The Ledger - the Second Half

Part 17: 

"Stop it, Chaucer!  Stop it! Damn you!" Vin shouted as the horse continued to try and force its way through the uncompromising hole. It raised one of its legs and pawed at the opening, its iron shoe clattering and sparking against the stone in its attempt to get at him. Chaucer's ears were flattened back and teeth were bared.

"I didn't do it! I didn't hurt 'im. Damn it, you stupid horse!" Vin yelled. He had reached the rear of the cave, his hand landing on his rifle. Vin realized that his heart was racing, that the horse's sudden attack had scared him half to death. And now, that over-protective creature was keeping him from helping Ezra, who was laying somewhere just outside the cave.

The horse had withdrawn its head from the cave and was looking downward, nickering and stepping about worriedly. Vin could see his own horse, Peso, standing some distance away, watching the proceedings with interest.

"Peso," Vin growled. "Can't ya tell 'im that I'm only trying to help?"

Peso just looked at him blankly and then backed away. The tracker's horse didn't want to be anywhere near the over-excited chestnut. He wasn't an idiot.

"Peso! You stupid, good-for-nothin', son-of-a ..." At the sound of his raised voice, Chaucer whinnied angrily and again tried to assault the cave with his hooves. Finding only resistance, the horse stopped and paced nervously back and forth at the cave's opening.

Damn it, that horse was gonna step on Ezra any moment now.

"Ezra! Ezra!" Vin shouted, hoping that the man was capable of hearing. "Calm down your horse!" The horse whinnied (sounding more like a growl than a horse should), snorted and glared at him again. The horse would kill him if it could get at him. And damn it, one false step from the enraged animal would be the end to Standish.

Ezra hadn't respond and Vin realized that he was on his own. His hand wrapped around the rifle as he edged his way back toward the mouth of the cave. Crap, he didn't want to do this, but if Chaucer wasn't going to let him out, he didn't have a choice. He didn't have the time to screw around, because he had no idea what shape Ezra was in at that moment.

Vin ran his hand along the cold metal of the weapon as he watched the horse pace about, looking downward, but jerking its head up every few seconds to keep a furious eye on Vin.

"What am I s'posed to do?" Vin asked softly, watching the horse's ears twitch at the sound. "He'll kill me when he finds out, but what am I s'posed to do? I can't just leave 'im out there like that. He's hurt. I gotta help 'im and you're not lettin' me. Don't cha understand? He's hurt real bad and I need to help 'im." Tanner kept his voice low, noting that the horse hadn't returned to his attack.

Chaucer peered in at him again, pivoting his eyes and whickering. Vin recalled that Ezra didn't use shouted commands; the gambler always spoke quietly to the horse, like a gentleman.

"Don't cha see? You gotta believe me. I wouldn't hurt 'im. It wasn't me that did it," Vin said, keeping his voice low. The horse continued to block the exit to the cave, watching the tracker suspiciously.

"It's me... Vin," Vin said hopefully, "Or Mr. Tanner or whatever the hell he wants to call me. You know me, don't cha boy? You know I wouldn't hurt 'im. We're friends -- him and me. I wanna help 'im." Vin dragged the gun behind him, keeping it hidden from the horse that wouldn't move out of the way.

Don't make me shoot you, he thought.  Oh God, don't make me shoot you. What'll he do when he finds out? He loves you, ya damn  fool horse.  Don't make me do it. The horse hadn't made any further aggressive moves, rather, he watched the tracker with an unsure look.

Vin drew a deep breath. Keeping one hand on the rifle, he extended he other. Have to trust 'im, Vin thought. Have to show 'im that I trust ' 'im. Chaucer's head lurched away from the moving hand and then shot forward. Vin almost drew the weapon on the animal, but the horse just sniffed at his hand and snorted.

"See, it's me -- Vin. You know me," Vin said quietly. "Now let me outta here and I'll take care of your man, okay?"

Apparently satisfied, Chaucer moved enough to let the trapped tracker leave the hole in the wall. Vin moved as quickly as he could to escape from the cave and to get to Ezra. The gambler had landed on his left side, and was lying unmoving beside the horse.

Vin immediately rolled Ezra onto his back. He felt along the hastily splinted arm, bringing a sharp groan out of the con man but nothing else.

Vin looked worriedly at Chaucer who hovered over him. He was glad to see that the animosity had faded from the animal. Vin took a moment to give the loyal horse a pat on the leg, then looked over at Peso. How had the two horses found their way into the Ridge? He and Ezra had left them on the outside, far from any route that a horse could have used to enter it.

He smiled, realizing the horses had stayed together. He was glad of that. He tried to imagine the two making their way around the Ridge, trying to find their way in, working together, knowing that their owners were somewhere inside.

"Don't worry," Vin said, checking the bandages to ensure that the wounds hadn't started bleeding again. Ezra was still far too warm. "He'll be fine." Vin didn't know if he was talking to the horse or to himself. "Yeah, he's gonna be just fine." Lost too much blood, got a fever, all shot up, broken arm, broken ribs too... yeah, he'll be fine.

Vin pulled a blanket from the cave and folded it up and placed it under Ezra's head. The gambler started muttering again. Damn it, he was hot. Vin would do anything to get his hands on some of Nathan's willow bark tea right now. The other blanket was tucked around the gambler.

"Ez, can you hear me?" Vin asked.

Ezra's eyes opened narrowly. "Mr. Tanner? What's happened?"

"Your horse just 'bout killed me, that's what happened," Vin explained as he tried to get Ezra comfortable.

"You just don't understand him..." Ezra said softly and then closed his eyes again.

"I think I understand 'im better than you think. That horse would walk through fire for you," Vin replied and then sighed when he saw Ezra's face had gone lax again. "Ez? Come on, wake up," Vin pleaded, but received no response.

The tracker sat back on his heels and sighed. The rain had stopped, but not for long. The coming clouds promised more of the same. He would have to get Ezra back to town before the precipitation started up again. Precipitation...precipitation... he rolled the word about in his head.

If there were any trees around, he could build a travois, but the area was barren -- no foliage, verdant or otherwise. He needed a wagon, something, anything, but there was nothing here to help. He could try riding double with Ezra, back to town...but those ribs. He had to keep Ezra as immobile as possible to ensure that those damn ribs didn't do any damage to his lungs.

"I gotta go, Ezra," Vin said quietly. "I need to get help. I need to get something to move you, okay?" The gambler gave no sign that he had heard. "I'll be back as soon as I can. I swear it." He grasped hold of Ezra's right hand. "Can you hear me? Do you understand? I'm coming right back. Just as soon as I can."

Hell, Vin thought. He's so damn pale. Vin wished he could stay, wished he could be in two places at once. Right now, he needed to find a way to transport the wounded man, and he wouldn't find it here.

He whistled and Peso quickly trotted up to him. Vin checked the saddle and tightened the cinch before he mounted. He turned back toward Ezra, lying still on the stony floor of the Ridge -- among the bodies of those that had died there. God, he looked so alone and helpless.

Chaucer gave Vin a bewildered look. Was the horse actually upset that he was leaving? That horse that wanted his blood a minute ago? Chaucer nickered and took a few steps toward him, craning his neck.

"Take care of 'im, Chauce," Vin said, knowing from experience that the horse would do just that. "I'll be back as soon as I can." He turned in the saddle and kicked his heels against Peso and the horse took off. Vin didn't look back, knowing that if he did he would probably have to stay.

Part 18: 

Marvin slept. The hard ride with Mr. Riley and the others, the terrible strain of seeing them all die -- of being shot at -- and then the escape from Mr. Hunger's crew had worn him out. The boy had shoved the ledger underneath him and fell into a deep sleep.

Marv dreamed of a different time and place. He dreamed of the farm where he grew up, before he had to worry about such things as feeding himself and caring about his future. Everything was fine back then. There was never a reason to worry. His parents loved him, and his older brothers were always looking out for him. His older sisters treated him like their special pet. He remembered them and tears formed in his eyes, wishing he were back with them.

He dreamed of a time when he had never heard of the Lazy G or the Split Infinity or any damn ledger. He tightened his hold on the red book.

