STORM TROUBLE

By ssinco

 

Chapter 1:

Mary Travis was looking forward to the beautiful, spring day as she stepped out onto the boardwalk of the dusty little town. Her father-in-law, circuit court Judge Orrin Travis, would be arriving on the stage that afternoon, and the young, blond-haired widow had not seen him in nearly a month.

As she continued on her walk, she noticed six of the town's peacekeepers standing outside the saloon. In her haste to see what was happening, she bumped into Ezra Standish, the seventh peacekeeper and resident gambler, coming down from his room at the boarding house.

"Good morning, Mrs. Travis," smiled Ezra.

"Nice of you to finally join us Ez," Buck Wilmington interrupted as Ezra and Mary approached the group. Buck, who had a reputation as the town ladies' man, figured if he had to get out of bed early and leave his lovely companion, then Ezra should have to drag his "late night, gamblin' butt out before 10AM" as well. Ezra ignored Buck's remarks; he was quite accustomed to being chided for not being an early riser in this group.

Four of the men: Buck, Vin Tanner, Nathan Jackson, and Josiah Sanchez were preparing their mounts to ride out, but neither Ezra nor Mary knew the reasons why. Mary was the first to ask, "is everything alright?"

Leader of the seven and infamous, fast-drawing gunslinger, Chris Larabee, said "been a busy mornin'."

"There are a lot of folks sick out at the Indian Village – fever of some sort, so Nathan and Josiah are riding out to help them for a few days," Chris continued. "Lucy Miller's boy, Jake, stopped in at the jail about an hour ago and said his little brother, Sam, went missin' sometime yesterday morning. His ma is beside herself, so Vin and Buck volunteered to help look for him."

"Sam is kind of ornery," Mary commented. "Hopefully he just ran off for a bit and will come back when he gets hungry."

"Yeah, I hope you're right Mary," Chris agreed. "The boy's only 6, so it would be kind of surprisin' for one that young to stay away more than a day on their own. Maybe he got lost though; I'm sure Vin and Buck'll find him."

They all knew Sam Miller; the little tow-headed boy was friendly but got into trouble from time to time. His family moved here about 6 months ago. The story heard around town was that the boys' mother had been widowed and felt like their best chance was to move and start fresh in a few place.

"You ready, Josiah," asked Nathan, a former-slave who obtained medical training as a stretcher-bearer in the Union army. The tall, dark man's skills were relied upon heavily by the town and surrounding communities, such as the Indian village. "Ready whenever you are, Brother Nathan," Josiah called back while hopping onto the back of his big white horse.

"Good luck, Nathan," said Vin, followed up by JD's "we'll see you in a couple of days."

JD Dunne was the youngest member of the seven. Fresh off the stage from Boston, the black-haired, hazel-eyed youth was initially denied entry into the group, but persistence paid off. Now years later, JD had proven himself to be a valuable member of the "Magnificent Seven." Dunne was confident that Nathan would be able to treat the people in the village; no one worked harder and more selflessly to help folks around Four Corners than Jackson – day or night, often for no pay.

Josiah, the large former preacher and eldest member of the seven, turned and smiled as he and Nathan rode off into the sunrise.

Buck then turned away from his departing friends and looked at Vin. "So, whatta you think? Should we head over to the Miller place and start searching for the boy from there?"

Vin Tanner was a former buffalo hunter-turned- bounty hunter and an expert tracker. The lean brown-haired man was one of the younger members of the group but most folks considered him second-in-command behind Larabee.

"Yeah," Vin replied. "I'd be more apt to track him if we start where he started. His ma said she saw him night before last, then he was gone the next morning when she got up. Their place is only a little ways from town, so Chris and JD'll ask folks here if they seen him."

Buck saw Blossom peeking out the window of her room, and he tipped his hat and gave her a smile as he and Vin rode out toward the Miller farm.

Chris then turned toward Mary and asked "When is the Judge's stage due?"

"The wire he sent said 11 o'clock. I think he planned on speaking with you upon arrival then meeting me for lunch afterwards," Mary replied.

"I'm heading over to the jail to keep an eye on the prisoner, so send the Judge over when he arrives." With that, Chris too walked away. Mary knew it wasn't proper to stare, but she found Mr. Larabee to be an attractive man. She watched the lean, blond-haired gunslinger until he disappeared through the doorway of the jail.

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The prisoner was a cantankerous fellow by the name of Russell Storm. He was a young man in his mid-20's with wild, dark curly hair, and his life mainly consisted of riding around the countryside with his buddies spending his daddy's money. His father, Daniel Storm, was a Texas rancher, and he made his fortunes selling beef and participating in other activities – legal or otherwise – that he thought would fetch a hefty profit. For the most part, the young man and his friends moved from cantina to cantina getting liquored up, getting into fights, and pestering women. Last week they crossed the line when a drunken Russell accidentally discharged his gun, shooting town resident Tom Burns. Mr. Burns lived, thanks to Nathan's quick work, but his condition was touch-and-go for quite a few days.

The judge did not tolerate such behavior and sentenced Storm to a year in prison. He was held in the jail in Four Corners until the seven could find time to move him to a larger facility. Larabee suspected that is what Orrin Travis was going to ask him to do today; take Mr. Storm to the Yuma territorial prison. Wouldn't that be perfect timing with so much other stuff going on this week?

The judge's stage arrived just after 11 o'clock, and sure enough – Travis asked that at least two of the seven regulators escort the man to Yuma starting the following morning. With this young man's powerful relatives, and escalating threats across the territory, the judge wanted him put away in a maximum-security prison as soon as possible.

Larabee knew that Nathan and Josiah wouldn't be back before tomorrow. He wasn't sure about Vin and Buck, so for now he had to plan to drag a cranky prisoner hundreds of miles to Yuma with either Ezra or JD as his companion. Larabee trusted the kid to keep a better eye on the town, so as much as Chris hated to admit it, it seemed as though the best choice was to take Ezra with him to Yuma. He didn't know if the hardest part was going to be the ride there or having to tell Ezra that he had been selected to go.

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Vin and Buck had been searching for 6-year-old Sam Miller for nearly 6 hours. They stopped at the homestead earlier and spoke to the mother and siblings. As the son who came into town reported, the mother was very worried. She kept saying over and over again that he was gone when she woke up yesterday morning, and that she had no idea where he might go. Since there were a number of children and horses at the house and all of them looking for Sam, it was difficult for the lanky tracker to determine which tracks belonged to whom.

Over the first 4 hours, the two peacekeepers scoured the area close to the house and determined that Sam wasn't close by. In the last two hours, they followed some horse tracks about a half mile from the homestead. There appeared to be some child-sized footprints that met up with the tracks but didn't continue on foot beyond that. After following the tracks for another few hours, Buck finally spoke up and said "It's getting too dark Vin. We should find a good spot to camp for the night and start again in the morning."

Vin knew the taller man was right, but his mind thought the worst about the horse tracks and little Sam Miller. They were shod horses, so not likely renegade Indians….unless the Indians stole the horses from the white man. Either way, it didn't seem like a good omen for the kid. Reluctantly, Vin agreed, and he and Buck bedded down to grab a few hours of sleep before starting again at first light.

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Chris walked through the bat-wing doors of the saloon and found Ezra at his usual table. The place wasn't busy this time of day, and Ezra was playing a game of solitaire to pass the time. He saw Larabee walk in but didn't look up or acknowledge Chris until the fair-haired gunslinger sat down at his table.

"To what do I owe this pleasure, Mr. Larabee? I don't suppose you came to play a game of cards?" Ezra smiled while shuffling the cards one-handed.

"Sure, Ezra. Deal me in," the man in black replied. As he and Ezra played a round of five card stud, Chris filled the gambler in on his conversation with the judge, and their upcoming journey to Yuma.

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Nathan and Josiah arrived at the Indian village just before noon. They set up a couple of quarantine tents to isolate the sick patients, and they chose a few of the villagers to assist them. Rain, a woman who was a good friend of Nathan's and visited him a few times in Four Corners, insisted that she be one of Nathan's helpers. Although Nathan worried for her health, he was happy to spend the extra time with her.

Josiah went to work brewing large kettles of tea. Nathan wanted to try out three or four different mixtures to see which would work best. All of the folks had a fever, and many a cough as well. Nathan appreciated the villagers' willingness to help and be helped. These folks did not complain about his awful-tasting concoctions and followed his instructions without complaint….not at all like the six men he often treated back in town. Despite their good nature, a lot of these folks were extremely ill, and Nathan knew it was going to be a long and difficult night.

 

Chapter 2:

"JD, keep your eyes peeled. The judge said there was talk of Storm's family hiring men to come get him, and they may think he is still in our jail. Hopefully Buck and Vin will be back today or tomorrow." Chris worried about leaving JD alone, but he also knew JD had learned a lot in the last few years.

Ezra came down the stairs as promised just after dawn, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. He wasn't about to give Larabee any reason to be angry at him before they even left Four Corners. He and the leader of the seven never seemed to have any trouble finding points to disagree on as it was.

The prisoner, Russell Storm, was tied up on a third horse, prattling on about how there was no way they would make it to Yuma prison. He was convinced that his kin would send someone to rescue him long before that. Larabee yelled, "shut up!" He then looked at Ezra, tipped his hat to JD and said, "let's ride."

