LOST

By ssinco

 

Answer to Fanfic Challenge 'Paramnesia'! Using the definition of 'paramnesia' (Psychiatry. a distortion of memory in which fact and fantasy are confused; the inability to recall the correct meaning of a word), write a fic for the Mag7. Any length, any characters, any AU.

 

The two men and horses were beyond exhaustion, having traveled over 40 miles today. The latest assignment from Territorial Circuit Judge Orin Travis had taken them far east of the little town they called home, and they were pushing hard to get back. 

The unlikely pair had now spent 11 days in each other’s company, and both men’s patience was worn thin…….to say the least.

The shorter of the two men had already decided that he was going to resign his position as one of the “Magnificent Seven” as soon as he stepped foot back into that dusty little town.  He had been hired three years ago to protect Four Corners, not go traipsing off halfway across the country to ensure delivery of someone else’s gold. 

Truth be told, the taller man was also annoyed at how the seven’s responsibilities seemed to be shifting lately.  Missions that originally focused only on the area within a day or two’s ride of town now had the men traveling over 200 miles to escort a stagecoach into Indian Territory carrying gold that didn’t help them or their little town.

“Mr. Larabee, the horses simply cannot go any further today,” the younger, well-dressed man pointed out.  They were miles from civilization, and it would mean big trouble if a horse came up lame.

“Yeah,” the fair-haired man reluctantly agreed, “we’ll camp up on the hill and let the horses water over by the stream.”

The men stopped, unsaddled their mounts, and gathered the food and belongings they would need for the night.  Chaucer and Pony immediately helped themselves to the fresh water and green grass nearby.

Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish plopped down on a felled log, drank some water, and had a meager supper.  After being in each other’s company for so long now, the men had run out of things to talk about.  So, after eating, they each lay down, intending to catch up on some much-needed rest.

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Larabee was awoken a few hours later by the whinnying and snorting of the horses.  Probably a snake or a mouse, his brain tried to reason, but his gut told him different.  He lay awake listening.  It was five minutes later that he heard someone talking softly.  He could tell that the voice was from an Indian, probably a Comanche in these parts…..likely trying to steal their beloved horses.

 “Hey!” Chris jumped up and yelled, hoping that the Comanche were young and easily scared away.  He fired his Colt in the air to let them know he was armed.  Ezra was wide awake now as well with his Remington pointed into the blackness.  The men could not risk shooting in the direction of the intruders; they could very well hit their own horses.

Arrows began to fly, and Chris and Ezra ran further up the hill to take cover behind some trees.  The natives did not pursue them; they simply took the horses and rode away.

“Shit!” Chris kicked the nearest tree and yelled.  “What the hell are we gonna do without horses out here in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere!?”  Larabee sat on a rock and put his head in his hands.

Ezra didn’t know what to say.  All he could think was that now he wasn’t even going to make it back to Four Corners to resign. 

“We gotta get ‘em back,” Chris said quietly.

“Excuse me?  Are you suggesting that we pursue a tribe of savages?”  Ezra knew very well the reputation of the Comanche Indians.  Their very own tracker, Vin Tanner, had lived with them for a time and often spoke of the ingenious and excruciatingly-painful forms of torture that they used on captives.

“Yeah, I suppose I am,” Larabee sighed. 

Standish huffed in frustration.  “Let us go back to the nearest town, buy some horses, and get the hell out of this God-forsaken place.”

“Have you forgotten that it is two days’ ride to the nearest town, Ezra?”

“There is nothing wrong with my memory, Mr. Larabee.  I believe that I witnessed a few homesteads between here and there that may be willing to rent us a wagon or take us to town....or possibly even sell us a horse for the right price.”

“You can do what you want,” Chris stood again and paced in the darkness, “I’m gonna get my horse back.”

“Of course you will,” Ezra then sat down on the log that Chris just vacated, “just before your scalp is removed and presented to you.”

Chris sat back down next to Standish.  He knew that everything the gambler said was true, but Larabee’s mind had started formulating a plan anyway.  “The Comanche rode east.  We’ll head that way first light and follow their tracks.  If we find a homestead, we’ll ask about buying horses or gettin’ to town.  If we find our horses……..well, I ain’t gonna promise to walk away and leave ‘em.  Sound fair?”

“I suppose.”  Ezra leaned his head back on a nearby tree and closed his eyes.  He knew it would be useless to try to go back to sleep tonight, so both men remained sitting until there was enough light to pack up the necessities and head on their way. 

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No breakfast, no coffee, no words.  The two men gathered their things and started walking.  They had guns and gun belts, a knife, minimal food, bed rolls and a few toiletries.  Their medical supplies, extra ammunition, and additional clothing and food stores had run away with the horses.

The men walked for two, painfully-quiet hours, squinting against the rising sun, when Larabee suddenly got the feeling that he and Ezra were no longer alone.  They continued to follow the river, but the hill to the left had grown taller and rockier.  Chris stopped, and his green eyes searched the surrounding area for signs of shadows or movement. 

Ezra noticed that Larabee seemed ill at ease.  “Did you hear something?” the southerner asked.

“No, just had a feelin’ we were bein’ watched.”

Standish’s own pale green eyes began to carefully take in the landscape.  Just as he saw a flash of movement from the hill above, he heard his companion grunt in pain and felt a tug on his arm.  Larabee was pulling him roughly amongst an outcropping of boulders, with an arrow sticking out of his left side.   Arrows continued to bounce off of the rocks around them, and it seemed that the native or natives were getting closer.

“Can you see them?” Chris grunted out.

“I find myself hesitant to place my face in harm’s way,” Ezra answered, even though he was at that very moment trying to find a safe place to take a look.  He finally found a narrow spot between two rocks that gave him a good view of the surrounding hillside, and there was no time for typical Ezra-speak once he saw what was happening.  “Shit!”

“What?” Chris stood, knowing it was not going to be good news.

“Three of them, and they are just on the other side of these rocks.”

Larabee and Standish crouched against the rocks to their right with guns in hand….and waited.  Chris knew the adrenaline was helping to lessen the pain and keep him on his feet, but his side still felt like it was on fire. 

Ezra stood, Remington in hand, with his back to the rock wall.  Would the Comanche approach from in front of Larabee or behind himself?  His heart was pounding and his hands were sweating.  Standish had faced many opponents in numerous gun battles, but those were rules he understood.  In a normal situation, if his opponent were the victor, the worst Ezra would face was death.  The foe would come around the corner and shoot him.  The Comanche were not known for inflicting a quick and/or painless death upon the white man when they got the upper hand in a fight.

What was taking so long?  When Standish had last seen the tribesmen, they were less than 10 yards away.  Just as Ezra started to say something to his companion, a Comanche in full face paint attacked Larabee.  The southerner was trying to aim his weapon when someone grabbed him from behind. 

Larabee punched and kicked at the brave for all he was worth, but he was the weaker opponent.  The Comanche was young, strong, and hadn’t been losing blood for the last 10 minutes.  The brave threw the blond-haired man into the rocks and kicked him mercilessly in his wounded side, causing Chris to lose his gun.  The injured peacekeeper curled in on himself and reached for the knife in his boot.  When the young Comanche attacked again, Larabee struck out and stabbed him in the chest.  The native collapsed, wide-eyed, to the ground.  Chris got his wits back about him just in time to see the other two braves carrying an unconscious Ezra off into the hills.

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Chris slammed his back into the rocks and blinked against the tears of frustration that threatened to fall.  What he wouldn’t give for Vin or Buck….even JD to come riding up about now?

“All right, Larabee,” he said out loud, “get a grip.”  He looked down at the arrow in his side and decided that was the first thing that was going to have to go.  Although he was sweating and getting nauseous just thinking about it, Chris figured it would be easier to pull the arrow through the front than to push it out the back.  So he reached around and broke the back end of the arrow off, placed his hands behind the tip sticking out the front side and started to pull.

“Jesus,” he said as it quickly became apparent how difficult this was going to be.  It felt like he was pulling his insides out right along with the arrow.  Chris took a deep breath and tugged another couple of inches.  The sweat poured out of his pores, and his body shook. 

“They could be doin’ worse things to Ezra right now,” Larabee said as he gripped the arrow once again.  He screamed as he pulled another few inches.  It was slow-going, but he kept at it and inch by inch finally pulled the arrow shaft free from his body.  Chris actually smiled when he held the arrow in his hand. 

He stood slowly and walked towards the stream to wash the wound.  The relief, blood loss, and reality of the situation seemed to hit him all at once.  Larabee’s body gave out and collapsed about 18 inches from the water’s edge.

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Ezra woke up tied to a skinny tree in the middle of the Comanche camp.  His head hurt, and he couldn’t remember how he had gotten here until he saw his very own horse, Chaucer, eating happily on the edge of the camp.  Damn Larabee for getting him into this mess……Larabee.  Where the hell was Chris?  Standish looked around, but there was no sign of his fellow peacekeeper.  The last he had seen, the seven’s leader was fighting a losing battle with another Comanche and was bleeding from an arrow wound to his side.  Good Lord, was Chris dead?

The two braves who had carried Ezra to the camp were standing outside of one of three tipis or tents that had been set up.  One looked at Standish and began gesturing wildly until both men walked over to where Ezra was seated.  Standish had no idea what they were saying, but they did not sound happy.  The taller of the two braves slapped the southerner hard across the cheek and made a motion of being stabbed in the chest.  Ezra looked at the Comanche with questioning eyes.  That only earned him another slap…this time busting his lip.

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Chris could hear the running water.  He was unbelievably thirsty, but he couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes.  He crawled towards the sound and finally when his face and body splashed into the cold stream, his eyes shot open.  He fumbled around with limbs that seemed to weigh twice as much as they should and managed to mostly wash off the entrance and exit wound from the arrow.  He cleaned off as much blood as he could from his clothing, splashed his face a couple more times and headed back up to look for his and Ezra’s weapons. 

How long had he been out, he wondered.  It was nearly dark.  Chris knew he needed to move faster, to hurry, but it was taking every bit of energy he had just to put one foot in front of the other.  He hoped that the Comanche had not taken Ezra far, and that Ezra would still be alive when he got there.  Where the hell were their guns? 

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Standish could tell that the two Comanche were debating something.  They kept pointing over the hill, and Ezra was beginning to suspect that Chris must have killed the third brave….since he had not reappeared since the attack.  Maybe Larabee was still alive?  Were these two thinking about going after him?

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Chris just happened to be looking up at the right time and saw the Comanche starting down the hill.  The injured gunslinger quickly found a hiding place in the rocky embankment.  He had used his shirt to tie up his wound and slow the bleeding, so hopefully he hadn’t left much of a trail.  Larabee now at least knew the general direction where they were likely keeping Ezra…..or his body.

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The scouting Comanche returned about an hour later with a deer for dinner but no Larabee.  The two natives happily ate their meal in front of Standish, without offering the captive a single bite.  This was even more annoying when it became apparent that it had been Standish’s own gun and bullets that had shot the deer.  The two Comanche had managed to pick up his and Chris’ weapons sometime during the fight.  That complicated things as far as a rescue….even if Larabee was still alive and physically-able to attempt such a thing. 

The Comanche took turns sleeping in their tipi and watching their captive.  The taller one was clearly the elder and meaner of the two.  He would kick or spit at Standish as he walked past, and if he caught Ezra drifting off to sleep he would position himself right up against the white man’s ear and scream a loud, Comanche cry.  By morning, Ezra was stiff, sore, rattled, and utterly exhausted.

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Once night had fallen, Chris had been able to see and smell the smoke from the natives’ campfire.  Unfortunately, just as he had gotten in a position to try and attack the guard, the other Comanche had woken up for the day.  Larabee cursed himself for being so slow, especially when he had to watch Mean Brave walk over to Standish first thing that morning and pull his hair. The brave placed a knife to Ezra’s throat….allowing a thin trickle of blood to run down and soak into his coat.  The Comanche was saying things that neither peacekeeper could understand, but the other brave found it very amusing.

After partaking in more of the deer meat for breakfast, the two braves sat around the fire for most of the morning.  Ezra desperately needed to see to the call of nature, but he had no idea how to inform these gentlemen of that fact. 

Chris had been sitting just over the hill, watching and waiting for a chance to rescue Ezra.  He was growing steadily angrier at the situation………and at himself because he couldn’t seem to keep his damn eyes open.  The blood loss, unrelenting pain in his side, and lack of sleep and food were wearing heavily on the former gunman’s body.

Ezra fought against exhaustion as well, but his bladder wasn’t going to let him fall asleep anytime soon.  “Pardon me, gentlemen.”

The Comanche stopped their conversation and glared at Standish.

“Could you possibly untie me for just a moment?  I have been stuck here for over 12 hours.”

Bone tired or not, Chris was now on alert.  He wasn’t sure what Ezra was up to, but he knew this might be their only chance.  If the braves did untie Standish, then he would have someone to help him fight….assuming Ezra wasn’t hurt badly.

The two long-haired men approached the gambler, and Mean Brave said something.

Ezra didn’t know how to answer, so he lifted his bound arms behind his back as far as he could and said again, “could you please untie me for just a moment?”

Shorter Brave walked to the edge of the forest at that very moment to see to his own call of nature, and Ezra motioned with his head, “need to go too.”

Mean Brave shook his head like he finally understood.  He pulled out a large hunting knife, and walked behind Ezra and cut the rope holding him to the spindly tree.  Standish was pulled roughly to his feet and over to the edge of the camp.  He was going to be allowed to see to the call of nature, but he was not going to be granted any privacy to do so.

Larabee was still biding his time, trying to decide when best to attack.  He could see and hear the two Indians talking as they led the southerner back towards camp.  They stopped abruptly, not far from the tree, and Mean Brave shoved the unsuspecting, white man to the ground.  The two braves began screaming at each other and at Standish.  Ezra tried to stand, but Mean Brave quickly pulled out his tomahawk and hit the southerner hard across his right temple.  The impact made a sickening thump, and Standish immediately crumpled to the ground. 

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Ezra drifted in and out of consciousness.  When he awoke the first time, he found himself in one of the tipis.  He looked down and discovered that he was unclothed with his privates covered only by a small buffalo skin.  Other times when he would briefly regain consciousness, he could remember the two Comanche entering.  They had stood over him and touched his exposed skin.  What had they done to him?  Had he been violated?  His body hurt all over…from the unbelievable pain in his head all the way down to his legs.  Had they tortured him with other objects?  Lord, how could this be happening?  He simply wanted to die.

The battered southerner forced himself to wake more fully when he heard both braves enter the tent, speaking in their native tongue.  Ezra was horrified to see that they possessed large knives within their grip, and it appeared that Mean Brave was ordering Shorter Brave to do something.  Standish nearly jumped out of his skin when the younger Comanche let out a blood-curdling scream.  The native immediately proceeded to grab Ezra’s thick, auburn hair, pulling the gambler to his knees.

Standish very quickly realized the man’s intentions and began to cry out and struggle, but it was to no avail.  He could feel his hair being cut and pulled from his head and could feel the blood running down the side of his face.  Ezra was utterly shocked when he glanced at the doorway of the tipi and saw Chris Larabee’s face…..smiling and laughing, as he passed out once again. 

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Chris yelled, “Nooooooooo!” and plowed into all three men:  Ezra, and the two natives, carrying all four of them to the ground.  Larabee landed just behind Shorter Brave and noticed his very own gun sticking out of the back of the buckskin pants.  Chris grabbed it, but before he had a chance to catch his breath and shoot, Mean Brave yelled out and the two natives disappeared off into the woods on Chris’ and Ezra’s horses.

Chris ran to Standish’s side, and placed a handkerchief to his bleeding head.

“Hair…..clothes,” Ezra repeated over and over.

“You’re gonna be ok, Ezra,” Chris tried to reassure the obviously-confused man.  “Let’s get out of here before those two decide to come back.”  Larabee threw Ezra over his shoulder and headed into the woods in the opposite direction.

Ezra was moaning and struggling, and Chris’ legs were shaking from fatigue.  Larabee knew that they likely hadn’t gone more than half a mile, but he couldn’t keep going.  He lay the southerner on the ground as gently as possible, and Standish’s eyes shot open.  “No, don’t touch me!” Ezra screamed and kicked his booted foot hard into Chris’ left knee.

“Woah, Ezra,” Chris held up his hands and limped back a step, “it’s me, Chris.  I ain’t gonna hurt you.”

Standish’s eyes seemed not to focus on any one particular spot, but he somehow got to his feet.  The gambler staggered around aimlessly as he yelled, “scalped! My God, I’ve been scalped.” 

Every time that Chris approached, Ezra struck out…….with his hands, fists, legs, sticks, whatever he had at his disposal, and Larabee was getting nervous.  He didn’t know if the Comanche were looking for them.  He had to get Ezra settled down now.

Chris finally managed to grab the shorter man in a bear hug from behind and tried his best to speak soothingly.  “Ezra, you’re ok.  You ain’t scalped.  You were hit on the head, and you’re just confused.”

“But I saw the knives….and the blood!  You were there!  You’re one of them!”  Standish got his left arm free and elbowed his captor.  The blow hit in Chris’ injured side, which caused him to scream out, let go of Ezra, and double over in agony. 

Chris collected himself and looked up just in time to see Ezra disappear into the forest.

“Damnit!” Chris shouted and forced himself slowly to his feet.  He didn’t remember ever feeling so tired, but he knew he couldn’t leave Ezra out there by himself.  The man was delirious and had no supplies….not even water.

Chris headed in the same direction as the fleeing gambler, cursing the natives, this stupid mission, and anything else that came to mind as he trudged through the thick underbrush.  He could feel the heat of fever starting to build in his own body.  He had only had the stream water to rinse the arrow wound; no whiskey or soap to clean it properly. 

After about 10 minutes, Standish came into view once again.  He was sitting on a rock with his head in his hands.  It looked as though he had calmed down, so Chris tried again to reach his distraught friend.

“Ezra, I only want to help you.  Do you remember who I am?” Chris asked from a safe distance.

“You are Chris Larabee, and you watched them torture me,” Ezra answered softly.

“They hit you on the head, Ezra.  You were dreaming or hallucinating or something.”

“No, I was there.  I saw it; you were laughing as they scalped me.”

Chris sat on the ground and sighed, “Ezra, you’re not scalped.  Feel your head.  Your hair is still there.”

Standish only reached up far enough to feel the makeshift bandage wrapped around his head, and he began yelling once again, “oh God, it’s really gone.  How can I live like this!?  What else did they do to me!?” 

Chris, too, stood and tried to calm the now fully-panicked southerner.  “Ezra, please calm down.  Everything’s gonna be ok,” but it wasn’t working.  Standish seemed to be getting more and more agitated.

“Get away from me!” Ezra screamed, and Chris could tell that he was looking for a weapon or path to escape.  So, he put his hands up in surrender.

“OK, Ezra, I’ll leave you alone, but here….at least take the canteen.”  Larabee placed the container of water on the dirt and walked away.  He would stay close enough to keep an eye on the southerner but out of sight.  They only had one gun, which Chris kept, and the one canteen between the two of them.

Ezra felt a strange mix of emotions when the blond man was out of sight:  relief, guilt, fear.  His head hurt fiercely, and Standish continued to see the images from the tipi play over and over again in his mind.  How could Chris think he would believe that he hadn’t been tortured?  He remembered the scene very vividly….the knives, the laughter, the pain.  He could not remember getting dressed or anyone dressing him, but Larabee must have done it before carrying him off into the wilderness.

The tired gambler continued westward.  He never saw or heard from Chris or the Comanche the rest of the day.  Once the skies became too dark to continue, he lay down on the ground between two trees and fell into a fitful sleep.  The dreams of torture continued throughout the long, cold night.

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Although it wouldn’t have seemed possible the day before, Ezra awoke feeling even more stiff and sore than yesterday.  His head and back were at the forefront of his attention, but literally every inch of him hurt.  His stomach growled, and Standish felt hungry and nauseous all at the same time.  He took a drink of water, hauled himself to his feet, and began to walk once again….not really knowing or caring where he was going.  He knew that he would be forced to live as a hermit if his head were disfigured from the scalping and beating; the once-handsome conman could not, and would not, allow people to see him like this.  His Mother would disown him for sure.

After an hour hiking away from the rising sun, something black caught his eye in the trees to his right.  Upon closer inspection, Ezra could see that it was Larabee, and he appeared to be sleeping.  Standish found that unusual, given what he knew about the gunslinger and his habits, but he didn’t dwell on it.  Maybe Chris had only bedded down a few hours ago.  Ezra couldn’t forgive the man for allowing, hell enjoying, the vile acts that were committed to his person by the Comanche.  So, Standish simply walked on. 

Ezra’s journey had progressed only another half-mile or so when he heard the unmistakable sound of horses tramping through the brush.  He only got himself hidden away with seconds to spare before the two Comanche came into view, still riding the regulators’ very own horses.  They rode on past, obviously not seeing Standish.  Ezra knew that Chris was in real danger; if he had found Larabee so easily this morning, the natives would as well.

Something told him, forced him, to go warn his associate….correction, former associate, before he went on his own way once again. 

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Ezra approached quietly and shook the lean, black-clad figure.  “Mr. Larabee?”

A moan was the only response.

“The Comanche will likely circle back this way any minute, Mr. Larabee.  You must hide yourself.”  Why the hell was Chris ignoring him?  Did he think this was some kind of a joke?  Damn, this was making his head hurt even more.

Out of frustration, Ezra jerked Chris over on to his back, and glassy, green eyes finally opened and stared at him from behind long, blond bangs.  Standish slapped Larabee’s face, quite hard, and was shocked to feel the heat emanating from the man.  Chris was burning up with fever; it was then that Standish remembered the arrow sticking out of Larabee’s side the day he was captured.

Ezra stood and walked a few feet away.  He ran his hands over his dirty, exhausted face, and sighed.  If he were to leave Chris in this state, the man would surely perish…either from the fever or the Comanche.

Too bad, thought Ezra.  If I stay to tend him, then it may hasten my own death as well, and this man laughed while I suffered.  Standish headed back into the woods, but stopped after a few minutes.  Just like their initial mission at the Seminole village years earlier, Ezra was unable to walk away.  His mind kept picturing Chris risking his own life for the town, for the other men, and for himself on more than one occasion.

The southerner spotted an area surrounded by tall rock walls on three sides, and he and his sore back and limbs somehow managed to haul Larabee’s semi-conscious form there.

“Here,” Ezra held the seven’s leader’s head with one hand and offered the canteen with the other, “take a drink.”

Chris obliged then managed to croak out, “Ezra?”

“Yes, now just lie back and rest,” Ezra did not feel like talking at the moment.  Chris, once again, did as instructed and promptly allowed his eyes to shut.  There were beads of sweat on Chris’ flushed face, and his wheat-colored locks were wet and darker around the hairline.  Larabee’s fever was high, and there wasn’t a damn thing Ezra could do about it besides try to keep the over-heated body from dehydrating itself. 

Standish would never get used to seeing Chris Larabee ill or injured.  Chris was always strong and in-control.  Therefore, it made this helpless being in front of him seem like a completely different person.

Chris finally began stirring again in the early afternoon.  Ezra offered more water, and then assisted Larabee to a sitting position.  Of all the possible first words out of Chris’ mouth, he chose to say, “you come to your senses, yet?”

