WHERE THE HEART LIES image by Angela


WHERE THE HEART LIES
    

by Jeanette Alice Ann

 


A/N: Thanks.. To Judy for being my beta, also to Kathy for being my beta in the early parts before severe writers block. Also a big thank you to Angela for yet again doing a wonderful title picture for me.
 
 
From her position in the shadows she had an excellent view of the town, especially the saloon. He had gone inside hours ago, but she was a patient soul and was determined to make sure it was him no matter how long it took.
 
Anyone glancing into the corner where she hid would not have seen her. Hell; they wouldn’t give her a second glance even in bright sunshine. The dirt on her face helped her to virtually disappear in the dark recesses she preferred these days. Her clothes were nothing more than rags and her long thick hair hung in a scruffy plait down to her waist. She was painfully thin, months of living rough had seen to that, but the odd person was kind enough to give her food so she survived. If anyone had bothered to really look closely though they would have seen the beauty underneath the grime and dirt, and a good, albeit tortured, soul through her sapphire blue eyes.
 
Shuffling her position to relieve her aching limbs she again looked towards the saloon swing doors she had glimpsed him entering some hours previous. Was it him? She couldn’t be sure until she got a proper look but the walk and profile tugged at long forgotten memories.
 
She cried as the belt found its mark again “You ungrateful wretch,” he growled above her as he raised the belt for another strike.
 
“Leave her alone.”        
 
The words spoken softly with a southern lilt seemed to fill the entire space, causing the man to stop in his tracks and turn his attention to the speaker.
 
“You dare speak to me boy,” he bellowed.
 
Ezra involuntarily winced a little at the loud boom even though he wanted to appear strong and defiant. “Leave her alone,” he repeated. He barely had time to raise his arms to try to protect himself before the belt was brought down upon him.
 
Sapphire blue eyes red from tears held green ones as the punishment was delivered.
 
Later they held each other for comfort in their locked room.
 
“Your Mother will come for you soon,” Emily stated quietly,” she will take you away from this place.”
 
“She will take you with us.”
 
“I’m his legal ward; he will not let me go.”
 
“There has to be something we can do.”
 
“Promise me you won’t try to do anything or he’ll kill you both.” she pleaded. “I care about you too much to allow that.”
 
“He is my Mother’s brother-in-law, he will listen to her,” Ezra replied with a conviction he didn’t fully feel.
 
The sudden bang of the saloon doors startled her from her reverie and brought her back to present day.
 
There he was. Counting some money before quickly stashing it in his red jacket pocket. Stealthily rising from her hiding place she donned her hat hiding her long hair and walked towards him, accidentally bumping into him as she passed.
 
“Careful young man,” came the familiar southern lilt.
  
Risking a very quick glance at his face she mumbled an apology and quickly made her escape. Looking into those green eyes that had haunted her dreams for many years had nearly stopped her heart dead. It was him. Oh and he’d grown even more handsome than her childhood memory could do justice to.
 
A strange oompth sound behind her had her spinning round. Ezra had vanished from where he was only a second ago. Her heart raced as she heard the sound of flesh hitting flesh. Peeking around the corner into the dark alleyway by the saloon she was mortified to see Ezra being set upon by three large men. He didn’t stand a chance but what could she do?
 
As suddenly as the attack had begun it ended, the men walking off with the money she had watched Ezra counting only minutes before. Making sure they had gone, she raced to his side not knowing where to touch as every inch of him seemed to be developing a bruise or was covered in blood.
 
A low moan at least proved he was alive. Tears created white lines down her dirty cheeks as awful memories came flooding back of that fateful summer when she first met him.
 
The door flew open and a bloody and bruised Ezra was unceremoniously dumped on the floor by his Uncle. “Your poor mother is going to be upset that you got into fights,” snarled his Uncle mockingly as he kicked him once more for good measure eliciting a painful groan from the teenage boy.
 
As soon as the door closed behind her guardian Emily rushed to Ezra’s side. “How could he do this now knowing that your mother is on her way?” she cried.
 
Holding his painful ribs Ezra looked at his companion and smiling ironically answered her.
 
“You heard him. He’s going to say I got into a fight with a gang of local boys and Mother will believe him because he is my Uncle,” the bitterness in his young voice evident.
 
“I wish you’d never come here.”
 
Gently pushing a strand of her thick honey blonde hair from her eyes and cupping her cheek with his hand he fought to speak past the lump in his throat.
 
“I don’t…. because then I would never have had the privilege of meeting such a gentle caring soul as yourself and learn to care deeply for her,” leaning forward he gently and tentatively kissed her on her lips. It was their first kiss.
 
A soft groan brought her out of her reverie. Looking down into pain filled green eyes that couldn’t focus on her, she was immediately transported back 16 years to when they were 13 and locked in a room in pain from a beating by his Uncle. Nothing ever changes she thought not the pain, not the fear or the love.
 
Love!! Where the hell did that thought come from?? But I do love him! Always have…. for 16 long years! The sudden realisation and admittance of that emotion took her breath away and had her heart pounding so hard she swore it would escape her chest.
 
What do I do? I have to get help. Looking around wildly for someone to help her she jumped slightly when she felt a weak hand grab her wrist pulling her down. “Tell Larabee….. Four Corners….. didn’t run out… again,” he whispered into her ear. The gentle heat of his breath sent shivers down to her toes, her skin feeling on fire where it came into contact with his hand. The hand fell back limply as he once again lost consciousness. Realising she couldn’t move him she ran to get help from the only friendly face in town.
 
Bert at the telegraph office mumbled under his breath as he stumbled to the door. “Ok! Ok! Keep yer shirt on!” he yelled over the insistent banging. Swinging the door wide open he was shocked to see the hobo girl he’d given food to earlier that day, tears running down her cheeks.
 
“Men…. Beaten…. Please come….dying” was all he caught between her gasps for breath. Placing a calming hand on her shoulder he asked her to slowly explain. “Now don’t you worry none little lady,” he said, “you go on back and stay with him and Old Bert will be along behind ya, not as fast as I used ta be,” he smiled at her.
 
Running back to the dark alley way, Emily was glad to find him trying to move. Skidding down to her knees she tried to stop him. “Please stay still until help arrives, you may have broken ribs,” she said her voice sounding gruff even to her own ears.
 
“Son, I’m well aware of my painful ribs, thank you,” his accent slurred from pain and a swollen lip, “would you please assist my emancipation from this dirty floor.”
 
Tears welled afresh as Emily realised he thought she was a boy and that he had not recognised her like she had him. Her long thick hair was still hidden under her hat.
 
“But I’m not…..” she started.

                                                             
@@@@@@@

 
“Damn!!”
 
Stopping dead in his tracks Stevens caused his companions to collide into his back generating mumbled curses from them too.
 
“What the ‘ell ya stop fer?” grumbled Clyde. After ambushing Ezra they had returned to the saloon for a celebratory drink before now walking to the livery.
 
“Knew I knew that fancy peacock,” Stevens muttered.
 
“Huh?” Pike, never the brightest button in the box just looked confused. “Wha’?”
 
“That fancy dressed cheatin’ son of a gun,” Stevens replied darkly, an evil glint coming in his eye. “He was one o’ them peacekeepers that drove us out a Four Corners a while back, were with that Larabee character.”
 
“What’s ‘e doin’ all t’way out ‘ere then?” Clyde asked
 
“Don’t know but I’m sure gonna ‘av a bit ‘o fun and earn a bit a extra cash too.” Stevens replied spitting out some tobacco he’d been chewing. “Come on let’s go pick ‘im back up, ‘e could be useful getting’ ta Larabee,” turning tail and heading back towards the dark alley where they had left Ezra in to die.
 
Clyde and Pike just looked at each other behind his retreating back, evil grins slowly spreading over their faces at the prospect of more “fun” with the gambler before running to catch up with their colleague.

 
@@@@@@@

 
“But I’m not….” Emily’s words were cut off when a calloused hand smothered her mouth and she was roughly yanked backwards.
 
Ezra had no time to react as the boy that was talking to him was man-handled and he was again kicked in the ribs and a sharp boot made contact with his already tender abdomen eliciting a moan. Through the haze of pain he knew something was wrong but couldn’t get his usually astute brain to function properly. His already very blurry vision was beginning to go black around the edges but he fought to stay conscious as yet another blow landed. Somewhere in the distance he heard a cry of alarm.
 
“Oww!!!”  cried Clyde as he was suddenly doubled up by a surprise strike from Emily.
 
Terror had gripped Emily as she saw the man she loved being beaten to death in front of her eyes. She had to do something, no matter how small. She suddenly swung her slightly free arm back as hard as she could striking the big brute that was holding her in a tender part of his anatomy causing him to relax his hold enough for her to wriggle free. It was very short lived though as she was grabbed again by the quickly recovered big man.
 
“Well looky what we got ‘ere?” he fairly drooled in her ear making her skin crawl.  “He is a she.” In her struggle to escape her hair had escaped its confines to reveal her true gender.
 
“Leave him alone!” she screamed as Stevens continued to rain down another blow on the now limp gambler. She continued to scream and wriggle.
 
“Fer f****ks sake shut ‘er up will ya? She’ll bring ‘alf the town ‘ere,” growled Stevens turning away from his victim.
 
“She’s a right wildcat,” grinned Pike watching his grunting sweating friend try to hold on to his prey.
 
Suddenly Stevens struck out and knocked her out, Emily suddenly going limp in Clyde’s arms. “Do I have to think ‘a everythin’,” he grumbled turning back to Ezra grabbing a hand full of the gambler’s hair forcing him to look up at him.
 
“You and the girl are coming with us,” he growled in his face, “and while we wait and see if yer worth a hoot to Larabee we’re gonna ‘av a bit ‘a fun with ya an’ the little bitch,” chuckling in what could only be described as an evil way he hoisted the gambler up off the ground and shoved him in the direction of the livery.
 
What they didn’t notice as they left was Old Bert lurking in the shadows watching them go.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Fighting desperately to stay conscious through the pain Ezra’s brain was working overtime. You and the girl? What girl? There was just that boy…. Wasn’t there?.... Oh my Lord! It was a girl! Why hadn’t he noticed that!!!! An extra hard shove had him face down in the dirt panting, trying hard to breathe.
 
Suddenly he was grabbed and thrown over his saddled horse. The pain was excruciating especially in his abdomen and finally the blessed darkness took him away from it.
 
Emily was also thrown over a horse in front of Stevens as they all left town unobserved by the sleeping towns folk. That is for the exception of Bert who had followed in the shadows to see which direction they went. As fast as his old legs would carry him Bert now re-entered his telegraph office and started sending a wire to Four Corners care of one Mr Chris Larabee. He had heard of him and the other six peacekeepers from their reputations. If that poor soul was indeed one of Larabee’s men as that varmint had said then he should know. He would know what to do.
 
 
@@@@@@@

 
The other six peacekeepers were sitting around their usual table in the Standish Tavern that evening blissfully unaware of the predicament and danger their seventh was in.
 
“When d’ya expect Ezra back?” asked Vin never taking his eyes from the whiskey glass he had been nursing the last half hour.
 
“Tomorrow, maybe day after,” Chris answered
 
“He may look for fresh blood gaming wise on the way back,” Buck said with a glint in his eye, “must admit he hasn’t had a decent challenge since that one legged cheat the other month.”
 
The men chuckled remembering the irate gambler losing his shirt….literally!!! Not to mention everything else, forced to walk back to his room in nought but his boots, a tablecloth hiding his modesty and his gun-belt!
 
“Yeah, there is nothing worse than a bored Ezra,” added JD, “except an Ezra woke early.”
 
Again this remark was met with chuckles and grins around the table. Silence ensued with each man pondering how they were missing the larger than life presence of their seventh.
 
The atmosphere was broken by the sudden crash of the swing doors resulting in more than one gun pointing at the unfortunate breathless telegraph clerk now facing the table. “What the hell do you think you’re doing bursting in like that!” bellowed Chris. “Ya could ‘ave been shot!” With a visibly shaking hand the trembling clerk handed over the wire to Chris muttering something about it being urgent before he turned tail and virtually ran out of the room.
 
“Glad to see you’ve lost none of your friendly charm there pard,” chuckled Buck to his oldest friend. The grin disappeared though upon seeing Chris’ expression whilst reading the wire.
 
“What is it pard?” he asked. The rest sitting straighter, when they noted the concern lacing his words.
 
“Ezra’s in trouble.” Chris spoke so softly only those at the table could hear but when he looked up, those steely green eyes promised death or worse to those who had dared to hurt one of their own.
 
“We ride in ten minutes,” he said rising out of his chair with the speed and grace of a coiled cobra, pushing through the doors his black duster billowing behind him making him look like an avenging bat out of hell.
 
Nathan picked up the now discarded wire and read it aloud to the others.
  
One of your men beaten STOP Been taken STOP hurt real bad STOP come to Bitter Creek STOP urgent
 
Silently the rest of the men left the saloon with grim looks on their faces to get together what they would need to bring their friend home. Ten minutes later six riders rode hard out of town in the direction of Bitter Creek.

 
@@@@@@@

 
It was just turning dawn when Emily started to come round with a soft groan. Stevens called a halt to rest the horses and none too gently pushed her from his horse. Landing with a thud, the shock descent and resulting jolt brought her round fully. Her hat was long gone and the three men finally got a real good look at their unexpected catch in the early morning light.
 
“Well I’ll be damned,” muttered Stevens quickly dismounting and grabbing her hair roughly forcing her to look straight at him.
 