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Vin and Buck were up before the sun. The two men packed their belongings and made a quick batch of coffee before they headed out for the second day of hunting for 6-yr-old Sam Miller. The night had been cold and the ground hard, so both men felt stiff and sore as they continued to follow the set of horse tracks. The tracker's back hurt more than usual, but he just chalked it up to sleeping on the cold ground.

The horses they followed were moving at a good pace, and it didn't seem like Vin and Buck gained much, if any, ground on them. Even as the heat of the day grew, Vin continued to shiver and his back continued to ache. Tanner wouldn't admit it to his companion, but he felt pretty lousy. And that showed in his mood. "Why ain't we gainin' any ground on these fellows? We've been riding hard, and we ain't even found their campsite from last night yet."

All Buck could think to say was "Maybe they rode through the night?"

"Well, mebbe we should have too," replied Vin. "Looks to me like it's gonna rain this afternoon, and then we're gonna lose the tracks completely."

The lean Texan was usually one of the most patient men of the seven, so Buck rode up close to Tanner and saw his pale features. "You ok, Vin?"

"M'fine Bucklin. Let's get moving before the rain gets here," and with that Vin raced his horse across the plains.

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Ezra couldn't help but chuckle to himself as Chris Larabee again screamed at their prisoner to "be quiet, or I'm gonna cut out your tongue!"

Storm had continued his non-stop yapping and insulting since they departed Four Corners 5 hours ago. In truth, Ezra was tired of listening to it as well, but there was the amusement that came along with watching Larabee's reactions to it. "How could a man's face turn THAT red," the gambler puzzled to himself.

The sun beat down on the men as they stopped for a quick meal, but they could see storm clouds building to the west. Ezra hoped they would find a town or at least a cave to sleep in tonight, or they were likely in for a soggy slumber. So far, that was their biggest concern of the trip.

Ezra noted "there has been no sign of other riders that might be looking to emancipate Mr. Storm."

To which Chris quickly replied, "too bad too 'cause I'm really lookin' for an excuse to shoot this worthless piece of crap." He motioned to their prisoner, as he stood and began to ready the horses for the afternoon leg of their trip.

The winds picked up as they traveled on, and later in the afternoon it started to rain. Both of the regulators looked for a place to hole up for the night, but there was no sign of any kind of shelter…..so they kept riding and much to Ezra's chagrin, kept getting wetter and wetter. Finally, they came upon a rock outcropping that would shelter them from the westerly winds a bit, so they stopped and made camp. It was dark and too wet for a fire. There would be no hot meal tonight. Ezra unpacked some bread and dried meat, while Chris walked around the end of the rock wall to see to the call of nature. The next thing Ezra knew, a large, hard object struck him in the back of the head knocking him out cold.

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Tanner and Wilmington tracked the men and horses to a small, backwater town, and just as they arrived it started to rain.

"Unless we find the posse and boy here in town, I'd say we've lost them," Vin said with a shiver. "'Tween the rain and all of the other folks riding in and out, we aint' got much of a chance."

Buck was really starting to worry about Vin, even though the stubborn tracker kept insisting he was fine. "Let's see if we can find a room then and ask around."

They boarded their horses at the local livery and were pointed in the direction of the one and only boarding house. The owner was a portly woman by the name of Laura, and she provided them with a room for the night. It wasn't anything fancy, but it was clean and certainly beat sleeping out in the rain.

Although Vin wasn't happy about losing the trail, he had to admit he was looking forward to a good night's rest. Maybe that's all he needed to shake whatever was ailing him today. Everything seemed to hurt, and he could not get warm. He started to feel a tickle in the back of his throat as well. "What a wonderful time to get sick," he thought.

"You gonna tell me what's going on with you," Buck asked once they were alone in the room. "I've seen you wincin' and shiverin' all day." Buck walked closer and put his hand on Vin's face. The younger man just shrugged his shoulders when the tall, ladies’ man said, "damnit Vin, you've got a fever. Why didn't you say somethin'?"

The tracker looked up at Buck with big blue eyes, and shrugged again. Buck was right; he should have said something, but he just wanted to find the little boy.

Buck sighed, understanding why Vin kept quiet. Hell, these seven men were as stubborn as they come and had all ridden hurt or sick at one time or another. Vin did look pitiful though, so Buck told him to go lie down and he would rustle up some dinner from the local saloon.

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It was incredibly dark. The cloudy, rainy sky prevented any moonlight from shining through, and Larabee tripped and slid on rocks as he made his way back to camp. As he got closer, he started to get an unsettled feeling in his gut. He couldn't quite place what or why yet, but something didn't seem right. Then Chris realized that even though he was only a few yards from the camp, he didn't hear either Standish or Storm talking. Between the two of them, Larabee hadn't had a moment of silence all day, so why so quiet now? He stopped and waited for a minute and still nothing. The gunslinger continued on, but now with his Colt in his hand.

The blond peacekeeper tried to be as quiet as possible. Chris walked slowly around the last boulder, but again his boot slipped on a wet rock and caused a few pebbles to roll away. It was immediately following that he heard, "Come out and throw down your weapon, Larabee, or the pretty boy gambler gets it."

Chris' eyes adjusted enough that he could see a large figure holding a revolver to the side of Ezra's head. The gambler was out cold and propped up against the rock wall. There were three additional men, including a now free Russell Storm, standing to the right of the gun-toting fellow, and all of them had their weapons pointing towards Larabee.

Chris wasn’t about to risk them shooting Ezra in the head, so he did as he was told. He dropped his weapon and was tied up and shoved roughly down next to Standish. Larabee didn't see any bleeding wounds on Ezra, but he imagined the gambler was going to have one heck of a headache when he woke up.

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Buck returned to the boarding house room with two plates full of food and a bottle of whiskey. He found Vin passed out asleep on the bed. He shook the ill man's shoulder and asked if he was hungry, but Vin mumbled something about a sore throat and rolled back over. Buck would go back in a little while and see if he could find some soup for the tracker. In the meantime, he guessed he would just have to eat both plates of food. Good thing he was hungry.

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Storm's buddies or kin, or whoever these men were, took turns guarding their prisoners throughout the night. Ezra came to about an hour after the blow to his head. He was sore, wet, and chilled to the bone, with a headache that throbbed with every heartbeat. He was not very happy about his current situation, but he was even more unhappy to see Larabee tied up right beside him.

When Chris noticed Ezra stirring, he said "Storm's men finally showed up. How you feelin'?"

"Like I've been knocked out and left in the rain," Ezra replied, his green eyes having a hard time focusing. "How many miscreants are there?"

"Four, including Storm," said Chris as he tried to get a better look at Ezra's head. "Don't see any blood back there, but they musta whacked you a good one. You were out for a while."

"Well, you have often commented on how much I like my beauty sleep," the gambler retorted.

"Why don't you try to get some more of it, if you can. Might help that headache some."

Ezra knew Chris was likely working on a plan to get them out of this mess, but right now his head hurt too much to even think about their odds of escape.

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Later in the evening, Buck woke Vin and propped him up to try to get a bit of broth and water down him. The tracker's fever continued to rise. The tall man bathed Vin's face and body to try and cool him off, but it didn't seem to be helping. If Tanner wasn't better tomorrow, Buck would send a wire back home to see if Nathan had returned from the Indian village.

Wilmington had asked around town about the boy and the riders. A few of the town's folks saw a group of men with a young boy come through the day before. They stopped long enough to get supplies and headed south out of town. The boy hadn't seemed to be hurt, and Buck hoped he would stay that way until they found him
 


Chapter 3:

Buck dozed off for a few hours and awoke to the early morning sun streaming through the window. The day outside looked better than yesterday, but things had not improved for his companion. The Texan's fever raged, his lean body shook with chills, and he had developed a deep, hacking cough.

Wilmington sat Vin up and got him to drink some more water. Afterwards, he laid the tracker back on the bed and went in search of the town's telegraph office.

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Chris greeted the sunrise with an auburn-colored head on his shoulder. The rain stopped sometime in the night, and the gambler's aching head finally allowed him to fall asleep. His body drifted over onto the gunslinger not long afterwards. Their captors were getting quite a kick out of it this morning, so Larabee decided it was probably time to wake Standish.

Ezra awoke to hear one of the men saying, "What the hell was Mr. Storm talkin' about when he sent us to rescue Russell? These guys don't look very tough to me. Just look at fancy pants there all curled up with Larabee."

Standish mumbled a sleepy apology to the gunslinger and sat upright, but the prodding continued from the captors. Two of the men readied the horses, but Russell and the large brute who knocked Ezra out came closer and kicked at the two peacekeepers going on about how "they don't look like much, do they?" The large man then approached Ezra, grabbed a hand full of hair, and stepped down hard on his left knee.

Even with hands and feet bound, Larabee lashed out, jumping and ramming his elbow into the large man's protruding belly. Storm grabbed onto the blond man until his buddy could get back to his feet and catch his breath. The behemoth then proceeded to punch Larabee with all his might. The blow struck on the left side of Chris' face above his eye. The leader of the seven remained conscious but crumpled to the ground. It was obvious that neither he nor Ezra were going to be able to win a fist fight with this man; he stood a few inches taller than Larabee and outweighed them both by at least 50 pounds.