Ezra snapped back, “my senses?  Ha!  I knew I should have left you to the Comanche.  Once they imprison you for a day or two, then you’ll understand what I went through.”  Before he could stop himself, Standish’s right fist connected solidly with Chris’ jaw, sending the feverish man right back to the ground where he lay a few minutes earlier.

“Damn you!” Ezra yelled.  “I was planning to wait until we returned to Four Corners to inform you of my decision, but why wait?  Hell, we probably will not make it back anyway.  So, Mr. Larabee, I resign my position with the town, effective immediately!”

Chris pushed himself back up.  “Ezra, just calm down.  I’m sorry, ok?”

“Oh, you’re sorry?  Sorry for what, Mr. Larabee?  For what you just said?  For watching the Indians torture me with glee?  For being nothing but rude and irritating for the last three years?”

Ezra turned and stomped away.

“OK, Ezra, I’m sorry……….for all of that.  For everything that I did…….and didn’t do.  Don’t leave,” Chris paused and ran a shaking hand through his hair.

Standish stopped, sighed, and glanced back.  Chris did look awful.  Guilt……the guilt of knowing that Larabee might die if he left, and the guilt of knowing that Chris would not leave him if the situation were reversed.

The gambler approached Larabee and helped position him against the wall, so he could sit more easily.  “You are quite ill from infection in your wound.  I will stay and assist you until you are well or we make it to a municipality of some sort, but have it be known that I plan to go my separate ways as soon as you are taken care of.”

Chris shook his head and simply said, “ok.”  He had finally done it.  He had finally pushed one of his six colleagues too far, and now Ezra was leaving.  “Ezra, I don’t want to make you mad, but you gotta believe me.  The Comanche scalping and torture was only a dream.  I would never help anyone hurt you.” 

Standish sat and stared into Chris’ pale eyes.  The man looked sincere, but Ezra knew without a doubt that his capture was real.  It had to be.  He could see it, feel it, taste it.  There just wasn’t time to dwell on it or figure it out right now.  Chris was shaking with chills, he had nothing with which to try to clean any of their wounds, they had no food, and only a tiny bit of water. 

Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, he heard the approach of horses. 

“The Comanche are coming.”

“Here,” Larabee held out the gun to Ezra.  It only held 6 bullets, and they had no additional ammo.  Chris figured Ezra would have a steadier aim.   “Help me to my feet.”

“I can’t be worried about what’s happening to you?” Ezra said.

“I know,” Chris acknowledged, but then finished with, “I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”  He gathered a hand full of large rocks as Standish helped him up onto very shaky legs.  Chris felt weak and dizzy, and the pain in his infected side was intense, but he was going to stand come hell or high water.

Standish wasn’t anywhere near 100% himself.  His vision blurred from time to time, and he had a headache the size of Texas.  Chris had certainly been right about one thing:  there was no doubt that he had taken a very hard hit to the head at some point.  He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and trained his  green eyes on the opening in the rocks. 

The southerner wasn’t prepared for how much it would affect him when he saw the Comanche up close again.  Without aiming or thinking, he pulled the trigger on Chris’ colt when the older brave peeked around the left-side rock wall, and did the same when the brave looked a second time.

“Ezra, that’s all the ammo we got,” Chris said as calmly as he could.  “You might wanna think about holdin’ fire until you get a clean shot.”

Ezra slowly inched closer to the opening, and then suddenly, from the other side, the younger brave jumped down in front of him.  Standish once again fired, but the brave kept coming.  He plowed into Standish, and the two men fought.

Mean Brave reappeared as well and leered at Chris.  It only seemed to further anger the Indian when Larabee planted a 3-inch rock into his chest.  He ran full-force into the injured peacekeeper, slamming the blond against the wall. 

Chris and Ezra both fought for all that their dehydrated and malnurished bodies had.  Shorter Brave had pounded Standish’s head against a solid, oak, tree trunk, and Ezra was just about out on his feet.  He thought he was imagining things when he saw the young Comanche suddenly collapse.  As he crawled closer, he saw a blossoming, red stain across the Brave’s stomach.  He had hit him with that first shot; it had just taken him a good 10 or 15 minutes to die. 

Standish stood and fell, and repeated that three times before making it back to the sheltered area where Chris was fighting with the larger brave.  The Comanche was kicking a downed Larabee.  Damn Chris Larabee’s rules, thought Ezra, and he lifted the Colt and shot the native in the back.  The Comanche fell on top of Chris and neither man moved. 

Standish pulled the long-haired man off, and then sat to catch his breath.  He could see that Larabee’s wound was bleeding and oozing puss.  He would go find the horses and get any supplies that were still there……..he just needed a few minutes.  Before the few minutes were up, Ezra passed out cold on the ground next to Chris.

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It was night when Standish next awoke.  He quickly checked to make sure Chris was alive.  His fever was still raging, and the heartbeat was fast but strong.

Ezra wandered out into the night, reclaimed the horses, and brought them into the sheltered area.  He found his own canteen, full of water, and drank at least half of it in one drink.  He hoped it wouldn’t make him sick, but he was so damn thirsty it was worth the risk.

He brought the canteen, the water pouches from the Comanche, and the small medical kit from Nathan over beside Chris.

The tired southerner began cleaning the arrow wound in Chris’ side by the light of the moon.  He squeezed out as much of the infection as he could and washed the area with water.  Larabee jerked awake when Ezra finished his ministrations with a good dowsing of whiskey to the wound. 

“Can you remain on your right side for a while?” Standish asked his wide-eyed, cursing patient.  “I would prefer to leave the wound open for a bit and let it air out.”

“Yeah,” Chris hissed, and then a minute or so later asked, “you ok, Ezra?”

“Honestly, Mr. Larabee, I have not had much time to think about it.”

“The Comanche dead?”

“On their way to hell as we speak.”

Chris looked up and locked eyes with Standish, and then shook his head in understanding.

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By dawn, Larabee had grown tired of his position on the ground, so he stiffly sat up and began checking over the sleeping gambler.  He removed the handerchief from Ezra’s head and cleaned the wound.  It wasn’t bleeding much, even with the scrubbing, but the entire area from above his hairline down below his left eye were black and blue.  He had a good-sized lump on the back of his head as well.  No wonder the man was so confused.  How many times had he been hit in the head?  There was a large cut on his right forearm, maybe from the Comanche’s knife, that Chris also cleaned and bandaged….all without Ezra doing anything more than groan or swat weakly at him.  There were too many bruises to count on the southerner’s torso, arms, and legs, and Larabee felt bad for dragging the poor man along on this mission.  Chris wondered if he would truly be determined to quit the seven and move on.

The man-in-black visibly jumped when a voice brought him back from deep thought.

“Could you please button my shirt, Mr. Larabee?  The draft is quite chilly this morning.”

“You scared the shit out of me, Ezra,” Chris replied as he buttoned the blue shirt.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better; thanks……….for everything,” Chris said quietly then stood.

Ezra could feel the heat off of Chris’ hands through the shirt as he worked the buttons.  Larabee’s face was battered from the fight yesterday, but the pink flush of fever was visible under the bruises.  He did seem to be more alert and have more energy though.  Ezra watched Chris amble slowly outside, likely to rid himself of some of the water Standish shoved into him last night.  Ezra rose to do the same.  Both men stopped on the way back to greet and stroke their horses.  They had a new appreciation of Pony and Chaucer after being without them for a few days.  Thank Heavens that the Comanche had chosen to utilize and ride the mounts, rather than eat them.

“How’s your head doin’?” Chris approached and again fingered the lump on the back of Ezra’s head, “think you might have taken another good lick yesterday.”

Standish reached up to feel the goose-egg for himself and realized that he had been tricked, as soon he saw Chris’ smile.  Ezra’s hand felt that he still had his entire head of hair.  The scalping episode really was some kind of dream or hallucination, but Standish did not understand how that was possible.  He was 100% sure that it was real. 

“I do have a bit of a headache this morning,” Ezra finally spoke.

“Yeah,” Chris searched through his saddlebag and pulled out a pouch of dried leaves, “I imagine you do.  I hate to say it, but I think both of us could use some of Nathan’s horse piss about now.”

Ezra snorted in response.  “I will heat the water.”

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Both men felt better, not great by any means, but better after drinking the tea and eating a few bites of jerky that they found in Chris’ saddlebag.

“You up to riding?” Chris scrutinized the southerner and asked.

“Certainly,” Ezra said somewhat hesitantly, and then after a pause said, “but I’m not sure that you are.”

“This is as good as it gets,” Larabee countered.  “That was the last of the tea, so once it wears off then we’re on our own.”

“Always so practical, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra couldn’t disagree with the man’s logic, so he simply stood and began readying the horses.

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They rode and rode.  Their path took them out of the hills and back to the flatlands, although still no sign of a homestead or town.  Ezra’s headache had returned with a vengeance after a few hours, as had Larabee’s fever.  Both men would have given their left arm for a soft bed and a good meal.

“Jesus, I am hallucinating once again,” Ezra said, as he saw a figure riding across the plains.  The apparition looked exactly like Judge Travis.  Standish blinked his eyes tightly and looked again, but the older man kept coming. 

“Chris!” Ezra reached out and touched his companion’s arm.

The fevered gunman raised his pale eyes and squinted against the sun.

“It appears that we have been found.”

Chris turned his gaze further to the west and saw for himself.

“Hello!” Travis yelled out.  “It’s Orin Travis, boys, don’t shoot!”  The territorial judge dismounted his horse and approached the two peacekeepers.

“Judge Travis, I dare say that I have never been as happy to see anyone in my entire life,” Ezra grinned and dismounted as well.  Orin quickly reached out to steady the clearly-exhausted and injured gambler.

“Looks like you two ran into some trouble?” Travis observed.

“We do seem to possess an innate talent for that.”

Chris slowly dismounted and made his way around Chaucer to where the judge and Ezra were talking.

“Chris,” Orin greeted, but then took a physical step back when he saw the raw anger in Larabee’s green eyes.

“Never again!” Chris yelled and grabbed the older man by the lapel of his jacket.  “We’re not takin’ any more assignments like this, you hear me?  You nearly killed us and our horses, and….,” Larabee would have collapsed had Ezra and Travis not quickly supported the wounded man.

“He’s delirious, Judge Travis,” Ezra tried to explain Chris’ behavior before the man got himself fired.  “A wound became infected, and he’s been feverish for days.”

“No!” Chris screamed while being supported between the two men, “I know exactly what I’m sayin.’  He quit!”  Larabee looked right at Travis and continued, “Ezra’s resigning……..because of me and this shit job!  I’ve tried to help you, Judge, I really have…..but I just don’t know if any of us can do this anymore.”

“Chris,” the judge could feel the heat coming off of Larabee’s arm and body, “why don’t we get you two back to town, and we’ll discuss this later.”  Orin then looked at Ezra, “do you think he can ride?”

“I’m right fuckin’ here,” Chris took on his own weight once again and jerked his arms off of his two supporters, “yes, I can damn well ride.”

The three men rode to the nearest town, about an hour’s ride, in complete silence.

Ezra had been shocked by Chris’ outburst.  Was Larabee really that upset about Standish’s decision to leave? 

The horses stopped in front of the local boarding house, and Travis finally spoke.  “You two head up to my room, number six, and I’m going to send a wire back to Four Corners,” Orin handed Ezra a set of keys to the room.  “I’ll tell Buck or Vin to arrange for transport for you two back to Four Corners.  Unfortunately I have business to attend to up north starting tomorrow, or I’d get a wagon and take you myself.  They should be able to get here in a couple of days, and hopefully you will both be feeling better by then.”

Ezra could tell that Chris was about to say something, so he stepped in front of Larabee and said loudly, “thank you, Judge.  That sounds fine.”  He shoved Chris towards the boarding house room door with a look that said, “keep your mouth shut.”

“If there’s a doctor in town, I’ll send him your way,” Orin yelled back as he walked to the telegraph office.

Standish had to help Chris up the stairs to the room, and he mumbled a half-hearted apology as he more-or-less tossed the blond onto the double bed.

Ezra said a silent prayer that Travis did not have an extra key for the room because he couldn’t resist lying down on the other side of the bed himself.  His eyes slid closed within a minute, and he and Chris both slept until a loud knock sounded at the door.

“Why oh why didn’t I take his weapon?” Ezra said, as he jumped out of bed as quickly as his sore body would allow.  He was in the unenviable situation of preventing a confused and feverish Larabee from using his now-cocked Colt on whatever unsuspecting soul stood on the other side of the door.

Ezra put his hand on Chris’, “Mr. Larabee, go lie down.  I will handle this.”  Chris was clearly dazed and visibly shaking with chills.  “…..and give me that,” the southerner grabbed the gun and disarmed it.

“Hello in there,” an unknown male voice called out, “I was asked to stop by; I’m the doctor in town.”

Ezra opened the door and gazed at the man before him.  He was about the Judge’s age and just slightly shorter than Ezra with a graying beard and round belly.  He carried a leather doctor’s bag and looked the part, so Standish stepped aside and said, “please, come in.”

“Guess the judge was right,” the old doctor remarked, “you two look kinda rough.  Name’s Silas Guthrie.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Doctor Guthrie.  I am Ezra Standish, and the man on the bed is Chris Larabee.”

“All right, Mr. Standish,” the doc started removing supplies from his bag, “tell me what happened.”

Withholding all unnecessary details, Ezra explained the injuries from Chris’ arrow wound to his side, to his own head injuries, to the fight with the two Comanche the day before.  Guthrie was clearly a small-town doctor, as his medical supply stock was very similar to Nathan’s.  The strongest medication that he had was laudanum, which Ezra graciously refused for his headache.  Until the other men arrived from Four Corners, he would need to keep his full faculties about him to watch over Chris and himself. 

The doctor re-cleaned their wounds and replenished the supply of pain- and fever-reducing herbs.  He gave them each a dose of tea and went on his way, instructing Ezra not to get hit in the head again anytime soon.  He also said to send for him if Chris’ fever did not decrease by morning or if Standish’s own headaches and dizziness persisted.

Just as Ezra finally lay down again, there came another knock at the door.  Standing, Ezra sighed and loudly said, “what?”

“It’s Orin.”

Standish straightened his clothing and opened the door.  “What can I do for you, Judge Travis?”

“Just checking up on you.”

It was then that Ezra noticed the tray of food that the older man was carrying.

“Brought you some soup and sandwiches.  You looked like you could use a decent meal.”

“Thank you, sir.  I also just realized that we are currently occupying your room.  Would you like Mr. Larabee and myself to move to another one?”

“No, no.  This one’s yours.  I already rented another room just down the hall.  I’ll grab my suitcase and let you boys eat and get some rest.  I’m in room nine; just holler if you need anything, Mr. Standish.”

“I will, and about what happened with Mr. Larabee earlier....”

“No worries, son.  I know he wasn’t thinking clearly, but since you brought it up….and if you don’t mind me askin’…….are you really planning to resign your position with the town?”

Standish sighed and sat down in a chair next to the bed.  “I will have to think on it.”

“I would hate to lose your services, Mr. Standish, so please consider that as you make your decision.  Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, sir.” 

Ezra shut the door, and then nearly jumped out of his skin when Chris said, “so you might not leave us after all?”

“You were eavesdropping or, as Mrs. Wells would say, playing ‘possum, eh Mr. Larabee?”

“I might have been,” Chris sat himself up on the bed and leaned back against the headboard.

“Well, as you already heard then, I am still considering all of my options.  Would you like some food?”

“We all want you to stay on, Ezra…..I want you to stay.”

“Yes, well, it does not always seem that way, does it?” Ezra handed Chris a bowl of soup and a spoon, and sat back down in the chair with his own food.

“Just say it,” Chris locked his green eyes with Ezra’s.

“Just say what, Mr. Larabee?”

“That I’m an asshole.”

Ezra snorted and nearly spit his mouth full of soup onto his lap.  “I don’t believe I implied any such thing.”

“I won’t deny it,” Chris smirked, “Listen, I know I’m a bear to work with sometimes.”  Ezra raised his eyebrows, and Chris continued, “ok, most of the time.”  Eyebrows still raised.  “Shit, all of the time?”  Standish smiled.  “…..but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like or respect you, Ezra.  The fact is that I do, and our group wouldn’t be the same without you.”

“Just eat,” Ezra put an end to this line of conversation, “we’ll talk about this later…when we’re both feeling better.”

Chris dipped his head and looked down at his soup.  He took a few bites, sat the bowl down, and turned on his side and went back to sleep.

It was dark when Ezra finished his own meal.  He debated just sleeping on the floor in his bedroll, but the soft mattress and pillow were too tempting.  He lay down on the bed next to Chris and slept soundly for a good 11 hours.

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When he next awoke, the sun was shining brightly and Chris was splashing water on his face from the basin beside the window. 

“Mornin’, Ezra.”

“Yes, I see that,” Standish stood and touched his hand to Chris’ stubbly jaw.  He then realized that he would have never been brave enough to do that only a week ago.  “You’re still too warm.”

“Think it’s just gonna take a couple of days now that the wound is finally cleaned up.  I drank some more tea about an hour ago.  You want some?”

Ezra shook his head, “yes.”  His headache was much improved after a good night’s rest, but the remainder of his body clearly hadn’t gotten the memo.  He felt like an old man.  Plus, he was disheartened to hear that Chris was still this fevered even after a dose of medication.  That likely meant that his temperature hadn’t gone down at all yet.

After drinking his own foul-tasting tea, Ezra remarked, “I don’t know about you, but I am in dire need of a warm bath.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Chris said and smiled when Ezra glared at him, “for either of us.”

“Do you think the bathhouse is open yet?”

“Ezra, it’s 10 o’clock.”

“Oh, there should be no problem then.”

They passed by the judge’s room on the way out, but he had apparently already departed for his business up north.

After the bath, Ezra and Chris stopped at a small restaurant for a breakfast that neither of them really ate.  The two weary travelers did appreciate the hot coffee.

“What do you think, Ezra?” Chris looked tiredly at the gambler and continued, “should we hit the trail today?  Maybe meet up with Vin or Buck or whoever’s heading this way?  We could try to get word back and tell them their help isn’t needed?  I think we’ll be ok.”

Standish was dreading the trip.  He was dreading sleeping on the hard ground, eating trail food, and he was dreading the decision he needed to make over the next few days.  “I am in no hurry, and I believe it would be best to make sure we are healthy enough for travel.” 

Chris stared down at his mostly un-touched food.  “I know we ain’t exactly at full strength, but I want to get back to Four Corners….been gone too long as it is.”

Ezra sighed.  He could tell by the look in Larabee’s eye that the blond wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

Neither man noticed the party of three at the corner table watching them intently.

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“I am ready, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra called out to the man sitting on the bench as he finished saddling Chaucer.   Standish had stopped at the general store to buy a few supplies, and Chris waited none-so-patiently.  It drove the seven’s leader crazy to leave on any trip after noon, but in truth – he had worn himself out readying his own horse and appreciated the fifteen minutes to just sit and rest.

The southerner couldn’t help but notice the sheen of sweat on Chris’ face and his pale, pinched features.  “Are you certain that you want to do this?” Ezra asked as non-confrontationally as he possibly could.  It was always difficult dealing with Larabee in this sort of situation.

Chris just shook his head in the affirmative and hopped onto Pony’s back.  “Let’s ride, Ezra.”

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How in the world the man remained in the saddle until nightfall, Ezra would never know.  Chris’ fever had returned with a vengeance, and the man shivered in a cold sweat the entire day…..always insisting that he was, “fine.”

When it was finally too dark to continue, Standish rode close to Chris and physically grabbed the reins of the black horse.  He pulled Pony to a stop and simply ordered, “get down, Mr. Larabee.  We are camping here for the night.”

Chris looked around.  How the hell had it gotten so dark?  Standish watched the lean figure in black hold tight to the saddle as he dismounted, to prevent himself from collapsing to the dirt below.  He felt bad for his ailing companion, but Ezra had simply had enough of this.  He never signed on to be a nurse or a protector of any of these men; yet he seemed to find himself in that situation more and more often.  Maybe in the morning, he would just head his own way…..not even bother going back to Four Corners to say goodbye.  The thought of only being responsible for himself became more appealing each day. 

Chris stumbled unsteadily and sat beside him.  Ezra was trying to get a fire started, so they would have a little bit of heat and could brew some of the medicinal tea.  He was going to get Larabee’s fever down to a reasonable level, and then he was going to get a good night’s sleep.  Yes, he had big plans for the morning.

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The rain came down hard, and that meant a long, unrestful night for both men.  Standish finally gave up just after dawn and pulled his soggy-self up off the ground.  He approached a nearby, swollen stream and watched the water rush by.  He would still go forward with his plan.  He would talk to Chris over coffee this morning, and he would head south.  Maybe do some gambling at the larger halls in Texas.

Larabee arose on shaky legs and was surprised to see Ezra already awake and over at the stream.  He approached from behind the gambler, but Standish knew he was there.  Ezra just wasn’t ready to speak to anyone yet this morning.  He heard Chris start to say something, “so…” just as he was smacked hard across his back and head and knocked off of his feet.

Ezra couldn’t make sense of what had happened as he tried to keep his head above the swift water.  Had Chris Larabee just pushed him into the river or struck him with something?  The stream wasn’t overly deep, and Standish’s legs and body got pummeled into rock after rock before he finally became wedged in some bushes along the edge.

Within a minute, he felt someone pulling him onto the muddy bank.  “Lie still for a minute, Ezra.  Where are you hurt?”  Chris.

“What happened?” Standish coughed out.

“Tree must have gotten washed out in the storm.  A 12-inch trunk came down the river and knocked you in.”

Ezra looked up at his companion and had a hard time believing that he was telling the truth.  Standish continued to cough up dirty water for the next few minutes, and Larabee sat himself in the mud and laughed….not knowing what else to do.  What more could possibly happen to them?

“How bad are you hurt?” Chris asked when Standish’s coughing fit ended.  The seven’s leader had crawled closer and pulled up Ezra’s jacket and shirt to get a look at his back.  There was a large, bloody, scrape, but he couldn’t tell what sort of damage had been done below the surface.  “Ezra?” the wet, blond said again.

“I do not know,” the southerner answered honestly and slowly stood.  He knew he had to act before the dizziness brought him to his knees once again, so he kicked Larabee hard in the stomach and turned the tides.  This time it was Chris falling into and fighting in the churning water.  “I should have gone with my instincts the first time,” Ezra thought.  Chris was clearly trying to hurt him.  Standish didn’t understand why he hadn’t shot Larabee when he had the chance in the woods a few days earlier.  The seven’s leader had needed him to get him out; that was it!  Once Chris was back on his feet, he went right back to his old tricks.

Larabee managed to get to shore about 75 feet downstream.  He didn’t even have time to finish clearing out his water-logged lungs before he saw three riders on horseback approach. 

“Ezra?” a tall man on a white horse asked, “is that really you?  I thought it was you back in town, but I didn’t want to call any unwanted attention….in case you were working a job.”  The man dismounted and steadied Standish with a hand to his elbow.  “How long has it been?  Three or four years?”

“Mr. Holt,” Ezra responded, “it has been a long time.”

“Jake, Ezra, how many times do I have to tell ya to call me Jake?”  Jake Holt turned and instructed his two companions, “boys, why don’t you get that fire goin’ again, and we’ll all catch up over breakfast.”

