Hard Ride

By Kris

Disclaimer: They are not mine, they belong to others that don't appreciate them as much as I do.

It started out as any mid-spring day in Four Corners. There was no scent of change or danger on the gentle breeze that wafted through the town.

Vin, atop the hotel, used his scope to check the perimeter one last time before ending his shift. He noticed the rider coming in fast and furious from the southeast. Vin passed that information along to JD, in the sheriff's office, on his way to the saloon.

The rider slowed down as he entered the town, searching the building fronts, then picked up speed as he located his destination. He stopped and tied his horse in front of the saloon. He hurried inside, then stopped dead just inside the door. He scanned the room in search of his quarry. He located him easily, for he was just as he was described. A southern gentlemen in a colorful jacket, seated at a poker table.

He approached the man directly, "Excuse me, sir, are you Ezra Standish?"

Ezra eyed the youth carefully for handcuffs or gun. Locating none, answered, "Indeed I am. What can I do for you?"

"I was sent to deliver this letter to you," the youth carefully took the letter from his pocket and handed it to Ezra. He then pulled another scrap of paper out and placed it on the table in front of Ezra. "Mr. Standish, if you would sign and date this paper, I will receive an extra fifty dollars when I return."

Ezra took the letter and eyed the youth again, gauging the truth of his statement. It appeared that the youth believed what he was saying. Ezra turned the envelope over and noted the seal. A shocked look momentarily crossed his face, then was replaced by the placid poker face he usually wore. He extracted a pen from his jacket pocket and signed the paper. "Here you go, young sir. I am pleased that you will be compensated for the rush you placed on this delivery."

"Thank you, sir." The youth took the signed paper and left the way he came.

Ezra placed the letter in his pocket and returned to his poker hand. Saying to the other players, "Sorry for the interruption, gentlemen. Shall we finish our hand?"

After the game was over, Ezra didn't linger in the saloon as usual, but went straight to his room. The seal on the envelope was startling, to say the least. He hadn't believed that he would ever hear from a Peabody again. He sat on his bed as he opened the letter. He read:

Dear Ezra,

As you not only spared my life, but saved it also, I owe you a great debt. To clear that debt I have sent this warning to you. My father has located your whereabouts, and plans on coming there to kill you in order to avenge Josie's death. We both know that what happened was father's fault. But he will never see it that way. Ezra, he knows of your partners, and will kill them also. I will not be joining him on his erroneous crusade. He does not know of this communiqué. Ezra, be gone, father is not rational anymore.

In honor of my debt,

George Peabody

Ezra took a few moments to contemplate his options, to leave, or stay. He found himself surprised at his gut reaction: to stay. He knew that his partners would stand with him, but that could cost them their lives. Ezra also knew that it would not be honorable to place his comrades in the dangerous path of General Peabody. He would have to leave.

Ezra packed enough to make it look as though he had run out. The momentary pang of distress he felt at the obvious conclusion that Chris would draw, surprised him anew, at the desire he had to gain and keep the man's respect. But, alas, that was not nearly as important as their lives.

In his haste to depart, Ezra attempted to close his satchel at too high an angel. So he rapidly swung it down to the bed, and did not notice his letter relocate itself behind the dresser.

He stole out of the back way of the saloon and made his way to the livery. He figured he could eventually loop back to intercept Peabody after he had passed through Four Corners. He saddled Chaucer quickly and headed north out of town.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning JD came down the saloon stairs full of vigor, shouting, "Ezra's gone. He's done run out on us." JD joined the others eating breakfast outside, well, except for Buck. He was sipping coffee, holding his head.
"Now hold on, JD. We shouldn't jump to conclusions." Josiah looked very thoughtful as he digested JD's announcement.

JD turned to Chris, "You've always figured that Ezra would run out on us."

Chris sat there with a peculiar expression on his face. Buck and Josiah, both waited for the explosion on how untrustworthy Ezra was. They waited in vain. Chris surprised them all, but Vin. "I've got the feeling that Ezra's in trouble."

"His stuff is gone, he's left us," JD said with disappointment.

"I always figured Ezra'd leave, just wasn't expecting it now." Nathan hung his head as he shook it.

"Inez," Vin called her over.

