One for All and All for One

by KellyA

Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.

Dec 2003

Part 1
"Damn, don't these boys know when they're licked?" Buck exclaimed with a smile, taking aim at a man trying to better his position.

"Don't reckon so," Vin punctuated his answer with a blast from his mare's leg. He turned a roguish smile toward Buck. "They've lost four men so far."

"I'm going down to the street, you think you can cover me with that blunderbuss?" Buck joked. He was growing concerned for JD and Nathan, who were holed up in the stable. He'd seen two outlaws try and get to them without any luck. He wanted to make sure that luck held out.

Vin smirked at the ladies' man. "Guess you'll find out," Vin replied.

Buck chuckled; Vin could cover him with Ezra's peashooter if he had too. The young tracker was someone Buck was very glad to have covering his back. Keeping low, Buck ran across the roof toward the back of the building toward the stairs.

Chris was getting fed up. Twelve marauders had rode into town, hell bent on robbing the bank. Apparently, these outlaws hadn't gotten the word that Four Corners was off limits. Chris casually shot another robber trying to get to his horse. He wasn't about to let any one of these men escape easily. They had started this battle, and he'd make sure they'd finish it, one way or another.

Ever since Chris Larabee and six unique and stalwart individuals rescued a Seminole tribe from a deranged confederate general, it had been one mis-adventure after another. Larabee had come to realize that the six dauntless men, who helped maintain law and order in Four Corners, were the reason he remained. These men and the town gave his life meaning, something that had been

missing in his life for a very long time. Chris watched as a stocky individual crept alongside of the newspaper office. He fired as the man came in line with his gun.

Ezra fired from the doorway of the saloon. He picked up his whiskey glass and took a drink. Lord, he wished this would end so he could get back to his poker game. His poker-playing partners were crouched under the table waiting for the shooting to stop. "I'll be with you gentlemen momentarily," he cheerfully

exclaimed, raising his glass to them. The three other card players just stared at the fancy dressed cardsharp as if he was crazy. Ezra knew he was crazy, why else would he be risking his life for a dollar a day? Well, he only had two days, 14 hours and 27 minutes left, and then he could ride out of this miserable

excuse for a town. His mother had told him she would wait for him in San Francisco, as long as nothing more pressing came up. Ezra frowned when he spied one of the brigands trying to sneak into the stable. He took careful aim and fired. The assassin never made it into the doorway.

Josiah fired from the roof of the church and murmured a prayer for the man he fell. He took the time to scan the area for the other members of his peacekeeping flock and throw a 'thank-you' toward the heavens.

JD and Nathan fired simultaneously from their positions in the stable loft, causing two outlaws to return to their previous cover. "Damn, this is too easy," JD exclaimed.

Nathan smiled grimly, wondering if there'd be anyone to patch up. He watched another man collapse from a bullet hole in the chest; he didn't think so. Nathan constantly searched for the others to make sure no one had been hurt. Since the healer had joined up with the six other lawmen, he got lots of chances to hone his medical skills. At the moment everyone appeared whole.

Finally, the last four outlaws made a desperate dash for their horses. Chris aimed, but held his fire. Vin lowered his rifle, following his leader and friend's example. The other peacekeepers quickly followed suit. They would let these men go to spread the word that Four Corners was not a town to take lightly.

Vin scrupulously scanned the town from his vantage point on the roof, making sure no one was planning an ambush. By the look of things, the motionless men lying in the street wouldn't be planning anything again. He was relieved to see that his fellow lawmen had come out of the battle unscathed. Lord, he was sounding like Ezra. Vin tucked his rifle under his arm and headed toward the stairs.

Buck sauntered out onto the street and came up alongside Chris who was meticulously reloading his revolvers. Buck looked down the street and watched as the four horsemen frantically rode out into the desert. Buck pulled off his hat and slapped it against his leg. "Woohee, that got my blood boiling!"

"Good Lord, someone warn the feminine inhabitants of this town," Ezra chuckled materializing beside the mustached Casanova. He had finished reloading his own revolver and placed it back into his shoulder holster.

"Who's up for a drink?" Vin asked, coming between Buck and Ezra in the street.

"Son, do you even have to ask?" Josiah replied, swiping at Vin's hat. He looked over at the stable and smiled when JD and Nathan emerged. Everyone was well and accounted for. Josiah would be up late again tonight, humbly offering his thanks.

"I'll get Yosemite to take care of the dead," JD exclaimed. He looked over his shoulder to see Nathan checking some of the bodies. He didn't think the healer would find anyone to help.

Chris felt nothing for the dead men lying in the street. They had chosen their fate. He furtively checked over the six men who had helped him end the robbery attempt. He was relieved that none of them had been injured this time. The hard lines on Chris's face slowly softened and a whisper of a smile played on his lips as he listened to his men's banter. They all worked well together. He didn't know why. Except for him and Buck, and Nathan and Josiah, they hardly knew each other. They'd been working together for almost a month, but it was like they'd known each other all their lives. Vin clasped a hand on his shoulder, pulling him from his contemplation.

"Come on, Cowboy, I'll buy the first round," Vin offered, "I still have some of my pay."

"That's only because you haven't played cards with Ezra all week," Nathan quipped.

"Something that we need to rectify," Ezra intoned with a smile, showing his gold tooth.

The seven gunslingers sauntered toward the saloon in good humor as the townsfolk cautiously stepped out from their cover.

Part 2

The four remaining robbers rode hard, fearful that they would be followed by the seven lawmen. Finally, the lead rider pulled up and forced his horse about. The horse pranced and snorted, winded by the hard, fast ride. "Alright, I think we're safe," Sulley remarked searching for the telltale sign of dust that

would tell him if they were being pursued. He saw nothing. Sulley Matthews was a large, black-haired man of undetermined age. He was leader of a now much smaller band of outlaws. He and his men had been very successful for a long time, holding-up stagecoaches and small mining towns. When one of his men

suggested robbing a bank, everyone was all for it, tired of the small rewards from their past raids. It was a good thing that the man who had made that suggestion was already dead; otherwise Sulley would have shot him.

Sulley looked over at his remaining three men. Tom Gurley was about his age, with salt and pepper hair kept short. They had ridden together for almost five years, but Sulley knew very little about him. The men he rode with were out to make money, not friends. The other two men, Frank Somebody-or-Other and Josh

Higgins were about half his age. They'd joined up a week ago out of Purgatory. He'd hardly paid the young men any notice before. Men were always coming and going, either hiding out or being killed. Sulley didn't remember most of the men he had ridden with. They were blurred faces with guns and vicious

attitudes. He recalled someone mentioning that Frank was a fugitive from somewhere up north. Josh appeared new to the outlaw life. The young man's eyes were wild with fear, and he kept wiping his sweat-covered hands down his thighs. Men like Josh believed that life as an outlaw was a way to become rich and famous. Well, maybe famous, but usually only after your dead.

"Who the hell were those guys?" Josh breathed, checking over his shoulder to make sure they weren't being followed. He had never been in such a fierce gun battle before. The other robberies had been easy with very little gunplay. He had found himself in Purgatory by chance, well actually he had gotten lost and accidentally stumbled upon the lawless town. He just followed along when Sulley's gang passed through; it wasn't like he had anywhere else to go.

"I don't know," Tom said. He wiped a hand down his sweat-covered face. He was definitely getting too old for this. "But what I want to know is, what's that town have to protect that it needs seven lawmen?"

"Damn, that bank must be full to the rafters," Frank exclaimed, his eyes gleaming as the rush of adrenaline brought a smile to his long face, stretching out a scar that ran down his cheek. This is what he lived for, he had come out west for excitement and adventure and hopefully to make it rich. He had run into trouble early on and was hiding out in Purgatory when Sulley and his men rode through.

The four outlaws grew silent and nudged their spent mounts into a walk. Sulley didn't know where they were going. They were out of money. He had hoped for a big score so that he could head down to Mexico to retire. Maybe, buy a small ranch or something. Now, with most of his best men gone, he didn't see much of a future.

"I heard one of them lawmen call out to a man named Larabee," Tom absently stated.

“Larabee…Chris Larabee?” Frank asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Tom replied. “Why?”

Frank rubbed the stubble on his chin. "I heard stories about him and six lawmen down in Purgatory. Never thought them to be true."

Sulley glared at the young outlaw trying to decide if the man had been holding back information they could have used.

Frank swallowed hard when he noticed Sulley's cold stare and stammered, "Honest, Mr. Matthews, I had no idea that Larabee was in that town."

Sulley spit out at a rock then turned away. If he found out that Frank was lying he would gut shoot the man and leave him for the buzzards.

"What 'cha hear?" Tom asked.

"Well, some folks say they fight like one, each one protecting the other's back," Frank recalled. "It's said that Larabee, and any one of his men would die for him or the others." Frank couldn't understand that measure of loyalty, and he wasn't even sure he believed it. Everyone he knew or met in his life were only out for Number One. "They say Larabee is the ‘right hand of the devil’ and no one who has faced him lived to tell about it."

