WAGES OF SIN

By Maggie LeMay

Don't think of it as infringement, consider it a tribute.

I only own my OCs. Sadly, the others belong to someone else.

Ezra Standish absent-mindedly shuffled his ever-present deck of cards. The chance of catching him without one was about the same as Chris Larabee admitting that he liked being called a cowboy: a snowball's chance in hell.

The batwing doors to the saloon swung wide and in stepped Josiah; Buck and JD followed the ex-preacher inside. Striding across the hardwood floor, Buck turned a chair backwards before throwing one long leg over the back and sitting down in a cloud of dust.

"Damn, Bucklin." Ezra waved a hand as he coughed. "Has it ever occurred to you that it's necessary to visit that fine establishment here in town known as a bathhouse? You reek with the stench of a deceased animal carcass."

Vin tried, and failed, to hide the grin he wore. He'd caught the last part of the conversation as he returned to the table. "Looks like 'ol Ez's got your number, pard."

With an indignant snort, Buck stood and stomped over to the bar. "Beer." The portly barkeep hurried over to the tap and handed the ladies man his brew. No sense playing with fire, and there was definitely fire in Wilmington's eyes.

"Where is he?!" The silence in the saloon was broken by the irate female voice. Four sets of eyes turned in Buck's direction. What mischief had he wrought this time? Buck stood, wide-eyed and silent, at the bar.

The doors flew open with a bang. A tall, buxom redhead stood in the afternoon sun, looking for all the world like a valkyrie straight from Valhalla.

"Where is that riverboat gambling', lyin' son-of-a--" Spotting Standish at his usual corner table, she sailed over, crimson hair flying loose behind her, and stopped in front of the lawmen. Pulling a glove from her reticule, she struck the handsome gambler across the face.

Standing, Ezra rubbed his cheek then turned toward the seething woman in front of him.

"Madam, I am not entirely certain I have had the fortune to make your acquaintance before today." Standish pulled a linen handkerchief from his frock coat and dabbed it to his cheek, positive there would be a blood stain when he pulled it away. "But if that is your normal greeting, I am quite sure I would remember you."

Josiah was the first to react, standing and pulling a chair out for the young lady. "Ma'am."

Ignoring the large man, she continued to glare at Ezra. "How can you stand there and say you don't remember me, Ezra Standish?"

Breathing a sigh of relief that he wasn't the vixen's intended target, Buck came back to join his fellow lawmen. Josiah shot an inquisitive look at Vin, and was answered with a shake of the tracker's head. Whoever this woman was, she had done what was seemingly impossible: render Ezra speechless.

"I would think it would be hard to forget the only woman to ever best you at a game of chance." Lowering herself into the chair Josiah had offered earlier, she smoothed her skirts before she continued. "That quaint little gambling hall in Savannah? Or has it slipped your mind?"

And then he remembered.

Taking hold of the woman's upper arms, Ezra pulled her to her feet and claimed her mouth in an ardent kiss. JD gave an audible gasp. However, Buck's response was a bit more enthusiastic. "Whooo-eeee! Lookit that, boys!"

When she pushed gently on his shoulders, Ezra broke the kiss and leaned back a ways to look at the female in his arms. "Virginia."

As if just remembering that they were in a very public place, Ezra removed his arms from around the woman and took a step back. "My apologies, dear lady, if I have caused you any embarrassment. It truly was not my intention."

The young lady smiled a knowing smile at Ezra then found her voice. "I'm staying at the hotel here in town for a few days." She looked at the gambler with hopeful eyes. "Perhaps we could have dinner tonight and reminisce about old times?"

"I would be honored to dine with you this evening." The Southerner's smooth voice slid over her like good whiskey. Picking up her bag, he held out an arm. "May I escort you across the street?"

As the couple left the saloon, neither was aware of a pair of eyes following their every move. The she-bitch wouldn't get away this time, and if her fancy-man got in the way, well, the pot would be that much sweeter when the little lady had to watch him suffer a slow, painful death.

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At precisely 7 o'clock, Ezra stood in the hotel lobby waiting for Ginny. A wry grin played on his handsome face. There had been several women left in his wake. Mind you, he wasn't the indiscriminate kind of lover Mister Wilmington seemed to appear. No, he, for all his misdeeds and they could almost be classified as myriad, was a gentleman. And a gentleman never kisses and tells.

