Photo Callenge Reference: Sabbatical by ssinco- Magnificent Seven Fan Fic

Written for Jordan’s Gamblers and Gunfighters Facebook 'Photo Inspiration' Fanfic Challenge:  "A picture is worth a thousand words," and that's one of the rules for this challenge. Using one or more of the amazing images shared by group members on the Facebook Group GAMBLERS AND GUNFIGHTERS, write a fic at least 1000 words long, featuring one or more of the Seven, using any fanfic universe as your platform.


SABBATICAL

By ssinco

Part 1:

A bullet slammed into the front of the mercantile building, just around the corner from where Vin Tanner climbed the ladder to the roof.  He advanced more slowly than usual; his left leg still healing from a bullet wound received eight days earlier. 

The bank was being robbed, but the town’s peacekeepers, often referred to as the Magnificent Seven, were ready. 

After receiving a telegram from Circuit Judge Orrin Travis saying there had been bank hold-ups in surrounding towns, they had taken up extra patrols and placed a man in the bank and one across the street at all times during business hours.  The patrols and guards alternated between all of the men except Ezra Standish, whose broken left forearm prevented him from fighting or riding a horse.

Today it was Tanner who had been on street watch, and as soon as he heard shots fired in the bank, Vin yelled to the other men in the saloon and headed for his perch high above the town. 

The bank guard at the time was Buck Wilmington, and he had stepped out of the shadows by the bank vault and put a bullet into the robber who was holding the teller at gunpoint.  This frightened the two accomplices enough that they immediately turned and ran out the door into the street.  Their retreat stopped suddenly when they heard Chris Larabee’s voice say, “hold it right there.”

The two men looked back and forth at each other, as if debating what to do, but in the end did as the man-in-black asked.  Josiah Sanchez proceeded to arrest the thieves and escort them to the jail.  The first robber, who was shot by Wilmington, was bandaged up by healer Nathan Jackson and taken to the jail soon afterwards.

“Nice job, Buck,” Chris said as he patted his long-time friend on the shoulder.

“All in a day’s work,” smiled the tall ladies’ man. 

Chris headed over to the telegraph office to wire Judge Travis about the capture of the bank robbers.  He knew the judge would be pleased, as would the surrounding towns that had not yet been held-up.  Once Larabee had scribed his own message, the operator asked Chris to deliver a telegram that had arrived a few minutes ago for Mr. Standish.

Chris hoped that the telegram was from Ezra’s mother, Maude.  Larabee and the others finally talked Ezra into sending a wire to San Francisco to inquire about her whereabouts.  It had been over six months since the southerner had heard from her, and while not unusual for Maude, the peacekeepers knew that it worried their friend. 

Chris winced as the batwing doors flew into him.  The seven’s youngest member, JD Dunne, was apparently late in relieving Josiah over at the jail, and Chris’ sore side and shoulder did not appreciate the jolt.  The group’s leader had cracked a couple of ribs when he had been caught in an avalanche; the same one responsible for Ezra’s broken arm.  Larabee had also been shot in the shoulder by the fellow who put a hole in Vin’s leg. 

Chris allowed his eyes to adjust to the dark interior of the saloon, and then proceeded to the bar where Ezra stood.  “Got a wire for ya,” he handed Standish the folded piece of paper.

“Thank you, sir,” replied the gambler, who was well-dressed in a white shirt and vest despite the sling on his left arm. 

Chris wanted to watch Ezra’s reaction to the telegram but headed over to Vin and Buck’s table instead. 

Ezra tried his best to look casual, almost disinterested, but his heart pounded as he opened the note.

Still in San Francisco.  STOP.  Things are going well.  STOP.  The climate and scenery are spectacular.  STOP.  You should come visit.  STOP.  Maude.  STOP.

Ezra released the breath he had been holding, and Chris, Vin, and Buck turned in his direction.

“You’ll be happy to know that the telegram was from Mother,” Ezra began.  “She still resides in San Francisco and is thriving.”

“That’s good, Ez,” said Vin.

“Yeah, glad to hear it,” Chris followed up.

“You know, I was thinking……..since I am currently unable to perform my duties here in town, maybe I should take a leave of absence,” Ezra looked at the three men to gauge their response.

“A leave of absence?” questioned Buck.

“Yes, a few weeks of rest and recovery time,” replied Ezra.  “I am thinking of going to visit Mother in San Francisco.”

“That’s not a bad idea, Ezra,” answered Chris.

“Yeah, sounds like a fine idea to me,” Vin concurred.

“Well, gentlemen,” the conman smiled.  “I believe I will dispatch a wire to Mother to say I will indeed accept her offer for a visitation.”

 Nathan passed Ezra on the way into the saloon and sat down at the table with Chris, Vin, and Buck.

“What’s got Ezra in such a hurry?” Nathan asked.

“He found out Maude’s in San Francisco, and he’s planning on goin’ out to visit her,” Buck responded.

“Well, I can’t disagree that Ezra could use a break,” said Nathan.  “His arm still needs at least another month to fully heal.”  The healer paused, but the others could tell he clearly had more to say on the matter.  “Vin, Chris, why don’t you two go with him….see the sights of San Francisco?”

Chris’ green eyes grew huge, and he looked at Nathan as if to convey, “have you lost your mind?”

“Come on Chris, you can’t deny that you and Vin still ain’t a hundred percent.  I saw Vin tryin’ to get up that ladder this mornin,’ and I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if one of those bank robbers would have decided to fight you or pull his gun,” Nathan stared right back at the blond gunslinger.

“You think Ezra’ll get in trouble if he goes by himself?” countered Larabee.

“He does only have one arm to defend himself, and you damn-well know that he’ll find a way to anger someone between here and San Francisco,” Nathan begrudgingly admitted.  He and the gambler didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but the healer found himself liking, and worrying about, the southerner despite his best efforts to the contrary. 

Vin understood what Jackson was saying but firmly insisted, “Nathan, I got no int’rest in ridin’ a train all the way to San Francisco.”

“Ezra didn’t exactly invite any of us along anyway,” Chris pointed out.

“He’s supposed to stop by the clinic later on for me to check his arm, so maybe I’ll bring it up then,” Nathan then proceeded to order lunch from Inez.

“That sounds good; I think I’ll have a plate of enchiladas too,” Buck blinked his dark blue eyes flirtingly at Inez.  “How about you boys?” Buck questioned to Vin and Chris, “you eat yet?” 

“Nope, so please make that three orders, Inez,” Vin yelled out as the dark-haired, Mexican beauty was heading back towards the kitchen.  She walked back a little closer and questioned, “Señor Chris?”

“Nah, thanks Inez; gonna go check on things over at the jail,” Chris rose from the table and made his way out into the street.

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Chris entered the jail to find the three prisoners complaining about their own meal.

“If ya don’t wanna eat it, that’s just fine,” smiled JD, “but that’s all your gettin’.  Geesh, what a bunch of babies,” he said to Josiah then noticed Larabee standing just inside the door.  “Oh, hi Chris.”

“How’s it goin,’ JD?” Chris asked.

“Fine.  These boys are just a little nervous about their up-comin’ trial I think,” JD laughed.

“Josiah, what did you think of San Francisco?” Chris asked.  The question took the preacher by surprise.

“You’re not thinkin’ about leavin’ us now, are you Chris?” Josiah smiled.

“Nah, Ezra’s goin’ out there to visit his mother.”

“Maude’s in San Francisco, huh?  Maybe I should accompany Ezra and try my hand at her heart again?” Josiah said and JD rolled his eyes.

“Josiah, don’t ya know by now that woman is only interested in rich men,” JD shook his head.

“Maybe you should, Josiah.  Nathan’s wantin’ somebody to accompany Ezra……to make sure he don’t get into any trouble,” Chris explained.

“I somehow don’t think Brother Ezra would agree to me as a chaperone,” Josiah grinned and continued.  “I only lived in San Francisco for about a year, and most of that time I was so smitten with Emma Dubonnet that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else.  After I finished my studies, I never went back.  Plenty of capable preachers in that town; they didn’t need me.  You thinkin’ about goin’ with Ezra?”

“Not really…..just never been,” Chris answered.  “Think Nate was hopin’ Vin and I would go.”

“Oh, I see, Brother Nathan didn’t like what he witnessed this mornin’,” smiled Josiah.

“Why, I thought this mornin’ went great,” JD interjected.  “These idiots surrendered first thing.”

“True, but we didn’t know that things were going to be that easy, and Nathan didn’t like our injured brothers steppin’ in like they did,” Josiah presumed.

“OK, so why don’t you and Vin go with Ezra, Chris?” JD turned his hazel gaze towards Larabee and asked.  “It sounds like fun to me.”

“You wanna go, JD?” Chris raised a blond eyebrow.

“There’s no way Buck would let me go to a big city like San Francisco without him,” smiled JD.  “He’d be too jealous of all the women I’d see out there.”

Larabee smiled, shook his head and said, “JD, why don’t you and Josiah go get somethin’ to eat?  I’ll watch these boys for a while.”

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A few hours later, Nathan looked up from his desk in the clinic to see Ezra standing in the doorway. 

“Is this a good time, Mr. Jackson?” asked the gambler.

“Sure, Ezra, come on in and have a seat,” answered Nathan.  “Heard you was plannin’ a trip to San Francisco?”  Nathan continued the conversation while he examined Ezra’s healing left forearm.  The swelling had gone down, and the injury wasn’t quite as tender.  It was still going to be another five or six weeks before the splint could be removed though.

“That I am,” replied Ezra.  “Mother has invited me to come visit her there.”

“You thinkin’ about takin’ anybody with ya?” questioned the healer as casually as he could.

“That had not crossed my mind, no,” answered Standish honestly.

“Was just thinkin’ that none of us ‘sides Josiah has ever been to the west coast,” remarked Nathan.

“That is true,” the green-eyed man replied somewhat questionably.  He wasn’t sure where Nathan was going with this.

“Alright, Ezra,” subtlety was not one of Nathan’s strong points.  “I was hopin’ you could talk Chris and Vin into goin’ with you.  If those two stay around here, they’re just gonna get themselves hurt again or at the very least not let themselves heal properly.  You saw ‘em this mornin’.”

“I see.  You wish for me to invite them on my trip to San Francisco as a means of forced rest and relaxation?”  Nathan shook his head, “yes,” as Ezra continued.  “No offense to Misters Larabee and Tanner, but those two would be the worst possible companions.  Mr. Tanner would go crazy in the confined spaces of the stagecoach and train, and I can’t imagine our resident tracker on the busy streets of San Francisco.  Has he ever even been to a large city?  And Mr. Larabee…….well, he would undoubtedly stir up trouble for all of us, and then blame it on yours truly.”

Nathan laughed; it really was a crazy idea.  “I can’t argue with any of that, Ezra.  I just want to find a way to make sure Chris and Vin miss our next assignment or two.  They’re never gonna let us leave ‘em out if they’re in town.”

“What makes you think that any predicaments will befall our little hamlet over the next few weeks?” Standish questioned the dark-skinned man.

“I don’t know that there will be, but the business of trouble always seems to pick up this time of year.”  Nathan replaced Ezra’s sling and told him, “you’re good to go.  I’d say one more week with the sling then you can take it off.  The splint should be enough to let it finish healin’ over the last few weeks.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Jackson.  How much do I owe you for today’s visit?”

“You don’t owe me nothin’, Ezra.  Just think about what I said.”

Ezra nodded his head and walked out the door.

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Vin exited the saloon and let his blue eyes adjust to the bright sunlight.  He noticed Ezra coming down the steps from Nathan’s clinic and waited for him on the boardwalk. 

“How’s the arm doing, Ezra?” Vin inquired.

“According to Mr. Jackson, my arm is healing quite nicely,” replied Ezra.  “Thank you, Mr. Tanner.  How is your leg these days?”

“Still a might sore if I walk long distances, but it’s doin’ better,” Vin answered.  “So when are ya headin’ to San Francisco?”

“Day after tomorrow.  I’ll catch the stage here in town, and then board a train at the first station……a few hours west of here,” Ezra explained.  

“Well, I hope you have a nice time,” said the lean Texan, and he turned to head back to his wagon.

“Would you be interested in accompanying me on this journey?” Ezra couldn’t believe what he was saying.  “Mother says San Francisco is a beautiful place.”

Vin turned back around and asked, “did Nathan tell you to ask me that?”

“Why no, Mr. Tanner.  I just thought you might like to broaden your horizons a bit,” fibbed Ezra.  “Although, I’m guessing an extra week or two to recover from your bullet wound couldn’t hurt either.”

“Ya really WANT me to go along, Ezra?” the younger man looked the gambler right in the eye.

“Of course; why else would I ask?” Ezra said then thought to himself, “oh, what have I done?”  He could tell from the look in the tracker’s eyes that Tanner was actually considering this. 

Vin thought back on this morning when he was struggling to climb up on the roof.  Ezra and Nathan were right; he wasn’t fully recovered yet.  If those robbers had turned and fired on Chris, he wouldn’t have been at his post on the roof in time to help. 

Chris was relieved at the jail by Buck and walked out into the street just in time to hear Vin say, “alright Ezra, I’ll go with ya to San Francisco.”

“What the hell?” thought Chris to himself, but he played dumb and said, “what are you boys talkin’ about?”

“Apparently, Mr. Tanner and I will be traveling companions to San Francisco day after tomorrow,” Ezra tried to gauge Larabee’s reaction when he said it.