Smiling as she came over to their table, "Yes, Señor?"

"Will you check Ezra's room, he's gone missin and we want to know if it's permanent." Vin asked of her.

With a concerned look, Inez nodded and quickly went upstairs. She saw that a lot of Ezra's clothes were missing and all of his ammunition. She was about to leave when she noticed the letter on the floor. After reading it, she took it down to Vin.

Vin looked at quickly, then passed it to Chris. His reading lessons hadn't progressed far enough for him to understand most of it, but at least he held it right.

Chris read and laid it down with a heart felt, "Hell!." Josiah picked it up and passed it after he finished.

JD couldn't help himself, "Who's this Peabody threatening to kill him and kill us? Ezra shoulda known we'd stand with him."

"I believe our Mr. Standish was being gallant, and attempting to protect us," Josiah said with a sigh in his voice.

"Pard, didn't we run into a General Peabody during one of our battles in the war?" Chris gave a solitary nod. "Well it seems that that crazy old coot is headed this way." Buck seemed more amused than scared.

"Well, we'll be ready for 'im," JD was emphatic in his belief.

As the other talked among themselves, Chris gave Vin a look and he edged closer. Chris said quietly for his ears, "'Member when Ezra got in trouble helpin out those two youngins?" Vin nodded. "I didn't act on the feelin that he was in trouble right off. Got that same feelin again. Best we handle it." Vin nodded again, Chris' feelin's been too accurate to ignore. Chris added, "reckon I owe him, if I'd gone sooner he wouldn'ta had to go through all that withdrawal."

"Chris, that weren't your fault." Vin looked at his friend.

Chris twitched his head a mite and said, "You gonna track `em with me?" Vin nodded. "Then we leave at noon."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra rode straight through the night and was past Eagle's Bend by morning. He stopped for a few supplies and continued on. He was hoping to get to Langdon soon, and made it there by night fall. He stabled Chaucer and tipped the stable hand so he would give her an extra good rub down. He made his camp close and fell exhausted into his bed.

The next morning Ezra went looking for a card game. He was making his way to the saloon when he heard a commotion near the stable. He paused his stride and changed direction but hurried his step as soon as he heard the whimper. As he turned the corner of the building he saw the man strike the woman, once, then twice. He hesitated a second, remembering the last time he aided females in trouble, but only a second. He could not allow a woman to be struck with such viciousness. He approached with caution and armed himself with a 2x4.

"Stop this instant." Ezra commanded with his voice.

The big, burly man never paused, only yelled, "Git outta here, this ain't none of yer business." He struck the woman again. As she crumpled into unconsciousness, Ezra stepped up and hit the man with the 2x4 across the back. He turned toward Ezra with his fist and Ezra hit him again. The man fell against the wagon and knocked himself out.

Ezra picked up the crumpled form and placed her into the wagon and led the horses to the doctor's office. He raced up the stairs and pushed open the door, "Is the Doc here?"

"No, sir, he's not. What's your problem?" The doctor's assistant asked.

"I found a woman that's been beaten, are you skilled?" Ezra just wanted an assurance that the woman wouldn't die.

She nodded, "I could take a look. Lead the way." The lady followed Ezra down the stairs and stepped into the wagon with Ezra's assistance. She checked the woman's vitals and also checked for internal bleeding. "I believe that she'll have many bruises and will hurt considerably, but she hasn't been struck in any consequential areas." Ezra reached for coin to pay her, but she waved it off. "Your payment can be to just get her out of here. Take her to a different town, her brother-in-law has hit on her before, and will do so again." She smiled at Ezra's look of surprise. "I'll tell no one what has transpired, sometimes the best care is to be removed from the detrimental situation. Thank you for interceding in this situation." She gathered her skirts and made to go back up the stairs. Ezra tipped his hat as she retreated.

Ezra returned to the stable, ascertained the brute was still out and retrieved Chaucer. He tied her to the wagon and clicked for the horses to move. They headed north out of town.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin headed out in search of Ezra. Vin found Chaucer's markings easily and the two of them followed the tracks in a straight line. " 'Pears that Ezra was traveling fast," Vin commented, and added, "Bet he doesn't stop in Eagle Bend."