The four Storm men quickly ate breakfast, offering none to their captives, and then mounted everyone up and headed out. Chris and Ezra's hands were tied in front of them and their legs tied to the stirrups. It was an awkward and uncomfortable way to ride, but at least they had their own mounts. The riders and horses rode hard all day.

The two peacekeepers were only allowed to dismount once before evening to relieve themselves and have a drink of water. The men stopped a couple more times, to eat lunch and stretch their legs, but Ezra and Chris sat on their horses and waited. The horses were tied up each time, so the two prisoners didn't get any ideas about taking off.

That evening, when they stopped for the night, Larabee watched and waited for an opening to try and escape. They camped in an area with a fair amount of trees, so if he and Ezra could make it into the forest they might be able to find a place to hide. With no horses and no weapons though, it would be a long shot. These men would not likely give up searching for them.

It was as if his captors read his mind, and soon afterwards came over and tied Chris' and Ezra's hands behind a large tree. They were offered a few drinks of water but still no food. Ezra's stomach grumbled loudly when the posse began to heat up their own dinner over the campfire.

"I don't suppose you gentlemen would consider sharing your lovely feast with us this evening?" Ezra asked.

One of the men threw a couple of biscuits their way, but they landed on the ground about six feet in front of Standish…..just out of reach of his legs. The four men got a good laugh out of the peacekeepers' predicament, and Ezra sighed as he watched a bird fly down and begin to eat his biscuit.

The gambler smiled when he heard Larabee's stomach growl as well, and then asked "where do you think our friends are taking us?"

"I have no idea," Chris replied and turned his head as much as he could to look at Ezra. "Old man Storm lives somewhere in Texas. If they're taking us there, then we've got at least another few days of riding."

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JD barreled out of the telegraph office, and almost ran right into Mary Travis. "Where are you off too in such a hurry, JD?"

"Just got a wire from Buck. He and Vin are in a little town called Johnson's Bluff, and Vin took sick," JD replied as he kept walking towards the livery. "I need to ride out and find Nathan, but I'll try to be back as quick as I can."

"Did they find the boy?" Mary asked.

"Not yet, but they found a trail," JD answered as he saddled his mount.

Mary yelled after him, "Let me know if there is anything I can do. I hope Vin's ok." As much as she hated to admit it, trouble really did seem to follow these men.

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Josiah greeted JD as he rode his horse full speed into the Indian village, "Where's the fire, son?"

"Where's Nathan?" asked JD. "Vin and Buck are in a boarding house a day's ride from here, and Vin's come down with a cough and high fever. Chris and Ezra are on the road taking the Storm fellow to Yuma, so I'm the only one left in town."

Just then, the handsome former slave stepped out of a tent and walked over to greet his two friends.

"Sounds like Vin may have caught this same fever," Josiah informed Nathan. "Where's he at?" Nathan questioned. "Can you bring him here?"

"Sorry, Nate. He and Buck are in a town called Johnson's Bluff at least a day's ride away," answered JD.

"I've watched what you've done here, brother Nathan," Josiah interjected. "I could continue with the treatments if you need to go tend Vin. There's only a few folks who are still bad off."

"Yeah, alright Josiah. Let me walk back up there to show you what I've got, then I'll pack a bag with enough for Vin, and be on my way."

"I gotta be gettin' back to town," JD said. "Let us know how Vin is doing when you get there Nathan. I'll send a wire to let Buck know you're on your way."

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The telegraph operator knocked on the door of boarding house room 4, and the tired, blue-eyed man thanked him. Buck felt relieved to know that Nathan was on his way, but he also knew it would be at least a day before he got here. He bathed Vin's face and neck day and night, but the fever would not relent. Vin talked out of his head at times, but then other times could carry on a normal conversation.

Now was one of the latter times, and Buck told the tracker that Nathan would be here soon. Vin nodded his head and said weakly, "'ll be alright."

Buck was not able to get any real food into his patient, but he hoped the broth and water would be enough. Vin's lean body was so exhausted from fighting the fever; he didn't have the energy to eat.

There was an old copy of the Bible in the room that Buck read out loud to pass the time. Buck had a nice voice, and even though Vin didn't understand a lot of what he heard, it calmed him to hear the big man talk. Next to Nathan, Buck was the best caregiver of the seven. He had a huge heart and a big-brother mentality that naturally made him want to look out for his friends.

Although Buck worked hard and did all he could, Vin counted the minutes until the healer arrived. He didn't want to worry his companion, but he honestly couldn't remember feeling this poorly in a long time. He started to doze off once again when a torturous series of coughs overtook him. Buck helped him sit up and ride it out, but the fit seemed to go on for hours. Vin didn't know how much more he could take.

 

Chapter 4:

Larabee and Standish were untied from the tree, and their legs undone to allow them to walk to the horses. Although he couldn't believe what he was doing, Ezra stopped briefly to pick up what was left of the biscuits. He ate one, and then started to offer the other one to Larabee, but the big brutish fellow knocked it out of his hand and pushed him towards the mounts.

Both men were exhausted: no food, hot days, cold nights, and very little sleep were starting to take their toll. Ezra hoped that Larabee was formulating an escape plan, but his own mind was too tired and preoccupied with his empty stomach to even attempt such a thing. "Lord, I hope we don't have to ride all the way to Texas with these miscreants," he thought to himself.

Chris remained stoic and silent. He had no idea how he was going to get himself and Ezra out of this predicament. Maybe they would be able to escape once they got to wherever their destination was, or maybe they were going to be killed immediately. Who knew?

He looked over at Standish, and green eyes met green. He wanted to apologize to the gambler for dragging him along. Ezra's expensive clothes were filthy and torn, and the dark circles under his eyes spoke of their lack of sleep and care. Ezra must have seen the look of pity, for he quickly said, "trust me Mr. Larabee, you don't look any better."

Ezra didn't know if Larabee had slept at all in the three days since they left Four Corners. He himself had gotten a couple of uncomfortable hours each night, but at least all of the times he was awake – the darkly-dressed gunslinger was as well.

It was around noon when the group came upon a farm out in the middle of the desert. There was nothing else around for miles, but someone had built a large house/building and fenced in about 5 surrounding acres. As they got closer, they saw a fair number of men mulling about, and then at the same time Chris and Ezra both saw something shocking.

They looked at each other, eyes wide and questioning. Running around in a back lot of the property was Sam Miller, the 6-yr-old boy missing from Four Corners.

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Nathan rode hard and arrived in Johnson's Bluff at about 4 o'clock the next afternoon. It was a tiny town, so he easily found the boarding house. Buck was right to call for him; Vin was in bad shape.

Over the last few days at the Indian village, the healer found combinations of herbs that alleviated some of the symptoms. He wasn't sure if this was even the same sickness, but he figured it was worth a try. With Buck's assistance, they propped Vin up and got a cup of Nathan's tea in him. Nathan then gave the sick man a small amount of laudanum, so he could rest without coughing so much.

It was a rough night for all involved. Finally, close to dawn the next day, Tanner's fever broke, and sky blue eyes stared at the two men standing worriedly over him.

"How're you feelin', Vin," asked Nathan.

"Tired," was the honest reply.

Nathan understood, and told Vin that "you're gonna have to take it very easy for a few days."

"Buck, why don't you grab some breakfast and then try to get some sleep. I know you're probably exhausted," Nathan said appreciatively to the ladies' man.

"OK, Nate. I'll bring you back something to eat and maybe try a little mush for Vin?" Buck questioned.

"Yeah, we need to get some food in him. He's definitely down a few pounds, and he didn't have many to spare to begin with." Nathan smiled teasingly at Vin.

"I'll get back home and eat some of Nettie's apple pie, and I'll be right as rain, Nate." Vin laughed. It was nice to see Vin smiling and joking, but unfortunately it also brought on a nasty coughing fit. "Go on Buck," Nathan said. "I got him." Nate held Vin up until the coughing subsided.

"Like I said, Vin, it's still gonna take a few days," Nathan could already tell that Vin was tired of this illness. The former slave feared that Vin was going to be itching to get back on his horse come tomorrow morning.

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Ezra and Chris were untied, forcefully pulled from their mounts, and shoved through a gate into the compound. The guards marched the two men at gunpoint to an area in the far northwest corner of the fenced property, where they were greeted by a larger group of men.

"Welcome home, Russell," an old man said and then hugged the escaped convict.

"How are you, Dad?" the younger Storm replied. "Thanks for sending the boys to get me."

"Yeah, it looks like everything worked out well. You seven fellows played right into our plan," the old man said as he looked at Larabee and Standish. He continued, "Lucas James and I go way back, and he has been keeping me up to date on you boys since Lucy moved up there."

Chris started to put all of this together in his mind, and he began to get angry that they'd been had by this old man. "Let me guess, Lucy's maiden name was Miller?"

"Well now, you're finally catchin' on. Lucas told me that you and your boys were smart and tough, but you know – it don't really seem that way to me," the senior Storm went on, "strip 'em down boys; let's see how tough they are without their guns and get-up."