If he could have just stayed home, none of this would have happened to him. There was always plenty of work to do on the farm, and always something to eat. He'd never go hungry there. Even though his older brothers had first crack at inheriting the land, Marv was sure that someone would keep him on, for a while at least. They would have taken care of him.

His mother had cried buckets when he told them he was leaving. His father had looked at him with those deep brown eyes of his and silently wished him well. His sister Tabby had hugged him and shoved cookies into his pockets. His brother Max pulled him aside and told him, "Don't be stupid now, boy. You come on home now if you get the need to."

I'm jus' not cut out for this kind'a life, Marv thought. A soul like mine jus' don't take to bein' shot at. I wish Mr. Riley had never asked me if I wanted to come 'long. It would'a been better if one of the other guys went. Maybe Lester or Charlie or Paul... and they could be here instead of me. They're older and smarter. They would'a known what to do.

It would'a been better if I just stayed put and mucked out after the horses.

Marv turned restlessly in his shallow hiding place. He didn't even hear the sound of the approaching horses, or hear the voices. It wasn't until the gun was cocked that he came suddenly awake. He wasn't even fully sitting up when the bullet struck him in the head.

Part 19: 

"What you think happened to 'im?" JD asked, squatting beside the body.

Josiah carefully looked the man over. He had a blood-soaked cloth around his leg. It wasn't difficult to discern how the man had died. The question was why. "Shot through the leg," Josiah said. "Looks like he was bled dry." A dead horse was visible some distance away, laying on its side.

Chris stood above the two, glowering at the scene. A dead man, in the middle of nowhere. A dead man here, not far from the path that Ezra, Nathan, Vin and Buck should have been traveling along. What the hell happened to them?

Damn it, Chris thought, we should'a left last night. Rain or no rain, we should'a gone then. Chris lowered his head. Buck and Vin and Nathan and Ezra...where the hell were they?

"I think his name is Phoenix or Fonie or Phonse or somethin' weird like that," JD said. "Seen 'im 'round town a time or two. I think he works a ranch somewhere to the east -- foreman, maybe. I think he..." JD stopped short at the sound of a single gunshot. They all turned toward the report and listened for a moment.

"Chris?" Josiah questioned.

Larabee fixed his jaw and quickly mounted his horse. He didn't even wait for the other two to follow suit before he headed off, past the dead horse, in the direction of the gunfire.

Part 20:

Buck turned when he heard the shot fired and looked toward the stand of trees in the distance.

Nathan halted his horse beside Wilmington and asked, "Think it's trouble?" The two had left the Parker residence early that morning. The roof had held up under the night's heavy rain and Buck had decided that it would be best if they lit off for home before the rain returned.

Buck sighed as he looked toward the trees. It was probably just someone out hunting jackrabbits. He really wanted to get back to Four Corners, and the fact that something was now standing in his way was rather... well... irritating.

It was only one shot... probably nothing... but then again...

"Yeah, better go check it," Wilmington said, turning his horse toward the stand.

They were more than halfway there when they spotted three men on horses headed toward the same goal. Buck squinted across the distance and smiled. "Hey, it looks like Chris... and Josiah and JD, too."

Nathan frowned. "What you think they're doin' out here?"

Buck shrugged. "Can't say I know, but it looks like they're headed the same place as us. 'Spect we can ask 'em when we get there."

The two brought their horses to a quicker gait, and noticed the others doing the same. They converged on the stand at almost the same time. Buck was about to shout to Chris when a man with graying-black hair stepped out of the trees.

"Help me!" the man said. "They shot 'im!"

Chris looked first to Buck and Nathan before he dismounted. "Who's shot?"

"The boy!" The man insisted. "They got the boy!"

Nathan quickly climbed down from his horse and grabbed his bag. He hurried after the man and found a second man -- tall and lean -- standing over a boy. The kid couldn't have been any older than thirteen. The man was pressing a cloth against the boy's head and looking nervously at the newcomers.

"Got shot in the head," the second man said matter-of-factly.

Nathan knelt down beside the boy and took over for the second man who stood quickly, rubbing his hands on his pants.

"He gonna be all right, Nate?" Chris asked.

Nathan nodded slowly as he examined the wound. "Could be. Looks like he just got scalped a bit.  Never know with head wounds."

Chris looked up at the two men, who hovered nearby. "What's his name?"

"Bobby," the older man replied quickly.

"Gonna be alright, Bobby," Chris said to the unconscious boy. "Just hang in there." He then turned to the two men. "I'm Chris Larabee," Chris said and nodded to the others. "That's Nathan Jackson and over there is JD, Buck and Josiah. Nathan's a damn fine healer, he'll take care of your boy." 

The older man nodded, and realized that an introduction was in order. "Hunger," he said, "Dean Hunger. That's Pete Cummings."

"Who shot 'im?" Chris asked, looking between the two men.

The man with the graying hair pointed northward. "Came from over there."

"How many?" Chris asked.

"One, I think..." Dean said and then nodded as if he had come to a decision. "One man. Took off on a horse."

Chris nodded toward Buck and JD, and the two went for their horses without another word. Chris squatted beside Nathan as the healer pulled supplies out of his bag. The wound looked bloody, but not deep.

"What're you all doin' out here?" Chris asked.

"Checkin' on the stock," Hunger replied.

"Isn't this the old Vaughn spread?" Josiah asked.

Hunger shrugged. "Open territory. Nobody got any claim on it now."

Pete spoke up then. "Mr. Hunger, you think they were shootin' cause someone's upset about the cattle?"

Hunger nodded. "I 'spect so. Damn shame a child has to suffer for it."

Nathan and Josiah both nodded in agreement. Chris watched Hunger and Cummings who continued to hover nervously over the boy.

"Where are Vin and Ezra?" Chris asked the healer, who stopped in his work and gave Chris a startled look.

Part 21: 

Buck and JD headed off side-by-side in the direction indicated by Hunger, looking for any sign of the man who had shot the boy. Buck thought it was strange that he hadn't seen anyone when they approached the area from the north. He and Nathan should have seen the shooter, but stranger things had happened. Hunger and Cummings did seem a little nervous, but who wouldn't be after one of their group had been shot in the head?

"Buck, hey, Buck," JD called across to him.

"What is it, Kid?" Buck asked, keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of the attacker.

"We found a guy who'd been shot, back there a ways. Dead.  Think it was the same shooter?"

"Couldn't tell ya, JD," Buck replied, and furrowed his brow. A dead man and a kid that'd been shot in the head -- this didn't look good.

"Where's Ezra and Vin?" JD asked innocently.

Buck pulled to a stop and gave JD a steady look. "What do ya mean? They went home yesterday."

JD stopped and shook his head. "Nah, Buck, they never came home."

"Shit," Buck muttered, increasing his attempt to find the attacker. Someone was out here shooting at kids, had killed a man, now Vin and Ezra were missing. "Shit," he said again, not having any better word for it.

He swung his head around abruptly when he caught a movement -- a horseman. He squinted at the distant image for a second, and then he heard the sound of gunfire. The horseman was firing at them. Wilmington pulled his rifle from its scabbard and aimed. He'd be damned if he let this bastard get a shot in at him. He saw JD pull out his Colts.

Wilmington gazed down the sites of his rifle, aiming it at the approaching man, who held his rifle high... a sawed off Winchester. What the hell? Buck lowered his weapon and gave JD a shove to ruin his aim.

JD looked back at him in disbelief until Buck explained, "It's Vin!"

Vin came toward them at full gallop. "Nathan!" he shouted as he approached. "Where's Nathan!"

JD and Buck both pointed back toward the trees and Vin paused his horse beside them.

"What's goin' on, Vin?" JD asked.

"Ezra's in a bad way. Gotta get help," Vin said. "I was headed out here to get some wood together for a travois."

Buck asked quickly, "Ezra? Where?"

Vin nodded behind him. "Kotter's Ridge. Had to leave 'im alone. God, I hope he's alright. Had to go get help. Had to get somethin' I could carry 'im with."

Buck declared, "You go on and get Nate. I'll see to 'im." And before anyone could speak another word, he drove his heels into his horse's sides and took off toward Kotter's Ridge.

