RATING: PG-13 for some rough language
CATEGORY: Challenge - Old West
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Chris and all the guys
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. or any others involved with that production is intended. 
NOTE:  The April 2005 Challenge: offered by Jesfrealo:  Write a story where a mystery plays a key role in the story.  Have one or any combination of the guys be the detective(s).  It can be funny or serious and in any open universe.  Extra points if you make an unusual pair of the guys work together to figure out the mystery (so not Chris and Vin or Buck and JD...).
SUMMARY:  Sorry, I didn't use an unusual pair.  This was an idea I'd had for a while.  Not much of an idea, but there you go.  The guys receive a mysterious message and must decipher its meaning.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
APPEARS IN: Fanzine Nothing Left to Chance #3
DATE:  April 23, 2005

By NotTasha...hard to figure out

“Mornin’,” Chris greeted as kept the lantern at his side.

Vin tipped his head in response as he came into the halo of light.  He pulled up his jacket’s collar against the pre-morning chill, leaning against his wagon home.  It was quiet in the still-dark town.  No one else stirred outside of a stray dog that trotted along the street, sniffing along the base of the boardwalk.  

“Coffee?”  Larabee asked.

“That’d hit the spot,” Tanner responded, and nodded toward the jail as he pushed off from his perch.  The two men ambled in that direction, ready to start their day.  They passed a cat who hunched in an alley, cautious of the dog.  Its eyes flashed demonically as they caught the passing light, and it twisted and disappeared into the dark.

“Been quiet,” Larabee commented.

“Seems t’happen when a certain someone is out of town,” Tanner replied with a smile.

Larabee chuckled.  Yeah, Four Corners did get a little more tranquil when Ezra was off on one of his excursions.  “Figure that’ll end soon.”

“Be back tomorrow,” Vin commented.  “Get things back to normal.  Don’t seem right ‘round here without a ruckus blowin’ up.”

Chris shook his head at the comment.  It wasn’t that Ezra was the cause of every blow-up that hit the town, but he always seemed to finagle his way into the center of it, no matter who started it.  He'd add to the clash, enhance it and seemed to take a certain pride in being blamed for it in the end.  “The man is a menace,” Larabee commented.

Vin inclined his head.  “That he is… but he’s our menace.  Figure if Ridge City is about done with him, we’ll take him back.”

Chris frowned, touching a hand to the jailhouse door and finding a note tacked there.  He pulled it down before he pushed open the door -- and was met with a gun pointed at his face, and then a congenial smile.

“Mornin’, stud,” Buck greeted cheerfully as he holstered his weapon.  “Up bright and early, I see.”

Holstering his own weapon that had leapt to his hand at the sight of a drawn gun, Larabee nodded toward the cell where their prisoner, Anse Henderson sat, looking hangdog and bored.  “Been well behaved?” Larabee asked.

Buck shrugged.  “Ain’t said much aside from how his brothers is gonna get him loose.”

“Any troubles?” Larabee continued.

“None we couldn't take care of,” Buck responded.

Chris nodded toward JD, stretched out in his chair and snoozing.  “See your company’s been helpful.”

“Oh,” Buck started, waving toward the kid, “He’s been up all night, goin’ through the old wanted posters, tidying up crap.  He done wore himself out and fell asleep about fifteen minutes ago.  Just in time to get caught by the likes of you.”  He gave the kid’s chair a kick.

JD spun to his feet, sputtering and reaching for his weapons.  “What?  What?” he called, looking about madly, and then smirking as he saw who’d assailed him.  “Funny,” he sneered.  “Mornin', Chris… Vin.” Then added with a scowl, “Buck, how could ya let me fall asleep, huh?”

Buck shrugged, not bothered, not impressed.  “It’s been damn quiet.  Would’ve woke you if somethin’ happened.  Seems Anse’s kin ain’t found him worth retrieving.”

“Oh, they’ll come,” the man said in a slow drawl.  “They’ll come t’get me.  You’ll see.”

“Right,” Buck rejoined.  “Meanwhile, we gotta pull double-duty to watch your ass.”

Vin shook his head and pointed to the note that Chris had retrieved.  “What you got there?” he asked.  “Love note?  Probably for me,” he added.  “I noticed Miss Angela givin’ me the eye lately.”

“Mighty fine woman,” Buck declared with a purr.  “I like a girl I can sling over my shoulder and make off with.”