Two men approached each of the peacekeepers and removed their coats, their shirts, their hats, and even their boots. They did not remove their pants, "thank heavens," thought Ezra, but they were patted down to make sure there were no hidden knives or other weapons on them. Ezra was horrified at the thought of the other boys finding their dead, naked bodies lying somewhere in this God-forsaken desert.

"Would you look at them now," old man Storm laughed. "They ain't nothing but a couple of scrawny fellers. Big, bad Larabee don't look nearly so tough without his guns and black get-up."

Chris and Ezra's bindings were removed and once the men stepped away, Chris charged at the old man….his anger getting the better of him. Storm reached behind him and grabbed a long piece of wood and whacked the charging Larabee upside his now hatless head. The sound was sickening, and Ezra gasped as Larabee crumbled to the ground. The gambler was scared that the old man had just killed their leader.

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Josiah finally felt comfortable leaving the Indian village and heading back into town. Only two folks were still feverish, and Rain and the other helpers were confident that they could take care of them. They would send someone to town if more tribe members got sick. The villagers were lucky; only one old woman died from the fever, and the others were recovering quite well. Josiah admired the folks in the village; they were good people, they worked hard, and they had faith….what Josiah wouldn't give to have that kind of faith again. Being around the villagers and his 6 fellow lawmen helped lift his spirits tremendously over the last few years, but he had lived through too much – saw too much pain and suffering to return to the more optimistic attitude of his youth.

"Speaking of youth," he thought to himself. He hoped JD was doing fine with everything back in four corners. He spurred his horse on a little faster to find out.

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A shot to the head as hard as Larabee suffered could easily crack a skull, but Ezra was relieved when he saw that Chris was still breathing.

The gambler in Ezra made him a patient man, so he decided to wait for a more opportune time to attack. That all went out the window, however, when the old man whacked Larabee again with the board – this time across his back and ribs. A couple of the other men starting kicking him as well, and by then Ezra had enough.

Ezra grabbed one of the men by the back of his hair and threw him out of the way; he then laid his own body across the prone gunslinger. Ezra looked up at the crowd and asked, "What exactly do you gentlemen want with us? You already have your criminal son, and the boy, who I presume is your grandson."

Storm smiled, "Why, I want to humiliate you boys and teach you a little lesson. You've caused trouble for my son, my friend Mr. James, other ranchers, and we're all tired of your holier than thou attitudes up there in Four Corners. We didn't want to fight all seven of you to get my boy back, so we used my grandson as a bit of a diversion." The man was clearly pleased with himself, and he continued to smile as he told the men, "throw 'em in the pit. We'll see how tough they are….or aren't in next couple of days."

One man pulled Ezra up and shoved him along to the back corner of the property. Two other men followed dragging Chris. Ezra saw "the pit" just as they approached. It was a massive hole in the ground – at least 12 ft. deep and wide – covered with a grate. The accommodations were similar to those in which they found Larabee a few years ago when he was taken to a prison camp as Inmate 78, but on a much larger scale.

A door in the grate was unlocked and opened, and as Ezra peered over the edge, he was shoved hard and landed with a thud 12+ ft. below. He landed on his left arm and immediately felt his shoulder pop out of joint. He also felt blood running down his arm and noticed a 4 inch cut just below his shoulder. The pain was excruciating, and he did not notice the men shoving Larabee down in the hole until he heard another thump a couple feet away.

A few minutes later, a canteen, some hardtack, and a little dried meat were thrown down the hole, but Ezra hurt too badly to get it or check on Larabee. The pain made him feel sick to his stomach. He closed his eyes and wished that he never got involved with Larabee and this bunch.

As the sun was beginning to set, Ezra awoke to an unfamiliar noise. He winced at the pain still shooting through his shoulder and opened his eyes to see Chris Larabee stirring a few feet away. He hoped this was all a dream, but alas – it was very real.

"Mr. Larabee, are you awake?" Ezra asked. No response, "Mr. Larabee."

After a few more grunts and groans, the blond man responded, "What the hell?"

"Hell indeed," said Ezra. "I would suggest that you move slowly. You were hit in the head with an enormous board and have been slumbering ever since."

"Well, I guess that explains the headache," Larabee replied as he gingerly sat up. He moved closer to the wall to support himself for a minute while the room stopped spinning. He fingered his head wound and only felt a little bit of dried blood, so he figured he was going to live. He supposed that he cracked a couple of ribs from the amount of pain and energy it was requiring to breathe, but he had worse injuries before and he knew they needed to come up with a plan soon. Vin and Buck were tracking that same boy, so they could end up in similar trouble if they showed up here looking for them. Hell, for all he knew, they could already be in another pit somewhere.

Chris noticed that Standish continued to lie on the ground and saw the dried blood on Ezra's arm, and asked "are you hurt, Ezra?"

"It appears that I broke my landing into our lovely accommodations with my shoulder," the darker-haired man replied with another wince as he too tried to sit up.

"You dislocated it?" Chris tried to concentrate on their predicament but was fighting an overwhelming desire to lie down and sleep.

"I believe so," said Ezra…..wishing that he was trapped down here with Nathan instead of Larabee.

"If you can scoot over this way, I'll try to pop it back in," Chris responded, although not really feeling confident in his abilities to do so successfully.

"That is quite alright, Mr. Larabee. It really does not hurt that badly," Ezra lied. Right now, he could not stand the thought of the gunslinger roughly tugging and pulling on him. "How are your head and ribs fairing?"

"Sore, but I reckon I'll live," lied Chris as well. If Nathan were there, he would be shaking his head at the two men fibbing about the extent of their injuries.

"I take it that's our latrine over there," asked Chris pointing to a deeper hole dug in the lower corner of the pit. Ezra hadn't noticed it before but looked and shook his head in agreement, "I believe you are correct sir."

Chris stared at the corner "restroom" while wondering how in the world he was going to be able to stand and make his way over there. It had been over 8 hours since they were allowed to see to the call of nature, and his bladder was about to burst.

It wasn't very dignified, but he crawled on his hands and knees until he got close enough then stood slowly supporting himself on the corner walls while he relieved himself. He knew Ezra was likely in the same boat, so he looked over at the gambler and asked, "need some help?"

Chris walked gingerly along the walls over to where Standish sat; he grabbed Ezra's good shoulder and assisted the shorter man to his feet. After Ezra attended to his business, they hobbled back to the other end of the pit. Just as they approached their destination, Chris grabbed Ezra with both hands and slammed his left shoulder into the wall. Ezra's legs immediately gave way, which brought Larabee down as well, and they toppled into an ungraceful heap on the floor.

Ezra screamed as loud as Chris ever heard a man scream, but then went completely silent. The blond crawled over top of the gambler, thinking he had passed out. Larabee was greeted with Ezra's hand shooting up and grabbing a handful of his hair and pulling with all his might.

Chris reached up to try and prevent his hair from being pulled from his scalp, and Ezra said in a trembling voice, "Thank you Mr. Larabee, but if you ever do that again I will kill you." He then let go of the dark blond hair and both men lay unmoving on the ground for a few minutes.

Ezra's shoulder was back in place, although still very sore. He finally gathered up the meager food and water rations, and he and Larabee shared dinner.

Not long after, the exhausted men collapsed into a cold and uncomfortable slumber, neither having any idea what was in store for them or how they were going to escape.

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Josiah made it into town late that evening and found JD still at the jail. Josiah smiled proudly to himself when he saw the boy asleep at the desk propped up on his elbows. The large ex-preacher walked over and gently nudged JD's shoulder, so as not to startle him.

"Huh," JD said as he opened his eyes.

"Hello, John Daniel," smiled Josiah. "How are things?"

"Uh, things are fine Josiah. Just catchin' a quick nap before I head out on patrol," JD replied as he stood up.

"I'll take patrol, JD. Go on and get some sleep," Josiah said as he pushed JD out the door of the jail. Josiah knew that the poor boy had been trying to keep an eye on the town and take everyone's patrols for the last few days so likely had no more than an hour or two of sleep at a time.

"You gotta be tired from helping at the village, Josiah," JD replied feeling guilty.

"Folks out there are doing much better, and I was able to sleep last night." Josiah wasn't being completely truthful, but he knew JD really needed a break.

"Thanks Josiah," JD responded gratefully. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow then."

"That you will, son. Goodnight."

 

Chapter 5:

As Nathan predicted, he awoke the next morning to find Vin Tanner sitting on his bed dressed and ready to ride. Although Vin's fever was down, his breathing was still ragged, and he coughed most of the night. Nathan sighed and said, "Vin, you are not fit to travel today."

"He's insistin' on gettin' back on the boy's trail, Nathan. Says he's feelin' much better." Buck informed the healer.

"Really, Nathan, 'm ok," said Vin, although it would have sounded more convincing if he hadn't broken into another coughing fit right after saying it.

"Dammit Vin, you ain't ready. You're gonna end up with pneumonia," Nathan voiced his concerns.

"Why don't we jist head out and see. If I get to feelin' worse, then we'll stop," Vin replied.

"Yeah, like you're gonna tell me...you mean if you fall off your horse, we'll stop." Said Nathan.

Vin smiled, "somethin' like that." There was no fooling Nathan; he knew these men all too well.

