Ring of Truth
By: KellyA (Jul 2001)

Special thanks to NotTasha for her beta skills.

Part 1

Vin Tanner focused his spyglass, capturing the thin trail of smoke that rose over the distant ridge, staining the sky. His hand tightened around the metal cylinder as his stomach clenched, knowing what lay at the tail end of that smoke. His horse pranced under him as his legs inadvertently communicated his dismay and anger.

"Damn, looks like we 'ave another one." Vin handed the spyglass to the darkly dressed gunslinger who sat astride a black gelding.

Chris Larabee brought the telescope to his eye; his jaw clenched at the sight of the smoldering marker, like a dirty finger stirring up the blue expanse of sky. He exhaled and his shoulders slumped as the telescope dropped to his side. Chris looked over his shoulder to regard the three other lawmen who sat despairingly in their saddles, their somber faces mirroring his own. The five lawmen had been scouting the area around Four Corners for the past two days, hoping not to see the dark smoke designating another home destroyed.

Larabee's face was barely discernible beneath his wide-brimmed black hat, but the perceptive tracker knew the thoughts playing through his head. The stalwart gunslinger blamed himself. Chris took his duties as peacekeeper very seriously, and at times, very personally. Vin gathered up his reins and brought his horse to attention with a gentle nudge to its side. Man and beast reluctantly set out toward the distant beacon of smoke.

The sight of the burned out homestead was a familiar one, although, no less tragic to the five lawmen. The scene held a more calamitous and obscene allure to Chris Larabee, evoking past images that he constantly fought to subdue. His icy blue orbs gazed at the small homestead that lay smoldering on the plains; its dark charred remains standing stark against the azure sky. Another home, another time flashed before him, and an imperceptible shudder gripped his body as he swallowed back the emotions churning up inside.

Wilmington's hand clenched tight around the reins when he noticed the familiar grief trying to take hold of his long-time friend. He also fought against seeing the past, rising up in the remains of the burned out home; hearing himself badgering Chris to stay another day in Mexico, then to see Chris crumble in despair at the sight of his family, burned past recognition.

Chris's face scrunched at the scent of burned flesh that drifted past on a light breeze. He glanced over to see Ezra remove a white handkerchief from his pocket and place it over his nose. Buck pulled his bandana up to cover his nose and mouth. They had stopped several yards short of the house, the horses growing agitated by the smell of burnt flesh and wood.

The odor was familiar to four of the five lawmen--the stench of death, conjuring up inescapable memories within the older men. Buck suspected that the burned out barn next to the house probably held some unfortunate animals, which were adding to the stench.

"Maybe you better stay here, JD," Buck suggested when he noticed the unusual shade of green that suddenly colored his young friend's boyish face.

"I'm fine," JD choked out, not wanting to show his weakness as he struggled to tie his bandana around his head. He was fighting a battle with his stomach, which was demanding withdrawal from the source of its distress.

"Mr. Dunne." Ezra's muffled southern drawl rose up from behind. "You have been most fortunate not to have been subjected to such carnage in your young life. Please, don't take offense if we only wish to continue your good fortune."

A small smile graced Buck's face upon hearing the cardshark's argument. He knew they couldn't protect the young gunslinger from the cruelties of the world forever. However, the longer they could, the better JD's outlook on life would be. It was not good to start out a life so full of bloodshed and brutality. You only had to look into the eyes of the six other gunslingers to see what damage that could do; they all harbored demons, which at times pervaded their dreams.

Dunne eyed the fancy dressed southerner, at first surprised by his level of concern, then suspicious of his motive. JD's placid expression fell away. He didn't want to be protected and hated being treated like a kid. It was a constant battle with the other peacekeepers to prove his mettle. "I can do this," he tersely assured, his young pride stiffening his backbone and causing him to sit taller in the saddle. He tried not to breathe in too deeply, or through his nose.

Vin bowed his head, hiding a grim smile behind his long hair. The kid just didn't know what was good for him. He guessed that sometimes a person just had to find out the hard way.

Buck was prepared to pull JD from his horse and tie the mule-headed young man down until he saw the shake of Chris's head. This was JD's decision, and he would have to live with the consequences in his nightmares.

****Part 2

The five peacekeepers dismounted and strode toward what was left of the house. Wood crackled and glowed; embers flared as if trying to re-ignite to finish consuming their meal. The stench of burnt flesh grew stronger with each step, until even the scent of some nearby wildflowers was smothered by the bitter and offensive odor of death. A corpse, blackened and gnarled like a piece of wood, its hands clutching stiffly around a rifle, lay out on the porch. It had to be the owner, Mr. Paul Schorr. There was no sign of his wife Jane, and the men assumed she was somewhere inside the burnt out remains. The couple had worked the land for a little over a year and was just starting to earn a living. Chris had met Paul Schorr in town a few times and had found him easygoing but with a powerful drive to succeed. Both Paul and his wife had attended the last town meeting and had even offered up several suggestions to the hotel and store managers about dumping waste in the back alleys. They were the kind of people every town needed, the backbone that kept a town alive and growing.

The five gunslingers tried to maintain a façade of indifference, hiding the feelings of loathing and revenge that boiled deep inside. These had been good, hard-working people--They didn't deserve this.

Chris released a quivering breath as a distant memory overlapped the present reality causing his breath to catch in his throat.

"There are arrows and pony tracks all over the place," Buck declared, stating the obvious and interrupting Chris's morose musings.

Chris turned to face his old friend, more as an excuse to tear his gaze away from the burnt out home then to answer his statement. Buck was always there to divert his attention, something for which he was extremely grateful. How many times had the gregarious cowboy staved off his inner demons by annoying the hell out of him?

Buck could see the anguish in Chris's blue eyes, and his heart ached for his friend. He knew these fires were raising bitter memories and now with the loss of life... Buck had tried to talk his friend out of coming, telling him they could handle it, but Chris refused. Buck knew that Chris relived that fateful day in his dreams every night. Now it seemed the tormented gunslinger wanted to revive that day to pay penance for not being there to protect his wife and child.

Buck and Chris turned sharply and shook their heads at the sound of JD retching beside the water trough. Ezra had to vacate the immediate area or risk joining the young man in emptying the contents of his stomach. He had seen worse, especially during the war, but it still hadn't hardened his heart or his stomach.

"JD, see to the horses," Chris snapped.

The young easterner straightened, his face a shade paler than before, looking ghostly under his dark hair. His hand trembled as he wiped the spittle from his mouth with his sleeve, and then he dutifully complied with the welcomed order.

"This makes three homes burned out in as many weeks," Vin softly remarked as he scanned the surrounding area.

"And the first people killed," Buck morosely added, the bile threatening to rise in his own throat. "Damn, we should 'ave caught them bastards responsible before this happened." Guilt stabbed at all of them. Whoever was committing these vile acts knew what they were doing and how to avoid the law.

Larabee grunted in acknowledgement as he kept his gaze on Vin, watching as the skilled tracker made a slow concise circle around the front of the home, his sharp blue gaze focused on the ground. Hopefully, Vin would come up with something new.

****Part 3

Standish held back from the others, feeling slightly out of place. He knew Larabee dragged him out here just to make his life uncomfortable rather than for any sort of help he could possibly offer. Still, he too wanted to administer retribution to the people responsible for these heinous crimes. The wind changed and Ezra took a deep breath of fresh air then proceeded to rejoin his cohorts in their grisly task.

Vin had stopped his meandering and was now staring intently toward the south range. He felt the three men approach and knew they were hoping he could tell them something, anything that would help apprehend the people responsible. The stakes had risen with the death of the Schorrs.

Tanner gritted his teeth as he tried to keep personal feelings from interfering with any assumptions. Anyone could see the arrows, moccasin and unshod pony tracks scattered throughout the area. Its what wasn't visible that was bothering him. What was being openly concocted was not what he believed to be the truth. Vin squatted down and picked up a handful of dirt allowing it to sift through his fingers.

"Anything?" Chris asked.

Vin picked up an arrow as he stood. "Looks like four of 'em came up from the south," Vin replied, his voice edged with hesitation as his gut refused to accept what he was seeing. "They broke from over there and just overran the place. The Schorrs never had a chance." Vin pointed to the west side of the house.

"How long ago?" Chris asked. He could see that something was bothering the astute tracker.

Vin turned disquieting blue eyes toward his friends. "Three, maybe four hours, just before dawn." He ran his hand over the arrow shaft, the markings indicating the Cheyenne tribe that lived several miles south. Each tribe used different kinds of feathers and symbols to denote their tribe and even an individual brave--Arrows were as personal as a gunslinger's beloved gun.

"Cheyenne?" Chris asked, knowing the answer, he recognized the markings on the arrow.


"Damn," Buck exclaimed, quickly scanning the area. "We have to catch them murdering savages before we end up in an Indian war."

Vin inwardly cringed at Buck's remark but held his tongue. Most people readily believed that Indians were behind the burnings.

"I don't get it," JD broke in, having finally gained control of his queasiness. He still averted his eyes away from the burned out homestead. "Ain't Gray Eagle the chief? I thought we were at peace with him."

"We've been fair and up-front with Gray Eagle," Vin replied. "They don't have any reason to start a war, and risk everything if they do. It doesn't make any sense."

The seven peacekeepers had managed to work out any disputes, peacefully. There had even been trade amongst the Indians and some of the settlers. What could have changed? Why would Indians attack the homesteaders?

"The judge has been tryin' to get a formal decree, from the territorial governor, a promise that the Indians can keep their land. But he's fighting an up hill battle," Chris explained.

Flashes of memory played through Vin's head. A whole tribe of blackened corpses, fire burning untamed through a village, a young boy running toward the woods, running until his legs ached and his lungs felt like they would burst. The sound of cavalry guns against bows and arrows.

Vin was unaware that the feelings that passed through him were plainly visible on his face.

"Vin. Vin?"


Chris's voice startled him. Vin blinked and found Larabee staring at him, worry deepening the fine lines around the older lawman's eyes.

"Sometimes things aren't always the way they look," Vin sadly remarked.

"And sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one," Ezra disparagingly declared.

"And what's that suppose to mean?" Vin growled his icy tone dropping a degree.

"There were witnesses, Mr. Tanner. Indians were seen attacking the last homestead only a few miles from here." Ezra's green-eyed glare matched the tracker's equally menacing stare. The other homesteaders had abandoned their homes when the Indians attacked and escaped to the safety of town.

"Yeah, but it was dark and no one could identify any of the braves or even the tribe," Vin bit back. He felt as if Ezra was attacking him personally.

"Granted, not everyone is as observant or knowledgeable about the natives as you, but I doubt anyone could mistake whooping, buckskin-clad aborigines as anything else." Ezra's suave southern drawl was tinged with strained deference. Taunting Tanner was akin to teasing a rattler, you never knew if it would strike or back down. "And I believe they have left a calling card this time." Ezra stared at the arrow in Vin's hand.

Vin rolled the arrow between his fingers. Why didn't they find arrows at the other homesteads? It was as if the arrows were deliberately left to reinforce the belief.

The tracker grew defensive at Ezra's assertion and this immediately put the conman on guard, it was an automatic reflex. Years of distrust were not easily dissuaded. Standish and the others knew that Vin had delved deeply into Indian culture and had maintained a special bond with some of the tribes. Ezra didn't want that rapport to cloud Vin's judgment on the present situation, but he also didn't want to lose the man's friendship.

"Sir, I'm only playing devil's advocate here," Ezra calmly explained. "Maybe there is some discord among the Indians. Maybe they have grown weary of waiting for a written pledge, enabling them to keep land that is already theirs."

Vin's eyes darkened, but the perceived threat didn't dissuade the gambler. "Most people believe that Indians are responsible and it is only a matter of time before we have a full scale war on our hands. The only way to apprehend these miscreants is to maintain an open mind."

Tanner stood and glared at Ezra, for a moment not seeing a friend but an enemy. He turned sharply away, ashamed of his thoughts. He knew Ezra was right, but damn, how could he convince everyone that he didn't think Indians were to blame? Moreover, who was to blame and why? Without a word, Vin walked back toward the horses.

JD released a breath as the tension level eased. "Boy, Vin sure is mad."

"Yeah, let's just hope he don't go and do anything stupid," Buck said.
He trusted in Vin's instincts, but right now, he didn't know what to believe.

Larabee watched Vin go, his straight back and determined strides showing the measure of his frustration. Chris then turned and glared at the cardshark. "You make a damn good devil's advocate," he sarcastically retorted then followed after his friend. Chris hadn't meant to throw his anger at Ezra. This was the reason he had dragged the southerner with them. He knew that the combative conman would not hesitate to speak his mind and challenge anyone's thinking.

"How do you always manage to piss Chris off?" Buck asked, wondering what had just happened. He knew the two men didn't always get along. Chris was flint, and Ezra was kindling; the spark was usually the cardshark's cocky presence or his smart-alecky mouth.

Ezra raised a quizzical eyebrow; a faintly amused smile played on his lips lighting up his green eyes. "Trade secret." Buck guffawed and slapped the gambler on the back.

The five lawmen sat astride their horses, taking one last look at the burned out homestead, and swearing retribution.

"We better find out who's responsible and fast before things get any worse," Chris declared. He thought it had already gone too far but they had to try and head off a war. "Let's git back to town. I'll have someone come out and retrieve the bodies."

****Part 4

The five trail-weary peacekeepers returned to find their town over-run with Army soldiers; uniformed-clad men in groups of three of more lingered around the saloon and mercantile. Two large soldiers garnered special attention, as they seemed to be guarding the jailhouse.

'Shit, things just got worse,' Chris thought as he and the others pulled up in the street as Josiah met them.

"What's goin' on, Josiah?" Buck asked. The five men dismounted and started to walk toward the jail as the ex-preacher filled them in on what had transpired while they were away.

"Came in this morning," Josiah replied dryly. "Say they're here to check out what's goin' on with the Indians."

"Shit," Vin angrily murmured under his breath as he stared intently at the two Sergeants maintaining position outside the jail door. He had known an Army unit was in the area and had hoped they wouldn't get involved.

"I believe some of the locals have been apprising them about the goings-on," Josiah added. He couldn't blame the townsfolk. Everyone was scared. Some families had started coming into town at night for protection; many were preparing for war by stocking up on ammo and food.

The seven lawmen had been able to quell any uprising since no one had been killed--that would change when word got out about the deaths.

"Don't suppose you boys found out anything?" Josiah asked.

"Nope, and they killed the Schorrs," Buck said looping his horse's reins around the railing.

"Oh, dear Lord." Josiah closed his eyes and mumbled a prayer for the couple.

"It's definitely Indians," JD harshly whispered to Josiah.

"Shut up, JD!" Vin snapped, instantly regretting the venomous tone. If they started believing that Indians were responsible, what chance would the Indians have?

"Easy, Vin, JD didn't mean nuthin' by it." Buck laid a hand on the tracker's shoulder, which was summarily shrugged off.

