RATING: PG-13 for language
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp, TNN, the Hallmark Channel or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: The April 2004 Challenge: offered by Lily Of The West "Write a story in which at least one guy poses as / or is mistaken for at least one of the others. You can include as few or as many guys as you want. For a big fat bonus points, include an animal in the story (other than a horse!)"
SUMMARY: an Ezra and Chris story - the boys visit another one of those 'distant towns' and encounter a bit of mayhem  
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS: Small spoilers for Serpents and Obsession
DATE: April 15, 2004

In Black
Winner of the 2004 Gold Ezzie Award for Old West Fic - General - Medium
By NotTasha...
who's heard that black is slimming.  It ain't.  I've seen the photographs



"An ordeal…” Ezra muttered as he stepped down from the coach and squinted in the afternoon light.  He took a moment to dust his hat.  “Deplorable travelin’ conditions, not fit for good and upstanding citizens.”

Chris chuckled slightly from his position inside the vehicle as he helped Mary Travis to the door, then asked, “When have you ever been one of those?”

“Nevah!”  Ezra grinned, showing his gold tooth.  Settling his hat in place, he laughed and stated, “It’s much more invigoratin’ to play at the other side of that coin.”  He offered a hand to Mary to assist her in stepping down.  “Traveling by coach is, by far, the most uncomfortable means of transport known to man.”

“It fulfils its purpose,” Mary responded pensively, as she stretched.  She looked toward the driver and brakeman who were scurrying about, getting baggage untied from the roof.  The horses would be swapped out next.  She hoped they hadn’t heard Ezra’s comments, but apparently they were too busy to take any note of them.

Chris Larabee narrowed his eyes, regarding how long Ezra had held Mary’s hand as he assisted her.  Billy pressed against Chris’ leg, eager to get out of the conveyance as well.  The gunslinger smiled down at the boy, placing a fatherly hand on his shoulder.   Once Mary was clear, Larabee gave the boy a pat as a warning and then grabbed hold him.  He lifted the child through the door and down to Ezra.

The gambler pretended to lose his grip on the child as he grasped him, but turned the drop into a twirl and he spun the boy around.  Billy first yelped as he felt himself falling, laughed as he feet flew out from under him, and then giggled as he was settled beside his mother.

Larabee frowned, not appreciating the antics, and then stepped down as well.  They were the only customers leaving the coach at this stop, but the rest of the passengers disembarked after them, to stretch their legs before continuing on.

A drummer was the last to get off, settling his case on his seat before he left.  Larabee threw him a disgusted look.  A small man with a pinched face, he’d been hawking his wares during the trip, passing around cheap silver trays and forks in the confined place, trying to make a sale or two.  The Larabee glare had finally convinced him to hurriedly close up shop and leave them alone.  As the salesman faded into the crowd, Larabee looked about, getting a feel for the town of Tierra Negra.

It was a little town, with businesses lining both sides of the street.  Townsfolk were moving excitedly around the stagecoach, trying to draw the tired passengers into their stores during the stop.  Larabee grimaced, not liking the closeness of all the people – they pressed too near, touching him on the shoulder, looking to sell him something.  God, he had to get out of this place – quick!

The trip to Tierra Negra had been a last minute decision for Larabee.  Mary had arranged the ride, to visit an old family friend, Martin Goss.  Chris went along when he discovered that Goss would be unable to meet Mary in town – someone needed to escort the mother and child on the hour ride to the Goss property.  It was only after he’d purchased his ticket that Larabee discovered Standish would be on the coach as well – going to Tierra Negra to pick up money from their bank – a payoff on someone’s gambling debt.  Apparently Standish couldn’t wait for the funds to be transferred – or didn’t trust anyone to transport his money.  Typical, Larabee thought.  Leave it to a gambler to act like that.

Larabee watched as Standish brushed at his black suit.  “One would hope,” Standish complained, “That one could stay relatively clean in that contraption.”  He sighed unhappily.  “I’m utterly filthy!”

Chris glanced at his own blue-striped shirt, seeing none of the ‘filth’ that so annoyed Standish.   “Ezra,” Larabee muttered.  “I’ve never known a man who complained as much as you.”

“Humph,” Ezra returned.  “You haven’t known that many people, have you, Mr. Larabee?  And obviously, you haven’t spent much time around my mother.”

With a shake of his head, Larabee turned toward Mary.  “I’ll check on the livery, see what’s available for rent.  You and Billy should wait for me at that restaurant.”  He nodded to a charming-looking storefront.  The apple-faced proprietress stood in the doorway, and tried to coax the coach passengers within.  Larabee gave Ezra a nod.  “Standish,” he addressed.

Ezra smiled winningly.  “I suppose I’ll be seein’ you back on Four Corners,” he stated.  “I’ll be taking the return stage today. Luckily the time tables work in my favor for a change.”

Chris nodded.  “I’ll be comin’ back tomorrow,” he stated.  His gaze followed Mary who was fussing with Billy.  “Goss will be able to get Mary back to town next week.”  On Tuesdays and Wednesdays the lines went back and forth through Tierra Negra, and the rest of the week, the town was on their own.

“You’re returning so soon?” Ezra asked, sounding surprised.  “I thought you might like the chance to spend some time with…” and his eyes followed Marry as he trailed off. 

Larabee glared. 

“No?”  Ezra tried to look perplexed, but that fell into a crafty grin as he rubbed his hands together and he added, “At least I’ll have a chance to try the local tables before the other stage comes through.  Of course, there’s the matter of $100 to attend to first.  I don’t know how I allowed Mr. Prosser to carry that debt.  It’s a miracle he paid up.” He cupped one hand to his ear.  “Ah, I hear it callin’ already.  I shall go to the bank and claim what is mine.”

“That why you’re wearin’ that suit today?”  Larabee indicated Ezra’s plain black attire.

“Bankers…” Ezra told him, “… they tend to be more trusting of people who dress as they do.”

“So, you can’t trust another man to transport your money?”  Chris continued.

“Well,” Ezra drawled.  “I know I couldn’t trust myself with that task, so how could I trust another?”  He shrugged, looking astonished that anyone might have asked that question.  “Mrs. Travis,” Ezra stated, “Master Travis, Mr. Larabee, I wish you all a pleasant journey and I shall see you again in Four Corners.”

Mary smiled pleasantly and took Ezra’s hand.  “I’m glad that you came with us, Ezra.  You certainly helped pass the time.”

“It was nothing, my dear,” Ezra responded, kissing her hand gallantly.  “I was only trying to entertain myself.”  He smiled and formally shook Billy’s hand before turning to Larabee and saying, “I leave them in your capable hands,” as if Standish had any say in the matter.  “I hope they can keep you safe from harm.  I know how Chris Larabee can draw the worst attention.”  And Ezra laughed.  With a wave, he turned and walked toward Tierra Negra’s only bank.

Chris frowned, watching him go.  Standish was one of the most irritating people Chris had ever known, but -- as Ezra had pointed out – Chris Larabee really hadn’t gotten to know that many people in his life.  Certainly, there were plenty of others in this world that were far more exasperating than Standish.

Can’t think of any offhand, Chris thought, recalling how Ezra had been egging on the drummer during the ride, getting him to dig out all manner of things from his sample case, having him to discuss the differences in his products.  He recalled how the salesman had gone on-and-on about a new line of silverplate, edged in black for ‘a sophisticated look… we call it Eleganté’ God! Chris had learned more about that crap than he ever cared to know.

Ezra had examined each piece that came into his hands with a speculative eye and kept that man talking for far too long about silver.  As if anyone gave a damn about those pointless showpieces!  What good was it anyway?  That nonsense would just sit on a shelf, awaiting company, gathering tarnish.  When did it do anyone any real good?

Of course, Chris recalled, the conman had also kept Billy busy throughout most of the ride, showing him card tricks and telling stories.  Heck, Ezra’s showing-off had kept the whole coach occupied during the rough and long ride.  Made the experience pass rather quickly.

Maybe ‘irritating’ isn’t right.  ‘Enigmatic’ might be a better word for him, Chris decided.  Confusing maybe?  Can’t figure there’d be many folks more confounding than he is.  Never can tell what he’s going to do next. Like, why the hell did he come all this way?  Can’t he trust anyone?  The man lives too much in the shadows.  Life should be easier than that – black or white – good and bad. He’s too much in the gray.

Chris located his small bag and then grasped Mary and Billy’s larger case.  As he handled the luggage, he pondered his reason for this journey.  Hell, did I really need to come along either?  Am I just fooling himself into thinking that Mary needs me?

It was difficult for the hardened gunslinger to admit, but he liked being with Mary Travis.  He liked her smile and her intelligence.  He liked her determination and her generosity – liked the idea of traveling alongside that woman and her son.  There was something… familiar… about taking on that task.   It reminded him of another time – another place – when he was truly happy.

Sarah and Adam -- he brooded over them a moment, their faces blurred in his memory, their voices indistinct.  He’d been so content with them, as a husband and father.  It had felt ‘right’.  But that time had ended, and he’d wrapped himself up in a black mantle.   The emptiness of his life had become familiar to him – easy.  As he gazed after Mary and Billy, as he watched them disappear into the restaurant for a refreshment, he wondered if it was time to cast away that dark aura, to find a new way to live, to find a new life.

Shaking off that thought, he picked up the bags, and went in search of horses for the ride to Goss’s place.


Chuckling as he folded the newly acquired cash, Ezra shoved the wad into his inner vest pocket.  The banker had miscounted and he’d ended up with an extra $5.  Ezra pursed his lips, trying to hide the smile.  Dame Fortune was smiling upon him!  It was time to try the tables and see if she remained on his side.

For a moment, his hand touched the silver plates he’d filched from the drummer.  He withdrew the little piece, a small tray that might hold a gravy boat or display some tiny pastries.  Cheap crap, Ezra decided as he ran a finger along the black paint that edged the piece of Eleganté.  He winced at the pronunciation the drummer had used.  The edge hadn’t been properly finished, leaving it a bit jagged.  Poor craftsmanship.  Ezra tapped a finger on the plate, hearing a dull thunk.  Garbage!

He’d planned to return it, having secreted the piece to annoy Larabee.  He’d expected the drummer to put up a fuss when the piece was found missing.  Standish smiled, imagining Larabee’s apoplexy if the salesman had become quarrelsome about finding the missing plate.  Ezra, at that point, meant to slip it back into the drummer’s trunk.  Unfortunately, under Larabee’s glare, the salesman had snapped his case shut so quickly there’d been no time to perform an inventory and he didn’t notice its loss.  With a shrug, Ezra replaced the piece within his waistcoat and continued on his way.

If he found the salesman, he’d return the plate somehow – maybe slip it into a pocket or something to confuse him.  If he missed the man, well, then he’d own a new piece of cheap silver.  Standish chuckled at the thought and stepped onto the boardwalk.  Maybe the plate, edged in black, could be used to hold his cufflinks and watch on his dresser.

He stopped his promenade and watched as Larabee and Billy rode past on a big roan horse, alongside Mary on a dun.  He raised a hand to wave, but they didn’t see him as they continued on their way.  Ezra smiled as he watched them go.

Chris looked happy, Ezra thought, happy and proud to escort the mother and child to their destination.    It was good to see the black-hearted gunslinger smile, to see him gently-but-firmly holding onto that boy, to see him look proud and content.  He’s earned that, Standish thought.  He deserves a good life, after all that sorrow.  He looks good in something other than mourning clothes.

Billy seemed pleased as punch, sitting in front of the tall blond gunslinger, and Mary was smiling contentedly, turning often to look at Chris as they rode off. 

Yes, they look almost like a family, Ezra thought.  It was good for all of them really – broken families on the mend.

They all deserved this better life.  All three of them needed to be free of their blackness.

He watched until they disappeared from sight and then sought the salesman.  Ezra had started toward the coach when he heard a voice growl, “I heard Chris Larabee just come into town on that stage.  That man should be dead.”

Ezra came to a halt and looked in disbelief at the two men who leaned against a storefront, talking as if they had no cares in the world, as if it didn’t matter that everyone could hear them.

“Yeah, fella with a bunch of spoons told me.  I hear Larabee nearly bit the poor bastard’s head off.”  The speaker was tall with a bushy mustache.   “Wish I could find that Larabee.  Thinks he’s so damn fast.  I’d show him.”

“We can find him,” the other stated.  He was as tall as the other one, blond with a scar across his lips.  “You and me, Carter.   We’ll track him down and get him.”

“Yeah,” Carter replied.  “Hunt him like a dog and shoot him cold.  We’d be heroes!  Everybody would know us – the men who shot Chris Larabee!”

They chuckled as Ezra listened.  Around him, people moved along the street, some pausing to listen as well.  Ezra glanced about, amazed.  These fools were discussing murder in conversational tones – not caring that others were hearing every word.

“Think we could really do it?” the blond sounded dubious.  “He didn’t get famous for nothing. I mean, everyone’s heard about ‘the man in black’ and how he’s never lost a gunfight.”

Carter chuckled.  “Problem with him is, he fights fair.  Listen, you’ll distract him and I’d shoot him in the back.  He won’t have a chance.  It’d be easy.”

“Distract him?”

“Come up to him and say, ‘how-de-do’ and ask him for the time, or somethin’.  I’ll get him from behind.”

“And we’ll both be famous, right?  Both of us?”

