DISCLAIMERS:: This is fanfiction. No profit involved None whatsoever. This story is is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven" . No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
RATING: PG-13 for Language and Violence
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Chris and Vin
SUMMARY: Ezra stops by the McCannon house and makes a discovery
COMMENTS: Yes, please! Drop me a note
NOTE: I don't know much about medical stuff... so ignore it if I got it wrong. A HUGE thanks to Eleanor T.  Thank you also to KellyA for her beta skills and comments!
DATE: May 17, 2000.  

Snake in the Grass
By NotTasha... Not the least bit snakey - well maybe a little

Part 1:

Ezra chuckled to himself as he approached the farmhouse and Chaucer pranced, sensing his owner's good mood. The gambler kept his gaze on the front door of the homestead, waiting for it to open and the inhabitants to come rushing out, but the scene remained still.

"Good evenin'," he shouted, hoping to raise the residents. They must have been at supper and hadn't heard his approach. The sun was just setting. He had planned to be here sometime after noon, but a rather interesting poker game had kept him longer than he intended in Eagle Bend. It meant that he would be returning to Four Corners after dark, but he knew he could find the way. Of course, he hadn't specified an arrival time to these homesteaders, so it wasn't too unusual that nobody was looking for him yet.

He dismounted, unconsciously checking his pocket, feeling for the packet of peppermints. When he'd come this way yesterday morning, he'd luckily had a few pieces of hard candy tucked away. Chaucer had been obviously irritated to see his prizes going to the McCannon children, but had been rewarded with an apple from them, which made up for it. 

"Ginny dear?" Ezra called, "Linda darlin'? Timothy?" He kept his eyes on the front door of the house as he led Chaucer toward the water trough. He had ridden along the McCannon property yesterday, hoping to find a more interesting journey to Eagle Bend, but had decided some distance before that his usual route was more productive. The three children had accosted him when he had reached the outbuildings, leaping out from behind a shed and bombarding him with questions. "Where'd ya get the pretty coat? What's yer name? What's yer horse's name? Where ya goin? Where ya from? Why d’ya talk like that? Where'd ya get that gun? Do ya know how to shoot?"

He had dismounted and answered every question patiently. He’d passed out the few candies he'd had in his pocket and seen the gratitude in their eyes. They must not have many niceties, he'd thought. He had watched their delight as he showed off Chaucer's tricks, how the horse could nod or shake his head in answer to any yes-or-no question, how he could count. The stunts had always come in handy to make a quick couple of dollars in a bar bet. Ezra was showing them a few of his patented card tricks when their mother arrived on the scene. Mrs. Patrice McCannon was a no-nonsense mother, who gave him the look that he usually received from no-nonsense mothers.

With a tip of his hat he was on his way again. The children put up a fuss and Mrs. McCannon must have relented in regard to her opinion of him, for she invited him to come again on his way home. He'd seen the glee in the children at the prospect of his return and thought, that means I should stick to this route for the time bein’. 

Now, as he approached the trough, he wondered how sincere Mrs. McCannon's offer had been since no one had yet come out to greet him. It wasn't as if this was the first time he had received such an invitation, one that was never really meant to be accepted, a civility and not a promise. He glanced to the quiet house in the growing darkness and saw no lights in the windows. Surely, he thought, there would be light somewhere? Chaucer snorted in alarm and Ezra turned his attention to the trough. He jumped back in surprise. Just beside it, hidden from plain view, was the body of young Timothy McCannon.

"Good Lord," he muttered as he stooped beside the child. Left in the open for hours, the body had been damaged by the sun and ravaged by insects. The boy was about thirteen years old, a young man who was still called Timmy by his parents. He had smiled and stood tall when Ezra called him Timothy and had blushed secretively at his delight in receiving a few odd bits of candy. Ezra sighed miserably as he brushed the ants from the child's face, touching his cold skin. He found the bullet wound in the boy's back, and the ground beneath him still damp with blood.

Ezra stood and reflexively drew his Remington. His eyes darted around the darkening property and he began his search. He found the body of a man on the porch, apparently Mr. McCannon, his rifle still in his hands. The man's face was half gone, blown away by a bullet's force.

"Linda?" he called as calmly as he could. "Virginia, darlin'?" He entered the house.

The front windows were broken by the gunfire, the drapery flailing now in the evening breeze. It was growing too dark to see clearly. Ezra holstered his gun. The bodies were cold and the house was quiet. This must have happened hours ago. He lit a kerosene lamp, and continued moving through the house.

The stove was still warm, though the fire had gone out. A pan of charred and boiled-dry potatoes sat on the burner of the old wood stove. The table was set for the mid-day meal and a basket of corn muffins rested untouched in the center.

He moved through each room of the house, calling quietly for the girls and their mother. Satisfied that the house was empty, he stepped out the back door and entered the barn. He found Patrice just inside the doorway, an axe at her side, shot through the heart.

"Girls?" he called, trying to keep his voice even. Oh God, he prayed, please let them be safe. Let me find them. They're only hiding. They're only afraid. I will find them... 

"It's Ezra," he forced his voice to stay steady. "You remember me? The pretty coat? The charmed horse? Surely you do," he said as he moved through the barn. Two dun-colored horses looked up from their stalls. Ezra saw accusation in their glares. He glanced again to Patrice.  Certainly she had been guarding something, protecting something of astronomical value here in this barn.  He searched and then looked up.

"Darlin's?" he called as calmly as he could manage as he climbed the ladder into the hayloft. It was dark in the loft -- as dark as pitch.  The light from the lantern bit into the black and illuminated the scene.  He found the two girls there, Linda and Virginia, six and eight years old. They were huddled into the corner, their arms around each other, their faces turned to the wall, slumped and bloody and dead.

The lamp quavered in his hand. "Good God in heaven," he muttered. He looked back to the body of the mother, just barely visible in the meager light. He could imagine her running to the barn, urging the children upward, defending them with the only thing she could lay her hands on, a good mother.

He darted back down the ladder, out of the barn, and into the open. He held the lamp before him, looking, searching. "Come on, you son of a bitch, you had to have left a trace!" He searched back toward the trough, to Timothy, looking for any sign that could lead him on the trail to the killer or killers of the family. Too damn dark, too damn detestably dark.

He paced back and forth until he realized that he was doing nothing more that stirring up the scene. "Damnation, why didn't I return sooner?" He shook his head sharply. If he were here only a half-hour ago, he might have been able to track whoever did this. Hell, if he had been here hours ago he might have been able to stop it.

He walked slowly back to where young Master McCannon lay. He stooped beside him for a moment. The heat of the desert sun had not been kind. His dead skin was bloated and peeling, and the flies had done their damage. He tried not to think about it as he carefully picked up the boy, letting the boy's head rest against his shoulder. He left the light behind him as he walked into the dark barn and set the child beside his mother. Chaucer, who'd been waiting beside the trough, followed him into the building and stood watch over the body.

In the house, Ezra found a cloth and bound up the head of the father, not looking too closely at the damage wrought by the gunshot and the elements. He dragged the man down the front steps and to the barn, apologizing as he went. McCannon was rather heavy and difficult to manage, but Ezra finally was able to bring him to his wife's side. He climbed into the loft again to reclaim the two daughters. They were so light in his arms. He took three trips, returning the last time for Virginia's doll  -- forgotten in the corner. 

Then he carefully placed each member of the McCannon family into the bed of their wagon, and covered them with comforters that he had retrieved from their beds. He sighed to see the five of them together. He would bring them to town, have them properly prepared and laid to rest. They had spent too much time alone in the desert. Once they were seen to, he would return with Vin. Vin would be able to track the killers.