Vin watched Buck's departure, grateful that Ezra wouldn't have to be alone for any longer than necessary, then turned toward the trees that the two had indicated and put his tired horse back in motion.

"Nate's lookin' after this boy that got shot in the head," JD explained, catching up to Vin.

"A boy?" Vin slowed looking over to JD. "This boy didn't have some sort of a ledger, did he?"

JD frowned. "I didn't see no ledger. The men who were with 'im said that the guy who shot him was out here somewhere so we'd better look sharp."

Vin drew to a full stop. "Were these men from the Split Infinity?"

JD smiled. "How'd you know? One of 'em's Mr. Hunger himself."

JD was surprised at the look that crossed the usually quiet and even-tempered tracker. Vin looked like he was set to kill. The tracker took off as quickly as his winded horse would allow and JD followed close behind toward the small stand of trees.

Part 22: 

Ezra stared up at the clouded sky and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. He hurt so badly and felt so hot and miserable.  He couldn't quite fathom why.

He thought he heard Chaucer snorting, but couldn't see him...just the slate-colored clouds covering the sky above him.

He blinked and tried to turn over, but a blackness came over him at the attempt and he found himself laying on his back again looking at the clouds.

He remembered the shootout and then...and then...wasn't Vin here? He seemed to remember Vin. Where had Vin gone? He sighed. God, he felt so tired, so hot. And pain, there was pain, too. Why did he hurt so badly?

The sky was just a mass of gray. He watched the sky, looking for something that he might recognize. Sometimes he would see figures in the and rabbits and bear and once a locomotive -- from engine to caboose with smoke trailing behind it -- but this time there was nothing...just the formless clouds... a sheet of gray above him. Gray and gray.. nothing but gray.

"Vin?" he called tentatively. He heard Chaucer again. Was he alone? No one responded. Of course he was alone.

His vision began to darken around the edges. Was it night already? Dimmer and dimmer still, black encroaching on the gray. "Vin?" Ezra called again. And still it grew dimmer.

Part 23: 

Nathan told Chris and Josiah what he knew about the two missing members as he worked on the boy, that they had left the previous evening -- about an hour apart. "Neither of 'em made it home?" Nathan asked incredulously.

"No," Chris answered curtly as he paced within the cover of the trees. Larabee look at the wounded boy and then at Hunger and Cummings. The two men were as nervous as cats. Why would someone be taking pot shots at kids? What the hell was going on? Where were Ezra and Vin? What could have happened to them?

"He gonna wake up?" Cummings asked.

Nate nodded. "Should," he said. "It's not as bad as it looks."

Conversation stopped as two horses galloped into the area.

"Vin?" Chris called in surprise when the tracker appeared with JD coming up behind him.

Vin was off his horse and on Dean Hunger before anyone could say a thing. He landed one furious blow across the man's jaw, sending him to the ground. Josiah and Nathan were too stunned to move, as Dean struggled to get to his feet.

Pete went for his pistol and may have had a chance to use it if Chris hadn't answered his movements, drawing his own weapon.

"Wouldn't try it," Chris admonished. He didn't know what was going on, but he knew which side he stood on. If Vin saw fit to attack Dean Hunger, well, he must have had a pretty good reason for it.

Pete switched his attention from the man who had struck his boss to the man in black who currently was pointing a rather impressive looking gun at his heart.

Pete wisely dropped the weapon.

Vin jerked Dean to his feet and hit him again, sending the rancher to the ground once more. Hunger cried out and brought his hands to his nose. He squeezed on it as the blood flowed.

"Ya goddamn bastard," Vin shouted at the prone man, drawing his mare's leg and pointing it at Hunger. "Did it feel good to shoot 'im when he was down?" Hunger looked back at Tanner with frightened eyes.

Josiah was finally in motion. He grabbed Vin by his shoulder and hauled him back. "Vin?" he cried, turning the tracker away from Hunger. "What're you doin'?"

Hunger released his hold on the broken nose and drew his gun, but had no chance to fire as Chris changed his aim and fired one well-placed shot between Hunger's legs. The rancher jerked and dropped the gun as if it were made of molten lead. He looked between Vin and Chris in terror.

JD was standing beside Larabee, both guns drawn -- aiming one at each of the two men from the Split Infinity. He didn't know what was going on, but he was more than willing to back up his friends.

Vin shrugged out of Josiah's grip and turned to Nathan. "Nate, Ezra's in a bad way." He kicked at Hunger and said, "This son of a bitch shot 'im; him and his friends done it. God, Nate, he's got a bad fever and his arm's broke. I had to leave 'im."

Nathan looked down at the boy who seemed to be resting well enough. He could do no more for the kid at this point. Jackson stood quickly and grabbed his bag. "Where?"

"Kotter's Ridge," Vin said, pointing the way. "Buck's already headed there. Nathan, you gotta hurry."

Nathan nodded and ran to the horses. Vin started to follow, but he stopped and turned back to Chris. "There's some sort of a ledger..."

Chris noted the response from the two men. Dean and Pete stiffened at Vin's words. It was all he needed. "So," Larabee said, leaning over Hunger as Josiah grabbed hold of Pete. "A ledger?"

"Ain't no such thing!" Pete shouted.

Dean did his best to regain some of his dignity. He brushed at the blood splatters on his shirt and said, "It ain't no business of yours."

Chris smiled, a cold dark smile. He glanced at the pallid boy and then his gaze followed Nathan as the healer departed toward Kotter's Ridge. Ezra a bad way...and this man was to blame? Chris had no doubt that one of these men had shot that kid, too. Chris grabbed onto Hunger's already broken nose. "Oh, you can bet that ledger's become my business."

Part 24: 

Buck slowed his horse as he entered Kotter's Ridge. He wasn't ready for the sight that greeted him. "Mother of God," he muttered, seeing the bodies strewn about in the confined area. He quickly spotted Chaucer and headed to him.

The chestnut nickered to him as he dismounted, stretching his neck and pawing at the earth. Wilmington made his way to the still form that lay protected by the animal.

"Ezra?" Buck called as he sank down beside his friend. God, he was so pale. Wilmington sighed in relief when he saw the gambler draw another breath. "Ezra?" he said again, gently shaking the man.

Ezra's eyes opened, watery and distant. "Vin?" Ezra called softly, staring upward.

"It's me, Buck," Buck replied. "Vin sent me."

"Buck..." Ezra turned toward him, but didn't seem to focus on him.

"It's gonna be okay," Buck said reassuringly. "Nathan's gonna be here in a minute."

Ezra blinked at him. "Can we get out of the rain?"

Buck paused and then stated, "It ain't rainin', pard. Not yet at least."

Ezra squinted. "Feels like rain..." he said, his voice drifting off and his eyes fluttered shut.

"Ez, come on... Ez?" Buck said, laying his hand on Ezra's chest. "Stay with me, okay, hoss?"

Dammit, he thought as Ezra failed to respond to him. "Just hang in there a bit. We're gonna get you some help.  Nathan will be here quicker than you can imagine, then we'll getcha on home. You can rest up all you want in that big ol' feather bed of yours. He'll probably make you drink some of those awful potions of his, but I'll sneak somethin' in fer ya -- maybe a little somethin' to take of the nasty edge to that stuff. Listen though, you gotta try and stay awake, okay?" Buck waited, but the gambler showed no sign of hearing him.

Buck sighed and tried to get comfortable on the hard rocky floor of Kotter's Ridge. "Don't you worry none, ol' Buck is here and he'll take care of you."

It seemed to take forever, but Nathan finally appeared. The healer looked about the Ridge in fascination. He hurried to where Buck was trying to cool down Ezra, with Chaucer standing patiently nearby.

"Nate," Buck said worriedly. "He was awake for a minute, but he hasn't stirred since then. He's got a hell of a fever." He sat back to let Nathan in. "He didn't seem to know what was goin' on either."

"Oh, damn," Nathan said when he saw Ezra's condition. He immediately came to the gambler's side and started tending him. He was just finishing up when Vin and Chris appeared. Chris was riding double with the boy. The gunslinger was holding up the kid, but the young cowboy seemed to be at least somewhat conscious of what was going on, looking about himself and blinking stupidly.

