A/N: Started this a loooong time ago... then decided to finish it as a present for a couple of friends over on livejournal. Mega-thanks to zookitty for the great beta-work.
Disclaimer: Not mine. And be warned... there's some uncouth language.
"I'm taking it slow,
Feeding my flame,
Shuffling the cards of your game.
And just in time,
In the right place,
Suddenly I will play my ace."
- Blue Foundation, "Eyes on Fire"
"Afternoon, Mr. Larabee."
Chris glanced up from the small block of oak he was carving, a small smile on his face as he nodded at Mary. "Afternoon, Mrs. Travis."
"Have you seen Billy? He went off with a few of the boys while I was working on the paper, and I've got some supper ready for him," Mary said, stepping up onto the boardwalk.
Chris folded his knife closed and brought down his feet from where they were resting on a beat-up crate. "Can't say I have. Need some help looking for 'im?"
Mary shook her head with a smile. "No, that's quite alright. I'm not worried – he's probably off fishing with Matthew Peters again."
Larabee's head shot up as he got to his feet, his eyes locking with Tanner, who was standing in the doorway of the saloon. Vin nodded his head towards the pair. "Over yonder," he murmured quietly.
Both blond heads turned in the direction Vin had gestured. "Billy?" Mary called worriedly as Chris' eyes narrowed.
Billy Travis was walking towards them, his feet and his wooden fishing pole both dragging in the dust. His blonde head was bowed and his shoulders slumped as Matthew Peters walked next to him, quietly talking. Billy did nothing to acknowledge Matthew's presence, but that didn't seem to deter the dark-haired lad as he gestured emphatically with his hands.
"Billy? Billy, what's the matter?" Mary asked, rushing forward to meet the boys as they plodded up to the boardwalk.
"Nothin'," Billy muttered darkly, swinging his foot into the dust.
"Billy," Mary implored again, squatting down so she could place her slender hands on his shoulders.
"We were fishin' at the creek an' Bobby Norton started pickin' on us," Matthew offered when Billy refused to talk.
Chris sensed Vin shift slightly behind him, and he felt his own lips twitch into a frown. Robert Norton, Jr. was a bully much like his father. The family hadn't even been in the area for six months and they'd already created quite a heap of trouble and dissension within the town. Most squabbles these days tended to have a Norton name attached to it, much to the chagrin of the lawmen as Norton's property was just outside their jurisdiction.
Mary immediately started searching her son for wounds. "Are you hurt?"
Billy shook his head with a grunt, shuffling to get away from her hands. "Lemme alone, Ma, I'm fine."
"What'd he say, Billy?"
Billy lifted his head at the dark-clad gunslinger's question. The boy's eyes were red and puffy and he had a swipe of dirt near his nose from where he'd wiped it on the back of his hand. His eyes flicked over to Matthew for a moment, who nodded encouragingly before turning back to face his mother, his eyes still glued to the dusty street. "At first, we just ignored him 'cuz he was bein' stupid – said we was short and stuff."
Both boys shrugged a shoulder and Matthew added, "He says that kinda junk all th' time."
"Then what did he say?" Mary asked softly as Vin and Chris stepped down into the street behind her.
Billy sniffed quietly. "I finally tol' him to leave us alone, an' he said that I was stupid, jus' like…" He trailed off, glancing up uncertainly at his mother and Chris.
"It's okay, Billy, you can tell us. We won't get mad at you," Mary murmured, running a hand over his hair.
"He said I was stupid jus' like Ma and Grampa," Billy whispered finally. "He said his pa told 'im that anyone who hires a d-darky and a gambling b- a ba-"
"Gamblin' bastard?" Vin offered quietly as Billy squirmed nervously. Chris glanced over and saw Vin's sharp blue gaze turn icy.
Billy nodded, flushing red and ducking his head even more. "Anyone who hires a d- someone like Mr. Nathan and someone like Mr. Ezra should be run outta town or shot, jus' like Pa was. He said Grampa was stupid to keep Chris an' the others 'round cuz they just cause trouble. An' he said his pa wanted ta get rid of Mr. Nathan and Mr. Ezra an' all the folks that associate wi' 'em."
