|Through Hell and High Water
Author: Lissa Grinstead PM
A piece of Ezra's past comes back to haunt him, as events in town begin to repeat themselves. Can the cycle be broken in time?Rated: Fiction T - English - Western/Angst - Ezra S. & Casey W. - Words: 11,000 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 5 - Follows: 1 - Published: 11-20-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4667241
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Ezra smiled at Catherine. He couldn't quite hear what she was saying, but it made him laugh. It always did. The light reflected off her fiery hair. He wanted to take her in his arms, but he never did...and he didn't know why.
A laugh...a sudden scream...and Catherine was gone.
"No!" Ezra screamed.
A loud noise awakened Ezra. He sat up, momentarily disoriented...and realized that he'd called out in his sleep. It was that dream. He knew, without looking at a calendar, he knew. Today was the anniversary: the anniversary of what was almost the best week of his life.
He tried rolling over and going back to sleep.
Ezra walked out of the hotel to the church. There was nothing happening; no damsels in distress, no cattle ranchers requiring instruction on the proper application of property boundaries, no bandits shooting up the town. He desperately needed something, anything, to take his mind off of Catherine. And if that required engaging in menial labor for the duration, then he would do so.
Josiah looked up as he entered the church. "You lost, Ezra?"
Ezra gave Josiah a wan smile, "In a manner of speaking. I'm here to offer you my services."
Josiah stared at him. "Don't need no card tricks today."
Ezra sighed. "Perhaps I was mistaken," he said as he looked around the church. "I was under the impression that you were attempting to effect some repairs to this edifice."
Josiah shrugged, then pointed to a toolbox. "Tools of the trade."
Ezra nodded and picked up a stripper. He went to work removing paint from a windowsill.
"You, uh, care to talk about it, Ezra?"
"Not really." Ezra spoke softly.
Josiah looked at him a moment and then nodded.
Ezra concentrated on the wood and tried to clear his mind.
The rain came down as sheets of water, blanketing the landscape. The downpour was constant, unending, relentless. It was so thick that he could barely see the nose on the horse. Hopefully, the horse was better equipped with visual acuity. He knew that the poor beast should not be out in this weather; he shouldn't either.
Granted, he hadn't exactly had a choice in the matter when he'd left Smithstown. It was either ride in the rain, or experience the rather unpleasant effects of tar and feather. Right now, however, he was considering their particular merits. At least he'd be warm, and probably waterproof.
Over and over he promised he would never, ever ride in weather like this again. Ever.
Ezra barely heard the lightning...and was surprised when he felt the sudden weight of a large object...a tree...fall on him.
Ezra awoke a while later; it was impossible to tell how much time had passed. He was lying in mud and being pelted by water. His leg was trapped under tree and horse. As his awareness came more into being, he could hear the labored breathing of the animal.
"Good lord," he whispered. The poor animal was still alive and, worse, was injured.
He moved as much as he could, and managed to release one of his weapons. He aimed the gun at the horse's head and fired. No need for both of them to suffer.
Ezra tried to move from under the horse, but he couldn't. His head hurt. If he could just rest a few minutes, he knew he'd be fine.
The next time he awoke it was dark outside. It was still raining, and Ezra could feel the rise of the water around him. He felt as though he were lying in water. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the water had indeed pooled on the land around him. Momentarily, he thought about the possibility that he might drown if he did not move, but he needed to rest before trying to think about what to do. Later, he would think about it.
He dreamt that he was on a soft bed. He felt a cloth being applied to his face, and he opened his eyes slowly. An angel: The vision before him was just that. An angel, with lustrous auburn hair and brilliant green eyes, was looking at him. She smiled.
"Hello," she whispered softly. But Ezra barely heard it as he drifted back to oblivion.
Josiah shooed Ezra out of the church, hating that he was sending the man to pursue his demons alone, but also needing to get him out before he inflicted more damage. Already, Ezra had destroyed a windowsill, a pew, and four floorboards. Ezra was appropriately apologetic, but Josiah would not doubt him the next time he said that he was not made for "honest labor."
Granted, Josiah could tell that something was bothering him. However, Josiah also knew Ezra well enough to know that he revealed nothing unless he wanted to do so.
"Heck, Ezra's even more closed off than Chris. And a more ornery cuss than Chris Larabee I never did meet," Josiah said to the walls.
Ezra had known the memories would be bad this year. They were always bad, but he had known they would be worse, harder to deal with this time, than ever before.
Ezra was not exactly sure when precisely it was he recognized this place. Whether it was during a poker game when he felt an unshakable sense of deja-vu, or whether it was when Maude had refinished the hotel. The awareness wasn't something that came upon him immediately. It was more like a gradual invasion. First a flicker of a thought here, then a small remembrance there. But nothing concrete. Ezra didn't have to acknowledge that he knew something deep inside him was saying. "It was here. You were here."
Ezra noticed Nettie Wells had come into town and was leaving the grocer's. He went over to her. "Afternoon, Mrs. Wells," he stated as he took her purchases and began to escort her to her wagon.
She stood back and looked at him appraisingly. "Young man, you got something bothering you, it's best ta just get it out and dealt with. Simmerin' and brewin's only good for cookin' food, not a man's thoughts."
Ezra smiled at her, but that smile did not reach his eyes. "You're quite right, madam. However, I assure you that nothing is troubling me."
"Uh hunh. Well, why don't you come out? I got apples need pickin', and you'll get a homemade meal for your trouble," she stated.
Ezra considered it a moment. "I'd be honored to assist you, madam." He put the groceries down in the back of the wagon. "Allow me to retrieve my steed and I shall join you presently."
Nettie put her hand on his arm and looked into his eyes. "Son, now I know somethin's troublin' you."
He looked away, quite uncomfortable. "It's nothing at all, I assure you."
"If you say so," she said and turned to get into the wagon. Ezra offered her his assistance. Then he went and retrieved Ace. A few moments later he joined back up with her.
Nettie yelled into the jail. "KC, you git on out here...we're headin' back."
The young lady came out of the sheriff's office with a sheepish grin on her face. JD looked on after her. "Well, you gonna just stand there moonin' over him, or are you gonna invite Mr. Dunne to dinner?"
A smile split KC's face and she turned to JD. "Would you?"
