Chris and Vin had made good time, as Ezra had headed in a straight line into Colorado. Vin felt hopeful that they would catch up with him soon. They had just crested a hill, when a blood curdling scream ripped through the air. Scream upon scream, could be heard, leaving an echoed scream in its wake. Chris and Vin spurred their horses to a break neck speed. Hoping that they already weren't too late.
+ + + + + + +
A bump and a rock to his back brought Ezra to consciousness. He was being dragged by the wagon. The driver whipped the horses into a faster gait, laughing all the while. Bouncing with each hoof beat, it established a new bruise or gouge in Ezra's body. His arms free, Ezra attempted to trigger his arm gun. Remaining barely cognizant, Ezra tried to aim the gun and shot. The bullet, way wide of its mark, whizzed by the driver. Alerting him to Ezra, Jack turned about with his rifle and shot at Ezra, hitting him in the shoulder. Thus establishing a new pain Ezra's psyche had to deal with.
Pain was Ezra's constant friend.
The wagon increased speed, maniacal laughter increased, and pain inflicted on Ezra increased. Ezra tried to hold his head up, hoping to shoot at the rope tied to the wagon rail. He wanted to wait until a smoother area appeared before taking a shot. But he soon realized he probably couldn't remain conscious till then so he prepared himself to try now. It was as he looked at his target that he realized that two little eyes were looking back at him. Laura was in the wagon safe. Dear lord. Ezra forgot about the shot to free himself, and instead tried to work out how to get to Laura. Pain threatened to overtake him again.
+ + + + + + +
Chris spied Chaucer as they tried to pin down where the screams had come from. They crested the highest hill and Vin then saw the runaway wagon. They both kicked their horses into high gear. They came upon the body of a woman, and Vin waved Chris on. Vin jumped off his horse and immediately checked for life signs. Amid all the blood, Vin could find no sign of life. Pissed, He jumped back on his horse and tore after Chris.
Chris never slowed, and actually increased the speed of his horse. Or maybe Velifer sensed the urgency and gave his all. A shot from behind rang out and almost before Chris could register it, a body fell off the wagon. A large man, but not Ezra. Chris was close enough to see the wagon was dragging Ezra, and now it had no driver. Chris wanted to jump on the wagon so he could stop it. Velifer gave all he had to allow Chris to pull up close enough to jump on to it. He climbed to the front, and attempted to grab the reins. As he grabbed the strap, instead of bringing the reins closer, it pulled the pin holding the horses and they ran off to the side as the wagon continued to pick up speed. Chris surveyed the terrain and quickly realized that the down hill slope ended as a cliff. Chris ran to the back, trying to grab at the rope holding Ezra.
Ezra saw Chris and focused all his energy into a yell, "Chris!"
Chris waved at Ezra and again attempted to grab the rope holding Ezra.
Ezra again yells, 'Chris..." Chris looked up. "......A...child under wagon........save her.....please."
With horror, Chris meets Ezra's eyes. Knowing that Ezra is giving up his chance to live, he nods so Chris understands. Chris gives Ezra a single nod, acknowledging his decision.
Chris forces his feet through the side slates and hangs his body over the side. Bits of rock and gravel hit his head as he is suspended over the side. He reaches out his hand and yells, "Ezra sent me." Two little hands appear and two arms follow, reaching with trust to the man that said Ezra's name. As Chris grabs her arms, he tucked the little girl to his chest and he pushes off with his legs and rolls along the ground away from the runaway wagon.
Ezra relieved that Laura is safe, closed his eyes to await his fate.
On the hill above, Vin watched all that happened after he shot the driver. Vin knew that he would only get one chance to save Ezra. He took a breath and aimed.......... "Crack," his shot is off, the seconds it took the bullet to travel seemed endless to Vin. The projectile found the mark Vin aimed for, and cut through the rope holding Ezra to the wagon. Ezra rolled wildly, bouncing hard, causing even more gashes. Gashes Ezra was very happy that he could feel.
The wagon continued on it deadly path and careened over the cliff. The silence, in the wake of the previous noise, is itself deafening. The silence was shattered as the wagon hits earth and the sound of the splintering wood rang through the canyon. The sounds of rock shifting and falling lessened as Chris and Vin rushed to Ezra. Vin reached Ezra first. He jumped off his horse and fell to Ezra's side.
Ezra laid on his back, amid the rock and rubble, opened his eyes and looked straight into Vin's eyes, "You're timing, as always, Mr. Tanner, is impeccable."