He was about to harness their team when he heard the patter of rain on the roof. He walked slowly to the entrance of the barn and looked out into the night. With a great weariness, he leaned against the side of the barn door. He was finally still, something he had avoided until now. With stillness, came thought and a terrible anguish hit him. Chaucer approached slowly from behind and lay his head on the man's shoulder and snorted. 

"Oh Chaucer..." Ezra said quietly, "It wouldn't be right to subject them to such weather." He rubbed the horse's nose and gazed out into the dark. "They deserve better." He twisted out from under the horse and stood facing the wagon. "We'll wait until mornin'." He pulled out his weapons and checked them unnecessarily. He walked slowly back to the wagon and sat against one of its forward wheels. The horse watched him.

"If I had only come sooner," Ezra murmured, holding his Remington ready as he drew up his knees and leaned against the wheel. "Why did I remain in Eagle Bend for so long? It was only a game. I should have left it." He furrowed his brow and sighed. "If I had only come when I had first planned. I should’ve known."

The horse moved away from the front of the barn, back toward his owner, nickering. The gambler shook his head. "Why didn't I know?" He should have sensed something was wrong, should have been somehow able to discern that death was approaching the small house. There should have been a sign. He was good at reading things, knowing what was going to happen. Why didn't he sense this? He should have. He should’ve had some sort of inkling.

He thought about the kitchen, and its half-prepared meal and his heart sunk. If he had only come at noon as he had planned, if he had only come before noon. Why did he let that game draw him in so deeply?

He tossed his hat on the floor and pressed his head back against the wagon's wheel, remembering the three children who had run out to greet him the previous day. Timothy was so solemn, so ready to be an adult. Linda was a little flirt, pulling at the sleeve of his coat, turning her head coquettishly at him. Virginia was shy, hugging that ragged doll and pulling her younger sister close to her, but opening up and laughing at the tricks that Ezra had produced for them.

Ezra held the gun limply in his hand as he gazed out into the driving rain. He thought about Patrice, with her fierce determination to defend her children from snakes and scoundrels, such as himself. Her husband, unnamed, a man who defended his home and his family and died doing so. He smiled ruefully, remembering what he had told the Seminole children about the different types of people in the world. The mother and father definitely fell into the 'second kind' category.

And what of himself? He could do nothing more than mop up the mess that was left. He gazed out at the rain that washed away all the clues that might lead him to the perpetrator of such a terrible deed. Not even Vin would be able to track them once this storm was through. 

He glanced over at Chaucer.   "What could we have done in any case, old friend?" he said with a sigh.  "Even if I were to find the trail, even if I were to gun down those bastards, it wouldn't bring back that poor family."

He hardly knew them, didn't know the father at all. How long had he even spent with the children?

It was as his mother had always warned him, don't get involved. Attachments only cause pain. One will never enjoy the good life if one starts caring about people. He had known the McCannons for a few moments only, but Lord, he had been looking forward to seeing them again. He pulled the packet of candies out of his pocket and slung them into the rain.

Nothing you can do, he said to himself. They are gone, undeniably dead and gone. Your feeling 'bad' about it isn't going to correct the situation. No, remorse and regret will not improve anything. Nothing will bring them back. He drew his arms up over his knees and rested his chin on them, letting the gun dangle. Nothing you can do. Why should you let it bother you? You hardly knew them, just a chance meeting on a new route to Eagle Bend. They should be nothing to you. It's better if you felt nothing at all.

Part 2:

Chris looked up when he saw a wagon approach the town. When he recognized the colorful coat, he shook his head and walked out to meet the vehicle.

"Where've you been?" Chris asked sternly. "You shoulda been back last night."

"Good day, Mr. Larabee," Standish said looking straight ahead.

"What did ya do?" Chris asked as the buckboard drew closer. "Win a some poor farmer's wagon out from under him?"

"Not exactly," Ezra replied, turning his attention to the gunslinger. "It seems that I came upon a misfortune."

Chris looked into the wagon bed, seeing unmistakable shapes under the blankets.  His heart seemed to slow at the sight.  "Who?"

"The McCannons," Ezra replied simply and angled the wagon toward the undertaker. "I believe our Mr. Mack will be busy today." 

Chris followed and caught Ezra's arm as he descended from the wagon outside of Ben Mack's undertaker's shop. "Albert McCannon?"

"Albert?" Ezra nodded. "And family."

Ben was outside of the shop by now, wordlessly appraising the situation. Chris did not let go of the gambler's arm. "The whole family? He has three children."

"Yes, three, and a most intelligent wife," Ezra returned.

"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded. He studied the gambler's face but saw no sign of sorrow, no sign of anything. He face was an unreadable mask. "What happened to them?"

"They were shot."

Chris looked into the wagon. "Who did it?"

"I don't know," Ezra replied. He hadn't moved from the place where Chris had stopped him. He met the gunslingers vivid glance with a coolness that infuriated the leader of the Seven.

"Couldn't you find a trail? They must 'ave left a sign.  Didja even try to find it?"

"I didn't come upon the scene until sundown and by the time I appraised the situation, night had fallen, making tracking an impossibility. Perhaps Mr. Tanner would have had the skill, but not I." Ezra finally was able to shrug Chris' hand off his arm. "And then, of course, there was the rain."

"Me and Vin are headin' out," Chris declared. He looked back to the lumps under the blankets that were the McCannon family.

"You're free to do so, but it's unlikely you shall fine anything of note," Ezra said, remembering waiting for the sun to rise so he could begin a search of his own. He had spent over an hour prowling the property, before he'd realized that there was no hope of finding a clue in the rain soaked soil. He'd moved into the buildings, searching every room of the house and had turned the hay in the barn, hoping to find something that would give him an idea of who had killed the family. But there was nothing. Finally, he had to admit his defeat and bring the family to town.

Chris watched as Ezra pulled back the blankets. The five members of the family lay there together. Ezra picked up the smallest of the children, little Linda, and carried her easily into the shop. Chris sighed heavily as he looked at the wagon's remaining passengers. An incredible sorrow hit him. The father lay against his son. The mother was on her back between the son and elder daughter. Even in death she seemed to be protecting her children, an arm laying on each of them.

She looked like Sarah, Chris thought. No, not really, her hair was the wrong color and she was too tall, but she looked like Sarah. The boy, Timmy, was bigger than he remembered. The last time he saw the child, he was too small for his age. How many months ago was that? When did the boy shoot up and start looking like a man? Now he was just another child who would never have the chance to become an adult.

He thought of Adam. How big would his own son be right now if he had only been allowed to live? What would Adam look like now?

Who could have done this? What sort of a human killed a family? He could feel the anger returning to him, the empty, endless anger that ensnared him at his own family's death. How could this happen again?

Chris clenched his jaw against his rage and watched as Standish casually exited the shop and returned to the wagon. He was flicking the dust from his jacket as he walked, and seemed perturbed to find strange dark stains on his sleeves. The undertaker still stood quietly, waiting to see what happened. "I shall eventually require help with Mr. McCannon as he is more weight than I can bare alone," Ezra said as he carefully moved Mrs. McCannon's arm from the shoulder of her daughter and took Virginia into his arms, snaring her rag doll in the process.

Part 3:

For nearly a week there had been no news. Chris and Vin rode out to the McCannon home, but it was as Ezra had stated, no trail or clue remained. Vin could only track the trail that the determined gambler had left through the property.  All else had been washed away.  But, the blood still stained the porch and the straw-strewn floor of the barn, still turned the earth near the trough a muted red. The drapery still fluttered in the shattered windows. The ruined potatoes still waited for a lunch that would never begin. The stale corn muffins were touched only by flies.

