M7FFA Entry


Legacy of Fire

by Carla

NOTES: Thanks to all who read this and helped me with it. Especially Sue. ;-) Not really beta'd for spelling and such, so any 'discrepancies' are character...

Ezra Standish was bored. Standing behind a rock waiting or the 'bad guys' to retreat in his direction, was torture. Chris had paired up the rest of the seven into positions surrounding their quarry. Ezra had been sent, alone, to cover the trail they had come from.

Ezra had to wonder why it seemed he was always left by himself, guarding the escape route. He sighed, Chris still didn't seem to trust him. And deep in his heart, Ezra didn't blame him.

Wasn't he a gambler and a con artist? With no friends or any wish to have any. Leading the nomadic existance, following nothing and no-one but his own whims. Then why was Ezra so bothered by this turn of events. He should be happier by himself. But he wasn't. After his running from the conflict at the Seminole village, Ezra had expected to be dismissed, sent away. But Chris had surprised him. Ezra wasn't about to let his second chance go by. Few were given to the con man and he treasured them.

Ezra gave a loud sigh of boredom, wondering when in God's name was this going to start. The sooner it started, the sooner it was over, and the sooner they could go back to town, and the saloon. And a good game of cards.

Then the gunfire began, He immediately gripped his rifle tighter, anticipating the trouble would be rounded up in the clearing below before anything got to his position.

He was wrong.

In the clearing below, Buck Wilmington was in trouble. The plan had been a simple one. Surround the cattle thieves and round them up. But they had underestimated the number in the party and a gunbattle had commenced. Buck had been paired with JD, and the two of them were pinned down behind a large rock, each taking turns firing at their opponets.

A shot ricoched off of the rock, scored his cheek.

"Damn it!" he hissed.

`"You okay Buck?" JD looked over and saw the blood on his friends face. Immediately bacoming worried.

"Just fine, kid." Buck snarled, firing his gun at the nearest attacker, felling him with a shot to the chest. "It's be nice if these varmits would just give it up, quiet like for once!"

JD silently agreed, then noticed something odd. "Buck?"

"Yeah kid?" Buck looked around for another target.

"Is it just me, " JD sounded puzzled. "or are there lots fewer out there suddenly?"

Buck was about to reply that it was JD's imagination, when he noticed most of the men sneaking off towards the trail. "Looks like they might be trying to run."

"Who's on the trail? Ezra again?" JD tried to go after the retreating figures, but a shot near his head forced him back under cover.

"Get your head down fool!" Buck yelled, grabbing the younger man's arm, yanking him closer.

"What do we do? They're heading towards Ezra, and he's all alone!" JD was worried for the sly conman, there were way too many than he could handle alone.

"Chris!" Buck yelled out in his loudest voice. "They're runnin' towards the trail!"

"Can you stop them?" Chris' voice sounded strained, and a shot told Buck where he was. He and Vin were on the opposite side of the clearing.

"No!" Buck yelled back, searching for Nathan and Josiah. "We're pinned down!"

"Nathan?" Chris bellowed, fury in his voice. "Josiah? Can you stop them?"

"We're a little busy right now!" Gunshots perforated the air. It sounded like Nathan was out of breath. "We need some cover!"

"Buck, you and JD do your best to clear the path, Vin and I will work our way to the horses." Chris shouted, and then immediately heard Buck and JD lay covering fire for Josiah and Nathan. Chris hoped Ezra had the sense to duck!

Ezra cursed as several men rushed out of the bushes behind him, guns drawn. Hiding behing a large rock at the edge of the clearing afforded him a measure of protection, as he fired off the first shots fom his gun, he knew they would eventually over-run him. He got off several unanswered shots, dropping over half of his assailiants before they could find him and fire back. Ezra was forced from behind the boulder and into the treeline for cover. Dodging bullets that followed him, he darted from tree to tree, snapping off shots. His pistols both clicked empty and he resorted back to his rifle, he only had a little time, but he was keeping them at bey. Just a few more minutes and the others would be here to help. Then his luck ran out. A horse came barrelling out of the bushes right at him, Ezra dived out of the way, but was hit by the large animal right on his shoulder, sending him spinning to the groud, quite a distance from when he had been hit, into the open clearing.

Ezra stifled a cry of pure agony as something in his shoulder popped. He hit the ground and groaned struggling to get up. He was a sitting duck lying on the ground. A ominous 'click' of a gun's hammer right by his head made him stiffen. He was going to die. Nobody had come to help him.

"Don't kill him." A voice called out. "He'll make a great hostage to get Larabee off our necks. Besides we can kill him later if we want to."

"I hate to disappoint you, gentlemen, but I might not be the hostage you so deeply desire." Ezra panted, having trouble drawing breath.

"Shut up, pretty boy!" The man with the gun shoved his injured right side and Ezra nearly fainted from the pain. His right arm hung at his side at an odd angle, useless for anything. Sleeve gun trapped on it. Ezra almost grinned at the irony, it was just like the Seminole village, his shoulder was... What was the word Nathan had used? Dislocated. He was stripped of his remaining guns, all except the derringer. They figure he couldn't use the arm.. what would be hiding there? After he was searched, the leader turned to him. "Get on your horse!"

One of the thieves had retrieved his chestnut from where he was tied to a tree, and Ezra was forced to mount after his hands were tied in front of him, another agonizing proceedure for the trapped gambler.

Then they rode away, hoofbeats disappearing fast in the dusk's light.

By the time all remaining rustlers down below had been subdued or killed, Chris and Vin had finally made it to Ezra's post, only to find no on there. Five bodies lay on the ground, dead. "Ezra!" Chris shouted into the silence that greeted him, hoping Ezra was hiding, waiting for an 'all clear'.

"His horse is gone." Vin reported from the treeline.

"Damn him!" Chris muttered

"We don't know he went willingly." Vin's voice was tight.

"Why's that?" Chris walked over to where Vin was now squatting.

Vin pointed to the ground. "Someone came down mighty hard right here, then struggled to get up over there. Looks like whomever it was was, was thrown quite a bit. Landed pretty bad too."

"Ezra?" Chris looked up as Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah joined them, two injured prisoners in tow.

"That would be my guess." Vin stod up ad looked at the tracks once more.

"Where's Ezra?" JD asked, looking around the clearing.

"Gone." Chris said "Either he's following them, or they have him, or he ran. Vin, which way did they go?"

"Towards Eagle Bend." Vin looked at Chris. "And they have a good head start on us and it's comin' to dark."

Chris came to a decision. "JD, you and Nathan take the prisoners back to Four Corners. Josiah, you and Buck are with Vin and me. If we aren't back in a day JD, come lookin'"

"Right Chris." JD didn't question the man in black, just did what he was told. Knowing Chris had his reasons for doing things like he did. JD rounded up the horses and they started back to town, calling 'good luck' when the others thundered after Ezra and the rest of the thieves.

Ezra had a bad night. His captors decided to continue riding long after dark in order to evade pursuit. Ezra had clung to his horse in dogged determination, hoping he could last until help came. Then Ezra thought of his one personal nightmare. What if no one ever cared enough about him to come? Chris surely didn't trust him. The kid, JD seemed to, but he was often overruled by the others. Buck sought after Ezra's company in the saloon, but nothing more, Of Josiah and Vin... he simply didn't know. But Nathan Jackson, Ezra did know. They had little, if any common ground. Ezra sighed, wondering for the millionth time why it even mattered?

Nobody had ever cared about him, and nobody ever would. So why were these six men's good opinion so important to him? Redemption? The feeling he got from being a part of something larger than himself? He just didn't know.

What Ezra did know was that his time was running out. Soon they would make camp and he needed to escape quickly. He figured if nothing else ,Chris would be riding after the theives, and Ezra didn't want him getting cought coming up unawares.

It was just dark. No moon yet showed above lending an eerie quaity to the night. Almost surreal, Ezra mused, twisting his hands, wriggling free of the ropes that bound him. Soon he would have them loose enough to slip off at any time. Then he could escape and warn the others. That is, of course, if they didn't decide to kill him first.

Ezra toook note of each man left and their visible weapons. Four men remained of the ten that had rushed him this night. Ezra vaguely wodered if any had been taken alive back at the ambush site. Each man had at least two guns, the leader had his two and Ezra's Remingtons and rifle as well. They had not found his sleeve gun, for what good that was. The whole right arm was useles, shooting pain running through him if he moved it at all. Wriggling out of his bonds was agony, but one he knew he had to endure. Or die.