+ + + + + + +
Vin had Ezra untied and resting under a tree when Chris and Laura joined them. Laura walked over to Ezra and sat down next to him.
Chris gave Vin a look and Vin made his way over to Chris. "How's he doing?"
"Resting, he looks pretty banged up."
"How about the woman?" Vin shook his head. "Ah, hell." Chris looked over to Ezra, "Does he know?" Vin shook his head again.
They walked over to Ezra. Chris had his canteen ready for Ezra when he woke. They were both surprised to hear him speak, "What brought you gentlemen out here?"
"Gotten use to yer fancy language. Besides, you dress up our group a bit." Chris had a smile in his voice as he replied.
Vin took the canteen from Chris and offered to Ezra, he drank greedily. And he moaned loudly. Laura giggled.
"Young ladies do not laugh at men in distress." Ezra said with mock indignation.
Vin answered, "Yes, they do."
"We're trying to set this young lady on the right path, you're not helping, Mr. Tanner."
"Lest I know, you can't be ailin' too bad, Ezra. Still using the fancy talk." Vin was amused.
Ezra looked around best as he could, "Where's Ellen?" Ezra knew almost instantly at the changed expressions the settled on his partner's faces. "No," he whispered.
"We're going to go bury her later, sorry Ezra." Vin looked pissed again. Ezra's expression quizzed Vin's, but Vin shook his head and looked pointedly at Laura. Understanding dawned in Ezra's eyes, he closed his eyes and sighed.
Later that evening, after eating the rabbit Vin got, Laura was placed in Chris' bedroll, and fell asleep as soon as her head hit the folded up jacket.
Chris sat near Ezra, "Should one of us ride and get Nathan?" Chris knew that Ezra was sensitive to unwanted help.
"As I am unable to sit up, I dread that likelihood of a broken bone or two is entirely possible." Ezra admitted ruefully.
Chris nodded, "I'll ride back, Vin'll be able to get you food and be able to recognize any wild animal that'll be attacking."
Ezra was surprised at the humor from Chris. A usually somber Chris. "Chris, as to why I left.."
Vin interrupted, "Inez found the letter, we know bout Peabody. JD's all upset with the guy for even thinkin of threatenin us." Ezra swallowed roughly and his eyes traveled to Chris. Vin added, "Chris didn't think you'd left, even before finding the letter." Ezra was surprised for the second time in a few minutes by Chris Larabee.
"Thanks," was rasped as Ezra laid his head back and drifted off to sleep.
"The leaves that I mixed in his soup should help him sleep." Vin smiled at his own craftiness.
Chris nodded, "I'll ride straight through. Should be back with Nathan by tomorrow night."
"I 'pect we'll be here." Vin almost smiled.
Chris packed some food and took a canteen of water, "See you tomorrow, Vin." With that he mounted his horse, turned and left. Chris' only stop was in Eagle Bend to stable Velifer, and to get a fresh horse for the ride to Four Corners.
About an hour after Chris left, Ezra opened his eyes and realized that time had passed due to the position of the sun. Vin noticed and brought him some water. After he put his bedroll under Ezra's head, Vin sat next to him in the shade.
"So, Ezra, how'd you come to be helping these folks?"
"I seem to have a inescapable predilection for females in trouble. Laura's mother was being struck repeatedly, so I intervened. Obviously the miscreant took exception." Ezra replied, his voice low, so as not to inflate his chest.
"Brother-in-law. He murdered her husband, and wished to sell her daughter."
"He's dead." Vin said flatly.
Ezra closed his eyes and sighed, "Good."
Vin relaxed against the same tree as Ezra and watched as Laura played in the dirt alone. "What 're
you gonna do about her?"
"Ellen said she had a sister in Pennsylvania. I shall endeavor to locate her with Mrs. Travis' help. As she was so successful in locating the people to go with the items the Guy Royal took, I believe she would prove triumphant in this matter also." Ezra was winded after so much speaking.
Again, Vin noticed this and suggested to Ezra, "It'd be best if you'd just try to get some rest."
"Perhaps in a moment, would you please explain first, why you and Mr. Larabee arrived so timely on the scene?"
Vin thought a moment or two before responding, "Chris had a feelin that you were in trouble." Seeing that Ezra wasn't satisfied with that, Vin elaborated. "The time that you helped those two little girls, and had the opiates forced on you,....well, Chris had this feelin that you needed help. The others convinced him, you really could take care of yourself. So, we didn't set out till the following mornin. Chris has felt bad ever since. This time Chris acted right on it."
