ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS image created by Jordan McKenzie

ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS2009 M.O.M. Nominee for Best OW Gen Hurt/Comfort StoryWinner of 2009 Ezzie for Best OW Gen Novel

by Jordan McKenzie

Rated R for Violence and Language

A/N: This is a rewrite of the episode VENDETTA and begins as Chris and Hank part ways.

 

 

Part 1

 

Hank Connelly had finally made peace with the son-in-law he vowed never to forgive for the death of his daughter and grandson. Shaking hands and speaking words of seeing each other again some day, they parted a couple miles outside of town. Hank, after killing the man he found responsible for the heinous Larabee murders, mounted up and headed for the safety of Mexico. Chris, still feeling little satisfaction after the slaying of his family’s killer, rode back to Four Corners with Vin and Buck.

 

“You reckon he’ll be alright?” Buck asked as he glanced back one last time at the lone figure heading south.

 

“Don’t know,” Chris answered, “but he needs to put some distance between him and the Nichols Family.”

 

“Yeah, and we need to get back to town and make sure the Nichols head on back to Kansas City,” Vin added. “When they find out Hank’s gone they ain’t gonna take it none too kindly that we helped him.”

 

“There’s nothing they can do about it now.”

 

“They may not catch Hank, but there’s plenty they can do. Ezra sent them on a wild goose chase.”

 

Chris raised an eyebrow.

 

“To Juarez,” Vin explained. “They warned him about helping Hank and promised him, uh…”

 

“Excruciating pain,” finished Buck. “Damn, I forgot all about that. We best be headin’ back fast before those boys decide to make good on their threat.”

 

Understanding the danger, the three men spurred their mounts and headed home.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Ezra decided to make another pass down the hotel boardwalk to make sure the Nichols boys had indeed ridden out of town. He and the remaining peacekeepers had plans to meet up at some point to discuss how to best handle the group when they returned, but there was such uneasiness in the air he decided to take a look around on his own. He leaned forward and peered through the lace-covered window of the hotel. Satisfied none of the men sporting weepers were present he straightened, stretched his back and turned to check the alley just twenty feet away. The movement caused the whiskey bottle left behind by the Nichols to tilt in his coat pocket and bump his chest. He’d pocketed the fine liquor after Nathan warned him to “go easy”, but the dust of the day made that advice seem unreasonable. He strode around the wooden building and began to reach for the glass container. Before he could raise it to remove its cork, two hands grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him into the side of the building. His face met the rough wood of the wall as a body pressed heavily against his back and then the hands moved from his shoulders to the back of his neck. One snaked alongside his arm and took the whiskey bottle from his grasp.

 

“Now I wondered where we left that,” a husky voice said against his right ear. “Figures you’d be helping yourself.”

 

Ezra recognized the voice of the largest of the Nichols clan and coughed. “I assure you I was simply holding it for you until you returned.”

The man behind him shifted his arms and punched him in the side. “I’m sure you were.”

 

Another blow to the ribs, harder this time, caused the air in Ezra’s lungs to catch in his throat. Damn, but he should have seen this coming. Why hadn’t he been more careful?

 

The hold that had forced him to the wall changed and before he could suck in a good breath, he was spun around and pushed further into the alley.

 

“Gentlemen,” Ezra croaked when he realized there were three of the Nichols boys cornering him, “there is no need for violence.”

 

Peter Nichols gave a nasty snarl as he stepped in front of his larger brother. “I disagree. You see we followed your directions to Chris Larabee’s place.”

 

The gambler rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and felt for the wall at the end of the alley with the other. “Ah, then I take it you found his cabin with no trouble.”

 

Peter shook his head, not believing the audacity of the man. “What do you think?”

 

“Well now, the most inept gathering of men with a brain between them could have figured out my instructions without my having to draw a map,” Ezra said, plastering a toothy grin on his face.

 

The Nichols looked at each other in wonder, but as Peter took a menacing step forward Ezra raised his right arm and released the derringer from up his sleeve. The sudden arrival of the small gun in his hand stepped them back and allowed him to retrieve his sidearm from his holster. “I do believe this conversation is over, gentlemen.”

 

Peter shook his head again and clasped his hands behind his back. “I’m afraid I have to disagree with you again,” he answered and raised a hand to motion to the two men behind him. In the next instant, a fourth brother rounded the corner of the alley prodding Nathan ahead of him with a gun. Jackson, who had obviously taken a few punches to the face, appeared bewildered.

 

Ezra looked between Peter and Nathan once or twice before he realized he had little choice but to surrender. Two of the black clad men in the alley relieved him of his weapons and he recalled the threat they’d made just the day before. A shudder ran through him when he realized he was about to be in a world of hurt.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan stumbled through the back door of the hotel when he was roughly shoved through by one of the more obscure members of the Nichols clan. It dawned on him then he didn’t know most of the names of the men who now threatened him and Ezra. He righted himself and followed the two men holding the gambler by both his arms. Their journey ended in the hotel kitchen, a rather small area made smaller by the presence of nine new occupants. Nathan noted none of the hotel staff was anywhere to be seen, either by good fortune or by preconceived planning. He favored the latter since good fortune seemed to have ridden out of town with Hank Connelly.

 

Peter Nichols quietly gave orders to three of his family members and pointed them out of the room in the direction of the lobby. He then turned and motioned for the men holding Ezra to bring him over as Nathan was unceremoniously forced into a chair near the stove.

 

“Now then Mister… Standish, was it? I believe you and I have some business to take care of.”

 

Ezra smiled unflinchingly despite his arms being twisted in an awkward position. “Perhaps we should discuss it over a bit of libation,” he said, eyeing the whiskey bottle Peter held in his hand.

 

“Oh this you mean, you’d like to share it with me as we discuss Chris Larabee and that murderer Connelly. No, I have other plans. I want you to enjoy this bottle all on your own.”

 

Ezra raised an eyebrow then jerked back when Peter Nichols suddenly raised the bottle over his head and brought it down to crash on the floor. The glass container shattered and lay in small pieces as amber colored whiskey puddled around its remains. Peter eyed the ruins somewhat disappointed. “Well now, I would hate to have it said I slighted you in any way, Mr. Standish. Boys,” he called to his brothers as he motioned to a shelf behind the counter. He waited patiently for a stack of beautifully glazed floral print plates to be set within his reach. With a cold nonchalance, he raised the stack with both hands and dropped them atop the broken bottle. The plates broke into large shards that spilled haphazardly across the floor.

 

Wondering what on earth Nichols had in mind, Ezra glanced at Nathan then looked around at the faces of the other men in the room. They appeared to know exactly what was going on since they all shared the same dangerous smile of amusement. The men grasping his arms manhandled him up onto a counter and began yanking up his pant legs. Seconds later, his boots were removed and he was lowered to the floor on bare feet. He wrinkled his brow as he once again looked at Nathan. What the hell were they planning?

 

Peter moved to stand beside the broken glass on the floor, his hands once again clasped behind his back. “Now then, let me tell you how this is going to work. You, Mr. Standish, are going to tell me how I can find Chris Larabee and Hank Connelly. Connelly is going to die for the murder of my brother David, you and Larabee are going to be punished for your part in helping him. You have allowed the men we’re after to run, you will not be so lucky. I can assure you running will be the last thing you do for a very long time. In fact, I intend to see you don’t do much walking either.”

 

Nathan realized a split second before Ezra what Nichols had in mind. He quickly raised himself off his chair but was knocked back into it by the largest of the brothers.

 

“Mr. Jackson, you will remain seated. Your punishment has not yet been decided,” Peter said casually before he returned his attention to the gambler. “Mr. Standish, I will ask this question only once. Where are Larabee and Connelly?”

 

Ezra raised his chin and tried to straighten under the weight of the two men holding him, but he didn’t say a word.

 

“Your actions don’t surprise me, so you shouldn’t be surprised by mine.” He looked down at the shards of glass on the floor. “Join me over here, why don’t you.”

 

Ezra was stunned by the request even if he had figured out in advance why his boots had been taken.

 

Peter motioned to the man beside Nathan who in turn jerked the healer from his chair and hit him hard across the side of his head. Nathan fell to the floor. When he didn’t get up as the man who’d hit him ordered, he received a brutal kick to the ribs.

