RATING: PG for some swearing
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. The Hallmark Channel, Showtime Extreme or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: July 2005 Challenge, offered by Rowan: It's time to get the guys out of the water and into the desert - in the middle of July - injured - always got to have an injury.  Any one or all of the guys can be injured and the rest, or the one, needs to save the day.
SUMMARY: JD and Ezra are escaping from some bad guys -- choices must be made
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks, as always to sablecain and Tipper!
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
DATE: July 9, 2005

PODFIC!  Would you believe that NikoJen has done a podfic of my story?  It's seriously cool.  She does a wonderful job voicing all the characters.  You should go check it out

By NotTasha...ah, not much of a runner.  I'd have to be 'walking' if this were about me


They ran, stumbling through the darkness, over the arid ground.  The moon, a sliver, cast little light.  It made for difficult travel, but they took advantage of the darkness – determined to put distance between themselves and the little shack before the sun crested the horizon.

JD panted, running beside the gambler, needing to get back to Four Corners before the Lowe gang made good on their threats – resolved to make it back to town before Robson, Walker and Milberg picked up their trail. He listened, wondering if he'd hear the sound of the men coming after them, but there was nothing outside of their labored breathing.

JD glanced toward Ezra as they ran onward.  He could hear him  – the gasping breath, the crumble of feet on dry soil and caught his profile in the low light.  The kid smiled, grateful that they’d both made it out.  Quickly, he faced forward, determined to keep from running into anything else as they tore across the desert.

Things had gone sour from the moment they’d come across the Lowe gang.  The meeting had been pure chance.  The gang had been assembling near an abandoned homestead – preparing to take on the Seven who protected Four Corners.  They must have been astonished to see two of that group topping the hill, heading toward the property’s pump to water their horses.  The men had come to attention abruptly, and Ezra stopped, muttering, “Oh, this can’t be good.” 

JD and Ezra had turned their horses to get away from the menace, but had been cut off when more of the gang came around the bend – bad luck all the way around.  The capture was quick and mortifying.  They’d been divested of their weapons, dragged from their horses, tied and taken to a half-toppled shack until the gang figured out what to do with them.

A quick execution appeared to be the solution of choice.  Ezra had fast-talked them, delaying them, bringing up factors and doubts, until their leader – Ned Lowe – figured that hostages might come in handy if things went badly in Four Corners.  The gang of thirteen had planned to attack the town, taking out the Seven and claiming the town as their own.  Now, with the lawmen reduced to five – they’d be easier to deal with – easier still when hostages could be brought into the deal-making.

So Lowe left Standish and Dunne under the care of Robson, Walker and Milberg, while he took the rest of his gang to Four Corners.  They were outside of town now – the Lowe Gang – doing what they did best and laying low, waiting until the next day when the attack would begin.

JD huffed, struggling to keep up with Ezra who was panting just as hard, but kept them at a fierce pace.   At least with the dark, it was cool.  Much better than running under the beating sun.  Dunne's arm throbbed where it had been wrenched in their capture.  His face ached from a beating – but these hurts weren’t going to stop him – these small pains wouldn’t slow him down.  They had to make it back – get to town before the Lowe Gang began their assault.  Nothing was going to stop them.  It wasn’t that far, and as long as he and Ezra stuck together, they’d make it back in time to warn the others.

With a jerk, JD stumbled on some unseen rock and for a moment was airborne, landing on his stomach with an ‘oof’.  Damn it! He glanced up, seeing Ezra slow a bit to glance over his shoulder, but he didn't stop.  Dunne struggled to his hands and knees, the palms of his hand smarting from where he’d driven them into some spiny plant.  Gamely, he got to his feet, brushed at his hands and tried to catch up – but the gambler kept a few paces in front of him.

He was glad to be with Ezra.  He knew the conman would be wily enough to see them through.  JD  smiled, proud that he’d been instrumental in their escape – together they’d managed it.  Together, they would make it back.

Robson and Walker had moved outside the shack, taking up a position near the little barn.  Milberg had been left to watch over their prisoners in the dark shack.  Milberg made a mistake.  He’d had gotten too close, leaning over them and taunting.  Ezra had given JD a look, a nod of the head.  JD managed to get Milberg to lean forward a bit more, and Ezra had brought the man down with a brutal knee to the midsection.  There’d been a quiet struggle and, when a knife came loose, JD snatched it, quickly freeing his hands.  He’d slammed the hilt of it against Milberg’s head, bringing the man down in a heap.  In the dimness, he and Ezra had shared a conspiratorial smile, and Standish had said, “Damn fine work, sir.  It’s a pleasure doin’ business with you.”

Dunne had cut Ezra free, saying, “Same to ya.”  And the two had taken to the desert to escape.

They could have tried for the horses – but the other two men were near where the horses were being kept.  Robson was awfully handy with a gun and Walker had a cruel streak that neither wanted to test – so they ran.  If they kept at it, they’d make it back in time.  They just had to keep running – stick together and keep going.

It was too damn dark for their pursuers to ride – no way to track them in the blackness.  JD had no doubts that he and Ezra had chosen the right course, that they'd complete what they set out to do.  Ezra had trusted him during that escape – had known that JD would get his hands on that knife and get them both free.  Standish was one of the few people who had never treated JD as ‘just a kid’, and Dunne relished that knowledge.  Too long he'd been considered the 'green horn', the 'boy'.  He'd proven how much he'd grown.

As he ran through the darkness, JD felt stronger, and his aching feet, his straining lungs -- seemed more bearable.

JD blinked at the black horizon to the east as he kept his pace.   He wasn’t sure at first, but now he was certain.  The sky was getting brighter. The sun would be rising soon.  He faced forward just as, out of nowhere, a bush came at him -- big and black and dense.  With a disgusted sound, he jerked to one side to avoid it.  It was wider than he thought, and after he’d run around it, he found that  Ezra had gained more distance on him -- disappearing in the darkness.   “Dang it, Ezra,” JD breathed out. “Hold up!”

