DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!
Josiah surveyed Main Street as the clomping stage rounded the bend, the team's hooves kicking up dust clouds into the dry air. He leaned his large frame against the nearest support post and watched as the driver pulled back on the reins, forcing the team to stop. "Whoa." The horses whinnied and pranced anxiously, until he pulled the brake and jumped from his seat to the hard ground.
Josiah tipped his hat at the man, receiving a nod in return. The driver pulled a large block of wood from under his seat and placed it in front of the side door before opening it. Josiah watched as the man took a lady's hand and proceeded to help her out of the coach. His face brightened and he stood up straight, brushing the dust from his poncho. Maude Standish stepped out of the carriage and looked around.
He moved forward quickly, flashing his pearly-whites at her as he offered her his arm. "You, madam, are a ray of sunshine in this dark terrain. I am truly blessed."
She took his proffered arm, offering up her practiced flirtatious smile in return. "Why... Josiah, do you welcome everyone to your quaint little town in such a delightful manner?"
"Just the rays of sunshine, ma'am."
The driver pulled luggage from the top of the coach, letting an ornate wooden chest fall to the ground with a thud. Maude swung around, her alluring countenance melting into a frown. "You be careful with that, now." She turned her attention back to Josiah, her smile re-solidified. "Josiah, could I impose upon you to carry my chest to the hotel. I'd be ever so grateful."
He grinned at her, then bent to pick up the heavy box by its two handles. "For you, anything."
She headed toward the hotel. Josiah followed close behind, grunting and straining his large arms to maintain his grip on the unwieldy box. She scanned the street, her icy cobalt eyes scrutinizing the faces that they passed and hazarding an occasional glance over her shoulder.
"What brings you to Four Corners?" Josiah asked, shifting his load to get a better look at her.
She slowed down until he was at her side then she allowed their eyes to meet. "Why this little town has so much to offer that I just can't seem to stay away." She moved ahead of him, adding more swing to her hips as she walked into the hotel.
Ezra placed his cards on the green felt and grinned at the men at the round table, exposing his gold tooth. "Read them and weep, gentlemen." His head was spinning from the sheer joy of the well-played game that topped off the near-perfect day he'd experienced. There was only one thing missing that would complete his windfall. He stole a look at the leggy redhead two tables over who was watching him operate. He met her gaze and tipped his head before turning his attention back to the men.
"Damn, that's it for me," the man to his right cursed, slapping his hand on his knee as he pushed his chair back and rose from his seat.
"Me too," his partner agreed, getting to his feet.
He looked up from his winnings then back again, his green eyes as shiny as the gold coins he had won. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, the night is young." They waved him off as they headed out the swinging doors. He sighed then pulled his winnings to his side of the table.
Keeping one hand on the coins, he turned to the voice, his eyes widening as he looked at the owner. "Mother, what are you doing here?" His high spirits crashed, landing with a thud in the pit of his stomach. "I am lacking any proprietorships for you to appropriate."
Maude huffed, placing her hands on her hips. "Now, Ezra, is that any way to greet your mother. Can't I visit my sweet baby boy without being suspect?"
He sighed, quickly gathering up his gains and shoving them into his vest pocket. "You are quite right, Mother." Standing up he quickly gave her a peck on the cheek. "You are looking well."
"Why thank you, Ezra."
As Maude sized up the room, Inez brought a shot of whiskey over and handed it to him. He frowned at her amused grin but took the offered libation and downed the shot, then handed the glass back to her in one continuous motion. "It appears that Lady Luck is no longer smilin' upon me," he muttered under his breath as he smiled at Maude when she turned her attention back to him.
Two riders stopped their mounts and took in the quiet street. The older man removed his hat and slapped it on his knee to dislodge the dust build-up, then placed it back on his head. "Look, there," the younger man whispered, pointing to the pair leaving the saloon. "Is that her, Danny?"
"Yeah." He jumped off his horse, the youngster following his lead, then quickly walked his horse to the livery. Peering around the corner, pretending to prepare his horse for boarding, he watched as the two people walked across the street then stood on the walkway, talking.
"Good night, Mother."
"Sleep tight, Darlin'," Maude said, kissing Ezra on the cheek before heading into the hotel. He stood for a second, glancing toward the livery, pursing his lips as he watched the late-night arrivals. He rubbed his thumb across his brow and tried to figure out what it was about the two that seemed so odd. Unable to see anything out of place, he tipped his hat at them then turned and walked back into the saloon, letting the doors swing shut behind him.
The older man snickered. "Billy, I got us a plan."
"Hey JD." Buck tossed his head toward the young brunette sitting in the corner. She glanced at JD, then quickly diverted her gaze only to glance at him again. "Go on over there and talk to her."
"Ah," he said around a mouth full of eggs. JD quickly washed them down with a swig of milk. He looked at her and smiled nervously as their eyes met. "I don't know, Buck. What about Casey? If she... well... she'd...."
Buck leaned back in his chair. "She ain't here." He chuckled when he saw the red color creeping onto JD's cheeks. The kid's ability to preserve his purity of heart despite their harsh life impressed the ladies' man, and when he was around Buck felt his own youth return.
"Someone would tell her and...."
"All I'm saying is when opportunity knocks a man should answer the door."
"I don't believe this." Inez moved the liquor bottles around, frowning as she rearranged them.
"Need some help there, Inez?" Buck asked, rising from his seat. He tossed his head toward the brunette again and mouthed 'go on' to JD before stepping up to the bar.
She placed her hands on her hips. "Two bottles of whiskey are missing. Someone took food from the kitchen too."
Chris Larabee pushed through the batwing doors and demanded, "Anyone seen Ezra this morning?"
"What's going on?" JD asked, the pretty brunette forgotten for the moment.