But Ginny had been special. Granted, Li Pong was a special woman, too. His feelings for the young Chinese girl had been genuine, but he knew in his heart that they would never have had more than the one night they shared together.

He remembered telling that cheating bastard, Big Lester Banks, that he was holding on to the ring in hopes of finding the future Mrs. Standish. At one time, he'd thought that might be Ginny. Hell, it could still be.

His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the woman in his thoughts. She came down the stairs in a dark green silk gown, her crimson hair piled in intricate curls on top of her head. She took his breath away. In the years since Savannah, he had honestly forgotten how beautiful she was.

He offered her his arm and together they strolled into the hotel's dining room. Pulling out a chair, he waited for her to sit then gently slid her close to the table. Taking the seat opposite her, he asked if she would care for an aperitif before their meal. When the waiter brought the drinks over, they sat in comfortable silence until they finished.

They dined on steaks, cooked to perfection; along with seasoned new potatoes and a basket of fresh, hot biscuits. Dessert was a bowl of fresh berries that cook herself had picked that very morning, topped with fresh whipped cream.

Wiping the corners of her mouth with the linen napkin, Ginny leaned back in her chair and smiled at Ezra. "Now that was a delicious meal. I had no idea one could find such fare in a place like this."

"Yes, our little backwater may not look like much, but cook does take pride in her work and the food is actually edible. Not like that gastric horror my dear Mother tried to pass off in her brief stint as a hotel proprietress." Ezra shuddered at the thought of Maude's attempt at culinary preparation.

Ginny leaned a little closer, a wicked gleam in her eye, and whispered to the gambler. "Do you remember the time we snuck out to Old Man Jackson's mill pond and Maude caught us?"

Standing, Ezra pulled Ginny's chair back and once again offered her his arm. "Why, Miss Virginia, the things that come out of that pretty mouth." The gleam in his mint green eyes matched the one in his companion's. "I do believe we were in a rather awkward position when Mother dearest made her presence known."

The light from the gas lamps caught the glimmer of gold in Ezra's smile, and Ginny thought to herself that he was still the most handsome man she'd ever known. If only Maude had held off announcing herself a little longer that day…..

As they left the dining room, Ezra had an idea. "Ginny, may I interest you in an outing tomorrow afternoon?" He rubbed his fingers over the soft skin of the hand he held tucked in his elbow. "I am quite certain I could persuade cook to pack us a nice repast and we could ride out to the pond."

When they reached the stairs, Ginny turned to Ezra, and placing a ghost of a kiss on his cheek, she said in a voice meant only for him. "Make sure your Mother isn't in town and pick me up at noon." And with that, she glided up the staircase, leaving a flummoxed Ezra Standish in her wake.

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The howl startled Mary Travis as she came out of the Clarion office. It was a bit early in the day for the coyotes. As she started down the street, she heard it again. Turning, the sight that greeted her caused her to drop the armload of newspapers she was carrying. For there, running down the middle of the street, was Buck - screaming like a banshee and tearing his clothes off as he ran. The ladies man turned the crisp morning air blue with epithets about Mother Nature and her demon spawn: the yellow jacket.

The Olsen twins were quickly ushered inside the hardware store, and the ensuing ruckus brought Chris and Vin out of the jail.

The sight of his friend in such a state had Larabee laughing so hard tears ran down his face. "Head for the pond, Stud!"

That exclamation earned the gunslinger several choice words as Wilmington passed him by.

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Ezra and Ginny were just stepping out of the hotel when all hell broke loose. Upon seeing Buck in all his manly glory, Ginny tried valiantly to hide her amusement. Standish on the other hand, made no attempt to stifle his laughter.

"Are things always this exciting here, Ezra?"

Tucking her arm in his, Ezra placed his hat on his head and began to walk toward the carriage he'd rented for the day. "It is never boring, my dear, that's for sure."

Handing her up, he waited for her to get settled comfortably before joining her. Taking up the reins, he clicked his tongue and slapped them lightly to get the carriage rolling. It was a beautiful day and they enjoyed a leisurely drive out to the pond.