”No time for that, Mr. Dunne,” unseen, Ezra returned quietly, keeping his voice low as if there were any chance that Robson or the others might be nearby.  “We cannot tarry.”

“Well, I’ll catch ya.  You’ll see!”  It wasn’t as if Ezra hadn’t fallen – the gambler had stumbled more often than Dunne.  “Ain’t so damn graceful in the dark!” JD taunted with a smile.  “Just a matter of time and you'll fall again and I’ll catch up with ya!”

“Don’t be so sure,” Ezra panted from somewhere ahead.

"We’ll do a lot better soon,” JD told the darkness, as he scraped his hands across his jacket.  They still hurt but he didn't think he'd gotten any spines or splinters driven into his skin.  "Sun's comin' up."

Ezra made a disgusted sound and uttered breathlessly, “Already?”

“Gettin’, lighter.  Can’t wait,” JD huffed, surprised that the astute con man hadn't noticed.  Too preoccupied with keeping his ass moving, JD rationalized -- too focused on beating me home! As he strained forward, JD could make out Ezra's shape leading him.  “Bet we’re more than halfway there!  Should be home before long.  Glad it ain’t hot, but we'll be able to move faster when we can see.”

Ezra slowed then, gasping as he fought for his breath.  He came to a halt, his hands on his knees.

“We takin’ a breather?” JD inquired, ready for it.  His sides were aching.

“I think… I think it’s time we decided… on a strategy,” Ezra got out between breaths, he wrapped one arm around his midsection.

“Strategy?” JD echoed, catching up to Standish in the dark.  He stopped beside Ezra and echoed his posture, resting one hand on his knee, the other around his chest, feeling his lungs ease.

“They’ll be comin’,” Ezra responded.  “With light, they’ll be after us.”

“Got to find us first,” JD replied.  “We ain’t takin’ a direct line to town.”

Ezra made a tsking sound.  “When the sun comes up, they’ll be able to track us.”

“You sure?” JD asked.  “You’re just used to Vin.  Not everyone’s that good.  Maybe they took off already and are wanderin’ about in the wrong area.  Be a while before they’ll pick up the trail if that’s so.  Heck, I'm thinkin' they won't find our trail at all!”

"I'm thinkin' they will," Ezra responded darkly.  He nodded in the direction they’d come.  “And I’ll wager they're waitin’ for sunlight.  Rational thing to do.  Better than runnin’ about in the darkness with no sense of where to go.”

“We’ve gone a long way,” JD told him.

“On foot,” Ezra grumbled.  “They’ll have horses. And they’ll have us as soon as they have the light to follow.”

“So… what’re you thinkin’?”  JD asked.

“We need horses. And, it’s time we split up,” Ezra told him.

“Split up?” JD echoed.  “Uh-uh!  No, Ezra.  We stick together.”

Ezra turned toward him, the low moonlight casting deep shadows across his face.  “One of us has to make it back to Four Corners.”

“Makes more sense if we hang together,” JD responded.

With a harrumph, Ezra stated, “ ‘Hang’ is an appropriate choice of words, Mr. Dunne.  If they catch us, we’ll both be dead.  If we separate, one of us will make it in time to warn them.”

“There’s three of them,” JD shot back.  “They’ll just split up to follow.”

Ezra shook his head.  “Mr. Milberg is in no shape to get on a horse.  And, I’ll take the chance that the others will track only one of us.  As you said, they’re not as good as Vin.  They’ll follow only one trail. It's time we split up.”

“No,” JD responded, not wanting to discuss the subject.

“Listen, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra shot back, steel reaching his voice. “We have no weapons, no way of protecting ourselves if we’re discovered.  We’ll make better time if we travel separately.”

"No, we won't!"

"I won't be waiting for you to catch up."

"I've been keeping up!" JD replied hotly.  “It ain’t right.  We’re better off if we’re together.”

“Together, we’re easier to track. One man makes less a disturbance than two.   Together, we make a bigger target.  Alone – I’ll stand a chance.  You’re slowin’ me down, son.”

“But…” JD started.

Ezra grumbled, “I plan on makin’ it back alive and I won’t having you fouling the plan.”  He nodded toward the east.  “You head across toward the Palmer ranch.  Get him to lend you a mount.  I’ll continue south on our current path and obtain Mr. Stoker’s assistance.”

“Hell, Ezra,” JD complained.  “You know Palmer ain’t gonna help me.”

“You will have to convince him otherwise,” Ezra told him. 

“Yeah, but you know Cal’s gonna help.  I ain’t goin’ to Palmer’s!”

Ezra lowered his head, still breathing through his teeth to catch his breath, keeping one hand to his chest.  “I don’t have time, JD.  This is a childish argument.”  In the dim light, he gave JD a severe look.  “We have a job to do,” he said sharply.  “I cannot waste any more time debating this with you, son. We're not discussing frog-giggers.  This is deadly serious. Now, behave like the man you claim to be and do it.”

JD clapped his mouth shut, his face hot.  Any declaration that he wanted to stay together died on his lips.  “Okay, fine then,” JD returned.  “I’m headin’ to Palmer’s and hope the guy doesn’t shoot my head off when I come on his property.”

“Excellent,” Ezra muttered.

“Cal Stoker’s probably gonna give you his best horse and give you breakfast, too.”

“Possibly,” Ezra responded.  He reached out a hand and slapped JD on the back.  “Good luck, my friend.”

At the gracious-sounding words, JD grumbled, and shook Ezra off of himself.  He wasn’t going to be taken in so easily by the con artist.  It was Ezra's trade to smile at the mark as he conned them out of their lifesavings, to make it seem as if he was doing them a favor. 

