M7FFA Entry

 

Hard Ride


by Kris Mashburn


It started out as any mid-spring day in Four Corners. There was no scent of change or danger on the gentle breeze that wafted through the town.

Vin, atop the hotel, used his scope to check the perimeter one last time before ending his shift. He noticed the rider coming in fast and furious from the southeast. Vin passed that information along to JD, in the sheriff's office, on his way to the saloon.

The rider slowed down as he entered the town, searching the building fronts, then picked up speed as he located his destination. He stopped and tied his horse in front of the saloon. He hurried inside, then stopped dead just inside the door. He scanned the room in search of his quarry. He located him easily, for he was just as he was described. A southern gentlemen in a colorful jacket, seated at a poker table.

He approached the man directly, "excuse me, sir, are you Ezra Standish?"

Ezra eyed the youth carefully for handcuffs or gun. Locating none, answered, "indeed I am. What can I do for you?"

"I was sent to deliver this letter to you," the youth carefully took the letter from his pocket and handed it to Ezra. He then pulled another scrap of paper out and placed it on the table in front of Ezra. "Mr. Standish, if you would sign and date this paper, I will receive an extra fifty dollars when I return."

Ezra took the letter and eyed the youth again, gauging the truth of his statement. It appeared that the youth believed what he was saying. Ezra turned the envelope over and noted the seal. A shocked look momentarily crossed his face, then was replaced by the placid poker face he usually wore. He extracted a pen from his jacket pocket and signed the paper. "Here you go, young sir. I am pleased that you will be compensated for the rush you placed on this delivery."

"Thank you, sir." The youth took the signed paper and left the way he came.

Ezra placed the letter in his pocket and returned to his poker hand. Saying to the other players, "sorry for the interruption, gentlemen. Shall we finish our hand?"

After the game was over, Ezra didn't linger in the saloon as usual, but went straight to his room. The seal on the envelope was startling, to say the least. He hadn't believed that he would ever hear from a Peabody again. He sat on his bed as he opened the letter. He read:

Dear Ezra,
As you not only spared my life, but saved it also, I owe you a great debt. To clear that debt I have sent this warning to you. My father has located your whereabouts, and plans on coming there to kill you in order to avenge Josie's death. We both know that what happened was father's fault. But he will never see it that way. Ezra, he knows of your partners, and will kill them also. I will not be joining him on his erroneous crusade. He does not know of this communiqué. Ezra, be gone, father is not rational anymore.

In honor of my debt,
George Peabody


Ezra took a few moments to contemplate his options, to leave, or stay. He found himself surprised at his gut reaction: to stay. He knew that his partners would stand with him, but that could cost them their lives. Ezra also knew that it would not be honorable to place his comrades in the dangerous path of General Peabody. He would have to leave.

Ezra packed enough to make it look as though he had run out. The momentary pang of distress he felt at the obvious conclusion that Chris would draw, surprised him anew, at the desire he had to gain and keep the man's respect. But, alas, that was not nearly as important as their lives.

In his haste to depart, Ezra attempted to close his satchel at too high an angel. So he rapidly swung it down to the bed, and did not notice his letter relocate itself behind the dresser.

He stole out of the back way of the saloon and made his way to the livery. He figured he could eventually loop back to intercept Peabody after he had passed through Four Corners. He saddled Chaucer quickly and headed north out of town.




The next morning JD came down the saloon stairs full of vigor, shouting, "Ezra's gone. He's done run out on us." JD joined the others eating breakfast outside, well, except for Buck. He was sipping coffee, holding his head.

"Now hold on, JD. We shouldn't jump to conclusions." Josiah looked very thoughtful as he digested JD's announcement.

JD turned to Chris, "you've always figured that Ezra would run out on us."

Chris sat there with a peculiar expression on his face. Buck and Josiah, both waited for the explosion on how untrustworthy Ezra was. They waited in vain. Chris surprised them all, but Vin. "I've got the feeling that Ezra's in trouble."

"His stuff is gone, he's left us," JD said with disappointment.

"I always figured Ezra'd leave, just wasn't expecting it now." Nathan hung his head as he shook it.

"Inez," Vin called her over.

Smiling as she came over to their table, "yes, Señor?"

"Will you check Ezra's room, he's gone missin and we want to know if it's permanent." Vin asked of her.

With a concerned look, Inez nodded and quickly went upstairs. She saw that a lot of Ezra's clothes were missing and all of his ammunition. She was about to leave when she noticed the letter on the floor. After reading it, she took it down to Vin.

Vin looked at quickly, then passed it to Chris. His reading lessons hadn't progressed far enough for him to understand most of it, but at least he held it right.

Chris read and laid it down with a heart felt, "Hell!." Josiah picked it up and passed it after he finished.

JD couldn't help himself, "who's this Peabody threatening to kill him and kill us? Ezra shoulda known we'd stand with him."

"I believe our Mr. Standish was being gallant, and attempting to protect us," Josiah said with a sigh in his voice.

"Pard, didn't we run into a General Peabody during one of our battles in the war?" Chris gave a solitary nod. "Well it seems that that crazy old coot is headed this way." Buck seemed more amused than scared.

"Well, we'll be ready for 'im," JD was emphatic in his belief.