Tom let out a long breath. Men bound together like that were something to be reckoned with. It was more like fighting a family than just a bunch of hired guns who only watched out for themselves.

A cold shiver went up Josh's spine. "Seeing them fight, I believe it."

Frank snorted, "Thought it was just talk from a bunch a sissies who couldn't cut it." He remembered the two men who had harangued about the death of their cousins by a bunch of lawmen. They had been trying to get men to join up with them and seek revenge, no one did.

Tom diverted his attention toward Sulley who was lost in thought, gazing out over the distant hills. Sulley's smoky gray eyes lightened as an unpleasant smile spread across his face.

"So what do we do now, boss? Do we try again?" Frank asked.

Josh laughed. "Are you loco? We lost eight men. We couldn't get one of them lawmen without going through all of them."

Sulley's smile grew, giving Tom a very uneasy feeling. "But could we get through all of them by going through one?"

Frank and Josh exchanged bewildered looks as a smile Tom's face began to match his boss's.

Part 3

"Mr. Larabee, I would like to voice a remonstration."

"Huh?" Buck voiced, wiping his mouth with his sleeve after taking a hearty swallow of beer.

"He wants to complain again," Nathan translated with a roll of his eyes.

"Oh." Buck sat back and smiled.

Chris glared up at the bothersome gambler. He, at times, thought of these men as family, except Standish, who he found hard to even contemplate as being a friend. None of them had trusted the southerner since the Seminole village episode, but lately Ezra had revealed what might be lurking inside his egotistical facade. The only problem was, could it be believed? Ezra was

a master of charade and manipulation. "What now, Standish?"

Ezra ignored the impatience in the blond leader's voice. He was used to it. He glanced around the tables at the others, noticing their mirth. He was glad he was so amusing to them, he sarcastically thought.

"This battle could have been finished in a more reasonable amount of time," Ezra continued. "The miscreants could have easily been dispensed if we were more strategically positioned."

Chris's eyes darkened like a storm out at sea. "The way we fight has worked fine so far."

"Yeah, Ez, we need to give the bad guys some chance," Vin added, trying to keep

things in good-humor. He knew the well-read gambler enjoyed rattling Chris's cage. He wasn't so sure that Chris shared in that amusement.

Buck grinned over his beer. He liked the urbane conman and enjoyed his and Chris's confrontations. Buck only hoped Chris didn't up and shoot him; he’d lose his bet with JD, Nathan, Vin and Josiah then. Ezra had a way of grating on Larabee's nerves like one else Buck had ever known. Buck wasn't sure if Ezra had a death wish or just didn't care. He just hoped the gambler realized what a dangerous game he was playing with the deadly gunslinger. It had taken awhile before Buck trusted the gambler, but he had come to realize that Ezra would risk his life for any of them. He wondered if the others had come to that realization yet? Buck took a sip of his beer and thought, maybe he should tell Standish that he trusted him and considered him a friend. Buck’s smile faded slightly, Ezra had only a few days left, and then he would leave. And that just didn't set too well with him.

Nathan shook his head; would Ezra ever learn? Why would the man aggravate someone as dangerous as Larabee? Nathan had been slightly relieved that he didn’t have any patients to tend to, if Standish continued his exasperating banter that could change.

Josiah grinned at the southerner. He had come to think of the young gambler as a son, not that he would tell him that. Ezra seemed to have some animosity toward any paternal inkling. Josiah hoped to one-day find out why. Right now he prayed that Ezra stayed and that Chris didn’t shoot him.

JD leaned back in his chair holding his bowler in his lap. He loved being with these men. It was like being in one of his dime-store novels, seven daring and brave men, riding in to save the day. He was afraid that when Ezra left, the others would go their separate ways.

"We were lucky that we all were in town," JD voiced.

Ezra inwardly cringed, he hated relying on luck. When it worked, it made him feel so damned eerie and uncomfortable. Since coming to this town and joining up with Larabee and the others, eerie was becoming routine.

Buck cocked his head at the gambler's prolonged silence. "What's wrong, Ez? You want to live past your thirty days?" Buck laughed.

Ezra snapped out of his reverie. "Yes, Mr. Wilmington, that is preferable to the alternative. A pardon is ineffectual if you're living in a pine box." Ezra turned his attention back to the smoldering gunslinger. "What I'm saying is that we could better our…"

"Ez, you got two more days. Sit down and shut up!" Chris growled. He glared menacingly up at the urbane southerner. The man was like a burr under his skin. He couldn't bring himself to completely trust the southerner and therein was the problem. He wasn’t even sure he liked the man.

Vin pushed a shot glass of whiskey toward the gambler ending any further discussion. Ezra released an exasperated sigh and plopped down into a chair. Didn’t these men understand that he was only trying to improve their chances of survival when he departed. He picked up the shot glass and paused, glancing over the six gunslingers. Two more days and he would be free of them-free of their silent distrust and acrimony over his chosen profession; free of their

companionship and laughter; free of having someone watching your back or caring that you were late returning. Ezra's green eyes misted for a second and he downed the shot. Yes, two more days and he would be free to live his life again.

Vin secretively observed the gambler. They all believed that Ezra would leave at the end of his thirty days, but had anyone asked him to stay? Ezra was a part of their developing family, even if he didn't think so. Vin sipped his beer, continuing to scrutinize the man he would gladly call brother.

Part 4

The town remained quiet throughout the next day with only a bar room brawl to break up the monotony.

"Standish, if I find out you cheated..." Chris yelled, surveying the damage to the saloon and eyeing the southerner suspiciously.

"Mr. Larabee, as I've pointed out numerous times, I do not cheat," Ezra defended. The fight had started when a card player had accused Ezra of cheating and pulling his gun. Vin, Buck and Josiah were in the saloon at the time and were prepared to back Ezra up if need be. Ezra had remained calm. As he slowly stood he grabbed the edge of the table and flipped it up onto his accuser. A melee then ensued with the bar and several patrons bearing the brunt of the fracas.

"Don't worry, Mr. Larabee, soon I'll be far and away from here." Ezra turned on his heel and walked out of the saloon. He was tired of being Larabee’s scapegoat.

"Good!" Chris yelled back at the southerner. He wiped a hand down his face. There it was again, that twinge of loss every time he thought of Ezra leaving. He should be looking forward to fewer troubles with the conman gone, but instead he kept thinking how much he would miss his glib jabbering. Josiah had said they were all woven together, each thread making the others stronger. What would happen if one of those threads were gone? The empty hole that had been Chris's heart since his wife and child were killed was filling with a sense of purpose and life, and it was all thanks to six exceptional and sometimes demanding men. Damn, Chris thought, it was like having six brothers and he wasn't sure he wanted to lose even one.

Ezra stared up at the ceiling of his small room. He had started to pack several times and stopped for one reason or another. He wasn't sure he wanted to leave. Good Lord, his mother would believe him touched. He couldn't understand it himself. He had a deep respect for Chris Larabee and the others. Those men and

the town would be better off when he was gone, or that was what he continued to tell himself. Why was it so hard to convince himself? These people didn't care about him, did they? Stop it! You're just complicating things. They know what you are, a conman, out for Number One. They don't really believe I could ever be a part of them. Why had Chris Larabee given him a second chance, and a third, if you counted the momentary lapse in judgment with certain tainted currency? Ezra continued to stare at the ceiling. It was going to be a long night.

Part 5

"Damnit, Standish, get your lazy ass out on patrol!" Chris yelled as he pounded on the gambler's door. It was Ezra's last day and everyone figured the irritating southerner was going to get his last licks in and push the limits of Chris's tolerance. Chris was more than willing to oblige him, although he might

shoot the gambler before the day was done and save everyone the trouble of saying good-bye.

The door opened. "You don't have to shout, Mr. Larabee." Ezra closed the door behind him and walked past the irritated leader.

"You're late!" Chris noted the dark circles under the conman's eyes.

"Sir, this is my last day of indenture servitude to this town. You could at least let me enjoy it in my feather bed or at the poker tables."

"You're still a lawman," Chris checked his watch. "For eight more hours. So get on your horse and try and act the part for once."

"I take umbrage at that statement. During my time here, I've been the quintessential lawman."

Chris snorted. He silently admitted that Ezra had taken his duties seriously and at risk to his own life. Ezra's tact and gun prowess had proven indispensable. Was that the only reason he wanted the conman to stay? He thought of Vin and Buck who were like brothers to him, and JD who was the overly protected little brother. Josiah was the understanding father he wished he'd had. Nathan was the reliant and kindly cousin. Where did Ezra fit in?

Ezra stepped past the blond gunslinger and made his way downstairs. Chris stopped at the top of the stairs and watched as Ezra smiled and nodded at Inez before disappearing through the doorway. He still didn't understand why Ezra's impending departure bothered him so much. The two men were always at odds and, at times, he wanted to strangle the overly confident southerner. But, as the time grew short, Chris found himself saddened to lose the smart-witted man. Chris shook away the melancholy thoughts; nothing last forever.