"Make camp." The grizzled leader called out. "No fires yet."

Ezra thought he looked like the quintisential cattle thief from out of one of JD's books. Grizzled, thin, tall, with his beard ragged and a scar runing down his left cheek. His dirty, matted black hair ran strait past his shoulders, like Vin's, but it was unkept, and lay in a tangled mess.

The others in the band looked just as poor, but not so hardened. Ezra thought they had too tough a time getting real work and fell into thievery to get by. Thats generally how it all started. Some died, getting caught. Some reformed. And then there were the ones who liked it... This leader was one of those.

"Get off the horse, fancy man." One of the men said, then thinking better of it, reached out and yanked the gambler off of his horse, dumping him on the muddy ground. The rest of the crew laughed as Ezra hissed in pain, lying in the mud.

"Not so fancy lookin' now, are ya!" Another of the men taunted, derision in his voice.

"Quiet Peters." The leader strode up to Ezra and cruelly yanked him to his feet. "Tell me, fancy man, what will Larabee do? Wait until light to come fer ya? Or press on?"

Ezra considered his options. He could try to con this man into believing Chris wouldn't come at all, or he could tell him the truth.. giving the man nightmares, or he could just not say anything, biding his time. Ezra took option 3. And it got him a fist to his ribs. Ezra doubbled over and would have fallen if not for being held up. This man was strong, Ezra could never hope to break away from him.

"I asked you a question." Ezra was hauled up until he was face to face. "And you had better answer before I lose my patience and let my boys have at ya."

The men watching grinned, itching to get their hands on one who had killed their friends.

Ezra grimaced as the mans breath wafted into his face. Personal hygine was NOT on this ones list of priorities.

"Hit 'im again, Jed!" One of the others, not Peters, called out. "Might jar his memory loose!"

"Or his teeth!" Another hooted, this was Peters.

"Well, Mason, " Jed grinned. "Why hit him, when a much better idea has come to mind."

"And what would theat be?" The fourth, unnamed man spoke up.

"We wait for his friends to show... " Jed smiled evily and Ezra knew he was in trouble. "And then we kill 'im!"

JD and Nathan rode into Four Corners, prisoners in tow. Both men were tired, but they both knew they would get little sleep tonite. Throwing the two surviving rustlers into the cells, JD slammed the door shut and locked it up. Then he just stood there, at a loss for what to do.

"What's wrong JD?" Nathan's soft voice intruded on his confusion.

JD shrugged, knowing his thoughts would not be echoed by the colored healer.

"Worried about Ezra?" Nathan guessed from the boy's expression he was right on the mark. "Well if I know one thing to admire about him, is the fact he knows how to look out for himself."

JD grimaced. It was true though. Ezra had been on his own for longer than most, but it didn't help that JD felt apprehensive. He just had a feeling Ezra was in big trouble.

Nathan put a hand on JD's shoulder. "Chris will find him."

"Yeah right, Nathan." JD snorted, his feelings of anger and helplesness getting the better of him. "Chris don't care one little bit about Ezra, he's just after them cattle thieves!"

"Now JD, " Nathan tried to calm his young friend. His own feelings towards the southern man ambivalent at best.

"And we should be out there with them!" JD looked ready to bolt out of the office and back onto his horse.

"Now JD, " Nathan said more sternly. "It's dark and the horses are tired, with all that we would either blunder into a trap and get Ezra killed, or miss them entirely and not be here when Chris needs us."

JD scowled , but relented. Nathan was right. He didn't have to like it, but he was right. And he really, really wanted to be helping Chris rather than stuck here at home, nursemaiding the prisoners.

"What say you we get some dinner and some sleep and ride out just before first light?" Nathan grinned, knowing what the younger man's response would be. He wasn't disappointed and the two headed for the restaurant for some hot food and drink.

Vin tracked the fleeing party until the sun was down and it grew to dark to go further. It was apparent to the tracker that the group they were following was going to keep going until they had thought to build up a lead on their persuers. Vin grimaced as the last rays of light faded. Did he dare go further? HE knew he risked losing the trail at night, but if the rustlers did indeed have Ezra as their prisoner, did he dare NOT to keep going.

"We keep going." Chris' voice solved Vin's internal dilemna for him.

With a slow grin, Vin shook his head at Chris's obvious reading of his mind. Buck also gave a small answering smile, but one tinged with a hint of sadness. Once Buck and Chris shared this unique communication, now it ws Vin and Chris. Buck never held anything against Vin for it, instead the tall gunslinger had once told Vin privately he was glad Chris was communicating at all with anyone. Now there was hope.

"They are headed north now. Probably didn't think we'd get this far before the light gave out." Vin dismounted and walked the trail he was following. It was clear and unobstructed. "It'll be slow going, but I can follow this all night if we have to."

Josiah looked up into the black as pitch sky, the moon was just rising and it was almost full. "Nature seems to be in our favor tonite, Brother Vin. Our Lady the Moon smiles kindly from above."

"Just prey it keeps smiling." Vin muttered, knowing Ezra's life might be hanging in the balance.

"Amen" Chris whispered, hearing Vin's almost silent remark.

Chris was good and mad and he knew his irrational fury at Ezra was probably unfounded. The man could have left or let them down quite a few times since the Seminole village, but had stayed. Chris still just didn't trust the man. He was a liar and a cheat by profession, so he knew Ezra eventually would someday revert to type. But for now, Ezra was one of them. And he looked to be in deep trouble. In the back of his mind , Chris secretly hoped the Southern man was meerly following the band of thieves, not among them.

For his part, Buck kept scanning the area around them. With Vin concentrating on the trail and Chris more likely brooding about the events, he figured a quick peek around would be a good idea. They knew there were five horses they were chasing, one of them was Ezra, but he didn't know if they had any friends lying in ambush for them. Buck didn't relish another gunfight, his cheek still smarted from the cut he recieved earlier in the night. He hoped Ezra was doing alright, the apparent scuffle back at the clearing didn't bode well for the gambler. Buck just hoped they found him, alive and well. If they didn't get him back in one piece, there would be hell to pay.

Ezra lay propped against a rock. The thieves had rifled through his packs, taking his jacket, bedroll, and all available food and water. Ezra was curiously not hungry, but some water would be nice. As it was they were paying very little attention to their prisoner after throwing him into the rock and telling him to 'stay put..or else'. Ezra used that time to ease his battered hands and wrists through the loops of rope that held them. He was losing alot of skin, but he was getting progress. He just had to bide his time.

One of the men looked over at Ezra, who was the farthest from the group huddled togather for warmth in the chilly night air. He spoke to his companions, and then laughed. Answering laughs echoed in the night silence.

"Having fun by yourself, fancy man?" Peters spoke, and pulled Ezra's long coat around his bony shoulders. "Like your taste in cloths... too bad you won't need this anymore."

"I say when he dies, I get his boots!" The unnamed man said, walking over to their prisoner. "And his fancy watch!"

"Why don't you just take them now?" Jed, the leader smirked. "Not like he's going to be needing them anymore. And boys, it's late enough, lets start a fire. I doubt those chasing us will go any further tonite."

Peters and Mason headed off to gather the plentiful firewood as Ezra was helpless to prevent his boots from being pulled off and his person searched. Ezra groaned as the man pulled out his pocket watch and put it in his shirt, then his silver and turquoise ring off his right hand.. Then Ezra's last remaining luck ran out.

"Hey!" The man said surprised. "He's got money hidden up his boot!"

"How much?" Jed said, coming quickly over to look for himself. The other two came quickly back also, dragging dead logs and twigs for the fire. Jed snached the money roll away from his man. "Get the fire going so we can tell how much we've got!"

Soon a fire was roaring, large and hot, for which a severly shivering Ezra was grateful. Without boots and a jacket, the icy wind had stripped him of body heat quickly. Jed and the others were counting the money by the fire and getting more excited as the bills were counted.

Ezra worked the ropes and looked towards the horses. All were saddled in case of a need for a quick escape, so Ezra knew all he had to do was get to his horse and ride towards Four Corners.. and safety.

"Four Hundred doolars!" Crowed the unnamed man lifting it above his head and shaking his fists. "We could buy ourdelves a ranch for this!"

"Don't drop the money into the fire!" Jed screeched and grabbed it away from his man. "Then he tied it back into it's neat roll and brandished it in his mans face. "And what makes you think your going to see any of this money anyway?"