"I’m goin’,” JD declared, and turned toward Palmer’s.  “Don’t see why you get the easy way though.”  He glanced toward Ezra, who still stood where he’d been, leaning forward, with one hand on his knee for support.  “Why you get the easy way, Ezra?” he called.  

The gambler smiled at him, mostly hidden in the dark.  “Because I thought of it.”  He cocked his head and said, “I’ll beat you home.”

“Don’t bet on it,” JD responded.

“What do you say to a little wager?  I’ll keep it small due to your tiny pockets.  What do you say to a dollar?”

"What?  You don't think I can win?  You don't think I can make it home without you?"

"On the contrary.  I'm simply statin' that I'll be be able to complete our mission before you do."

Angry, JD responded, “I’ll betcha $10!”

Ezra extended a hand.  “Shake on it?” he asked.

Instead JD turned sharply and started off toward Palmer's at a trot.


JD came into view of Four Corners.  His borrowed horse kept an awkward stride, making the ride ‘a pain in the rear’.  He grumbled as he rode, annoyed with Palmer who had given him hell for the early awakening – and for daring to ask a favor.

He swore at the horse, at Palmer and at Ezra for sending him on this errand.  Had Ezra returned to town already?  Maybe.  JD sure had pushed himself in order to return first. He wasn’t about to let Ezra win this little contest.  That $10 would belong to John Dunne!

The distance to the Stoker ranch was probably the same as to the Palmer ranch – but Stoker wouldn’t have made Ezra wait about forever on the porch, wouldn’t have made him twist in the wind as he begged for a horse, wouldn’t have given up a nag.

Bet Ezra figured I couldn’t handle this.  Bet he thought I wouldn’t make it.  He grimaced and the painful realization that Ezra still thought of him as just a ‘kid’, as something that would weigh him down.  It seemed to JD that he'd lived his whole life, running from that perception.  He'd always been small for his age, always treated younger than his years, always treated like a child.   He'd come west to shake off that assessment -- to be treated like a grown man instead of Maggie's boy, to be greeted as a 'pard' instead of 'sonny'.   Among these lawmen from Four Corners, JD figured he'd found that niche.  He hadn't been able to avoid the coddling -- after all, they'd given him the moniker 'kid' -- but Ezra had always treated him as an equal.  That is -- until now.

It burned – the realization that Ezra thought so little of him.  What about the rest of them?  Did all the guys think that he was just some kid that was going to slow them down? 

As he entered town, JD saw Tanner stride out to meet him.  “JD?” Vin asked, his eyes on the horse.  “Where you get this sorry piece of horseflesh?”

“Got trouble,” JD explained, and added, “Ezra been here yet?”

Vin shook his head.  “Ain’t seen him.”  He squinted. “What happened to your face?” he asked as he pointed to the bruises.

“Lowe’s gang.  We got to get moving.”

“Lowe?” Vin asked, his voice low.  “Damn!”  Tanner turned, spotting Buck ambling on the boardwalk.  He whistled, and gestured to the man.  Buck nodded and changed his direction, angling his way toward the two.

“Mornin’,” he greeted, smiling and then narrowed his eyes at Dunne.  “Where you been, kid?  Didn’t see you around last night.  You get yourself into a fight?”

Annoyed, JD dismounted.  “Me and Ezra got waylaid by Lowe’s gang.”

With a grimace, Buck shook his head. “Damn it, JD,” he swore as he grasped the horse’s bridle, bringing the animal about.  “What were ya doin'?  Damn fool thing, gettin' yourself caught by those fellas.  Were you goin' off half-cocked again and tryin' to take them on alone?”

JD bristled at the accusing statement. “It wasn't our fault!  We come across them by surprise at the Anderson house,” JD growled as he dismounted.  “There was too many of 'em, and they got me and Ezra.  They were talkin’ about takin’ out the rest of you.  They're outside of town right now.”  He nodded to Vin and Buck. “They left some of their guys to watch over us.  We got away.”  And he grinned.  “I got my hands on the knife and got us free when Ezra kicked the guy.  We come runnin’ here as fast as we could.  Parted ways though when I headed to Palmer’s and Ezra to Stokers.” With a disgusted look, JD added, “Ezra figured it was a good idea to split up b’fore it got light.”

The two contemplated this a moment and then Buck nodded.  “Sound idea,” he figured.  “Least ways one of you would get here quick.  Figure we should go out after Ez?” Buck asked, inclining his head toward the Stoker ranch.

“Don’t have time!” JD put in.  “Lowe and his crew are outside of town, out by Devil’s Hand.  Gonna come roarin’ in this mornin'.”  He glanced about the town.  “Gotta get the others and stop ‘im before they get here.”

Seeing the wisdom in JD’s insistence, Vin and Buck headed off to round up the rest of their group.


The morning wasn't quite over and they were headed home again.  The shootout at Devil’s Hand was fast and fierce.  The stories that came along with Lowe's crew proved true.  They were a scary bunch of mean who were hell bent on destroying whoever got in their way.

Luckily, the men from Four Corners got in their way before they made it into town.  Taken unaware, the men were taken down.  Half of Lowe’s men had died in that barrage of bullets.  The remaining five had given up when the odds turned so badly against them.  Captured, they’d been bound to their horses and ushered into town to be locked up in the jail.

As he rode through town, JD scanned the boardwalks, looking for the gambler.  Certainly, Ezra would have made it to town by now.  JD figured he could show off to the gambler – show him what JD Dunne was really made of!  He was man enough to stand beside the likes of Chris Larabee and take on these criminals.   But, as they reached the jailhouse, there’d been no sign of the resident gambler.  Probably asleep, JD decided.  Neither of them had gotten any rest the previous night.  Yeah, JD thought, when he found out that me and the rest of the guys had ridden out, probably just got some shuteye.  Figured the ‘kid’ had delivered their message – so what more needed to be done?

Still, it didn’t sound like Ezra.  Standish didn’t step down from a fight, even if he knew he’d be arriving late – what about the Seminole Village?  JD scanned the townspeople, looking.