Vin leapt down from his mount and ran the last few steps to where Nathan was hunched over Ezra. "He okay?"

Nathan sighed. "He's pretty out of it, Vin. Didn't stir at all as I tended 'im."

Vin's hopeful expression fell. "Ah, hell," he muttered. "So he thinks I just left 'im."

Buck clapped a hand on Vin's shoulder. "He was awake when I got here, pard. He knows I was here. I told 'im that you sent me."

Vin nodded and smiled his thanks to Buck.

"Nate -- how is he?" Chris asked, over the shoulder of the boy.

Nathan truthfully responded, "I don't know. He's got a pretty bad fever right now and lost a lot of blood. He's got a busted up arm and a couple of broken ribs but they're set for now. Vin did a good job. We're just gonna have to wait it out, I reckon."

The boy, who had been rather unaware up until that moment, suddenly snapped to attention. He cried out and tried to wrench himself out of Chris' grasp.

"Buck!" Chris called, trying to keep a handle on the injured boy, who was looking about in a panic, trying furiously to get away. Chris' horse, Job, pranced about, unsure of what was going on.

Buck ran to the mounted pair and grabbed hold of the boy before the kid was able to twist out of Chris' grasp and brought him to the ground as gently as possible. When the boy gained his feet, he tried to run.

"Calm down, kid, calm down," Buck soothed as the boy thrashed about.

"No, no, no!" the boy moaned. "Run for it! Gotta run!"

"Bobby!" Chris shouted, stepping down beside the boy. "Bobby! It's okay!  Calm down!"

Vin stood beside Ezra and looked first to the struggling boy and then to the carnage that was strewn about them.

"Shit, Chris," Vin said. "He was here when this happened." The tracker looked about at the dead bodies. The boy must have seen all of these men die, must have been among them. The kid must have been aimed at, and fired upon. "Dang it, get 'im out of here!"

Buck and Chris dragged the panicked boy a dozen yards away, to a stone that was large enough to hide behind. Once they forced the kid to the ground and held him still, the boy stopped his efforts to escape. Unable to see the dead men any longer, the fight went out of him and he became as placid and indifferent as he was before.

"Bobby?" Chris said, sitting next to the boy. "Bobby? You okay now?"

The boy continued to stare off into space, acting as if he didn't even recognize his own name.

Nathan was with them by then, sitting in front of the boy, checking his eyes and looking again at the head wound. "Concussion," Jackson concluded. "He should be all right with a little time. We'll just need to keep 'im calm."

Vin was sitting beside Ezra by the time Nathan went back to him, just talking quietly to the unconscious man. The tracker looked up at Nathan and said nothing as the healer returned to caring for Standish.

"We should get them out of here before the rain starts up again," Nathan said as he poured water into a cloth and used it to wipe down Ezra's pale face.

"I sent Josiah and JD back with the prisoner's. They'll bring a wagon," Chris responded. He pulled an oilcloth out of his saddlebag. "We can set up some sort of a lean-to in the meantime."

They built up a little tent around Ezra with the oilcloth and swaddled the boy in blankets as the rain began to fall again. Vin and Nathan sat beside Ezra, keeping an eye on him, while Buck stayed with the dazed boy. Chris paced between the two groups, waiting for the wagon to appear. He had decided to keep the injured parties separated due to the boy's earlier behavior. The last thing Larabee wanted was for that boy to start thrashing about and cause any further injury to Ezra.

Larabee stood above Buck and the kid, watching as Buck spoke soothingly to the boy. The young cowboy just stared vacantly into space. From time to time he would jerk as if stung, as if a fleeting thought suddenly reached him, but then he would be quiet again. Buck pulled at the blanket around the boy's head, trying to keep the rain off his face.

Buck looked up at Larabee and grinned half-heartedly, the rain running off the brim of his hat. "'Spect he'll be okay," Wilmington concluded. "It'd be good if we could get 'im outta here."

Larabee nodded. "Josiah and JD are coming," he declared. Then, satisfied that the boy was doing as well as could be expected, Chris retrieved a saddlebag from his horse and pressed his way into the tiny lean-to with the others.

Nathan and Vin, sitting shoulder to shoulder, nodded to him as Larabee found a dry patch near Ezra's feet.

"What happened, Vin?" Chris asked. "How the hell did he get so hurt?"

Vin shrugged. "Don't know much of the story, just that Hunger and Cummings were shootin' at 'im."

"What was he doin' out here?" Chris asked sternly. "Doesn't he know better than to come to this place? What the hell was goin' on? Why was he alone?"

"Ah," Nathan began, seeing Vin looking at him. "It's kinda my fault, Chris."

Chris was surprised. "Tell me more, Nate."

Jackson dipped his head and turned his attention to Ezra. "Dunno why he came here, but I think I may have given him reason to leave when he did."

Chris watched the healer tend to their stricken member. He could see the concern and guilt that etched Jackson's face. "What sort of reason you give 'im?"

"I said something that I shouldn't 'ave," Jackson replied.

Chris nodded and glanced at the saddlebag, remembering why he had retrieved it. He pulled out a large but thin book, bound in red leather. Up until a short time ago, it has been stashed in Hunger's saddlebag, wrapped in a shirt. Hunger had lunged at the gunslinger when the book had come clear of its hiding place. The movement had been reason enough for Vin to knock him to the ground again.

Larabee ran his hand over the tooled surface, noting the dark splotches where the kids' blood had been splattered on it. He glanced back to where the young cowboy was hiding behind the rocks with Buck. Chris had thumbed through the book briefly when he first laid hands on it, but there had been no time to do anything more than note that the book was a list of sums with some sort of foreign writing in it. At that moment, Larabee had no time to do anything more than to shove the book into his saddlebag before ensuring that JD and Josiah had the prisoners under control. He'd had other places where he needed to be.

The rain pattered on the waterproof cloth above them as the gunslinger opened the book and gazed at the lines of numbers that filled it. Incomprehensible notations were written beside the numbers and odd notes were scribbled in the margins. The words made no sense at all. Was it another language? A code? He puzzled over the ledger, but could gain nothing from it beyond the fact that the Split Infinity was damn profitable.

It was an account of finances, obviously. He'd kept a ledger himself at one point. When he owned that ranch with Sarah and Adam, he had tracked expenses, but the Larabee ledger was all rather simple in comparison to this.

"So?" Nathan asked. "What's it all about? Why did all these people have to get hurt or killed for that thing?"

"Dunno, Nate," Chris said. "Can't make heads or tails of it." It would take someone who understood this sort of thing to tell him any more. He sighed and closed up the book and looked out at the rain.

Part 25: 

Marvin watched as the room slowly came into focus. He was lying on a cot. There was a dark-skinned man sitting beside a bed. In the bed was a man, who was very pale and not moving. Marv watched the dark man tending the sick one. The sick one looked vaguely familiar, but Marv couldn't quite grasp why.

He turned his head and noticed a man in black clothing leaning against one wall and another man in buckskins sitting on a chair. The man in buckskins was talking, but the words seemed all watery and the boy couldn't quite put it all together. His head hurt something fierce. It felt like something had clocked him pretty hard. He moved his hand to try and figure out why his head hurt so much, and was surprised at how much effort the small movement took.

The man in black looked at him and said something. Marvin blinked at him, trying to clear his mind enough to understand.

"Bobby?" the man said. "Bobby? Are you awake?"

Bobby, Marvin thought. Who the heck is Bobby?

The man in black and the dark-skinned man were suddenly on either side of him. "Bobby?" the dark man said. "How you feelin'?"

Marv turned to the dark man and wondered where he was. The last thing he remembered.. the last thing...

Marvin clasped his hands against his stomach, feeling for that ledger. He had to have the ledger still! He felt around desperately beside him. Where the heck was it? He couldn't have lost it. Oh God, what if I lost it? The two men grabbed him and tried to hold still.

"Calm down, Bobby!" the man in black ordered. Again... Bobby...

"It's okay. It's okay," the dark man said soothingly.

The man in buckskins was beside him now and said, "We got those men from the Infinity, those men who shot you. We got that red book from 'em."

Marvin relaxed then and looked to the buckskin man and said,"I gotta get it to Four Corners."