"Hey!" The man protested, "We were all in on the kill, we should split the money. Besides I found it, it should be mine!"

"Like HELL!" Peters shouted and jumped him

Ezra watched in facination as a fight erupted over the money. Peters and the unnamed man punching each other and rolling round on the ground. The money roll fell and landed near Ezra by the fire.

The the unexpected happened. Peters threw the smaller man away from him, and the unnamed man landed face first in the fire. His clothes were quickly was alight in flame, the man screamed as he began to burn.

Ezra watched in horror as the others simply LAUGHED as the man wriethed on the ground, consumed by the fire, screaming in agony. Ezra's belly threatened to empty itself of it's contents as the smell assaulted him. He had to get away! Quickly shedding the ropes from his bloody wrists, he grabbed the money roll and sprinted towards the horses. He untied his mount and was almost in the saddle when they noticed him.

Despite the pain in his arm, Ezra shot out the derringer and shot the screaming man in the head, ending his torment, and causing the others to duck in reaction. Ezra used the distraction to urge his horse desperately away and into an all out gallop for home. Running into the darkness, Ezra clung to the saddle and tried to ignore the pain in his arm re-awakened by using it to shoot. He rode on, not daring to stop, or look where he was going. Trusting his horse to find it's way in the night.

Vin got lucky, he hadn't lost the trail all night, and up ahead the faint red/orange hue of a fire could be seen. Silently Vin signaled for a halt and Chris reined up next to him.

"Fire up ahead, could be their camp." Vin whispered. Chris nodded and dismounted. Josiah and Buck doing the same.

"Whats up?" Buck whispered after tethering his horse and creeping up to Vin's position.

"Fire up ahead, could be them." Vin whispered back, noticing Josiah had drawn his guns out. "Can't see anyone 'round it though."

"Buck, you and Vin head for the far side." Chris instructed quietly, his face an unreadable mask. "Josiah you go for the right, I'll head in from here. You see Ezra, you protect him, don't get cute, get the job done."

The others nodded, if it got messy for Ezra, the rustlers would be dead in seconds. Vin and Buck silently crept towards the back of the small encampment. It was Buck who saw the body first and swore in a soft, hard whisper.

"What?" Vin whispered back, he was just about to say the camp was empty, the horses were gone and he could see where they left in a hurry.

"Body..." was all Buck could manage, so he pointed.

Vin made a decision and strode into the clearing and up to the dwindling fire. The body was burned badly, the face charred and unrecognizable. Whomever it was had been burned alive. Although he had seen many horrible things in his life, nothing quite compared to this. Vin swallowed, and looked away.

Chris stode up to him and examined the body dispassionately. But Vin saw the tell-tale clenching of his jaw as proof the sight still affected even Chris Larabee. Buck had joind them by the fire, then he noticed something that made the blood drain from his face.

"Buck?" Josiah asked, concerned, "What is it?"

"Boots..." Buck said,his voice wavering. "Those are..."

Chris swore , noticing the body was wearing very distinctive custom boots. Ezra's boots. Further examination revealed the glint of a silver pocketwatch, slightly melted on the figures chest. Also a silver blob where the right hand used to be.

"No." Vin whispered. It couldn't be! The body was about the right size, but for some reason, Vin was sure this wasn't Ezra. "It ain't him."

"What makes you say that?" Chris asked, turning his steely gaze to the tracker.

"I just know." Vin looked around. "Horses are gone in a hurry, and the tracks lead back the way we came, just up the mountain more. They're headed for Four Corners."

Buck looked over his shuolder. "Is there any way to tell for sure?"

Josiah sighed and looked up at Buck from where he had been kneeling by the body, praying. "His tooth?"

None of them wanted to look the figure in the face, dreading what they would see. Finally Chris steeled himself and looked.

"Tooth is gone." Chris noticed Buck turn away, they had probably taken the tooth for it's gold. Chris became enveloped by a sudden rage. He would kill every last one of those responsible for this. No one killed one of his and lived. "Wrap up the body, we bring it back with us. Vin you sure those tracks are headed back."

"Positive." Vin said. "We might be able to head them off by taking the ridge route."

"Lets do it." Chris's voice promised death for all those in his way. And the three other men nodded agreement. While almost certain that the body they would be hauling back to town was their friends, even if it wasn't, no one deserved to die like that. They would pay.

Ezra pushed his horse until he was sure it couldn't carry him much longer. Deep in his heart he hated to run an animal more than it could bear, but he HAD to escape. He was close enough to Four Corners for the horse to know his way home, and Ezra made a decision. The Wells ranch was only a half-mile away and he had to lead them off that trail. Slowing his horse to a gentle stop he painfully dismounted onto a treestump, so as not to cause tracks, and tied the reins to his saddlehorn and smacked it on the rump. The horse gratifyingly took off , headed strait for home. Ezra concealed himself in the bushes and waited until his pursuers passed him, then got up and walked towards the Wells homestead.

It seemed to Ezra the short trek lasted forever, bootless, every rock and twig seemed to lodge painfully in his feet, and the night had seemed to turn even more chilly. Ezra felt his body slowly going numb, and soon he began to stumble often. His only thought became to get to the house, he had to get to the house. Focusing on the growing shape of the windmill, he plunged on ahead. He tripped over a fallen brance, landing painfully on his side. He had to keep going.

Suddenly he was there, the barn a welcome shape in the darkness, and the moon illuminated the path to the house. Marshalling the last of his reserves, Ezra staggered to the porch, somewhere a dog barked, and he vaguely heard a comotion form inside. He had made it. He could rest now. Ezra dropped to his knees, shivering uncontrollably. The front door opened and a rifle was pointed in his direction.

"Who are you and what do you want here!" An irate older womans voice pierced the night silence. Ezra knew from experience, this woman was not to be trifled with.

Ezra opened his mouth to tell her who he was, but no sound came out, instead he leaned against the porch railing and slumped until he was sitting. His eyes began to droop shut. This was not going well, he was going to get shot for tresspassing before he could ever explain who he was.

"I said, state your business!" The woman sounded exaserated, then the voice softened as Ezra lifted his head and tried to focus on her face. "Mr. Standish? Is that you?"

Ezra tried to nod, but the exaustion he had kept at bay for the long walk here, finally won out, and he slipped into the beckoning darkness.

Chris Larabee rode ahead of the rest of his men. He didn't want to believe that the body burned beyond recognition was Ezra. He lost Sarah and Adam to a fire.. now was he to loose one of his men to it as well? It was like a sick joke was being played on him. But Chris wasn't laughing. Inside he was raging. If it turned out the body WAS Ezra's he would search to the ends of the earth and do to Ezra's murderers what was done to him.

He could still smell the smoke, although they were halfway home. Buck had rolled the body into a couple of blankets and Josiah had laid it reverently behind Vin's saddle and tied it there. No one spoke a word, and Chris knew they were as much lost in thought as he.

This was all getting a little too close to home for the gunslinger. He hadn't liked Ezra very much at first, but the man had turned around and become more trustworthy. Honestly, Chris had expected the gambler to leave as soon as he could, but the man had surprised him. Chris had begun to trust him a little. And now it was very possible he was dead.

Buck reined his horse next to Chris'. The normally smiling face was tense in fury and uncertainty. "What do we tell the others?"

"The truth." Chris didn't want to think what JD's reaction might be.

"But we don't KNOW the truth!" Buck fairly shouted. "We don't know spit. This could be Ezra, or it could be some poor slob who took his stuff."

"Either way Ezra's dead , Buck. You think he'd stand for his boots and possessions being on someone else?" Chris heard the bitterness and anger in his own voice.

Buck didn't answer for awhile. "I just can't believe this is his body , Chris.... Something tells me he's still alive."

"I hope to God your right, Buck." Chris whispered. Then he paused before continuing in a tight voice. "We come into town quietly, tonite. I don't want this out in the open yet."

Josiah and Vin, having overheard the conversation nodded with Buck and the group traveled on in silence. Chris returning to his tormented thoughts of fire and death.... and revenge.

JD woke fuzzily, something was not right. He listened to the night sounds outside his window and heard nothing. Then, the faint sounds of horses coming into town pervaded the normal night sounds. JD looked out his window. It was Chris, Buck, Josiah and Vin! Jumping out of bed he hurriedly dressed himself and stumbled out the door.

Nathan came running from his clinic, meeting JD in the road. Both took in the grim looks and the body wrapped in the blanket and slowed to a stunned walk.