"Ezra didn't show up for his watch this morning." He stepped further into the saloon and looked around before fixing his gaze on his teammates. Once the doorway was clear, Vin entered and slouched silently by the door, his hands lazily resting on his gun belt.
Buck grinned and shook his head. "I'm not that good at arithmetic but Ezra not taking his watch and Inez missing whiskey sure add up to one hell of a hangover."
"I'm going to kill 'im," Chris said through gritted teeth, his anxiety melting into anger. Vin pulled his hat down over his face to hide his grin and JD looked nervously toward the stairs leading to the rooms above.
Inez shook her head. "Senor Standish always leaves money when he takes something from the bar. There was no money this morning."
Chris glared up the stairs, balling his fists at his sides. "I don't need Ezra acting up. We've got enough to handle with those railroad people comin' to town for their meeting." The boys had already broken up several fights between those vying for railroad money. Every time that woman comes to town there's trouble. He knew the moment he heard Maude was in town that nothing good would come of it. "JD, go haul his ass out of bed and over to the jail," Chris ordered.
JD's eyes widened and he stood up, catching his chair before it tipped over. "The jail? Why... you're not... I mean he didn't...."
"Too many breakables in here," their leader replied, lowering his head to conceal his smirk from the kid as he turned and exited the saloon. Vin slipped out behind him, leaving Buck eyeing the pretty brunette.
Maude rushed out of the hotel and hurried across the street, her dress hem held up as she dodged horses and wagons. She met Chris and Vin as they headed for the jail. Her face was flushed and she tried to catch her breath as she waved a piece of paper in front of them.
Vin chuckled at the irritation etched on Chris's face. "Mornin' ma'am,' he said, tipping his hat.
"They've taken him."
"Who?" Chris asked, sure he already knew the answer. Should've just stayed in bed, he decided, since it seemed that the day was only going to go down hill from here on out.
"My sweet baby boy. They've taken him." She brushed a strand of hair from her face. "You're the law in this town, do something."
Chris took the paper she was waving at him and read the crude scrawl. He shook his head frowning. "Says here," he told Vin, "that they have Ezra and they're going to kill him unless Mrs. Standish gives back the money she took from their boss."
"I'll check his room," Vin offered, leaving before Chris could answer him.
"Why don't you give them their money?"
"Well, I don't have his money." She frowned at him as she brought her hand up to clutch her breast. "Why are you just standing there, you ignoramus. Get him back. I'll just die if anything happens to him."
Chris's fingers twitched but his face remained expressionless. "Should've thought of that before you swindled that money, then led those men here," he told her, then turned and walked back to the saloon. A pang of guilt shot through him. Damn it, Larabee, if it'd been Vin, Buck, or any one of the others you wouldn't have waited two hours to go looking for them. Despite Ezra's shortcomings, the one thing Chris could say about the man was that he always did his job. Should've known something was wrong. Deciding he had to focus on the task at hand, he met Vin as he exited the building. Buck and JD followed, their faces drawn and their eyes downcast.
"Ezra's room's all torn up. Somebody put up a hell of a fight," Vin told him. He glanced at Maude as she approached them. "There's a lot of blood on the floor," he added, his voice barely audible.
Chris's face turned to stone, hiding the fear that roiled his gut. "JD, go to the jail and tell Josiah what's goin' on. Buck, let Nathan know we might be bringin' him some patients. Vin and I will ride out and see if we can pick up their trail." They all headed off in their respective directions, leaving Maude to stare after them.
Ezra struggled to sit up, using his legs to push himself into a sitting position against a rock. What the hell happened? he wondered, working through his clouded memory to find the answer. His shoulder burned, sending flaming tendrils down his arm. The wound, caused by a broken mirror shard was deep and continued to weep blood. The two sides of the wound rubbed together then pulled apart as he worked to free his bound wrists, which were held together behind his back by thick, coarse rope. Squinting against the sun's glare, he tried to calculate how long he had been unconscious, but the light ran through his eyes to the center of his brain, piercing his already throbbing head.
He watched the two men sitting around the fire they had created a few yards from where he'd been dropped the night before. The younger man was frying eggs while the older sipped at a coffee mug. The smell from the fire and food wafted on the breeze, causing bile to rise in his throat. Ezra swallowed, forcing it back, then closed his eyes against the nausea. Once the wave passed he opened them again and studied the outlaws, his recall of the night before returning to chase away his confusion. Don't think they participated in any of my games last night, he thought, trying to deduce why he was their captive. Realizing his present situation could have been caused by a hundred different factors, he decided it was time to find out.
"I take it by the aroma that neither of you have attended a culinary school."
"Hey, Danny, look, Mr. Fancy is awake," Billy laughed.
"If you would be so kind as to remove my encumbrance, I will make you a repast that would impress the Queen of England herself." He shifted his body to present his tied hands, suppressing a groan as he looked over his shoulder at them.
"What?" Billy asked, his brow furrowing.
"He wants us to untie 'im," Danny told the boy.
Danny's feral snarl reminded the gambler of a wild dog. "You are a smart man." Ezra flashed the man his grin.
"That's right. Too damn smart to untie you." He chuckled then added, "Just have to wait until your mama pays what she owes us."
He leaned forward, masking his delight. Now he had something to work with. "My mother is indebted to you gentlemen?"
"Well, she don't exactly owe us nothin'. It's our boss, Mr. Wilkes that she stole from," Billy answered.
"My mother is no larcenist, sir," he informed them, his voice thick with feigned indignation. "I am sure this is just a misunderstanding." He was beginning to think he could talk himself out of his situation.
"Don't know nothing about no larcenist but she took Mr. Wilkes' two-thousand dollars to invest in something but she left town with it.
Ezra laughed out loud, eliciting confused looks from his captors. That must have been some swindle. "Of course she left town, to invest Mr. Wilkes' stake in their venture. I'm sure if we go back to town she will be able to explain it all to you."