As the other talked among themselves, Chris gave Vin a look and he edged closer. Chris said quietly for his ears, "'member when Ezra got in trouble helpin out those two youngins?" Vin nodded. "I didn't act on the feelin that he was in trouble right off. Got that same feelin again. Best we handle it." Vin nodded again, Chris' feelin's been too accurate to ignore. Chris added, "reckon I owe him, if I'd gone sooner he wouldn'ta had to go through all that withdrawal."

"Chris, that weren't your fault." Vin looked at his friend.

Chris twitched his head a mite and said, "you gonna track `em with me?" Vin nodded. "Then we leave at noon."




Ezra rode straight through the night and was past Eagle's Bend by morning. He stopped for a few supplies and continued on. He was hoping to get to Langdon soon, and made it there by night fall. He stabled Chaucer and tipped the stable hand so he would give her an extra good rub down. He made his camp close and fell exhausted into his bed.

The next morning Ezra went looking for a card game. He was making his way to the saloon when he heard a commotion near the stable. He paused his stride and changed direction but hurried his step as soon as he heard the whimper. As he turned the corner of the building he saw the man strike the woman, once, then twice. He hesitated a second, remembering the last time he aided females in trouble, but only a second. He could not allow a woman to be struck with such viciousness. He approached with caution and armed himself with a 2x4.

"Stop this instant." Ezra commanded with his voice.

The big, burly man never paused, only yelled, "git outta here, this ain't none of yer business." He struck the woman again. As she crumpled into unconsciousness, Ezra stepped up and hit the man with the 2x4 across the back. He turned toward Ezra with his fist and Ezra hit him again. The man fell against the wagon and knocked himself out.

Ezra picked up the crumpled form and placed her into the wagon and led the horses to the doctor's office. He raced up the stairs and pushed open the door, "is the Doc here?"

"No, sir, he's not. What's your problem?" The doctor's assistant asked.

"I found a woman that's been beaten, are you skilled?" Ezra just wanted an assurance that the woman wouldn't die.

She nodded, "I could take a look. Lead the way." The lady followed Ezra down the stairs and stepped into the wagon with Ezra's assistance. She checked the woman's vitals and also checked for internal bleeding. "I believe that she'll have many bruises and will hurt considerably, but she hasn't been struck in any consequential areas." Ezra reached for coin to pay her, but she waved it off. "Your payment can be to just get her out of here. Take her to a different town, her brother-in-law has hit on her before, and will do so again." She smiled at Ezra's look of surprise. "I'll tell no one what has transpired, sometimes the best care is to be removed from the detrimental situation. Thank you for interceding in this situation." She gathered her skirts and made to go back up the stairs. Ezra tipped his hat as she retreated.

Ezra returned to the stable, ascertained the brute was still out and retrieved Chaucer. He tied her to the wagon and clicked for the horses to move. They headed north out of town.




Chris and Vin headed out in search of Ezra. Vin found Chaucer's markings easily and the two of them followed the tracks in a straight line. " 'pears that Ezra was traveling fast," Vin commented, and added, "bet he doesn't stop in Eagle Bend."

" `spect we'll find out shortly." Chris lit a cheroot as he tried to pick out the tracks himself.

They rode a good part of the way to Eagle Bend in silence. A companionable silence, for neither felt the need to chat. Kindred spirits from their first encounter, words never seemed that important.

Just before sundown Vin was able to establish that Ezra entered the town, but only for a stop at the general store. His tracks leaded north, and again, Ezra had the horse running full out. As dusk changed into dark, Chris and Vin set up camp, off the main road.

Leaning up against their bedrolls, finishing the last dregs of their coffee, Vin laid a few more sticks on the fire. "What do ya think's wrong?"

"Don' know Vin, jus know he needs our help." Chris sat back, relaxed, with his hat over his eyes.

Vin was idly drawing with a stick in the dirt as he said, "Josiah says that Ezra was brought up to run out on situations."

"After getting to know Maude, that's not hard to figure."

"Josiah thinks that Ezra has changed some since we started out together. Ya know, cause he wanted to buy the saloon and all. Then, even after Maude, doing what she did, he still stayed."

Chris half smiled, "I've had thoughts down those lines, but Josiah has the nice words."

Vin checked on the horses and they called it a night. Dawn saw them ready to set out again, Vin picked up the trail and off they went.




Ezra already had a fire going when he heard the woman stir. He took the canteen and walked over to the wagon to check if she was awake. Her eyes were open and she seemed puzzled. Puzzlement turned to fear as he stepped into her line of sight. She relaxed some as she realized that he wasn't her brother-in-law, but a portion of the fear remained.

Ezra held out the canteen, "may I offer you some water? I could help you sit, if you like." She apparently refused his offer of help, as she tried to sit on her own. Only to discover that she hurt all over.

"It appears I do need help." Without any others words, Ezra helped the women to sit. She then took stock of her surroundings, and a look of panic crossed her face.

Ezra, misinterpreting the reason, assured her, "the man was out cold, and the doctor's assistant suggested that you leave town, for your betterment."

"This is my wagon?" Ezra nodded. "Laura, Laura." The words were frantic. Her voice level rose, "Laura, come out, it's safe."

Ezra turned, looking about, unable to fathom where someone could hide. He heard the undercarriage squeak and bent to look underneath. Surprise froze on his face as a serious looking child crawled out from under the wagon.

"My stars, where have you been hiding?" Ezra watched as the little girl walked cautiously around him and crawled up into the wagon and then rushed to her mother.