As Ezra started out on patrol, he looked over his shoulder at the small burg he had called home for the past month. He scrutinized the last four of the town's clapboard buildings jetting out of the desert landscape. By the time he returned from patrol, the town would be alive with people coming in for supplies, or to relax in the saloon. He hoped someone would be able to give him

a challenging game of chance, or he'd gladly settle for one or more of the other lawmen. He let out a stuttering breath. Tomorrow morning he would be looking at this sight for the last time as he headed out of town. He should be happy to finally be leaving this backwater town and its unrefined populace. But, he had

found six men who gave him pause and seemed to make leaving harder than it should have been.

Ezra nudged Chaucer into a walk and settled back into the saddle, a melancholy settling over him. He should be happy-overjoyed. He would be liberated tomorrow, free to leave this desolate and uncivilized region. Why did it feel like he would be leaving a home? Hell, he'd never even had a home. How would he know what he was feeling? Maybe it was just indigestion from all the bad

liquor he'd been forced to endure.

Chaucer nickered and tossed his head. Ezra patted the neck of the fine equine. "I know you like it here, but we're not meant to stay in one place for so long." Chaucer brought his head to the side and look at his owner with a big brown eye. "Hey, they don't want me here," Ezra vehemently argued. He snapped the reins and pushed the horse into a trot.

Josiah watched from the roof of the church as Ezra disappeared into the landscape. He pulled the nails out of his mouth and sighed. He didn't want the southerner to leave. He knew he had failed Ezra on occasions when the southerner had come to ask his advice. Josiah wiped at his long, grizzled face. He had seen the real man behind Ezra's self-seeking armor. A man who had returned to save his friends, a man who helped a woman return to her family and

one who had risked his life to save another. Josiah picked up another tile and put it in place on the roof. He wanted another chance.

Part 6

The crack of a gun and spurt of dirt at Chaucer's feet had Ezra pulling his horse to a stop. Sulley and Tom appeared from behind a rock, guns pulled and ready.

Ezra silently berated himself. He had been lost in thought and not paying attention. He had grown soft, too used to someone watching his back.

"Well, well, looky at what we got here," Sulley snarled. He recognized the flashy dressing gambler as one of the lawmen.

Ezra also recognized the large black-haired man. They had all thought that the four robbers had escaped to the high country. Ezra kept his eyes on Sulley and slowly raised his hands. He heard another horse behind him and then felt a hand pulling at his guns.

"Yeah, he's one of them," Frank said as he moved back after taking the gambler's guns. He examined the fine weapons and stuck them in his waistband, this was already proving rewarding.

Ezra's face remained placid, and he slowly brought his hands down and rested them on the pommel. "And what can I do for you gentlemen?"

Josh was surprised at the man's nonchalance. How could he be so cool with guns pointed at him? When he was robbing the bank, he was so scared he couldn't shoot straight. Josh had survived the shootout only because he had stayed hidden behind a barrel of pickles outside the Mercantile.

"Well, I think since you and your compatriots killed most of my men, you owe us a good turn," Sulley replied to the smooth talking southerner.

Ezra cocked an eyebrow.

"Yeah, you're going to help us get that money," Frank laughed. He was thoroughly enjoying this. Now that they had the upper hand, things would finally go their way.

Ezra fought back a laugh and cleared his throat. "Sir, you are completely delusional if you think I'll help you in any way."

"Oh, we'll see," Sulley said. "I think Larabee will think twice about stopping us when he sees we have one of his men."

Ezra couldn't hold back the burst of laughter. His four attackers stared back in confusion, thinking that the conman was mad.

"What the hell are you laughing at?" Frank yelled. He didn't like being made a fool of and the gambling man's laughter gave him a bad feeling. He looked over at Sulley whose face had darkened.

"ENOUGH!" Sulley yelled.

Ezra waved his hand and held his side as his laughter subsided. "Sir," Ezra paused to gasp in some much-needed air. "Sir, you have been sorely misinformed. Mr. Larabee is just as likely to shoot me as you."

"What the hell are you talking about? You're one of them lawmen, ain't' ya?" Tom asked.

"Yes, for about six more hours. My duty was temporary, and Mr. Larabee will be none too glad to see me go, I assure you."

"Shit," Sulley sneered. He should have checked into these men more. He glared at Frank. He was getting tired of getting false information from his own men.

"You're lying," Frank quickly said, pulling his own gun and pointing it at the conman. "You're just trying to get us to let you go."

Sulley eyed the gambler suspiciously.

Truth be told, Ezra wasn't sure what Larabee would do. Chris Larabee was a man he deeply respected, but could not read. The man had given him a chance, but he had also threatened to shoot him on numerous occasions and constantly questioned his intentions. Ezra had to admit he had no idea how the gunslinger felt about

his presence, other than another hired gun to back him.

"Sulley, what'cha you want to do?" Tom asked. If the conman was telling the truth, he was useless.

"Yeah, boss, what are we going to do?" Josh whined.

"Shut up, let me think," Sulley replied. He glared hard at the conman. He couldn't be sure the man was telling the truth. This was his last chance. They needed to get some money. Hopefully, even if Larabee didn't like this dandy he had a soft spot for protecting human life.

"I say, we take the chance," Sulley finally answered. "We need that money, this may be are one big chance." Sulley glared at the southerner. "You better be worth something to Larabee or, before I die, I'll see ya suffer."

"Hey, Sulley, it might help Larabee's decision if we mess him up a little," Tom suggested.

"Yeah, it might at that. Let Larabee know we’re serious," Sulley intoned looking over at Frank.

Ezra straightened in the saddle not liking the tone of voice. His mouth had suddenly gone dry, and he wished more than anything for Tanner's impeccable timing. Ezra trusted those six men with his life and he had an overwhelming need for them to know that they could trust him with theirs.

Frank smiled and holstered his gun. He reached down and pulled up a long leather braided whip off his saddle.

Ezra’s heart sped up and a cold sweat trickled down between his shoulder blades. This was turning into a very bad day.

Part 7

"Hey, Buck," JD called as he entered the restaurant. The young gunslinger plopped down in a chair across from Buck.

"Ay Kid, what'cha doing?" Buck said as he spooned in a mouthful of potatoes.

"Just takin' a break. Thought I might get some of that apple pie you keep harping about."

Buck smiled and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

JD grew quiet and bit his lower lip.

"What is it, JD?" Buck asked, noting the serious expression on his young friend's face. Buck loved the boy like a younger brother and knew when it was time to take him serious and put aside the kidding.

"What do you think will happen when Ezra leaves?" JD blurted out.

Buck leaned back in his chair, not surprised by the question. He had thought about it, too. "I don't know, JD."

"We can't let him leave."

Buck's eyebrows arched at the young man’s vehemence. "JD, I don't think we can stop him. He wants to leave."

"Are you sure?"


"Has anyone asked him to stay?" JD cocked his head to the side and stared intently at the man he respected almost as much as Chris.

"Well, I don't...I mean no, I don't think so," Buck stammered. He had never thought of asking the southerner to stay. He had always assumed that Ezra was eager to leave. Buck furrowed his brow, did Ezra think they wanted him to go?

"So, maybe he just needs to know we want him to stay," JD stated.

Buck flinched as JD repeated his own thoughts. Leave it to the youngest member

of their band to state the obvious and most simple solution.

"You're right, JD."

JD grinned as if he'd just been praised by his father for doing something good.

"Now if we can get Chris to agree," Buck stated.

JD's grin fell and he slumped into his chair. He didn't think that Chris would ever ask Ezra to stay.

Part 8

Frank had used his whip only once before on a man and had enjoyed it immensely. Tom and Josh finished tying Ezra's hands to a lower tree limb. Ezra's feet barely touched the ground and his arms already ached from his weight. They had removed his jacket and hat. His white linen shirt hung out from his pants.

Sulley knew there was a reason he had allowed Frank to join up with him. The boy had a sadistic streak as long as his whip. Sulley was no stranger to death, but torture was something all together different, and he had discovered early on that he didn't have the heart or stomach for it. He was okay with putting a

bullet through someone, but that was quick. His stomach churned as he saw the look on Frank's face. The young man was enjoying this way too much.

"Okay, Frank, I don't want him dead," Sulley stressed. "Just get them lawmen thinkin' and worrin'."

Frank smiled and cracked the whip at his side.

Ezra's heart raced like a stampeding herd of buffalo. He stared at the scrub tree that stood in front of him and held him like a shank of beef. He studied the thin bark; he noticed tiny scratches going up the trunk. The tree was home to some critter. His senses seemed heightened and he tried to block out the sound of the whip. A warm breeze stirred the edges of his shirt and gently ruffled his hair. A whippoorwill signaled to its mate off in the distance.

The first lash struck across both his shoulders and seemed to cut right through him. He gasped and pulled himself up. The next one came right on its heel and sliced his right shoulder blade. He bit the inside of his mouth to keep from screaming. Three more lashes came in quick succession, each one harder than the first, tearing his fragile skin. Tears streamed down his face and he could feel the warm blood oozing down his back. His skin was being ripped from his back, five more lashes sliced across his shoulders. The pain was so intense, taking away his strength, and causing his vision to waver. He no longer could pull

himself up, and he hung helplessly, his body twitching at each painful strike.