He dismounted, ready to check the saloons when Nathan came up behind him and lay a hand on his arm.  “JD?” Jackson asked, his voice anxious.  “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” JD answered sharply.

“No you ain’t,” Nathan responded.  “Where’d this blood come from?”

JD twisted about to see what Nathan was talking about – some large spot on his back.  “Must be from one of Lowe’s men,” he decided.

Vin had sidled up beside Nathan.  “Looks like a handprint,” Vin decided.  “Like someone put a bloody hand to your back.”

“Gee, can’t say any of ‘em touched me today,” JD insisted.  “Heck, Lowe’s guys punched me in the face last night and one of them twisted my arm good, but none of them got hurt to bleed on me.”

Josiah and Buck were seeing to the prisoners, and Chris joined the little group around JD.  He squinted at the handprint – hard to see in the hound’s-tooth pattern of JD’s dirty jacket – but obvious once it was pointed out.  “You remember anyone touchin’ your back?” Larabee asked.

“No one,” JD answered, annoyed at the questioning.  Damn! He didn’t want to be treated like a kid again! “I’m fine, Chris.  Really.  I just got banged up a bit when Lowe had me.”  He glanced around the town, wondering why Ezra hadn’t shown his face yet.  “Can’t think of how I got blood on me.”  Where was Ezra?  He should be here!  I have a thing or two to say to him, things I should have said when we went our own ways.  Still riled about the way he sent me off -- spit in my face then clappin' a hand to my back like we're still pals. 

And he stopped, one hand reaching toward the mark on his back.  “Ezra…” he muttered, remembering the moment in the darkness.  “He … he touched by back… and…” JD's voice trailed off as he realized that Ezra had been saying 'goodbye'.

“JD?” Vin asked, watching as Buck and Josiah manhandled Lowe and his men through the doorway.  "What happened?"

“There was a fight,” JD said softly.  “When we were captured -- when we were escaping.  There was a fight.  Ezra, he was tryin' to hold down the guy.  Milberg... Milberg, he...”  JD narrowed his eyes as he looked up at Chris.  “Milberg had a knife… we didn’t know about it… Ezra fought him... got it away from him… and… and we escaped.”

“Was he hurt?”  Nathan asked insistently.

JD turned away, looking sick.  He remembered how Ezra's hands had been bound as he struggled with Milberg -- Ezra never had a chance of defending himself.  “I don’t know,” he responded.  “We were always in the dark.  We were movin’ so fast, tryin’ to get out of there.  We had to go.  We ran.  We got up and we ran.  We left…”  He closed his eyes, wondering, remembering how often Ezra had stumbled, yet gotten up to keep running.  “Oh God,” he squeaked out.

Chris’ eyes narrowed.  “He ain’t back?”

Nathan, furrowing his brow in thought, responded, “He’d ‘ave joined us if he was.”

Vin blew out a breath and looked to JD.  “He wanted to split up,” Tanner deciphered.  “Figured he’d better get away from JD if he was bleedin’.  He’d be easy t’track when it got light.   Figured JD would have a better chance of gettin’ home without him.”

“Oh God…” JD cried again.  “I didn’t know.  I didn’t know.”

Chris nodded tightly, mounting his horse.  Nathan and Vin did the same.  Buck came to the doorway, his glance asking a question.  “Goin’ after Ezra,” Chris told his friend.  “You and Josiah look after the prisoners.  We still got three of their gang on the loose.”

Buck nodded, taking in the expressions of the men, feeling a tension that wasn’t there before.  “Bring him back,” he told Larabee.

Chris nodded and turned his horse about.  Nathan and Vin fell in behind him as they took off at a gallop.

JD stood as if struck.  He turned to Buck, his mouth agape.  He swallowed and said again, “I didn’t know.” And before Buck could ask a question, he mounted his borrowed horse and took off after the others.


“Ain’t see ‘im,” Cal Stoker commented as he leaned against the railing.  “Been here all mornin’, too.”

“See anyone come by?” Chris asked pointedly.

“Yup,” Cal returned, rocking back.  “Couple of fellas askin’ if I’d seen any strangers ‘round the place.”  He smiled as he commented, “Told ‘em that the only strangers I’d seen was them.  They left.” He nodded. “Went back the way they’d come.”

JD sighed at the news, realizing that Ezra had been right -- Milberg hadn't been able to ride.  Only two of the men had pursued them.

Vin thanked the rancher for the information and they started in the indicated direction.

“Hey now,” Cal called before they could get far.  His gaze was on JD and his mount.  “You get that nag from Palmer?”

JD nodded curtly, eager to get going.

“He's a son of a bitch, ain't he?  I can lend you one of mine.  Be a better ride,” Stoker offered congenially.

“No time,” JD replied, jerking the reluctant horse’s head around as he headed after the others, intent on finding Ezra before it was too late.   “It’s good news,” he insisted as they left Stoker behind.  “They ain’t got Ezra.”

Nathan blew out a breath.  “Best news would ‘ave been if we found Ezra sittin’ on the front porch, shootin’ the breeze.”

Vin didn’t look pleased.  “Those fellas doubled back,” he stated.  “That ain’t good.  Means they figured Ezra must ‘ave hid somewhere.  They’ll be lookin’.”  Tanner looked up at the sky, muttering.  "Damn hot day.  And he's hurt.  We gotta find him fast."

And they were off again, moving quickly -- running against time.

JD scanned the surroundings as they rushed, wishing he could identify anything, but it all looked the same to him.  He doubted that he could figure out where he parted from Ezra in this now-illuminated land.  It looked completely different.

The day was getting hotter.  JD wetted down a cloth and rubbed it against his neck, missing the cool of the night.   He recalled the flight through the dark – running side by side with Ezra – and all the time Ezra had been hurt – bleeding – knifed and running -- setting the pace.  Now Ezra was lost out there somewhere – hurt and in this heat – or captured – or dead.