“Sure, Buster.  You and me both,” Carter decided.

“Think we’ll get away with it?” Buster asked, excitement tingeing his voice.

The folks around Ezra continued to listen, acting as if they were only pausing to read a placard or stare into a window.  The men kept talking, either unaware that they had an audience, or content in the idea that people were hearing their high-flung plans.

“Sheriff wouldn’t stop us. Man’s a drunk,” Carter continued.  “Everyone would know us.  They’d treat us with respect.”

“Respect!” Buster echoed.

Ezra let out a breath, watching where Chris had disappeared with Mary and Billy.  These two men were just braggarts, he decided.  But the conman knew that braggarts sometimes tried their schemes, and good people suffered.

Some of the people wandered off.  Others stayed.  One man, with long black hair, raised his boot onto a nearby barrel, trying to look nonchalant as he buffed the leather, but not succeeding in hiding his interest in the conversation.

“I hear Chris Larabee is stayin’ at Goss’ place,” Buster declared.

Damn...Ezra thought.

“Goss!” Carter returned.  “Hell, I say we ride out there right now.  Goss won’t give us no grief.  Heck, he’ll probably just welcome us if we came there with guns blazing.”

“Let’s get goin’,” Buster sounded excited.  “He’ll let us in.  Goss is a fool.”

“Hell, he’ll let anyone in.”

“We shoot Larabee there.”

“It’ll be perfect,” Buster affirmed.

“But then nobody will know what we did,” Carter said thoughtfully.  Then he snapped his fingers.  “I know!  We bring Larabee’s body to town and drag it down the main street so everyone knows what we did.”

“Yeah,” Buster breathed out, sounding as if he was a little too keyed up about that prospect.  “We drag Larabee through street.  Won’t nobody dare stop us.”

The images came to Ezra… of these two malefactors showing up at that homestead, appearing as friends – of them gunning down Chris in front of Mary and Billy.  Ezra swallowed at that thought.  His eyes tracked along, as if he could see a body being dragged through the street.  He felt cold and sick at that thought.

But Chris could take care of himself, couldn’t he? But what if they got Chris from behind – didn’t give him a chance?

Ezra thought of Mary and Billy.  What would become of them if these fools showed up, gunning for Larabee?  What would happen if that woman and child got in the way?  Even if Chris were to survive these gunmen, what if Mary and Billy didn’t?


Drawing a deep breath, Ezra stepped forward to face the men.

Ezra lifted his chin, taking in their unconcerned expressions.  Then, lowering his voice and flattening out his accent to something that might imitate a Hoosier, he stated, “You’re looking for Chris Larabee?”  He narrowed his eyes and pulled back his jacket to access his Remington.  With a voice that dripped with menace, he declared, “I’m Chris Larabee.”

All arrogance left them as Carter and Buster threw up their hands, terrified.  “Hey,” Carter exclaimed.  “Me and Buster don’t mean you no harm.”

“Yeah,” Buster, added.  “We were just funnin’, that’s all.”  They both laughed dryly.

Ezra scowled, keeping his accent modified, he stated, “Wasn’t funny.”  The crowd hovered around them.

“Yeah, well…” Carter tried, dropping his smile and his clipped laugh.  “No harm done, right?”

Ezra kept his expression hard and uncompromising.  “You’d best be movin’ on,” he growled.

Carter and Buster seemed enthusiastic about the chance to flee.  Ezra stepped back, giving them leave, and they scuttled along, getting away from him as quickly as possible.  Around Standish, people started moving again, going on their way on the crowded boardwalks.

“Thought he’d be taller…” Ezra heard Buster whisper.

“Yeah,” Carter returned as they moved off.  “I always pictured Chris Larabee as a big man.”

The gambler scowled as he muttered, “I’m not short!”

The frightened hooligans disappeared into a building.  Well, Ezra thought. That went well.

Now though, instead of spending a few leisurely hours in town, Ezra knew he had to get moving.  He’d  get a horse, travel to the next town and pick up the coach on its way back to Four Corners.  He sighed, hoping that Larabee had left a decent mount available for let.

He was just turning to make his way to the livery.  Something slammed into him, driving the air from his lungs.  Pain exploded through his chest, spinning him.  He registered a gunshot as he staggered, reaching out one hand toward the cowering townspeople.  The expressions that faced him were shocked and frightened.  One man, with longish-black hair, stood apart, a smoking pistol aimed in his direction and an utterly satisfied look about him.   The ground tilted beneath Ezra as the pain and blackness consumed him.


Archie Malone re-holstered his weapon, grinning as he watched the man-in-black go down like a load of bricks.  The streets emptied as people ducked and dashed.  Archie grinned all the wider.  His eyes stayed focused on the unmoving body – its head still on the boardwalk, the rest in the dirt.  He kicked the body, rolling it off the walkway and totally into the street, its face toward the ground.

“Just like you deserve, Larabee,” Malone declared.  “Dead in the dirt.  Ain’t so high and mighty now, are ya?”  He jerked up his head as Carter and Buster came toward him.

“Damn!”  Carter uttered, giving Malone an appraising look.  “You just shot down Chris Larabee!”

“You did it!” Buster stated, awestruck.

Malone smiled wider, looking as if he’d bust buttons.  “Damn right!” he shouted.   “Yeah, I got him!  Me!  Archie Malone!”  He pointed at the body.  “Remember me, you black-hearted son-of-a-bitch!” he snapped out.  “I’m the man who gunned you down!  I’m the man who killed Chris Larabee!”

From their hiding places, the townspeople quivered.

Malone, nearly glowing with pride, turned to Carter and Buster.  “Couldn’t have done it without you two,” he told them.  “Ya have good ideas.  Didn’t know he was in town.  Wouldn’t have known who the bastard was.  You distracted him good.”

The two men beamed at each other, glad to have had a part in the momentous occasion.   Someone shouted from down the street – and the sheriff came trotting toward them.  With a yelp, Malone turned and ran in the opposite direction.  After a second of indecision, Carter and Buster followed, ducking into the blackness of the covered alleyway.

Minutes later, Sheriff Cobb came to a huffing stop.  Resting his hands on his knees when he reached the sprawled body.  He grimaced, not appreciating dead men on his street.  “Anyone see … what happened?” he asked between gasps as the townspeople reappeared.

A man stepped forward and pointed to the black-clad body.  “That was Chris Larabee,” he uttered.

“Larabee?  Really?” Cobb looked astonished.  “Who did this?”

The man supplied, “I didn’t know him, but he said his name was Archie Malone.  Those boys, Carter and Buster went with him.”

“Larabee you said?”  Cobb paused, wondering how this should affect him, wishing he could just take another drink instead of dealing with this.  “The famous Chris Larabee?” he asked, to allow him a few more moments to think.

“Yeah!” someone returned.

From further back in the gathered group, someone commented, “I thought he would be taller.”

Someone else hissed, “Shut up!  Who else would he be?”

“Think he might be still alive?” Cobb asked cautiously.

There were murmurs throughout the crowd and someone voiced, “Ain’t no way anyone could have survived that.   Malone got in real close.  Larabee was dead before he hit the ground.”

“Malone and those fellas are gone?” Cobb asked.

“They went up that way,” the first man told him, pointing down the alleyway.  “You want to form a posse?”

Bystanders grumbled unhappily and crossed their arms over their chests.  Nobody wanted to mess up a Tuesday afternoon.

Cobb smiled, glad for that reaction.  “Aw,” he responded.  “They’re probably too far by now.  Won’t be able to catch them.”  He pulled up at his pants.  “No sense in wasting our time with that.”  Let someone else take down Malone and his ‘gang’.

Glancing about the crowd, Cobb spotted the man he expected to find amongst them.  “Danver, he’s yours I guess.”

Mr. Danver, the town’s undertaker stepped forward, recruiting another man as he approached the body.  “Been a busy day,” he said as he shoved the body onto its back with his foot.  It went over heavily.  A bloodstain was visible against the white shirt – the black garb hid the rest of it. The mouth was slack, but at least its eyes stayed closed.   “Second customer today,” Danver said thoughtfully before stepping closer to grab hold of the victim’s feet. “Come on, Adams.  Let’s get this taken care of.”

Adams did as asked, grasping hold of the narrow wrists of the dead man.  Immediately, he let loose his hold.  “Ugg!” he exclaimed, leaping away.  The arms flopped to the ground.  “Still warm!”

Danver looked unexcited.  “They’re easier to deal with when they haven’t gone all cold.”  Adams still looked squeamish, so Danvers added, “There’s a lunch in this for you if you help me.”

Adams contemplated.  “Okay, but I’m ordering a steak.”

“No dessert,” Danver negotiated.

“You take the arms.  I don’t like touchin’ ‘em when they’re still warm.”

Danver sighed and nodded his consent. They changed positions and, fastidiously, Danvers pulled on his gloves.  Adams smirked at him. 

“I’m a professional,” the undertaker declared.

“Yeah, ain’t we all,” Adams responded, as he picked up the dead man’s black hat and settled it on his own head, finding it a bit too small.  Then, they both stooped down and picked up the corpse to tote it to the undertaker’s shop.


Ezra awoke with a start as he was dumped unceremoniously into a dark corner of the undertaker’s shop.  Any gasp that might have escaped him was muffled by Adam’s loud groan.  “God, Danver,” Adams grumbled.  “I’m too old for this.  You should get yourself a kid to help out.”  With a disgusted move, he tossed the ill-fitting black hat onto a nearby table.

Danver nodded, as he removed his gloves.  “I’ve tried.  Nobody wants to take the job,” he said with a long-suffering sigh.  “Now I got two of bodies to deal with and nobody around who’ll pay to bury them.”  He wrinkled his nose distastefully as he pointed to the other body that occupied the floor of his shop.  “Someone brought that one in this morning.  Killed himself at the hotel.  Just some drifter.  Doesn’t have a penny on him.”

“At least you could sell his horse,” Adams said helpfully.  “That his pinto up front?”

Danver nodded.  “I’ll get something out of this.  I don’t do this for free.”

“I’ll help you go through Larabee’s pockets before you put him in the ground,” Adams offered greedily.  “He looks like he might have something on him, enough to pay for both of them, maybe?  Heck, we might get a little something for ourselves if we’re lucky.”

Danver smiled and draped a companionable arm over Adams shoulder.  “I know I liked something about you, Adams.  Come on, let’s get that lunch.  We’ll deal with them when we get back.”

Ezra blinked in the dim room, listening as the two men left.  His head swam.  It hurt to breathe.  His whole world ached.  He listened, hearing a roaring in his ears – and beyond that, the sound of people on the street.  He faded in and out for a few minutes, not wanting to awaken, but unable to fall back into that pain-free blackness.

Snap out of it, Ezra, he told himself. Someone tried to kill you!  Now was not a time for a nap

Taking a deep breath, Ezra tried to assess the extent of his injury.  The pain grabbed him as he inhaled and an ache radiated through his ribs and down his belly.  It felt as if he’d been kicked in the gut.

Slowly, he pushed himself upright, groaning as his chest barked in pain.  Dizziness grasped him as he moved, threatening to topple him.  Gasping, he shuffled, getting his back up against the wall for support as he caught his breath.  Damn, that hurt.  Was he shot?  What else could have happened?

Still, he didn’t ‘feel’ as if he’d been shot.

Probing about, he could find the stained fabric of his shirt, but it didn’t seem enough blood for a fatal wound.  Something seemed to be jabbing him. Reaching inside his vest, he was perplexed as his fingers touched something.   Drawing it out, he smiled as he recognized the object:  the small silver plate he’d stolen from the drummer.  “Well, it just goes to show,” Ezra said as he turned the bent plate around, “Not all of the Commandments should be followed to the letter.”

He carefully removed his jacket and unbuttoned his waistcoat to get a better look at his injury – there was a moon-shaped cut across his chest where the plate had bit into his flesh and let it bleed – but it was already closing up.  Beneath where the plate had been was a horrible bruise that was painful to touch.  It spread around his abdomen, looking unnaturally dark.   Broke a rib, Ezra figured as he pressed against the area.  He let out a gasp as the room dimmed.

He clenched his hands into fists as he felt the pain all the way through him.  This was worse than just a broken rib, he realized.

Slowly, painfully, he staggered to his feet, pausing for as the pain caught him.  The room spun and his head pounded as he got his feet under him.   He pressed his lips together, telling himself that he wouldn’t get sick – Lord, I don’t think my body could stand that right now.

He had to get out of here.  His gaze lit upon the other body in the room.  It was turned on its side -- a man with old black clothing, dirty brown hair and blank, lifeless eyes.

“I hope you won’t mind,” Ezra stated as he noted the jacket that’d been balled up near the dead man’s head.  “Unfortunately, I find myself in need of a change of clothing.  I suggest a trade.”  With that, Ezra draped his black blazer over the dead man, covering his lifeless face, and stooped to pick up the brown jacket. 

“Christ!” he ground out at the motion.  For a moment, his hearing faded and a heat passed over him.  He grasped a table for support as everything spun.  “Lord, oh Lord,” he muttered, managing to straighten himself against the table.  He closed his eyes, wishing away the spinning images, promising himself he wouldn’t be sick.

Finally, as the world quieted, he allowed himself to open his eyes. He gulped and looked to the jacket that had cost him so dearly.  This had better fit.  He pulled it on slowly, carefully, finding it dirty and a bit too long – it would have to do.