Chris was dumbfounded by the news and immediately felt torn.  He didn’t want to leave town for that long, but Larabee knew he couldn’t let his two injured friends go off by themselves either.  Nathan grouped him into the same “unfit for duty” category, but Larabee was confident he could shoot, fight, run, or whatever a situation required him to do.  The bullet wound was in his left shoulder, so it didn’t affect his shooting arm.  His cracked ribs were painful at times, hell any time he was breathing, but it wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t defend himself, the town, or one of his men. 

As Larabee was deep in thought about what to say next, Vin said, “you should come with us, Chris.  You could scare away some ocean life with that glare of yours.”

Chris rolled his eyes at Vin and turned to Ezra, “what about you Ezra?  Haven’t you had enough of traveling with me lately?”

“The more the merrier, Mr. Larabee….as long as you promise to pack some extra clothes for Mr. Tanner from your wardrobe.  He can’t go dressed like a savage to dinner in Frisco.  At least I know you own a few nice shirts, vests, and darkly-colored trousers,” Ezra turned his gaze back to Vin.

“Hey now, nobody said nothin’ about havin’ to dress up or squeeze my boys into a pair of Chris’ tight pants,” teased the long-haired Texan. 

“Fair enough, Mr. Tanner.  Maybe we can purchase you a new outfit once we arrive in San Francisco.  So, can we expect your company on our journey, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra questioned.

“I’ll think on it tonight and let you know in the morning,” Chris responded and headed back to the saloon to do some drinking and some pondering.

Chapter 2:

Vin was awake at his usual early hour.  He stepped out into the cold morning air and stretched his sore limbs and back.  “Maybe I really am gettin’ too old for this,” he thought.

As he performed his customary scan of the town, he didn’t notice anything amiss….in fact, there wasn’t a soul stirring, except himself and a man sitting on a bench outside the jail drinking a cup of coffee:  Larabee.

As the lanky tracker limped across the street, he was hoping that Chris had decided to go along with him and Ezra to San Francisco.  Vin had no doubt that he and Standish could handle themselves just fine, but there was always something reassuring about having Larabee along. 

“Mornin’ Chris,” drawled Vin in his hoarse, morning voice.

“Figured you’d be up and along soon,” Chris replied.  “There’s coffee made inside the jail.”

Vin helped himself to the strong brew, then returned and plopped down beside Larabee.  The two men sat in silence for a good 15 minutes, as the sun grew along the horizon. 

“Well…have ya decided yet?” Vin finally broke the stillness.  He turned his bright blue eyes to look to his right and his quiet companion.

“Talked to the boys last night in the saloon, and I’m sure you can guess what their opinion was – especially Nathan’s,” Chris paused to take another sip of coffee.  “So, yeah….I reckon you, me, and Ezra are goin’ on a vacation.”

Vin couldn’t help but smile.

“I told Buck that he would be in charge of the town, and JD’s goin’ to coordinate the bank robbers’ trial with the Judge,” Chris cleared his throat and looked to his left.  “Are you truly lookin’ forward to this, Vin?”

“Ah hell, Chris, I don’t know,” Vin answered honestly.  “I think it’ll be good for us, and it’ll certainly be good for Ezra.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Chris looked around at the empty streets.  “I just hope there’s no trouble while we’re gone.”

“Buck, Josiah, Nathan, and JD can handle it,” Vin said quietly, “probably better than you and I could right now anyway.”  

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The next morning found six of the seven men standing outside waiting for the stagecoach to arrive.  Ezra had two bags, to Vin and Chris’ one, but he only had one good arm so JD had made the extra trip up to Ezra’s room to fetch the additional luggage. 

Mary Travis, the blonde widow and owner of the town newspaper, had provided sandwiches for the trip, and the men thanked her graciously. 

Nathan had packed a small medical kit and instructed Ezra to pull his sling tight and try not to jostle his arm too much during the bumpy ride. 

Chris shook Buck’s hand and said, “take care of the town for us, Big Dog.”

“You can count on it, Pard,” Buck continued to hold onto Chris’ hand.  “You take care of those two.”  Buck motioned his head towards Ezra and Vin, who were still talking to Nathan, “and stay out of trouble.  Don’t wanna have to come all the way to San Francisco to bail your butt out of jail.”

Chris threw a crooked grin back at Buck and shook his head, as the stagecoach rolled into town.

This was the moment of truth; the last chance for Chris to change his mind.  Buck was his oldest friend, and Larabee’s official responsibility was to the town.  He would never forgive himself if something happened to either of them while he was gone….the same for the other men staying behind.  He worried less about Josiah and Nathan.  They both had good heads on their shoulders and in all honesty were probably the best of the seven in weighing risk versus benefit in dangerous situations.  Chris knew that Buck would take his responsibilities to protect the town extremely seriously, in fact he would likely take them right to his own grave if he thought that’s what was required, and JD would follow Wilmington without a second thought……and that scared Larabee.

No, this was silly, he decided.  They were all grown men, more than capable of taking care of themselves and the town……but as Chris approached the stagecoach he gave a quick glance up at the cloudless, blue sky and prayed they all stayed safe.

Once the coach was ready to depart, the three peacekeepers stashed their bags and hats in the storage area and climbed up into the crowded passenger compartment.  There were already four folks onboard from a previous town, so one of the regulators was going to be stuck sitting on the middle bench.  Most stagecoaches were equipped with three bench seats:  one along each wall and one in the middle.  The middle bench had no back, and the seats sat three passengers each. 

The current passengers consisted of a large, well-dressed man of about 50, and three women who appeared to be traveling together.  There was an older woman of about 60 and two younger women in their mid-to-late 20’s…..”maybe two sisters with their mother,” Vin surmised.

Chris took the middle bench, since he was the least injured of his companions.  Vin and Ezra crammed in next to the large gentlemen.  Everyone exchanged a polite “hello” and the stagecoach jerked to a start. 

Buck watched as the dust from the stagecoach dissipated, and his friends rode out of sight.  He felt a strange mixture of emotions.  Wilmington was proud that Chris has entrusted him with the town’s care in his absence, but he was nervous about keeping JD, Nathan, Josiah, and the town folks safe.  He had been a lawman before; he knew he had the skills, but somehow this felt different.  He understood, for the first time, the pressure that his long-time friend felt, being the unofficial leader of their group.  It was an enormous responsibility, and what made it a hundred times worse was that these were not just any people.  They were folks who had become their friends, their brothers, folks who had saved their lives, folks who had laughed and cried with them.  This was their home and family they were protecting.

“Hey Buck,” JD interrupted the tall shootist’s thoughts, “you comin’?”

“Yeah.”

“You ok?”  Buck seemed to be off in a world of his own.

“I’m fine, JD.”  Wilmington finally looked at his young friend, and the two of them headed off to the saloon for breakfast.

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The two young women on the stagecoach were indeed sisters.  Both possessed the same wavy, auburn hair and dark brown eyes.   They had always been close, so the young women easily understood each other’s silent glances that said “what do you think of our new companions?”

The elder of the sisters, Katherine, temporarily averted her gaze out the window and tried to act uninterested, but she found herself to be intrigued by the shortest of the three men.  As she once again glanced around the stagecoach, she noticed that this man appeared more civilized than his two companions.  He was clean-cut and looked dashing in his dark green coat.  She wanted to ask him how he hurt his arm but was afraid that her older traveling companion would find that improper. 

The younger sister, Elizabeth’s attention was absorbed by the other two, more dangerous-looking men.  The one with the long brown hair looked completely wild.  He was dressed kind of like an Indian, but he had the bluest eyes she had ever seen.  The third man sat just in front of her on the middle seat, and his long, lean legs kept bumping into her skirt.  Despite the soft, wheat-colored hair and pale, green eyes, he emanated a deadly aura and was dressed almost completely in black. 

The old woman with them was their aunt Mabel.  Mabel’s husband had passed away a couple of years earlier, and her children had grown and moved away.  Katherine and Elizabeth’s own father had just recently died, and their mother was not in the best of health.  They were escorting their aunt back to live with their mother – two other sisters reunited after years apart.

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The coach stopped off to change horses after a couple of hours, and the cramped patrons dismounted to stretch their legs.  The two young women appeared flustered when they returned to the area just outside the coach. 

“Aunt May is not going to be happy that we have returned empty-handed,” Katherine said to her sister.

“Is there a problem?” the darkly-dressed gunslinger approached and asked.

“The station restaurant is closed today, so we are unable to purchase a meal for our aunt who is traveling with us,” Katherine looked up at the tall, blond-haired man and replied.

“A friend of ours in Four Corners prepared some sandwiches for us this morning.  You’re welcome to take them if you want,” Chris offered his bag, which had two sandwiches in it.  Vin walked over and offered his as well.

“We can’t take your food,” the younger sister Elizabeth replied. 

“Really, it’s fine.  We ate a late breakfast just before we boarded the coach,” Vin smiled.

“We insist,” Chris continued to hold out the bag to the young ladies.

Katherine and Elizabeth reached out and took a bag each, and Katherine said, “that is so very kind of you.  Thank you Misters….”  She questioned the men for proper names to thank them.

“Name’s Vin Tanner, and this is Chris Larabee.  Our hungry friend over there is Ezra Standish,” Vin motioned to Ezra who was sitting on a bench eating one of his sandwiches.

“It is very nice to meet you, Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee, and again – thank you so very much for the sandwiches.  I’m Elizabeth Barker, and this is my sister Katherine.  Our aunt’s name is Mabel Trenton.”

In a few minutes all parties re-boarded the stagecoach.

“I’ll trade with ya this leg, Larabee,” Vin said, straddling the middle bench and giving Chris his seat on the front bench.  Chris took the window, which left Ezra to be squished in between Larabee and the large businessman for the next few hours.

“How’s your arm holdin’ up Ezra?” Chris asked.

“It is unappreciative of all the bumps, but the pain is tolerable,” Ezra replied and pulled out his deck of cards to pass the time. 

The two women and their aunt enjoyed Mary’s sandwiches, and Elizabeth offered half of hers to Vin.  She had noticed that he was limping a bit when they got off the coach earlier and figured that Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish’s injuries likely were related.  “Were they lawmen?” she wondered to herself.  At her insistence, Vin finally gave in and took the sandwich.  It was good, and he was hungrier than he had let on at the station.  Neither Chris nor himself had actually had breakfast that morning, unless you counted the bite of an apple that he had shared with Peso before he left.

Elizabeth was going to offer the extra sandwich back to Larabee, but he had already fallen asleep against the coach window.

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Chris was awoken to Vin yelling, “riders coming up fast,” and he quickly scanned their surroundings.  There were five riders bearing down on the left-side of the stagecoach.

Within seconds, all three peacekeepers had their guns out and ready.  The stagecoach driver pushed the horses hard, but he could not out-run the individual riders.  So, he eventually pulled the wagon to a stop.

Chris had secretly climbed out the right side window and positioned himself behind the luggage on top.  Ezra and Vin had their guns trained out the left-side window.  They instructed the other passengers to crouch down as low as possible inside the coach behind them.

The riders started firing when they were about 50 yards away, and the three regulators began returning fire as well.  Chris and Vin each took out a man, but by then the remaining three thugs were upon them.  They shot the coach driver, and one man opened the stagecoach door and pulled Ezra roughly to the ground at his feet.  Standish was struggling to get up with his one good arm, and Chris and Vin watched in horror as the man put his gun to the back of Ezra’s head and pulled the trigger.

“NOOOOOO!” Chris screamed.

Chapter 3:

All of the people in the stagecoach turned to look at Chris when he screamed.  Ezra was shaking his arm, “Mr. Larabee, wake up.  You are scaring the passengers.”

Chris was confused and sweating and opened his eyes to see Ezra and Vin each with a hand on one of his arms. 

“You ok there, Cowboy?” Vin asked quietly. 

Chris kept his eyes glued on Ezra as he replied, “yeah, just dreamin’ I guess.”

Vin sat down, and Chris looked embarrassingly around at the other passengers……as his heartbeat tried to return to its normal pace. 

Ezra saw Chris run a shaking hand through his dark blond hair, and the southerner pulled out his extra sandwich along with Chris’ canteen and offered it to Larabee.  Chris took a long drink of water, then a deep breath, and accepted half of the sandwich.  “That was one hell of a dream,” he thought to himself.

The blond man’s scream had shaken Katherine, and Elizabeth felt sorry for him.  Liz had read the fear and pain in the green eyes – emotional pain and what looked to be physical pain when he shot up quickly out of his seat.  “Maybe all three of them had been injured,” she let herself wonder.  Elizabeth was an attractive young woman and had been courted a number of times, but she had never found “the one.”

Chris finished the sandwich and slowly got his emotions back under control.  The dream had rattled him more than he let on.  Why hadn’t he chosen to be an accountant or run a store for a living?  He doubted that old Mr. Barnes, who kept the books for most of the businesses in town, had dreams like that. 

It was less than 10 minutes later when the stagecoach came upon a long, muddy hill, and the driver called, “everybody out.”

The driver wanted the passengers to walk up the hill to give the coach the best chance of making it up and over.  He also said that he would likely need a few of the men to push once they got to the steepest part of the grade.  The large, well-dressed fellow refused to push and even grumbled about having to get his shoes muddy when Larabee insisted he get his “behind out of that coach…now!”

With Ezra’s broken arm, and the other man’s flat-out refusal, that left the pushing to Chris and Vin.  Ezra had voiced his concerns that they were not physically up to the task, but what choice did they have?

The stagecoach slid sideways a time or two, but with the experienced driver and Chris and Vin’s pushing, the coach finally pulled its way over the top of the sloppy hill.  Elizabeth pulled out her handkerchief and did her best to wipe the mud splatters off of Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner’s clothes.  There was even mud on the end of Vin’s nose.  Standish chuckled as he watched her gently clean that off as well.  He enjoyed watching Vin squirm at the hands of a beautiful woman.