“She may be tiny, but she packs a wallop,” Vin added, turning to the stove to retrieve some coffee.  “Woman enough for any man.”

“Lordy, the tricks she taught me,” Buck said with a contented smile.  “Thought I knew just about everything, but she had a few new ones for me.”

“Yeah?”  JD countered.  “Didn’t seem like that type to me.”

Buck laughed and gave JD a jab at the shoulder.  “Better be careful if she comes callin’ for you, kid.  She’d wreck ya.”

Vin nodded his agreement.  “Then scrawny ones are the ones you gotta watch our for.  She’d crack you like a walnut.”

JD shook his head and muttered, “You’re so full of crap.  She’s nice.”  Vin and Buck laughed knowingly.

Annoyed with them, JD turned to Chris and asked, “What’s it say, Chris?”

Larabee’s expression changed as he read the note, from puzzled, to something dark and sinister.  “Damn, fuck and damn,” Chris growled. 

“What?”  Vin repeated, moving away from the stove to take the note from Larabee.  He squinted at the words, not immediately knowing the meaning, but he did recognize the handwriting.  “From Ezra?  How’d it get here if he’s still in Ridge City?”

Chris had turned and was storming around the room, too irritated to say anything, so Vin was left to decipher the words.  He frowned, struggling to read.

Wilmington, anxious to know what it said, grabbed the note from the grateful tracker’s hand.  “'Considerable Regret,” he read, “as I inform you that I’ve been met with a Clearly Reprehensible wrongdoing.  I feel Chagrinned Really as I’ve been accosted and detained by the five Henderson brothers.'”

“My brothers?” Anse cried, standing in his cell.

His interruption went unnoticed by Buck, as the ladies’ man complained, “Can’t Standish just come out and say what he means?

“He’s been kidnapped?” JD asked anxiously, looking over Buck’s shoulder.

Chris paced angrily about the room, shooting Anse a viscous stare.  Vin glared at Buck, demanding, “What else does it say?”

Shaking his head, Buck went on,  “They ask that you come to Falling Cross at 9 o’clock this morning to exchange Anse for yours truly. It seems an unlikely spot as it is rather out of our way, but they seem determined to use this location, despite the incompatible direction of the sun.  They seemed convinced that you’d agree to this in spite of my informing them that you’d do no such thing.  Barring retribution, I’ll negotiate gratefully with Henderson.  It shouldn’t keep you.”

JD and Vin had remained silent as Buck read, but once Wilmington paused, JD exclaimed, “Ezra thinks we wouldn’t come for him?”

Vin held up a hand to silence the boy.  “Keep goin’, Buck,” he commanded.

Buck frowned and stated, “Ezra’s writin’ stops here and then it goes on with someone else, ‘You be at Falling X at 9 or your man dies’.”

“Dammit,” Chris muttered.  “How does he do this?  How does he always manage to get himself messed up in crap like this?”  Chris paced about, anger dripping from him.  He paused to glare at Anse, who tried to smile smugly.  “What do they aim to do?” he demanded to know.

“They aim to get me out,” Anse returned, smugly.  “Gonna free their brother any way they can.”

“Even if it means killing another that done nothing to you?” JD asked, anxiously.

Anse lifted his chin a fraction.  “If that’s what it takes,” he answered haughtily.

Furious, Chris slammed an open palm against the bars, making Anse jump.  “Goddamn it!’ he barked.  “There’s no way in hell I’m lettin’ this piece of garbage loose.”

JD looked stricken.  “Even if it means they’ll kill Ezra?”

Buck responded, “We’re not gonna let anything happen to him, right Chris?” He looked toward his friend, seeking agreement.  “We got hardly any time to get ready and ride there.”

That was the idea, of course. Angry, Chris paced away from the cell.  What right did these outlaws have in doing this?  You rob a goddamn bank, you get caught, you suffer the consequences.  You don’t get out free if you pull crap like this!  Son of bitch!

Vin had taken the note from Buck and was looking it over.  He frowned as he concentrated on the words.  “Funny,” he said.

“What?” JD responded, needing to hear anything that might fix this.

“Why’s he say Falling Cross is out of the way?”

“That ain’t right.”  Buck scowled.  “Ya gotta go through Falling Cross if yer coming from Ridge City.”

“He’s not in Ridge City,” Chris conceded.

