A/n: This story follows on from Strange Bedfellows and Three Strikes and You're Out

Devil to Pay

by JoJo

Part One

Town is cool and silent.

It lies in shadow, only the faintest whisper of a breeze that blew in with the dawn, kicking up dust.

No-one's about their business.

No-one, that is, except Chris Larabee's men, two on horseback, three more cranky and stiff on the boardwalk by the jail. And Larabee himself, standing alongside them with his face turned towards the streaky sky.

The empty streets are a boon. Far as Larabee's concerned, just doesn't do for folk to watch security saddle up and ride out of town. He knows the population's gotten reliant on its hired guns - witnessing an exit, however partial, might make them nervous. Or, worse, give them stupid ideas.

Chris likes the feel of this hour, anyhow, though it's pretty plain his view isn't universally shared. He's grimly amused by the farewell committee who've dragged one another down to the jail. None of them have been obliged to rout themselves out of bed for no reason, but this habit of watching each each other in and out of town seems to have become a tradition. Like much else that binds them, it's germinated and hatched of its own accord, puzzles Chris almost as much as it pleases.

His lip curls to see the early-morning mess of JD. Kid's clearly climbed into some random garments in the dark, in a tearing hurry, has no idea his shirt is inside-out. Josiah, who possibly didn't have the problem of dressing, since he never approached undressing, has taken possession of a chair and is guarding it, hands tight around the staff that's propped between his knees. He looks like he'd brain anyone who tried to shift him. Nathan sits a little apart on the top step of the boardwalk, elbow to one knee, chin cradled in a hand. He keeps rubbing the other hand down the back of his neck.

Buck hasn't made it at all.

"We'll be coupla days."

It's as succinct as Chris's leadership speeches usually are.

Nathan seems doubtful. He moves his chin from his hand, jerks it up towards Ezra who's just let out a jaw-cracking yawn, saddle creaking as he shifts for a comfortable position. "You should travel slow."

"We'll travel slow enough," Chris tells him. "Judge Travis reckons case'll be done soon as we say our piece."

"Ain't gonna be done though, is it?" JD says. "Judge Travis ain't even gonna be there, an' I heard him, too, Chris. That defender feller's got a reputation."

"We c'n only tell 'em what we know."

Chris won't get into the harsh realities of their upcoming trip before they've even started. He glances up at Vin who's poised and ready to leave, face hidden in the shadow of his hat.

"Yeah, and we know the Palmer brothers are a bunch of thievin', dangerous outlaws," JD carries on. "Doesn't mean Silas Gawtrey'll see it that way. You heard he saved Long Joe Wilkins from the rope last year?" The kid starts off sounding pessimistic and somehow ends up sounding impressed.

"I heard."

"You up to this trip, son?" Josiah demands of Ezra, who's leaning both wrists on his saddle-horn, shoulders rounded.

Chris has been expecting the question. He didn't figure it would be Josiah who got to it first, though. Figured that'd be Buck, seeing as he's the one who's taken it on himself to pad around Ezra from a safe distance like a big guard-dog. All the while pretending he's doing no such thing. For now, though, Buck seems to have found himself too comfortable a bed. Far off in the back of Chris's brain tickles the usual hope that it isn't more comfort than Buck can handle.

"Ezra don't have a choice." He's tired of saying the same things over and over. "None of us do. We've bin called to bear witness and that's an end to it."

"They're fixin' to make you look bad." JD seems to have forgotten that Chris doesn't care to be challenged to his limit. Usually Buck'd choke the kid off before he reached that point. Chris makes an allowance for the early hour, is patient in his reply.

"Look a sight worse if we don't show."

"Just keep an eye on him that's all," Nathan says gruffly, chin still angled towards Ezra.

Chris chews the corner of his bottom lip, makes a face. Ezra just snaps his tongue to show them he's awake, listening, and has an opinion. He usually complains when they talk about him like he's not there, but he doesn't seem to have the energy for it this morning. The snap is pretty expressive though.

"And watch your backs in Ridge City. Palmers'll be there in numbers."

True enough.