The man in black smiled. "Well, you managed that. We're there now," he said.

Marvin sighed, hoping he could believe the man in black and then asked, "Who's Bobby?"

The three men exchanged worried glances until the one in black seemed to realize something. He nodded to the other two and said, "It was Hunger that gave us that name. " He then looked down at the boy and asked, "What's your name, son?"

"Marvin Carter," Marv replied. The men introduced themselves to him, so Marv got to put names on those faces. Then they pointed at the man in the bed and gave him a name, too.

Marvin looked again at the sick man who was now named Ezra Standish and tried again to remember where he knew him from. "The man in the purple jacket..." he said finally. He looked back at the men who were standing over him. "If it weren't for 'im, I'd be dead right now. If he didn't show when he did, that ledger would be long gone and back in Mr. Hunger's safe, that's for sure."

"Can you tell us what happened?" Chris asked.

Marvin paused for a moment, wondering if he should tell these men anything. The man in the purple jacket was with them, so he figured they must be all right. "It was Reid and Karl that got the ledger. I don' t know how they done it but they did. Then Mr. Riley said that we should take it to Four Corners, 'cause they got those Seven lawmen there and it'd be safe." Marv paused for a moment and then continued, "So Mr. Riley said I could come and so I came. We rode off to Four Corners and then we come up on that place in the rocks."

Marv closed his eyes at the memory. "Mr. Riley was up in front and I was ridin' 'long side 'im. Mr. Riley was the first 'un to get shot, he was. They shot 'im in the face and...he just kinda lurched back, like.. like..." The boy went silent.

"Marvin?" Nathan said quietly, laying a hand on the kid's shoulder.

Marv nodded, trying to be strong. These were grown men who wouldn't put up with him acting like a baby. He continued, "Then Reid shouted, 'cause they got 'im, too. He jus' clutched at his gut and tried to hang on, but they shot down 'is horse. Then Karl came chargin' up at me and says, 'Run for it!' and so we did jus' that."

The boy opened his eyes and looked from one man to the other. "Then those men, they started shootin' like they was crazy and Karl and me tried to make it out." The boy raised his hand to touch his forehead and pulled it away, startled when he felt the bandage. "I ducked down, 'cause they was shootin' and I lost my hold.  I... I fell off my horse." The boy covered his eyes with his hands. He couldn't let them see him cry. "I jus' fell off. I was so scared and Karl, he turned back to get me. He was turnin' back when they shot down his horse and then they got 'im, too."

"He was shot and layin' there and he says to me to lay still, like I was dead, and that's the last he said." The boy pulled away his hands and looked up to Vin. "And so I did and I lay still like a rabbit and they let me alone, but then Mr. Hunger said they was gonna check the saddlebags for the ledger and I knew if they looked in Karl's they'd have it. Mr. Riley had given it to 'im to carry 'cause he figgured it would be safer that way."

"Karl, he got 'imself killed 'cause of me and he was tryin' to get that ledger away from Mr. Hunger so I knows I had to do somethin' 'bout it. Nobody was lookin' so I figgured it was time to get it and that's when that man there showed up." Marvin nodded to Ezra and figured he shouldn't do that again 'cause it made his head feel like it was gonna split. "He made it so I could get away. All those men was shootin' at 'im and that one named Pete near 'bout got me I think. I saw Mr. Standish do what he could for me and it ended up him gettin' shot."

The boy paused for a moment and said, "I thought he was dead. I dinnent mean for 'im to get hurt. He gonna be all right?"

"We're just waiting for him to wake up now," Nathan said.

Marv blinked at the healer and asked, "Is he gonna wake up soon?"

Nathan smiled thinly. "We're just gonna have to wait a bit."

Chris squatted beside the bed so that he was eye level with the boy. "Tell me, Marvin, what's so damn important about that ledger. I showed it to a man at the bank and he couldn't understand it. The notes have to be the key."

Marv's face fell at the news. "I don't know," he said. "All I know is that Mr. Riley thought it was important. Mr. Riley and Karl and Reid...they was goin' on about how it was enough to ruin Mr. Hunger. They was sayin' we gotta get it to a place where it'd be safe."

The boy sighed. "They're all dead now, dead.. all dead. I don't know nuthin' 'bout that book 'cept that it would explain everythin' 'bout Mr. Hunger." He looked to each of them in succession. "You gotta be able to know what it says. Mr. Riley said to bring it to Four Corners 'cause those Seven men they got would keep it safe."

"It's got some kinda code in it," Chris explained. " Can you think of anyone who would know how to read it?"

Marv shook his head, and again remembered not to move his head. "I don't even think that Mr. Riley could. He just knew that Mr. Hunger put it all down in there. Mr. Riley kep' sayin' that it was all down in there."

Chris glowered in frustration and the boy sunk down in the cot, trying to get some distance from the man in black -- even if it was only a few inches.

Larabee spoke again, "Do you know what Hunger was putting down in there? Your boss must have had some idea."

"I don't know. Maybe somethin' about some missing cattle, but I don't know no more," Marvin said, his lip trembling. His ran his hand over his mouth in an attempt to hide this weakness, but he was about ready to cry again. "Why can't you read it? Mr. Riley and Karl and Reid were good men. Can't ya see what a waste it'd be if they just died for nothin'? And me and him gettin' hurt, too," Marv said, pointing to Ezra. "You can't tell me that it was all for nuthin'."

Part 26:

Chris picked up the leather-bound book and slammed it again on the desk, then stalked back toward the cells that held Dean Hunger and Pete Cummings. Cummings looked frightened. Hunger, his eyes swollen and his nose taped up and red, stared back at him smugly. This was not the first time Larabee had tried this approach with these men, but Chris figured that they might be more cooperative after a day in jail.

"You're going to explain what kinda code you got written in there, and you're going to explain it to me now," Chris demanded as he approached Hunger's cell.

Dean just smiled, keeping a few steps back from the bars and the furious man beyond them. "It's just a ledger -- a list of sums. I'd like it back so that I can return to running my ranch."

Chris smiled darkly. "I don't think so. The judge is on his way at this moment. You're going to be tried for the murders of Jake Riley, Reid Manson and Karl Hoffman, and the attempted murders of a child -- Marvin Carter -- and of lawman Ezra Standish."

Hunger just smiled. "You take the word of an addle-pated boy over mine? He can't even see straight. How's he supposed to be able to get the story right? I'm a well-respected businessman in my area. Those men from the Lazy G stole from me."  Hunger shrugged. "I didn't shoot that boy. I already told you what I witnessed. Someone shot him and rode off to the north. A dispute over grazing rights, no doubt. Your men didn't bother to track down the shooter. Riley, Manson and Hoffman tried to ambush ME in Kotter's Ridge. I was fighting for my very life against them. It was purely self-defense. And that lawman of yours didn't know what the hell he was doin'. He showed up too late to know what was goin' on and attacked innocent citizens. He should be put on trial for the murder of four of my men. He's a firebrand. He should hang for what he done."

Hunger saw the anger flare in Larabee's eyes and unconsciously took a step backward.

"The keys, Josiah," Chris growled to the huge man who was sitting behind the desk. "Give me the goddamn keys."

"Chris," Josiah said calmly but it was not difficult for the prisoners to see the anger in his face as well. "We had best keep these men in one piece until Judge Travis arrives. We can't add to the bruises that our brother Vin already inflicted."

Chris didn't move, but rather stared back at Hunger. Hunger returned the gaze evenly, smiling at the realization that Larabee couldn't prove his case.

Chris grabbed the book from the desk and took a moment to give the inhabitants of the cell one more deadly glare before leaving the jail and heading back toward the clinic.

He hated the fact that Hunger was right. Although he knew, without a doubt, that Hunger's version was wrong in every sense, Chris realized that convincing a jury of that would not be easy. The only witness was a boy with a head injury -- and the kid didn't seem to know much of anything. Even Marvin agreed that Ezra had arrived too late to the scene to witness the original attack.

Getting Hunger to decode the ledger would be a trick. The bank manager had gone through the book, but had found nothing unusual outside of the coded notes. The ranch was profitable, that was the only thing that was obvious. What Chris needed was someone who understood underhanded dealings and slight of hand.