Chris re-assumed the center-aisle seat when they boarded the coach at the top of the hill.  He figured pushing uphill had been taxing on Tanner’s injured leg.  Ezra was first to speak up though.  “You gentlemen didn’t aggravate any of your injuries while assisting the coach up the hill, did you?”

The effort had pulled at the healing bullet wounds of both men, and Chris’ ribs didn’t appreciate the stretched position.  Both men, however, shook their heads, “no,” and insisted they were “fine.”

Elizabeth finally got up the courage to ask, “how did you gentlemen get injured?”

Her older sister glared at her, but Vin clearly wasn’t offended and answered, “huntin’ a gang of murderers a couple weeks back.”

“Oh my,” Elizabeth replied.  “Were you shot?”

“Yeah, me and Chris were shot; Ezra broke his arm.”

“I saw you limping earlier, so I presume you were shot in the leg?” she continued to probe, and her sister stared at her like she had two heads.

“Liz, I’m not sure they want to explain it all to you,” Katherine finally interrupted.

“Nah, it’s fine,” said Vin.  “I don’t mind.”  He was starting to warm up to and even enjoy the company of the young woman.  “I was shot right here,” Vin pointed to his left thigh.  “Chris was hit in the shoulder.”

“So, you’re lawmen?” Elizabeth continued to question the lanky buckskin-clad man.

“Nothing official; we’re paid to protect the town where the stage picked us up.”

“How very exciting,” she smiled and swung her hands out, smacking Larabee in the right side. 

He sucked in a sharp breath, and Vin laughed, “Larabee there also broke a couple of ribs.”

“Oh,” Liz gasped, “so sorry about that, Mr. Larabee.”  She was still a little leery of the fair-haired man.

“No problem,” Chris quickly said.  He couldn’t believe how much his normally-shy friend was talking.  Larabee was starting to think that Ezra must have secretly spiked Vin’s canteen.

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The stagecoach finally pulled into the station at about 5PM that night.  The men purchased their tickets to San Francisco and discovered that their train was due in at about midnight.

The station possessed a small saloon/restaurant, so the men had supper, drank, and played cards to pass the time.

The three now-inebriated men boarded at about 12:30AM and headed to the rear car.  The train wasn’t overly packed anyway, and the back car only had a couple of folks sitting in it.  Chris knew Vin would appreciate a bit of space after being in cramped quarters all day.  Truth be told, he appreciated it as well.

The tired and tipsy peacekeepers were quickly lulled to sleep by the sound and motion of the train.

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Vin Tanner was in the dining car of the train, doing his best to drink a little coffee and eat some breakfast.  He had partaken in more alcohol the night before than he had intended, and his head and stomach were struggling to function normally this morning.  He had little doubt that the two men who flanked him at the table were suffering the same effects, but Chris and Ezra were more accustomed to dealing with this sort of misery.

Vin just about jumped out of his skin when he heard someone say loudly, “Mr. Tanner.  I had no idea that you, Mr. Larabee, and Mr. Standish were taking the same train as me and my family.”  It was Elizabeth, the young woman from the stagecoach.

“Well, isn’t that a fortuitous turn of events, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra teased the queasy tracker.

“Mornin’ miss Elizabeth,” said Vin.  “Would you like to join us for breakfast?”  He really didn’t feel much like talking right now but thought it would be rude if he didn’t ask.

“Why, thank you Mr. Tanner.  I would enjoy that very much,” she smiled and ordered a big plate of food. 

“She ain’t gonna enjoy it as much when Tanner up-chucks all over her eggs,“ Chris whispered to Ezra and smirked.  He sympathized completely with Vin though.  He wasn’t about to touch any breakfast this morning.  Coffee was enough of a test.

“Are you gentlemen feelin’ ok this morning?” she inquired.  “You look a little green.” 

“We’re fine, Ms. Elizabeth,” Vin answered and tried not to look at her shoveling in the runny eggs.  Then her sister showed up as well.

“Katherine, look who I ran into this morning.  Why don’t you join us?” Liz asked.

Katherine was four years older than Elizabeth and was a little more “worldly.”  She had actually even been married once, but her husband had passed away just 6 months after the wedding.  She agreed to sit down, but she knew precisely what was wrong with the three men this morning. 

“So, where are you headin’?” Chris asked, trying to steer the attention away from their hangovers.

“San Diego,” Elizabeth chimed in.  “We’re taking our aunt to live with us there.”

“How about you gentlemen?” Katherine then asked.

“We are headed to San Francisco.  My mother is currently residing there, and I will be visiting her for a week,” Ezra responded.

They continued to make small talk for the next 20 minutes, when Katherine stated, “I should be getting my aunt’s breakfast to her.  Come along Elizabeth.”

Liz knew she was making her sister nervous, showing so much interest in these men.  So, for now, she agreed and headed to their sleeper cabin in the middle of the train.

Chris took out his flask and dumped a bit of whiskey in his coffee.  He held it up to Vin, and the tracker groaned, “get that shit away from me, Larabee.”

The remainder of the day passed without incident.  The men returned to their seats and watched the scenery float by.  The train made a few more stops throughout the New Mexico territory, and they took on additional passengers. 

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By the next evening, Ezra had gotten bored enough to stir up a poker game in the dining cabin.  Chris wandered in a couple of hours later and noticed that Ezra was playing cards with three rather rough-looking characters.  The men had boarded the train at the last stop, and the more they drank the more agitated they became about losing their money.

Finally, one of the men said as he folded his hand, “ain’t nobody that lucky.  This feller has to be cheatin’.”

Followed up by another card-player saying, “yeah, Butch, let’s show him what we do to cheaters,” and the man over-turned the card table.  The money fell to the floor with the drinks and cards.  Ezra had stepped back to avoid being struck by the table or the flying beverages.  Butch then charged and lifted the much smaller gambler off the ground.  Ezra’s back slammed against the wall, and the pain in his broken arm came rushing to the forefront of Standish’s attention.

Chris approached with Colt in hand and said calmly, “think that’s enough card-playing for one night.  Everybody go sober up, and maybe you can win your money back tomorrow.”

The three card-playing thugs were soon joined by five other “friends,” and Larabee knew this was precisely the trouble that Nathan had sent him along with Ezra to avoid.

“I said that’s enough,” Chris repeated and trained his gun on the man holding Ezra, “put him down……….now!”

Butch tossed Standish hard to the ground, and Ezra winced as his arm bumped into the table on the way down.  Since he was already on the floor, the gambler scooped up his newly-acquired wealth, and Chris ordered, “Ezra, get outta here.”  He didn’t want the gambler doing any additional damage to his still-healing arm. 

Ezra then stood and realized there were eight men looking to face off with them.  “And what, leave you here to fight all of them yourself?”

“I’ll handle it Ezra.  Go back to our seats,” Chris said as he moved out of the way of the dining car door so that Standish could walk through.  He figured Ezra was going to go get Vin and return, but at least he would have a few minutes to try and diffuse the situation.

Chris still had his Colt pointed at the group of men and instructed, “you gentlemen need to go back to your supper or your cabins.  It’s all done here.”

Just as Larabee finished that statement, a ninth man entered from behind him.  Chris thought he was in trouble, but fortunately the man simply said, “that’s enough boys.  Get on back to your seats.”  Clearly the leader of the group.

Chris dipped his head in acknowledgment of the man’s help, re-holstered his gun, and left to find Vin and Ezra.  He was already out of earshot when the foreman said to his men, “don’t worry boys, we’ll get your money back and then some.”

As the night passed, the train left the greener, more civilized landscapes for those of the barren, dry desert.

Chapter 4:

Chris, Vin, and Ezra were awoken to the sound of gunshots.

It was still dark, as the men fumbled around to make sure their guns were loaded and ready. 

Chris ran towards the sounds, now mostly that of screaming people, followed by Vin and Ezra.

Just as they opened the door of the next cabin, they saw Elizabeth running towards them in her nightgown.  “There are men with guns,” she yelled.  “They’re shooting people; you’ve got to help.”  She was hysterical and clearly taking a huge risk to warn them.  Chris was about three feet away from her when a man walked through the door at the other end of the cabin and shot her dead-center in the back. 

“Take cover,” Chris screamed as he quickly grabbed the young woman and dragged her with him between two rows of seats.

Chris suspected that Elizabeth was gone, but then confirmed it when he couldn’t find a pulse.  Vin and Ezra were hidden behind seats a few rows back and on the other side of the train.  They couldn’t see each other, but Chris could hear Vin yelling, over the passengers screams and ricocheting bullets, “is Elizabeth all right?  Chris?  Is she ok?”

Chris laid Elizabeth’s body gently on the floor, and he jumped over two rows of seats to line back up with Ezra and Vin.  “Chris?” Vin continued to ask.  Larabee shook his head.  His hands and jacket were covered in the girl’s blood.

Vin immediately broke cover and planted a bullet directly between the eyes of the shooter.  The three men began their advance to the more forward cabins once again, this time with an angry Texan in the lead.

“There’s three gunmen in the next car,” Vin reported after peeking through the glass opening in the door. 

“If we bust in, we each get one shot to take a man down,” Chris instructed.  “You boys ready?”

“You know I am,” Vin replied.  “I’ll take the feller in the middle.  Chris, you take the man on the right, and Ezra, the man on the left.”  Vin charged through the doors and watched as all three men dropped like stones to the floor.  Vin and Chris aimed for the head; Ezra shot his man right through the heart.

They didn’t have time to appreciate their handiwork though, as three more men charged into the rail car and began firing.  The three peacekeepers were pinned down behind seats with debris and glass raining down on them.  A large part of the ceiling fell and made impact with Vin’s right eye. 

“A little help here, gentlemen,” pleaded Ezra, as a piece of glass from a window stuck in the left side of his face.  With his broken left arm, and his right arm holding a pistol, he was unable to remove the glass himself.  Chris leaned across and pulled it out.  The cut was bleeding profusely but was less than an inch long.  Before Larabee could fire another shot, a bullet passed through the seat and grazed Chris across his right-side flank.  The bullet sped right through and into the side of the train.  Vin heard Chris hiss in pain and looked to see him holding his bleeding right side.

“Shit,” Vin leaned out into the aisle and hit one of the men in the kneecap.  Once he fell, Tanner finished him off with a shot to his neck.

Passengers were screaming and trying not to get caught in the crossfire.

“We gotta lure the men back to the rear car somehow,” Chris decided, “get ‘em away from the other passengers.  Vin, why don’t you get Elizabeth’s body and bring it up here.  We’ll cover you.  I’m gonna try to find a way to detach those last two cars with us and the gang in it, but I want her body to be on the train with her family.”

Vin nodded his head and moved quickly, despite his injured leg, through the cabins.  Chris and Ezra had re-loaded and fired relentlessly at the two men until Vin returned.  Ezra managed to hit one in the shoulder.

“Alright, boys, let’s get these two taken care of then we make a run for the back,” Larabee yelled.  The three men re-loaded once again, jumped up and fired at the two thugs.  A bullet struck Vin’s hat in the volley, but the regulators eventually prevailed – killing or seriously wounding the two gunmen.  They headed back to the rear car to finalize their plans.

Vin’s eye was starting to swell and bruise, and Ezra and Larabee were bleeding. 

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“What the hell?” the large foreman asked, as his man reported back that they were down to 5 men, including himself.  Six of his well-trained gunmen had been taken out by those three fellows, and one of them only had one arm. 

“We gotta get rid of ‘em,” the foreman commanded.  “Are all the other passengers tied up?” 

“Yeah, all except the engineer, and he knows not to try anything funny.  We got guns from anyone who had ‘em and rounded everybody else up in those two cars,” the hand named Fred reported.  “Don is getting all of the money and valuables now from the passengers.  Bill is looking for the bank money.”

The gang had boarded the train at the last stop in New Mexico territory on a mission to retrieve a large sum of money that was being transported from a bank in St. Louis.  The majority of these men had served in prison together back in St. Louis and had local connections.  The foreman, Stan, had helped a number of the men out with attorneys or other fines, so they felt indebted enough to him to see this thing through.  Of course, they had been promised a nice chunk of the money as well.

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“They’ll eventually come lookin’ when they discover half of their men dead,” Vin said as he grabbed some bandages from Nathan’s medical kit to put on Ezra’s cheek and Larabee’s side.  He quickly washed off the wounds and taped a piece of gauze as best as he could. 

“Vin, why don’t you head up there….on top the train?” Larabee pointed to the roof.

“I ain’t leavin’ you two here,” Vin yelled.

“Somebody’s gonna have to get behind ‘em to release the train cars,” Chris explained.  “I know Ezra ain’t climbin’ up there, so it’s either you or me.”

“Alright, but you fellers be careful,” Vin went out the rear door and climbed up on the roof.  He jumped, making sure to land on his good, right leg, to the second-to-last car and waited.  He didn’t know exactly how many men were left, but he figured if they got four or more of the bad guys then he would just cut it loose. 

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The five train robbers had re-convened to finalize their plans.  Bill had found the train’s safe and key and was very pleased to find at least $20,000 in there.  He had gathered that up with the money and valuables from the train passengers, and it was stashed in two suitcases.  The men figured they had what they wanted, so they planned to set dynamite and blow up the train after they jumped.  “How do we make sure we blow up those three jokers in the back?” Stan asked his men.

“I think we’re gonna have to take care of them first, Stan,” Fred answered, “at least get them tied up, or they’re gonna jump right off with us.”