Chris nods in acknowledgment of Josiah's warning.

Hell, the Palmers are numbers. As far as extended families go, they knock all comers into a cocked hat. And Gabe Palmer, youngest son, despite having done his utmost to split open Ezra's head like a watermelon, is probably the most harmless of the entire bunch.

"You boys hold things together here. We'll be back soon's we can." He mounts, lets Vin lead them off, allows Ezra to fall in a beat behind Vin.

"I mean it," Nathan says quietly, rising to his feet just before Chris makes a move to swing his horse around. "You need to make him look after hisself. Just no tellin' where he's at with his fallin' down and not gettin' up again. And the doctor in Ridge City's an old fool."

"I hear ya," Chris says, and kicks away.

He knows Vin will start them off easy, although when it comes down to it, he's doubtful of their ability to do what Nathan expects. Ezra hasn't shown much appreciation for being treated like an invalid.

Truth be told, he's surprised them all so far, showing a seam of grit they just hadn't expected to uncover. Considering how damn awful poleaxed he'd been, how far away from them he'd drifted for a week or more, the sight of him upright and irritating never ceases to perplex. No quiet days sitting in a chair under a blanket, either. Ezra won't put up with comparisons between gunshot wounds and his own experience, won't allow that nine pounds of wrought iron blazing through his skull at speed should warrant any special treatment.

Nathan, for one, is fascinated by this sturdy, uncomplaining Ezra, wondering slyly if his brain got so turned around he woke up inhabiting another personality altogether. Josiah mutters that it could be a miracle. But there's an element of the unknown in Ezra's situation that niggles Chris fiercely, something he fears none of them can do a damn thing to mitigate.

All they can do, it seems, is read the signs best they can, try to head him off at the pass. It's been nearly three months since he took the first tentative steps out of Nathan's, got down the stairs unaided and headed for the saloon. In that time Chris is aware of four or five blackouts, the first few coming close together. Nathan hopes they'll tail off, stop altogether.

In the meantime, Ezra's developed a raft of little tics they're slowly learning to recognize - the absent knuckle-rub along one eyebrow; the casual stroke of a thumb at the spot where the scar lies hidden; the sudden heel of the hand to the eye. Any of these might signal he's about to drop like a goddamn stone.

Chris is mystefied as to how Ezra hasn't managed to kill himself yet. Or anyone else, come to that.

The last time, two weeks back, Josiah just managed to get out a "Chris ... Ezra!" before Ezra tipped sideways out of his saddle. Chris broke that fall, the two of them ending up in a heap on the ground.

"Jesus, Ezra," Chris'd panted as he struggled out from under the dead weight. But Ezra's face was the color of putty and he hadn't come round for ten minutes. When he did finally wander back to consciousness, he'd seemed amazed to find them grouped about him in shocked silence, thinking, yet again, that they lost him.

Another ten minutes later, he'd been bristling with annoyance at their anxiety and ready to ride.

In the same confounding way, by the middle of today, Ezra's thrown off a steadfast silence, begins to take an interest in life again. He breakfasts cheerfully on coffee and eggs when they stop in Eagle Bend, takes a nip from his flask before they resume the ride.

"Gentlemen, I suggest we increase our efforts to get to our destination as soon as possible. Because, you know, if we can possibly avoid having to find accommodation in the open air then I really think we should."

Vin scents a joke.

"C'mon, Ezra, you know you like to sleep out under the stars."

"Mr Tanner, I adore the stars, I truly do. But the lumbago that results from staring at them all night long I cannot abide."

It's rare to hear Vin's belly-laugh, see him flash his teeth.

"Whatever you say, Ez."

Vin often seems to find Ezra a source of some delight when the others just want to flatten him.

Chris draws his brows together and Vin reads the order perfectly, keeping the broad smile just in his eyes. He mounts up, leads off again, makes sure as discreetly as he can that Ezra falls in behind. Chris follows them.

Hell, Buck, you should see us ... he ain't gonna do a damn thing we're not ready for.

They make good progress, stop once more to take on water, reach Ridge City just before Chen's Kitchen on South Street closes for the night.