"No." JD whispered, meeting Buck's eyes. Nothing in the normally re-assuring face gave him hope.

"Is it..." Nathan gulped as he took in what parts of the body he could see.

"We don't know." Josiah answered, his voice unusually soft, his eyes sad. "Could be though."

"No." JD said a little louder, not wanting to believe it could even be possible. He had just made plans with the card sharp. Next trip to Ridge City they were going book hunting. It couldn't be!

Buck noticed the stricken look on the boy's face and grimaced. He didn't need this burden! Especially if they weren't sure! He reached out and touched JD's shoulder for comfort. The kid just shook it off, shaking his head disbelievingly. He glanced up at Vin who wore a controlled expression, eyes narowed in determination. Buck wondered what he was thinking.

From somewhere nearby a horse whinnied. It sounded familier, JD spun towards the road into town, a disbelieving look on his face.

"That sounded like Ezra's horse!" He took of running. The others following him to the livery corral.

Running in out of the night was a familier chestnut horse. Sides lathered, nostrils flaring, blowing hard. Obviously almost done in. But what they all noticed first was that the saddle was empty. No Ezra. JD reached out a trembling hand and cought hold of the bridle. Soothing the horse with quiet, soft touches, he wordlessly headed to the barn to take care of the exausted animal. Chris noticed there was no blood on the saddle, and it somewhat relieved him. But the absence of the gambler gnawed at him. Was the body they had Ezras? It was looking more like it was with every passing second.

Vin frowned, something was odd about the whole thing. He followed JD into the barn, leaving the others to handle the body, a growing feeling of dread springing up around him. Then he saw it. The reins! They were tied neatly around the saddlehorn! Whomever was riding the horse didn't fall or get shot off of him, they let him go! Maybe Ezra was hiding somewhere, waiting for the heat to die down, or maybe he was too badly hurt and had to hole up somewhere. Vin ran for his horse, and before anyone could stop him or follow, he galloped off into the night, following the path the horse had just come in on.

Ezra floated in and out of touch with reality. He was barely aware when he was lifted and half carried-half drug into the house and laid on a bed. He never felt his socks being cut off his feet, nor his mud soaked vest and shirt being taken off. All he was aware of was the ache in his right side and arm, wrists and left foot. He heard voices, talking in hushed whispers, one young and concerned, one practical and controlled. Unaccounably, he felt better. He was warming up, no longer shivering uncontrollably, and he was safe. He felt himmself drift towards consciousness. Then someone touched his injured arm.

With a cry of surprise, his eyes flew open, startling Casey into a small squeek. Nettie Wells looked into the wide, disoriented green eyes and removed his hand from her wrist gently.

"Now Mr. Standish." She said in her typical no-nonesense tone "Your arm needs tending to, and I'm going to have to do it. So relax and lie back."

Ezra stared into her eyes, and then nodded, tying to speak around a dry mouth. "Thank you." He finally rasped out. Caughing dryly.

"Relax Mr. Standish. This might hurt a little." Nettie began to grip his wounded arm.

"This is recompense for my earlier unfortunate remark about your age, isn't it." Ezra tried to joke. Remembering with shame how he had called her a 'withered crone'.

"Hush, Mr. Standish." Nettie silenced him, but he caught a glimmer of a smile and he relaxed. At that moment of relaxation she yanked as expertly as Nathan had at the indian village and put his arm back where it belonged.

Ezra stifled a cry as the new pain of moving the arm gave way to a burning sensation. Then the arm began to tingle and he could move the fingers without pain. "You enjoyed that."

"Yes." Nettie smiled at the man, she had seen his ashamed look as he had mentioned his unkind remarks. Maybe he wasn't such a waste after all. "I did."

Ezra meerly managed a small smile, and closed his eyes. He was so tired.....

Casey watched the by-play with astonishment. She knew her Aunt had little use for the overdressed conman, but it seemed he was making an effort to be nice, and she was responding.

"Is there anything more I can do?" Casey watched as Ezra fell back into an exausted sleep.

"We still need to bandage his wrists, looks like he ripped them apart trying to escape something. And that nasty cut on his ankle needs binding too." Nettie frowned, what had happened to this man? Besides the list of injuries, he was bruised and scraped all over. She particulrly didn't like the huge discoloration on his back, from his right shoulderblade down to his mid-chest. "Boil some more water for bandages and bring me what alcohol you can find."

Casey huried out of the room to do as she was bid. She knew JD liked the gambler, but she never understood it. But he couldn't be all bad if he was with the other six. She remembered her own shock as the face of their 'intruder' turned up to them. Casey had never seen so much pain and bewilderment on a grown man's face before. It had scared her.

She had helped Aunt Nettie lift and carry him into the house. Deciding to put him in her bed. She winced as she saw the blood on his wrists, and winced even more when she noticed the ankle that was trailing blood all over the floor. It would be a chore to clean it up.

Aunt Nettie had sent her to heat some water, and bring blankets. She said Mr. Standish was too cold, and needed to be warmed up as fast as possible. By the time she had gotten back with the blankets, her Aunt had stripped him of his socks, shirt, vest and shoulder holster, and was frowning at his injuries.

Casey had been afraid right then. If this had happened to Mr. Standish, was JD alright? Or was he lying somewhere injured. Casy had watched as Aunt Nettie straitened the gamblers arm, him waking up briefly for it, then he was out again. And no mention of JD or the others!

It was still way too early in the morning for her to ride into town, and Mr. Standish still needed her help. But if Casey could have, she would have lit out of there as soon as she could saddle her horse and go.

She finished with the bandages, which were from an old sheet, and carried them towards her room. Aunt Nettie was sitting next to the gambler cleaning the mud off of his face with a wet rag. Casey knew by the frown on her aunts face, that she was wondering what had happened to the man.

"You think JD and the others are alright?" Casey whispered, trying not to wake the injured man.

"I don't know Casey." Nettie never lied to her, even when she wished she would have. "But as soon as it's lihgt you ride into town and see if you can find him and the others. Maybe Mr. Larabee could shed some light on what happened."

"Well, remember two days ago Mr. Vin told us there were some cattle thieves in the area and to keep a look out. You think it might have been them?" Casey started pulling the bandages out of the basin one by one for her Aunt as she slowly and carefully bound the injured areas.

"You might be right." Nettie grimaced as she bound the ankle wound. It was bad, the cut ran from the ankle bone down to the arch and was deep. Good thing he was out when it was cleaned or it could have gotten messy. It needed stitching, but Nettie wasn't about to try it. It would have to wait for Mr.Jackson to do.

Nettie had also been disturbed by the mans tossing and turning, like he was trying to escape from something so terrible, it wouldn't let him rest. She bandaged the bloody wrists and hands and with the rest of the bandages cleaned whatever mud remained on him. Then she bound his ribs, which she thought might be craked and wound his injured arm into a sling. It was done.

Through it all she and Casey had worked silently, each in their own way worried and wondering what had happened and if the others were alright.

Vin rode until he reached the crossroads where the trail he had seen the tracks set on to me the trail into town. An uneasy feeling went through him as he noticed where the two met. The trail to Nettie Well's ranch and those in her valley led from here too. Was Ezra trying to lead them away from there by setting his horse free? And had he gone there for refuge?

It was an hour till dawn and Vin decided to wait for the light and see what the tracks told him, a voice in his head telling him now was not the time to guess. Lives depended on it!

Vin shook his head, wondering where this insistance that Ezra was still alive came from, and hoping that his instincts were correct this time. A man shouldn't die like the man they had found. And Vin was certain that if it WAS Ezra who was dead, whomever had done it would pay, dearly.

He settled down to wait for sunrise on the very stump Ezra had dismounted his horse a scant few hours ago.

Jed and the remaining two members of his men whohad been with him on the ill-fated thieft attempt, stopped chasing the horse of their captive as it made it into town. It was then he realized the horse was riderless.

"Damn!" Cursed Peters, "Horse ain't got no rider. He ditched us!"

Then the running of the six men halted their progress into town. They watched from the shadows as the horse ws led into the livery by three, and two minutes later one went running out, jumped on his horse and made right for them.

"Into the trees!" Jed whispered, and they quickly moved to obey.

They watched as Vin rode past at a furious gallop, not seeing them in the dark.

"Wonder what he's after?" Mason grunted, scowling after Vin's retreating figure.

"Probably after our fancy former prisoner." Peters snapped. "If they find him our faces are all over wanted posters, we'll all be dead men!"