Chris' shoulders tensed visibly as Mary pulled the now sobbing boy into her arms. "Shh, honey, it's okay," Mary cooed, rocking slightly as Billy wrapped his arms around her waist.
"Me an' Billy told him ta shut his mouth 'cuz we both really like Mr. Nathan and Mr. Ezra. An' I tol' him that Billy's grandpappy was the smartest guy in th' world 'cuz all you guys chase away the bad guys an' he's the one that hired ya. My pa says that iff'n ya guys weren't here, we'd have moved back ta Kansas a long time ago," Matthew added firmly.
"We're mighty glad ta hear that," Vin declared, pulling his hat respectfully at the young man. Matthew beamed proudly as Vin glanced at Chris, his eyes still hard with anger.
Chris reached back and jerked on the leather string around his neck, bringing his hat back onto his head. "Reckon we oughta teach this boy some manners," he declared softly, locking eyes with the sharpshooter.
Vin's eyes suddenly narrowed and he nodded out at the street again. "Looks like your chance might be comin', pard," he muttered.
Bobby Norton was walking towards them with clipped strides. His hands were shoved deep into his pockets, and he limped a little awkwardly as he crossed the street with his head bowed. He marched towards the group, and as he neared, they could hear him muttering indistinctly under his breath. Billy wiped his eyes and pulled away from his mother to face the bully. "Whaddya want, Bobby?" he snapped coldly, voice barely quivering.
Vin raised an eyebrow and shot a look at Chris. Startin' ta sound like you, cowboy.
Chris' lips twitched a little as he stared back at the tracker. And that's a bad thing? Vin rolled his eyes.
Bobby cleared his throat and raised his head, his dark eyes glittering and cheeks flushed with obvious anger as he forced out, "I jus' wanted to apologize. Weren't… proper, what I said to you two. I was… rude. Er, uncouth."
The entire group blinked in surprise at the apology. There was an awkward pause where Bobby glanced furtively over his shoulder before adding, "I was wrong about your Ma and Grampa. And, uh… you left this at the creek," he finished with a grumble, thrusting his palm out. A small red wooden yo-yo rested in his palm. Matthew took a step forward and snatched it from the larger boy before stepping back to stand beside Billy.
"Um… thanks, Bobby," Billy declared finally. Bobby nodded tersely and spun around on his heel, throwing another dark look in the direction he had come before stomping away.
Chris glanced across the street where Bobby had been looking, and his eyes narrowed when he caught glimpse of a distinctive red coat retreating into the shadows of the alley between the inn and the mercantile.
"Evenin', Inez," JD greeted as he slid onto a barstool.
"Good evening, JD," the lovely barmaid replied with a grin. "Hungry?"
JD nodded firmly. "I'm hungry enough to eat a horse."
Inez laughed as she handed him a glass of water. "I'm afraid I'm fresh out of horse, señor," she teased. "How about a plate of enchiladas?"
"Sounds great," JD answered with a grin, downing half the glass of water in two gulps. Inez turned away to dish out his meal, and JD swiveled in his seat, taking slower drinks of water as he scanned the crowd.
The saloon was relatively empty tonight – only three of the tables were occupied. In the back corner Ezra was at his customary gaming table, dealing out a fresh hand to the three men seated with him. The gambler nodded at JD when the pair made eye contact. JD sipped his water thoughtfully while Ezra turned his attention back to the game, smiling politely as one of the other players said something.
"JD?" Inez called softly.
The young gunslinger turned slightly so he could see the gaming table in his peripheral vision. "Any sign of trouble?" he asked quietly, nodding his thanks as Inez slid a plate of steaming enchiladas in front of him.
Inez's dark eyes clouded over slightly as she glanced at the gaming table. The barmaid and the sheriff could easily tell that Ezra's shoulders were tense, even though he appeared relaxed. A small smile was still glued to his face as he focused on his hand. "Those men had a confrontation with señor Jackson earlier today," she murmured.