“Coming from the west,” Vin went on.  “They'll be ridin' into the rising sun at nine in the mornin'.”

Chris perked up, coming around to Vin’s side to look at the note.  “Where then?” he asked, hopefully.

“Red Rock?  Roosterville?” JD tried.

“Cedar Ridge,” Vin declared.

“Could be a bunch of places,” JD mentioned.  “There’s other towns to the west.”

Vin pointed to the letter.  “He’s got three CR’s in this first bit of the letter.  Made ‘em big and fancy, and Cedar Ridge starts in C and R, don’t it?”

Buck grinned. “They’ll be coming from Cedar Ridge, heading to Falling Cross, plannin’ to get there in the next few hours.”  He allowed himself a small chuckle.  “He told us everything we need to know.”

“But what does this at the end mean?” JD asked, leaning over to see the note.  He read out loud, “‘Barring retribution, I’ll negotiate gratefully with Henderson.  It shouldn’t keep you.’  What does that mean?  He’s gonna try to get out on his own, even though he figures it might mean trouble for him? And we shouldn’t bother helpin’?”

Buck sighed and shrugged.  “Dunno, kid.  Sometimes Ezra just makes no sense a’tall.”

Larabee stared down at the letter in Vin’s hands, hoping, wondering.  A message had been hidden in the note, and that nonsense at the end had to mean something, didn't it?  

Hell, this was Ezra.  He was never easy to decipher, not even when he was giving you the time of day.  “Get Josiah and Nathan," Chris declared.  "We’re ridin’ to Cedar Ridge.  Get those sons of bitches before they know what hit them.”


“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Nathan asked as he hastily packed his bags – stuffing in bandages, the ingredients for poultices, suturing gear, splints and whatever else he could think of.

“We’ll cut them off before they have a chance to do anything,” Chris declared, watching the healer pack.

Josiah stood to one side, his arms folded over his chest.  “Shouldn’t someone be waiting at Falling Cross?  What if we’re wrong?  What’ll happen if they end up there, and discover we never came?  What would Ezra think?”

“It’s not going to happen that way,” Chris assured.

Nathan couldn’t stop scowling.  “It’s spelled out in black and white what they need us to do!” he declared.  “And we’re just gonna do the opposite!  Chris, Ezra’s life’s at stake here.  I don't think we should mess around.”

“I know it,” Chris responded, his voice even.  “That’s why we’re doin’ it this way.”

“Why don’t we just do what they ask?” Nathan continued.  “They’re probably already there!  You think of that?  Probably all set up and waiting.”

With a shrug, Chris commented, “Ezra seems to think they’ll be moving this morning.  Probably on the move right now.”

Josiah looked hopeless.  "You could be wrong," he declared.  "You think, maybe, you're wrong about that secret message?"

"Ezra's a trick to understand, but I think we figured it right," Chris told them.

Nathan shook his head.  “We should go to Falling Cross and take Anse with us.  At least make it look like we’re doing the exchange.”

“I don’t work that way,” Chris replied.  “The man did a bad thing.  He ain’t gonna get rewarded with a free pardon.”

“We won’t let them get away with Anse,” Josiah insisted.  “We should, at least, show up.  We should look as if we mean to comply.”

"No," Chris responded coolly.

Annoyed, Nathan jammed more materials into his pack.  “So, you’d rather see that man go to Yuma and let Ezra die?” he asked as he grabbed a bottle of whisky and shoved it in with the rest.

Chris set his jaw at that thought, watching Nathan’s aggravated movements.  “We’re getting Ezra out of this mess,” he declared. 

Nathan shook his head.  “I just hope we’re doing the right thing.  God help us if we’re wrong.”  He stepped back, looking at his filled pouches.

Josiah let out a breath.  “God help Ezra if they reach Falling Cross and we’re not there.”  He paused, and repeated in a whisper, “God help him.”

Nathan looked toward his friend, his face set in an angry expression.  Josiah looked beaten and hurt.  Jackson turned toward Chris.  “And you're banking on the fact that Ezra's going to be fine,” he stated.

Stepping forward to snatch up the supplies, Chris declared, “If he ain’t, then there they’re gonna pay.”  He hefted the heavy bag and gave Nathan a look.

“I need to be prepared for everything,” the healer acknowledged.  “They could’ve done anything to him.”