Jake half-supported Ezra over to where Chris was now standing.  Larabee was hatless and soaked, with blood running down his left arm and a gaping a hole in his jacket sleeve.  The log that struck Ezra had also grazed him as it flew past.

“Who is this guy?” Holt inquired to Ezra.

“Mr…..uh Jake, allow me to introduce you to Chris Larabee,” Ezra smirked.

“You don’t say?” Holt smiled back.  “Chris Larabee, the deadly gunslinger?”

“The one and only,” Standish answered, and Chris continued to glance back and forth between the two men before him.  Something was going on.  Ezra was acting very strangely…even for Ezra.

“He don’t look at all like I expected,” Holt laughed, “he a friend of yours?”

Ezra stared right into Larabee’s eyes and replied, “no, he is not.  This man tried to kill me just prior to your arrival.”

Chris started to say, “I did not……”

The wet gunman was interrupted by Jake Holt saying, “should I shoot him?”

There was still something tugging at Ezra’s mind about Larabee.  Even though it seemed that the man had tried to incapacitate him on more than one occasion, Standish quickly answered, “no, just tie him up.  I’ll figure out what to do with him later.”

Holt was a good-sized man:  about Chris’ height but built more like Josiah.  He reached out and grabbed Larabee’s arm and steered him toward the campfire.  The gunslinger was unceremoniously shoved to the ground upon arrival.  Larabee’s gun belt was removed, and his hands and feet bound with rope.

“You look kinda rough, Ezra,” Holt noticed the bruised con man swaying and wincing in pain, “we can keep an eye on this guy,” Jake kicked Larabee in his bloody arm, “if you want to lie down for a bit.”

“Thank you, sir.  I believe that I will take you up on that offer.”  Ezra lay down on his bedroll and closed his eyes against the thumping that had reemerged in his head.  His upper back and neck were also paining the conman and likely turning lovely shades of blue and purple.  How he could have been fooled by Larabee for so long, he wondered as he drifted off to sleep.

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The southerner awoke a few hours later to find Chris with a black eye and bleeding wound to the left side of his face. 

“What happened to him?” Ezra asked, as he accepted a warm cup of coffee. 

“He’s a lyin’ sack of shit,” Jake replied, “said you and he have been workin’ together for the last three years.”

“I see,” was Standish’s only response.

“So, where did you go after Fort Laramie?” Holt inquired.

“I did indeed settle in the same town as Mr. Larabee for a while…..little hamlet by the name of Four Corners.  I have shied away from traveling up Fort Laramie way since our, uh, trouble.”

So, these were the guys that Ezra was working with when he got arrested, and subsequently jumped bail, in Fort Laramie?  Chris had never asked Standish about what happened, but he must have been working some sort of con with these fellows.  Chris wasn’t sure if Ezra was playing Holt now, or if that knock on the noggin sent him back into the world in which Standish thought Chris was the enemy.  He sincerely hoped that it was the former option, and that Ezra would help him escape soon.  His shoulders were already sore from being wrenched back and tied tightly.

Ezra was overcome with a nagging feeling of guilt about the blond man’s condition.  He didn’t know what he wanted done with Larabee, but he hadn’t expected Holt and his men to abuse him while he slept.  Standish walked over, picked up Chris’ hat, and placed it on the blond’s head.  The sun had been shining brightly all morning, and Larabee’s face and neck were starting to get sunburned.

Jake laughed out loud when he saw Ezra give the battered gunslinger his black hat.  “So, what are we gonna do with Larabee?  We were plannin’ on riding into Texas this afternoon.  You’re more than welcome to come along, Ezra.”

Ezra shook his head, “yes, I just might do that.”

“Should we leave him here or can I shoot him?” Holt took out his pistol and pressed it hard against Chris’ cheek.  “Ain’t nobody gonna miss this bastard anyway, from what I’ve heard about him.”

“No!” Ezra yelled and stepped towards Holt.  “I……..I don’t really want to kill him; let’s just leave him behind.”

“Can I at least kick his good-for-nothin’ ass?” Jake smiled and smacked Chris hard across the face with the gun.  Larabee fell on his side, out cold, and his hat once again rolled away onto the dirt.  Holt kicked and stomped the downed gunslinger until Ezra put a hand on his arm.

“I think we’ve made our point,” Standish pulled on Jake’s arm, and Holt jerked it away.

“Fine, let’s leave the rest of him to the sun and the buzzards.”

Ezra gave a quick glance back at the black figure in the distance, as he and his three companions rode south.

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“Chris.”

“Hmmmmm.”

“Come on, Cowboy, open those eyes.”

“Is Chris ok?  Where the heck is Ezra?”

“That’s what I’m tryin’ to find out, JD.”

JD cut the ropes binding Chris’ hands and feet.  It was already dark, but he and Vin were able to find Larabee by the still-smoldering campfire.

Vin gently slapped again at the too warm face.  “Chris!  Come on, Larabee; need you to wake up fer me.”

The blond eyelashes fluttered, and the Texan had never been happier to see the Larabee glare…..albeit weak and glassy.

“Vin?”

“Yep, and JD too.”  Vin pulled Chris up to a sitting position and put Chris’ canteen, that they had retrieved from his saddlebags, up to the chapped lips.  “Drink.”

“Ah shit,” the hoarse voice said as Chris put a shaky hand up to his bruised, dried-blood-covered head.  “Ezra.”

“Where is Ezra, Chris?”

“Rode out…..man named Jake Holt,” Chris blinked his eyes against the nausea and the pain in his head and throat.  “Not thinkin’ straight.”

Vin smiled, “that’s understandable given the looks of your face.  Plus, you seem to be sportin’ a fever.”

“Not me……Ezra.”

JD looked from Chris to Vin and asked, “Ezra wasn’t thinkin’ straight?”

“Got hit in the head a couple of times,” Chris tried to explain, “had some sort of amnesia or somethin’.”

“He didn’t know who he was….or you were?”

“No, he did….but he thought I was tryin’ to hurt him.”

“Were you?” Vin smiled, “I know how you two get after bein’ in each other’s company for a long time.”

“No, he was paranoid, confused.”

“Did Ezra do this to you?” Vin turned serious again, as he motioned to Chris’ head.

“No…..”

“But?” JD could tell that Chris was wanting to say more.

Chris remained silent; Vin surmised, “he didn’t stop it neither.”

“We’ve gotta find him,” Chris pleaded.  He didn’t know how to explain everything to Vin and JD, but deep down he knew that this whole mess was his fault.  Ezra would have never been in this situation if he hadn’t been forced to go on this stupid mission.

“I’ll get the fire goin’ again,” JD volunteered, “you need help movin’ Chris?”

“I can walk,” Chris answered, but JD looked again at Vin.

“We’ll manage,” Vin confirmed, “thanks, JD.”

JD went to work gathering up wood and reviving the campfire, and Vin grabbed under Larabee’s arms and helped pull him to his feet.  He then threw Chris’ arm over his shoulder and moved close to the campfire.

“I’m gonna grab Nathan’s kit and clean him up a bit,” Vin told JD.

“OK.”  JD sat down.  “So what happened to you and Ezra, Chris?  The judge’s wire just said you ran into some trouble.”

Chris told as much of the story as he could, leaving out the part about Ezra wanting to leave the seven, until his voice was about to give out.  Vin cleaned the cuts on his head and arm, and checked out the old arrow wound in his side.

“A shame about them Comanche,” Vin said, “but some of ‘em are like that.  Most are good folks; saved my life a number of times.  You and Ezra done the right thing though, killin’ those two.”

“It was during Ezra’s capture that he started thinkin’ I was out to get him,” Chris supplied, “said he saw me laughing at what the Comanche were doing or helping them somehow….must have been a dream.  He seemed ok once we got to town, and then lost his senses again after he fell in the river.”  Chris ran his hand through his hair and his voice was no more than a whisper as he said, “I don’t know anything about this Holt fellow that Ezra rode off with.”

“Chris,” Vin interrupted, “we’re all tired.  JD and I rode since dawn to get here; we’ll figure it all out in the morning.”  Tanner leaned over and felt Chris’ face.  “You’re awful warm, Cowboy.  It’s hard to tell how much is fever and how much is sunburn.  How you feelin’?”

“I’m ok,” Chris paused to look from Vin to JD, “just wanna find Ezra and go home.  It’s been a long, damn trip.”

Vin moved all three of their bedrolls close to the fire, and they lay down under the cloudless, starry sky.

“It really is good to see you boys,” Chris said as he rolled onto his side.  He was tired but found it difficult to sleep.  He knew that Ezra might still leave, even once he got his full wits back about him, but they couldn’t part ways like this.  Chris couldn’t handle the notion that Standish might live out the rest of his days thinking that he tried to kill him.  He, Vin, and JD would leave at first light and track down the stubborn gambler.  They would make sure he was ok and do their best to talk Ezra into going home with them.

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The pain in Ezra’s head worsened throughout the day, and he simply collapsed onto his bedroll once Holt’s gang stopped to make camp for the night.  He had not eaten anything since breakfast that morning but still felt horribly nauseous. 

Things had not improved for the southerner the following morning.  His headache was worse, if that was even possible, and now his throat and back ached terribly as well.

“Ezra, you ever gonna get up?” Jake Holt yelled from the campfire, where he was drinking a cup of coffee.  “I remember you not being a morning person and all, but it’s damn near 11 o’clock!”  Holt threw the remnants of his coffee into the fire and approached the prone gambler.  “Wake up, you lazy bas……” Holt stopped when he got a good look at Standish.  He touched Ezra’s face, and yelled, “aw shit, he’s burnin’ up.  Let’s get the hell out of here, boys.  I think he might have something catchin’.  Larabee didn’t look too good yesterday, and now Standish has come down with something too.  Sorry, buddy, wish you all the best, but I ain’t no doctor, and I ain’t keen on gettin’ sick myself.”

Ezra rolled over and fell back into a fevered sleep, as the three Holt gang members packed up camp and prepped their horses.

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Vin woke the next morning to the sound of Chris coughing. 

“Chris.” Vin approached and put his hand on Larabee’s shoulder.  “Damn, you’re still burnin’ up.”  Tanner pulled up Chris’ shirt.  “The arrow wound looks fine; I don’t think that’s causin’ the fever.  What’s goin’ on with you, Cowboy?”

Chris rested his head on his right hand and answered honestly, “I don’t know, Vin.”

“How long you had a fever?”

“Since the day after the Comanche attack.”

JD was standing there listening now as well.

Chris tried to think back.  “I was feelin’ a bit better when we first left town, but then it seemed to get worse again yesterday.”

“You said you and Ezra fell in the river, and I imagine that water’s pretty cold this time of year.  Maybe you got pneumonia?” JD guessed.

“Maybe,” Chris ran a shaky hand through his hair, “but I started feelin’ bad just an hour or two after fallin’ in.  A person can’t get pneumonia that fast, can they?”

Vin shrugged, “I ain’t got Nathan’s know-how on this sort of thing, but your lungs are congested and you got a fever.  Does sound like pneumonia.”

“Well, whatever it is…it don’t change what we need to do today,” Chris stood and Vin and JD flanked him.

The two healthy men exchanged glances, but it was Vin who spoke, “Chris, you ain’t in no shape to ride.  I’ll go find Ezra, and I’ll bring him back.  You and JD can wait here.”

“No!” Chris’ voice was rough but loud, and both Vin and JD’s eyes grew large at the unexpectedly-emotional response.  Chris sighed, squeezed the bridge of his nose, and took a deep breath to keep from coughing.  “Ezra’ll think I abandoned him for sure.  I’ll be all right….really.”

“Since when do you care so much about what Ezra thinks?” Vin locked eyes with the gunslinger.

Chris swallowed hard against his sore throat and quietly said, “he thinks I tried to kill him, Vin.”

“Certainly wouldn’t be the first person you tried to kill,” Vin turned and walked to the horses.  The tracker was irritated that Larabee couldn’t be convinced to stay behind.

JD was left standing there with Chris, not knowing what to say.  “Should I make some coffee?”

“Nah, just help Vin get the horses ready.  I’ll be over in a bit.”  Chris walked out into the scrub brush.  He saw to the call of nature and tried to clear some of the congestion from his lungs.  He coughed so hard he thought he was going to pass out, but it didn’t get rid of the tickle in the back of his throat.  “Damnit!”  Chris yelled and an unsuspecting rabbit scurried out of a bush and away from the angry man.

Vin and JD turned to look, but then just went on about their business of readying the mounts, including Chris’.

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Vin didn’t speak for the first four hours on the trail, which meant JD did a lot of talking to fill the silence.  He talked about the weather, what had been going on back in Four Corners since Chris and Ezra had left, about a new girl in town that Buck had his eye on, how Josiah had put up a new door and had the church looking real nice, and just about anything else that popped into his head.

Vin finally allowed his gaze to fall on Larabee, who was riding behind and to his right.  Chris was holding his own, despite the fever, chills, cough, and bruises.  Tanner admired and admonished him for it all at the same time.  Larabee was sick as a damn dog.  He was pale and sweating, and he sounded like he was going to cough up a lung any minute.  Plus, he’d fallen into a river and had the crap beat out of him just the day before.  There was no way in hell that Chris would have let him or any of the others ride if the situation were reversed, but here that stubborn cuss was on his horse headed for Texas…..and he and JD hadn’t done a damn thing to stop him.

The first words out of Vin’s mouth during the ride were, “Shit!  Get him, JD!” as Chris started to slide from his horse.  JD had never moved so quickly in his life.  Somehow, he got down off of Milagro and made it to Pony’s side in time to slow Chris’ descent to the hard-packed dirt.

“Vin?” was all JD had to say before Tanner appeared at his side.  “His fever’s bad.”

“I know, JD.  Can you set up camp and take care of Chris, while I go on ahead and look for Ezra?”

“Sure, Vin.”  JD pulled Chris up to a flat, grassy area under a couple of cottonwood trees, then removed his own jacket and placed it under his leader’s head.  He grabbed the water and supplies from the horses and tried to get Chris to drink something.  Larabee was completely out of it, so JD ate a biscuit and drank some water himself while he bathed Chris’ face with a wet cloth.  He hoped that Chris would wake if he got his fever down a bit.

Vin only had to ride about 15 minutes before he came upon another group of campers.  His heart sank when he saw Ezra lying motionless in the field to his left.  The men with him were mounting their horses; apparently planning to leave Ezra where he lay.

“Who the hell are you?” Jake asked as Vin approached.

“A friend of Ezra’s.  What’s wrong with him?”

“I’ll be damned if I know,” Holt said, as he and his buddies took off down the trail, heading south.

“I’m sure he appreciates all of your concern,” Vin yelled after them then said under his breath, “assholes.”

There was no blood or visible injuries as Tanner approached the downed southerner, but goosebumps formed on his own body when he felt the tell-tale heat of a high fever. 

“Ah, shit,” Vin said, as realization hit that they really could be dealing with something bad….something contagious.

“Ezra,” Vin gently slapped the gambler’s sweaty face.  “Ezra, wake up.”

Standish recognized the familiar drawl, and he desperately wanted to comply with the request.  His eyelids were just so heavy.  After what seemed like an hour, he finally commanded his tired eyes to open just a crack.

“Hey there, Ez.  Long time, no see,” Vin forced a smile, even though he was worried for his friend….and, truth be told, himself.

“Not feeling well,” Ezra forced out through an unbelievably sore throat.

“Yeah, I can see that.  Think you can ride a short distance?  JD’s makin’ camp just a few miles up the road.”

No answer.

“Well, you didn’t say no, so let’s give it a try, Ezra.  I’ll help ya.”  Vin lifted Standish to his feet, let him steady himself for a moment, then assisted the shorter man to his horse.  He could quickly tell that Standish wasn’t going to be able to stay in the saddle for any length of time, so he hopped up behind Ezra on Chaucer and tethered Peso to follow behind them.

JD saw the two men approaching and ran to meet them.  He, too, immediately felt the heat coming from the nearly unconscious gambler.  “He got the same thing as Chris?”

Vin dipped his head, “that would be my guess.  JD, maybe you should ride back to town for a few days.”

“What?” JD didn’t understand why Vin would even suggest such a stupid thing with two of their friends in obviously dire need of help.

“It would give you the best chance of not……not catchin’ whatever this is.”

“No way, Vin.  I ain’t leavin’ you here with those two in that kind of shape.  You could catch it, too.”

“I know, JD, but I’m willin’ to take that chance.  Just that it could be somethin’….something a man can’t recover from.  Saw epidemics come through a coupla times in the Kiowa and Comanche villages.”

“Well, I’m willin’ to take that chance too,” and with that JD reached up to help get Ezra off of the horse.

Vin sighed.  “All right, JD, let’s get Ezra situated over there beside Chris,” Vin was glad that JD was staying but very nervous for the young man.  Chris and Ezra both seemed to have strong immune systems and rarely got sick.  Hell, he and JD both got colds and minor ailments more often than those two, so he knew that may not bode well for their ability to avoid whatever this was.

 JD and Vin took turns bathing the two ill men’s faces and chests, but neither Chris nor Ezra woke enough to take in food or water that evening.  JD took the first part of the nightshift, as Vin caught a few hours of sleep.  Although he would never admit it, JD was scared.  He didn’t want his friends to die, and he didn’t want himself or Vin to get sick.  He felt so helpless.

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Jake Holt walked out onto the boardwalk of the small Texas town and stretched his long limbs.  He was desperately searching for a place to get some decent coffee, and then he would visit the bathhouse.  He walked past the undertaker’s and the livery when something caught his eye.  As he approached the building that housed the local jail, he saw a wanted poster with a familiar face.  $500, dead or alive.  “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said out loud.  The coffee and bath immediately forgotten, he turned 180 degrees and headed back to the rooms he and his men had rented.  There was going to be a change in plans.  $500 was a lot more than they could make with their usual cons and jobs, so they were going to hop on their horses and head back north.

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By morning, Vin had gotten Chris and Ezra to take in a bit of water, but they were both too feverish to be coherent.  At one point, and for a good 3 or 4 minutes, Larabee kept repeating, “don’t go, no, don’t go….”  Vin and JD both had tried to talk to the ill man, to tell him that they weren’t going anywhere, but he didn’t seem to hear them or understand.

It was nearly noon when Vin and JD finally took a break and had some breakfast.  “What do we do if they don’t get better?” JD asked as he put some jam on a biscuit.

“They’ll get better,” Vin smiled a tired smile. 

“But when do we know when it’s taking too long?”

“If their fevers are still high in a couple of days, we’ll either take them to a doctor or ride to town to see if a doc will come out here and look at ‘em,” Vin didn’t want to risk infecting an entire town if it wasn’t absolutely necessary for his friends’ survival.  “Why don’t you rest a bit, JD?  Ya look tired.  I’ll go clean up the dishes and then look in on Chris and Ezra.”

JD would never admit it, but he really was exhausted.  He had trouble falling asleep after Vin had taken over watch at 2AM, and the sun was so bright this morning that he was wide awake before 7:00.  He found a shady spot under a tree and lay down, staring up at the cloudless, blue sky.  He wished that he could get word back to Josiah to pray for Chris and Ezra…..and for Vin and himself too.  It wasn’t long before his eyes drifted shut and he fell back to sleep.

Vin ambled over to the nearby stream to wash the cups and bowls from breakfast.  He never had time to react or pull his weapon; the tracker felt and heard the bullet at the same time.  The projectile embedded itself in the backside of Vin’s right, upper arm, and he fell forward into the stream from the impact.  Hands roughly pulled him to his feet, tied a bandana across his eyes, secured his hands, and lifted him onto a horse.

“Who are ya and what do you want?” Tanner gritted out between pain-clenched teeth. 

Before anyone could answer, the injured tracker heard a familiar voice yell, “let him go, or I’ll put a bullet in you!”  The seven’s youngest member had been jolted out of sleep by the sound of a gunshot.  He arrived at the stream just in time to see Vin being pulled, bleeding, from the water.

“I don’t think so,” an unknown voice replied from behind.  JD had no choice but to put down his pistol when he felt the unmistakable sensation of a gun barrel shoved into the small of his back.  Once the man had JD’s weapon, he yelled to another man, “what do I do with the kid?”

“Take him with us,” Jake Holt answered, “maybe he’s an associate of Tanner here; maybe he’s worth some money too.”

“Shit,” Vin said quietly to himself.  He now knew what this was all about.  The bounty.  He should have known better than to come back to Texas without clearing his name first.  Now, he and JD were going to jail, under the best-case scenario, and leaving their two sick friends out here alone.  He was wanted dead or alive, so he hoped the men were just lazy, greedy fellows instead of killers.  Did he tell the captors about Chris and Ezra?  Ask them to send a doctor back?  What if they chose to shoot them instead?  No, he would remain silent and hope he and JD could escape or find a way to clear his name quickly.

“Vin?”  JD asked, as he too was mounted onto a horse with his hands tied.

“Just keep quiet, kid.”

“Are you all right?” the blood was pouring down Vin’s arm.

“I’ll be ok,” Vin said rather unconvincingly, as movement from the horse caused him to hiss in pain, “just don’t say anything until you and me talk.”

It was a long ride back to town for the injured peacekeeper.  He was starting to feel dizzy from loss of blood, and he just about fell from his horse a few times during the three-hour journey.  No one made any effort to help him or JD.  Vin’s wound was not wrapped or cleaned, and neither man was offered water.

Tanner fell to his knees when he was roughly jerked from the horse, and JD tried to fight away from the hands that held him.  The man helping Vin laughed and pulled him back to his feet by his hair. 

“Leave him alone!” JD yelled.  It frustrated the youngster to no end to have to stand there and watch his clearly weakened friend be treated like that.

The two regulators were toted into the sheriff’s office and roughly thrown into a cell.  JD heard the men talking to the sheriff.  They were very eager to make sure nothing could go wrong as far as the $500 reward was concerned.  The sheriff sent a young deputy down the road to fetch the doctor and told the men that he would handle everything, and that yes, he couldn’t see why they would not get the reward due them.

“What’s your name, boy?” the tall, lanky sheriff approached the cell door and asked.

JD looked to Vin.  The tracker had instructed him not to answer any questions until they had talked.

“It’s ok….you can answer his questions,” Vin crawled over and onto a dirty cot and said quietly.

“JD Dunne….uh, John Daniel Dunne, Sheriff.”

The sheriff had been flipping through his stack of wanted posters as he stood there.  “I don’t see ya in here, Mr. Dunne.  Are you wanted anywhere?”

“No!  No, sir.  I’m technically a sheriff myself,” JD looked up, and the old man raised his eyebrows.  “I work for Territorial Judge Orin Travis; feel free to send a wire and ask him yourself.  Me and six other fellows, Vin here included, watch over the town, keep the peace….you know, stuff like that.”

“I see.  Does Judge Travis know he hired a wanted man in Mr. Tanner to keep the law in his territory?” the sheriff asked.

“I’m not sure,” JD answered honestly, “but we all know Vin is innocent.”

“Is that so?” the sheriff laughed out loud, “and how do you know this?”

“Because he told me what happened….told me how a man framed him for murder, and I’ve worked with him for three years.  Men don’t come any better than Vin, Sheriff, and that’s the truth.”

“Well, you might want to stick around, so you can testify as to that at Mr. Tanner’s trial.”  The sheriff turned when he heard the door open.  A woman, carrying a medical bag, entered and approached the older man. 

