DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No
profit involved None whatsoever. This story is is based on the television series
"The Magnificent Seven" . No infringement upon the copyrights held by
CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved
with that production is intended.
RATING: PG-13 for Language and Violence
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Buck and JD
SUMMARY: Ezra, Buck and JD are assigned the task of bringing a box back to Four Corners
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thank you to BJ and KellyA for your beta skills! And to Lee, Debby and Yolande as well. Thank you to all of you ladies for your wonderful suggestions. You all certainly helped me shape this story.
FEEDBACK: Yes, please! Commentsare cherished
NOTE: This story originally appeared in Legends of the Magnificent Seven II.
DATE: March 03, 2001
FURTHER NOTE: This story takes place shortly after "Serpents" and includes a lot of references to it.
Winner of the 2002 Diamond Ezzie Award for Best Old West Fic - General - Zine By NotTasha....who can think of a few things worth more than gold.
Lazily, Ezra floated on the water's surface, looking up at the clear blue sky. It was wonderful to finally relax. He let out a long breath and let the water caress him. This journey had been tiresome at best, but his weariness went deeper than simple exhaustion. He was tired to the bone. For the past few weeks, sleep had trouble finding him, and every waking moment of the day, his mind was working on the recent happenings. When he did manage to sleep, his dreams had further worked the scenario. It had consumed him.
The assassin - Stutz…His one-eyed, bible-selling, partner and son…the territorial governor… a plot to murder Mary Travis… a political rally…Liver-eating Jones…a satchel of money… $10,000. Money. Money….money. God!
He had been mulling it over for weeks now. Had he been fooling himself? Had he truly thought that he'd found a sort of brotherhood amongst the lawmen of Four Corners? Did he honestly believe he'd been accepted by them, that they trusted him, that they wanted him among them? Well, recent events had provided him answers. He let out a sigh and floated.
He should have expected it, in any case. He should never have allowed himself to have high-hopes, to let himself become attached to them…to the town. He should have left them long ago -- nothing held him. Perhaps he was just become lazy…soft…settled -- not a good situation for a man of his profession. He should have realized that. He should have moved on.
Should have run out long ago.
In any case, he should have packed his bags the moment that Nathan let him loose from the clinic, declaring him fit after that brush with death. Yet … he stayed. Why? Ezra didn't have a clear answer for himself. 'Punishment,' he decided. 'Loyalty for an unuttered promise?' Or perhaps it was just a sad acceptance -- what else should he have expected? He never pretended to be anything other than a swindler and a son-of-a-bitch. Why should the others have come to other conclusions?
His mind had been reeling for the past weeks. The calm coolness of the water was exactly what he needed. He needed to rest, he needed to collect his thoughts and come to a decision. He needed to relax.
Of course, this recent journey hadn't helped his situation. He, along with Buck and JD, had been forced on this spur-of-the-moment mission only yesterday, sent off to Ridge City to meet the train and pick up a special package.
They had arrived in Ridge City, sore and dirty, and had found that the bathhouse had been closed due to an illness in the keeper's family. After a long day on a dusty trail, there was nothing Ezra appreciated more than a warm soak -- but it was not to be. Instead, he'd had to make-do with a pan of warm water in the hotel room. He'd spent the night gaming -- doing only fairly well. The prospects weren't promising that night and the citizens of Ridge City were rather tight with their money.
He'd tried to force a few coins out of the obstinate competitors and finally returned to the room long after midnight -- to be awakened before dawn to meet the blasted train.
And then the train had had the audacity to be late! The three lawmen had spent their morning drinking coffee at the station and waiting in growing agitation. When the tardy locomotive finally chugged into the station, the conductor had personally handed Buck a sturdy cedar box, which was instantly stowed in his saddlebag.
For two hours they had rushed at a breakneck speed, determined to bring this 'all important' box to Four Corners, trying to make up for the lost time. Yes, Larabee had demanded that the box make its way to town by high-noon, and if they pushed it a bit, they might just make that mark.
For two hours Ezra had been ridden in a cloud of dust and debris thrown up by his compatriots' beasts. For two hours he had traveled through the heat and the haze of the warming morning. For two hours he had suffered, and then, rather suddenly, Chaucer had gone lame, putting an end to the mad dash.
Ezra flipped over in the water and performed a perfect surface dive, noting a tug at his side – a pull at his arm -- reminders. He tightly closed his eyes, feeling the water pressure against his ears as he reached the cold water deep below. He would have to stop by Mrs. Potter's when he returned to town and find a nice piece of candy for that horse – Chaucer had a passion for peppermints and he sure knew when to pick up a limp.
It was so cool and dark underwater that Ezra stayed until his lungs began to ache from the deprivation. Finally, his lungs starved, he kicked his legs and broke the surface, gasped in air and began treading water. His side pulled again. His arm moved fluidly enough – but ached a bit at this activity. The pains reminded him of his recently healed bullet wounds. Just his luck, the bullet would have to crease his arm before finding its way through that wad of cash and glancing his side. He adjusted his stroke accordingly.
He regarded the lake from his position in the middle of it. Buck and JD were putting together some sort of lunch while the horses rested. They had to get moving again soon, so Ezra had no problem with eating on the run, as long as he was allowed a few moments to swim. Ezra was certain that Chaucer could be persuaded to a full recovery after this rest. Larabee wouldn't stand for a long delay. The leader certainly had been insistent about returning by noon. Well, they'd be a bit late. There was simply no helping that.
Ezra had always loved swimming. Much of his youth was spent along rivers, lakes and oceans. When things had become too difficult for him, he had often escaped to the nearest body of water, for the relaxing comfort it provided, for the safety of it -- nothing could reach him there. Once, in his youth, he had stolen a boat and tried to paddle it to the Mississippi where he might flag down a passing steamboat or maybe make it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It was an ill-advised and ill-timed adventure, but he hadn’t exactly had the chance to plan ahead. He never made it to the great river. A sudden storm had kept him shore-bound with nothing to eat outside of the supply of oranges he'd hastily brought aboard. He'd been discovered after several days by the landowner and brought back to his relations.
Swimming was like flying. The water buoyed him up when nothing else could.
So what the hell was he doing living in a desert? It made no sense to him. He chuckled to himself and started swimming toward the far shore. He definitely didn't belong here. Recent facts had illustrated that to him quite clearly.
When the water became too shallow, he turned and did an easy breaststroke back toward the bank nearest their campfire. He had already crisscrossed the lake four times, drawing out knots and aches. Sleep might come easily tonight. Lord, he hoped so. It had been weeks since he'd been able to sleep through the night. He was just approaching the high bank when the water exploded around him.
The water frothed and foamed. What in the ... Ezra jerked back, trying to get away from whatever had suddenly attacked him. He was trying to ascertain which direction would be the safest to flee toward when he heard the raucous laughter of Buck and JD on either side of him.
"Scared the shit outta ya, didn't we?" Buck laughed, treading water in a most ungraceful manner, his underwear ballooning around him.
"Jeez, I hope not," JD chuckled, moving away from the southerner.
Ezra shook his head as the two men splashed about like children. "Gentlemen," he sighed.
"You didn't even see us up there, didja?" JD pointed to the cliff-like bank of the lake.
"I was rather busy," Ezra replied as they splashed about him, stirring up the water that had been crystal clear a moment ago.
"Good idea, taking a swim," Buck said. "But didn't your mama ever tell you not t'go swimmin' alone?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow at the man. "You've met my mother, sir." Buck chuckled and Ezra continued, "Besides, I'm quite capable of taking care of myself." It's the way of my life, he thought.
"Well," Buck responded. "Sometimes you gotta figure on leaning on a friend or two." He laughed and flipped onto his back. The rogue steam-boated his way out to the middle of the lake, sending up a wall of water over both Ezra and JD. The young sheriff tried to guard his face against the spray, and then took off after Wilmington, leaving Ezra to make his way back to shore alone. Apparently, Ezra decided, there would be no more laps today. He swam the short distance quickly.
Ezra stood on the sandy bank and squeezed some of the moisture out of his hair. He ran his hands over his shoulders and chest in an attempt to draw off some of the water. He flicked the beads off his fingertips, but found he'd done little good. Well, it made no difference. In any case, his silk drawers would have to dry before he dressed. He'd let the sun do the job.
He headed to the high bank and once he reached the ledge, he confirmed his suspicion that, not only did it make an excellent diving platform, but it was also the perfect place to sunbathe. At least until I'm dry, he thought as he stretched out on the sun-heated rock. He didn't want to burn. He always had to be careful of that -- another reason why he shouldn't be in a desert. What are you thinking, Ezra Standish? Living where the sun might scorch your tender hide. Living where you will only be burned by long tenure.