"Is that why he suddenly decided to leave?" JD asked, shoveling a forkful of food into his mouth. He'd been riding patrol in the area, and had seen Nathan heading towards the Seminole village as he was heading back to town. He hadn't worried too much at the time, although he had been curious. Chris was up at his cabin, Vin had left for a few days to get some "fresh air," as he called it, and Buck and Josiah had headed over to Ridge City with a prisoner in tow, leaving the town short a few protectors. But JD knew Ezra was around, and it had been quiet lately, so he had assumed Nathan's assistance was needed more up at the village.
His wandering thoughts were reigned in as Inez hummed the affirmative. "Those… pigs –" she spat the word disdainfully – "are not fond of anyone whose skin is darker than theirs. Señor Standish told señor Jackson it would probably be for the best if he spent the night out of town."
JD raised an eyebrow, watching as Ezra drew another card. "Really?" He silently wondered how the healer had taken that.
"I went to the back while señor Standish served them their drinks," Inez finished, her voice a soft growl.
JD's eyes narrowed, using the advice Ezra had given him to study the table. The man across from Ezra barked a laugh at something his friend said – something that made the conman's jaw twitch subtly. "Thanks for the food, Inez," the young gunslinger murmured, balancing his plate in one hand and his glass in the other.
He casually settled himself at an empty table within earshot of Ezra's and focused his eyes entirely on the meal in front of him. His ears, however, were attuned to the conversation drifting from the table nearby.
"Damnit, Watts, you're on fire tonight. Not sure I wanna keep playing if you're gonna be the one winning all my money," one man griped. "Cheatin' bastard," he added softly.
His companion laughed. "No need for name-callin', Nelson. I've always told ya I was born to play this game." He belched. "Hey, Fancy Man, ya gonna shuffle all day, or are ya gonna deal?"
"Patience, Mr. Watts," Ezra replied coolly. "I have to do my part to make sure you are indeed coming by your winnings honestly."
"I ain't a cheater," Watts hissed.
"Oh, shaddup," the third player muttered, a definitive slur to his words. "Still woulda liked ta teach that darky a thing or two," he grumbled.
"Yeah, he sure was somethin', weren't he?" Nelson responded. JD let his left hand drop down toward his lap, keeping his eyes glued to his half-empty plate. He could hear Ezra dealing the cards rapidly. "All them damn darkys are gettin' too big fer their britches, 'f ya ask me."
"I wasn't asking you," Ezra cut in. JD blinked in surprise as he heard the other players suck in a collective breath. "We're here to play cards, gentlemen. Your call, I believe, Mr. Nelson."
"You got somethin' you wanna say ta me, Johnny Reb?" Nelson demanded, his voice notably rougher.
"You'd think a Reb like him would want us ta bring that darky down – or string him up, as it were," the third companion slurred with a snicker. "Thought that's what all the Rebs wanted."
The fingers on JD's left hand curled reflexively into a fist at the implied threat. He'd never been able to understand just what would want to make someone kill another just because of the way they looked – especially when it was someone as good as Nathan.
But he didn't like them making assumptions about Ezra, either. Just because he wore flashy coats and had a Southern accent didn't mean he was a bigot who wanted to swindle everyone out of their money. Although… these jerks'll probably be lucky to walk away with enough money to pay the livery fees for their horses, JD reasoned. Ezra only cleaned out the people who deserved it – and these guys definitely deserved it.
JD almost choked on the beans in his mouth at the firm declaration. Not only was it unexpected, but it wasn't Ezra's style. In all his time working with the conman, JD had never once heard Ezra fold immediately after he dealt – he usually waited a round or two if he was throwing the game in someone else's favor. And JD couldn't imagine Ezra would ever throw the game in the favor of these men.
"The hell is your problem?" Watts demanded angrily.
"I cannot and will not abide playing at a table with such uncouth language regarding a highly respected citizen," Ezra declared. JD twisted in his chair slightly. The gambler had scooted back from the table slightly as the other three glared fiercely at him. Ezra's hands were resting on his lap, but his expression was less than relaxed.
"Citizen?" Nelson spat. "That darky?"