“They’re in there, Florence.  I wouldn’t waste too much time or supplies on the long-haired one.  He’s up for murder.”

“Hush up, John.  You know I don’t treat any of my patients any differently, no matter what they been accused of,” the woman replied, as she grabbed the keys and opened the cell door.  She walked right into the cell with two possible criminals without batting an eye.  She wasn’t any taller than Casey and had similarly-colored brown hair, but she was older.  JD figured about Chris and Buck’s age, but she was an attractive woman.

“Are you a doctor?” JD asked, while the woman gently pushed Vin back onto the cot and started removing his jacket and shirt.

“No,” she said and paused so long that JD thought that was all she was going to say.  “I worked as a nurse during the war and somehow got talked into taking care of the town’s folks when the real doc passed away not too long ago.”

“Did you work for the doc….while he was still alive?”

“For a bit,” she answered as she examined Vin’s bullet wound.  “Bet that hurts, doesn’t it?” she smiled and locked her own brown eyes with Vin’s blue ones.

“A bit, ma’am,” Vin grunted out.

A young boy entered the office carrying a pail of water, and the sheriff took it and set it inside the jail door. 

“Could you grab that?” Florence asked JD.  “You’re not hurt, are you?  I suppose I probably should ask that before I start puttin’ you to work.” 

“No, I’m fine,” JD grabbed the bucket and set it beside the cot.  “How’s Vin’s arm look?”

“Bullet’s still in there, so I’m going to clean it out good first.  Then, I might need your assistance when I remove it.  Think you can help hold him down?”

“Sure,” JD said and was amazed at how fluidly and quickly her hands moved….just like Nathan’s.

“I’m not supposed to use laudanum or ether on prisoners, unless they’re in real bad shape, so you’re going to have to hold him tight while I dig out the bullet.”

JD didn’t understand why prisoners weren’t allowed pain medicines, but he simply said, “ok, I’m ready whenever you are,” and approached the head of the cot.

“Hold him tight,” Florence instructed and dove right in with her forceps.

JD was impressed when she came back out with the tiny projectile within 30 seconds.  Vin apparently did not share the same sentiments; he was screaming loudly.

Florence threw the bullet into the pail of water and placed a cool cloth on Vin’s forehead.  “We’re all done, son.  She stroked his hair back.  I just need to clean the area one more time and bandage it up, and then I’ll let you rest…..I promise,” she smiled at the handsome man before her.  She didn’t get to treat too many prisoners that looked like either of these men.  They were generally dirty and hairy and crude.  The two were, well, cute and polite.

She finished up with Vin and said to JD as she stood, “just let Sheriff Johnson known if there are any problems:  if he’s in a lot of pain or if he starts running a high fever, and I’ll come right back.”

“Thank you,” JD smiled awkwardly, as if searching for something else to say. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Florence Eubanks.”

“Thank you, Ms. Eubanks…or doctor Eubanks,” JD said, and she gave him a glare that would rival Chris any day.  “Florence.  Thank you for takin’ such good care of Vin.  I’m JD, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, JD,” she turned toward his injured friend and said, “and you too Vin.”  She said a few words to Sheriff Johnson on her way out, and she was gone.

The sheriff took off not long after, leaving the two men in the dark jail all night by themselves.  Vin passed out quickly.  The pain and blood loss that he had endured today proving too much for the lean body.  JD kept a vigil over the sleeping Texan for a while, wondering how Chris and Ezra were faring, and wondering how they were ever going to get out of this mess.

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Chris’ eyes opened to darkness.  As they adjusted, he could see a faint glow to the east.  It was just before sunrise.  He struggled to sit, as a violent coughing fit wracked his body.  Through watering eyes, he could see a person lying about 10 feet to his left.  As he leaned closer, he was surprised to see that it was Ezra….a very ill-looking, unshaven Ezra.  Vin and JD must have found the gambler and placed him there, but where were Vin and JD?  Chris couldn’t imagine them leaving, with he and Ezra both sick.

Larabee felt hungover.  His head hurt, his eyes and throat were drier than dry.  He took a drink from the canteen at his side, and struggled up to wobbly legs.  He could not seem to stop coughing, and still had a bit of a fever, but otherwise felt better than previous days….the ones that he could remember at least.

“Vin,” Chris’ hoarse voice called out, as he wandered around in the darkness.  “JD.”  Their horses were here, but the campfire had gone out.  Dawn emerged, just as Larabee made his way to the small stream west of their sleeping area.  His heart sank when he saw the dishes thrown haphazardly around, and the blood stain on the ground.

Chris was worn out by the time he got back to his bedroll.  He plopped onto the dirt next to Standish and began bathing the southerner’s face with some fresh, cool water he had brought from the stream.  He wanted to go find Vin and JD, but he couldn’t leave Ezra.  Standish’s fever was still high, and it was a struggle to get enough water into his ailing body.  Larabee kept at it until well-past noon, when Ezra’s green eyes finally opened.

“Ezra!”  Chris yelled out between coughs, “wake up, Standish!  I think we may be in some deep shit here!”

Ezra turned his head and looked at Chris.  He was unshaven, gaunt, had dark circles under his eyes, and just generally looked unwell.  “You look like I feel, Mr. Larabee.”

Chris laughed out loud, and he and Ezra both coughed until tears ran down their cheeks.

“I can’t find Vin and JD,” Chris finally caught his breath enough to say.

“I’m sorry, what did you just say?”

“Their horses are here, but they’re gone,” Chris paused.  “Ezra, there’s blood over by the stream.”

Standish sighed and took a deep breath….to try to keep from coughing and to process the information.

“I didn’t walk far,” Chris admitted, “could be a trail we can follow.”

Ezra sighed again.  He felt absolutely dreadful, and this man in front of him was attempting to suggest that they form a search party.  He honestly did not even know if he could stand, much less walk or ride any distance.

“You ready to give it a try?” Chris asked, feeling very guilty about what he was asking of Ezra.  He hadn’t even had time to stop and think or be thankful for the fact that Ezra seemed to be behaving like his normal self once again.

“No, but I imagine that was a rhetorical question.”

Chris grinned, stood and steadied himself, then pulled Ezra to his feet.  They had only walked about 15 steps when it became painfully-obvious that this was not going to work.  Chris had been taking more of Ezra’s weight with each step, until the exhausted southerner finally admitted, “I cannot do this, Mr. Larabee.  I need to sit or lie down.”

Chris gently lowered Ezra to a sitting position, and he did the same for himself.  He had not voiced it, but he too likely would have collapsed to the dirt if he hadn’t already been sitting. 

“Shit!”  Chris cursed at the situation.

“Indeed,” Ezra replied as he lay back and close his eyes to try to make the world stop spinning.

“I could try to scout ahead and see what’s goin’ on and come back for you,” Chris was more-or-less thinking aloud.

“I would really prefer that we stay together, Mr. Larabee.  I honestly think it will require both of us together to make the strength of one man……and even that man would be about the size of that miniscule reporter, Mr. Steele.”  Ezra stopped to cough and clear his throat.  “I, for one, propose we partake in some food and drink this evening……and go find our compatriots in the morning.”

Chris reluctantly dipped his head in agreement, as the two men half-walked, half-crawled back to the area of their bedrolls.  He knew Ezra had to feel awful; hell, he did, and thinking back he should be about a day ahead of Standish in the course of this God-awful illness.  Larabee had not even been conscious a day ago, so really – Ezra was doing very well, all things considered.

Chris leaned up against a tree close to where Ezra lay on his bedroll.  He touched his own face and then Standish’s and both still seemed warm, but it was difficult to judge.  He knew he should get more water and prepare some food, but he just needed to sit for a while.

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JD knew when he awoke the next morning that things had gone from bad to worse, and he hadn’t even checked on Vin yet.  The youngster from Boston felt the tell-tale aches, exhaustion, and flush of a fever, but he sat up anyway.  “Vin?” JD croaked out of his sore throat and approached the still sleeping tracker.

Vin quickly opened his eyes.  “Is it mornin’ already?  Feel like I been on a three-day drunk, or at least I’m guessin’ that’s what it would feel like.”

JD smiled.  “That good huh?  How’s your arm?”

“Sore, but I imagine that’s to be expected given the circumstances.”

JD nodded his head and laid his hand on Vin’s forehead.  He didn’t seem to have much of a fever.  “Think that doc woman did a good job.”

“Yeah, I reckon so.  You sit up all night or somethin’, JD?  Ya don’t look so good,” Vin let his blue eyes take in the pale, tired-looking young man before him.

JD didn’t know what to say, so he just sat down on the floor and put his head in his hands.

Vin sat up, “JD?”  Then the Texan put his hand on the dark-haired kid’s face.  “Aw, hell.  JD, why didn’t ya say somethin’?”

“Just found out myself about 10 minutes ago.”

The sheriff approached with some eggs, toast, and water for breakfast.  “Eat up, boys.  Old Ms. Hawthorne that runs the restaurant makes a much better breakfast than she does dinner or supper, so consider yerself warned.”

Vin stood slowly and walked unsteadily to grab the tray.  “We appreciate the food, Sheriff.  Could you also call on that lady doctor again too?”

“Your arm hurtin’?” the sheriff asked.

“It ain’t for me.  JD’s sick.  He was around a coupla folks who had something; cough, fever.  Now, it looks like he’s come down with it too.”

“Why don’t you two go ahead and eat, and then I’ll just take the kid over to the doc’s place.  I ain’t got no reason to hold him anyway.  Yer story about the judge and Four Corners checked out.  Got a wire back this mornin’ from the judge’s secretary, and she too vouched for both of you boys.  Unfortunately, I’m gonna need more than that to let you out, Mr. Tanner.”

“That’s fine, Sheriff.  Just help JD.”

Sheriff Johnson nodded his head and sat down at his desk while the two prisoners ate a bit of breakfast.

JD’s throat was so sore that he stuck to the soft eggs and water.  Vin happily gobbled up the extra toast and jam.  JD wasn’t especially hungry, but he had seen the state that Ezra and Chris were in and knew he may not get a chance to eat again for days.

After they had eaten, the sheriff did as promised, and escorted the ill youngster down the road and upstairs to one of the patient rooms in Florence’s house. 

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“Lord almighty,” Buck said, as he stepped out onto the boardwalk, reading a telegram that had just arrived. 

“What’s wrong, brother Buck?” Josiah’s blue eyes shifted to the tall, ladies’ man.

“Vin and JD done got themselves arrested in a Texas town by the name of Cooper.”

“What?” Josiah asked.

“Somebody shot Vin and brought him in for the bounty, and apparently JD went along for the ride.”

“Is Vin ok?  Any mention of Chris and Ezra?”

“I don’t know anything more than I just told ya,” Buck sighed.  “I’ll send a wire back to this sheriff and get some more information, but I’d start makin’ plans to head to Texas if I were you.”

“I’ll let Nathan know what’s going on and do just that.”

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Chris could not remember ever coughing this much in his entire life.  His lungs and chest couldn’t have felt worse if they were on fire, but he managed to get the camp functional again and heat up some beans.  Neither he nor Ezra had eaten in at least a couple of days.  Hell, Chris had been sick for so long, first from the arrow wound and then this, he wasn’t sure he had eaten more than one or two decent meals in the last week.

Ezra could not understand how he could be so wiped out.  All he did was walk to the campfire, sit down, and eat a half cup of beans.  Even the effort of lifting a spoon to his mouth had seemed monumental, and his muscles shook and ached.  He had never had a sore throat like this; the beans felt like knives going down.

“Exactly what sort of ailment did we manage to come across, Mr. Larabee?”

“Beats me.  I must’ve been the one who gave it to you, but I don’t know where I got it.”

“It could be that doctor back in town had visited another patient, one with this lovely illness, just before attending to us,” Ezra suggested.  He knew it didn’t much matter now.

Chris seemed to have more energy and a slightly lower fever than he did, but the man coughed almost non-stop.  Ezra’s lungs were a mess as well, but he was able to go 10 or 15 minutes without coughing, if he didn’t try to talk.  “I cannot believe I am saying this, but do we have any medicinal tea left?  It might help us to rest and be ready to go find our missing associates in the morning.”

Chris sighed at the thought but offered, “I’ll go take a look in Vin and JD’s saddlebags.  I’m half afraid to try anything else we got from doc-whats-his-name.”

“Guthrie.”

“Right.  Hell, maybe Doc Guthrie’s tea is what made us sick in the first place?”

Just as Chris made it to Vin’s saddlebags, he heard a loud thump and turned to see Ezra out cold about 10 yards from his bedroll.  Forgetting about the state of his own body, Chris took off running.  The distance was less than 200 yards, but Larabee was out of breath and coughing violently when he arrived at Ezra’s side. 

“Ezra?” Chris asked and gently slapped at his face.  Standish felt noticeably hotter than he had earlier.  “Shit, Ezra!  Shit!” was all Chris could think to say or do.  With trembling arms, he picked up the gambler’s limp body and carried him to his bedroll.  Why was his fever going up now….just when it had seemed that both Chris and Ezra were in the clear?

Standish looked deathly pale but was restless and sweating.  Chris sat next to him and helplessly bathed the southerner’s face, while telling him to “hang on” and that he was “gonna be all right.”  Honestly, the gunslinger didn’t know what else to do.  Larabee wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep himself, but he was afraid to leave Ezra’s side…even for a minute.  For the first time in a long time, Chris Larabee prayed.....for Ezra to recover, for Vin and JD to be safe wherever they were, and for the wisdom and strength to keep his team together.

Just after midnight, Chris thought for sure he was watching Ezra’s last moments on Earth.  The man shook violently but was burning with fever and wet with sweat.  Then suddenly, Standish became deathly still.  Tears welled in Larabee’s green eyes, as he put a trembling finger to Ezra’s neck.

 A pulse!  Chris felt a pulse on the now much cooler neck.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Chris yelled and turned away.  The tears fell, and the tired blond jumped when he heard the scratchy but familiar voice.

“It is not nice to say things like that about someone’s Mother, Mr. Larabee.”

Chris turned without thinking, and Ezra saw the wet cheeks in the moonlight.  He had no idea what was going on, and Ezra was concerned.  “Are you all right?”

“Am I all right?” Chris laughed and coughed.  “Damn you, Ezra.”  He handed Standish his canteen.  “Drink, get some sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.”  Larabee realized now that Ezra’s fever had broken.  Sure, it had done it in an unbelievably-spectacular manner, but the man felt almost cold to the touch now.  Chris didn’t know whether to hope his own fever would do the same or just slowly fade away.

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Florence sighed, as she re-wet the cloth to bathe the ill, young man’s forehead.  She had finally gotten some fever-reducing tea down him, but JD’s fever was not abating. 

Why had she returned to medicine?  She didn’t ever want to see or go through this again, yet here she was.  She had been so happy and carefree once…..when she had first moved to Texas with her husband and son.

“Water?” the dark-haired youth on the bed asked and brought her back to reality.

“Here you go,” she said, as she gently lifted his head and gave him a drink. 

“Hurts,” JD said as a coughing fit struck.

“I know it does, sweetie.  You’re strong, you just need to hang in there, and you’ll get through it.”  Tears began to well up in her eyes, as she remembered saying those exact same words to her son.

JD couldn’t help but notice.  “You ok?”

“I’m fine, sweetie.  Just thinking about someone.”

“Who?”

“My son; you look a lot like him.  Black hair, hazel eyes…..he was small for his age but had this amazing spirit and will to succeed.”

“Where is he?”

“Heaven,” she paused.  “He’s in Heaven…with his father.  He would’ve been a teenager now.”

“What happened?” JD asked, as he wondered if her son and husband knew Chris’ wife and son in Heaven….or his Mother for that matter.

“Smallpox….6 years ago.  It was my fault.  I was helping the doc treat a sick family east of town, and I brought it home.  Killed my son and my husband within a few weeks.”

“Not your fault; you were only tryin’ to help,” JD got out before starting to cough again.

“Don’t try to talk, son.  I should probably step out and let you get some rest.”

“Like hearing you talk,” JD looked into Florence’s brown eyes.

“I promise we can talk some more in the morning.  It looks like that tea is finally helping your fever a bit, so you should probably take advantage of that and get some sleep.  I’ll check on you in a few hours.”  She rested her hand on his hair, then turned and headed to her own room down the hall.

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Vin was about to go crazy, wondering what was happening with JD, Chris, and Ezra.  He was the healthiest one amongst them, and he was locked away in jail.  “Some friend, huh?”

“What was that?” the sheriff came closer.  “I’m a bit hard of hearin’; didn’t catch what you said.”

“Sorry, Sheriff, just talkin’ to myself,” Vin winced as the wound in his arm pulled when he sat up on the cot.

“OK, but I’m a good listener so long as you talk loud,” Johnson smiled.  “Wouldn’t mind hearin’ your story ‘bout the murder you’re accused of…if’n you’re willin’ to talk about it.”

“Not much to tell.  A wanted man by the name of Eli Joe killed Jess Kincaid and framed me for it.  You see, I was doin’ some bounty huntin’ back in those days to get by, and I thought the body was Eli himself.  It weren’t, so when I took it in for the reward, they tried to arrest me.  I was scared, and I knew it looked bad….so I ran, and I’ve been runnin’ ever since.”

“Sounds like somethin’ Eli would do.”

“Ya knew him?” Vin’s blue eyes grew wide.

“From the time he was a pup:  rotten from the start, that one.  Grew up just down the street.  I heard he was killed a year or so back.  You have somethin’ to do with that?”

“A friend of mine…he was defendin’ me…..but Eli was the only chance of clearin’ my name,” Vin sighed and rubbed his tired face.

“Maybe not……let me talk to someone, someone who knew Eli pretty well.”

“Who?” Vin asked.

“Don’t wanna say just yet, but I’ll let you know more when I do……I promise, son.  Let me run over to Mrs. Hawthorne’s place and grab ya some breakfast, and then I’ll get to work.”

“Why you puttin’ so much effort into me?” Vin smiled.

“Just call it old man’s intuition.  I believed your friend and the judge, and I believe you, Mr. Tanner.” 

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Chris was awake with the sun….hacking up a lung or two, but otherwise feeling a little better.  The muscle aches and pains of the fever were still present, but nothing like they had been in previous days.  Larabee stoked the fire and made some coffee.  He figured if he was going to get a sick Ezra to be at all functional this early in the morning, it was going to require at least a couple of cups of coffee.

The tall, gunslinger approached his sleeping companion.  Chris had been coughing loudly on and off for nearly an hour, and he did not understand how Standish could have possibly slept through it all, but he did.  Ezra’s face was cool to the touch.  His temperature was definitely within a degree or two of normal.  “Hey, Ezra,” Chris tried to gently shake the gambler awake. 

“Mmmmmm….,” was the only response, and just a fleet fluttering of the southerner’s long eyelashes.

“It’s morning, Ezra.  We gotta go find Vin and JD.”

“Mmmmmmm…..”

“I swear to God, I’m going to kick you, if you don’t open your damn eyes.”

Sleepy, red-rimmed, green eyes stared up at the blond-haired man.

Chris felt a twinge of guilt.  “Good morning?”

“There is absolutely nothing good about it,” Ezra’s hoarse voice said, and he had to sit up almost immediately, as a coughing fit hit with a vengeance.  “I do not handle illness well, Mr. Larabee…in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Chris gave a crooked grin, and offered a hand to pull Ezra to his feet.  Standish’s legs were still weak and wobbly.  He had eaten very little and his body had been working hard to repair itself, so there was very little energy left for the gambler’s system to spare.

The two men sat by the fire and drank their coffee.  Chris had made one attempt earlier to saddle his horse, but he was so worn out by just carrying the saddle that he simply dropped it on the ground beside Pony.  The seven’s leader was scared to death for his missing friends, but he was not at all confident that he or Ezra were going to make it very far before falling from their horse…..if they could even get the horses saddled and ready to ride. 

“Thankfully, it hasn’t rained, so the trail might still be visible,” Chris started formulating a plan. 

“How much blood was there?” Ezra turned to the older man and asked.

“Enough to be bad, but probably not enough to be fatal.”

“What if Mr. Tanner were taken to jail?”

“I guess we’ll be in Texas for a while then, or at least I will…..” Chris lifted his own green gaze and locked it with Ezra’s.  “We’ll have to gather evidence, testify at his trial, and do whatever else it takes to clear him.  Could probably use someone like you to, uh, sweet-talk folks into giving us information.”

“While I am flattered by that compliment, I still have some things to sort out myself.”

“I’d pay you for your help.”

“Mr. Larabee…”

“How about $2/day?”

“Chris,” Ezra put his hand on Larabee’s wrist, “it’s not about the money.”  Standish stopped and moved his hand to Chris’ face.  “You’re still kind of warm.”

“Stop changin’ the subject.”

“I’m not; I honestly think you still have a bit of fever.”

“I’m fine, Ezra,” Chris paused and waited for Standish to meet his eyes.  “What is it about?”

Ezra sighed deeply, “it is about me, Mr. Larabee…..me not being able to be what everyone wants me to be, and quite honestly – me not WANTING to be that person.”  Chris looked down at the dirt.  He completely understood.  Ezra continued, “I have no desire to be a hero, Mr. Larabee.  While I do enjoy the company of you six gentlemen, I do not wish to be anyone’s keeper or nurse or…..”

“Friend,” Chris finished.

“I am a friend of Mr. Tanner’s and JD’s and…….yours,” Ezra said and Chris’ gaze lifted to again look at the southerner.  “It is just that my definition of friend is likely not the same as that of, say, Mr. Wilmington.  Buck would happily take care of, even die for, his friends.”  Chris shook his head in agreement.  “I am not as noble, I’m afraid, and I figured this was the right moment to come clean rather than stick around and let you all be disappointed in me….time and time again.”

“Ezra, there is nobody on this planet who is a better friend than Buck.  Believe me, I know,” Chris cleared his throat.  “I love Buck like a brother….I do, but I wouldn’t want six of him.”

Standish laughed, “neither would the women in town, I’m sure.”

Chris snorted.  “We are all different.”

“To say the least….”

“Shut up and let me talk, will ya?”  Chris shook his head.  “You bring something special to this group, Ezra.  If I’m in the mood for a good argument, I come to you.”

“Wonderful.”

“If I need someone to share a drink with who won’t count the shots, or if I need someone to knock me down off of my high horse.”

“I sound like a horrible friend.”

“No, that is exactly what I need sometimes, Ezra, and you are the only one who isn’t afraid of me.  The others walk on eggshells when I’m brooding or pissed off, but you tell it like it is,” Chris laughed.  “Although I may not appreciate it at the time, it is exactly what I need.  I would have wallowed myself into an early grave or gotten pissed off enough to leave town years ago if it wasn’t for you and the others.”  Chris threw the remnants of his coffee into the fire, “but enough of the mushy talk.  I know it’s your decision whether to stay or to go, and I’m not good at words….but believe me when I say that I truly do want you to stay.  I want you as my friend, Ezra.”  Chris abruptly stood and headed towards the horses.

Ezra closed his eyes for a minute, took one last drink of his coffee, and followed the darkly-dressed man.

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Josiah and Buck stopped to make camp at about 7:00PM.  They had made great progress today and would make it into Texas the day-after-tomorrow.  It was just the two of them making the trek.  Nathan stayed behind to keep an eye on the town, even though he knew his services would likely be needed.  Ethel Greene, a woman who lived just to the north of Four Corners, was expecting twins any day, so Nathan’s services were direly needed there as well.