Chris clutched the ledger with a feeling of repugnance. The damn thing had caused the deaths of seven men, had injured that boy and.... Chris quickened his step.

He continued up the stairs to Nathan's clinic, hoping for better news today. Ezra hadn't stirred once since Buck's brief conversation with him. That had been almost two days ago. They all kept a close watch on Standish, hoping that he came around soon. The healer had been able to stop the infection that had set in. The fever had finally broken, but the blood loss had taken its toll. Ezra just refused to awaken.

Chris opened the door to the clinic and wasn't surprised to find both Buck and Vin with Ezra. The two of them had hardly left the gambler since their arrival back in town. They all took turns keeping an eye on Ezra, but Vin and Buck seemed to spend more time in the clinic than any of the others.

"Where's Nate?" Chris asked, tossing the hated ledger onto a table.

"Stepped out for a bit," Vin said. "I think he went to check on Marv." The boy had been moved out of the clinic when it was apparent that he only needed rest, and had been installed in the boarding house.

Chris grabbed a chair and pulled it up beside Vin's. Tanner and Wilmington were seated on either side of the bed, keeping an eye on the unmoving inhabitant. "Any change?"

"Sleepin' still," Vin replied. "Nate said that if he don't wake soon, it'll be trouble. He's gotta have somethin' to drink. With all that blood he lost, he's just gonna dry up if we don't get some water in 'im."

Chris sighed at the irony of it. They had found Ezra and brought him home. Nathan had patched him up as good as new, took care of the infection, bound up the broken bones. The fever had raged but eventually left him. Ezra was essentially, fine, but too weak to awaken. And if he didn't wake soon, then there'd be no hope for him.

"We were just talkin' to him a bit," Buck said. "I was thinkin' that maybe he'd have somethin' to add to the conversation and come on out and say it."

The three men sat silently, watching the fourth breathe slowly. Damn, Chris thought, Ezra was still so terribly pale. Larabee had seen the extent of the injuries, had heard Vin's take on what had happened -- how Hunger had shot Ezra in the leg while he was already down and helpless.

Son of a bitch. Larabee wished he had aimed for flesh instead of dirt when he took that shot at Hunger.

Chris glanced over at the ledger on the table and he growled, "If this is only about money, I swear, I'm gonna horsewhip that Dean Hunger."

"I'll hold 'im for ya," Vin responded darkly.

"And I'll hold down Cummings," Buck added.

Ezra's breathing changed suddenly, becoming more of a gasp, and all three men lurched forward.

"Ezra! Don't you give up now," Chris demanded.

"Come on, pard, hang in there," Buck pleaded.

"You can do it, Ezra, come on, wake up," Vin encouraged.

Ezra gasped again and stirred slightly. His right arm raised minutely, and then fell back beside him. He settled down for a moment and then furrowed his brow as Vin gently rested a hand on his shoulder. Finally, Ezra's eyes open.

Ezra looked warily at the men at his bedside. "Why're ya'll lookin' at me like that?" he asked hoarsely.

"Damn it, Ezra!" Buck said, jumping to his feet and grabbing the water pitcher that Nathan had left nearby. "Why we all lookin' at you like what? Like we're worried 'bout you?"

Chris and Vin had Ezra sitting up before he could form a protest and Buck shoved the glass at him. Chris took it and helped Ezra to drink what he could before they settled him back down again. Ezra sighed and looked back at them. "I feel rather poorly," Ezra commented.

"Yeah, well, that figures," Buck agreed.

"Glad to have you back, Ez," Vin said.

Chris leaned forward and said, "I got a job for you to do when you're feelin' up to it."

"A job?" Ezra asked suspiciously.

Part 27:

Ezra sat with several pillows shoved behind his back. His left arm was immobilized at his side, and he tried to move the right as little as possible as he turned the pages of the leather-bound book.

He had been going through the ledger for several hours now, scanning each page, adding up the columns in his head and making 'tsk tsk' sounds from time to time. Several times already, Chris or Vin had approached him, asking what he had found and Ezra had shaken his head at them, telling them to come back later.

At one point he called for his journal and several past issues of the Clarion, which were delivered promptly. JD was put in charge of the archived newspapers, rifling through them to find the dates Ezra specified and laying them out on the bed for Ezra to scan through. Vin was later sent to retrieve a strong box that had been secreted under the floorboards of Ezra's rented room.

Finally, Ezra closed the ledger.

"Well?" Chris asked.

Ezra smiled. "That is a deep subject, Mr. Larabee."

"What you find out?" Chris demanded.

Ezra sighed. "I have discovered that Mr. Hunger has been a very bad boy."

"Can ya be a bit more specific than that, Ezra?" Buck prompted.

Ezra smiled winningly and said, "Let us begin with the notations. Some of these entries are ... well... rather interesting when you discover the way to read them."

"Ah-huh," Vin said. "And maybe you can tell us about it."

"Rather clever, really," Ezra said, flipping the ledger open to a page and running his finger along some of the unknown text. "It became clear that there was a letter-for-letter substitution code in use, but I couldn't quite uncover the correct replacements. I always seemed on the verge of catching it but it just evaded my grasp." He paused dramatically. "And then I realized that the replaced language wasn't English at all, but Latin -- very clever. The words were translated - and then coded by replacing the letters: A for I, M for N, D for L and so on -- no set pattern, mind you. Quite flummoxing really and rather involving when you consider it."

"What does it say, Ezra?" Chris asked exasperatedly.

"On June 14th there is a notation which translates to 'Use AH, VD and PC for Bank Work. Usual percentages.' Of course, you should remember that the initials match those of Alan Henkle, Vernon Dixon and Peter Cummings... three of the five men who were with Mr. Hunger at their attack at Kotter's Ridge."

"Yeah, so?" Buck started.

"They were taken from their usual duties and assigned to 'bank work' for four days."

"Ezra, is this supposed to mean something to me?" Chris asked.

"On June 16th, the bank in Eagle Bend was robbed by three men. The story, as reported by our illustrious Mrs. Travis, states that the men disappeared once the robbery was completed. It was believed that they had been secreted on one of several wagons or carriages that left town at about that time." 

"Alright," Vin said, "So it would take four days to travel from the Split Infinity to Eagle Bend and back."

"The tellers were killed in that robbery," Chris said darkly.

Ezra nodded and added, "On June 18th there is a payment received with a note that reads 'Successful endeavor. Profit equals 30% of total take. Remainder divided among participants'." Ezra shook his head and said, "Really, he should have taken no more than 20%, but apparently Mr. Hunger had acquired some form of misplaced loyalty from these men. Of course he provided the means of escape..."

Ezra continued, "Similar notations are made on or about the same dates as other robberies in the area, including a stagecoach hold-up that involved the deaths of two women."

"Son of a bitch," Buck muttered. 

"Also, the profits column seems strangely out of line with the expenditures. The number of cattle owned by the Split Infinity does not match what was originally purchased, or what could have been adequately explained by the normal procreation process... unless of course Mr. Hunger has managed to learn a means of producing triplets from each of his cows."

"Plain English, Ezra," Vin said.

"Rustling, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with a yawn. "The numbers involved seem to match up with reported losses at the surrounding ranches...significantly from the Lazy G." He cocked his head. "It would be easy to change a Lazy G bovine into one possibly belonging to Splint Infinity -- just a little brand altering. The tilted lower-case 'G' is easily altered to the infinity and arrow."

"Robbery, brand altering, rustling and murder..." Chris growled.

"It's all conjecture of course, circumstantial evidence, and not admissible in court." Ezra sat back in his bed. "He never comes right out and states anything in writing...coded or otherwise."

"So, what you're tellin' me is that for all that, you got nothing we can add to the case?" Chris asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose, tiredly.

"Proof is what is needed, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said and sighed before he reluctantly spoke again. "It appears that I may have gained from the deaths of these innocent citizens."