"Don't matter, Mr. Wilkes wants his money back," Danny told him, pouring out the dregs of coffee from his mug. He walked over to him and put his face in Ezra's and grinned, his breath causing another wave of nausea to sweep over the gambler. "And if she want's her 'darlin' back, then she'll pay up."
Ezra knew that even if his mother had the money she would never give it to them in exchange for himself. Wealth before Ezra. It had always been that way. A lump formed in his throat and he quickly swallowed it. He also knew his six compatriots would not come looking for him. When he didn't show up for his watch, they would surmise he had run out on them again. If he were going to be freed from his captivity, it would have to be by his own doing. Heat radiated from his shoulder and his body shivered as the breeze chilled his skin. He could feel beads of sweat forming on his brow and knew he didn't have much time before the fever was fully developed.
"Surely, you gentlemen don't expect my mother to pay full price for damaged goods." He tilted his head toward his wound for effect.
"Well, if she don't pay, you'll be dead goods... now shut the hell up," Danny barked, slamming his fist into Ezra's face to get his point across.
His head snapped back, hitting the rock behind him with a loud crack. He shook off the impending darkness and brought his head back up to meet his abductor's eyes, his own reflecting his silent challenge. "That, sir, was not necessary."
"I said shut up!" He swung his pistol up then brought it down, the butt connecting with Ezra's temple. Darkness exploded in his head and he slumped over onto the unyielding earth.
Vin hurried to where Chris waited with the horses, running in a crouch up the hill. "Two of 'em," he said, working to catch his breath.
"Ezra with them?"
Vin tipped his hat back away from his face. "Yep. Laying on the ground just outside camp." He looked away from Chris before adding, "He ain't movin'."
"Two of 'em," Chris echoed. Vin nodded his head as he mounted his horse. "Well, don't think this is gonna be a fair fight. They should've brought more men. Hiyah!" Chris urged his horse forward. Vin grinned and followed him down the hill.
The inky nothingness slowly receded, yielding to waves of pain and nausea. Ezra groaned and rolled onto his side. The contents of his stomach began to rise, the flaming acid burning its way up his throat. He struggled to his knees as he lost his meal from the night before, the bitter taste in his mouth started his stomach churning again and he worked at forming enough saliva to swallow. He tried to focus on the bleary images that were moving around the camp. Several blinks and the images cleared. His captors were busy breaking down the camp, their captive seemingly forgotten. Seeing his opportunity to escape, he got to his feet, using the rock as a support. He stumbled toward the slope, moving as fast as his physical condition and the terrain would allow.
"Hey, Danny, he's gettin' away!"
Danny swung around, his eyes narrowing as he watched him stagger through the brush. He unholstered his pistol and pursued him. Billy drew his own gun and began firing.
Ezra felt the bullet tear into his leg before the familiar pop registered in his head. Pain exploded through his body as his leg was knocked from under him. A dark figure appeared at his side, seemingly stepping out of thin air. Black cloth flapped in the breeze like the wings of the angel of death. The man grabbed him under the arm, keeping him upright.
"I got ya, pard," Chris told him, firing on the men as he kept him on his feet. Vin joined the fight, firing from above. With no cover to protect them, Ezra's captors lay on the ground within minutes of the gun battle's beginning. Chris eased him to the ground then got down on one knee to check his wound.
"Is it bad?" Vin asked as he approached, his gloomy expression voicing his opinion.
Chris turned his leg to get a better look. Ezra's panting stopped, a small grunt escaping through his gritted teeth at Larabee's touch. "Bullet's still in there," he said, beginning to work at the ropes binding the gambler's wrists.
Vin handed him his knife. "I'll ride to town and fetch Nathan."
The gambler sat up, massaging his numb hands and raw wrists. "No need. If you will assist me up onto one of those horses, I will ride back to town."
"You sure?" Chris asked, looking into his glassy eyes. Chris didn't think he looked well enough to sit up, let alone ride. His face was white and drawn. A large purple bruise covered his temple. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and his eyes didn't seem to be able to focus on his own. Ezra nodded at him. "First we gotta try and stop the bleeding. Vin, see if there's anything in them saddlebags we can use."
"Sons of bitches took my guns." The gambler's outburst stopped their movement. Chris dropped his head, letting it move back and forth and Vin's mouth quirked upward. The sharpshooter understood the feeling of vulnerability that being unarmed wrought.
"I'll look for 'em, Ezra," Vin told him, then trotted to the horses and began going through the saddlebags.
While they waited, Chris gave him some water, holding the canteen steady while Ezra eagerly swallowed the cool liquid. Chris took a look at his shoulder and the large knots on his head. The shoulder wound was pus-filled and the skin surrounding it was bright red and swollen. His shoulder was hot to the touch. Chris frowned, then glanced up to see how Vin was coming.
"I had an unfortunate altercation with my dressing mirror. The mirror won," Ezra quipped through gritted teeth.
Chris grinned, though his forehead remained creased. "Yeah. We checked your room after your mother showed us their note. She was all worked up. Called me an ignoramus."
He shook his head without thinking, causing the world to spin. He closed his eyes. "She does have a way with words."
Chris chuckled, but his expression darkened when Ezra began leaning to the right, looking as if he were going to topple. "Might be best if you lay down and rest until we're ready to ride."
"Good advice. I believe I will heed it." He eased himself to the ground, allowing his eyes to remain shut.
Chris ran his hand across his face, wishing he had brought Nathan with them. The shoulder wound was packed with dirt. Probably lying on the bare ground all night, Chris deduced, figuring Ezra had lain where Vin first spotted him. Too far from camp to benefit from the fire. Chris doubted they gave him any water either. No wonder the infection grew so quickly. He reached out, laying his hand on the gambler's forehead. The pallid skin was on fire. "Damn," he muttered under his breath.