The two men glared at each other, the frustration of losing half their number and losing the $400, making them edgy.

"Cool it, you two." Jed stared thoughtfully at the retreating figure. "Mason, follow the tracker, see where he heads to and report to this spot no later than 10:00 tomorrow mornin'. Peters, you ride into town, they don't know you. Find out all you can in there about the man and don't forget to scout out how we can break the other two free or kill 'em. Can't have them talkin' neither."

"What are you going to do?" Peters asked, Mason already leaving to follow Vin. "Going to get the rest of the boys?"

Jed nodded. "I was wrong to only bring half of us along, but now we'll send these lawmen a message not to mess with us again!"

"Meet you here by 10:00?" Peters shot a glance at his leader, smiling.

"Don't be late!" Jed grinned maliciously. "First we kill the fancy man, then we kill his friends. Then this territory is ours!"

Back in Four Corners, none of the others were getting any sleep. The body had been stashed away and no one the wiser. The other five had gone to the saloon, each lost in thought over Vins abrupt departure and their fears over their missing comrades fate.

JD especially was hit hard. He had never figured on Ezra dying, for some reason neither had anyone else. It seemed unreal in some way. Buck had helped JD walk out and groom Ezras horse and put it away, then they joined the others in the sloon, but nobody said a word to each other the whole time. For some reason, no one could bring themselves to think of the body at the undertakers as Ezra. It just didn't seem right.

Josiah sat back in his chair and observed his surroundings. Ezra gone? It just wasn't sitting quite right. If it was true it would be so strange never to see Ezra playing poker at his table, smiling till his gold tooth showed. Never hear his fancy, if always usually sarcastic, phrases. Never have his gun and self at your back protecting you. Never get annoyed with him when he's pulled another con. Never...... Never was an ugly word, and when it applied to death, it was even uglier. It was light extinguished, it was a man gone. As in forever. And that was a true tragedy no one wanted to face up to. Josiah bowed his head and prayed that the man he had learned to admire and call brother was still alive.

It appeared to the ex-preacher that none of them were going to get much sleep until something happened, so he stood. Instantly everyones eyes snapped to him.

"I think I am going to call it a night. I want to be fresh for tomorrows activities." Josiah said quietly into the silence. "Good night, Brothers."

"He has a good idea." Nathan followed the lead Josiah was setting. "We should be ready for anything."

Chris nodded but didn't move. JD reluctantly got up and made for the door, slipping silently out of the saloon. Buck looked rebellious, but stifled a yawn, and shaking his head, rose and headed for the door too.

Josiah sighed in relief that his suggestion seemed to have set things in motion and walked slowly off to find his bed.

Chris stayed where he was.

First light bought Casey almost running out the door. She had waited long enough to go and get the answeres to her questions. Was JD alright, and Mr. Vin and the others. Now she would find out.

Mr. Standish had no woken up all night long, and she and Aunt Nettie had fallen asleep a couple of hours ago. To her knowledge, her Aunt was still asleep, as was Mr. Standish.

Saddling her horse quickly, she pulled on his bridle and she was off into the morning.

Nettie Wells watched her niece from the window, silently wishing her a safe journey, and hoping she hadn't sent the child into danger. Togather they had watched Mr. Standish for any signs of infection or illness, but all he did was toss and turn in his sleep, mumbling incoherently. The only word they did make out was 'fire' and the way he said it made chills go down Netties spine. Yes, something had either happened to him, or he had seen something utterly horrible, and it wasn't letting him go.

"Good Lord." A gravelly voice from the bed behind her intruded on her musings. "where...."

Nettie turned around to look into slightly confused green eyes. "You made it to my doorway, young man. Don't you remember?"

Ezra studied her intently for a moment and then nodded. "You... set my shoulder."

"Yes I did. Casey just went to town for your friends." Nettie fixed him with a stare. "Are they going to be there and in one piece?"

"Well, I don't know about them being there." Ezra frowned, trying to clear the fog from around his brain in order to think clearer. "But they should be well."

Nettie let out the breath she had been unconsciously holding. She was afraid that the others would be in worse shape than the gambler. She liked Vin Tanner immensly, and the others had always been curteous, but Casey had liked the young sherrif JD right from the git go. Nettie didn't want her riding in to see his body.

"What happened to you , son?" Nettie sat down in the chair next to his bed. She noted the swift look of almost-pain as she called him son. Like it was something he wasn't used to hearing in such a soft tone.

"I would rather not regale you with my tale of horror, Ms. Wells." Ezra closed off his expression, snapping shut his emotions from prying eyes like he had been tought by his mother to do since he was five.

Nettie saw the wall go up and decided she had enough of it. "You had better tell someone, Mr. Standish. And it might as well be the one who undressed you last night."

Ezra stared at her in utter astonishment and embarassment. Then he saw the faint trace of a smile at ther lips and realized her ruse was to get him to let his guard down. Finally he broke down and gave her a grin of his own. "You are very good as misdirection, Ms. Wells, you ever think of taking up gambling as a hobby?"

"I prefer the truth , Mr. Standish. But I also believe in getting what is needed done." Nettie leaned forward. "Whatever happened, hurt you rarm, tore up your wrists, cut your ankle so deep Mr. Jackson is going to have to stitch it, and you are plumb black and blue from head to toe. Now I want to know how this happened without a scratch being laid on the others, if what you told me is true."

"I got caught away from my esteemed colleagues and ended up in the path of a very large equine who was intent on using me for a doormat." Ezra sighed, wondering just what the others were doing righ tnow. "That unfortunately left me at the mercy of our former prey."

"So they ran you over with a horse and took ya prisoner." Nettie summed up the gamblers story. "The boys didn't go after you? I would have thought Mr. Larabee was more loyal to his men than that."

"I'm sure they did follow us." Ezra shifted in the bed, suddenly feeling restless. "But certain circunstances forced me to facilitate my own emancipation with much haste."

"Is that where the fire comes in?" Nettie walked over to the pitcher of water and poured some into a glass. She didn't miss Ezras start at the mention of the fire.

"Indeed." Came the soft reply. Ezra gratefull accepted the water and downed it thirstily.

Nettie noticed her patient was getting stronger, instead of weaker as he remained awake. She sighed in relief. As long as Mr. Jackson got here in good time, it was likely Ezra would recover from his injuries quickly. His eyes kept a slight haunted look as she took the glass back from him.

"Well, you feel like brerakfast young man?" Nettie looked out the window. She was bound to have company later.

"I would gratefully consume any edibles you might care to make, my good woman." Ezra forced a grin, his stomach grumbling at the mere thought of food.

"From 'witheres crone' to 'good woman', should I be flattered?" Nettie said, slightly amused at his attempt to sweet talk her.

Ezra sat up in the bed and grinned. His body had numerous aches and pains, he actulally felt rather terrible, but for some reason, he also felt safe. He settled in to wait for the others, hoping his words were true and they were all in good health.

Vin Tanner followed the tracks of footprints towards the Wells ranch. They had to be Ezra's, and for that Vin felt a tremor of relief. But since coming upon the blood where Ezra had cut himself when he apparently stumbled, Vin grew concerned. the tracks meandered as they went on, the person who had made them obviously getting weaker and weaker, but determinedly moving onward. Admirable.

The tracks had led him away from the main trail and he had heard the hoofbeats of someone heading into town at a good clip. But he couldn't tell who it was. Finally, he got to the Wells'. The bloody footprints went right up to the porch, where Vin hesitated before knocking on the door.

"Do come in Mr. Tanner." Nettie Wells voice floated out to him from inside.

As Vin opened the door, the smells of breakfast assaulted him and his stomach growled in reaction. Vin stepped inside, and looked into the kitchen. And stared in utter shock at the scene befor e him.

Mason followed the tracker until he was sure of where he was going. It was tough not to get spotted by the sharp-eyed man, but Mason had experience too. Once he was sure that the homestead the bloody tracks led to was the Wells, he reversed his course and raced for the rendezvous point. He'd be the first one there, but his news would be worth it. They could easily get rid of their problems in one shot. With the Tracker dead as well, it would be a bonus. And hell, they could even take the old womans cows to make up for the ones they lost. Profit all-round.

He made his way back to the crossroads and erased any sign of his passing and any other tracks towards the Wells. Now no one would follow them that way. Then he set about laying a false trail back to their campsite, in case someone was truely interested. After that he headed out to meet his friends.