Ezra gazed at the trio coolly, his green eyes hard. "This town's favor for Mr. Jackson is exponentially higher than its favor for you, Mr. Nelson. I suggest you and your associates move along," he said.
The players shot to their feet, each with their hands curling at their sides. JD's hands rested on the handles of his Colts, ready to help his friend at a moment's notice. He'd seen Ezra's right arm twitch and knew the derringer was resting in his palm.
Terse silence fell over the saloon for a moment. "You're gonna regret this," Watts hissed finally.
Ezra's lips twitched before falling flat again. "I already do."
Watts growled, but turned as Nelson gripped his elbow. The group silently stomped out of the saloon. JD rotated slowly in his seat, glaring at the backs of the three men until they had disappeared through the batwing doors.
The young gunslinger let his shoulders relax slightly as he turned back to face Ezra. He blinked and shot to his feet in surprise when he saw the empty table. He turned just in time to see the gambler's legs disappearing up the stairs to his room. He frowned, eyes flicking from Inez's troubled face to the empty staircase.
Huh. That was interesting.
"Damn it, where the hell are they taking him?" Chris spat furiously as Vin reared Tecumseh to a halt and slid out of the saddle. Behind him the rest of the lawmen came to a halt, their mounts snorting and prancing in response to the tension they could feel from their riders.
"He's gonna be fine, Chris," Buck declared firmly. The dark-clad gunslinger glanced over his shoulder at his longtime friend. Buck looked back at him seriously. "If anyone can get himself outta something like this, it's Ezra."
"They went east," Vin cut in before Chris could respond, leaping back up onto his horse. Without another word, the other five lawmen followed the tracker's lead.
Ten minutes later they were forced to halt again. As Vin once more scanned the ground, Nathan declared, "I don't get it. Why Ezra?"
"He does have a knack for attracting trouble," Josiah remarked, his gaze hard as he scanned the horizon.
Chris' hands tightened around the leather reigns. Four hours ago Casey had burst into the saloon screaming for Chris and JD. She'd seen four men riding fast out of town with a fifth draped limply over one of the riders' saddles. There'd been no mistaking the deep green coat of the unconscious fifth rider. By the time Chris had rounded up the rest of the lawmen and saddled up, the group had long disappeared into the horizon forcing Vin to track their zigzagging trail.
Vin suddenly straightened, his shoulders stiff and his eyes narrowed as he stared off to the south. "Well that explains a lot."
"What?" Chris demanded immediately.
The tracker swiftly remounted and looked at them sharply. "They're takin' him out ta the Norton place."
Heads swiveled in JD's direction at the vehement curse. He stared at Chris grimly. "Yosemite told me those three guys that wanted ta get Nathan a couple weeks ago went to work for Norton."
"Those ones Ezra ticked off?" Buck asked, cussing softly when JD nodded.
"And remember that thing with Bobby Norton?" Vin asked, looking pointedly at Chris. "Bet Ezra was the motivation for his 'apology.'"
Chris' eyes narrowed. "Shit," he hissed, spurring Diablo forward to take the lead.
Soon the Norton homestead appeared on the horizon. The six lawmen leaned forward in unison, spurred on by the silhouettes of the building in front of them. The ground rumbled with the force of the galloping horses' hooves, a large cloud of dust billowing up behind them.
As they closed in on the main barn and large house, Chris drew his Peacemaker. Over the thundering hooves, his trained ears could pick out the tell-tale snicks of other weapons being cocked and readied for action behind him. He scanned the homestead, noting the ranch hands scurrying to various perches in the barn and on the roof of the house.
As they passed the fence marking the yard, Chris pulled to a stop and dismounted. The others lined up on either side of him as Robert Norton, Sr. stepped out onto his porch, a Winchester rifle in his large fists. He adjusted his grip on the weapon so he could pull the cigar out of his mouth with his right hand. "Can I help you?" he called, his deep voice rumbling with a slight Southern accent.
"I think you know why we're here, Norton," Chris called, his voice deadly calm.
Norton stuck the cigar back in the corner of his mouth, his lips rolling around it to form a smirk. "I'm afraid I don't have the slightest notion."