Ezra helped Ginny to the ground then grabbed the basket of food he'd picked up from the hotel kitchen earlier. Arm-and-arm they walked over to the big shade tree. Sitting the basket down, Ezra spread the blanket and waited for Ginny to sit down before he joined her. "Are you hungry now?" he asked. "Or would you rather wait a bit before we partake of this lovely cuisine?"

Ginny smiled at Ezra. Getting to her feet, she held out her hand to him. "How about a stroll around the pond? It might help us work up an appetite."

Taking her hand as he stood, Standish smiled back at her. "Now how can I refuse such a tempting offer from such a beautiful lady?"

The day was clear and sunny, but a light breeze wafted around them as they walked along the water's edge. After several moments of silence, Ezra asked the question that had haunted him for years. "Why did you leave me, Ginny?"

The stark pain in his voice brought tears to her eyes. "I've been afraid this day would come." Ginny stopped and pulled her hand free. "It was complicated, Ezra. We were at different places in our lives then, and we were very young." A tremulous smile came to her lips, and the tears began to fall. "I never meant to hurt you. You do know that, right?"

Never at a loss for words, Ezra searched for the right ones now. For all his bravado, he was still human and she'd broken his heart. "I loved you, Ginny." The gambler looked across the rippling water, his green eyes moist.

"I know."

Placing a gentle hand on his face, Ginny stretched up and covered his lips with hers. Folding her in his arms, Ezra deepened the kiss until both were gasping for air.

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The clouds came out of nowhere, and fat drops of rain greeted the couple when they finally broke the embrace. Catching Ginny's hand, Ezra pulled her along with him to the shack at the edge of the clearing. Peals of laughter saturated the air as they ran along. Trying the door and finding it locked, Ezra stood back and gave it a hard kick. Splinters flew as the aging wood gave way to his boot.

Once they were out of the rain, Ezra gathered her in his arms once more. Taking her chin between his thumb and forefinger, he looked into her eyes. "Will you tell me now why you ran?" Green orbs met hazel ones in a test of wills.

Ginny pulled away from him, walking over to the other side of the room. It was hard to think clearly when he was so close. Taking a deep breath, she turned back to Ezra. "I told you, it's complicated. There are things about me you don't know."

"Well, I know you're no saint but then who amongst us is?"

There was that smile again. Lord, she wished he wouldn't draw that on her. It quickened her breathing and made her want to do things with him that had nothing to do with talking. Shaking her head, as if that would clear her muddled thoughts, she tried again. "After I left you in Savannah, I met another man." The sharp intake of breath tugged at her heart. "Oh, it was nothing like that. I certainly didn't love the fool. He was simply a means to an end. Or so I thought."

Sitting down on the crude chair beside her, she folded her hands in her lap and continued. "We were running a scam on the townspeople of Haynesburg." Twisting her hands nervously, she looked at Ezra. "However, the good people of the town found us out and took a bit of offense at being duped. Seems they were quite willing to outfit us with a nice coating of tar and feathers. Not a pretty sight."

Ezra kneeled beside her. Taking her hand in his, he whispered, "Go on."

"Well, the night before our sentence was to be carried out, the sheriff came to my cell. I was terrified, Ezra. All I could think about was the hot tar on my skin." She shuddered. "Sheriff Dobson offered me a way out. He told me if I would marry him, he'd make sure I would be spared."

Unable or unwilling to meet Standish's gaze, she closed her eyes as a tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. "I'm not proud of myself, but I told him I would do anything he said. We were wed that very night, in the jail." She gave a mirthless chuckle. "My partner was fit to be tied. He would be tarred and feathered at dawn, and here I was married to the man who would be doing the honor. He swore he would survive and make me pay for double-crossing him." Tears were flowing freely now. "The next morning, they dragged him to the center of town, stripped him down and started pouring the tar on his body. The screams were unearthly; you could hear him all over town."

Ginny stopped to compose herself. "What happened next I'll never be able to understand. As Sheriff Dobson went to put the tar on him, the crowd surged forward and jostled his arm. He missed his original target and the hot pitch landed on Elmer's face. Now you have to understand that the sheriff was a good man, he was only doing his job. But when this happened, Elmer seemed to be endowed with superhuman strength. He broke free from the men holding him, grabbed a gun from a bystander, and shot the sheriff dead."