Nathan didn't like it. He had not forgotten how ill the tracker was just the day before, but then again - the last thing he wanted was Vin sneaking off alone to hunt for the boy.

So, the three men saddled up and rode south out of town, the way the town's folk said the men headed. The trail followed a river, and there were small villages scattered along the way. From talking to the settlers, it seemed that they followed the correct path. The three men realized that they were at least a few days behind though.

By lunch time, Vin was about done in. He started to fall asleep in his saddle, and if Buck hadn't reached out in time – he would have toppled to the dirt below, just like Nathan said. Nathan ordered them to stop for an hour or two to eat and rest.

Even though he felt better, Vin was surprised at how weak he was. He had not eaten much over the past few days and wasn't sleeping well due to the cough. So, he took an hour nap while the other two prepared some food.

After lunch, all three mounted back up and continued to head south.

Nathan told the others about Chris and Ezra taking Storm to Yuma prison, and Buck laughed when Vin asked, "do you think they've already gotten there by now?"

"Probably," Buck smiled, "if Chris didn't shoot Storm and Ezra and bury them somewhere along the way."

"Maybe we'll run into them on the trail," said Vin. "They'd likely come back this way."

"If we do, we're sending you back to Four Corners with them," replied Nathan. "Buck and I will go on looking for the boy."

"Ah, you two'd miss me and ya know it," smiled Vin. He knew Nathan was mostly teasing him; it was unlikely they would cross paths with Larabee and Standish with all of the open ground out here anyway.

It was getting dark, and they were about to cut away from the river, so they decided this would be a good place to camp for the night. Vin was able to keep himself in the saddle all afternoon, but he was still pale and easily worn out. Nathan wanted some time to get another good meal and some tea in him before they bedded down for the night.

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The next morning found Larabee and Standish shivering, sore and grouchy. Ezra was already tired of their accommodations, and Chris was growing increasingly frustrated with every painful breath. The soreness in his ribs had gotten worse overnight, and the gunslinger was having trouble finding a comfortable position.

Ezra noticed the obvious discomfort of the leader, and asked if Larabee wanted him to check for broken ribs. Chris reluctantly agreed and moved over to lie in a patch of sunlight in the middle of the pit. Ezra probed around Larabee's right side ribcage. He didn't feel anything grossly out of place, but the bruising was horrendous. The skin was purple along the ribcage and even around onto Chris' back. "That alone would be enough to make a person too sore to move," Ezra reasoned.

Afterwards, both men laid there in the sun trying to get warm. Ezra hated to admit it, but old man Storm was kind of right. Larabee always looked like such a formidable, scary force with his black hat, duster, and Colt on his hips. Now, lying on the sunny dirt patch with no hat, no shirt, and no boots – it was painfully obvious that the gunslinger was just a regular man – able to be hurt and humiliated like anyone else.

The transformation was pretty amazing, when Ezra thought about it. Very few folks would mess with Chris Larabee, but in reality – he wasn't a large man. Larabee was a couple of inches taller than himself but didn't have much more meat on him than Vin, who was always teased about being the skinny one in the group. Watching Chris lying there with his eyes closed, the sun shining on the wheat-colored hair and bruised face, Ezra couldn't help but feel admiration for the man. Larabee wasn't invincible, and likely wasn't really as tough as his reputation suggested, but he had kept the seven safe for years against all sorts of threats…and Ezra was extremely thankful for that.

Larabee opened his eyes and noticed Standish staring at him. He started to ask "what the hell are you lookin' at?" but stopped when he saw the look in the younger man's pale green eyes.

"You alright, Ezra?" Chris asked. He knew Ezra was likely getting nervous about their prospects to escape. Hell, he was starting to get nervous himself.

"I'm fine Chris," replied Standish, after which Larabee knew something was definitely amiss. Ezra almost never called him by his first name.

Chris didn't press the issue though, and after a few more minutes said, "do you think we should try to take a look around up there?"

"And how would we accomplish that?" asked Ezra.

"I'm not sure how tall this pit is, but if one of us let the other stand on his shoulders, the top fellow might be able to pull himself up on the grate and take a peek. We could check out the lock and see how many guards there are." Chris said, although not all that confident that they could pull it off. Both men were injured, so who was going to volunteer to be stood on?

Chris thought he should probably be the one to go up since he had two good shoulders to hold himself up with, but he went ahead and asked Ezra, "you want the top or bottom?"

Standish chuckled, never expecting to hear that particular question from Chris Larabee to himself, and said "Neither sounds overly appealing right now. I honestly don't know if either of us is strong enough to stand up with a full-grown man on our shoulders," Ezra responded. He and Larabee were similar in weight, so there wouldn't be a huge advantage in having either man either place.

"I'm goin' nuts just sitting here doin' nothing, Ezra, so I figure we might as well give it a shot."

"Alright, I will try the bottom, but if my strength is insufficient, then we will have to rethink our plan."

The two men moved close to the wall, where Ezra squatted down and braced himself. Larabee too held onto the wall while he put his feet on Ezra's shoulders. It was more difficult than either man imagined, but Standish slowly stood up.

Larabee was impressed with Ezra's strength. It amazed Chris to see how good of shape Standish was in given his propensity to sit in a saloon most of the day. He was almost jealous of Ezra's physique, if he gave himself time to think about it. But, there wasn't much time because Chris was having to use all of his concentration to balance himself even with the use of the wall. Finally, once Ezra stood completely upright, Chris was able to grab onto the grate. The pain shot through his ribs, but he pulled himself up and took a look around.

Ezra was thankful for the break on his shoulder while Larabee held himself up on the bars. He wasn't going to agree to try anything like this again unless Josiah was along with them. Then there would be no question who would take the hoisting job. The big preacher was tall, broad, muscular and physically the strongest member of the seven.

Larabee's arms were shaking, and he couldn't see much from his position. He could see that the pit was off by itself; there were no other buildings close by. The lock was a simple padlock, but they weren't going to be able to break it easily. After a few minutes, his arms were about to give out, so he yelled to Ezra to grab his legs and help lower him to the ground. Before Ezra could get there, they heard a laugh from above and one of the guards stepped on Chris' hand. The gunslinger immediately let go, but Ezra wasn't ready, so the two men fell to the ground in a tangled mess of limbs.

"Son of a bitch," Chris yelled as he grabbed his squished fingers, followed by "sorry Ez, wasn't plannin' to let go that quick."

"No apologies necessary, Mr. Larabee," said Ezra as both men looked up at the guard who was now staring down at them.

"You boys wouldn't be thinkin' 'bout trying to escape now, would you?" the guard smiled. "Mr. Storm won't like that. He ain't had no fun with ya yet."

The guard walked away, and Chris and Ezra were left to sit in the pit for the remainder of the day with the sun baking down on their bare heads and shoulders.

The silence was starting to wear on Ezra, so after an hour of lying there enjoying the warmth of the sun, he asked, "what was your childhood like, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris opened his eyes and said, "what?"

"Well, I know about Nathan's tragic youth as a slave, Buck's life as the son of a working girl, Josiah as a missionary's son, the death of JD's and Vin's mothers. I just realized that I do not possess any knowledge of young Chris Larabee," Ezra continued. "Of course you do not have to answer if you do not wish."

"Quite frankly, Ez, there isn't much to tell. Maybe the reason that I haven't said anything about my upbringin' is because it was so ordinary compared to the rest of you," Chris rolled on his side and looked at Ezra. "I grew up on a farm in Indiana with two decent parents. My folks worked hard; worked us kids hard, but they treated us fair."

"So you have brothers and sisters?" Standish inquired. Ezra always wanted a sibling when he was younger. At least then he would have had a playmate when he was shipped off to live with some old, grouchy relative of Maude's.

"Yeah, my ma bore 5 children. One died as a baby; one as a young child. I was the youngest of the surviving kids; I have an older sister and brother," Chris looked up at the sky trying to search his memory for things to tell Ezra. "My folks were older when I was born and both have since passed on. My ma knew about Sarah but never got to meet her; Pa died when I was in the war. Ma did get to meet Buck," Chris smiled. "It was almost like a passin' of the torch between those two. Ma wasn't doing well; was actually the last time I saw her, and I think she somehow knew that Buck was goin' to watch out for me…..good ol' Buck." Chris let the sentence fade as he thought about his life and long-lost family members.

"Where are your siblings now?" asked Ezra.

"Honestly, I don't know," answered Chris. "I think my sister may still be in Indiana. She married a farmer, and they probably took over my folks' land. My brother moved to Indianapolis after the war and became a businessman of some sort…at least the last I heard. Haven't really talked to 'em since Sarah and Adam died. My sister sent a few telegrams, but….well, you know, I wasn't thinkin' straight for a couple of years."

"You heard from Maude recently, Ez?" Chris decided it was Ezra's turn to talk.

"Not for about 6 months," Ezra sighed. "Last I heard she was headed to San Francisco with a new, wealthy suitor. I'm guessing she has since absconded with a good chunk of that gentlemen's money and moved on to a new locale."

Chris just smiled; he didn't know what to say about Maude. It clearly upset Ezra that she didn't stay in touch; probably because she was the only family the man had. "Did you know your father at all?"