 

“Leave him alone,” Ezra shouted when Nathan was struck again.

 

“We will leave him when you’ve done as you’ve been told. Now join me.”

 

Nathan looked up from where he lay on the floor. “Ezra, no.”

 

“The path to righteousness is never easy, Mr. Standish,” Peter taunted, pointing to the glass covered floor between him and the gambler.

 

One of the men gripping Ezra’s arms smiled wickedly when he felt a shudder go through him. Slowly but surely, Ezra began moving towards the shards that would soon lay waste to his bare feet.

 

 

Part 2

 

Chris, Buck and Vin stabled their horses and headed for the saloon. It hadn’t been a particularly long ride back to town, but it had been a hot, dusty one. Since they needed to check on Ezra anyway, a couple of beers seemed the perfect remedy for the heat. Letting their eyes adjust to the building’s darker interior, they walked to where Josiah and JD sat eating a late lunch and pulled up chairs to join them.

 

Josiah motioned for the barkeep to bring over three more beers and shoveled another spoon of beans into his mouth. “I take it you were able to send Hank on his way,” he said around a piece of bread.

 

Chris nodded as he pulled his hat off and laid it on the table. “Yeah, he’s headed to Mexico. There been any trouble here?”

 

“Nah,” JD answered, “everything’s been real quiet since Ezra gave the Nichols directions to your place.”

 

“I heard,” Chris said and helped the barkeeper distribute the drinks he’d delivered to the table. “He bought us enough time to put Hank in the road without being spotted. I should probably thank him.”

 

He watched Josiah half-heartedly wipe at his mouth and sip his drink before the preacher craned his neck around to look at the doorway.

 

“Somethin’ goin’ on I should be worried about?”

 

“Not likely, we just haven’t seen Ezra or Nate in a while. They probably just got busy with some of the town folk while they were checkin’ for Mrs. Nichols and her boys. That family has ruffled some feathers around here. I think everyone’ll be glad to finally see the back of ‘em.”

 

“You’ll get no argument there. They’ll probably be back soon though from that little detour Ezra sent them on, so we’d best discuss what our next move is gonna be.”

 

“Why don’t we just load ‘em up in that fancy coach of theirs, lock the door and point the horses in the direction of Kansas City,” JD suggested.

 

Vin set his beer back on the table. “Have you boys checked that coach out yet?”

 

“What dya mean?”

 

“I nosed around a little after they got here, that thing’s armored. I imagine it could take most anything we throw at it.”

 

“Armored?” asked Chris.

 

“Yeah, ain’t never seen anything like it. It’s like a fortress on wheels. I reckon they’ve found it real useful for wreakin’ havoc on folks.”

 

“Damn, then it’d be a good idea to keep them away from that thing if they try to make a run for it. JD, that’s your job. You see anything funny going on with that buggy, you give us a holler.”     

 

JD smiled his agreement and took another bite of his lunch.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan staggered forward, one foot in front of the other, or as near to it as he could get. He felt like he’d been used as a punching bag, but the hits to his head and ribs weren’t what had knocked the wind out of him; it was the look in Ezra’s eyes when the Nichols separated him from the healer and then leaned over to whisper in his ear. He’d give anything to know what they’d said, what they’d threatened him with, because Ezra went as pale as he’d ever seen the man.

 

Jackson knew he’d been released because the matriarch of the family had ordered it. She had evidently felt obliged to him since he’d doctored her son’s arm, but she also had a second more dangerous reason – to have him fetch one Chris Larabee. She had pieced together that Nathan was one of the seven men who protected the town but she wasn’t interested in him, she wanted the man directly responsible for the disappearance of her son’s killer. She already had the man guilty of distracting her henchmen so her prey could escape and that meant Ezra was now in the worst possible position of the entire group. He had to get to Chris and he had to do it quickly.

 

He stumbled across the street, bumping into a passerby a time or two, but eventually made it to the relative protection of the saloon. It was Vin who first spotted him as he hung to the batwing door and literally swung himself inside the dark room. Tanner caught him just as he dropped to the floor.

 

Nathan tried to catch his breath as he leaned against the sharpshooter. Once he could speak, the first words out of his mouth were, “They’ve got Ezra.”

 

“What?” Vin asked.

 

“The Nichols, they’re holed up at the hotel and they’ve got Ezra.”

 

Chris took one of Nathan’s arms as Vin pulled him off the floor. Once they had him in a chair, they gathered round to check him out.

 

“They did this?” Larabee asked as he took Jackson by the chin and examined his face.

 

“Don’t matter none, they’re gonna do worse to Ezra if we don’t get him outta there.” He swatted at the hand on his face and tried to stand.

 

“Whoa there,” warned Vin, “just take a second and tell us what happened.”

 

Nathan settled in the chair and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “I was walkin’ this side of town when I saw Ezra checkin’ out the hotel. I was gonna meet up with him but two of the gang grabbed me and decided I needed a few bruises. It was all for Ezra’s benefit ‘cause they went after him straight away and cornered him in the alley. He could’ve gotten away, but when he saw me he gave himself up.”

 

Josiah rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

 

“They forced us both into the hotel kitchen and started asking him where you and Hank were.” He looked up at Chris. “They know he meant to trick ‘em.”

 

“Yeah, that wasn’t hard to figure,” the gunfighter answered, rubbing his hands together.

 

“Chris, we gotta do somethin’. They’re gonna hurt him bad if we don’t get him outta there. They’ve already hurt him and he knows…”

 

“Knows what?”

 

“The look he gave me when I left him… I couldn’t hear what they were sayin’ but I think they were givin’ him vivid details of what they planned to do to him. He tried not to show it but he was scared, Chris. We gotta get to him.” He straightened himself and rose off the chair. “I ain’t leavin’ him over there to die.”

 

“No one’s gonna let Ezra die. We just gotta think on how to get him back, what to do next,” Buck said as he paced the small area near the door.

 

“We try to talk ‘em outta hurtin’ Ezra, that’s what we do next,” Nathan answered.

 

Chris took the healer by the arm. “I know you, you already tried that. Did it do any good while you were over there?”

 

He thought back on his pleas to let the gambler go. “No,” he finally admitted.

 

“Then we come up with another way.”

 

He looked around the saloon. The five lawmen were present, but the person in the middle of the whole controversy was missing. “Where’s Hank?”

 

“Halfway to Mexico by now.”

 

“Mexico?”

 

“We figured it was best for him to head south.”

 

“I hope it was the best for Ezra,” Nathan replied. “That family ain’t in no mood for excuses as to why we can’t hand Hank over to ‘em.”

 

Chris folded his arms across his chest. “Damn, why’d that old man have to lead that bunch here?”

 

“I reckon he was scared and lookin’ for someone he knew would help him,” Vin said.

 

“Yeah, well I almost didn’t. Now Ezra’s hurt because I did. That old man better ride hard because if it comes down to him or Ezra…”

 

“Uh, Chris,” Buck said, motioning to the back of the saloon.

 

There in the shadows stood the last person Larabee ever expected to see -- Hank Connelly, a gun raised on display in his hand.

 

The gunfighter couldn’t believe it. “Hank? What the hell are you doin’ back here?”

 

“I shot him, Chris Larabee. I shot the man who killed your wife and child.” Connelly’s eyes were cold and distant.

 

“What?”

 

“I passed him on the trail and I killed him. I shot him three times with this gun. You can thank me for the death of the butcher who killed your family.”

 

“What’re you sayin’?”

 

Buck saw it plainly. “Chris, his mind’s gone. He ain’t right in the head.”

 

It was one of the few times in his life he’d ever hesitated, but Chris couldn’t grasp quickly enough what his father-in-law had done.

 

Wilmington called his friend’s name and drew his attention. “We ain’t got time to sort Hank out right now. Best we sit him down in the back while we try to come up with some way of gettin’ to Ezra.”

 

Larabee rubbed his eyes and spoke behind his hand. “This day just gets better and better.”

 

“Chris Larabee,” a feminine voice could be heard shouting from the street outside the saloon. “Chris Larabee, can you hear me?”

 

“She’s out there, Chris, Mrs. Nichols,” Vin announced, standing by the window.

 

The voice shouted again. “Chris Larabee, send out the man who killed my boy and do it now. We know you’re meanin’ to protect him but trust me when I say there’s nothing you can do to save him.”