Her mother hugged her to herself hard and kissed the top of her head repeatedly. "Laura? You all right?" The girl nodded, then looked past her mother, and stared at Ezra.

Ezra was extremely bewildered, but returned her stare with a smile. "Ma'am? Was she under the wagon this whole time?"

The women didn't answer, just stared very hard at him. Finally she asked a question of her own, "Hannah instructed you to take us from that town?"

Ezra's forehead creased as he tried to think of who Hannah was, then the light came on, "the doctor's assistant...." The women nodded. "Yes, after I knocked out the man that was hitting you, I took you to the doctor's office. As he was not in, the lady, Hannah, came down to investigate the extent of your injuries. She ascertained that you were not hurt bad. Just that you would hurt." She almost smiled at the wording of Ezra's statement. Ezra continued, "in lieu of payment, she requested that I aid you in vacating Langdon. She did not mention anyone else." Looking at her daughter.

The women relaxed even more, then sighed, "my name is Ellen Turner, and this is my daughter, Laura."

Ezra looked at the child, "well, it is my pleasure to meet you Laura, you and your mother. My name is Ezra Standish and I have some soup prepared. I will fetch you both some. Then, I hope you will explain the situation I have become involved in." Ellen nodded and Ezra went in search of mugs for the soup.

Ellen and Laura joined Ezra outside and sat by the fire. Ezra handed each a mud with soup, he also handed Ellen a spoon, "I only have the one, the two of you must share."

Ezra poured himself another mug of coffee and sat opposite them, near the fire. He watched as the two females finished their meal and put the mugs down beside them. Laura crawled up onto her lap and fell almost instantly asleep.

"Mr. Standish, first I wish to thank you for your intervention. I'm afraid mine is a long tale."

Ezra smiled as he gestured with his hand across the horizon, "the night is young."

"Jack, the man that was hitting me, resented that his brother and I married. Believed that it broke up their family, and more, the family business. Jeff never wanted any part of the business. He only wanted to farm. After Laura was born, Jack was even more outraged. Seemed he thought he could still convince Jeff to go back into the hardware business. Jeff decided that we needed to leave Pennsylvania completely." Ellen brushed away the tears that formed in her eyes. "We left at night and eventually settled near here. We both began to relax after about a year, figuring that Jack must have accepted Jeff's decision. We were wrong. About six months ago, Jack showed up, seems he hired some trackers to locate us. Wasted most of the stores money. He rode out to the area that Jeff was plowing, and killed him. I found him when he didn't come home for supper. Since I didn't see Jack kill him, sheriff said was nothing I could do." Ellen shifted Laura in her arms, Ezra then indicated that she should allow him to place Laura on the bedroll. Ellen nodded and Ezra placed her down gently.

Ellen sighed again, and continued. "Jeff had built a secret holder under the wagon to store valuables to and from market. Never did I think that it would be the way to save Laura's life. Jack appeared a few days after I buried Jeff, and told me I had to marry him. I said no. He then said that he would take and sell my daughter to an old man. I told him I had already sent her to my sister's. He was livid, and he hit me. Laura is only four, but she knew to hide in that wagon safe and I would sneak her food. Jack would hit me daily, saying I was eating too much food. But he never suspected that Laura was here. The law here said that Jack, as my brother-in-law, had the right to take over my farm. This morning I was attempting to leave and he found me. I figured he was gonna kill me. But, obviously, you stopped that from happening. We both thank you." Exhausted from the telling of the tale and the day's events, she physically drooped.

Ezra noticed this, "Mrs. Turner, why don't you get some rest, I'll carry Laura over to you."

She nodded, then added, "Ellen, call me Ellen." Ezra nodded.

Ezra carried Laura over after Ellen had set up the bedding. He bade then goodnight and reseated himself by the fire, contemplating the horrid story. Trying to figure how he came to be involved again in rescuing damsels in distress.




Chris and Vin made their way into Langdon by the second evening. They couldn't travel as fast as Ezra had, Vin had to keep checking the trail. In town, Chris checked the hotel and the saloon, but couldn't find Ezra registered at either, under any of his names, only a hint that a man in a fancy jacket was seen. Vin didn't fair much better, he couldn't find traces of Chaucer's prints in the town. Finally he went to check the livery, but if Ezra wasn't in town, Vin didn't figure Ezra would leave his horse. Vin didn't find much of anything about the outside, looked as if the had been a fight or a scuffle, for most of the prints were obliterated. Vin was ready to call it quits when he glanced inside a stall and recognized the prints right off. He worked in a spiral outward, past the fight area, until he located them mixed in with wagon tracks. Vin went in search of Chris.

Vin found near the boardwalk, "Ezra's been here. Left with a wagon and Chaucer in tow."

Chris nodded and they made their way to the horses. They had to work real slow as not to lose the prints in the wagon trails. They came upon the camp Ezra'd used the night before.

"Looks like Ezra has company. Female, by the size of the track." Vin just stated his observations.

"Hooked up with trouble, more than likely." Chris' even voice never wavered.

They made camp there and planned to get an early start. Only words that Vin heard from Chris, "hope we're not too late."




Ezra, Ellen and Laura made their way well into the eastern part of Colorado by nightfall. He set up camp before sunset and Ellen made dinner out of the can goods in the wagon. Ezra was glad not eat soup another night.