Larabee regarded the steely expression, then took in Josiah's bleak look.  He nodded.  If those men had hurt Ezra – there’d be no mercy for them.  “We’ll get him back,” he ensured.  “Now, let’s go.”


It took hardly any time to get underway, and they crossed the necessary distance in short order, leaving the known paths to cover open territory.  They found an excellent spot for ambush on the trail that connected Cedar Ridge to Falling Cross, hidden up in the rocks.  And so, they settled in and waited, hoping that they had understood the message correctly.  Josiah had tried to convince them that perhaps they should split up – he and Nathan would go to Falling Cross – at least make the attempt to show up.  Chris had denied this idea, saying that there were five Hendersons – not usually a problem against the six of the lawmen from Four Corners – but Ezra was in their midst.  They needed all the manpower available to ensure they extricated the conman safely from their clutches.

So, Anse was left under the protection of a couple of the townsmen, and the lawmen came to this place – to wait until their quarry passed on their way to Falling Cross.  The morning eased past – the sun continuing to rise – worrisome if the Hendersons meant to reach Falling Cross by 9:00am.

“Don’t like it,” Vin muttered.  “Maybe we got it wrong.  I’m thinkin’ maybe Josiah and Nathan…”

Chris, keeping a careful eye on the trail from Cedar Ridge, uttered, “Don’t.”  He glared into the distance.  God, if they’d been wrong about this…  He glanced to Nathan and Josiah, hidden in the rocks on the other side of the trail.  They looked uneasy, concerned, pissed off.

Damn it to hell, Larabee thought, imagining what could happen – the Henderson brothers arriving at Falling Cross to find no one there – Ezra realizing that no one had bothered to come for him. What if we got it wrong?  What would those bastards do to Ezra?   What would Ezra think?  Son of a bitch!  He narrowed his eyes, not wanting to consider it.

They waited.  Time passed.  Buck checked his pocket watch, wondering how long these men would delay.  Vin leaned against the stones, staring out across the distance with his spyglass.  JD fidgeted besides Nathan, who kept reaching for his medical bag.  Josiah wore a discontented look, and sat with his arm crossed against his chest, staring across the trail at Larabee as if his gaze might bore holes.

Damn it, Larabee thought.  This had to be right.  Why else would Ezra leave that stupid message?  But what if Ezra had been mistaken – what if the Hendersons started their journey from Cedar Ridge early?  What if they were already at Falling Cross?  Waiting… and waiting for no one.

There’d be no cover at that crossroads – only wide-open space – a perfect place to make an exchange of prisoners.   An excellent spot to sit and watch and wait – for nothing.

Tanner nodded, and suddenly scrambled back, tipping the spyglass from his eye.  “They’re comin’,” he told them excitedly.

Thank God!  Chris snatched the telescope away from Tanner and brought the piece to his eye.  Across the distance, he spotted a movement -- horsemen coming toward them.  He counted six of them, and examined each rider, waiting as they came close enough to identify.

“What do ya see?” Buck asked breathlessly.

“He with them?” JD put in.

“Does anyone look hurt?” Nathan inquired.

Josiah said nothing, bowing his head and closing his eyes.

Carefully Larabee checked them over – until he found a familiar bright jacket near the back of the pack.  “He’s there,” he commented.  He watched the gambler, taking careful note of his stance, trying to discern if he was hurt.

“Well?” Buck growled at him.

“Is he okay?” Nathan included.

“Seems to be,” Larabee decided, seeing that Ezra was upright, but he didn’t seem to be looking around.  Should be, Larabee thought.  Why isn’t he checking out the area?  He should know that we’ll be nearby.  He should trust that we got his message!  Doesn’t he realize we’d figure it out?

“Hands are tied behind him,” Chris commented.  “Least he’s on Chaucer.”  That would help.  Ezra could easily direct the animal without use of the reins.  Larabee had often been witness to this talent, when Ezra rode along with the others, shuffling cards and seeming to pay no attention to anything around him, yet always keeping Chaucer exactly where he wanted the animal to be.

They were coming closer. Larabee didn’t miss it when the gambler turned his head surreptitiously.  He was watchful… he was waiting.  Larabee smiled with this realization.

The group came in at an easy gait, expecting nothing.  Their faces were brightly illuminated as they squinted against the rising sun.