Ezra closed his eyes and said, "Thank you," the sincerity evident.
+ + + + + + +
Chris arrived in town just after midnight. He went straight up to Nathan's. Upon hearing the situation, Nathan gathered up what he would need and said, " Chris, go over to the church and let Josiah know. I saddle up and meet you out front."
Chris nodded and departed. Josiah suggested that Chris use his horse and walked beside him over to the stable.
"Has Peabody showed up?" Chris wanted to know.
Chris looked thoughtful at the information, and nodded automatically. Nathan was set, and Josiah added on a couple of blankets behind Chris' saddle. "Thanks, Josiah." Josiah slapped his horse's fanny, and off they went. Determined to get to Ezra as soon as possible.
Josiah watched them depart, then headed for the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Laura slept between Vin and Ezra. She had been quiet most of the day. She hadn't even asked about her mother. So Vin wasn't real surprised when she awoke screaming from a nightmare. Vin gathered her up in his arms and rested her in his lap. He rocked her back and forth as she sobbed into his chest, crying for mama. Vin had put several leaves into Ezra's drink before bedtime. So he continued to sleep, not hearing the child's cries.
Vin kept murmuring her name as he rocked her. She finally fell back to sleep in his arms. He let her remain there. He had made out enough coherent words from her ramblings to know she had seen her mother killed.
As the sun peeked above the skyline, Vin placed Laura next to Ezra, and he went in search of food.
Ezra awoke to Laura's little eyes staring at him. "Are you okay, honey?"
She nodded her head. But her eyes held uncertainty.
"When my friends return, you will come with us. I will find your aunt, for I know she will want you to come there, and I will make sure you do."
Tears filled the little girl's eyes as she said, "Mommy said that we could trust you. I didn't know that there were any other nice men, like daddy."
Ezra had to fight the lump in his throat, as he squeezed her hand. He was relieved to see Vin returning. "I wonder what he brought to eat? Why don't you run over and ask." Laura jumped up and ran right to Vin.
"What ya get?"
"I got us some fish, cooked jes right, it'll make a good breakfast." Vin smiled down at the girl.
She yelled back to Ezra, "He got fish."
Ezra smiled until he moved, then he grimaced as he said, "Oh, good."
The day passed uneventfully, but Vin was worried about Ezra, he seemed to sleep more, and his color looked almost deathly.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and JD met Josiah at the livery at dawn. Last night, after Josiah had explained to them what had happened to Ezra, the three of them decided that a little back up wouldn't be a bad thing. They figured that they would meet up with them between Eagle Bend and Langdon. They set off at a steady pace.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan and Chris made good time, only stopping to change horses in Eagle Bend. An hour before dusk, saw them riding into Vin's camp. Nathan was off his horse and at Ezra's side before Chris had even stopped his horse. Nathan did a full check, then turned to Vin, "When did he pass out?"
"Bout an hour ago, jus after his fever started. Bullet wound doesn't look to good." Vin was mighty relieved that Nathan was there.
"Need some boiling water, got to get the bullet out." Nathan worked steadily for twenty minutes, getting the bullet out and cleaning up the infection. As Ezra was still unconscious, Nathan checked the condition of some of the larger gouges. Two need some deep cleaning, and Ezra moaned aloud as he was placed gently on his back again.
"How is he?" Chris asked after Nathan had sat back.
"Got the bullet out. Three ribs are broke, and so's his collar bone. We need to watch the gashes on his back for infection. His whole body looks bruised. He's gonna hurt somethin awful." Nathan poured some of the canteen water on a cloth and patted Ezra's head. He looked up to see a little girl watching him, he gazed over at Chris, who just nodded, letting him know it was okay for her to be there. "Would you like to help?" Laura nodded her head. Nathan handed her the cloth and she copied just what Nathan had done.
Nathan joined Vin and Chris, "We can't be moving him yet. Those ribs could puncture something."
Vin looked around as he said, "Well, guess I go us some food." Vin smiled as he added, "Chris is cooking."
Nathan rolled his eyes, "Keep it simple." Chris gave them his I'll get even stare.
They spent two days at the site, and they saw an improvement in Ezra. Vin and Chris made a litter so they could carry Ezra. They would try dragging it, but Nathan figured that they would have to actually carry the litter to avoid the bumps.