"I'm hoping we can get an early start, could get pretty hot tomorrow, and it's a ways to the next town to water the horses properly." Ezra didn't want to abuse Chaucer any more than necessary.

"We'll be ready when you are." Ellen said as she finished the dishes.

"Have you given any thought to what you plan to do?" Ezra inquired.

"I'd like to go home, but I don't thinks that's possible anymore. I don't think Jack will rest, so we'll have to keep moving. At least until he runs out of resources." Ellen had been thinking about it.

"I'm afraid that men determined as much as this fellow seems to be, will continue to find resources." Ezra felt cruel dashing her hopes, but she needed to face all the possibilities ahead of her.

Ellen looked at Ezra, but didn't say anything.

They sat by the fire, watching the flames jump. Ezra remembered his last venture into Colorado, to rescue the Judge. The Indians that traveled back with them had told a story about the flames, and the little girl looked in need of a story. "Some Indian friends of mine told a story of how fire changed to help people. Would you like to hear it?"

Laura nodded her head and said, "yes, please."

Ezra smiled, "ah, a polite child. Hear it you shall." Ezra rubbed his hands and altered his voice a bit, then began, "the Indian boy sat watching the fire and asked his father about the flames, how does it keep us warm? He wanted to know. His father only knew the story his father had told him, and so he told his son the same story. A long time ago, when people were new, fire would burn their houses, or food trees. They were always afraid of fire. A little flame did not like the people's scared screams every time they came out to play. He asked the great Coyote, why it must be that way. The Coyote answered that fire must burn to help things grow. The little flame did not like that answer, and asked another question. Why can't they help the people also. Coyote was surprised at the little flame and told him that he would think on it. The next night the little flame searched out the Coyote again, and asked what he had thought about. Coyote had not thought about the people, just the little flame. He asked of the little flame, what would you do. The little flame was terribly excited, the great Coyote wanted him to decide. The little flame thought and thought, all that night and the next day, too. When Coyote approached him, little flame was ready. What have you decided, the Coyote asked of him. The little flame told him, as I sat here the night and day, I noticed that the people were happy by day, but grew cold and frightened at night. I wish that fire could warm them at night, like the sun does at day, and give them a little light at night just like the sun at day. The Coyote thought about the little flame's request, sitting silently, a night and a day. Coyote observed the same things the little flame had, and told the little flame, what you ask is fair. I am very proud that you came to me, and together we will do as you ask. The little flame was excited again for the great Coyote had said we, so he knew that he would help. He told Coyote that he was ready. Little flame, the great Coyote told him, I change you to heat and light and together with fire, all the days of your lives you will burn together, giving the people what you wish, and giving fire what he wishes. An eternal life. So the Indian dad then told his son that fire can be a friend as it warms you and cooks your food."

Laura looked at Ezra, " I liked that story, and I think I can see Little Flame in our fire." She smiled and curled up on her mother's lap.

Ellen looked at Ezra also, "thank you, it has been along time since she heard a story." Ezra returned the smile.

The next morning Ezra was readying for departure, Ellen was securing the wagon and Laura was answering nature's call. They had just completed their tasks for departure when disaster struck. Ezra was just about to secure Chaucer to the wagon when he was struck from behind. He fell to the ground, his head reeling from the pain. He attempted to stand and was kicked in the ribs. With an ooff he fell flat on the ground. He heard a laugh as he tried to stay conscious. It was the scream from Ellen that gave him the last stitch effort to stand.

"I want you down." Those words preceded a rifle butt into the stomach. As he doubled over, the rifle butt hit him on the back of the neck, the shoulders and then was jabbed into his kidneys. The overwhelming pain superseded any other thoughts he may have had. Just barely conscious, his attacker dragged him by his legs to the wagon. He could make out sobbing from within. He then felt his legs bound by rope from his ankles to his waist.

He heard Ellen dragged from the wagon, he could pinpoint the direction from her bloodcurdling screams. As her sobbing resumed, Ezra figured that the attacker must be coming back for him.

"You pig, you hit me with a 2x4, so I return the favor," the grouse voice yelled into his face. Then the man swung the 2x4 at Ezra, who was still bound on the ground, and hit him square in the chest. Knocking the air out of his lungs, Ezra could not take a breath. The voice yelled at him again, "now I'll take that 2x4 and hit Ellen until she can no longer cry out. ....hee, hee....." the viciousness infiltrated the air around them.

Ezra, trying to open his eyes to see his attacker, yelled backed, "NO!, fight me you debasing coward. Hitting a woman only shows that you are not really a man." Ezra would have said more, but he again, found himself the recipient of another blast from the 2x4. Across his abdomen, the pain radiated, driving out all conscious thought.

Jack came at Ellen again, holding the 2x4, he came down on her face, hateful words spewed from his mouth as he continued to beat down on her. Continued long after she reached the level of never feeling any pain again.




Chris and Vin had made good time, as Ezra had headed in a straight line into Colorado. Vin felt hopeful that they would catch up with him soon. They had just crested a hill, when a blood curdling scream ripped through the air. Scream upon scream, could be heard, leaving an echoed scream in its wake. Chris and Vin spurred their horses to a break neck speed. Hoping that they already weren't too late.