Ezra almost laughed when JD blushed and stammered out a quiet "yes." Almost, but not quite.
Nettie immediately put Ezra to work picking apples when they got there. Ezra took his jacket and hung it on a fence post and looked at his watch. It was barely 1 o'clock. He picked a few apples.
The next time he opened his eyes, he saw the angel once again.
"Nice to see you're with us," she said, in a soft musical voice.
Ezra nodded. He was glad he was too. He looked around. A stagecoach? The sounds of the coach as it moved across the road and the feeling of movement assured him that this was real. Ezra tried to sit up, but the angel put a hand on his shoulder.
"You just rest a bit more, sir. You have a pretty bad bump on your head."
"Ezra Sanders," he said.
"I'm most pleased," Ezra mumbled as he closed his eyes, "to make your acquaintance, Miss O'Malley."
When next Ezra woke up, he felt much better and actually more alert than he had for a while. Catherine was sitting across from him, next to the other passenger, an older woman. He assumed she must be a chaperone. When he looked at the other woman, Catherine smiled.
"Mr. Sanders, this is Miss O'Donnell."
Ezra nodded and started to move to sit up. Before he did, he realized that some of his apparel had been removed.
The two women were the only other people in the coach. He looked at them cautiously, then finally spoke. "Where are my clothes?"
Catherine spoke up. "Driver came across a fallen tree on the path. When he moved it, we found you. Good thing too, Mr. Sanders. You were pretty wet. Mr. Carter, that's the driver, got that blanket and put you in here."
It had not answered his question, but she continued, "Your clothes were dry about an hour ago. They are folded on the floor beside you."
He looked at them, noting that his shirt and jacket had been folded neatly. The ladies averted their eyes, allowing him to put on his shirt without embarrassing them.
The jacket, however, was a complete wash. He held it up in distaste; the light-gray was caked with red clay mud. It had been his favorite jacket.
Catherine looked back at him and smiled. "Ruined, isn't it?"
"Yes, I'm afraid it is. However, dear lady, I am, nonetheless, indebted to you for keeping me from ruin as well."
The coach began to slow down, and Ezra looked out the window as the first structures of a town came into view. After a moment, the coach stopped.
Mr. Carter opened the door. "Night's stop everyone." He looked at Ezra. "You ride tomorrow; you pay."
Ezra nodded at the man in understanding. "Pray tell, what municipality have we reached this evening?"
"Bitter Creek," the driver said.
Ezra thanked the man and gathered his saddle bag from atop the coach. The women waited for their nightcases and watched as the rest of their bags were placed in the coach office. Ezra hated not offering to carry their bags, but he was feeling a bit weak still. Nonetheless, he owed these ladies something.
"Would you ladies care to join me for dinner this evening in the local eating establishment?"
Catherine smiled, "Allow us to think on that, Mr. Sanders." He could tell by her eyes that it was a yes. But for form's sake, and that of Miss O'Donnell, she wouldn't come right out and say so.
He nodded his head and smiled at her as they walked to the hotel. Before they parted company, Ezra said, "I shall be dining at 7 of the clock, my dear, in case your thoughts do favor me."
She smiled charmingly and nodded once before heading to her room.
"Hey Ezra!" KC shouted up the tree, startling him.
Ezra started to fall out of the tree, but caught himself. The basket he was using to hold the apples fell. After he steadied himself, he looked down at her. "How may I be of service, Miss Wells?"
She looked at him. "You sure ain't picked many apples." KC bent down and began to pick up the apples he'd just dropped.
"Haven't," he corrected absently. Then he looked at her again and took out his watch: It was 3 o'clock. He had picked less than thirty apples in two hours.
She nodded. "Well, you haven't picked many apples then. And these are all bruised up."
Mentally, Ezra added 30 apples to his tally. He could not pay attention today. And he knew it was only going to get worse.
Nettie came up as KC finished picking up Ezra's bruised apples. She looked into the tree. "Ezra, why don't you come on down from there before you fall."
As much as Ezra resented being spoken to as one speaks to a child, he knew that Nettie cared. She was a brusque woman, not one to mince words. He climbed down the tree. "My apologies, madam," he said as he headed to his horse.
"Just where do you think your goin? You ain't had your supper." Nettie stated.
"Back to town. The arrangement required that I pick apples. As you can see, I have not fulfilled my portion of the bargain."
She put her hands on her hips. "Ezra Standish, if you think I'm gonna allow a man who came out here to help me go home without his promised dinner, you have another think coming."
Ezra could not help but smile at her. "Thank you, Mrs. Wells. However, my honor demands that I provide you with assistance."
Nettie looked at KC, who shrugged. "KC wanted to go riding, and I won't let her go by herself. The area's a mite dangerous."
He caught an angry look from KC to Nettie. But neither KC nor Ezra would ever dare question Nettie on this.
"I'd be happy to provide the lady an escort," Ezra said. He felt just a bit mollycoddled. Nettie needed KC to help her prepare the dinner. But she was trying to make him feel useful.
KC went to saddle her horse, after throwing Nettie another look. Nettie just looked at him and smiled one of her all-knowing smiles.
KC rode silently beside Ezra. After a while, his thoughts drifted back to Catherine.
At 7 o'clock, Catherine walked into the restaurant, radiant in an emerald greed dress. Ezra stood up and moved to pull a chair out for her. "Thank you, my dear, for coming to my aid earlier today." He was glad that Miss O'Donnell was not with her.
Catherine's eyes glinted in the light, and he thought her beautiful.
"Where are you and Miss O'Donnell headed?" he asked.
"San Francisco. My uncle lives out there."
"I've always intended to visit San Francisco. Would you object if I joined you on the remainder of your journey?" He knew the question was bold, but he had nothing really to lose. He had been heading to San Francisco in a roundabout manner anyway. Besides, right now, he had no horse.
"Not at all, Mr. Sanders."
"Please, call me Ezra."
Catherine smiled at him. "And you must call me Catherine."
"It would be an honor, my dear."
They chatted pleasantly with one another while waiting for the dinner to arrive. Ezra enjoyed her company immensely. She was intelligent and beautiful. He was sorry when the night was over and he had to escort her to her room, for he wanted to spend more time with her.
As they stood outside her room, Ezra took her hand in his and held it for a moment before bringing it to his lips and placing a kiss on it. "My dear, I have enjoyed this evening immensely. Until the morrow."