 

Chris looked to the back of the saloon as Buck settled Hank in a chair. The old man twisted the knotted kerchief he held in his hands and smiled to himself.

 

“What dya wanna do?” Tanner asked.

 

“I reckon we oughtta talk to her, try to convince her Hank’s left town.”

 

Vin shook his head.

 

“Or maybe I’ll try the truth and tell her he’s sick and needs help.”

 

“You know she ain’t gonna buy it.”

 

“Yeah I know, but what else can I do? I have to try something.”

 

Vin nodded. “I’ll be right behind ya.  Just keep an eye out; they play real dirty.”

 

Chris settled his hand on the gun beneath his serape and walked through the doors of the saloon. In the middle of the street was Mrs. Nichols, standing confident, righteous and completely in control. Her whole demeanor set him on edge and it wasn’t until he looked towards the building across the street he fully understood why. There between the two white posts marking the hotel’s entrance hung the very battered and bloodied body of Ezra Standish.

 

 

Part 3

 

Chris’ first reaction to the sight of Ezra dangling from ropes outside the hotel was horror. The gambler hung limply from bloody wrists and sagged bent-kneed with the tops of his bare feet scraping the dirty boards of the sidewalk. The only clothing he wore was his gray and black striped pants and they were fast becoming stained solid with the blood oozing from countless cuts covering his chest and back.

 

Larabee’s shock quickly gave way to anger, anger he felt tighten his fists and twist his gut. He swallowed hard and instinctively moved to help his friend.

 

“No,” Mrs. Nichols warned. “You will stay where you are or he’ll receive more punishment for his part in this deceit.”

 

Peter Nichols stepped from behind Ezra’s slumped body and held out a small whip with many tails. He gripped its wooden baton firmly in his grasp and shook the heavy leather fingers of the weapon for the gunfighter to see.

 

Chris was sickened when his eye caught the glisten of Ezra’s blood in the afternoon sun. Against his better judgment, he remained where he was and tried to will the gambler to look up. “Why did you do this to him?” he yelled over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off his friend.

 

“He tried to play us for fools and allowed you to escape when we came looking for you,” Mrs. Nichols answered.

 

“Well, I’m back now so cut him loose.”

 

“He will hang there until I am ready to cut him down,” she proclaimed.

 

Chris stared at Ezra. There was something awkward in his posturing, peculiar in his placement between the beams of the hotel. When he couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong, he dismissed it and redirected his attention to the state of the man’s face, chest, stomach and back. Long lash marks crisscrossed his torso bearing witness to the undeniable fact he’d been whipped repeatedly and without remorse. His face was bruised, his lip was split, and one eye was swollen shut. He’d clearly been beaten senseless because every time the gunfighter thought he saw the man look at him, his head would bob and either drop to his chest or fall back to stare blindly at the ceiling.

 

“Ezra,” Chris shouted, “can you hear me?”

 

The gambler slowly brought his gaze from the wooden planks overhead in an attempt to track the voice calling his name. He knew the voice, trusted it, but simply couldn’t find where it was coming from. His head lolled again and his chin rested on his chest.

 

Chris turned and approached Mrs. Nichols. “Lady, you seriously need to get over this vendetta of yours.”

 

Just as he was about to reach for the heavyset woman, he heard a loud crack and a pain-filled cry come from behind. Vin called to him at the same time he looked over his shoulder. Peter straightened, recovering his position after having stricken Ezra hard across the right shoulder and back with his whip.

 

Ezra’s body jerked violently.

 

Chris’ fury returned. “You,” he said sharply to the man holding the whip, “hit him again and I swear I’ll take you apart with my bare hands.”

 

“You’ll do no such thing,” the old lady stated boldly. “This man has committed a crime against my family and he will pay, as will you.”

 

The gunfighter was filled with so much rage he nearly went after the old woman again but Vin reached out and grabbed him by the arm. “Chris, don’t,” he said. “From the looks of him, Ezra can’t take much more.”

 

Mrs. Nichols moved forward. “You have just fifteen minutes to get Hank Connelly out here.”

 

“Listen to me, Hank is already on his way back home. He headed east this morning, so cut Ezra down, take your boys and get the hell outta my town.”

 

“You think me a fool? I know for a fact that murderer is again under your protection. One of my boys spotted him sneaking into the back of the saloon,” she shrieked. “I see you need more proof of my sincerity.”

 

Nichols raised her hand to Peter and he once again used his whip on Ezra. This time the tails not only dug into his back, but reached to cut into his right side and belly as well. The gambler tried to pull away from the pain but only succeeded in wrenching his bound arms over his head. His breath caught in his throat and the scream that rose up came out as a choked gurgling sound.

 

“You son of a bitch,” Chris yelled as he took a step towards Peter. He would have made good his threat and killed him on the spot if he hadn’t seen the man again raise his whip and motion towards the gambler. It took more control than he knew he possessed, but he stopped and lowered his fists. Then he took a hard look at Ezra and saw tears of pain spill from his clenched eyes. “Hang on, Ezra,” he said under his breath.

 

The old woman moved closer to the hotel entrance. “Bring Connelly to me.”

 

“Hank is here,” he replied, taking a deep breath to keep his anger in check. “But I can’t give him to you. He was wrong to shoot your son, no one’s denying that, but he’s sick, mentally unstable, he didn’t know what he was doing.”

 

“I don’t care if he was possessed by the devil himself, I want Hank Connelly here in front of me now. He killed my David and he will pay for it. And don’t think on trying to reach this friend of yours. There are guns aimed right at him. One wrong move and he’ll be shot where he stands.”

 

Chris took a step towards her without thinking but Vin held tight to his arm.

 

“Let’s get back to the saloon,” Tanner said calmly.

 

“I ain’t leavin’ him here on his own.”

 

“He won’t be alone, we’re all here to get him outta this. Now let’s get back to the others and plan what to do.”

 

Chris wished he could get Ezra to look up, but the gambler was oblivious to anything but his pain. Seeing no alternative, the gunfighter gave in and allowed Vin to pull him away.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Ezra tried desperately to understand what was going on around him. His mind was in a fog like none he’d ever known. There was so much pain throughout his body he was actually amazed he was still conscious. Or was he? Perhaps he was simply experiencing a fevered delirium and the agony was the conjuring of illness. That would explain why he was so hot and thirsty and unable to breathe properly. He wondered where Nathan was. He’d seen him, hadn’t he, his eyes filled with worry and concern. Was that for him? Damn, but he wished he could just focus.

 

He rolled his head back and opened his eyes to see a wooden ceiling overhead. At least he hoped it was a ceiling and he wasn’t hanging upside down staring at the floor. He was so disoriented he couldn’t tell. The resulting nausea was so overwhelming he was forced to close his eyes and listen to the angry voices arguing around him. One voice he thought he recognized – Chris’. Somehow the sound of that voice, angry or not, made him feel better, safer. If Chris was near then he had little to worry about… or did he? There was something in the back of his brain telling him the gunfighter’s presence represented betrayal. Oh God, had he unknowingly been disloyal and done something wrong? No, he was sure he hadn’t.

 

Then he heard his name and his heart began to pound harder in his chest. Chris was calling him, but the hurt in his body was so intense he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t even raise his head. He tried in vain to call back but nothing came out of his mouth except a pitiful whimper. It would have embarrassed him terribly if he’d had enough strength to care. Right now all he wanted was to sleep, to find that state of unconsciousness that eluded him. Then his mind registered a new pain – a dozen knives slicing into his flesh. Where had it come from? The agony exploded in his brain and he felt his body spasm out of his control. The darkness, he wanted to fall into the darkness. But sadly, miserably the darkness never claimed him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Josiah was holding onto a thoroughly pissed off Nathan when Vin and Chris reentered the saloon.

 

“Damn it, Josiah, get outta my way,” the healer roared.

 

“You’re not goin’ out there, Nathan, so forget it. They’d shoot you as soon as look at ya,” Sanchez answered, mustering as much patience as he could.

 

“They’ll kill him if we don’t do somethin’.”

“Nathan,” Vin called, “settle down. We’re gonna help Ezra.”