“What?” yawned Pike leaning heavily over his saddle horn.
 
“If it aint the very bounty we were hired to find,” grinned Stevens pulling the sketch of a girl out of his pocket and handing it to Clyde who was closest. “Dirty and thin but it sure looks like ‘er.”
 
A malicious grin spread across Clyde’s face as he checked the likeness to the dishevelled girl before him. “Yahoo!” he squealed slapping his hand against his leg. “Ain’t we the lucky ones, we bin lookin’ fer you fer months,” he sneered down at the unfortunate girl. “Yer led us a right merry dance but yer gonna pay big time when Doug Calhoun gets ‘old a ya!”
 
Dismounting he came and stood before her. “Ya never should a killed Damon Calhoun,” he said “after all he gone done for you all these years,” he mocked holding his hand over his heart and putting a hurt look on his face.
 
The other two laughed at his gestures. Emily looked at him and spit in his face. “He beat me and used me as a slave,” she ranted trying to hide her real fear behind false bravado.
 
Incensed Clyde flew into a rage of his own and backhanded her across the face. “Yer little bitch,” he raged striking her again.
 
Ezra, who had gained consciousness un-noticed during this altercation had managed to slide from his horse and now charged at the big brute head down, hindered by his arms being tied. Striking him before he could hit her again, Clyde and the others were taken completely by surprise by the gambler. Although he was in excruciating pain from his injuries Ezra tried valiantly to protect the girl.
 
Seeing his friend taken down by the charging gambler Pike took his knife out of his boot and went to his defence striking Ezra in the side.
 
Sudden red hot pain caused Ezra to scream in agony and slump off his quarry. Pike, happy from the reaction he had caused went to recover his knife from the man’s side only to have his hand slapped away and Stevens screaming at him.
 
“You complete imbecile! You idiot,” he yelled red faced from sheer rage. “Yer pull that knife out an’ e’ll bleed out, yer damn dimwit,” clenching his fists from frustration as Pike merely looked at him not understanding the problem with killing the fancy man.
 
Taking a deep breath trying to calm himself, he tried to explain. “We ain’t gonna get Larabee ta pay us if ‘is man is dead is we?” he slowly said, “we can kill ‘im later,” he added with his trademark evil look.
 
“You ‘ear that Standish” he spoke looking down at the stricken man writhing in pain at his feet “yer a dead man when we gets ‘r money.”
 
Stevens then crossed to Clyde and glared at him close quarters addressing him in a deadly tone, “and if you mention our boss by name again I will kill you myself and split the money with Pike”.
 
“It ain’t like she goin’ to ever get to tell anyone is it?” Clyde muttered at Stevens back as he walked away.
 
“Lets git movin’,” Stevens said as he mounted his horse leaving his men to deal with the injured man. They managed to get him tied to his horse without jostling the knife but the sheer agony the man was in caused him to fall into the blessed oblivion again where he left his pain behind.
 
The fight had gone out of Emily. She meekly did as instructed after watching Ezra knifed. She had felt as though her own heart had been ripped out, she could barely breathe through the tightness in her chest. She wanted desperately to run to him and tend him but knew she couldn’t so helplessly re-mounted in front of Clyde fresh tears streaming down her face.
 
“Pike, ride back to town and send a wire ta Larabee demanding a ransom.” Stevens instructed holding up a hand to forestall any argument, he added, “and stay there and get it before comin’ to the cabin, make sure they know that if they folla ya ‘e’s a dead man quicker than a speedin’ bullet,” chuckling to himself as Pike left to do his bidding.
 
Ya ain’t gonna be dead when they find ya fancy pants, he thought to himself but yer sure will be past savin’. Larabee’ll be forced ta watch ya die an’ won’t be able ta stop ya!

 
@@@@@@@

 
It was about midday by the time a shabby looking cabin came into view through the heat haze, shimmering like some grotesque mirage. Only this mirage didn’t harbour any welcome sanctuary for Emily and Ezra, only more sorrow and pain.
 
No-one had given Emily a hat, after she had lost hers, to protect her delicate complexion from the intense heat of the sun and she was suffering greatly for that. Her head pounded and her vision swam, she felt faint and her mouth was bone dry. She had found some partial shelter occasionally from the giant brute of a man riding behind her unbearably close. She could feel and smell his breath as it hit the top of her head, only adding to her nausea. Her face and nose was already bright pink from being caught.
 
She felt some small relief as they drew up to the front of the cabin, just to be led indoors out of the blazing sun. Up close the cabin looked a lot sturdier than it had from a distance, with strong lockable doors. Dragged roughly from the horse she only just cushioned her fall when her legs gave way, before being hauled back onto her feet and dragged into the awaiting cabin and to a room on the far side.
 
She managed a quick glance in Ezra’s direction as she was forced through the door and was dismayed to find him still slumped unconscious over his saddle. Chaucer, his horse, had been patient and gentle of gait through his journey, seeming to sense his master’s predicament. She was even more worried though as just before the door to her room was closed and locked she saw Stevens carry the inert gambler into a second room.
 
“No wait! Please!” she begged. “Let me tend to his injuries, he’ll die!” she cried desperately tears afresh at their plight.
 
“We don’t need ‘im to live long,” sneered Clyde, “only long enough ter get ‘r money ‘n’ let Larabee get ‘ere ta see ‘im croak,” laughing he gave her a hard shove and then slammed the door so hard the wall shook and dust filled the air making her cough.
 
Turning into the main room, Clyde watched Stevens re-enter the second carrying some rope.
 
“What’s that fer? He queried his leader, “The bastard ain’t goin’ anywhere,” he added with an evil grin.
 
“Want ‘im ter feel ‘elpless when ‘e wakes,” stated Stevens as if it should have been obvious, “Got some more fun ter ‘av afore ‘is boss gets ‘ere, I want Larabee ta know just ‘ow much ‘is man suffered afore ‘e’s forced ta watch ‘im die,” entering the room and proceeding to tie Ezra to the lone bed arms stretched above his head and legs held totally immobile. Thankfully Ezra remained blissfully unaware of this new infliction upon his person for now.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Pike arrived back in town, at midday and headed straight for the Telegraph Office. Looking up at the soft tinkle of the bell above his door Old Bert just about managed to hide his surprise at coming face to face with one of the goons he’d witnessed last night. Grabbing a piece of paper and a pencil from the counter, Pike wrote his message and silently handing it to Bert.
 
Glancing at what was written Bert looked up shocked at the man only to find himself looking down the barrel of a gun and receive an evil grin revealing a couple missing teeth. “Just send the wire, no questions asked,” he leered, “and yer may jest about get to see tomorrow”.
 
“Don’t want no trouble mister,” stammered Bert holding his arms up in surrender, “Mind my own business I do,” he muttered tapping out the message he’d been given knowing that the person it was meant for was already on his way. “Keep me ‘ed down and don’t mind no-one,” he continued.
 
“Jest shut the ‘ell up ‘n’ git on with it,” Pike growled, “or I may jest shoot ya anyway. If I see ya even say boo ta the sheriff,” Pike warned “yer’ll be dead before ya can blink”. He then left without even paying, leaving a shaken Burt behind counting his blessings.
 
Four Corners was just over a whole day’s hard ride away so Pike figured he had time to enjoy himself a little and headed towards the saloon. Little knowing that the man he was expecting was going to be there sooner.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Ezra began to come round later that afternoon. A faint groan announcing his arrival back to reality. Stevens leaned over the gambler so when his eyes fluttered open he was the only thing the gambler could see. Green eyes slowly began to focus eliciting an “Aw Hell” out of the stricken man when he realised his plight. He tried to lower his arms grimacing as the tight ropes dug even deeper into his already bloody and torn wrists. God I hurt everywhere, he thought while trying to hide that fact from his captor. I’m a dead man was his second coherent thought. He only had a delicate hold on his consciousness as the darkness threatened yet again.
 
“Yer not so mighty now are ya fancy pants?” Stevens sneered; “going ta ‘av some fun with ya an’ the bitch next door,” he added smiling as he saw a brief flash of fear in Ezra’s eyes before it was well hidden.
 
 
@@@@@@@
 
 
Six exhausted riders entered Bitter Creek late that evening and tethered their horses in front of the saloon. The fact they were forced to make camp during the night due to a localised storm had put added strain on the riders and made Chris’s already bad mood even worse.
 
Silence ensued as the men entered the saloon as all the patrons looked at the strangers. Pike had been laughing with his back to the door but his smile slowly vanished from his face as he turned and made eye contact with the front man in black. The look in those green eyes that stared at him sent shivers down his back.
 
Slowly the weary men walked up to the bar and ordered beers, their eyes scanning the room all the way and missing nothing.
 
“Could you tell us where we may find Old Bert my friend?” queried Josiah of the bartender.
 
“In the telegraph office just down t’road on yer left,” he replied wiping down the bar before throwing the cloth over his shoulder, “who’s lookin’ fer ‘im?”
 
“The name’s Larabee, one of my men was in town, wears a fancy red jacket. Bert sent word about him,” came the soft answer from the man in black though he never looked up from the glass he turned in his hand.
 
Pike damn near choked when he heard that answer, before covering his shock that he was already there. Vin, however, noticed this flash of emotion as did Buck and they glanced at each other exchanging a silent message to each other, before Buck turned to face the bar and whisper to Chris.
 
When Pike got up to leave Vin silently followed him, and watched as he entered the hotel before re-entering the saloon.
 
“He’s definitely one of the men that took Ez,” he informed his friends upon returning to the bar, “He knew I was watching him and he wanted me to know where he went.”
 
News of the second wire containing the ransom demand had been left for them by Mary at the office in Eagle Bend as they passed through that afternoon.
 
“What do we do now?” asked JD barely managing to keep still due to his need to find his friend quickly. “Ezra could already be dead,” he added, worry and pain for his missing friend evident in his expressive brown eyes.
 
“We’ll find him kid, and take him home safe,” insisted Buck putting a comforting arm around his ‘little brother’s’ shoulders.
 
Nathan was also eager to find his friend and deal with the injuries he knew he had already sustained. “All I know is we need to find him as quickly as possible, he could have internal injuries.”
 
Placing his glass on the bar with a bang Chris turned suddenly. “Let’s pay that bastard a visit,” he said coldly as he stalked to the door.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Meanwhile Stevens was losing patience with his prisoner as he saw him begin to lose consciousness again. Leaning forward he slowly squeezed the gambler’s side just below where the knife was protruding, forcing a scream of agony from the mans throat. Panting hard fighting for each painful breath Ezra’s eyes flew open, sweat beading on his forehead and running into his eyes stinging them. “Yer awake now aren’t ya?” he sneered.
 
Ezra looked into the eyes of his tormentor and saw the pleasure he was taking causing pain, the look was pure evil and scared Ezra more than he cared to consider.
 
“W-why are….are you doing th-this?” he tried to reason buying himself some thinking time.
 
“Oh yer jest the happy distraction from the main event,” he smiled evilly into the pain filled green eyes looking up at him before squeezing his side again, resulting in another involuntary scream, this time ending with loss of consciousness. Knowing that his fun was over for the time being, Stevens sighed and left the room.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Emily shot up from the floor, shocked out of her despair by the first shocking scream coming from the next room. She banged on the wall and shouted for them to stop hurting him until her hands were raw and her throat hurt. Upon hearing the second scream, she became desperate and felt her heart break into a thousand pieces.
 
She turned just in time to see Clyde slam through the door to her room and grab her, throwing her roughly onto the bunk, dazing her as her head hit the wall with force.
 
“Shut the f***k up ya little bitch,” he growled looming over her, “or I’ll shut yer up perm’nent,” he threatened before backhanding her across the face. He then turned and left slamming the door behind him.
 
When she heard the key turn in the lock again she slid slowly off the bed, drawing her knees up under her chin and hugging herself for comfort she finally gave in to her utter despair and cried and cried until she was spent and exhausted.

 
@@@@@@@
 
 
Ezra came round again during the evening, but sheer willpower kept him from groaning in pain. He kept his eyes closed pretending to still be out, whilst his brain sluggishly ran over what had happened.
 
Happy distraction he had said from the main event. What main event? Trying desperately to try to work it out he suddenly remembered part of that afternoon. Oh Lord the girl who I thought was a boy. Good observation there, Ezra he chided himself, she’d killed someone who had treated her as no lady should be treated and someone was after her for revenge. But how was he going to help her, he couldn’t even help himself. His friends didn’t even know he was in any trouble.
 
As despair and the darkness came back to claim him once more his final thought was of his friends. “I didn’t run Chris,” he thought, “I didn’t run,” he was going to die alone, his worst fear, Oh God… then nothing as his mind shut out all pain both physical and emotional once more.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Pike spun round in shock as his door was pushed open slamming off the wall behind. Facing angry men a feral grin spread across his face as he realised his position.
 
“Ya caint do nothin’ to me or yer friend is dead Larabee,” he sneered trying to ignore the glare of those icy green ices burning a hole in him, “If’n I don’t return he’s dead afore ya can git ta ‘im.”
 
Chris’ hand was around his throat before he had time to blink. He was turning a deeper red as a calming hand was placed on Chris’. “Hate to say it but he’s right pard,” Buck said quietly to his old friend. “Killing this bastard ain’t gonna help Ezra any.”
 
Letting go as quickly as the attack had started Chris turned away and took his frustration out on the nearest wall. Why did I let him go off on his own? He questioned himself. Damn fool attracts trouble like horse manure attracts flies.
 