The rain began to fall in earnest then, and thunder rumbled in the background. Ginny went on. "He took a young cowboy hostage and managed to escape. The next morning, the poor man's body was found beside the river and Elmer was long gone. But that's not the worst of it."

Ezra placed an arm around her, pulling her close. "You don't have to go on."

Wiping her tears on her sleeve, she nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do have to get this out. It's weighed heavy on my heart all this time and I don't think I can carry this any longer. I saw him once more after that day. But I had no idea that it was him, not at first." Ginny turned to Ezra, a horrified look on her face. "You see, when the pitch landed on his face, it burned him, badly. His once handsome face was now disfigured, his visage marred by horrible scars. In essence, it melted the skin right off his bones. Only when he spoke, did I recognize him and I regretted it immediately."

"I take it he was not in the most amiable of moods?"

Ginny smiled. "To say the least. He blamed me for what happened to him and swore that I would pay dearly for it. I thought he meant to kill me, but he only scoffed and said that death would be too good for me. He meant to punish me as he'd suffered and swore that if it took to his last breath, he would have his revenge."

The thought of her suffering made Ezra's heart twinge. "Where is he now?"

Ginny sighed. "I wish I knew. He followed me to St. Louis but I managed to give him the slip. That's when I caught the stage to Four Corners." She gave the gambler a feline smile. "Seems I heard somewhere about these seven men who protect the town, and when one of them was described as a Southern scoundrel who lived for a good game of chance, I knew I was headed in the right direction."

Ezra crossed the small room and noticed the horses were getting a bit antsy in the storm. "I had best take care of our animals. It's a long walk back to town."

Opening the door, he turned back to Ginny. "It's going to be fine; you do know that, right?" Ginny walked over and pressed her lips to Ezra's. "It will be now."

Ezra sprinted across the wet grass, and taking the reins of the horses, led them to the old barn. Tossing down some hay, he then went back and grabbed the picnic basket. When he returned to the shack, he could sense a change in things. Switching the basket to his left hand, he un-holstered his gun and nudged the door open a bit with his boot.

The sickening sound of the rock connecting with the back of Ezra's head caused Ginny to cry out. "No!"

As blackness enveloped him, his last conscious thought was of the redhead who was bound to a chair inside the room. "Gin--"

The dark figure stepped from behind the door. "Well, well. Looks like Mr. Fancy-Man ain't such a hero after all." The laugh that came from him was pure evil. Looking at the terrified woman in front of him, he leaned down and jerked Ezra up by the arms.

"Now, let's get down to business." He roughly tossed the gambler across the bed then secured his hands to the headboard. "Don't look away, my dear. I want you to enjoy this as much as I will." He cackled with glee.

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Blinding, white-hot pain tore through Ezra's body. Fire ants, thousands of them on his face, that's what it had to be. His body arced up off the bed, the ropes biting into his wrists. Got to make it stop. Get them off. Pain. So much pain…..Ginny…Ginny! Where was she? Why didn't she get the devils off his face? What a horrible dream….

Green eyes flew open and tried to focus on the figure standing over him. "Ginny?" Ezra rasped in a taut voice. "What are you doing to me?"

A grimy, bloody hand wrapped tight in her hair jerked her head back and stopped her from answering Ezra. Leaning close to her ear, Elmer whispered, "That would be a big mistake, Virginia. You speak, he dies. Slowly."

The feel of something warm trickling down his cheek brought Ezra more awake. Was he sweating? Then the bitter, coppery smell of blood reached his nostrils. But whose blood? His? Ginny's? God, Ginny! He called out to her but got no response. "Ginny? Virginia?" The pain in his cheek intensified when he opened his mouth. What in the hell was wrong with him? And why couldn't he move his hands?

Mustering up his strength, he turned his head to the left. There, bound and terrified, was his Ginny. He struggled against his bonds but to no avail. When he saw the man standing behind Ginny, he ceased his actions. The blood-stained knife pressed to her throat was incentive enough to listen to the man holding it.

"Well, Fancy-man," the creature spoke. "Finally woke up, didja?" Releasing his hold on the woman, he moved into the faint sunlight and the sight he presented made Ezra blanch.