 

Jackson shook his head and moved to the window overlooking the hotel. He rubbed the back of his neck and began to stare at his friend hanging helplessly in front on him. He watched Ezra first twitch then shudder and knew he was wearing down quickly. The gambler’s head had fallen forward and it appeared he simply couldn’t raise it. Then he shifted, deliberately or instinctively, and his head rose enough for Nathan to see his face. A grimace appeared that the healer had only seen Ezra make one other time in the past. He pulled himself away from the agony on that pale, blood-streaked face and looked at the man as a whole.

 

“Oh, no,” he muttered, “it can’t be.” He left the window and tried once again to get past Josiah at the door.

 

Buck stopped him this time. “Hey, pard, what is it? What’s got you so ready to take on a few dozen bullets?”

 

“His shoulder,” the dark man answered. “Buck, his shoulder’s dislocated and they got him out there strung up by his arms.”

 

“Damn it,” Chris said as he stepped up to the batwing doors. “I knew there was somethin’ wrong about the way he was hangin’.”

 

Vin pulled out his spyglass and aimed it at Ezra trying to see if they’d missed anything else.

 

“My God, how’s he standin’ that kind of pain?” asked Buck, taking a position alongside the gunfighter.

 

JD’s curiosity got the better of him and he moved to take a look. He was sick just at the thought of what the gambler must be feeling, but rallied enough to ask the obvious question. “Why don’t he stand up and take some of the weight off his shoulder?”

 

“He’s probably too out of it to know how to help himself,” Buck answered.

 

“That ain’t it,” Vin said, “is it, Nathan? You said before they’d already hurt Ezra. I’m seein’ blood puddled up around his feet.”

 

“They cut him,” Jackson said, swallowing hard. “They broke a pile of glass on the floor. Just a whiskey bottle at first, then they added a few dishes. They took his boots off and made him walk in broken glass.”

 

“Made him?” asked JD.

 

“By threatening me. He walked right into that misery to avoid me being hurt. Damned fool actually kept it together the whole time those shards were diggin’ into the bottoms of his feet. He was hurtin’ and bleedin’, but he never gave in to them. He wouldn’t tell them where Chris and Hank were.” He paused as he remembered the sweat breaking out on the gambler’s face and the small smile of victory passing between them. He’d believed he’d beaten them in that round. Then…

 

“Nate?” Josiah called, seeing fear fill the healer’s eyes.

 

“You’d o’ been proud, Chris,” he answered softly. “He wouldn’t tell ‘em anything.”

 

Larabee looked back at Jackson and wondered a moment at that statement.

 

“But them Nichols, they seen he could stand what they were doin’ to him, so they went after him with a knife.”

 

“A knife?” Chris asked.

 

“Yeah, they took a knife to his feet even though there was glass already buried in ‘em. He tried real hard after that not to cry out, but he…” Nathan nearly gagged at the memory.

 

Chris felt the rage return as he reached again for his gun. Buck caught the motion out of the corner of his eye and turned the gunfighter to face him. “You ain’t goin’ out there.”

 

“They’ve tortured him, Buck. They’ve beat him, whipped him, taken a knife to him… His only crime was tryin’ to protect me and mine. I can’t let them hurt him anymore, not on my account.”

 

“I hear what you’re sayin’, but if you try to take them on your own, they’ll gun you down. That won’t help Ezra none, will it?”

 

He stepped back but didn’t return his weapon to its holster.

 

Buck realized they wouldn’t be able to hold Chris much longer. “I may have a plan to get Ezra back. It’s risky, but it beats sittin’ here watchin’ him suffer.”

 

The statement had the desired effect. Everyone, including Chris, listened carefully.

 

 

Part 4

 

Mrs. Nichols stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel and walked to where her son stood in the shade. She had waited such a long time to see justice done and now that it was within her grasp she was nearly giddy with the relief. She wiped her brow with her kerchief and eyed the man who hung in the hot afternoon sun.

 

“He’s got grit, I’ll give ‘im that,” said Peter, motioning towards Ezra. “I think he’s been awake the whole time we’ve had him.”

 

“Has he now.” The Nichols matriarch stepped casually around the Southerner and grabbed a handful of his chestnut hair. “The good Lord must be exacting a special penance from this one then.”

 

“He’s a gambler.”

 

“A gambler is it? Well then, its little wonder the Lord would want him to pay for his sins.” She raised his head and tried to peer into half-lidded green eyes. “You should never have involved yourself in our affair, gambler. Now it seems you will be paying for your error in judgment with your life.”

 

Ezra’s mouth moved but only unintelligible sounds came out.

 

“What it is you have to say?” she moved an ear closer to him.

 

“C-Chris…”

 

“Chris Larabee? Do you believe he’ll save you? From what I gather, he’d rather protect that murderer Hank Connelly than see you freed. He’ll not be coming for you,” she said, taunting him, not really believing the words she spoke. From the way the gunfighter had reacted to seeing his friend, there was little doubt in her mind he’d do almost anything to rescue him.

 

Ezra tried to shake his head in denial but the movement only made him dizzier.

 

“You’re as daft as you are stubborn,” she said as she dropped his head without warning. “For the life of me, I’ll not understand why you’d suffer so for a man such as himself. But don’t be worrying that your sacrifice will be without reward. Justice shall be served and Larabee will be taken down alongside my son’s killer.”

 

The words the old lady spewed spread through his mind like venom. Had Chris given up on him? Had he decided it better to protect Hank than to even try to save him? He shuddered at the thought he’d be left on display to die for the entertainment of the town folk. But he was a conman; a conman who let Chris down, and he supposed his future didn’t look all that promising. Why wouldn’t Chris save the life of his dead wife’s father, no matter how estranged they were? He knew there was really no choice involved, and the reality of his predicament was becoming clearer every passing moment.

 

His mind continued to drift along the white-hot pain he felt throughout his body. He would probably die here. He tried to draw in a complete breath but the effort felt much like knives lancing his entire upper body. Yes, he would die.

 

Finally Ezra tried to raise himself enough to shift his hips so he could roll the tops of his feet into a more comfortable position. The move proved to be one of the most painful he’d ever made… it also proved to be one of the most fortunate. With one last sharp breath, his body seized and his mind fell into the blessed darkness he’d longed for.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“Do you think this’ll work?” JD asked as he shouldered his way into the coat Buck had just taken off Hank.

 

“I don’t know kid, but when you hear Chris offer to make a trade for Ezra you get ready to move. Vin’s already gone to take out the goon watching the back of the saloon, so you should be able to get to Hank’s horse without any trouble. You ride out to the end of town, let them get a quick look at ya and then make out like you’re Hank tryin’ to get away. Then you circle around and high tail it back here.” Buck answered. He settled Hank’s hat on JD’s head and looked him straight in the eyes. “You sure you wanna do this? Vin or I could...”

 

“I can do this, Buck, quit worrying. I’m just goin’ for a little afternoon ride, nothin’ to it.” JD grinned convincingly.

 

“I know you can ride that horse of yours pretty well, but this ain’t your animal. Keep that in mind.”

 

“I’ll handle ‘im.”

 

“Make sure he doesn’t handle you, ya got it?”

 

JD nodded, a serious look replacing the grin. “I won’t mess this up. We gotta save Ezra.”

 

Buck patted his approval on the young man’s arm. Then he looked at Hank as the old man sat at a table in the far corner of the room, staring contentedly at the knotted handkerchief in his hands.

 

“Buck,” Nathan called from the window overlooking the street. “We need to get on with this plan of yours.”

 

Wilmington moved alongside Jackson and looked out at Ezra. “What’s happening?”

 

“The old lady was out there messin’ with him, talking to him I think, and suddenly he stopped movin’. He was at least jerking and shakin’ before, but he ain’t moved at all in the last minute or two. If he keeps hangin’ on that shoulder like he is, he’ll do permanent damage. Not to mention he won’t be able to breathe.”

 

Buck stared at the gambler and understood what Nathan was saying; there was an eerie stillness to their friend’s body. They had to move now. He turned quickly to Chris. “You’re gonna be the most vulnerable, walking out there like you’ve got good sense.”

 

The gunfighter shot Buck a hard look that clearly stated he was doing exactly that. “Ezra’s in this because of me. I ain’t lettin’ him die like that.”

 

Vin entered the room from the back of the saloon. “We were right; they only had one lookout in back. He won’t be botherin’ us again. It should be safe for JD to make his ride.”