"Until then, Ezra," she said with a smile, then went into the room. After she shut the door behind her, Ezra stood there a long moment and looked after her. Then, with a shake of his head, he left the hotel and headed to the saloon.
The next morning, he escorted the ladies to the stage. The entire day, which would ordinarily have been a blur of boredom, went by in an auburn dream. Catherine was charming and proved to be an excellent traveling companion. Miss O'Donnell, whose name he'd discovered was Fiona, was quiet and circumspect.
At the same time, she was fiercely protective of Catherine. He could tell that Miss O'Donnell did not trust him. But he knew it was not just him. She treated any man near Catherine in much the same manner.
If he had not enjoyed Catherine's presence so much, he would have found the posturing humorous. Ezra would ask Catherine a question, and Miss O'Donnell would answer it for her. He was surprised that she had allowed Catherine to join him for dinner unescorted last night.
When the stage stopped, he took Catherine's hand while Miss O'Donnell was getting their nightcase. "Join me for dinner," he implored.
"I don't know, Ezra," she answered softly.
"Think on it."
Her answer was a
smile. But at seven p.m. that night, she walked into the
Ezra shook out of his memories as KC virtually shouted at him. "I asked you a question, Ezra!"
He looked at her. "Pray, repeat the question my dear. My thoughts were elsewhere."
"That's obvious," she said derisively and rolled her eyes. Then curiosity took over. "What about?"
He shook his head. "The woman I loved."
"Did ya marry her?" she asked, smiling.
He shook his head.
"Well, ya should've then!" A moment later a bit of regret came into her eyes. "Why didn't you?"
"It's too nice a day to tell of it, my dear. And you are far too young to hear the story."
"I ain't all that young!" KC took off in a storm of dust. Ezra vaguely noticed the surroundings and realized that this was where he'd found Catherine. He charged after KC. Nettie had said she needed an escort, and she was going to get one.
"KC!" he shouted after her. She stopped and looked at him, allowing him to catch up.
"You and all your friends think I'm jus a little girl, and I am just so sick of it," she fumed at him.
He shook his head. "That is not it at all, my dear."
"Then why won't you tell me?" she retorted.
"Did you ever consider that it is painful for me to speak of?" he said softly and looked back the way they had come.
KC took his hand and whispered, "I'm sorry."
"Let's get back, shall we?"
They rode back to the house in silence
Every day, the ride to the next town went by too quickly; Ezra basked in the time he spent with Catherine. She was charming, and she treated him in a way which made him feel warm. In her presence, Ezra felt as if he belonged. He had always been the outsider, with any group...family or friends, it didn't matter...Ezra was always the one who didn't belong. But when he was with Catherine, he did. She made him welcome with every word, with every laugh, with every look. He had lived his whole life without ever allowing anyone to be a part of his life. Catherine was a part of him now. He couldn't imagine his life without her anymore.
As much as he loved gambling, and the art of the con, he'd give it up in a moment if he had another marketable skill. And just so that he might be able to ask Catherine to consider him worthy.
Ezra knew she could never love him. But he also knew that in the short time he'd known her, she had gotten through his defenses and made him trust her as he had trusted no woman before. Catherine was the woman with whom he wanted to share his life. He even considered finding a way to introduce her to his mother, and wondered what they would think of one another.
Every night, when the stagecoach stopped, Ezra would invite Catherine to join him for dinner, and every night she would tell him she didn't know. He'd ask her to think on it, and she would smile. But she always came to the restaurant and met him. It was a ritual. They both knew that her response of uncertainty meant "yes", and his request meant "until then".
But this night, she didn't come. Seven came and went. Then seven-thirty. By then, he knew she was not going to come.
This had been the first time she had not come. He'd been dining with her for about a week. He'd dine with her, and they would talk until 10 o'clock. At that time, he'd escort her back to the hotel. Afterwards, he'd visit the saloon and play poker.
It had been a very profitable journey. He never stayed in a town long enough to incur the wrath of the locals. But he had also not cheated since he'd been with Catherine. And that was because she believed in him. Usually, he had the impulse to take advantage of that attitude, but with her it was different.
Ezra looked at his watch once more. She wasn't coming. He shook his head, disappointed and hurt. Then he walked to the saloon.
He immediately spotted a few marks and invited them into a game of cards. The game lasted a few hours, but the other players really didn't have anything of value. The last hand, however, offered something that he could not resist. It was a ring of remarkable beauty; platinum and white topaz, it was delicate and beautiful. Ezra wanted it. He was shocked when he realized he wanted to give it to Catherine.
Ezra walked to the hotel and entered his room. He took the ring out of his jacket and sighed. She had not come tonight. She had finally discovered what type of a man he was. She did not want anything to do with him.
He tucked the ring back into the pocket of his jacket, then took the coat off. He was just taking off his shoulder holster when he heard a knock on the door.
He turned curiously, then went to the door and opened it. Miss O'Donnell stood outside.
"Where is she?" she demanded.
"Whomever are you talking about?" he asked.
"Catherine. Where is Catherine?"
Ezra was confused. "I have not seen her this evening."
"But she left to join you for dinner hours ago!"
He shook his head. "She never showed up. You mean, you don't know where she is?"
He grabbed his coat and headed to the door. "Miss O'Donnell, I have not seen her. And if she left the hotel at 7 p.m. to join me," he paused to look at his watch. It read 11:30. "Then I fear she is in grave danger."
The two of them went hurriedly to find the sheriff. When they told him Catherine's plight, he looked down.
"I'm right sorry to hear that. You ain't gonna find her alive. There ain't no sense goin' out now lookin' fer her."
Ezra looked at him and shook his head confusedly. "Sir, pray explain yourself! I refuse to sit here when she may require aid."
"That's jes it, mister. She ain't the first little lady to be nabbed...but God-willing she'll be the last." He spoke without much hope. Then he shook his head and looked Ezra in the eye. "We ain't got one back alive yet."
A look of steel came into Ezra's eyes. "We'll get her back." It was a promise to Catherine, and to himself. At that moment, he knew he loved her. This thought scared him. He knew he had to tell her. This thought scared him even more.
"Mister, you don't understand. It ain't that we don't want to. We just..."