Vin returned with his arms full of supplies. He dropped most of his find in front of Larabee then bent down, leaning back on his haunches. He touched Ezra's good shoulder. "I found your guns." He placed his gunbelt and Derringer by his side, where he could reach them.
"Much obliged," he murmured.
Chris tore up the shirts Vin had brought. "Sorry, Ezra, but I gotta move your leg again." He balled his hands into fists then reluctantly nodded to Larabee.
Chris placed a folded swatch of cloth on the wound then directed Vin to hold it in place while he got a long strip and began tightly wrapping it over the swatch and around his leg. Chris tied the strip off then repeated the process with another. Ezra groaned each time the gunslinger pulled the cloth to tighten it. By the time Chris was finished, Ezra's face was covered with a sheen of sweat.
Vin stood up, then tossed his head, indicating that he wanted Chris to follow him. "You rest a bit. Chris and I are goin' to take care of the bodies, then we can ride," Vin told Ezra as Chris rose to follow.
"He ain't gonna be able to ride back to town and goin' for a wagon is gonna take too long. I found a couple of blankets and some rope. I saw some logs up on the ridge. I think I can make something to pull him with."
Chris canted his head. "While you're doing that I'm going to load those bodies onto the horses so we can take them back with us."
Maude paced the length of her suite. The sound of gunfire drew her to the window. She watched the ensuing chaos, smiling as she observed Buck shove a dusty cowboy toward the jail. "Chris and Vin are very good at what they do. They'll find him," Mary reassured her.
"He's a good boy and has always done what I've told him to do." Until he came here, she added silently. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get him away from Four Corners and the longer he stayed the more certain she became that all the tutorage she'd given him over the years would be for naught. His talents were just wasting away. She turned away from the window. "I can't bear to think about what those dreadful men might do to him."
"I know how you feel. If anything happened to Billy, it would be unbearable, especially now that his father is gone." Mary picked up a teacup from the tray she'd brought and held it out to her. "If you don't mind my asking, what happened to Ezra's father?"
Maude waved the offer away but sat down beside her. "He died of the fever when Ezra was an itty bitty baby. The handsomest man in the whole state and his family was stinkin' rich. Well, I knew I was going to marry him the minute I laid eyes on him." She looked at Mary, the sentimentality of her grin contradicting the ferocious iciness of her eyes. "Ezra takes after his father in looks and in temperament." Why couldn't he be like me? Life would have been so much simpler, she thought, hiding her bitterness behind the practiced wistful sigh she presented to Mary. "Both had kind spirits. It was a struggle teaching Ezra to rise above his generous disposition. In our profession, one can not afford to be too generous."
Vin stepped away to study his handiwork. He had tied four logs together to form a frame then crisscrossed rope between the two vertical poles. He placed a blanket on top then tied the ends to each corner of the frame. The makeshift stretcher was secured to his saddle so that it was pulled along behind him.
"Good job," Chris complimented. "Let's get him on it. We're running out of daylight."
Vin led his horse over to Ezra. "You ready to get out of here, pard?" The gambler remained still. Vin crouched down, placing his hand on his wrist to check for a pulse. "Ezra?"
He opened his eyes, the glassy orbs trying to focus on Vin. "I am still among the livin', Mr. Tanner."
"Glad to hear it." He patted Ezra's good shoulder. "I made a stretcher for you to ride in."
He re-closed his eyes and muttered, "Good Lord." Another wave of nausea hit with strong stomach contractions. The contractions radiated from his center, sending muscle tremors rippling outward to his arms and legs. He turned his head, moaning weakly as his retching failed to yield anything from his empty belly.
Chris stood at his legs and Vin planted his feet at Ezra's shoulders. Placing his hand on the gambler's head, he apologized, "Sorry, pard, this is gonna hurt a bit but we gotta move ya." Vin lifted him at the shoulders and Chris his legs, each man trying not to jostle him too much. Bolts of pain shot from his leg and shoulder, connecting in his abdomen, his whole body set aflame by the movement. He tried to clamp his teeth together, but he wasn't able to prevent his cry from escaping. They quickly placed him on the stretcher, put a blanket on him then used the remaining rope to secure him onto the frame.
Chris led the way back to Four Corners, guiding the abductor's horses. They moved at a slow pace, avoiding the rougher terrain when possible. Vin stole intermittent glances at his passenger, every bump and jar eliciting a groan of protest from the gambler. By the time they reached the outskirts of town, the protests had stopped and Ezra became quiet.
Vin pulled up on the reins, stopping his horse. Chris moved up beside him. "Ezra," the tracker called, swiveling in his saddle to look at him. "Ezra, come on, pard, say somethin'. We're almost home." He remained still, his head lolled to the side and his arms hung limply over the stretcher like a boneless rag doll.
Chris dismounted, then bent down to look at the gambler. He placed his hand on Ezra's wrist then moved it to his forehead. After a moment he straightened up and looked at Vin, his face expressionless. "He's still breathin'. Fever's pretty bad though." He re-mounted his horse. "We better pick up the pace," he told Vin, who settled back into his saddle, then urged his horse forward at a quickened pace.
They reached Four Corners, arriving in the middle of a street brawl. A man crashed through the saloon window, landing in front of them in a shower of glass and wood splinters. JD tried to break up a fist fight taking place outside the Clarion and Josiah had a ranch-hand by the collar, hauling him toward the jail. Chris dismounted, then grabbed Buck as he ran by. "What's going on?" he asked, his eyes narrowing as he watched the chaos in the streets.
"The whole town's gone loco!" Buck told him, shouting to be heard over the commotion. "That meeting's brought every lowlife for 50 miles slithering into town." He looked over at Vin, who was unhooking his contraption from his horse. "Damn," he whistled, looking at Ezra's pale, glistening face and blood covered clothes.