Ginny had been kind in her description of the man. He was hideous. He remembered accompanying Maude to that distasteful wax museum on their trip to Paris. There had been a freak fire and some of the statues were melted by the heat. Now there was a replica of one standing in front of him.

"Elmer, I presume?" He ground out through a pain-clinched jaw. "I would say it's a pleasure, but one should always endeavor to tell the truth." The growl he received in response hardly sounded human.

"Why don't you just shut your damn yap, boy?" Elmer shouted. "A'fore I really do some carving on that purty face?" He sneered at Ezra as he ran a filthy finger across the edge of the blade. "I'll make you squeal real good."

A million thoughts ran through the gambler's mind. He stole a look at Ginny and knew he had to get them out of this someway. Laying his head back down on the bed, he groaned when the lump at the base of his skull made contact with the hard surface.

Ginny tugged at her bonds, but couldn't free herself.

The soft sound of her gasp brought Elmer around to face her. "Or maybe I could just carve up this bitch and make you watch."

Something snapped in Ezra at those words and he began to fight against the ropes once more. "You touch one hair on her head you murderin' bastard, and the consequences shall be dire."

Picking up several strands of Ginny's hair, Elmer let them sift through his fingers. "Now I don't think yore in any position to make them kind of threats, mister." He turned the knife in his hand and savagely brought it down through the crimson hair he held.

A pitiful scream came from the back of Ginny's throat, and Elmer laughed manically at this. "Thought I was goin' to do you some harm, didja?" Walking over to the bed, he tossed the hank of hair on Ezra's stomach. "No. Not just yet. I've got big plans for you and Fancy-man here. Big plans."

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"Whiskey."

It'd been one hell of a day, and from the sound of things behind him, Chris Larabee had a way to go before it was over. Nodding to the bartender who brought him the rye, he threw it back and turned to lean on the mahogany bar.

The usual Friday night ruckus was taking place at the Standish Tavern. But there was something missing. Looking around the room, it occurred to him that Ezra was absent from his usual table in the back.

Pulling a chair up to the table holding Vin and Buck, Chris mentioned Ezra's conspicuous absence.

"Last I saw of him, he was headed outta town with that redhead." Buck laid down his cards. "Lucky dog."

Vin took a long drink of his beer. "Yeah, but that was 'round noon." He looked at the hand Buck had shown and chuckled as he laid down a royal flush.

"Damn, Vin." Buck scowled at the tracker. "You wiped me out, son."

Tanner grinned at the ladies man. "You thinking' Ez might be in some trouble, Chris?"

Buck hooted. "Damn if I wouldn't like to be in the trouble he is!"

The blond and the tracker shook their heads. "It's not like Ezra to lose an opportunity to unburden the good citizens of this town of their money." Larabee had a feeling that something was amiss.

Vin gathered up the pot in the middle of the table, then stood. "Reckon it might not hurt to ride out toward the pond and take a look-see." He smiled down at Chris. "If'n it'll ease your troubled mind, Cowboy."

The glare he received in response to that comment was softened by the sideways smile playing on his lips.

"Reckon it won't, at that."

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The scream slipped past his chapped lips. He'd never meant to let the man know he was causing him pain, but when Elmer had drawn the blade across his abdomen, it hurt. Oh, God, it hurt. Like the sting of a million bees. Heh, now he knew what Buck was feeling this morning. Or was it yesterday?

A small whimper from across the room brought him out of his reverie. Casting a furtive glance around the room, he noticed that Elmer was nowhere in sight. "Ginny?" His voice came out a hoarse whisper. "Ginny, look at me." She raised her head, and he saw the dried tracks of her tears. He tugged at the bonds and was once again frustrated at his impotence. Rage boiled in his gut like cheap whiskey. "Ginny, stay with me. Where is Elmer?"

"H-he went to get something from the barn." The tears began anew. "He's going to kill you, Ezra. And then he's taking me with him."

The Southerner's green gaze turned to granite. "I'll see him in hell first." For the first time, he noticed Ginny was no longer bound to the chair. An idea began to form in his head. "Can you walk? Ginny, can you walk?" he asked again having received no reply the first time.