“Where are they holding him?” asked a soft Texan drawl barely hiding the contempt he felt for this scum that had dared to hurt his friend.
 
“I’m s’possed ta collect the money off ya and take it back…. Alone!” he said emphasizing the alone to make it clear, “if’n they see anyone else I was told ta tell ya that e’d be dead quicker than a speedin’ bullet,” he finished grinning like he’d won a massive hand at poker.
 
He never saw the fist coming until he was on the floor looking up at a grim Buck rubbing his fist grimacing. “Ya didn’t say anything about what condition you had to be in,” goaded Buck before turning back to Chris.
 
“How are we gonna work this Chris?” he asked. “Ezra needs help now but how do we get close without getting ‘im killed?”
 
Chris just stood staring at the man on the floor, before looking back at Vin, and then back again. A slow smile crept on his face as a plan formed in his mind.
 
Leaning forward he grabbed Pike by his collar forcing him back onto his feet. “Stand up,” he growled. “Anyone see what I see?” he asked the rest of them pushing Pike towards Vin a little.
 
“Well thank the Lord,” grinned Josiah twigging onto what their leader was thinking.
 
“It may just work,” stated Nathan also realising.
 
Buck just grinned.
 
“What?” asked a frustrated JD.
 
Vin took a real close look at the man standing before him too. “Well, the height is right and the hair colour, it may jest work, jest wish I didn’t ‘av ta wear ‘is clothes,” he finished pulling a distasteful face doing a fair impression of Ezra given the same chore.
 
The other five men chuckled at his expression feeling the first shimmer of hope since this affair had began, before turning to a suddenly fearful Pike with hate in their eyes. Vin took out his knife and advanced a little closer to the suddenly nervous man.
 
“When I lived with the Indians they taught me how to get information from a man without killing ‘im,” he said in a soft voice that sent shivers down Pike’s back. “Now where are they?”
 
Twenty minutes or so later saw six men riding out of town leaving Pike tied up in his long johns in the room after he all too willingly told them everything they wanted to know, thanks to Vin’s method of persuasion. Vin was riding Pike’s horse leaving Peso in the care of the livery boy.

 
@@@@@@@

 
It was morning by the time Ezra came to again and he wasn’t so lucky not able to stop the groan that escaped from his lips. Opening his eyes he found his tormentor standing over him with a cane in his hand, an evil look in his eyes. Dear Lord, he thought, no more please, no more.
 
Stevens didn’t even utter a word; he just smiled and lifted the cane above his head before bringing it down upon the gambler’s already battered body. Ezra tried his best not to give the man any satisfaction knowing that he thrived on other people’s pain but he just couldn’t stop the screams of pure agony each time the cane landed.
 
Stevens suddenly stopped striking Ezra and sat on the bed by the sweating panting man, taking pleasure in how ragged his breathing was and the physical mess that he had created.
 
“Larabee will know how much ya suffered ‘cause a ‘im now,” he stated, “but I have one last gift for ya both,” looking into the confused pain filled green eyes.
 
“Wh-what do you mean? Mr Larabee is n-not e-even expecting m-my re-return y-yet,” Ezra managed to stutter before exhaustion took hold.
 
“Oh but e’s gonna pay fer ya my fancy man,” sneered Stevens “but ‘ere’s the master stroke,” he gloated “Larabee will get ‘ere jest in time to watch ya die and be ‘elpless ta stop it”
 
As he taunted his victim Stevens leaned forward and pulled the knife that had festered in Ezra’s side out, twisting it as he did so. Ezra once again screamed from the searing pain in his side.
 
Leaning even closer to the man’s ear he taunted him more. “Ever seen a man bleed ta death?” he jeered, “it’s a lingering death and that is ‘ow yer gonna die, with jest enough left in yer so that Larabee can witness yer last breath.”
 
Laughing hard now he rose and left the room leaving Ezra in an ever growing pool of blood.
 
 
@@@@@@@

 
While Stevens was having his fun with the gambler Clyde decided it was his turn, so took the key to Emily’s room from his pocket and slowly unlocked the door entering quietly and shutting the door behind him.
 
Emily looked up from the floor when she became aware of his presence, where she was cowering with her hands over her ears trying in vain to block out Ezra’s screams. With each scream she died a little more inside.
 
Terror now filled her blue eyes as she realised Clyde’s intent, scrambling backwards until her back hit the wall chanting, “no no no,” quietly to herself.
 
She was suddenly yanked to her feet and her face bought close to Clyde’s so that she felt his breath on her cheeks as she tried to turn away from his vile breath.
 
“Me ‘n’ you are goin’ ta ‘ave some fun,” he whispered in her ear before pushing her roughly back onto the bed and pinning her down.
 
Panic began to take over and Emily struggled with all her might as he tried to kiss her roughly. Finding enough room to manoeuvre she screamed as tears flowed freely down her cheeks. She felt herself weaken as suddenly Clyde was pulled back by a livid looking Stevens who had entered the room un-noticed by his lustful partner in crime.
 
For a few moments both men just glared at each other in a stand off with Emily cowering on the bed looking up at the towering men above her.
 
“Unharmed ‘e said,” growled Stevens, “so what do you do? Think with yer pants and not yer ‘ead and molest the girl,” shaking his head in frustration he continued. “What’s wrong with ya man? Don’t ya want ta get paid or somit?”
 
Clyde then contritely murmured something vaguely sounding like an apology before leaving the room and locking the traumatised girl in yet again.
 
“Let’s git the horses ready to leave,” Stevens said as he pocketed the key himself. “I want to be ready ta leave the minute Pike gits back. Y’s can bet yer bottom dollar that Larabee won’t be too far behind ‘im and I want us gone when ‘e arrives to find ‘is friend bled ta death.”
 
“Bled?” queried Clyde.  “I’s thought ya was beatin’ ‘im?”
 
“I ‘ave but that knife provided too big an opportunity,” chuckling at his own evil plan.  “Can ya imagine Larabee’s face when ‘e arrives jist in time to watch ‘im die and not able ta do a thing about it?”
 
Clyde slowly saw the picture in his mind’s eye and joined his friend as he walked towards the coral and smile growing on his face.
 
Leaning on the fence the men watched the horses for a few moments, Chaucer nipping at any other horse that approached him.
 
“I like that horse,” stated Stevens. “It’s got spirit and I’m gonna use him,” gathering up a whip from his saddle thrown over the fence he approached the wary horse and jumped back when he reared up his hooves flailing in the air narrowly missing striking him.
 
The whip flew out striking the startled animal on his flank causing him to whinny in distress.
 
“Attack me would ya? Ya no good animal I’ll teach ya who’s the boss,” striking out with the whip again.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Inside the shack Ezra heard Chaucer’s distress but his mind was hazy and he couldn’t quite place where he was anymore.
 
In the next room, Emily paced from wall to wall until she heard the distressed horse then she covered her ears and slid down the wall crying for all the pain being inflicted. Something caught her eye as she sat there, as the small amount of light that managed to filter into the room shone on an object just under the edge of her bed. On hands and knees Emily approached the bed and gingerly reached out for the object, and when she opened her hand she could not believe her luck as she looked down at a key.
 
A key! She couldn’t believe her luck. It must have fallen out of his pocket in their struggle earlier. Cautiously she stood and went over to the door to the main room and put her ear to the wood straining to hear any movement in the room beyond. Satisfied that both men must be outside she slowly tried the key in the lock and almost cried out loud in despair when she found it didn’t fit.
 
Turning her back to the door, she suddenly became aware of the connecting door to the room she knew Ezra was in. They had never offered to use that door so she had assumed that the key was non-existent for it. But what if it is the key? She questioned herself, I may be in yet another locked room but at least I will be able to tend him and bring him some comfort.
 
Decision made she quickly crossed the room and tried the key in the second door and was rewarded with a soft click as it was unlocked.
 
Peeping around the door, Emily nearly fainted at the sight before her. Her beloved Ezra was lying supine upon the lone bunk; there was not an inch of him that wasn’t covered in blood or bruises. For all intent he looked dead already.
 
Issuing a cry of alarm, Emily crossed the room quickly and sat on the edge of the bed careful not to jostle the injured man. Not knowing where to touch that wouldn’t cause more pain she put trembling fingers to his neck to check for a pulse. Feeling the faint beat beneath her fingers Emily released the breath she wasn’t even aware she’d been holding. Glancing down her eyes fell upon the large dark mass beneath his torn open shirt.
 
“Oh Ezra!” she cried gently stroking his cheek with her hand. “I thought your Uncle treated you bad”. Green eyes filled with pain looked into tear filled sapphire blue ones and the years just slipped away, back to when they were teenagers again. She watched emotions change in those ever expressive eyes and thought she saw recognition flash in them before they closed and the darkness took him.
 
As gently as she could Emily tried in vain to release his hands and feet but the rope was just tied too tightly and his skin was raw and torn where it had bitten into his flesh.
 
Wiping at her eyes in frustration trying to clear her vision from the seemingly ever flowing tears, she then looked over his other injuries. The massive bruise on his abdomen seemed particularly nasty but it was only when she stood and brushed her hands on the back of her pants did she notice the stickiness. Looking at her palm her eyes widened when her traumatised brain registered it as blood. Looking more closely at the bunk she became aware of the ever growing pool that Ezra was now lying in.
 
Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Please don’t let him die, not like this!  She silently pleaded. Re-entering her own room she took the sheet off the bed and tore it into strips to use for bandages. It wasn’t totally clean but it was all that she had, her own clothes being even filthier from months living rough and Ezra’s already being soaked in blood.
 
With trembling hands Emily pressed the torn sheet to the wound in his side trying to stem the flow. Ezra didn’t even moan, there was no response to the obvious pain she must be causing which scared the girl even more.
 
So intent was she in keeping Ezra from bleeding to death she didn’t notice Stevens sneaking up on her….

 
@@@@@@@

 
It was early afternoon when the lone rider rode slowly towards the shack, his hat pulled low over his eyes. The grim look on his face relaying what was in his soul as he approached the building that housed his injured friend. At least he hoped injured and not the alternative. If he was dead then these men would suffer ten fold for what they had done.
 
Finally forcing Chaucer to surrender to him, Stevens gave a satisfied grin as he walked back towards Clyde who was still leaning on the fence. The grin on his face grew even wider, until it looked like it had cut his face in half, when he spotted the rider. He easily recognised the silhouette of Pike.
 
“What ‘r you grinning at?” asked Clyde when he noticed that Stevens was looking past him not at him. Turning he too felt relief when he saw Pike approaching.
 
“Saddle yer horse quickly,” instructed Stevens turning towards the shack, “we’re leavin’ straight away afore Larabee gits ‘ere. I’ll git the girl”
 
“Thought ya said not ta be followed an’ I caint see no-one else,” Clyde answered straining to see beyond the lone horseman for any signs of others coming.
 
“Larabee won’t jist sit pretty while we ‘av ‘is man ya idiot,” snarled Stevens. “He’ll be on ‘is way ya can bet on it, now git a move on!” he snapped turning heel and leaving without looking back.
 
Vin kept his head and hat down to keep his true identity a secret as long as possible. He knew the others were just out of sight behind him over the ridge and would be there in a blink of an eye when it kicked off. He’d been thrilled when he realised both men were outside, as that meant that Ezra and the girl they now knew was with him would be out of harms way, but silently cursed when he saw one of them return to the shack.
 
A small grin tugged at his mouth when the remaining man turned his back on him to saddle a horse allowing him to get right up to him without being discovered. That small grin quickly vanished and was replaced by sheer contempt when he was close enough to see the angry looking welts on Chaucer’s flanks, the animal whinnying in obvious distress.
 
“The Bastards,” he mumbled under his breath, his fists clenching more tightly on his reigns, before slowly reaching for his gun concealed beneath the borrowed coat.
 
“Bout time you got back,” stated Clyde without bothering to turn round. “Ya git the money?”
 
When he didn’t get a reply he became suspicious and started to turn around but didn’t quite make it before he heard the click of a gun and felt it pressed into the small of his back. “Just give me a reason to shoot ya,” came a soft Texan drawl in his ear filled with barely suppressed anger.
 
Hearing other horses suddenly approaching Clyde snarled at the man behind him. “Ya too late, he’s a dead man,” taking pleasure in the sharp intake of breath his comment produced.
 
Grabbing his arms and tying his hands behind his back while the others covered him with their guns Vin roughly turned the man around and giving him a stare that would make Chris proud told him, “Ya better hope not, cos if he is yer gonna be praying fer death before we’ve finished with ya,” giving him a sharp shove backwards.
 
Then leaving JD to watch over Clyde and sooth Chaucer, five men with guns drawn went to get their seventh.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Barely hiding his sheer rage Stevens grabbed Emily roughly and threw her onto the floor at his feet. Towering over her he raised his hand to strike her bellowing, “Yer little bitch! Thought ya’d escape did ya! I’m gonna teach ya a lesson ya’ll never fergit”.
 
The terrified girl tried to back away as the strike she was expecting never came; instead he grabbed the front of her blouse and tore it completely open exposing her bodice. He then went for that but she suddenly gathered her wits to fight back. The penned up emotions of what had happened to them both this last couple of days giving her sudden strength.
 
She managed to keep him at bay for a short while fighting like a wildcat but the lack of food and water soon weakened her and he got an upper hand when she felt her strength falter. He was pinning her down now and his hand went to her waist to pull her ‘men’s’ pants down. She tried to scream but terror prevented the sound from coming.
 