Irritated, he cuffed the sleeves as he spoke to the dead man.  “You’ll find we made a fair trade.  The jacket you’re now sporting is worth in excess of what I now have in my possession.  Good luck to you.”  He pulled the money from his vest pocket and frowned to find it soiled with blood.  At least it had escaped destruction by bullet this time – a damn shame that cold hard cash had to suffer when he’d been shot at the governor’s rally. 

There were a lot of things about that day that had been a damn shame.

Quickly, he folded his money and, settling his foot on a nearby chair, he managed to slide the bills into his boot without much pain.

Time to go, before you’re found.  Spotting the bent plate where he left it on the floor, he painfully retrieved it, taking his time when he straightened, wondering why his head was buzzing so relentlessly.  He told himself that he couldn’t leave the piece behind as evidence, but honestly, he wanted it as a souvenir.  It slid into the jacket’s pocket.

Ready? he asked himself.  Then get moving.  Ezra stepped toward the door but stopped short when he heard a ruckus just outside.  Scrabbling backward, Ezra frantically looked for a hideaway, and slid behind a curtain that separated the back room from the front. 

 As soon as the curtain fell back into place, Archie Malone banged the door open and strode in, with his newly formed gang behind them.  All walked with a swagger, their expressions haughty and sure.

“There he is! Chris Larabee!”  Buster shouted and Ezra’s heart missed a beat.  Good God, they’ve found Chris.  No wait, they think I’m Chris.  They’ve found ME!  He glanced down to see if his boots were protruding from beneath the curtain, but Buster headed toward the dead man.

Carter pointed to the black jacket that Ezra had left on the drifter.  “See!  See!” he shouted.  “The man in black!”

Malone smiled darkly, hefting the coil of rope in one hand.  “Chris Larabee,” he purred to the dead man.  “You’re comin’ with me.”  He dropped a lasso around the dead man’s feet and tightened the loop.  With a grin to Carter, he said,  “You boys had a good idea.  It’s time the folks of Tierra Negra knew who’s running the town.”  He took on a questioning expression as he asked, “You sure that sheriff is drunk?”

“Oh yeah,” Buster returned.  “After what you done?  He’s gonna be out all day.  ‘Long as he’s drunk, he won’t have to do anything.”

“Good,” Malone responded.  “We’re gonna have some fun.”

Ezra kept silent behind that curtain, watching as Buster hooted and Malone strode out of the shop, carrying the other end of the rope.  He mounted his horse.  Buster and Carter stayed long enough to drag the body to the doorway.  Once they were clear of the opening, Malone hollered and, with a thud, the body was jerked from the shop.  The black jacket that had covered the body’s face, was left on the boardwalk.

Wincing, Ezra listened as the man rode off, dragging the body of the nameless drifter.  Buster and Carter shouted and crowed, as Malone tore down the street on his horse, shouting for all to hear that he’d had killed Chris Larabee and that nobody would forget it.

There was no more time for lollygagging, Ezra knew.  Time to get out of town before Carter and Buster had a chance to see him.  Ezra had no intention of meeting the same fate as that drifter.

Stiffly, Ezra strode out of his hiding place, as the gang members followed their leader into the street.  He heard Danver, the undertaker, shouting after the men.

As he made his way through the room, something caught Ezra’s eye and he found his hat sitting on a table.  He snagged it and settled it on his head – at least he hadn’t lost that.  The pressure of the hat stopped him, and he closed his eyes against this new pain. 

Good God Almighty, can’t I even wear my hat? he questioned as he repositioned it.

At the doorway, Ezra peered out.  The undertaker stood outside a restaurant, raising his fist, and Buster and Carter skedaddled.  Danver took off after them.

While everyone’s attention was on the spectacle, Ezra eased himself from the shop.  A pretty paint horse waited at the hitching post.  It blinked at him, looking bored.  With a sigh, Ezra approached it.  He murmured softly, untying it from the bar.  It was time to disappear.  He sucked in his breath as he pulled himself into his saddle, the pain in his chest almost enough to make him pass out.  Breathing harshly, he turned the horse toward Four Corners and started the pinto at an easy gait, hoping no one would pay notice.

He could have left a message for Chris, but Larabee was already expecting to meet him back in Four Corners, and it would be rather suspicious for 'Chris Larabee' to leave a message for Chris Larabee while Malone was dragging the ‘Larabee corpse’ through the street.  No, if Larabee was to follow his usually form, he’d come back to town tomorrow, just in time to get on the coach, and disappear without a word.  Good for him.

It would be better, Ezra realized, if nothing delayed Larabee’s departure.  It would be better if Larabee came into town, got onto that coach and went away before anyone knew he was here.  To delay him, might only bring his demise.

As Ezra brought the horse to a painful trot, he realized stealing a man’s horse was a hanging offence, but if the horse belonged to a dead man, Ezra figured, the penalty wouldn’t be too steep.  I’ll have it returned to the undertaker once I’ve made it home safely.  Might have to send back the extra $5, the bank gave me.  I’m keeping the plate.

Well, he decided, if worse comes to worst, since I cheated death, it would be a fair sentence in the end.


Ezra traveled slowly, because every step was jarring.  He held one hand against his hurt belly and held his breath.  His head throbbed and he swallowed against the building nausea.  He traveled with one intent  – to get back to Four Corners before anyone saw him.

Any plans to stop in the next town faded as this consuming goal overtook him.  There’d be no waiting for the stage, no lingering about – he had to get home and away from Tierra Negra.

He felt so confused and tired.  His belly hurt so strangely.  What’s the matter with me? he pondered.  Why can’t I think straight?  Why do I feel so goddamn sick?

His fear only grew when he paused for ‘the call of nature’ and saw blood.  Oh Lord, not that.  What do I do?  It took him several minutes before could come up with a clear thought.  He had no choice.  There was no time to relax and rest.  He was in the middle of nowhere and had to get to help.  He continued on, a new anxiety buzzing in his muddled head.

He mindlessly kept to his trail and avoided contact with anyone.  Kept moving.  Had to get to Four Corners.

He had the wherewithal to find water before he stopped for the night, but could hardly stoop to drink it.  He leaned himself against a tree and thought about sleep, but couldn’t manage to get to the ground.  The night was black as pitch and he could go no further until morning.  Miserable, he dozed against the tree and waited… waited for daylight and for the black to be dispelled.

And in the morning, as the sun leached the black from the sky, he sighed … and continued on.


Larabee walked Goss’ property in the late morning, slowly pacing off the distance from the barn to one of the outbuildings.  He watched Mary and Martin Goss --  a man of about forty years with long dark hair and a square shoulders.  Goss’ wife had died the previous year, leaving Martin alone in the world with his little girl.  He was a lonely man, who liked talking about ‘old times’ with Mary.  Goss made her smile with the memories.  He made her laugh. 

Larabee did his best to stay away from them.  He’d just be a black cloud around them.

And all the time that Chris avoided them, he felt as if he should be doing something about it… doing something to drive a wedge between them, to separate them.  But, it wasn’t his place.  He had no business messing with Mary’s affairs.  The woman deserves a life.  Someone should be happy.

Near the barn, Goss’ daughter, Petunia, and Billy played with the girl’s new puppy.   The little hound yipped as the children fussed with it.  The kids giggled and screeched as Beau rolled and nipped playfully.  It was a scene that would bring a smile to anyone’s face, even Chris could find happiness in watching their joyful play with the young dog. 

It was a good thing for Billy, he figured.   It’s the sort of happiness that I could never give him.

The night had been uncomfortable for the gunslinger. Goss hadn’t expected him, and had seemed rather put out to find a stranger arrive with Mary.  He’d been cordial, of course, but there’d been no room for another guest in the house – Petunia was already giving up her bed for Mary, and the children were to sleep in the main room.  When Goss considered having the children sleep in the barn, Larabee beat him to it, and carried a blanket to the hayloft.

After all, the loft had been more comfortable than the charged atmosphere of Goss’ house.  Martin couldn’t stop fawning over Mary, telling her how beautiful she was, saying that they should stick together since they both knew the sorrow that came from losing one’s spouse.  Mary had come close to telling Martin that Chris had experienced the same grief, but stopped short when she came under a sharp glance from Larabee.

It was all for the better that he slept in the barn.  Maybe they’d wanted some time alone.  Chris spent hours awake in that loft.  He couldn’t decide why he was so keyed-up, and pondering over it only made him more restless.

The night had passed slowly and, with dawn, he awoke and waited for the rest of the house to come alive.  They’d breakfasted and then Goss had brought them out to show off his property.  Chris wandered away.  It was time to get back to Tierra Negra.  He’d be in town hours before the coach pulled through, headed back toward Four Corners, but he wasn’t going to spend any more time in their way. 

Maybe he’d find a restaurant to haunt, or a chair on the boardwalk, check to see if any telegrams came in for him.  He didn’t like lingering in strange towns – it often brought trouble – sometimes his name alone was enough to cause difficulty.  But, all things considered, it would be preferable to staying in this place.

He watched as the children merrily played with the dog.  Beau leaped suddenly and struggled free of their embraces.  The children scurried after it.  Beau, his feet too big for his tiny size, tripped and fell and leaped again – a joyful little bawl of energy.  Billy tackled him, and they rolled with Petunia squealing after them.

Chris tried not to look as Martin held Mary’s hand to help her step over a fence-rail.  Seems a bit too familiar, Larabee thought.  Mary laughed and Chris ground his teeth.

There was too much happiness here.  Mary and Billy fit in too well with Martin and Petunia and the hound dog.  For Chris, there was no room at all.

A new movement caught his eye and Larabee turned to see a horseman coming toward them.  Without taking his eyes off the newcomer, Chris moved closer to Mary.  “Goss!” he shouted.  When Martin turned, Chris pointed toward the stranger.  “Someone’s coming,” he stated as he pulled back his jacket to expose his weapon.

“Hey, Chris,” Martin chided.  “No need for that.  This is a nice place.  We don’t shoot people around here.”  He smiled congenially as he came alongside the gunslinger and patted his stiff back. “We’re all friends.”  His smile was all teeth.

“Hmmm,” was all Larabee could say on the matter, his gaze focused on the horseman who jogged toward them.

Realizing that he was under a harsh scrutiny, the horseman stopped and lifted a hand.  “Hello, Martin!” he called.

Slapping Chris on the back, Martin said happily, “See, it’s only Jude.  Come on in!  Hey, Jude!”  and he waved his arms far more than a man should.

Jude, a lean man with hair bleached to almost-white, closed the distance.  He brought his horse to a halt a short distance from his friend, looking  cautious, restrained.  “Martin,” he said seriously, flicking his gaze from his friend to the people who were strangers to him.  “I was just stoppin’ by on my way home to tell you that you’d best keep from town for a while.”

“Why ever for?” Martin cried, arms akimbo.

Pausing, Jude regarded how to phrase his words.  “Been some trouble,” he finally stated.

“Really?”  Martin explained.  “Couldn’t be too bad, could it?”

“It’s bad,” Jude returned.  He glanced toward Mary.  “Probably shouldn’t talk about it in front of the lady.”

Mary smiled tightly.  “I’m a reporter,” she explained.  “You can tell me anything.”  She drew a notepad from a pocket and found a pencil.  Ready, she smiled up at Jude.

Jude looked undecided, holding the reins tight in his hands.  “I don’t know…” he said.

“What kind of trouble?” Larabee cut in, tired of waiting.

Jude pursed his lips and then finally stated,  “Man was shot in the street yesterday.”

“Oh,” Martin exclaimed, stepping closer to Mary.  “That’s terrible.”

Neither Mary or Chris looked too impressed.  Gauging his audience, Jude went on, speaking to the people from Four Corners.  “They dragged the body through the street.”

“Oh my God!” Martin cried.  “That’s horrid!”  He glanced to the children who were too engrossed with the puppy’s antics to pay them any mind.

“The sheriff?” Chris asked as Mary scribbled. “What the hell was he doin’?”

With a shrug, Jude returned, “He got drunk.”  He looked over his shoulder as if he expected to see someone following him, then leaned forward on his horse and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial level, “They dragged the body back and forth.  Wanted everyone to see.”

A muscle in Chris’ jaw jumped.  Mary wrote out the words as quickly as she could.  “Do you have their names?” she asked as she worked.

“Archie Malone,” Jude said slowly, waiting for Mary to write it out.  “He seemed pretty damn proud of himself.  He’s not from around here.   The other two were local boys, ah, Carter and Buster. Don’t know their full names.”

“And the dead man?” Mary continued.

“Chris Larabee,” Jude told her, leaning close.  He jerked himself upright in an instant as the blond man lunged toward him.  His horse back-stepped, but couldn’t escape.

“Is this some sort of a joke?” Chris spat out, snatching hold of the horse’s bridle.  The sorrel’s eyes rolled back in fear as Larabee held him.  Mary and Martin looked on in open-mouthed wonder.

Jude’s voice rose.  “I told you what I know!”

“Chris Larabee?”

Jude nodded nervously.  “Yeah, ‘the man in black’… they kept saying that,” he declared.  “It was Chris Larabee.”

Not releasing his hold on the bridle, Chris growled,  “I’m Chris Larabee.” 