Buck had received a return telegram from Sheriff Johnson in the town of Cooper, TX.  The sheriff said that Vin was doing ok but that the boy with him had taken sick, and that there had been no mention or sign of anyone named Chris or Ezra.  Buck was packed and heading out of town within the hour.  Josiah stopped by Mrs. Potter’s store for some supplies and had to catch up with Wilmington down the trail.

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The sheriff returned to Vin’s cell with a plate of ham and eggs, and Vin gobbled it up quickly.  Johnson hadn’t been kidding when he said that breakfast would pretty much be the only edible meal of the day.  Vin couldn’t even identify what he had been served for supper the evening before, but he had managed to eat a good portion of it anyway.  His mother had always told him not to waste food.

“Heard anything about JD?” Vin asked, as the sheriff sat close by and ate some eggs of his own, “how he’s doin’?”

“I’ll check with Florence today, if she don’t show up on her own.  Hey, that reminds me.  One of your friends from Four Corners asked me about two other fellers in his wire.  Chris and……..Erwin or somethin’?”

Vin just about spit out his eggs, thinking about what Ezra would say to that.  He remained quiet for a couple of minutes, trying to decide how much to say to the sheriff.  He seemed like a nice enough man, but he could still be playing both sides of the fence.

“Yeah, we were lookin’ for ‘em but hadn’t found ‘em yet, when we ran into Holt.”

“What do they look like?  I can keep an eye out around town and send a deputy or two out to surrounding areas.”

Vin sighed.  He was worried about his friends, and it didn’t look like he was going to be getting out of here anytime soon, so he took a chance with this sheriff.

“Chris is tall, about my size but a bit older.  He’s fair:  light hair and eyes, but he wears pretty much all black…..black duster, black hat…hell, he’s even got a black horse.  Ez….uh, Erwin, is younger than Chris but a few years older than me, couple inches shorter.  He dresses fancy – bright-colored coat, ruffly shirts and stuff, short, brown hair, real pale green eyes.”

Sheriff Johnson had been writing frantically as Vin described the men.  “Got it.  Tall, fair guy in black and shorter, colorful feller.  We’ll be on the lookout.  They wanted for anything?”

“Not unless they done something in the last few days,” Vin smiled, knowing that would be a real possibility if the two of them were healthy.

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JD felt soft, gentle arms pull him upright until the coughing subsided.

“Guess I shouldn’t ask how you’re feeling?” Florence asked as she lay the ill young man back on the bed.

“This is awful.”

“Influenza usually is.”

“That’s what I’ve got?” JD had heard about the influenza epidemics of years past and knew that even healthy folks sometimes died.

“That would be my guess, but don’t worry.  You’ll be ok….just got to take it easy and keep hydrated until the fever breaks.  I’ll be here to help you, son.”

“What if someone didn’t have anyone to help?”  Now that JD had experienced the symptoms first-hand, he worried even more about Chris and Ezra.

“What do you mean?”

“What if you lived alone or were out on the trail when you got sick?”

She laughed, “I don’t know, JD.  Would depend on the person, I suppose.  Here, drink some of this tea.  Why do you ask?  You thinking about trying to escape?”

JD took a long drink of the fever-reducing tea and closed his eyes.  He could hear Vin telling him not to say anything, but he could also see Chris and Ezra so sick, lying on the ground.  “My friends were sick too.”

“No, one of the deputies told me that Vin was fine just this morning.”

“Not Vin, two other friends.  They got left behind when Vin and I were kidnapped or arrested or whatever you wanna call it,” JD stopped and drank another drink of the tea.

Florence sat the cup down, “and you’re positive they were both sick with the flu?”

“Cough and fever so high we couldn’t hardly get ‘em awake enough to drink.”

“It’s been a couple of days, JD.  If there was no one to help them…..if they really weren’t getting any fluids….,” she let the sentence fade, but JD understood the meaning.  “This does seem like a nasty strain of influenza.  Were they young like you?”  She couldn’t stand the thought of two young men, like JD, lying dead alongside the road somewhere.

“They ain’t old, but they’re older than me and Vin.  Ezra’s probably in his mid-30’s, and Chris in his early 40’s.”

“I’m glad you prefaced that by saying not old,” Florence laughed.  “I’m 41 myself.  Let me make you some mush, and while you’re eating I’ll go talk to the sheriff.  Maybe he can send someone to look for your friends.  What do they look like?”

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“Come on, Bob.  Let’s get these fellers found, so we can get home for supper.”

“I’m ready whenever you are, Tom.”

The two deputies only had to ride for about 20 minutes in the direction that Vin had indicated when they saw them.  There were two men slumped over their horses’ necks, with two other horses tethered behind them. 

“Hello there!” Tom yelled.  “You boys ok?”

Chris jerked his head up at the sound of the voice and promptly fell from his horse.  His body hit with a thump to the hard-packed dirt below.

“I think they’re drunk,” Bob said as he and Tom dismounted and approached the men and horses.

“Woah shit!” Tom yelled as he ran to grab Ezra as he started to tumble from Chaucer.  He lay the nearly unconscious man on the ground.  “They match the description, but they’re supposed to be lawmen of some sort.”

“Lawmen get drunk from time to time too, Tom,” Bob laughed, “why I even saw Sheriff Johnson good and liquored up after Mrs. Hawthorne’s Christmas shin-dig last year.”

Tom laughed, picturing the old Sheriff staggering around and flirting with the town women.  “Bob, what do we do with them?  Carry ‘em with us on our horses back to town?  They’re gonna be heavy.”

“We could just tie them across their horses.  At least they won’t puke on us that way.”

“Yeah, I like that.  Grab Blackie’s legs, Bob.”  They proceeded to drape both men across their horses and tied them so they couldn’t slide off.  “Sorry fellers!” Tom yelled out as they pulled out and headed back to Cooper.

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Florence entered the jail ready to hand the descriptions of JD’s two friends to the sheriff, just as the deputies were throwing two men matching that information into a cell. 

“What are you doing?” the woman asked.

“Dumping these drunken friends of his,” Tom motioned to Vin in the adjacent cell, “in here to sober up.”

“Let me see them,” Florence pushed her way past and into the cell where Chris and Ezra lay on the floor.  “These men are ill….not drunk.  If you and Bob would be so kind as to place them on the two cots.”

Tom shrugged his shoulders, and he and Bob did as asked but muttered under his breath, “sure looked drunk to me.”

Florence hadn’t had more than a minute to look over Ezra, when Vin asked, “how is he, Doc?”

“He doesn’t seem to have a fever, which is a good sign, but he is dehydrated and obviously quite weak…..his lungs are still very congested.  That’s typical of influenza, I’m afraid, and tends to linger for weeks.”

“That’s what they had?  The flu?” Vin asked.

“From what I’ve seen here and with JD, that is my best guess. Yes,” she explained.

“How is JD?” Vin had been worried about the youngster.

“He’s been awake enough to eat and drink, and that’s promising.  Hopefully he will start to pull out of it in a few days.  How long have these two been sick?”

“I’ve lost track of time, Doc,” Vin admitted.  “I think 4 or 5 days.”

Florence just shook her head and moved over to examine Chris.  Once she was done, the nurse proceeded to the cell next door to examine Vin’s healing bullet wound.

“How’s your arm feeling?” she asked the handsome, blue-eyed man.

“It’s fine.  Was Chris about the same as Ezra?”

Florence hadn’t remembered which man was which from the descriptions, so she simply cocked her eyebrows at the young prisoner.

“The one dressed in black is Chris,” Vin clarified.

“Right.  He was about the same,” she said as she removed Vin’s bandages and re-washed the wound.  “Still had a bit of a fever, also very dehydrated, but he seemed a bit more alert than your other friend.  He opened his eyes a time or two while I was checking him out; just too tired to keep ‘em that way, I suppose.  Your arm is healing nicely, although I’m sure it still hurts.  Try not to do anything too strenuous.  I’m going to attempt to get your friends moved over to my clinic with JD,” she said as she stood and collected her bag of medical supplies.

“I appreciate all yer help, and I’m sure they do too,” Vin’s eyes shifted from Florence to the cell containing his two friends.

“Florence, I was just looking for you,” Sheriff Johnson said as he entered the jailhouse, “thought maybe we could grab some supper together.”

“Let me go check on JD, Sheriff,” the nurse answered, “and I’ll meet you at Mrs. Hawthorne’s.  Could you have your deputies take the other two over to my place?  They aren’t being held for anything, right?”

“Nope, they ain’t under arrest, and I’ll get Tom and Bob to do just that,” Johnson replied.

“I’ll get an extra cot set up in room #1, so they could put one of the men in there with JD.  The other can go in room #2.”

“Sure thing, Florence.  See ya in about 10 or 15 minutes?”

“6:15 at Mrs. Hawthorne’s it is, Sheriff,” Florence said as she squinted and headed from the dark jailhouse out into the late afternoon sun.

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Johnson stood and waited for Florence to sit down at their table.  “How’s the boy doin’?”

“He’s very sick, Sheriff, but I think he’ll pull through.”

“John,” he smiled and said.  “How many times do I have to tell you to call me John.”

“OK, John.  Shall we order?” Florence returned his smile, and the two of them made small talk until their soup and sandwiches arrived.

“How’s the chicken soup?” John asked.

“Dreadful, but you should know that.  You’re eating the same thing,” Florence laughed.  Thankfully the roast beef sandwiches were a bit more palatable.  Most of the town’s folks had learned long ago to order at least two items from Mrs. Hawthorne.  The odds of one of the two items being edible was much better than just one.  Sometimes the soup was the way to go and other times, like today, it tasted like salty dishwater.  “So, what did you want to talk about, Sheriff?”

“Well, you know the boy that I’ve got locked up in my jail.”

“Vin?”

“Yeah, he’s goin’ on trial for murder before too long, and he says that he was framed for it.”

“Don’t they all say that, John?” Florence said and took a bite of her sandwich.

“The thing is….well, I believe this one, Flo.  He’s a nice, little feller; always polite and never complains…even about Mrs. Hawthorne’s cookin’.”

Florence laughed out loud. 

“Anyway, his story makes sense,” the sheriff finished.

“So, what’s this got to do with me?” the nurse questioned.

“Vin Tanner was a bounty hunter huntin’ Eli Joe; the boy claims that Eli set him up.”

Florence got goosebumps immediately at the mention of Eli’s name.  Why, she hadn’t even thought about the man for 3 or 4 years now.

“I was wondering if Eli ever mentioned anything about Tanner or the murder of Jess Kincaid?”

The woman’s mind was racing.  She had hooked up with Eli Joe just a couple of months after her husband and son had died.  She had given up nursing and was looking for an escape….some other life to make her forget all that she had lost.  He was a terrible and mean man, but he was exciting and took her all over Texas.  The travels did help to keep her mind off of things. 

She swallowed hard and began, “it was a few years ago, not long before Eli and I split ways.  He came in drunk and downright giddy.  Said he had taken care of two problems at the same time.  One was Jess Kincaid, who was threatenin’ to shoot Eli for stealing cattle from his ranch and selling them over the border.  The other was a bounty hunter, who was getting too close, and had a reputation for always getting his man…..must have been Tanner.”

“So Eli more-or-less admitted to you that he killed Kincaid?”

“One of his men pulled the trigger, but Eli ordered it done.”

“Then Eli made Tanner believe that Kincaid’s body was his own,” the sheriff finished.

Florence shook her head in agreement.  “Once I truly knew what Eli was capable of, I left him and came back here.  It took a little while, but you know I eventually took up nursing again when Doc passed away.”

“We all appreciate what you do for us, Florence,” the sheriff smiled, “don’t you ever forget that.”

“Thank you, sher…..I mean, John.”

“Well, my jaws are about done in from trying to chew this bread, so I think I’m going to contact the judge about this new information.  You would be willing to testify, wouldn’t you?”

Florence took a deep breath and paused for a minute.  “Yes, I would.  It’s the least I could do.”

Sheriff Johnson rose, tipped his hat to his female companion, and headed to the telegraph office.

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Florence arrived back at her clinic to find the man called Ezra sleeping soundly in room #2 and almost jumped out of her skin when she entered the other room.  The fair-haired man, sans boots and hat, was sitting in a chair holding a wet cloth on JD’s forehead.  She hadn’t expected to see anyone up and about.

“Didn’t mean to startle you,” a low, hoarse voice said.

“No worries; I guess you are feeling a bit better?”

Sunken, green eyes rose to meet her gaze.  “So, JD got it too……is he gonna be ok?”

“I think so, but it’s too early to say for sure,” she responded as she felt the kid’s forehead.

“It’s my fault,” Chris said so quietly that it took Florence a few seconds to realize what he said.

“Why do you say that?”

“A lot of reasons,” Chris paused and cleared his throat.  “I gave it to Ezra and JD, and I never should have agreed to go on this stupid assignment in the first place,” he coughed as another realization hit him.  “How’s Vin?  Was he shot?”

“He’ll recover.  He was shot by the folks who turned him in….upper, right arm.  Fortunately, he has not come down with flu, and his bullet wound is healing well.”

“Perfectly healthy for the hangin’, huh?” Chris rubbed a hand over his tired face.

“The sheriff is trying to help him out,” Florence rested her hand on the blond’s shoulder.

“Can I see him?” Chris asked.

“I think it would be best if you got some rest and something to eat and drink, and I’ll see about getting you in to visit your friend in the morning?  Sound like a deal?” Florence grinned.  She had a good feeling about all of these men.  JD and Vin were absolute sweethearts…..didn’t seem to have a mean bone in their bodies.  Although this one clearly tried to look scary, she wasn’t fooled.  Here he was ill himself yet spending his time worrying about his friends.  “Off you go then.  A deal is a deal.  Get yourself in that bed over there.  I’ll go check on your other friend, and then I’ll bring up some soup.”

 M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

“I know that’s more like chicken n’ rocks instead of chicken n’ dumplings, but you’ve been managin’ to get down most of Mrs. Hawthorne’s creations this week,” the sheriff stood at the cell door and watched as his young prisoner moved the substance from one side of the bowl to the other.

“Sorry, I guess I’m just not hungry tonight,” Vin answered, as he sat the spoon and bowl down on the cot beside him.

“You got a lot on your mind,” Johnson gazed at the blue-eyed man, “enough to make most folks lose more than just their appetite.”

The tracker smiled in appreciation of the man’s understanding.  Vin had no idea why this old man had latched onto him like he did.  He doubted that he was this nice to all of his prisoners, but he supposed that was possible.  Hell, maybe he was just lonely and wanted someone to talk to, but he truly did seem to be going out of his way to help Tanner and his friends.

“Son, I don’t wanna get your hopes up, but I wired the judge in these parts about some information I got earlier.  I ain’t gonna say what it is yet, you understand, but let’s just say I ain’t the only person in town who believes in your innocence.”

Right then, the stress of the last couple of weeks hit Vin:  riding for days to find Chris and Ezra, only to have them and JD end up sick, himself getting shot and arrested, and knowing that all he could do right now for his friends was to sit and worry on them.  He had to hold back tears when he said, “no matter what happens, sheriff, you’ve done more for me than I’ll ever be able to repay you for.  Thank you.”

Johnson removed the uneaten bowl of food and said, “no need to thank me son.  That’s my job, and I’m always glad to help good folks like yourself.”

Vin lay down on the cot and closed his eyes.  He had a headache from all of the worrying, and his arm still had a constant, dull ache.  He had a feeling that sleep was going to evade him tonight.

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“Hello there,” Florence stroked the soft, brown hair, trying to wake the man in the bed.  “Come on now, Ezra……wake up and meet this poor woman who slaved over a stove making potato soup just for you.”  She couldn’t help but laugh when the man actually rolled onto his side away from her.  “That excited, huh?”  It was just like her son would do when she would try to wake him up for school.  “You have to be hungry.  From what JD said, you two probably haven’t had much in the way of food lately.”

“JD?” the voice not-much-more-than croaked.

“JD is here, and if you are a good boy and wake up and eat for me, I might even let you talk to him.”

Ezra rolled onto his back and cracked his eyes enough to see an attractive, dark-haired woman sitting on a chair next to his bed.

“I saw that peek, so you might as well open ‘em all the way,” Florence teased, and Ezra complied with the request.  “You should stay awake more often, you know….show off those beautiful eyes of yours.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone with eyes that shade of green.”  Florence made a mental note that Four Corners must be a great place for a single woman to live.  All of these so-called peacekeepers that she had met were extremely attractive men.

“Thank you,” Ezra wasn’t sure how to respond, and the thanks came out sounding like a question.

“You’re welcome?” she questioned back and smiled.  “Here, let me help you sit up a bit; should help keep you from coughing so much and make it easier to eat some of this scrumptious soup.”  She wasn’t about to admit it, but this was the first time that she had cooked for a man, or men, since her husband and son had died.  She lost interest in so many of the things that she had adored:  nursing, cooking, gardening.  She sighed at the memory and went back to helping Ezra get something to eat and drink.  “Do you think you can manage on your own?” she asked after about 10 minutes.  “I should probably get some food in your other two friends.”

“Is JD ill?” Ezra couldn’t imagine why the seven’s youngest would be staying here otherwise.

“He is, I’m afraid.  Same thing that you and Chris had, but he’s holding his own.”

“I will be fine; by all means, go tend to your other patients,” Ezra grabbed the spoon and took over feeding himself.  He really was quite hungry, and the soup, though simple, tasted good.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

“How did I know that I’d find you here?” she teased, as she saw Chris in the same spot where she had left him.

Chris didn’t know why he felt obligated to please this woman, but he said, “I laid down for a while….really; JD woke up a few minutes ago, and I came over to see how he was doin.’”

“Uh huh,” she made her best scolding mother face, “sure you did.”  Then she smiled to let the squirming man know that she was only kidding.  “Well, since you’re both awake, let’s see about getting some food into you.  Chris, you wanna help me sit JD up a bit?”

Chris and Florence propped the kid up on a couple of pillows, and Florence pulled up a second chair for herself.  She saw the blond man’s hand shaking as he lifted his spoon.  “Would you prefer to lie back down?”  No answer.  “Chris?”

“Huh?  Sorry, I thought you were talking to JD,” he said, “I’m ok.”

“I think you and Vin have a lot in common,” she kidded, “no matter what I was doing to him or how bad his arm was hurtin’, that boy always said he was fine.”

“Yeah, I know all about that,” Chris smiled.  The sun was setting and shining through the west-facing window directly across from Larabee.  The light fell on his face, illuminating his green eyes and the golden hair falling across his forehead.  Something about it made Florence think about what this man must have looked like as a child.

JD coughing brought her out of her daydream.  She sat the bowl down and rubbed his back until the fit subsided.  He, too, had to have been a beautiful little boy with those long eyelashes and hazel eyes alight with different shades of green and brown.  Oh, how she missed her son and wondered if he would have looked like JD.

Chris had already sat his bowl down, and JD was just finishing up his, when Ezra appeared in the doorway.  “I hope I am not interrupting,” he leaned against the doorframe and said.

Florence immediately stood and replied, “come in and sit down, Ezra.  We were just finishing up.  How was your soup?”

“It was exquisite, thank you.”

“Exquisite, huh?  I didn’t know that it was possible for potato soup to be exquisite,” she laughed.  “You do have a very interesting way of speaking.  Where are you from?”

Ezra walked slowly to the chair and sat down, “I am from the beautiful state of Georgia; how about yourself?  Are you a Texas native like our own Mr. Tanner?”

“I grew up back east in Virginia; moved to Cooper after the war.  We have our fair share of idiots here, but it’s not such a bad place.”

“We have our fair share of those in Georgia and in Four Corners as well, I’m afraid,” Ezra smiled.  This woman was so easy to talk to and feel comfortable around, but all of the talking just made Standish’s cough worse.

“How is our young friend here doing?” Ezra’s gaze shifted to JD.

“I’m all right, Ezra,” JD finally spoke, and he struggled to keep the emotion out of his voice.  “I thought you two were dead.  I felt so awful about leavin’ you there, but those men took me and Vin, and Vin said to keep quiet, so….”

“JD,” Chris interrupted and put his hand on the boy’s arm, “you did the right thing.  We’re ok; everything’s gonna be ok.”

“…but you could have died, both of you, and I just didn’t know how I would ever live with myself,” JD went on until a coughing fit hit.

“We didn’t die, Master Dunne,” Ezra ruffled the young man’s hair.  “Mr. Larabee and I are share that trait with cockroaches, I’m afraid.  We are quite difficult to kill.”

JD laughed.  He never thought he would hear Ezra comparing himself to a bug.

“All right, I think we’ve all had enough excitement and conversation for one day.  All of you still have some recovering to do, and I’ll bet you know where I’m going to insist you do that.”

“Our beds?” JD asked, and Chris and Ezra rolled their eyes at the young man.

“Yes, JD,” Florence patiently answered.  “I will bring in a chamber pot, and then after that…..I don’t want to see or hear anything until morning.”  She turned and specifically looked at Chris, “and that means you, too.  Remember our deal.  If you want to go visit Vin tomorrow, you have to behave yourself tonight.  I would really like to see that fever go away completely.”

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris was awake before sunrise, but he didn’t dare get out of bed.  He would never admit to actually being scared of the petite woman; he just figured there wasn’t any reason to rile her up if he didn’t have to.  JD was still asleep, and he imagined Ezra was as well in the other room.  It had taken the kid quite a while to go to sleep, the urge to cough almost unbearable after any of the ill men lay down.  He would just lie here until the sun was up.  Then it would technically be morning, and he wouldn’t be breaking any promises if he got out of bed.  The soup and water had gone a long way yesterday to making him feel almost human once again.  Maybe he would make a quick stop at the bathhouse on the way to visit Vin, and that should take care of the rest of the dust…..the mental and physical kind.

Just after dawn, the door opened a crack, and Chris sat up.  “Good morning, Chris,” the female voice said quietly.  “I’ve heard that your friend is also an early riser, so I would be happy to walk you over to the jail before these two wake…..if you like.”

“You think the bathhouse would be open?”

“No, but I actually have a tub that you can use.  I’ll go put on some water to heat.”

“Thank you, ma’am.  You’ve been such a big help to us, and I would like to settle up with you when we leave……for all of us, including Vin.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“I insist, Ms………” Chris just now realized that he didn’t even know this woman’s name.

“Florence…..Florence Eubanks.  Feel free to call me Florence or Flo; always was hard for me to answer to Mrs. Eubanks.  That was my mother-in-law.”

“So, you’re married?” Chris hadn’t heard her speak of a husband or family.

“Was married.  He passed away quite a few years ago.”

Chris lowered his eyes.  “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.  I’ll meet you downstairs with some water in about 15 minutes.”  Larabee watched as the doctor turned and headed down the stairs.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris was amazed at how tired he was just from walking the two blocks to the jail.  Florence had accompanied him, apparently more aware of how weak the gunslinger was than he himself was.

“Good morning John….Vin,” Flo said.  “Is it ok if Vin has a visitor?”

“Sure, let me pull up a chair outside the cell.”

“I prefer to sit inside with Vin, if that’s all right,” Chris entered the jail and said quietly.

“Fine with me,” the sheriff said, “but you understand I gotta lock the door.”

Chris shook his head indicating that he understood.

“Hi there, Cowboy,” Vin smiled and reached out his arm to Chris as he entered the cell.