 

“Good. Chris you’re gonna distract them with talk of tradin’ Hank. When JD comes in sight at the end of the street, get your head down and wait for him to draw them out. Josiah, you and Nathan lay down cover for Chris and Ezra in case the Nichols try to take ‘em out before they go after JD. Hopefully, he’ll be too big a temptation to pass up and you’ll be able to pick a couple of ‘em off.”

 

Vin stepped forward. “The lookout for the back of the saloon was also watchin’ that coach of theirs. I went ahead and harnessed the horses. I’ll hide myself between them and guide that thing close enough to Ezra to grab him. We can go now if you’re ready, Buck.”

 

“I reckon I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Chris remember, don’t go playin’ hero. Let me and Vin get to you with that wagon of theirs before you try to cut Ezra down. Once we’re inside that thing we can go after the Nichols gang with everything we’ve got.”

 

Larabee nodded and walked to where Connelly sat. He touched him on the shoulder and squatted down in front of him. “Hank, things are going to get pretty lively around here in a minute. I want you to stay here in the saloon.”

 

Soft blue eyes looked up from the cloth in his hand.

 

“Do you understand, Hank? I want you to stay here.”

 

Hank smiled. “No problems, Chris Larabee. No problems at all.” Then he returned to his busywork.

 

Chris shook his head before he looked back at his men. “Let’s do it.”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The peaceful blackness that had swallowed him only moments before deserted him, and what had been a cool emptiness, void of hurt, slowly mutated around him into a place of searing heat and agonizing pain. Something had snatched him away from his retreat with great urgency and brutality. When he felt the fingers of his tormentor’s lash reach again for the tender skin of his lower belly, he knew how and who. When he heard the raging words beside him, he knew why.

 

“Wake up, gambler, who said you could sleep? We need you awake.” Peter Nichols snarled as he wiped the tendrils of the bloody whip with a large napkin he’d taken from the hotel dining room.

 

“N-not… s-sleep,” Ezra said with a slur.

 

“Ah, I see you’ve recovered enough to speak. Good, you need to be awake when your friend Larabee realizes he has no choice but to trade Connelly for you.”

 

The Southerner tried desperately to lift his chin from his chest, but only managed long enough to mutter, “W-won’t trade… for me.”

 

“You better pray he does.”

 

“Can’t…”

 

When Peter saw the bound man was again flagging, he used the handle of his whip to prod him awake.  “I told you to wake up!”

Ezra hissed at the pain and drew upon every ounce of strength he possessed to force his head up to rest on one of his outstretched arms.  “Won’t… betray fam…”

 

“Well, looks to me like you’re wrong, gamblin’ man,” Nichols said with a dangerous edge to his voice, “because here he comes now.”

 

Ezra opened the eye that wasn’t swollen shut and sought the colorful serape he’d seen Chris put on earlier in the day; had it been today… no, yesterday? He’d hurt so long now he couldn’t remember. His blurry vision refused to clear, but still he tried to keep his eyelid raised.

 

Peter moved down onto the street in front of the hotel steps. “It won’t be long now and it’ll all be over… for Hank Connelly anyway. You and Larabee, well that’s a whole other thing. Ma always punishes those who interfere in family business.”

 

Some part of Ezra’s brain registered the threat offered by his captor. No matter what Chris did, the Nichols were planning to kill Hank, Chris and himself. And who knew if they would extend their wrath to the remaining lawmen or even the people of Four Corners.  It was all a trap and there appeared little he could do about it.

 

 

Part 5

 

Chris walked slowly into the middle of the dusty road separating the hotel and the saloon. He called out to Mrs. Nichols hoping to attract the attention of the whole Nichols clan. He needed to be the center of attention just long enough to have his men get into place and to be close enough to see if Ezra was still among the living. When he saw the battered Southerner raise his head of his own volition he breathed a small sigh of relief.

 

The Nichols matriarch heard the hail from the street and smiled. Barely holding her enthusiasm in check, she straightened her shoulders and strolled out the hotel entrance. She casually stepped in front of Ezra, taking out her white lace kerchief and using it to wipe at the blood running down his face and pooling around his collarbone. The gathering of blood was almost an act of ritual, a rite she was careful to perform, and in an instant the delicate white fabric was stained a deep crimson. She held the crumpled cloth reverently in her open hand and moved to stand next to Peter at the bottom of the hotel steps. “I carried a handkerchief exactly like this on the day my David was shot and killed. I held it to his wounds as I watched the life flow from him… I held him in my arms as he drew his last breath. I begged him that day not to die. I’ve begged no man since,” she said tightly, making sure Chris could clearly see the sodden lacey fabric. “Have you made your decision, Mr. Larabee?”

 

The gunfighter was admittedly taken aback by the vile gesture and wondered somewhere in the back of his mind if she and Hank weren’t both cast from the same mold. They were both grief-stricken, both seeking revenge and both using a piece of cloth to remind them of what they’d lost. The similarities were disturbing but pointless to think about since his focus needed to be on Ezra.

 

“Mr. Larabee, I’ve not come out here to bake in the sun. What have you come to say?”

 

Chris looked past her to see Ezra’s head fall onto his chest again.

 

“I’ll not be playin’ these games,” she snarled and grabbed the small whip from her son’s hand. When she turned to climb the steps, Chris knew he’d run out of time.

 

“No, wait! I’m here to make the trade,” he said quickly.

 

She froze on the bottom step and grinned. At last, she thought to herself. She turned and once more revealed the bloodstained handkerchief in her grasp. “No tricks, I warn you. I want Connelly out here in front of me. When I have him, you may have this worthless excuse for a man.” She motioned to Standish, who had grown very still.

 

“No tricks.”

 

“John,” she shouted to the son who stood inside the door behind her, “gather the family ‘round and be ready to take your brother’s killer.”

 

“Ma?”

 

“You heard me, John! We all have a stake in this murderer’s destruction.” She threw the whip she held to the ground, turned to the son at her side and reached inside his long black coat. She removed his gun and calmly placed it in his hand. “Peter, if you see them so much as…”

 

She never finished her sentence. Just as she was about to order the swift execution of their prisoner should the trade actually be a ruse, a loud commotion could be heard up the street. There on a horse rearing up for all to see, was the man she’d dreamt of destroying, Hank Connelly.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The atmosphere in the street between the hotel and the saloon quickly sparked with excitement. JD smashed the ill-fitting hat on his head, pulled back the reins of Hank’s horse and forced the animal to take a couple of steps on his hind legs. The horse actually took the pose with ease and JD hastily turned him into two spinning circles before he kicked him in the sides and rode out of sight.

 

The Nichols boys ran from the hotel building one after the other when they heard their mother screaming at the top of her lungs to go after Connelly and bring him back to her alive. They obeyed without question and scrambled to find their mounts, but when they reached their horses several shots were fired and bullets churned the dirt at their feet.

 

Seeing the group disperse, Chris made a play to disarm Peter. He barreled into him, knocked the young man to the ground and wrestled for his weapon. Just as he was about to pull it free, he heard a shot nearby and turned just in time to see Mrs. Nichols grab her arm and fall. A dull thud sounded between them and he saw Ezra’s Derringer fall to the ground, a glint of sunlight gleaming off its short barrel. She’d meant to shoot him in the back but Josiah had fired a shot to stop her.

 

“Ma, no!” shouted Peter, relinquishing his own gun and crawling to his mother’s side.

 

Chris nodded to Josiah, who was crouched down behind the crates stacked outside the saloon’s entrance. The preacher nodded back and began shouting. Chris couldn’t make out what he was saying, but assumed it had something to do with being ready for the Nichols’ coach. He glanced back at the old lady and her son and quickly got to his feet. Holding the gun he’d taken in one hand he reached for the knife hidden in his waistband with the other.

 

The echo of gunfire sounded again but Chris paid no attention to it and made his move towards Ezra. He couldn’t let anything distract him, he had to cut the gambler free and get him to safety. He gave thought to changing the plan to use the coach and simply rush Ezra inside the hotel, but the gambler was looking worse with each passing second and needed to be tended by Nathan as soon as possible. There was no time for detours.