"Hey, Josh, watch this," Frank said. Josh raised his eyes to Ezra's bloody back and took a deep shuddering breath. He would be glad when this was over. Frank let go with two strikes, one overlapping the other in the middle of Ezra's back.

"X marks the spot!" Frank laughed.

"Enough, Frank!" Sulley yelled out.

Frank hit the gambler once again across the back of the legs, before Tom stepped in and grabbed the whip. "Sulley said enough."

"Sure, sure, I was just having a little fun." Frank put up his hands and backed away. The gambler was lucky, the last time no one had stopped him.

Tom shook his head and turned away in disgust. He no longer had the stomach for this it was time to move on and let the younger men take over. Outlaws nowadays had no sense of honor or code.

"Get him down and on a horse," Sulley commanded. He glanced over at the gambler, whose tattered, blood-soaked shirt hung heavy on his body. This would all be over soon, and he and Tom would clear out together and leave Frank and Josh behind.

Josh and Tom eased the gambler down as Frank paced with pent up energy. Ezra's head fell to his chest, and he fought the encroaching blackness. His legs wouldn't support his weight, and the two men carried him over to his own horse and hoisted him up. Chaucer pawed the ground at the smell of blood mixed with his owners scent. Ezra leaned over the familiar neck as tremors coursed through his body. Josh raised a canteen to his lips and Ezra took a couple

of tentative sips.

"Thank you," Ezra whispered.

"I'm sure sorry, Mister," Josh replied. "I'm sure your Mr. Larabee will do the right thing."

Ezra forced a faint smile and licked his lips. "You obviously don't know the extent of Mr. Larabee's animosity toward me." Ezra bowed his head the words taking all the strength he had left.

Josh recapped his canteen and stared at the brutalized man, wondering what would happen if things didn't go as planned. He feared for the gambler and suddenly realized that this wasn't the life for him.

Part 9

The sun sat high overhead, wispy inadequate clouds streaked the sky unable to block the sun's heat. Chris and Vin exited the Mercantile and stopped on the boardwalk. Chris checked his watch and gazed down the dusty street. He frowned and stepped off onto the road with Vin at his side. The two gunslingers strode across the dusty street toward the jailhouse, nodding as they passed several townsfolk.

"He really likes to rattle your chain," Vin unexpectedly exclaimed.

"What?" Chris replied, caught off-guard.

"Ezra, he gets under your skin."

"That he does."

Vin glanced up at the clear sky and then pulled his slouch hat down to cover his eyes. "Ain't thinkin' on much else when he's rattling you, though," Vin absently added. Chris was the only one Ezra seemed to go out of his way to plague, except maybe Nathan.

Chris gave Vin a sideways glance wondering what the tracker was up to. He had to admit he was usually totally focused on strangling the conman whenever Ezra made one of his smart-ass comments or questioned his orders.

Vin continued without waiting for a reply from his friend. "Sort a keeps your mind from dwelling on other things for awhile."

Chris stopped short. "What are you getting at Tanner? You sayin' he rattles me on purpose."



"Maybe it's just his way of thanking you for giving him a chance."

Chris shook his head in disbelief. "His damn appreciation could get him


Vin chuckled. He didn't really believe that. There were times Vin believed that Chris actually enjoyed their verbal sparring. "He's part of us, you know," Vin continued his voice somber.

"I know," Chris breathed. "It just galls me to admit it. The man's such a damn nuisance."

The two gunslingers smiled and continued across the street.

Chris had to admit he didn't think on his lost family as much as he used to, or take to the bottle to forget. He found himself worryin’ on six incorrigible men instead. He sometimes felt guilty for this reprieve, but knew his wife would understand. Could Ezra actually be using his god-given gift of gab to keep him stirred up enough so he didn't dwell on his wife and child? Chris chuckled, it would be something that wily southerner would do.

+ + + + + + +

The five riders stopped as they neared Four Corners. Ezra couldn’t see the town, but he knew it lied just over the rise. He had regained some of his strength, and if he remained very still the pain was tolerable. The four outlaws dismounted and Ezra was yanked off his horse. Ezra’s legs wouldn’t hold him at first and he was allowed to crumble to the ground. He managed to get to his hands and knees. His head bowed, his hands scratched at the sand trying to siphon off the screaming pain that radiated out from his back. Two pairs of rough hands pulled him to his feet. His back screamed in agony and Ezra gasped.

Tom grabbed the conman's arms and forced them behind his bloody back, quickly tying his hands.

"Okay, you all know the plan," Sulley explained. "Tom and I will head into town. If things go to hell...Kill 'im." He glared menacingly at Ezra, who had his feet planted firmly and was focused on not falling flat on his face.

Frank stepped up to the gambler with a rope in his hand. Ezra raised his head and glared at the young man. His green, menacing gaze caused Frank to pause and sent a feeling of dread up his spine. Frank’s fist suddenly slammed into Ezra’s stomach, doubling the conman over.

“You think you’re betta than me?” Frank growled as he roughly placed the noose over Ezra’s head and pulled it tight. Ezra coughed and gasped for breath as Frank smiled. He loosened the noose ever so slightly.

Sulley shook his head and wondered if the conman would make it out of this alive, or if any of them would?

Sulley and Tom mounted up and turned their horses toward town. "Frank, you and Josh bring him in closer." Sulley swung his gaze over to Josh. "Make sure he stays alive."

"Yes, sir," Josh nervously replied. He didn't know what he could really do if Frank decided to kill the man.

Sulley and Tom rode off as Frank and Josh mounted. Frank looked over his shoulder and snarled. “You be a good little lawman and maybe I won’t drag your ass all over this desert.” Frank nudged his horse into a walk the rope went taut almost causing Ezra to lose his balance. Ezra concentrated on staying on his feet, he didn't think Frank would stop if he fell.

Part 10

Buck stepped outside the jail as Chris and Vin neared. "Have you seen Ezra?" Chris asked his oldest friend.

Buck frowned. "Nope, not since this mornin'."

"He's late coming off patrol." Chris stared down the quiet street then glanced over at Vin who stood at his side. He could tell that the ex-bounty hunter was also concerned for their missing man.

Buck leaned over and grabbed the railing. "You don't think he left early?"

Chris had thought that for a moment, but after talking with Tanner, it had also occurred to him that maybe the conman didn't want to leave. They all thought of Four Corners as their home now. Did Ezra feel that way, too? Did he consider the six lawmen his friends? "No, he's not stupid. He wants that pardon."

"Think somethin' happened to 'im?" Vin asked.

Buck straightened and was slightly surprised at the concern he saw in Chris’s face. He knew they were all becoming something of a family, but he hadn't been sure about Ezra falling into their group.

"Get the others,” Chris finally said.

Buck nodded his head, then stopped when he spotted two riders coming leisurely up the road carrying a white flag. "What the devil....?"

Chris turned to look up the street. His eyes narrowed when he recognized the black-haired man as the one who had tried to rob the bank a couple days ago. "Vin, take to the roof, watch for trouble," Chris said. Vin turned on his heel and jogged down the street to disappear between two buildings.

Chris and Buck stepped out into the middle of the street to intercept the two riders. Buck signaled to JD to remain in the jail. Chris flipped back his duster and laid his hand on his gun. He spied Josiah and Nathan watching from the church.

Sulley and Tom pulled up their horses a couple feet from the two gunslingers. Sulley lowered his mock white flag. He had just used it to get close enough to talk.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Buck asked. "Hadn't you had enough?" Buck scanned the area expecting a sudden onslaught.

Sulley chortled. He laid his hands over his saddle horn and stared down at the darkly dressed gunslinger. How did a man like Larabee become a lawman? He looked like someone who should be riding with him.

"You come to give yourself up?" Chris asked.

"Not exactly, Mr. Larabee," Sulley said. "We're here to finish what we started."

He hoped to wipe the smugness from both of these men's faces.

Buck frowned and glanced over at Chris. The man had obviously been out in the desert too long.

"And what makes you think I'll let you do that?" Chris asked getting a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn't like this; the man was too confident.

"Well, if you'll take a look out yonder, I think everything will be explained," Sulley said. "Tom, let Mr. Larabee borrow your spy glass."

Tom carefully pulled out a spyglass from his saddlebag and handed it down to Chris. Sulley moved his horse to the side and pointed out past the town's limits. Chris brought the glass up to his eye and peered out. Chris kept his face steady, but his stomach felt like it had suddenly been carved hollow with one sweep of an invisible scythe. Ezra was standing, unsteadily, behind a young man on a horse. He could easily make out the dark red blood that soaked the gambler's shirt.

"Shit, they got Ez," Chris murmured

Buck's eyes narrowed and his face darkened as his hand squeezed the butt of his gun.

Sulley produced a smarmy expression and in an unctuous voice, "As you can see, we have one of your men, and unless you allow us to walk into that bank and take all the money we can carry, your man is dead."