“I don’t care what Doug says ya deserve what yer about ta git gal,” he snarled in her face. His hand went to his own belt and began to undo it, as her mind began to close down on her and the edges of her vision blurred into darkness….

 
@@@@@@@

 
Entering the shack the men’s attention were immediately drawn to the room straight ahead where they realised that the one remaining man had the girl pinned on the floor underneath him. Realising his intention, Buck and Chris both moved like lightening, Buck grabbed the man throwing him off the girl and Chris took her in his arms to comfort her. Not realising she was now safe she fought weakly until the soothing words he whispered registered in her thoughts. “Shh your safe now!” was said over and over.
 
“NATHAN!” Buck shouted when he saw the condition of Ezra on the bunk. The panic in his voice evident. But Nathan was already in the room and crossing to the bed. The whole situation only took a minute but seemed to take forever at the same time.
 
Emily looked up when she realised what was being said to her and saw Stevens pinned down and a dark man leaning over Ezra. Glancing around, all the men suddenly filling the room had sadness in their eyes as they looked towards Ezra and the dark man was reaching out to him with great tenderness in his touch. The realisation that these men were indeed there to rescue them was more than the exhausted girl could handle. She turned her face into Chris’s chest and sobbed her heart out, while he held her and comforted her as much as he could.
 
Nathan was looking at his friend with increasing heartache as he catalogued the injuries he could see. He was in terrible shape and that wasn’t counting the injuries he couldn’t see. Taking a knife from the holder on his back he tenderly cut the ropes binding his friend to the bed, it was a difficult job as they had bitten into his flesh. Once he was done he gently lowered the arms that had been elevated for too long. He knew the pain caused from the blood rushing back into his limbs would be intense but he also knew he would not be aware of it.
 
He bit back a curse when he saw just how much blood Ezra had lost, and then when he saw the large bruise and swelling in his abdomen Nathan cursed again and shook his head despondently.
 
“Nate?” Buck queried the fear evident in his voice
 
Answering the un-spoken question Nathan turned to the rest of his friends un-shed tears glistening in his eyes. “He’s lost a lot of blood, almost too much. His wrists are a mess and he’s got busted ribs…..” ending on a sigh.
 
Josiah realising that there was more still to come gently pressed. “What are you not telling us Brother?”
 
“He may recover from those injuries bad though they are…. But… It’s the swelling and bruise on his stomach that has me most worried,” he admitted turning his back on them again to hide his shame at what he was about to add. “He has a ruptured spleen, he needs an operation or he’ll die….. and I don’t have the skill,” he finished, tears now running freely down his face as he looked down at his friend.
 
“There’s a Doctor in Bitter Creek ain’t there?” asked Buck desperate for a solution. “Could he do it?”
 
“Maybe,” conceded Nathan, “but it’s too far to town and we ain’t got a wagon.”
 
“We have ta give him a chance,” added Vin quietly from the back of the room. “He deserves us to try no matter what the odds against. ‘Sides Ezra has a way of beating the odds,” he stated.
 
Clinging to whatever hope he could Chris made the decision for them. “Nate care for the wounds you can. Buck take that piece of shit outta my sight before I kill him! Vin ride back to town as fast as ya can and bring us back a wagon. Also let the Doc know what to expect,” barking out the orders the men felt relief to at least have things to do again, to try to take their minds off the fact that they were losing their seventh.
 
From the now deadweight in his arms Chris knew that the exhausted girl had cried herself to sleep so he gently lifted her into his arms and carried her out of the room and outside.
 
“JD,” he shouted once outside, “grab my bedroll and roll it under that tree,” indicating where he meant with his head.
 
Grabbing the requested item JD did as instructed and Chris gently lowered his burden onto the blanket. The last thing he wanted was for her to awaken in that place after all that had happened to her in there. In fact he wouldn’t be happy until they got both of them as far away from this hellhole as he could.
 
Buck came running around the side of the shack from where he had taken Stevens out of sight with a massive grin on his face.
 
“Vin,” he hollered stopping the man mid-mount, “Come look what I jist found,” turning back again before either Vin or Chris who had heard could answer. Rounding the corner a smile broke out on both their faces when they saw what had got Buck so excited, for there he was standing next to a run down but hopefully workable buckboard.
 
“Do ya think it’ll get him there?” queried Chris apprehensively.
 
Circling the weed covered item a slow genuine grin broke out on the sharpshooter’s face for the first time in days. “We’ll get him there on this cowboy,” he reassured.
 
“Hook it up then,” Chris said. “I’ll go give Nate the good news.”

 
@@@@@@@

 
Josiah looked up into sad brown eyes. Nathan had cleaned out the knife wound and stitched it closed, and also cleaned and bound his torn wrists and ankles. During all this procedure Ezra hadn’t made any sign of life, not a sound. If it wasn’t for the slight rise and fall of his chest they would think they were already too late. Both men knew it was not a good sign.
 
“We have to find a way of getting some water into him,” Nathan said gently brushing hair from the too pale face. “Needs to replenish all th….”
 
The door being flung open stopped Nathan mid sentence as Chris walked through the door. “How is he?” he asked.
 
“Well he’s still with us,” answered Nate.
 
“We got a buckboard out back,” Chris informed them. “Vin and Buck are hooking it up as we speak.”
 
“Thank you Lord,” grinned Josiah looking skywards.
 
“Tell them to pile our bedrolls in the back and hay if there is any,” instructed Nate. “We need to make it as soft a ride as possible.” Knowing that he’d done all he could for now Nathan turned back to Chris. “How’s the girl? I should have a look at her.”
 
“She’s exhausted, fell asleep so I’ve put her on my bedroll outside,” informed Chris as they both made their way outside. “Didn’t think it would be right for her to wake still in that hellhole.”
 
Nodding his agreement Nathan went over to the sleeping girl and checked her over for injuries. Exhaustion and fear had taken their toll on the girl so she only murmured slightly but didn’t rouse during his examination.
 
“She’s not physically hurt, just plum wore out. Needs water and food though,” he reported returning to Chris’s side.
 
“Good, we’ll get going as soon as Buck and Vin are ready,” Chris replied, looking towards the corral where JD was tending to the horses.
 
Acknowledging Nathan’s nod of consent, he strolled over to an obviously upset JD.
 
“Why do people hurt other people and animals like this?” JD asked quietly as he heard Chris’s footsteps approach. Looking up and meeting Chris’ eyes as he drew level.
 
Seeing the anger mixed with the sadness in JD’s eyes Chris leaned past him to gently rub Chaucer’s muzzle. The horse was understandably skittish but recognised the scent of his beloved master’s friends and brothers.
 
“I honestly couldn’t tell you JD,” he answered softly, placing his hand on the youth’s shoulder for comfort, “all I know is that as long as we keep putting these bastards behind bars or hung then I can sleep each night.” 
 
Spotting Buck and Vin bringing the buckboard around to the front of the shack, he gently squeezed the shoulder he still held before releasing it. “Let’s get them all away from here.”
 
While Nathan and Josiah gently carried Ezra and lay him on the blanket covered hay in the buckboard, Chris went and lifted the slight frame of the girl into his arms and gently laid her by Ezra’s side.
 
In no time all were mounted and riding back towards town. Chaucer having found his master’s scent, tried to get as close as he could.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Stevens was riding his old horse that had already been saddled before the six men turned up. This was why he had an evil grin on his face as he kept his head down shielding his face from view from those around him. He was a sneaky crafty man who thought about every contingency and planned ahead.
 
As the men guarding him were distracted due to worry for their dying friend, Stevens took advantage to slowly inch out a small knife from a specially made slit in his saddle right by the saddle horn. Nobody ever checked the actual saddle, always the bags, which is why he customised it especially. Though his hands were tightly bound he had just enough movement to accomplish his task, and so free his hands, only pausing when one or the other of his guards looked in his direction.
 
With his hands free he just continued to ride meekly, subdued whilst his beady eyes watched constantly for the opening he was looking for to affect his escape.

                                                           
@@@@@@@

 
The constant squeak of a wheel penetrated the blackness she had found sanctuary in and with it the memories of all that had happened. She bolted upright suddenly screaming Ezra’s name.
 
All hell broke loose as Emily’s scream spooked an already traumatised Chaucer, who reared up on his hind legs, narrowly missing Chris’s head who was holding his reins, and then tried to bolt. It took all of Chris and Buck’s attention to get the horse to calm down.
 
Clyde chose that moment to cruelly kick his horse in the flanks causing it to bolt towards a copse of trees, dragging an unsuspecting JD, who had been holding the horse’s reins, to the ground from his own horse by the sudden move. Nathan jumped down from the wagon immediately to check the youth wasn’t hurt from his tumble, handing Josiah, who was sitting beside him, the reins as he did so. Vin urged his mount to give chase to the fleeing villain.
 
It was the moment Stevens had been waiting for springing from his horse he landed in the wagon and had the knife to Emily’s throat before any of the remaining gunslingers could react.    
 
“Let her go!” growled Chris silently cursing himself for getting distracted, slippery little bastard he thought, his hand itching over his holstered gun.
 
“You hurt her any more and there will be no place you can hide,” added Buck through gritted teeth.
 
“I want everyone to come round where I can see ‘em or by God I’ll kill ‘er,” said Stevens putting more pressure on the knife causing a trickle of blood to appear beneath it.

Buck growled low in his throat and went to go for his gun until Chris’ hand stilled his action. Looking up into his friend’s eyes he saw the same anger as he knew was in his own but also saw the warning of caution in their depths. Barely nodding his understanding, Buck relaxed his posture and lifted his hand away from his gun.
 
Nathan found JD had broken his wrist by his speedy descent to the ground. He insisted on putting the bone back in place and using a sling to immobilise the joint before gently and slowly helping him to stand albeit wobbly.
 
Meanwhile Josiah was very slowly getting down from the seat of the buckboard buying for time pretending to be stiff. A movement caught his eye as he straightened up, over in the trees where Vin had vanished not long before. He quickly averted his eyes away when he realised it was actually the tracker, so he would not give away his position.
 
“Hurry up!” growled Stevens getting impatient with their slowness. His hand holding the knife twitched nervously.
 
In the trees just out of sight Vin stood proud in his stirrups, rifle to his shoulder waiting for the clear shot to take him out. It had only taken him a few moments to catch up with Clyde as his horse being out of control had ran straight through the low hanging branches. Clyde, his hands tied to the saddle horn, had been unable to control the beast or defend himself. He had died instantly from a broken neck as he hit a thick branch hidden by smaller leaf clad ones. The horse had stumbled on the undergrowth and broke its leg. Vin had to put the poor creature out of it’s misery. Returning to the others he had abruptly stopped when he saw Stevens standing high in the wagon with Emily as his shield.
 
“Come on you bastard, move just slightly,” muttered Vin under his breath not wanting to risk hitting Emily.
 
“I’m leaving here and I’m takin’ this little bitch with me,” leered Stevens at the others unaware he was in the sights of the best sniper for miles. “One of ya is goin’ ta bring me my horse.”
 
“We’ll hunt you down like the vermin you are,” Buck said. Chris just glared silently, watching the girl before him too. She was very still and quiet and appeared calm outwardly but her eyes conveyed the sheer terror she was truly experiencing. Damn but she’s being brave he thought, if he hurts her again I’ll kill him very slowly.
 
A soft groan from Ezra behind him had Stevens suddenly turning to look down at the gambler changing his hold on Emily slightly. It was the opportunity Vin had been waiting for and he took the shot, his bullet hitting its mark.
 
Emily suddenly screamed for all her worth as she was sprayed with blood from Stevens as he fell dead at her feet, a hole in his skull, landing half on top of Ezra.
 
After only a brief shocked pause the men jumped into action. Nathan and Josiah grabbed and pulled Stevens from on top of Ezra and then checked the injured man. Buck ran round to support JD and Chris urged Pony up alongside the wagon and put a strong arm around Emily’s waist gently but firmly lifting her onto the saddle in front of him so she would not be in the way of them caring for their seventh.
 
Buck turned to greet the tracker as he rode up to them. “That was some shot Vin,” he praised a big grin on his face. “Where’s Clyde?” he asked looking behind Vin towards the trees.
 
“Dead. Got ‘is neck snapped by a big branch,” answered Vin, looking past Buck at the wagon where Nathan was bending over his friend.
 
“How is he Nathan?” Vin asked.
                                                                                                  
Looking up with sad eyes at his other friends, he stated, “Fever’s started. Got to get him to town as quickly as possible or he ain’t gonna make it.”
 
“Well what’re we waitin’ fer?” cried Buck, “Let’s git goin’.”
 
“What about the bodies?” asked Vin.
 
“Leave ‘em for the wolves,” answered Chris handing Nathan his canteen for Ezra after giving Emily a drink. “We’ll inform the sheriff when we reach town, let him come and deal with ‘em. JD can you ride?”
 
“Sure I can,” JD answered being helped into his saddle by Buck who was giving instructions to the youth.
 
“Give me your reins, I’ll lead,” he told the boy being as protective as ever.
 
With that Josiah, who had re-taken his place in the driver’s seat, slapped the reins urging the horses forward. Nathan quickly grabbed the side for support as the wagon jolted forward before returning his attention on his friend, wetting a cloth to try to keep his temperature down.
 
Chris rode alongside with Emily in his arms, the girl silent now and never taking her eyes off the man lying so close to death.