JD recapped his canteen and stowed it, feeling sick and weak at that thought.

And then suddenly, they stopped.  Vin leaned in his saddle, staring at the ground beneath them.  After a moment’s contemplation, he stepped down from his horse.  He squatted to touch the earth, carefully pressing fingers against a dark spot.  “Blood,” he said softly, and glanced about.  “Trail comes from over there,” he said as he pointed.  “A whole mess of tracks around here, too.”  He switched his arm about, pointing out things that JD couldn’t see.  “At least two horses.  Couple of fellas.  I weren’t the first to find this.”  And he held up his fingers with the bloody soil.

“They didn’t find him,” JD insisted.  “They went to Stoker's, so they didn’t find Ezra!”

Vin responded, “They looked all through here.  Up and down and everywhere -- more than once.   Either he's still here, or they found 'im on their way back, and took 'im.”

“Ezra's a sly one,” Nathan stated as he swung himself from his saddle to join Vin.  "I got my money on Ezra hidin' himself and stayin' put."  The healer nodded, as if this was the only solution he cared to think about.  "Bet we find him."

JD sighed, remembering the bet he'd made with Ezra and how he'd refused to shake his hand.

Chris remained on his mount, scanning the landscape, looking for any sign of trouble.  JD leapt down from his perch and joined Tanner, sticking close to him, hoping to find some clue regarding what had happened to the gambler, thinking that maybe – if he stayed near Vin – some of that tracker’s knowledge might rub off on him.  “He’s fine,” Dunne said.  “Ain’t he?  He got away from those fellas.”

Vin didn’t respond, his eyes on the ground, looking for signs. 

Nathan, doing his own careful search, declared defiantly, "I ain't givin' up on him."

"Me neither," Vin added, his gaze flicking up to meet Jackson's.  

JD kept searching alongside Tanner.  Chris scanned the landscape around them, looking for Robson and the others.  It was hot.  JD reached for the canteen he'd strung over his shoulder. His hand clasped the container and held it tightly, wanting a drink.  Ezra had been out here all day though -- without water.  He held the canteen without opening it -- held it while he kept searching.

But they found nothing of use.

JD, feeling sick of this hunt, stepped away to watch the others.  Vin moved, following a frustrating trail and Nathan meandered, calling out for Ezra.  So far, nothing had been found.  Chris joined them -- searching too, but constantly stopping to look about to see if Robson and the others were still about.  Vin would pause and drop to his haunches, staring at something that JD couldn't fathom.  Nathan hadn't stopped, searching intently.

JD  clutched the canteen, wanting desperately to take a swallow, but he couldn't bring himself to uncap it.  He was hot.  He was so damn hot and tired.  But what about Ezra?  Where are ya, Ez?  Dammit, where'd you go?

Unable to give Vin or Nathan any help, JD figured that if he climbed -- got into an elevated position -- maybe, maybe he could see something – could spot where Ezra was -- maybe he could do something worthwhile instead of simply shadowing Vin.

He spotted an artistically shaped pile of boulders and made his way to it.  Carefully, he clattered his way onto the rocks.  In another place and time, he would have enjoyed the sport -- the rock-pile was full of crannies and handholds, making for an easy climb.  It could have been fun.  He climbed, balancing on wobbly rocks, determined to reach the summit.

Halfway up, the rocks beneath JD shifted as he shuffled atop them, and he went down on one knee to avoid taking a fall.  Swearing at his ineptness, JD kicked out one foot, dislodging a shakily positioned rock. It clattered noisily as it spun and plummeted, smashing on the ground below.  The others looked toward him, and JD could only offer them an embarrassed smile.  I'm such a dumb kid, he thought.  Bet they're wonderin' why I'm playin' 'king of the hill' instead of lookin' for Ezra.  Bet they're wonderin' why I'm so damn clumsy.

JD bowed his head in his frustration, and his heart skipped a beat as he gazed down at his feet, to the crack that had been revealed by the misplaced rock.   The spot was formed between two boulders -- narrow and deep.  A man could barely wedge himself into the spot. Oh God!  JD spotted that familiar red jacket, that head of chestnut hair – but no movement.  “Nathan!” he shouted, falling to his knees.  “Vin!”  Reaching one hand downward, he clasped onto Ezra’s jacket.  The man was half on his side -- one shoulder and hip upward, but slouched so that his back pressed against one wall of his hiding place.  His face, turned upward, was quiet and still.

“Ezra,” JD cried.  “Ezra!”  He had his hand on the man who'd gotten jammed into the hole and hidden from sight – almost out of reach.  "He's here!" JD insisted as Vin and Nathan climbed to him.  "There was a rock coverin' the crack.  He's here!"

Nathan was at his side in an instant, having scrabbled up on the rocks.  "Ezra," he sighed, kneeling beside JD and staring into the narrow alcove between the rocks.  "Ezra?  Can you hear me?"  He reached down, touching Ezra’s face, and muttering unhappily, “Hell of a place to wedge yourself into."

Vin arrived and looked pleased, a smile starting at his lips.  “Hid himself good and proper,” he decided. “Out of the sun.  Musta bound up his wound enough to stop leavin’ a trail.  Fixed that stone in place.  Weren’t no one gonna find him here.”  And he clapped a hand onto JD’s shoulder. “No one ‘cept for you.”  And there was pride in his voice.

JD hardly noticed.  “We gotta get him out of there!” he insisted, and for once, nobody disagreed with him.  They reached in for Ezra.  There was hardly any room to work in.  JD tightened his hold on the gambler’s lapel, while Nathan grabbed at the other, and reached in another arm to clasp the cloth at his collar.  Vin grasped the pant-leg at Ezra’s knee, and together they tugged him upward through the crack between the rocks.

Ezra didn’t move – didn’t fight them – only a pathetic exhale escaped him as he was moved.