The funeral was performed the morning after Ezra brought the McCannons to town. The gunslinger was honestly surprised when the gambler did not attend the service, but then Ezra really didn't seem to be bothered by the deaths. Chris looked among the mourners, feeling a strange anger growing in him, noting Ezra's absence.

JD was there, looking freshly scrubbed and so damn young. Buck and Vin stood on either side of Chris, as if to give him strength. The two of them understood and offered what support they could. Nathan attended with a regal solemnity. Josiah read a beautiful service that brought the congregation to tears. Even Chris, keeping his face rigid, wished he were wearing his hat, so that he could pull it over his eyes. Ezra never arrived. They had found him later playing solitaire in the saloon.

Inquiries in regard to the murders produced little information. But then, one of the McCannon neighbors stated that a man by the name of Edgar Wahl had threatened Albert McCannon over an ancient dispute, something to do with a sum of money that disappeared from one or the other's possession. He wasn't certain if it were Wahl or McCannon that was accused of the theft. Chris sent out inquiries regarding Mr. Wahl.

When Wahl had showed up in Eagle Bend, drunk and in the possession of several items that were known to belong to the McCannons, he was arrested. Without hesitation, he confessed to the sheriff, explaining his delight in killing the man who had plagued him so. He said that he never meant to kill the others, but the boy had been in the yard when he arrived, so there was nothing else that he could do. And of course, he couldn't allow the wife to survive after what she had seen. The girls? Well, they had been crying and he couldn't stand the sound they were making.

So the peacekeepers from Four Corners were sent for, to bring the accused murderer to his trial. He would be hung if convicted.

Chris sighed in frustration as he entered the saloon with Vin. "All things considered, I'd rather not bring Ezra on this one," he said.

Vin examined the face of his friend. "You said you wanted three men to go. Now, you know that Buck, Josiah and JD went out to Cedar Ridge and they're not back 'til tonight, and Nate's rode out to the Kramers'." The tracker shrugged and said, "We could always wait 'til they're back. Won't hurt Wahl none to stew a bit." 

"Kinda inconvenient," Chris mumbled. 

Vin smiled, trying to improve Chris' mood. "Well you can't blame Mrs. Kramer. Babies just got a way of comin' at the most inappropriate times. Long and short of it is, if you want three...and if ya wanna leave now... we gotta bring Ezra." 

Vin looked to the back of the saloon where the gambler was playing solitaire again. The tracker watched Ezra for a few moments. Vin knew what Chris was going through, could understand the similarities between this recent event and the horrible end to Chris' own family. He knew why Chris was so tense, but he could also see that something was eating at their resident gambler. "'Sides, I think it'll do him some good to get out of town for a while. He's been kinda quiet lately and quiet just ain't like Ezra." 

For the past week Ezra had hardly spoken a word to anyone, preferring to be alone. He seemed more than satisfied to take the night watch over the town and leave the days to the others. The gambler may not have been in favor of 'menial labor', but he usually he would accompany the others when they saw fit to do such work, providing conversation if nothing else. For the past few days, though, he hadn't even done that. Vin missed having him around. 

Vin had tried to talk to Ezra more than once, but found only a surly disposition, evasive answers and... more than anything... silence. 

Chris had little patience for the gambler. Ezra didn't seem to care. The faces of the dead family haunted Chris, they seemed to meld into the faces of his own family. The deaths of Sarah and Adam seemed as recent as the deaths of Patrice, Virginia, Linda, Timmy and Albert. In a way, Chris was jealous of Albert McCannon. At least Albert had been able to attempt to protect his family, something that Chris had been denied. 

Chris felt it still, after all this time. The pain still bit at him, poisoning his soul. The same thought hounded him... why hadn't he been there? Why couldn't he protect his own family? Now the McCannons had died at the hands of a murderer, and he would bring that man into justice, because he had failed to do the same for his own family.

Chris regarded Ezra before he started walking toward the table. Yes, all things considered, he'd rather not bring Ezra on this mission. He'd rather bring someone who gave a damn.

"Come on, Ezra," Chris said as he approached the table with Vin close behind him, "You're comin'."

Ezra glanced up from his game and said, "I fail to understand why this journey requires three lawmen."

Vin shrugged. "They say this Wahl is a handful."

"I would prefer to stay," Ezra said, returning his concentration to the cards.

"They got the man who did it," Chris stated. "We're gonna go get him and you're comin' along."

"Why, exactly?" Ezra did not look up.

"Because," Chris replied. He couldn't understand how Ezra could be so unfeeling about the whole situation. Chris could not get the incident out of his mind, couldn't rid himself of the anger it caused. If he could only get this Wahl to trial, get him to justice for what he had done, he could clear his mind again. He had not been able to bring a closure to his own family's deaths, but he could do it for the McCannons. Now Ezra was standing in his way.

"Because," Chris continued, "I want three men and you don't seem to be doin' much of anythin'."

Ezra gestured above the cards. "I do believe that I'm in the middle of a game."

Well, that was quickly rectified, Chris thought as he shoved his hands through the cards, sending them flying. "The game's over."

Part 4:

Ezra watched the cards flutter to the ground and looked back up at Chris. God, he didn't want to do this. Couldn't Larabee find another lackey? Well, with the other four out of town, that left him as the last choice.

Damn, Ezra thought, I should have gone with Buck and JD, as they had requested. Buck had certainly been insistent, trying to cajole him into the trip to Cedar Ridge, saying it would be an easy job, telling him that it would be a chance for the three of them to kick back and relax. Buck had kept at him for almost three days, getting JD into the act, too, before they finally gave up and the two had left with Josiah instead.

The problem was that Ezra didn't feel like doing much of anything. He'd felt so poorly since this all began. The whole incident had settled on him like so much wet laundry, weighing on him. He was more than satisfied to hear that Wahl was captured. He felt gratified that the murderer would meet his reward for what he had done, but was he happy? No, not happy. Would the sight of Edgar Wahl hanging from his neck do anything to lift his spirits? Doubtful, highly doubtful.

In his mind he could still see the McCannons in the lamplight. He could still play back the events of the day and see that if he had only left sooner he may have been able to stop the tragedy from occurring. If he had only left as planned. If he had only known. If there was only something he could do. But there was no sense thinking about that. It couldn't be helped, and what can't be helped should be forgotten, should be swept aside. Let someone else worry about such things. It should mean nothing to him.

Ezra stood slowly, eyeing the cards that lay on the floor. Nothing he could do. Might as well get on with it. Keep Larabee quiet by following his orders. "Apparently I shall be accompanying you," he said, hoping that the situation would not be as hellish as he expected.

Part 5:

But it was as bad as the gambler had anticipated. The trip to Eagle Bend was a trial in itself. Larabee's mood was dark and Ezra did his best to stay out of the way. Ezra could understand Chris' animosity toward him, considering how he had failed to help the McCannons. It wasn't any surprise.

Vin, who usually had the common sense to keep quiet, saw fit to attempt countless conversations. Ezra did what he could to deflect them, but Vin was unusually insistent, which only left Ezra feeling miserable. He just wanted this whole dreadful episode to end, to be finished with it. Now he had to deal with Wahl. He would have preferred to forget all about it.

They took the usual route to the town, but Ezra couldn't help thinking of the farmhouse as they passed at some distance from it. He looked toward the McCannon's home, seeing it as only a distant shape, indistinct in the heat and the scrub.

The three of them entered the jail in Eagle Bend and met the eyes of Edgar Wahl. He was an unassuming looking man, with huge hands, but his eyes were as cold as winter. Ezra almost shuddered as he looked at the killer of the McCannons. So this is the man, he thought.