 
@@@@@@@

 
It was dark when the group reached the outskirts of town. As they had gotten closer Chris had instructed Vin to ride on ahead to warn the Doctor of his impending patient and also to inform the Sheriff of the bodies.
 
The Doctor greeted them as they drew up to the front of his clinic.
 
“Bring him in Gentlemen,” he fussed, “gently now.”
 
Chris gently lowered Emily into the waiting arms of the Tracker as an elderly lady came over and introduced herself.
 
“Hello I’m Dorothy, Dr Timmins wife; I’ll take care of the girl for you while you go with your friend.”
 
“Come along dearie, what you need is a nice hot bath, a change of clothes and something to eat,” she said gently ushering the girl towards a nearby door. “Our Betsy should have a dress that will fit you.” She continued more to herself than really addressing anyone.
 
Chris and Vin watched the women enter the rooms below the clinic before climbing the stairs to be with their injured friend. Neither man noticed the man across the street hidden in the shadows. After they entered the clinic he lit a match to light his cheroot, the meagre light briefly illuminating his features. He was a tall man, with dark eyes and a chiselled face.
 
Doug Calhoun quickly shook the match out and leaned back watching the building across the street. He had arrived in town that morning to discover one of the men working for him languishing in jail, and found out from a short discussion that six men were riding out to rescue one of their own. To say he had been furious was an understatement, but he was also cunning and decided to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to present itself. He was determined to have revenge for his brother Damon. The girl would die.
 
He’d been trying to remember why the name Ezra Standish seemed so familiar to him since his talk with Pike through the jail window. Suddenly it hit him. He was his sister-in-law’s nephew. The brat had stayed with Damon as a teenager. That meant he knew Emily. He was also a successful gambler now by all accounts. An evil look crossed his features as a plan was formed in his mind.
 
Emily was the daughter of their only sister Dorothy. Dorothy had always been a sickly girl so it was no surprise that she died in childbirth. The ignoramus of a man she called a husband could not cope with raising an infant alone and one day rode out never to return leaving Damon and his wife Claudia to raise her.
 
He pulled his hat down further as he saw the plump Doctor’s wife leave the house with a laden tray and climb the stairs to the clinic.
 
Damon had started to hate his wife nagging him all the while though and one day in a fit of rage strangled her. Telling her sister Maude that she had been attacked when he was in town. Not wanting to fend for himself he then made Emily do all the chores and beat her and locked her in her room when there was nothing to be done. When Maude left a 13yr old Ezra on his doorstep, Damon treated him exactly the same making him do the outside chores, using his brute strength to control and intimidate the smaller boy.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Doctor Timmins had banished all but Nathan into his waiting room and closed the door on them. They sat in any available space or paced up and down. Vin sat on the floor with his back to the wall, his hat pulled low hiding his face but he was watching JD nervously fidgeting across the room. Buck sat close to his little brother to offer what comfort he could while Chris stood looking out of the window at nothing in particular, his only thoughts on the man near death in the other room. Josiah seemed to be meditating sitting crossed legged, eyes closed in the corner, speaking softly barely above a whisper as he prayed quietly for the safe delivery of the gambler.
 
Time seemed to stop as they waited, shuffling feet from the next room and Josiah’s deep baritone murmuring the only sounds breaking the silence.
 
Suddenly the outside door flew open and the round silhouette of Mrs Timmins filled the opening carrying a tray with refreshments on it. Buck quickly rose to take the burden from her.
 
“Let me take that for you Ma’am,” he said politely setting it down on a nearby table. “Thank you kindly.”
 
“I thought you Gentlemen would be needing something to eat to keep your strength up for your friend,” she said kindly.
 
“How is the girl Ma’am?” asked Chris quietly.
 
“Poor thing is traumatised,” she answered honestly. “She has eaten and I’ve put her to bed. Poor mite fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. She hasn’t spoken a word.” She sighed. “Wouldn’t even tell me her name.”
 
“We don’t know who she is either,” Chris informed her as she handed him a plate of pie. “Maybe she will feel like talking more once she has recovered from her ordeal some.”
 
 “Maybe she will,” she replied then left the men to their vigil.
 
The time dragged on and on and still the door remained firmly shut. JD suddenly rose and started pacing restlessly and more and more frantically as his anxiety for his friend increased. Locking eyes with Chris, Buck rose and ushered JD outside onto the veranda to calm him down.
 
“Hell Buck, he don’t deserve to die like that,” exploded JD as soon as they were outside. “What those bastards did to him…” frustration laced every word and left him breathless from the exertion of expelling his anger. “There was so much blood and he was so pale.”
 
Buck waited until JD had vented his emotions and then calmly answered.
 
“Ezra isn’t dead yet JD. He wouldn’t be too happy you talkin’ as if he already were.”
 
“Hell Buck, he looked dead,” cried JD emphasising the word looked.
 
“I know,” sighed Buck his hand holding the back of JD’s neck in familiar comfort. “It’s always worse when it’s someone you care about.”
 
“He will make it, won’t he Buck?” he asked barely loud enough to be heard.
 
“Hell ol’ Ezra has lady luck on his side and more lives than a cat. He’ll come through this ok.” Buck reassured the boy with more conviction than he felt.  You’ve got to make it Ezra he thought or we’ll lose more than just you, the whole lot of us will die inside.

 
@@@@@@@

 
There was so much blood. Her hands were covered in it as she tried to stem the flow rising through her fingers. Suddenly his eyes opened and he looked at her, but then his face morphed into her Uncle’s. “You killed me!” he screamed.
 
Emily shot upright in bed, her heart pounding. It had been a nightmare. She was so hot; she threw the covers back and swung her legs over the bed. Her bare feet felt cool on the wooden floor as she padded over to the open window. The breeze tugging at the collar of her borrowed nightdress, revealing the top swell of her breasts. She stood there for a few moments enjoying the feel of the cool wind on her skin.
 
“Hell Buck, he don’t deserve to die like that.”
 
The words filled her head to the exclusion of all else. Die like that! Die like that! She never heard the response to the spoken words. All she could hear in her head was the words Die like that! Over and over. Tears rolled afresh down her cheeks as she saw a white face before her, holding her hands up over her ears in a futile attempt to stop the words from being said.
 
Suddenly she could take no more and threw the window open wide and climbed out, running towards the livery. She didn’t really know where she was going only that she had to get away. She couldn’t face seeing the man she loved put under the ground.
 
As she silently entered the livery she instinctively went to Chaucer. She buried her face in his mane and cried for the love she had lost a second time in one lifetime, this time forever. Chaucer sensing the girls’ total grief allowed her approach, reaching round and placing his nose on her shoulder in the equine version of a hug.
 
Suddenly Chaucer became agitated neighing and nudging the girl. A footfall on dry hay behind her made her aware of what Chaucer had sensed before her. Turning around her face became a mask of terror. She tried to scream but the sound refused to come. A swift flash of pain in her jaw and then blackness.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Doug Calhoun’s patience was rewarded when he witnessed Emily’s distressed departure through the window. He had heard the full conversation from the balcony and knew that Standish still lived. However it was evident that Emily had not and believed the Gambler to be dead. This would make his revenge all the sweeter, tormenting the girl with the death of her old sweetheart.
 
He had visited his brother that eventful summer and noticed how close the two teenagers were becoming. Damon remained blissfully unaware but Doug observed people closely to pick up their weaknesses to exploit. He knew everyone’s Achilles Heels, even his own brother’s should he need to use it.
 
Maybe his plan would work and he would come out of this not only satisfied in torturing the murderer of his dearly loved brother, but also rich from the gambler too.
 
Glancing once more up to the balcony, he peeled away from the wall and followed the girl to the livery, carefully remaining hidden in the shadows.
 
Entering the dimly lit livery, it took him a moment to locate her standing by a chestnut gelding that looked a bit worse for wear. The horse, sensing his approach began to fidget. He was a couple of steps away when she suddenly picked up on what the horse had done, turning to face him.
 
He took a moment’s pleasure in the look of sheer terror that crossed her face before he lashed out with a fist knocking her unconscious. He could not risk her screaming so it was the quickest way to shut her up.
 
Bending he put a dirty rag in her mouth and secured it with his bandana, before tying her wrists and ankles, not being gentle about it, the rope biting into delicate skin. He then rose and saddled his horse before throwing her over its back. Climbing up behind her, he rode out of the livery into the surrounding darkness completely un-noticed. He was long gone by time the first rays of dawn climbed over the horizon.
 
 
@@@@@@@

 
JD and Buck had returned to the waiting room to resume the silent vigil. It was just before dawn when the door finally opened and a very tired Nathan and Dr Timmins emerged from within, the aprons they wore were covered in blood and they were trying to clean the blood from their hands on equally covered cloths.
 
Immediately five men were alert and surrounding them for word on their seventh. Were they still seven?
 
“The operation was a success Gentlemen,” the doctor told them, a tired but genuine smile on his face. “He has lost a lot of blood and it is still touch and go but his spleen is no longer a problem.”
 
“I’ve never seen such intricate work,” stated Nathan obviously in awe of the doctor standing beside him. “I only wish I could learn to do doctoring like that.” The respect and admiration shining in his eyes.
 
“One of you can sit with him so he won’t wake alone, but only one. The rest of you go get something to eat and some rest, it has been a long night for all of us,” instructed Dr Timmins in a voice that showed he would not be argued with.
 
It was no surprise to anyone when Chris insisted on being the first to sit with their friend. He had obviously been carrying guilt for letting him go off on his own and not insisting one of the others accompany the gambler on his trip.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Knowing that for his plan to be rich to work Standish had to be recovered enough to know what was going on Calhoun took the difficult decision to hole his captive up for a few days with water and some food.
 
It angered him that he could not make her suffer right away, but if she died too soon then his other plan would be ruined. So he took small consolation in the emotional torture he would inflict in those next few days.
 
It was mid morning by time he arrived at his chosen destination. He had deliberately taken a winding route, backtracking himself many times to disorient the girl still flung uncomfortable over his saddle horn like a side of beef. He had stopped briefly outside of town to blindfold the girl whilst she was still unconscious, then removing it when they were out of town quite a way.
 
Emily had regained consciousness several hours ago and was in sheer agony where the saddle horn bit into her side with each step the horse took. Her head pounded from the position she was in and she felt nauseous from the constant motion and the blurry sight of brush going past her eyes. She tried to close them but it didn’t help much.
 
Finally they stopped and he pulled her roughly from the horse causing her to groan past the gag still in her mouth. Throwing her over his shoulder he carried her into an abandoned cabin and threw her on the floor, leaving her there while he went to tend his horse. Fighting desperately not to empty the contents of her stomach, knowing she’d choke to death if she did, she breathed deeply through her nose. All the while her eyes scanned the room she now found herself in like a trapped animal.
 
The ropes tore painfully into her wrists and ankles and she could feel the slickness of her own blood on them as she tried to free herself. The pain became unbearable though and she had to admit defeat. Giving in to her exhaustion and pain she just lay there waiting for whatever fate had in store for her.
 
The only person that had ever been kind to her was dead. No-one cares if I live or die she thought as despair took over her soul.
 
The loud bang of the door being thrown open startled her out of her reverie and Doug came to loom over her.
 
“Well not so feisty now are we girl?” he sneered. “You murderer. Well you’re going to be praying for death by time I’ve finished with you.” Suddenly hoisting her to her feet causing her to nearly black out from the pain.
 
Pushing her back into a chair he roughly yanked the gag from her mouth allowing her to take a full lungful of air for the first time in hours. Unfortunately her stomach finally rebelled and she immediately threw up.
 
Taunting her about the death of Standish, Calhoun moved around the cabin occasionally striking her when she least expected it. Physically she was in pain and tense never knowing when the next strike will come. Emotionally she was broken, by the death of the only person who ever cared. Eventually he left, leaving her a canteen of water and some jerky and stale biscuits. It would not satisfy a hunger but it would keep her alive. After he had rode away Emily just lay on the filth infested floor not moving, lost in untold grief, for a long time listening to distant thunder.
 
Back in town Mrs Timmins was listening at the door of her spare room. Hearing no sound from inside she was satisfied that her charge was still sleeping soundly. She decided to let her sleep as long as possible and so quietly moved away without looking in so as not to disturb her. This was a mistake that could cost Emily her life.

 
@@@@@@@

 
By late morning, despite Doctor Timmins best efforts against, six men were strewn around the bed in his clinic. The only sound was the torrent of rain hitting the roof and the moans and tossing of the man in the bed now lost in feverish nightmares.
 
Sitting in a chair nearest the head of the bed Chris once again doused the cloth in the bowl of cool water and with a tenderness rarely seen the tough gunslinger wiped the brow and upper body of his friend trying to lower his raging temperature.
 
Nathan came silently up on the other side of the bed and gently wiped a strand of sweat coated hair from the gambler’s forehead. He felt helpless watching as the man he now called friend and brother fought to survive. They had not always seen eye to eye, but over the last few years Nathan had slowly seen the good caring man hidden beneath the often irritating façade. He had often seen the gambler caring for a sick child at the Seminole Village, and entertaining them with card tricks. He had noticed how he cheated at cards to ensure a reckless farmer had left his gaming table with enough money to keep his family fed, instead of wiping him dry as he could so easily do. Many acts of kindness that he tried so valiantly to keep concealed without knowing that his six friends could see right through him like a pane of glass.
 
Another groan from the bed drew Nathan out of his reverie and looking up he locked eyes with their leader across the bed.
 
“If his temperature rises much more he may not make it,” he said sadly.
 
“I know.”
 