Casey rode into town two hours after she started out. She was glad to see Buck Wilmington and JD outside the sherrif's office, like normal. From the expressions on their faces, something looked to be terribly wrong. She rode up to them and dismounted, noting the surprised looks on their faces.

"Hey Casey." JD smiled at her, boy she looked pretty, even covered in dust. "What brings you into town?"

"Aunt Nettie and me had a visitor last night." Casey began, she immediately noticed Buck's intent frown.

"Really, who?" JD looked back at Buck, not even daring to hope.

"One of your friends, Mr. Standish..." Casey was interrupted by Buck's sudden bellow.

"CHRIS!" Buck shouted, then he turned back to Casey. "Is he alright?"

"He was hurt kinda bad....." SHe saw JD's face fall, and Buck's murderous expression and hastilly tried to reassure them. "but Aunt Nettie says he'll be fine with some rest."

"Who will be fine?" Chris Larabee walked up in the middle of the sentence, Josiah and Nathan with him.

"It's Ezra , Chris!" JD turned, smiling. "Casey here says he showed up at their place last night!"

Chris turned his intense gaze onto Casey who squirmed under it's intensity. Then the gaze softened. "He's alive then?"

Casey just nodded. Then she saw the relieved grins on the others faces. "Aunt Nettie says he'll be fine, but he needs some stitching, so I came to get you Mr. Jackson."

"Is it real bad?" Nathan was already carrying his saddlebags with a small kit in it.

"No." Casey shook her head. "It's on his ankle, it's deep and long, but not too bad. Aunt Nettie cleaned and bandaged it already."

"Is he hurt anywhere else?" Nathan looked through his supplies in his pack, he had enough for the stitching and some bandaging, but not for anything tricky.

"Cuts on his wrists, he's got bruises all over, and scrapes too. His shoulder was all funny, but Aunt Nettie fixed it." Casey tried to remember everything, but there was alot of small things, the ankle was the worst. "Oh, and he was real tired and cold when we found him. He didn't have no boots on."

"We should bring him a change of clothes, Chris." Josiah looked towards Ezra's room. "And boots."

Chris nodded. "You and JD go get that. Nathan, make sure you have everything you need. Casey? Did you see Vin on your way out here?"

Casey shook her head. "NO, but I wasn't really paying attention to the road... I was....."

Buck smiled at her. "You were wantin' to get here."

"Umm.. Yes Sir." Casey blushed.

Un noticed by the relieved group, a shadow detached itself from the wall around the corner and headed towards a horse. The rider soon left town to meet with his fellows and deliver the news. They had best kill the man who could identify them and fast.

Vin couldn't help himself, he started laughing. The scene that greeted him was astonishingly out of place, and it just struck Vin funny. Ezra was sitting up in a chair, a bloodly bandaged leg was propped up on another chair, and he was stirring a bowl of what looked like flapjack batter while Miss Nettie scolded him from the stove for stirring it to unevenly.

What really made Vin laugh though, was the apron Ezra wore. Other than his pants, it was his only other article of clothes. The humor of the situation gave way to a deep feeling of peace as Vin realized Ezra was alive. As in not burned alive in the most horrible way imaginable. And for that Vin felt relief flow through him.

"Close the door Mr. Tanner!" Miss Nettie called out in exasperation. "Your letting all the heat out!"

"Yes, ma'am, Miss Nettie." Vin controlled his laughter, but couldn't wipe the silly grin off of his face.

"I am very glad that I amuse you so, Mr. Tanner." Ezra's dry tone masked his utter relief at seeing the ex-bounty hunter come riding up the trail.

Slightly sobered, Vin strode up to Ezra and looked him over. He was a mess, but he was alive. "Glad to see you alive, pard. We wasn't sure there for awhile."

"You found the campsite?" Ezra's voice drained of emotion, leaving it flat and hard.

Vin just nodded.

"What did you find there to make you think Mr. Standish was dead?" Nettie asked, wondering if this was what was haunting the gambler in his dreams.

"A body. Burned bad. We couldn't tell who it was." Vin said to Nettie, never taking his eyes off Ezra. "He was wearing Ezra's boots."

Ezra shuddered, remembering the screams as the man died, and the laughter of those who had sat and watched like it was a form of fine entertainment. He shuddered again, feeling a chill sweep through his bones. He wasn't aware of Vin calling his name until the tracker put a hand on his shoulder. Ezra , startled, jerked away in defense, then calmed.

"You alright." Vin asked, deliberately keeping his voice neutral. Ezra was stand-offish at best, and to tell the truth, he was almost as much of a mystery as Vin liked to be. Where Vin hid behind silence, Ezra hid behind a facade of noise and character. But none of them really knew him.

Ezra started to say he was fine, then snapped his mouth shut, and simply sighed and closed his eyes. Vin waited while he composed himself.

"When we catch those bastards and put them away one way or another." Ezra said, venom in his voice "Then I will be!"

Vin had never heard Ezra swear before, and it shook him a bit. He must have seen the man die. He looked at Nettie and saw a thoughtful look on her face. Her gaze went to him and she nodded. Time to distract the thoughts away from the unpleasant details.

"You see Casey on the road? She went into town early this morning." Nettie asked, thinking of ways to keep Ezra's mind off what was bothering him.

"Naw." Vin turned towards the stove and sniffed the aromas appreciatively. Nobody could cook like Nettie could. "I was tracking our 'walking wounded' over there, his trail kind of wandered all over the place."

"Wandered?" Ezra was grateful for the distraction and bought into it with hunor. "I'll have you know I was doing that deliberately to throw pursuers off my trail"

"Next time you want to lose a trail Ezra." Vin grinned, grateful the gambler was playing along "Try not to bleed all over it. Tends to be more effective that way."

"I'll try to keep that in mind." Ezra smiled, eyes glinting, but Vin saw the pain underneath and grimaced to himself. Something was eating at his heart, but he wasn't ready to let it go.

Jed had arrived with the other fifteen men from home camp at the meeting spot to find both his other men waiting, with news. It was soon decided to go after the man who could identify him first, killing him and anyone with him, then lure the other six into an ambush. After they were dead, they could stroll into town as free their friends from the jail.

On the was to the Well's homestead, Jed drew his battle plans. He had 18 men to distribute, and there were ony three people in the house. It would be so easy!

When they arrived at the outskirts of the ranch, he drew his horse to a halt. He could see smoke coming from the stack, and smells of food wafted in from the breeze. With luck, they would catch those inside unawares.

"Milt, you take your group on to the far side. Peters, you and yours take the barn. The rest of you stay in cover, use your rifles. Pick your shots. We outgun them, so take your time." Jed whispered just loud enough to be heard.

Jed's men all experienced at thieving, knew how to sneak. Soon all were deployed strategically around the house. It seemed none inside were the wiser to them.

Jed signaled for the assault to begin.

Chris walked out of the saloon, having talked Casey into staying until they got back, he was ready to go. The others waited impatiently for him to mount, wanting to go and see how Ezra was doing for themselves, to reassure themselves he was really alive.

The noon stage made its ponderous way to a stop, horses milling as passengers disembarked. Since they weren't expecting anyone, and they were about to leave, no one notices a slim, distinguished , older gentleman exit the stage and walk towards them.

"Going somewhere Gentlemen?" A quiet voice solemnly asks.

"Judge Travis!" JD blurts, startled.

"Afternoon." Judge Travis took in the scene. "I take it something went amiss with the round-up. Where's Mr. Standish and Mr. Tanner?"

"We're going to meet them now." Chris swung onto his horse. "We left you two prisoners in the jail."

"You cach the leader?" Judge Travis sighed, it didn't look likely.

"Nope, most died, but we think a few got away. Ezra might know, they had him prisoner for awhile." Nathan, replied, hoping Ezra would know, just so this could be over.

Judge Travis raised his eyebrow. "And he's still alive? You get him back here, Chris, he's just become our best hope in five years at ending this theft ring."

"We will." Chris promised, both to the Judge and to himself. He turned his horse and headed out of town, the others following.

Vin, Ezra and Nettie had just settled down to eat, when something intruded on Vin's senses. Something just wasn't quite right. He reached for his Mare's Leg, frowning. Ezra noticed his movement and shot him a puzzled look. Nettie also didn't miss it.

"Ezra, Nettie..." He began as a shot broke the window near his head. "DOWN!"