"You the men come to take me to Four Corners?" Wahl asked when he saw them.

"Come to take you to your trial," Chris replied. "Come to see that you hang for what you've done."

"I ain't been tried yet," Wahl responded. "Lots can happen a-fore that."

"Shaddup, Wahl," Sheriff Staynes ordered. He shook his head. "He's done gone and tried himself. Done blathered non-stop about the murders the whole time he's been here. It's enough to chill a man's soul, listenin' to him."

Wahl laughed. "What a picture the three of you make," he said with a smirk as he looked at the men from Four Corners. "I should hire a photographer to keep the memory for me."

"You ain't in a place to ask for nothin'," Vin said simply.

"Come on." Chris nodded to the sheriff. "Let's get goin'."

"At this hour?" Ezra looked askance at their leader. "Perhaps we should spend the night in town as opposed to on the trail?"

"I'm not wasting another minute in gettin' this piece of trash to Four Corners," Chris snarled.

"Trash?" Wahl chuckled. "That the best you can do?"

"Oh, I assure you, Wahl, I can do much better," Chris growled as Staynes opened the cell. Chris approached the prisoner with the handcuffs. Wahl offered him no resistance and held out his hands to be detained. Larabee snapped the restraints in place and grabbed him by his arm.

Wahl was dragged out of the jail and pushed onto the horse that they had brought with them for that purpose.

Judge Travis had warned them ahead of time, that he wanted the prisoner in one piece. He knew that the lawmen of Four Corners, although just, were capable of administering a little of their own justice along the trail. "No scars, no bruises, no gunshot holes," the telegram had read, admonishing them to stay on the straight and narrow. "The prisoner is to be delivered unharmed or face the consequences."

Wahl apparently realized this stipulation and pressed his luck. "I wouldn't have took ya for lawmen, no way, no how. You there," Wahl said, nodding in Ezra's direction, "Ya look like you'd be more interested in the other side of the law, huh?"

"Mr. Wahl, I assure you," Ezra replied tiredly, "I am familiar with both aspects, good and bad." He felt no need to go any further. He could tell immediately that Wahl was a needler and a badgerer. There was only one way to respond to that sort of onslaught and that was by ignoring it, not letting it overcome you. 

Wahl smirked and turned to Chris. "What are you dressed up for? A funeral?" 

Chris tied the prisoner's horse to his own. "Yours," he replied. 

Wahl laughed loudly. "Glad to see you dressed for the occasion." He watched as Vin mounted. "And what's the story here? You just get back from huntin' grizzly bear? You some sort’a mountain man? You shoot a lot of Injuns?" 

Vin shook his head and didn't reply. The tracker looked to Chris and stated, "Best be goin' while we still got some light." 

Ezra mounted last and followed the group out of town. He now had a clear image of the killer and could play out the scene in his head, could see Wahl ride onto the McCannon property and Timothy come out to meet him, only to be gunned down. He could envision Mr. McCannon grabbing his rifle and holding Wahl back from the porch, the windows shattering behind him as the weapons fired. He had a picture now, of Wahl running through the house after Mrs. McCannon, of her standing fiercely at the barn door, holding the axe high and Wahl not slowing. He could see Wahl climbing the ladder to the loft. Ezra removed his hat and brushed his hand through his hair thinking of the little girls, crying in that corner and Wahl approaching. Ezra lagged behind, thinking of the children crying. 

There was no one there to help them. No one who came to their aid. Ezra sighed and shook his head slowly. He could have come sooner, if he only came sooner. If he had only come as he had planned... 

Good Lord, he thought suddenly, what if they thought Wahl was me? My God, what if Timothy went to meet the rider, thinking it was me? Chaucer stopped, uncertain of what his owner wanted. Ezra watched the others move forward several lengths before he started after them again. My God, he thought.

Part 6:

Chris rode the lead, with Wahl close behind him. The gunslinger looked back at the prisoner and saw him smirk. "I killed 'em nice and quick," Wahl declared.

Chris glowered at him. "You tell that to the judge." This was the killer of children, the murderer of a family. It was all Chris could do to keep on his horse, to keep moving forward and not pounce on the man, to not shoot him dead.

"Didn't cause 'em any pain. Shot 'em nice and easy. The boy didn't even know what hit 'im."

"Shut up, Wahl," Chris said, jerking on the reins of Wahl's horse. He fixed the prisoner with a glare that would have frozen others.

"He made the funniest little cry. Had his back to me. He was goin' ta get his Pa when I got 'im. Didn't even see it comin'."

Chris could feel his heart pounding. "I told you, Wahl," Chris snarled through gritted teeth.

"The lady, she was a wildcat," Wahl said. "Killed her like I'd kill a mountain lion. Gotta get 'em on the first shot or there'll be hell to pay. She may have fought like a lion, but she went down like a heifer."

Chris was off his horse in a moment. He grabbed Wahl by his shirtfront and flung him to the ground. Chris' vision took on a red tinge as he flew at the downed prisoner. Something stopped him, held him back. Vin grabbed Chris firmly by the arm, digging in his heels and pulling. Ezra was at Chris' other side suddenly, straining to hold him. Chris twisted, trying to free himself.

"No, Chris, no!" Vin demanded. "Don't you stoop to his level! Don't ya let him get at cha!"

"Goddamn son of a bitch!" Chris spat at the man, who sat in the dust by his feet. "Shut the fuck up!" 

Vin pulled him back, away from the killer. "Come on, Chris. He's not worth it. Walk away."

Chris jerked his arms out of Ezra and Vin's grip. He walked, his feet pounding into the dirt, with Vin at his side. Why did there have to be people like this in the world? Why did women and children have to die? Sarah, he thought of her again, Sarah and Adam facing their deaths in the burning house. Murdered because of him. He tried to blot it out, but their faces returned to him. Their eyes wide with fear as they died without him. And he recalled the McCannon family, lying in the wagon bed, their features distorted by their desert wait. He turned back toward their killer.

Ezra stood beside the man, his arms folded, as Wahl struggled to his feet. Wahl took a moment to gain his balance before the gambler helped the killer back onto his horse. Chris shook his head, watching the process. Wahl said something to Ezra, but the gambler didn't respond and headed back to his own mount.

Chris watched as Ezra climbed into his saddle. The gambler sat quietly waiting, his gaze on their prisoner. There was no emotion in his eyes. Chris shook his head. He couldn't understand it. Chris wanted to strangle Wahl, to beat the life out of him, meanwhile Ezra was giving him a hand at getting into the saddle. Ezra was the one who found the McCannons, you would think he would have some compassion for them.

"Shall we be going?" Ezra asked finally.

"Hang on there, Ez," Vin said, looking to Chris. "You okay?"

"Fine," Chris returned, glaring at Ezra. How could he just sit there? How could Ezra manage to keep so cool, not let Wahl get to him? God, there were times Chris envied the heartless bastard.

"You got your man under control?" Wahl asked Vin. "Looks like yer the type to handle ruthless animals like that. You got him handled? 'Cause it looks to me like he don't know the first thing about controlling himself. Looks like he's got 'bout as much restraint as a jack-rabbit in heat." 

Vin sent Wahl tumbling back to the ground. Wahl landed with an "Ooof!" and looked back up at Vin in amusement. 

Vin said nothing. He returned to his horse, Peso, as Wahl once again made the difficult maneuver of getting to his feet with his arms restrained. He stood beside his horse until Ezra once again dismounted and helped him into the saddle. 

"You got yerself some fine friends there, gamblin'-man," Wahl said as Ezra shoved him into position. "Looks like neither of 'em got a lick of sense between 'em. They let their emotions get the better of 'em. Think maybe they got a brain between 'em?" 