“Alright, the charges are set up here.  Let’s take care of those three and go spend our money.”

All five men then headed to the rear car with guns drawn.

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Vin saw the men approaching, just as he also saw the detonator for the dynamite.  That meant a slight change in plans.  Tanner needed to get rid of the dynamite, in case there were any more of the gang onboard, and then go help his two friends.

Once the five men were far enough past, Vin took care of the dynamite and jumped back onto the second-to-last car.  Tanner detached the last two cars from the main train and made his way back towards Chris and Ezra. 

“We know you boys are in here.  You best come out with your hands up, or we’re coming in after ya,” the foreman warned.  “Why in the hell is the train slowing down?”  He turned and watched as the main train drove far out of sight, leaving the two rear cars slowing to a snail’s pace. 

Stan was mad as hell.  “Open fire, boys!”

The sound was deafening in the enclosed space.  Ezra and Chris were pinned down.  They didn’t know whether to fight or make a run for it off of the train.  It was a desert landscape, with nothing more than a few sand dunes and scrub brush to hide behind.  Vin jumped down behind the gunmen and shot two of them.  He then found himself trapped, so he jumped from the train, hoping Chris and Ezra would follow.  They did.  Firing as rapidly as they could, the men ran to the back of the train.  Larabee grabbed their bags and flung them off the train, and then readied himself and Ezra to jump.  Chris tried to hold onto Standish so that he could soften his landing.  He knew no matter what, the impact with the ground was going to be torture for Standish’s broken arm.  Chris’ ribs and shoulder screamed in pain as the two men made contact with the hard dirt. 

Larabee didn’t have time to ask whether Ezra’s arm was ok; once they landed, they were up and running to meet Vin behind a thicket of brush.  Ezra pulled out a few sticks of dynamite that he lit and threw into the train…..obviously not knowing about the bank payroll yet.

They saw a couple of the men go down, and the remaining three took the suitcase and escaped out the other side of the train.  Chris, Vin, and Ezra took off behind them yelling, “stop or we’ll shoot.”  The men turned and fired, but the regulators were able to take out all three gunmen fairly quickly.  The foreman wasn’t dead but bleeding badly when they approached.  “You’ll never make it out of here alive,” he warned them.  His last words were, “they don’t call this Death Valley for nothing.”

“So much for San Francisco,” Ezra said and stared at the train wreckage, “and our only source of shelter is burning to the ground.”  He watched as the remains of the rail cars disintegrated and fell to the tracks below. 

“Wow,” Chris said as he sank to the ground and watched the rail cabins turning to rubble, “I’m sorry, Ezra.  How does this shit always happen to us?”  He paused for a minute, then finished with, “maybe we can hop the next train when it comes through?  Anybody pay attention at the station to how often they run this route?”

“I am afraid that I did not,” Ezra answered, “but I would imagine it could be as little as once a week.”

“Well, we need to get the remnants of those rail cars off the track, so we don’t damage or wreck the next one that comes along.  How’s your arm after jumping off the train, Ezra?” Chris asked.

“I do not believe that I caused any additional harm to it, thanks to you sir,” Ezra looked at Larabee.  “Hopefully I didn’t re-injure your ribs when I……”

Ezra stopped mid-sentence, and both he and Chris turned abruptly when Vin shouted, “oh shit!”

“Well, I think I found something that will make Ezra feel a little better about our trip,” Vin smiled when he presented the suitcase full of money to his two friends.

Ezra’s eyes lit up, and he walked closer to the case.  “Oh my heavens, that is more money than we found in the room of Lucius Stutz.  Now we know why they brought so many men to rob this train.”

Chapter 5:

“Wonder who the money belongs to?” Chris stared at the suitcase full of cash.

“Guess we’ll worry about that if we make it out of here,” Vin replied.  “Let me check out your guys’ wounds, then we can start clearin’ the tracks.”

“You got yourself a pretty nice shiner there, Tanner,” Chris grinned and pointed at the right-side of Vin’s face.

“Hush up and pull up yer shirt, Larabee.”

Vin re-cleaned and bandaged the wound on Ezra’s face, and the bullet graze to Chris’ side, and by then it was about mid-day.  It was only early June, but the temperature was hovering at about 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius).  The heat had zapped the men’s energy before they even made it back to the train wreckage.

It took half of the day, but they managed to throw all of the loose train materials, wood, parts of seats, windows, off of the track.  The metal under-carriage and wheels were still there and in-tact. 

Ezra thought that he would surely die of heat stroke if he kept this up for another hour, and he had grown up in the south!  Plus, with his injured limb, he was not able to do as much as his two companions.  He could only imagine how hot they must be.  Tanner had spent a lot of years in the heat of south Texas, and he was dressed in light-colored clothing.  Ezra still figured the lanky man was about to drop.  Chris had shed his jacket, as had Standish and Tanner, but his shirt and pants were black.  Ezra did not know how the man wasn’t literally cooking himself. 

Ezra had just sat down for a short break to ponder these things when Chris, his blond hair soaked with sweat and plastered to his face, plopped down beside him. 

“Vin, take a break,” Chris yelled out.  “Get your butt over here and drink some water with the rest of us lazy bastards.” 

Vin happily complied and lie down in the dirt next to Larabee.  Damn how he wanted to dump his canteen over his head to try and cool himself down, but he knew they couldn’t waste water.  Who knew how many days they might be out here, and for now – they only had 6 canteens.  They had found three canteens on the bodies of the train robbers and decided they would take their chances that the men didn’t have any communicable diseases.  Even if they were only out here for a few days, they were going to have to find a source of water or risk death by dehydration.

Chris attempted to get to his feet to make a plan for getting the bottom half of the train off the tracks, but he stumbled and sat back down.

“Stay put for a little while, Larabee,” Vin instructed.  “Yer face is redder than a ‘possum’s butt in pokeberry season; ya need to sit still and let yerself cool off a bit.” 

“We need to finish clearin’ the tracks today,” Chris laid back and stared up at the cloudless sky.  “What if another train comes tonight or tomorrow mornin’?”

“Ain’t gonna do us any good if we’re dead and dried up,” Vin laughed.

“As much as I hate to say it, I agree with Mr. Larabee,” Ezra interjected.  “There could be another passenger train or even a freight train come through at any time.”

“We ain’t got no tools to take ‘em apart, and them cars is gonna be real heavy.”  Vin hated to keep being the pessimist, but he just couldn’t imagine how they were going to be able to move the remainder of the cars.

“Think we could tip ‘em over and off the track?” Chris continued to think about options.  “Maybe if we put dynamite in the right places, we could blow ‘em off the track?”

“I’m not a hundred percent sure that we even need to move ‘em,” Vin answered.  “The next train could likely just push ‘em along or out of the way.”

“Yeah, I thought about that; just don’t want to cause some big accident,” Chris looked over at Vin.  “I guess we’ll have to hope the train has a cow catcher, and it does its job.”

“Agreed.  I’m more worried about us findin’ some water,” Vin sat up and continued to ponder the worst-case scenarios, “especially if the next train don’t come for a week.”

“Indeed, Mr. Tanner.  Like our dead friend over there remarked, they don’t call this Death Valley without good reason,” Ezra sighed.

“How many passengers do ya think the robbers killed?” Chris had been wondering about it since they had disconnected from the train. 

“I dunno,” answered Vin quietly, “at least one too many.”  Vin hoped that Elizabeth’s sister and aunt were ok and would be able to take her home and bury her properly.  Chris had already decided that he would write to her family in San Diego and tell them she died a hero.

“They will surely stop at the next station and send someone to get us, don’t you think?” Ezra asked.

“I don’t know if anyone knew about us, Ez,” Vin had wondered that himself.  “The passengers could just think that’s how the bandits planned to get away, and they sure wouldn’t be sendin’ help back for them.”

The men sat silent for another few minutes, and Vin continued, “you boys feel up to climbing that bluff over yonder?  Would be easier to scan the area for water up there.”

Chris shook his head, “yes,” and Ezra followed that with, “lead the way, sir.”

Vin rose first and steadied himself.  Then he offered a hand to Ezra.  Like himself and Larabee, Ezra was completely wet with sweat, but the gambler seemed fairly steady on his feet. 

It took the men more than twice as long as it would have in cooler weather to reach their destination, and it was dark by the time they arrived at the top of the bluff.  They had planned on getting food on the train or along the way, so they hadn’t packed any rations.  Vin had some old jerky in his bag, and Ezra had a bottle of whiskey.  They would try to make do with just water tonight and save the jerky in case they were stranded here for days.  They didn’t have bedrolls or blankets either, for the same reasons.  The men would be sleeping on the dirt, with the bugs and scorpions, tonight.

Chris was surprised at how much the heat was affecting him as he climbed the last half mile up the bluff.  He was accustomed to working outdoors and working hard – cutting wood, mending fences, repairing his cabin, but today he was clearly lagging behind the other two men.  Larabee’s temple was pounding, and he felt light-headed.  He was determined to keep going though; just another fifteen minutes, and he could sit down. 

Once the three men made it to the highest point, Vin and Ezra plopped to the ground, drank some water and discussed the next day’s plans.  Larabee sat a few feet away.  Chris laid his head back on a rock, and closed his eyes. 

It finally dawned on the two younger men after about 20 minutes that their companion was being suspiciously quiet, and Ezra said loudly, “Mr. Larabee, what do you think?”

Chris had not being paying attention to the other men’s conversation.  He was hot, tired, and quite frankly still felt like crap, despite sitting down.  “Chris?” Vin didn’t wait for an answer; he hauled his own tired body off of the ground and approached the darkly-dressed man.  He never even received so much as a glance from Larabee.

“Chris!” Vin yelled louder than he meant to, this time standing right over the gunslinger.

Larabee opened his eyes, and sat up slowly.  “Yeah,” he finally answered.

“You’re awful quiet, Chris,” Vin smirked, “even for you.  You all right?”

“Just tired.”

Ezra scooted closer to the two men, so he could better ascertain what was going on.  There was nearly a full moon, and the skies were clear.  He picked up Chris’ canteen to offer him a drink and noticed it still had over half of the water in it.

He handed it to Vin instead, saying, “I do not believe that our esteemed leader has been drinking enough water.”

Vin was enraged, “what the hell, Chris?  You tryin’ to kill yourself?  Why ain’t you drinkin’?  Mine and Ezra’s canteens are completely empty, and I’m guessin’ we’re still half-dehydrated.”

“Just trying to conserve,” Chris answered in a slightly-slurred voice.  “What if we don’t find water tomorrow?”

“Then we’ll die in a few days,” Vin answered matter-of-factly, “but that ain’t no reason to try and hurry it along tonight.  Here,” Vin said as he handed the canteen to Larabee, “drink it – all of it, then try to get some rest.”

“Stomach ain’t feelin’ real steady right now.  Hate to waste our water by upchuckin’ it back up on the dirt,” Chris looked up at Vin.

Vin brushed Larabee’s beet-red cheek and said, “Jesus Chris, you’re burning up.  Take off yer shirt.”

“What?”

“Ya heard me,” Vin grabbed a cloth from his bag and wet it with a bit of water from one of the extra canteens.  “Take off your clothes, Larabee…..NOW!  Help him, Ezra.”

Standish was confused as to what precisely was going on, but he wasn’t about to argue with Vin right now.  He too could feel the extreme heat emanating from their friend.  Chris removed his hat, and Ezra proceeded to help remove his shirt. 

Vin approached with the cloth and started wetting Chris’ bare chest, arms, and face.  “We gotta get you cooled down, Cowboy.  Ezra, hold his canteen and get him to drink a few sips of water.  I ran into this a few times bounty huntin’ in Texas.  You messed up yer body temperature lettin’ yerself get as dehydrated as you did…….you dern fool.”

After about an hour, Tanner and Standish were finally able to get Larabee’s temperature out of the sky high range.   Chris’ color was returning to normal, and their patient seemed more coherent.  They sat Larabee up and put his shirt back on. 

Vin then threw the canteen, hitting Chris square  in the chest, saying again, “finish it, Larabee……then go to sleep.”  Vin lay down a couple of feet away and tried to find a semi-comfortable position to ride out the night.

Ezra sat up for a while next to Chris.  He understood why Vin was angry, but he also knew the great responsibility that Larabee felt to his men.  Ezra figured that Chris thought he was tougher than the other two and could make do with less water.  The fool gunslinger was likely trying to save some of his canteen to share with Standish and Tanner over the upcoming days.  

Chris felt like an idiot.  He had managed to drink most of the remaining water in his canteen, and he was starting to feel better….although the headache remained.  Chris always prided himself on being as tough and resilient as any man, but today he felt like the weak link – like he was slowing the other two men down.  Maybe his body was just getting too old for this stuff. 

Larabee saw Ezra looking at him and said, “I’m fine, Ez.  Go get some rest.”

Standish picked up the canteen to determine how much Chris had drank.

“Go to sleep, Standish,” Chris repeated as he snatched the canteen out of Ezra’s hand.

The Texan was lying with his back to the two men, but he was still awake.  Vin sighed in relief when he overheard the conversation and Larabee sounding like his old, cantankerous self.  Like Ezra, Vin knew exactly why Chris had rationed his water so strictly.  It frustrated him that the man thought it was ok to risk his own life to save that of his men.  Of course they all did it if one of them was in a situation with immediate risk to life or limb, but he and Ezra were fine.  Chris was taking stupid risks to prevent a danger than might or might not happen three days from now.  “Damn, hard-headed fool,” Vin thought to himself as he drifted off to sleep.