"Buck, where's Nathan?" Chris asked.
"In his clinic. With all this fuss, he's been pretty busy."
"Help Vin get Ezra over there." Chris watched the free-for-all for a moment then walked into the center of the street and fired his gun in the air. The activity stopped and everyone turned to look at him. "Go home! I want this street cleared. Now!" Fingers and eyes twitched, everyone waiting to see who would move first. Chris demanded again, "Go home!"
JD ran over to Buck, making his way through the grumbling people who were reluctantly returning to their homes or businesses. His eyes widened as he took in his injured friend's condition. He bent down beside him. "Ezra."
"He can't hear ya, JD," Vin told him. "Fever's done took hold."
"Is he going to be all right?" JD asked.
"I don't rightly know," Vin answered, not meeting JD's eyes. "I guess Nathan can tell us that once he gets a look at 'im." He'd seen fever bury some of the strongest men he'd known. Vin knew Ezra was a good fighter, but he looked so fragile laying on the stretcher. "Hope ya got an ace up your sleeve now, pard," he prayed, knowing that Ezra always had some trick he'd pull out at the last second.
"Hey, kid, why don't you go tell Maude they found him. Mary said she's worried sick," Buck told him, giving JD something to do while he grabbed one end of the stretcher and Vin took the other.
Nathan was finishing bandaging a man's arm when they brought Ezra to him. "I want to check it in a few days," he told the man, quickly ushering him out of the cramped room. He cleared off the bed and motioned for them to place him on it. "Was he like this when you found him?" he asked, carefully removing the wrappings on his wound.
"No," Vin answered, slouching against the wall. "When we got there, he tried to get away and they shot him. He was awake until we reached the ridge outside of town."
Nathan ripped his shirt open further and examined the shoulder. His brow furrowed when he touched the reddened flesh around the wound. "First I got to remove that bullet, then clean this shoulder. You two gonna have to hold him down."
JD escorted Maude to Nathan's clinic. They heard Ezra's muffled screams before they reached the door. Maude shoved past him and flung open the door. Vin stood over Ezra, holding his upper body down, Buck held his legs, and Nathan was pouring alcohol into the gaping laceration on his shoulder to flush out the dirt and infection. The three of them looked up at her and JD, who stared wide-eyed at their patient.
"Oh," Maude exclaimed, her mouth agape as she watched Ezra's arching body collapse to the bed. Vin and Buck struggled to hold him down as he thrashed about, calling out in his fever dream. She turned back to JD, her poker face in place. "Did you say you have the cockroaches that did this?"
JD shifted from one foot to the other, glancing at Buck before pulling his attention back to her. "Yes, ma'am. Undertaker's got 'em."
"Good." She watched Ezra twist and buck, his body trying to escape from imaginary demons. Damn you, Ezra, she silently railed. You're going to run out on me just like your father. Go then, but I'm not going to stand here and watch. She realized that the men were staring at her and ran her hand across her hair as if checking to see that her hair was in place. Appearances, she reminded herself. "I will be in my suite at the hotel or at the saloon. See that you advise me of any changes in his condition, you hear."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll make sure you know how he's doin'," Nathan told her.
"You take good care of my sweet baby boy." Vin and Buck exchanged looks, not sure what to make of her lack of reaction.
"I'll do my best, ma'am."
She bowed her head at Vin and Buck. "Gentlemen." She turned and left.
Buck shook his head. "I just don't understand that lady." Nathan went back to work cleaning out the shoulder wound. "She rants and raves about some shot-up hotel room but her own son's laying here half dead and... nothin'."
JD wiped his hand across his face. "I don't know, Buck. When I went to get her, she looked like she might a been crying. She made me wait outside for a few minutes. When she came back she looked fine. I think she's just trying to keep up appearances, is all."
"You might be right, JD," Buck conceded, looking at Ezra's pale, contorted face. But a good mother wouldn't have cared about appearances, he thought, knowing his own mother wouldn't have left his bedside, even if they had a hundred men pulling on her all at once.
"Buck, hold him still," Nathan barked. "I'm just about finished." Buck put his mind on the task at hand, leaving JD to stand waiting for the healer's prognosis.
Chris sat on the chair he'd put on the walkway outside of the jail. He chewed on a cheroot while he watched the town's activity wind down for the evening. He glanced at Nathan's clinic. Vin and Buck sure been in there a long time, he thought. He remembered the inflamed shoulder wound and bowed his head, blond strands falling to block his face. Movement within his peripheral vision caught his attention and he raised his head. A well-groomed man in an expensive suit had exited the hotel and was headed toward him. Chris shifted in his chair and waited for the trouble he knew the railroad representative was bringing him.
"Are you in charge here?" the man asked, looking up at the jail sign.
Chris removed the cigar from his mouth, blowing a puff of smoke into the air. "Yeah, I'm the law around here."
"Someone tried to break into my hotel room last night."
"Did you see who it was?"
"No. I didn't open the door." The man exhaled in an agitated puff
"Any damage to the door?"
"Well... no. They rattled the door for a time then they left."
"Probably someone had too much to drink. I'll keep a look out but I don't think you'll have any more trouble." He looked up and down the street, frowning at Maude as she came out of the saloon.
"I can't wait until tomorrow so we can leave this territory," the man mumbled to himself. He saw Maude, a beet red blush spreading across his face as she headed for the hotel. "Stop right there!" he shouted, stepping in front of her to block her passage. "I want her arrested."
"What are you doing here, you weasel?"
Chris threw down his cheroot and stomped it out, then stepped off the walkway. "You two know each other?"
"This... this woman stole two thousand dollars from me," he explained, his animated hands emphasizing his words. Chris's face lit up as the puzzle pieces began to fall into place.
Maude huffed at him then turned to Chris. "Chris, I did not take his money. Why, he gave it to me to invest in a casino in New Orleans." She smiled at Chris, using her most charming mask.