Vin rolled to his feet near the front window, gun already in hand. A shard of glass had hit him on the temple, scoring it, and blood was trickling down his face. He glanced outside and swore. He could see five, which meant there were at least 15 surrounding them. He glanced down at Miss Nettie, who had crept to her closet and pulled out her Spenser Carbine and two pistols. Ezra lay on the floor, grimacing as his fall jared his injured side, but he gamely rolled to his knees and had his derringer out.

"Miss Nettie, we're surrounded. I'm pretty sure were outgunned too. we had best conserve our ammunition." Vin squeezed off a shot, taking the man in the chest. One down.

"I'll only fire if I have to Mr. Tanner." Nettie replied, taking up a position looking out the back window.

"I don't suppose you have any more artillery about?" Ezra had struggled to his feet and limped over to the side door. His Derringer looked silly in his hand, but it was better than nothing.

"Don't think she's got a cannon for ya , Ezra." Vin smiles, ducking as shots fly through the window. Vin swipes at the blood to keep it from falling into his eyes, he needed to keep sharp, this was going to get bad.

"They know they outnumber us. The longer they are out there, the more likely they are to rush us." Ezra shot back, ignoring the jibe.

He wondered why he had even thougt he could come here. He had just put Ms. Wells life and home in jeopardy. What the hell had he been thinking! Every step on is torn ankle sent a piercing pain shooting up his leg, but Ezra stood his ground and looked out over the terrain. He spotted six men stand up to fire one by one. That meant over 15 men were out there. Not good odds.

"What makes you think they will rush us, Mr. Standish?" Nettie fired off a round and Vin heard a man scream. He grinned.

"They probably have guessed your Niece's trip into town will bring Mr. Larabee and the others. If we continue to hold them off like this, they know they will eventually run out of time." Ezra cought the pistol Nettie threw him easily in his left hand. His right shoulder was still in the sling. Good thing he could shoot just as well with either hand.

"And they will have to come in and get us." Vin concluded, Ezra was right. "Is there any other way out of here?"

"Theres the door to the celler, just out back. It would be alot easier to defend than the whole house. I even have extra ammunition stored down there." Nettie reloaded the carbine. Another two notches for its stock.

"How would we get there without getting cut down?" Vin asked, shooting a man stupid enough to stick his head up. That was at least four down.

"Theres a trapdoor entrance to it by the back door. When it's cold out, I hate to have to go outside when I don't have to, so I set a door with a ladder down to the cellar." Nettie watched as the attackers stopped firing and looked to one side.

"I think we just ran out of time."Ezra commented, noting the lack of returning fire. "Madam, would you lead the way to said celler."

Vin moved to Ezra and put his good arm around his shoulders. "We'd best hurry."

Nettie led them to the trapdoor and opened it up. Vin let go of Ezra, who was grimacing in pain and trying not to fall down with ever step. To tell the truth, Vin wasn't feeling too great either, his head was aching and he was getting dizzy. Maybe he got creased a little harder than he thought.

"I'd best go down first, make sure nobody's waiting for us." Vin carefully and silently eased himself into the dark, shaking his head to clear it.

Above, Ezra and Nettie waited for the all clear, guns at the ready. Ezra was the first to spot trouble. He could have said nothing and jumped to safety down the celler ladder, but Nettie would never have seen it coming. She would die.

"Look out!" Ezra shouted, pushing her towards the trapdoor just as the lead started flying. Ezra let loose at the fast approaching men, slowing them down enough to cover Nettie's escape. Vin pulled her down when she tried to turn and come back for him. Fortunately she had dropped her carbine and extra revolver, and Ezra scooped them up.

Ezra looked up at the doorway. No time was left, they would soon see the door to the celler. He closed the door and covered it with the floor rug, hiding it from casual view. Unless you were looking fo it, you'd never see it now. He took the three guns and crawled to a corner where there was only one way in or out he couldn't see and shoot into. He reloaded everything and waited. He figured it wouldn't take long for them to find him, and he wasn't disappointed.

"He's in the back room! Rush him!" A semi-familier voice rang out. It was Peters, Ezra remembered him.

Shots rang out and hit the wall inches above his head, Ezra ducked, shucking off the apron, he gathered himself into a painful crouch, injured ankle propped up in front of him. He shot the first person to stick his head in the doorway, and got the next three or four who rushed him.

They were too many, and Ezra soon ran out of room, they were in , and he was defenseless for any kind of hand-to-hand combat. He was subdued none to gently and dragged out of the house. Jed was waiting for him, grinning maliciously.

"So where are your friends? The tracker and the old woman?" Jed walked up to Ezra who was being supported and restrained by three other men.

"Your men killed them." Ezra spat, trying to sound convincing. He couldn't let them get Vin and Nettie Wells. For once in his life, Ezra considered dying preferable to giving up something or someone. It wasn't a concept he was used to, but it was definately becoming more familier since the incident with the Indian village. "It's just me."

Jed looked Ezra in the eyes and nodded, then punched the helpless man as hard as he could in the jaw, sending the gambler reeling into the hold of his captors. Head spinning, Ezra faintly heard his nemesis say that he had better be telling the truth, or he'd better pray for a quick death. Ezra slumped in the men's hold, oblivious to the world for the next few minutes.

Chris drove the men hard, in his gut he knew something was wrong and speed was their only hope. Nobody complained, not even JD said a word as they raced towards the Wells ranch. The distant sound of gunfire reached their ears and Chris spured his horse, urging it faster. The others followed.

As they dismounted and slowly topped the rise overlooking the ranch, the gunfire stopped. Careful not to draw attention, Chris and Buck peeked down on the scene before them. Josiah, Nathan and JD following after tying the horses to a tree.

"Looks like not quite a dozen men left." Buck whispered, his voice showing the restrained fury that shone in his eyes. The normally carefree man could turn fierce if riled, and he was definately riled now.

"You see Vin, Miss Nettie or Ezra?" JD asked, keeping his voice low and his head down, just like Buck taught him.

"Nope," Josiah answered, then corrected himself. "Wait. They dragging someone out of the house now."

Chris swore colorfully as the figure drug out turned out to be Ezra. He looked like he had been dragged off a cliff and tossed into cactus patch and then drug a mile or two behind a horse. He wore pants, no shirt or socks or boots, and he was wearing a sling on his right arm. What they could see of his back looked to be covered in bruises. Whatever they had done to him, it looked bad.

JD hazzarded a look at Buck. The older man's face was tense with fury and his hand was on his gun, clenching and unclenching around the handle. When the leader of the maurading band belted Ezra in the jaw, he half-stood only to be restrained by Josiah.

"We need a plan, and quick." Nathan looked around the area. "I don't see Vin or Miss. Nettie."

"Could be in the cellar, you reckon?" JD whispered. "Casey once told me there was a door to it in the house."

"They could have gone down there." Chris agreed. "Heres what we do. Buck, you, Josiah and JD pick spots around and lay some covering fire. Nathan and I will try for the cellar and Ezra. When you hear my first shot , open fire, take out as many as you can as fast as you can."

"Time for us to all get a little 'old testament'," Josiah shared a tense smile with Nathan over the old joke. He genuinely liked Ezra. The conman was turning out to have some fine qualities and Josiah considered it a mission of his to make sure the man learned there was more to life than conning and cheating people.

"Amen." BUck whispered and silently moved off, Jd following a bit before they split up to cover more area with their guns. Josiah too, left for the other side of the house.

"Lets go Nathan." Chris stood, and he and the healer made their way to the trees closest to the cellar.

Nathan noticed Ezra hanging limply in his captors grasp. The man had to be at the end of his endurance despite the night of good care he had recieved. It took more than half a day to recover from injuries like Casey had described. After seeing the condition of the body at the undertakers, Nathan knew they had better get him away from those men before something more permanent happened to him. He had seen his fellow slaves more battered than this, but hated the thought of anyone this ill used, even the pompus southerner.

When Chris and Nathan got into position, the nodded at each other and prepared to fire, carefully picking targets.

"Nobody's in the house." Mason reported to Jed, who eyes the semi-conscious gambler with sick pleasure. "We did see some blood though, probably his."

"Then I guess we make him tell us where they are, don't we." Jed mildly returned. His men grinned, this was going to be fun. Jed was very motivated and creative when he was mad.

Jed reached forward and took Ezra's swelling jaw in his hand squeezing it. The gambler grimaced slightly at the pain and tried to focus his eyes.

"You lied to me, fancy man." He purred to his captive. "That wasn't a very good idea. Now I'll just have to get nasty with you. Maybe I need to start another fire..."