He could hear Buck and JD's loud voices and their ridiculous splashing. Perhaps he would repay their attack if they came close enough to the bottom of this rock. He calculated exactly where they should be if he were to 'cannon ball' down at them. He just didn’t feel up to it.
"Hey, Buck!" JD suddenly cried. "Where'd Ezra go? Did we drown him?"
"Ezra?" Buck called, sounding a little panicked. "Dammit! Ezra!"
Ezra frowned at their concern. Certainly they didn't expect he had drowned? "Here," Ezra replied to the two who were trying to peer into the depths of the lake. They looked up.
"Hey!" Wilmington shouted. "Don't you get any ideas! We're wise to you!" He shook a finger.
"Yeah!" JD returned. "You're not gonna get us by divin' down here. We know what you're up to!"
"Yes, yes," Ezra replied with a yawn and lowered his head, wondering if they ever really understood what he was up to. With his head on his folded arms, he let the sun warm and dry him. Buck and JD were making an inordinate amount of noise, yelling and carousing. Buck, apparently, was trying to drown JD, holding his head beneath the surface and perhaps even trying to sit on him. Well, Larabee wouldn't be too happy with that. The gunslinger would probably demand some sort of explanation out of him as to why he had allowed Wilmington to drown their youngest member. Ezra smiled tightly, thinking that Chris would probably end up blaming it on him somehow.
He knew that they didn't really trust him. The events of the proceeding weeks made that more than clear -- the satchel of money -- the governor's rally. Yes, that business was still a raw wound with him, even though the damage by the bullet had mostly healed. They had laid out the facts in spades -- they had no faith in him.
Well, he thought, it's to be expected. You've always made it clear that they were nothing more than 'associates' and never something as close as a 'friend'. Ezra, you cheat an associate, you can steal from an associate, you can never fully trust an associate. It's what you wanted. You simply forgot that the door swings both ways.
He had felt a change in his relationships since that incident. Some of the men still treated him as a friend, but others seemed to hold him at arm's length, as if they weren't truly sure of what to do with him. He felt their scrutiny, their constant observation, their suspicion.
It's your own fault, you know. You took the money. They're not to blame for your lack of will power, your greed, your dishonesty, your disloyalty. You made your bed and now you must lie in it… or find a new one.
So why are you still among them?
He opened his eyes in the dreamy warmth of the ledge and looked out over the lake before rolling over onto his back. Perhaps, because I rather enjoy their company. Perhaps I honestly like the home I've found and the work I do. Perhaps because they're more than just 'associates'.
Then why the hell did you throw it all away? You should've simply accepted their lack of trust. You should've swallowed the bitter pill and smiled. You should've been a good boy and behaved. You are what you are, after all, and they were only responding in the most logical way.
He chuckled humorlessly, thinking that maybe he was still among them because he was waiting… waiting for them to throw him out, to discard him and send him packing, to declare him useless and get rid of him. It would be a familiar conclusion if nothing else.
He sighed, deciding to think on other issues. There was nothing he could do about it in any case. If he were to stay, he could only hope that they would forgive him in time. Was that asking too much? Perhaps….
As he rested on the warm ledge, he felt more relaxed than he'd been in weeks and started to doze. The lake and the sunny spot were really rather pleasant. For such a poor start, the day had turned out well. What was so important about that package anyway? Perhaps if he went now, he could garner a peek before Buck and JD left the water. He crooked his mouth slightly, thinking that the package probably shouldn't be left unattended.
The sound of a gun being cocked split through his consciousness. He jerked upright, but pain splintered through him as the bullet drove him back to the ground.
"Ezra?" Buck shouted. His hand still rested on JD's head and he had one leg thrown over the kid's shoulder, effectively holding him under the surface. The echo of the shot still reverberated. The startled cry that had followed it had already stopped. "Ez?" No reply. "Ezra, answer me!" God, he thought, let that fool southerner be chasin' some game…blowin' off some steam… takin' some target practice at the kid's damn hat! "Ezra!" Nothing.
He released the submerged and struggling young man, and swam to shore as quickly as he could.
JD, finally released, emerged from beneath the water -- sputtering. When he saw Buck swimming away at a frantic pace, he took chase. If Buck wanted to race, well, he'd be up to it. Yeah, I'll catch up to him and give him a taste of his own medicine! he thought as he figured out the logistics of getting the cowboy under the water's surface.
Buck had finally reached the shallow water and started running through the shallows when a tall, dusty-looking man appeared on the ledge where Ezra had been a few minutes ago.
"You boys come on outta that water now, nice and slow," the stranger uttered.
Buck staggered onto the bank and tried to push his way past another dusty-looking intruder, redheaded and built like a wrestler.
"Ezra!" Buck shouted again, his heart pounding.
"Stay put!" ordered a third man, blond and short. He wore tattered Union Blue, with loose threads where an insignia had once been. Buck vaguely noted his own gun-belt was looped over the ex-soldier’s arm, along with Ezra's and JD's. He held Ezra's Remington on them.
"Ezra!" Buck shouted again.
"Mr. Wilmington," came the reply from the rock above them. "Please, do as he says."
The tall man reached down and yanked the southerner to his feet. Buck's eyes narrowed as he saw the blood that coated Ezra's side, the bullet wound at his shoulder.
"You don't want me to shoot 'im again, do you?" the man asked, placing the gun against Ezra's temple.
JD was at Buck's side by now, both of them in their dripping-wet underwear -- unarmed and unable to do anything against these marauders. Dunne said nothing, staring open-mouthed at Ezra and the man who held him. The other men kept their weapons trained on the two wet lawmen, while the first one dragged Ezra toward the others.
"Where is it?" the redhead asked. "We know you got it."
"What?" JD asked, his voice was pitched higher than usual as he kept his eyes on Ezra. "You okay, Ezra?"
The gambler smiled ruefully, held tightly in the grasp of the tall man. "'Okay' may not be the correct term to use for this situation."
"The package!" the redhead insisted.
Buck and JD hesitated, and the tall man's countenance darkened. He reached across and dug his hand into Ezra's shoulder, bringing a startled gasp out of the southerner. Ezra struggled to keep his feet as his hands clutched at the man's arm. His knees started to give out on him and the man continued his punishment. The gun never lowered from his head.
"Hey!" Buck yelled stepping forward. "Let him alone!" When the man didn't loosen his hold or lower the gun, Wilmington gave JD a shove. "Get it!"
"Go with 'im, Devon," the tall man told the redhead.
"Hey, Bishop! Can I shoot the kid if he gets out of line?" Devon asked energetically.
"If it comes to that…" Bishop smiled, released his grip on Ezra's bloody shoulder and hoisted the gasping southerner fully upright again.
Buck glanced after JD, shadowed by Devon. When they disappeared from sight, his gaze quickly returned to Bishop. "We'll give you that package and you let him go," Buck stated, leaving no room for argument.
Bishop didn't like the tone of Wilmington's voice and pressed the barrel of the gun with greater force against Ezra's head.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra drawled with surprising calmness, still trying to catch his breath. "It may be best if we don't anger our guests at this moment."
"Shut up, Reb," the blond soldier barked at Standish, keeping his aim on Wilmington.
Ezra blinked at the man, focusing on the weapon in his hand, and said, "Sir, you have my firearm."
The man snorted. "Not yours no more."
Buck glared at the short man, aware of the hatred he saw in those eyes. He turned back to Ezra. "Hang in there, Ez. We'll get out of this."
"I'll hold you to that," Ezra responded.
JD and Devon returned. Dunne was in the lead, carrying the box that they had only recently picked up from Ridge City. "They had it hid in a tree trunk," Devon laughed. "Covered it with leaves, too."
"Open it, Otto," Bishop instructed.
JD came to a standstill as the blond stepped forward and took the box from him. Otto fiddled with the lock for a moment then pulled a knife from his hip. Devon kept Buck and JD under his guns. Bishop continued to hold his own weapon against Standish's head as he watched the proceedings. The untended wound on Ezra's shoulder ran a rivulet of blood down his side.
"Let 'im go, now," Buck stated again.
Bishop just chuckled and kept his attention on the box.
Otto broke the lock with the blade and smiled as he pulled back the wooden lid. "It's here!" he cried, as he returned the knife to its sheath. "Look at 'em!" He dug his hand into the box and pulling out a bundle of papers.
"All of 'em?" Devon asked.
"How the hell should I know?" Otto returned, pulling one of the papers away from the others and examining it.
Ezra raised an eyebrow as he gazed toward the box and its contents. His shoulder sparked with pain, and the gun against his head wasn't helping matters any. If he could find the chance, he would try to twist out of this man's grasp -- but JD and Buck were under the gun, too. There was no time for heroics. He scrutinized the papers as well as he could, and then sighed. "Railroad stock."