As they neared, Chris could hear the familiar drawl of the gambler, prattling away. “But you see,” he said, “I had no choice in the matter.  When a man demands that you make a trade, you must go through with the deal.  So Mr. Oliver nearly forced his fortune down my throat in exchange for the mine and its property.”  Ezra laughed, and around him, his kidnappers chuckled insincerely.   “I made off with his hard earned cash, and he earned himself an empty hole in the ground.  It was a bad trade on his part, but a marvelous one for me.”

The man who led Ezra’s horse shook his head and stated, “You deserve a bullet in your head for that.  Bet he come after you.”

“My dear Wally, he did indeed come after me,” Ezra responded.  “And brought the law handsomely on my shoulders.  Try as I might to escape their clutches, the lawmen were relentless and soon had my hide ensconced within the walls of their jailhouse.  Of course, I’d done nothing illegal.  I’d made no claims. In fact, all that anyone was ever able to pronounce against me was that I had declared the mine worthless!”  Ezra laughed.  “Mr. Oliver had assumed far too much from my statements, thinking I had said things that I hadn’t, thinking I had clued him toward something that didn’t exist.  His own misconceptions had driven him to ruin. I was only the means that allowed him to reach that goal.”  And he laughed again.

The man in the lead grumbled and turned toward the gambler.  “Either you shut yer yap, or you’ll get more of what we doled out earlier.  You hear me?”

To that, Ezra looked bewildered and made a show of not saying a word in response.

Larabee turned to Tanner and gave him a nod, silently expressing – let’s do this thing.  Buck signaled to JD, Nathan and Josiah on the other side of the trail.

It was then that Ezra tilted his head ‘just-so’ and for a moment, his green gaze found Larabee’s.  Chris tried to portray assuredness, certainty.  Ezra’s mouth twitched into a small smile, and the group approached the rocks that formed the protection for the lawmen from Four Corners.

Larabee braced himself, ready to take on these men.  Damn, he hoped it didn’t get bad – not with Ezra in the middle of it.  Chris would try to talk them down, but in the end, he feared a bloodbath.  Getting his man out of the middle of it would be… tricky.

Suddenly, as the group filtered into the rocks, Chaucer took a bad step, turning and jerking to a stop.

“Hold on!  Hold on!” Standish declared as Chaucer continued to turn, pulling awkwardly on the rope that secured him to the horse that led him.  The horseman was jerked to a stop.  Ezra seemed to struggle to keep his seat as Chaucer continued to misstep.

The leader, his eyes furious, turned to Wally and demanded, “What the hell’s goin’ on?”

“I dunno, Pete,” Wally replied, grimacing as their captive’s horse continued to turn, taking backward steps and yanking on the line.  Wally’s horse was being jerked backward along with their hostage.

“He's delayed us enough already,” Pete grumbled.  “We got no time for this!  Get that son of a bitch in line!”

“Knock it off, Standish!” Wally shouted, tugging at the lead with one hand and drawing back with his other as if he planned to strike their captive.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Ezra declared, his voice high with panic. “I can’t control him!” and he helplessly tugged at his restraints that kept him from getting his hands on the reins.  “He’s picked up a stone or something.  Help me.  I can’t… I can’t stop him! I’ll fall!”

Chaucer continued to fuss about, stomping and starting to rear as he backed, crashing into Wally’s horse.

“You son of a bitch,” Wally snarled.  “I’ll show you….”

“Whoa,” Ezra cried, looking frightened as he leaned forward, unable to catch himself.  The horse lifted its forelegs again. “Dammit… stop stop stop!” Standish shouted, looking desperate to keep his seat.  Men jumped from their saddles to attempt to corral the troubled mount, and Wally, tired of being jerked about, undid the lead.

Chris grinned, watching as every man in the band turned their attention to their captive.  It only took a movement from Larabee, and the six lawmen were on their feet – weapons drawn, each picking out a man as their target.  Ezra continued his panicked shouts, as the horse refused to be calmed.  Loose from his tether, his backward gyrations became more intense, and the outlaws spilled out of the way, shouting along with the southerner.

Larabee could only shake his head, finding himself and the others totally ignored.  “Boys,” Larabee started, his voice ominous.

Shocked, the five men spun about.  “What the hell?” Pete shouted as he went for his weapon.  His men followed suit.  Chaucer suddenly came to a halt.  In a second, Ezra drove in his heels, sending the horse bolting back the way they had come.