The children had been sent to play on the other side of the barn, allowing them to be away from the discussion.  Jude told the tale, informing them of everything he’d heard.  That Archie Malone’s gang had found Larabee in town the previous day, how Malone had gunned down Chris Larabee in the street, how the gang had stolen the body from the undertaker, and how Jude had witnessed the body being dragged to a bloody pulp in the street.

Mary kept one arm wrapped around Chris’. Martin paced.  Chris stood as still as stone, listening to Jude’s words, his eyes set like flint.

“You see him?” Chris finally said when Jude was through.

“Malone?” Jude asked.  “He wasn’t such a scary guy.  Normal looking, got hair kinda like Martin.”  He gestured to his friend, and Goss gave Jude a terrified look.  The gaze Larabee directed at Goss could have frozen blood.

“Larabee,” Chris clarified darkly.  “ The man they were callin’ Larabee.  Did you see him?”

“Ah,” Jude started. “I didn’t see him when he was alive.  He had brown hair…” Jude trailed off, trying to figure out a good description of the flailed body he’d seen.  “I heard that he’d gotten off the stage, and had just left the bank when they got him.  Talked all high and mighty.  He was wearin’ black.  Oh, someone said he was short.”

Chris looked away, unable to breathe.  A cold blackness overtook him.  Gazing toward town, he whispered, “Ezra…”

“Ezra?” Mary returned, sounding perplexed as she continued to cling to Chris.  “Ezra isn’t short…”

Larabee tore away from Mary, and strode toward Jude’s horse.  “I’m taking your horse,” he declared without looking at the owner.

“Ah…Okay,” Jude responded, stepping away.  “I’m gonna want him back…”

“It isn’t Ezra!” Mary insisted, following Chris.  “It couldn’t be!”

Chris’ heart thudded, his thoughts spun.  No.  No.  No.  God, no.  Not because of me.  Not again.

“Chris,” Mary repeated, traipsing after him.  “You don’t know enough.”  She held her notepad, looking at the statement they both heard.  “There’s not enough.  Why would you think it’s Ezra?”

As Larabee climbed into the saddle, he shot Mary an angry look.  “Who else would get mixed up in crap like this?” he declared.  For a moment, Mary thought she saw a look of horror and sorrow cross Larabee’s face, but he turned the horse before she could be sure and was gone.


Chris Larabee came into the town of Tierra Negra like a thunderhead.  The street seem to darken and the air became heavier as he rode down the street, his eyes searching, his jaw set.

He tried not to think.  He tried not to rationalize.  His chest felt tight.  It hurt to breathe.  All the color seemed to have been driven from his world, leaving everything in blacks.  He prayed that he’d spy the gambler on the boardwalk so that he could kick the crap out of him. 

Let me be wrong.  Let me be wrong.  Let him be robbing good folks here in town or safe in Four Corners, vexing Nathan and harassing Josiah.

The streets were quiet.  Townsfolk hid.  Recent events had made them quail, and the arrival of the furious gunslinger sent them scurrying.  Chris glanced about – searching – hoping – despairing.

At the sheriff’s office, he dismounted, stomped onto the boardwalk and slammed his open palm into the door.  It banged mercilessly and the sheriff shot up in his seat, clutching his head.

“You the sheriff?” Larabee barked, striding across the floor in a second, to snatch up the lawman by his lapels.

“Hey!”  Cobb cried.  “Leggo!”

Larabee didn’t release his hold, dragging the lawman to his feet. He stunk of booze. “You’re the sheriff?” Chris growled.

“Yeah, yeah,” Cobb slurred.  “So, get your hands off me!”

“What do you know about the killing yesterday?  Who did it?  Where do I find them?”

“Let go!” Cobb demanded again, his eyes beseeching.  “I’ll tell you all I know!”

With a grunt, Chris released his grip and let Cobb fall back to his chair.  The bleary-eyed sheriff coughed and straightened his collar.  The angry blond man eyed him.

“Chris Larabee was gunned down in the street,” Cobb said flatly, starting his tale.

“It wasn’t Larabee,” Chris cut him off.

“How’re you so sure?” Cobb shot back.  “I seen ‘im!  I should know!”

“I know because I …AM …Larabee!”  Chris shouted, slamming his fist on the desk.  An empty whiskey bottle jumped.  “Who the hell did they gun down?”

Cobb shook his head, amazed.  “I don’t know?  He’d come in on the stage.  Larabee was on that stage.  Just left the bank.  He was wearing black!  Everyone knows Larabee wears black.”  Cobb jabbed a finger at Chris as if that was evidence enough.  The sheriff’s gaze drifted to Chris’ decidedly blue shirt.  “Black, I tells ya!”

“What else you know about him?” Chris snarled, viciously slapping away the jabbing digit.

Cobb furrowed his brow as he cradled the offended hand to his chest.  “He was dead in the street when I got there.”  He bit his lip. “Stone cold dead.  Banker told me he talked with a southern accent, but the banker knew it was fake.  He talked normal in the street.  Used a fake name at the bank.”

“What was it?  What name?”

“Ezra Standish,” the sheriff said confidently.  “Priggish alias if you ask me!”

It took a moment for Chris to find his voice.  All around him, the blackness seemed to close in tighter.

When he was able, Chris pressed the palms of his hands against the desk and leaned closer to the sheriff.  “I need the names of the men who did it.”  His voice left no room for argument.

“Archie Malone!”  Cobb instantly told him.  “He was the one that pulled the trigger.  Then there was Tracey Carter and James Hubbardston – Buster!  Buster and Carter are local boys though.  They’re good fellas.  They deserve a fair shake.”

“Fair shake?  If they had anything to do with this, I’ll shake them to pieces,” Chris declared.  “Where do I find them?”

“They went off…” Cobb told him, pointing vaguely north.  “All three of them.  North, past the Gorman property.   Probably went to that old mining camp that’s up there.  Carter and Buster know where it is.”

“You been up there yet?” Larabee asked.

Cobb shrugged, grinning sheepishly.  “ I figured that as long as they were gone – good riddance, you know?”

Son of a bitch, Chris thought.  Bastards…all of them.  He drew in another breath and asked a question that hurt him to the core.  “Where is he?”

“I just told you!” Cobb whined.

Slowly, with more patience than he thought possible, Chris asked, “What did they do with the body?”

“Oh!”  Cobb exclaimed.  “They burned it.”

Chris closed his eyes and straightened, running one hand through his hair.  Oh, Ezra, he thought mournfully.  Dammit, Ezra.  I’m sorry.  I’m so damn sorry.

“Where?” Chris asked quietly.

Cobb, seeing the change come over the gunslinger, grew bolder.  He declared, “They burned it at the garbage heap.  They doused everything with kerosene and lit the whole thing on fire.  Caroused there for a while, then left.   Burned all night,” he stated solemnly.  His face screwed up as he started, “Now those boys, Carter and Buster, there’re a good couple of fellas.  They just caught up with the bad element and…”

At those words, Chris turned and shoved open the door, leaving the sheriff alone in his office.


“What the…” JD started, his eyes wide as saucers as he held the message outside of the telegram office.  The color drained from his face as read and then reread the note.  “Buck… Buck…”

Wilmington, as he walked toward the young man, prepared to make a sly remark, but JD’s devastated look stopped him.  “What’s wrong?” Buck asked.

“We gotta go to Tierra Negra,” JD stated.  “We gotta go now.”  He turned, prepared to run full-speed to his room to pack.  Buck’s hand, falling on his arm, stilled him.

“Why?  What’s going on?”  Buck asked, glancing to Vin who’d been sitting on a chair nearby. The tracker stood, watching carefully and then headed toward them.  Tanner said nothing as he came alongside Buck, his gaze intent on JD.

“We gotta go to Tierra Negra,” JD demanded breathlessly, looking sick.

“I know, Kid, you said that already.” Buck grasped hold of the paper, but couldn’t get it loose without ripping it.

“What’s it say, JD?” Vin asked calmly.

JD’s lip quivered as he explained, “Chris says … Chris says that three men gunned down Ezra… gunned him down!  We gotta go to Tierra Negra and take care of things.”

Neither Buck nor Vin spoke immediately.  “Does it say if Ezra’s…all right?” Buck whispered hoarsely, as he tried to see around JD and read the page.  Standish was supposed to return yesterday on the late stage.  When he hadn’t stepped down, nobody had been too concerned.  After all, Chris would be returning the next day, so maybe they’d be coming together.  Buck shook his head, wanting to think clearly.  “JD?” he prodded, since the kid hadn’t answered.

“He’s dead,” JD whispered.  “Chris say’s Ezra’s dead.  We gotta to Tierra Negra,” he uttered one more time before he turned abruptly, tearing the message because neither he nor Buck would let go.

“Damn, goddamn,” Buck swore as he moved to follow the kid.

“Someone should stay,” Vin stated solemnly, stalling the ladies’ man.  “Someone’s gotta watch the town.”

Buck nodded. “Nathan maybe.”

“Josiah, too,” Vin continued.

“He’ll want to come,” Buck told him.

“Can’t,” Vin returned, his voice calm and cold, but he wouldn’t meet Buck’s eyes.  “You know how he’ll be.  Four of us can take on those three.”

“He’ll want to break every bone in their bodies,” Buck said softly, envisioning the preacher enraged.  It was an image that nobody wanted to see come to fruition.  It wasn’t as if Buck didn’t want to do the same, but there was a line he figured he wouldn’t cross.

And there was silence between them.  Finally, Buck, still holding a scrap of the note, said, “We keep this to ourselves, just the five of us.  No sense in causing the town any grief.”

At the word ‘grief’, the tracker ducked his head and headed toward his wagon.

Buck sighed sadly, looking at the bit of paper in his fingers.  “Dammnit, Ezra,” he whispered. “What did you do?”  And, with a groan, he went in search of Nathan and Josiah.

PART 10:

The pinto moved through the dusk at a tired gait and his rider slumped in the saddle.   Ezra drew in a short breath.  His gut hurt miserably, his head throbbed, and he felt so sick…so tired.  But he was home.  He’d gotten away from Tierra Negra.  He’d succeeded.  That brought a smile to his wan face.

The journey had been slow, and Ezra, unable to concentrate, had let the horse wander more he should have.  Several times, he’d awakened from a daze, still in the saddle, not knowing where he was.  He knew better than to travel in that condition – with an unknown horse no less.  But he kept going.

Back within the streets of Four Corners, he allowed himself to relax.  It was quiet in town, none of the usual rabble.  He found Yosemite taking care of things outside of the livery, and gratefully handed over the horse’s reins.  Yosemite looked at Ezra curiously, but, as was his norm, had nothing to say.

Home.  He was home.  Now what?  Where were the others?  What should he do?  All he wanted to do was to go to his own room, curl up against his pain and never worry about rising again.  Instead, he climbed the stairs above the livery.

Slowly, painstakingly, Ezra made his way to Nathan’s clinic. 

Help… I need help.  God, why does Nathan insist on keeping his place of business at the top of the stairs?  Doesn’t he realize that sick people need to get here? 

At the door, he rested his head against the frame and knocked.  There was no response.  “Nathan?” he called softly.  “Nathan?”  He knocked again, harder, then pounded.  At the assault, the door swung open and he was left to face an empty room.

“Nathan?” he whispered, his hot head resting on the doorframe.  But the healer did not return his call.  The room, lit by a forgotten lamp, remained unoccupied.

With a sigh, Ezra looked over his shoulder, wondering if he could make it down those stairs to go in search of the healer – or any of their group.  It had taken everything he had to get this far.  There’d be no return journey to the stairs.  The lit lamp told him that Nathan was coming back.

Ezra pressed away from the doorframe and stumbled into the room.  Along one wall was Nathan’s collection of medicines.  Maybe he could figure out what would be best to take care of his pains. 

Leaning against Nathan’s workbench, he tried to focus on all the little bottles and boxes.  Perhaps it would be obvious.  The laudanum could ease his discomfort.   But everything swam.  He blinked and swallowed thickly, feeling thirsty, tired and sick.  His vision was edged in black; it drew around him like the paint on the silver plate.

Gripping the table for a moment longer, Ezra softly called, “Nathan?” and then collapsed to the floor.

PART 11:

They came into the town of Tierra Negra as night fell, the three of them, riding abreast.  The town was still.  The townspeople, the few that were out, looked at the newcomers timidly, afraid of them.

At the saloon that Chris had specified, they dismounted.  A wiry old-timer scowled at them as they tied their horses. A watcher over the town, he didn’t like trouble.  He didn’t like what had been happening lately.  He didn’t want any of this.  “Ain’t a safe time to be here, boys,” he told them.  “Best go home.”

“Why d'ya say that?”  Buck asked.

“Two strangers are already dead,” the old man returned.  “Don’t want to see any more of that.”

“Two?”  JD echoed, his voice high with a sudden fear.  “Who?  Did you know who they were?”

The old timer rubbed his chin.  “First one – didn’t know his name.  That other though…” and his voice dropped as he whispered, “… was the gunslinger, Chris Larabee.”

“Oh God,” Buck muttered, feeling the blood run from his face.  Vin grasped his arm in a grip too tight to be merely helpful.  A glance to the tracker, and Buck saw Tanner’s expression twist with rage.  JD was gaping like a fish, his eyes wide as he glanced about.  “No,” Buck muttered.  “No, it can’t be!  Not Chris, too.”

“Chris and Ezra?” JD squeaked.  “Both of them?”