“Careful, careful,” Nathan was saying.  As they brought him up, Nathan changed his grip, getting one hand under Ezra’s head, another under his shoulder.  Vin snaked his arm under Ezra’s knees, and JD never let go of his hold.  They lifted him from the hole.

JD gasped, seeing how damn pale Ezra was, seeing the bloody mess across his stomach.  “Oh God,” he muttered.  He’s been hurt… he’d been hurt all that time they were running!  He'd been hurt and made me go the other way.  Damn it!  Damn it!

“Careful, careful,” Nathan kept saying.

“We gotcha, Ez,” Vin said soothingly, but for his part, Ezra said nothing.  His head lolled, his eyes remained shut and his cracked and dry lips were parted.  Quickly, and gently, they moved Ezra out of the rocks and to the flat earth surrounding them.  Chris had spread out a blanket, and watched over them.  He asked quietly, “He alive?”

He don’t look it!  JD’s thought, feeling his chest tight with fear.  Oh God, he’s been out in this heat, dyin’ all this time.  Oh God, I could've helped him.  I could've been here with him!  He didn’t need to be here all alone.  He squinted, trying not to cry.

“He’s breathin’,” Nathan declared.  “But he ain’t in good shape.  He's too hot.”  He rested the back of his hand on Ezra’s cheek.  “Vin?”

Vin got to his feet and, knowing what was wanted, sprinted toward Nathan’s horse to grab his medical bag while JD stayed near Ezra.  Somehow, JD had gotten a grip on Ezra’s hand and was hanging on tightly. The gambler’s hand felt lifeless and still.  “Nathan?” JD asked.

Nathan’s hand stayed on Ezra’s face, cupping it as Ezra breathed shallowly.  “Hang in there, Ezra,” Nathan said softly.  “Hang on.”  Jackson's other hand pulled back at the jacket, checking the makeshift bandage that Ezra had fashioned from his shirt.  The knife wound deepened the stain across the ruined cloth. 

JD couldn't speak. He just held onto Ezra's hand.   Nathan reached out a hand toward him, and JD looked at it, unable to figure out what the healer wanted.  To shake his hand?  Why?

"JD?" Nathan said, his voice soft but insistent.  "Your canteen?"

JD nodded, dumbstruck, and pulled the strap over his head.  He was flummoxed for a moment, trying to get it off his arm while his hand still clasped Ezra's.  Finally, he realized he had to let go his grip, and he handed the canteen to Nathan.


JD waited, as he’d been waiting for days.  Knife wounds can be nasty things, Nathan had told him.  The wound hadn’t been terribly deep, but it was bad enough.  Ezra had bled far more than a man should, been alone, dehydrated and untended too long, and an infection had set in.  For the first few days, Ezra weakly fought a raging fever as Nathan battled against the infection.

At first, Ezra hardly had the strength to open his eyes, or to sip at the water they forced down his throat.  He would stare at them blankly as the fever burned, as they wetted down his head, desperate to lower his temperature.  His mouth would move as his eyes failed to focus on them, but he’d make no sound.  Nathan rarely left him, mixing poultices and trying anything that might draw the infection from the ugly wound, trying any concoction of that might bring down that fever.

After the first terrible day, the fever continued unabated, but Ezra found the strength to speak.  If JD wasn’t in view, he’d ask constantly about the kid and urgently warning them about the threat of Lowe’s gang.  If JD was in the room, he’d look at Dunne with that unfocused gaze and tell him to go – “Go, JD – Go!  You have to make it back – you have to get to town.  Go, JD.  You have to go.”  He’d get so worked up, trying to propel himself from the bed, that Dunne would be ordered from the room to keep Standish from hurting himself.

JD would ball his hands into fists, as he stood outside the clinic, hearing Ezra ask again, “JD… did he make it back?  Did he make it back?  Lowe… Lowe and his men… are coming.”  Over and over again – the same things, until JD couldn’t stand it anymore and went in to assure the distraught man.  Upon seeing him, Ezra would stare at him, wide-eyed and pale, insisting, “Go… Go JD… You have to go!”

"Ezra," Nathan would urge. "Everyone's fine.  JD's back.  You need to build your strength, and this ain't helpin' you none."  Over and over -- the same endless circle until exhaustion finally quieted the delirious gambler and he'd fall into a troubled sleep.

Nathan had said it was the fever.  That Ezra was confused, but JD knew exactly what was going on.  Standish was still trying to save him – trying to save JD Dunne at the expense of Ezra Standish.  It pissed him off.

Chris, Vin and Buck had ridden off after the last three of Lowe’s gang and had brought them back after a day away, trailing Chaucer and Toby along with them. Apparently, the frustrated men had returned to their 'lair' and were easily captured.   Upon their homecoming, the lawmen said little.  They’d asked about Ezra’s welfare, hearing the same story as before – that Ezra was no better – that he was wearing himself out with ranting -- that he was hanging on –  sick as hell.

They dragged the outlaws to the jailhouse.  Milberg, Walker and Robson were penned up with the others, and a watch was kept to ensure that they didn’t try anything.  “Beau Walker,” Vin had said, “Is one hell of a bastard.  Been known to torture a man b’fore he kills ‘im.”  And he glanced to JD, looking relieved that the kid had escaped Walker and his pals.

Days passed.  Ezra remained sick, confused and weak.  The wound wasn’t healing well.  The infection wouldn’t go.  The fever remained.  Nathan took on a haunted look as he did everything he could for the gambler.  Josiah rarely rested – between helping Nathan, assisting at the jail and sending his petitions to heaven – the big man looked as if he’d drop at any moment.

Chris spent his days at the jail – glaring at the men within – probably inventing punishments that would be foisted upon them if Standish should die.  Buck watched out for Chris and kept an eye on Ezra.  Vin spent much of his time in the clinic with their brother who fought the relentless fever.