"Apparently so," Ezra replied civilly and headed back to his horse. "At least that." 

Part 7:

Ezra stayed behind during the rest of the day. He could keep an eye on the prisoner as well as his traveling companions, without them watching him. Wahl continued to bait both Chris and Vin. Chris had managed to keep from attacking the man again, but he seemed to be directing the unspent anger in Ezra's direction, finding fault with everything he did or didn't do. Of course, Ezra couldn't blame him, all things considered. He did his best to avoid the gunslinger.

Chris was upset that Ezra had gotten the prisoner onto his horse again. No one else was moving forward to do so and someone had to do it. He complained that Ezra was following too far behind. Chris had glared at the gambler when he inquired as to when they would stop for the night. He didn't gather enough firewood fast enough. He didn't appreciate the food that Vin had worked so very hard to cook. He didn't help enough when it was time to clean up.

Larabee was just a mass of animosity waiting to explode. Ezra hoped that he wasn't nearby when it happened.

Ezra was glad that Chris was finally asleep. Perhaps he would be able to get out of the line of fire for a while. He glanced over at his sleeping compatriots and then back to Wahl. 

The prisoner smiled. "So, you get stuck with keepin' an eye on me," the man said. 

Ezra returned the smile. "I'm quite used t'bein' awake through the midnight hour," Ezra replied. "And I shall be relieved in due time." 

Wahl shrugged.  "Yeah, well, it seems like you got stuck with the worst of it. I mean, you've been riding for just as long as them and they're the only ones getting any sleep. Seems like they didn't give you much of a say in the matter." 

Ezra shook his head slowly, thinking that he hadn't been getting much sleep even when he'd been in town. "Mr. Wahl, perhaps you should take advantage of the situation and get a little sleep yourself." 

"Nah," Wahl said. "I've been letting you boys do all the work today. I'm wide-awake now. I'm thinkin' maybe you and I could do some chattin'." 

The last thing Ezra wanted to do was to talk to this man. Wahl continued speaking and Ezra did his best to ignore it. He pulled a deck of cards from his waistcoat pocket and shuffled it as Wahl went on about his feelings concerning Vin and Chris. 

"Ya wanna play a hand or two?" Wahl asked. 

Ezra raised an eyebrow and looked at the murderer of the McCannons. "If you would play in silence, perhaps we could engage in a game." 

And so they played, using a handful of small stones as markers. Ezra played without any enthusiasm, not caring if he won or lost, only wanting to keep Wahl silent. The prisoner managed to hold the cards with his shackled hands.  Ezra truly despised the man, but had to put those feelings aside. It was the only way to deal with such emotions. At least the game gave him something to concentrate on. He ran his fingers along the face of a card, wondering if they really felt sticky after being in contact with the wretched man. 

"Hard to manage the cards this way," Wahl said, matter-of-factly as he struggled against the handcuffs.  Ezra had nothing to say in response. 

After a few hands, Wahl looked up and said, "I'm hungry." 

"That truly is a shame," Ezra said as he dealt. How could Wahl be hungry? Ezra thought. The con man hadn't had the stomach for much of anything since he discovered the murders, hadn't been able to eat since this miserable mission began. 

"What harm would it do to feed a man?" Wahl asked. 

Ezra looked up at him and remembered the half-completed meal at the McCannon home. "Harm?" Ezra asked, keeping his face still. 

"Come on," Wahl said. "Those boys hardly gave me anything for supper. They don't understand, like you. Ya can't let me starve before my trial?" 

Ezra's mouth quirked into a smile. "That would be an unaccountable shame," he said as he stood. He kept watch on the prisoner as he went through their supplies and came up with a biscuit. He would prefer to leave the man hungry, but he also realized that a full mouth was a quiet one. 

He placed the biscuit into Wahl's cuffed hands and sat back down across from him. The murder took three hurried bites and then started to choke. Ezra looked at him in disbelief. Wahl grabbed at his throat, wheezing, bending down, struggling.  He was suffocating. It was then that Ezra made a stupid move, which he would regret rather extensively. He tried to help. 

He leaned over the killer of the McCannons and slapped him on the back. Wahl was out of the handcuffs and his hands were on the Remington before Ezra had finished his ministration. Ezra's eyes went wide when he felt the gun being plucked from his holster. 

Standish was unbalanced. He triggered his derringer into his hand, but before he could aim, he was struck by his own weapon and fell in a heap. The last thing he thought was, at least I unloaded that damn gun...

Part 8:

Chris awoke with a start to the sound of agitated horses and retreating hoofbeats. He sat up and looked across the fire to where Wahl should have been and instead saw only the crumpled form of the gambler. He jumped to his feet, shouting for Vin. He grabbed his weapon as he moved quickly to Ezra's side, dropping a concerned hand on his shoulder.  He was breathing. 

"Wahl!" he shouted to Vin and the tracker stepped out of the firelight to search. 

Chris moved Ezra onto his back. It looked like he had been clubbed with something. Around the gambler were scattered a deck of cards, a half-eaten biscuit and, where Wahl should have been sitting, the open handcuffs. Larabee didn't know how Wahl had managed it. His ham-sized hands obviously lacked the dexterity to pick the locks and could never have slipped through the cuffs. Besides, Ezra should have been keeping an eye on him. Instead, the gambler had been playing cards with a man who murdered children. Did Ezra actually let him out of the cuffs to play cards? 

Vin came back in a few minutes. "Gone," he said simply. "Saw fit to scatter our horses. It may take a while to get 'em back." The tracker paused and added, "He took Job." 

"My horse?" Chris asked incredulously. He glared out into the darkness. "Son of a bitch!" 

"Your saddle, too." 

"Bastard." Larabee jammed his hands into his pockets, remembering the saddlebag with plenty of ammo that had been left with the gear. "Bastard," he said again. 

"Yeah," Vin agreed. 

Chris looked back toward the mess around the gambler. "What the hell was going on here?" 

Vin shrugged and said, "Looks like they were havin' a little picnic while Ezra 'plied his God-given talents'." 

Chris shook his head ruefully. He'd never understand the gambler. How could he have stooped so low? Didn't the man have any scruples? 

"We're goin' after him," Chris said. 

Vin nodded. "'Spect we should wait 'til Ezra comes 'round. Gotta get those horses back.  Too dark to track Wahl in any case. No moon for it." 

Chris just sighed. "We'll get that Wahl. He's going to pay for those killings." He glanced down at Ezra and said, "What the hell was he doing? Why did Ezra let him get out of the handcuffs?" 

Vin shrugged, sat down beside Ezra and patted him gently on the shoulder. He looked back up at Chris and said. "Looks like Wahl grabbed one of Ezra's guns. How we didn't all get shot dead, I don't know." He smiled at the unconscious gambler, wondering if Ezra had the aforethought to unload the most accessible weapon while he was guarding the prisoner. 

Chris stalked off into the darkness, after the horses. It took almost an hour to gather Peso and Wahl's rented mount. Chaucer would not come to Chris, no matter how hard Chris tried to capture it. Vin said that the horse sensed Chris' hostility toward its owner. It was only after Ezra started coming around that the chestnut horse finally wandered back to their camp and by then it was morning. They started off immediately, with the still dizzy gambler sitting uneasily in his saddle.

Part 9:

Chris glowered at the horizon as he rode the nag. Vin looked over his shoulder at Ezra who followed a few lengths behind them. Standish met his gaze with a smile.

"Tell me, Standish," Larabee said, "Why'd you it?" Not receiving a response, Chris stopped the horse and turned. Damn it, he wished he could wipe that smug smile of the conman's face.