Larabee grinned thinly, silently thanking that spoiled horse.  Once Ezra was clear, Chris had no compunction about firing into the group.  Pete and the others returned the assault.  Gunfire exploded within the confines of the rocks as everyone tried to find cover.

There’d be no blood-free exchange this time, Chris realized.  He took down Pete as the kidnapper aimed toward Buck.  Wally, realizing their captive was escaping, took aim at the fleeing man’s back.  Vin put an end to his attempt, stopping the man cold – dead and cold.  Ezra, clear of the battle, turned about to watch.

The rest of the group were less easy to remove.  In the open, they had no choice but to huddle together, grasping their horses’ reins, using their mounts for cover.

“Give it up!” Larabee demanded, but the remaining three weren’t going down easily.

“Pete!  Pete!” one of the brothers shouted as Pete struggled to his knees.  Wally wasn’t moving at all.

“Get them sons of bitches,” Pete growled, clutching at his bloody shoulder.

The shots ricocheted, carving out chunks of stone as the gunfire continued, as the brothers fired from their crush of horses.

Snarling, Larabee looked to Vin who was trying to get a shot amid the churning of hooves and heads.  He glanced to Chris and shook his head.  “We wait ‘em out?” Vin asked, not wanting to hit the horses if he could help it.

“Don’t really feel like waitin’,” Buck grumbled from his position near them.

Chris glanced across to the others, seeing the same determined frustration.  One of the brothers fired, shattering rock near JD’s head.  The kid barely managed to dive behind the boulder.  Grimacing, Chris kept his weapon ready, and shouted, “Give it up!”

“Like hell!” was the response, and another shot was fired at his head.

Ducking, Chris grimaced and let loose another growl.  “Time these sons of bitches got taken down,” he muttered.

Vin, tucked into the rocks, chanced a glance out of their fortress and he grinned.  “Looks like that’s about to happen,” he uttered as a whoop went up.

Chris looked just in time to see the chestnut quarterhorse and its rider hurl into the midst of the men and horses, plowing into them, sending everyone flying. Shouting and running willy-nilly, the outlaws tried to get out of the way as their horses tore loose and ran for their lives.  Nathan, Josiah and the others were out of their stronghold, grabbing onto whoever was closest and throwing them to the ground.  The men tried to struggle, but were met with weapons drawn to their faces and, smart enough to value their lives, they desisted.

It was all over remarkably quickly.  The captors were now captives.

Ezra chuckled and effortlessly brought Chaucer around, trotting him back to the scene.  “Good mornin’, gentlemen,” he greeted, halting his horse beside Vin.  “Mr. Tanner, might you be of assistance?”  He turned in his saddle, offering his bound hands.

Vin, shook his head and, keeping a foot on his captive’s head, drew a knife and cut loose the bonds.  “Good t’see ya, Ezra,” he declared.

“And you as well,” Ezra responded, stiffly drawing his arms from the severed ropes and bringing his hands forward to rub his wrists.  “Deplorable,” he muttered, stretching his shoulders carefully as he kneaded his hands.

Nathan was at his side in an instant, a hand on his leg as he asked,  “You all right, Ezra?  They didn’t get any holes in ya, they did they?”

Ezra smiled congenially, and obligingly, opened his jacket to display his rumbled but otherwise unstained shirt.  “Thanks to your tidy rescue, I have escaped their plans for me, which they illustrated in great detail -- often.  You may want to see to Pete,” he said, nodding to the brother who clutched at his bleeding arm.  “I believe Wally is beyond the need of your assistance.”

Giving Ezra a slap on the leg, Nathan smiled and turned to where Pete hunkered near the ground.

Vin, Buck, JD and Josiah kept the rest of the Henderson brothers contained, so Larabee strode over to where Ezra still sat in his saddle, watching everything with an amused expression.

“Standish,” Chris began.

“Ah, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra responded.  And dutifully, he swung himself from his saddle, rubbing his wrists again once he was on the ground.  He moved his shoulders and couldn’t hide a wince.

Chris scrutinized the movements, thinking that he should have Nathan take a closer look at the man once he was done with Pete.  “Care to tell me what the hell happened?”

With a self-deprecating expression, Ezra sighed and stated, “I used poor judgment.”

Chris nodded and asked, “Care to go into it a bit more?”