Chris continued to stare at the gambler. Why hadn't he protected the cardsharp better? He never should have sent the man out alone. Ezra was one of them, why hadn't he treated him like that?

Sulley glanced up at the rooftop, spotting the sharpshooter. "If you hadn't noticed, your man is tied to a horse by his neck. If anyone fires a shot that horse will take off and drag your man. If anyone shoots the horse, one of my men will kill him."

Chris's grip tightened on the telescope as he took in the nervous animal that pawed the ground. He could see that Ezra's hands were tied behind his back, a long rope ran from around his throat to the saddle horn. Chris lowered the telescope, which was immediately taken by Buck.

"Sonofabitch," Buck breathed.

Chris's jaw clenched, his face hardened, and his eyes were deadly embers of black that glared up at the two men. They would pay for what they did to one of his own.

Vin had pulled out his own telescope and peered out into the desert. He could tell that Ezra was fighting to remain standing. The bloody shirt veiled serious injuries and the thought of what his friend had gone through brought tears to the tracker’s eyes. Vin pulled back the tears and hardened his heart to the sight of his friend. He had to remain detached in order to save him. Vin took careful note of the two young outlaws out in the desert. He saw the rope around Ezra's neck tied to the saddle horn of a very skittish horse. If he shot

the rider, the horse would bolt. If he shot the horse, one or both men would have time to kill Ezra. Vin looked down into the street at the two riders talking to Chris. He had also recognized them as the robbers and had a pretty good idea what they wanted.

Vin put the glass back up to his eye and looked out. He smiled when he noticed that Ezra was working the ropes that held his hands.

Ezra was still losing blood and his back felt like it was on fire. He didn't know how much longer he could remain standing and he fought the dizziness that washed over him. He looked toward the town, barely able to make out the four men who were deciding his fate. Well, Ezra Standish was not one to let anyone choose his destiny, especially when it didn't look too promising. The blood helped him work the bindings on his hands. His muscles responded sluggishly and his arms pulled at the wounds on his back bringing back the fierce pain. He closed his eyes for a moment trying to get control of the spasms running up and down his back. He had to hang on a little longer. He opened his eyes and focused on his two captors, giving no indication that his hands were free.

Part 11

Chris took a deep breath and licked his lips. There wasn’t a choice, he couldn’t risk a life for money. "Alright, we'll let you into the bank to get the money but when you're riding out, Ezra better be riding in."

Sulley looked over at Tom then back at Chris. "Fair enough. I don't want anyone else hurt. I lost enough men."

"Buck, stay put. I'll take care of this," Chris said.

“No way, Chris, you ain’t doing this alone,” Buck replied.

Chris placed a hand on Buck’s chest stopping the overprotective gunslinger. "I need you to cover my back. We have to get Ezra out of this alive."

Buck shifted his feet in indecision and frustration. He glared at the two outlaws and finally gave in. Chris was right. They had to get Ezra back first.

Chris glanced up at Vin and over at Nathan and Josiah. All three gave acknowledging nods. From the Church, Nathan and Josiah could make out some of what was happening. They knew that Ezra was in trouble. They would follow Chris's lead.

Chris walked between the two riders and headed toward the bank.

+ + + + + + +

Frank and Josh watched as their two compatriots dismounted and followed the darkly dressed gunslinger toward the bank. Frank was slightly disappointed when the two outlaws rode into town and weren’t shot on sight. He glanced over his shoulder and smirked at the subdued gambler. Ezra had his head down, staring at the sand and rock at his feet.

"Hey, Frank, something's happening," Josh said as he watched from his distant perch. "I think they're going for it." Hopefully, this would all turn out alright and nobody else would be hurt.

"See, I knew you was lying, fancy man," Frank intoned as he jerked the rope.

Ezra stepped forward and coughed a little as the rope tightened. He couldn't believe it. Was Chris Larabee actually going to save his life? Ezra was more surprised than the robbers. He had half expected gunfire to erupt from town. Ezra then thought of all the townspeople who would lose their life savings. He knew that Nettie Wells had some money in the bank as well as Mary and several other families. The thought of these men getting away with all that money galled him to no end. What was Larabee thinking? He wasn't worth the money, people's livelihood. It would be a more wise transaction to protect the

money and forget about him. Ezra smiled faintly, he wished he'd have more time to try and figure out the blond leader and the other five men.

JD peered out from the jail then stepped up alongside Buck who was watching as Chris and the two outlaws approached the bank. JD took up the spyglass that Buck still held and looked out past the town. "Jesus, what did they do to him?"

"They done made the biggest mistake of their lives," Buck replied keeping his eye on the three men. He wanted nothing more than to shoot the two outlaws, but the sight of Ezra’s tortured body burned in his mind and stayed his hand.

Chris stopped at the bottom of the steps that led up to the bank. "Open up, Matson," he yelled. He knew the manager was inside; he had seen the curtains move.

Mr. Matson timidly stepped out of the bank. He wasn't sure what was going on, but he didn't like the look of the two strangers, or Larabee for that matter. "Mr. Larabee, may I help you in some way?"

Sulley and Tom grinned.

"These," Chris paused and looked over his shoulder at Sulley and Tom. "These gentlemen wish to make a withdrawal."

"I see," Matson said. "I don't believe they have money here."

Sulley and Tom's grins widened. They were enjoying letting Larabee handle the bank manager. They didn't even have to pull their guns. This could be a whole new way to rob banks.

"Move aside, Matson," Chris growled and stepped forward. He wasn’t in the mood to play games.

"Now see here, Mr. Larabee, you'll be responsible if..." The bank manager's mouth clamped shut and his eyes widened as Larabee's gun appeared in his face. The manager was too scared to notice that Chris didn't have his finger on the trigger.

"Just move aside," Chris calmly stated.

Matson nervously conceded and stepped back and over, allowing the men to go inside.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra slowly and warily moved to the other side of the horse. His left leg buckled slightly and he froze hoping not to draw any undue attention. He released a quiet breath as his two captors' attention remained on what was taking place in town. Ezra's muscles quivered and his vision blurred for a moment. He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. He had to keep going, he had to make this work. Ezra kept the tension on the rope light, and allowed it to drape along Frank's body. Ezra had checked out the immediate area seeing only low-lying scrub and cactus. There was no adequate cover, so he couldn't

make a run for it; they'd shoot him down before he got ten feet. He knew he had to get out of their reach so they couldn't use him against the others. There was only one way out, he hoped he had the strength to hold on. He couldn't risk alerting his captors by removing the noose from around his neck. Lord, this was not going to be pleasant. Ezra knew that if he failed death would come with savage abruptness or after brutal torment.

Vin scrunched up his face as he continued to watch over Ezra. What was he up to? Why didn't Ezra make a break for it now that he was free? If Ezra took off, he could cover him. Vin removed his eye from the glass and swore as he realized that Ezra didn't know that someone was watching over him. Damnit, Ez don't do anything stupid. Vin raised his rifle, prepared for whatever the gambler had in mind.

Part 12

Chris slouched against the doorway with his arms folded over his chest. He watched as the two outlaws gleefully emptied out the till and then grabbed the money sitting in the opened safe. They were like two kids in a candy store. Chris ground his teeth. The men weren’t just stealing money they were taking people’s dreams. He thought about stopping the two men, wondering if Vin could protect Ezra. He shook the thought away it was too much of a risk.

Sulley and Tom, each carrying two large bags of money, nodded as they passed Larabee in the doorway. Chris only glared, and then reluctantly followed. The two overly cheery outlaws tied the bags of money to their saddles. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Larabee," Sulley mocked.

Tom mounted his horse his eyes darting around expecting at any minute to feel the heat of a bullet. Damn, these men really were family. They really cared about each other. Tom shook away the feeling of envy.

Sulley pulled himself up onto his horse and glared superiorly down at Larabee. The gunslinger still looked dangerous, but when you removed the teeth from a wolf he was harmless. "You know what your problem is, Larabee? You're soft. You let feelings get in the way of what has to be done." Sulley let out a little laugh. "Not that I mind." He patted the bags of money.

"Send Ezra back now or you won't live to spend any of that money,” Chris growled.

The smile left Sulley's face and he raised his arm to give Frank the signal to release the gambler, but before he could, all hell broke loose.

Part 13

Ezra took a deep breath and in one fluid motion, wrapped both his hands onto the rope and pulled with all his might. Frank yelped as he was flung out of his saddle. The skittish horse took off, yanking Ezra painfully to the ground and dragging him.

"Nooooooo!" Vin yelled as he took aim at Frank who was getting up and pulling his gun. Vin fired, knocking the man off his feet. Josh stared at the bloom of red on the front of Frank’s shirt, then turned his horse and took off. Vin diverted his aim toward the runaway horse but the animal had headed toward town and was hidden behind the distant structures.

At Vin's shout, Chris grabbed Sulley and pulled him from his horse. He had seen the horse bolt. A rage grew in him as he realized that Ezra must now be dead.