"I'm not sure of how to answer that question," Ezra replied evenly.

Chris' dark mood only increased. "You're the reason that man's on the loose again," he said, facing forward once more.

"I suspect there is no point in providing my side of the story."

"What did ya do, Ezra? Let him win his way outta custody?" Chris barked. "You'll play with anyone."

"That is possible," Ezra replied from behind without conviction.

"What the hell kinda man are you anyway?"

"Why, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said with a smile. "I'm exactly what you believe me to be."

Chris didn't know what to make of the gambler. He seemed determined to do anything he could to derail this journey and now he had really done it. How could Wahl have possibly escaped from those handcuffs? Ezra had to have unlocked them. Why? To play poker? What was Ezra doing playing cards with that man? Chris shook his head. They'd had the killer in their hands and let him go.

Wahl had escaped and now justice for the family was in jeopardy. It had been so close. If Chris had only been able to bring this man to justice, maybe he could soothe his conscience, put this old anger to rest. Instead, it now looked like they might lose the murderer. If they were to lose Wahl, Chris didn't know how he would be able to handle it.

How had he escaped? And damn it, why'd he have to steal Job? It was as if the prisoner had purposefully chosen that horse, as a slap in his face. Chris wished Wahl had tried for Ezra's horse. Chaucer trusted people even less than Ezra did, and Wahl would not have made it very far with that mount. 

It was afternoon when they reached the crossroads known as Falling Cross. Chris turned when he saw Vin draw Peso to a stop and look around suspiciously. 

"Something wrong?" Chris asked. 

"Don't feel right, cowboy," Vin responded. Suddenly a shot rang out, the familiar sound of Ezra's Remington. Vin lurched back and started falling. For a split second, Chris had the impression that the gambler had fired, but he remembered angrily that Wahl had taken the weapon. Chris leapt from his saddle, torn between running to Vin and firing back against their attacker. He turned to look for Ezra and couldn't see him. The gambler's horse was running off riderless.  There’d been only one shot.  What could have happened to Standish?

Damn it, Chris swore, as he ran to the tracker, catching him before he hit the ground before Peso and the other horse took off as well. He pulled Vin into the cover of a boulder and started firing back. Where the hell was Standish?

"Ezra!" he shouted and continued firing.

It was only after he paused to reload that he heard sound of Ezra's Colt Richards Conversion and caught sight of him behind another boulder, some distance from them. Chris had time to look down at Vin. He was hit bad, bleeding profusely from the chest.

"Hang in there, Vin," Chris muttered. He lay his hand on the tracker for a moment, trying to assure himself that Vin was all right. He was still alive, but the wound was near his heart.

Ezra to continue firing on the unseen attacker as Chris attempted to help the tracker. He pulled a bandana from his pocket and used it as a makeshift bandage, pressing it against the wound. Vin stirred at the pressure but did not regain consciousness.

Chris glanced over at Ezra again. He was taking careful aim at the gunman. The gambler realized someone was watching him and gazed at Chris.  He licked his lips and for a moment it seemed as if he were about to say something, but instead he returned to the task of keeping the gunman at bay. Chris finished reloading and started firing again in the direction of their attacker, keeping a close eye on Vin.

Vin's face was pale and the bleeding hadn't slowed. Please, the gunslinger thought, not his heart, not Vin. He raised his head and looked in the direction of the gunman. Hell, he thought, this has got to end now.

Another shot rang out, followed by a cry of pain.

"I would advise you to give up your assault and perhaps we shall see to your injury, Mr. Wahl," the gambler drawled, keeping himself hidden. 

"Shit, shit, shit," he could hear Wahl repeating from his hiding place.

"Please, Mr. Wahl, stand where you are and throw down your weapon."

Wahl stood up, reluctantly, from his cover, throwing his purloined weapon into the dirt and then clutched at his wounded arm. Chris saw Ezra wince, obviously about the treatment of his property. "If you would be so kind as to step forward?"

Chris watched as Ezra unsteadily climbed out from behind the rock and then sat down on the boulder with a weary sigh. "Damn it, Ezra. Get him cuffed and stop fooling around."

"I would suggest ropes this time," Ezra said giving Chris a sidelong glance. "And since I have no talent with knots, that task should fall to you."

"Goddamn it, Ezra, can't you see I'm trying to save Vin's life right now?" Chris barked at him. He was applying pressure again to the tracker's wound. The bleeding did seem to be slowing, but Tanner's face was growing paler.

Ezra watched for a moment and then whistled sharply. Chaucer approached at a quick trot, nickering at him happily. The gambler pulled a rope from one of his saddlebags. "Mr. Wahl, your hands please." Ezra seemed to be in no hurry, standing with one hand on the pommel of his horse's saddle. He waited for Wahl to approach him and allow his hands to be tied.

"My damn arm. You gonna see to my arm?"

"Yes, yes, of course," Ezra muttered and once the man was secured, he started going through his saddlebags for bandages.

Chris stood and abruptly grabbed the material out of Ezra's hands before he had a chance to move. He said, "I'm gonna need this for Vin. We can let Wahl bleed to death for all I care. Where's that flask yours?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow as he snagged the flask and handed it to Chris. "And how is our Mr. Tanner?"

"It's bad," Chris said, looking back toward the tracker. "It's close to the heart. The bullet is still in there."

Ezra tugged his canteen off his saddle and gave it to Chris as well. "Will you be able to remove it?"

Chris looked at the gambler who leaned against his horse. "We need Nathan."

"You gonna see to this?" Wahl said, using his head to point to his bleeding wound.

"Momentarily," Ezra sighed.

"Get help," Chris ordered. "Hurray. He's gonna need more than I can give him."

"It may be best if I remain..." Ezra said. "Maybe I should..."

Chris tried to read the gambler, who was looking toward Vin, his face impassive despite the dire situation. What was the matter with him? Didn't he realize what was going on? Ezra's mind seemed to be a million miles away. God, Chris wanted to smack him.

Chris leaned forward until he were mere inches from Ezra's placid face. "Ezra, do me a favor and for once, don't be such a self-serving snake," Chris spat out ferociously. "Get help now! Otherwise Vin is going to die. If Vin dies because of you, then I'm coming after you next, you understand me?"

Ezra looked back at Chris balefully. He seemed to come to a decision. "You're crystal clear, Mr. Larabee." He nodded and carefully swung himself into his saddle, taking a moment to settle himself. "You will want to keep a close eye on Mr. Wahl. He tends to choke if he eats too fast." Then he turned the horse and headed toward Four Corners at a gallop.

Chris watched Ezra depart. Why did he always make things so difficult? He didn't seem to care that Vin had been hurt -- all due to Ezra's own carelessness. He shoved the supplies under one arm, then roughly grabbed the rope hanging from Wahl's hands and dragged him back toward Vin.

"Ya gonna see to me now?" the prisoner asked.

The gunslinger glared at his charge. Damn it, how could anyone be more irritating than Ezra?

Part 10:

Ezra laughed. Oh, the poetic justice, he thought as he rode. He shook his head to clear it. It still ached from Wahl's attack. 

He remembered seeing Vin totter in his saddle, remembered that for the second time in the same 24-hour day, he'd done a very stupid thing. He had leapt off his horse without looking at where he was going to land. Anyone with half-an-ounce of sense knew to look first, but something had kicked in when he saw the tracker in trouble. He didn't think. He needed to help Vin.