Chris accepted and said, “how you doin’, Vin?”

“Think I should be askin’ you the same question.”

“Yeah, I suppose it hasn’t been the best week for any of us.”

“I’m ok, Chris.”

“But?” Chris could hear that Vin wanted to say something else.

“But I don’t want you all to stick around here and watch me hang.”

“That won’t be a problem, if I have anything to do with it.  When’s the trial scheduled?”

“Week after next,” Vin answered, “they’re plannin’ to move me to Tascosa in just a few days.”

“Did they send a lawyer to talk to you or anything?”

“No, I suppose I need to get one.”

“I’ll ask around,” Chris sat on the cot next to Tanner, “we’ll find the best damn lawyer in Texas.”

Vin laughed, and Chris coughed.

“Really, Chris, how are you, Ezra, and JD?”

“JD’s still got a day or two before he comes fully out of it, but Ezra and I are fine.”

“You ain’t fine.  You look and sound like shit, Larabee.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t exactly look like the picture of health yourself.  Who shot you and hauled you in?”

“I don’t want you to go after them,” Vin turned and locked eyes with Chris.

“I won’t……”

“I know you, Chris,” Vin interrupted, “and it don’t make much difference anyway.”

“They didn’t have to shoot you!”

“Dead or alive, remember.”

“I’ll do everything I can, Vin.  I’ll get to work on the lawyer and see what folks remember about Eli, Jess Kindcaid, and all things related,” Chris promised.

“I appreciate it, but take it easy, Cowboy.  You ain’t gonna be able to push yourself like you normally do.....you just ain’t up to it yet.”

“You let me worry about that, and you take care of yourself too.  I’ll be back to see you later or tomorrow morning.”

Chris approached the cell, and the sheriff unlocked the door. 

Vin shook his head as he watched his friend leave.  Chris still looked sick.  He was always lean, but his bones were clearly more prominent now….in his face, his shoulders, even his hands.  Please don’t take yourself to the grave right alongside me, Larabee, he thought. 

Chris’ eyes took a minute to adjust to the bright sunlight on the streets of the small town.  Florence had headed back to her clinic to check on JD and Ezra while Chris talked to Vin, so no one else was around to hear a voice say, “well, look who we have here.  What’s big, bad, Chris Larabee doin’ in this little town?”

The gunslinger instinctively reached for his hip only to realize that he hadn’t brought his gun belt.  He had opted to go without since he knew he wouldn’t be allowed to wear it in to see Vin.  “Holt, wasn’t it?” Chris put his hand down and asked.

“Very good.  Thought you might not live to remember my name given the state you were in the last I saw you.  You seen Standish?”

“He’s still alive……..no thanks to you,” Chris approached Holt and stood face to face with the man.  “It was you, wasn’t it?”

The two men were evenly-matched in height, and Holt’s brown eyes glared coldly at Larabee with no response or acknowledgment of the question.

“You brought Tanner in for the bounty?” Chris inched closer to the dark-haired con man.

Jake Holt laughed out loud.  “You bet your ass I did, and you better not spring that bastard until I get my money.  With it bein’ such a large bounty and all, apparently the identity of the prisoner has to be verified by a judge or two sheriffs.  So, I gotta wait a few more days for my $500……until the sheriff from Tascosa comes to haul Tanner away for the hangin.’’   

Chris lunged forward and grabbed the heavier man by the collar of his jacket.  “I will do absolutely everything in my power to make sure Tanner is proven innocent and that you do not get a cent of that money, Holt.  You and your cronies better stay out of my way, or you won’t be alive to collect.”

Jake flung Larabee’s hand off of his coat, then shoved the smaller man hard.  Chris landed on his backside in the dirt, but he jumped up as quick as a cat and charged into Holt.  Larabee needed someone to take out his frustrations, and Holt presented the perfect opportunity.

The attack took Jake by surprise, and Chris got in a couple of good hits before Holt managed to turn the tides.  The larger of the two was finally able to use his strength to roll himself and Larabee over, now positioning himself on top.  Chris’ reflexes were surprisingly fast, given his physical condition at the moment, and he blocked the first three punches.  The fourth hit him hard in his left temple and dazed the blond enough that he could not stop the two follow-ups to his left eyesocket and mouth.  Jake knew he had the upperhand now, and he stood and taunted the downed gunslinger. 

“Get up, Larabee.  Come on, you talk tough, but you’re a damn pansy….a lightweight.”  Chris gamely got on all fours, but Holt struck again – kicking the lean man over and over in his ribcage.  Larabee started coughing, and continued while Jake laughed and yelled to one of his men coming out of the bathhouse.

The other man was instructed to pull Larabee to his feet and hold him.  Holt mercilessly slammed his fists into Chris’ body:  his stomach, then his chest, then his face.  Everyone stopped cold when a bullet hit in the dirt not 6 inches from Holt’s feet.

“You get away from him or the next one goes through your head,” a slim, mustached man riding a pale gray horse instructed, while he and a large, salt-and-pepper-haired man on another horse held pistols squarely aimed at Jake’s and his buddy’s heads.

His friend promptly dropped Larabee’s limp body to the ground, and both men held their hands up in surrender as they slowly backed towards the boarding house.

Buck was down off of his horse and at his old friend’s side in an instant.  “Chris!” He lifted the injured man to a semi-sitting position.  “What the hell did you do, Old Dog?  You’re a damn mess.  Help me get him over to a bench on the boardwalk, Josiah.”  The big ex-preacher tossed one of Larabee’s arms over his shoulder while Buck did the same with the other.  Chris appeared to be conscious, but he hadn’t said a word.

Once his friend was seated, Buck squatted in front of the blond.  “Talk to me, Chris.  You ok?”

Long, light eyelashes fluttered a few times, and their owner finally got out one word before succumbing to the darkness that beckoned: “Buck?”

“It’s me…..no, no, Chris, stay awake.  Where the hell is everybody?” Buck sighed and stood, as Josiah kept Chris from falling over.

Wilmington’s blue eyes grew wide as a screaming woman approached and began slapping him in the chest.  “What did you do to him?”  She kicked Josiah’s knee with all her might, “let him go right now, or I’m going to get the sheriff.”

“Woah there, little lady….”

“Don’t you little lady me, you jerk.  I happen to know this man and do not believe for a second that he deserved what you did to him.”

“Oh, you do, do you?  You know this man?” Buck teased.  “What’s his name?”

“Chris.”

“Chris what?”

“Uh,” Florence paused.  Hadn’t she heard or been told his last name?  If she had, she sure as heck couldn’t remember it.  “I don’t know.”

“You know him well enough to risk gettin’ yourself in a heap of trouble, and you don’t even know his last name.  Well, let me tell you,” Buck smiled and pointed at his unconscious friend.  “This here is Chris Larabee.  The man has been my friend for damn-near 15 years.  I’m one of his fellow peacekeepers from Four Corners, and my friend and I just rode half the damn night to get here and find him and three of our other friends.”

Florence raised her eyes to meet the dark blue ones of the tall, dark-haired man.  Handsome as well….as was his older friend.  Unbelievable, she thought:  all six of them were attractive.  She knew he was telling the truth, but she sighed and asked anyway, “what are your other friends’ names?”

“Vin, Ezra, and JD.  We heard that Vin had been shot and arrested, and that JD took sick.  You know anything about that?”

“You two carry Chris over to my clinic…”

“Your clinic?” Buck’s eyes lit up, as a smile engulfed his entire face.

“Yes, my clinic, right there,” she pointed.  “I will fill you in on all I know once we get there.”

As they walked, with Buck and Josiah carrying Chris between them, she said, “so, you didn’t do this to him?”

“No, two men were beatin’ on him when we pulled into town.”

“Holt and his gang, I bet.”

“Who’s Holt?” Josiah asked.

“I don’t know much; just that Jake Holt and his men are the ones that shot Vin and brought him in for the bounty money.”

“Well, that makes sense why he and Chris wouldn’t get along too well then, don’t it?  My name’s Buck, by the way, and this is Josiah.  Are JD and Vin ok?  The sheriff didn’t tell us a whole lot about their conditions, but it didn’t sound good.”

“It is nice to meet you gentlemen.  Vin is, of course, still in jail but otherwise doing ok, and I’m going to take you to JD right now.”

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

JD was sleeping when the two men entered carrying Chris.  Ezra turned from his position, staring out the window onto the street, and he immediately felt like an elephant had been lifted from his shoulders, seeing Buck and Josiah.  Standish had thought Chris had likely just worn himself out, wandering around town, trying to find a way to clear Mr. Tanner’s name….until he saw the battered body.  Chris’ face was covered in bruises, his nose and lip were bleeding, and his clothing had been torn in numerous places.

“What in God’s name happened?” Ezra looked up at the taller men.

“Hello to you too, Ezra,” Buck smiled and pulled the smaller man into a warm embrace.

“I do apologize, Misters Wilmington and Sanchez,” Ezra grinned, showing his gold tooth, and finally extracted himself from Buck’s grip, “I am very happy to see you gentlemen.  I just didn’t expect Mr. Larabee to appear in this sort of shape.”

“Apparently some asshole named Holt and one of his buddies did this.”

Ezra sighed and sat down in the chair.  This was the first time he had even heard his old partner’s name mentioned in conjunction with this town, but now it all made sense.  He turned his green gaze to Florence, who was working on Chris, and confirmed his worst thoughts.  “So, it was Holt who shot Mr. Tanner?”

Flo just shook her head, “yes,” and continued cleaning up Larabee’s face.

“Why would he attack Mr. Larabee and risk losing the bounty by going to jail himself?”

“Knowing Chris like I do,” Buck offered, “I’d say he confronted this Holt fellow; he and his gang just took advantage of Chris’ weakened state…….and his stupidity.”

“You ok, Ezra?” Josiah had been concerned by Standish’s appearance ever since they entered the room.  He was uncharacteristically disheveled, with a day’s growth of stubble on his bruised face.  Plus, the man looked generally unwell:  his clothing seemed to hang off of him, he had a cough that sounded awful, and just in the last few minutes his pallor had turned a ghastly shade of gray-green. 

“I do not know, Mr. Sanchez.  It has honestly been the worst two weeks of my life.”

Florence stood to grab some bandages and said, “Ezra has only started to recover from the influenza himself.  He, Chris, and JD came down with it after, from what I understand, Ezra and Chris passed through a town up north that was in the throws of a wide-spread infection.”

“Damn,” Buck pulled a chair close to JD’s bed and grabbed the young man’s hand.  “We’re here, JD.  I’m sorry it took us so long, but everything’s gonna be ok now.”

JD’s eyes shot open.  “Buck?”

“The one and only,” Wilmington had to fight back tears.  He had been so worried about JD for days.  He hadn’t known if the boy would still be alive when he got here, and that thought had been eating away at his insides.  “How you feelin’?”

“I’ll be ok,” JD looked across the room at Florence, “at least that’s what the doc says.”  The youngster tried to sit himself up as a nasty coughing fit overtook his weakened body.

“I got ya, JD,” Buck easily pulled him up to a full sitting position.  “All of you boys look and sound down-right horrible.”

“If you can handle things here for a bit, Buck, I think I’ll go see if I can talk to Vin,” Josiah ruffled JD’s hair and said.  “I saw the jail earlier, and I presume that’s where he’s being held?”

“That’s right, Josiah,” Florence finished with Chris’ face.  “Could you help me remove his shirt and wrap his ribs before you go?”

“Certainly, ma’am,” Josiah immediately and easily lifted Chris to a sitting position, and Florence unbuttoned and removed his gray shirt.  The man’s lean torso was bruised terribly.  She couldn’t really find any ribs that seemed to be broken badly, but she wrapped them anyway.  The nurse figured at least one or two rib bones had to be cracked after a beating like that.

“Thank you very much,” she said and marveled to herself at Josiah’s unbelievably-bright blue eyes and strong physique. 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

There was no one except Vin in the jail when Josiah entered.  He approached the bars.  “Well, hello there, stranger.”

Vin had been staring off, out the small window, and had assumed the door opening and closing was just the sheriff coming back.  He had said he would return in a few minutes.  So, the lean tracker jumped and turned immediately when he heard Josiah’s loud, booming voice.

“Josiah!” Vin’s legs would have given out had he not grabbed the bars to support himself.

“Vin, you all right, son?”

“I’m better now, Josiah.  All I’ve been is a damn nuisance.  Chris has been worryin’ on gettin’ me out of here, with JD, Ezra….hell, even himself, sick,” blue eyes met blue.  “We definitely needed some help.  Is Nathan with you?”

“Just me and Buck.  Nathan had things to attend to back in town, but we’re ready to help in any way we can.”

“Who the hell are you?” the sheriff asked as he entered, not knowing whether this large man was friend or foe.

“This is Josiah, Sheriff.  The ex-preacher I told you about.”

“Well, I suppose it would be all right if you heard the good news then?”  Both peacekeepers kept their eyes glued on the old sheriff.  “In this very hand,” he said, holding up his right arm, “I am holding a notice of pardon for a Mr. Vin Tanner.”

“Wh….what?” Vin stammered and held white-knuckled to the cell bars.

“It seems that the local judge was meeting with the Governor of Texas last week when he got my information.  The two of them discussed the case, reviewed the testimony of Judge Travis, other folks from Four Corners, and the statement from the person here in town, and they decided that you had been wrongly accused, Mr. Tanner.”  The sheriff simply walked over and unlocked the door.  “Vin, you are free to go.”

Vin’s mouth fell open, and the man who had been running for so many years collapsed bonelessly to the cell floor.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris was just waking up, grumbling about so many folks fussing over him, when he saw something that shut him up instantly.  Vin Tanner was standing in the doorway of the room.

Vin didn’t trust himself to speak, so he turned and looked at Josiah, who promptly announced, “Vin Tanner is a free man.”

“What did you do, Josiah?” JD swung his legs over the bed and asked.

Sanchez laughed, “it didn’t have anything to do with me.”

Vin finally found his voice, “Sheriff Johnson gathered some information, sent it to the local Judge who talked to the Governor who granted me a pardon…..if you can believe that.”

Chris pulled his sore body from the cot and approached, but it was Buck who spoke first.  “Hot damn, Tanner, that’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.”

“Yeah, Vin, we’re so happy for you,” JD added.

Finally Chris:  “congratulations, Cowboy.  Now you only have to look over your shoulders for bad guys that we’ve pissed off over the last few years.”

“It don’t seem real……just seein’ a little piece of paper.  I would love to know who else’s testimony they used.  The sheriff said there was someone here in town who knew I was innocent.”

“Really?” Ezra questioned.  “That is quite a coincidence.”

“What, Ezra?” JD asked, “you think the sheriff made it up to save Vin.”

“I do not know….”

“I do,” Florence finally spoke, “…..because it was me.”

“What?” Vin was happy but confused.

“It was my story that the sheriff sent to the Judge.  I, uh, knew Eli Joe.  There’s no good excuse for what I did, but I just wanted to escape in the first years after my son and husband died.  I stopped working for the old doc in town, and I ran around with Eli.  I didn’t do anything illegal, but I kept my mouth shut about what he did…..and he did some really bad things.  Eli was a monster; don’t know why it took me so long to figure that out.  I told the sheriff that Eli told me about having Jess Kincaid killed to set you up, Vin.”

“Did he?” Vin wanted to know exactly what Eli had said.

Florence paced back-and-forth across the room a few times before saying, “no.  He never mentioned anything of it to me.”

Vin’s heart sank.  “Why?  Why’d you say he did?”

“Honestly, I don’t know.  It just seemed to make sense at the time.  The sheriff and I both thought you were telling the truth, and I figured maybe that would make up for some of the bad things Eli did that I never told anyone about.”

“What if they find out?” JD coughed and Buck hit him on the back a few times.

“I don’t know how they would.  They don’t even need to have a trial now,” Flo answered, hoping that would be the case.  “Either way, I’m willing to take that chance.”

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

The six men decided that they would try to head home the next morning.  JD’s fever was almost gone, and it would take weeks if they had to wait for his, Ezra’s and Chris’ lungs to fully heal.  Larabee swore that he was just sore from the beating from the Holt gang, and that he would be fine to ride, and Vin said the same about the healing gunshot wound in his arm.  Chris also thought it would be best if they all got out of town before Jake Holt and company discovered that Vin was no longer in jail…….and that their chance of actually getting the $500 reward was pretty much gone.  For that reason, they kept Vin out of sight and off the streets.

Florence brought in enough cots for all of them to sleep in the clinic and insisted on preparing a going-away supper for the men tonight.  At Vin’s request, she also invited Sheriff Johnson.  All of the men made rotations through the bathhouse and changed into clean clothes in preparation for the festivities.

The seven men and one woman gathered in the dining room downstairs at the clinic.  Florence had prepared a wonderful meal:  beef roast with vegetables and a homemade apple pie for dessert, and they all enjoyed it and complimented the chef profusely.  The conversation was pleasant, and everyone expressed their gratitude to both the nurse and sheriff for all of their help over the last week.

It had been a long week though, and the six visitors were tired and eager to get packed and prepared to head home the following morning.  Two extra cots were placed in the bigger clinic room, and Vin and Buck bunked in there with JD and Chris.  One additional cot was placed in the smaller room, occupied by Ezra, and Josiah took it.  Both rooms were crowded with the additional beds, but they were so happy to be back together that no one grumbled about the close quarters.

As the night grew darker, JD and Buck retired to their beds in the far right corner, and Chris and Vin sat on theirs in the left end of the room. 

“Ya been kinda quiet, Cowboy?” Vin had noticed that Chris hadn’t said much since dinner.  “You all right?” It was a legitimate question, given greater than 50% of their numbers had been ill and/or injured in the last week, including Larabee.

Chris gave a half-smile at his friend’s worried expression.  “I’m fine…..just thinkin’ about things.”

“Thought you’d be happy about goin’ home tomorrow?”

“I am,” Chris leaned back to stretch his sore body and limbs.  Everything hurt, but whether it was from the altercation with Holt’s gang or the lingering effects of the flu, he didn’t know.  “I’m happy for you, Vin.  I really am.  That pardon removes a load that you’ve been carryin’ for a long time.”

“Yeah,” Vin yawned.  “It don’t seem real; feel like I’m gonna wake up tomorrow and be back in that jail.”

“It’ll take some some time.  That’s understandable, and I ain’t gonna let anybody put you back in that jail.  I had no idea what happened to you and JD out on the trail.  The blood and you guys just disappearing like that…….”

“Ah, Chris, you know I’m tougher than I look.”

“Yeah,” Chris smiled in thanks for not having to say what he was really thinking….that he thought Vin might be dead.  “You are.”

“You sayin’ I don’t look tough?”

“You said it first.”

“I was just tryin’ to get you to tell me what’s eatin’ at ya; wasn’t expecting you to agree with me,” Vin grinned and yawned once again.

“Like I said, I was just thinkin’ about things,” Chris stood and patted Vin’s cot.  “Why don’t you lie down and get some sleep, Vin.  I’ll be back in a bit.”

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“What’s eatin’ at him?” Buck asked after Chris had left.

“I’m not sure, Bucklin, but he’ll work it out.  How’s JD doin’?” Vin answered and asked.

“I’m fine, Vin,” JD answered, but it made him cough and Buck patted him on the back until it stopped, “just this stupid cough.”

“You’re just gonna have to take it easy, and keep quiet, for a while and let your lungs heal,” Buck advised.  “You ever have the flu, Vin?”

“I dunno.   I must have since I didn’t get it.  I remember havin’ fevers and coughs that seemed to last dang-near forever when I was a kid.  How about you, Buck?”

“Yeah, I had it during the war,” Buck recalled.  “Funny thing was that Chris didn’t get sick back then….even with sitting with me day and night sometimes, but this time it got him.”

“Chris and Ezra’d had it rough before they came into contact with the flu,” Vin offered.

“Yeah, his defenses were probably already down,” Buck agreed.  “I have to admit that all of you boys worried me when I first saw you.”

“Aww, Buck, you were worried about me?” Vin blinked his blue eyes and gave his best flirty grin.

“Shut the hell up, Tanner.  I ain’t kiddin’; y’all looked like you’d been rode hard and put away wet with no supper.”

“What the hell does that mean?” JD looked at Vin when he asked.

“I think Buck’s sayin’ that we looked tired, dirty and scrawny, kid.”

“Oh, well, I suppose we were,” JD said, and Buck shook his head.  These men would never understand what they meant to him.  He was so thankful that they were all alive and going to be ok, but it rattled him more than he ever let on to see his friends sick or hurt.  Buck was a protector by nature, and he would have done anything to take away their pain. 

JD had been so pale when Buck first saw him, and his long, black hair was plastered across his forehead with sweat.  Buck had to work hard to put on his cheerful facade, so JD would think that everything was going to be ok.  It took Buck a lot longer to actually convince himself of that.  Inez, Mary, and Casey always did a good job of making sure JD ate well, even when he was injured or ill, so Wilmington couldn’t remember ever seeing the boy so thin.

Buck was a little more used to seeing Chris beat up and scrawny-looking, but he almost couldn’t recognize his old friend when he saw him in the street this morning.  Larabee’s face was covered in blood and needed a shave, and the normally-fierce green eyes were dull and lifeless.  He had helped Josiah carry the blond to a bench, and Chris didn’t feel like he weighed anywhere near what a man his height should.

And Vin….Buck hadn’t seen the tracker until he had been released from jail, but he was still in his ripped, bloody clothing from the day he was captured.  The right sleeve of his shirt had been completely torn off at the shoulder, and there was a blood-stained bandage wrapped around his bicep.  Tanner’s blue eyes were bright and alert, but they were rimmed in dark circles that spoke of the hurt and worry he had suffered through in the last week.  

Ezra took Buck completely by surprise.  For some reason, it had never crossed Wilmington’s mind that Standish could also be ill or injured.  Ezra had clearly made more of an effort than JD and Chris to look somewhat presentable.  His hair had been combed, and he had shaved within the last day or two, but his clothing was wrinkled and hung off of him.  All of them had lost weight, but Ezra and Chris looked like they had been damn-near starved for weeks.

But they were all slowly getting better.  JD’s, Ezra’s, and Chris’ wet, horrible-sounding coughs still caused the sympathetic man to cringe, but they had all eaten a good meal tonight.  They were bathed and clean-shaven.

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“Ezra, it appears that we have a visitor,” Josiah said after hearing a light knock.  The big man opened the door to see Chris Larabee standing in the dark hallway.  “Did you jump ship, Chris?  Buck snoring too loud?” Josiah laughed at his own comment, knowing full-well that he was the most-offending sleeper of the seven. 

“Was wonderin’ if I could talk to Ezra for a minute?”

“Oh, sure, there was something that I was meaning to talk to Buck about anyway.  I’ll be in JD’s room if you need me.”

“You do not need to leave, Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra almost pleaded.  “I believe Mr. Larabee has wasted his time.  I am still not ready to have the discussion that he is likely wishing to have.”

Josiah remained in place looking back and forth between Chris, who was still standing in the doorway, to Ezra, who was sitting on the bed.  The preacher could see and feel that Standish was not comfortable being left alone with Larabee right now.  Surely he didn’t feel physically threatened by Chris, but the men had been in each other’s company for almost 3 weeks now, and Josiah had no idea what had gone on between them during that time.

“Ezra, I would prefer to speak to you alone,” Chris tried again.