Standish dipped his head and looked away.  “I came across one of their group being manhandled by two of the others.”  He sighed again, deeply.  “I had no intention of intervening, mind you,” he declared.  “But I needed to pass and their ruckus was keeping me from reaching my destination.  I had no choice.”

“Yeah?” Chris responded.

With a raise of his shoulders, Ezra continued, “They impeded my path.  I tried to find my way through them and was met with the final two of their clan.  With five against one, I had little chance of escaping.  Now, if there remained only the three of them, that would have been another story altogether.  They captured me quite tidily.”

"They knew who you were?" Larabee asked.

Nodding, Ezra conceded, "They knew my name.  I believe they were on the lookout for me.  Frustrating that I wasn't able to escape their plans.  I'm usually much more astute and quite capable of avoiding such nuisances.  Well, of course there was that time in Fort Laramie when..."

“And they dragged you off to Cedar Ridge?” Chris led on, since Ezra seemed determined to keep derailing the conversation.

Ezra smiled brightly.  “You received my message!” he cried, obviously impressed.  After a moment's thought he added with a gesture of one hand, "Well obviously you did, since you're here."

“How’d they get you there?”

Making a face, Ezra continued, “I was trussed up like a hog and dumped in the back of their wagon to suffer through that horrible journey.”  He shuddered.  “At least I was able to convince them that leaving my noble steed behind would only raise questions.”  And he gave Chaucer a slap on the side, grinning at the animal.  “And thankfully, he understands some simple non-verbal commands.”

Nathan was getting to his feet, admonishing Pete to keep still if he wanted to survive the wound.  Josiah had seen to Wally, and Buck, JD and Vin were keeping the other brothers in line.

“Nathan,” Chris called, and nodded toward the gambler.  “Might want to check him out.  Think they roughed him up a bit.”

Jackson approached Standish with an easy smile, and stated, “Come on, Ezra.  What's wrong?”

“Mere bruises, Mr. Jackson, I assure you,” Ezra returned.  “Might we simply return to Four Corners?  A hot bath will soothe all my needs.”

Seeing that Standish was still mobile, Jackson figured there wasn’t anything fatally wrong with him.  Jackson decided he’d just follow the gambler into the bathhouse if needed to get a look at him.  Take a soak of his own if nothing else.  “I’ll finish up with Pete, and we’ll head home,” the healer responded.  For that, he received a smile from Ezra and a playful slap on the arm.

Nathan returned it with gusto, and was shocked when Ezra gasped and stumbled back.  Jackson sighed.  “Ezra,” he muttered.  “Let’s get this over with.”

“Ezra?” JD called from his position alongside one of the Hendersons.  “You okay?”

Buck gave the gambler a calculating look, trying to gauge how badly Ezra had been injured.  Vin, his foot still on the head of one man, ground a heel against his ear.

Josiah, having done all he could for Wally, stood and looked stricken.  “Ezra?” he called.

“I’m fine,” Ezra stated.  “I assure you.  I’m fine.”

“Off with it,” Nathan demanded, jerking on the sleeve of Ezra’s jacket.

Chris leaned back, watching.  “Do it,” he demanded when Ezra made no move to comply.

“Come on, Hoss,” Buck called, putting more weight on his prisoner.  “Don’t be shy.”

Ezra glared at his audience as he shucked off his jacket.  “Fine,” he muttered.  “Fine.”  Once the jacket was free, the reddish stains on his sleeve were easy to see.

“Dammit, Ezra,” Jackson muttered as the others hissed at the sight.

“Aw hell,” Ezra grumbled, seeming surprised as well.  “It’s not as bad as it looks.  It was a lot better before we started this journey, at least,” he tried to explain, but Nathan was about to pounce on him.  He held up a hand to stall the healer and began undoing his buttons and buckles.

“What happened?” Nathan demanded, holding out a hand as Ezra removed his empty shoulder harness and then his waistcoat.  Jackson took the items, waiting until Ezra un-strapped the vacant derringer rig and finally got to his shirt.

“One of them had a knife,” Ezra commented, gingerly removing his shirt and grimacing as he pulled the stained sleeve free from his arm.  “Just a scratch,” he assured.

When Ezra handed him the shirt, Nathan took it, and dumped it and the rest of the items on the ground.

“Mr. Jackson, I protest!” Ezra exclaimed, pointing to the misused gear.  “That is not the way to treat a man’s property.”