A bump and a rock to his back brought Ezra to consciousness. He was being dragged by the wagon. The driver whipped the horses into a faster gait, laughing all the while. Bouncing with each hoof beat, it established a new bruise or gouge in Ezra's body. His arms free, Ezra attempted to trigger his arm gun. Remaining barely cognizant, Ezra tried to aim the gun and shot. The bullet, way wide of its mark, whizzed by the driver. Alerting him to Ezra, Jack turned about with his rifle and shot at Ezra, hitting him in the shoulder. Thus establishing a new pain Ezra's psyche had to deal with.

Pain was Ezra's constant friend.

The wagon increased speed, maniacal laughter increased, and pain inflicted on Ezra increased. Ezra tried to hold his head up, hoping to shoot at the rope tied to the wagon rail. He wanted to wait until a smoother area appeared before taking a shot. But he soon realized he probably couldn't remain conscious till then so he prepared himself to try now. It was as he looked at his target that he realized that two little eyes were looking back at him. Laura was in the wagon safe. Dear lord. Ezra forgot about the shot to free himself, and instead tried to work out how to get to Laura. Pain threatened to overtake him again.




Chris spied Chaucer as they tried to pin down where the screams had come from. They crested the highest hill and Vin then saw the runaway wagon. They both kicked their horses into high gear. They came upon the body of a woman, and Vin waved Chris on. Vin jumped off his horse and immediately checked for life signs. Amid all the blood, Vin could find no sign of life. Pissed, He jumped back on his horse and tore after Chris.

Chris never slowed, and actually increased the speed of his horse. Or maybe Velifer sensed the urgency and gave his all. A shot from behind rang out and almost before Chris could register it, a body fell off the wagon. A large man, but not Ezra. Chris was close enough to see the wagon was dragging Ezra, and now it had no driver. Chris wanted to jump on the wagon so he could stop it. Velifer gave all he had to allow Chris to pull up close enough to jump on to it. He climbed to the front, and attempted to grab the reins. As he grabbed the strap, instead of bringing the reins closer, it pulled the pin holding the horses and they ran off to the side as the wagon continued to pick up speed. Chris surveyed the terrain and quickly realized that the down hill slope ended as a cliff. Chris ran to the back, trying to grab at the rope holding Ezra.

Ezra saw Chris and focused all his energy into a yell, "Chris!"

Chris waved at Ezra and again attempted to grab the rope holding Ezra.

Ezra again yells, 'Chris..." Chris looked up. "......a...child under wagon........save her.....please."

With horror, Chris meets Ezra's eyes. Knowing that Ezra is giving up his chance to live, he nods so Chris understands. Chris gives Ezra a single nod, acknowledging his decision.

Chris forces his feet through the side slates and hangs his body over the side. Bits of rock and gravel hit his head as he is suspended over the side. He reaches out his hand and yells, "Ezra sent me." Two little hands appear and two arms follow, reaching with trust to the man that said Ezra's name. As Chris grabs her arms, he tucked the little girl to his chest and he pushes off with his legs and rolls along the ground away from the runaway wagon.

Ezra relieved that Laura is safe, closed his eyes to await his fate.

On the hill above, Vin watched all that happened after he shot the driver. Vin knew that he would only get one chance to save Ezra. He took a breath and aimed.........."crack," his shot is off, the seconds it took the bullet to travel seemed endless to Vin. The projectile found the mark Vin aimed for, and cut through the rope holding Ezra to the wagon. Ezra rolled wildly, bouncing hard, causing even more gashes. Gashes Ezra was very happy that he could feel.

The wagon continued on it deadly path and careened over the cliff. The silence, in the wake of the previous noise, is itself deafening. The silence was shattered as the wagon hits earth and the sound of the splintering wood rang through the canyon. The sounds of rock shifting and falling lessened as Chris and Vin rushed to Ezra. Vin reached Ezra first. He jumped off his horse and fell to Ezra's side.

Ezra laid on his back, amid the rock and rubble, opened his eyes and looked straight into Vin's eyes, "you're timing, as always, Mr. Tanner, is impeccable."




Vin had Ezra untied and resting under a tree when Chris and Laura joined them. Laura walked over to Ezra and sat down next to him.

Chris gave Vin a look and Vin made his way over to Chris. "How's he doing?"

"Resting, he looks pretty banged up."

"How about the woman?" Vin shook his head. "Ah, hell." Chris looked over to Ezra, "does he know?" Vin shook his head again.

They walked over to Ezra. Chris had his canteen ready for Ezra when he woke. They were both surprised to hear him speak, "what brought you gentlemen out here?"

"Gotten use to yer fancy language. Besides, you dress up our group a bit." Chris had a smile in his voice as he replied.

Vin took the canteen from Chris and offered to Ezra, he drank greedily. And he moaned loudly. Laura giggled.

"Young ladies do not laugh at men in distress." Ezra said with mock indignation.

Vin answered, "yes, they do."

"We're trying to set this young lady on the right path, you're not helping, Mr. Tanner."

"Lest I know, you can't be ailin' too bad, Ezra. Still using the fancy talk." Vin was amused.

Ezra looked around best as he could, "where's Ellen?" Ezra knew almost instantly at the changed expressions the settled on his partner's faces. "No," he whispered.

"We're going to go bury her later, sorry Ezra." Vin looked pissed again. Ezra's expression quizzed Vin's, but Vin shook his head and looked pointedly at Laura. Understanding dawned in Ezra's eyes, he closed his and sighed.