When Laura finally went to sleep, Nathan checked some of the uglier gashes. Vin brought over some hot soup for Ezra.
Ezra looked up at Vin, "Have you put more of that sleeping concoction in this?" He asked as he accepted the mug from him.
Vin's expression said enough, "How'd you know?"
"Mr. Tanner, even you do not make such bad tasting coffee or soup." Ezra's smiled to take any sting from the words.
Chris changed the subject, "Ezra, will Peabody really show?"
"Yes, I believe he will. From the letter, I gathered his son believes that his father has gone over the edge. He is an unreasonable man." Ezra looked resigned.
"What's he holding against you?" Vin inquired.
"His daughter's death." Ezra's voice was devoid of any emotion.
Three faces looked at Ezra, wanting to know more, but all three, hesitant for different reasons, to actually ask aloud.
Ezra decided to tell the tale. "It was before the war, I was visiting, my mother's euphemism for being dumped on some unsuspecting relative, a cousin. The Peabody's were next door. My cousins family were more progressive slave holders." Nathan stiffened at the word slave, but didn't interrupt. "They taught all they had to read and write, my uncle always believed that the day would come when they would need the skills. Josie Peabody always came over with her brother George. We had many entraining hours together. It was one of the few good summers. Alexander, my cousin always had in attendance, Jeremiah, his slave." Ezra moved his hand slightly to ward off Nathan. "Jeremiah, never had to do anything for Alexander, he just played equally with us. Josie and Jeremiah fell in love. But Josie told her father it was me she loved. My lord, he was a general in the Southern Army, no daughter of his could be with a colored man. Josie was planning to run off with Jeremiah. Her father found out, but still thought it was me. He followed her to our barn and found them in a delicate situation. He went wild. He whipped Jeremiah to an inch of his life. Josie could not sit by and watch the man she loved be treated like that.....she......she ran at her father, in his rage he struck her, to prevent her interfering. Well, he hit her so hard she was thrown against the barn wall and a pitchfork was there and it impaled her. Her last words were for Jeremiah, professing her love for him. Her father killed him them."
"Ezra, how is it that her father blames you?" Nathan curiosity was peaked.
"He believed that she had loved me first, and that I was not man enough to keep her. And that I was such a sorry excuse for a man that I drove her into the arms of a colored man. He was set to kill me there, but George spirited me out of there and I took a train to the current location of my mother. In the war, I was in the position to save George's life and did so. Hence his letter."
Ezra didn't elaborate, but Chris felt there was more to that part, but Ezra remained silent. Ezra closed his eyes and went to sleep.
The next morning they readied themselves for departure. Vin and Chris were gently easing Ezra onto the litter. Vin said to Ezra, "I know you'd do just about anything to avoid manual labor, but this is a bit much."
"I'd laugh, Mr. Tanner, but it hurts too much."
"Now, Ezra, make sure you tells us if you're in pain. It's important." Nathan was very serious.
As Nathan had thought, dragging Ezra was too painful. So, Chris and Vin started off carrying him. Laura sat atop Vin's horse. She kept petting him, calling him pretty.
Every two hours they stopped and rested Ezra, and rotated the carrying positions. Nathan had slipped some sleeping potion into his coffee so he would have a chance to be somewhat comfortable. After their second stop, Vin had a strange feeling, he stopped them, "The sounds aren't right." Chris and Nathan had been with Vin enough to heed the warning. The moved Ezra and Laura off to the side and set off to check the area.
They hadn't moved three steps when a volley of shots hit the ground in front of them. Chris and Vin immediately rolled on the ground and pulled their guns. Nathan ran back to check on Ezra and to calm Laura, who had frozen in place.
"I know you Yanks are that man's cohorts. Hand him over and you all can leave. Stand with him, and you will die." The voice boomed at them from the rocks above.
"Leave now, and we'll let you live." Chris returned with steely determination in his voice.
All they heard was laughter.
Chris and Vin moved slowly in opposite directions. Nathan had his weapon out and Laura was laying next to Ezra, out of sight.
Ezra whispered to Nathan, "Give me my gun, in case." Nathan didn't want to but knew it was necessary, so he did.
The voice boomed out again, "I'm waiting."
Chris shook his head, "Wait till hell freezes over."
Shots were then fired at them, so Chris, Vin and Nathan returned their fire. Vin picked off one man from the rock top, he toppled over and fell with a hard thud below. Shots continued. Chris was continually working his way up as he fired. Vin had a high vantage point and was able to connect with another man.