He touched his journal and said thoughtfully, "The gentlemen I mentioned earlier, Mr. Cummings, Mr. Dixon and Mr. Henkle, were known to me. I often found time to meet them at the gambling tables. I thought that their visits to my game were strangely random, not timed to any known paydays, and that they often carried significant amounts of cash with them. I must confess that I saw fit to lighten their burden. I have the dates and amounts recorded here." He opened the journal and idly flipped its pages.  The writing, momentarily revealed, looked nothing like English, undoubtedly another sort of code. "So it seems that I have profited from Mr. Hunger's unhappy dealings."

He tried to move the strongbox from the bedstead but couldn't lift it with his bandaged arm, so JD stepped in. Ezra nodded a thanks before he unlocked the box. He lifted the lid and retrieved what he was after. He did so quickly, letting the lid snap shut before any further contents could be revealed.

He held up a broach, shining with tiny chips of diamonds and a sapphire in the center. "Mr. Cummings came up short one evening and offered to add this to the kitty. I thought it might prove to be a winning gift to a future Mrs. Standish, so I accepted."

He looked toward Chris, his eyes tired and guilty. "It was reported in the Clarion that a Mrs. Wilkes, who met her untimely end at the stagecoach robbery, had been in possession of such a bauble. I should have made note of this at the time of my acquisition. If I had, perhaps it would have spared Mr. Riley and his compatriots of their lives. I believe I was blinded by my good fortune and somehow missed the connection when I originally read the story. I should have."

Chris took the pretty piece of jewelry from Standish and asked, "Proof?"

Ezra nodded slowly. "It should be enough to prove the rest."

Chris held the broach to the light, seeing it glitter.

"I shall find a way to repay what I have gained from these tragedies," Ezra said quietly, "But I am afraid that it shall take me some time to garner the necessary amount as my losses outweigh my gains at the moment."

"Dang it, Ezra," Buck said. "None of this is your fault, you don't owe nothin' of it."

"Just the same," Ezra said, obviously losing whatever strength he had left, "I shall repay the ill-gotten gains."

Vin stepped forward and said, "Ezra, this got nothin' to do with you."

"Profit and loss, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said as he closed his eyes again.

Part 28: 

Nathan pushed the wheelchair down the boardwalk and back toward the clinic. "Stupid ... arrogant... short-sighted... over-confident... pain-in-the-ass..." he muttered to the back of the brown-haired man who occupied the chair.

"Mr. Jackson?" Ezra responded. "Are you referring to me?"

"Oh, so you're awake again," Nathan replied. "Yeah, you. I told you not to overdo it. I told you to let me know if you were feelin' poorly and what do you do? You go and collapse on the witness stand and throw the whole courtroom into turmoil."

"And that was exactly my plan, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, turning in the chair to get a glance at Nathan's face and wincing at the pain in his side. "Besides, it wasn't a courtroom. It was the Grain Exchange."

"You could'a hurt yourself."

Ezra held up his bandaged and the other splinted. "I am already hurt so there wasn't much to add to that. Gravity is a harsh mistress. Anyway, the appearance of our poor Mr. Marvin Carter and my little display went a long way in gaining the desired outcome of the trial. We had the proof needed, but sometimes a little theatrics are needed to seal the preferred outcome."

"Are you tellin' me that you nearly fell out of this chair on purpose? Well, that figures. You had to have meant to do it," Nathan said sharply as he shoved the chair in front of him.

Josiah waited for them at the bottom of the clinic's stairs. The preacher was going to be needed to help get the obstinate gambler back into the clinic. He watched the healer approach with Ezra in the wheelchair and chuckled to himself, wondering if Nathan was berating the southerner for his risky courtroom maneuver.

Jackson continued with his admonishment, "It was a stupid thing to do."

"Of course it was, Mr. Jackson. But it seems that I am quite adept at 'stupid'," Ezra said reluctantly. "Sometimes stupid works."

The healer sighed, noting the tone of Ezra’s voice. Not again, he thought. He stopped and walked around the chair until he was facing the southerner who returned his gaze evenly.

"Sorry," Nathan said.

"Concerning?" Ezra returned.

"Sorry 'bout 'stupid'. Sorry 'bout what I said to you the other day, at Widow Parker's."

Ezra smiled. "But, Mr. Jackson, there's no reason. You spoke only the truth and one must never have to apologize for the truth."

"Well," Nathan paused. "Sometimes it seems like there's more than one version of the truth."

Ezra laughed lightly, careful not to pull his ribs. "You are beginning to sound like me, Mr. Jackson. Hardly appropriate."

Jackson looked away for a moment and then returned his gaze to Ezra. "I'm just sorry is all. I wasn't thinkin' straight and I had no right to talk to you like I did. I just wanted to apologize."

Since the two had stopped, Josiah sat down on the bottom step and waited. He had seen the stunned look on the gambler's face and knew that Nathan must have made some startling remark.

Ezra regarded Jackson for a moment, his mind running over a dozen different quips before he finally said, "Apology accepted, Mr. Jackson. Now, may we please get out of the street? I see no need for anyone else to view me in my incapacitated state."

Nathan nodded curtly and resumed his place behind the chair. "Let's getcha back to your home-away-from home," the healer said once the pair reached the stairs.

"Come on, Ezra," Josiah said, standing as they approached. "We'll carry ya back up."

"Good Lord, not again," Ezra muttered. "Can't we manage this in some less... embarrassing manner?"

"'Fraid not," Josiah responded. "Now, if you would just keep quiet and not use quite so many obscenities during this little procedure, maybe you'd draw less of a crowd."

Ezra just grumbled and waited for his humiliation.

Part 29:

"Judge Travis," Chris called as he trailed the Judge out of the Grange Exchange that had formed the makeshift courthouse.

"Mr. Larabee," the judge responded. "An interesting trial, to say the least. I can well understand why Hunger didn't want that ledger out of his sight. I would like to thank Mr. Standish for his help in understanding it. I hope that he's recovered from his...spell. I take it he has returned to the care of Mr. Jackson?"

"I need to talk to you about somethin' concerning him," Chris said.

The judge wanted to return to his daughter-in-law's house, to see his grandson and to relax for the day. He had been looking forward to that. 

The trial had been rather short in length. The boy, Marv Carter, had testified first, trembling and bandaged. His parents had sat beside him throughout most of the proceedings, crying unabashedly. They would take him home them when all was said and done. Then Standish had been brought in on a wheelchair, not looking very healthy. Standish had testified on the contents of the ledger.

Hunger's lawyer had tried to press the point that Carter couldn't possibly remember anything correctly, his head injury had muddled his mind. He had pressed the point that Standish's attack at Kotter's Ridge had been unjustified -- that Standish had murdered four of Hunger's men. He had said that Standish was continuing to malign Hunger by 'making things up' in regard to the ledger. "Pure fabrication!" the lawyer had shouted at one point. When the broach appeared, the lawyer had insisted that since Standish was in possession of the jewelry, perhaps he should be the one on trial. But the jury hadn't been convinced. The fact that the boy had looked so pitiful with his head bound in that white bandage and that Standish had almost fallen out of his wheelchair in an apparent dead-faint at the end of his testimony certainly helped. Hunger and Cummings had been declared guilty and sentenced accordingly.

Dean Hunger and Peter Cummings would hang. The sentence had brought smiles from Larabee and his men.

"You wish to talk, Mr. Larabee? Well," Travis paused. "For a few minutes only. My grandson is waiting and I can deny him nothing." His dinner with Mary could be delayed. He followed Larabee across the street to a pair of chairs set under the eaves of the mercantile.

"I need to talk to you about the possibility of reward money," Chris said quietly.

Part 30: 

The day was dry and hot. The rainstorms that had passed through were nothing but a memory. Ezra sat, leaned back in his chair, his feet propped up against the railing outside the saloon. His leg and his side still hurt enough to make him limp, but he was able to maneuver well enough. His left arm was in a sling, but his right was now functional. He smiled as he read the letter that had been recently delivered to him.

He looked up when he heard Chris and Vin approach and spoke as they reached him, "Apparently, our Mr. Marvin Carter had reached his home. He asks me to give his regards and to thank you for your hospitality. He reports that his family is well and he had a fairly enjoyable journey. His only complaint was in regard to the medication that was sent along with him. He said that it gave him a belly-ache."

"Glad to hear he made it," Chris said as he let something drop into Ezra's lap. "He's a good kid."