Bishop turned his attention to his captive, jerking him to stand straighter. "You know what we got?"
"The little drawings of locomotives in the corners gave it away," Ezra replied.
"Stock?" JD said in disbelief. "You shot him and robbed us for a bunch of papers?"
"Not just papers, laddie." Bishop grinned. "This stuff is worth more than gold."
"We're rich!" Devon crowed.
Bishop laughed and dragged Standish along with him. "Get these boys tied up, Otto. We got a ways to go today."
A disgusted look crossed Devon's face. "We got the damn box. It'd be better to just kill 'em."
"Yeah," Otto said, hefting the box under one arm and drawing his weapon again. "I get the Reb. I've been itchin' t'kill another of 'em."
"You think that this is over?" Bishop asked, his voice low. "No my friends, this is just started. We're gonna need some hostages. We still gotta get all the way to Hunter's Cavern to meet up with Tegan and the others." He nodded at Ezra. "These men are some of those peacekeepers from Four Corners. When these fellas don't come home on time, you can bet that someone's gonna notice."
"They're late," Larabee said, glaring at the clock in the town's jail.
Josiah shrugged. "Just by a few minutes."
"Should be here," Chris growled.
"They're probably just delayed a piece. Train may have been late."
"I told 'em that I needed 'em back on time. I left no room for bargaining."
Josiah grinned. "Well, maybe Chaucer came up lame again."
"Damn that horse," Chris grumbled. "As tricky as his owner."
The door slammed open, bringing both lawmen to their feet. Chris' Peacemaker leapt to his hand and found the target before the door had stopped moving. Josiah wasn't far behind with his Schofield.
The man who entered went through a quick change of expression. His face was first drawn up in a grimace of anger and determination. It was instantly replaced with a look of unguarded fear as he stared back at the armed gunmen.
"Pilgrim," Chris muttered, holstering his weapon and sitting back in his chair.
Russell Pilgrim leaned against the doorframe and held his hand to his heart. "Lordy…Lordy," he gasped.
"Brother, let me give you a few words of advice," Josiah said smoothly as he holstered his gun. "Don't do that again."
Pilgrim pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and used it to mop his suddenly moist brow. "I had just come by to inquire…"
"Ain't here yet," Chris said, cutting him off.
The angry look made its comeback. "Mr. Larabee, need I remind you that the package in question is of great value and should have been here…" he paused to pull his pocket watch from his waistcoat, pausing dramatically before he continued with, "…fifteen minutes ago."
Chris glared at the man, and Josiah replied, "We know."
"Need I remind you that this parcel is very valuable to me? I believe that you and your men were informed that I wanted this package to reach me by noon…today -- a time you agreed to." Pilgrim stepped forward, finding his courage. "If anything happened to it…"
"I don't give a damn about those railroad stocks, Pilgrim," Chris barked, sending the man back a few steps.
"Stock…?" Pilgrim looked surprised.
"Worth approximately twenty thousand dollars?" Josiah supplied.
"But...but!" Pilgrim looked between the two. "No one was supposed to know…"
"I couldn't send my men after something that I knew nothing about," Chris returned. "Judge Travis filled me in."
Pilgrim shoved his hands into his pockets. "The couriers shouldn't have been told. The whole idea was to make this look as 'innocent' as possible. If they knew the worth of that box…"
"They'd didn't know," Josiah reassured, looking at Larabee. It had all been Chris' decision. He was the only one of the Seven who had known of the box's contents at the start of this. It was only after it was on its way back that Chris had told Josiah. Whether Chris' decision was a wise choice or not, Josiah couldn't judge. Time would tell.
Pilgrim grumbled, "If those men got curious though…"
Larabee glared at the man. Well, that was always a possibility. Those three were nothing but trouble most of the time. "They'll get it here."
"But, it's not here yet," Pilgrim muttered.
"They're late by only fifteen minutes," Josiah said calmly.
"They were supposed to be here by noon," Pilgrim returned. "No reason for them to be late."
"What difference should it make if it's twelve or one o'clock?" Josiah asked.
Pilgrim looked at the preacher in disbelief. "It's my inheritance!" he cried. "I've been waiting all my life to get my hands on some of the old man's money. I had it sent as soon as the Will was read. Had Mum box it up and put it on the first train. It's mine and it was supposed to be here by noon."
"I'm certain we'll be seeing Buck, JD and Ezra any moment now," Josiah intoned.
Pilgrim gasped and his face went white. "You sent that con man?" He leaned against a chair as if all his strength had left him.
Chris had had enough. "It isn't any of your business who I sent."
"That swindler?" Pilgrim was beside himself with despair. "He's the one that tried to steal that money, isn't he? You left some ten thousand dollars with him, and he made off with it. Hell!" Pilgrim seemed to regain some vigor as he approached the desk. "That stock is mine! It's the only thing I ever got out of the old man. If it ends up linin' the pockets of that two-bit traitor…"
Chris was on his feet. "Get outta here, Pilgrim." His voice was low, ominous, as threatening as the rattle of a pit viper.
Pilgrim backed away. "The stock is mine!" He kept an eye on the gunslinger as he made it to the door. "If anything's happened to it, I'll have that charlatan hung." He backed through the door and slammed it on his way out.
"Sooner or later, he's gonna learn to stop doing that," Josiah said, trying to lighten the tension in the room.
"Damn it!" Chris knocked down his chair. "I told 'em, no delays!"
"It's only fifteen minutes, Chris."
Chris grumbled, "Yeah, but they should 'ave been here well before noon. I gave 'em no leeway."
"Something could have happened," Josiah said thoughtfully. "We should find out about the train."
"Damn that Pilgrim!" Chris kicked at the downed chair, hating the ideas that the man had put ideas into his head. What if Ezra had looked in that box? Standish was as curious as a cat, and Larabee wouldn't put it beyond him to take a peek. Twenty thousand dollars worth of railroad stock was an awfully big temptation.
"Something could have happened," Josiah said again.
"Twenty thousand dollars..." Larabee glared at the clock. "Send a wire, Josiah. Find out if the damn train was late."
As the captors went through the camp, Buck was allowed to do what he could for Ezra. JD was tied a short distance away, watching with wide eyes. The outlaws didn't want both of the able-bodied captives loose. The three peacekeepers from Four Corners were still in their underwear, not being given a chance to dress. It would have been comical if the situation weren't so serious.
Otto and Devon rifled through the camp as Bishop stood guard over Ezra and Buck, watching Wilmington's attentive actions with indifference.
"You got the bullet still in there, Ez," Buck said worriedly, as he rocked Ezra forward, looking for an exit wound.
"So it would appear," Ezra gasped as Buck set him back down.
"He gonna be okay?" JD called from where he was tied to a low tree branch.
"Of course, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said with a wince. "Please, Mr. Wilmington, I think you've probed the wound enough now. We've both come to the conclusion that it's... damned painful."
"Jus' keep quiet now." Buck turned to Bishop and said gruffly, "I'm gonna need something for a bandage and some water put t'boil on the fire. There's a flask in his jacket. I need it."
Bishop smiled. "I think you'd better ask a bit nicer, if you want anything."
Buck glared at the man but said as obsequiously as possible, "Please...sir..."
Bishop nodded to Otto. "Find somethin' to bind 'im up."
"I need a knife, too," Buck said, pressing his luck. "I need t'get that bullet out."
Ezra spoke quietly, "Mr. Wilmington, must you? Perhaps it would be better if…" But Buck put a hand on him, silencing the gambler.
"Do you think I'm an idiot?" Bishop asked incredulously.
"Keep your goddamn gun on me!" Buck bit back, keeping a gentle weight on Ezra's uninjured shoulder. "If that bullet don't come out, he's gonna die and you don't want that just yet, do you?"
Bishop shrugged. "Otto, give 'im your knife."
"The hell I will!" Otto returned quickly.
"Shoot the kid if he makes any move you don't like," Bishop continued coldly. Buck stiffened at this threat. He looked toward JD who returned a frightened expression. Bishop smiled, observing the exchange. "And put another bullet in the damn Reb if you want."
Otto laughed as he thought of the options, and turned to the southerner. "Love to. You killed a lot of my buddies, Reb. You'll pay for every last one of them."
Ezra gazed at Otto with hooded eyes. "Your friends," the gambler said quietly. "Aren't the only ones who died in that horrible war."
The blond scowled and tightened his grip on the weapon.
"Give 'im the knife, Otto, and try not to shoot anyone," Bishop said tiredly. "We gotta keep these fellas alive for awhile, at least until we meet up with Tegan and the others. Then we'll have six of us, enough firepower to take on their buddies. Until then, we'd better let them patch up this one. They got a long way to walk."
"Walk?" JD looked first to Bishop, then to Ezra. "We got horses..."