"Unfortunately, Mr. Larabee, I never had the pleasure of meeting any of my paternal relatives. It was not something that my mother would speak of. I lived with Mother's sister, Kay, for a while when I was in primary school. She showed me a photo of a man whom she alleged to be my father," Ezra paused and continued to stare up at the sun. "My aunt claimed he was Maude's one true love and had perished just before I was born. My aunt was a bit of a romantic though, so that photo could have been anyone."

"Did the man look like you?" Chris did not see much resemblance between Ezra and Maude, so he always assumed that the gambler must look like his father.

"It was a long time ago and an old, worn photo, but I must say that the man did not look un-like myself," Standish tried to will himself to remember more. "He had dark hair and a friendly face….or at least I thought so when I was seven." Ezra laughed and questioned, "who do you favor, Mr. Larabee, your mother or father?"

"Never really pondered on it much," said Chris. "My pa was a good-sized feller: about Buck's size, with hair about the color of yours. Ma was small, but tough; had long red hair in her younger years. My brother took after my pa, and my sister was the spitting image of my mother, but I guess I was a mix of both of 'em." He paused for a minute and then finished with, "always kinda felt like the runt, compared to my pa and brother. Guess that's probably what prompted me to learn to shoot."

Ezra was surprised at how openly Larabee was speaking and responded with, "yes, I too had similar motivations for learning to defend myself with a firearm. As a younger man, I often gambled with men larger and stronger than myself."

"Ya still do, Ezra," Chris laughed as he got up to stretch his back and legs.

By late afternoon, Chris could see that Ezra had gotten enough sun. "You're lookin' awful pink there; think we should probably move up to the shade in the west end." That area of the pit provided a bit of protection from the sun's rays that time of day.

The warm sun felt so good in the cold pit that Ezra forgot that he didn't have a hat or shirt to protect his skin. He spent so much time in the saloon that his complexion was fairer than the other men.

"Yes, that sounds like a splendid idea," Ezra replied, noticing then that Larabee was looking a bit pinker himself. Chris spent a good deal of time outdoors, but it was just now getting late enough in the spring that the sun's rays had sufficient power to burn. Larabee had not spent much time outside without his hat, and certainly not without his shirt, in the last few weeks. With his light-colored hair and eyes, Chris was fairly susceptible to early-season sunburns as well.

As with the previous evening, they were given meager water and food rations, and they ate what was offered. They had only one tiny meal or less a day for four days now, and their stomachs were feeling the effects.

The men attempted to find a comfortable position to ride out the long, cold night and did their best to sleep. With the sunburns and hot skin, both men shivered violently.

 

Chapter 6:

Vin, Buck, and Nathan woke early and readied for another day on the trail. Buck had lost track of exactly how far they had gone; he certainly never expected to be searching for this kid for 4 or 5 days. He figured that Chris and Ezra would be returning to Four Corners either today or tomorrow, and they would wonder where he, Tanner, and Nate were.

Vin still coughed at night, and his ribs were sore, but overall he continued to feel more and more like himself. He even got up and made the coffee that morning. Drinking Buck or Nathan's brews were more like drinkin' water; he preferred coffee that could stand up by itself.

After they finished complaining about Vin's coffee, Buck and Nathan helped Vin load up the supplies, and they continued on their journey.

Just before noon, the three men rode their horses on top of a bluff. They could see in the desert below, a large homestead, but it wasn't a typical homestead. It consisted of three large buildings; maybe a house, some stables, and a shop. That wasn't so unusual. What was unusual was the layout of the grounds. There were multiple penned in areas. Cattle were kept in some, there looked to be a couple of large holes or pits in the ground of another area, and one area had an extremely tall fence with barbed wire at the top – almost like a prison yard. The regulators could see a number of men moving around down there, at least 20, and they watched a little boy go out into a back yard area of the house. They found where the tracks led to, but why bring a 6-yr-old boy out here to a place like this….and then turn him lose to play in the yard?

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The two sore and sunburned men awoke the next day with an even stronger urgency to formulate a plan of escape. Ezra had not experienced a sunburn in years and forgot how tight and painful they felt. He felt like his face would split if he were to smile; fortunately, he didn't have anything to smile about at the moment.

Chris awoke to his stomach growling and was surprised to see his companion awake as well. "What I wouldn't give for a cup of coffee or bottle of whiskey," Chris said hoarsely from his dry throat.

Ezra whole-heartedly agreed, and said "if we find our way back to Four Corners someday, I promise to purchase and share the most expensive bottle of whiskey that Inez has in stock."

"WHEN we get back to Four Corners, Ez, not if," smiled Chris….although his face hurt when he did it.

"Oh, so you have a plan, do you?" teased Ezra. "Are we leaving right now?"

Chris shrugged his shoulders and said, "hopefully they will take us up top soon, and then we'll make a break for it. We may have to come back with reinforcements to get the boy, or maybe Vin and Buck are waiting out there now to rescue us. I would have thought Vin could have tracked these guys down here by now."

Ezra understood the implication in Larabee's last sentence. Chris was afraid something had also happened to Buck and Vin, or they should have already been here. Buck was Chris' oldest friend and saw him through the toughest of times, including the death of his wife and son. Vin was Chris' soul mate. Larabee and Tanner connected strongly and permanently the first moment their eyes met that fateful day on the streets of Four Corners.

Just as the sun was becoming uncomfortable once again on their exposed skin, a guard showed up and unlocked the door to the pit. A ladder was thrown down in the hole, and the two men ordered to come up one at a time. Larabee climbed up first, hoping he could take out the guard and toss him back down in the hole while Ezra climbed out. Unfortunately, when he reached the top, he saw that there were four armed fellows watching him very closely. He subtlety shook his head "no" to Ezra, and Ezra went ahead and climbed up.

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Vin Tanner got out his scope and looked more closely at the compound. They were trying to come up with a plan to get the boy out without alerting all 20+ men on the property. As he scanned the grounds, he saw a familiar-looking blond head climbing up out of one of the pits. Vin almost dropped the scope.

"Ah Shit!" he exclaimed. "Boys, things just got more complicated."

Buck and Nathan rushed over, and Buck took the scope in time to see Ezra climb out of the large hole as well. "What in the hell is going on here," asked Buck as Nathan took his turn to look. Nate took the longest look, as he was trying to judge the condition of the two captured men.

"It all must've been a ruse," said Vin. "Storm's people used the Miller boy to distract us or somethin'?"

"Yeah, I expect you're right Vin. They didn't want to have to fight 5 or 6 of us to rescue junior," Buck said. "So, now what? How'd Chris and Ezra look, Nathan?"

"They're bruised and sunburned, but they're both moving around ok on their own. It looks to me like they could ride and maybe fight if need be," answered the healer. "Strange thing is that they don't have no shirts, boots or hats."

"Wow, Larabee must be real ticked that they took 'is hat," smiled Vin. He was relieved to hear Nathan say that the two men looked relatively healthy.

But the joking nature was quickly over when the three men figured out where the Storm gang was taking Larabee and Standish.

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"Come on boys, time for the fun," one of the guards said, as Chris and Ezra looked back and forth at each other.

The two bare-footed, shirtless men were marched into an arena with a 10 ft. fence topped with barbed wire. This was not going to be an easy place to escape, but that wasn't their biggest concern. On the other side of the arena stood a 1600 lb. horned bull, and he looked ready to kill any human who came within a mile of him.

From a seating area up above, spoke old man Storm. "The object, gentlemen, is to not get gored or trampled. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? Diablo here is my prized fighting bull, and we are ready to see a good show."

With that, the gate closed, and Standish and Larabee were left alone in the 20 x 20 ft. pin with a monstrous, angry bull.

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"We gotta move, boys," said Buck as the gates closed and his two comrades were locked inside the ring with the bull.

"Buck, we can't just go charging in there," said Vin. "There's too many of 'em."

"Can you take them out from here, Vin?" Buck asked. Vin was the best long shooter in the group and was known to hit targets that most sharpshooters wouldn't even attempt.

"Too far, Bucklin," answered Vin right as the bull made its first charge for Larabee and Standish.

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Chris and Ezra split off one to each side when the bull charged, and the men in the Storm compound cheered and laughed. The bull went towards Ezra, and Standish immediately started climbing the fence. There was a stick on the ground, and Larabee picked it up and poked the bull's backside to give Ezra a chance to get away. As soon as the bull felt the stick, he turned quickly on Chris.

The bull plowed into Larabee but fortunately used its nose to lift and throw him instead its horns. Chris flew like a rag doll, bounced off the fence, and landed hard not far from Ezra. Chris' cracked ribs screamed in pain, but he knew he had to get up or risk being trampled. He then climbed the fence beside Ezra, but that didn't deter Diablo. He stuck his horns in the fence and began to shake it violently. The fencing was already tilted in and hard to hold onto, and both men were knocked loose with the bull's vicious shaking….once again hitting the hard-packed ground with a thud.

Ezra was so exhausted from lack of food and sleep that he considered lying there and hoping the bull didn't notice him. Chris hopped back up and took off, so fortunately for Ezra – the bull followed again after Larabee.