Ridge City's full to bursting, the hotels booked out and the streets full of people. The three of them eat something hot and sour at speed, negotiate a couple of bunks in a back-room of a house just outside city limits and get the horses bedded down. Then they wander into the middle of town, stand in the street between the Bluebird Inn and the Central Saloon and look at each other. There's a carnival atmosphere raging, music from one side, singing from the other. The lights are brighter at the Central, the swell of voices louder.

"We're here to do a job," Chris reminds them, wondering if the other two realize that he truly doesn't enjoy playing the everlasting killjoy. He's not sure they'd be wise to set foot in either establishment but he wants a drink as hard as anyone. Vin and Ezra smirk at one another.

"The Central it is, then," Ezra says and waves a graceful arm to invite them to walk in its general direction.

------

Chris doesn't care for the ebb and flow of excitable people. He doesn't feel at ease in this town and he doesn't like the fact that there's so many visitors here for a trial they can't even get in to see. That kind of thinking seems muddled. Even more, he doesn't like the fact that everywhere he looks there's Palmers, or their hangers-on. He can feel the sharp edges of the mood - the manic, surface good-humor which is always on the borders of out-of-control.

He's glad Vin Tanner's part of the deal, though. Chris always feels a kind of balance when he's with Vin. The very silence of the man at his side makes him feel steady, like there's a point to things. All Vin's doing right now is keeping quiet, sitting back in his chair, legs stretched under the table. He holds his glass of beer against his chest, perfectly relaxed and perfectly alert. And that's a solid comfort.

Chris is quite surprised to find that Ezra brings some kind of balance, too. An ability to make himself at home, perhaps. To circumvent strangeness, root himself squarely within the murky parameters of the human character wherever he finds it. At the moment, he has a table of strangers eating out of his hand as he shuffles his deck. He's shining under the lamplight, brilliant and sharp and dangerous, a combination that draws watchers like a magnet.

"Think he's glad he came?" Vin asks, smiling into his beer.

"Well if he is, I ain't," Chris grumps and that makes Vin bark another sudden laugh.

Ezra looks over at the sound. A lazy contentment crosses his face and Vin reflects it back at him without even thinking. Chris doesn't. He knows Ezra wouldn't expect him to for a moment.

------

Being called up to the witness stand next day doesn't make Chris feel any better.

The lawyer, Silas Gawtrey, tall and imposing, several decades too young to have such a shock of silver hair, stands in a huddle with the Palmers' older brothers just inside the courtroom doors. He looks up with keen interest when the trio from Four Corners enters and Burton Palmer mutters something in his ear.

"Morning," Gawtrey chirrups.

Ezra, ever well-mannered, seems to be about to tip his hat until Chris treads on his boot heavily.

"Mistah ... damnit!" Ezra says and Burton Palmer grins at him like he's an idiot.

The courthouse is packed out. Ring and Gabe shuffle in and sit at the front, wrists and ankles shackled. Behind them, shoulder to shoulder, stand the older brothers and a couple of cousins. When they take their seats they slap Gabe and Ring on the back of the shoulder, ruffle their hair. Some clerk of the court, looking a little queasy, comes over to tell them to quit touching the prisoners. A laugh snorts out. More cousins and uncles are pacing the streets outside, just to remind everyone they're there. Tate, the prosecuting lawyer, is a lackluster mouse of a man who looks as if he doesn't have a friend in the world.

When the Judge bangs his gavel it feels like the beginning of a bad day.

It's not the first time Chris Larabee's stood up in a courtroom and given reasons for having put lead in a man. While he doesn't want immunity for his actions, and he certainly wouldn't expect to be thanked for them, being questioned like he's a two-bit criminal makes him wonder why he bothers. Why any of them bother.

Gawtrey is hard enough on him to make him sweat. And the whole time he's stood there with the eyes of the Palmers and the jury on him, he can see Vin looking like he's about to bolt, and Ezra, immaculate, gazing about like this is all highly diverting and nothing to do with him at all.