Ezra brushed dust from his sleeve and stepped up alongside Chris. "Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I'm sure you are capable of handling the Army."

Chris ignored the cardshark as his attention settled on the tracker. Ezra shrugged and walked away, recognizing Larabee's form of dismissal.

Vin leapt up onto the boardwalk and stood defiantly in front of the two Sergeants. Chris rolled his eyes and followed his impetuous friend, with Buck, JD and Josiah right on his heels.

"Let them in," a strong, deep voice echoed from within the jail and caused the Sergeants to part ranks.

****Part 5

Following Vin, the four gunslingers ambled past the sentries and stepped inside the jailhouse. They stared at the Army Major who sat leisurely back in a chair, three soldiers surrounding him.

The Major brought his full six-foot plus height out of the chair as the four gunslingers approached the desk. He was a broad shoulder man, his uniform straining somewhat around his stomach, but he still managed to maintain a look of dignity. His gray eyes, flecked with silver, showed an intelligence that was lacking in his soft face, salt and pepper hair was cut close to his scalp. "Gentlemen, I'm Major Avery Willis of the 5th Army brigade out of Tucson." His voice was firm and controlled, if not a little rehearsed.

"What do you want?" Chris asked.

Willis walked around the desk. "I'm here on orders to determine if there is an Indian problem. We had reports that several homes had been attacked and burned. I also received a report a few hours ago that a recent attack had causalities."

Chris's eyes widen. "How'd you find out? We've only just returned from there."

"One of my scouts viewed the destruction. He saw Indians riding away."

"Why didn't he go after 'em?" Vin asked.

Willis cocked a gray eyebrow. "First, he was under orders to only scout and report back, and anyway by the time he reached the homestead the Indians were gone," Willis replied, meeting the tracker's scathing glare.

"So, what are you here to do?" Buck broke in, ending the line of sight feud between the two men.

"I'm here to gather further evidence and to find..." The Major picked up a piece of paper from the desk. "A Chief Gray Eagle's tribe and take appropriate action," he read. Avery leaned against the desk, folding his arms over his chest. He knew about the seven lawmen who protected this town and was inclined to work with them--to a point.

"And what is appropriate action?" Josiah warily asked.

Avery looked at the giant man and exhaled. "The braves responsible will be arrested and tried, and the whole tribe is to be relocated to a reservation east of here."

"Sounds to me like you've already made up your mind about who's responsible," Vin spat, trying to control his growing dread and anger. Why did everyone automatically blame Indians? He had lived with several tribes throughout his life, and yes, at times, Indians were to blame for some onslaught, but not always...no, not always.

The Major ducked his head in dismay for a moment. "Regrettably, yes." He raised his head trying to portray a mask of understanding "This is just a formality. We have all the proof we need to take action. We just need to find the tribe."

Willis stared curiously at the buckskin-clad lawman. The menacing glare in the tracker's eyes drove the Major to add, "My superiors would now require evidence that someone other than Indians are responsible."

"Guilty until proven innocent," Josiah somberly stated. He was on Vin's side. He didn't think Indians were to blame.

"I'm sorry, that's just the way it is right now." Willis's face did show the small measure of regret he felt. He had no desire to disrupt innocent lives, even Indians. He had tried to convince his superiors to go after only those Indians responsible for the burnings and leave the tribe alone. But he was overruled and instructed to seek out the whole tribe, with his commander pointing out that there was no such thing as an innocent redskin.

"That's bullshit and you know it! The Army's always looking for an excuse to wipe-out the Indians!" Vin angrily voiced, taking a threatening step toward the Major who stopped himself from stepping back. He had a job to do and he was not going to let some long-haired renegade intimidate him.

Larabee materialized in front of Vin, halting his progress. He glanced quickly over his shoulder noting the look in the tracker's eyes; Vin was taking this very personal. "Major, we have reason to believe that there is more going on here," Chris cautiously remarked.

"Such as?"

"Not sure, but my friend here doesn't think that Indians are to blame."

"And to what does he attribute this belief?" The Major asked.

"Just a feelin'," Vin replied.

Major Willis bit down on a smile. "I'm sorry, but I can't ignore direct orders on a feeling. Be grateful we're not going to arrest the whole tribe."

"You send them to a reservation you might as well condemn them to death," Vin growled out over Chris's shoulder. "The Indians around here are peaceful."

"I don't want any trouble," Willis stressed. "We'll handle things from now on and anyone who interferes will be arrested."

"We have an obligation to protect the people of this town and that includes the homesteaders," Chris reminded, his sinewy body still deterring any physical threat his friend might pose, but Larabee knew he didn't hold back the tracker's intimidating influence. Chris smiled as Major Willis uneasily shifted his stance.

"I respect that Mr. Larabee, and I'm sure we can work in accord with each other to bring the guilty parties to justice." Willis saw the menace in Tanner's glare. "Or at least manage to stay out of each other's way."

Vin snorted his disgust.

"I don't suppose one of you could tell me where Gray Eagle is?" Willis looked directly at Vin, who only smiled smugly. "Didn't think so. My men and I will be gathering supplies before we return to camp." Avery nodded and left with the three soldiers quick on his heels.

Vin stepped up to the doorway and watched as the soldiers headed to the Mercantile. A familiar fear rose up from his past and caused his gut to clench.

"What are we going to do, Chris?" Buck asked.

Chris wiped at his face. "We try and find out who's responsible before the Army finds Gray Eagle." Chris turned to JD. "JD, you and Buck go 'round town and see if you can find out what people are sayin'."

Chris looked toward the tracker, seeing the despair on his face. "Vin, we'll do what we can to protect the Indians."

Vin nodded, hoping they could do enough.

**** Part 6

Anxious to put the sights and smells of the morning's discovery behind him, Standish eagerly crossed the dusty street to enter the consoling influence of his one true home. 'Nothing like a challenging game of chance to put one's mind at ease,' the suave gambler thought as he looked over the early inhabitants of the saloon and sighed. Oh well, a mediocre game will have to suffice. He settled down at his usual table and began nimbly shuffling a deck of cards, a signal to everyone that he was open for business. His fingers danced in between the pasteboards, giving each card equal attention. It was like he knew the feel of each and every card in the deck and they gave him solace.

Cards were the only things Ezra believed in, but that was changing now wasn't it? Ezra Standish, dyed-in-the-wool gambler and conman, was starting to believe in himself and the six unique individuals that he found himself irrevocably tied to. How else could he explain staying on a job that put his life on the line everyday, forced him to wake at un-godly hours and took him away from the poker tables, all for only a dollar a day.

Ezra looked up as two rather well-worn cowhands sauntered up to the table looking for a game. Ezra shrugged. They would get him warmed up, he mused and cut the deck.

Money was being anted as a fourth player approached the table. Ezra paused and cast a thoughtful gaze upon a young Private. He looked the young man up and down, which didn't take long; the boy was smaller than JD. His round face still held a measure of boyish naiveté, but his dark eyes looked to be twice his age. Fine blond hair hung straight, touching the tops of his ears. The worn uniform hung loose on his small, lean frame, as if someone thought he would eventually grow into it. He still managed to look professional and seemed genuinely proud to be wearing the Calvary colors.

"We play high stakes," Ezra absently remarked, keeping his voice unassuming and hoping to discourage the young man from entering the game.

"I got money," the Private eagerly declared producing several bills.

Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow. "I was not aware the Cavalry paid so well."

The young man's eyes narrowed on the cardshark. He'd never been questioned before. Gamblers usually jumped at the chance to play anyone who had money. "I've been saving," he curtly replied. "Can I play or what?" This was his first time in town, and he was eager to try out his poker skills on a professional. His confidence was high, having joined with the men in his unit during their nightly poker games.

Ezra shrugged and watched as the young Private sat down. He deftly dealt the cards and furtively scrutinized the other players, noting the imperceptible signs that gave away their hands. "You have a name?" Ezra inquired of the young Private, as he picked up his cards, his face remaining an unreadable mask even as he held a pair of aces.

"Private Roland Croninger, 5th Cavalry, under the command of Major Avery Willis," he proudly explained, looking at his cards. He stopped a grimace, but Ezra caught the faint tic.

"And what brings you to our dusty little town Private Croninger?"
Ezra asked, seeing the frown flicker on the young Private's face. Ezra knew that Chris and the others were probably getting information from the commander, although Larabee was not known for his tact. A faint smile creased the gambler's lips at the thought of an uncompromising Army officer now dealing with the volatile Chris Larabee and the equally explosive Vin Tanner. But sometimes more valuable information came from the men in the trenches.

"Don't you know?" Roland stated. "Indians are on the warpath"

This got the attention of the two other players who stared at the young Private.

"What are you talkin' about, boy?" One of the cowhands snapped out.

Ezra was getting a bad feeling about all this. He didn't want some young gung-ho Private fueling the fires of an already volatile situation.

"Don't know rightly," Roland tried to recant as he looked at the angry glares of the two cowhands. He definitely needed to learn to keep his mouth shut. "Ah, just heard that a couple homesteads burned down. We were here to investigate is all." Roland chewed on his bottom lip his eyes returning to his cards.

The two cowhands looked toward the gambler as if expecting an explanation. They had heard about the homesteads being burned but not about Indians being involved.

"Gentlemen, I do not condone innuendo or gossip. I assure you everything is under control. Let us continue with our game, shall we," Ezra spoke sharply. He glanced over at Roland and the thought that arose in his mind gave him pause, this young man knew more than he was saying.

****Part 7

Ezra was only mildly entertained. He watched as staid faces broke in open delight, only to quickly turn to looks of frustration as cards slammed down in disgust. Back and forth, they went: the cards on the table and Ezra's thoughts. He manipulated the three other players like someone commanding a fine horse, allowing each man a measure of confidence and expectation.

Roland Croninger nervously stared down at his cards. He then looked across the table to see the fancy dressed gambler gazing nonchalantly at him. He dropped his eyes back to his cards, the full house he held triggered a surge of excitement to race through him. He absently rubbed the single coin between his fingers.

"Sir, we are waiting," Ezra tiredly intoned, staring at the Private.

"Don't rush me; I'm thinkin'." Roland's down-home folksy drawl was now frustrated and tired. He didn't have enough money to cover the bet but he couldn't just fold. The pot was huge.

Ezra exhaled and continued to eye the young Private. He hated taking all the man's money but it was the only way the youth might learn, at least, that was how Ezra justified it. He was doing the boy a service by teaching him the follies of playing poker with a professional. And the boy was in the Army, so it wasn't as if he'd go hungry or not have a place to sleep. Still, Ezra wished that the young Private would just fold and cut his losses. A conscious was definitely a disturbing thing for a gambler to have.

Roland dug into his pocket and pulled out a gold ring. He hesitated for a moment placing the ring on his finger where it stopped at his first knuckle. "Look, can I use this to cover my bet?"

Ezra rolled his eyes, and the other two players grinned. "I'm not a jeweler and this is not a trade market. We deal strictly in cash."

"Yeah, but I bet this is worth a lot--solid gold."

Ezra heard the plea in the young man's voice and his resolve slipped a little. "Where did you get it?"

"Ah, it was my mother's," Roland hesitantly admitted.

"Really?" Ezra asked, a sandy brow arching as he stared intently at the Private whose eyes darted nervously around the room. No wonder the boy lost at poker, he couldn't even fabricate a good lie.

"Yeah, she passed away awhile ago." This was the truth and Roland was able to look the gambler straight in the eye.

Ezra reached over and took the ring from the young man's hand. It was a beautiful piece; a single small diamond sat in the center of a solid gold band. An intricate design of vines and leaves encircled the edges. Ezra looked over at the anxious youth. Well, live and learn, he thought, laying the ring on the pile of money in the center of the table.

A smile lit up Roland's face as he fanned out his cards; face up on the table--full house-tens high. The other two players groaned and threw their cards down in disgust. Roland reached out, prepared to rake in his winnings until Ezra's polite clearing of his throat stopped him. The young Private looked over to see Ezra's cards laid out before him--a royal flush. Roland's shoulders slumped and his mouth dropped.

"Better luck next time, boy!" one of the other players mocked as the two cowhands rose and left the table.

Roland stared blankly down at the cards on the table. He had never been beaten this badly before. He had always managed to hold his own and even win a time or two.

"You cheated me," Roland snarled under his breath. He then angrily jumped out of the chair hearing it clatter on the floor behind him. "You cheated, you smooth talkin' candy ass."

Ezra looked into a face that no longer held any hint of innocence. One's true self was always revealed when the mask was removed, Ezra mused, staring at the scowling young countenance, and nothing like playing a game of cards could remove that mask faster. Roland glanced around the saloon, noticing how everyone's attention was on him. He stared down at the ring that sat atop the pile of money. His anger quickly dissipated as he seemed to remember something. Prepared for a confrontation, Ezra relaxed as Roland turned on his heel and hurriedly left the saloon. Ezra picked up the ring and placed it in his pocket. He would have it appraised later.

He stared toward the doors as he absently shuffled the cards, barely acknowledging the new players. Roland had looked like a boy caught playing hooky from school.

Roland stormed out onto the boardwalk crashing through an elderly couple as he stomped down into the street and headed toward the stable. He had almost blown it. His Sergeant had warned him about getting into any trouble. Roland kicked at the dirt trying to disperse some of his anger. He was so sure he had a winning hand. The gambler must have cheated that was the only way he could explain losing so badly. Damn, he should have never come into town. His Sergeant would not be happy.

****Part 8

"Damnit," Buck cursed as he and JD entered the jailhouse. Both lawmen stopped when they saw Vin and Chris sitting inside, feeling that they had just interrupted something.

"What's the problem now?" Chris dryly asked. It had been a long day. He and Vin had spent the better part of it trying to placate fearful and irate town's folk. Word had got out sooner than expected about the Schorrs' murder.

The Army was taking whatever supplies they needed, and not paying. The soldiers gave the town's merchants receipts for their merchandise and told them to file the proper paper work--this did not go over too well.

"We can't get any cold beer," Buck grumbled, removing his hat and slapping it against his leg.

"Why not?" Chris asked, rolling his eyes at his long-time friend. The territory was on the brink of war and all Buck could think of was getting a cold beer.

"The damn Army!" Buck paused a moment. "What they'd call it, JD?"

"Requisitioned," the young sheriff curtly answered, he couldn't get any cold milk either.

"Yeah, they requisitioned all our damn ice."

"Why the hell they do that?" Vin asked.

"Dunno, probably wanted to keep their own beer cold," Buck quipped. "Hell, they're taking enough supplies to last a month."

"Shit!" Vin slammed his fist down on the desk and spun around. "Chris, we can't let the Army send the Indians to a reservation. We promised them they could stay on that land."

Larabee leaned his suddenly weary frame against the wall. What could they do? Everything plainly pointed to Indians...maybe a little too plainly.

Chris lifted his gaze to lock on his friend who stood expecting an answer. "I don't want to see the Indians railroaded either but they're the most obvious suspects at the moment," Chris pointed out.