 

The sound of boots skidding in the dirt made Chris glance over his shoulder. He briefly saw Peter Nichols bundle up his mother and pull her toward the alley. She resisted him for a moment as she reached down to pick something off the ground. He watched as she scooped up Ezra’s Derringer and tucked it into the folds of her dress before her son forced her from the street. Damn, he should’ve grabbed that deadly little thing when he had the chance.

 

He turned his attention to the task at hand, substituting the knife in his waistband with the gun he’d taken from Nichols. “Ezra,” he called as he stood in front of the hanging man. “Ezra, can you hear me?”

 

One bloodshot green eye opened to stare vacantly at Chris. It blinked then blinked again before a gravelly voice spoke. “Told… you. He won’t… trade… not for m-me.”

 

Chris patted the gambler on the cheek as he bent down and tried to force him to look him in the eye. “You in there?”

 

Ezra flinched before he mumbled something that sounded like “Good as dead.”

 

“You ain’t there yet, but we gotta get you down so we can catch our ride outta here.”

 

The gambler’s face might have pulled a frown had half of it not been so swollen. He was obviously trying to understand who was speaking to him and why, but the effort was costing him precious strength. Then, as if someone had whispered the answer into his ear, he knew, and that knowledge terrified him. “You can’t b-be here. Oh, God… w-what have I done?” He tried to look away, down at his shredded feet, up at his deadened hands, anywhere but the face of the man standing in front of him.

 

“Whoa now, hold still, I’m gonna cut you loose.” Chris stared at his fellow lawman long and hard and quickly realized he didn’t know how he was going to do that without causing him unspeakable pain.

 

“I must have t-told… I swear… I don’t remember…Get away, run,” he stuttered.

 

“As soon as I cut you down, just stand still.”

 

“C-can’t… can’t stand.”

 

“I know, don’t you worry about it, just try not to move,” Chris said, doing enough worrying for the both of them. If he cut Ezra’s good arm loose first that would put all his weight on the dislocated shoulder. If he cut his injured arm free first it would likely twist and drop to the point it would tear something inside and his friend would suffer permanent damage. Some choice, but he had to make it. He’d have to try his best to hold him upright, free his awkward limb and lower it in such a way he wouldn’t injure him further. He prayed he’d figure the last bit out once the arm was let loose.

 

“Don’t… Hank,” Ezra muttered.

 

Chris barely understood him. “Hank? Hank’s in the saloon. It’s alright.”

 

“N-no… Hank,” he said the name again, this time a little clearer.

 

Understanding Ezra’s confusion, Chris ground out words of encouragement as he worked to set him free. He had to take hold of the battered body somehow but couldn’t see a way to do it without hurting him. He gritted his teeth, slid a supporting arm around the tattered waist, and pulled the gambler against him. Ezra groaned pitifully as the open cuts on his chest and belly pressed against the rough weave of Chris’ serape.

 

The gunfighter ignored the whimper near his ear and reached the knife over his head to begin slicing through the rope knotted at Ezra’s wrist. Gunfire could still be heard all around them, but he paid it no mind as he cut smoothly and quickly. Just as the last filament of rope was about to snap, he turned and tucked the knife beneath his thumb and used his fingers to grab for the gambler’s wrist. Gently, carefully, despite the chaos around him, he eased the limp arm downward.

 

There hadn’t been any feeling in Ezra’s hands for a long time, but as his arm began to lower, an overwhelming rip of agony traveled its entire length and stabbed into his shoulder. Blinding pain tore a heart-wrenching cry from his dry throat. His body trembled and his vision blurred.

 

“Damn, I’m sorry,” Chris apologized, resting the damaged limb as best he could at Ezra’s side. He pulled the shaking body closer and raised a hand to the back of the lawman’s head. “Breathe, just breathe.”

 

Some part of the Southerner’s brain understood the instruction and directed his lungs to comply. It took only a few moments, but amidst the insanity storming around them, Chris feared if he gave the man any longer to recover they’d be shot down in the street.

 

“Ezra, we’ve got to make this quick.”

 

A weak nod against his shoulder told him it was time to cut the other limb free. He was about to reach up with the knife again when he felt the body he held stiffen. The shift was intentional, but he wasn’t sure how the gambler had managed it since his feet were unable to bear weight, one hand was still tied overhead and the other was completely immobile. Something was wrong; he sensed it through the one person who could literally watch his back. “Ezra?” he asked, making no sudden moves.

 

Standish swallowed painfully as his eyes peered over Chris’ shoulder. “H-Hank,” he whispered near Larabee’s ear.

 

“Hank?” He couldn’t for the life of him understand why Ezra was so concerned for Hank. Had the old man been caught or worse, shot, by the Nichols?

 

Ezra drew as deep a breath as he was able and pushed a warning past his lips. “He’ll… kill you… get away from me.”

 

“I’m not leaving…”

 

“Damn it, Chris… Hank…” a cough stole away whatever else he had to say.

 

“You,” someone called from the street. “Turn around you black hearted son-of-a-bitch.”

 

Shit! Had one of the Nichols managed to sneak past Josiah and Nathan? The gunfighter gripped his burden tighter before he turned to look over his shoulder. Nichols and his mother were nowhere to be seen, but there behind him stood his father-in-law, holding a gun and pointing it straight at him. “Hank, get down, what the hell are you doing out here?”

 

“I’m here to kill the man who murdered my family.”

 

“What?” Chris asked in disbelief.

 

“You killed my daughter, my grandson, you murdered them and you’re going to pay,” Hank answered, his blue eyes distant and haunted.

 

“Hank, listen to me, put the gun down.”

 

Ezra didn’t truly comprehend why Connelly would be looking to kill Chris but his mind understood the seriousness of the threat even if Chris didn’t. He was also aware the gunfighter was completely defenseless as long as he was trying to save him. He shifted again and spoke quietly to the gunfighter. “You have to… leave me. Get out of here.”

 

Chris turned back to look Ezra in his one good eye. He was clearly standing between two madmen.

 

Hank pulled back the hammer on the gun he held. “You’re gonna die by my hand, for Sarah and for Adam.”

 

“Listen, old man, I don’t have time for this. Put that damn gun down and get back to the saloon. Don’t you get it, there are people looking to kill you! Remember the Nichols?”

“Nichols?”

 

“Yes, you killed David Nichols, remember? You said he killed Sarah and Adam. His family is here and they mean to shoot you on sight. Now get back to the saloon.”

 

The gun in Connelly’s hand wavered as a dark fog began to build in his brain. “Here?”

 

Chris knew there was no reaching him now. He’d just have to pray they had time to get him into the coach and back to safety. As if on cue, he heard the large vehicle round the corner of the building and move in his direction. “Hank,” he shouted, “when you see Buck, go with him! You understand? Go with Buck!” He saw the old man nod and look away.

 

The gunfighter turned to finish cutting Ezra loose just as he heard the wagon come to a stop not fifteen feet away. The gambler kept watch as best he could but Chris’ sawing was causing a rocking motion that sickened him. Pain and nausea grew inside and he wanted nothing more than to simply drop to the ground and surrender to his body’s desire to give up, but a greater desire coming from deep inside his soul overtook him.

 

“Chris,” he choked out as dust from the coach filled his lungs. “L-look out.”

 

Larabee literally felt Ezra’s warning against his neck as the gambler’s haggard breath blew hot against him. In that moment, time slowed and he became acutely aware of everything happening at once.

 

A voice from behind shouted, “No, Hank, don’t!” It sounded like Buck, but he couldn’t be sure since the plea was issued as a scream.

 

The rope holding Ezra’s wrist overhead finally gave way and snapped against the sharp blade of his knife.

 

A second voice, he assumed was Vin’s, yelled, “Chris, get down!”

 

The weight of the body he held sagged momentarily then righted itself of its own accord. He tried to maneuver himself into a position to pick Ezra up and carry him to the coach, but the gambler came at him, clumsily swinging his body forward and clung to him.

 

A horrifying growl filled the air just before the sound of a single gunshot resonated on the porch of the hotel building.

 

Ezra jerked and his upper body arced away until Chris snatched him back. The movement cost the gunfighter his balance and the two men fell, one atop the other, onto the sidewalk. He grunted in pain when he felt one of his own ribs give when he landed, but shook off the discomfort and tried to see the face of the man who lay over him.

 

“Ezra?” he asked when he saw surprise and fear widen the gambler’s green eye. “What the hell are you doin’?”