The rattlesnake had struck the moment Ezra had landed on it. It had been startled, trapped by the approaching horses and trying to find refuge in the high grass. Ezra hadn't seen it. Damn fool thing, he should have. A bolt of pain had fired through him at the bite, knocking him off his feet. God, it had hurt. For a second, he'd been too stunned to move. Then, with the shots ringing out over his head, he had scuttled toward cover, trying to get distance between himself and the snake. The pain had been enough to take his breath away. His mind had spun with fear. Good Lord, no. What am I going to do? He looked for Vin, and had been satisfied to find him with Chris, that he was alive. Thank God, he'd thought.

But Ezra's relief was short lived. Vin was shot near the heart. Vin would die unless he was able to find assistance in time. It was his fault entirely, of course. It always was.

It burns, he thought. Lord, how it burns. He didn't think it would burn. This was nothing like a gunshot wound, something he was familiar with. He could deal with familiarity. This was different. He reached down and felt his painful bite as he urged his horse onward. The material of his trousers was wet. The quantity of blood surprised him. Was it supposed to bleed like that? Why did this have to happen? He hurried his horse as quickly as he dared.

They were making good time. It shouldn't take too long to reach Four Corners. Ezra gritted his teeth against the growing pain in his leg. His head ached fiercely now and he was getting dizzier. Was that due to hit he'd taken on the head? What were the symptoms of snakebite?

Onward, keep going. Ezra watched the familiar landmarks approach and pass him as he sped toward town. He was feeling a little giddy now. He should have stayed put. He should have simply said, "Mr. Larabee, I'm afraid I've been bitten by a rattlesnake and should lie quietly right here next to Mr. Tanner and allow you the pleasure of watchin' me die." He would have loved to see the look on Chris' face, but there was Vin to consider... 

Ezra glanced down at his leg again as he rode onward. How much time had passed? He was losing track. The burning sensation was getting worse, traveling up above his knee. It felt as if his leg was on fire. He should stop and see to it. No, no, he couldn't. Vin was in trouble. If he slowed down, if he stopped, Vin would die. He didn't have much time. He'd have to keep going.

He rode past a rock formation that signaled he was halfway home. He tried to adjust his leg in the stirrup, tried to relieve the pressure. The horrible pain was traveling up his thigh now. He glanced down, half expecting to see flames. Lord, how it burns...

Why did he have to try to help Wahl? What was he thinking? He damned himself for it now, as he kept Chaucer at a full gallop, as his leg burned and his head swam, as Vin lay dying back there. Why did he try to help? Why couldn't he have helped when it was truly needed, when the McCannons were facing their own deaths?

He had to keep going. He could feel Chaucer tiring. He wasn't bred for endurance and Ezra hated pushing the animal. He leaned forward and patted the weary horse's neck. "For Vin, my friend," he said soothingly. "We must find assistance for our Mr. Tanner." At least, he thought, at least I can help this time.

The movement was jarring his leg, aggravating the pain.  After the initial bite, it hadn't been that bad, more irritating than anything. He could stand at least. But with each passing moment the pain seemed to increase. It was getting harder to breathe.  His heart hammered. It could be just the excitement, he thought.

They were getting close to Four Corners. If he could only make it back in time, everything would be fine. Nathan would save Vin and everything would be fine.

His head swam. Not much further, he promised himself. Lord, his leg hurt.

He couldn't quite focus anymore; everything seemed to be doubled.  He should stop. He should lie down, try to take care of this problem. No, no he couldn't. It wouldn't change anything. He had to reach to Four Corners and find Nathan, for Vin. He had to keep going. He was not about to let Vin die, not like he'd let the McCannons die.

He further pressed the exhausted horse. "I'm sorry, my friend," he muttered to the animal. He could feel Chaucer trying to slow, needing to slow. His head was pounding and his stomach was tying itself in knots. His damn leg felt blackened with pain. Had to keep going. Couldn't stop. Not much time. He pressed his hand to his head, trying to push back the blasted headache. He was sweating miserably now. He held his hand in front of his eyes, trying to focus on it for a moment before he grabbed at the reins again. 

Damn the snake, he thought, and the god that put it there. He could just see the outline of town, twisting and turning in his vision, almost there. He pressed onward. Chaucer's lathered sides were heaving with exertion. Everything was spinning. Chaucer was failing. Ezra couldn't hang on anymore. The world started to tip. He tried to stay upright, but he had no strength left. Chaucer, sensing his rider was in danger, stopped. Unable to keep his balance, Ezra fell to the ground. 

He lay on his back, blinking up at his horse, one hand still clutching the reins. Chaucer stood above him, fighting to catch his breath, chest heaving from the hard run, looking down quizzically at his owner. With much effort, Ezra pulled his hand out of the leather straps and gave the order, "home."

Chaucer panted, lathered and exhausted. He didn't move his head once he was released, but continued to look down at his owner. He understood the command, as he understood all the little tricks the man had taught him: to nod on command, to shake his head and whiney, to stomp his foot until he received the gesture that told him to stop. He'd receive a treat if he performed the tricks correctly, but honestly, he didn't care about the treat. He understood the meaning of the command "home." Home meant a nice stall, hay, oats and water, warmth and comfort. But the horse did not leave. He looked up anxiously and returned his gaze to the man who blinked owlishly up at him. He would not leave. His loyalty did not lie with a stall, it was with the man. 

Ezra stared back at the gasping horse, trying to see him clearly. Why didn't he go? Damnation, he had run the horse to death. It probably couldn't even move anymore. He knew that from the second the snake had struck, that his own life was over. He had just hoped that he could save Vin before it was too late, save Vin even though he could do nothing for the McCannons. And now as he stared up at his panting horse, he realized his failure. He had managed to kill himself, Vin and Chaucer in one fell swoop. Killed the McCannons as well.

"Sorry, I'm so sorry," he said softly to the horse, who continued to fight for air and would not leave him.

Part 11:

"Horse," JD said as he rode alongside Buck. They were just heading out on patrol after returning to town the night before.

Buck looked up and saw the horse standing in the distance. He frowned, observing from the animal's stance that it was exhausted. He clucked to his mount and started toward the loose animal. As he came closer, he recognized it and increased his speed.

"That's Ezra's horse," JD said, matching him. "Something's wrong -- he wouldn't run Chaucer like that."

It was only once they reached the animal that they could see the man lying beneath it. Buck felt his heart miss a beat.  "JD, go get Nathan," he commanded as he dismounted. "Now!"

JD looked worriedly down at the gambler. Ezra was sweating and mumbling as he looked upward and didn't seem to notice their arrival. Without another word, JD turned his horse and galloped back to town.

"Ezra," Buck said, pushing Chaucer aside and kneeling down beside the gambler. "What's wrong?"

"Nathan," Ezra said numbly.

"No, Ezra, I'm Buck."

"Must get Nathan. Vin. Vin...needs him."

"I sent JD already." Wilmington looked Standish over, trying to find out what was wrong. His eyes fell upon the blood soaked trouser leg. "Were you shot?"

"Vin..." Ezra murmured.

"No, I'm Buck," Wilmington repeated.


"We'll get to him." Buck pulled his knife from its sheath and moved to cut open Ezra's pant leg. The gambler grunted as Wilmington grasped him.

"Damn Ezra, what did you do to yourself?" he asked out loud as he carefully tore through the cloth.  "Shit," Buck muttered, pulling back the fabric, and saw the distinctive puncture wound. "Christ on a crutch!"

"Vin shot...gonna die..." Ezra muttered. "Falling Cross. They're at Falling Cross. He's shot." Buck looked back at the gambler's face. He was pale and his face was shining with sweat. "Get Nathan...Please..."

"How did this happen?" Buck asked hopelessly.

The gambler grimaced. "Stepped...on a snake...should'a looked where I was goin'... " Buck noticed that Ezra couldn't focus on him as he looked up. His green eyes were watery and distant, his five-dollar words reduced to spare change. "Please, Buck, must get Nathan..."