Later that evening, after eating the rabbit Vin got, Laura was placed in Chris' bedroll, and fell asleep as soon as her head hit the folded up jacket.

Chris sat near Ezra, "should one of us ride and get Nathan?" Chris knew that Ezra was sensitive to unwanted help.

"As I am unable to sit up, I dread that likelihood of a broken bone or two is entirely possible." Ezra admitted ruefully.

Chris nodded, "I'll ride back, Vin'll be able to get you food and be able to recognize any wild animal that'll be attacking."

Ezra was surprised at the humor from Chris. A usually somber Chris. "Chris, as to why I left.."

Vin interrupted, "Inez found the letter, we know bout Peabody. JD's all upset with the guy for even thinkin of threatenin us." Ezra swallowed roughly and his eyes traveled to Chris. Vin added, "Chris didn't think you'd left even before finding the letter." Ezra was surprised for the second time in a few minutes by Chris Larabee.

"Thanks," was rasped as Ezra laid his head back and drifted off to sleep.

"The leaves that I mixed in his soup should help him sleep." Vin smiled at his own craftiness.

Chris nodded, "I'll ride straight through. Should be back with Nathan by tomorrow night."

"I 'pect we'll be here." Vin almost smiled.

Chris packed some food and took a canteen of water, "see you tomorrow, Vin." With that he mounted his horse, turned and left. Chris' only stop was in Eagle Bend to stable Velifer, and to get a fresh horse for the ride to Four Corners.

About an hour after Chris left, Ezra opened his eyes and realized that time had passed due to the position of the sun. Vin noticed and brought him some water. After he put his bedroll under Ezra's head, Vin sat next to him in the shade.

"So, Ezra, how'd you come to be helping these folks?"

"I seem to have a inescapable predilection for females in trouble. Laura's mother was being struck repeatedly, so I intervened. Obviously the miscreant took exception." Ezra replied, his voice low, so as not to inflate his chest.

"Her husband?"

"Brother-in-law. He murdered her husband, and wished to sell her daughter."

"He's dead." Vin said flatly.

Ezra closed his eyes and sighed, "good."

Vin relaxed against the same tree as Ezra and watched as Laura played in the dirt alone. "What're you gonna do about her?"

"Ellen said she had a sister in Pennsylvania. I shall endeavor to locate her with Mrs. Travis' help. As she was so successful in locating the people to go with the items the Guy Royal took, I believe she would prove triumphant in this matter also." Ezra was winded after so much speaking.

Again, Vin noticed this and suggested to Ezra, "it'd be best if you'd just try to get some rest."

"Perhaps in a moment, would you please explain first, why you and Mr. Larabee arrived so timely on the scene?"

Vin thought a moment or two before responding, "Chris had a feelin that you were in trouble." Seeing that Ezra wasn't satisfied with that, Vin elaborated. "The time that you helped those two little girls, and had the opiates forced on you,....well, Chris had this feelin that you needed help. The others convinced him, you really could take care of yourself. So, we didn't set out till the following mornin. Chris has felt bad ever since. This time Chris acted right on it."

Ezra closed his eyes and said, "thank you," the sincerity evident.




Chris arrived in town just after midnight. He went straight up to Nathan's. Upon hearing the situation, Nathan gathered up what he would need and said, " Chris, go over to the church and let Josiah know. I saddle up and meet you out front."

Chris nodded and departed. Josiah suggested that Chris use his horse and walked beside him over to the stable.

"Has Peabody showed up?" Chris wanted to know.

"No sign."

Chris looked thoughtful at the information, and nodded automatically. Nathan was set, and Josiah added on a couple of blankets behind Chris' saddle. "Thanks, Josiah." Josiah slapped his horse's fanny, and off they went. Determined to get to Ezra as soon as possible.

Josiah watched them depart, then headed for the saloon.




Laura slept between Vin and Ezra. She had been quiet most of the day. She hadn't even asked about her mother. So Vin wasn't real surprised when she awoke screaming from a nightmare. Vin gathered her up in his arms and rested her in his lap. He rocked her back and forth as she sobbed into his chest, crying for mama. Vin had put several leaves into Ezra's drink before bedtime. So he continued to sleep, not hearing the child's cries.

Vin kept murmuring her name as he rocked her. She finally fell back to sleep in his arms. He let her remain there. He had made out enough coherent words from her ramblings to know she had seen her mother killed.

As the sun peeked above the skyline, Vin placed Laura next to Ezra, and he went in search of food.

Ezra awoke to Laura's little eyes staring at him. "Are you okay, honey?"

She nodded her head. But her eyes held uncertainty.

"When my friends return, you will come with us. I will find your aunt, for I know she will want you to come there, and I will make sure you do."

Tears filled the little girl's eyes as she said, "mommy said that we could trust you. I didn't know that there were any other nice men, like daddy."

Ezra had to fight the lump in his throat, as he squeezed her hand. He was relieved to see Vin returning. "I wonder what he brought to eat? Why don't you run over and ask." Laura jumped up and ran right to Vin.

"What ya get?"

"I got us some fish, cooked jes right, it'll make a good breakfast." Vin smiled down at the girl.

She yelled back to Ezra, "he got fish."

Ezra smiled until he moved, then he grimaced as he said, "oh, good."

The day passed uneventfully, but Vin was worried about Ezra, he seemed to sleep more, and his color looked almost deathly.