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It would have been a beautiful day, if the three men were anywhere else.  The sky was bright blue, the sun was shining, and the temperatures were still relatively cool……but Vin Tanner, Ezra Standish, and Chris Larabee were unable to appreciate these things.  The men stood staring out into the vast desert landscape before them, and there was no sign of a water source anywhere.  There wasn’t a stream bed, a sign of animal tracks, nor a single patch of green grass to be seen.

“We gotta find water, and we gotta find it today,” Vin huffed in frustration.  He wondered why there would even be such a place on earth, with no water for miles.

“There’s a ridge of bluffs that follow the train tracks,” Chris pointed out.  “We could cover more ground if we split up, and we’ll still be close enough to see if a train is comin’.”

“I think you should take it easy today, Chris.  Ezra and I can scout for water,” Vin broached the subject as non-confrontationally as he could.  Larabee had clearly been suffering from some sort of heat-related illness the day before, and Tanner was afraid that would make him more susceptible to problems today.

“Don’t worry, Tanner.  I promise to drink plenty of water,” Chris smirked.

“It ain’t just that, Chris.  I’ve spent a lot more time in this sort of heat than you.  A person can’t know how their body’s gonna handle it….”

“I can’t just sit here on my ass while you and Ezra do all the work.”

Vin sighed, realizing he was fighting a losing battle, “I’ll head west.  You and Ezra go east, and you two keep an eye on each other.  Take breaks, drink plenty of water, and fire a shot if you run into trouble or find water.”

“Alright, Vin, same for you,” Chris hated to send his young friend off into the unknown by himself, “watch your back.”

The parties split up and spent the entire day looking for trains, water, and any other signs of life. 

The two-man team of Larabee and Standish arrived back at the original bluff just after dark.  Chris and Ezra had exhausted themselves but had nothing to show for it.  Tanner had yet to return.  The day hadn’t been quite as hot as yesterday.  Still, the men were soaked with sweat, and their limbs were shaking from exertion and lack of food.

Vin arrived about 45 minutes later.  He plopped down a handful of peeled cactus and some of the jerky from his pack……supper.

“Damn man don’t even hardly look tired,” Chris thought to himself then said out loud, “I take it you didn’t find any water, either.”

“Not a drop.  Cactus leaves and fruit have a fair amount of water in it,” Vin said.  “Guess we’ll have to make do with that for now.”

Ezra couldn’t remember ever being so sweaty and dirty in his life.  The area around his sling was maddeningly itchy, and everything – the sling, the splint, even his face – was brown in color.  They hadn’t eaten in days, but the heat zapped the men’s appetites.  Standish knew he needed nourishment, and Vin’s blue eyes were about to bore a hole through his head, so he slowly chewed a piece of cactus as he watched the moon rise up in the sky.

Chris’ hands were shaking as he attempted to pick up the food.  Like Ezra, he knew his body was starved, but he sure didn’t feel like it.  He had been so tempted to take off his shirt during their travels today, but the hot, powerful sun would burn a man’s skin badly in just a couple of hours.  Even with their hats on at all times, the men’s faces were red from looking around and the sun reflecting off of the sand.

 “I guess we pray for a train to come through tomorrow morning?” Chris questioned.  “It don’t look like we’re gonna find any water.”

“Honestly, Chris, I don’t know what we’re gonna do,” Vin sighed as he too chewed on the hard jerky.  “We might have to go further into the desert.”

“But then we would miss the train if one were to pass by,” Ezra did not want to risk that.

“I know, Ez, but we ain’t gonna survive more than a few days out here without water,” Vin hated to have to keep pointing that out to the men, but there was no arguing with that fact.

“Alright, we’re all tired and grumpy,” Chris mediated.  “Let’s try to get some sleep, and we’ll come up with a plan in the mornin’.

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 “Ah hell,” Vin remarked as he looked out over the morning desert valley.  “Could things really get any worse?” he thought.  The tracker watched a band of about 12 Indians riding their way.

Chapter 6:

Chris was up and scanning the landscape as soon as he heard Vin’s comment about the approaching natives.  Tanner walked over and shook Ezra awake while Larabee assessed the situation.

“We have the advantage of our high position,” Chris said, ”might be able to take ‘em all out.”

“We don’t even know if they’re friendly or hostiles,” Vin argued.

“If I may be so bold, how pray-tell are we going to find out if they are hostile without risking an arrow adornment to our persons?” Ezra countered.

“Good question, Ezra,” Vin had no idea.

“We could just hide and hope they don’t notice us,” Standish suggested.

“I’m wonderin’ if one of us should try to talk to them?” Chris said, focusing his green gaze steadfastly on the long, brown-haired man to his left.  “They might know a way out or at least where we could find water.”

“I suppose I look the least threatenin’?” Vin questioned, and then said, “you two hide up here and be ready to attack if need be.  I’ll go down and meet ‘em.”

“We’ll bury the suitcases up here and come back for ‘em………if we live that long,” Chris smirked.

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The tribal party noticed a man about half a mile ahead, walking towards them.  He was dressed in buckskin clothing and had long hair, but he was clearly a white man.  There had been trouble with the white men lately.  Miners had come in and run tribes off of their homelands.  They had taken over almost all the lands with access to water. 

The approaching white man had weapons but did not have them out, and his hands were up high in surrender.  They knew it could be a trap, so two of the men went forward while the remaining 10 stayed behind.  One of the two men, Kacho, had a white grandmother and thus could speak a bit of English.

“Ho,” Vin held up his right hand in a hello gesture.  “Need water,” he made a motion of drinking from a cup.  He pointed to the train wreckage and said, “came from train.”

Kacho spoke roughly, “alone?” 

“You speak English,” Vin was relieved.

“Some.  Travel alone?” Kacho repeated.

“I travel with two friends,” Vin pointed and signaled to Larabee and Standish to come down.  He didn’t want to risk angering the tribesmen if they could provide water.  “We’ve been here three days and are out of water.  We mean you no harm.”

Kacho glared at the now three men standing before him, “mine work take our lands.”

“We’re not miners; just folks passin’ through,” Vin continued, and Kacho and his companion, Etu, dismounted their horses and approached.

The two Indians were not tall men, about Ezra’s height, but they were dark, broad, and strong.  Kacho’s companion held out his hand and said something in their native language. 

“Your guns,” Kacho translated.

Chris looked at Vin, and the Texan nodded his head.  The three men then removed their gun belts and handed them over.  Kacho next took the men’s hats, and the two braves stared at the white men.  Etu said something, and both natives laughed. 

“He say you very white,” Kacho smiled.

Chris figured that most of the men who worked in the mines out here were likely of Mexican or Chinese descent. 

“You not last long here,” Kacho motioned for the remaining 10 braves to approach.

“We were hopin’ you could show us where to find water,” Vin said again with no response.

The braves were discussing something amongst themselves, but the language was too different from the Kiowas and Comanches for Vin to understand.

“Ah shit,” Vin said when he saw one of the braves pulling out a long piece of rope.  They were going to tie them up.

Etu and Kacho were joined by two other braves, and Etu motioned for the men to put their wrists together and out in front of them.

Chris thought about trying to fight, but the three peacekeepers were physically drained and now had no weapons.  Vin and Ezra put their hands out (hand in Ezra’s case), and Etu roughly grabbed Chris’ arms to tie them as well.  The braves continued to talk amongst themselves, and the one who brought the rope seemed very intrigued by the white men.  He poked at Ezra’s sling and jacket and pulled roughly at Vin’s and Chris’ hair. 

“Easy, Chris,” Vin said when he saw the gunslinger’s temper starting to boil.  “They’re just checkin’ us out.  Probably ain’t seen many folks who dress like Ezra or have hair as light as yers.”

Each man’s rope was tied to a horse, and the braves led the men north, further into the desert. 

“Why the hell’d they keep our hats?” Chris asked to no one in particular, now annoyed that they ever tried to be friendly with the party of natives.  It was just after 10AM, and the sun was baking down on the men’s bare heads and necks. 

“I guess they figured if they don’t need ‘em, then we don’t neither,” Vin had no idea what these braves were thinking or what they were planning on doing with him and his friends.

They walked for nearly two hours with no hats and no water, when Larabee finally stumbled and fell.  His legs felt like they weighed 200 pounds apiece.  The rider hadn’t noticed and was dragging the downed peacekeeper. 

Vin yelled out, “Stop!”

Kacho translated, and the brave halted his horse to allow Chris to regain his feet.  The three men were sunburned and soaked with sweat, and the English-speaking brave saw that they needed a break.  He said something to his companions then told the three white men to “sit.”

Once they were seated, he brought over a water pouch and put it to Ezra’s lips.  The brave allowed Ezra to drink for a minute, and then moved on to Chris and Vin.

“Name?” Kacho asked.

Tanner pointed to himself and said, “Vin.”  He then pointed to Larabee and Standish respectively and said, “Chris, Ezra.”

Kacho repeated the names, and a number of the braves looked back and forth at each other or said a few words and smiled.  Vin figured they were saying something to the effect of, “I’ve never heard such silly names.”

“Brothers?” Kacho inquired.

“He thinks we’re brothers,” Ezra laughed out loud.  “No, sir, we are not.” 

Kacho shrugged his shoulders and turned back to his horse.

The party remained there for about 15 minutes to let the men rest.  Kacho then spoke to Chris for the first time and asked, “ok to go?”

Chris shook his head and said, “yeah, thank you.”  He decided not to push the hat issue; hell, he was already good and sunburned by now anyway.

They marched another half hour and turned a sharp curve behind a tall rock formation.  Beyond that was a tiny stream and a small Indian village.  The braves dismounted, took the peacekeepers’ gear, and Etu and Kacho headed into a tent in the middle of the village.  The remaining villagers, mostly older folks, women, and children, stopped what they were doing and stared at the three white men.

The children pointed at the men, talking and asking questions.  Vin and Ezra tried to smile and make it known that they were friendly.  Chris was preoccupied about wanting to know what the hell was going on and fighting the overwhelming urge to sit down.  The gunslinger did not want to exhibit weakness in this unknown situation, so he continued to stand and look around.  Finally, his gaze fell onto his two companions. 

Both Vin and Ezra’s faces were badly sunburned and streaked with dirt and sweat.  Their hair was soaked from perspiration, and here they were smiling and waving at the native children like this was a visit they made every Sunday.     

Tanner glanced over and saw Larabee staring at him.  He supposed he was trying a bit too hard to look friendly, but he could see the water now.  The stream was only about 100 yards away, and he could almost taste it.  He knew his and his friends’ bodies craved and needed that water.  Chris and Ezra looked awful.  He wanted to reach over and see if Larabee’s temperature was too hot again, but he knew that would not be well-received by his sunburned friend.  All of their faces were so red, it was impossible to tell by looking if any of them were suffering from the heat.  Vin noticed that Larabee seemed to sway and struggle to stay upright from time to time, and Chris had once again grown very quiet.

Standish was wondering the same thing about Larabee, until he noticed that Vin didn’t really look any better.  They had been too long in the hot sun without food and water…..all of them.  Ezra knew his own fair skin was not at all suited for these sorts of conditions; it was much more befitting a dark gambling hall.  “Some vacation, huh gentlemen?” Ezra finally said.

Kacho and Etu left the main tent a few minutes later, and Kacho stopped to talk to a couple of young tribeswomen.  He motioned to the men, and Vin heard their names spoken.  The two women followed Kacho, he untied the men’s hands, and said, “go with them.”

Chris was losing patience, “we appreciate your help, but we would just like to fill a couple of canteens and be on our way.”

“No,” Kacho replied.  “Need food, rest, bath…….go,” he again motioned to the two women.

“He’s right, Chris,” Vin pleaded for Larabee not to put up a fight.  Vin was confident now that these people had no intentions of harming them, as long as Larabee didn’t piss them off.

So, the men followed the two young women, as they had been asked to do.  They were taken to a tent, not far from the stream.  It felt wonderful to get out of the sun.  One of the women motioned for the men to sit, and her companion returned with a large bowl of water.  They offered drinks and then started removing the men’s clothing. 

“Mr. Tanner?” Ezra’s green eyes grew large as he questioned.  “What exactly do you think these young women have planned for us?”

“Think they’re gonna give us a bath,” Vin answered somewhat nervously.

While one woman prepared the soap-like concoction, the other took the men’s clothing out to the stream to wash it off.

Additional bowls of water were brought in, Ezra’s sling was removed and bandages on the splint re-done.

The young women were accustomed to doing their work on their own people, but neither of them had seen a white man up close.  The skin under their clothing was fair, and their faces were red from too much sun.  All three men had pale eyes and lighter hair than the tribesmen.  The women noticed that they had suffered recent injuries as well.  The young natives tried to imagine what sort of situations these men had been in to be beat up, shot, and limbs broken. 

The man that Kacho called Vin had beautiful, long, curly hair, and they argued over which of them would get to wash it.  The younger of the two girls won out.  She carefully detangled the light brown hair and washed the bruised face and slender body.  This man appeared to be the youngest of the three, and his eyes were exactly the color of the sky. 

The older girl went to work on Ezra.  She couldn’t understand what the man said, but could tell that his accent sounded different than the other two.  He had a shiny tooth, was the most clean-cut and better-dressed than the other two.  She found herself daydreaming about running off with this rich, handsome man and traveling the world.  He was slightly shorter than his companions but had a strong physique.  “Ezra,” she allowed herself to say his name out loud, and the man looked at her with beautiful, light green eyes. 

When the younger girl finished with Vin, she approached Chris.  She could sense an element of danger in the handsome man before her.  His green eyes were sharp, like an eagle, and he watched her every move.  His clothing had been all black, but his hair was soft and the fairest of the three.  This man seemed to carry a lot of responsibility on his tall, lean frame.  “The leader,” she decided.  