The words were barely audible but managed to convey a multitude of emotions. Chris wished to God that the bastards who had done this were still alive so he could kill them slowly. There was a pent up rage barely held in check burning a hole in his stomach. He knew his feelings were mirrored in every single man in the room.
 
The sudden opening of the door drew everyone’s attention towards it. There stood Mrs Timmins, water dripping from her hastily fastened bonnet with a distressed look on her face.
 
“She’s gone,” she almost cried. “I thought she was sleeping but the window was open and her bed is cold.”
 
“She’s out there somewhere in just her nightdress,” she added breaking down.
 
Without saying a word Vin pushed away from the wall he had been leaning against and left the room acknowledging the silent message from Chris with a barely perceptible nod as their eyes locked.
 
“Vin is the best tracker for miles around Ma’am, if anyone can find where she went it’s him,” Chris said trying to reassure the distraught woman, though he knew the current deluge would have certainly wiped any visible tracks.
 
Later that afternoon saw six tired dejected men returning to the clinic having failed to find any trace of the missing girl. The rain had stopped but it had done its damage.
 
“Not a trace,” Nathan informed Chris who had made it clear he was not leaving Ezra’s side until he knew he was going to be ok. “Stable boy says two horses are gone, one belonging to a gentleman and the one we brought in with that outlaw on. Didn’t see either go so don’t know when. Looks like she took the outlaw’s horse and went on her way.”
 
“Why jest leave like that?” queried JD puzzled.
 
“Well her clothes are gone too,” stated Josiah as he entered. “They’re not in the trash where Mrs. Timmins put them.”
 
“She’s moved on,” stated Buck as he came in last. “The other rider just returned and told me he saw a boy in ragged clothes riding a paint pony headed toward Jericho. Said he stopped ‘im to ask if he was ok due to ‘is appearance and was told ‘e was goin’ to family in the next town. Described ‘im as blonde haired blue eyed.”
 
“That’s her alright, she seems to like dressing as a boy,” said Nathan satisfied that had found the missing girl.
 
“Well that’s gratitude for ya, least she could’a done was say goodbye and thanks,” said Buck.
 
“How is ‘e?” asked Vin drawing everyone’s attention back to their friend still tossing about on the bed.
 
“Fever is getting’ worse instead of better,” answered his best friend not looking up from his task of sponging down the flushed skin. “Doc says if it doesn’t go down he won’t last the night.”
 
“Damn,” growled Buck taking out his frustration on the nearest wall.
 
“Breaking your hand won’t help him any Brother,” came the calming baritone of Josiah.
 
“He has to be alright, he just has too,” JD whispered angrily swiping away a tear that had run down his cheek.
 
Yet again they found spaces to settle and wait to see if Ezra could cheat death itself… again.
 
 
@@@@@@@

 
Ezra did make it through the night, and though his fever did not abate, it got no worse.  The length of time his temperature stayed elevated was a cause of great concern to both Dr Timmins and Nathan who knew the dangers prolonged elevation would cause even if he were to survive.
 
“He can’t stay like this much longer, if we don’t get him cooler soon…” sighed Nathan not wanting to finish saying his thoughts aloud.
 
“Nathan remove his clothes and cover him with a couple of blankets,” instructed the Doctor suddenly. “The rest of you come with me quickly.”
 
“Where are we goin’ Doc?” asked Buck following anyway.
 
“To the Ice House.”
 
“What? Are you loco?”
 
“No,” Timmins answered patiently. “We have to lower his body temperature quickly, so we’re going to pack ice around him. I’ve seen it done. It’s dangerous but it does work,” he added defending his decision. “Put it this way, if we don’t he dies anyway. At least this way he has a chance.”
 
“We give him that chance Buck,” stated Chris overtaking his oldest friend. “He deserves a chance.”
 
Decision made they followed the Doctor and followed his instructions.
 
The treatment looked tortuous but once the ice was removed they were relieved to hear that Ezra’s temperature had indeed dropped. His fever had broken.
 
 
@@@@@@@

 
The blood was pouring through his fingers as he desperately tried to stop the flow. It was his own life’s blood. He could feel himself getting weaker. Then there was a face before him, leaning over him. The eyes were blue as cornflowers, the hair like spun gold, long and thick like Rapunzel from the fairytale. That same beautiful face had been there before, but where? But then the face changed into his tormentor. NO! The other face was so familiar and yet from where? If only he could think. His tormentor came again twisting the knife held between his blood slick fingers and he could no longer hold back his scream. The cornflower blue eyes fading.
 
His eyes shot open and he tried to pull away from the hand twisting the knife as he screamed.
 
Nathan grabbed the hands gently but firmly.
 
“Ezra calm down,” he said firmly trying to get through to the man not quite out of the nightmare. “I was just checking your bandages, didn’t mean to hurt ya none.”
 
The familiar voice found its way into his nightmare illusion and pulled him clear. Panting hard from the sudden excursion his head fell back on the pillow.
 
“Nathan?” he croaked weakly. Then noticed the other five faces sporting big grins that were suddenly in his field of vision. “Gentlemen.”
 
“How do ya feel?” asked Chris
 
“Like hell,” he answered forgoing his usual large words.
 
“Glad to have you back with us Pard,” Buck said slapping the gambler’s leg gently.
 
“Ya had us all real worried Son,” Josiah added.
 
“Yes, well now that you’ve seen him awake maybe you can all go and get something to eat and some rest and let my patient rest too,” Doctor Timmins said entering the room.
 
Something was tugging at Ezra’s memory, but he was just too tired to figure it out yet. What had he forgotten? Maybe if he just closed his eyes for a few minutes….
 
Noticing that Ezra had fallen asleep again but finally knowing that he was going to be ok, Chris and the others acquiesced to the doctor’s wishes and eventually left to get some much needed sleep themselves.
 
Following his men Chris paused at the door looking back briefly. “Thank you,” was all he could say, knowing the words were inadequate for the man who had helped keep them whole. The Magnificent Seven would ride again.
 
 
@@@@@@@

 
Doug watched as the black clad gunslinger left the clinic. An evil smile crossed his face as he realised that Standish must have regained consciousness. He knew that Larabee would not leave the clinic until his man was out of the woods.
 
Slinking back further into the shadows as said gunslinger looked around and seemed to look straight at him, Calhoun was already planning his next move.
 
He had been very careful on the night he took Emily, leaving her tied just outside town while he sneaked back and then made a show of leaving again, this time with his own horse. Pointing out the empty stall where the paint pony had been. The young stable boy had not been around earlier that day when the pony had originally been brought in so he just took it the owner had left. It was enough however to further add to his alibi that it had gone before him. He had then given a cover story of studying nocturnal animals as an excuse to be riding out in the dead of night. He had, at the time wanted to throttle the imbecile as he asked several times what nocturnal meant. Is no one educated in these backwaters?
 
Two more days he decided. Standish should be well enough by then to make it to the bank. He would screw the brat for every cent he had, then lead him a merry dance in the wrong direction while the bitch died out in the desert. Between them they had destroyed Damon. They deserved to suffer greatly. The affection they held for each other would be their undoing.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Chris stopped and looked back down the street on his way to the Saloon. He had a feeling they were being watched. Not seeing anything though, he quickly caught up with the others.
 
“You alright Cowboy?” asked Tanner noticing his friend’s unease. The others ahead of them chatting and laughing now that they knew their seventh would make a good recovery.
 
“Just a gut feelin’. Nothing feels right somehow and I keep feeling like we’re being watched.”
 
“Yeah I’ve felt that too.”
 
“Get the feelin’ we’re being played like a fiddle at a hoedown?”
 
“Yep.”
 
“Yeah me too, let’s warn the others to be careful until we figure this out.” Chris gave one last glance around before following Vin into the crowded noisy saloon.
 
 
@@@@@@@


It had been four days since they had brought Ezra back to town. He had awoken several times and had taken in as much water as they could get into him and even managed some food albeit only weak broth.
 
Still having a feeling of unease, Chris had instructed the remaining lawmen to stay in pairs and take it in turns to sit with their seventh. So Josiah sat quietly reading as Nathan browsed the extensive medical books on hand, whilst their friend slept. He had been sleeping peacefully but the men’s attention were drawn to the bed as its occupant started to become restless and agitated.

“Has his fever returned?” Josiah asked as Nathan placed a hand on the conman’s brow.

“Nope, must be havin’ a bad dream. Surprised he ain’t had ‘em before now after what he’s been through recently,” Nathan answered.

Locked in his own thoughts Ezra was back to being a teenager. His Uncle Damon towered over him belt held high ready to strike the helpless youth again. “No more, please Uncle.”

“Would you like me to beat Emily instead?” sneered the man as he struck him again.

“No please not Emily, leave her alone,” Ezra cried still trying in vain to protect his cousin.

Eventually the beating stopped and he was thrown onto the bed and left alone. Except he wasn’t alone. Emily was there, tears falling from her blue eyes. But then he wasn’t in the room anymore. He was in the cabin and Emily had gone. There was another face leaning over him, tears falling from blue eyes.

Blue eyes.
 
The same blue eyes.

Oh God… Emily! She was there at the cabin. In that hellhole.

“Emily!”

Ezra shot up in bed, not aware he had shouted the last word out loud. His eyes searching around while hands held him down.
“Ezra you need to calm down, you’ll open your stitches again,” Nathan admonished.

“She was there at the cabin. Where is she?” cried Ezra clearly distressed.

“The girl that was with you?” queried Josiah.

“She was there all along and I didn’t recognise her. Hell, I even thought she was a boy,” answered Ezra disgust lacing his words.

“A simple mistake bein’ as she was wearin’ boys clothes,” stated Nathan reasonably.

“I have to speak to her,” stated their friend.
 
“I’m afraid she left town the night we brought you here. Was seen on the road travelling to Jericho to see family,” Josiah informed him.

“No, no, that’s all wrong,” said Ezra getting more and more agitated. “She has no family in Jericho. Only has one Uncle who married Mothah’s sister. She would not actively seek him out believe me.”

He fell back onto the pillow spent. His accent had gotten more defined as he spoke, a sure sign of stress and his weakened state.

“What’s goin’ on in here?” asked Doctor Timmins. He had been on a visit to another patient and heard the raised voice of his patient climbing the stairs.

“A development my friend,” answered Josiah, “and not a very good one,” he finished sharing a worried look with Nathan. Chris had been right, it was all wrong.

Seeing that Ezra had once again succumbed to his need to sleep Nathan addressed the Doctor.

“Would you mind sitting with him for a while Doc? We need to speak to the others urgently.”

After the Doctor agreed both men rushed to find their leader. Their rushed exit had not gone un-noticed from the shadows.
So the game is afoot he thought watching the men talk animatedly to the others in the street and then go to the livery. It’s time for the master plan.
 
After the men had dispersed, Calhoun slipped across the street and silently climbed the stairs. He slipped a note under the door and then quickly left, going to the livery for his horse as he did every evening.


@@@@@@@

 
The last four days had been a living nightmare for Emily. Every night her Uncle Damon returned to inflict more physical and emotional torture on her. He spoke of how, if not for her, Ezra would never have been hurt. How Ezra was the sufferer for her evil. Her uncle told her she had been a wicked and evil girl growing up and how he had tried to save her soul with hard work and discipline. How she had repaid him by trying to kill him and how Ezra had paid the ultimate sacrifice on her behalf.
Each point was emphasised with a blow.
 
She now heard the approaching horse. Her once expressive blue eyes were dead as she awaited her punishment yet again. She had to accept it to make amends. After all he had come back from the dead to make sure she paid for her sins.
 
Back from the dead.
 
The shock she had felt when she had turned in the livery only to come face to face with the abusive Uncle she had ‘murdered’ was overwhelming.
 
I killed him. Now Ezra has been taken to replace his soul in hell, condemned because of her.


@@@@@@@


Doug Calhoun smiled as he came in to see the fleeting look in Emily’s eyes before they lost all life again. He was feeling very pleased with himself. He had left town undetected, the ransom note safely delivered and Emily destroyed at his feet. She believed every word he had told her about him being Damon and his returning to exact vengeance on Ezra for her actions. Her mental anguish was as sweet to him as her pain. Emily was paying for Damon’s death most satisfactorily. Being an identical twin had its advantages after all.


@@@@@@@


After questioning the people in town again, Chris and the others wearily returned to the Doctors clinic to see if Ezra could tell them more about Emily in order to find her.

Hearing raised voices as they reached the bottom of the stairs, Chris exchanged looks with Vin who shrugged before they raced up the stairs two at a time. Opening the door they were greeted by an obviously distressed pale gambler trying but failing to glare up at an unrepentant Doctor who seemed to have mastered the Larabee glare.

“You appear to be afflicted with sudden deafness you… you… imbecile. Did I or did I not say it was imperative that I leave this domicile?”
 
Standing arms akimbo, like an immoveable mountain, the Doctor merely glared back, once more pushing the ailing man gently down onto the bed he was attempting to escape.

Spying his friends over the “mountain’s” shoulder, Ezra called upon them for support.

“Please explain to this stubborn person the importance of my leaving.”

Trying to hide the slight smile that wanted to escape, as the Doctor pushed Ezra back onto the bed, Chris noticed how easy he was being thwarted which spoke volumes about his friend’s poor health.

“I would if I knew why it was so important,” Chris replied.

His answer was a piece of crumpled paper thrust into his hand.

“I found this just after you all left,” stated the Doctor. “Mr. Standish has been agitated and trying to leave against my medical advise ever since.”
 