"This time, we're going to. I'll thank you in advance for the loan of your horse," Ezra shouted as he took off to the livery.
He was vaguely aware of the sheriff saying to Miss O'Donnell. "I'm sorry, miss. There ain't nothin' we can do fer her."
"You can at least try, sheriff!" she spat at him. "You can at least try."
Ezra and KC returned just as JD was arriving. Nettie smiled. "Bout time you all got here. Dinner's been cooked for nigh on ten minutes."
JD looked at Ezra curiously, but any questions he might have asked were forgotten when KC smiled at him.
Ezra took the reins of the horses, leaving JD to greet KC. Ezra tied Forty-Five and Ace to a fence post where they could reach the water trough. KC's horse he took to the barn and removed the saddle. He brushed the animal down and gave her some hay. When the animal had been seen to properly he went back to the house. Nettie smiled at him. "Thank you, Ezra."
He knew she had not needed his help today. He got the distinct impression she knew something was bothering him and had allowed him to help her to try to keep his mind off of it.
The dinner was a hearty fare of roasted meat with carrots and potatoes. Nettie's homemade biscuits were excellent. All was going well until KC looked at JD and said, "So 'JD'...you never have told me what those letters stand for."
JD sputtered for a second. "Well, you ain't told me was 'KC' stands for either."
"I will if you will," she challenged.
"John David," JD said softly.
KC nodded her head. "I like JD better."
"Hey, what about you?"
JD stated to say something when Ezra dropped his fork. Everyone turned to look at him. He was fighting to keep his emotions from showing, but from the look on JD's face, he could tell that he was failing.
"Hey Ezra?" JD started to say.
"It was a lovely meal, Mrs. Wells. I'm afraid I really must be going." Ezra stood up abruptly and practically ran out of the house, but not before he heard Nettie tell JD "Best see to your friend."
Ezra was sitting on Ace when JD emerged.
"Wait up, Ezra."
"Mr. Dunne, I do not require a chaperone."
JD looked at the house. "You wanna be the one to argue with her? I sure don't."
Ezra closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Fine, then."
They rode in silence for a few moments. "Hey, Ezra?"
"What was that about?"
Ezra looked at JD and said angrily, "Something which I have no intention of discussing with you...or anyone else for that matter."
"I guess I'll just have to think about it." As they rode on, JD started babbling about something; Ezra paid him no mind. He wanted to get to the saloon. He wanted to get so drunk he wouldn't wake up until next week. He wanted to get so drunk he would never wake up.
JD eventually gave up trying to get a response or an answer from Ezra, and they rode the rest of the way to Four Corners in silence. Ezra paid the stable hand to care for Ace. It wasn't something he often did, as he preferred to tend to the horse himself. He just couldn't bring himself to spend one more moment communing with nature, in any of its forms.
He left the stable without saying another word to JD. Ezra noted the sky was darkening, and it was not from the setting sun. There was a storm brewing in the east, and Ezra didn't know whether to be glad for it or not.
The weather suited his mood. The clouds were dark and brooding. They looked like the slightest offense could set them off. Ezra headed to the saloon.
When he arrived, he saw Buck and Vin sitting at a table and contemplated joining them. But then Buck burst out in buoyant laughter. Ezra didn't think he could bear being with someone so obviously joyful. He noted when JD came in. The lad headed to Buck and Vin.
Ezra knew JD was only a few years, likely a scant four years, younger than he was himself. But JD seemed to have a naivite about him which made him seem far younger. And Ezra knew he had experienced things which made him seem far older. He broke off from that line of thought and ordered three bottles of whiskey. He didn't want to come back here tomorrow just to get more. Ezra paid for the whiskey then headed out of the saloon, not intending to say a word to anyone.
He felt a presence at his side and looked over to see Chris Larabee standing beside him. "That's an awful lot of whiskey for just one man."
Ezra knew Chris wasn't asking if he could join him "I'm refreshing my private stock."
Chris raised an eyebrow, then lit a cheroot. He nodded. Ezra headed across the street to the hotel. With a nod to the clerk, he headed up to his room. Once the door was secure, Ezra removed his jacket and vest. Then he carefully put most of his guns away. One he kept with him.
He sat down in the rocking chair, looking out the window, and then he poured himself a drink. He downed it in a moment. Ezra barely noticed when he finished the first bottle. He just opened the second bottle and continued to drink. But no matter how many shots he took, he kept seeing her face. He could not get the memory out of his mind.
Ezra raced the horse out of town, praying he could find her. Catherine was missing. His beautiful, brilliant Catherine. He knew he had failed her. If he'd just checked on her...and trusted that she was coming to him, she would not have been missing for nearly five hours. And a lot could happen in that time.
He rode the horse as fast as he could, looking for her and calling her name. It was dark, and he could only hope that she was close to the path that he was on, trust to luck to find her. An hour later, his luck came through: He saw her.
Catherine was lying as if broken by a pile of rocks. He could tell, just by looking at her from this distance, what kind of hell she'd been through. Ezra stopped quickly and rode to her. He dismounted in a run.
When he got near her, he could see that she wasn't moving, and he could only hope she was alive. Though, he wasn't entirely sure that was really for the best.
Catherine had been brutalized. Her face was one continuous bruise, blood encrusted her hair to her head. It looked like her arms were both broken. And she'd been raped. Ezra knelt beside her and took her in his arms, tears streaming down his face. She moaned.
He took a sharp intake of breath. She was alive. After all of that, she was alive.
"I'm so sorry my dear. So sorry." Then he carefully lifted her and moved to the horse. As gently as possible, he laid her over the horse's neck, then quickly mounted. Once he was on the horse, he gathered her in his arms, grabbed the reins, and took off toward town as quickly as he dared.
She moaned several times, but didn't seem to be aware of him. Then she whispered, "Ezra?"
"Shh...Catherine, you're going to be fine."
"I'm sorry, Ezra," she said softly through a sob.
He slowed the horse and looked at her. "Whatever for, my dear?"
By this time she was crying, and her entire body was shuddering. He held her as tightly as he dare, trying to shelter her but not hurt her any more. "You have nothing to apologize for. I should have been there for you. I should have protected you."
She looked at him. "Stop...please stop."
He was momentarily confused, but then replied, "I must get you back to town. To the doctor."
She shook her head. "I need..." She stopped in mid-sentence. "I need to ask you something."