"Yeah, being nothing more than dirty, uneducated savages. They're not worth us going to too much trouble for," Vin growled, his growing anxiety over-riding his normal easy-going attitude.

"You're out of line, cowboy," Buck snapped, stepping between the two men and nailing the tracker with a glare that made the tracker want to retract his slight.

"No, it means we find out who is responsible," Chris firmly replied, his voice taking on a decidedly icy tone. He couldn't believe that Vin would accuse him of anything but trying to find justice.

Vin's eyes lowered and some of his fervor drained away, causing his shoulders to slump and his voice to soften. "I'm sorry, Chris, I just don't want to see it happen again."

"See what happen again, Vin?" JD's voice was a wave breaking over the tension that had descended.

Vin looked at each of the three faces staring expectantly back at him. He hated divulging any part of his past to anyone, but these men weren't just anyone. They deserved to know. Vin took a deep breath as if trying to inhale some life back into his wounded soul. Then he began, his voice strained and hesitant as if hunting and pulling the words out from deep inside. "I was young, probably fourteen or fifteen. I had been taken in by a Kiowa chief and made a member of the tribe." Vin paused a moment, trying to find the words to make tangible the painful memory. "Me and several braves had been out hunting. We were returning to the village when we heard it...cannons and rifles." Vin swallowed and chanced a look at his friends who still stood before him, their expressions one of sympathy and understanding. "An Army regiment was attacking the village. We hid and watched as our friends and family were slaughtered. There was nothing we could do. We were spotted and the soldiers started firing. I remember turning and running through the woods. I saw my friend, Tito, take a bullet and fall. I stopped to try and help him, but it was too late. I took a bullet in the shoulder." A tear slid down Vin's face, but he didn't wipe it away. "I was lucky, the soldiers saw that I was white and figured that I had been captured by the Indians. They took me to town and a doc patched me up." Vin bowed his head, the silence in the jail thick and suffocating.

"What did you do?" Chris asked his voice hoarse with emotion at what his friend had endured at such a young age.

Vin raised his head. "I ran off the first chance I got. The surviving braves had joined another tribe, and I just kept running. I wasn't a part of anything again until I met up with you all." Vin stared directly at Chris. "I found out later that the tribe was attacked because it was believed that one of the braves raped a white girl in a nearby town." Vin chuckled. "After they wiped out the tribe, the rapes continued and they finally caught the person responsible, it was the owner of the Mercantile."

JD's mouth fell open. "Did the Army have anything to say?"

"What? An apology," Vin softly guffawed. "It was never mentioned. The regiment was reassigned and sent away."

Chris laid a hand on Vin's shoulder. "It won't happen again, I promise."

Vin forced a grim smile at his friend and leader, but his heart still burned with mistrust and revenge. Chris was right. It would not happen again, not if he had anything to say about it.

****Part 9

Roland rode in-between two other soldiers, a third followed close behind. They rode parallel an orange sun that hung just inches off the horizon, casting an auburn hue across the desert terrain. Roland's shoulders slumped with the weight of his regret and disgust. How could he have been so stupid? He kept glancing over to his left at the huge middle-aged Sergeant.

"What's wrong, Roland?" The middle aged Sergeant asked, noticing Roland's cursory glances. SGT James Macklin, who went by the name Jimbo since he was a boy, was a mountain of a man with a face that resembled that of an angered bull. Green eyes blazed under thin dirty brown hair, which he barely kept cut to regulation. Even a false smile failed to erase the hardness on the Sergeant's features.

Roland's respect for the large Sergeant was a product of fear and obligation. Macklin had taken him under his wing when Roland had enlisted, after the death of his mother. Roland hesitated, trying to gauge the man's temperament. He swallowed the knot in his throat. "I lost my pay to that fancy dressed gambler in town," Roland quickly spat out.

A loud laugh from Roland's right caused the young Private to turn and sneer. "Boy, won't you ever learn," SGT Josh Hutchins bellowed as he slapped the youth on the shoulder. Hutchins was a tall, lanky man with pepper-gray hair. A long ragged scar etched a path under his left eye. He told everyone that the scar was from a fight with an Apache warrior. In reality, it was a woman who took offense at his assuming attitude and refusal to take 'no' for an answer.

Roland looked over his shoulder at Corporal Jason Conner. He wasn't much older than Roland, but he had seen a lot in his short life and those sights had engraved a cruelty upon his face. The image of Conner, cutting off the finger of that dead woman to get her ring was firmly etched on Roland's brain. He shook the thoughts away.

"Ay, don't worry 'bout it," Jimbo exclaimed. "Mr. Parson is goin' to pay us for this last job soon, and when we get them Indians off that land we'll be gettin' a nice bonus." Mr. James Parson was a wealthy and influential rancher, who had approached him a month ago, offering him an obscene amount of money. All he had to do was burn a few homes and make people believe that Indians were responsible. "I'll loan ya a few bucks until then."

"How much longer are we goin' to stay in this God-forsaken territory?" Conner asked. He wanted to go back to Tucson and spend some of his newly acquired wealth. His tour was almost over and he planned on heading back to Pennsylvania.

"The Major still needs to find out where them injuns are holed up," Jimbo explained. "Then we'll be hauling their butts to a reservation and maybe even stringing up a few." Jimbo laughed.

Roland smiled; life was good when Jimbo was happy. A sudden remembrance caused the grin to leave Roland's face. "Ah, Jimbo."

"Yeah, what is it, kid?" Macklin looked over at the young man. The boy was gullible, which made him the perfect patsy.

"I...I," Roland stammered and shifted in his saddle.

"Spit it out, boy!" Hutchins cajoled.

Roland stopped his horse and eyed the three men who he believed cared about him. "I lost the ring to that reb gambler."

Jimbo yanked on the reins, the horse snorting its annoyance at the brutal treatment. Jimbo's cheerful demeanor was quickly swallowed by a dark menacing scowl. The bull was going to charge. Jimbo's bottle green eyes cast daggers of disgust toward the Private. Roland was about to apologize when Jimbo's hand lashed out, sending the surprised Private sailing off his horse.

The young man scrambled to grab the saddle horn but missed and tumbled to the ground, scrabbling out of the way as his horse pranced to get away from the sudden violent eruption.

"You moron! What the hell was you thinkin?" Jimbo yelled down at the boy.

"Easy Jimbo," Conner intervened. They didn't need to be fighting amongst themselves. "Roland didn't mean anything. What harm could it do anyway?"

Jimbo dragged his angered glare toward Conner. "What harm? That's evidence you dimwit, and he just gave it to the law." All three soldiers stared open-mouth. Jimbo shook his head. "That gambler is one of them peacekeepers." Jimbo had read the report given to his commander about the seven peacekeepers. He had taken it upon himself to learn all he could about them. It was always safer to know who your enemies or friends might be.

"Ah shit," Conner softly breathed looking down at his friend and seeing a fool. Roland stood up and dusted himself off. He had no idea that the fancy dressed cardshark was a lawman, who ever heard of such a thing.

"He ain't goin' to know about the ring. I told 'em it was my mother's," Roland said, trying to mollify the large Sergeant. "He'll probably just hock it first chance he gets."

Hutchins kept his head down. He thought it had been a mistake making the boy a part of their group, now they were all in danger of being discovered.

"Do you wanta take that chance?" Jimbo exclaimed. "We need to git that ring back, and we might have to do something 'bout that gambling fella too."

Roland smiled at that thought. The gambling man had made him feel stupid and inferior. He would relish the chance at getting back at him.

"How did you get the ring anyway?" Hutchins asked. "I thought Conner had it."

Roland bowed his head abashedly, his face getting hot and red.

"He bought it from me, said he wanted it for his girl in St. Louis," Conner mockingly replied.

"Ay, Jimbo, we're done anyway aren't we?" Hutchins asked. "I'm tired of dressin' up like a savage and Patterson ain't goin' to keep looking the other way when we take them Comanche ponies." They had captured a small herd of Indian horses and were using them as pack animals.

"Don't worry 'bout him, he's being paid well enough," Jimbo replied.
"And we're done when them Indians are sent to a reservation. Parson won't give us any bonus if'n them Injuns don't leave, one way or another." Jimbo scratched at the day's growth of beard. "The Army and townsfolk believe that Indians are responsible, and we can't give no one any reason to think otherwise or we could blow this whole operation."

It had been easy to find an old buffalo hunter to show them how to make Cheyenne arrows. Wigs, dirt and buckskins helped to perpetrate the charade. They only hit the homesteads at night so no one could get a good look at them.

"I...I just wish this was over," Roland added as he stood and took hold of his horse's reins. "I didn't want anyone to git killed." It had been fun scaring the homesteaders and burning down the homes and killing some of the livestock. It reminded him of better days when he used to play cowboys and Indians back home as a boy, only this time he got to pretend he was a real Indian. He hadn't counted on anyone being killed though. Why had that couple fought? The others had high-tailed it out as soon as they heard them whoop and holler.

Jimbo could see the regret in the young Private's eyes and knew he was becoming a risk. "Hey, is it our fault them settlers would rather stay in their burning home." Jimbo's laughter sent a chill down Roland's spine. "It just helped our cause that much more."

Roland closed his eyes, still hearing the woman's screams.

****Part 10

"Mr. Dunne, a moment of your time please," Ezra called out to the young gunslinger walking down the boardwalk.

"Ay Ez, what's up?" JD was surprised to see Ezra up so early, it was barely past ten, but then again with the soldiers around Chris wanted everyone vigilant.

"I have something for you." Ezra produced the gold ring and handed it to JD before the young gunslinger had a chance to object. He had decided against selling it, figuring he really wouldn't get that much for it.

"What's this?"

"Just something I happened upon. I really don't think I'll have any use for such a matrimonial piece of jewelry."

JD's eyes went wide, and he thrust the ring back at Ezra as he stammered, "Now hold on, I don't have any use for it either."

Ezra almost laughed out loud at the young easterner's expression, you'd think that someone had just handed him a basket of stray kittens. Ezra grabbed JD's resistant hand and forced the ring back. "Now, Mr. Dunne, of all of us, you are the most likely to wed, and I see no reason why you can't hang on to this bauble, just in case."

JD smiled faintly at the glint in Ezra's eye, even when the gambler was being truly honest it always sounded like a con. JD examined the dainty ring. It was a beautiful piece of jewelry, he thought, and what would be the harm, as long as Buck didn't find out. He let out an exasperated sigh, knowing he'd never talk Ezra out of giving it to him. "Okay, I guess, but if you ever want it back you can have it."

Ezra smiled appreciatively at the young gunslinger and patted him on the back as he continued down the boardwalk. He honestly hoped JD would put the ring to good use someday.

JD closed his hand around the delicate ring, smiling as Casey's face flashed through his head, releasing a swarm of butterflies into his stomach. He quickly put the ring in his pocket, telling himself that he was only holding it for Ezra, or maybe Buck or even Nathan.

****Part 11

A sliver of orange struggled to hang onto the horizon, the night sky pressing down on it. A small buckboard clattered down the main street trying not to draw any attention.

"Whoa," Nathan softly called to the two horse team pulling the wagon. He released a sigh and slowly stepped down, his eyes avoiding the back of the wagon and its gruesome contents. He hoped that the undertaker was around so they could take care of the bodies tonight. Chris had told him to send someone out to retrieve the bodies, but it had been late and Nathan didn't like the idea of Mr. and Mrs. Schorr spending another night unprotected, so he had gone by himself not wanting to subject anyone else to the grisly chore. The task of retrieving the bodies from the burned out house left him emotionally and physically drained.

"Mr. Jackson." Ezra's southern drawl startled the healer. Ezra had watched as the wagon rolled slowly into town, knowing what it was transporting. His stomach rolled slightly at yesterday's remembrance. Nathan's hunched stance spoke volumes of the healer's underlying stress and fatigue.

"Hey, Ez, anything happen while I was gone?"

"No, most of the Army pulled out this afternoon for which Mr. Larabee is exceedingly grateful for. We've just been trying to placate the populace."

Nathan rubbed at his eyes.

"May I be of assistance?" Ezra asked, noting the misery on the healer's kindly face.

Nathan smiled, surprised at Ezra's offer. "Nah, I'll get Hiram to give me a hand."

Standish stepped up to the side of the wagon and looked down at the two blanket-covered forms. He'd met Mr. Schorr when he came into town for some business with the bank. Mr. Schorr had been to Baton Rouge and the two had stayed up late one night reminiscencing about one of Ezra's fondest places. Ezra tried not to think of what was left of that gracious and educated man now lying under that blanket.

Standish exhaled to expel the sudden melancholy feelings. Adverting his eyes, Ezra followed the angered movements of the healer as he unhitched the back. "It must be hard for someone with such a benevolent nature to be faced with the, at times, ugly truth of human nature."

Nathan froze at the back of the wagon, running a hand down his face, trying to wipe away the sight of the charred bodies. "Yeah, but usually I can handle it, but this." Nathan waved his hand over Mrs. Schorr's smaller form. "Some sick bastard cut off Mrs. Schorr ring finger and stole her wedding band. I don't know what this world is comin' too."

Ezra didn't hear the last words from the healer, his mind having latched onto 'stole her wedding band,' and refused to let go. Ezra's face paled and his eyes widen as his mouth dropped open.

"Ezra, Ezra."

"Huh," Ezra mumbled, startled by Nathan's urgent tone.

"You alright?" Nathan asked, noticing the strange look on the gambler's face. Ezra seemed to have gone off somewhere, leaving his body behind.

"Yes, of course, I'm fine. If you'll excuse me I have to find Mr. Dunne." Ezra turned and jogged off.

Nathan scratched his head as he watched Ezra disappear down the street.

****Part 12

The cool evening breeze caused the sheltering cloth of the Conestoga wagon to breathe with each gust. Vin lay stretched out on his pallet, hands behind his head; his mind a million miles away oblivious to the cacophony of familiar sounds coming from the street just outside the wagon he called home. A shudder went through the plainsman's body as memories again assaulted him. Vin's face scrunched as the memory became so real he thought he could smell the gunpowder and blood.

He couldn't let it happen again; the Indians were innocent. Vin sat up and grabbed his rifle, pausing as he recalled Chris's promise. He knew his friend would do everything he could, but he could do more alone. He hoped Chris would forgive him and stealthily left the wagon.

*****Part 13

Standish paced the boardwalk between the saloon and the mercantile, allowing his thoughts to roll over the past couple days, even the energetic din emitting from the saloon didn't distract him. Several towns' folk passed by, eyeing him curiously, then continued on their way.

It had been over an hour since he left Nathan and darkness now shrouded the town. The street lamps threw out small flickering balls of light up and down the street. He was waiting for JD to return from patrol. He hoped he was wrong at what was adding up in his head, but he didn't think so. It was too much of a coincidence. How would a young soldier get hold of a ring off a dead woman? Was the Army trying to lay the blame on the Indians so that they could be sent to a reservation? Ezra knew that Indians were being forced onto reservations all over the country, but normally only when they were on land that settlers wanted, and then the government would just force them to relocate, offering them inferior land for their prime real estate. Ezra huffed; and people accused him of devious deeds.