"I believe you've lost your grip on your possession," Ezra said, gesturing to the unfamiliar packet as he pocketed the letter.

"It's yours," Chris replied, pulling up a chair and sitting backward on it. He lay his arms across the back of the chair and watched as Ezra opened the simple wallet and fingered the bills within.

Standish felt a flush at the sight of all that cash.  His mouth went dry and he had to swallow before he could say, "There's well over a thousand dollars here."

"Let's see... it was $300 reward for the stagecoach robbery, another $300 for the bank job," Vin said.

"$100 here, another $100 there..." Chris added. "It came to $2,200 all total."

Feeling a little ill, Ezra had to say, "It should go back to the parties who lost it, shouldn't it?"  He knew that his statement sounded weak.  His hand couldn't unclench the wallet and he doubted he could give it up even if Chris were to wrestle it from him.

"I hear tell that Mr. Hunger had a lot of money in his safe," Vin said. "Judge Travis ordered that he make re-set-a..." Vin stumbled.

"Restitution?" Ezra supplied.

Vin nodded. "Yeah, that'd be it."

"Everything's been repaid," Chris added. "That money is yours free and clear."

Ezra grinned, looking like a kid at Christmas until a thought reached him.  Reluctantly, he stated, "Then the money is yours, Mr. Tanner, as you are the one who captured the mastermind of the operation."

Vin smiled, watching the gambler do battle, "Can't claim that, Ezra. I may 'ave been the one who grabbed the guy, but we wouldn't 'ave been able to hold 'im if you hadn't figured out how to keep 'im. And he would'a gotta away clean if you hadn't been there to help that kid."

Vin leaned forward and patted Ezra's shoulder. "It's yours, pard."

Ezra grinned widely, opening the packet and fanning the money.  He smiled brightly, and magnanimously stated, "Perhaps Mr. Carter..."

"Marv already has his share," Chris explained. "We sent 'im half. You got $1,100 there."

"Half?" Ezra nearly choked. 

"Kid earned it," Chris returned.

Ezra looked as if he wanted to counter the argument, but realized the truth in the matter.  Instead, he thumbed the bills, doing a quick count.  With a distraught look, he commented, "It's missing a few dollars."

Chris smiled and pulled the missing bills from his own pocket. "I figured that drinks were on the house tonight."

Ezra shook his head at Larabee's use of the phrase. "One must own the tavern to fulfill that request," he responded as he closed the packet and dropped it into his pocket.

"Way I figgure it," Vin said, "You got enough to get yerself that saloon now."

Ezra patted the packet and quietly said, "Yes, perhaps." His eyes took on a distant look. "Perhaps enough to get started but not enough to keep it going."

"I got about a hunnered saved up," Vin said. "If you need investors, I'd be in for it."

"I might be interested in a little of that action," Chris included.

Buck appeared suddenly and added, "I'm in, too! 'Specially if it means I can get my drinks for free."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "There will be no such thing! A discount perhaps, but gentlemen, a man must make his profit."

Vin and Chris both grabbed Ezra and dragged him to his feet. "Come on," Vin said. "Let's go check out the competition." 

"I bet you could buy this place," Chris ventured, turning to the saloon at their backs. "I hear tell that the owner is lookin' to move to 'Frisco."

"Golden opportunity...golden.  Let's discuss this enterprise of ours over a drink or two," Buck insisted, gesturing them to the tavern.

The four men entered the saloon, as Ezra appraised it with a new eye for detail. It was a little small, a little dark... rather dirty. The decorations had much to be desired...but...there was potential. Yes, possibly... possibly... he could make this work. They had a good business going already, he could capitalize on that and could make it grow in time.

"I don't care much for that paintin' they got there," Buck said, nodding to a muddy portrait of a severe lady in brown. "I think the first thing we should do is to replace her with a someone a little more...friendly."

"I think it needs more light in 'ere," Vin suggested. "The windows are too small. Feel's boxed in."

"Chris waved away Vin's suggestion. "Ya feel boxed in 'cause it's too small. What we'd need is more room."

"Room enough for me!" Buck responded.

"Light," Vin nodded. "Definitely needs to be lighter." He elbowed Ezra, drawing a wince from the gambler. "We'd be savin' on kerosene and candles if it were lighter in 'ere, right?"

Ezra looked between the three of them, bewildered, as he rubbed his sore arm. Did they honestly believe that this was possible? Were they actually considering investing in something he owned? Didn't they remember his track record with local saloons?

"What are you guys talkin' about?" JD asked as they approached their table. Nathan and Josiah sat with him.

"Business, kid, business. And keep yer voice down. We don't need the proprietor hearin' us," Buck said. "Now, about that there picture. I know this gorgeous little flower of a lady who would be more than happy to sit for her portrait. She's quite accommodatin'. Willin' to do just about anythin' a man might ask -- if you catch my meanin'. We'd just need to find the right guy to do the paintin'."

"Nah, that'd be too much, Buck," Vin declared quietly. "I bet fine art like that would cost a packet."

"You think that puttin' in big ol' windows is gonna be cheap? Hell, Vin, do you know how far they gotta transport those things?" Buck insisted. "They're breakable! Heck, a day don't go by when someone ain't breakin' out a window somewhere in town."

Chris said in a low voice, "I bet we can buy up the dry good store next door at a good price. We'd just have to tear out that wall there and double the size of this place."

JD and the others turned to Ezra. "What are they talkin' about, Ez?" JD whispered.

"A business venture, my good man," Ezra said with a wide grin. "And if any of you gentlemen would like to get in on it, I suggest you move quickly before this is all decided without you. Now, concerning expansion... I believe the dry good store would indeed allow for the extra room required and that establishment already includes a rather large window, which would satisfy the need for extra light as well. As for the using Mr. Wilmington's 'gorgeous little flower' as the model for the replacement portrait, well, I suppose I would need to judge her adequacy myself."

"Count me in with this judging thing!" Vin said loudly and then smirked when he realized he had raised his voice.

"I want a look at her, too," Chris said with a grin.

"That can be arranged," Buck with a knowing nod and a wink.

JD, Nathan and Josiah looked at each other as the discussion continued. "Think we should get in on this business venture, too?" JD asked the others.

Josiah took a deep pull and set down his mug. "I don't think that we could afford not to, JD," he commented and then added his own voice to the conversation. "We might want to consider enlarging the menu a bit."

"Gotta keep it simple," Buck insisted.

"It'd be great if you could get a decent dinner here," JD offered, leaning in and keeping his voice low.

Nathan shook his head as he took in the proceedings and then looked over at Ezra who was positively beaming. The gambler sat forward in his chair, as excited as a child on Christmas morning. He was smiling broadly, going on about the benefits and the detriments of providing a large variety of foods in a saloon.

"I'm in, too," Nathan said, "But only if you do somethin' about the privy out back."

"Oh God, yes," Buck said, rolling his eyes and everyone made sounds of agreement.

"Brother Nathan," Josiah said, "I believe you may have hit upon the improvement that needs to be attempted first."

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Ezra said, settling his arms on the table. " I do believe that we are getting ahead of ourselves. First things first. There will be a necessary outlay of cash."

Ezra smiled wolfishly as he watched the men find hidden cash on their persons, run off to raid a cache or head across to the bank. He leaned back in his chair and waited. Perhaps, he thought, the odds were changing and the black would outweigh the red for a change.

Yes, it was possible.

Vin had pulled a bag out of his shirt and withdrew about a dozen wrinkled bills, slapping them on the table. He looked back at Ezra and said, "Think it'll do? Think we can make this work?"

"Certainly, Mr. Tanner. We'll be making a commendable investment and only need wait until the profits start rolling in.."

THE END - by NotTasha 
Do you want to go to my next story in this series?  Redbird

Okay, you know that guy that Ezra mentions in Part 1...way back in Part 1.. they guy who farts. Well, I hate to tell you this, but Emil is based on a real guy...LePetomane. His act was pretty much as described by Ezra...and he was very famous in the 19th century in the music halls. His fame rivaled Sarah Bernhardt. Now that's something to think about.

Hope you enjoyed the story...comments and suggestions

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