"Anything at all."
"Would you kiss me? Just once? I want to know...I want to know what it is like when...when it's not..." she broke off in a fit of tears.
He could tell by her breathing that he was losing her. And he could do nothing to help her. So he stopped the horse, and gently brushed the hair off of her forehead with his hand. "My beautiful Catherine, I love you." Then he very gently kissed her lips.
She closed her eyes, and he felt her body slacken.
"NO!!" he screamed to the dark of the night. He clutched Catherine's body close to him, as if the sheer force of his will could infuse her with new life.
After an eternity, he urged the horse to return to town. He could not bear the thought that Catherine was dead. Yet he held her lifeless body in his arms, and he had to force himself to accept it.
Some time before he reached the town, the sheriff found him. "Mr. Sanders?" the sheriff asked, a sad note in his voice. Ezra could tell he was sorry that he had been proven right.
Ezra nodded once in acknowledgement.
"I'm right sorry about your lady friend."
"Likewise, I assure you," Ezra whispered, his voice harsh with grief. Truthfully, he was angry. "So sorry, indeed, that you failed to inform visitors to your municipality of dangers which you knew existed." He lashed out at the stricken sheriff, adding, "You are as much to blame for her death as the bastard who killed her."
He knew it was harsh. He urged the horse to a gallop and raced back to town. When he saw Miss O'Donnell on the boardwalk in front of the sheriff's office, he flinched.
He could see the flicker of hope flare in her eyes when she saw Catherine, and he extinguished it with a brief shake of his head. She crumpled to the ground in tears.
But Ezra didn't have the strength to console her. He dismounted and silently carried Catherine's body to the undertaker's.
After leaving Catherine, he had to get away. He went back to the hotel, and packed his saddle packs. He wasn't waiting until morning; he was leaving now. He checked out of the hotel. Forgetting in his grief that the horse he was riding was only on loan, Ezra secured the packs and left town.
Sometime before dawn, he stopped to make camp. The sun rose, but Ezra didn't notice. In his dreams, Catherine called out to him. And he didn't come. She begged for his help, but he didn't give it. Somewhere between the misty haze of nightmarish illusion and groggy alertness, Ezra vowed never to get involved again.
Not satisfied with his decision, but seeing no other way, Ezra rolled back over and slept a dreamless sleep. It gave him no peace either.
Buck was awakened by the sound of lightening. For a moment, he comforted the gal he was with. She wasn't really frightened, he knew. But it was fun to comfort her anyway. But then he heard someone shout, "FIRE!"
He jumped up out of the bed and quickly donned his clothes, then ran outside. The other hotel was on fire. Vin and Chris were already throwing water at the flames, and Buck could see JD go with Nathan and Josiah to the church. He assumed that it was to get things ready, in case anyone was hurt.
Buck rushed over to Vin and Chris. "What the hell happened?"
"Lightening," Chris stated.
"Where's Ezra?" Buck asked.
Vin and Chris looked at each other then at Buck. The three men looked up at the window they knew was Ezra's. The roof looked to have collapsed around that part of the hotel, and they could see flames up there.
Chris and Buck each dumped a bucket of water over their heads. "Vin...you keep this water going. And let's hope like hell it starts to rain soon." Chris looked up at the sky, looking for all the world like he was giving the weather a direct order.
They charged into the hotel and ran for the staircase. Buck covered his mouth with his neckerchief. "Ezra!" Chris shouted. They reached his room and again called for him. They got no answer.
"Stand back," Chris ordered. Buck nodded. Chris kicked in the door. It didn't take them long to locate Ezra. But from the looks of the room, it would take them a little time to get to him. Unfortunately, with a fire raging around them, time was not something they had.
Ezra was lying beside the bed; a beam from the ceiling lay over his chest and legs, pinning him to the floor. He wasn't moving, but Buck guessed that had more to do with the empty bottle of whiskey lying beside him.
The two men looked at each other. Buck grabbed one end of the beam and lifted it while Chris tried to move Ezra. "Hurry up, Chris!" he shouted.
Chris slapped Ezra. If he could get Ezra to wake up and move himself, they could both hold the beam up. But Ezra didn't respond. Meanwhile, the fire was not getting any cooler, and it still had not begun to rain.
"Hold a moment, Chris!" Buck shouted. He grabbed the basin and pitcher from Ezra's dresser and threw the water over Ezra. Then he lifted the beam again. Chris pulled on Ezra and finally moved him got him out from under the beam.
"Let's go!" The two men lifted Ezra and ran out of the building. They lay him down in the street, not wanting to move him any more than necessary.
Chris looked at Buck. "You get Nathan, I'll watch out for him." Buck nodded. Chris picked up a bucket, then began to assist once more with putting out the hotel fire. They pretty much knew that the hotel was going to be gone, but they wanted to prevent the fire from spreading to the other buildings. A few minutes later, the water from the storm arrived as it began to pour heavily. The rain took only a moment to extinguish the fire.
Vin noticed that Ezra had not moved from his spot on the street. "Hadn't we best get him under cover?"
Ezra hated the rain. He hated it for bringing his life such warmth, for he had lost it and now knew he was cold. Ezra opened his eyes partly. He hurt everywhere. Then he saw her...his angel.
"Catherine?" he whispered hopefully, as he felt the cloth placed against his face.
"Don't you even think on callin' me that, Ezra. Don't you even!" a sharp voice retorted.
Ezra's eyes cleared for a moment, and he saw KC and Nettie hovering over him. The sudden loss after the unexpected hope nearly crushed him and he allowed oblivion to take him back to where his angel haunted his dreams.
The shout of "Thief!" was all the warning he received before being rudely pulled from his bedroll. He regarded the posse curiously.
The sheriff said, "Mr. Sanders, that's my horse you took."
Ezra looked over at the mount he'd been riding. "Indeed it is. I must..." but he got no farther. The sheriff silenced him with a glance.
"You're under arrest....for horse theft. Tie him up." The sheriff looked at the posse.
He was amazed at how calm he was. 'Mother was indeed right,' Ezra reflected silently. He allowed his emotions to overcome him for a brief moment, and now he was being arrested for horse theft. While he was calm, he was also angry. Catherine had been brutalized; Catherine was dead. Yet this sheriff was more interested in the capture of a horse-thief. And if the man had half the sense given a small child, the sheriff should have realized that the theft was unintentional.