 

Standish couldn’t answer before his eye slid closed and his head dropped onto Larabee’s shoulder.

 

Chris took the Southerner bodily into his arms and gently heaved him over onto his back. He looked the beaten body over and quickly discovered a new injury amongst the many, a hole nearly the size of a silver dollar gushing blood on Ezra’s right side.

 

“Aw, shit,” he said worriedly as he gathered himself and rose to his knees. Standish had been facing him when he was shot. If he had a large hole in his belly that meant the bullet had entered him from behind. He leaned over, slid a hand under the gambler’s neck and pulled him upright to rest his head against his chest. When Chris ran his palm down his back he found what he was looking for, a second hole in his lower right back. “Damn, Ezra, how the hell…”

“Chris!!” Vin shouted from the street.

 

He turned to see Tanner bending over Buck, who lay awkwardly on the ground clutching his head. He turned his sight a couple of inches further and saw why. Hank had evidently struck the tall cowboy with his gun and was pointing the weapon crazily at anything that moved. “Hank,” he called, “put the gun down.”

 

The gun swung wildly in search of a victim; it stopped when it found him.

 

“You’ve gotta die for what you did,” Connelly swore. “You left ‘em, you left ‘em to burn. You left my little girl and her child to die.”

 

Chris heaved a heavy sigh. He heard the agony in those words, recognized the rage, the torment. He’d blamed himself using those exact words since the day Sarah and Adam had died. But now the bitterness and hurt that grew in both he and Hank had turned to poison and innocent people around them were paying for their grief. He looked down at Ezra and knew there was little time to save him. He’d grown paler than before, if that was possible, and he had to be taken to Nathan now.

 

Still kneeling on the sidewalk, Chris reached beneath his serape and gripped the gun in his holster. Slowly he got to his feet, and keeping the weapon out of sight, called in a steady voice, “Hank, I want you to listen to me.”

 

Connelly eyed him warily.

 

“This is going to stop now before anyone else gets hurt.” He turned at the waist and motioned with his chin. “Vin, get Buck inside the coach.”

 

Tanner hesitated when he saw Hank shuffle his feet.

 

“Do it, Vin. Hank ain’t shootin’ nobody.”

 

The tracker gathered Buck up and moved him cautiously into the black coach. The tall man groaned and shook his head as he leaned back against one of the seats. Vin stayed half in half out of the doorway and waited, his mare’s leg at the ready.

 

Hank’s eyes grew fierce and it seemed he would fire his gun from trembling as much as through intent. “It’s come down to just you and me, Chris Larabee, just as it’s always been. You ran off then and left her to die, and me, I wasn’t there to protect her.”

 

“I didn’t run off and leave her, Hank. I was coming back, I did come back.”

 

“Not soon enough!”

 

“No, not soon enough, but there was no way to know what was going to happen. I had no way of knowin’.”

 

“That don’t excuse you!”

 

“I know that! No one knows that better than me! But we’ve gotta stop doin’ this before anyone else gets killed. We can’t keep blaming each other!”

 

Connelly raised a sleeve to wipe at his face then gripped his gun in both hands. “I got no one else to blame,” he stated sadly.

 

When Chris saw Hank’s finger begin to pull back on the trigger, he dropped instantly to his knees at the same time bringing his own gun forward. Unbelievably, the first shot that sounded didn’t come from Hank’s gun or Chris’, but rather from somewhere alongside the hotel. Peter Nichol’s stepped into view, closely followed by his mother. Larabee had just enough time to spot a newly acquired weapon in his hand as Hank jerked and fell to the ground. He reacted instinctively and turned to fire on the man who was now aiming at him. Nichol’s grabbed at his leg and staggered back into his mother. She collapsed beneath him and wailed in surprise.

 

Vin heard voices coming in their direction. “Chris, come on, we gotta get outta here now.” When he saw the gunfighter move he climbed on top of the rig and grabbed the reins.

 

Larabee bent down on one knee and carefully gathered Ezra against him. The man hadn’t made a sound since he’d been shot and the silence scared the hell out of him. Not knowing if he was dead or alive, he quickly hefted him in his arms and ran to where Buck was leaning out the door of the coach. Together they maneuvered the limp body inside and the ladies man gently leaned Ezra back against Chris as he felt the rig jump forward. The door swung closed from the motion and they both heard the lock catch.

 

Buck sat on the floor next to his friends and battled the swaying movement of the coach. When he saw the gambler’s head roll against Chris’ chest he put out a hand to keep it still. “Did we get to him in time?” he asked anxiously.

 

Chris didn’t answer. He simply pulled Ezra closer, closed his eyes and prayed.

 

 

Part 6

 

The armored coach bounced hard as Vin turned the corner leading to Nathan’s clinic and he earned yet another curse from Buck as the lanky cowboy grabbed for something, anything, to hold on to. He’d tried to steady Ezra against Chris, but the sagging body shifted again and sent an elbow into the gunfighter. A grunt of pain and a whoosh of air preceded a grimace on Chris’ face.

 

“You okay, pard?” Buck asked as he seized Ezra’s dislocated limb and stabilized it despite the rough ride.

 

Chris nodded and pushed a hand against his side.

 

“You sure?”

 

“Yeah, hurt a rib when we fell, it’s nothing.” He straightened as best he could and pulled the dead weight of Ezra’s body to him. Once he’d situated himself, he looked down at the large exit wound in the gambler’s belly and put a hand over it to stem the flow of blood.

 

Buck noticed Chris’ awkward attempt to prevent further blood loss and quickly reprimanded himself for not acting sooner. He reached across the seat alongside his friend, grabbed a soft blanket and began tearing it into large pieces. Rolling a portion of the cloth into a tight bundle, he pushed Chris’ bloody fingers aside and pressed it firmly against the open hole in Ezra’s stomach. “I still can’t believe old Hank was gonna shoot you,” he said.

 

Chris didn’t say a word as he reached for another piece of the blanket and crumpled it into a second patch. He waited for Buck to raise Ezra up then pressed the bundle hard against the bullet wound in the Southerner’s back. Once the two holes were covered, Buck tied the wadded material in place by wrapping a longer strip of the cloth around his waist. The entire procedure took less than a minute, but the effort seemed to sap every last bit of Chris’ strength. He leaned back against the side of the coach and rested his head on its metal surface.

 

“You sure you’re all right, pard?”

 

Chris closed his eyes and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

 

“I’m sorry ‘bout Hank.”

 

“Yeah, Buck, me too,” he finally answered.

 

Wilmington shook his head as he busied himself steadying Ezra’s injured arm, but he couldn’t stop thinking of Hank. The old man’s mind couldn’t make sense of the pain in his heart so they both broke under the strain. He’d seen the same thing nearly happen to Chris and he was more grateful than ever his friend was made of stronger stuff.

 

Ezra groaned and rolled his head against the gunfighter’s shoulder. Chris never opened his eyes as he reached up and gently stilled the insensible tossing.

 

“Damn,” Buck muttered. “How the hell could any God-fearing person do this to someone?”

 

Nothing else was said until Vin called to the horses and the vehicle slowed down. Seconds later, they came to a stop and the door was opened.

 

“It’s all clear, let’s get him to Nathan,” Tanner said calmly.

 

Buck and Chris were already standing, holding Ezra between them. Vin held the door as Buck stepped backwards out of the coach, and waited to take the gambler’s torso from Chris as he leaned over to lower him down. Ezra’s body was so limp it reminded him of a child’s rag doll and was so awkward to hold he feared his friend would spill away from him onto the dusty ground. He adjusted his grip and waited for Buck to do the same as the tall cowboy hooked his arms gently around Ezra’s knees. Together they moved to ascend the stairs, careful not to jostle the slumped body if they could avoid it.