“I understand that, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra looked up, “but I do not share your preference.”

“Can this wait until tomorrow, Chris?” Josiah attempted to mediate the situation.

“There won’t be time tomorrow, and he damn-well knows that,” Chris argued.  “We’ll be busy packin’ up.”

“I have not fully decided what my plans are for tomorrow,” Ezra looked down and folded and unfolded the corner of the sheet on his bed.

“Ezra, I’m just gonna say it,” Chris warned, “in front of Josiah if you won’t let him leave.”  No one said anything, so Larabee motioned to the cot and said, “fine, have a seat, Josiah.  Maybe you can help me talk some sense into this man.”  Chris paused and took a deep breath.  “So, you’re still thinking about leaving, I take it?”

“I have already explained my reasons to you, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra lifted tired-looking green eyes at the blond-haired man standing over him.  “I just do not see how our current arrangement is going to work for me.”

“What arrangement would work for you, Ezra?” Chris asked.  “If you want more time to yourself, more time to take off for a week or two, we’ll figure out a way to do it.  I’ll take your patrols myself.”

Josiah was shocked at the implications of this conversation.  Ezra had clearly told Chris at some point along their journey that he was leaving the seven.  “I’m sorry, but I have to ask.  Why do you want to leave, Ezra?”

“As I have already explained to Mr. Larabee, I cannot continue to uphold myself to the standards of this group any longer.”

“Standards?” Josiah questioned.  “What standards?”

“I know you will deny it, but the rest of you possess a much stronger sense of selflessness than I can and will ever be able to proclaim.  I enjoy the….” Ezra hesitated, “friendships that I have formed with all of you, but it seems unfair for me to claim the same benefits without being willing to put forth the same caliber of effort.”

“Ezra, you’re not makin’ any sense,” Chris coughed and sighed.  “You just showed me this very week that you ARE willing to do whatever it takes to help your friends.  You risked your life to help me, Vin, and JD!”

Now it was Ezra’s turn to sigh.  “Don’t you see?  I no longer wish to be put in those sorts of positions, and it isn’t even true.  You would have gone looking for Vin and JD a day earlier if it weren’t for me holding you back, and don’t forget that Holt and his cronies would not have found Mr. Tanner nor gotten into an altercation with you if it weren’t for yours truly.”

“Shit, Ezra.  How many times have you been injured because of someone who was after me or Buck or Vin?  What Holt did is not in any way your fault, and I wouldn’t have even made it to my horse if I had actually left that day to go look for Vin and JD.  Being sensible does not make you a coward.”

“You say that now, Mr. Larabee, but I have been more-or-less forced to do what I considered insensible things under your command a number of times.”

Chris couldn’t help but chuckle.  “Would you like to take over leading this outfit, Ezra?”

Ezra, too, laughed at that.  “Oh, good Lord no, Mr. Larabee.  I am not at all interested in usurping your position in our motley group.”

“Let’s make a bet then,” Chris suggested.

“A bet?” Ezra raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, a wager, on whether I can make things better for you,” Chris proposed.  “If I can, then you stay.  If I can’t, then I will pay you all wages due you for the rest of this year, and you will be free to leave.”

Standish smiled, “for how long would this trial run be?”

“I’m thinkin’ a month.”

“Starting now or when we get back to town?”

“…when we get back to town.”

“We have a deal, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra put out his hand, and Chris shook it.

“Good.”

Josiah couldn’t help but smile.  He was proud of both of these men, clearly going against their natural inclinations for the better of the group. 

“We should probably get to bed,” all of the talking was causing both Chris and Ezra to cough. “I wanna get started early.”

“How early, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra was already testing the waters.

“How about 7 o’clock?”

Chris threw a sideways grin his way and walked out the door.

“Very nice, Ezra,” Josiah laughed.  “I never had the guts to tell the rest of the boys, but I’ve never really been an early morning person myself.”

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The lanterns were out, and JD, Buck, and Vin were already in bed when Chris returned.  Larabee lay down and smiled.  He had done it; he had actually conned the con man into staying….at least for now.  He prayed that things would be fairly quiet over the next month, and they could make Ezra realize the value he had in their little group.  Chris would be the first to admit that Standish drove him absolutely nuts sometimes, complaining and criticizing and avoiding as much work as he could, but that was Ezra…..and Larabee had realized over the last few weeks how much he would miss the aggravating man if he were to leave.

Chris was trying, but failing, not to cough when Vin woke up and said, “everything ok, Chris?”

“Everything’s fine.  Go on back to sleep.”

“Good night, Cowboy.”

“Good night, Vin.”

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Four of the six men were up with the sun at about 5:30AM the next morning.  They decided to let Ezra and Josiah sleep until 6:30 before they knocked on the door. 

Buck, Chris, and Vin had done the lion’s share of the work carrying their belongings downstairs and packing up the horses.  Buck smiled, as he re-entered the clinic room and saw JD up, dressed, and putting on his gunbelt.  The kid looked almost like his old self.

“Come on JD, hurry it up,” Buck teased.  “Florence has a real nice breakfast for us downstairs.  I noticed you had to cinch your gunbelt a notch tighter to keep it and your pants from fallin’ down, so you better get your butt down there before Vin eats all of the hotcakes.”

Chris laughed, and Buck didn’t miss a beat when he said, “I wouldn’t laugh, Larabee.  Your belt’s about to fall off of your ass this mornin’ too.”  Buck shoved at JD, and then kicked Chris.  “Go!  Don’t worry about your hair, JD,” Buck slammed the bowler hat on the kid’s head.  “Just get!”

Chris turned as Buck lifted his leg once again, “you kick me again, Buck, and I’m gonna break that foot.”

“Shit…..you couldn’t break my grandma’s foot right now,” Buck kicked the gunslinger in the butt then quickly ran past him and down the stairs.

Chris was shaking his head in disbelief that he had been friends with that man for almost 15 years, as he knocked lightly on the 2nd clinic room door.

Josiah opened, and Larabee was pleased and amazed to see both Sanchez and Standish fully dressed and ready to head downstairs.

“Mornin’ boys,” Chris said.  “Vin’s already downstairs eatin’, so if you fancy any solid foods you best move your ass.”

“Ezra!” Buck yelled as he saw the three men descending the stairwell.  “I managed to save you some eggs and two hotcakes, although I damn-near lost my fingers to Vin’s teeth doing it.”

“I’m generally more of a coffee-for-breakfast kind of person, Mr. Wilmington.  Thank you,” Ezra sat at the table, and Florence brought him over a steaming cup.  She then handed another one to Chris, who pulled out the chair across from Ezra and sat down.

Buck would not be denied.  He sat two plates down, one in front of each Chris and Ezra.  “In case you hadn’t noticed, I aim to fatten you two up before we get home and have to explain your skinny asses to Nathan.  You really wanna spend a week in his clinic, so he can make sure you’re eating three square meals a day?”

“You truly missed your calling, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra said sarcastically but picked up the fork and took a bite of the eggs.

“Yeah, as what?”

“A meddlesome old woman.”

“Ha!” Buck slapped the back of Ezra’s head and said in his best old lady voice, “I slave over a hot stove all mornin’ and that’s the thanks I get.”  He smiled as he walked away and back to his own heaping plate of food.

After about 10 minutes, Vin approached Chris and teased, “you gonna eat that or what?”  Chris had eaten a few bites of the eggs but was concentrating on his coffee at the moment.  He was surprised and angered by how sore his body was this morning. 

“You lookin’ for more to fill that hollow leg of yours?” Chris looked Tanner up and down, amazed at how the slim man could put away so much food.  “Here,” Larabee handed over the untouched pancake, and Vin munched on it as he headed outside.

It felt awesome to the tracker to be out in the sunshine.  The sheriff had told them that Holt and his gang typically didn’t leave their rooms until around 9AM, so they felt like they had a couple of hours before they risked being seen.

As the gang slowly filtered out of her home and clinic, Florence couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.  She had enjoyed getting to know these men and taking care of them.  They had re-energized her zest for medicine and for life in general.  She was lost in thought as she stared out the window at Chris, Vin, JD, and Ezra, which caused her to scream loudly when a hand landed unexpectedly on her shoulder. 

Buck laughed, turned Florence’s head gently to face him, and planted a slow, wet kiss on her lips.  “I want to thank you, ma’am, for all you’ve done for me and my friends.  You’re a real special lady, and I do hope I have the pleasure of meeting you again someday.”  Without another word, the tall, handsome man smiled and headed out the door to meet up with the other five.  Florence sat her flush-faced-self down on the nearest chair…..and smiled as well.

As they saw their four associates attempting to saddle and mount their horses, Buck and Josiah began wondering what they had been thinking when they decided to leave this morning.  Vin was trying to do everything left-handed, his right arm clearly paining him more than he let on.  JD looked paler than pale and was panting at the efforts to get himself and his horse ready.  Buck couldn’t watch the futile struggles any longer and took over for the youngster, while Josiah continued observing the other three.

Ezra, too, had to take a breather after hauling his saddle over and onto Chaucer.  He simply lay his head on the saddle and stayed that way for a good minute before cinching it tight.  Josiah would not have known that Chris was having any difficulties with readying Pony had he not been close enough to see the trembling of the man’s arms.  The injuries on Larabee’s face were more apparent than ever in the bright sunlight.  There was a large bruise on the left side that covered the area from Chris’ hairline down to his cheek, including his left eye.  When he caught Josiah scrutinizing him, he simply pulled his hat down to further shade his face and was the first one, as usual, to mount his horse.

“Everybody ok?” Chris called out, as one-by-one the men hopped in their respective saddles.  He took a look around at his friends and hoped they could at least make it long enough to get a safe distance from Holt and his cronies.  They all waved goodbye to Florence and Sheriff Johnson as they rode out of the Texas town.

Buck and Josiah had discreetly split the flock, as Sanchez had referred to them.  Buck kept an eye on JD and Chris, and Josiah had volunteered to watch over Vin and Ezra.

The men didn’t push themselves or the horses overly hard.  They rode at a leisurely pace and stopped often.  Everyone was feeling good about their situation and distance from Cooper when Buck made the executive order at about 4PM that they make camp along a meandering stream that they had been following for the last hour.  JD was struggling to stay awake and remain in the saddle.  The boy was exhausted.  He had coughed so much that he had lost his voice, and his body was still fighting off the last of the fever.

When JD glared at Buck, knowing the reason the big man wanted to stop, Buck simply said, “I don’t wanna hear it, boy.  I’ll help you down off your horse, and I want you lying down and resting until supper is ready.  Got it!”

Of course JD could not argue because he had no voice with which to argue, so he simply shook his head and accepted Buck’s help down off of Milagro.  Chris walked over and grabbed JD’s bedroll and placed it under some shade trees near the water.  “How you doin,’ kid?” Chris asked as JD lay back.  JD gave a tired-looking, crooked smile followed by a thumbs up.  He had learned by now that trying to talk just made him cough more.

“Get some rest, JD,” Buck smiled from ear to ear, “and just holler if you need anything.”  The ladies’ man laughed all the way back to his horse, knowing damn well that JD couldn’t yell right now……even if his butt were on fire.

Josiah and Vin conspired to create some sort of rabbit chili for supper.  Vin had only been able to snare one, scrawny rabbit, so it was mostly beans and some spices that Josiah carried in his saddlebags. 

Chris and Ezra made faces after smelling the unusual concoction, but then just shrugged their shoulders and ate it anyway.  They were fully aware that it was either that or starve.  Vin and Buck were shoveling it in with wild abandon, and Josiah did the same after waking and escorting JD back to the campfire.  The soup made the youngster’s throat feel a bit better, and he was able to get out a few words here and there.

Before they all knew it, the stew was gone and it was very late.  JD fell asleep as soon as his head hit his bedroll, and Buck lay down as well.

“I’ll take first watch,” Josiah offered followed by a huge yawn, which contagiously set off Vin yawning as well.

Chris chuckled and said, “go on to bed, both of you.  Ezra and I’ll keep an eye on things for a while.”

“That wouldn’t be right, Brothers,” Josiah shook his head and replied, “both of you need to rest and let yourselves heal.  I’m not the one who’s been sick.”

“Josiah, I feel like all I’ve done for the past week is sleep,” Chris looked at Ezra who shook his head in agreement.  “We’ll wake you when we get tired…….I promise.”

“All right,” Josiah yawned once again and headed to his horse to grab his and Vin’s bedrolls.

The camp got eerily quiet after those two went to bed.  Ezra had his suspicions as to why Larabee had sent everyone else to bed and stayed up with him, but he wasn’t about to start that conversation.  So, he remained silent, and Chris did as well.  Both men’s green eyes stared into the burning fire and made no sound except for the occasional cough.  It was Larabee who finally broke the silence.

“What are you thinking about, Ezra?”

“Nothing.”

“You’ve been staring at the fire for half an hour and you’ve been thinking about nothing?”

“I believe that is what I just said.”

“That’s bullshit,” Chris turned to look at Standish.

Ezra kept his gaze on the fire.  “I don’t know what you want me to say, Mr. Larabee.”

“You’re not thinkin’ about backin’ out of our deal, are you?”

Ezra smiled, big enough to show off his gold tooth.  Chris was better at reading folks than he let on.  That was exactly what Ezra had been thinking about…..how he could just take off and disappear.  He wasn’t about to give Larabee that sort of satisfaction though.  “I was thinking of no such thing, sir.”

“A deal is a deal, Ezra.  You of all people should know that.”  Chris stood and his black clothing simply allowed him to vanish into the cool but thick night air.

Ezra began picking up sticks and pinecones and throwing them into the fire.  His stomach got in knots every time this topic came up.  Was that because he really didn’t want to leave….or because he did?  Hell, even he himself didn’t know the answer.  Standish continued to ponder life’s questions and throw debris into the fire until he had lost track of the time.

Where the hell was Chris?  Even if he stalked out into the darkness to smoke a cheroot and think about things, he should have returned by now.  For all Ezra knew, it had probably been almost an hour.  He thought about waking Josiah, but then felt like an idiot.  At least for now, Standish was still one of the Magnificent Seven, and it didn’t seem very magnificent to wake up Josiah because it was dark outside and he was alone.

Ezra stood and walked about 50 yards in the direction in which Chris has departed.  “Mr. Larabee?” he called out, hopefully loud enough for Chris to hear but not loud enough to wake up the rest of the men.  “Are you out here?  I was thinking of heading to bed soon, and I didn’t know if you wanted to take first watch or if I should wake Mr. Sanchez?”  No answer, so Standish kept walking further into the darkness.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Sometimes what he didn’t hear was just as telling to Vin Tanner as what he did.  He guessed it was just after midnight, but something woke him, and he had lain on his bedroll for a while now listening……to nothing.  He had looked around and noticed that Chris and Ezra had still not bedded down, so they should be making some sort of sound……talking, coughing, footfalls, rustling of leaves on the ground.  There was simply nothing, and it had been that way for nearly an hour.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Voices.  Ezra could now hear voices.  The closer he got to the sounds, the further his stomach crawled up into his throat.  He recognized the voice as that of Jake Holt.  Another problem that he had introduced into the lives of his six friends.

“Wake the hell up, Larabee.  You’re gonna wake up and tell us exactly how you’re gonna pay us that $500 that you boys owe us…….or I’m gonna take it out of your hide.”

“You want $500 Holt, go get a fuckin’ job.”

Ezra could hear the smack of flesh on flesh, even from his vantage point 100 yards away.  He could barely make out 3 figures.  One appeared to be hatless and paler in the dim moonlight than the others.  Larabee, he figured.  It seemed that another dark-haired person held him from behind.  A third figure, bigger, likely Holt, was standing in front of the lighter-haired captive.

“How much money you got, Larabee?  Search him, Jim….his clothes, his boots.  I’m not kiddin’ when I say that I’m going to make yours and your friends’ lives hell until I get that money.  That money was mine by all rights!  I don’t know how you managed to get that long-haired, mangy friend of yours out of jail, but I’m guessin’ there had to be money involved.  Did you pay off a judge….or that stupid, old sheriff?”  Another hard slap across the cheek.

Chris spit blood on the ground before replying, “he was innocent……that’s how we got him out of there.  The judge, sheriff, and everybody finally figured that out.”

“I don’t care if he is Saint Peter himself,” Holt delivered a boot to Chris’ midsection, and the prisoner would have folded if he wasn’t being held up by Jim.  “I still want the damn money that I was promised.  You find a way to get that to me, and I’ll be on my merry way.”

Jim threw the gunslinger roughly to the ground and finished searching the man’s clothes and belongings, finding a measly $18 in Larabee’s right boot.  He tossed the cash to Jake, and it only seemed to enrage Holt further.  He pulled out his gun and pressed it tightly up against the already-bruised left side of Chris’ head.

“Let him go, Jake,” Ezra said calmly as he strolled into the open area.  “There is no need for more violence; I can get you your money.  I will need to wire the bank in which I do business, and you can have your $500 in just a couple of days.”

“Well, hello there, Ezra.  I guess you’ve done well for yourself these last few years huh?  You’ve certainly had a change of heart towards this bastard, haven’t you?  You said he tried to kill you that first day….you remember that?”

“I do not remember, but honestly – what difference does any of that make?  If you get your money, it should not matter from whom or where it comes.”  Standish cast a glance at Chris, and the only way he could describe the look on Larabee’s bruised and bloodied face was as apologetic.  Chris was clearly embarrassed at getting jumped by these fellows.

Ezra sighed audibly.  “Let Mr. Larabee go, and I will stay in his place….until which point in time that I relinquish your $500.  Then, I too expect to be emancipated.”

“What the hell did he just say?” asked Jim.

“I expect to be released after I pay you assholes $500.”

“Oh, yeah, ok.”

“Sounds just fine,” Holt leered, “except for one minor detail.”

“And what would that be?” Ezra asked….knowing damn well what Jake was going to say.

“We can’t let Larabee go until we get the money either.  I know he’s got a gaggle of friends on the other side of the draw, and they’ll all come lookin’ for you if he tells ‘em what’s going on.”

“They’ll find us either way, and you and your idiot friends will all be dead before you get that money anyway.”  For a man that rarely spoke on a good day, Chris sure couldn’t keep his mouth shut when it came to instigating trouble.

Holt turned abruptly and without a word, smacked Larabee across the temple with the butt of his pistol.  Without Jim holding onto him anymore, Chris dropped like a sack of potatoes to the ground.

“One more outburst like that, and you, sir, will never get your money,” Ezra walked over and kneeled next to Chris.  “If you refuse to release him, then you at least must promise that no harm will come to him…..or myself.  Again, if you fail to make good on your end of the bargain, then I will not feel obligated to keep mine.”

“Fine, but you gotta tell him to keep his Gawd-damned mouth shut.”

“As you have probably noticed, it is not easy to control Mr. Larabee or his colorful commentary.”

“Tie ‘em up over there for tonight,” Holt motioned to a stand of pine trees along the far eastern end of their camp, “and keep an eye on things, will ya, Jim?  I’m goin’ to bed.”

Jim grabbed Larabee by the collar of his duster and dragged him over to the trees.  Ezra begrudgingly followed.

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A quiet voice called from the darkness behind Holt’s associate, Jim, “drop your weapon in the dirt or I’ll have to bury your body in it.”

Jim didn’t have to think twice about that choice.  His gun dropped with a thud to the ground.  The unknown assailant wrapped a bandana around his eyes, bound his hands with rope, and shoved him towards where Ezra and Chris were tied up.

“Impeccable timing, as always, Mr. Tanner.”

“I owed these fellers for the hole in my arm anyway,” Vin said as he cut the ropes binding Standish’s hands and feet.  “Hold onto Chris while I untie him,” Vin instructed and Ezra kept the unconscious gunman from falling over as his hands were cut from the tree holding him up.  “He ok?” Vin squatted down to take a look at Larabee’s head.

“He suffered a fair amount of abuse at the hands of my dear, old friend.  Would you be so kind as to keep an eye on Mr. Larabee?” Ezra immediately passed off Chris to Vin and stood.  He approached the blindfolded man, Jim, and retrieved his own weapon from the back of the trousers.  He subsequently proceed to cross the camp and place the Remington point-blank against the side of Jake Holt’s head.

Holt’s eyes immediately flew open.  “Shhhhh!” instructed Standish.  “I’m afraid if you wake your other friend over there that he might not live to see the sunrise.”

“You’re not gonna shoot me, Ezra,” Jake teased, “you never did have it in you to kill someone in cold blood.  That’s how we ended up getting arrested in For Laramie….or have you forgotten that too.”

“Wrong, Mr. Holt.  I have a hard time shooting an innocent person in cold blood.  I have absolutely no qualms about ridding the world of a worthless miscreant such as yourself.”

Just as the third gang member, who was feigning to still be asleep, reached for his weapon, he heard a hoarse voice say, “Don’t do it, Mister.”

“Why, Mr. Dunne, whatever brings you out here in the middle of the night?” Ezra smiled.

“Thought a midnight stroll would do me some good,” JD smiled back.  He had been woken by a coughing fit earlier.  When he had stood to try to clear out his lungs and not wake everyone else, Vin had already been awake and told the youngster of his suspicions that something was awry with Chris and Ezra.  The two regulators had then set off on their middle-of-the-night search and found Holt’s makeshift camp.

JD commandeered the man’s weapon and tied his hands, and Ezra did the same for Jake.  All three of the Holt gang were placed in the area where Chris and Ezra had originally been tied.  Vin had also created a bed for Chris in the same area by placing Larabee’s duster on the ground and using his own coat for a pillow.  Chris came to not long afterwards.

“Son of a bitch,” Chris grabbed his head and sat up slowly.

“How’re you feelin’, Cowboy?”

Larabee promptly jumped up to his knees, crawled towards the forest, and puked up all of the rabbit chili he had eaten 4 or 5 hours earlier.

“Guess that answers that,” Vin grimaced and winced in sympathy.  He started to approach Chris, and Ezra interrupted his progress.

“I will see to Mr. Larabee.  Your arm has likely done more-than-enough already tonight.”

Tanner’s arm was not appreciating all of the movement, and JD looked like he wasn’t far from puking himself.  It had taken most of the boy’s energy to walk the mile or two to the campsite and remain on guard with Vin until the time was right to attack.  “Lie down if you want, JD,” Vin pointed to Chris’ duster still on the ground.  “We got things under control.”

“What if Chris wants it back?”

“Oh, somehow I don’t think he will,” Vin nodded towards the angry and somewhat green-looking Larabee walking and shaking off all of Ezra’s attempts at helping or supporting the man.

“What do you think we should do with these fellers, Chris?” Vin asked, smiling.

“Shoot ‘em,” Chris glared directly at Jake Holt and replied before walking over to stand in front of the dwindling campfire.

Vin placed an arm on Chris’ shoulder and quietly asked, “you ok?”

Larabee sighed.  “I’m fine.  I just wanna go fuckin’ home, Vin.  I’ve been gone for damn near a month now, and I wake up every gawd-damn morning feelin’ sick and sportin’ a headache…without so much as a single drop of whiskey to blame for it!”

“Amen to that, Mr. Larabee!” Ezra called out.  His flask had been empty for weeks, and he too had been craving a drink terribly.