Chris inclined his head, getting a good look at the seeping wound.  It wasn't necessarily big, but it had an angry and painful look to it. His wrists were red where the ropes and torn the skin.   “That’s not a way to treat a prisoner,” he countered.

“Pretty big for a scratch,” Nathan commented, picking up his bag and gently grasping Ezra by his hurt arm.  “Come on,” he ordered, angling him toward a seat-sized rock, but carefully stepping over Ezra’s spilled property.  “Let me get a good look.”

“Damn, Ezra,” Buck commented, leaning in.  “They stuck you good!”

“Must hurt like hell,” JD decided.

“Son, you must take better care of yourself,” Josiah added, shaking his head.

“Who did it?” Chris demanded to know.

Ezra sighed as Nathan manhandled him onto the makeshift chair.  “That would've been Wally.”  He shrugged and said philosophically, “I suppose he’s received what was due him.”

“When this happen?” Nathan asked, concerned about the redness of the wound.

“Yesterday mornin’,” Ezra told him.  “And I fear I wasn’t allowed much in the way of medical services.”  He gave Nathan a grin as he said, “There’s much to be said about adequate care.”

“Yeah,” Nathan returned, not forgetting that Ezra had tried to avoid him.

Chris glared at the clan, disgusted with the lot of them.  Pete was sitting up, under Josiah’s watch, looking angry and hurt as he cradled his hastily bandaged shoulder.  The other three brothers looked no happier.  bastards, Chris thought as he regarded them.

He then turned his attention to Ezra who was muttering as Nathan poked about at the knife wound.  The gunslinger smiled, enjoying Ezra’s discomfort as Jackson messed about.  It was all for show, he knew, the wet cat response to mother hen.  Without his shirt, bruises had become evident over the conman’s torso and arms.  He hadn’t gone with them easily, Chris figured.  They hadn’t been kind.  No wonder Ezra had tried the mysterious message to get himself freed of them.

Remembering the note, Chris asked, “What if we didn’t figure out the message?”

“Oh,” Ezra responded, grimacing as Nathan worked.  “I had no doubts.  Between the six of you, certainly you would have been able to puzzle it out.”  And he shrugged again, bringing another wince.  “In any case, even if you didn’t solve the riddle, you would have been able to emancipate me at Falling Cross.  I had no doubts.  I simply thought a surprise attack might be beneficial to our side.”

Larabee pulled the note from his pocket and held it for Ezra to see.  “What's this?” he asked, leaning close.  He pointed to the line, ‘Barring retribution, I’ll negotiate gratefully with Henderson.  It shouldn’t keep you.’  He jabbed a finger.  “What the hell does that mean?”

Ezra put on an amused smile and exclaimed, “Bring whiskey!”

Buck, Vin and JD looked confused.  Nathan was too busy to care.  It was Josiah who shook his head and guffawed.  “First letter of each word,” he deciphered.  “BRING WHISKEY.”

Buck laughed.  “Ezra, why they hell do you do that?  Just to see if any of us would catch on?”

Ezra shrugged.  “No, I was just hoping you’d bring some whiskey.”

Nathan was chuckling, and opened his bag one-handedly to fetch out his bottle of medicinal spirits.  He shoved it into Ezra’s hands as he continued his work.  “Save some of that,” he ordered.

Ezra smiled as he uncorked the bottle with his teeth and spat out the cork.  As Nathan did his job, Standish took a pull from the bottle and then another, letting the medicine do its job.  “I hope this doesn’t take long,” he commented.  “Miss Angela is waiting for me back in town.  She promised me an evening of her attention.”

Buck shook his head, saying, “You don't want to keep that lady waitin'."

Ezra gave him a wide eyed look.  “God forbid!” he exclaimed, "I value my well bein'."  And he took another drink from the bottle.  He smiled warmly on the container and sighed, as Nathan took care of him.  After a moment, he stated quietly, “It’s good to be back among you.”

Chris took in the relaxed pose of the southerner, and felt a weight lifted from him -- glad that this was the conclusion to the event.  With a  snap, he’d snared the bottle from Ezra’s hand and pulled it away.  He took a long draw of it, and smiled as he saw Ezra’s disgusted reaction.  “Good to have you back,” Chris finally responded, wiping his lips on his sleeve and passing the bottle on.


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