Off to Chris' left, Vin pumped the lever-action of his mare's leg loudly. "Where is he?" the tracker hissed, staring down the barrel as he pressed the butt of the gun against his shoulder.
Chris took a step forward, his gun arm hanging loosely by his side. "You don't want to do this, Norton," he declared sharply. "Where is Ezra?"
"You mean the insolent whelp that harassed my son and my new hired help?" Norton asked coldly, the smirk still on his face. "He needs to learn a few manners himself. Don't worry – I'll let him go when I'm finished."
"You're finished now," Josiah growled as he stepped forward, his Winchester carbine rifle aimed at the rancher's chest. "Where is he?"
They looked to the right as a loud crash echoed from the barn. "Get 'em!" Norton called suddenly, aiming his rifle at Chris and firing. The shot went wide as Chris rolled aside.
The lawmen scattered and took cover as a barrage of gunfire opened up from all around them. Bullets zinged and whined as they ricocheted off the boulders scattered on the ground. A few dents suddenly popped into the metal of the plow Chris and Buck had taken refuge behind.
"Nathan! JD! Get to the barn!" Chris hollered, popping up over the top of the plow to take a couple of shots at the gunmen on the roof of the barn. Two of the men screamed in pain and disappeared from sight as they were flung backward.
"Go, brothers – I'll cover you," Josiah added, taking aim at the table Norton had tipped over and was now hiding behind. Nathan, who was crouched next to him behind a wagon, clapped him once on the shoulder before running in a low crouch to catch up with JD, who was creeping along the barn wall. The young Easterner looked up and paused, letting the healer take the lead as they darted toward the barn door. Wood splintered around them as bullets thudded through the wall. The blast of Vin's mare's leg halted the rest of the bullets meant for the pair.
With one last nod at JD, Nathan flung the door open and burst into the barn, his Remington cocked and ready. He blinked once to let his eyes adjust to the dim lighting and spotted a trio scuffling in the far corner. "Hey!" he shouted as he and JD stepped forward.
The three men paused – two in horrified shock and one in delighted astonishment. "Who're you?" one of the hands asked, stepping in front of Ezra and hiding him from their sight – but not before they saw him gagged with his hands bound to separate spokes of a large wagon wheel.
JD narrowed his eyes, recognizing the two ranch hands as Nelson and Watts, two of the men from the saloon. "Put your hands up and step away from him," he ordered darkly, cocking the hammers of his Colt Lightnings for emphasis.
Outside the barn, the constant barrage of gunfire ceased, and they all heard Chris shout, "Give it up, Norton! You ain't got many men left!"
"Aw, hell!" Nelson hissed as he and Watts looked at each other with wide eyes.
The lawmen took immediate advantage of the distraction. Nathan whipped a hand up, grabbed one of the knives from the sheath on his back, and flung it at Watts, nailing the hired man in the upper arm. The thin man folded in on himself, ripping the knife out of his arm and clenching at the wound as blood poured through his fingers.
Ezra lashed out at Nelson with his right leg, and his foot connected with the other man's left knee. Nelson cried out in pain as his leg buckled with a loud pop, and he fell to the floor. "Damn it, I think ya broke my leg!" he moaned, clutching at his knee.
Before his friends had even finished dispatching the ranch hands, JD was on the move, crossing the length of the barn as Nelson hit the ground. He kept his Colts trained on the pair, sparing a quick glance at Ezra. "You okay, Ez?" he asked, eyeing the colorful bruises on the right side of the gambler's face.
Ezra glared at him out of his one good eye – the right one had swollen completely shut – before looking pointedly down toward his gagged mouth. JD grinned sheepishly as Nathan moved in from behind him. "Sorry," he muttered before focusing his attention back on the two would-be tormentors in front of him.
"Hang on, I'll cut ya loose," Nathan added, whipping out another knife and crouching down a bit to have a better view of the ropes binding Ezra's wrists.
After a moment, Ezra's right arm was free, and the cardsharp immediately ripped the handkerchief gag out of his mouth. "Gentlemen, your timing is impeccable," he drawled with a small smile as Nathan started sawing through the ropes securing his left wrist.