The residents of Four Corners had an unofficial accord with the nearby Cheyenne tribe, promising them sanctuary. With Judge Travis' help, the seven lawmen were determined to up hold that. Ezra froze as some of the pieces fell into place. Someone wanted the Indian's land, and was using the Army to perpetrate the pretense of wild renegades.

Standish's fists clenched. He wondered if the commander was involved in any way. The ring was the first bit of evidence, and he was sure it would help reveal the truth. Ezra smiled, assured that when Larabee and Tanner had a little talk with Private Croninger the Indians would be vindicated.

Ezra stepped off the boardwalk to wait at the jail for the patrolling easterner. He would retrieve the ring, and then inform Mr. Larabee of his belief. Ezra paused as the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a shadowy figure ducking back into the alley. He was being watched.

Ezra turned away from the jail and casually strolled into the saloon, dashing up the stairs inside. He nimbly stepped out the second story window and walked across the slanted roof. The sure-footed southerner made his way to the backside of the building and shimmied down the support post. He then activated his derringer and crept silently up the alleyway. He could just make out the darkened silhouette of someone hiding behind several barrels.

"Excuse me," Ezra hissed laying his gun alongside the spying man's face and grasping his shoulder. "But why do you feel the necessity to watch my person?"

The man turned his head slowly around, and Ezra recognized young Private Croninger. This further confirmed his belief.

"Listen mister, I made a terrible mistake, and I need that ring back." Roland had almost wet himself when the gambler had come up behind him. Jimbo had left him here to keep an eye on the southerner, until he returned.

Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow; his gun still aimed at the Private's head. "Sir, I'm not in the business of returning winnings."

"Ah, I know, but I never should 'ave offered it. It sorta has senti...a...senti..," Roland's brow furrowed, searching for the word.

"Sentimental value," Ezra aided.

"Yeah, and my ma would be real unhappy with me for giving it up," Roland lied.

"Really? You know a man and woman were brought in earlier. They had recently died a most violent and vile death. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that?" Ezra calmly asked. The thought that this young man had anything to do with their deaths and Mrs. Schorr's mutilation sickened him.

The young man's eyes widen. Oh shit, he knew, flashed through Roland's mind and showed on his face.

Ezra felt the young soldier tense under his grasp and knew that he had hit the nail on the head. "I believe my associates would like to discuss where you really got that ring." He brusquely pulled the young man out from behind the barrels, intent on taking him to the jail. Ezra heard the scuffle of feet behind him--too late. A gun butt smashed into his skull and he crumbled bonelessly to the ground.

"It's about time you got back," Roland nervously snarled as Hutchins and Macklin appeared.

"Quit your belly-achin!" Hutchins bit back. "We wouldn't be going through all this shit if'n you weren't so stupid..."

"Enough," Jimbo hissed out, looking over his shoulder to make sure they weren't attracting any unwanted attention. "Check his jacket. We searched his room and didn't find the ring."

Roland knelt down and struggled to remove the fancy blue coat. He then started hurriedly going through the pockets and feeling around the lining. Roland smiled as he pulled out a wad of money, which Jimbo promptly plucked out of his fingers.

"Consider it payment for your stupidity," Jimbo snarled.

The Private glared back at the Sergeant then continued his search. He pulled out an envelope addressed to a Maude Standish and a deck of cards. "Nothing, he ain't carryin' it." Roland threw the jacket into the corner of the alley in disgust. "He musta pawned it already."

"Well, I guess we're going to have to have a little talk with 'im just to make sure." Jimbo holstered his gun and easily picked up the unconscious conman, throwing him like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder. "Let's git out of here."

*****Part 14

"Buck, have you seen Vin?" Chris asked stepping into the jailhouse and eyeing the ladies man sitting behind the desk.

"Nope, not since last night', Why?" Buck stretched his arms over his head. He'd been on duty since two this morning and was looking forward to some much needed rest. The look in Chris's eyes told him sleep might have to be put on hold.

"Damn, don't know, just got a bad feelin' is all." Chris knew Vin was angry and frustrated about the whole affair with the Indians. He was afraid that the impulsive tracker would do something foolish.

Buck raised a dark eyebrow, but didn't say a word as the same worried feeling took hold of him.

JD cut through the alleyway beside the saloon, fingering the ring in his pocket. His mind had been on Casey ever since Ezra gave him the ring, wondering what she would say if he asked her to marry him. At first, he felt she would say 'yes' in a heartbeat, but then he started having doubts. And the worst part was that these doubts scared him more than the thought of marriage. He finally had to admit he wasn't sure what her answer would be.

JD's brown eyes alighted on a card that lay in the dirt. He bent down and picked up the ten of spades. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and his eyes darted around the shadowed alley. He reached down and picked up a jacket that lay haphazardly against the side of the building. His heart beat fast as he recognized the dark blue, long tail jacket. JD took off like a jackrabbit toward the jailhouse.

"BUCK! BUCK!" JD's panic shouts preceded his over-anxious body into the jailhouse and brought everyone inside to their feet.

JD grabbed the doorframe, stopping himself just inside. He threw Ezra's jacket onto the desk in front of Buck and Chris. "I found this in the alley beside the saloon," he gasped.

Larabee picked up the jacket, examining it quickly, relieved not to find any blood or bullet holes. Damn, what has that southern cuss gotten himself into now? Didn't they have enough trouble with the Army and Vin missing? Chris looked over his shoulder as Nathan and Josiah entered the jail, having seen JD running wildly down the street.

"Has anyone seen Ezra or Vin lately?" Chris asked, his heart picking up an extra beat as worry started to flood his veins.

"Nope," Josiah said.

"I saw Ezra when I brought Mr. And Mrs. Schorr's bodies in last night," Nathan answered. "He was acting strange then said he needed to find JD."

They all turned to the young gunslinger.

"I haven't seen him since yesterday," JD replied.

"Josiah, Buck, go and check Ezra's room. JD, go check the stables for their horses. We'll meet back here," Chris ordered.

****Part 15

Josiah and Buck both returned quickly, the looks on their faces telling Chris what he didn't want to hear. The look on JD's face also foretold 'bad news.'

"Ezra's room was torn apart," Josiah was the first to speak as they all sat in the jailhouse. "It looked like someone was searching for something."

"Ezra's horse is still in the stables, but Vin's is missing," JD added. "The stable boy don't remember seeing him leave."

"Shit," Chris muttered. Two of his men were missing, people were being murdered, and the Army was being a pain in the ass. What more could happen?

"What now?" Buck asked.

The four gunslingers turned toward the sound of furious hoof-beats tearing down the street. They stepped out onto the walk as a young Corporal reined his horse into submission, almost forcing the animal to his haunches as he came to a stop in front of the four men.

"Mr. Larabee?" The young soldier asked, trying to catch his breath. Major Willis had described the gunslinger, telling him to search for the most dangerous-looking person in town. The Corporal didn't understand--he did now. The darkly-dressed lawman that stood before him radiated an aura of potential danger.

"Yeah?" Chris replied.

The Corporal swallowed the sudden lump that blossomed when those icy blue eyes fixed on him. Damn, this man was a lawman? "Mr. Tanner has been arrested. Major Willis told me to tell ya if you want him, you'll have to come and git him." With that, the Corporal abruptly reined his horse around and galloped off, not wanting to get in an argument with the gunslingers.

"No mention of Ezra," Buck noted, biting at his lower lip. He had hoped that Vin and Ezra had gone off together, maybe to warn the Indians or something. The two men could get in more trouble than a bear with a sweet tooth, but Buck still wished they were together.

"Buck, you're with me," Chris said, staring out after the soldier. "The rest of you start searching for Ezra."

****Part 16

Standish quite painfully began to return to the land of the living, although he fought it every step of the way. The morning sun caused him to squint as he slowly forced his eyes opened. He was lying on his side. His head throbbed fiercely. He brought his hands up seeing that they were tied together.

"'bout time you come to," Jimbo snarled, seeing the conman stir. He was afraid that he had hit the southerner too hard. He had sent Hutchins back to camp to cover for him. He kept Roland at his side, hoping to put some more backbone into the boy.

Ezra looked at a pair of dust covered army boots, and then slowly raised his gaze to see a large Sergeant standing over him. Ezra focused his gaze past the Sergeant to see Private Croninger nervously shifting from foot to foot a few feet away.

"Where's the ring?" Jimbo growled, grabbing Ezra up by his shirt and forcing him to sit up.

Ezra hissed as the rough treatment sent new waves of pain through his head. He swallowed the sudden bile that rose up this throat. Ezra procured a smug grin for the burly Sergeant. He knew that if he told this Neanderthal where the ring was he'd be putting JD's life in jeopardy.

"What ring?"

"Wrong answer, little man."

Ezra's head was whipped to the side as Jimbo's thick meaty hand lashed out, striking him on the cheek. Ezra tasted the blood that filled his mouth as his teeth cut into his cheek. The focus he had acquired was now reduced to large distorted objects that fell within his line of sight.

Roland shifted his eyes as his lips pressed into a line of worry. He had thought he'd enjoy seeing the suave gambler brought down a peg or two, but the look in Jimbo's eyes caused him to fear for the man. They were already responsible for two deaths, he wasn't sure he wanted more blood on his hands.

"Now, we can do this the hard way or the easy way," Jimbo remarked. "I just want to know where that ring is, then I'll let you go."

Ezra had to stop himself from laughing out loud, figuring the Sergeant didn't need any further inducement. By the looks of him, the man wanted nothing more then to grind him under his boot heels, for pure pleasure.

Roland knew Jimbo would not release the gambler, at least not alive.

"Ay, Jimbo, why don't we just leave 'em for the buzzards," Roland suggested, hoping they could avoid getting blamed for a lawman's death. "He'll never survive out here without any water. His friends don't even know he's missin'."

"Shut up, boy! I want that ring!" Jimbo never had trouble extorting information before; it just took the right incentive.

"Why did you burn down those homesteads?" Ezra bluntly asked, still trying to clear his vision. If he was going to die, he at least wanted to know the reason.

"Money. Why else? And to help get rid of those dirty redskins. Hell, we were doing everyone a favor," Jimbo explained.

"Does your commander know what you do on your off time?" Ezra asked his tone laced with sarcasm.

"That weak minded, soft hearted son-of-a-bitch? Nah, he don't know a thing."

"Now, I answered your questions you can answer mine. Where is that ring?" Jimbo demanded. Damn, if this fancy-dressing reb figured out what was going on, who else could have? He had to get that ring and kill anyone who had seen it. Jimbo looked over his shoulder at Roland who was nervously scanning the area.

"Sorry, I have no idea as to the whereabouts of the jewelry that you are referring too," Ezra slowly replied then tensed, prepared for the inevitable punishment for his insolence.

Jimbo stood and brought his booted foot sharply into the loquacious gambler's rib cage. Air whooshed from his lungs and Ezra heard the delicate protective bones crack. He swallowed back the scream as rib bones ripped into muscle and flesh. The Sergeant landed three more swift kicks in quick succession, not giving the gambler any time to catch his breath.

Roland's eyes went wide and the bile in his stomach threatened to rise up his throat. He watched in horrid fascination as the big Sergeant's foot sunk into the gambler's mid section.

"You're tougher than you look, fancy pants," Jimbo chuckled.

Standish was curled up in a ball; trying to gulp in some much needed air. His chest and stomach screamed at him, and his whole body shook at the abuse. Ezra squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on taking swallow breaths, hoping the sharp ache would diminish soon. He was having a hard time filling his lungs with enough air and was trying to quell his growing panic.

Jimbo Macklin walked over to his horse and laid his hands over the saddle. Shit, how could a fancy dressin' peacock like that be so stubborn. Who the hell was he protectin' anyway? Maybe he wanted in on the action. Well, that weren't goin' t' happen, Jimbo mused. He thought there was to many involved now, something he would remedy later, starting with Roland.

Croninger remained quiet as Jimbo stared off. He felt eyes upon him and slowly turned his head to meet Ezra's pain-filled gaze. Roland licked his lips as the conman's eyes seemed to plea for help. What could he do? Jimbo would kill him without hesitation. Roland's breath caught in his throat as he realized that the man he looked up to, and who had taught him how to survive Army life, would just as easily kill him. Roland stared back at the injured southerner. It had to be done, they risked hanging if anyone discovered the truth, and he was just as guilty as the others. Roland's large pale eyes conveyed his regret as he turned away.

Ezra closed his eyes as the young Private turned away. He hadn't been pleading for his life as much as hoping the young man would tell someone before all out war broke out and more innocent people were killed. He hoped Chris and the others discovered the truth before it was too late. He hoped they all knew how much they had come to mean to him. Lord, he'd have to do something about this sudden concern for others. Ezra opened his eyes and smiled, realizing that it probably wouldn't be a problem soon.

Jimbo watched as sand devils danced across the wide expanse of desert. His gaze drawn to a large bulbous patch of cactus, growing along a small rise. Macklin raised his eyebrows and smiled, a smile that actually showed the glee he felt. Grabbing the lariat off his saddle, he walked back over to his captive.

*****Part 17

Chris and Buck slowed their horses, giving them a much needed respite from the demanding pace they had been forced to keep since leaving Four Corners.

"So, you think the Army found out that Vin is wanted?" Buck said.

Larabee had been lost in thought the past mile and a half, and it took him a moment to decipher what the ladies' man had said. "Nah, why would they send for us."

Buck ran his tongue over his teeth and nodded. "You think Ezra's disappearance has anything to do with what's going on with the Indians?"

Chris's first thoughts were that the wily cardshark had got himself in trouble playing poker, but that belief soon smothered with his growing unease. "Yep," Chris finally answered. The two gunslingers pulled up as three Calvary soldiers crested the hill ahead of them.

"Looks like we have a welcoming committee," Buck said.

****Part 18

"Okay, I think we need to go for a ride," Jimbo sneered as he roughly tied one end of the rope to Ezra's tied hands, yanking it taut. The large man continued to grin, not able to help himself.

Jimbo looked over at Roland. "Boy, get on your horse and meet me over by that tree."

Roland looked down at the cardshark, wishing he had never gotten involved, but it was too late now, and he was in too deep. Roland turned and slowly made his way over to his horse.

Jimbo put a foot in the stirrup and looked down at the trussed up cardshark as he pulled himself up into the saddle. "Let's see how tough you really are?" Jimbo spurred his horse into a trot, stretching the conman out behind him.

Ezra winced as his arms were stretched out, and he bit back a scream as his wounded rib cage was extended. Sand flew up into his face, stinging his eyes and filling his mouth. He rolled over onto his back, holding his head up as high as he could. His shoulders and arms felt like they were going to separate from his body as the tension increased. Small rocks tore at his dress shirt, and he could feel the friction on his skin as he was dragged along the ground. The horse's pace quickened and Ezra gritted his teeth as sharp rocks ripped into his back, tearing the soft skin and muscle to shreds. He tried to drag his heels to keep his legs off the ground as much as possible.