The girl finished with Ezra and brought back some long shirts for the men to wear while their clothing dried.  It didn’t take long in the heat of the day.  Then she brought back three plates of food, hoping that would help to replenish the obviously tired men. 

As they ate, Chris started to feel guilty for the natives’ kindness and hospitality.  “How can we re-pay them?” Chris asked.  “I have money, but I don’t know that they have a use for it.” 

“We can offer, but I doubt that they do,” Vin answered.  The food felt wonderful in his empty belly.  “I reckon the best we can do is keep our mouth shut, so as we don’t lead more white folks to their little oasis.”

“They may keep our firearms as a consolation prize,” Ezra suggested.  “They have not returned those yet.”

“It’s possible,” Vin said.

Just then Kacho entered and asked, “feeling better?” 

Chris stood and approached the man and held out his right hand.  It took Kacho a minute, but he eventually grabbed Larabee’s arm.  Chris said, “thank you.  You and your people have been very kind.”

“My village needs to see that not all white man are bad,” Kacho smiled.  “Will you stay tonight?”

Chris returned his smile, but said, “no, we’ll be headin’ back to the train tracks once we have our clothes.  We would like to repay you for your kindness; we have money….”

Kacho shook his head, “no, you keep.  I will ready horses, so you can ride.”

Chris looked into the man’s dark brown eyes, “we really appreciate that….and everything you have done.”

Kacho turned and headed for the horses, passing the two young ladies as he left the tent.  The women returned the men’s mostly dry clothing, their hats, and their guns, and the regulators changed and readied themselves to hit the trail.  Once their canteens were full, and they had packed away an extra meal from the tribe, they did their best to mount the bare-backed horses.

Vin had ridden bare-back, but it had been a few years.  He managed to stay in the saddle at least, unlike Ezra and Chris.  Vin finally ended up riding close to Ezra to steady him, after he had fallen off twice.  He was at a major disadvantage only having one arm.  Chris slid off once early on, then seemed to get the hang of it.

They waved their thanks to Kacho, as he left them to head back to his village.  They were good on water and food for at least another couple of days, and now they knew where to find more if needed.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris was awaken before dawn at the sound of an approaching train.  He yelled at the two men to make a run for it.  Fortunately, they had un-buried the suitcases the night before and had moved to the lower ground close to the tracks.  The men were up and running within a minute.

The train was moving quickly, and it appeared to be carrying only freight.  It easily knocked the old train wreckage out of its way.  They saw a few empty cars, with the doors open, and knew that was their shot.

All of the men took off, trying to keep pace with the train.  They threw the suitcase and their belongings in and Vin was the first to mount.  Chris then boosted Ezra up, and Larabee jumped on board.  It was not graceful, and they would all have the scrapes and bruises to prove it…but they were finally on their way out of Death Valley.

Chapter 7:

Mid-morning on the third day, the train pulled into a rail yard in San Diego.  The men inconspicuously disembarked from the train and out into the California town.  Chris found a telegraph station and wired Buck.  He couldn’t imagine what the boys back in Four Corners must have been thinking.  He didn’t go into details; just told them that they had been stranded for a few days and had to get another train.  He also wired Maude and let her know that they should be in San Francisco the following evening.  He had asked around about the Barker family, obtained an address, and sent flowers along with a letter telling them of Elizabeth’s heroic actions on the train.

As Chris was penning the letter, Vin asked, “don’t you think we should go visit them in person….since we’re right here?”

“Vin, I just don’t know how they’re takin’ all of this.  It could even be that they blame us for what happened….she probably would have lived if she hadn’t try to warn us.  I certainly don’t want to upset them any more than they already are.”

The tracker understood that, but it just didn’t seem like enough.  Even though he had only known Elizabeth for a few days, he knew her memory was one that would stick with him….and haunt him.

Ezra had seamlessly fallen back into his usual habits and had spent the evening at the local saloon.  He had decided it was time to remove the sling, which certainly facilitated his card-playing.  Nathan had said the sling should be on for another week, and although Chris and Vin argued that he should probably give it another couple of days after all of the recent abuse, Ezra said that “a week is a week, gentlemen” and off it came.  The men rented a room for the night and planned to catch another train to San Francisco the following morning.  They all were in desperate need of a good meal and a real bed.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

The train pulled into the San Francisco station at about 5PM the next evening.  Much to Vin and Chris’ surprise, Maude was waiting at the station with a carriage to take them to her residence. 

Mrs. Standish was a bit taken by Ezra’s appearance:  the broken arm, the cut on his uncharacteristically-tanned face, and he was thinner than the last time she saw him, but she held her tongue.  Ezra’s mother simply kissed her boy’s cheek and said, “I am delighted to see you, Ezra,” before turning to greet Vin and Chris. 

Their party stopped at the telegraph office on their way to Maude’s to pick up a telegram from Buck.  Mary had told them about a train robbery, and they were worried that Chris, Vin, and Ezra had been involved.  Chris just smiled to himself.  Would he tell them the truth when they got back? 

As they pulled up to the house, Larabee and Tanner offered to find a room to rent nearby.  Maude insisted they too stay with her. 

 

Maude’s new beau was a man named Alan Cummings, and he was, of course, a very wealthy man.  His mansion sat on a cliff over-looking the sea, and the home was full of lavish furnishings.  Mr. Cummings was currently out of town on business, and from what Chris could gather at least – the man was some sort of banker or broker.

The three men had supper with Maude, an exquisite meal of veal and potatoes prepared by Mr. Cummings’ personal chef and kitchen staff. 

Vin and Chris excused themselves not long after to allow Ezra and his mother catch up.  The two men put their belongings in their respective quarters, cleaned up a bit, and reconvened in Tanner’s room. 

“I want to find the local sheriff in the morning,” Chris said, “turn over the suitcases and let them deal with the money and passengers’ belongings.”

“Ya think we can trust ‘em?” Vin wondered aloud.  “It’s an awful lot of money.”

“I guess we could try to contact someone in charge of the railroad, but I’m guessing those folks are crooked-er than any sheriff we might find.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Tanner yawned.  “I’ll go with you tomorrow, but I think I’m about done in for today.”

Chris stood.  The faint sound of someone moving around outside the door never registered with either of the tired men.  “Goodnight, Vin.”

“Goodnight, Cowboy.”

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 “Why were you detained three or four days in arriving here?” Maude turned to her son and asked.

“The first train that we boarded got robbed, and my associates and I were detained, as you say, in dealing with the miscreants,” Ezra explained tersely, hoping that would be enough of an explanation.

“Is that how you injured yourself?” his mother probed.

“The arm injury is an old one and nearly healed.  The facial laceration was from the train robbery,” Ezra was surprised that she was spending so much time discussing his welfare.

“This is just one more reason that you need to leave your current occupation, my boy,” Maude continued.  “You cannot pull off sophisticated cons looking like a ruffian.”

“Ah,” Ezra now understood his Mother’s comments, “and I simply thought you were concerned for my welfare, dear Mother.”

“Well, of course I am,” Maude stuttered.  “I……I just want my beautiful baby boy to stay……beautiful.”

Ezra decided it was best to simply change the subject.  “So, will I have the opportunity to meet this Mr. Cummings before I leave?”

“Yes, I believe you should.  He was planning to return to San Francisco day-after-tomorrow,” Maude answered.  “He really is quite a remarkable man, Ezra.”

“In that he is extensively well-funded, has a beautiful home, but is rarely here?” Ezra smiled.

“Precisely,” Maude grinned back.  “It is a wonderful arrangement.”

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

“Vin and I are going to take a walk around town,” Chris informed Ezra and Maude over coffee the next morning.  Chris had the suitcases, so Ezra knew that the men were determined to find someone to “un-burden” them, once again, from the possibility of wealth.  None of them made any mention to Maude about what was in the suitcases.

Ezra planned to spend the day seeing the sights of San Francisco with his mother.  “You two should stop in at a local merchant and purchase Mr. Tanner some new clothing,” Standish reminded them.  “Then we can all go out for supper this evening.”

Vin just shook his head and went outside to drink the rest of his coffee.  Sometimes Chris and Ezra talked about him and treated him like he was a child.  Why didn’t they think he was capable of shopping for himself?  He had even learned to read over the last year, but that didn’t seem to change the others’ opinions that he was ignorant in the ways of the civilized world.  The frustration gradually faded away as he sat on the stoop in the morning sunshine.  The weather was nice:  not too hot and not too cold.  San Francisco was definitely not for him though; in the fifteen minutes he had been outside, he had already seen over a hundred people pass by on the streets – that was more than the entire population of Four Corners. 

Chris came out a few minutes later, with the suitcases, and he and Vin headed east towards the closest sheriff’s office.  They walked up a steep hill, with small shops on each side.  Chris jokingly pointed to a 4-piece suit in one of the windows, and said, “there you go, Vin.  What would the ladies of Four Corners say if they saw you get off the stage wearing that?” 

“They’d prob’ly say, ‘Vin musta lost a bet with Ezra somewhere ‘tween here and San Francisco’,” Tanner smiled.  There was no way in hell he would be caught dead wearing something like that.  If he bought anything, it would just be a decent pair of dark brown or black pants.  His shirts were fine.

All of a sudden, the grin was gone from the tracker’s face, and he stopped and looked around.

It took Larabee a minute to realize that Vin was no longer beside him, but once he did he turned and headed back.  “What’s up?”  Chris could see that something had Tanner puzzled.

“Heard a noise,” Vin said quietly, “sounded like a gun cocking, Chris.”

Larabee began looking around as well, and the men backed into the closest alleyway to get out of plain sight.

As soon as Larabee’s gun cleared his holster, two masked men attacked.  Chris’ Colt was knocked free, and the two peacekeepers were slammed into the opposite wall of the alley.  Vin’s head cracked loudly against the stone wall, and he crumpled to the ground.  Larabee took a minute to get his breath after having the wind knocked out of him.  His ribs were screaming in pain, and he knew he had lost his gun.  He still held the bank money suitcase in his left hand.  The thug who attacked Vin had already taken the suitcase with the train passengers’ belongings.

As the second thug approached Larabee to pull him to his feet, Chris swung the suitcase up hard, breaking the man’s nose.  Blood immediately poured down the masked face, and Chris was hoping Vin was ok and woke up soon.  Vin’s attacker took over for the bleeding man.  He handed his companion the first suitcase and went after Larabee.  Both attackers had weapons of their own, but they preferred not to use them.  On the busy streets of San Francisco, someone was bound to hear gunshots. 

Chris again tried to use the suitcase as a weapon, but this time the man swatted it out of Larabee’s hand.  It went flying down the alley.  As the thug turned to tell his friend to go get it, Chris charged into the man’s stomach, knocking him off his feet.  The man was stronger and heavier than Larabee and quickly rolled the gunslinger off of him.  He then hauled Chris back to his feet, slammed Larabee hard into the wall once again, and began pummeling him in the face and stomach.  The other thug kept an eye on Tanner and threw a few cheap kicks and punches in on both men when he got the chance.  Larabee was fighting for all he was worth, but he could feel his strength waning.  His face and head had been punched and slammed into the wall so many times that he finally lost consciousness.  The two beaten and bloody peacekeepers were left in the alley, $20,000 poorer than when they entered. 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris came to a few minutes later and knew he needed to check on Vin.  Once his eyes were able to focus, he could see blood running down the wall behind where the unconscious tracker still sat.  His mind was telling him to get up and go to his friend, but his body was not cooperating.  The pain in his back and side flared every time he tried to move, and he became dizzy if he tried to stand.  So, Larabee crawled, slowly, across the alley. 

“Vin,” Chris’ rough voice said, as he gently slapped the tracker’s face.  “You alright?  Come on Vin.  Wake up for me.”  Vin’s lip was busted, but him being knocked out right away saved his face from the beating that Chris’ had taken. 

Vin eventually opened a blue eye to see a battered Larabee kneeling in front of him.  Chris’ left eye was already bruised and swollen, and the patches of dark-colored blood stood out in contract to the pale face and blond hairline. 

“Chris?” Vin reached his arm up to touch the back of his own aching head and felt free-flowing blood.  “Damn,” he croaked.  “I must’ve smacked it good.”

The stubborn tracker was trying to stand, but Chris gently held him down.  “Give it a minute, Vin.  You got a pretty good lump back there.”

The tired gunslinger simply sat down on the ground to wait for Tanner to fully wake up.  “What the hell are we gonna do now?” Chris said as he ran his hand through his hair. 

“They take the money?” Vin groaned out, clearly still in pain.

“Yeah,” Chris answered quietly.  “It’s like they knew, Vin.  How the hell would anybody have known what we had in those cases?”

Vin’s head hurt terribly, and he had to swallow back nausea as he said, “don’t know, Chris.  Maybe Ezra told Maude?”

“Maude’s a con, but she ain’t a criminal,” Chris sighed. 

“That’s an awful lot of money, Cowboy.  I’m sure less has turned perfectly good citizens into criminals before.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Chris saw his gun behind some crates and crawled over to get it.  “Let’s get cleaned up a bit, then we’ll figure somethin’ out.”

Chris winced as he took off his jacket and removed his shirt.  He tore the shirt into pieces and used it, along with his canteen of water, to clean up Vin’s head wound and get a better look at the cut.  It wasn’t dangerously deep, so Chris pressed hard on the cloth for a few minutes and then wrapped a make-shift bandage around the tracker’s head.