Vin, his jaw set and his eyes narrowed to hate-filled slits, shoved his way past his companions.  “What the hell happened to them?” he snarled as he reached for the old man.

The townsperson back-stepped, yelping, “That’s all I know!  I wasn’t here!  I don’t know nothing else!”

Buck closed his eyes, feeling cold and alone – Chris… oh God, not Chris, too!  What would they do without him?

JD was making odd little sounds, starting to talk, but unable to say anything.

Vin stopped short of grabbing onto the frail-looking, frightened man.  “Who knows?” he bellowed.  “Who knows what happened?”

“Boys,” a quiet voice spoke from beside them, and the three turned, utterly relieved to find Larabee standing in the doorway of the saloon.

“Stud!”  Buck cried joyfully.  Ignoring the hard expression of his friend, Wilmington grabbed hold of Larabee in an ecstatic embrace.

JD was beside them, crying out, “Oh God, it’s good to see you!” and patting Chris happily on the back.

Vin stood back, smiling as he watched Buck and JD greet their friend, and letting the old man scamper away.  His smile dropped as he saw Chris’ expression.

Chris jerked away from Buck.  “Inside,” he ordered and turned, disappearing into the saloon.

Buck and JD, stunned by Chris’ reaction, didn’t move immediately, so Vin was the first to go after Larabee.  The tracker followed Chris to a table at the back of the saloon, already graced with a half-empty bottle of whisky, a shot glass and a bundle of black cloth.

“Hey, Big Dog,” Buck said as he grabbed some glasses from the bar.  “You sure gave us a scare. Goddamn, I think my heart stopped.”

JD came up, saying, “They said you were dead!” as he pulled out a chair.  “God, we thought you were dead!”

“Where are the others?” Chris asked sharply.

“Figured we gotta leave someone to watch the town,” Vin declared.  “Figured maybe Josiah should stay out of this.  We got better numbers anyway.”

Chris looked as if he wanted to contradict that idea, but he nodded once, realizing there was wisdom in that plan.

“What the hell’s going on here?” Buck asked. “People are sayin’ you’re dead.”

“Wasn’t me,” Chris declared, pouring himself a drink.  “Ezra used my name.  They killed him for it.”

JD and Buck were silent again, remembering that first sorrow, feeling a little guilty about forgetting it.  “He’s really dead?” JD asked, wishing that this was just another misunderstanding.

Chris didn’t speak.  His lips twitched as he fingered his glass.  “There was nothing I could do,” he whispered.  The four men were silent.  The bottle was passed around.  They all sat, thinking about things, thinking about Ezra.

Finally, as Chris poured himself another drink, he said,  “I was out at Goss’s when it happened.  He was in town, talking to a couple men along the street.  He used my name.  Another man shot him as he was turning to go.”  Chris’ eyes grew hard at that statement, knowing that Ezra never had a chance.  “They came back and took his body.”  Chris closed his eyes, hating what he had to say.  “They dragged him through the street.  Burned him.  Kicked the body to pieces,” Chris got out, belting down the shot and slammed down the glass.

Buck gulped down his own glass, grimaced and stated hopefully, “Maybe it wasn’t Ezra.”

Chris continued in that same cold tone.  “Bank manager remembered him.”

“Could have been someone else that got killed though,” JD tried, holding his glass, but unable to drink it. “Maybe some other fella that was walkin’ in the street.  Could’ve been someone else!”

Chris shook his head miserably.  “Folks described him good enough.  Brown hair, green eyes.  Said he was short.”

“Ezra’s not short,” JD shot back, looking toward Vin for back up, but the tracker didn’t look at him.

“Where’s Ezra now?” Buck asked.

Chris jerked his shoulders in a shrug.  “Tried to find him,” he bitterly remarked.  “Wasn’t anything left.  Too many damn animal bones in that heap.”  He gestured to the black cloth at his elbow and stated, “Found this in the street.  That’s all that’s left of him.”

JD picked up the jacket, handling as if it was a sacred relic, recognizing it as the black jacket that Ezra wore occasionally. He didn't want to believe that this was all they had – that Ezra was gone.

“Where are they?” Vin finally spoke. “Those men who did it.”

“North of town,” Chris responded.  “Most likely at an old mine.”

“When do we go?” Vin continued.

“First light,” Chris replied.

JD dropped the jacket to the table as he looked between the two.  “What are their names?” he asked.  “Shouldn’t we know who they are?”

Vin stood abruptly.  “Don’t need names.  They’re dead men,” he stated as he turned to go in search of a room for the night.

PART 12:

It was late when Nathan struggled with Josiah, forcing him up the stairway to the clinic.  It would have been easier to get Josiah to the church, but Jackson figured that Sanchez’ mood wouldn’t be fit for that sacred place.  The preacher’s eyes had taken on an unseeing cast and people ducked from him.  Nathan had seen that look before and knew that it was time to get Josiah away from the rest of humanity – if only to save the preacher himself.

Josiah moved without thinking, his head hung low, a hand wrapped around a bottle.  He hadn’t really started in on it yet – but wait until he was settled in for the night.  Already he was feeling sorry for what he might do to Nathan’s clinic once he got into his cups.  God, he just wanted to smash something, to destroy.  He reached out one hand, as if he was snatching someone by the neck.

They’d killed him… someone had shot Ezra … killed him in the street.  A hand clenched, wanting to beat the brains out of the murderer, wanting to pulverize whoever had killed that young man, who’d taken Ezra from them… from him.

God have mercy on their souls because I won’t.  If I get my hands on them – if I could just…  Wearily, Josiah ran an arm across his eyes.

Josiah stopped in his tracks.  Behind him, he heard Nathan let out an “ooof” as he ran into the preacher.  “Come on, Josiah,” Nathan said softly.  “Let’s just get in for the night, okay?”

“They’ll pay,” Josiah ground out.  “Tell me they’ll pay.”

Nathan, his hand at Josiah’s back, stated solemnly, “They’ll pay, Josiah.  Buck and the others, they’ll get whoever did this.

“Not looking for justice.  I want vengeance,” Josiah growled.  “I want them in my hands.  I want them at my mercy.”

And that’s why you’re here, Nathan thought as he stood behind his friend.  We can’t let you do that.  I don’t care what happens to those men, but I worry about what’ll happen to you.

Not moving yet, Josiah whispered, “I can’t believe he’s dead.  Nathan… he can’t be.”

Stuck on the stairs, Nathan could do nothing more than keep his hand at the big man’s back.  “I know…” he uttered softly.  “It just doesn’t seem possible.  It’s not right.”  The former slave sighed, feeling that same sadness.  How could that irritating southern bastard be gone?  “Seems to me he’d cheat death every time.  Seems to me he’d win.”

“He was a good man,” Josiah said to the balcony above him.

“He was,” Nathan agreed.  “Come on.  Let’s get to my place so we can finish that bottle.”

With a nod, Josiah continued his journey up the stairs, cradling the bottle to his chest.  He didn’t notice that Nathan’s door was ajar when he reached it – he only wanted to get behind it and shut out the blackness of the night.  With a careless hand, he shoved the door further and strode in.  Nathan was right behind him.

In the room, still illuminated by one lamp, something was out of place – yet totally perfect.

Sanchez came to a stop, blinking.  He was hallucinating – he knew that.  He gazed the form that lay on its back beside Nathan’s desk.  Josiah knew that he had to be wrong.  That familiar head was turned to one side; those narrow and expressive hands were curled and quiet beside him.

The chest rose and fell.

Josiah waited for Nathan, unable to believe his own eyes.  He didn’t dare speak in fear of dispelling the specter. Please, let Nathan see it, too.  He felt Nathan’s hand fall on his shoulder, and then heard Jackson’s voice cry out, “Ezra!”

Thank you, Lord!

Both of them were on their knees in seconds, beside the fallen man.  “He’s hot,” Nathan murmured as he touched their stricken friend.  “Ezra,” he called softly.  “Ezra, can you hear me?”

“How… how?” Josiah whispered, allowing himself to touch the man – dispelling his doubts as the Disciple Thomas might have.

“He cheats,” Nathan said with a laugh, “Thank God, he cheats!”

Ezra muttered and his eyelids fluttered as Nathan felt about, trying to figure out what was wrong.  Josiah pulled Ezra’s head into his lap and spoke soothing words. Ezra let out a gasp at that movement.

“It’s okay, son,” Josiah crooned.  “We got you now.  It’s all right.  You’re home.”  The preacher’s gaze flitted up, watching the healer gently move his hands over the gambler.  When a frown caught Nathan’s face, Josiah asked, “What’s wrong with him?”

Pushing back the unfamiliar brown jacket and the loose shirt, Nathan found the odd moon-shaped cut across Ezra’s chest and the mottled, ugly bruise beneath it. 

Oh Lord, no.   Nathan’s heart sped up at the sight.   The cut was red and puffy, but the bruise was the real concern.   The healer had seen damage like that during the war – men died when they had bruises like that on their bellies.  There were too many things that could have gone wrong inside.  

Nathan admitted, “This don’t look good.”  And then repeated it as a whisper.  “This doesn’t look good.”  Hoping he was wrong, Nathan probed the spot to find out more.

Ezra came awake in a flash, swinging wide.  Nathan was able to duck in time, and Josiah quickly corralled Ezra’s flailing arms.  Nathan pressed down on the gambler’s legs before he could get away. 

“It’s okay!  It’s okay!”  Josiah assured as Ezra breathed harshly and tried to fling himself from their grips.  “Ezra, Ezra… it’s all right.  It’s just me, Ezra.  It’s Josiah and Nathan here.  We’re tryin’ to help you.”

Panting, Ezra blinked at the two.  “Sss…sorry,” he hissed out.  “I… I  don’t know… don’t know… what… came over me.”  He swallowed thickly and started to drift off again.

Gently, Nathan tapped Ezra’s cheek.  “Come on, Ezra.  Stay with me a minute.”

Ezra’s eyes opened as Josiah relieved his tight grip on Ezra’s arms, but didn’t let him go.  “Made it back,” Standish muttered.

“Yeah, you did,” Nathan agreed.

“They didn’t find me… Safe… Ever’one’s safe.”

Josiah and Nathan exchanged a look, not understanding.

“Yes,” Jackson replied.  “Everyone is safe,” he said, hoping that he wasn’t lying about the others.  “Now, let’s get you into that bed so you’ll be more comfortable, okay?”

Ezra nodded and tried to stand, but couldn’t outmaneuver Nathan and Josiah, who efficiently lifted him and eased him onto the clinic’s bed.  “Better?”  Nathan asked.

“Bettah,” Ezra replied as he settled into the pillows.  “Could I… could I… trouble you for a… glass of…water? I am…rather… rather…parched.”

Before he could finish the request, Nathan had crossed the room and poured a glass of water from a pitcher. “When was the last time you had something to drink, Ezra?” Nathan asked pointedly.

“Can’t quite recall…. I… I’ve been rather… confused … I… I really don’t … feel well,” Ezra admitted quietly.

Josiah held Ezra up as Nathan steadied the glass and helped Ezra drink.  The gambler’s arm shook and he grimaced as Josiah moved him, but greedily drank from the mug.  The preacher, cupping one hand around Ezra’s head to hold it steady, frowned.  “Nathan,” Sanchez said softly.  “I think he hit his head.”

Nathan felt the area where Josiah indicated.  “Damn,” Nathan sighed.  “When’d you hit your head, Ezra?” Jackson asked as Ezra finished his cup.

“I hit my head?” Ezra returned and blinked slowly.  “Don’t recall…”

No wonder he was so befuddled.  Nathan waved off the statement and said, “I want to get you out of this shirt, okay, Ezra?”  When he received a fractional nod from Ezra, Jackson stripped off the gambler’s upper clothing, as Josiah held him upright.  It took a few minutes to undo the buckles and straps of Ezra’s armament.  Once Nathan dumped the jacket, vest and stained shirt on the floor, Josiah settled Ezra onto the pillows.  Jackson frowned when he got a good look at the strange wound on Ezra’s chest and abdomen.  “What happened?” the healer asked.

“Got shot,” Ezra replied dreamily.

Nathan frowned.  This didn’t look like any gunshot wound he’d ever seen.  The area was swollen and discolored.   He touched the spot carefully, aware of Ezra’s discomfort.  Standish raised a hand as if to push Jackson away, but dropped the arm before Josiah needed to stop him.  Instead, Sanchez grasped the hand, offering what comfort he could as Jackson felt around, a studious and disquieted look on his face.

“You pass any blood?”  Jackson asked seriously, noting the deep reds and blacks of the bruise.

“Yes…” Ezra admitted dully, his eyes slowly closing.

“Did you have blood when you made water or…”

“I was…” Ezra started, but drifted off before he could say any more.

Josiah continued to hold Ezra’s hand in both of his, compressing it.   “You want me to wake him?” Josiah asked quietly.

Nathan shook his head.  “No, let him sleep.  He needs… he needs to rest.”  Quietly, he laid one hand on Ezra’s forehead, finding him clammy and feverish.  “Damn,” he muttered.

Josiah asked, “Will he be okay?”

Nathan let out a breath.  “Maybe…” he stated, unsure.

“That bruise?”  Josiah tried when Nathan stopped talking.

“Besides the broken rib?”  Jackson let out a sigh.  “Could be he’s just… you know… just a little hurt inside and it’ll heal.”

“Or?” Josiah prompted.

