and we followed them back." Vin explained.
"Came...only cause of Josiah." His voice breaking with the difficulty in breathing. "Chris never asked 'bout me....only cared cause of ....'siah." Vin thought his voice broke on the mental pain this time.
Disappointment tinged Vin's voice, cause he wasn't going to lie to the conman, he'd be able to tell anyway. "Yeah, we all think you're so independent, that you can handle anything. And ya probably can, but we forgot we're a team. I won't ever forget from now on. Ya have my word, Ezra. I will always come for you. Ya won't have to ask, I'll just know."
Ezra tried to lift up, "No need, ....Mr. Tanner...the words don't..."
Vin cut him off. "Ezra, listen to my voice. Hear if I'm lyin', I ain't promising for nobody but me, you've got my word as a Tanner, I will always come for you. Ya won't have to ask, even if yer too stubborn to ask. I'll still be there. Believe that, Ez. I don't make promises lightly."
The gambler stayed still as a rabbit hoping not to be noticed, as he absorbed the meaning of what Vin said. His voice wasn't lying. And he'd made a promise as a Tanner, the conman knew what that meant to Vin. He shuddered, trying to contain the emotion that threatened momentarily to show itself.
The tracker could tell that conman was trying to believe, "Believe, Ezra. You can." Vin squeezed one shoulder gently, that's all he could do in the position he was in.
Vin felt the nod on his shoulder as the gambler drifted off to sleep. Vin smiled to himself.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had brought Josiah back with him and he carried the sleeping man up to the room they had in the hotel. Nathan bandaged the chest and back and redid the ribs before they laid him down. "If we can avoid infection, he should make it."
Josiah looked up worriedly, "He could still die?"
"After the dehydration, his body doesn't have the stamina to fight a severe infection. He's already got a fever. I just want to control it. We're gonna have to watch over him for the next few days." Nathan looked as tired as he felt.
"Go get some food and rest, I'll stay here with him. We'll talk with the others later on a schedule." Josiah shooed him out of the room. Josiah sat and watched and prayed over the gambler.
Throughout the day each of the other men checked on Ezra, Vin and JD staying for long periods. JD helped Ezra sip some soup and told him it was payback for the time he'd done it for him. The two smiled at each other, JD not having to voice his concern and care for his friend. It was all resting in his eyes, easy for any to read.
The gambler escaped with only a mild infection and in ten days, they were all ready for the journey back. Before they left, Chris brought his horse alongside Ezra's borrowed mount. "Ezra, I'm sorry that I didn't respond to your first notice. I won't make that mistake again."
Ezra nodded to Chris, but he said under his breath as he moved away, "That's only 'til the next time you're not sure about me, Mr. Larabee." But then Ezra turned and met the gazes of Vin, Josiah and JD and he knew that he had forged the inroads to friendship with these men and smiled to himself as he headed for home.
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