Delirious, Ezra seemed forever caught in that moment when he sent JD in the opposite direction.  “Had to send him,” Standish kept telling Nathan or Vin or Buck or whoever was there.  “It was the only way.  The only way.  He made it back, didn’t he?  Did he make it?”

“Yeah, he did, hoss,” Buck would assure.  “He’s back.  He’s right outside.  I’d call ‘im in if I knew it’d do you any good.  He’s here.  We’re gonna need you to rest a bit, okay?  Yer workin’ too hard at this, Ez.  Yer still runnin’ in that desert and it’s time for you rested.”

“Lowe… Lowe and his gang." Ezra would swallow and continue hoarsely, "They’re comin’.  Have to warn you.  Have to let you know.”

“You done that Ezra.  You and JD done that.”

“JD – they might ‘ave caught up to him.  I hid.  He was the one who kept runnin’.  They might ‘ave found him.  If they caught up to him…”

“Nobody caught up to no one.  It’s a good thing you found a hidey-hole,” and Buck would bathe Ezra’s face, trying to cool him down, and he’d look toward the window, catching sight of the kid who lingered there, clenching his fists.

Or it would be Vin, who'd whisper his assurances, a constant litany, trying to get it through Ezra’s scalded head that everything was fine – that everyone was safe and sound – with the exception of one perforated gambler -- and they were doing their damnedest to get him back.

Josiah read to the southerner, raising his voice at times to overpower the senseless rantings, hoping to sooth the pain with Thackeray or Voltaire or Chaucer.  Nathan tried logic, always answering Ezra’s question.  Again and again, he’d say.  “JD’s fine.  JD’s fine.  We stopped Lowe.  We stopped Lowe.  JD’s fine.”  Over and over – he seemed to have infinite patience with his responses – wishing that maybe -- just once -- the answers would get through.

Chris when he came, said little.  He’d lean over the gambler, one hand on his head, and say firmly, “You done good, Ezra,” to counter the ranting.

It went on for days.  Ezra sick – and all the rest of them pacing around like cats.

Finally, Ezra’s fever broke as the infection was brought under control.  The news went through the rest of them like a cool wind on a relentlessly hot day.   Chris, Vin and the others all walked a little lighter.  He was going to be okay.  The terrible toll of Ezra’s illness was lifting and things were getting back to normal.  The guys were joking in the saloon again. Nathan looked harried instead of haunted.  Josiah was smiling.

Standish was left weak and weary, capable of doing little more than sleep.  His voice was raw, and he could find little to say before he exhausted himself.  He reclined in Nathan’s clinic, trying to regain his strength on beef broth and tea, and finally, after another day, he seemed more like himself.  He started slyly badgering Nathan and Josiah, seeming ready to cause trouble again – even though his voice remained soft and he could hardly sit up in bed.

Nathan smiled at the abuse that Ezra gently leveled at him.  Josiah laughed.  The relief was palpable.  Everything was going to be okay.

But not ‘everything’.  No, JD realized that everything was far from all right.  There were things that needed to be discussed.  Issues that nobody seemed too concerned with – but that burned in JD’s gut.

JD entered the clinic as Nathan left it to find some lunch – encouraged that Ezra would be fine on his own for a while.  Dunne nodded at the healer, who gave him a pleased smile and patted him on the shoulder as they passed each other.

“Ezra,” JD greeted as he shut the door behind him, realizing this was the first time he’d been able to enter the room for days without all hell breaking loose.

“Mr. Dunne,” Ezra returned, relaxing in his pillows as he flipped cards into his lap.  “Are you out enjoying the day?”  The man looked thoughtful as he said, “A pity I can’t be out enjoying it as well.  You’ll have to do so for me.”

Slumping into the bedside chair, JD grumbled audibly.

Ezra raised an eyebrow as he moved in his bed, grimacing as the tear across his abdomen pulled.  He pushed at the pillows to sit up straighter, and grimaced at his inability to make it 'right'.  He gave up and slouched uncomfortably.  “Is something wrong, JD?”

“Wrong?  Yeah, you know somethin’s wrong.” JD crossed his arms tightly over his chest. “You almost got yourself killed.”

Ezra smiled.  “I applaud his efforts.”  And he gestured with one hand.  “For, as you can see, Nathan's mending has fixed the tear, and thus I’m on the mend as well.”

JD scowled, not appreciating the quip.  “I was mad as hell with you,” he retorted.

“Mad?  At me?”  Ezra put on that look of forced innocence as he clutched the cards with one hand.

JD went on, “After I left you in the desert, I was so goddamn mad at you for calling me a kid, and for sayin’ that I was slowin’ you down.  I was mad ‘cause you wanted to split up when I wanted to stick together.  The only reason we got out of that shack was because we’d worked together.  Then you told me off and treated me like a baby.   Us going different ways sounded like a piss-poor idea t’me.”

Ezra said nothing, regarding JD with his still-tired eyes.

“Ya didn’t have to make me feel so low!  Figured that was a hell of a way to treat a friend,” JD went on.

Ezra sighed.  “But you see the wisdom in it now?” he asked.  “Certainly, we wouldn't have made it back in time if we’d stuck together.  I hope you understand my reason, now that you see the outcome.”

“But that ain't it.  That aint' it at all!”  JD bit out.  “You almost died!  Damn it, Ezra.  You were out there bleeding to death, all alone in that hole in the heat.  We barely found you in time!  For days and days you were just sick as a dog and Nathan got to thinking that he wasn’t gonna be able to save you.”

“But he did succeed.”  Ezra shrugged, bridging the remaining cards against one thigh.  “An incredible man.  We should be thankful to have him.”

“You were so sick!” JD insisted. “

“Well,” Ezra drawled, “Luckily for me, it is all a blur.  I remember little of my suffering.  I understand that I acted somewhat strangely.”  He fluttered a hand.  “But I can’t recall much of it, and you’re too decent a man to repeat it.  So, you see, it worked out for the best.”