Buck pulled his gun and aimed it at Tom who already had his hands up in the air. Chris forced Sulley to his knees and pressed the barrel of his gun to the man's forehead. "I'm going to show you how soft I am." Chris pulled back the hammer of his gun.

JD saw the terrified horse take off around the far buildings. He jumped on the closest mount and took off down the alleyway, hoping he had grabbed a horse capable of intercepting the runaway mount.

Nathan and Josiah were running toward the stable; they had all seen what had happened. Josiah looked up into the heavens. Please, don't let him be dead, he silently pleaded as he ran alongside Nathan. Nathan watched as JD took off after Ezra. He hoped the young man reached him in time. Nathan stopped at the

stable door. "Josiah, I'm going to need my medicines and probably the wagon."

Josiah was about to argue, but then realized that his friend was right. Josiah bit his lip and turned around racing toward the clinic. Nathan knew how Josiah felt about the gambler, and he hoped to save his friend from seeing Ezra die. Nate raced into the stable and bridled his horse, then jumped on and rode the

animal bareback.

JD caught sight of the frenzied horse several yards ahead of him. Ezra’s body was twisting and turning at the end of the rope. JD urged his horse faster. If ever there was a time to prove his horsemanship this was it. He gave the animal its head and crouched down low over the saddle.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra could feel the rope tightening around his neck as his hands slowly slipped down the rope. He couldn't hold on for much longer. When the animal had bolted, he had come down hard, knocking the air from his lungs. He had to keep his mouth closed to keep from swallowing dust. His arms ached and burned

trying to hold onto the rope. He wasn't sure if he was going to die from the dragging or be strangled. He felt the rough sand and rocks tear into his stomach and legs. Ezra closed his eyes. He could feel the horse's hooves striking the ground, and he could hear his heart trying to outrace the animal's panic. Blackness started to beckon, shrinking his world as he struggled for air that was cut off. His mind started to drift away from his body's punishment. He thought of his time in Four Corners and of the six men he had shared a month of his life with. Chris and the others had been willing to give up the bank's money for him. He wasn't sure he could have done the same.

JD kept his concentration on the runaway horse watching as the distance separating them narrowed. JD's heart skipped a beat as he looked at a body being beaten by the unyielding earth, he hoped the gambler could hold on for one more minute. He flicked the reins to the side urging his mount faster. JD reached out toward the runaway and grabbed its mane. Smoothly, he flung himself over onto the horse’s back and pulled hard on the reins. The animal stopped, almost sitting down on its hindquarters. JD quickly untied the rope from the saddle horn and jumped out of the saddle. The tired horse quickly moved away, relieved to be free of its burden.

JD stared down at the battered and unmoving body that lay stretched out on the ground, still holding onto the rope. Ezra’s shirt was gone and his pants were in tatters and covered in dirt. A tear slid down the young gunslinger’s dust covered face. He had failed. Ezra had been the first to welcome him into their group. JD knew the others hadn't always trusted the dubious gambler, but JD knew, that Ezra, like the rest of them was changing. JD moved slowly toward the body, his steps and heart heavy with sorrow. He dropped to his knees allowing the tears to fall from his eyes. JD started when he heard a soft cough and quickly loosened the noose that had tightened around the gambler's neck.

"Ezra? Ez, can you hear me?"

Ezra heard a buzzing sound, and he tried to move his hand to swish it away, but nothing seemed to work. Pain was returning and it felt like his whole body was being ripped apart. His head pounded and he couldn’t seem to take in enough air.

JD stood up and raced back to his horse to grab his canteen. As he turned, Nathan pulled up and jumped from his horse.

"He's alive, Nate!"

Nathan paused for a moment, surprised at the news. He knelt down beside the injured conman. Ezra was barely conscious and wracked with pain. His body quivered and shook with convulsions.

"Ez, hey, Ez," Nate gently coaxed. “Take it easy you’re safe now.” Nathan kept up a litany of platitudes as he laid two fingers alongside Ezra's throat and bowed his head. It was a miracle the man was still alive, and it would be a miracle if he survived. He ran his experienced hands over Ezra’s head and felt an egg-sized knot on the side of his head; blood covered the right side of Ezra’s face. Nate cringed, as he took in the bloody back, all too familiar with the signs of a whipping. The lashes were packed with dirt.

"Let's turn him over," Nathan sadly said.

They gently turned the gambler over onto his back. JD balked at the sight of Ezra's chest and stomach. The skin looked as if the gambler had been burned, blood seemed to seep from every pore. Ezra’s face remained slack and pale as the two men tried to make him comfortable.

Nate didn’t look at Ezra’s eyes, afraid of getting more dirt into them. He grabbed a rag and soaked it with some water. He then gently wiped the dirt from around Ezra’s throat revealing the raw, red abrasion. He feared for the damage that might have been done. He hated the thought of never hearing the gambler’s smooth southern drawl.

Ezra moaned and his head rolled to the side. Nate grabbed the canteen that lay on the ground. He lifted Ezra's head and placed the canteen against Ezra's dust covered lips. "C'mon, take some of this." He gently poured the cool water into

Ezra's mouth. Ezra coughed sending tendrils of agony through his body. Nathan looked down as the gambler’s green, pained-filled eyes opened for a moment. “Don’t worry Ez, everything will be fine,” Nathan quietly exclaimed. Ezra fell unconscious in the healer’s arms. “I promise,” he finished.

JD’s heart raced at the fear on Nathan’s face.

"JD, hurry Josiah up with that wagon, then go to the bath house and get a tub of warm water ready." Nathan knew he had to get the lashes cleaned out or risk infection. He could already feel a fever building in the man he cradled.

Part 14

Buck had pulled Tom off his horse and forced him next to his boss. The two men were on their knees under Chris's deadly glare and his gun. Chris watched as Josiah headed out of town in the wagon hoping it wouldn’t come back carrying a body.

"Wh...what are you going to do?" Sulley stammered. His eyes shifted when Vin appeared. Rocks were digging into his knees, but he didn’t dare move. The tracker twirled a huge bowie knife in his hand.

Chris stared angrily at the large man. "If Ezra comes back dead-you're dead," he replied flatly. Vin smiled, knowing that Chris meant what he said, and he wouldn't stop him.

Buck looked up when he heard JD yelling just outside of town. The young gunslinger stopped alongside the wagon and gave Josiah directions. The

ex-preacher whipped the horses up into a gallop and JD continued into town. He pulled up his horse in front of Chris and the others.

"Well?" Buck impatiently asked.

"He's alive," JD replied. "But he's in a bad way. I have to get a bath ready." JD took off down the street toward the bathhouse.

Sulley let out a sigh of relief then gasped when Buck and Chris grabbed him and Tom up by the arms and shove them toward the jailhouse. "Don't think you're out of the woods yet," Chris threatened.

Tom balked for a moment and chuckled. “What’s your problem?” Buck growled.

“Funny, that lawman we took he didn’t even think you’d all care,” Tom said.

“What?” Chris said.

“He said you’d probably shoot him as much as shoot us,” Tom replied.

Buck shoved the outlaw toward the jail and looked back at Chris.

Did Ezra really believe that? What else would he believe? They all gave him the impression that they didn’t trust him. “Damn,” Chris swore.

Part 15

Josiah slowed the wagon to a stop. His eyes watered at a sight he would have never believed he would ever see. Nathan held Ezra in his lap, trying to keep the gambler's ruined back out of the dirt. The ex-slave absently rubbed the conman's shoulder and seemed to be mumbling something.

Nathan was relieved to hear the rattle of the wagon and looked up to see Josiah staring at them. He ignored the sorrowful look on the preacher’s face and gave him a grim smile.

Josiah climbed down from the wagon seat and froze for a moment. He wanted to cry over the sight of the man who was like a son to him. He came up alongside Ezra's battered body.

"Let's get him into the wagon," Nathan sadly said.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra remained profoundly unconscious during the ride back to town, which Nathan was secretly grateful for. The wounds that covered his body were painful and Nathan still had to clean them.

"Don't even ask," Nathan exclaimed to the four men who came rushing toward the wagon. "He's alive, that's the best I can give ya right now."

Chris, Vin, Buck and JD peered into the wagon. Buck and Vin gave a collected gasp. JD turned away. Chris's wrath ticked up a notch. Sulley and Tom were lucky they were safe behind bars. Ezra was almost unrecognizable from his usual debonair self. The gambler was covered in dust that was mixed with blood. His face was lax and ashen. The conman had obviously lost a considerable amount of blood.

"I have the bath ready, Nathan," JD remarked as he walked alongside the wagon.

"Good, I'm going to need all your help,” Nathan said. "JD, head on up to the clinic and get it ready. I’m going to need constant hot water.”

Josiah pulled the team up outside the two-story bathhouse. Vin had rushed inside and ushered any patrons out. One gentleman grumbled outright as he was forced to leave wrapped only in a towel and carrying his clothes. He stopped his complaining when he took in the sight of the gambler being carried

between Josiah and Buck.