"Yeah, but Devon's nag up and died on 'im. He's been ridin' double with Otto for the last hour." Bishop smiled. "Hell, if you boys hadn't stopped here, we'd never 'ave caught ya."
Ezra groaned, which drew a concerned look from Buck. Aw hell, Ezra thought. If I'd only convinced Chaucer that this was not a good time to rest... none of this would be happening. My fault. Once again, I am at fault for our troubles.
Bishop looked toward the three horses that were tied nearby. "I think we'll make use of yours. They look mighty fine to me. Otto's mare's half-dead after carryin' the two of them. You boys were goin' at a pretty good clip."
Otto nodded to Devon. "You keep an eye on the kid. I want to watch this one cut the Reb up." He handed the knife to Buck with a smile. "Twitch the wrong way and I'll put another hole in 'im. You can dig that one out, too."
"The flask," Buck insisted. "He's got a flask in that green jacket there. I gotta give him somethin' for the pain."
"Maybe later," Otto returned.
"Give me the goddamn flask," Buck growled, lunging toward Otto, but stopping as the blond aimed the gun at Ezra. He felt Standish grab onto his bare leg.
"Buck," the gambler responded urgently. "I have no desire to add any more…perforations to my current…situation."
"It's gonna hurt like hell, Ez." Buck whispered hoarsely as he looked at the knife in his hand. "I ain't got the skill of Nate at this sorta thing, and I know damn well that it ain't pleasant when he does it either."
Ezra met his gaze and said, "I trust you, Buck." He licked his lips and reiterated, "Buck Wilmington is a man to put one's faith in."
Buck nodded and then examined the blade, running his thumb over the edge. The knife seemed sharp enough, but who knows what it had been used for last. He rubbed it against his pant leg, as he looked to JD. "I'm gonna need some help with holdin' him down."
"Tie 'im if you want. That's all you're gonna get," Bishop replied. He snagged two lines and tossed them at Wilmington, and followed that with a shirt he’d pulled from JD's saddlebags. "That'll do for a bandage."
Buck quickly tied down Ezra's arms, then used the knife to cut out a hunk of the shirt and wound it into a rope. "I need ya to bite down on this," Buck said, positioning it in Ezra's mouth. "I know you're fond of that gold tooth of yours, but I don't think you'll be wantin' any more of 'em just yet." Ezra smiled weakly through the gag.
Wilmington sighed and ran the back of his hand across his forehead, trying to gather his strength. Oh Lord, he thought. I don't want to do this. But, if I don't, he's a goner. "Ready, Ez?" he asked quietly. The southernernodded curtly in response.
Otto leaned forward in fascination as Buck cut into Ezra's shoulder and the southerner arched his back in agony.
"Just a minute, just a minute. Hang on!" Buck shoved his tongue into the corner of his mouth as he sliced into flesh, well aware of the further pain he was causing. "I almost got it!" Where the hell was the damn thing and how the heck did Nathan do this? Ezra was sucking in his breath in an attempt to keep quiet, shifting his legs to escape the pain that was being pressed on him. When he started to kick, Buck said quietly and with unfelt composure, "Ya gotta stop movin', hoss. Don't want to jar me none. You can scream all you want. That won't bother me any if you bust a few eardrums."
Ezra looked up at him, his eyes clouded. He nodded again, almost imperceptibly, and stopped moving, but continued to remain nearly soundless.
"Almost done... almost done..." Buck grimaced as he used the torn shirt to blot up the blood that was welling up all over the place. How in God's green earth was he supposed to see anything? He was vaguely aware of someone standing over him and he glanced up to see Otto. The former soldier looked thoroughly delighted, licking his lips as he watched Ezra gasping and pulling against the ropes.
Bastard, Buck thought, restraining the urge to knife the man. There were too many guns about -- the action wouldn't go unpunished. "Almost got it... " he uttered as he cut further into the shoulder. God! He had to find it. So much blood. Suddenly, something moved against the blade, and Buck used the tip to manipulate it. There it was! "Found it, Ez! I got it now!" He finagled the lead out -- not an easy task, but he managed it after a fashion. "Got it!" Buck shouted, pulling the slug clear. "I got it!" He held it up triumphantly for JD to see as the knife was snatched from his hand.
"Delightful," Ezra muttered sluggishly, as Buck pulled the makeshift gag away. The gambler's face was ashen and drenched in sweat.
"S'okay, Ez," Buck said, tossing away the sodden cloth and then pressing what was left of the bloody shirt against the wound. Ezra hissed, but Buck didn't relieve the pressure. "I'll just getcha bandaged up here and you'll be just fine."
"Delightful," Ezra repeated, thick-tongued. Buck furrowed his brow in concern. It wasn't often that Ezra ran out of ways to express himself.
The ladies' man turned toward Bishop and said, "I need that flask now. Gotta do what I can to get this cleaned up."
Otto shrugged and tossed another shirt at him. "That should do to bandage 'im." He strode over to the jacket that had been indicated earlier and felt the pockets. The flask was quickly found. He opened it and sniffed, then smiled before taking a gulp. "Damn!" he exclaimed, whistling appreciatively. "This is the good stuff!"
Bishop wrenched the flask out of Otto's hand and took a pull. "Oh yeah," he said, tossing the vessel to Devon and then turning to Buck. "Get him bound up. We're goin'."
Vin strode into the jail and regarded the two men who waited still. "They ain't back yet?" he asked.
"No, Vin," Josiah replied.
"How late are they now?" The tracker stood over the desk.
"Twohours," Chris replied. "Train was late by that much."
"They would 'ave made some of it up on the trail," Vin returned quickly. "Figure if they wanted, they'd have been here long ago."
"Yeah," Chris stated, glaring at a spot of ink on the desk.
"Something could have delayed them," Josiah commented. "Ezra didn't seem too keen on going, and you know how he has a way of ...manipulating things... if everything isn't going his way." He paused and added, “He hasn't been too happy lately. Not since that whole incident with the money."
Chris snorted. “Almost ran out on us again.” He shook his head abruptly, remembering the shock of discovery. It had blind-sided him and he still hadn't entirely recovered from the mix of emotions that hit him on that day. Somehow, Chris had hoped he could trust the gambler. He had hoped that Standish was worthy of that trust. Larabee grimaced, feeling the burn of betrayal again. How could Standish do that to him? -- after working together for over a year -- after all that had happened -- after the second chance?
Just have to accept him that way, Larabee tried to remind himself. Just gotta accept the fact that I got a con man at my back. I knew from the start that he was a cheat. I know what I got.
Larabee continued in a bitter tone, "They're probably relaxin' somewhere."
Josiah chuckled. "I can imagine them tryin' to decide just how long they can push it before we come out after them."
Chris's frown deepened. "I gave 'em an order and I intend it to be kept. It's like Ezra does this purposefully to set me off."
"Ya don't trust him," Vin stated.
Chris stopped short as he considered this, rolling it over in his mind. "I 'spect I don't," he finally returned. "After what happened with that money -- not entirely."
Vin sighed. "You should."
The group moved slowly across the arid land -- three men on horses, three men on foot. Bishop rode his own mount, a roan gelding, and Devon was astride Buck's gray, Clyde. The redhead looked as pleased as punch to have commandeered the beautiful animal. Otto had tried to approach Chaucer, but found the animal both lame and vicious. Mad eyes bored into him and the sleek chestnut seemed determined to sink his square teeth into Otto's forearm, to trample him under his iron-shod hooves. Terrified, the blond had scuttled away from the angry animal and pulled his gun on it. "That damn thing's loco!"
"Best put down a creature like that," Bishop had agreed as Otto leveled his weapon between the flashing eyes of the horse.
"Chaucer, behave," Ezra had quietly ordered, as Buck helped him to his feet. Chaucer's ears had twitched in confusion as he craned his neck to see his owner, nickering. "Behave, my friend. Please!" The words had become more urgent. The horse quieted, but the weapon didn't drop. "He's a horse of excellent breeding, and would be worth a fair amount were you to bring him to the right dealer -- well worth the trouble, let me assure you."
Bishop nodded to Otto and the blond finally holstered his gun and then claimed JD's bay, finding Toby a more than adequate mount.
Buck and JD and had tried to cajole, plead, bargain and demand that Ezra be allowed to ride, but they were met with disregard. A still limping Chaucer and Otto's tired sorrel were relegated to pack animals. The prisoners would walk.
"Damn it! Ezra's not gonna be able to make it all the way to Hunter's Cavern on foot!" Buck had finally yelled.
Bishop had shrugged in response. "You keep 'im movin' then. If he can't go no more... I'll kill 'im easy enough. I 'spect two hostages will be as good as three."