On the other hand, the sheriff could make an arrest in this instance. Ezra mused that the man might have been feeling impotent...or remiss in his duties...because he had been unable to bring the man who was harming the town's women to justice. Though Ezra could understand the sheriff's position in a detached manner, he also had no intention of staying for the trial.
He also noted that they were not heading back to the small dusty town whose name he did not know...did not care to know.
"Pardon my inquiry, gentlemen," Ezra stated hospitably. "Might I inquire as to our intended destination?"
Four pairs of eyes with blank expressions turned to face him. Ezra did his best to keep the disgust out of his eyes. He repeated his question, "Where are we going?"
looked at him. "Judge is at Fort Laramie. Just as close to go
there as back to town." This wasn't exactly true, at least not
as Ezra knew the lay of the land. It would take several days to get
to Fort Laramie, and only one to return to town. He knew he would
miss Catherine's funeral, if Fiona elected to have her buried in the
remote backwater. For some reason, he didn't think Catherine would
want to arrive in San Francisco only to be buried.
But he knew that the sheriff had another motive. In town, Fiona would state what kind of a man he was before the judge, and the circumstances of his arrest would be understood better. He had a better chance for leniency in that small dusty town. "In other words, my good sir, you don't want me to have character witnesses."
The sheriff glared at him for a moment, but didn't answer him any further. Ezra nodded and kept his silence.
The first night out, he'd tried to escape. One of his guards hit him with the butt of a rifle, hard enough to render him unconscious. By this time, Ezra knew that the sheriff's name was George Smith and the men with him, Tom, Hank, and John, were his brothers. The judge was one Oren Travis, who was known to be a "hanging judge." Ezra knew that in some places out west they hung horse thieves.
While he liked the feel of silk around his neck, he had no intention of wearing it as a hangman's noose.
He decided to bide his time for the rest of the trip Fort Laramie. He realized that now his only chance was to make the judge believe him to be a docile prisoner.
Two days later, he was brought before Judge Oren Travis. He held his head up and a allowed gleam of remorse to show in his eyes. Ezra could tell that the man was reading him, to decide how much of a threat he was.
Sheriff Smith stated, "This man stole my horse."
Ezra could tell the judge was tired of hearing cases at this time. "I'll hear the case Friday. I've got a full docket this week. Jail's full. Since the charge is theft, I'll set bail."
Ezra maintained his expression. He knew that unless the judge set the bail too high, he could make it. And because today was a Monday, he had time to establish an expected routine...in case anyone was watching him.
The judge looked at him. "What's your name?"
Ezra looked at him. "Ezra Sanders."
"Bail is set at $25. Can you make the bail, Mr. Sanders?"
Ezra nodded. "Yes, your honor."
The judge nodded back at him. "Bailiff, collect the bail from Mr. Sanders."
Ezra reached into his coat pocket and produced a fine leather wallet, from which he removed $25.
"Don't leave town, Mr. Sanders."
Ezra nodded his understanding, then left the building, dutifully heading to the hotel. He stayed in the room until 7 p.m.. He had dinner in the restaurant. He then went to the saloon and stayed until 10 p.m.. Ezra wanted to be seen. The next day, he slept in until noon, then made an appearance at the restaurant. He spent the day in the saloon, drinking and gambling. He stayed until 7 p.m., at which time he went to the restaurant for dinner. He returned to the saloon and stayed until 10 p.m..
He repeated the routine on Wednesday, with one deviation. When he was sure he was not being watched, he went to the livery and purchased a horse and tack, and paid the stabling fees for the horse. At 10 p.m., he went back to his room. By now, he knew that the saloon's patrons left at midnight, and the town was quiet within fifteen minutes.
At 12:30 a.m., Ezra quietly left his room. He knew which boards squeaked; he knew which stairs creaked. Those he avoided. He went to the stable and saddled his horse. Then he left town, knowing that no one had seen him, and no one would notice he was missing until about noon. And by then, he would be long gone.
He headed north, back to St. Louis. He knew that in St. Louis he could forget the pain of Catherine's death, and he would be out of that territorial judge's jurisdiction. Perhaps Maude would still be there. Ezra decided that a good con right now would really help him get over this recent lapse in judgement.
A while later he opened his eyes again and saw Nettie sitting by him. "You gonna tell me about her, son?"
"I don't know who you're talking about, I am sure."
"Sure you do. Catherine. That gal you were mooning about so much you were even less useful than usual."
Ezra shook his head.
"Might do you good to tell someone."
"I loved her, Mrs. Wells. And she is gone. Nothing else really matters now, does it?"
"You ever tell her that?"
Ezra shook his head.
"Then why don't you?"
He thought about it for a moment. "It could not be enough. Never enough."
"And what would be?"
He thought about it. "I ... she..."
"Mr. Standish, this Catherine, she came through here once, didn't she?"
He nodded. Nettie talked on while he didn't listen, and, as she was talking, he realized that Catherine's ghost could never rest, not while the man or men who did this to her were still free. And he would never be able to go on living without her if he didn't find them. Six years ago, he had been a con man and gambler. True, he still was. But now he was more. HE was part of the law in this dusty backwater. And there was going to be justice.
She seemed to note when he made the decision, without him even saying a word. "I'll go get your friends, Mr. Standish. I think you're going to need some help." Then she offered him something he would never have expected...something which made him listen to her.
"I saw him ride past with her. Shot at him with my carbine. Winged him too, I think. But I had KC to look after, even then."
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
"The man who murdered your Catherine. I didn't see him do it, mind. But, she had red hair, didn't she?" When Ezra nodded, she continued. "I saw him with her. I wanted to take care of him then. But it wasn't safe, what with him being a relation of the old sheriff. No one else seemed to care. Then, after you boys came, and the old sheriff left, well quite honestly, I forgot. Had other things to do."
Ezra nodded. He did understand. "You are a witness, Mrs. Wells. Would you be willing...."
"Hell, yes. That bastard could come for anyone. Catherine was the last, but she wasn't the only one."
Ezra looked at her with gratitude.
"I'll get your friends, then I'll tell them what I just told you."