Buck and JD met Josiah at the livery at dawn. Last night, after Josiah had explained to them what had happened to Ezra, the three of them decided that a little back wouldn't be a bad thing. They figured that they would meet up with them between Eagle Bend and Langdon. They set off at a steady pace.




Nathan and Chris made good time, only stopping to change horses in Eagle Bend. An hour before dusk, saw them riding into Vin's camp. Nathan was off his horse and at Ezra's side before Chris had even stopped his horse. Nathan did a full check, then turned to Vin, "when did he pass out?"

"Bout an hour ago, jus after his fever started. Bullet wound doesn't look to good." Vin was mighty relieved that Nathan was there.

"Need some boiling water, got to get the bullet out." Nathan worked steadily for twenty minutes, getting the bullet out and cleaning up the infection. As Ezra was still unconscious, Nathan checked the condition of some of the larger gouges. Two need some deep cleaning, and Ezra moaned aloud as he was placed gently on his back again.

"How is he?" Chris asked after Nathan had sat back.

"Got the bullet out. Three ribs are broke, and so's his collar bone. We need to watch the gashes on his back for infection. His whole body looks bruised. He's gonna hurt somethin awful." Nathan poured some of the canteen water on a cloth and patted Ezra's head. He looked to see a little watching him, he gazed over at Chris, who just nodded, letting him know it was okay for her to be there. "Would you like to help?" Laura nodded her head. Nathan handed her the cloth and she copied just what Nathan had done.

Nathan joined Vin and Chris, "we can't be moving him yet. Those ribs could puncture something."

Vin looked around as he said, "well, guess I go us some food." Vin smiled as he added, "Chris is cooking."

Nathan rolled his eyes, "keep it simple." Chris gave them his I'll get even stare.

They spent two days at the site, and they saw an improvement in Ezra. Vin and Chris made a litter so they could carry Ezra. They would try dragging it, but Nathan figured that they would have to actually carry the litter to avoid the bumps.

When Laura finally went to sleep, Nathan checked some of the uglier gashes. Vin brought over some hot soup for Ezra.

Ezra looked up at Vin, "have you put more of that sleeping concoction in this?" He asked as he accepted the mug from him.

Vin's expression said enough, "how'd you know?"

"Mr. Tanner, even you do not make such bad tasting coffee or soup." Ezra's smiled to take any sting from the words.

Chris changed the subject, "Ezra, will Peabody really show?"

"Yes, I believe he will. From the letter, I gathered his son believes that his father has gone over the edge. He is an unreasonable man." Ezra looked resigned.

"What's he holding against you?" Vin inquired.

"His daughter's death." Ezra's voice was devoid of any emotion.

Three faces looked at Ezra, wanting to know more, but all three, hesitant for different reasons, to actually ask aloud.

Ezra decided to tell the tale. "It was before the war, I was visiting, my mother's euphemism for being dumped on some unsuspecting relative, a cousin. The Peabody's were next door. My cousins family were more progressive slave holders." Nathan stiffened at the word slave, but didn't interrupt. "They taught all he had to read and right, my uncle always believed that the day would come when they would need the skills. Josie Peabody always came over with her brother George. We had many entraining hours together. It was one of the few good summers. Alexander, my cousin always had in attendance, Jeremiah, his slave." Ezra moved his hand slightly to ward off Nathan. "Jeremiah, never had to do anything for Alexander, he just played equally with us. Josie and Jeremiah fell in love. But Josie told her father it was me she loved. My lord, he was a general in the Southern Army, no daughter of his could be with a colored man. Josie was planning to run off with Jeremiah. Her father found out, but still thought it was me. He followed her to our barn and found them in a delicate situation. He went wild. He whipped Jeremiah to an inch of his life. Josie could not sit by and watch the man she loved be treated like that.....she......she ran at her father, in his rage he struck her, to prevent her interfering. Well, he hit her so hard she was thrown against the barn wall and a pitchfork was there and it impaled her. Her last words were for Jeremiah, professing her love for him. Her father killed him them."

"Ezra, how is it that her father blames you?" Nathan curiosity was peaked.

"He believed that she had loved me first, and that I was not man enough to keep her. And that I was such a sorry excuse for a man that I drove her into the arms of a colored man. He was set to kill me there, but George spirited me out of there and I took a train to the current location of my mother. In the war, I was in the position to save George's life and did so. Hence his letter."

Ezra didn't elaborate, but Chris felt there was more to that part, but Ezra remained silent. Ezra closed his eyes and went to sleep.

The next morning the readied themselves for departure. Vin and Chris were gently easing Ezra onto the litter. Vin said to Ezra, "I know you'd do just about anything to avoid manual labor, but this is a bit much."

"I'd laugh, Mr. Tanner, but it hurts too much."

"Now, Ezra, make sure you tells us if you're in pain. It's important." Nathan was very serious.

As Nathan had thought, dragging Ezra was too painful. So, Chris and Vin started off carrying him. Laura sat atop Vin's horse. She kept petting him, calling him pretty.

Every two hours they stopped and rested Ezra, and rotated the carrying positions. Nathan had slipped some sleeping potion into his coffee so he would have a chance to be somewhat comfortable. After their second stop, Vin had a strange feeling, he stopped them, "the sounds aren't right." Chris and Nathan had been with Vin enough to heed the warning. The moved Ezra and Laura off to the side and set off to check the area.