 

Chris climbed down from the rig and took a moment to catch his breath. He felt completely drained as he ran an unsteady hand through his blond hair. When he tried to rub at the back of his neck, he realized his fingers were numb. What the devil? He spread them in front of his face and stared; they were all there, coated in blood, yet the feeling in them was gone. He curled them to his palms and looked after the man whose blood he carried. Damn, Ezra, he thought, his mind searching for the ‘why’ of all that had happened. When the ‘why’ didn’t come, he squeezed his hands into fists and settled simply for Damn.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan had been able to make it back to his clinic just minutes before he heard the heavy Nichols rig pull up outside. He cleared the table he used to examine his patients and gathered what he knew he’d need to treat Ezra’s wounds. Once he’d pulled back the curtains and lit a couple of lanterns for extra light he went to the door to guide Buck and Vin inside. Without instruction, they carried the Southerner to the table and gently laid him on his side. Nathan began immediately cutting away the blood soaked remainder of his clothing, which took only a minute since all he’d been left was his trousers, and laid a sheet smoothly over his lower body. He fingered the homemade bandage around his waist and gave a questioning glance to the tracker standing opposite him at the table.

 

“He was shot,” Vin answered.

 

Shaking his head in disbelief, the healer went to work.

 

“What do you need me to do?” Tanner asked anxiously. 

 

Jackson reached down to take Ezra’s head in his hands. He brushed at the sweat-matted hair as he carefully touched the eye that had swollen shut and the large bruises that had blossomed across his face. He pinched at an open cut on one cheekbone before he spoke. “I’m gonna need a lot of clean hot water, fast. There’s a bucket of water in the back, get it boiling then try to get me more. I need to clean the blood off him so I can see the damage. I’m also gonna need your help handling him.”

 

Vin nodded and left the room, grateful to have something to do.

 

Nathan patted at the gambler’s cheek. “Ezra, can you hear me?” To his surprise Standish’s eyelid flickered open. Then it closed again. When he felt something bump his leg he looked down the length of Ezra’s body to see fingers flexing. He put his hand over the fingers and squeezed. “It’s alright, I see you. Just hang on and let me get a good look at you.”

 

The fingers twitched again.

 

Nathan looked over his shoulder at Buck, who stood quietly staring. “Well, he’s still with us.”

 

Chris walked inside the clinic just in time to hear the healer’s announcement.

 

“Where ya been, partner?” Buck asked, eyeing Chris closely as he moved slowly across the room to stand beside Ezra.

 

The gunfighter leaned against the table and stared down at the gambler’s unmoving form. “I was just making sure the Nichols didn’t follow us.”

 

“Any sign of them?”

 

“Not so far, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of them yet,” he answered before he turned his attention. “Nathan?”

 

“He’s awake, just too worn out to talk.”

 

“Where do we start, to fix him I mean?” Buck asked as he moved alongside Chris.

 

Fix him, Nathan wondered. Yeah, he supposed that’s how you’d have to look at someone with so many wounds you were spoiled for choice. He wiped a dark hand across his face. “We need to set that shoulder of his first then we’ll treat the bullet wound. After that, these cuts made by that damned whip need to be cleaned out, then his feet.”

 

Chris raised Ezra’s right hand from the table. “His wrists are a mess too. That rope did its share of damage.”

 

“How’s he gonna stand all that?” Buck asked.

 

“Once I’ve had a look at him I can probably give him laudanum, but honestly I’m hopin’ he’ll be passed out before then.”

 

“That’s a hell of a thing to hope for.”

 

Nathan nodded his agreement and carefully reached for Ezra’s left wrist and elbow. “Let’s get it done. I need to put his shoulder back in place before he tries to move around. Buck, I’m gonna need you to hold ‘im for me.”

 

The large man leaned over the gambler and held him securely between himself and the table. When Nathan manipulated the arm with a twist and a jerk a heartrending scream was torn from Ezra’s raw throat. He bucked beneath the man who held him and tried to scramble off the table. Chris caught hold of his legs and pinned them down as Nathan gently folded the injured arm against his chest and began softly calling his name.

 

Over and over, Nathan called.

 

Over and over, Ezra didn’t hear him as he coughed and choked on the bile rising in his throat. The pain ran through him in waves and seemed it would never end until at long last the torrent slowed and he was left gasping, reeling with a hard ache that filled his entire upper body. Then, and only then, did he hear the voice of Nathan Jackson, promising him the pain would be better soon, swearing he would be all right. Strange, he’d never thought of Nathan as a liar before.

 

Buck and Chris both felt the fight leave Ezra’s body as tightened muscles began to surrender to tremors of exhaustion. Wilmington straightened with a reassuring touch to the side of the gambler’s head. Chris tried to straighten as well, but flinched when a spasm caught him unaware. His hand shot beneath the serape he wore and pushed at the hurt in his side.

 

“Chris?” the ladies man called.

 

Larabee, realizing he’d drawn attention to himself, quickly stepped around the table and moved towards the door.

 

“Chris?”

 

“Not now, Buck,” he warned.

 

Vin came into the room from the back carrying a large metal pan of boiling water. “Where do ya want it, Nathan?”

 

Jackson looked from Chris and Buck back to his patient. “Here on the stand next to me.”

 

Vin left the water and looked down at Ezra. “I heard him yellin’; you set his arm?”

 

“Yeah, it was twisted up pretty bad. I’m gonna need to tie it in place, but I’ve gotta tend all those cuts on him first; looks like several of ‘em are gonna need stitches.”

 

“Nate, he hung on that shoulder a long time. You reckon he’s gonna be able to use that arm after what they done to him?”

 

“I don’t know, Vin. I can’t know how bad it’s hurt ‘til he wakes up. But he dislocated the same shoulder before and it healed up just fine. There’s a chance it will again.”

 

“Yeah, but he wasn’t hung and whipped before.”

 

“I know. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Jackson said and went back to washing his patient.

 

Tanner turned to see Buck staring at Chris as Chris stared at the floor. “Somethin’ goin’ on?” he asked anyone who cared to answer.

 

Chris raised his head and moved back to sit on the dresser near the door. “Just wonderin’ where JD and Josiah are.”

 

“Probably roundin’ up the last of the Nichols family.”

 

“Any idea how many of ‘em went down?” Buck asked, nearly staring a hole through the gunfighter.

 

“Peter Nichols is wounded, I got him in the leg,” Chris said. “Josiah winged the old lady, but it didn’t look too serious.”

 

“I took out the one at the livery when I swiped the coach. He’s down for good,” Vin added.

 

“I got one of ‘em in the street, and I’m pretty sure Josiah shot one outside the saloon,” Nathan said as he worked to clean and dress the large holes in Ezra’s stomach and back.

 

“That’s three dead and four alive,” Vin said, “plus the old woman.”

 

Chris stood and walked to the window. “We need to get that rig outta sight and hide the horses. That family has a twisted sense of justice and they’re probably still looking for Ezra.”

 

“And you,” Buck pointed out.

 

“Yeah, and with three of ‘em dead, the ones left are liable to be a whole lot meaner,” Vin stated.

 

“I’ll take care of the coach,” said Chris, reaching for the door.

 

“Like hell you will.” Wilmington moved abruptly and bumped the hand from the doorknob.

 

Chris stumbled back, looking at his friend as if he’d lost his mind.

 

“You’re the first man on their list of folks to kill. I’ll take care of that armored wagon down there, you just stay here.”

 

A look passed over Larabee’s face that lay somewhere between anger and worry. There was also an instant of pain, but it passed so quickly Buck thought he might have imagined it.

 

“I’ll be back soon. Just keep an eye out,” he said in a softer voice, “and look after Ezra.”

 

Chris looked at the gambler and suddenly felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He paled and secretly wished his hands would stop shaking. He tucked them out of sight, took a long deep breath, and frowned at Buck. “Alright, go, just watch your back.”

 

Buck smiled, walked out the door and shut it. Once he was at the bottom of the stairs, he leaned on the building and shook his head. He hadn’t missed any of the things Chris had tried to hide — the flashes of guilt and pain, the haggard look on his face and the tremors that visibly ran through his body. He was in shock and had every right to be. Ezra had been tortured, Hank had been killed, and all those memories of Sarah and Adam had been mercilessly dredged up to remind him of his past. It all sickened Buck to the point he’d personally like to go find a nice quiet place and puke his guts out, but Chris, he was trying to keep it together, remain in control. Buck doubted he could do it, but he couldn’t help admire him for trying.

 

 

PARTS 7-12 / PARTS 13-17 / PARTS 18-22 / PARTS 23-28 / PARTS 29-33 / PART 34

 

HOME / ARCHIVE

 

Feedback is always appreciated. Click this link to email author.

 

 

Jordan McKenzie 2009