They had been allowed to dress, after their clothing was thoroughly searched, so at least they had some protection from the sun. The day was hot and they would need it. JD's hands were tied together, and a rope secured him to Otto's pilfered horse. He was on the far side of the group and ahead of the other captives. Devon traveled in the middle, with the spare horses tied behind -- making any contact between JD and the others difficult.
Buck was bound to Bishop's saddle by a long rope attached to his right arm. He used his left to help steady Ezra, to keep him moving. Although Standish could walk, it was obvious that he wasn't going to make it very far without assistance, and begrudgingly the outlaws had allowed Buck to help.
Ezra's hands were pointlessly tied together; he was hardly able to move his left arm in any case. He seemed to be doing well enough, leaning against Buck's offered arm from time to time, but managing to keep up without much trouble. Ezra's shoulder burned and he was feeling lightheaded, but he did his best to keep his weight off of Wilmington.
"My apologies," Ezra muttered when he stumbled against the ladies' man.
Buck pulled Standish along with him for step, saving himself from getting yanked by Bishop's horse. "You're doin' fine, Ezra."
"Afraid I'm slowin' you down."
"We got our pace set by those fellas ahead of us, so it ain't as if you're slowin' anythin' down."
Ezra sighed and said quietly as they walked, "Wish I'd been put in charge of the box instead of you."
"Yeah?" Buck grinned. "You think you could 'ave kept this from happening if you had?"
Ezra smiled. "Certainly."
"How d'you figure that?" They kept their voices low.
"I'd have looked inside, discovered the worth of the contents...and made away with the stocks before Mr. Bishop and his compatriots laid hold of us."
Buck nodded, keeping a grip on his charge. "Yeah, sure, Ez."
"You see, this wouldn't have happened. I'd be safe from harm... and rich. You and Mr. Dunne would ... simply have been given the task... of explainin' how it happened to Mr. Larabee."
"That'd hardly keep ya safe, Ez." Buck whistled. "Lordy, can you imagine? I can just see that ol' vein in Chris' head a throbbin'...his eyes gettin' all big, while JD and I try to explain how we let one wily card sharp out of our sight with all of that expensive paper. You'd never be safe after that. Chris would be on your trail like a bug on honey."
Ezra nodded. "True, Mr. Wilmington. I suspect I'd have to watch my back for a piece."
"Yer whole damn life," Buck countered. "Ya think Chris would let a thing like that go?"
Ezra smiled again and shook his head, nearly unbalancing himself. "I'd suspect not. But you must remember, I'm rather persistent myself." Ezra picked up the pace and stood a bit straighter, taking his weight off of Wilmington's arm.
"That you are," Buck returned. "But somehow, I figure that it wouldn't be worth it. Sure, you'd be rich, Ez, but think of the consequences."
"It'd be worth it," Ezra said knowingly. “For that much money. Money, after all, is all that I truly care about.”
They walked for several minutes with Buck just holding onto Ezra's arm to keep him steady, but soon enough, Standish was beginning to lean into him again.
"Ya know," Buck started after the silence. "I don't believe that for a second."
"What don't you believe? That I am incapable ...of walking on my own?" Ezra realized what he was doing and tried to straighten again.
Buck held him firm. "Ya crazy, stubborn idiot," Buck growled between his teeth. "Let me help you or we'll never make it."
Ezra sighed. He didn't want to drag Buck down with him, but there didn't seem to be any way around it at that moment. "I suppose I must."
"Yeah, ya must," Buck agreed. "And you're gonna understand that I don't think you'd 'ave taken those papers."
"Their value must be well over $10,000. Perhaps even $20,000."
"So why's that matter?"
"You seem to forget the matter of the assassins' money... and my inability to resist the temptation of it."
Buck frowned. "Yeah, well..." He knew there was more to that whole situation than was ever said. He had been rather involved with the beautiful Louisa at the time and had missed most of what went on. Maybe, if he wasn't so distracted, he would have noticed that something was wrong with the gambler -- for certainly something must have been. Buck couldn't, for the life of him, figure out how all that money ended up in Ezra's jacket. It seemed as if Standish had been about to leave town with it, and that realization had hit Buck rather hard. What had driven Ezra to make that decision?
Buck had noticed an unusual glumness had settled on the gambler after the discovery of the money. There had been no time to inquire, no time to ferret out what was bothering the little weasel. The days that followed the attempt on Mary's life had been complicated by a marriage proposal to Miss Louisa. By the time Buck had concluded that he couldn't follow her into a life on the road, Ezra had been released from Nathan's care. Ezra had seemed to be back to his regular cheerful self, but often – when Buck caught him in an unguarded moment – a sadness dimmed his usually bright expression. Time had worn down that unhappy look and, as the weeks passed, Buck thought that all was back to normal. Apparently, it wasn't.
Ezra continued, with a note of defeat, "If I'd known the worth of that parcel...you can be assured... that I'd be gone like a shot, with that fine cedar box tucked into my saddlebag…leavin' you in the dust…to face Mr. Larabee's wrath..."
"I don't believe that."
"So, are you callin' me a liar?"
"No, I'm ... wait. Yeah, I AM callin' you a liar."
Ezra raised his eyebrows. "It seems ... I cannot escape slander."
"Look, Ezra," Buck said tiredly. "I don't know what the hell happened with that money. All I know is a lot of what went on just wasn't right."
Ezra nodded. "Yes, I agree. I never should've been put in charge of the satchel, that's certain. Never should have been allowed near it. The outcome was inevitable."
"That ain't what I was sayin'!"
"The concerns proved true. I behaved exactly as everyone expected. I am, after all, a liar, a con man, a thief, a traitor. Everyone now has their proof.”
Buck frowned deeply, understanding. "Well, I don’t exactly believe that, and I ain't everyone. You know that."
"Considerin' the sum involved, the events that followed… weren't surprising. The temptations arising from the value of the satchel…surpassed any obligations owed toward the town and its regulators. Proved the fact …that I'm not to be trusted around money."
They walked a few strides further as Buck contemplated Ezra's words. Finally, Wilmington said, "You and I both know that there are a lot of things that are worth more than money."
"Hundreds of things... thousands of things..."
"Well, the touch of a beautiful woman." Buck brightened at the thought. "Sure, that's one. Definitely somethin' I couldn't do without."
"You're well aware, Mr. Wilmington ...that such charms... can be purchased."
"Hell, Ezra, I don't have to pay! The ladies, I think, would be willin' to pay me if it came to that."
"Hmm," Ezra uttered as he continued onward, trying to ignore the flaming pain in his shoulder and the growing lightheadedness. He was getting damn tired. All he wanted to do was lie down. He was doing his best to keep from weighing down Buck, but it seemed to be a losing battle. "Pay you? I'm tryin' to picture you as a common gigolo."
Ezra furrowed his brow. "A man who sells his body for money."
“I know what one is. Jeez, Ezra!” Buck hissed indignantly.
Ezra continued, his eyes closed, “Would you do so on a street corner? Or would it be by appointment only? Would it matter if the customer were male or female?"
"HEY!" Buck shouted, loud enough to make the others glance back at him. "That wasn't what I was sayin'! I wouldn't….I mean.… MALES? Ah, hell. You know what I meant."
"Perhaps you could...come up with something that cannot be purchased."
"Damn it, Ezra. There's lots of stuff."
Ezra stumbled again and Buck, delayed in keeping him upright, received a jerk on the wrist from Bishop's horse that almost toppled the pair.
"Keep a movin'!" Devon ordered unnecessarily.
Buck glared at Devon, and was about to say something to him, when JD called across to them. "Ya doin' okay?" He leaned forward, trying to see under the horse that Devon had commandeered. Otto had fallen back slightly and the prisoners were now evenly paced.
"Right as rain, Mr. Dunne," Ezra muttered, watching his feet -- determined to keep moving. "How much further... Mr. Wilmington?" He found he was having difficulty catching his breath.
"Not far," Buck replied. He tried to maneuver Ezra's jacket out of the way to see if the bandage was still in place, but he couldn't manage it and keep a grip on the southerner at the same time. He could smell blood, but he wasn't sure if it were fresh or not. "It's just around the corner."
"You lie, badly. It's no wonder ...that the ladies ...never fall for your lines."
"HA!" Buck exclaimed. "The ladies love my lines. Did I ever tell you about Miss Daisy in 'Frisco?" He waited a minute to see if there was going to be a response, and not receiving one, he continued, happy to have something new to talk about. "The prettiest little flower you ever did see, and loved every story I had to tell. But, she was a gold-digger. I think she wanted nothin' less than a Duke or one of those Lord So-in-so's to hang onto. Well, I had her convinced that I was the Dauphin of France and... "
"Dolphin?" JD interjected. "She thought you were a fish?"
"Dauphin," Ezra corrected. "A title once used for the eldest son of the King of France."