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"We need a plan," said Vin watching the two men get knocked around by the behemoth animal. "At the very least, we need to get close enough to take out the bull. We may be able to circle in from the west. There's another small bluff over there that might be close enough to get off a shot."

"Sounds good, Vin," said Buck. "Why don't you try to get up there and shoot the animal, and Nathan and I will get as close as we can to the boys. We'll stay outside the compound until you cause your distraction. Once they start looking for a shooter, we'll try to get Chris and Ez out of there."

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Ezra and Chris were both ready to drop. They had been running and climbing non-stop for more than 30 minutes. On the latest charge, Standish slipped, and the bull managed to stab his pants' leg. Ezra sustained a good cut on his calf and was thrown hard into the fence as the bull's horn ripped through his trousers. He lay there not moving. The crowd cheered, and Larabee rushed over to try and protect Standish as best he could. His legs, too, refused to move, so he simply pulled the gambler as close to the fence as possible and laid his body across Ezra's. The bull charged high on the first pass, and grazed Larabee's back with his horns. The cut was long and bloody, but for the most part Diablo missed his target. The bull backed up to try again, and just as quickly as he began to charge, the bull dropped like a stone to the arena floor.

It took a minute for Storm's men to realize what happened, and then they spread out and began to search for the sniper. Vin was already down from his post, heading towards the compound, as a number of the guards headed west towards the bluff. Vin untied Larabee and Standish's mounts. He got the horses out the south side of the compound, found the boy, then headed north up to the original bluff to wait for Nathan, Buck, and hopefully Chris and Ezra.

After a number of the men went after Vin, that left 8 of the gang at the arena. Two guards went down to get Chris and Ezra, leaving 6 up in the seating area. Nathan and Buck jumped down on the 6 men from above and got the four remaining men to surrender by saying, "drop 'em boys, or your boss and his boy gets it." The two men held their guns firmly to Daniel and Russell Storm's heads.

Chris and Ezra were up by then, and the gates unlocked, when they saw Buck and Nathan. They didn't know why Nathan was with Buck instead of Vin, but Chris knew Vin was around – he had to have been the one to make the head shot to the bull.

Chris and Ezra attacked and knocked the two guards' guns free, and then grappled hand-to-hand with the men. Ezra suffered a bloody nose, and Chris got punched in his injured ribs. But, they eventually prevailed. Storm's men were dumped in the pit, and the four peacekeepers took off riding double on Buck and Nathan's mounts to meet up with Vin and the Miller boy.

Nobody said a word until they reached the bluff, and even then it was a quick "good to see you boys." Everyone mounted up with the boy riding with Buck. They tossed a couple of extra shirts to Chris and Ezra so as to prevent worsening of the sunburn, and Nathan handed Ezra a wet cloth to clean up his busted nose. They rode far enough and fast enough that they figured the men from the compound would no longer be in pursuit of them.

Fortunately that happened at about the same time that Ezra slid from his mount. Nathan jumped off and declared that it was time to make camp.

Larabee managed to stay on his horse, but his legs buckled immediately upon dismounting. Buck was close by and managed to grab him. "Wo there Stud. I think you need to go lie down with Ezra," Buck said as he helped the shaky Larabee to a second bedroll that Nathan laid out.

Nathan quickly checked over the Miller boy and found him to be in good shape. While Nathan went to examine Ezra, Vin came over to Chris, "how you doing Cowboy?" said Vin who then broke into a nasty coughing fit. Chris raised an eyebrow and said, "by the sound of things, better than you." Vin laughed; they all had a lot of things to catch up on over the next day or two.

Nathan instructed Buck to get some food ready; he suspected that was a big factor in Standish's and Larabee's conditions.

Nathan could not remember ever seeing Ezra so disheveled. The gambler was un-shaven, he was wearing an ill-fitting shirt of Buck's, his pants were ripped, he was covered in bruises, and his hair was a mess. He knew Standish would be horrified if he could see himself right now. The healer checked Ezra's shoulder, and cleaned the cuts on his arm and leg. Nothing seemed like it should cause too much trouble; his nose was not broken, and the sunburn would heal itself in time. Ezra was just plumb worn out. He was ordered to stay awake long enough to get some food in him, and then he could pass out for the night. Nate would check him again in the morning, and hopefully he would be able to ride. All of them were eager to get home.

Nathan then went to Larabee, and like Ezra – Nathan could tell he was utterly exhausted. Chris' stubbled- and battered-face was gaunt and his eyes looked hollow, but he put his arm out to Nathan and shook his hand and smiled. "Thank you boys for rescuing us," he said.

"We had no idea you guys were there, "said Nathan.  "We thought we were just going after the boy."

Chris shook his head in acknowledgment, and Nate went to work cleaning the cut on his back, and the scratch on his head. He wrapped Chris' ribs, and it looked to the healer like Larabee suffered a concussion a few days back. His pupils were almost back to normal though, so Nathan thought he too should be fine after a good meal and a good night's rest.

All of the men sat down for supper and tried to fill each other in on what happened over the last few days. Nathan told of Vin's illness, and how he came to help the tracker get well. Chris thought Vin looked pale and thinner when he saw him after their rescue but hadn't the time to ask about it until now.

When Chris told Vin that though, Vin replied, "have ya seen yurself lately Larabee? Calling me scrawny right now is like the pot calling the kettle black." Lord, how Chris missed these guys, and he didn't know what he would do if something happened to any one of them.

Chris then told of their captivity, and the fact that the boy was Russell Storm's son. Ezra was trying to chime in and listen to all of the stories, but he was so damn tired that he gave up on eating and listening about half-way through and went to his bedroll. Larabee's shrunken stomach didn't allow him to eat much either, but he still felt a lot better. Chris, like Nathan, was confident they would all be well enough to ride for home tomorrow morning.

Buck watched Chris head over to go to bed, and the "what could've beens" started creeping into his mind. They didn't even know that Chris and Ezra were in trouble. What if they hadn't shown up when they did? One look at the battered and bruised faces of his two friends was too great of a reminder of what might have happened. Hell, they almost lost Vin to the fever that week too. They had all cheated death so many times that it was inevitable one of them would lose the battle someday. But that someday wasn't today, and Buck slipped off to sleep very thankful for that.

 

Chapter 7:

The sun was just starting to peak over the horizon when Buck awoke to find the Miller boy missing. "Sam," he yelled out a number of times around the camp. "Where are ya, boy? This ain't no time for games."

Buck's yelling woke everyone, and Nathan sleepily asked, "Buck, what's goin' on?"

"The boy – he's missin'," Buck said loud enough for all to hear.

"This kid is turnin' out to be an awful lot of trouble," thought Vin, as he sat up and broke into a coughing fit. Although the fever was gone, his lungs were still trying to heal and clear out all the mess.

Nathan raised a questioning eyebrow to Vin to make sure he was ok, and then asked, "do you see any tracks, Buck?"

Buck continued to look around, and replied, "keep eyes and ears out boys, looks to me like somebody snuck in and took him."

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Chris and Ezra stood up from their bedrolls on the other edge of the camp, when four men suddenly appeared from behind a cropping of rocks and pointed guns at them. "Well, hello again boys," one of men interjected. It was the same big, brute of a man who knocked Ezra out during the initial attack a few days earlier.

Larabee could not believe he left himself be captured twice in one week, "I really must be slipping," he thought to himself.

He turned slowly, and then out of the blue hit the large man who just spoke with a powerful uppercut to the jaw. The man fell into the next closest hired gun, and Ezra plowed head first into the stomach of a third man. Ezra and the man rolled over a small hill, grappling for control of the man's gun. This gave Buck, Nathan, and Vin time to get their guns drawn and ready, but they didn't have a clear shot. The fourth Storm man again trained his gun on Chris, and said, "put 'em down nice n' easy or I put a bullet in Larabee."

The second Storm hand went to help man #3, grabbed Ezra by the back of his shirt, and put his gun in the small of Standish's back. By this time, the other two hands got up and collected themselves and their weapons as well.

"Damnit," Larabee said out loud. This was really starting to piss him off. He gave a quick glance to Ezra, and Standish knew immediately what it meant: fight. Simultaneously, Ezra sent a leg backwards into the groin of the gentleman with the gun behind him and Larabee charged the man closest to him. Vin was able to get off a shot and take out one of the other men. The 4th man couldn't shoot Larabee or Standish without risking hitting one of his own men, so he ran over and cracked Chris on the side of the head with his gun. The blond crumpled bonelessly to the ground.

Buck took off running and leapt into the thug who hit Chris, while Ezra continued to pummel his man. Ezra wrestled the man's weapon away. "This is for stealing my clothes," and proceeded to shoot the cretin in the kneecap. Vin and Nathan jumped in the mix too. Nathan helped Ezra to his feet, and they got his attacker tied up. Buck brought the 4th man over and tied him up, while Vin worked on the remaining live thug, whose gun had been knocked free in his struggles with Chris. All Vin had to do was threaten to shoot, and he allowed himself to be tied up along with his two living partners.

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Nathan and Buck carried the unconscious Chris over and laid him on his bedroll, with Nathan ranting the entire time about "dern man getting hit over the head twice in less than a week's time." Anger and frustration were often the way Nathan expressed his concerns for his fellow peacekeepers. Nathan stayed to check out Larabee, while Buck went to find out what the men did with the Miller boy.