Jimbo glanced over his shoulder, seeing the agony on the conman's face. He was impressed that the southerner wasn't screaming but he knew how to remedy that. He guided his horse toward the outskirts of the cactus patch. Jimbo turned his horse just as he reached the needle harboring vegetation. A smile spread across his face as a scream rose up from behind him.

Ezra knew he was screaming, but he couldn't hear it over the blood rushing to his head and the pain flooding his body. The long needles of the cactus seemed to jump out at him. They speared his left side and leg with daggers of torture. Instinctively, Ezra rolled onto his stomach, trying to escape the cacti's spines. He pulled at the rope that tied him, feeling the pop of his shoulder then the mind-numbing agony that raced down his arm.

Jimbo dragged the gambler a few more feet then pulled to a halt. He dismounted and looked back at the dust-covered body. He hoped he hadn't killed him or they might never find that ring.

****Part 19

Ezra's head was swimming with pain and his body was racked with spasms he wasn't able to control. His whole body felt raw, like a skinned rabbit waiting for the spit. His fancy shirt was in tatters, only shreds remaining on his shoulders. The bottom of his pants were frayed and ripped. He felt huge, rough hands grab his injured shoulder and turn him over. Ezra wanted to scream, but his throat was dry and tight. His half hooded gaze was filled with the Army Sergeant kneeling down beside him with an insipid grin pasted on his face. Ezra blinked, trying to remove the grit from his eyes. He couldn't remember when he felt so utterly wretched.

"Those look painful," Jimbo mocked looking down at the several dozen cactus needles imbedded in Ezra's side and leg. Trickles of blood had started to pool on the sand next to the gambler. Jimbo reached down and touched one of the spines, pulling his hand back quickly when blood was drawn.

Roland remained on his horse a short distance away, not wanting to see what was left of the stubborn gambler. Standish's screams would now be added to the screams of the couple that burned and would haunt him for a long time to come.

"Now, you have a choice, tell me where the ring is and I'll make your death quick." Jimbo pressed the barrel of his gun against Ezra's temple and cocked the hammer back.

Ezra found himself leaning into it, seeking the release that the gun offered. Death cured so many things.

"And...if I refuse... this cordial request?" Ezra gasped out through dry, dust-covered lips.

He felt the gun slowly travel down his face and neck, and then his side. "I'll make it painful and long lasting. Your choice." Jimbo pressed the revolver into the gambler's side smiling at the gasp of pain.

For a moment Ezra just wanted to die, the pain that gripped every part of his body was almost unbearable. His legs and back felt like they had been ravaged by a mountain cat. Ezra labored for each breath and it was a struggle just to move his head. Through the haze of his pain-ridden mind, thoughts of his friends and what they had come to mean to him eased the agony somewhat. He knew he wasn't ready to give that up yet, at least not without a fight. Ezra knew he couldn't risk putting JD into this sadistic monster's hands. He hoped the others would learn of his sacrifice somehow.

"Go to Hell," Ezra spat, watching through clouded green eyes as the Sergeant's smile changed, becoming sardonic and deprecating.

The bullet seared through his flesh, drawing an enormous bolt of pain through his side. Ezra twisted and his face contorted in agony that stole away all reality as bright dots flashed across his vision in sync. He tried to scream, but only managed a hoarse animalish moan.

Jimbo chuckled as he watched the conman writhe in pain. He looked up at the afternoon sun.

"Looks like it's going to be hot one. I'd be careful about sunburn if I were you." Jimbo stood and walked back toward his horse his maniacal laughter mixing with the sound of receding hooves.

The pain centered in his side and then slowly radiated through his nervous system, crawling down his legs and up his back like an inevitable tide of agony. Every nerve ending vibrated with the feeling of a red hot needle knifing through his battered body.

Dust swirled lazily over Ezra's wrecked body, the desert flora the only witness to the brutality he'd endured. He slowly raised his head looking out over the desolate landscape. His body shook as he fought back the sharp, tearing pain. He squinted against the harsh sunlight hoping to see some sign of salvation, at the moment he'd even settle for an apparition.

His green eyes glazed over like frost on a windowpane, the fierce pain finally releasing its grip on his tortured body. 'I'm going to die out here,' was his last coherent thought as fog glazed over his mind, and he was gratefully carried into oblivion.

****Part 20

Chris and Buck entered the large tent to find Major Willis sitting behind a rickety table. The Major continued to write a moment before finally bringing his attention to the two gunslingers. He looked tired, but still determined. His uniform wasn't as neatly pressed as before and he was in dire need of a shave.

"You have one of my men." Chris asked, not in the mood for any bullshit this Major might feel inclined to give.

Major Willis leaned back in his chair. The same self-satisfied grin that he wore back in town appeared on his face. Chris started to believe it came with every promotion to Major. "Yes, Mr. Tanner." Willis rose from his chair and turned to one of the three soldiers standing inside the tent.

"Sergeant Murphy, could you please go and get the prisoner."

"So why was he arrested?" Buck angrily growled. He had been going over ways to free Vin if the Army found out that he was wanted in Tacosa. So far every plan ended with all of them being killed.

"He was interfering with a military operation. Staff Sergeant Yeager and Corporal Lance tracked him to Pine Bluff where we believe he was trying to warn Gray Eagle," Willis replied.

Chris and Buck exchanged bewildered glances, and some of Chris's anger seeped away at the absurdity of that statement.

Major Willis nodded toward two soldiers standing at attention along the far wall.

"During our patrol we witnessed Mr. Tanner riding out of town," Sergeant Yeager explained. "We thought it suspicious that he was riding at night and alone."

"And you tracked him all the way to Pine Bluff?" Chris slowly repeated, trying to come to grips with the implausibility of that.

"Yes Sir," the Sergeant replied with a note of pride in his voice.

"It wasn't hard," the Corporal added with the same self-satisfaction as his Sergeant. "We trailed him to Pine Bluff and stopped him before he could light a signal fire."

"I suppose I should thank your friend. We now know where Chief Gray Eagle is holed up," Willis smugly explained.

Buck's face contorted, barely able to contain his amusement. He glanced over at Chris whose lips were pressed tight, but his eyes danced with humor. The two lawmen held their tongues, knowing Vin had a reason for allowing the soldiers to track him, and not willing to inadvertently expose that reason.

Vin strolled into the tent ahead of his guard.

"Now, I don't want any further interference from any of your men," Willis told Chris as he stood face to face with the blond leader. "Or next time your man might not get off so easy."

Chris glared at the Major for a moment then stepped back in mock compliance. He just wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. They still had to find Ezra.

****Part 21

"What the hell were you thinkin'? Pullin' a fool stunt like that," Chris yelled at his friend as soon as they were out of range of the Army camp.

"I'm not going to let the Army murder innocent people," Vin bit back.

"And what if the Major had decided to look more in-depth into your personal life?" Buck pointed out. "Rescuing you from bounty hunters is whole lot different than from the Army."

"Why didn't you tell me what you were plannin'?"

"'fraid you wouldn't have let me go," Vin explained. "I needed to do something, Chris. I couldn't let it happen again without at least trying to prevent it."

Chris understood Vin's concern over the Indians, but he couldn't help being angry at the risk his friend took. Vin was like a brother to him, and he didn't want to lose him.

The three men rode in silence for a moment.

"So, how long before they discover that Gray Eagle ain't at Pine Bluff?" Chris asked his voice a little calmer.

Vin shrugged and a mischievous grin played on his face. "One, maybe two days."

"How'd you know they'd trail you?" Buck asked.

"Just figured they were watching for one of us to go and try and warn Gray Eagle. I'll tell ya it weren't easy. I had to backtrack twice...kept losing 'em," Vin explained. The three men shared a much needed laugh, easing the tension of the past three days.

"So, we got two days to find out who is really responsible," Chris mused out loud. "You haven't seen Ezra?" He suddenly asked trying to keep the anxiety out of his voice.

Vin frowned. "Nope." He scrutinized his two companions seeing the worry on both their faces. "Has anyone seen Ezra?"

Buck shook his head. "JD found his jacket in the alley next to the saloon, and his room looked like a steer was let loose in it."

"Damn," Vin muttered.

****Part 22

The noon sun looked down on the three lawmen as they rode in silence. Each one lost in their own Private thoughts, not realizing those thoughts were shared by the others. What were they going to do about the Army and where the hell was Ezra? Chris and Buck both feared that Vin would join up with the tribe, and Vin was contemplating that very thought. Chris and Buck also knew that they would be right there to back the foolhardy tracker.

"Buzzards," Buck abruptly pointed out, pulling up on his horse and looking over to the west where several ominous dark shapes spiraled downward on the air.

"Probably just a dead steer," Chris remarked under his breath, hoping his words would take away his doubt. Without a word the three headed in the direction of death.

"Aww hell," Buck hissed when he recognized the intended meal for the scavengers was a man. Damn, just what they needed another white man murdered. The Army would probably try and peg this sorry cuss on the Indians too.

Vin was the first to notice and horror flashed in his blue eyes and froze the features of his face. His heart raced as his mind tried to deny not only what he was seeing, but who. Vin spurred his horse into a gallop, taking Chris and Buck by surprise and causing knots of dread to form in their guts.

Vin pulled his gun and fired at two rather bold carrion-eaters, who were on the ground, hopping toward their quarry. The giant birds of prey turned their small heads to stare angrily at the interloper then took flight.

Vin leapt from his horse even before the animal came to a full stop, his boots sliding on the sandy soil. He slid on his knees next to the motionless form that lay on his side. For a moment Vin was afraid to touch his friend, he didn't look alive.

"Ezra, ah shit, no," Buck breathed as he and Chris pulled up their mounts.

Vin placed a hand on the gambler's shoulder and felt a slight tremble.

"He's alive."

"Dear Lord in heaven. What the hell happened to him?" Buck growled as he dismounted, grabbing his canteen. Chris untied his bedroll and grabbed his canteen.

Vin's eyes roamed over the injured gambler. He could tell that Ezra's shoulder was out again. His jaw clenched when he noticed the needles protruding from the man's side and leg. He glanced over at the patch of cactus and swore. The tatters of Ezra's shirt barely concealed the long red abrasions, scouring his back and chest.

"Some sonofabitch dragged 'im through that cactus." Vin's voice cracked with rage and fear.

Ezra moaned. He thought he heard voices, but his mind refused to solidify the belief. It all sounded distant anyway, and he didn't have the strength to call out.

"Ezra? Ay Ez, you in there?" Vin gently prodded as he removed his knife and quickly cut through the rope that bond the gambler's hands. Vin grimaced at the bloody groove that encircled Ezra's wrist as he pulled the rope away.

Chris stood over the tracker his jaw clenched and his eyes burning with hate.

Vin looked up at Chris and for just a moment felt sorry for whoever had done this. They better pray that Larabee didn't get his hands on them. Ezra groaned again and any sympathy for the walking dead man was forgotten. Chris rolled out his bedroll behind Ezra. Buck knelt down next to Vin and together they carefully eased the gambler onto his back.

"Shit, he's been shot!" Buck exclaimed upon seeing the still bleeding wound. Vin pulled off his bandana and pressed it against the hole in Ezra's side.

Chris couldn't speak, the building rage inside stealing his voice. Fingers curled into fists of rage as his icy stare darted across the desert landscape, hoping to find the person responsible to release his anger upon.

Ezra gasped as a spike of pain cut through his fog-induced state. He tried to roll over onto his left side but someone grasped his arm and stopped him. He wasn't alone, his mind finally informed him. Ezra tried to open his eyes his head rolling to the side.

"Ez, don't move," Vin instructed, keeping pressure on the bullet wound.

The sound of the familiar Texas drawl gave Ezra renewed hope and he forced his eyes to open. Green, pain-filled eyes gazed up into Vin's worried visage. Ezra's heart soared at the sight of the tracker. They had found him.


"Shhhh, Ez. We're here you just take it easy," Vin soothed. Vin peered under the bandana grateful that the bleeding had finally stopped. Buck handed him a clean bandana, which Vin wet and used to mope Ezra's brow.

"Buck, go and git Nathan and a wagon," Chris said, his voice low.

Buck glanced down at his injured friend, wondering if he would see the suave cardshark alive when he returned. Chris grabbed Buck's upper arm and pulled him close.

"Watch yourself, whoever did this might still be out there."

"I hope so," Buck sneered, laying his hand on his gun and walking toward his horse. Chris watched as Buck galloped away then knelt down beside the injured gambler.

Vin lifted the pain-ridden man up by his shoulders and Chris placed the canteen to his lips.

"C'mon Ez you need to drink," Chris encouraged, smiling slightly when Ezra's lips parted to allow the life sustaining moisture in. Ezra tried to reach for the canteen, but his arms felt like dead weight and wouldn't obey his commands.

Chris pulled the canteen away, resting a hand on Ezra's chest. "That's enough fer now." Chris could feel the tremors going through the gambler's beaten body. He squeezed Ezra's hand, trying to give his friend some measure of comfort.

"Sorry," Ezra breathed out and Vin's brow furrowed.

"For what?"

Ezra fought to keep his eyes open. "You were right."

Vin didn't understand what Ezra was talking about. He looked at Chris, who shook his head.

"R..r..ing," Ezra rasped. His leg and side burned and tears slid down his cheek.

"What did you say?" Vin frowned as he leaned closer to the southerner's chapped lips and wiped the tears away.

Ezra licked at dry lips and tried again to make himself understood. He had to do this even if it was the last thing he did. His voice was hoarse and gritty, stealing away the smooth southern drawl. Ezra's eyes slowly closed as the word again left his lips.


"What's he talkin' about? What ring?" Chris asked, his brow furrowing in concern as Ezra went limp.

Vin placed two fingers alongside the Ezra's neck, feeling the slight throb of his pulse. "Don't know," Vin replied, wiping at Ezra's fevered brow.

"Think we should try and get those needles out of 'im?" Chris asked, looking at the long spines that stuck out of the conman's side and through the tatters of his pants.

"I guess we can try."

Chris removed one of his gloves, reached down, and tried to grab hold of one of the slender needles. The fine spike was difficult to grasp. Chris slowly pulled the needle out, stopping when he heard Ezra groan. The gambler's face scrunched up, and his eyes squeezed tight against the pain that was everywhere. Chris continued to pull the needle the rest of the way out and looked at the blood-coated tip. Vin took hold of another only to break it off at the skin.

"Shit! Maybe this isn't such a good idea." He could see that they were only causing Ezra more pain.

"We need to wait for Nathan to give him something for the pain," Chris said.

Vin nodded in agreement, although the sight of all those needles sticking out of his friend was driving him crazy. Why would someone do this? It was obvious Ezra had been left for dead. Vin removed what was left of Ezra's shirt then the two gunslingers began to wash the dirt from his body. With each wipe came a new discovery, there was barely any spot left on the conman's body that hadn't been damaged.