"She thought you were a prince? Buck, you're so full of crap," JD uttered, still trying to see under the gray horse in his way, desperate to join in with the conversation that he had previously been excluded from.
"Now, listen here, boy!" Buck shouted.
"Quiet!" Bishop barked. He directed a glare toward Otto, and the blond brought Toby to a quicker pace, pulling JD forward again.
"Besides," Ezra continued, too low to be heard by anyone except Buck. "A dolphin isn't a fish. It's a mammal."
"Dolphin is a mammal!" Buck called across to JD, even though he couldn't see him any longer.
"What's a mammal?" JD returned.
Bishop's eyes were wide with rage. He drew his gun and aimed it at Ezra's head. "I said, 'QUIET'!" If you don't shut the hell up, I'll take him out now!"
Buck turned a hate-filled gaze at Bishop, but shut his mouth and said nothing more. Instead he listened to Ezra's raspy breathing.
"Anything?" Vin asked, as he walked into the saloon.
Chris had given up on waiting in the jail and had moved to their regular table in the tavern. "Nothin' yet."
"How late are they now?"
"Been about three hours." He felt for his pocket watch and brought out the relic for scrutiny. "No, goin' on four now."
"Fine," Vin stated, turning quickly and heading toward the door.
"Vin?" Chris called, stopping the tracker's progress. "What're you figurin' on doin'?"
Tanner turned. "Goin' after 'em."
"Probably coolin' their heels somewhere, or on their way home by now." Chris drummed his fingers on the table in agitation. "I tell ya, when I get my hands on 'em, they'll find out how…"
"They're not so stupid," Vin returned. "Hell, Chris, I can imagine 'em stoppin' for a piece, but they're four hours late now."
"Train was late."
"All of two hours. This makes no sense a-tall. I'm goin'. They're in some sort of a fix. I know it."
Chris stood stiffly and headed toward the door. "I'm comin', too."
"Better get Nathan and Josiah," Vin included. "May need 'em."
"Josiah's at the jail still. You get him and I'll track down Nate. We'd best be ready for anythin'."
"Sure, cowboy," Vin said with a grin. "I'm ready for some action."
Chris nodded. "Let's ride!"
They had been walking for hours. Buck was thirsty and god-awful tired by the time they finally came to a stop. His arms and back ached from carrying the extra weight. The sun was hot and he was grateful when the canteen was passed around. He sat down on the ground beside Bishop's roan and checked Ezra's bandage. The wound was bleeding slightly and was warm to the touch.
"I need somethin' new to bind this," Wilmington demanded. The request was ignored as the three outlaws talked in low voices.
"You guys doin' alright?" JD asked, taking his turn at the canteen.
"We're holdin' our own," Buck replied.
"Are you gettin' tired, Buck? I could help…"
"SHADDUP!" Otto yelled, grabbing the rope that bound JD and giving it a yank, effectively jerking the canteen away from of his mouth. "We ain't changin' nothin', so you just shut yer hole!"
"I'm doin' fine," Buck responded with a nod to the kid. "Ain't a problem." He heard Ezra chuckle and shake his head at this statement. Buck fretted with the bandage and grumbled at his inability to make any headway with it. "I swear," the ladies' man mumbled. "When we get back, I'm callin' Larabee out!"
Ezra chuckled again. "Get in line, Mr. Wilmington."
"Callin' him out?" JD asked in wonder. "Why? Why would ya do that?"
"He knew what was in that damn box, that's why!" Buck returned. "Knew what he'd sent us for. Ya think he'd let us know what we got? Hell! If he'd just told us, we might not be in this fix. Why didn't he say something?"
"Because of me, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said softly. "Figured I'd take it."
"Naw, that ain't it," Buck said with as much certainty as he could muster. He looked up at the outlaws. The three had put their heads together. Otto pointed in one direction and Devon in another. Bishop regarded both of them with a frown.
"They're lost," Ezra observed.
"Yeah," Buck agreed. "Don't know necessarily if it's a good thing or a bad thing."
"Heck, Buck," JD interjected, handing the water to Wilmington. "Maybe we should tell 'em how to get there. It'll be nice and cool in that cave." He looked toward Ezra, who was staring listlessly at the ground. "We gotta get outta the sun, quick."
Buck took another quick swig and then held the canteen for Ezra. It took a moment to get his attention. The gambler seemed to awaken from a daydream and reached languidly to catch the canteen that floated in front of his face. Damn, Wilmington thought, as he encouraged him to drink what was water left. He wished they had enough to douse the overheated southerner. "Yeah," Buck said. "Would be a good thing t'get out of the heat."
"Except, you're forgetting," Ezra said once the last of the water was gone. "They will meet up with their... friends at that point. They'll be six instead of three."
JD frowned. "Is that so bad?"
"Yeah," Buck replied.
In far too short a time, their captors came to a decision and the procession continued its way toward Hunter's Cavern.
Standish was still moving, still going forward, but his usual graceful stride was slow and sluggish. They were getting yanked more often than before. The rope cut cruelly into Buck's torn wrist.
That didn't matter though -- what mattered at that moment was that they continued forward. Their captors were on the right trail again, talking gleefully about the $20,000 and what they would do with it once they met up with their friends. Bishop had already decided that the three men who waited at Hunter's Cavern were only going to get a small portion of the money -- they hadn't participated in the 'daring' capture of the three dangerous lawmen.
Buck figured that Bishop and the others would just leave out the part that their prisoners had been in their under-drawers at the time. -- that they had fired on a man who was half asleep and defenseless. Bastards! He tightened his grip on Ezra when he felt him falter. Won't letcha down, Ez, Buck thought.
Buck kept an eye out for JD. Mostly he saw only Dunne’s back, but he did catch sight of the young man's face as he glanced worriedly through the intervening horses. Buck had tried calling to the kid more than once, to shout reassurances, but was threatened into silence by Devon's pistol. At least they let him talk to Ezra, as long as his voice was kept low.
"What do you think's gonna happen when we make it to Hunter's Cavern?" he whispered.
Ezra sighed deeply, keeping his eyes in front of him as he walked. "It won't go well."
"Six of 'em..."
"They may think that's enough to take on the others."
Again Ezra sighed. "Yes."
"Could be they won't need us anymore."
"We would become... burdens to them."
"If we got any luck, Chris and Vin and everyone is on our trail right now."
"We can count on 'em to get us out of this."
"Hmm," Ezra voiced and nodded slightly. "But will they ...reach us in time?"
Buck nodded. The pace of the horses had kept them at a quick walk and there was no sign of them changing. Ezra's stumbles hadn't slowed them in the least. Wilmington turned toward JD, but the kid was too far forward again to speak to. "We gotta come up with a plan."
"Indeed," Ezra replied. "I've been ...considerin' it."
"You come up with anythin' yet?"
"Not as yet."
"You'll let me know if you do?"
"You can depend on it."
Still, as they walked, Buck knew that he couldn't count on Ezra to move quickly in an escape. Ezra was having trouble just keeping up, leaning more on Buck every minute. Wilmington would have to reach JD and come up with a plan. Between the two of them, they should be able to get away with Ezra. He just wished he could get closer to Dunne.
Devon chuckled when Ezra nearly fell. Buck managed to keep him upright and avoid another jerk. The redhead shook his head and smiled, flicking his gun in their direction. "If he goes down, he stays down."
"Yeah!" Otto said happily, looking from one of his friends to the other. "And I'll be the one who shoots 'im! I plan to put a bullet 'tween the eyes." He aimed to show his intention. "Or maybe I'll just use him for target practice and take off a bit at a time."
Buck tightened his hold on Ezra, twisting to block the gambler. "You can go to hell," Wilmington growled.
Otto just smirked. "Looks like he's about to go there himself. Lookin' a mite peeked. Hey, Bish, let me do him in now. He's slowin' us down."
Bishop glanced over his shoulder to the men roped behind him. "I ain't slowin' none yet. Soon as he puts an anchor on us, you can do it."
"Come on," Otto implored, his voice taking on the whine of a spoiled brat. "Let me pop 'im. You got your chance already."
"Makes sense, Bish," Devon added. "He's just a load right now. I think Otto's got the right idea."
Buck heard Ezra suck in his breath, and perhaps even tremble slightly. "Won't let it happen, hoss," Buck whispered fiercely as they plodded onward. "Ain't gonna give 'em a reason. I'll keep us goin'."
"Not plannin' on…slowin', Buck," Ezra returned.
Bishop looked annoyed. Otto and Devon seemed to have no idea what they were up against. Truth be told, he'd prefer to keep all three lawmen alive just to stave off Larabee's wrath. He'd heard of the man-in-black and was smart enough to fear him.