Once his head stopped spinning quite so badly, Vin said, “sit down Larabee and give me a piece of that shirt.”  Vin used another wet piece of cloth to clean up Chris’ face as best as he could.  “Don’t wanna scare the good folks of San Francisco more than we have to.”

Larabee pulled himself unsteadily to his feet and put his jacket on over his shirtless chest.  He then reached down and lifted Vin to his feet.  “Think you can walk back to Maude’s?” Chris asked.  He was positive Tanner had a concussion; a person’s head couldn’t smack that hard into a brick wall and not suffer some damage.

“Yeah, I kin make it, “Vin answered, “so long as we go slow.”

Chapter 8:

Both men looked and felt like death-warmed-over by the time they arrived at the Cummings’ house.  They were sporting massive headaches, Vin’s bandage had bled through, and Chris’ ribs hurt on both sides now – makin’ it damn-near impossible to breathe. 

Ezra and Maude were just returning from their sight-seeing trip in the carriage when they saw the figures stumbling up the street.  Ezra jumped down and ran to the two men.  “What in God’s name happened to you?”

“Long story,” Chris started.

“Never mind,” Ezra interrupted.  “Let’s just get you two inside.”

Ezra put his arm around Vin, and they climbed the steps to the residence with Chris following slowly behind.  Mrs. Standish held open the door.  “Take them into the parlor,” she instructed and headed further into the house to get some water and medical supplies.

“Where do I start?” Ezra asked.

“Vin’s head,” Chris answered.  “He’s got a bloody knot on the back.  He won’t admit it, but I’m sure his head hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.  Likely got a concussion.”

“What happened to Mr. Tanner’s head, exactly?” Ezra removed the make-shift bandage to take a look.

“I’m right here, you know,” Vin said, although he regretted it immediately afterwards.  Talking or movement of any kind seemed to make the pain in his head 10 times worse.  He had to close his eyes and swallow hard to fight the overwhelming urge to throw up.

“Some men attacked us, and they slammed Vin’s head into a brick wall.  He was out for a while,” Chris sighed and closed his eyes.  “Ezra, they took the money.”

“I noticed the suitcases were missing,” he said as he continued to probe the area of the wound in Vin’s long, brown hair.  “Do you believe the attackers knew what you were carrying?”

“I do,” Chris felt around his left eye to see how bad the swelling was.

“How?” was all Ezra replied.

“I don’t know,” Chris winced as he tried to sit up straighter.  “Maybe the telegraph operator in San Diego put two and two together.  He knew we were goin’ to San Francisco.”  Chris stopped, and then locked his own green eyes with Ezra’s.  “Vin and I were talkin’ about it in his room last night.  Maybe one of the staff overheard?”

“I have not said a single word to anyone; you know it is not my inclination to share the wealth,” Ezra assured his friends.

Maude came back with supplies, and Ezra turned over the wound cleaning and bandaging to his mother.  He doubted she had much experience tending wounded folks, but at least she had full use of both of her hands.

“Was that Mr. Tanner’s only injury?” Ezra asked to Chris, as he sat down on the couch beside him.

“I think so.  They hit him and kicked him a few times, but Vin didn’t seem to be favoring anything else.”  Chris was sick of feeling tired and beat up all the time.

“And how about you, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra turned Chris’ face towards him so he could get a better look at the damage.  “How many miscreants did you fight?

“There were only two men,” Chris admitted, “but they took us by surprise.  Vin was out first thing.  I was able to hurt one pretty good, but the other one….well, he pretty much kicked my ass,” Chris smirked.

“Were you knocked out as well?”

“Maybe for a little while; don’t really remember,” Chris answered truthfully and rested his forehead on his hand. 

Maude was just finishing up re-wrapping Vin’s head, when she said, “why don’t you go lie down for a spell.  I imagine you both have terrible headaches.”

Ezra helped Chris up off the couch and then supported Vin’s elbow, as they walked up the stairs to the two injured men’s rooms.  Once in bed, on of Maude’s servant girls appeared and placed cool cloths on their foreheads.  As he was leaving the rooms, Ezra said, “I’ll be back to wake you gentlemen in two hours….as I’ve watched Nathan do with head injuries.”

“Should I summon a doctor?” Maude asked once they made it back to the parlor.

“No, I think they’ll be ok.  Thank you for your assistance, Mother.” Ezra replied.  He was torn whether to ask Maude for her help in figuring out who was behind the attack.  He did not believe that she was involved, but he also didn’t know how she would react to accusations that there are criminals amongst her house staff.

“So much for taking those two out in public for supper, I suppose,” Ezra smiled sheepishly at Maude.

“It’s fine.  The staff can prepare just as fine of a meal right here,” she smiled and touched Ezra on the shoulder as she walked to the kitchen.

After a couple of hours, Ezra walked in Chris’ room to find him putting on a new shirt.  The gunslinger’s back was to the door, and Chris visibly jumped when Ezra said loudly, “Good Lord, Mr. Larabee.”  Chris’ back and sides were covered in scrapes and bruises .  “I think you sustained more damage than you originally disclosed.  Should I ask Mother to call a doctor?”  Larabee didn’t think he had broken anything, but any kind of movement was painful right now.

“I’m fine, Ezra; just got banged up a bit,” Chris winced as he tried to put his arm in the shirt sleeve.

“A bit?” Ezra shook his head, “at least let me help you with your shirt.”  Chris could take a beating, no doubt about it.  The bruises on his face were more pronounced now, and the blackness around his left eye seemed to be spreading to his right.  The swelling wasn’t much worse though; Larabee was thankful that he could still see out of both eyes.

“How large was this man you fought?” Ezra was serious, but Chris just laughed. 

“Big enough, I guess,” laughing, talking – everything hurt right now.  “Vin still sleepin’?”

“Yes, Mr. Tanner was sleeping the last I looked in.  He’s been coherent during wakings, so hopefully the concussion is not too severe.” Ezra noticed how Chris immediately shifted the concern away from himself.

“I’m thinkin’ maybe you and I should sit down and have a conversation with Maude,” Chris said after a long pause.

“I was thinking the same thing, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra sighed.  He walked down the hall to check on Vin one more time then met up with Chris and Maude in the parlor.

She started to get up and leave, and Chris said, “Is there a place we could talk….privately?”

“Why, I can shut the parlor doors, if you wish,” Maude answered, somewhat taken aback by the question.

“That would probably be fine,” Ezra chimed in, “We are looking for a place to converse where the help cannot over-hear.”

“Maybe Alan’s study would be better,” Maude volunteered.  “It is on the end of the house and is a large room with a solid door.”

“Lead the way then, Mother, if you please,” the younger Standish said.

Once in the room, Chris cleared his throat and began, “Vin and I were carrying suitcases containing valuable items today.  We believe we were attacked because of that.  It is possible that someone in the house may have overheard our plans last night and planned to steal the cases.  We were wonderin’ if you might have any idea who it could be?   Who was upstairs last night?  Has anybody been in trouble before?”

“Why, no, I trust everyone on the staff,” Maude answered then paused for a moment, “what kind of valuable items?”

“Stuff from the train robbery,” Chris was trying to be as vague as possible but still give Maude enough information to be helpful.  “How many men do you have working inside the house?”

“As in males, Mr. Larabee?” Maude clarified.

“Correct,” Chris replied.  He realized that a woman could have shared the information as well, but his gut told him that wasn’t likely.  Maybe he had simply been around Buck for too long.

“Well, most of our in-house help are females.  We do have a butler, Tom, and my husband has a personal assistant, who helps out from time to time.”

Chris and Ezra had met Tom.  He was a tall, skinny, old man – very friendly but not likely to wander up the stairs unless he absolutely had to.  Even in the few minutes they talked to him, he discussed how bad his rheumatism was.  “What’s the personal assistant’s name?”  Chris inquired.

“Carl Winners,” Maude answered.  “He is a kind gentleman; has worked for Alan for over 20 years.  Helps out with bank payrolls and accounting as well.”

“Have you seen him today?” Ezra jumped in to the questioning.

“No, on weekdays he generally spends most of the day at the bank.  He’s picking Alan up at the train station tomorrow morning, so he will be here then,” Maude knew Alan would not be happy about these sort of allegations against his good friend.

“Alright, thanks.  I’m gonna go check on Vin,” Chris gingerly pushed himself up and left the room.

“We’ll figure this out, Mother,” Ezra put his hand on Maude’s and reassured her.  She seemed different this trip….more human, even a bit motherly.  It reminded him of better days, when the two of them did not see each other as competition.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris found Vin sitting up on his bed when he entered.

“How’re you feelin’?” Chris asked when Vin looked up at the open door.

“Better,” Vin answered.

“Still sick to your stomach?”

“Not bad, just a bit of a headache.”

Vin’s blue eyes still had a glassy, sunken look to them, so when Tanner started to stand, Chris moved to his side.  The long-haired man was able to support himself after a minute and started walking towards the door.

Ezra appeared in the doorway, “feeling well enough to make a break for it?”

“Somethin’ like that,” Vin smiled.  “Thanks for lookin’ out for me, fellers.”

“Anytime, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra returned the grin.  He knew his friends had suffered on this journey, and he felt some responsibility for that.

“My face look as bad as Chris’?” Vin looked at Larabee and grinned.

“It does not,” Ezra said.  “Mr. Larabee clearly fought a valiant battle with those miscreants while you were unconscious.”

Ezra walked over and pulled up Larabee’s shirt tail to reveal the patchwork of blues, black, and purple across Chris’ back and ribs. 

“Ah shit, Chris,” Vin took a closer look at Larabee’s back.  “I had no idea.”  Vin could clearly see that the two large men had beat the hell out of Chris.

Chris jerked his shirt back down.  “Vin, you did damn good gettin’ yourself back here with that head injury; didn’t need to be worryin’ on me.”

“Nathan’s gonna throttle ya if you went and broke more ribs ‘fore the last ones got fully healed.”

Chris swung his patented glare from Tanner to Standish as he said, “I didn’t break nothin’, and what Nathan don’t know won’t hurt him.”

Ezra cleared his throat, “Yes, well, are you gentlemen getting hungry?”

“You bet yer ass,” Vin pushed past Standish out into the hallway.

“Charming as always, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra ushered the two men downstairs and to the dining room.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

The following day, Maude and the three regulators were sitting on the front porch when a carriage pulled up.  Two men dismounted, and the driver followed carrying luggage.  Chris, Ezra, and Vin stood.  The first man to approach was tall and well-dressed.  No one could have guessed that he just spent the last 4 days on a train.  Cummings stuck out his hand towards the most well-dressed of the three strangers on his porch and said, “you must be Ezra.  It is very nice to finally meet you, Mr. Standish.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Ezra courteously responded, “Mr. Cummings I presume.  Mother has told me nothing but wonderful things about you.  These are my two friends, Mr. Chris Larabee and Mr. Vin Tanner.”  Chris and Vin exchanged pleasantries and shook the man’s hand.

Alan Cummings then said, “this is my friend and associate, Mr. Carl Winners.” 

The three men shook his hand as well, but Winners made Chris’ hair stand on end.  He had never met the man before, but something seemed very familiar about him. 

“Maude wired that you boys had run into some trouble on the way here,” Cummings motioned for everyone to have a seat.  “I didn’t realize exactly how much trouble,” he finished as he took in the three battered men before him.

Ezra, Maude, and Alan Cummings carried the conversation over the next hour.  Chris was preoccupied by Mr. Winners.  He seemed friendly enough, and Larabee didn’t see a bruise or scratch on him….so he certainly wasn’t one of the attackers.  Carl had a very similar build to the larger man who knocked out Vin and fought with Chris in the end, but the most uncanny thing was the eyes.  The larger attacker had unusual, light-brown, almost-yellow eyes.  This man’s were exactly the same.  “His brother?” Chris wondered.  Larabee didn’t know how much, if anything, Vin remembered about their attackers, but he sure wished he could get him off by himself to ask.

“Maude, why don’t you see to having a nice lunch prepared, and the gentlemen and I will have a few drinks in my study?” Alan asked, as he rose to go into the house.

Chris gave Vin a look that said, “keep on your toes.”  Once in the study, Mr. Cummings poured drinks for everyone and offered them a cigar.  He spoke of how he had made his fortunes with no help from anyone.  He bragged about growing up dirt poor and making himself into one of the wealthiest men in San Francisco.  As Chris finished his glass of wine, he started to feel flushed.  “Wow, strong stuff,” Larabee blinked hard and thought to himself.  Ezra had only drank about half of his glass, but he was thinking the exact same thing.

Vin had politely refused the wine, and he was thankful when he saw the glassy look in his friends’ eyes.  The Texan was starting to get a bad feeling about all of this.  He looked around the room and noticed that Mr. Winners was now standing between himself and the door.  Ezra had just passed out in his chair, and he could see Chris fighting not to fall asleep.  His friends had been drugged!
 

Chapter 9:

Vin immediately stood and said, “what the hell is goin’ on?”  At the same time he was thinking to himself, “why the hell didn’t any of us put our gun belts on this mornin’?”

Alan Cummings laughed.  “I’m sorry to say it, but you boys managed to stumble into a big heap of trouble.”  Just then, Carl descended on Vin and roughly pulled his arms behind his back and tied them together.  He then did the same to Vin’s sleepy friends.  Larabee was still awake enough to know something was going on, but he couldn’t get his limbs to do anything about it.  Ezra was completely out. 

“Carl, go tell Maude that we will be taking our lunch to go,” Alan told the big man.  “Tell her that I’m going to take the boys for a walk in the garden, and we’ll return in a couple of hours.”  Cummings had hired a fleet of gardeners a few years ago to create a beautifully-landscaped area of plants and trees.  Situated on this side of the house, closest to his study, the garden ran from just outside the door all the way to the ocean-side cliff.