He turned to the railroad representative. "That right?"
The man wrung his hands. "Yes, but she left town as soon as she got the money. I was left without a signed contract and no assurance that she would return."
"So you hired a couple of men to find her." Chris's expression hardened and he let his hand drop to rest on his holstered pistol.
"How do you know that?" He shifted from one foot to the other.
"Your men kidnapped Mrs. Standish's son, who also happens to be a lawman in this town, and they held him for ransom. He got hurt when they took 'im. Then they shot him when he tried to escape." Chris glared at the man, holding eye contact with him, until the railroad man broke it to steal a glance at Maude.
"He isn't.... I didn't tell them to...."
"Not yet, but you better stay in town for a few more days. If he dies, you're an accessory to murder." The corners of Maude's mouth quirked up and she straightened her spine, making herself appear taller.
"You got proof you invested his money?" Chris asked, his voice harsh and demanding. How could she gloat when they were talking about her son dying? You're not going to get away with any con this time, he promised, the image of Ezra, limp and sweat drenched laying on Vin's stretcher vividly sharp in his mind.
She smiled at him but her eyes narrowed as she reached into her purse. "Why, the deed to the property is right here, darlin'." She pulled out a folded piece of paper.
"Give it to him."
She squeezed the paper in her hand. "We had a deal. I expect Mr. Wilkes to honor his part. He will be repaid once the casino starts to show a profit."
"Give it to him, unless you'd rather sit in the jail until Judge Travis comes back. He can settle your dispute." A hint of a smile brushed his lips and he raised an eyebrow.
"How dare you threaten to put me in jail while this despicable man is allowed to walk around free as a bird. Why Ezra considers you his friends, I'll never know."
Chris's hand snapped forward, snatching her arm, then he began pulling her to the jailhouse. "Let's go."
She pulled away from him, then straightened her dress with a quick tug on the fabric. "All right. Here, take it." She threw the paper to Mr. Wilkes. "It won't last six months without me running it."
He picked up the deed and started to shove it in his jacket pocket. "Thank you."
Wilkes opened the paper and read it. "It's the deed, all right."
"Well, of course it's the deed. What did you think it was, a letter to Ezra? I believe you gentlemen owe me an apology."
Chris fixed his ice blue gaze on her for a moment then turned back to Mr. Wilkes. "Best if you go back to your room for the night. I'll let you know when you can leave town."
Wilkes thanked him again then, glaring one more time at Maude, headed for the hotel. Maude sighed. "Unless you still intend on incarcerating me, I am going to the saloon. I find myself in need of a new investor."
"You're free to go, but I don't want any more trouble," he commanded, then turned to head toward Nathan's when he saw Buck coming out of the clinic. His face was pale and his shirt was stained with blood. Chris covered the distance between them in a few quick steps. "How's Ezra doin'?"
"Not too good. He lost a lot of blood. His shoulder's infected. Nathan said if he can't stop it he'll have to take his arm, shoulder and all."
"Damn," Chris muttered under his breath.
"Yeah. They hit him in the head a couple of times. Not sure what kind of problems those bumps are gonna cause. Ezra's out of his head with the fever. Yelling all sorts of stuff like he's relivin' the war."
Chris ran his hand across his face. "I need a drink. Want to join me?" He took a cheroot from his pocket and lit it.
"Lead the way, pard."
"Don't leave me," little Ezra begged, following his mother to the carriage. "I won't spoil your game again. I promise."
She stopped and looked down at him. "Darlin', we discussed this. It's best that you stay with your Uncle Cyrus for a while. I'll write and tell you all about New Orleans."
He clung to the hem of her dress. "Momma, please don't leave me."
He held on tighter as strong hands pulled him from her. "A proper gentleman does not beg," his uncle lectured. "Now run along and let your mother be on her way." Ezra looked up at the mean looking man. Until his mother brought him here, he'd never met him or his wife. He sniffled, then turned and watched as she got in the carriage and rode away.
"Come on, boy. Your tutor is waiting. Your mother may have allowed your impropriety, but in this house you will learn manners and the proper way to behave," Cyrus told him, as he walked back to the main house.
Ezra followed behind him, his head hung down, watching his feet as he walked. Next time I'll do just what momma says so she won't leave me again, he vowed, looking one last time at the carriage in the distance.
Chris entered Nathan's clinic. "How's he doin'," he asked, watching Ezra thrash back and forth on the bed. Vin moved toward the door, allowing Chris to stand by the window. They locked eyes for a moment, then Vin hung his head moving it from side to side.
"Not too good. Fever's real high. I'm havin' a hard time keeping him still. He's reopened his wounds a couple of times."
"Mama, don't leave me," Ezra called out, lost in his fever induced delusion. "I won't spoil your game again." Nathan wrung out the wet rag and placed it on his brow then looked at Chris and shook his head.
Chris bowed his head as Ezra called out for his mother again. "She been by here at all?"
"Just that one time, when Buck and Vin brought him in. Ain't been back since," Nathan answered him, pursing his lips as he held the struggling Ezra in the bed.
"I got somethin' I got to do," Vin said, leaving the room before either man could question him.
Maude answered the insistent knock on her room door and was greeted by Vin Tanner. "Ezra?" she asked, her eyes widening. Oh, Ezra, she thought reasoning that the only reason he would come for her was if he had taken a turn for the worst or if he...had died. You've caused me nothing but pain and heartache. She thought angrily, his betrayal cutting her to the quick. She shoved her emotions away, calling up her poker face for him.
"Same. Fever's real high. Sorry to bother ya, ma'am, it's just that the five of us been real busy with the town in an uproar and all and, well...." She allowed a small frown to peek through and shifted her weight from one hip to the other. "Nathan needs to get somethin' to eat and some rest but he can't leave Ezra unless someone offers to watch him while he's gone."