"I-I think so." She reminded him of the doe he and Buck had come across on sentry duty one morning. Wide-eyed and wobbly, she stood. Walking over to the bed, she knelt beside Ezra. A trembling hand touched his face. "I'm so sorry that he's doing this to you. I never meant for you to get involved."

Knowing that if Elmer came back too quickly his plan would fail, he shushed her. "Now, now. We'll talk about this later. Right now I need you to get out of here and go back to town. Find Chris Larabee and tell him where I am."

"I'm a terrible person." The words were so soft, Ezra wasn't sure he'd even heard anything.

"Whatever are you talking about, my dear?"

Tears filled her hazel eyes. Wiping them before they fell, she looked into the green eyes of the gambler and a sad smile curved her lips. "Here we are in this god-forsaken place. That man out there wants to kill us both, and all I can think about is the feel of your lips on mine."

Brushing a light kiss across his lips, Ginny gathered all the courage she had and slipped out the side door. She froze for a moment when she saw Elmer inside the open barn door. But the image of Ezra in his current condition steeled her resolve and she started running toward the woods. She only looked back once; just long enough to make sure Elmer wasn't following her. Seeing him moving around in the barn still, she kept running and didn't stop until she reached the dirt road that led into Four Corners.

A carriage came to a screeching stop, and an angry female voice berated her for being a fool and stepping in front of the horses. "Have you lost your mind, girl?" A Southern accent emanated from the driver's seat. "I could've run you down!"

Something in her fear-fogged mind clicked, and the angry voice sounded like that of an angel. "Maude?" she called. "Maude Standish?"

A blond head popped out of the carriage, and blue eyes widened at the disheveled appearance of the young woman. "Virginia?"

Ginny nodded and promptly collapsed in the road.

"Help her, you buffoon!" Maude screamed at the driver. "Get her in here."

The driver jumped down and gathered Ginny in his arms, gently depositing her on the seat beside Maude.

Maude removed a glove, and lightly slapped the girl. "Virginia, darlin', what's wrong with you?"

Shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, Ginny looked at the mother of the man she loved. "Ezra…Ezra!" She fought her way up from the seat. "We have to save him! Chris, we have to get Chris!"

Maude exchanged a look with the driver. The girl was acting rather peculiar. "What's wrong with my son?" Maude laughed. "Has he found himself on the wrong side of the good townspeople once more?"

Ginny glared at the woman. Was she really as bad of a mother as her reputation implied? "You don't understand." Ginny took a deep breath. "I need to get back to town and find Chris and the others. They're the only ones who can save Ezra."

The thought of her boy in trouble sobered Maude. Granted, they'd had their disagreements over the years, but he was still her son; the best thing she'd ever done in her life. "Well, you heard her," she yelled at the driver. "Don't just sit there like a simp, get this thing moving!"

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Inside the shack, Ezra's green gaze darted toward the door. It'd been several minutes since Ginny slipped away and he'd heard no commotion. This worried him, but then it occurred to him that ol' Elmer was an exhibitionist and wouldn't hurt Ginny without an audience.

The thought that she was safely away brought a smile to his face. But the action caused the dried blood to crack on the cut and it began to throb in earnest. He just hoped she was able to make it back to town and find Chris before it was too late for him.

A loud bang announced Elmer's return. Dropping the leather harness, he looked at the vacant chair, then over at Ezra. "Where the hell is she?" he shouted at the gambler.

"Well, my good sir," Ezra smirked at the man. "I do believe our little angel has sprouted wings and departed this dwelling."

Elmer bellowed with rage. This was not part of the plan. She would suffer the horror of watching her fancy-man die slowly then it would be her turn. Lifting the bed as though it weighed nothing, he flipped it upside down, trapping Ezra between the wooden frame and the floor. This caused all the wounds he'd received before to once again open up and bleed freely.

The pain-filled groan that came from under the bed brought an evil smile to Elmer's face. "What'sa matter, Fancy-man?" He knelt down beside the overturned piece of furniture and grinned at Ezra. "You ain't even started to feel pain yet, boy."

Keeping his eyes closed, Ezra tried to ignore the cackle of laughter as Elmer stood and walked to the other side of the shack. Please, God. Let her find the others and get them back here. Before it's too late….

TBC