"What do we do with them?" JD asked, kicking at the quivering men at his feet.
"Tie 'em up," Nathan replied, bending down to take a look at Watts' wounded arm now that Ezra was freed.
"Don't touch me, ya damn darky!" Watts snarled, recoiling away from the healer.
Nathan frowned as he picked up his bloodstained knife off the ground. "Well, it's your arm," he replied simply, wiping the blade on the handkerchief Ezra had tossed down to the ground before sheathing it. "And your leg ain't broke – just dislocated your knee," he added with a glance at Nelson's leg. "You want me to pop it back in for ya?"
"No," Nelson replied venomously.
Nathan sighed and stood. "Tie 'em up, JD," he repeated, turning to examine the gambler. Ezra had moved to a nearby support post where his gunbelt, shoulder holster, and green jacket were hanging from a large nail. His derringer rig lay at the ground at his feet. "Ezra, at least let me take a quick look at you before we go back out there," the healer demanded exasperatedly.
Ezra turned to reply, but paused when he caught sight of the wearied expression on Nathan's face. His good eye glanced over to the two ranch hands that were currently being trussed up by JD. After a moment, he closed his mouth and nodded in agreement.
Nathan blinked in surprise, but quickly crossed the distance and started gently probing at Ezra's head. He frowned when he felt a large bump on the back of the conman's head. "This from when they knocked you out in town?"
"You are correct, sir," Ezra replied tensely, wincing a little as Nathan continued probing the large bruise. "I do believe they used a loose piece of wood from the side of the mercantile. We will need to ascertain if Mrs. Potter's wall needs any repairing."
"You volunteering to do some menial labor?" Nathan asked with a grin as he moved to check the bruises on Ezra's face.
The cardsharp grinned slyly, his good eye twinkling mischievously. "I'm volunteering to take charge and delegate."
JD laughed as he finished the last knot and stood. "That sounds about right," he declared.
Nathan's face went serious again as he looked Ezra in the eye. "How's your head?"
"Hurting," Ezra admitted after a moment. "But it's been worse before."
"How's your vision? How long ago did your eye swell up?"
"My vision was perfectly fine until my cheek had a rather unfortunate encounter with Mr. Watts' fist several minutes prior to your arrival on Mr. Norton's property," Ezra replied, ducking away from Nathan's hands so he could focus again on strapping on his gunbelt.
"You hurt anywhere else?" Nathan demanded, catching sight of the raw skin on Ezra's wrists.
Ezra grabbed his shoulder holster and winced a little as he pulled it on. "My ribs are a little tender. Bruised, I think. Presumably from being slung over a saddle horn in a most undignified manner." He reached down and picked up his derringer rig from the ground. "As I told you before, Mr. Jackson, your timing was impeccable – almost as impeccable as our Mr. Tanner's," he finished with grin as he quickly and fluidly strapped the complicated mechanism to his right arm.
"Glad you're all right, Ez," JD declared fervently, holding out Ezra's coat. "Ya had us real worried."
Ezra stared at the young gunslinger for a moment before taking the coat, a slight smile playing at his lips. "I am sorry to have troubled you so, JD. But… thank you for the concern," he finished quietly as he pulled on his jacket. He sighed as he ran a hand through his hair. "I don't suppose you know where my hat is."
"Casey found it – she was gonna brush it and put it up in your room," JD told him.
Bursts of gunfire suddenly erupted outside the barn walls again, and they all ducked reflexively as a slug punched through the wood and sailed above their heads before embedding itself in the other wall. "Josiah!" Buck hollered.
"Duty calls," Ezra declared dryly, pulling his Remington from his hip holster. "Shall we?"
The trio quickly moved back to the barn entrance. Nathan peered around the edge of the door and glanced up. Vin was now perched on the roof of the cattle shed, his full-sized Winchester rifle in hand. Nathan whistled sharply, and the tracker glanced down in his direction. Nathan nodded when he saw Vin's inquiring look. Vin's eyes lit up, and he silently gestured for Nathan to go around the back of the barn and come around on the far side. Nathan nodded again and ducked his head back inside.