"Hang on, Ez," Buck replied, looking back towards Four Corners. He could see JD arriving in town. "Hurry, JD," he said under his breath. He retrieved his canteen and wet his bandana. "Help's coming, just hang on, okay?"

Ezra continued to mutter as Buck applied the moistened cloth to his face. "Vin's shot. Heart. Nathan, need Nathan, now."  He swallowed. "Chris..."

"It's okay," Buck soothed, noticing that the gambler was starting to wheeze. "Calm down, all right?" He stared at the wound on Ezra's leg. What could he do? Should he try to suck out the poison? The bite was so swollen, he didn't think he should. Was it too late?

"Falling Cross..." Ezra tried to wrench his head out from under Buck's hand. He weakly raised a hand and shoved ineffectually against Buck's chest. "Now... go now."

"Shhhh," Buck said, continuing to wipe the man's face, ignoring the hand the pressed against him. "Quiet down. It's okay." He felt stupid saying these things. He held one hand alongside Ezra's head, trying to keep him still, holding his head so that he could look into his eyes. "It's gonna be okay."

"Buck," Ezra said, blinking at him.

"I'm here, Ezra. I'm here," Buck said reassuringly, the plaintive sound of Ezra's voice breaking his heart.

"Hurry," Ezra looked back toward him. "Can't fail...again..."

Finally, after a lifetime of minutes, Buck looked up to the sound of an approaching horse. He could see Nathan baring down on them, riding JD's horse, and a wagon following some distance behind.

"Nathan!" Buck shouted as the healer approached. "Oh God, Nathan. He got snake-bit."

Nathan slid from the horse, and ran the last few steps. "Ezra!" He knelt beside the gambler, across from Buck. "Ezra, when did this happen? Have you done anything for it?" He took in the visible symptoms. It had to have been some time now. He could see no sign of that anyone had tried to extract the poison or try to impeded its progress. "Ezra?" He wasn't sure if the man had heard him.

"Vin shot," the gambler said weakly. "Heart...can't get."

Nathan looked up at Buck and Wilmington explained, "That's all he's been saying. Vin must be in tough shape."

Nathan took Ezra's pulse and shook his head. His heart was racing. He was warm to the touch. "How many fingers, Ezra?" Nathan questioned, holding three fingers over the man's unfocused eyes.

"Dunno," Ezra didn’t even try to guess. "Vin shot."

"I hear you," Nathan said resignedly. "We'll go get him in a minute. We gotta take care of you right now."

Nathan sighed and started rooting through his medical bag. He came up with a bottle whiskey and poured it on a cloth.

"Hold him, Buck," Nathan ordered. "I gotta get that bite cleaned up. If the damn poison don't kill him, the infection might." Buck leaned against Ezra's chest, while Nathan placed his weight on his legs with his free arm. "Try to keep still, Ezra," he said and pressed the cloth against the wound. Ezra hissed in agony and fought against the two men who tried to hold him down.

"Easy, Ezra," Nathan said. "Gotta get this taken care of. Keep still." Nathan worked quickly and efficiently to clean away the blood, despite Ezra's struggles.

The wagon pulled up as he finished. JD and Josiah jumped down and hurried to them while Nathan started mixing up a poultice composed mainly of milky-colored spurge.

"That's a lot of blood for bite," Buck said sadly. "I mean, the punctures ain't that big."

"Snake venom thins the blood," Nathan told him. "It's pretty bad stuff. It's gonna wreck havoc with 'im." 

"My God, no," Josiah cried when he heard Nathan's words.

"Snake?" JD exclaimed, looking around in panic. "Think its still around?"

Nathan shook his head. "Not here. It must'a happened while he was comin' to get help for Vin."

"Vin?" JD asked, "What happened to Vin?"

"Vin shot," Ezra answered. "Please...go."

"We're goin'," Buck assured. "Just hang on a minute." He turned to Nathan, watching him work. "Is that gonna cure him?"

"Won't hurt," Nathan answered, as he applied the mixture to the wound. As if to deny this fact, Ezra gasped and tried to struggle away from him, but Buck and Josiah held him still. JD stood apart as Nathan bound the wound and the gambler relaxed slightly.

Buck picked up the bottle of whiskey. "Hey, Ez, ya want a pull of this?"

"Yes...please," Ezra said, weakly reaching for the bottle.

Nathan snatched it away before Buck could hand it over. "No!" The healer shouted. "Damn it, Buck!"

Buck shook his head. "He could use a drink, Nathan. Look at him. He's in pain."

"No alcohol!" Nathan ordered, throwing the bottle back into his bag. "You wanna kill him?"

Buck glared at him. "I know this old guy who swears that whiskey is the best thing for a bite."

"Well then, this old guy probably knows a few folks dead from snakebite," Nathan shot back and then looked down at Ezra who seemed amused by this statement. The healer stood briskly and said, "We got to get him home. I'll see what I can do when we get him back to the clinic."

Ezra reached up and grabbed onto Nathan's leg. "No..." he seemed to lose his strength and the arm fell back to his chest. "Mr. Tanner..."

"We'll get him, Ezra," Buck assured him.

"Nathan," Ezra gasped. "Must help Vin. He'll die. Too late... too late..."

Nathan frowned. What were his choices? Take Ezra back to the clinic and send the wagon back out for Vin? It would take too long. Should he stay with Ezra in the clinic or go back out with the wagon for Vin? He couldn't be in two places at the same time. He came to a decision. "Get Ezra in the wagon. We're goin' after Vin."

Josiah carefully picked up the fallen man. Buck helped, keeping the gambler's injured leg still. The preacher held Ezra close to his chest as he carried the man the short distance to the wagon.

"It's all right. It's all right," Josiah murmured softly, as if he were talking to a child. Ezra held his face taut and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Nathan, you gotta get him to the clinic," JD implored. "It can't do him any good to take a long ride in that wagon." 

Nathan watched as Josiah and Buck sat the gambler on a pile of blankets in the back of the buckboard, as Buck carefully removed Ezra's boots and jacket to get him comfortable.  Ezra didn't make a sound during the process, keeping his mouth pressed to a bloodless thin line. 

"Honestly JD, I don't think it will make much of a difference. We'll go after Vin. This way I can look after Ezra along the way. I'm gonna have to keep an eye on both of 'em." He nodded toward the wagon, seeing Ezra finally settled and heard him once again demand that they leave to find Vin.

"Heck," Nathan added, "if we don't take him with us, he'll just gonna get himself all worked up at the clinic worryin' over Vin."

"What do you mean, it won't make much difference?" JD asked. "You're gonna be able to help him, ain't cha?"

Nathan shook his head. "The bite hasn't been treated. If the poison had been sucked out immediately he'd have a chance, but..." he trailed off.

JD followed Nathan to the wagon. "Then what? I mean, what's gonna happen?"

"Chaucer," Ezra said weakly looking up at Buck, tugging at his shirt.

"We'll take care of him," Buck assured and grasped hold of the hand.  "I promise you that, pard."   He looked over to the faithful animal that still stood nearby. The horse seemed to have recovered somewhat from his run, but his coat was matted with sweat.

"JD," Buck ordered, "take Chaucer back to town. Take care of 'im."

"But I want to go with you guys," JD stated as Josiah climbed into the wagon seat.

"No, JD," Buck stated firmly. "Take the horses back."

"Then go the to the clinic," Nathan added. "Get it ready for 'em. I need you to do that. It's important. Stay put."

JD felt terribly sad watching the vehicle move away, hoping that it wasn't the last time he'd see Ezra alive.

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