" `Spect we'll find out shortly." Chris lit a cheroot as he tried to pick out the tracks himself.

They rode a good part of the way to Eagle Bend in silence. A companionable silence, for neither felt the need to chat. Kindred spirits from their first encounter, words never seemed that important.

Just before sundown Vin was able to establish that Ezra entered the town, but only for a stop at the general store. His tracks leaded north, and again, Ezra had the horse running full out. As dusk changed into dark, Chris and Vin set up camp, off the main road.

Leaning up against their bedrolls, finishing the last dregs of their coffee, Vin laid a few more sticks on the fire. "What do ya think's wrong?"

"Don' know Vin, jus know he needs our help." Chris sat back, relaxed, with his hat over his eyes.

Vin was idly drawing with a stick in the dirt as he said, "Josiah says that Ezra was brought up to run out on situations."

"After getting to know Maude, that's not hard to figure."

"Josiah thinks that Ezra has changed some since we started out together. Ya know, cause he wanted to buy the saloon and all. Then, even after Maude, doing what she did, he still stayed."

Chris half smiled, "I've had thoughts down those lines, but Josiah has the nice words."

Vin checked on the horses and they called it a night. Dawn saw them ready to set out again, Vin picked up the trail and off they went.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra already had a fire going when he heard the woman stir. He took the canteen and walked over to the wagon to check if she was awake. Her eyes were open and she seemed puzzled. Puzzlement turned to fear as he stepped into her line of sight. She relaxed some as she realized that he wasn't her brother-in-law, but a portion of the fear remained.

Ezra held out the canteen, "May I offer you some water? I could help you sit, if you like." She apparently refused his offer of help, as she tried to sit on her own. Only to discover that she hurt all over.

"It appears I do need help." Without any others words, Ezra helped the women to sit. She then took stock of her surroundings, and a look of panic crossed her face.

Ezra, misinterpreting the reason, assured her, "The man was out cold, and the doctor's assistant suggested that you leave town, for your betterment."

"This is my wagon?" Ezra nodded. "Laura, Laura." The words were frantic. Her voice level rose, "Laura, come out, it's safe."

Ezra turned, looking about, unable to fathom where someone could hide. He heard the undercarriage squeak and bent to look underneath. Surprise froze on his face as a serious looking child crawled out from under the wagon.

"My stars, where have you been hiding?" Ezra watched as the little girl walked cautiously around him and crawled up into the wagon and then rushed to her mother.

Her mother hugged her to herself hard and kissed the top of her head repeatedly. "Laura? You all right?" The girl nodded, then looked past her mother, and stared at Ezra.

Ezra was extremely bewildered, but returned her stare with a smile. "Ma'am? Was she under the wagon this whole time?"

The women didn't answer, just stared very hard at him. Finally she asked a question of her own, "Hannah instructed you to take us from that town?"

Ezra's forehead creased as he tried to think of who Hannah was, then the light came on, "The doctor's assistant...." The women nodded. "Yes, after I knocked out the man that was hitting you, I took you to the doctor's office. As he was not in, the lady, Hannah, came down to investigate the extent of your injuries. She ascertained that you were not hurt bad. Just that you would hurt." She almost smiled at the wording of Ezra's statement. Ezra continued, "In lieu of payment, she requested that I aid you in vacating Langdon. She did not mention anyone else." Looking at her daughter.

The women relaxed even more, then sighed, "My name is Ellen Turner, and this is my daughter, Laura."

Ezra looked at the child, "Well, it is my pleasure to meet you Laura, you and your mother. My name is Ezra Standish and I have some soup prepared. I will fetch you both some. Then, I hope you will explain the situation I have become involved in." Ellen nodded and Ezra went in search of mugs for the soup.

Ellen and Laura joined Ezra outside and sat by the fire. Ezra handed each a mug with soup, he also handed Ellen a spoon, "I only have the one, the two of you must share."

Ezra poured himself another mug of coffee and sat opposite them, near the fire. He watched as the two females finished their meal and put the mugs down beside them. Laura crawled up onto her lap and fell almost instantly asleep.

"Mr. Standish, first I wish to thank you for your intervention. I'm afraid mine is a long tale."

Ezra smiled as he gestured with his hand across the horizon, "The night is young."