Screaming that man fell to his death, and the voice from above shouted, "You're protecting a murderer."
Chris was fairly close and had his sights on a man, but another had his gun trained on Chris. Before any words were exchanged, a shot rang out from behind Chris, taking out that man. Chris instantly fired and took out his original site.
"Looks like you need us, pard." Bucks voice broke through.
"Looks like," was Chris' reply. Than loudly he said, "Our reinforcements are here. Give yourselves up."
From the sounds, the men still alive wanted to do just that. Suddenly, like a crack of thunder three shots rang out, but not at them. Josiah said, "Think he shot his own men."
Before they could respond, a volley of shots all aimed at Ezra were coming from the rock top. Vin reset his rifle on his shoulder and took the shot. The man fell where he was. JD and Buck ran up the hill to check. JD leaned over and yelled down, "All dead up here."
Nathan hurried over to Ezra and Laura and checked on both.
Ezra kept repeating, "I'm fine, I'm fine." But Laura pointed to his leg and Nathan saw right off that Ezra was bleeding.
"Not so fine if you've been shot again." Nathan tore open the pant leg to see a fresh wound bleeding. He went over to his horse to get his bag and signaled to Josiah. "The little girl needs watching over, Ezra's been shot again, and that little one has seen enough already. Vin says she saw her mother being killed." Josiah nodded, but the pain he felt was reflected in his expression.
Nathan poured some antiseptic into the hole and set about trying to get the bullet out. Vin came over to see if he could help. Nathan directed, "Hold his head, if he thrashes he could do further injury to his ribs and head. He passed out just as I started."
Vin gently restrained Ezra's head, thinking on how every time he helps someone he ends up getting hurt real bad. An even more enlightening thought was that Ezra still continued to help. Vin couldn't help but figure that there had to be some real good part to Ezra down deep.
Chris came over, "How's he doing?"
Nathan looked over his shoulder at Chris, "This is simple next to his other injuries. Bullet came out clean, shouldn't get infected. But, Chris, we can't move him anymore today." Nathan voice took on the deep, real serious quality he has when he's real worried about his patient.
Chris nodded as he stared at Ezra a few seconds more.
Buck and JD returned from rounding up the dead bodies. They tethered their horses and asked after Ezra first off.
Chris updated them and asked a question himself, "What brought you out here."
Buck smiled and looked Chris in the eye, "Well, pard, had a feelin you might be in a spot of trouble." Chris eyed his old friend, and that made Buck's smile all the wider. He slapped Chris on the back and followed JD over to the grub Josiah was working on.
The eight of them stayed there two more days before they began the slow job of carrying Ezra home. But with more arms, no one had to work too long as carrier. Laura took a shining to JD, and became his little shadow. And JD, knowing how it felt to lose a mother was extra patient with her.
When little Laura was out of ear shot, Buck couldn't help himself as he said, "Looks like we found the age group of girls that you appeal too."
JD's, "Aw, Buck," was his only comeback.
Nine days later, the road weary group made it back to Four Corners. Nathan had them immediately get Ezra up to his place and Josiah went over to let Mary know what happened. He also passed along Ezra's request on locating Laura's aunt. After Mary checked on Ezra herself, she set about finding Laura's family.
Inez set up a schedule for helping Nathan, and they all knew when Ezra started feeling better, he wanted to know what card games were going on in the saloon. Nathan was finally letting him sit up for a few hours a day, but he still had several weeks recovery before he resume separating people and their money.
It was late one afternoon in his recovery period, when Chris made a solo visit. He sat in the chair next to his bed and laid his hat on the end table. "Mary thinks she's located Laura's aunt. She'll be coming here herself to pick her up." Chris paused, searching for words, "Ezra, you did a good thing."
Ezra shook his head no, "But Ellen still died."
"But that little girl has a real chance at a safe life now, you gave it to her. Jus wish we coulda got there sooner."
"Mr. Larabee,.....Chris, that you came at all is appreciated."
"Ezra, you have this way of going off and getting into trouble by yourself. Even if leaving was a noble gesture, you keep forgetting that you are part of a larger group. And we help each other, even when the odds don't look as good. You need to learn that." Chris gave Ezra a serious look, then a smile, "Hopefully, you'll learn it soon, so I don't have to keep going off to rescue you."
Coming up the stairs, Inez could hear Ezra's whole hearted laugh from there.
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