"Don't worry, Nate. Ol' Chris has got a hard head," Buck said as he walked away, but in reality he was just as concerned about his friend as Nathan was.

The Miller boy had been tied up and gagged about a half mile from their campsite, but he was found quickly and brought back unharmed.

About an hour later, Larabee awoke with the worst headache he had ever had, and that was saying a lot for the whiskey-loving gunslinger. He was dizzy, and the pain and vertigo so bad that it made him nauseous. Fortunately, the men attacked before breakfast, so there wasn't much in his stomach to come up….not for a lack of trying on Larabee's part though. Everyone kept asking if he was ok and how he felt, but all he really wanted to do was crawl away from the camp and be allowed to suffer in peace.

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By midday, Chris decided it was time to get moving despite the splitting headache. Lying here listening to everyone fret about him was not making him feel any better, and he knew all of them wanted to get back to Four Corners. JD and Josiah were bound to start searching for them if they didn't make it home by tomorrow.

Nathan was staunchly opposed. "Hell, Chris, you can't even walk three steps without falling down."

"I ain't plannin' on walkin' home, Nathan. I can sit on my horse just fine," argued Larabee. Truth be told, Chris wasn't sure he could sit on his horse, but he was damn sure gonna try.

The only good news from the recent attack was that Chris and Ezra were able to steal the boots off two of the captured Storm men, so they no longer traveled barefoot. Plus, they found Larabee and Standish's weapons stashed in the saddle bag of one of the gang member's horses; no sign of the missing hats, clothes, or boots though.

Just after lunch, the five regulators, the Miller boy, and the three men from Storm's gang were mounted up and headed towards Four Corners. They made a slight detour to drop the prisoners off at the closest jail and informed the sheriff about what had occurred. The sheriff took down the information, but Vin worried that the local law was in Storm's pocket and would let the men go as soon as they got out of sight.

Larabee stayed true to his word and kept his seat on Pony all day, although his coloring remained pale and slightly greenish. He would not touch any food, and only took a couple of sips of water to appease Nathan throughout the day. He knew they would make much better time if he didn't have to stop and vomit every 30 minutes.

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They camped one more time that night with the knowledge that they could reach Four Corners by noon the next day. Chris was still feeling poorly but told his men that the headache was getting better. No one was fooled though, as Larabee simply dismounted from his horse, put his bedroll on the ground and lay down for the night.

Between Chris' sour mood and everyone's sore muscles from the fight and long ride, no one felt much like talking that evening. Ezra, for one, was almost salivating at the thought of being back in his feather bed tomorrow night. His ribs and jaw ached from this morning to go along with his sore shoulder and leg from the previous days. "I am not cut out for this sort of work," Ezra thought to himself.

Vin was annoyed that he continued to cough and was worried about Chris and the team. They had accomplished their goal and were about to get their men and the Miller boy back home safe, so why was everybody so down? He felt the same way, but he wasn't sure why.

Nathan was agitated that Chris wouldn't let him examine him and resolutely refused to even try a bite of food. Why did these men hire him on if they didn't really want his help? He offered to make a tea for Vin to help quiet his cough, and one for Ezra to alleviate some of the pain and stiffness – and both of them too refused any assistance. "Fine, "he said out loud to no one in particular.  "Just suffer then; see if I care."

Buck heard Nathan and smiled to himself, but he too was already daydreaming about getting to spend the night with Blossom tomorrow. Because of that, he didn't feel like getting involved in any of the disputes tonight.

 

Chapter 8:

"Mr. Tanner, you really must do something about that dreadful cough," Ezra said sleepily, as he was awoken by the sound of Vin hacking loudly. "It truly does sound like you are going to expectorate a lung."

"Thanks, Ez, you're all heart," replied Vin, once he finally caught his breath enough to answer.

Standish tried to close his eyes and go back to sleep, but a loud shriek from the Miller boy had him sitting up on his bedroll and his heart pounding. It turned out that Buck was chasing and trying to tickle the kid.

Ezra lay back down, but he knew there wasn't much hope for drifting back off to dreamland now. He turned over, towards where Chris had been sleeping and tried to prepare himself to haul his sore body off the ground.

The gambler watched Larabee, but he couldn't figure out exactly what he was seeing. It was as if Chris had been on a 3-day drunk. Larabee would try to get up, and then before he could even take a step he would crash back to the ground. He tried going all the way up, and going to his knees first, and always the same result. In any other situation, this would have been somewhat amusing to watch. When Ezra finally became aware enough to realize what was happening, he jumped up to try and help their fledgling leader.

He grabbed Chris' arm and steadied him while he tried again to rise. Both men figured once the blond man was up for a little while, he would regain his sense of balance. Wrong! Larabee tried to take a step towards his horse, with Ezra still holding his arm, and things immediately went dark and Chris crumpled to the ground once again. "Nathan," Ezra yelled. "Your help over here when you get a chance, please."

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Chris was awake again by the time Nathan arrived, and he was glaring at Ezra as the gambler told the healer what had happened.

Nathan examined Chris and could see that he had a concussion….but it wasn't the worst that Nathan had ever seen. It didn't make sense why Larabee's sense of balance was so off. Nathan had heard that the ears played a role in a person's balance and wondered if the blow to Chris' head injured his ear, or caused swelling nearby. Whatever the case, Nathan did not know how to treat it, except give it time.

Vin and Buck wandered over to see how Chris was doing, and once again Larabee was growing annoyed at how much attention his condition was drawing.

"I seem to be able to sit fine, so somebody just help me on my damn horse," Chris said.

"Wo there Cowboy," Vin chimed in. "We still need to get some breakfast and pack up."

"Speaking of breakfast, I'd like to see you eat a little something before we take off Chris," Nathan said.

Larabee's pleading green eyes looked up at the healer, as if to say, "please, let it go." Chris simply said, "I'll eat when we get to Four Corners."

Ezra didn't know who he felt the worse for: Chris who was clearly not well but wanted so desperately to get home, or Nathan who felt responsible for these men's health but whose advice was often ignored. Although he felt somewhat guilty for thinking it, Ezra too was determined to get their leader home today because he did not want to spend another night sleeping on the hard ground.

"That could be part of the reason why you can't stand up, Chris," Nathan chided as he walked away, "you haven't eaten anything for a damn week."

The remaining men consumed coffee and a couple of biscuits, and then packed up the camp. Once they were ready, Buck and Nathan helped Chris on his horse. They let Larabee ride by himself for about an hour, but he was going very slowly. Chris was sweating from the efforts of trying to keep himself in the saddle. The second time that Buck reached out to steady the fair-haired gunslinger, he said, "that's enough." The ladies' man jumped off of his horse and got on behind Larabee. He put his arm around Chris and held onto him as he spurred Pony towards home.

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About a mile outside of town, Chris asked Buck to let him ride in by himself. He said he was feeling steadier, and Buck knew that his friend hated to show any weakness in front of the town folks. So, Wilmington agreed, and he stayed within arm's length of Larabee as they slowly trotted into town.

JD, Josiah, and Mary came out to greet the men. They were pleased to see that the boy had been found, and that Vin looked to be doing better after his illness. They could see that the men had been in a fight or two. Ezra and Chris' faces displayed bruises of varying colors, and they wore clothing that was not their own.

Mary walked up to Chris and said, "welcome back." The seven's leader looked at her and smiled, but his expression gave away his struggle to stay upright. Mary looked quickly to Nathan, and then back to Chris and asked, "are you alright, Mr. Larabee?"

Buck finally stepped in and casually said, "he took a conk on his noggin, but he'll be ok….won't you Chris?"

Chris took a deep breath, blinked his eyes tightly, and quietly said, "yeah, I'm fine."

He then rode his horse over to the hitching posts closest to Nathan's clinic and waited for someone to help him dismount. The last thing he wanted to do was to fall flat on his face in front of Mary Travis.

Vin and Nathan assisted Chris from his horse as discreetly as possible. Mary cringed as they threw Chris' arms over their shoulders and helped him up the stairs. Lord, how she hated to see these men ill or injured.

Josiah offered to take the boy back to his family, Buck headed for the saloon, and Ezra headed straight for his feather bed. JD followed Buck to get the full story on what transpired over the last week. He had not expected all 5 men to come riding into town at the same time.

 

Chapter 9:

Chris remained in Nathan's clinic for a week, slowly recovering from the head injury. On the third day, he was finally able to sit up and eat solid food, and on the fourth day Ezra appeared in the doorway with a bottle of whiskey – and as promised, it was top of the line. He sat down next to the bed, and asked, "how are you feeling today, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris smiled, and replied, "very well, thank you, Mr. Standish." It had been almost two weeks since he had a drink, and Chris' hands started to shake just thinking about it.

Ezra poured them each a shot, and raised a toast, "to your health, sir."

Chris couldn't remember whiskey ever tasting that good, and he said, "Thank you Ezra…for everything. Despite outward appearances, you're a tough son-of-a-gun when you have to be."

Ezra could see the sincerity in the pale green eyes, and although he appreciated the sentiment, he simply smiled and said, "you can repay my efforts, sir, by making sure you chose JD to take along with you next time."

 

The End


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