"Jack, the man that was hitting me, resented that his brother and I married. Believed that it broke up their family, and more, the family business. Jeff never wanted any part of the business. He only wanted to farm. After Laura was born, Jack was even more outraged. Seemed he thought he could still convince Jeff to go back into the hardware business. Jeff decided that we needed to leave Pennsylvania completely." Ellen brushed away the tears that formed in her eyes. "We left at night and eventually settled near here. We both began to relax after about a year, figuring that Jack must have accepted Jeff's decision. We were wrong. About six months ago, Jack showed up, seems he hired some trackers to locate us. Wasted most of the stores money. He rode out to the area that Jeff was plowing, and killed him. I found him when he didn't come home for supper. Since I didn't see Jack kill him, sheriff said was nothing I could do." Ellen shifted Laura in her arms, Ezra then indicated that she should allow him to place Laura on the bedroll. Ellen nodded and Ezra placed her down gently.

Ellen sighed again, and continued. "Jeff had built a secret holder under the wagon to store valuables to and from market. Never did I think that it would be the way to save Laura's life. Jack appeared a few days after I buried Jeff, and told me I had to marry him. I said no. He then said that he would take and sell my daughter to an old man. I told him I had already sent her to my sister's. He was livid, and he hit me. Laura is only four, but she knew to hide in that wagon safe and I would sneak her food. Jack would hit me daily, saying I was eating too much food. But he never suspected that Laura was here. The law here said that Jack, as my brother-in-law, had the right to take over my farm. This morning I was attempting to leave and he found me. I figured he was gonna kill me. But, obviously, you stopped that from happening. We both thank you." Exhausted from the telling of the tale and the day's events, she physically drooped.

Ezra noticed this, "Mrs. Turner, why don't you get some rest, I'll carry Laura over to you."

She nodded, then added, "Ellen, call me Ellen." Ezra nodded.

Ezra carried Laura over after Ellen had set up the bedding. He bade then goodnight and reseated himself by the fire, contemplating the horrid story. Trying to figure how he came to be involved again in rescuing damsels in distress.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin made their way into Langdon by the second evening. They couldn't travel as fast as Ezra had, Vin had to keep checking the trail. In town, Chris checked the hotel and the saloon, but couldn't find Ezra registered at either, under any of his names, only a hint that a man in a fancy jacket was seen. Vin didn't fair much better, he couldn't find traces of Chaucer's prints in the town. Finally he went to check the livery, but if Ezra wasn't in town, Vin didn't figure Ezra would leave his horse. Vin didn't find much of anything about the outside, looked as if the had been a fight or a scuffle, for most of the prints were obliterated. Vin was ready to call it quits when he glanced inside a stall and recognized the prints right off. He worked in a spiral outward, past the fight area, until he located them mixed in with wagon tracks. Vin went in search of Chris.

Vin found near the boardwalk, "Ezra's been here. Left with a wagon and Chaucer in tow."

Chris nodded and they made their way to the horses. They had to work real slow as not to lose the prints in the wagon trails. They came upon the camp Ezra'd used the night before.

"Looks like Ezra has company. Female, by the size of the track." Vin just stated his observations.

"Hooked up with trouble, more than likely." Chris' even voice never wavered.

They made camp there and planned to get an early start. Only words that Vin heard from Chris, "Hope we're not too late."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra, Ellen and Laura made their way well into the eastern part of Colorado by nightfall. He set up camp before sunset and Ellen made dinner out of the can goods in the wagon. Ezra was glad to not have to eat soup another night.

"I'm hoping we can get an early start, could get pretty hot tomorrow, and it's a ways to the next town to water the horses properly." Ezra didn't want to abuse Chaucer any more than necessary.

"We'll be ready when you are." Ellen said as she finished the dishes.

"Have you given any thought to what you plan to do?" Ezra inquired.

"I'd like to go home, but I don't thinks that's possible anymore. I don't think Jack will rest, so we'll have to keep moving. At least until he runs out of resources." Ellen had been thinking about it.

"I'm afraid that men determined as much as this fellow seems to be, will continue to find resources." Ezra felt cruel dashing her hopes, but she needed to face all the possibilities ahead of her.