IF YOU WANT TO SEE EMILY ALIVE AGAIN DEPOSIT $2000 INTO THE FOLLOWING BANK ACCOUNT BY THE END OF THE DAY.

“That’s an almighty amount of money Ezra,” Chris said quietly. “Don’t rightly think I’ve seen that much in one go before.”

“I have the money that I was saving to purchase my own saloon. It is not enough but it covers just over half the amount requested.”

“Even if you had the full amount you know there is no guarantee of him releasing her?” asked Chris gently.

Sighing, Ezra just nodded, exhaustion once more taking over.

The remaining men were silent for a few moments as they realised just how important this girl was to their friend for him to be so willing to give away all his money.

Taking control of the situation like the true leader he was Chris suddenly started barking out orders to everyone in the room. He intended to set a trap for the bastard who had ordered the kidnapping of a girl and nearly had his friend killed.


@@@@@@@


Meanwhile Emily had given up all hope. Her legs and arms had ceased to pain long ago, only total numbness remained. Swollen ankles and wrists caked in dried blood no longer existed in her fuzzy world. She was dimly aware that she was thirsty. She was also aware that her gag was slowly causing her to suffocate. She longed for deliverance, but something, what, she was unsure made her linger on. In her attempt to escape her hole she now lay twisted pitifully.


@@@@@@@

 
Doug Calhoun had watched earlier that day as Standish entered the bank under the protection of the black clad gunslinger. The others had dispersed out of town again in their futile attempt to find the missing girl.
 
He waited patiently for several hours after watching them leave before deciding it was safe to make a small withdrawal and leave them to their lost cause. He would access the ransom money account in another town far away.

Entering the bank again was Calhoun’s mortal mistake as, unknown to him, Ezra and Chris never left the bank, Buck and Vin had left the bank dressed in their friends’ clothes, hats pulled low and collars up high.
 
As Doug entered, Chris turned at his friend’s sharp intake of breath and plaintive whisper. “He’s dead. They said she’d killed him.”

“Who is he, Ezra?” Chris asked. As he watched his already pale friend turned an extra shade of white.

“My Uncle, Emily’s Guardian and Uncle” he replied clearly shaken. “He married Mother’s only sister and Emily is his only sister’s daughter. He became her guardian after her mother died.”

Seeing the haunted look in those usually sparkling green eyes that no longer saw the man before them but some distant past event, filled Chris with hatred for this “Uncle”.

“Let’s take this bastard,” he said, silently signalling an equally hidden Josiah on the other side of the room.
 
Before he realised what was happening Calhoun found himself surrounded by six very angry men.


@@@@@@@


Left alone in the room Ezra collapsed into the nearest chair. His breathing was laboured, his head, and everywhere else for that matter, pounded in agonizing rhythm with his heartbeat. Leaning his head back against the wall he closed his eyes and tried to find the source of his continued uneasiness. Something was not quite right but what? If only he could think clearly. His usually sharp brain was uncooperative.

Ezra cowered as the belt was lifted up for another strike, looking up into the angry face of his Uncle. Green eyes wet with tears he refused to allow to fall locked with the bloodshot blue ones.
 
“Yer led us a right merry dance but yer gonna pay big time when Doug Calhoun gets ‘old a ya!” ,
 
“And if you mention our boss by name again I will kill you myself and split the money with Pike”.
 
The memories came into his head unbidden and his eyes flew open as everything fell into place. The eyes. The name. Twins.

 
@@@@@@@

 
“Where is she?” Chris glared at Doug his voice deadly quiet and menacing.
 
“Where is who?” Doug responded innocently trying to bluff his way out. “I was just making a small withdrawal from this fine establishment when you gentlemen,” he paused to gaze at each one of them, “surrounded me”.
 
“All these years you kept it a secret”.
 
The soft southern drawl effectively silenced the room as Ezra painfully approached them. He never noticed his friends parting to allow him access to Calhoun or the fact that Chris and Buck stayed right by his side.
 
“The eyes. They are what separated you”, he continued staring into the green eyes in the face of his “Uncle”.
 
Knowing his innocent ploy was dead in the water Doug’s whole persona changed in front of their eyes. Gone was the wide eyed shocked expression to be replaced with sheer hatred as he sneered down at the smaller man standing before him.
 
“Well, well, well if it isn’t Maude’s brat. Why my brother put up with her dumping you on him so often beats me”, he sneered.
 
“Where is she?” Ezra repeated his friends question refusing to allow him to see how weak he felt.
 
“Somewhere you’ll never find her,” he said glowering down at the shorter man.
 
Holding himself upright by sheer force of will, Ezra turned to Vin, only allowing pain to show on his face when his back was turned to Calhoun.
 
“I believe your time with the good native people of this land taught you how to garner information from a man?” he asked somehow keeping his voice strong.
 
“It will be my pleasure Ezra,” he answered his friend with a grin on his face.
 
Seeing the determination in the eyes of the man now coming towards him unsheaving a hunting knife, all the bravado left the bully and he started backing up until he hit the solid chest of Josiah.
 
“Going somewhere Brother?” he asked with a grin that rivalled Vin’s. “I believe my friend here wants to ask you a question”.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Ezra slowly walked away from the confrontation towards the room he had exited earlier. Sweat was running down into his eyes but he fought the urge to wipe it away before he was out of sight. Unaware he had been followed until two sets of strong arms caught him as his legs buckled once he had entered the room.
 
Once they had gently lowered the unconscious Gambler to the floor Nathan proceeded to examine his bandages to see if he’d burst his stitches. Chris stood removed and folded his duster and then placed it under his friends head before turning to the Healer.
 
“He okay Nathan?” he asked quietly.
 
“Damn stubborn Southern fool should be in bed,” muttered Nathan irritably, “need to get him back to the clinic.”
 
“Please Nathan, I have to see this through to the end.” The southern drawl was quiet but strong.
 
As Nathan looked into the pleading green eyes of his friend, for once showing every emotion the Gambler felt, his resolve crumbled.
 
“Only if you rest now and drink some more tea for your pain.” Lifting his hand he silenced the protest he saw forming. “Those are my terms or you go back right now,” he finished firmly.
 
Looking at Chris for support and seeing the same resolve in his eyes Ezra quietly gave in with a simple nod. To be honest he felt too ill to argue any further and closed his eyes for a while, quickly drifting off.
 
Both men stood when they noticed he was sleeping. Chris looking at Nathan his eyes asking for confirmation.
 
“He’ll be ok, if he rests for a short while. I’ll send Buck for some tea. If the ride becomes too much I’ll hog tie him and bring him back if necessary.”
 
Satisfied Chris turned to leave only to find Vin leaning against the doorframe.
 
“He okay?” Vin asked indicating the Gambler with his head.
 
“He will be,” came the quiet answer. “Thought you were questioning that piece of filth?”
 
“Josiah wanted a word with him first,” Vin said with his trademark grin. “He’s gone all Old Testament, said he’d soften him up for me.”
 
“He could as well,” chuckled Chris releasing the tension that had built since he entered the bank some hours back. “Think I’ll have a go at him after Josiah, then he’s all yours.”
 
“Hell I need some of him to have some fun with,” Vin griped good naturedly.
 
Just then the door opened on the far side of the main room and Josiah stepped out grinning widely. “He’s all yours Brother Vin.”
 
“After you Cowboy,” Vin said sweeping his arm out to guide his best friend forward.
 
Matching Josiah’s grin Chris strode with purpose into the room and shut the door behind him.
 
Josiah and Vin just looked at each other and smiled until Nathan came out asking for Buck to run to the clinic for some stuff. Looking serious again, they entered the room Nathan had just vacated to sit with their friend until Chris came out.
 

@@@@@@@
 
 
Doug watched the man in black suspiciously as he merely entered and sat in the chair opposite him. The cold green eyes staring at him made him want to fidget. He never uttered a word, just sat there glaring. His eyes holding the promise of much worse than the Preacher had said was waiting for him in the ever after. Despite his best effort to look outwardly unaffected, he couldn’t help the slight flinch when Chris moved to scratch his hip.
 
Chris was pleased to see this reaction. They were un-nerving the bastard. A while later he simply rose and left the room without uttering a word.
 
As the door closed quietly behind the man in black, the effect somehow more sinister than being slammed, Doug let out the breath he had been holding. He was typical of any bully when faced with a taste of their own medicine. He had been brought up to be God fearing by an overly strict mother and father. They had not been beyond beating their sons into being upstanding citizens in their community. This treatment however had done nothing more than breed two no good bullies who beat those in their care. The apple had not fallen far from the tree.
 
Now however, after being submitted to a session of Josiah’s Old Testament preaching and Chris’s deadly glare, he was remembering the verbal warnings his mother had given him about the path to Hell. He wanted to avoid that fate at all costs which meant staying alive as long as he could.
 
So, when he heard the door open again and saw Vin enter polishing his very large, very sharp hunting knife, he crumbled. The blue eyes staring at him promised pain and retribution and that was his undoing. As sweat poured down his neck and into his eyes he began to squeal like the proverbial pig, telling Vin everything he wanted to know.

 
@@@@@@@

 
The five men sat talking quietly as their friend rested in the other room each glancing periodically at the closed door wondering what was happening behind it.
 
They all looked up suddenly as it opened to reveal a scowling Texan.
 
“You both ruined all my fun,” he said glaring at Chris and Josiah in turn. “Didn’t even get ‘cross room before he spilled ‘is guts.”
 
The grin on Vin’s face as he finished explaining put an answering smile on all their faces.
 
“Let’s ride boys,” said Chris rising and heading for the door. “Let’s bring her home. Josiah you stay with Ezra as we may need Nathan.”
 
“I will not be left behind in this emancipation of my cousin.”
 
The Southern drawl brought their attention to the doorway of the room they thought he was sleeping in. He looked dreadful. He was white as a sheet and was leaning heavily against the doorframe. However the steel determination shining in his green eyes said the only thing that would stop him was if he were at death’s door. To his friends he looked uncomfortably close to it. He was using reserves long since exhausted, but he would not rest.
 
Sighing Chris relented, “Stick to Nathan like glue,” he ordered. “If Nathan says you are to turn back, you will, understood?” Raising his hand to stop the objection he saw forming, he dealt his winning hand. “You will only delay our rescue of her if we are concerned about you.”
 
Looking into the eyes of his leader and friend, Ezra saw the compassion and understanding there. Much as he wanted to deny it he knew Chris was right. He simply nodded his head slightly, agreeing to the terms stated.
 
“Come on Pard,” Buck said gently taking the Gambler’s arm, “let’s get you on that horse of yours.”
 
So they all headed to the livery, Ezra accepting the strength and help of Buck and Nathan.
 
 
@@@@@@@

 
By the time they reached the area indicated to Vin, Ezra was slumped over his saddle horn but doggedly stayed on his horse. Chris had bitten his lip several times, longing to order the stubborn fool back to the comfort and care of the clinic in town. However, when he looked at the white face, covered with a sheen of perspiration and saw the determined tilt of the chin and the fire in Ezra’s eyes, he held his council.
 
Chris had seen that look in the Gambler’s eyes when he spoke of Emily back in town. He had recognised it for what it was and knew only death would keep the man away. He knew the look well, he had seen it before, in the mirror, many years before when dating his beloved Sarah. He’d also seen it in Sarah’s eyes as she held their son.
 
It was the look of a deep, soul breaking love.
 
Ezra’s eyes had spoken more to him than the words. Eyes usually closed off to the world. The man’s last defence to the outside world. They all knew he did it. Shuttering his emotions behind that damned poker face to hide the vulnerable and caring soul hidden inside. It was a testament to how far the seven of them had come that he had allowed his emotions to show through in their presence now.
 
Reaching their destination, Chris continued watching his hurt friend. Ezra gingerly slid to the ground, barely keeping the descent from ending with him sitting on the floor. As a wave of dizziness hit him he leant against Chaucer, owner and horse each seeking comfort from the other. His hand absently, yet tenderly, tracing the healing welt on the horse’s flank.
 
Coming up behind him, Chris placed a supportive hand on the gambler’s shoulder.
 
Gathering the strength offered in the touch, Ezra slowly pushed away from Chaucer. As he turned around the hand slid from his shoulder down his arm to offer stability. He was glad of it as he was hit by another wave of dizziness.
 
“FOUND IT” Vin’s voice carried to both men. They knew she was in an old dug out storage area.
 
“Let’s go get her out,” stated Chris quietly, not trying to stop the obviously weak Gambler from proceeding.
 
As they all approached, ready to help remove the debris covering the girls ‘prison’, Josiah held out his hand, stopping them in their tracks.
 
“What is it Josiah?” asked Buck impatiently. He was anxious to get the poor girl out and safe. He hated seeing a female in distress.
 
“We can’t just go barging in there,” stated the ex Preacher patiently. “From what Vin told us she believes Ezra is dead and that Doug Calhoun is from Hell and has taken Ezra’s soul in place of his own.”
 
“So?” asked Buck
 
“So… She’s gonna be scared stiff and if she sees Ezra it might flip ‘er over the edge into madness,” explained Vin understanding Josiah’s caution.
 
“How do we get her out then?” asked JD
 
“Chris,” Nathan said firmly as Chris and Ezra joined them.
 
“What?” asked the man in black not having caught the quiet conversation.
 
“You are the only one, other than Ezra that she knows. She rode with you and felt safe with you,” explained Nathan. “You are the only one who can approach her in her delicate state and not overly spook her.”
 