“What do you want?” Vin asked once Carl left the room.

“I want you boys to be quiet, and I’ve heard enough about you to know that there’s only one way to ensure that happens.”

“Quiet about what?” Vin continued, hoping to stall long enough for the drug’s effects on Chris and Ezra to wear off.

“About the money, of course,” Alan smiled.  “You don’t think I became this wealthy all by honorable dealings, now do you?”

“So, you stole the train money?” Vin struggled to put it all together.

“Hell, it was MY money to steal,” Cummings continued.  “I have banks in San Francisco, St. Louis, and Chicago.  I set up a shipment from one of the St. Louis banks to transfer $25,000 in cash to the bank in San Francisco, and I made certain it was insured.  Then I hired a group of friends from St. Louis to rob the train and take the money.  I give them half, they give me half, and I still collect the insurance – 50% profit, my dear boy.” 

“It was just an unfortunate coincidence that you boys ended up on the same train, but in the end it worked out.  I actually made 100% profit because you took out my partners and delivered the money right to me.”  Alan laughed.  “Of course the sad part for you is that now I can’t leave any witnesses.”

Carl showed up with lunch bags, and Alan instructed, “let’s get these men to the cliff.”

“You, Mr. Tanner, maybe you can help us,” Mr. Cummings stated then marched Vin at gunpoint over to where Ezra was passed out.  He placed Ezra across Vin’s shoulder and instructed the buckskin-clad man to walk.  Carl hoisted Larabee over his shoulders, and they all exited through the back door into the garden.  Alan kept his gun trained on Tanner.  Vin was hoping that the fresh air would help to rouse his two friends.  He had no idea what kind of poison Cummings had given them.

Chris was starting to stir just as they approached the ocean overlook.  It was a vast area of rocky cliffs that shot straight down 300 feet to the water below.  Vin lay Ezra on the ground, as instructed.  The gambler was not stirring at all.  Just as Carl made the move to lay Chris on the ground, Larabee vomited on his boots.  “Ahhh!” Carl kicked the gunslinger in the stomach as repayment for his messy shoes. 

“Guess our sleep medicine didn’t agree with Larabee,” Alan laughed.

Vin thought that was probably a good sign.  Maybe most of the drug was out of Chris’ stomach now.  “So, now what, Cummings?” Vin asked, again trying to stall for time.

“You three are going to meet with a tragic accident, I’m afraid.  You imbibed in too much drink and fell to your deaths below.  Maybe one of you fell, then the others died trying to save him….don’t know.  I will work out the details of the story later.”

Chris’ head and stomach hurt.  He groaned and opened his eyes briefly.  Seeing the two men brought everything rushing back to him, and he decided to lie there, pretending to be asleep, until it was time to act.  He gave a quick glance to Vin to let him know he was ok and ready to fight, then closed his eyes again. 

Alan approached Ezra’s prone form and hoisted him up on his shoulders.  “Sorry we won’t get to know each other better, my boy,” Alan laughed as he approached the cliff edge with his bundle.

He turned for just a moment, and a loud bang sounded.  He looked down to see blood pooling on his chest, and Maude Standish holding a smoking gun.

Chris leapt to his feet and jumped on Carl Winners.  It surprised the associate enough that his gun flew out of his hand.  Chris managed to scramble to the free weapon first, even with his bound hands.

Cummings dropped Ezra on the ground, as he sank to his knees, trying to staunch the flow of blood from the chest wound. 

Maude had continued to think about her conversation with Chris and Ezra since the evening before.  She was convinced that Mr. Winners was involved in the attack and thus may try to hurt her son and Alan.  She had come outside today, with Ezra’s revolver, with the intention of protecting the very man she just shot in the chest.

“Vin, why don’t you take Ezra and Mrs. Standish into the house,” Chris suggested.  “I’ll keep an eye on these two until you get back, then we’ll tie them up and call the authorities.”  Larabee wasn’t sure that Alan Cummings would be alive by then, but he thought it best to leave that detail out.

Vin hoisted Ezra on his shoulders, carried him into the parlor and laid him on the sofa.  Maude lifted her son’s head, sat down, and lay it back in her lap.  She hadn’t said a word since she had pulled the trigger.

“I’ll be back soon,” Vin said.  He grabbed a knife from the kitchen to cut his bonds and hurried back outside to help Chris with the two prisoners.  Larabee was sitting on a bench with Winners’ gun trained on the two men.  He was still a bit woozy from the lingering drug effects. 

“Everything ok, Chris?” Vin asked when the saw the gunslinger sitting down. 

“Just fine,” the blond man answered and stood up.  “Let’s get these pieces of crap tied up and ready for prison.”  Vin cut the rope holding Chris’ hands and bound the other two.  A few of the grounds’ workers had shown up as well.  Two of them helped haul the two men around to the front of the house.  Another servant summoned the local police and a physician who lived a couple of houses away. 

Vin took charge of the arrest and interviews with the law.  Fortunately, none of the officers recognized Vin’s likeness from wanted posters.  Tanner had been the only one awake enough to hear the confession.  He relayed that information and gave the sheriff good suggestions about where to look for the missing money and personal belongings from the train. He did it all under the name of JD Dunne.  Vin wondered what the youngster would think about his name ending up in the San Francisco newspapers.  Chris had suggested they check out whether Mr. Winners had a brother, and if so – he should have some bruises from their fight earlier.  There should also be an associate of the family with a badly broken nose that was a third accomplice.  Mr. Cummings had expired on the front porch during the questioning, so that left his home and bank business to his one and only beneficiary – Mrs. Maude Standish. 

Ezra’s mother would be set for life.  She hadn’t decided whether she would stay in San Francisco and keep the house or sell it and the business and move on.  There were restitutions to make from the bank business, to the train passengers’ families and insurance companies, but that still left plenty of money to live out the rest of her years more-than-comfortably.

Ezra had taken longer than expected to awaken from the sleeping drug/wine combination.  When the doctor arrived, Standish was starting to stir but still heavily under the effects of the drug.  It made no sense to the physician, but the patient kept rambling incoherently about how he was destined to be poor forever and how he would never run out on someone again. 

Much to Ezra’s chagrin, the physician administered a liberal dose of ipecac as his poisoning remedy of choice.  Standish was horrified that he had no choice but to vomit violently in front of his friends and his mother, but he recovered quickly thereafter.  The boys remained in San Francisco for another three days, and then boarded a train for Four Corners. 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

They had to stop off for a few hours in San Diego to change trains.  This gave them just enough time to make a visit to Elizabeth’s grave.  The three men felt terrible about what happened to the young lady from the train.  Chris and Ezra said a few, short words at her gravesite and then gave Vin some privacy. 

“Hope Heaven is a nice place, Ms. Elizabeth.  You shouldn’t be there, and I’m so sorry.  I shoulda never gotten you involved with us.  You really were beautiful…inside and out, and I know a lot of folks, including me, are real sad that you’re gone.” 

Vin placed a flower on her grave and jumped when a voice said, “Elizabeth loved Irises.”

It was her older sister, Katherine.

“I was just leavin.’  Didn’t mean to intrude….”

“I’m glad you came,” Katherine looked up into the sad blue eyes.

“You are?”

“I know you probably think that Elizabeth and I spent all of our time arguing.  We did do a fair amount of that, but she was my sister.  I loved her, Mr. Tanner, and all I ever wanted was for her to be happy.  I do think she could have been happy with you.”  Katherine’s eyes filled with tears, and she simply turned and walked away.

Vin took a deep breath to collect himself, tipped his hat to the clouds and sky above, then turned to meet his two friends at the bottom of the hill.

Within the hour, they were on a train heading east.

Even Ezra had to admit that he was looking forward to getting back home.  “Home,” Ezra was shocked that is what he considered the little town these days.  He found that he missed his arguments with Nathan, his deep conversations with Josiah, and the practical jokes of Buck and JD.  The two men sitting next to him on the train were the quietest of the seven, but their actions of late spoke of a kinship that Standish had never before experienced. 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

As the stagecoach pulled into the dusty little town, one word kept coming to the forefront of Ezra’s mind:  family.  Maybe the Indian had called it right; these men were his brothers.  No matter how much they teased or argued or fought, they were always there when one brother needed help. 

Nathan and Buck greeted them, or maybe it was more accurately said that Buck greeted them and Nathan scrutinized them.  But, for once, they had all made it home with no serious injuries. 

Nathan noticed that Ezra no longer wore his sling.  He would check out the gambler’s arm later.  Ezra had a scabbed-over cut on his face but otherwise looked well.

Vin had an old bruise around his right eye, but it was mostly shades of yellow and green now.  Nathan was impressed; no new holes or injuries that he could detect.  Tanner’s hat was covering the healing wound on the back of his head.  “Like Chris had said a few days earlier, what Nathan didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him,” Vin thought.

Chris was the only one who tempted Nathan a bit.  He had a number of new bruises on his face, and he moved the most rigidly.  He had just gotten off of a 4-hour stagecoach ride though, so Nathan would expect the man to be a little stiff.

He would let Buck test them out.

The tall, broad ladies’ man was so happy to see his friends that he engulfed each one in a big bear hug.  “Welcome back, Ezra,” Buck squeezed the smaller man.

“It is good to see you too, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra smiled.

“How’re you doin’ Vin?” Buck again squeezed with all his might. 

“Just fine, Buck, so long as you let my lungs expand soon,” Vin too smiled.

Chris grinned as Buck approached him.  He knew what was coming.  “It’s real good to see you, Old Dog,” the taller man wrapped his long arms around Larabee.

“Ah ha!” Nathan exclaimed, as he saw Chris wince with Buck’s embrace.  “I knew I’d get to work on at least one of ya.” 

Buck backed up, holding Chris’ shoulders at arm’s length and took a long look at him.  Buck could see that Chris had been in a fight, but a bruised Larabee wasn’t an unusual sight to Wilmington.  It took him back to the good ol’ days and bar fights that he and Chris used to get into.

“Really,” Chris looked to Buck and Nathan, “I’m fine.  We’re all fine.”

“If you boys would humor me just for a minute, I’d like to take a quick look at Ezra’s arm and Chris’ ribs,” Nathan smiled.  He really wasn’t worried about finding any serious trouble.

The three travel-weary men and Buck climbed the steps to Nathan’s clinic.

“You know the routine by now,” Nathan grinned.

Ezra just had to take one arm out of his shirt, so Nathan could look at his healing forearm.  Chris disrobed to the waist and Buck exclaimed, “Damn Chris, you really know how to piss people off don’t ya?” when he saw the massive bruising on Larabee’s back and ribs. 

Nathan approached and looked wide-eyed at Chris.  “Was this from a fight or did the train run over ya?” 

“Just a fight,” Chris answered without volunteering any additional information.

“We got jumped in an alley in Frisco,” Vin explained.  “Chris fought with a couple of large fellers and got slammed into a brick wall.”

Nathan shook his head.  The bruises did fit with being pummeled against a hard wall.  He didn’t miss a beat though when he turned to Vin and remarked, “did you just say WE got jumped?  Were all three of ya in the fight?”  Nathan couldn’t imagine Vin and Ezra just standing there watching Chris get the crap beat out of him.

“I was with Mother at the time.  It was just Vin and Chris,” Ezra spoke up, and Vin glared at him.

“I shoulda known you boys couldn’t stay out of trouble,” Nathan said but without any hint of animosity.  He walked over and pulled up Vin’s shirt to take a peek – all clear.  Nathan looked at Vin puzzled, “now, how’d you get off bruise-free?” 

Vin just shrugged his shoulders, but as Nathan started probing on Chris’ sore ribs Larabee blurted out, “shit, Nathan.  Maybe you should check out Vin’s head.  He didn’t do much fightin’ because he was out cold the whole damn time.”

Nathan stepped away for a minute, yanked off Vin’s hat, and very quickly found the cut and goose-egg on the back of the tracker’s head.  Chris was thankful for the reprieve, as Nathan began questioning Vin.  “Any pain, dizziness, or nausea?”

“For the first day or two,” Vin answered, “but it’s fine now, Nate.  Get back to proddin’ that traitor over there.”  Buck and Ezra laughed, and Nathan did just that.

“Chris, you’re gonna be sore as hell for a week or so, but I don’t feel anything broken,” Nathan finished and helped Larabee back into his black shirt.  “Let me know if you have trouble sleepin’, and I’ll give you somethin’ to help with the pain.”  Chris dipped his head in thanks and was grateful to pass Nathan’s boney fingers off onto Ezra.

After a quick exam, Nathan said, “alright, get out of here and get some real food.  Ezra, your arm looks good; think we’ll be able to take the splint off sooner than I thought.”

The five men headed down the steps and towards the saloon.  Ezra knew they were going to have to tell the full story someday, and that Buck and the others would have to catch them up on the town’s happenings over the last few weeks.  As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the saloon, he witnessed big smiles from JD and Josiah.  Josiah stood up and put out his arms.  Chris was first in-line, and immediately yelled, “don’t you dare!”  Josiah just shrugged his shoulders in confusion as Buck, Nathan, Vin, and Ezra bust out laughing. 

Chris stuck out his hand for a shake instead, and Josiah accepted it then immediately pulled the gunslinger into a tight bear-hold.  “Damnit, Josiah!” Chris yelled and laughter erupted once again. 

Ezra stepped back and smiled as he took in the sight of all of them together again……one big, crazy, dysfunctional family indeed.

 

THE END



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