The remainder of Ezra's pants were removed and he released a low groan as Josiah and Buck lifted him up and settled him into the lukewarm bath.

"Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan asked, gently wiping the blood from Ezra’s face.

Ezra's head lolled to the side. Nathan peeled back and eye lid and then checked his pulse. Josiah was the only one that noticed the trepidation on Nathan's face.

“Hang on, son,” Josiah whispered into Ezra’s ear.

Buck and Josiah held Ezra at the shoulders as Nate began to gently scrub the dirt from his back. Several of the lashes would need to be stitched up. Nathan grew angry at the brutality inflicted on the gambler. He inspected the two-inch gash on his head. It was deep, but it hadn't broken his skull. After twenty minutes Nathan wanted to get the conman up to his clinic. It worried him that Ezra had remained quiet throughout the bath.

+ + + + + + +

JD pulled back the sheets on the clinic bed, and then looked around the room to make sure everything was in place. He jumped when the door opened, allowing Josiah and Vin to enter, gently carrying Ezra between them. The conman looked a little bit better with all the dirt and grime removed. They had wrapped him

in a sheet. As soon as Ezra was settled into the bed Nathan moved to his side. "Ezra, you need to wake up."

Ezra moaned. He fought the consciousness that pulled at him. He knew the pain that was waiting for him. His whole body felt on fire, but someone was demanding his attention. Ezra's eyes flickered and opened slightly. Nathan stood and went to his dresser to mix up some medicine. Ezra needed something for the fever and pain. "Sit him up," Nathan said to Josiah.

Ezra tried to focus on what was going on. Why was everyone looking at him with such strange expressions?

"Ezra, you need to drink this. It'll help with the pain,” Nathan explained.

Nathan brought the cup of medicine to Ezra's lips allowing him to take a mouthful.

The cool liquid felt good in his mouth after all that dust. Ezra's eyes widened. Something was wrong; the medicine wouldn't go down his throat. Ezra coughed and the medicine spurted out. He grasped his throat, wondering if the noose remained. He thought he could feel it tightening. Ezra's breathing started coming out in restricted gasps and his limbs began to flail in rising panic. Josiah grasped the young man's hands, careful of their injuries.

"Nathan what's wrong?" Chris yelled as he stared at the frightened gambler. He'd never seen Ezra scared before.

"His throat's swelling up,” Nathan explained. He leaned down into Ezra's fearful face. "Ezra, you have to calm down."

Ezra stopped his flailing, staring hard into the dark face of the healer. His breaths came out in struggled gasps, trying to force enough air past his constricted throat and into his lungs. He finally recognized the expressions on everyone’s’ face--concern. If he had had the breath he’d have smiled. At least, if he was going to die he was among friends.

Nathan straightened and ran a hand through his black, curly hair. Think, Nathan, think. Nathan looked at the others seeing their apprehension and their faith-their faith in him. He closed his eyes a moment, searching through his cumulative medical knowledge stored in his brain, hoping to find something that

could help. His own rising panic subsided as a solution came to mind. He wasn't sure if it would work, but he had to try. He turned to Buck who stood off to the side. "Buck, do we have any ice?"

"I think there’s a little in the ice house,” Buck replied.”

"I need all you can find, put it in socks. We need to ice down his throat to get the swelling down," Nathan said.

"I’ll have it here in a minute," Buck said as he dashed out of the clinic.

Nathan turned to his dresser and started looking through all the vials of herbs and medicines he had.

Chris placed a restraining hand on the healer's arm. "How bad is it?"

Nathan bit his lower lip and lowered his voice. "If his throat continues to swell it could be real bad."

“JD, go and help Buck,” Chris said. He didn’t want the young man to watch Ezra suffocate.

JD looked down at Ezra with scared dark eyes then reluctantly left the room.

Chris wished he could get Josiah to leave, but he knew that wouldn’t happen. He didn’t think Josiah would leave Ezra’s side even if he threatened him with a gun.

Josiah continued to hold the gambler and talk soothingly to him. Ezra tried to concentrate on his breathing; at least it took his mind off his pain-ridden body. He was growing tired, and his eyes grew heavy. Josiah shook him and Ezra gave the preacher a faint smile.

Part 16

Buck rushed back into the clinic. “Here you go, Nate.” Handing the healer a sock filled with crushed ice.

Nathan laid the ice-filled sock across Ezra's throat. "If we can get the swelling to go down a little I have some willow bark tea that will help."

“I'm going to need more ice," Nathan exclaimed.

“JD’s out scavenging now,” Buck exclaimed.

"Let’s go and help ‘im," Vin said. He couldn’t stand doing nothing while Ezra struggled to live. He looked over at Ezra who continued to fight for every breath. He gave the cardsharp a warm smile, and Ezra raised his hand slightly in acknowledgement.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan and the others spent the next hour icing Ezra's neck. JD had borrowed ice from all over town. Vin and Buck threatened bodily harm to anyone reluctant to donate.

Nathan leaned forward in his chair and removed the sock of melting ice draped across the gambler’s throat. He wrapped a large hand around Ezra’s throat and pressed lightly. Ezra winced. The swelling had diminished somewhat and his breathing seemed better, for that Nathan was grateful. Nathan hoped he could now get some much needed medicine into the southerner. Nathan knew that Ezra was in considerable pain. He had applied a poultice to several of the wounds on Ezra’s body trying to ease some of the gambler’s discomfort.

Ezra stared through half closed eyes at the healer. He hated not being able to communicate. His throat felt raw and shredded, but the suffocating feeling seemed to be subsiding. Every part of his body seemed to hurt and his head throbbed so bad he couldn’t focus on any one thing for very long. People seemed to pop in and out of thin air around him, which was very disconcerting.

Nathan noticed the glassy look in Ezra’s eyes and placed a hand on his forehead cringing at the heat. He turned to his dresser and grabbed a cup of medicine.

"Here JD, try and spoon this into his mouth." Nathan handed the young gunslinger a cup and a teaspoon.

Ezra's throbbing body wouldn't let him rest, and any movement brought renewed pain. He turned his head slightly as JD sat down beside him.

“You’re getting better, Ez,” JD soothed. “We just need to get some of this medicine in ya.”

Nathan smiled at the young gunslinger’s bedside manner. JD spooned the medicine past Ezra's lips. Swallowing was like being clawed by some angry animal. As soon as Ezra swallowed he felt the urge to do it again, surely it couldn't hurt as much as the last time. But it could...

JD’s face brightened as Ezra managed to swallow the medicine. Ezra tried to ignore the pain; at least he could swallow that was a definite improvement.

Part 17

Nathan turned down the lamp as night fell over the quiet town. Ezra slept fitfully on the small bed, slipping in and out of coherency with his rising fever. The swelling in his throat didn't seem to get any worse, but his wrecked throat wouldn't allow him to voice his suffering.

Nathan fell into his chair and looked over at Chris who had taken up a post at the bottom of the bed. Josiah sat slouched in the chair on the other side, snoring quietly, with one hand resting on Ezra's shoulder for reassurance and the other on his bible.

Buck had gone to the jail to watch over the prisoners, and Vin had gone on patrol. Both men had to almost be forced out by gunpoint.

JD continued to help wash Ezra’s wounds, trying to be as gentle as possible. Nathan kept constant watch over the numerous abrasions and cuts, hoping to stave off any infection. It was the last thing Ezra needed right now.

"JD, why don't you go and get some sleep," Nate said, rubbing at his eyes.

JD dropped the rag into the basin of water. He didn’t want to sleep. He was afraid the sight of Ezra being dragged behind that horse would invade his dreams. "God, Nate, he still looks so bad."

"I know, but he's a fighter, or at least a cheater, he won't let death take him easy," Nathan replied.

Chris glanced up at the healer and smiled faintly. JD chuckled. He was surprised at the compassion he heard in Nathan’s voice. He knew the two men didn’t always get along.

“You know JD, you saved his life,” Nathan suddenly exclaimed. JD raised his eyes to the healer. “If you hadn’t stopped that horse when you did he’d be dead.”

“Nathan’s right,” Chris solemnly agreed.

JD held his mouth in a firm straight line and nodded with subdued pride. Buck had already sung his praises from one end of town to the other. It felt good coming from Chris and Nathan.

JD stood and shifted from one foot to the other. He chewed at his bottom lip and glanced out the window.

Nathan and Chris could both see that the young gunslinger had something he wanted to say. They patiently waited.

“Ezra lent me this book awhile back,” JD started. “By Alexandre Dumas, called ‘The Three Musketeers’ it reminded me of us. These three men were the King’s guards and they protected him and each other. They were almost like family. They had this saying,” JD scrunched up his face trying to remember the words. “something like ‘One for All and All for One’.” JD bowed his head. He wasn’t sure if he was making sense. “I kinda think we’re like that in a way.”

JD released a breath, wondering if the others felt the same way, maybe he was just being foolish.

Nathan smiled, “I don’t know JD, I never heard of it before.”

Chris’s face remained impassive. He’d read the ‘The Three Musketeers’ many years ago. He hadn’t the heart to tell JD it was ‘All for One and One for All’, but the meaning was clear.