They hadn't moved three steps when a volley of shots hit the ground in front of them. Chris and Vin immediately rolled on the ground and pulled their guns. Nathan ran back to check on Ezra and to calm Laura, who had frozen in place.

"I know you Yanks are that man's cohorts. Hand him over and you all can leave. Stand with him, and you will die." The voice boomed at them from the rocks above.

"Leave now, and we'll let you live." Chris returned with steely determination in his voice.

All they heard was laughter.

Chris and Vin moved slowly in opposite directions. Nathan had his weapon out and Laura was laying next to Ezra, out of sight.

Ezra whispered to Nathan, "give me my gun, in case." Nathan didn't want to but knew it was necessary, so he did.

The voice boomed out again, "I'm waiting."

Chris shook his head, "wait till hell freezes over."

Shots were then fired at them, so Chris, Vin and Nathan returned their fire. Vin picked off one man from the rock top, he toppled over and fell with a hard thud below. Shots continued. Chris was continually working his way up as he fired. Vin had a high vantage point and was able to connect with another man.

Screaming that man fell to his death, and the voice from above shouted, "you're protecting a murderer."

Chris was fairly close and had his sights on a man, but another had his gun trained on Chris. Before any words were exchanged, a shot rang out from behind Chris, taking out that man. Chris instantly fired and took out his original site.

"Looks like you need us, pard." Bucks voice broke through.

"Looks like," was Chris' reply. Than loudly he said, "our reinforcements are here. Give yourselves up."

From the sounds, the men still alive wanted to do just that. Suddenly, like a crack of thunder three shots rang out, but not at them. Josiah said, "think he shot his own men."

Before they could respond, a volley of shots all aimed at Ezra were coming from the rock top. Vin reset his rifle on his shoulder and took the shot. The man fell where he was. JD and Buck ran up the hill to check. JD leaned over and yelled down, "all dead up here."

Nathan hurried over to Ezra and Laura and checked on both.

Ezra kept repeating, "I'm fine, I'm fine." But Laura pointed to his leg and Nathan saw right off that Ezra was bleeding.

"Not so fine if you've been shot again." Nathan tore open the pant leg to see a fresh wound bleeding. He went over to his horse to get his bag and signaled to Josiah. "The little girl needs watching over, Ezra's been shot again, and that little has scene enough already. Vin says she saw her mother being killed." Josiah nodded, but the pain he felt was reflected in his expression.

Nathan poured some antiseptic into the hole and set about trying to get the bullet out. Vin came over to see if he could help. Nathan directed, "hold his head, if he thrashes he could do further injury to his ribs and head. He passed out just as I started."

Vin gently restrained Ezra's head, thinking on how every time he helps someone he ends up getting hurt real bad. An even more enlightening thought was that Ezra still continued to help. Vin couldn't help but figure that there had to be some real good part to Ezra down deep.

Chris came over, "how's he doing?"

Nathan looked over his shoulder at Chris, "this is simple next to his other injuries. Bullet came out clean, shouldn't get infected. But, Chris, we can't move him anymore today." Nathan voice took on the deep, real serious quality he has when he's real worried about his patient.

Chris nodded as he stared at Ezra a few seconds more.

Buck and JD returned from rounding up the dead bodies. They tethered their horses and asked after Ezra first off.

Chris updated them and asked a question himself, "what brought you out here."

Buck smiled and looked Chris in the eye, "well, pard, had a feelin you might be in a spot of trouble." Chris eyed his old friend, and that made Buck's smile all the wider. He slapped Chris on the back and followed JD over to the grub Josiah was working on.

The eight of them stayed there two more days before they began the slow job of carrying Ezra home. But with more arms, no one had to work too long as carrier. Laura took a shining to JD, and became his little shadow. And JD, knowing how it felt to lose a mother was extra patient with her.

When little Laura was out of ear shot, Buck couldn't help himself as he said, "looks like we found the age group of girls that you appeal too."

JD's, "aw, Buck," was his only comeback.

Nine days later, the road weary group made it back to Four Corners. Nathan had them immediately get Ezra up to his place and Josiah went over to let Mary know what happened. He also passed along Ezra's request on locating Laura's aunt. After Mary checked on Ezra herself, she set about finding Laura's family.

Inez set up a schedule for helping Nathan, and they all knew when Ezra started feeling better, he wanted to know what card games were going on in the saloon. Nathan was finally letting him sit up for a few hours a day, but he still had several weeks recovery before he resume separating people and their money.

It was late one afternoon in his recovery period, when Chris made a solo visit. He sat in the chair next to his bed and laid his hat on the end table. "Mary thinks she's located Laura's aunt. She'll be coming here herself to pick her up." Chris paused, searching for words, "Ezra, you did a good thing."

Ezra shook his head no, "but Ellen still died."

"But that little girl has a real chance at a safe life now, you gave it to her. Jus wish we coulda got there sooner."

"Mr. Larabee,.....Chris, that you came at all is appreciated."

"Ezra, you have this way of going off and getting into trouble by yourself. Even if leaving was a noble gesture, you keep forgetting that you are part of a larger group. And we help each other, even when the odds don't look as good. You need to learn that." Chris gave Ezra a serious look, then a smile, "hopefully, you'll learn it soon, so I don't have to keep going off to rescue you."

Coming up the stairs, Inez could hear Ezra's whole hearted laugh from there.

fin





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