Still, Bishop had no intention of mollycoddling any of his hostages and planned to keep his part of the bargain when the Southerner finally gave out. The longer he kept them alive, he figured, the better. Larabee would appreciate the fact that they'd kept them for as long as possible -- gave that cardsharp a chance at least. "Think of it this way, Otto.... We're prolonging his agony a piece."
The blond regarded the prisoners, seeing the pain and exhaustion that etched the gambler's face, observing how difficult it was for him to continue moving. "Yeah," he said. "He'll be keelin' over any minute now." He aimed at Ezra again, jerking the gun back as if he'd fired, accompanying the action with a, "Pow! Pow!" Otto grinned, seeing the baleful look from Wilmington. There'd been no reaction from the gambler. The outlaw faced forward and nodded to Bishop. "I'll wait. Let him suffer a bit more. I'll pop him when he can't hardly draw breath. Maybe you'll let me drag him a bit first, huh?"
Bishop rolled his eyes and shook his head, wishing he'd brought Tegan or one of the others along instead of Otto. At least Tegan had some sense.
They continued in silence for a time. After several minutes, Buck could hear Ezra muttering something. He had to listen carefully to hear what the gambler was saying -- a cadence that he repeated over and over again.
"Left and then right…left and then right..." Ezra intoned as he moved his feet across the sandy soil. "Left and then right…"
At that moment, Ezra's full concentration was on the ground before him, watching his feet as he forced them forward. He was not about to stop; he was not about to give in. His shoulder felt like shit, it ached and burned, felt like some great bird of prey was driving its talons into it. Every step jarred him and increased the pain. He was hot as hell.
But he kept moving. He wasn't going to let these bastards get the better of him... to let them win. Still, Ezra realized that he was only dragging Buck down, cutting down Wilmington's chances of surviving this, tiring him unnecessarily. Ezra knew that he was getting weaker by the moment and would be only a hindrance in an escape. He'd have to come up with something and he'd have to come up with it quickly, before Buck decided on doing something stupid and implausibly heroic.
He could hear Buck speaking and it was only with effort that he was able to understand. "You're doin' fine, Ez. We're gonna make it. I gotcha." Buck sighed as Ezra stumbled again. It took a second to catch their balance, and the two of them were yanked forward by the progress of the horse.
"Sorry," Ezra mumbled.
"S'alright," Buck replied, trying to ignore the pain in his wrist and the growing ache that radiated across his back. It wasn't Ezra's fault in any case, but rather the bastard's on the horse. Buck's gaze bored holes in Bishop's back.
Ezra did his best to pick up the pace again, to walk without assistance. Buck wondered how much longer he could keep the stubborn southerner moving.
Long as it takes, he decided.
"So, where do you think we'll meet up with 'em?" Nathan asked as they stopped for a moment, on their way toward Ridge City. The horses snorted and tossed their heads.
"Way I see it, " Vin stated, "they didn't stay on no trail. They got that 'package' that they were aimin' to keep safe." He looked to Chris. "It were a damn shame that no one let 'em know what was in there."
Larabee sighed. "It was for the best, Vin."
The tracker shook his head sharply and asked, "Best for who?"
"If they didn't know what was in it, they wouldn't act like they were carrying something worth all that money," Larabee explained. "It was safer that way."
Vin just huffed and turned his eyes on the route before them.
"Something bothering you, Brother Vin?" Josiah asked.
Vin chewed his lip for a moment and then asked, "Are we goin' out there to see if somethin' happened to 'em? To see if they're okay? Or are we goin' out there 'cause you think Ezra took that dang box and you want to drag him in to jail?"
"I didn't say that," Chris said sharply.
"You ain't given Ezra an inch," Vin returned. "Not since that whole business with the Stutzs' money."
"He did take it, just like I figured, Vin," Nathan reminded.
"I suppose it's in his nature," Josiah thoughtfully stated. "He can't help himself. When you put Ezra near money, he just gets this itch that he can't ignore. Can't salve it 'til he scoops up all the cash he can carry. Some men just give in to their most base desires." The preacher winced, remembering a temptation in a church, and a young man looking for guidance -- who found only accusations.
"Almost like a sickness, I figure," the healer continued the sentiment. "He just can't help it. Maybe it's just how his mother brung him up. Figure we can't blame him too much for it."
Vin glanced at Nathan and Josiah, trying to keep the hostility from his eyes. He had heard a little about what had gone on with the assassins' money, but he never quite understood it all. Now things were making more sense to him. No wonder Ezra's been so damn depressed lately.
"So how's the rifle different than the money?" the tracker asked.
"What do you mean, brother?" Josiah replied.
Vin fingered the stock of the beautiful weapon, shoved under his saddle. He remembered the almost sensual pleasure he had felt the first time he had seen it. He had wanted the weapon so badly that he hadn't even thought about rightful ownership, prior claims or what was right in the law. It was like a blue haze took over his mind. Once he'd touched the rifle, he had to have it as his own. He'd been blind to most everything that went on around him once he had it in his possession. It was almost like a drug…a sickness.
Josiah shook his head woefully. "I wish I could have explained it all better to him." He raised his hand and let it drop in defeat, knowing that he hadn't even tried. He had condemned himself for his detestable desires, and then sloughed it off on the surprised gambler. How long had Ezra avoided that desire to grab hold of the money? Had he fought with the desire, or did he just give into it without a protest -- as one Josiah Sanchez had?
"I'd meant to help." Sanchez explained.
"Help?" Vin looked incredulous. "'Spect I need 'help', too. How is it that nobody said a word when I took this here rifle for myself, yet when Ezra wants to split the money seven ways, everyone tears into him for it?"
"That's different," Nathan replied.
"Well." Nathan paused. "It was blood money."
Vin pulled the lovely rifle from its place, and held it under his arm. "Ya sayin' that this rifle had nothin' to do with killin'?"
"It's just…" Nathan tried to explain. "Well, you know how Ezra is with money. He just gets kinda… mixed up when he wants some. Gets to where he don't know what's right."
Vin sighed and tossed the ill-gotten weapon across to Chris. "I 'spect this should go to where-ever the hell you sent that money. You know how I am with firearms. I get mixed up, too."
Chris caught the rifle one-handedly. "You done?"
"Nope," Vin replied sharply. "I’m pissed. I jus' don't see how ya'll can light into Ezra like you've done and yet let me get away with takin' this."
Chris shoved the weapon under his own saddle. "Ezra was trusted to take care of that money. He ended up trying to run out on us… again! After the second chance I'd given him…"
"Trusted?" Vin shook his head. "You didn't trust him, not a whit. You didn't even give him a chance to be trusted. Ya'all just went around spoutin' off what ya thought about him, I reckon. What didja expect him t'do with ya'all tellin' him how he's no good? You talk about second chances, but you didn't give him a bit of a chance."
"Brother," Josiah said with a sigh. "This isn't helping us to find them."
"Yer right, Josiah, it ain't," Vin tugged at Peso's reins and took off at a gallop, with the others after a moment's pause.
Buck was heartsick. Ezra was failing on him. God, Standish was hardly able to keep his feet anymore, stumbling and wheezing as they went along. Buck looked across to JD, who watched them with fear-filled eyes.
Ezra, for his part, was trying his hardest. He continued to mutter his mantra..."left and then right, left and then right," as he moved his feet before him. The words were becoming more slurred, and he could hardly lift his legs, dragging the toes of his boots.
"Come on, Ezra, you can do it," Buck whispered huskily. "Left and then right, come on, pard. Left and then right. You're doin' fine." Through the heat of the day, Wilmington encouraged him onward. He knew that Ezra wouldn't be able to make it much further, but he'd be damned if he let anything happen to him. No, not while Buck Wilmington was still breathing. He'd carry Ezra over his shoulder if it came to that, if only they'd let him. And, dang, it looked awful close to that point now.
Finally, near a small stand of trees, they came to a halt. A little oasis bloomed in the desert beside a spring. The three horsemen looked at one another, and Bishop came to a decision. Buck heard Ezra utter a sigh of relief as they adjusted their path to the group of trees. Thank God, Buck thought. Finally! It would give him a chance to check up on that bandage again, maybe get it fixed up... get a decent amount of water into Ezra ... let him rest a piece. Maybe Chris and the other's could catch up. Lord, let us stay here a while, Buck prayed.
The moment the horses stopped, just within the copse, Ezra sank wordlessly to his knees, like sugar melting in water.
"You're gonna be fine, Ez," Buck said, catching Ezra before he slumped too far. He watched as their captors dismounted. Otto and Bishop went to the little pond first, taking their fill while Devon kept watch.
Ezra's chest was heaving from the exertion of the forced march. Buck checked the bandage, swearing as he pulled back Ezra's jacket and found the binding stained with blood. "Damn it, Ezra," he growled. "Why didn't you say somethin'?"