"Follow me," he whispered to JD and Ezra, who both nodded once.
Together the trio silently slid out the door and around the corner. As they moved along the wall, they heard Norton shout, "You have some nerve, Larabee, storming onto my property – which is outside your jurisdiction – and shooting up the place!"
"And you have some nerve coming into my town and taking one of my men," Chris shot back, his voice hard.
JD and Nathan darted across an open space to duck behind the chicken coop while Ezra flattened himself against the wall of the barn. They could see Chris hunkered down behind the plow, a grim scowl on his face as he reloaded his gun. Buck had moved over to kneel beside Josiah and was pressing a piece of cloth against the former preacher's upper arm. They were quietly hissing back and forth at each other, and every now and then Josiah tried to pull his arm from Buck's grasp.
"That uppity sonuvabitch humiliated some of my men. They were the ones who brought him here, not me," Norton declared, his voice drifting the porch where he was still hiding behind the table.
"Uppity, Mr. Norton? How uncouth," Ezra drawled, taking one step back the way he'd come. Chris, Buck, and Josiah looked in the direction of the conman's voice, relief plain on their faces.
Ezra grinned as a bullet punched a hole through the wall where his head had been a moment earlier. "Missed!"
"You damn bastard, I'll –" Norton's furious yell suddenly gave way to a sharp cry of pain as a single gunshot rang out.
"The rest of ya – set your guns down and back away, unless you want the same treatment!" Chris barked. The few remaining ranch hands practically threw down their weapons and held their hands high in the air.
Ezra calmly stepped around the corner of the barn a moment later. His gold tooth flashed when he caught sight of Norton rolling around on his front porch, hands clasped to the bullet wound in his right calf. He tipped an imaginary hat in Vin's direction as the tracker stood in his perch. "Excellent shot, Mr. Tanner!" he called.
"Hell, I wouldn't've had the opening if ya hadn't made him so pissed off," Vin replied with a grin as he used the edge of the shed's roof to swing down to the ground.
Nathan was already hurrying over to Buck and Josiah. Buck seemed more than willing to turn things over to the healer as Sanchez declared, "Let me up, Nathan, it's just a scratch!"
"JD, Buck, Vin, find some rope and tie these sacks of dirt up," Chris ordered, holstering his weapon. He cast a sharp gaze in Ezra's direction as the gambler approached. His eyes narrowed when he saw the vivid bruises. "You alright?"
Ezra nodded once, tenderly fingering the right side of his face. "I've not had the opportunity to glance at a looking glass, Mr. Larabee, but I assure you, it looks worse than it really is."
"Hell, I've been saying that about you for a long time, Ez," Buck quipped over his shoulder.
"Ha ha," Ezra shot back, glaring as best as he could at the ladies' man. Buck just laughed and continued confiscating weapons and gunbelts from Norton's men.
Ezra tucked a thumb into his belt loop as he approached Norton, who was glaring venomously at him. "You're damned lucky I don't blow your fool head off," the rancher snarled.
The cardsharp chuckled as he stared down at the wounded man. "Believe me, Mr. Norton, you are far from the first to tell me that," he drawled. His expression darkened, and kneeled down on the porch. Norton stiffened as Ezra leaned over to whisper in his ear, and soon the anger Norton's face melted away. His expression was stony, but Chris could read the look in his eyes – the man was afraid.
Ezra clapped Norton on the shoulder and squeezed hard before releasing him and standing. Chris gripped his arm as Ezra walked past him again. "What'd you tell him?" the black-clad gunslinger asked, curious.
Ezra grinned faintly. "I simply alerted him as to what would happen if he continued to act in such a boorish manner."
Chris' lips twitched a little. "That how you got Bobby Norton to apologize to Billy and Matthew last month?"
Surprise flickered in Ezra's good eye for an instant. "I'm afraid I don't understand what you are talking about, Mr. Larabee."
Chris smirked wryly and released Ezra's arm. "They're all rather uncouth, aren't they?"
Ezra chuffed through his nose and smiled. "That they are, Mr. Larabee. That they are."