Everything made sense now...the sheriff taking him out of town, bringing him up on charges, failing to protect the citizens and uphold the law. And when he thought back, he remembered that one of the men had had a bandaged arm. It was one of those details that had never really been important to him before. But now, it told him who had done this. He knew who had killed Catherine.
Ezra waited impatiently for Nathan to allow him to leave. His injury wasn't all that severe, just a cracked rib. He knew he'd been incredibly lucky to have survived the fire at all. If it had not been for Buck and Chris, he would not have. But still he was restless. Nathan was a vigilant guard, and most of the other hotel residents whose injuries Nathan had been tending were still laid up at the church as well.
But now that Ezra knew who had killed Catherine, he wanted to bring him in. And he could not do that while Nathan was watching him like a mother hen watches chicks. However, he did have something else he had to do first.
Ezra remembered the day when JD and KC had gone exploring the cemetery. He remembered smiling as he watched them head towards it. He distinctly remembered thinking how perfectly suited they were to each other. They each had the same sense of play. JD needed a companion who would laugh at his pitiful jokes and go fishing with him, just as Ezra needed a woman with whom he could discuss literature and enjoy fine dining. KC was perfect for JD. No other woman would have been the least bit interested in reading the names on the gravestones at the cemetery. But JD's curiosity had been peaked, and KC was more than interested herself.
But then, JD ran up to him with KC only a step behind him. "Hey Ezra! You gotta see this one!"
"Yeah, Ezra," KC added.
The exuberance on their faces made it hard for Ezra not to laugh. Instead he raised an eyebrow. "Indeed, Mr. Dunne, Miss Wells. Why would this be of interest to me?"
"'Cause it's got your name on it!" JD exclaimed.
KC shot him a look of disgust. "That ain't it and you know it," she said around a smile.
"You ever been here before, Ezra?" JD asked.
"To the cemetery?"
"No, Mr. Standish. To Four Corners," KC clarified.
Ezra shook his head. But he wasn't sure. Deep down, he knew why they were asking but he could not admit it even to himself. "Out of curiosity, why do you ask?" he inquired.
"'Cause there's a stone that reads Catherine somebody 'beloved of Fiona and Ezra'!" KC said.
He felt a sudden lurch in his stomach. Without answering either of them, he turned on his heels and went to the saloon and began to drink. His memory of that day became fuzzy after that. He thought that JD might have tried to talk to him and probably Buck. He thought that he might have gotten into an argument with Chris. It was one of the few occasions in his life that he drank so much that could not remember how he got back to his room. No one said anything about it the next day, and Ezra never asked who had helped him.
Ezra stood quietly in front of the grave. He had not visited it, not even after JD and KC had mentioned it. Visiting it would have been making an admission. He didn't know why he had not left that day....the day he realized that Four Corners was the town she'd been killed in.
But he hadn't. He hadn't left then. Ezra reflected on it a moment. It must have been because she was here that he had stayed...he couldn't leave her again. Not, at least, without saying goodbye.
After a moment, he knelt down and draped an arm over her grave. How thoughtful it had been of Fiona O'Donnell to include his name on the stone. He wondered what had happened to her. He knew it must have broken her heart when Catherine died. He wondered if she had continued on to San Francisco.
"Catherine," he whispered. "My beautiful Catherine." He waited for an answer, but received only silence.
After a few moments, Ezra stood up and looked gravely at the headstone. "He will pay, Catherine. He will pay for what he did. I promise you." Then he turned and walked to the saloon.
Hank Smith watched the girl ride by him. He hadn't been to town for a while, not since those lawmen came and his no-account brother had run off. Tom and John left shortly after that. For the first time in a long time, Hank was alone.
Hank hated to be alone, and he wouldn't be for much longer.
KC rode towards the fishing hole. She rode quickly, because JD was waiting for her there. She really liked him and enjoyed spending time with him. 'Course, she didn't really want him to know that. Heck, half the time she picked fights with him, just to keep him from thinking she was too soft. That, and she thought the exasperated and confused look on his face was cute.
She heard the sound of a rider coming up beside her, and without even looking, she said, "JD, I tol' ya I'd meet ya. Ain't no need for you to..." KC broke off her sentence as soon as she realized the rider coming up wasn't JD. Then she kicked her horse into a run and held on.
KC hoped that JD was early, or nearby, because she didn't like the looks of the man who was following her.
"Hold up there, girl! Or I'll make you hold up!" he shouted at her.
KC held on and tried to make the horse go faster. She heard a low whistle and looked behind her. The man held a lasso and was about to throw it. KC screamed as the lasso wrapped around her shoulders and she was jerked off her horse.
She thrashed on the ground, trying to break loose of the rope. The man was on her in a moment. He grabbed her arms and pulled them behind her back, quickly tying them with the remaining rope.
KC was scared, more scared than she could ever remember being in her life. She kicked the man. In response, he put a gun to her forehead.
"Do that again, little girl, and I'll shoot you. I don't need you alive, it's just more fun that way."
KC blanched and shouted as loudly as she could, "Help! Someone help me!"
But she knew that there wasn't anyone near enough to hear her cries. The man slapped her hard, knocking her head to one side. KC refused to cry out. He jerked his bandana off his neck and tied it so she couldn't cry out again. "That'll teach you, little girl. I'm gonna take you someplace that ain't no one gonna hear you cry out. And you ken scream all you want. Then the fun will start."
He picked her up and threw her over his horse, then he mounted up and rode off. KC couldn't see the road very well, and the bouncing was making her head spin. She closed her eyes and hoped that someone would come looking for her soon.
JD waited impatiently at the pond. KC was late. It wasn't really like her to be late, but it was like her to tease him. He decided that he'd go meet her along the way. It would give him time to torment her for being late.
By the time he got to Nettie's, JD was a bit upset. He should have met her by now. But she obviously had not left yet, or he'd have met her. He contemplated leaving and going back to town, but now he had his dander up.
"KC!" he called to the house.
After a moment, Nettie appeared in the doorway. "Son, I thought you were meetin up at the pond, not here. KC left an hour ago."
JD's face lost color. "She didn't show up, Mrs. Wells."
Nettie's face grew stern, then she went into the house and came back out with a gun. "You go find her, JD Dunne. I'll go to town and get help."
JD nodded and took off.
Ezra looked up when Nettie marched into the saloon. She looked at him, even though there were five other men near him. "He got KC."