“It could be bad,” Nathan told him. Not looking up, he said, “Don’t know what I could do if he needed to be cut open.  He’ll need a real doctor.”  He kept his hand on Ezra’s forehead a moment more, before he stated, “Let’s get him a little more comfortable. Can you get his boots off?  I’ll fetch some more water.”

“Should probably send word to Tierra Negra,” Josiah commented.  “I think the boys will be damn glad to hear that we got him.”

“The line will be shut down at this hour,” Nathan commented.  “We’ll have Winston to send something off first thing in the morning, once we see how he does through the night.”  With a sigh, he picked up Ezra’s dusty black hat that had rolled into a corner of the clinic.  Carefully, he set it on the bedpost so that it wouldn’t be trodden upon.

Josiah didn’t release Ezra’s hand as Nathan left the room.  It seemed cruel that they had found Ezra, alive in Four Corners, yet there may still be bad news to impart in the morning.  How could such good news be edged in blackness?  “Let me tell them something good, Ezra,” Josiah whispered.  “What do you say about that?”

Releasing his hold on Ezra’s hand, Josiah stood and started to work on getting Ezra settled for the night.

When Jackson returned, he found Ezra carefully covered to his neck with a blanket, and Josiah sitting by the bedside with a wad of cash in one hand and a bent silver tray in the other.

“Found this in his boot,” Josiah commented as he nodded toward the money, unable to hide the pride in his voice.  He shoved the cash deeply into his pocket as he handed the tray to Nathan.  “This was in his coat.”

Nathan took the ruined, black-edged plate from him and turned it over, running a finger along the sharp edge and examining how the silver had been bent as if punched in the center.  “Saved his life, I reckon,” Nathan said quietly.  “Like that diamond broach at Ella Gaines’, or that wad of cash at the governor’s rally.”  He remembered those times – Ezra lying in the street, bleeding – then again at Ella Gaines.  Standish had lucked out both times – suffering from only a small wound in one instance, and escaping with nothing more than a sore spot the second time – musta just been a glancing blow that time. 

“He’s got the luck of the devil,” Nathan commented. “Wonder how many times he’ll cheat death.”

Solemnly laying one hand against Ezra’s slowly rising chest, Josiah stated, “One more time.  One more time, at least.”

PART 13:

The night had passed in relative peace.  Ezra slept.  A fever kept him warm and restless, but he didn’t awake.  Josiah and Nathan kept watch over him, ensuring that there was no further swelling, monitoring his fever, keeping him comfortable.  The bump on his head reduced.  The cut looked better.  The swollen area on his belly didn't change.  His fever remained mild.

Josiah didn’t ask Nathan if that was good news.  He watched the healer, wishing to know that everything was okay, but they didn’t speak on the matter.  Josiah quieted his questions, his nervous fears, hoping that sleep might repair whatever internal hurt Ezra had suffered.

Nathan pulled books down from his library and quietly read, feeling his trepidation rise as he read one grim prognosis after another. Josiah prayed.  Ezra slept.

Finally, as morning dawned and half-asleep himself, Josiah sat back in his chair, keeping one hand on Ezra, as if he suspected the gambler would disappear again if he was let loose.   You can’t die, Ezra, Josiah thought, watching Ezra’s still face.  You won’t. I won’t have it.  You made it home.   You’ll come out of this.

He felt Ezra stir.  The preacher blinked.

“Ezra,” Josiah called softly, grasping Ezra’s hand again.

Nathan, still hunched over his volumes, turned.  “He wakin’?”

Josiah nodded.  “Ezra, can you hear me?” he called.

This would either be very good, Nathan thought, or very bad.  He’d hoped that if Ezra were to suffer, that he’d just keep sleeping and never wake from it.  It would be a mercy to just let him go on sleeping if the bleeding inside was bad.  Let him be okay, Jackson thought as he claimed the other chair, across from Josiah.  Gently, he tapped Ezra’s cheek.  “Come on, Ezra.  Open your eyes?”

Ezra furrowed his brow and lifted one lazy hand in an attempt to bat Nathan away.  “None of that,” Nathan told him. “Wake up for just a minute and then I’ll let ya sleep all you want.”

“Promise?” Ezra hoarsely uttered.

Nathan smiled hopefully. “Yeah, I do.”

With a flutter, Ezra opened his eyes and stared up at the two men.  He winced and closed his eyes once more.

“Ezra?” Josiah called plaintively as he clung to Ezra, distressed by the gambler’s lack of action.  He was answered by a moan from Ezra.

“Are you in a lot of pain?” Nathan asked.

“Oh…” Ezra let out.  He opened his eyes and gazed beseechingly at them.  “Oh God…pain…pain…”

Josiah held tightly.   “Just ride it out.  We’re here with you.”

Ezra groaned as he tried to curl into a ball.  “God, oh God…Make it stop…”

“Ezra,” Nathan called.  “Tell me where you’re hurtin’.” Jackson’s hands hovered over the gambler, wondering what he could touch, what he could do to solve this.   “I’ll getcha somethin’ for the pain.  Just let me know.”

“Tell him, son,” Josiah pleaded, watching Ezra’s pale face contort with pain.  Tears came to the big preacher’s eyes. He clutched Ezra’s hand all the tighter, wishing he could take on that pain, wishing he could do something to stop it.

Nathan’s eyes were wide, his heart pounding.  All of his worst fears were realized.  Lord have mercy!

“Oh!” Ezra moaned, squinting his eyes shut once  more.  “Christ!” he gasped.  “Agony…oh!  It’s killing me!”

Nathan leapt to his feet, toppling the chair.  It slammed to the ground as he twisted away from it.  Turning toward his shelves, Nathan prayed that he’d know what to do to help Ezra.  So much depended on what was causing the pain.  If he chose the wrong cure, it might make things worse. Did he need to operate?  Ether!  Where was the ether!  Best that he put Ezra under as soon as possible.  Save him from that pain.  Jackson’s heart hammered in his chest as he thought about cutting into Ezra to fix damaged organs.  Oh God, was he up to it?

Ezra was whimpering pathetically.  Tears ran down Josiah’s face.  Nathan knew he had to do something, and do it now -- but he couldn’t operate without knowing more.  “What hurts, Ezra?” Jackson cried.  “I gotta know so I can try to fix it.”

“Just tell him, boy,” Josiah pleaded, kneading Ezra’s hand between his.  “We’ll do anything we can to help you.”

Ezra’s eyes shot open as he yelped, “My hand!  Please, my hand,” he nearly sobbed.  “For the love of God, let go.” He brought up his other arm and tried to free his poor hand from Josiah’s mighty paws.

Josiah released Ezra immediately, his eyes round with wonder.  “Ezra… I’m sorry… I…”

“He would have crushed it,” Ezra whined to Nathan as he settled back in his bed.  “It’ll never be the same again… never!”

Nathan released a sigh as he observed Ezra flex his hand, pouting.  Trying to settle his jangled nerves, Jackson righted his chair and sat down.  Ezra pulled his hand to his chest and muttered unhappily.

“Ezra?” Nathan called, drawing the gambler’s attention.

“Mr. Jackson?” Ezra returned, sounding like a spoiled child.  “How could you let him do that?”  He threw a dirty look at Josiah, but it made the big man smile.  “You know that my hands are my livelihood.  He might've broken every bone.”

“How you feelin’?”  the healer asked, risking a smile as well as Ezra scowled.

“Uncomfortable,” Ezra returned, trying to sit up and letting out a grunt.  “Ah hell,” he grumbled.  “That’s right. I was shot.”

“Broke a rib,” Nathan told him.  “Hit your head.  Got a nasty cut, and might have hurt something inside.”

Ezra considered this, bringing a hand to the sore area.  “Ah yes,” he uttered.  “I’ve been unwell.”

“Are you in any pain?” Nathan asked.

Ezra held out his hand as if any damage might be seen from Josiah’s mauling.

“Besides that,” Nathan commented.

After a contemplative look, Ezra decided, “Not so bad.  Better than before.”

“Better?” Josiah inquired.

With a nod, Ezra confirmed, “Much better than when I got here.  Lord, I was in a deplorable state.”  He paused before he asked, “It was last night that I arrived here, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, just last night,” Nathan told him.

“You gave us a scare,” Josiah said solemnly.  “Hell of a scare.  They told us you were dead.”

“Dead?  Me?” Ezra said and then frowned.  “Well, nearly.”

“What happened in Tierra Negra?” the healer asked.

Making a face, Ezra explained, “A vile miscreant saw fit to mow me down in the street. I was saved by a purloined piece of silver.” Ezra sighed.  “I shall never be law abiding again.” When the preacher dolefully shook his head at that comment, Ezra grinned and continued, “I left town immediately, seeing no need for further perforation.  Traveled some distance to get here.”   He frowned and added, “I wasn’t thinkin’ soundly.”

Nathan nodded.  “You must have hit your head when you fell. Got your innards banged around a bit.  Looks like you just needed some rest.”  Thank the Lord.  “And you weren’t drinkin’ enough water.”

“Ah!” Ezra responded.  “That sounds likely.”  Ezra held out his hand, and Nathan wordlessly handed him a cup.

Watching his patient drink, Nathan asked, “How’s your belly feelin’?”

Ezra considered, then raised an eyebrow.  “Hungry!” Ezra decided as he passed the empty glass back to the healer.  “It’s been well over a day since I’ve last eaten.  It’s time to rectify that situation.  When’s breakfast, my friends?  It’ll be on me.   I’m feeling in the mood for sausage, eggs and griddle cakes with jam and butter.”  He cocked his head at the men, surprised by their pleased expressions.  “And plenty of coffee with milk.”

“Toast and tea,” Nathan decided.  “We’ll start with that and see how it goes.”

Ezra sighed.  He crossed his arms over his chest and winced when he realized that was not a comfortable position.  He let his arms drop to his sides.  “Very well,” he muttered.  “But I’d like some jam.  Marmalade if possible…”

“I want you to use the chamber pot before you eat anything,” Nathan told him.

Ezra declared, “I will make it to the privy, I believe.”

“Ezra, I need to check your…. for…” Nathan tried to explain.

Ezra tugged the blankets around himself, clutching them at his chest.  “You’ll do no such thing.  I am quite capable of making it down to the privy and don’t need any examinations of that sort going on!”


“No, I refuse!”

“I’ll get breakfast,” Josiah chuckled and stood, giving Ezra a slap on the leg, and squeezed Nathan’s shoulder before he left the room.  He’d let Nathan and Ezra duke it out.  It was good to hear them arguing.  Sanchez noted a touch of amusement in Nathan’s responses to Ezra’s overly dramatic refusals.

Nathan’s behavior told Josiah all he needed to know – it looked like Ezra was going to be okay.  The fact that Ezra was feeling well enough to want breakfast, and that he had adequate rest to argue, was evidence enough for Sanchez.   God, it was good.

Once Josiah had descended the stairs, he headed to the restaurant to place a breakfast order – but first he’d go to the telegraph office, hoping that he would be able to get the good news to the others before they did anything rash.

PART 14:

Chris gazed down into the canyon and the black hole in the ground.  From their vantage point, they could see the three inhabitants moving around.  It had taken some time to find this place, but once they located the killers, Malone’s gang was as good as dead.

They’d spent a sleepless night in Tierra Negra.  Vin had disappeared at some point.  They’d found him the next morning, waiting near the livery, his hair cropped short so that just the ends appeared beneath his hat.  Shocked, JD had asked him why, but Vin offered no answered.  Buck had taken the kid aside to explain that it was a sign of mourning for the tracker who’d spent so much time amongst the Indians.  Even now, JD could not help flashing curious glances at the shorn tracker.

The lawmen of Four Corners, waited on the ridge, only long enough to get a feel for their prey.  We’ll take them down, Chris promised.  Each one of them.  They’ll suffer for what they did to us – to Ezra – to me.

The pain hadn’t left him – that horrible ache.  These men had killed Ezra – killed him because they thought Ezra was Chris Larabee.  For a moment, Chris imagined it – seeing himself walking down the street of Tierra Negra and coming across those men.  He imagined two of them distracting him and the third gunning him down without warning.

But Chris wasn’t in town when it happened.  They wouldn’t have found him at Goss' place.  Then Larabee thought again, and imagined them coming to that farmstead, and he ground his teeth as he came to a realization.

Son of a bitch…

Quickly, he picked out Malone.  Everyone was afraid of Malone in Tierra Negra.  Afraid of that toad? By the end of the day there’d be someone new to fear.  Larabee made a motion to the others and whispered, “He’s mine.”

Vin kept his aim on the man.  Buck nodded tightly.  JD swallowed.  Buck regarded the kid – JD looked paler than usual, sick with the news of what had happened to Ezra, but seemed to be afraid of something else.  Wilmington pulled the kid down, hidden from sight and promised, “We’ll take care of them.  They ain’t gonna take us out.”

JD nodded.  “I know,” he whispered.  “I got no doubts.”

Buck went on, “We have the advantage this time.  We’ll surprise those bastards just like they did to Ezra.  They’ll die like pigs.”

JD glanced from Vin to Chris.  Both men seemed to have a darkness about them and JD wondered what would happen if Vin got to Malone before Chris.  Would either man show any mercy?  Vin seemed to know of a lot of ways to hurt a man.  Chris had killed many.