****Part 23

The sun dropped the space of an hour when the sound of thundering hooves caused Chris and Vin to raise their heads. Ezra had begun to stir under their administrations and both were grateful for the healer's arrival.

Nathan pulled up his bay a few yards away, kicking up dust and dirt and obscuring the horse's forelegs. The healer grabbed his bag and scrambled over to his friends.

"Son-of-a-bitch," Nathan pulled up short and swore as he took in the gambler's appearance.

"He was dragged and shot, got a bunch of cactus needles in 'im," Vin explained, his voice shook as his hand stroked the southerner's brow. Nathan broke from his stupor and knelt down next to Chris.

"His shoulder's out too," Chris added.

Buck rode up, with JD and Josiah following in a wagon filled with hay and blankets. The ex-preacher's face paled and his heart dropped into the pit of his stomach at the sight of the man he considered a son. "Sweet mother Mary of God," he said under his breath.

"Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan urgently called, peeling back an eyelid and noticing the sluggish response of the pupil. He quickly checked the back of the conman's head finding a huge lump. He knew the southerner was only semi-conscious. The healer then let his experienced hands run along Ezra's torso feeling the broken ribs. Gawd, how much can one man take?

Josiah stepped up beside Nathan and knelt down, resting his hand on Ezra's shoulder.

"We need to get his shoulder back in," Nathan said as he ran his hand down Ezra's arm. Josiah grasped Ezra's shoulder as Nathan took hold of his lower arm and expertly pulled until the shoulder slipped back in place. Ezra's face scrunched, and he tried to roll away from the pain. Nathan stopped him before he could do any further harm to himself. "Easy, Ez, just hang on for me."

Nathan. Oh thank God it was Nathan! Ezra inwardly rejoiced. He was exhausted. He felt the coolness of a damp rag on his face and thought it felt as heavenly as the finest silk. He started hearing the murmur of voices and felt the touch of concern as he slowly rose to consciousness.

Ezra groaned and his eyes fluttered.

"Nat...han," the name floated on a breath of air as Ezra struggled to open his eyes without success. His body felt like it was full of molten lead, and pain throbbed in every appendage.

"Don't talk. You have to save your strength." The fear and worry in Nathan's voice caused a wave of anxiety to wash over the others, drenching them in despair. Josiah clasped Ezra's hand and whispered a prayer of salvation. JD quickly wiped at tears that slid down his cheek. Buck's heart broke and he turned away for a moment.

Nathan dug out a cup and was about to pour a generous amount of laudanum into it until Vin's hand reached out and stopped him. "He can't take laudanum."

The healer stared at the tracker like he was crazy. "Vin, he's in a lot of pain now and when I start digging for that bullet..."

"You can't give 'im laudanum," Vin interrupted.

Ezra slowly reached out and grabbed Vin's wrist, opening his eyes to glare at the plainsman. Vin only shook his head. "Sorry, Ez, I have to tell them."

Ezra's hand dropped away, and he nodded once. Vin looked at the five confused faces. "He told me that during the war doctors gave him too much laudanum, and he got hooked on the stuff. It took him a year before he could finally stop taking it."

"Shit," Nathan murmured. He had seen many men hooked on the opiate during the war. Ezra was apparently made of sterner stuff than Nathan had believed. He'd known very few men who had actually kicked the addiction and most of them eventually went back to it. Nathan reached back into this backpack and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and some herbs. He mixed the herbs in water and handed it to Josiah.

"Josiah, try and get that down him." Nathan looked at the sinking sun. They were losing light. "It won't be as good as the laudanum, but it'll have to do. I have some stronger stuff back at the clinic. And get some of this whiskey down him too."

"Vin, I need you with me," Nathan said as he stood and looked toward the cactus.

Chris grasped the healer's upper arm and leaned into him. "Is he goin' to be alright?" He glanced down at the prone form, watching as Josiah coaxed more of the herbs and water down him.

Nathan bowed his head a moment and swallowed. His gaze was misty as he brought his head up. "I don't know. I'm surprised he's made it this long." Nathan would never forget the look of desolation that flashed on Chris's face.

****Part 24

Vin and Nathan walked over to the cactus patch. Nathan looked at the round spiked plants that ran several feet along the base of some rocks. Two to three inch needles protected the soft flesh of the cactus. Nathan could see the sweep of dirt where Ezra's body was dragged past.

"It's Devil's foot, real nasty stuff," Vin explained knowing the healer wanted his expertise in the native vegetation.

"Any poison?" Nathan asked studying the plant and seeing the barb ends.

"Nah, have to worry 'bout infection, especially with the amount of needles in 'im and all that dirt," Vin said as he knelt down to examine several hoof prints in the hard packed earth. He stared down at one clear imprint, noticing the nick in the horse's left rear shoe, he also saw the vague mark of the letter 'U'. Vin stared off toward the east, wondering who would do this and why?

"Easy, Ez," Josiah soothed, resting a large hand on the southerner's shoulder to keep him still. He looked up as Nathan and Vin returned.

Nathan knelt down and laid a hand on the conman's forehead then moved down to his neck to check his pulse.

"I was able to get the herbs and some of the whiskey down him," Josiah said. "I think he's out again."

"Good, because I'm going to have to get that bullet out now."

"Why can't we wait until we get back to town?" JD asked. He couldn't stand seeing his friend in so much pain. "And what about all those needles?" JD was almost sick at the sight Ezra as a human pincushion. Ezra's leg and side were already swelling and turning red.

Nathan looked at the plummeting sun, taking the much needed light with it. "Because I'm losing light and we're already riskin' infection from those needles and scrapes. I have to at least get that bullet out." Nathan looked up at Chris, who stood over Ezra's head. "Was he conscious when you found him?"

"Barely," Chris said.

"He kept sayin' something about a ring. Didn't know what he was talkin' about," Vin added.

JD's eyes went wide, and he dug in his pocket as he exclaimed. "This one?" He held out the gold wedding band.

"Let me see that," Nathan grabbed the gold band and stared at it, noticing the inscription on the inside of the band. "This is Mrs.
Schorr's wedding band."

"Are you sure?" Chris asked.

"Yep, look at the inscription 'To J.S., all my love P.S'."

A shiver went down everyone's spine like a ghost had suddenly walked through each and every one of them. They all knew that ring had come off the finger of a dead woman.

Chris knelt down and laid a hand on Ezra's head. "Ezra, where did you get the ring?" He sharply whispered.

Ezra's head lolled to the side and without opening his eyes he whispered. "Soldier..."

"Aww shit!" Buck exclaimed.

Nathan pulled out his instruments and prepared to remove the bullet buried in the cardshark's side. "I need you all to hold him down."

Josiah remained where he was and wrapped a large arm across Ezra's shoulders, whispering a passage from the bible into his ear in hopes of soothing him. Vin took hold of Ezra's right leg, and Buck gingerly took hold of Ezra's left ankle acutely aware of the needles sticking out of his leg. Everyone was surprised at the muscles that quivered underneath their grasp and knew they might be in for a fight. When Nathan saw that everyone was ready he took a deep breath, and then began to cut into the festering wound.

Ezra's eyes snapped open and his body tried to jack-knife as he howled in agony, his body wanting to curl into a fetal position. Chris and JD moved in, grapping hold and helping to restrain the gambler.

"HOLD HIM!" Nathan yelled as he remained fixed on digging out the bullet as quickly as possible.

Josiah, Vin and Buck fortified their holds. Chris winced when he saw the wound on Ezra's side bleeding freely. How much blood could a man afford to lose? And Ezra was already weak from dehydration. He noticed that a couple of the needles had broken off. Chris moved down next to Buck to help keep Ezra's leg still.

Standish's eyes darted wildly as wave after wave of pain assaulted him. He released a tormented scream, trying to escape the pain tearing at his body and his soul, trying to hold onto what was left of his sanity.

"Hurry, Nathan," Buck pleaded as he looked down into Ezra's face contorted in agony. He felt Ezra's body convulsing under their grips.

Ezra shuddered, and his eyes rolled back into his head as he mercifully passed out. Nathan found the elusive bullet and pulled it out. The healer poured a generous amount of whiskey on the wound bringing forth only an enfeeble moan from the cardshark. He put two fingers to the side of Ezra's neck, feeling the weak pulse. "Shit, we have to get him back to town. I still need to get them needles out of him and clean all these scrapes." Nathan quickly gathered his instruments as the others took a moment to catch their breaths.

"Damn, who have thought underneath them fancy duds there was that much muscle," Buck softly quipped, swinging his left arm around to try and release the cramp.

"He's goin' to be alright now, right Nathan?" JD asked out loud, silently, he pleaded, 'Please let him be alright.'

Nathan could see the plea in the young gunslinger's eyes.

"Let's just get him home."

****Part 25

The wagon ride home was nerve-racking as each of the lawmen would look toward Nathan for assurance that their friend would survive. All they received was his uncertain frown as he continued to work on the injured southerner. He had tried to get some much needed water into the gambler but only succeeded in dribbling it down his chin.

Night had silenced the town as the wagon and its somber entourage paraded slowly up the street. Josiah pulled the horses to a gentle stop and jumped down from the wagon. "How's he doing, Brother?" Josiah asked looking over the side of the wagon. He gasped, for a second thinking he was peering down at a corpse.

"He's holdin' his own so far." Nathan removed his hand from Ezra's chest. He had left it there through the entire trip so he could be assured that Ezra was still breathing.

Josiah released the back of the wagon as Nathan eased Ezra's shoulders into his waiting arms. Vin came up alongside, taking hold of the conman's ankles. They gently carried Ezra between them up to the clinic.

Nathan pushed past them and pulled the covers back on the bed. They laid Ezra down. The southerner had been silent throughout the entire and a moan startled the healer.

"JD, I need lots of water and rags," Nathan ordered. The young man raced out the door to comply. Nathan stared down at the needles imbedded in Ezra's side and upper thigh. He didn't think his forceps would be able to get a tight enough hold on the slim needles.

"Josiah, I'm going to need some pliers."

Josiah inhaled sharply, nodded and left the room.

Ezra moaned and eyelids fluttered slightly.

"Ezra, wake up," Nathan sternly cajoled. He was worried about the concussion that Ezra obviously had. He also wanted to get some fever and pain medicine down him before he started pulling out the needles. He could see where some of the needles had broken almost at the skin; they would have to be cut out. The ones he couldn't see he would leave in and hope that Ezra's own body defenses would take care of them. There was so much dirt, and a fever was burning throughout his body. Nathan also needed to treat the scrapes on his back and they needed to get some water down him. Nathan inhaled and held it. One thing at a time, he thought. He couldn't let the extent of the injuries overwhelm him. He released the breath slowly.

"We gotta find who did this," Buck sneered, the anger in his voice contrary to the tears in his eyes.

"Oh, we will, Buck, that I promise." The low threat rose from the corner of the room where Chris stood, his eyes like stone and his body tense with controlled fury waiting to be unleashed. Vin smirked and nodded. He hoped he got a chance to practice some the more unpleasant rituals that the Indians had taught him.

JD returned, his arms laden with supplies. Buck, and Vin grabbed the water ewers and rags and surrounded the bed, knowing the healer would need their help.

Ezra's eyes opened, and he stared up at his friends, his green gaze vibrant with fever and pain. Buck raised Ezra's head and Nathan quickly brought a cup of water and herbs to his lips. "Sorry, Ez, but you're going to need this." Nathan wasn't going to give the cardshark a chance to protest. Ezra downed half of the medicine before he coughed and sputtered.

"Mr. Jackson..." he gasped. "That...was most...unkind." Those few words rode on a breath of pain and left the cardshark exhausted. Nathan smiled, but continued to force the rest of medicine and some more whiskey into him. He hoped it would be enough.

Buck gently laid the gambler back down, touching Ezra's pale cheek before moving away.

Nathan pulled a chair up to the bed. In the clinic the healer ruled and everyone made way without question or interference, unless directed.

"Ez, I have a lot of needles to pull out of you," Nathan softly explained.

Ezra tried to raise his head, but Nathan laid a hand on his brow and forced him back down. "Don't, Ez."

"Yeah, pard, it's not somethin' you want t'see," Buck sadly murmured.
"You look like a damn porcupine."

A faint smile creased Ezra's lips. "Thank you...for that vivid... imagery, Mr. Wilmington." A shudder caused Ezra to gasp and arch his back.

Nathan grabbed his shoulders. "Easy Ez, just ride it out."

Ezra fell back, sweat beading up on his forehead.

Josiah returned and handed Nathan the pair of pliers he had got out of his toolbox. Nathan dropped the tool into a basin of alcohol that was sitting on the dresser. He looked back at Ezra seeing the effects of the herbs and alcohol finally taking hold as the green eyes glazed over.

"Stop fighting it, Ez," Nathan calmly scolded, laying a hand over the gambler's eyes for a moment.

Nathan looked over at Josiah and Vin, who stood at the head of the bed. He nodded and both men gently laid their hands on Ezra's shoulders. Buck and Chris added their weight to the conman's lower legs.

Jackson took hold of the pliers and took a deep breath. Ezra groaned. Damn, he was still with them. Nathan wished that he could have given the gambler laudanum. He laid a hand on Ezra's thigh and took hold of the first cactus needle with the pliers. He slowly pulled the needle out, keeping it straight to avoid breaking it.

Ezra clenched his teeth and tried to bury his head into the pillow as the spine was extracted with excruciating slowness. Blood trickled out of the small puncture that the cactus needle left behind.

Nathan tried pulling out three needles at a time, but one broke. He swore and felt Josiah squeeze his shoulder in reassurance. The healer firmly took hold of another one and pulled it out. After twenty minutes, Ezra's face was bathed in sweat, and he no longer seemed sure of where he was as he muttered incoherently. Nathan paused from his work for Josiah to give their semi-conscious friend some water. Nathan laid the back of his hand on Ezra's forehead. "Damn, his fever is higher."

"Nathan?" Buck quietly prompted.

"I'm almost done." Nathan let his hand stroke Ezra's cheek, but the gambler continued to stare blankly at the ceiling. His body shook as the ex-medic again started the painful procedure of removing the needles.

Finally, Nathan stood and took a few steps away from the bed, allowing Josiah to gently clean the needle wounds. Ezra was unconscious and burning with fever, spasms racked his body. The gunshot wound had started bleeding again and Vin applied pressure until Buck could get a new bandage.

"Well?..." Chris asked his eyes glued to Ezra's pale form.

"Dehydration, blood loss, busted ribs, shock, infection..."

Everyone's face paled as Nathan clinically rattled off Ezra's injuries. The healer's voice caught and his eyes watered. "I'm not sure there's anything anyone can do."

****Part 26

The six lawmen worked through the night on their injured friend. Buck and JD maintained a continuous flow of water as Chris and Vin wiped down the gambler's fevered body. Nathan applied salve to the many scrapes, and with Josiah's help wrapped Ezra's chest, binding his injured shoulder to his chest. They all tried to get Ezra to drink water but to no avail.