“You lied to me!”

“No, I did not.”

“You said that I was slowin’ you down!”

“At that moment, you were,” Ezra responded.

“That wasn’t the reason we split up!  You did that ‘cause you figured you were gonna die!” JD shouted.  “You were gonna die, so you sent me away!  You told me you had a better chance of livin’ if we split up and that was a lie, too!”

Ezra scowled, fussing with his cards.  “Hardly!” he responded.  “I had no intention of dying.  Not at any time.  I have far too many plans, investments, and strategies yet to employ.  How could I abandon them?  Besides, I was tired of running."

JD grunted unhappily.

With a sigh, Ezra tried another tactic.  "Tell me, Mr. Dunne, why would I have bothered to find such a sufficient hiding place if I wanted to die?   If dyin' was my plan, I would have just laid down and given up.”

“I could've stayed with you!” JD insisted, ignoring the question.  “Ezra, I would‘ve looked after you and you wouldn’t ‘ave gotten so sick!”

Ezra sighed, sinking into his pillows, letting the cards fall still.  He shifted about as if he couldn't get comfortable in that position.  “My memory is foggy, but I do recall that my place of hiding was rather tight.  The two of us would not have been able to conceal ourselves in that small place.”

“I could have found us a bigger place!” JD insisted.

And Ezra raised an eyebrow as he said, “And our aim was to warn the others, wasn’t it?  Think of it, if you were playin’ nursemaid to me – then Buck and Chris and the others would have suffered for it.  Nathan may have been tendin’ to a full house if the others weren’t sufficiently warned.  Or maybe our undertaker, Ben Mack, would be the one taking care of all of them. It was your warning that saved them.”

Sitting back in his chair, JD digested this information. “You should‘ve told me you were hurt.  It wasn’t right to hide that.”

“I wasn’t ‘hiding’ it.  I was bleeding all over the place, leavin' a trail that a blind man could follow,” Ezra said as if in a jest, but JD didn’t take it that way.  Ezra tried again, “Would you have gone on without me if you'd known?”

With a shake of his head, JD realized that he wouldn’t have.  No, he would have stayed with Ezra, taken care of him, tried to find a place big enough for both of them to hide.  They would have waited for Robson and the others to come through.  And once they’d passed?  JD blinked, figuring he would have gotten Ezra out of hiding and would have shuffled along with him – trying to get him someplace safe.

And Lowe’s men would have caught them as they backtracked.  And the rest of Lowe's gang would have made good on their surprise attack on the town.  JD had great faith in the others.  He knew that they would have beat back Lowe's onslaught, but at what cost?  Who would have been hurt?  Who would have been killed?  And what would have happened when Robson and Walker backtracked?

JD fiddled with a loose thread on his shirt cuff, as Ezra watched with his eyes becoming unfocused in his weariness.

“I weighed the options,” Ezra explained.  “And took, what I felt, was the best course of action. I couldn't run any longer.”

“Should have told me,” JD whispered.  “I could ‘ave… gotten you bandaged up good before I left.  Could ‘ave made sure you were okay.”

Ezra smiled lopsidedly at him.  “You are far too noble.  You would never have left me if you knew of my injury.  I had to do what was best for the everyone - for myself especially.  If you had stayed with me, then we both would have died.  Following my plan, I could stop running and find a sufficient hiding place, while you continued to town.  It had to be done, for Mr. Larabee, and Buck and Josiah and Nathan and Vin – and for the town, because what would have happened to our townspeople if our gallant comrades had fallen?”

JD didn’t look at him, but nodded tightly.

"Besides," Ezra added.  "I knew you'd come back for me."

And JD looked up at him, before lowering his gaze again to his cuff.

“I don't apologize for misleading you,” Ezra said softly, “Only for making you feel less of a man.  I do humbly beg your forgiveness.  My words were chosen to get your ire up and did not come from my heart.”  He yawned, and closed his eyes.  “It was petty of me to use such unworthy comments against you.  Forgive me, my friend.  You wouldn't have stooped so low.  You are a far better man than I.”

JD pulled at the thread again and muttered, “Aw, I ain’t that.”

Ezra spoke softly, “And I owe you $10 for our bet.  Once I get my hands on my bankroll, I’ll be sure to give you what’s yours.”

“Doesn’t count,” JD uttered.  “We didn’t shake on it.  'Sides, we both completed our 'missions'.”

Ezra opened one eye and regarded his statement, saw the look on JD’s face, and nodded slightly in return.  The eye closed, and in a moment Ezra had fallen still, asleep again.

JD sighed and regarded Ezra's position, figuring that he wouldn't be comfortable.  He sat forward, messing with the pillows until Ezra was resting better upon them.  “It was just a crappy situation,” he muttered.  “And we got stuck in the middle of it.  Don't like what happened, but I can understand it.”

He picked up the loose cards from Ezra’s lap and the partial deck from his lax hand.   “I just wanted to make sure,” he said.  “Make sure that you weren’t tradin’ yourself for me.  I wouldn’t want that.  I wouldn’t want anythin’ to do with that.”  He straightened the cards carefully, and then settled them on the bedside table.

“Couldn’t stand the thought of you doin’ it intentionally.  I would've been mightily hurt if you got yourself killed ‘cause of me.  I would never have forgiven myself.”  He folded his hands in his lap, and gazed at Ezra’s still pale face.  “Ya, see, I like you an awful lot,” the kid explained.  “And I’d be sad as hell if you died.  Sure am glad you’re okay.  I like havin' you around.  Just want you to know it.”

JD saw the slightest flicker of an eyelash, and glimpsed green before the eye closed again.  There was a twitch at the corners of Ezra’s lips and he became still again.  JD smiled as he sat back, folding his arms behind his head and leaned back against the wall – ready to spend sit quietly for a while.


Hope you enjoyed the story.  comments

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