With his hair cut to an unfamiliar edge, Vin had a vicious and feral look about him.  Chris, in his blue shirt, seemed to be steeped in darkness.  JD knew that neither of these men would show mercy.

“We’ll do this thing,” Buck continued.  “Pay ‘em back in kind.  They didn’t give Ezra a chance.”  

“It won’t bring Ezra back,” JD said hollowly.

The statement brought Buck up short.  “No,” he agreed.  “It won’t.  But that’s why we gotta do this.  An eye for an eye,” and Buck paused, remembering the last time he’d heard that phrase, uttered by Ma Nichols after her boys had died on the streets of Four Corners.

“Are we gonna drag them and burn them, like they did to… to Ezra?” JD asked slowly. “Are we gonna kick their burned bodies to pieces?”

“No,” Buck quietly exclaimed, stung by the questions.  “We’re not like that.”  He glanced to his companions.  “We’ll bring them back alive if we can,” he raised his voice enough for the other two to hear him.

Chris and Vin both shot him reproachful glances, and then hunkered down with the other two.  “Easier to bring in a dead man than one that’s still kickin’,” Vin proclaimed.  “There’s them that deserve a fair shake and them that don’t.”

“Yeah, but…” JD tried.

“They killed Ezra,” Vin growled, looking like a different man than JD was used to.  “Ezra!  Shot him down like a dog in the street.”

“Just Malone,” JD reminded.

“The others were in his gang,” Chris put in.  “They’re all in this.  They’ll all pay.”

“We don’t know for sure what happened,” JD continued, wondering if he was going too far.  He trusted these men with his life, but now he was treading on dangerous ground.  Chris’ face was taut with rage.  Vin seemed to be barely keeping himself in check.  Even Buck had a sharpness that JD hadn’t seen before.

“We know enough,” Vin responded.  “We know Ezra’s dead because of them.”

“We should bring them in and get them to trial,” JD said quickly. “Judge Travis won’t let them get away with it.”

Vin snorted and said, “Too many guilty men have escaped the noose.”

“And some innocent ones have been claimed!” JD returned, making Vin blink.

Chris’ eyes narrowed as he stared down at the kid, leaning in close and intimidating.  “They killed Ezra because they thought they were gunning down Chris Larabee!  They admit it.  There ain’t no doubt.”

“So you’ll gun them down in return?” JD asked.  “You want to be just like them?  Cold hearted killers?”

Chris’ scowl deepened, not liking where this conversation was leading.  That black hatred towards those men seemed less oppressive as JD argued with them.  Damn that kid!

“Rider,” Vin cut in, nodding to the horseman that trotted in their direction.  They turned, watching as the big roan horse meandered a bit, as if his pale-haired rider was looking for something – someone.  Chris recognized the man, recognized him because he’d seen the man doing the same thing the previous day.

“Jude,” Chris muttered, scrambling down the hillside to meet the man.  Jude noted the descent and came to meet him as Buck and JD followed.  Vin stayed behind to keep an eye on the men beyond the ridge.

Jude nodded to Larabee.  “Sheriff told me you were here.  Came to get my horse,” he said as he dismounted from the animal that Larabee had rented earlier.  “You can have this one back.”

“I got yours,” Larabee declared, nodding toward the hill that hid their mounts.  There’d been no time to rent another horse that morning, and Jude’s sorrel had proven to be a fine ride.  No wonder the man was anxious to get it back.  Chris felt barely civil as he said, “You can have it.”

Jude pulled something from his pocket and handed it to Chris.  “This come for you.  Man at the telegraph office heard I was comin’.  Said you’d want it.”

Chris nodded and accepted the note, watching as Jude patted the nose of the rented horse and waited patiently for his own to be returned to him.

Glancing upward toward Vin, Chris unfolded the note.  He let out a breath as he read the words, and then stood as if struck.

“He okay?” Jude asked, turning toward Buck.

“Chris?”  Buck asked, grabbing the note in Chris’ hands and succeeding in pulling it way.  Chris had the strangest expression and Buck couldn’t fathom what that look conveyed.

“Buck!”  JD cried. “What’s it say?”

Pursing his lips, Wilmington silently read through the message, and then let out a quiet laugh.  “JD…” he started, clamping one hand over the kid’s shoulder.  “Looks like we got ourselves a beautiful day started.”  He waved the note toward Vin, who only gave him a passing glance before returning his gaze to his task.  “And we got ourselves a crazy southern conman still.”

When JD gave him a puzzled look, Buck told him. “Ezra’s alive.  He showed up in Four Corners last night.”  Shaking his head, Buck regarded the note again.  “Nate and ‘Siah’s been in a dither about him overnight, but seems he’s okay.”  He glanced up at Vin and cocked his head as he regarded the tracker’s strangely short hair.  “Ezra’s gonna have some explaining to do.”

Extending a hand to Jude, Buck said, “Can’t thank you enough for bringing this to us.”

“Gosh!”  JD exclaimed, as Buck gave Jude a hearty handshake.  The kid stepped in to offer the man one as well.   “Ezra’s okay?  What about that body then?"

Jude shrugged.  "Could 'ave been that drifter that the undertaker's missing."

He glanced up to Vin, wanting to shout out the words to the quiet tracker, but he remembered where they were.  He smiled.  Vin’s hair didn’t look quite so savage anymore.  In this light, it looked a bit… silly.  The ends of his freshly cut hair stuck out at weird angles under his hat.

Chris still hadn’t moved.  Suddenly, he could breathe again.  It was as if a heavy weight had been lifted from him. The blackness that had surrounded him pulled back.

“What do we do about the Malone gang?” JD asked.  “You know, now that Ezra’s not dead?”

“We bring them in,” Chris responded, finally finding a voice.  “Attempted murder.  Desecration of a body.”  Turning to JD, Chris added, “We bring them to trial.  It’s the right thing to do.”

PART 15:

Mary Travis stood on the boardwalk on the edge of Tierra Negra, twisting a handkerchief.  She waited, hoping, waited for Chris and the others to return.  They’d been gone all day, hunting down the men who’d killed Ezra Standish.

The news was still a pain to her – only two days ago, she’d shared a coach with the southerner.  He’d been a godsend on that journey, keeping Billy occupied with all manner of card tricks.  The other passengers had been mesmerized by his display.  She smiled, remembering how Billy had laughed.  The smile became melancholy as she remembered how Ezra had egged on the poor drummer – and how Chris had fumed.

And then a man killed Ezra.  Chris and the others went in search of the killer and his gang.  She was left at Goss’ ranch until she couldn’t bear it any longer.  If she had to wait for Chris – she’d wait for him in town, and make certain that he returned in one piece – body and soul.

She had seen a blackness come over Chris when the news reached them.  It was if someone had rid the man of any joy, of any hope for comfort, any light.  Chris Larabee would be consumed if he didn’t carry out punishment against those men.

Where are you Chris? she thought as she waited.

She’d gone around the town, asking questions, building on her story, finding out what was known.  When she questioned the undertaker, he’d seemed a bit evasive in his answers, as if he was hiding something – maybe he was just concerned about the theft of the body.  Not good for business, she decided glumly.

Nowhere did she hear any good news.  Every witness told her the same sorrowful story – a man named Standish visited the bank.  The ‘man-in-black’ was gunned down.  ‘Larabee’ was dead.  They’d had no doubts.  Archie Malone had done the deed in cold blood, made certain 'Chris' was dead with the terrible dragging through the street. 

Oh, Ezra!

She waited, wringing the cloth.  When she finally saw the approach of horsemen, she counted excitedly.  Eight horses made their way toward them.  She counted heads – and let out a breath as she counted eight again:  her four lawmen, the three outlaws… and one more.  For a moment she held the fantasy that the eighth man might be Ezra.  She smiled, thinking how perfect that would be.  That Ezra wasn’t truly dead – that he’d just left town – that he’d been found -- they’d been mistaken.

It would be too perfect, she told herself.  Nothing is ever that perfect.  That sort of ending only happens in hackneyed stories.

Secretly, she wished for a hack.

Her dream was dashed as the riders came closer, and she recognized one of the ‘others’ as Jude – Martin’s friend.  But the four lawmen of Four Corners alive and well, even if Vin looked different than before.  Chris led the way, ponying a horse at his side.  The captured man looked cowed, bowing his head as he made his way to town.  A vivid black eye marred the stranger’s face and he kept his gaze downward.  JD and Buck led the others, with Vin and Jude following.  Her gaze lingered on Vin a moment, taking in his changed appearance. 

Vin, feeling her scrutiny, flicked self-consciously at his neck-hairs.

As he passed, Chris spotted Mary, nodded in recognition, but continued on his path toward the jail.  JD and Buck greeted her warmly, smiling and chattering about the job they’d just done, bringing in the gang.  Vin said nothing, keeping his mares’ leg ready – carefully watching the town for signs of trouble – ready to protect his brothers.  But he did sink his head into his collar as he passed her.  Jude seemed lost and wanting to get away.

The eight men continued on toward the jail, and she followed on foot, her heart thudding with the realization that it was done – they’d brought in the men – alive. Thank the Lord!

The men dismounted at the jail.  The outlaws were dragged inside.  Jude stayed long enough to ensure that his part was done, and then led his horse off – glad to be free.

Mary waited as long as she could and was about to shove the jailhouse door open to find out what had happened when JD and Buck burst out. 

“Mary!”  Buck exclaimed, his smile broadening.  “Your pretty face is a sight for sore eyes.  I’m filled up with the sorry folk I’ve been around all day.  What d’you say we get ourselves somethin’ to eat?”

“You got them?”  Mary asked.  “You got them all?”

“Sure did,” JD responded.  “Heck, they hardly put up any fight at all.  Don’t think they knew what they were doin’.”  He nodded and declared, “Greenhorns!”

Buck laughed loudly, giving JD a hearty slap.  “That they were, kid.

“No one got hurt?” Mary asked hopefully.

“Well, can’t say that exactly,” Buck said, rubbing his chin.  “That Malone fella took a thump or two.”

“We’re fine,” JD included.  “None of us got hurt.”

Mary smiled, grateful.  They would all be okay… all except for one.  That thought drew her face into a grimace again.

“Ya’ll right, Mary?” Buck asked, concerned.

“Oh,” she started, and then continued,  “I guess I haven’t gotten over it yet.  It’s so sad.”

“Sad?” JD asked, perplexed.  “Heck, I’m pretty darn happy right now.  We done a good thing today.”

Buck nodded.  “You’re darn tootin’, JD.  Now, I’m gonna get myself some dinner.  Let’s go, kid.”

“But, what about…” Mary paused, perplexed at their attitude.   How could they seem so happy?  “What about Ezra?”

“Figure he’s taken care of by the others,” Buck commented.   “Now, if you’ll excuse me.  Ma’am?”  Buck touched the brim of his hat, and seeing that Mary wasn’t considering moving, took JD with him as they headed down the boardwalk in search of dinner.

Mary gaped.  She thought that the men would be more… affected… by Ezra’s death.  The fact that they seemed so unmoved angered her.  Suddenly, she changed her opinion on the state of the captured outlaws.  Why weren’t they dead?  Did Ezra’s murder mean so little to the lawmen that they sought no justice against the killers?

By the time Chris and a bobbed Vin walked from the jailhouse, grinning as if nothing had happened, she was fighting mad.  “Chris Larabee!” she spit out.  The men stopped in their tracks.  “It’s not as if I expect you to cry about it…” Mary started, and found that she was fighting he own tears, “…but one would think… one would think…” She stopped speaking and patted the corners of her eyes with her handkerchief.

“Mary…” Chris prompted when the woman went no further.

“What with the horrible way that they killed Ezra, one would think that you might show some feeling about it.  Instead you just…” and she trailed off again.  “…you act as if it’s nothing!”

Compassion lit Chris’ eyes as he reached out and grasped Mary’s shoulders.  She gasped in surprised at his firm touch.  “He’s alive,” Chris uttered.  “He’s in Four Corners.  He’s hurt, but alive.”

“He showed up in Four Corners last night,” Vin went on.  “Made his own way home.”  With an irritated look, he yanked off his hat and ran his hand through his murdered hair, “If it weren’t for this.”

Mary listened, contemplated a moment then giggled.  “A perfect ending!  Thank God for hacks.”

Vin scowled and Chris didn't know how to take that reaction.

PART 16:

“Where is he?” Chris asked sharply as he dismounted from the rented horse.

“Up there,” Nathan said with a toss of his head, indicating the clinic above the livery.

“Resting comfortably,” Josiah added, “if you ignore his protests.”  Giving the cropped Vin a curious glance, he asked, “What happened to you?”

Chagrinned, Vin shrugged.  “Don’t want to talk about it,” he grumbled.

Still staring at Vin, Nathan asked, “Where’s Mary?”  Vin ducked his head and looked away.

“She’s still visiting,” Buck answered.  “Figured it’d be better to take the coach back since she had Billy with her.” He paused and asked, “How’s Ez doin’?”

“Got hit pretty hard.  Ain’t feelin’ his best, but he’ll be okay,” Nathan explained.  “I thought he might have had some damage inside, but it seems to have righted itself.”  The healer spoke those words quickly, remember the fear that had gripped him, and the relief as Ezra improved.  Standish was still passing some blood, but it was clearing up.

Josiah continued, “Got a rap on the head, too.  He won’t be feeling himself for a while.”