The stairway creaked as five pairs of weary boots slowly made their way down and into the deserted saloon. The early morning sun shined through the slats of the bat wing doors. Buck stepped up to the bar, reaching over and grabbing a bottle of whiskey. He returned to the table where the others tiredly gathered. JD's head rested on top of his arms. Vin's hat was pulled low, covering his face. Josiah's head was tilted back with his arms across his chest. Buck heard the large gunslinger's soft snore. Buck placed the bottle in the center of the table.

Chris rubbed the nape of his neck, trying to ease the tightness.

"JD, let me see that ring," Chris abruptly asked. JD raised his head and pulled out the ring, handing it to the gunslinger. Vin pushed his hat back and Josiah snorted, waking himself.

Larabee stared at the gold band, wondering if the ring was the reason Ezra was almost tortured to death. His gut clenched every time he thought of what Ezra had gone through and if they'd lose him. Chris didn't know when it happened, but he had come to care a great deal for the wily cardshark, as he had the other five men he found himself fortuitously linked.

"What'cha thinkin', cowboy?" Vin asked.

"If we assume the soldier that Ezra got this ring from took it from Mrs. Schorr, why would soldiers be burning homesteads and making it look like Indians?" Chris mused out loud.

"Maybe the government has decided to expedite the removal of the native peoples," Josiah grimly stated.

"Nah, I think soldiers are involved, but not the Army." Chris rubbed his chin and continued to stare at the gold ring. "Who would have a reason to get rid of the Indians?"

"Parson," Buck abruptly stated. All eyes turned to the mustached cowboy. "He's been wanting that land for years and was real angry when we promised Gray Eagle that they'd never have to leave."

"Maybe Parson's worried if'n the Judge ever gets that signed pact with the government he'll never be able to get that land," Vin stated."

"Yeah but how do the soldiers fit in?" JD asked, coming out of his stupor. He was still in shock over Nathan's admission that Ezra might die.

"Army men don't earn much, it wouldn't be hard to find some willing lambs to cause a little unrest," Josiah said.

"It weren't no lamb that did that to Ez!" Buck growled.

"We'll need more proof and find out who's all involved," Chris said, rolling the ring between two fingers. "And I think I know a way."

"What do you have in mind, old-dog?" Buck leaned forward in his chair, his weariness disappearing as his need for revenge rose.

Chris's voice was firm and cold his own thoughts of revenge bringing a glint to his blue eyes. His gaze traveled up the stairs and stopped at the door, where Ezra fought for his life. He inwardly promised him justice--Chris Larabee justice.

"Someone wants this ring bad enough to kill. I say we give it to 'em," Chris venomously growled.

"But we don't know who's really involved?" JD asked.

A faint, feral grin cracked Chris's face as he looked over at the young gunslinger. "I think it's time you got engaged, JD."

"What?" JD jumped up out of his chair, a new kind of fear filling his eyes. The young gunslinger's backward progress stopped when he ran into Vin who placed a hand on his young friend's shoulder and grinned.

"Yeah, JD, Casey's waited long enough," Buck good-naturedly quipped.

"Now, wait just a dog-gone minute. I ain't ready to get hitched,"
JD protested.

Chris raised a hand. "Not for real, JD. We just need a way to let whoever wants this ring know where they can find it."

JD wiped a nervous hand down his young face. "What if'n Casey finds out and takes it the wrong way?"

"C'mon, JD, it's for Ez," Vin added.

JD's shoulder's slumped, he couldn't believe how selfish he was being. He took the ring from Chris's fingers and turned to glare at Buck. "If she finds out what I'm about to say, I'll know who told her."

Buck stepped back throwing up a face of pure innocence, which had absolutely no business being on the rogue cowboy's face. "Now,
JD, I wouldn't do such a thing," he answered with a wide grin that only caused the young gunslinger to groan.

****Part 27

JD entered the saloon and spared a glance over toward the eight soldiers who occupied two far tables. He then headed over to where his friends sat on the other side of the room.

Before reaching the table, he announced in a clear voice. "Hey guys, I'm finally goin' to do it." JD stepped up to the table risking a quick glance over his shoulder.

"Do what, JD?" Buck answered, playing along with the charade. He would definitely have to think of a good use for this later.

"I'm goin' to ask Casey to marry me." JD allowed his voice to travel through the saloon, trying to sound as cheerful as he could.

"Well, good fer ya," Vin congratulated, raising his beer.

"See, I even got a RING." JD held the gold band up so that even the soldiers across the room could see it. "Ezra gave it to me. I figure it's what he'd want me to do." JD's enthusiasm suddenly left him as he thought of the southerner fighting for his life. They had managed to keep Ezra's return a secret, hoping that whoever was responsible would believe the gambler had died out on the desert.

"Well, when you goin' to ask her?" Buck asked trying to distract all of them from their morbid thoughts and put them back on track.

Dunne inwardly shook himself. "I'm goin' up to her place right now."

"That's it," Roland whispered over to Jimbo who glanced over to see JD talking with the other regulators. "That's the ring."

"We need to get it back," Jimbo reiterated.

"Yeah, but isn't he one of them peacekeepers?" Hutchins asked. He didn't like this. He had enough money and was prepared to just leave and head on down to Mexico.

"Hell, he's just a kid," Conner quipped. "I think we can handle him."

JD bounced out of the saloon as the remaining lawmen fervently watched as four of the soldiers rose and left. It took everything Chris had not to jump out of his chair and shoot them down. Vin had wisely left his mare's leg back in Nathan's room.

*****Part 28

Dunne stopped his horse just outside of town and leisurely dismounted, grabbing his canteen and walking to a nearby pond. This was where they hoped the soldiers would try and take the ring. JD stared down into the water and watched as it flowed into his canteen, even after the canteen was full he remained kneeling by the pond.

JD grinned when he heard the click of a gun and a deep voice command, "Alright, boy, get up real slow and keep your hands where we can see them."

The young easterner spread out his arms and slowly stood. He turned around to glare at the four soldiers who surrounded him.

"We want that ring!" Hutchins sneered. He didn't like this it was too easy.

"I think it would be a little small for ya," JD mocked.

"Just give us that ring and maybe we'll let you walk out of here alive," Jimbo added. He wasn't in the mood for games.

"Yeah, but the question is will we let you?" The smooth Texas drawl was even, unangered, but still managed to send a shiver down Roland's spine. The cocking of four distinct revolvers echoed through the small glen and caused the four soldiers to stiffen and swear under their breaths.

"Drop your guns." The second voice held a cold and deadly edge.

Roland and Conner immediately complied, convincing Hutchins with their eagerness. Jimbo glared at the five gunslingers. 'They'd been set up. Somehow they knew about the ring.'

Jimbo dropped his gun as his face broke into a broad grin. "Hey, sorry, we didn't know he was one of you. We were just havin' a little fun."

The five peacekeepers glared silently at the huge Sergeant.

"They wanted the ring, Chris," JD informed the others.

"Well, we just took a likin' to it." Jimbo was more than willing to plea to robbery--better than murder.

"Shut up!" Chris growled his finger applying pressure to the trigger, wanting nothing more than to kill the worthless piece of shit that stood before him. But that wouldn't give the Schorrs' any justice. All they had was the ring and it wasn't enough to convict these men of murder and attempted murder. They had to get more proof. "Let's get them back to town and wire the judge."

"We're government property," Hutchins exclaimed. "You don't have any jurisdiction over us."

"We'll let the judge decide that," Chris replied.

***Part 29

"You ain't got nuthin on us!" Jimbo yelled as Vin slammed the cell door, fighting back the urge to tear the man's tongue out. Jimbo looked over at the adjoining cell where Roland and Conner sat quietly. "You hear that boys, they ain't got nothin', so keep yer traps shut." Roland shied away as Conner just continued biting at his nails.

Jimbo strutted inside the confines of his cell, much to the amusement of his fellow inmate, Hutchins.

Vin held his tongue, they didn't want to give anything away quite yet. He turned and slammed the keys on the wall peg as he left the jail to join Chris outside.

Larabee stood on the boardwalk, staring toward the clinic where Buck, JD and Josiah had headed as soon as they reached town.

"I'll hang around here and keep an eye on these fella's," Vin offered, knowing that Chris wanted to go and check on Ezra.

Chris smiled his gratitude and looked back into the jailhouse. Roland and Conner had remained silent during the trip back to town. Hutchins and Jimbo actually seemed pleased and unconcerned. Chris hoped to change that soon.

"I need to check on a few horse shoes when you get back," Vin quietly remarked.

Chris walked across the wide street, noticing the absence of any soldiers. Apparently, Vin's deception had worked. His eyes shifted to the window on the second floor of the saloon, and his heart raced inside his chest causing his mouth to go dry. He didn't think Ezra was going to make it and wondered what that loss would do to them all.

****Part 30

"We caught them bastards, pard," Buck softly murmured as he wiped the unconscious man's forehead with a damp cloth. He looked up as Chris entered the clinic.

Chris's gut clenched at the sadness on his Buck's face. Ezra had managed to wiggle his way into the ladies' man heart too. He glanced over at Josiah, who sat in the rocking chair, his arms wrapped around a bible and his eyes glued to the form on the bed.

"Gawd, he's hotter than a two-dollar pistol," Buck said, trying to hold back the tears that threatened to trickle down his face.

"Where's Nathan?" Chris asked.

"Told 'im to go and get himself something to eat. He hasn't left
Ezra's side since yesterday morning," Josiah offhandedly explained his eyes never leaving Ezra's pale face as he rocked back and forth.

Buck dipped the rag into the basin of water and laid it across Ezra's fevered brow. "Damn, they were probably trying to get Ezra to tell them where the ring was," Buck absently said.

"An if he had? JD would be in the same condition or worse," Josiah added.

Chris closed his eyes and allowed his chin to drop to his chest. Damn, southerner had to go and surprise him again. Chris folded his arms across his chest and his fists clenched in helpless despair as he listened to Ezra's uneven and struggling breaths. He didn't want to lose a member of his family, not again, not like this.

****Part 31

The pain was intense, causing his whole body to burn and ache. Ezra knew he was in the clinic. He could hear Nathan's frustrated worry, wishing he could do more. Josiah's heavy sighs spoke volumes of his depth of feeling. Ezra could feel Chris's angered concern causing everyone to walk on eggshells, less they evoke his fury. Buck and JD's fear-filled concern, hoping they weren't going to lose a member of their family, entwined the others. He could even sense Vin's quiet consternation.

Ezra felt himself drifting and the pain was starting to ebb away, being left behind. At first, he allowed it, reveled in it. It was a joyous feeling--no pain--and a peace he had never known. Then he realized he was moving away from his friends and from a life he had grown quite fond of. No. He wasn't ready to leave, it was too soon. The arrogant and self-reliant cardshark had found something extraordinary with these six stalwart men, something he wanted to hang on to for as long as possible.

"Nathan, what's wrong?" Chris asked, startled when the healer jumped up to lay a hand on Ezra's chest. They had been sitting with Ezra for over a day now, watching as his condition deteriorated. Chris's heart pounded fiercely inside his chest as the healer bowed his head in resignation.

The healer released a quivering breath, raised his head and removed his hand. "Nothing...I...I just thought we lost him but he's still with us." Nathan could have sworn that Ezra had stopped breathing, but then he felt the long overdue rise and fall of his chest.

"How long can he keep fighting?" Buck somberly asked.

"I don't know. If I could just get his fever down, maybe..." Nathan sat back down in the chair, placing his face into his hands for a moment. He felt so useless. He raised his head, and taking a deep breath turned to find Chris staring intently at him. "He's so weak and the infection is strong. I think it's only a matter of time."

Ezra was dying. This was like a slap in the face and snapped Chris into action. He turned and stormed out of the clinic. Vin glanced at the three bewildered faces and chased after his friend.

*****Part 32

Vin caught up with Chris just as he entered the jail. JD rose from his chair as the dark-clad gunslinger crossed over to stand in front of the cell that held Jimbo Macklin and Hutchins. Roland was the only one who appeared jittery at the gunslinger's appearance, and Chris focused his glare on him, like a lion weeding out the weakest member of the herd. Roland stepped back into the corner of the cell fidgeting with his belt. Chris shifted his gaze to the two older men.

"The big one on the cot was riding the bay with the nicked shoe," Vin confided to Chris over his shoulder.

Jimbo lay stretched out on the cot, his hands behind his head.

"Get up!"

The Sergeant opened one eye and looked over at the blond lawman. His heart skipped a beat but that was the only sign that Larabee was having any effect on him.

"You can't touch us; we're government issue," Jimbo chuckled.

"Not in my town you're not," Chris countered. "You're scum." He turned to JD, who tossed him the keys and a set of handcuffs. Vin raised his mare's leg and pointed it at the large Sergeant.

Jimbo grinned and slowly stood. "You are making a big mistake. So, we tried to roll a peacekeeper, big deal. We'll get a year at hard labor at most."

"What about burning and killing homesteaders?" Chris asked.

Roland flinched and Jimbo and Hutchins's cool demeanor melted slightly.
Conner looked toward Roland hoping the Private wouldn't break.

"You ain't got no proof," Jimbo growled.

"Oh really, that ring you tried to steal belonged to the dead woman," JD broke in.

"What? We don't know nothing 'bout no dead woman. I just thought it was pretty," Jimbo smugly replied. "I wanted to give it to my girl."

"What about our friend you almost dragged to death," Vin venomously stated.

Jimbo noticeably stiffened, bringing a smile to Chris's face.

"He's still alive?" Roland blurted out, stepping toward the cell bars.
Conner rolled his eyes and placed his face into his hands.

"Shut up!" Jimbo spat out at the young soldier. "I demand you send for my commanding officer."

"If either of them twitches, shoot 'em," Chris said to Vin as he opened the cell door. "Face the wall and put your hands behind your back."

Jimbo tried to bring moisture back into his suddenly dry mouth. Seeing Vin's mare's leg pointing at him, he slowly turned around.

Chris slammed the Sergeant against the bars with enough force to drive some of the breath from his chest. He snapped the cuffs on the large man and shoved him out of the cell. Vin slammed the cell door shut and glanced over at Roland who looked like he was going to faint.

"JD, get Mr. Brandies to watch the prisoners. I want you to head out to the Army camp and bring the Major," Chris stated as he pushed the Sergeant out the door of the jailhouse.

"Will do, Chris."

Vin handed JD the key then turned back to the remaining prisoners. "Don't worry, boys, we won't forget you all," he sneered. The others paled and Roland fell heavily onto his cot.

Chris pushed the subdued Sergeant across the street, barely allowing him to keep his feet. As he passed by a horse Chris grabbed a rope that hung off the saddle.

*****Part 33

Larabee shoved Macklin through the clinic door. The Sergeant staggered, and crashed into the side of the dresser. His earlier confident attitude deserting him, and his stomach churned at the look in the Larabee's face.