The fear Ezra's eyes held was more than enough to convince Jed he had found the right weakeness to exploit. Just as he was about to issue orders for a fire to be made, shots rang out from the surrounding area. He has forgotten about Larabee and the others!

Vin and Nettie heard the shots and knew Chris had arrived. His head was still aching, but Nettie had wrapped a strip of cloth around it and the bleeding was stopped for now. Neither of them had said a word since Ezra closed the door, each keeping to their own thoughts.

"Time to go." Vin whispered, pulling out his gun. He instinctively knew Chris was coming to cover them.

"Hope Mr. Larabee and the others are on their toes!" Nettie grabbed the spare rifle frim the rack in the celler, it was already loaded and ready. She wanted her carbine, but she had left it in the house when Mr. Standish pushed her to safety. She hadn't thought him capable of that.

Vin edged towards the door just as it opened a crack. He aimed his gun at the door as it slowly opens.

"You going to shoot me, cowboy?" Chirs' voice sounds both tense and slightly humerous at the same time.

"Only if you want me to." Vin whispers back, relief flooding him. "Ezra...."

"Still alive." Chris cuts him off, eyes darting outside towards the house as Vin and Nettie emerge from the celler. "Let's go."

"Take cover!" Jed yelled, grabbing Ezra as a shield and pulling him towards the porch. Larabee's men had picked good positions and it looked like they were in trouble.

As his men fell one by one, he struggled to pull Ezra with him to a place he could bargain for his life if it came to that. Soon two more guns added their fire to the mix and Jed's men were cut down like dogs. Seething, Jed saw the Tracker and the old biddy run from the cellar door and cover him. He and two others who had gotten to the trees were all that was left.

"Drop your guns of this one dies!" Jed yelled putting his gun to Ezras head.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." Chris stepped forward, gun aimed at Jed's head. "You'll die."

"So will he!" Jed countered. "I got a hair trigger and if I move one little bit, he looses his fancy head. Now I know you don't want that to happen, so let's deal!"

"You let him go, and we don't kill you." Chris countered, it looked like Jed had the upper hand. No way to get behind him,and no way to get him before Ezra was killed. It was a standoff.

"And then I hang?" Jed laughed, a cruel sound. "No way. Here's the deal. I take him as far as the trees, and drop him. You let me go. If you move to take me, my men kill him and anyone else they can. You let me go, nobody else dies. That's the deal take it or leave it!"

Even half-aware, Ezra knew what was happening. His head was still spinning and he had trouble focusing. His body continued to not respond to him and just hung there in Jed's grasp. He just wished Chris would shoot the bastard and get this all over with. Ezra steeled himself for his death, knowing Chris would kill the man. He wasn't one to let scum like this get away. Maybe someone would say something nice at his funeral.

But there was no shot.

"Alright." Chris finally said, the words wrenched out of him like trying to squeeze water from a rock. "It's a deal, but you drop him there, and your free to go."

"I want your word, Larabee!" Jed shouted, knowing Larabee would keep it, no matter how he felt. "Give me your word I go free and it's a done deal!"

"You cross me and you'll have wished you had died!" Chris growls back, silently vowing there would be another time to play this out. This time with no one betwee them. "Alright, you have my word."

The others waited tensly for the next move to be made. Everyone of them knew the strength it had taken for Chris not to take the man out. But with Ezra's life in the balance, this was the only way to get him out of danger. They waited, rifles at the ready for any sign of trechery.

Ezra couldn't believe what he had heard, Chris was letting him go? He felt Jed release him and he slumped to the floor of the porch. He watched, unable to do anything to prevent it,as Jed walked away, free and clear. Darkenss spun around him, but he forced himself to his knees, watching as Jed reached the safety of the trees, mounted his horse and rode away with the last two of his men. When the man was out of his sight he slumped back to the floor, someone catching him.

Josiah cought Ezra as he fell back to the ground, energy spent. Nathan and the others hurried up to them, worried looks on all their faces. Ezra focused on Chris's face and frowned

"You let him go?" Came the whispered question. "Why?"

They all looked at each other, stunned. Ezra had expected them to kill the man, letting him die. Before anyone could come up with a good answer, Ezra was out again. Josiah picked him up and carried him into the house, Nathan following. The others stayed outside, surveying the carnage around them.

Jed swore as he kicked his horse across the stream. Everything had become unraveled. Form over thirty men down to two! Those hired guns from Four Corners weren't going to get away with this! They were going to pay!

"Where we headeed boss?" Peters asked, he was wounded on his arm, but wasn't about to complain. Jed had killed men for less, and he was in a really bad mood.

"We need a place to hide out." Jed answered, thoughts turning to the more immediate concerns. He would deal with his revenge later, especially on that fancy gambler man! "And I know just the place!"

The first night Ezra was back in town after spending a few days of recouperating at the Wells, the seven converged in the saloon. Each seeking out the company of each others, as if in reassurance that they were all safe again.

Conversation was light and cheerful, bantering between themselves. All but one enjoying himself.

"If you gentlemen will excuse me." Ezra levered himself out of his chair. "I think I will call it an evening, I seem to be a bit fatigued."

"Need any help with the stairs?" Josiah asked softly, Ezra still had a noticable limp in his walk from the cut on his ankle.

"No thank you, Mr. Sanches." Ezra gave Josiah a small smile. "I do believe I can manage to traverse the distance without aid."

"Night Ezra!" JD called after him, to which Ezra just gave a small nod, and continued up the stairs.

"I wonder what's gnawing at 'im." Buck said aloud. He had noticed that Ezra was not acting like himself since the fight at Miss Netties. The normally cheerful gambler had been silent and withdrawn, worrying those who knew only part of what had happened. "He tell you anything Nathan?"

"Nope." Nathan leaned back in his chair, "Only Judge Travis knows the whole story, got it when he took Ezra's statement."

"Man's got a right to his privacy." Chris looked up from his bottle, his stare encompassing them all.

"So what'll we do about Jed and his gang?" Nathan asked, realizing Ezra might be feeling guilty for making Chris let the guy go free.

"He hid his tracks pretty good." Vin said. "I lost his trail not far after Eagle Bend. Seemed to be headed south."

"He's known now." Chris spoke up quietly. "He'll be on the run from the law. My guess is he found a place to hole up until things clam down a bit."

"Think he'll come after us?" Buck leaned forward in his chair.

"Maybe." Chris nodded sagely. "If he does, he's not getting away again."

"Well, if he comes anywhere near Ezra, I dont' think he'll live too long after they meet." Josiah said, voice quiet.

Buck snorted in laughter. "Yeah, If only to take a the cost of a new pair of boots out of his hide!"

JD grinned back at Buck. It was true. As soon as he'd been well enough, Ezra had groused about having to replace not only his boots, but his watch, ring, jacket, and bedroll. To tell the truth, JD would have complained just as much. But he wasn't going to tell Buck that.

"You think he'll be alright?" JD asked, concerned Ezra hadn't returned to his normal self yet.

"He'll get over it when he's ready." Chris replied, and took another drink of his whiskey.

"What if he doesn't?" JD asked, he had spent alot of time wondering why Ezra had expected them to let Jed kill him to get him in return. Not even Buck had an answer, just shrugged it off as delerium.

"He's a grown man JD, and he's tough. He'll pull out of this, he just misses his stuff." Buck slapped JD on the back in a comradely fashion. And since Buck seemed to believe it, so did JD.

Two weeks later, Ezra was sitting in his own bed, alone. Since the day that Jed escaped retribution, Ezra had not slept but a few hours. Images of fire plagued him, but it wasn't the fire from the campsite incident. It seemed to come from another source entirely.

Puzzled , Ezra tried to remember the nightmare that plagued him, but it eluded him. All he could remember was heat and flames and something crashing down on him. And thinking he didn't want to burn.

Nothing in his past matched up with this nightmare, so it gnawed at him, keeping him awake. Maybe it was just a manifestation of his ordeal. Nathan had thought so after Ezra had gone to him for something to help him sleep through the night. Maybe it was his secret fear of Jed coming back to torture him that was making him sweat.

Whatever it was, Ezra was ready for it to be over. He wanted to sleep more than anything, but the nightmares always haunted him now, and he couldn't seem to shake it. Sighing, he took another dose of the medicine Nathan had given him and setteled down onto the pillows. Praying for a dreamless slumber.

The End.

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