“I’ll come back in a few hours,” JD suddenly exclaimed, taking one last look at his tortured friend. Ezra’s hands clasped the edges of the sheet and sweat matted his hair to his skull. His body looked on fire. A raspy, muffled sound would come out from time to time; JD thought it sounded like a scream.

"Is he going to be okay?" Chris quietly asked, breaking the silence left by JD’s departure.

Nathan picked up the wet rag and began to mop Ezra’s brow. He’d done all he could. It was up to Ezra now. "If I can get his fever down and if he doesn’t get an infection. That willow bark tea will help with the swelling and fever. I mixed a little laudanum in it for the pain.” Nathan didn’t mention the danger of shock. Ezra’s body had been though a lot, with the pain and blood loss it might be too much.

Chris steepled his fingers in front of his face. This shouldn't have

happened. He continued to stare at his tormented friend. He finally realized that no matter what else Ezra was, he was a friend. The twisting of his gut confirmed this fact. Maybe JD was right.

For two days Ezra teetered on the edge of life and death with six men praying for his recovery, but not wanting him to die alone. Nathan kept his wounds clean and spoon-fed him liquids whenever he could. Josiah prayed, promising everything from giving up drink to holding his temper in check. JD, Buck and Vin took turns watching the prisoners, taking patrols and giving Nathan some time to sleep, not that the healer would stay gone for very long. Chris surprised everyone; the blond gunslinger was a constant presence. He hardly left Ezra’s side, and his mood darkened with the rise of the gambler’s fever.

Part 18

In the early morning hours of the third day, sleep finally took mercy on the suffering conman.

Buck and Vin stepped into the clinic to find Nathan slumped in his chair asleep. The two men snickered and stepped up behind the sleeping healer. Vin looked over at Ezra who seemed to be resting quietly.

Buck put a hand on Nathan's shoulder, and he shot up out of the chair.

"Damnit, Buck! Don't do that!"

Nathan's attention went immediately to Ezra. He laid a hand on his forehead and smiled with relief. The fever had broke. Ezra began to stir, and Nate went to his dresser to fix up something for him. He would also have to get Inez to make up some beef broth.

"Ay, Nate, when you get a chance can you go by the jail? Those two men might need a little patchin',” Buck said.

Nathan groaned. "Ah, hell, what did you guys do? As if I don’t have enough to do."

Buck and Vin exchanged innocent looks. "Weren't us," Vin said.

"Not that we didn't want to," Buck added.

"Someone beat us to it," Vin said.

"And you might want to hurry," Buck explained. "Cause Josiah is guarding them now."

Nathan forced a cup into Vin's hand, "Here, give this to him if he comes too," and rushed out the door.

Buck and Vin broke into light chuckles at Nathan’s exasperated expression. Buck and Vin were surprised when they stopped by the jailhouse to find no one guarding the prisoners. They were shocked to see that Tom and Sulley couldn’t have gone anywhere in the condition they were in. Both men sported black eyes, and black and blue faces. Vin suspected that both probably had several cracked if not busted ribs. He thought maybe Sulley had a busted arm.

Their amusement and any pity for the two men ended as they looked upon Ezra’s battered body.

Ezra could hear voices, that was his first conscious thought, in how long? He wasn’t sure. He hadn’t been able to speak, which was very frustrating for him. He hoped it wasn’t permanent.

Ezra's head rolled to the side and a small moan escaped his lips. Vin stepped up to Ezra's side bringing the cup to his lips as Buck helped him to sit up. Ezra's eyes remained closed as he tentatively swallowed the noxious brew, grateful that the earlier affliction of swallowing seemed to have abated. His throat was still sore, but it didn’t feel like someone was ripping it out. Ezra tried to force his eyes open, but he was so weak. He felt like a marionette with its strings cut.

"How you feeling?" Buck asked.

Ezra tried to speak, but was only able to emit a raspy gurgle.

"Take it easy, Ez," Vin said. "I don't think you should be talkin'."

"Nate will be back soon,” Buck added.

Ezra scrunched up his face, knowing what awaited him with the caring healer's return. Buck and Vin laughed at their friend’s expression. “Lord, its good to have you back, Ez,” Buck said.

Ezra finally managed to open his eyes. He looked down at his bandaged torso

and cringed at the memory of his body scraping along the rock and sand, it almost diminished the feeling of being whipped, almost.

"Don't worry, Nate says you should heal up fairly good," Buck assured.

"We got two of them men in our jail," Vin explained.

"Vin killed the one named Frank, and the other got a way," Buck added.

Ezra recalled the young Josh who had given him water. He didn't think the young man would cause any trouble ever again.

"Hey you're awake,” JD said as he entered the clinic followed closely by Nathan and Chris.

"Did you save them two varmints?" Buck asked the healer.

Nathan glared at him. "Yeah, but there wasn't much else Josiah could have done to them. Them boys are going to be hurtin' for awhile."

"Told you Nate it weren't us," Vin said with a smile.

Buck glanced over at Chris who remained by the door holding a piece of paper. He noticed the cuts and bruises on Chris's right hand and a knowing smile came to his lips.

Nathan went over to Ezra's bed and took hold of the man's wrist. Ezra

pulled away and glared at the healer. "Well, I see you're improving."

Ezra was about to open his mouth. "Don't talk, you got to let your throat heal," Nathan said as he lifted part of the gambler's bandages to check his wounds. “Your wounds are healing nicely. Now, you just do as I say and maybe we’ll have you out of here in a week.”

Everyone laughed at the wide-eyed expression on the gambler’s face. Nathan grinned, he was going to enjoy this, and it would be the first time he didn’t have to listen to Ezra protest.

Ezra’s hand went to his throat, and his eyes looked pleading up at Nate. “I don’t think there’s any permanent damage,” Nathan assured. “We’ll have to wait and see, and you’ll have to keep taking this medicine.”

Ezra relaxed and sank back into the pillows.

Chris stepped forward and handed Ezra the piece of paper he'd been holding. Ezra stared quizzically up at the blond gunslinger. He still couldn’t believe that Chris was willing to give up the town’s money for him.

“It’s your pardon,” Chris explained, not understanding Ezra’s curious stare “You earned it.”

Ezra looked down at the paper and frowned. Here it was his freedom, and he wanted nothing more than the paper to disappear. He opened his mouth to speak.

"I said no talking," Nathan scolded.

Ezra clamped his lips shut--damn this was frustrating. There was so much he wanted to say to these men.

"What'cha going to do now that you're a free man?" Vin asked. Ezra smiled sadly at the tracker. I would gladly give this to you if it would help, Mr. Tanner, Ezra thought. He shrugged.

"You ain't thinkin' of leaving are you?" JD asked.

Ezra licked his lips and stared at the innocuous piece of paper. Two weeks ago he would have ridden out of town so fast, now he just wasn't sure. He looked up at the five men who surrounded his bed. His gaze drifted to the doorway where Josiah silently stood.

"Alright, he's got to rest, and I don't want him talkin'," Nathan exclaimed as he ushered everyone toward the door. Chris held back and stared at the southerner. The man had risked his life for the town. He knew if Ezra left he would feel that pang of loss and that was something he just wasn't ready to feel again.


Ezra raised his head and cocked an eyebrow wondering if he heard the blond leader correctly.

Chris cleared his throat. "We," Chris paused and looked over his shoulder at the others crowded at the door. Then he returned his gaze back to Ezra. "We all want you to stay."

Ezra lowered his eyes in embarrassment. He’d never been asked to stay anywhere before, not even by his mother. These honorable men actually wanted him to stay and be a part of them.

Chris chuckled.

Ezra raised his hand up and pointed toward a pad of paper. Nathan quickly handed him the pad and a pencil. Ezra had to work to force his hand to work. Finally, he handed Chris what he had written.

Chris frowned then read what was written out loud. “I would be honored.”

Chris touched the brim of his hat with a finger, as the others slapped each other on the back.

A smile slowly formed on Ezra's face as he watched the others go. He had a home and a family. Nathan began to change the dressing on his wounds; Ezra turned his head and peered out the window. It was turning into a beautiful day.


Chris crossed the street, making his way toward the clinic. The two outlaws were finally on their way to Yuma prison where they’d probably spend the remainder of their lives. It had been over a week since Ezra was hurt and Chris had to admit one thing it was quieter without the conman about, although at times Buck and Vin made up for him.

Buck and JD came rushing down the clinic stairs. “What’s the rush?” Chris asked as he started up the stairs.

“Ezra’s got his voice back, and he’s trying to make up for lost conversation,” JD replied.

Buck noticed the book that Chris carried in his hand. “What’s that?”

Buck grabbed a corner and turned the book around. “The Three Musketeers?” He stared at his old friend.

JD’s face broke into a huge grin.

“Just a book that Nathan wanted to read. Thought I’d read it again too,” Chris explained. “It came highly recommended.” Chris gave JD a knowing wink and continued on up the stairs to the clinic.

The end