“Nathan is indeed correct, Chris,” added Ezra. The use of their first names testament to how bad he was actually feeling. “Please remove her from that dreadful hole.”
 
“Okay,” stated Chris simply moving forward whilst removing his duster.

 
@@@@@@@

 
As Chris slowly and carefully removed the planks and debris over the hole, he became aware of a pair of glazed blues eyes watching him with something akin to terror in their depths. When he had started she had been unconscious. Thankful to see her awake now, he bit back the curse that rose to his lips as he removed the final piece and saw the full extent of her injuries. Her lips were dry and chapped from lack of water. She was twisted into an obviously painful position. The skin on her shoulder and arm was red and blistered from the sun that had pierced the cover above. She had obviously tried to escape the intense burn but was unable. Her wrists and ankles were swollen and caked with dry blood from her bonds, though he couldn’t see the rope that bound her any longer.
 
Swallowing the lump in his throat he forced himself, with some effort, to make his voice sound calm and reassuring.
 
“Emily, you’re safe now. Do you recognise me from when we rescued you and Ezra?” he said.
 
Seeing the slightest of nods, he bit down another curse at the pain he saw flash through her eyes before they dropped.
 
“Emily. Look at me,” he ordered gently. “Ezra is not dead. You mistook what you heard and it was used against you by your Uncle’s twin brother.”
 
Seeing he had her attention he repeated more firmly.
 
“Do you understand? Ezra is alive. The others are here to help. It was your Uncle’s twin,” he repeated, emphasising the word twin.
 
He saw the moment the truth sank in just before the eyes close and she slipped back into unconsciousness. The slight curl of her lips into the faintest of smiles confirmed she had understood the message and believed him.
 
“Okay boys come help me get her out of here,” he shouted over his shoulder.
 
“Good Lord! What did that bastard do to her?” came the exclamation from the Southerner.
 
Looking up at the distraught man, Chris saw Ezra’s eyes roll back a moment before he crumpled in a dead weight.
 
“Ezra!” he cried, warning the others. Buck and Josiah managed to catch him before he hit the ground.
 
Nathan, just behind Josiah, put a hand to the Gambler’s forehead cursing slightly at the heat he felt coming from the man.
 
“Buck, Josiah take him over to the cabin and place him in the shade,” he instructed taking control. “And get some water into him,” he shouted to their retreating backs, satisfied when he saw Buck’s hand raise in acknowledgement.
 
“JD, start a fire and heat some water, there was a pot in the cabin.”
 
“Right, on it,” JD responded running to do as bidden.
 
“Chris, Vin, we need to get her over to the shade, too,” he continued placing his hands under the girls shoulders preparing to lift. Vin took her legs and Chris her waist.
 
“Gently does it now,” Nathan said unnecessarily.

 
@@@@@@

 
Anger rolled off the men like heat haze off the desert when they finally saw the extent of the girl’s injuries. They placed her gently on a bed roll in the shade by Ezra, laying her on her side since her arms were still bound behind her back. Being as gentle as he could, Nathan took out a knife and cut the ropes. Despite his care, he knew he had cut some of her flesh as well. It was sadly unavoidable. The only consolations being that she was thankfully unaware and that he would have to cut the wounds to drain them of infection anyway. It still hurt the caring, sensitive man to know he was adding to the damage done.
 
After he had dressed and bound her wounds and Chris and Vin were making her more comfortable, Nathan turned his attention to his friend.
 
“Has he drank any water?” he asked as he stooped by the unconscious Gambler.
 
“A little. He is burning up again, Nathan,” said a distressed Buck.
 
“Damn fool had to push himself over the limits,” Nathan said in frustration, knowing he wouldn’t have stopped him anyway. They all knew how much his heart hurt for the missing girl.
 
Josiah merely re-wet his bandana from his canteen and wiped the hot brow of his ailing friend, offering up a prayer for his recovery.
 
“Can they ride in the wagon?” asked Chris coming to stand behind the kneeling healer.
 
“Yes if we take it slow. I’ll be happy when they are where we can treat them better,” answered Nathan.
 
“Okay, let’s ride boys,” ordered Chris taking charge once more.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Nathan stretched his tired muscles and shifted position in the hard chair. It had been five long hard days since they had returned back to town with their precious cargo. Since then they had fought like mad to keep Ezra and Emily alive as fever ravaged them both. The seizures Ezra had fallen prey too especially scared them. He had read it in his friend’s eyes as they helped to hold the stricken man down.
 
But finally it was over. Emily’s fever had broken the previous day and Ezra’s during the night. Knowing that their friend was once again through the worst, five weary men had succumbed to orders to go and rest. Nathan was the only one who had resisted saying he would take first watch for the equally exhausted Doctor.
 
Looking up he became aware of a pair of green eyes regarding him.
 
“Water?” he asked unable to hide the smile at seeing him awake.
 
Ezra nodded and sighed as Nathan gently held him up to drink from the cup placed at his lips.
 
“Wh-what happened?” he asked as he was lowered back down.
 
“You collapsed when you saw Emily. Your fever came back. We almost lost you, Ezra, again!” stated Nathan quietly.
 
“Emily!” cried Ezra brokenly, “she looked…” unable to finish his thought.
 
“Ezra, look at me,” said Nathan taking his friends face gently in both his hands. “Look at me,” he repeated more firmly when the Gambler continued to look down.
 
“Emily is alive and is going to be okay,” he stated firmly when he had Ezra’s attention. “In fact her fever broke before yours did. She is just over there,” moving his friends face to look to the left where her could see the girl sleeping in the bed along the same wall.
 
“God, Nathan I thought she was dead, she looked so… so broken,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I couldn’t bear letting her down for a second time.”
 
“You didn’t let me down the first time,” came a soft Southern voice, startling the two men.
 
Instantly Nathan was by her side offering her water the same as he had for Ezra.
 
“Emily I am so sorry,” said Ezra brokenly. “I didn’t come back for you in time, darlin’.”
 
“Oh Ezra,” she said reaching across the space between the beds trying to reach his hand.
 
“One moment Ma’am,” said Nathan. He then proceeded to push the beds closer together so that the two reunited Cousins could hold hands. “I’ll just get a bit of fresh air,” he said as he started to leave to give them some privacy, “I’ll be just outside the door if you want anything,” he said smiling at Ezra as he closed the door behind him.

 
@@@@@@@ 
 
 
As the door closed behind Nathan Ezra looked into the blue eyes that had haunted his life for 16 long years.
 
“I couldn’t find you,” he said in despair. “I came back for you but you were gone.”
 
Seeing the guilt in his eyes Emily quickly responded to correct his assumptions.
 
“He didn’t want us to be found. As soon as War became inevitable he packed up and left. We wondered around, never staying in one place for long, always using aliases.”
 
“It wasn’t your fault!” she reaffirmed more forcefully when she saw the protest form on his lips.
 
Searching her eyes he only found the sincerity he also heard in her voice. Slowly he nodded looking down to their joined hands. His thumb was idly drawing circles on the back of her hand catching the edge of the bandage around her wrist.
 
“It’s all over now, you’re safe now,” he stated lifting his eyes to look at her once more.
 
“I’ve lived on the run so long I’ve no idea what to do, where to go,” Emily replied her voice so soft he barely heard her.
 
“I know we’ve lost 16 years but come with me. I have six friends who will help to keep you safe,” Ezra asked eagerly. Face to face with her after all these years, the old emotions were flooding back and he was desperate not to lose her again.
 
“What would I do? Where would I live?” she asked as a glimmer of hope built in her heart.
 
“You are good with children and a teacher is desperately needed in town,” he stated thoughtfully. “You had as much schooling as I in the early years. There would be room and board along with the position.”
 
A shy smile slowly spread on her face and was mirrored on Ezra’s as hope started to solidify into definite plans.
 
“I’d like that,” she said around a yawn.
 
The conversation had tired them both so Ezra reluctantly released her hand so she could get comfortable once more. It was not long before a truly healing sleep had claimed them both. Their thoughts happy knowing they would finally be living close to each other.
 
Nathan very quietly closed the door behind him as he re-entered the clinic. Checking his patients he grinned at seeing the soft smiles on their faces, before settling in the chair once more to keep vigil.

 
@@@@@@@

 
“Doctor Timmins I can assure you, Sir that I am more than capable of sitting astride a horse,” stated Ezra indignantly.
 
“You either ride in the wagon or we stay here,” replied Nathan, hands on hips, ignoring the sniggers of their friends behind him.
 
“JD is allowed to ride with his wrist still in splints,” answered the gambler petulantly.
 
Nathan merely glared back, his posture strong and unyielding.
 
Looking beyond the two medical men who were blocking him from reaching his beloved Chaucer, Ezra saw no support from his grinning friends. With a final grumble Ezra harrumphed and finally turned to join Emily in the bed of the wagon. As he reached it Buck and Josiah joined him to help him up. Although he didn’t say it out loud he was grateful for their assistance as he was still stiff and sore from the injury in his side.
 
They had been in town for three more weeks since recovering Emily from her ordeal. The time had allowed their injuries to heal enough to make the journey home. However it would be several more weeks before they returned to full health.
 
With a final wave to the Doctor and his wife, they finally started home. Josiah at the reins talked to Nathan sitting beside him. Chaucer trying to reach his master, or more likely the peppermint he knew was in his pocket.
 
Riding alongside the wagon Buck just couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer as he watched Ezra lean back with a sigh. Ezra had subconsciously taken Emily’s hand in his own.
 
“Just what sort of cousins are you two, Ez?” he grinned wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
 
“Much as it pains me to dignify that question with a response I feel I must put you right for this fair lady’s reputation. We are related by the fact that her uncle married my aunt. We are most definitely NOT blood related. Therefore she is off limits to your good self,” responded Ezra haughtily turning to Emily sharing a knowing look with her.
 
They had gradually picked up from their one stolen kiss 16 years previous whilst in the clinic. They had shared another chaste kiss this very morning. He looked forward to many more tender moments with her in the future.
 
Vin and Chris, were riding behind, shared a look and a grin as they observed its occupants slowly being lulled to sleep by its gentle rocking motion.

 
@@@@@@@

 
Four Months Later
 
Emily looked at her reflection in the mirror. She had put on a little much needed weight over the last few months. Her complexion was rosy instead of the pale pallor of before. Her hair, now glossy and well groomed, hung low down her back, held back from her face by several flowers. Her dress was white with small pale pink and blue flowers all over. It emphasised her trim waist and had a pretty sweetheart neckline. She felt pretty for the first time in her life.
 
“You look beautiful.”
 
Startled she turned to see Chris standing in the doorway. He looked extra smart with a string tie on, if slightly uncomfortable.
 
“Are you ready?” he asked smiling. “Can’t keep the groom waiting, he’s nervous enough to burst now.”
 
“Yes, I.. I think so,” stuttered Emily, “just have to fasten this,” she finished holding up the locket Ezra had given her a couple of months before.
 
Noticing her hand shake, Chris moved forward and gently took it from her. “Allow me,” he stated indicating for her to turn to face the mirror once more. As she held her hair aside, he deftly fastened the delicate clasp and moved to take her arm as she turned to him.
 
“Shall we go put Ezra out of his misery?” he teased with a gentle smile.
 
Chris and the other 5 had adopted Emily as their surrogate sister of their mishap family. To see the romance between their resident gambler and the shy girl had warmed all their hearts. Chris was especially protective of the couple and was ready to deal with Maude should she cause the happy couple any problems.
 
As it had happened when she had swept into town the previous week, Maude had been genuinely pleased for her son and his fiancée. Her token interfering was to try and persuade them both to move and live in St. Louis with her after the ceremony. Chris had not needed to intervene as Ezra and Emily had forcefully but gently turned down the offer. It had made their day when they heard them both declare that they have 6 brothers here that they have no intension of leaving.
 
“Before we do, I want to thank you Chris,” Emily said softly. “You and the others have welcomed me with open arms and made me feel so welcome to the town. I see how close you all are and I’m so glad that Ezra has finally found the brothers and love he so craved as a child. Thank you,” she finished going up on tip toe to place a kiss on his cleanly shaven cheek.
 
Taken aback Chris merely nodded, and gently placing her hand in the crook of his arm, guided her out of the room and across the street towards the Church and her anxiously waiting groom.

 
@@@@@@@
 
 
Ezra nervously brushed imaginary dust from his sleeve again, before removing his pocket watch to look at the time.
 
“It’s a minute after you last checked,” whispered Nathan, “will you relax.”
 
“What’s taking so long? Maybe something has happened,” answered an agitated Ezra.
 
“Ezra darlin’, it is a bride’s prerogative to keep her groom waiting,” hissed his mother from behind.
 
“Knew I should have given him something for his nerves,” mumbled Nathan.
 
“How you could even consider giving me that evil foul tasting concoction you brew on my wedding day confounds all belief my friend,” Ezra retorted emphasising the word friend as if it was debatable.
 
“Merely looking out for you my friend,” Nathan retaliated grinning whilst patting him on the back. Nathan was honoured that Ezra had asked him to be his best man. It was another example of how far they had journeyed in their friendship.
 
Suddenly everyone’s attention was drawn to the back of the room.
 
Ezra’s smile grew all the more as he watched his soon to be wife escorted down the aisle by the man he respected the most.
 
As green eyes locked onto blue, Josiah’s deep baritone filled the small church as the ceremony began.
 
Emily became Mrs Ezra Standish and in doing so gained six protective loving brothers and one exasperating mother-in-law.
 
THE END


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