“What the heck happened?  D’ya know?” JD asked as he handed the reins of his horse over to Yosemite.  “We ain’t been able to get a straight story from anyone.  Everyone was sure he was dead.  What did he tell you?”

Nathan shrugged.  “Someone gunned him down in the street.”  Nathan touched the side of his head.  “Musta hit his head when he fell.  They took him to the undertaker, left him, and he got away.  Said he came back here because he didn’t want any further trouble.”

Chris snorted, thinking about how easier things might have been if Ezra had left some sort of clue to what had happened.  Heck, might have saved Vin his locks.  Well, it wasn’t as if Ezra had a chance, Chris decided.  With men wanting him dead, Ezra had made the wise decision and left.

“How could a man survive getting shot?” JD asked.  “Folks we talked to said Chris’d got shot at real close range.”

“Chris?” Nathan exclaimed, moving toward the gunslinger in concern.  Josiah turned sharply, his eyes concerned.

Larabee stilled them with a raised hand.  “Ezra got shot because they thought he was Chris Larabee,” the leader explained.  “He was hurt ‘cause of me.”

Josiah raised an eyebrow. “Funny, he never mentioned that.”

With a roll of his eyes, Nathan asked, “Does that surprise you?”

Vin added, “The fellas we brought in were sure they’d killed Chris Larabee.” He nodded to Chris at the mention of the name.  “Couldn’t quite believe they’d only nicked a fella named Standish.”

“Thought we were lyin’ to them,” Buck included, then jabbed a thumb at the blond gunslinger, “‘Til Mr. Personality was able to convince them who was the real Chris Larabee.”

Chris sneered at his friend, daring him to say another word. Buck shut up.

“Why?”  Josiah shot out.  “Why would anyone think that Ezra was you?”

“Not tall enough to be Larabee,” Nathan said, contemplatively.

JD, miffed, defended, “He ain’t short!”  Only Vin nodded in agreement.  After a disgusted sound, JD went on, “How did he survive it, Nate?  Everyone was sure he was dead.”

Josiah pulled the silver plate from his pocket and showed it to the others.  Vin took it, examining the bent, cheap thing.   Chris snatched it from the tracker, recognizing it from the drummer’s cache – the silver Eleganté, edged in black.  “Son of a bitch,” Larabee muttered. He noted how deformed the piece was.

Buck let out a low whistle.  “Damn!  Looks like the bullet nearly went through it.  That had to hurt!”

Still clutching the piece, Chris asked, “He give you any explanation as to why he was using my name?”

Josiah and Nathan shook their heads.  “This was the first we heard about it,” Jackson said.

“He wasn’t shot for his money,” Josiah went on, remembering how Ezra had insisted on getting his hands on the cash and had secreted it somewhere on the bed.  “He wasn’t robbed.”

“We just figured someone didn’t want him in their town,” Nathan decided.  “They thought he was a bad element.”

Chris winched at those words, then pulled a bundle from his saddlebag.  “Stay put,” he told the others.  “I’m gonna have a talk with the little bastard.”

“Don’t mess him up too much,” Vin commented.  “I’m gonna want a chance at him.”  He made an annoyed sweep at his damaged hair.

Chris wanted to give Vin a glare, but was met with a happy smile from the tracker.  Buck and JD echoed that expression – all three of them looked as if they wanted to get up those stairs as soon as possible, too, and give their brother a good drubbing.

God, they were too damn happy to know that the trickster was still alive.

Chris shoved the bent plate into his pocket, and clutched the bundle as he made his way up the stairs.  He paused when he reached the door.  Taking one deep breath, he pushed the door open.

The gambler was sitting up in bed, playing a game of solitaire on the bedspread.  Ezra looked up at him, reaching for a weapon, before he released the Remington and returned to his cards.  Chris strode in, his spurs jangling harshly with each step.

“Mr. Larabee,” Ezra drawled, laying a red seven on a black eight.  “I see you and the others have returned. If I am to believe your telegram, the miscreants who put me in this state have been captured?”

Larabee regarded the gambler as he approached the bed.  He looked pale and a little shaky, but alive.  Chris remembered sifting through the ashes at the trash heap, finding bones from deer and cattle, and others that might have been human.  A pain and a blackness that filled his chest – that horrible wrenching hurt that came with knowing someone else had died because of him. It wasn’t until this moment that he truly believed otherwise, that the horrible blackness was totally gone.

Son-of-a-Bitch, making me go through that!

“What the hell happened?” Chris growled.

Ezra looked at the partial deck in his hand.  “Seven of Hearts went onto the Eight of Clubs.”  And he grinned his goddamn self-satisfied smile.

Suppressing his desire to slap the look of the gamester’s face, Chris continued, “Archie Malone shot you down in the street. Why?”

“Archie?”  Ezra made a face.  “I didn’t know his name.”

“Why’d he do it?”

“I did nothing to him,” Ezra responded, looking unconcerned in spite of Larabee’s reddening face.  “I didn’t know the man.”

“He thought you were me.”

“You draw out the worst in people, Mr. Larabee.  You should try to deal better with people in the future.  It makes life so much simpler.  Take me, for instance.  I do my best to get along with everyone.  It’s a talent that I’ve honed to great affect and…”

Cutting Ezra off, Chris shouted, “Why the hell did this happen?”

“And how is Mrs. Travis?” Ezra asked, ignoring the man’s rage.  “Did she remain in Tierra Negra, or did she return with you?”

“She's still in Tierra Negra!  Goddamn it, Ezra!  I’m asking you a question!”

“And Billy?  I hope that they’re both enjoyin’ a restful and chaos-free sojourn at their friend’s home.”

Annoyed as hell, Chris barked, “Why did they think that you were Chris Larabee?”

Ezra met Chris’ eyes – pale green staring back at blue-green.  “I couldn’t say,” Ezra responded.

Chris glared, knowing that if he stared at the gambler long enough, someone would have to blink.  Neither flinched.  A minute passed. Realizing that he wouldn’t win this way, Chris lowered his gaze as he asked, “Did you tell him you were Chris Larabee?”

“Now, why would I do that?” Ezra casually replied. “Lord, I am not a mad man, contrary to popular belief, and I believe I carry enough trouble on my own.  I don’t need to take on yours as well.”  He shuffled the cards as he spoke.  “Honestly, I believe those men were off their heads – suffering from heat prostration.”

Chris regarded the gambler, looking for weakness in his statements, but the southerner spoke the words as easily as he might speak the Gospel truth.

Ezra shrugged and then grimaced, remembering his busted rib and his bruises.  “I was wearin’ black.  Apparently they knew you were about.  Maybe that was enough.  A man dressed in black is probably always something to be concerned about.”

Chris tugged at his blue shirt.  “I don’t always wear black,” he muttered.

“You do often enough to make it legendary,” Ezra drawled. “Far too often for a normal man.”

“What if I like the color?” Chris asked.

"It’s not suitable for you,” Ezra commented.  “It’s an absence of light, it invokes an atmosphere of grief, of doom, of despair, of evil.  That’s not really right for you, is it?”  He cocked his head and added, “Blue is more fitting, or perhaps green.”   When Chris started to respond, Ezra cut him off with a terse, “And don’t say I’m too short to be confused with you!”

Flabbergasted at the quick change, Chris said nothing immediately.

“I am not short or slight,” Ezra sounded particularly perturbed. “I am not 'little’.”

“Well,” Chris started, drawing up a chair and sitting.  “You’re a bit undersized, but not short exactly.”  He laughed as Ezra’s ire was raised.  “Puny?”

Green eyes took on a furious cast.  “Puny!?” Ezra sputtered.  “Now see here!” He tried to sit tall, but failed with a gasp.

“Careful,” Chris uttered, grasping Ezra’s arm to keep him from collapsing.  “Didn’t get away unscathed, did’ja?” he questioned as Ezra went a bit paler and tried to catch his breath.

Ezra groaned and gasped, clinging to Chris as he evened out his breathing, wrapping the other arm around his chest.

Once he recovered, Chris helped settle Ezra onto the pillows.  “All right?”  Chris asked.

Ezra nodded.  “I’m just not as…lucky… as I’d hoped,” he muttered.

Chris pulled the ruined silver plate from his pocket.  It was a small thing – probably meant to display someone’s fragile gewgaws.   Chris couldn’t see how someone could have shot the thing dead-center when it was hidden under a man’s jacket.  “Lucky,” Chris said as he turned the bent metal.  “Damn lucky.”  He fixed Ezra with his gaze.  “We came this close to losing you,” he uttered, holding up the plate and then tossing it to the bedside table.  It clattered.  “What happened is my fault.”

“Nonsense!” Ezra scoffed.  “You weren’t even there, so how could you possibly take the blame for the acts of those fools.”

“I wasn’t there when Sarah and Adam died either,” Chris said softly, his face falling, fixed with an old sorrow.  “And I know why they died.”  He dropped his gaze, as he stated, “I’ve carried that blame for years.  When I heard that you’d been killed because of my name, it was like a part of me got killed along with you.”  He watched the gambler, who sat still as stone, listening.

Both were silent.  Then, Ezra resumed his shuffling – a familiar and soothing action for the gambler.  Chris watched Ezra’s fretful movements, wondering why it troubled the gambler to hear those words.

Hell, Larabee realized.  It scares me too.  It’s not easy to have people care about you after you’ve become so used to being alone.  It’s not easy to care.

“Mary and Billy,” Chris quietly stated, waiting for Ezra to look at him, but the gambler’s attention was focused on his cards.  “If those men had come to Goss’s place, looking for me, Mary and Billy might have gotten in the way.”

The statement hung for a moment before Ezra glibly replied, “That would have been a terrible shame.  It’s our good fortune that your scenario didn’t occur.  I couldn’t explain why things happened as they did.”

Chris stood, laying a hand on Ezra’s shoulder.  “Don’t do it again,” he stated.  The threat was quiet, almost friendly, but Ezra heard the implications behind it.

Ezra didn’t speak.  Instead, he nodded almost imperceptibly.

Chris returned the gesture with one quick nod of his own.   The bundle, nearly forgotten in Chris’ hand, was dropped to the bedspread.  Ezra recognized it as his discarded jacket.  Neither man moved to touch it.  Chris stood and made his way to the door.  He paused before leaving.  Ezra looked contemplative, studying his cards, ignoring the black blazer.

Josiah had retrieved Ezra’s favorite red jacket from the gambler’s room.  It waited for him on the bedpost.  His familiar black hat, newly brushed, rested above it.  As Ezra flipped over cards, red, black and white flashed into sight.    Life, Larabee knew, was rarely black and white.  And as he watched Ezra, he realized that maybe Standish really wasn’t in the ‘gray’.  Red seemed like a more probable color for him.

Black, Larabee knew, was his color.  He’d chosen it and clung to it all these years.  Maybe it was time to leave it behind.

I’m gonna have to thank JD, Larabee decided.  Thank him for thinkin’ rationally when none of the rest of us could.  He’s got a good head on his shoulders.  He’s a good kid – a good man. A brave son-of-a-bitch to take on me and the others.

“Oh,” Chris started, remembering.  “Vin’s gonna want to talk to you.”  He gestured vaguely at his head, and started to say something, but let it drop.  Let Ezra see the damage for himself.

“I thought you were leaving?” Ezra grumbled as he continued the game and Larabee lingered by the door.  “Certainly you have something better to do than disrupt my game.  I swear, I haven’t had a free moment since my return.  Josiah and Nathan… hovering over me every minute of the day.”  He laid a red ten over a black Jack.  “I can’t even relieve myself without them paying a vested interest into every movement.”  Ezra shuddered theatrically.  “Lord, I cannot wait to get out of here.”

The gunslinger smiled.  “Glad to have you here,” Chris told him.

“Where else would I be?”  Ezra returned.

Chris shook his head, never quite able to understand that southerner, but liking it that way.

Standish lifted his gaze to meet Chris’  “And where are you headed?  I plan to live vicariously through others until I’m allowed up on my own.”

“Potter’s store,” Chris admitted.  “Thought maybe I’d buy myself a new shirt.”

“A nice green maybe,” Ezra uttered.  “Nothing too bright.  That blue one definitely needs washing.”  Before Larabee could leave, he added, “You should consider returning to Tierra Negra next week to provide Mrs. Travis with an escort home.”

Stunned by this suggestion, Larabee responded, “She can take care of herself.”

“Of that I’m certain, but a gentleman wouldn’t let such a fine lady travel unaccompanied.  Besides, you can return the pinto for me.  Surely the undertaker would like it back, in spite of the fact that he did nothing to deserve it.”  The $5, Ezra had decided, was his for his pains.

Chris pondered, but made no commitment.  With a shove, he opened the door and made his way out.

Potter’s store should carry green shirts, he figured, and he’d seen a notice there about a man who was selling some Labrador puppies.  Might be nice for Billy to have a dog, he thought, remembering how much joy Billy had found in the Goss’ dog.  Every boy should have one.  Might be a nice thing for Billy to come home to.

And maybe, he continued, Standish had the right idea about taking that ride with Mary.  Chris figured he could bring back the pinto and his rented horse to Tierra Negra.  If nothing else, returning the horses would be a good excuse to make that trek.

He smiled, wondering if Ezra’s devious side was rubbing off on him.  Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing, maybe, he thought, it was time he started living in something other than black.


Hope you enjoyed the story.  I'd love to hear your  comments

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