She inclined her head when she realized what he was asking. "And you want me to sit with him?" Vin gave his head a small nod. "What about Mrs. Travis? Couldn't she attend to him?" Maude focused on slowing her pounding heartbeat. She had seen Ezra when they brought him in. He looked so much like his father before he died of a high fever. I won't watch that again, she knew it was one pain she could not endure.
"No, ma'am," Vin said, his eyes narrowing. She's his momma, he thought, how could she refuse to sit with him. He looked into her cold blue eyes, searching for some flash to show that she cared.
"I... well it pains me too much to see my baby boy so ill. I just can't bear it," she answered. The one thing Maude Standish had learned in life was to avoid discomforts. When her parents died, leaving her a homeless orphan, she discovered that pain was something to be avoided. She decided that she had to concern herself with comfort and the money it took to ensure that comfort.
"Ezra needs you to take care of him. Seems to me a mother ought to put her kids 'fore herself." He turned and slowly walked down the hall toward the stairs, leaving her staring after him, her mouth agape.
Ezra felt the wet cloth placed on his brow and a hand press it against his skin, its coolness momentarily chasing away the fever's burn. A dull ache throbbed in his leg and his shoulder burned as if a branding iron had been employed during his insensibility. He slowly opened his eyes, groaning at the piercing light that greeted him. He blinked a few times to adjust to the unwelcome brightness. He groaned again and closed his eyes when Maude's smiling face came into view.
"Lordy, I never thought you were ever going to wake up. You have been raving and prattling for three days."
"Mother." He tried to sit up but his weakened muscles trembled in protest and he collapsed back onto his pillow. "What are you doing here?" When he felt the cloth being placed on his brow he assumed it was Nathan or Mary ministering to him. Nursing one back to health was not one of his mother's strong points. When he was a child and fell ill, she would leave his care to whoever volunteered. Her face was the last one he expected to see upon his return to awareness.
"Why, where else would I be, Darlin' but taking care of my baby boy?" She removed the cloth, dipping it in the water-filled basin then returning it to his brow. She poured water from the pitcher on the nightstand into a glass. "Do you want some water?" He nodded and lifted his head. She held his head up with one hand while putting the glass to his lips with the other. She slowly turned it up, allowing him to take small sips until he had drained the glass.
"To what do I owe your sudden change of... character? Attending to the needs of the ill has never been one of your... talents."
"Yes... well... I feel partly responsible for your present predicament," she admitted.
"Partly mother?" Ezra sighed then closed his eyes, his energy draining away with his effort to figure out her scheme. He was sure she wasn't at his bedside out of any maternal instincts or guilt. Guilt is best left to puritans and losers, she once told him.
She frowned at him as she removed the cloth, then placed her hand on his forehead to gauge his temperature. "Ezra, what am I to do with you. You are acting as if I shot you with my own hands."
He half-opened one eye and squinted at her. "Where is Mr. Jackson? I believe that I would be better served with his ministrations." The dull pain in his leg was developing a sharp edge and his stomach protested against the water it held.
"He went to the saloon for a repast. I don't know why this town doesn't engage a real doctor."
His lids flew open, his green orbs looking up at her in admonishment. "Mr. Jackson is quite capable of attending to the town's needs. The fact that I am here to have this discussion with you is proof of that."
"Yes. And I intend to thank him for his efforts. I don't know what I'd do if anything ever happened to you." She kissed his forehead and smiled down at him.
He forced down the lump in his throat. He wished she was sincere but he knew if he died she would act the proper mourner then move on to the first mark that came her way. He allowed his lids to slide shut, his remaining strength draining away. "I have enjoyed our little discourse, mother, but I believe it's best if I get my rest."
"Of course, dear. I will be here when you wake."
"Lovely," he muttered, the sarcastic sting lost in his weak voice. Maude dipped the cloth in the water bowl again, wrung it out and, as she'd done many times over the past three days, placed it on his forehead. She then settled back in her chair, picked up her needlework and began stitching.
Ezra gritted his teeth and leaned on Nathan as they slowly descended the stairs. The gambler stopped on the last step, turned his face skyward and closed his eyes, the warm sunshine a welcome pleasure on his pale skin. He enjoyed the warmth for a moment, then allowed Nathan to guide him onto the walkway. Stubble darkened his usually clean-shaven face, his neatly preened hair was disheveled and oily. One side of his suspenders hung beside his sling-bound injured shoulder and his white shirt wasn't tucked into his pants. His gun belt hung low on his hip. Nathan had wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, despite his protest, agreeing only when the healer threatened to keep him inside another day.
Ezra smiled at the usual town bustle, the energy of people on the move enlivening his spirit. Nathan steered him toward the chair that he'd placed outside the building. Laughter drifted from the saloon, drawing the gambler's attention. His eyes sparkled for the first time since he'd been kidnapped and he cocked his head. He ached to play a hand or two, to hear the clink of the coins as they hit the table, and to see the surprised looks as he revealed the winning hand. God, how it gnawed at his gut unmercifully. JD stopped by frequently during his recuperation and they played a few hands, but without a stake the game held none of the excitement he'd grown accustomed to experiencing. He caught Nathan's gaze and flashed his gold tooth. "It is a mere step or two...."
The healer gave his head a vigorous shake. "No. Now, Ezra, we done talked about this. You still got a little fever and it won't take much to fire it up again. You start gamblin' and get yourself excited over some winnings, you'll forget to look out for them wounds and all that work I did will be for nothing." He felt Ezra lean on him a little more, his few minutes of activity tiring him. He guided his patient into the chair. "You're gonna sit here and take it easy."
He leaned back in the chair and watched the patrons enter and exit the saloon. "I suppose you're right." He watched the activity for a moment more, then turned to Nathan. "I would be obliged if you would bring me a glass of water. The dry desert air and all."