"What the hell are you going to do to me?" Jimbo stammered. He looked at the other gunslingers who surrounded the bed. Jimbo's eyes widened at the gambler's pale form stretched out on the bed. He turned back to Larabee. "I demand you wait until my commanding officer is here."

Chris ignored the Sergeant's demands as he deftly formed a noose at one end of the rope and then flung it over the rafter. Without a word, Chris placed a chair under the noose. Josiah and Buck regarded each other, then seeing what Chris had in mind they moved forward, grabbing Jimbo by the arms as he started to step back.

"You can't do this," Jimbo protested, his eyes wide with fright as he stared at the noose.

Buck and Josiah forced the Sergeant up onto the chair. Josiah grabbed the noose, fitting it over the Sergeant's neck. Chris pulled the rope taut and tied the free end to the closet doorknob.

Josiah and Buck returned to their positions at Ezra's side as if nothing unusual was happening. Buck actually smiled up at the terrified Sergeant.

Chris grabbed another chair and sat down, putting his foot on the chair that Sergeant Jimbo Macklin stood precariously on.

"You're crazy! All of you!" Jimbo spat out, fear causing his breaths to come out in fear-filled pants. The chair wobbled under his shaky legs and he finally locked his knees to steady himself.

"If Ezra dies, you die," Chris calmly and simply stated, removing a cheroot from his pocket and sticking it into his mouth.

"You can't do this to me."

"Figure if Ezra dies, you can follow him to the hereafter and beg his forgiveness, or at least give him a fair chance to shoot you," Buck said.

Josiah stepped forward and glared with unconcealed hate into the soldier's terrified face. "Well, brother, I suggest that you pray very hard for our friend's recovery. Your life depends on it."

*****Part 34

The hours ticked by, the only sound in the room was Ezra's struggling and irregular breaths. The five lawmen would hold their own breaths during each pause, fearing the loss of their friend. Sergeant Macklin would also hold his breath but in fear of losing his life.

Larabee remained seated, his foot resting on the chair that held up Jimbo's life. He could tell the soldier was getting tired as he kept shifting from one foot to the other.

Jimbo stared down at the conman, finding himself praying that the man would live. There was no doubt in his mind that the dark-clad gunslinger would hang him when and if the cardshark died. He watched as the dark healer bathed the gambler's chest and face with cool rags. Jimbo watched as all five of the gunslingers had in someway touched or comforted the dying man. All his years in the army, he had never seen such loyalty and concern for another, or maybe he just never wanted to see it. He continued to watch as Ezra struggled for breath, demanding and praying that the man's chest rise.

*****Part 35

Major Willis stormed into the clinic followed closely by JD, who immediately went to Ezra's side. The Major stopped short when he saw his Sergeant standing on a chair with a rope around his neck.

"Mr. Larabee, what is the meaning of this? Why have four of my men have been arrested?" Willis paused and looked his Sergeant up and down. "And why is this man trussed up like a piece of meat? He's a soldier in the Army. You can't treat him this way."

Chris stared at the cheroot he rolled between his fingers. "JD, tell the good Major what his men are charged with."

JD approached the put-out Major. "Burning Private property, inciting an uprising, murder, and attempted murder of a peacekeeper," JD replied.

The Major glared at Larabee. "Is this some kind of a joke? Are you saying my men are the ones burning the homesteads?"

"Yep," Chris coldly replied looking up at the Major.

Willis laughed. "Oh, this is pathetic. You don't want the Indians blamed so you're blaming my men. What, you couldn't find a better alternative than this?"

Buck grabbed Vin by the arm to hold him back. "Easy, Vin. Chris'll handle it," he sharply whispered.

Chris's jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed. He couldn't believe that this man was so blind as to what was happening around him.

Willis's annoyed expression fell, feeling the icy stares of the six gunslingers, some of his bravado dissipated. "What proof do you have that my men were involved?"

"A ring off a dead woman and what this piece of shit did to my man," Chris growled, nudging the chair that Jimbo was standing on. The legs scraped along the floorboards like fingernails on a chalkboard. Jimbo gulped in some air.

"Major, please?" Jimbo pleaded, sweat glistening on his forehead.

"Mr. Larabee, I don't know anything about any ring. These men belong to the Army and you can not take the law into your own hands," Willis explained. He was willing to placate these lawmen if only to get his men out of here. "This is no place for a trial." Willis looked up at Jimbo. "Or execution."

"You look at what he did to my man, and then tell me that I don't have the right."

The five other lawmen parted to reveal the prone form on the bed. Major Willis walked over and looked down at the gambler's pallid face. For a moment, he thought he was looking at a corpse. Nathan pulled back the blanket to reveal long red scrapes running up the conman's side and chest, peeking out from under the bandages. Ezra's leg was swollen and a large bruise ran down the side of his face. The Major laid a hand on the gambler's brow, grimacing at the heat he felt. Ezra started to convulse again. Nathan pushed the Major aside and took hold of Ezra's shoulder as Vin and Buck quickly moved in to help.

The Major stared helplessly as Ezra shuddered one last time then was still. Nathan reached over and wrung out a cloth to wipe the sweat from the gambler's face.

"What happened to him?" Major Willis asked no one in particular.

"He was dragged through cactus, shot and left in the desert to die,"
Vin explained, coming face to face with the Major and only barely managing to control his anger.

"We think your men were working for a rancher by the name of Parson who has been trying to get the land that the Indians live on," Buck explained.

"Yeah, if'n the Army sent the Indians to a reservation, or better yet killed them, then Parson could buy up the land cheap from the government," JD added.

Major Willis recalled a gentleman coming to his camp a little over a month ago. He had asked for help in tracking down some wolves that were attacking his cattle. Willis offered any of his men who wanted to help. He remembered seeing Parson and Jimbo in several conversations.

The Major's soft features gave way to a hidden hardness. He walked over to Macklin. "Is that true?"

"No sir..." Jimbo began, but gasped as Chris pushed his chair over a little more.

"Ezra had a ring that came off one of the dead homesteaders. He got it playing poker with Private Croninger. That's why he was dragged and shot. They wanted it back," Chris explained.

"You know for certain Sgt Macklin was involved?" Willis asked.

"The horse that dragged Ezra had a nick on his left hind shoe just like Macklin's bay does, also the letter 'U'," Vin explained.

Willis closed his eyes, the letter denoted an army issue shoe. He knew Macklin and the other three soldiers were as thick as thieves, but he never imagined anything like this. The Major's eyes opened and anger colored his features as he looked up at Macklin.

"I think Private Roland will tell you all you want to know," Chris stated.

Jimbo knew he was caught. "Listen Major, we were doing a service, getting rid of those redskins. They shouldn't be around decent folk. That couple dying was just an accident I swear we didn't mean for anyone to get hurt."

"And him," Willis stated turning to look back at Ezra. "Is he just an accident?"

Jimbo's brow furrowed and he bit at his bottom lip. "Ah, we just wanted the ring back," he defeatedly admitted.

Willis turned abruptly back to Nathan.

"Would ice help?"

Nathan blinked. "Yeah, maybe."

"I'll have some for you within the hour."

Major Willis headed for the door and stopped when he heard Macklin's pleading voice.

"Please Major, help me. You can't leave me with these men." Jimbo's eyes swept the room, seeing the looks of hate and retribution on each of the gunslinger's faces. He felt like a fish on a hook waiting to be gutted. "They'll kill me."

Major Willis snorted and a small smile tickled one corner of his mouth. "That's highly possible, Sergeant. You should 'ave thought of that before you began torturing that man." Willis shifted his gaze to Chris. "Let me know if your man dies." Willis paused. He had been made a fool of and would probably lose his position when word got out. "I'll take care of whatever you decide to do." Willis glared up at Jimbo.

Chris nodded and allowed a faint smile to tickle his lips.

"MAJOR!" Macklin yelled as the Major closed the door behind him, muffling the Sergeant's sobs.

****Part 36

Within the hour, four soldiers entered the clinic carrying two tubs of chipped ice. They glared up at the Sergeant, still standing on the chair.

"Quick, let's get this ice packed around him," Nathan urgently explained. "We need to get his fever down fast." He feared that it might be too late, but he wasn't ready to give up. Ezra had made it this far that stubborn streak was proving a blessing. The soldiers and lawmen scooped up handfuls of ice and placed it around the gambler's body.

The young Corporal who had rode into town earlier came up to Nathan. "Major Willis says he can have an Army doctor here by tomorrow if you need."

Nathan looked down at his friend. He had done all he could, and he didn't think there was much more anyone else could do. "Tell the Major thanks, but if Ezra's not better by then, it'll be too late."

The four soldiers departed the solemn room, leaving the six men to care for their seventh.

**** Part 37

Nathan stretched out his long, lean body, from the chair, where he had fallen asleep. He wiped at a sliver of sunlight that drew a line down his face. He looked over to see Chris, his chin resting on his chest and his hat pulled down. Buck and Vin were stretched out on the floor alongside the bed like prone sentinels. JD and Josiah were propped up against the far wall with JD snuggled up against the preacher's shoulder. Nathan smiled at the Sergeant who was fighting the call of sleep, his head lolling as much as the noose would allow. It had been twelve hours since Chris had strung him up. Nathan amusingly wondered how long the soldier would last.

Groans and moans signaled the slow awakening of the five lawmen strewn about the room. Nathan turned his attention to Ezra who seemed to be trembling slightly. He laid a hand on the man's forehead relieved at its coolness. His hand then slid down to press along Ezra's pale cheek causing eyelids to flutter.

Standish leaned into the warm flesh just like he had leaned into the gun that had been pressed against his temple, seeking the same solace. It was amazing the comfort a human hand gave one's flesh.

"Ezra," Nathan's voice caused the gambler to force his eyes open. He looked up into the healer's smiling face. The room came alive as everyone rushed to surround the bed. Ezra eyes lit up as his heart filled with an unfamiliar joy that brought a smile to his face.

"Gentlemen," he haltingly managed, clearing his throat. "Why am I so cold?"

"Hell, Ez, we thought you were going to go up in flames you were so hot," Buck chimed in with his normal exuberant grin. He was never so glad to hear that southern drawl.

"Had to put you on ice to cool you down, pard," Vin added, unable to stop the grin on his face.

Suddenly Ezra felt hands gently working their way underneath him, and looked over to see Josiah preparing to lift him off the sopping wet mattress. Ezra grimaced as the preacher carefully lifted him up.

"Good to have you back, brother," the ex-preacher softly whispered into Ezra's ear.

Nathan and Buck quickly stripped off the wet bedding and flipped over the mattress. Josiah then eased the gambler back into the soft embrace of a dry bed. Nathan immediately raised Ezra's head and forced him to take a few sips of water and boiled herbs, ignoring the gambler's feeble objections.

Ezra gagged slightly and Nathan pulled the cup back.

"I swear your brews get more vile..." Ezra coughed.

"Figure if I make them bad enough you all would take better care of yourselves," Nathan good-naturedly quipped.

"C'mon Ez, you know they have to taste bad to work," Buck added.

Ezra frowned as fear surged through him. "JD?"

"Right here, Ez." JD bounced in front of Buck and smiled. Ezra eased back into his pillow. He hadn't been sure if he had told the Sergeant that JD had the ring.

"Don't worry, Ez, we got the ring and the men responsible," Vin stated at if reading the cardshark's mind.

"Good," Ezra tiredly answered.

"We're going to have to get those wet clothes off ya," Nathan intoned with a smile, knowing it would be easier and less embarrassing for the southerner when he was asleep. Nathan also wanted to clean his back and the bullet wound again.

"I would prefer less of an audience," Ezra said, the simple smile remaining on his face.

"He going to be alright?" Chris sternly asked as he stepped up to the bottom of the bed. His cold gaze locked on his injured man. He never thought he'd come to care for the wily gambler. The thought of him dying had put a void in the pit of his stomach.

"Mr. Larabee...your concern...is touching," Ezra replied through a yawn.

"Just don't want to have to break in a new man," Chris quipped, a wink and faint smile played across his lips.

"He's going to be weak for quite awhile but the worst is over," Nathan answered. "I'll just need to keep his wounds cleaned and get some food down him."

"Oh joy," Ezra murmured.

"Okay, you can cut me down now right?" Macklin stated from behind.

Ezra's eyes widen, and he stared strangely at the Sergeant who was hanging perilously by the neck in the middle of the room. He recognized the man as the one who had almost killed him.

"Good lord, you apprehended the miscreant and..." Ezra's smile grew.
"Placed him in a most appropriate position."

"Yes, figured it would help him learn to repent," Josiah stated with a grin.

"Alright, your man is fine, everything is fine. Please, cut me down," Jimbo whined. His legs and arms were numb from being in the same position for so long.

Larabee's eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched as he glared at Macklin. This man had the audacity to say that everything was fine after torturing Ezra almost to death, killing two homesteaders and placing the blame on the Indians--almost starting a war. Chris strode toward the door, grabbing the chair on the way out and pulling it out from under Macklin's feet. Chris didn't even look back as he left the clinic the chair clattering against the wall. Macklin hung for a moment, sputtering and choking as the noose tightened around his throat his face turning blue.

Vin released an exasperated sigh and calmly walked over to the closet door. Pulling his knife, he cleanly cut through the rope, allowing Macklin to fall to the floor, his legs unable to hold him up. Buck yanked at the noose to loosen its hold on the Sergeant's neck.

"That son-of-a-bitch was going to kill me anyway," Macklin sputtered as Buck grabbed him and pulled him to his feet.

"You think?" Buck retorted and shoved the Sergeant toward the door.

**** Part 38

Judge Travis allowed the Major to take his men into custody after assurances that they would be punished to the fullest extent. Ezra made a written desposition against the soldiers and tying them to the Schorr's murder. Chris, Buck and Vin had the pleasure of arresting Parson. They all faced life in prison, except Roland who was given a lighter sentence for confessing and telling the Judge that the Indians had nothing to do with the burnings.

Ezra was slowly improving, much to everyone's relief and Nathan's grief. The conman was incorrigible to say the least, but Nathan was never so glad to be dealing with the exasperating gambler instead of burying him.


Vin came up behind Nathan, who was kneeling down beside the grave of Mrs. Jane Schorr. The tracker silently watched as his friend dug deep into the earth then laid the gold band inside covering it. Nathan stood and said a few silent words then turned to see Vin.

"Thought she might like the ring back," Nathan sadly stated. "JD didn't feel right keeping it and no one knew what else to do with it.
Nathan looked up into the clear blue sky smiling at the graceful movements of a single hawk soaring above. "I'll never understand man's wanton brutality against another."

Vin laid a hand on the healer's shoulder. "Hope you never do. I think the only way someone could understand it, is to be a part of it." Vin looked up at the call of the hawk. All their lives had been full of needless violence. "The day brutality is not a part of us is the day we soar like a bird."

Nathan smiled. "And maybe not even then," he murmured under his breath.