"What could be done… Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked. "It would only cause you … undue worry … and they weren't about to ...let us stop to tend this...little problem."
"Little problem..." Buck grumbled as he tried to adjust the bandage, but it seemed a pointless endeavor. "Gotta get somethin' new," he said. "Maybe we can get 'em to give up what's left in that flask, or maybe some water this time." Buck knew that a bullet hole, left as it was, would fester. There'd been no chance to clean it properly, and time was wasting. He pressed his hand to Standish's forehead and groaned. Damn it, he was far too warm.
Ezra followed Wilmington's movements lethargically. Finally, their eyes met again and Buck said, "You're gonna be fine."
"What did...I tell ya... about your lyin' abilities...Mr. Wilmington?"
"Ain't no lie," Buck lied. "We're gonna make it through this." God, Ezra couldn't even sit up by himself. Buck seriously doubted if he would get Ezra on his feet again. The southerner was completely played out. Water... where was the damn water?
Devon glanced at the two and decided that they were harmless. He untied JD and ordered, "Fill up them canteens. We gotta be goin'." He then untied Buck from the saddle, leaving the rope to dangle from his arm, and the horses were taken to the pond to drink. Clyde, Chaucer and the sorrel mare were left tied as they were and had to fight against the tethers to get to the water.
"Get him up," Bishop ordered. "We're only stoppin' long enough to drink. We got a long way to go yet."
Ezra watched him with a dark gaze, thinking and planning.
"I need some water here!" Buck shouted. "And he's gonna need to rest up a bit."
Bishop sighed. He was tired of all this. Maybe Larabee wasn't as vengeful as he'd heard. Maybe Larabee wouldn't miss this gambler. "Remember what I said: If he can't make the distance, he'll be shot. As long as you can keep him movin', I'll let him live."
Otto laughed and turned to the pond, washing his dusty face.
JD squatted beside the water, looking back at Buck and Ezra as he submerged one of the canteens. He would get this first one to Buck and Ezra right away, but if he moved slowly with the rest of the canteens, they might be allowed to stay here a little while.
He watched his two friends, hoping that everything would turn out okay, but he was beginning to have serious doubts about it. Ezra certainly didn't look very good. He was ghostly white and seemed half-dead. No! JD corrected himself. Just tired is all. Buck will take care of him. Buck won't fail. He wondered where Chris and the others were. They'd better get here quick.
"Buck," Ezra said softly, between his gasping breaths.
"Take it easy now," Buck said. "You gotta get some strength back. We're gonna need it when we get goin' again."
"I was thinkin'," Ezra whispered. "I was thinkin'... that perhaps... it's time that we ...took these gentlemen up on their offer."
Ezra closed his eyes and rested his head against Buck as Wilmington listened. "What the hell?" Buck finally blurted out. “What're you talkin' about?”
"Obviously...I will not be able... to walk much further," Ezra gasped. "It took everything... I had to make it …this far. It's time I stopped. It's pleasant here...nice...awful nice."
"Damn it, Ezra!" Buck barked. JD looked back toward them as he continued to fill the canteens.
"It would be for the best...Best for ...everyone."
"Now you shut your mouth," Buck whispered fiercely, hoping that none of this conversation reached the ears of the men who held them. "Don't you even start talkin' like that. I ain't gonna give in to them bastards and you ain't either. Look, I'll getcha on my back or somethin'. We'll get 'em to let JD help. We're gonna..."
"Buck..." Ezra continued breathlessly. "We've played by their rules... long enough. It's time we ...made up some of our own." He paused, trying to collect his energy.
"Ain't no way in hell I'm gonna let 'em shoot you again, Ez. Ain't no way."
"If we play our cards right… they won't be the ones... who will do the deed." He looked up at Buck, green eyes intense with fever. "You will."
Buck paled. "Now wait a minute...just one cotton-pickin' minute!"
"We must convince them ...that you're the one... to perform the task. Your aim will be true...won't fail."
"Shut up!" Buck hissed angrily. "Shut the hell up!"
"We must convince them... to use my own equipment. I'm a gentleman of course... and will only ...succumb ... under the most genteel circumstances."
"What the hell's the matter with you?" Buck turned his back to the others, hoping to keep the talk unheard. "I ain't doin' no such thing, ya stupid son-of-a-bitch!"
"Buck," Ezra paused again, drawing in a deep breath and speaking even softer, "I've come up with a plan. Something that will end this ... foolishness. Something we may all…survive."
Buck smiled in relief, glad to stop that previous conversation. "Well, it's high time! How we gonna get word to JD?"
Ezra exhaled slowly. "I'm afraid we'll have to leave... young Mr. Dunne... to discover our intentions...on his own." He smiled numbly and added, "He'll catch on. I have no doubts... of his intelligence. He'll understand."
"Yeah, but I gotta understand this first of all."
"They've let you have a knife once...I suspect they can be...convinced to allow you to have other ...weapons." He stopped for a moment before continuing. "We must employ... subterfuge...distract them with some...slight of hand..." He wanted to lift his right hand to make a delicate gesture, but it was bound to his left and lay like lead in his lap. He decided to let the comment go unaccented.
"What are you getting at?"
"There's one thing...that must happen...the rest is mere costuming." Ezra smiled as he tried to catch his breath. Why was it getting so hard to breathe? His shoulder was pounding. His head throbbed. He was so damn hot. He found he couldn't lift his head from Buck's chest; it felt so incredibly heavy. The easiest thing would be to just leave it where it was. He licked his lips. "In my left saddlebag ... is a doeskin pouch ... where I keep my blanks..."
Buck finally fell silent, listening. Ready for a plan... Any kinda of plan.
The four men wandered around the quiet lake. Vin knew about the little paradise and had figured that Buck, JD and Ezra might have used it as a resting spot along the way. It was obvious that someone had recently visited the lake; a fire had been lit earlier that day and a few scattered items identified who had been here.
"That's JD's match-case," Josiah said as he picked up the forgotten item.
"Yeah, and that would be Ezra's shaving kit," Nathan sighed. "Always wants to look his best."
"Appearances are everything," Josiah said with a small smile, trying not to be alarmed at finding these forgotten items.
"Left in a hurry," Chris surmised unhappily.
And then they saw the blood.
"Seems like we found what delayed 'em," Vin said with a glance to Larabee. Chris said nothing, so Vin began a search. Tanner walked slowly about, finally drawing himself up on the high rock platform that overlooked the lake. "Lot more blood here," he said plainly. "Gunshot, I reckon."
"Who?" Nathan demanded. "Who got shot?"
Vin frowned as he searched for a clear print. He followed the trail of blood. "Whoever it was…he was barefoot."
"Whydo you think that was?" Josiah asked, watching Vin at his work.
The tracker was too busy concentrating on his task to respond. They were at a lake, damn it! Of course the boys had been swimmin' or somethin'. Hell, Ezra was always sneakin' off to go swim somewhere. Some folks just don't seem to notice nothin'! Vin thought.
After a bit more work, Vin finally surmised, "It's Ezra."
"Damn it," Chris mumbled. "You sure?"
"Yeah," Vin said solemnly. "Laid down over there for a bit. Looks like he was patched up by Buck, I reckon," Vin said, making note of the large footprints that were muted in the chaos around the area.
Nathan tried to draw what answers he could from the evidence they had. There was a torn shirt, stiff and brown with blood, more blood on the ground. He set his jaw, trying to figure what he would be facing when they caught up with Ezra and the other two.
"How many got 'em?" Chris demanded.
"Three," Vin answered. "They went off that way. Let our boys get their boots on at least. Hope they got more on that just that. Sun's been hot today."
Chris nodded curtly. "Let's go."
Vin paused a moment. "They got our guys on foot, by the looks of it."
"If that's the case," Josiah pondered, "they couldn't have gotten too far."
"Been a while," Vin countered. "You can get a ways on foot if you got the time."
"If Ezra's been shot..." Josiah tried.
"You can still get a ways," Vin returned. "We'd better get goin'. We'll catch 'em. We got a trail to follow now." He strode to Peso, who nickered at his approach. "Looks like Ezra didn't take that box after all." Vin mounted and looked down to Larabee. Nathan and Josiah looked skeptical.
"So why'd ya send Ezra, Chris?" Vin asked bluntly as he turned his horse. "Why, of all people, didja send the one man ya thought would take the stuff and leave ya high and dry?" He saw the smoldering anger in the gunslinger's eyes, but continued anyway, "Were you testin' 'im?"
Chris mounted his own horse and faced the trail left by the others. One of his men was hurt, at least one, and in the custody of three men who weren't above causing pain to their captives. He could feel the rage building in him as he stared off in the direction they had taken. Nobody hurt his people without paying the price. He glanced at Josiah and Nathan for only a moment, before he set Job to the trail.
CONTINUE to the Second Section