Nathan's brow furrowed and watched as Ezra stole a furtive glance at the swinging batwing doors. He'll be at those tables before I got the pitcher in my hands, he thought. He spotted Buck headed their way, his light bouncing steps complementing the content smile on his face. Nathan motioned for him.
He stopped by Ezra's chair and whistled as he shook his head. "Damn, Ezra, you look like something Miss Ellie's cat dragged out of the brush and chewed on for a spell."
"I was beaten, pistol-whipped, stabbed, and shot. What justification might you offer?" He tilted his head and grinned.
Buck chuckled and tipped his hat. "I tell you what, I thought you were a goner." He leaned his hip on the railing. "Glad you decided to stick around. I would have missed your ugly cuss." Ezra turned his face away to look down the street. He didn't know how to respond to Buck's open admission. Mercifully, Nathan saved him from having to figure it out.
"Buck, can you watch him till I get back? Don't let him get outta that chair."
"I don't need a nursemaid. I am quite capable of sitting in a chair," Ezra returned, but his attention was on the stagecoach and Josiah as he helped Maude load her chest onto it. His face fell and his eyes darkened as he watched her laughing at something Josiah had said. "What is she doing?"
Buck and Nathan followed his gaze. "Didn't Maude tell you she was leaving today?" Buck asked, his own grin losing its lightness.
"No. I'm afraid my mother has seen fit to leave me in the dark concerning her departure." A heaviness centered on his chest, choking him. She told him she'd be there when he woke but she wasn't. Never has been, he told himself, realizing that she never returned to his bedside. Maude and Josiah made their way over to them, provoking a frown from him. Buck pulled his hat down a bit, shielding his eyes, and Nathan excused himself and went back inside.
"Why Ezra, it does my heart good to see you up and about. Although you could have made an effort to make yourself a little more presentable."
"Leaving?" He cocked his head and met her eyes. Of course she is. Probably ran out of marks and I'm of no use to her in my present condition, he thought bitterly.
Nathan watched the conversation from the window, his brow furrowing when Ezra's shoulders drooped. What is that woman up to now, he thought, moving back out of sight so that he could peek through the curtain without being seen.
Maude continued to smile at him. "Now that my little problem has been solved and you are on the road to recovery, I see no need to stay."
"I do wish you'd change your mind. This town will be darker without your light to brighten it," Josiah told her, his face flushed and his eyes shining with his desire.
"Well thank you, Josiah, but I thought I'd go back east for a while. Atlanta is delightful this time of year."
"Yes, well, have a nice trip, mother." Ezra produced a deck of cards he'd secreted within his clothes and placed them on his thigh, then cut the deck. He picked up the cut deck then began shuffling the cards from the front to the back, using the slender fingers of his free hand to move the cards.
She watched his display of dexterity for a moment, then frowned and clucked her tongue. "Ezra, I worry about you. You're losing your edge."
He looked up from the deck and saw Buck trying to hide his amusement behind his hat. "Excuse us, gentlemen, but this is a private matter."
Buck's face reddened and he stood up straight. "Uh... yeah... okay. I'll be over at the saloon. Now don't you get out of that chair or Nathan 'll have my hide."
"Rest assured I wouldn't dream of bringing the wrath of Mr. Jackson to bear on your hide."
"Well, okay then." He tipped his hat at Maude. "Ma'am." He ambled across the street, shaking his head as he disappeared through the saloon doors. Josiah discreetly disappeared around the corner.
Ezra turned to her, his green eyes afire. "I am losing my edge. This was your swindle, mother. I was merely an innocent bystander in this debacle."
Her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned. "Before you came to this town those men would never have been able to catch you off guard. You've gone soft."
He turned his attention back to his cards, his anger fizzling out. He knew she was right. He had let his guard down, had grown comfortable in Four Corners. He trained his eyes on the deck in his hand, rubbing his fingers over the smooth pasteboard. He had disappointed her. Always did. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't win her approval or her love. He would always be a waste of her efforts. She would never understand that, for once in his life, he felt a part of something. Felt like he belonged.
"When you're well enough, join me in Atlanta. We could go to Richmond. You always loved Richmond." He bowed his head and slowly moved it side to side. "Just think of the ventures we could run together. Return to our former glory."
The features on his face lightened as he recalled memories of past scams. When they were running cons he had her attention and sometimes, when he was younger, he even believed she loved him as much as he loved her. He looked up at her and smiled. "The offer is tempting... but I have a considerable amount of time and effort invested in my ruse in this town, and I intend to stay to collect the payoff," he told her, offering his usual excuse for not joining her.
The stagecoach driver announced that he was leaving. "I have to go, Darlin'. Give your mother a kiss." She bent down and he gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
"Take care and do be more careful in your dealings."
She waved at him then headed to the coach. The man helped her on and Ezra watched as it drove away. He blinked several times, clearing away the moisture rimming his eyes. He released a slow melancholy sigh, then leaned back in the chair and watched the daily life transpiring before him. He waved at JD as the boy headed to the jail to relieve Chris, then looked back at his cards when he remembered that he was the one JD should have been relieving.
Nathan came out and handed him a glass of water. "Much obliged." He stared into the liquid, as if there were some truths to be gleaned from its depths.
Nathan touched his shoulder. "You tirin'? Maybe you best come back inside and lay down for a spell."
Ezra looked into the water for one beat then turned and grinned at him. "Care to make a little wager? You win and I will return to my sick bed."
"And if you win?" Nathan asked, his eyes narrowing.
Ezra's face lit up and he flashed Nathan his endearing grin as he inclined his head toward the saloon.
Nathan rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I done told you at least a dozen times. If you ain't the most headstrong..." Nathan lectured him, oblivious to the content smile that warmed Ezra's face.
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