Ezra stood up and moved toward her. The others followed quickly. "Tell us what you know." He spoke quickly, taking her arm as they rushed to their horses.
"I just know this: JD came looking for her, an hour after she left. I got a bad feeling about it."
Chris spoke up. "Could be nothin'."
Ezra looked at him. "And I hope you are correct in that statement. However, I am not willing to wager the young Miss Wells' life on it. Are you?"
"We'll meet at the pond. If she is there, then we have nothin' to worry about. If not, we'll split up and search."
"Mr. Larabee, I have an alternate venue which I believe is worth exploring. And I'd like to take Mr. Jackson with me."
"The pond, Ezra."
Ezra glared at Chris. "And if she is not there, then it may be too late. If she IS there, then my excursion will have cost no one."
"Look, Chris, we may not have time to argue over this, just let him go," Buck said in exasperation.
Chris nodded. Ezra quickly spurred his horse on; Nathan followed right behind him.
"Hey Ezra, where are we going?" Nathan asked.
Ezra gave him an unreadable look. "To where I found her."
Nathan didn't ask any more.
JD couldn't find her. But he did find her horse. This scared him. He knew she was in trouble now. Before, he'd just suspected, but now he knew. He looked for tracks, anything that could tell him where she had been taken. But he didn't know how to read the ground like Vin did. He could not follow them, because he could not find them.
Not knowing what else to do, he headed to the pond, knowing that help was coming there.
Chris, Vin, Buck, and Josiah were at the pond waiting when JD arrived. "Someone got her!" he shouted as soon as he saw them.
The men rode off toward JD, who stated, "I found her horse."
"Show us," Chris said.
JD nodded and rode to where he'd found her horse.
Ezra rode warily to the rocks. He wanted to ride in the other direction, but he desperately wanted to make sure that nothing happened to Catherine...KC. As he rode, he kept thinking of Catherine. He had to get there first. He could not allow this to happen again. He would not.
He saw the pile of rocks in the distance, and he slowed down. Ezra looked to Nathan.
"I see it," Nathan said.
There was a single horse there. Ezra could hear KC yelling at someone, demanding to be let go. He could hear the fear in her voice; it was evident despite her words of anger. He had to admire the girl's spirit, even if it was likely to get her killed.
But as of yet he couldn't actually see anyone. This worried him.
"You see her?" Nathan asked. Ezra shook his head.
Together, Nathan and Ezra hurried toward the makeshift camp. Nathan took cover behind a large pile of rocks. When Nathan was set, Ezra shouted out: "Release the girl!"
A man stood up and pointed a gun at him: he held KC in front of him as a shield. "Ain't gonna happen. You bes' jus' go on about your business and leave this one to me."
"I'm afraid I cannot do that," Ezra stated.
"Oh, and why's that?" the man asked.
"Because this is my business, you murdering bastard."
Ezra ducked as the man fired a few shots at him. The movement caused him some pain as he rolled away from the gunshot. He couldn't fire back because he didn't want to hit KC.
Ezra shouted above the sound of the gunshots, "KC, are you all right?"
She replied, "Sure, if you call bein kept against my will by pig 'all right'." There was anger and fear in her voice.
Ezra had to stifle a chuckle at that. But his mirth was short lived when the man jerked her around and smacked her. KC might have tried to stifle the yelp of pain, but she was not successful.
However, when the man had smacked KC, his back had been exposed for a brief moment, a moment of which Ezra took advantage. Ezra shot his derringer out of his sleeve and fired. The man tumbled down, taking KC with him. Ezra could only hope, for the moment, that his aim was true.
"Nathan!" Ezra shouted.
Nathan emerged from the rocks quickly and both men ran to where KC and the man lay on the ground. Ezra threw the man off of KC. Nathan bent down and first untied her wrists. Then he looked at her.
Ezra checked the man. "He's still alive, Nathan." Ezra grabbed the rope that had bound KC and used it to tie up her captor. "How's Miss Wells?" He was afraid of the answer.
Nathan smiled. "She'll be all right." Nathan looked over at him. Then he turned back to KC.
She tried to smile back at him, but her bravado suddenly gave way, and she started to shake. Nathan held her for a moment. "It's okay."
Ezra paced. It was so similar. KC's face was a bit bruised, and the sleeves to her dress were torn. But he could see she was fine other than that. Nathan's smile had told him that nothing else had happened. He sat down near the two, but he kept his gun trained on the unconscious man who was their prisoner. Ezra knew that he would hang. He looked around and smiled. Then he whispered softly, "It's over, Catherine."
It wasn't long before the other men arrived. Vin had found the tracks and led them here. JD was obviously worried. Chris saw Ezra first. Ezra nodded his head to let him know that everything was under control, and that KC was fine. Chris nodded back, and Ezra knew it was an acknowledgement of the earlier discussion. Neither man said a word.
JD had urged his horse to go faster as soon as he saw Ezra and knew it was safe. But when he saw KC sitting there, holding on to Nathan, he quickly went to her. "Are you all right?" he asked frantically.
KC nodded. Nathan moved away and JD took her hand. After a moment, JD kissed her cheek and then held her close to him. He didn't want to ever let her go. JD had not realized that he loved her...really truly realized it...until she had been taken.
He put his hands on either side of her face and looked into her eyes. "KC, I wanna tell you somethin'."
"Well, I'm listenin'," she said quietly. He smiled because she was still able to tease him.
"You be sure and listen good, Katherine Christina Wells," he said.
She glared at him and he continued. "I love you."
KC's stare softened somewhat as she blushed a moment. "JD, I..."
JD held her close to him one last time. He had come so close to losing her. It was not going to happen again. Buck had been trying to torment JD into telling her how he felt for a while, but he had not been able to work up the nerve before.
He smiled when he heard her whisper into his shoulder, "I love you too, John David Dunne. And don't you ever call me Katherine again."
JD started laughing. "Yes, ma'am."
Ezra watched the two and smiled. JD didn't really know how lucky he was; Ezra knew that deep within his heart. JD could not know how lucky he was. KC wouldn't haunt his dreams for the rest of his life, filling his heart with memories of their stolen moments together and reminding him how he once had something perfect. Instead, KC would fill his life. No, JD could not understand how lucky he was, and Ezra hoped that he never, ever would.