Vin made the rounds of the camp and gathered up the other men’s bedrolls and supplies.  JD and Ezra lay down, while Vin cleaned up Chris’ head wounds and the two of them kept watch until morning.  They had even managed to find and make some coffee, which all four men needed desperately come sunrise.  Ezra had only slept a few hours, as had Vin.  Chris’ only form of rest had come while he was unconscious, and JD had not been able to sleep well for the last week.  All of them were ready to be done with Holt and his men and get home.

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“Really, Chris, what do you think we should do with them?” Vin asked, as he sipped the warm, strong brew in his hands.

Chris marched up to Holt and pulled him to his feet.  “I want you and your men to head to Mexico….and stay there.  If I so much as hear a rumor that you stepped foot back in Texas or any other territory in the states, I will hunt you down and kill you…..slowly.  Agreed?”

Jake sighed and stared at the blond-haired man for a good minute before finally saying, “agreed.”

JD went back to the main camp to collect horses, belongings, and Buck and Josiah who were embarrassed that they had managed to sleep through everything.

The 6 regulators’ escorted the three Holt gang members to a well-known trail to Mexico, made sure they had enough supplies to make it there without stopping, and watched them disappear into the southern landscape.

“You think they’ll actually stay south of the border?” JD looked at Chris’ terribly-bruised face and asked.

“I don’t know, JD, but I meant what I said.  If they ever cause any trouble that I hear about, they’ll regret ever bein’ born.”

“I hear that,” Dunne smiled then paused, “but, Chris, why didn’t we just kill them now?”

“They’re just thugs, JD.  They’re not serious criminals.  Guess a part of me felt like I owed them….” Chris let the sentence fade and started to ride on.

JD rode up beside Larabee once again.  “Owed them?  For what?”

Chris glanced at the much younger man to his left and finished what he stopped himself from saying earlier, “……for not killin’ Vin.  He was wanted dead or alive, and for some reason Holt chose to take him in alive.  If they were really hard men, they wouldn’t have bothered doin’ that.”

Vin was a few horse-lengths back.  The tracker overheard but pretended like he didn’t.  Lord, how he prayed that those days were over, but he knew they probably weren’t.  Even though he had been pardoned, those wanted posters donning his face would be around for years to come.

Ezra had been uncharacteristically quiet all day, but if the others noticed they didn’t say anything.  Standish watched Holt disappear from sight, and damn if he didn’t almost feel a twinge of jealousy.  They were truly free; men with no responsibilities or duties.  If they felt like drinking tequila until 4AM and sleeping until noon, there was no one to yell at them, no town folks counting on them to check out their homestead, no mother begging for someone to search for a lost child, or no friend who needed rescuing.  Standish held no animosity towards these men he rode with; this job was simply not what he had expected.  He had gotten too close to his six associates and to the people of Four Corners, and he felt like he had lost himself somewhere along the way.

Buck and Josiah had been the only ones who had slept well, or at all, the previous night, so they volunteered to keep watch.  The other four members of the party bedded down under the trees along a swift but shallow river.

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Daylight was just filtering through the trees when Chris rose to stretch out his stiff back and limbs, dreaming of his real bed back in Four Corners.  Hell, I’m starting to sound like Ezra, he thought to himself, as he glanced around at his sleeping companions.  Buck was on the early morning watch, but everyone else was still fast asleep……except Ezra.  Where the hell was Ezra?  The spot where his bedroll had been placed last night was bare.  It was possible that the conman had risen early and loaded his belongings onto his horse, but that did not sound like something Standish would do.

Chris continued to look around as he approached Wilmington, who was sitting on an old stump next to the horses.

“He’s gone, Chris.”

“Ezra?”

“Must’ve snuck out sometime in the middle of the night,” Buck took a sip of his coffee and gazed up into the green eyes of his old friend.

“I’m sorry,” Chris said so quietly that it took Buck a few seconds to realize what he had said.

“What are you sorry about?  Ezra’s a grown man; don’t reckon there’s much you or me can do about it if he truly wanted to leave.”

“It was my fault, Buck.  I pushed him too far……drove him away…….like I do everyone eventually,” Chris ran a hand through his mussed hair.

“I’m still here, ain’t I?” Buck smiled. 

“I don’t know how you put up with me, Buck.”

“Chris, I really don’t think it had anything to do with you,” Buck lifted the coffee tin towards the blond.

Larabee shook his head no, and sighed.  Buck could now see there was more to it than just Ezra all of a sudden deciding to up and leave.

“Did you know?  Did he say somethin’?” Wilmington’s blue eyes were non-accusatory when they stared at Chris.

Larabee glanced up at the half-lit sky and closed his eyes for a moment.  “He told me he was plannin’ to resign when we got back to town.”

Buck stood and approached Chris.  “…and just when were you plannin’ on tellin’ the rest of us about this?”  When he got no answer from the smaller man, he gave a good shove against Larabee’s left shoulder.  “Did you want him to go?”

Chris looked up with fire in his eyes, and he gave Wilmington a two-handed shove in return.  “Hell no, I didn’t want him to go.  Is that really how you think I am?  He told me he would give it a month after we got back to try things out….to give me another try,” Chris paused and turned away from his old friend, “he promised me, Buck…and I suppose I was desperate enough to believe him.”

Buck walked around, so that he was once again looking into Chris’ face.  “Did he tell you why?”

Chris looked up into the usually-jovial’s man blue eyes.  “He was tired of the long and awful missions the Judge has been sending us on lately, he’d had enough of my shit, and he didn’t want the responsibilities and expectations that come with being one of the God-damned Magnificent Seven.”  Chris coughed and rubbed his tired, stubbled face.  “I told him I would talk to the judge, reduce his responsibilities within the group, even try to change my ways…..but I don’t guess he believed me.”  Chris gave a sideways smirk at Buck.  “Hell, I probably wouldn’t believe me either.” 

Buck shook his head in sympathy and understanding towards both Ezra and Chris, as Larabee turned and walked back to the river to gather up his belongings.  Maybe Standish was brave enough to do something that they had all thought about doing from time to time.  Wilmington missed his care-free, gunslinging days of having weeks off to spend roaming from one working girl’s room to another, but Buck knew he couldn’t leave his friends.  It would be tough to leave Chris, but he could do it as long as he knew Vin was with him.  Buck smiled, as he thought about Larabee’s friendship with Tanner and about his own friendship with JD.  It was an unusual relationship, to say the least.  Buck and JD had few interests in common, yet Buck loved that boy like a little brother, and his eyes began to grow misty just thinking about not having the kid around.  Damn Ezra for making him think about such things, Buck thought, as he began readying the horses for today’s travels.

When Wilmington was finished, he wandered over to the stream to wash his face, and he heard a horse riding away and Vin Tanner say, “where the hell you goin’?”

“Damn fool’s goin’ after Ezra,” Buck answered when he walked up to the young tracker.

“Ezra?”

“Snuck off sometime last night.”  Buck slapped his hat on his head and mounted his horse.  “I’ll go find ‘em and meet up with you boys down the road.  Should make it home later today anyway.”

Buck had finally ridden far enough and fast enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of a small black speck riding off in the distance, when he heard someone say, “Buck?” from the other direction.

“Nathan?”

“Where is everybody?  We got trouble comin’ to town.  Need to get back and get back fast.”

Buck could see and hear the urgency in Nathan Jackson’s voice and posture, and the big, ladies’ man sighed and said, “follow me.  We’ll go get three of ‘em anyway.”

Wilmington had caught Nathan up on what was going on, as best he could.  Then Nathan quickly explained the town’s situation when they met up with Vin, Josiah, and JD heading west.

“Got a wire from Red Ford sayin’ some bandits were stayin’ in town and talked about raiding Four Corners.  Now, I got no way of knowing that’s the truth, but I figured we should be ready just in case.”

Buck turned and looked south, where he had last seen Chris, tipped his hat to his two lost friends, and spurred his horse on towards Four Corners.

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Chris didn’t have the tracking skills of Vin Tanner, but he was an astute observer of men.  Ezra had gotten up sometime before 4AM and ridden out in the dark, and the southerner had only slept a couple of hours the night before.  He had to be damn tired, so Larabee would have bet his next month’s pay that Standish had headed towards the nearest town with a hotel or boarding house…..and even better if there was a saloon or gambling hall there as well.

Chris had stopped after about 20 minutes on the south-heading trail and asked about such a place.  It hadn’t taken more than a few seconds to determine exactly where Ezra would be.

Larabee pulled into the dusty, little town called Fort Brown and immediately understood how it got its name.  Everything was tan or dark gray or mud-colored:  the buildings, the wagons, the horses, even the citizens.  His black duster and horse stood out like a sore thumb.  Guess that was why everyone turned to stare as he rode up to the hitching post outside the saloon.  It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the interior.  There was only one other soul in the dingy establishment, except the bartender, and the lone guest provided the first spot of color Chris had seen since entering the small town.

“Mind if I sit down?” Larabee asked the tired-looking man with the red jacket. 

“There appear to be plenty of unoccupied tables,” the well-dressed fellow replied without looking up from his drink.

Chris pulled out the chair and sat anyway.  He ordered a whiskey for himself but otherwise remained silent.  It took a good five minutes, but the auburn-haired patron finally lifted his green eyes and gazed upon the blond man seated across from him.  “Why, pray tell, did you follow me?”

“I didn’t follow you; just happened to stop in the same, nasty saloon in the very same, dirty little town.”

“I see,” the southerner looked back down at his mostly untouched shot of whiskey, “how long do you plan on staying in this quaint municipality?”

Chris downed his shot and had to pause for a moment as the strong liquid burned his throat and gut.  It felt wonderful to finally have a drink, and the quality was surprisingly good.  “You see, I have this friend that I need to find and apologize.”

“Really?” Ezra once again looked up.  “Whatever for?”

“….for being so damn gullible,” Larabee’s green eyes turned ice cold.

Standish downed his drink, stood, left a coin on the table, and walked briskly out the door and to his awaiting horse.  Chaucer was still saddled, and the gambler rode at a brisk gallop straight out of town.  Chris followed but grew angrier and angrier with each passing minute.

“Are you going to follow me forever?” Ezra yelled at the approaching man- and horse-in-black.

“Get off of that damn horse!”

They had ridden about 15 minutes outside of town, and all that surrounded them was a dry desert-like landscape full of cactus and sage brush.

“Or what?  You will shoot me, Mr. Larabee?”

“We’re going to settle this one way or the other.”

“I do not believe that we have anything to settle.”

“Then you’re an idiot.  Get off of that fuckin’ horse, Ezra,” Chris dismounted and began approaching Standish and Chaucer.

“Fine,” Ezra got down but backed a step or two away from the taller, irate man.

“Why did you lie to me?” Chris continued to walk closer to the conman.

“I never intentionally lied to you, sir.”

“What the hell does that mean?  Either you lied or you didn’t…and you know you damn-well did.  You promised me you would go back to Four Corners for a month, and you didn’t even make it back!”

“See, there is where you are mistaken, sir.  I did not lie.  I said that I would stay for a month once we made it back to town.  I simply chose not to go back to town.”

“You’re a real piece of work, you know that, Ezra.”

“Why in God’s name did you come after me?” Standish locked his green eyes with Larabee’s.  “Just to tell me that I ran out on you once again!”

A fist struck out instantly and knocked Ezra on his ass in the dirt.  The now enraged southerner jumped up and plowed into the seven’s leader.  Both men fell to the ground and rolled over each other multiple times with fists, elbows, and knees flying.  Chris stood and pulled Ezra to his feet as they rolled into a prickly pear cactus patch.

Ezra struck out like a snake and planted a hard left hook to Larabee’s face.

Chris looked up from the ground where he sat, covering his right eye with his hand.  “How many fuckin’ times do I have to say that I don’t want you to leave, Ezra?” Larabee stammered out between breaths while trying to get to his feet and brush as many cactus thorns out of his limbs as he could. 

“You have a very unorthodox way of showing that to someone,” Ezra got out while also breathing heavily and gingerly fingering his soon-to-be-bruised left cheek.

“You’ve known Buck for three years, and he never explained that to you?” Chris said, followed by, “shit, my face hurts.”

Ezra snorted and handed Pony’s reins to Larabee.   “Let us go back to my room in the lovely municipality of Fort Mud and get cleaned up.”

“If they got any clean water,” Chris mounted while realizing that Ford Mud would indeed have been a more appropriate name for the town.

The two men hitched their horses at the, what else, Brown Hotel, but both stopped suddenly when they overheard a conversation between two men walking by on the boardwalk.  One said, “yep, that’s what he said when they stopped in town yesterday.  Said he and his men were gonna get revenge on the Magnificent Seven and make sure they didn’t have a town left to protect.”

Chris and Ezra glanced back and forth at each other.  Without a word spoken, Standish ran inside and grabbed his belongings, and he and Larabee hit the trail riding north as fast as Chaucer and Pony could ride.

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They heard the sound of gunshots before they could see Four Corners.

“Apparently we underestimated Mr. Holt’s criminal propensities,” Ezra remarked as he and Chris tied their horses up on the on backside of the town’s buildings to the south.

“I should’ve shot ‘em all when I had the chance.”

“Lessons learned,” Ezra walked forward with his Remington in his hand, “for both of us, Mr. Larabee.”

Jake Holt was standing in the middle of the town holding one of their very own, JD Dunne, as a hostage.   Chris and Ezra had no idea how they had gotten into this situation, but the 4 remaining peacekeepers in town were helplessly paralyzed.  They couldn’t do anything for fear that Holt would shoot the kid.  Vin wasn’t in his usual high position, and he and the others had already thrown their weapons to the ground in compliance with Holt’s requests.

Chris and Ezra were across the street, behind Jake Holt, and out of sight.  Larabee could easily shoot Holt, but he was hesitant to shoot even scum like him in the back.  Chris was quickly brought out of his internal debate by the very loud sound of a gunshot.  Holt fell to the ground, and Larabee bolted into action.  He ran into the street, screaming to the other two thugs, “drop your weapons and put up your hands…..NOW….or join your friend in hell!”  Vin and Buck had retrieved their guns as well by now, and the two underlings to Holt surrendered.

Chris put out a hand to JD, who was still kneeling in the middle of the street. “You ok, kid?”

Dunne looked at Chris then at Ezra and smiled, “I am now.  Sorry I let Holt get a jump on me…”

“Don’t worry about it, JD,” Chris interrupted.  “It’s happened to all of us….”

“…at least once,” Ezra grinned.

“…or twice,” Vin finished and smiled as well.  “Welcome back, boys.”

“Thank you, Mr. Tanner.  It is good to be back.”

“Really?” Buck put a protective hand on JD’s shoulder but looked at Ezra when he said, “you mean that?”

“Well, look what transpired today.  How could I even think about leaving when you boys clearly need me here to protect you?”

Chris raised his eyebrows but couldn’t stop himself from smiling.

“Can’t argue with that,” JD stuck out his hand towards Ezra, “thank you for savin’ my life, Ezra.”

Standish accepted the handshake, and replied, “you are most welcome, JD.”  Standish put away his gun, as Nathan and Buck surrounded the boy.  Jackson was clearly chomping at the bit to force some rest and medicinal concoctions onto their youngest, who was still recovering from his bout of influenza.

Chris commented, “that was a nice shot….right to the back of Holt’s head.”

“Well, sir, I detest gambling, and as such leave nothing to chance.”

“Right,” Chris smirked, “a friend told me that once.”

“Sounds like a smart friend,” Ezra smiled back.

“He is, and he’s the kind of friend who keeps his word.”

“I see. Well, I guess I should go unpack and make myself comfortable then.  When will I next be needed for my patrol shift, Mr. Larabee?”

A test.  Chris tried not to laugh.  “I think tomorrow would be just fine.”

“How early tomorrow?”

“Ezra…”

“It is a simple question, Mr. Larabee.”

“All right, tomorrow afternoon.  How’s that?”

“Sounds delightful.  I will be in my room if you gentlemen need me.”

“Good night, Ezra.”

“Good night………my friends.”

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

“Where the heck are you boys goin’?” Nathan yelled from the clinic steps.  He had gotten JD settled in one of the beds and placed two additional cots in the room, anticipating having four guests in his clinic tonight.  He wanted to check out JD’s, Ezra’s and Chris’ lungs after their battle with the flu.  He needed to take a look at Vin’s bullet wound, and he hadn’t overlooked the bruises on both Chris and Ezra’s faces.

Ezra hustled to get himself inside the boarding house, so as to pretend that he did not hear Nathan.  Vin and Chris immediately turned and walked briskly towards the saloon.

“Damnit, Josiah.  Stop them!” Nathan yelled as he barreled down the steps.

“I’m sorry, what did you say, Nathan?” Josiah smiled and yelled back.

“Tell them to get their butts up to my clinic,” Nathan said as he finally made it back to the boardwalk next to the ex-preacher.

“They’re ok, Brother Nate.”

“Are you deaf and blind?”

“Why no, although I have noticed that my hearing isn’t quite what it used to be….”

“Josiah!”

“Sorry…”

“Didn’t you hear Ezra coughing earlier?”

“Well….”

“…or notice Chris’ face?”

“Uh…..”

“….or see the dirty bandage on Vin’s arm?”

“Aw, Nathan…what would we ever do without you?” Josiah reassuringly patted Jackson’s arm and headed towards the jail to check on the prisoners.

“What the hell does that mean?  You gonna help me drag them up to the clinic or not?  Josiah!”

Josiah hollered back, as he continued walking, “I’m still having a hard time making out what you’re saying, Nathan.  Maybe I’ll stop by tomorrow for a hearing check.  Good night!”  The big man was still laughing when he entered the jail.

Nathan stood in the middle of the street, flabbergasted that all of his ill and/or injured associates besides JD were avoiding him.  Just as the former Army stretcher-bearer started to head to the saloon to give Vin and Chris a piece of his mind, Ezra peeked out of the boarding house door.  He was struck by a coughing fit just as he started to turn back to avoid the confrontation with Nathan.  Jackson swung around immediately at the sound of the harsh, wet cough.  The healer quickly charged the doorway and grabbed Standish by the left wrist.

“Ezra, get your butt up to my clinic,” Nathan paused at the stricken look on the gambler’s face, “please.”

“Mr. Jackson, I assure you that I am fine,” Ezra cleared his throat and said.  “I was just thinking about grabbing a light supper and heading up to bed.”

“Fine.  Come with me over to the saloon, order what you want, and we’ll take it up to the clinic.  You can eat while I check you over.”  Ezra started to open his mouth to protest, and Jackson interrupted.  “I don’t wanna hear it; you have a relapse of the flu, and I you and I both will be sorry.”  Nathan shoved the smaller man in the direction of the saloon.  Ezra sighed but otherwise remained quiet.

All eyes in the saloon immediately turned to the two arriving men, when Nathan Jackson said very loudly, “what in the hell do you two think you’re doin’?”

“Eatin’ some supper, what’s it look like?” Vin looked up from his meal and answered also quite loudly.

Nathan walked over to the table that Tanner was sharing with Larabee and knocked Chris’ shot glass, only filled a few seconds earlier, off the table.  It shattered on the floor, and Larabee slowly raised his gaze to meet the brown eyes of Jackson.

“I know what you’re gonna say,” Chris spoke quietly, “that I shouldn’t be drinkin’, and that you’ve been waiting none-so-patiently for Vin, myself, and Ezra to show up at the clinic for damn-near an hour now.”  Nathan stood with his arms crossed, listening.  “Well, Nathan, what can I say?  I’m sorry, but it has been 26 days since I sat at this here table in this here saloon, and I aim to have a drink and soak it in for a few more minutes before you haul me off to jail.”

 “Jail!?”

“Now, Nathan,” Vin tried to mediate, “Chris here is sore and grouchy and didn’t mean that.  I’ll bring that stubborn cuss up to your fine clinic personally………once I’m done eatin’.”

“….and yourself?”

“Yes sir, Nathan sir….and myself.”

“Ungrateful bastards, all of……God damnit, Ezra!”  Nathan watched Standish down a quick drink of whiskey straight from a bottle, as he picked up his food from Inez.  He forcibly grabbed the southerner by his upper arm and pulled him across the floor, with Ezra trying to juggle his plate of food with the other hand.

“Woah there, Nathan,” Buck backed out of the way, as Nathan and Ezra plowed out the batwing doors, “where’s the fire?”  No response from the dark-skinned man, and Ezra almost looked scared as he was pulled along behind Nathan.  “OK there Nate, I’ll be back in a jiff; just gonna grab me and JD some supper.”

Once he was sure Nathan was well out of earshot, Buck asked, “what’s got his drawers in a bunch?”

Chris had retrieved himself another glass and proceeded to drink two shots back-to-back.  Vin gave the blond a sideways glance but didn’t comment on Larabee’s “supper.”  He said instead, “think Nate must have missed us somethin’ terrible while we was gone.  He wants us all to have a sleepover tonight up at the clinic.”

Chris and Buck both chuckled, which turned into full laughter, and Vin joined in as well.  Chris started coughing, and somehow that only served to make Vin and Buck laugh even harder.  All of the pain and frustration of the last few weeks slowly drained out of the exhausted peacekeepers, as they wiped at their watering eyes. 

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“Come on fellers,” Vin finally stood and grabbed Larabee’s arm.  He pulled Chris to a standing position and shoved Buck out the batwing doors with his other hand.  “Horse piss all around tonight.”

“Nope,” Buck smiled, as he balanced the two plates of food outside on the boardwalk, “ain’t nothing wrong with me.”

Vin immediately turned and slammed his right boot heel onto the area of Buck’s left big toe and took off running, pulling Chris along with him. 

“Son-of-a....!”

“Dang, I’ll bet that hurts, Bucklin.  I’ll be sure and tell Nate to get some tea ready for you.”

“God-damned, scrawny-assed Texan!”

 “Come on in, boys,” Nathan was holding the door open at the top of the stairs.  “Buck, what the hell are you cussin’ and limpin’ about?”

Chris looked at Nathan and simply shrugged his shoulders.  Larabee knew that he and the healer were going to have their hands full tonight, but he couldn’t stop the smile that engulfed his face.  The team was back together, and he was going to do everything in his power to make sure it stayed that way.

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After suppers had been eaten and Nathan had worn himself out chastising his friends for not taking good care of themselves in his absence, Ezra glanced around at the dark and quiet room.  The healer had retreated to his own bed, as had Mr. Wilmington, leaving Standish, JD, Chris, and Vin on the two beds and two cots crammed into the small space of the clinic.  The southerner was deathly tired and could not understand why his mind refused to let him sleep.  He wasn’t in pain, Nathan’s tea had helped his cough tremendously, and the bed and pillow were soft and warm.

What Ezra’s mind couldn’t understand was why this man, who had spent his entire life looking over his shoulder and expecting the worst in people, was so comfortable.  Standish had almost walked away this week.  He had come within a hair’s breadth of reverting back to that old, familiar lifestyle of trusting no one but himself.  Ezra’s brain was now forcing him to seriously consider how much he would have lost.    

No matter how much he complained about Nathan’s terrible-tasting concoctions and insistence that he rest and eat, no one in Ezra’s life had ever cared enough to fret over him like that.  Likewise, neither his mother nor other relatives would have put aside their pride and begged Standish to come home like Chris Larabee had done or put Ezra’s health or problems above their own as Buck, Vin, JD, and Josiah had all demonstrated numerous times over the years.  Ezra would never understand why these six men cared so much about him, but tonight he was finally able to drift off to sleep content in the knowledge that they do.

THE END




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