Ellen looked at Ezra, but didn't say anything.

They sat by the fire, watching the flames jump. Ezra remembered his last venture into Colorado, to rescue the Judge. The Indians that traveled back with them had told a story about the flames, and the little girl looked in need of a story. "Some Indian friends of mine told a story of how fire changed to help people. Would you like to hear it?"

Laura nodded her head and said, "yes, please."

Ezra smiled, "Ah, a polite child. Hear it you shall." Ezra rubbed his hands and altered his voice a bit, then began, "The Indian boy sat watching the fire and asked his father about the flames, how does it keep us warm? He wanted to know. His father only knew the story his father had told him, and so he told his son the same story. A long time ago, when people were new, fire would burn their houses, or food trees. They were always afraid of fire. A little flame did not like the people's scared screams every time they came out to play. He asked the great Coyote, why it must be that way. The Coyote answered that fire must burn to help things grow. The little flame did not like that answer, and asked another question. Why can't they help the people also. Coyote was surprised at the little flame and told him that he would think on it. The next night the little flame searched out the Coyote again, and asked what he had thought about. Coyote had not thought about the people, just the little flame. He asked of the little flame, what would you do. The little flame was terribly excited, the great Coyote wanted him to decide. The little flame thought and thought, all that night and the next day, too. When Coyote approached him, little flame was ready. What have you decided, the Coyote asked of him. The little flame told him, as I sat here the night and day, I noticed that the people were happy by day, but grew cold and frightened at night. I wish that fire could warm them at night, like the sun does at day, and give them a little light at night just like the sun at day. The Coyote thought about the little flame's request, sitting silently, a night and a day. Coyote observed the same things the little flame had, and told the little flame, what you ask is fair. I am very proud that you came to me, and together we will do as you ask. The little flame was excited again for the great Coyote had said we, so he knew that he would help. He told Coyote that he was ready. Little flame, the great Coyote told him, I change you to heat and light and together with fire, all the days of your lives you will burn together, giving the people what you wish, and giving fire what he wishes. An eternal life. So the Indian dad then told his son that fire can be a friend as it warms you and cooks your food."

Laura looked at Ezra, " I liked that story, and I think I can see Little Flame in our fire." She smiled and curled up on her mother's lap.

Ellen looked at Ezra also, "Thank you, it has been along time since she heard a story." Ezra returned the smile.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning Ezra was readying for departure, Ellen was securing the wagon and Laura was answering nature's call. They had just completed their tasks for departure when disaster struck. Ezra was just about to secure Chaucer to the wagon when he was struck from behind. He fell to the ground, his head reeling from the pain. He attempted to stand and was kicked in the ribs. With an ooff he fell flat on the ground. He heard a laugh as he tried to stay conscious. It was the scream from Ellen that gave him the last stitch effort to stand.

"I want you down." Those words preceded a rifle butt into the stomach. As he doubled over, the rifle butt hit him on the back of the neck, the shoulders and then was jabbed into his kidneys. The overwhelming pain superseded any other thoughts he may have had. Just barely conscious, his attacker dragged him by his legs to the wagon. He could make out sobbing from within. He then felt his legs bound by rope from his ankles to his waist.

He heard Ellen dragged from the wagon, he could pinpoint the direction from her bloodcurdling screams. As her sobbing resumed, Ezra figured that the attacker must be coming back for him.

"You pig, you hit me with a 2x4, so I return the favor," the grouse voice yelled into his face. Then the man swung the 2x4 at Ezra, who was still bound on the ground, and hit him square in the chest. Knocking the air out of his lungs, Ezra could not take a breath. The voice yelled at him again, "Now I'll take that 2x4 and hit Ellen until she can no longer cry out. ....hee, hee....." the viciousness infiltrated the air around them.

Ezra, trying to open his eyes to see his attacker, yelled backed, "NO!, fight me you debasing coward. Hitting a woman only shows that you are not really a man." Ezra would have said more, but he again, found himself the recipient of another blast from the 2x4. Across his abdomen, the pain radiated, driving out all conscious thought.

Jack came at Ellen again, holding the 2x4, he came down on her face, hateful words spewed from his mouth as he continued to beat down on her. Continued long after she reached the level of never feeling any pain again.


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