"Good job, Mr Larabee," he whispers when Chris sits down again, and Chris isn't sure whether he means it or not. Probably not. Ezra doesn't dish out compliments freely, but sarcasm is like breathing to the man, even when it's going to earn him a roundhouse punch to the jaw.

Chris feels a little giddy when Vin gets up to take the stand. He's not sure why. Part of him is full of anger that any of them are having to do this, justice notwithstanding, while the Palmers sit there smugly sure they're on their way out of jail. But it's more than that. Chris might find the whole thing irritating as hell, but to Vin it's probably more akin to having his toenails pulled out.

For a few minutes, Chris hardly listens to what's being said. The same litany of questions is falling from the lawyer's mouth. Vin seems ready for them, and just as well. For whatever reason, Chris knows that Vin saw more than he did that day, and will be cross-examined even more thoroughly.

"I seen Gabe Palmer pick up something from the ground," Vin's saying when Chris begins to concentrate. His voice is lower and quieter than usual.

"Something?" asks Gawtrey, apparently amused.

"Well, I dint see at first what it was. I seen Palmer pick it up and then he hit Ez - Mr Standish - with it."

"And you're sure it was an implement? It wasn't just Mr Palmer's hand?"

Vin snorts audibly. "Hands don't cut through flesh and bone," he says and Gawtrey makes a face of distaste. "No, he picked up an iron post. Part of the fence. He picked it up and hit Ezra with it."

"I see. Where precisely, Mr Tanner? Was this a blow to the back? The shoulder?"

"On the head. He hit him right on the head."

"And would you say that he was hit hard?"

"What?"

"Was the blow a sharp one? Or merely ... glancing, as Mr Palmer has suggested?"

Vin's hands tighten perceptibly round the brim of his hat. His face is beginning to grow a little flushed, Chris notices. He only has to slide his eyes to the left to see that Ezra, on the other hand, is suddenly looking green about the gills.

"He hit him hard as he could."

"And what happened?"

Vin, confused, looks right over at Ezra, expression stricken, like he wants to help but has no idea how. Then he stares back at Gawtrey, ill-disguised hostility in his eyes.

"Well he fell," Vin says. "He went down and we could see he was bleedin'."

"You were how far away?"

"Thirty, forty yards."

"I find it hard to believe that you could have seen such a thing from such a distance."

"It was in the air," Vin says dully. In his chair, Ezra shifts in sudden discomfort and Chris digs an elbow into his side. Just for solidarity.

"I beg your pardon, Mr Tanner? Could you repeat that? What was in the air?"

"There was blood," Vin says. "Flyin' through the air. We both saw it."

"Which may have been from the injury Mr Palmer sustained from the pistol of Mr Larabee?"

"No. The blood was comin' from Ezra's head." Vin turns to look at Gabe Palmer for the first time. "From where that bastard hit him."

"And what did you do then?"

"More like what did he do," Vin says, and he sounds breathless with a desire to get his story told right. "He was windin' up ready to hit Ezra again where he lay. And so that was when Chr ... so Mr Larabee shot him."

"I see. So both the defendants have been ... struck down at this stage?"

Vin rolls his shoulders. Chris knows he's holding on to his temper. Now he decides he's glad it's Vin on the witness stand and not Josiah or Buck, who may just have stalked right over and punched Gawtrey in his self-satisfied teeth. Vin's struggling, though. He fiddles with his hat, rocks a bit from side to side.

"They were all right," he says. "Ring was still standing and Gabe had a graze on his arm. Ezra was lyin' in the dirt unconscious and bleedin'."

"Hmmm, I see. So go on then, Mr Tanner, tell us what happened then?"

"We got to Ezra. Saw he was bad."

"And you could tell that how?"

Vin frowns, looks across to Chris. The questions are clearly illogical and strange to him. Chris gives the tiniest nod of encouragement.

"Well I said dint I, he was unconscious and bleedin'. Bleedin' a lot, from his head."

Gawtrey nods to himself in a "that's your version" kind of a way.

"I find it hard to believe," he says sweetly. "Seeing Mr Standish sitting here in the courtroom today looking so hale and hearty. I mean, you are contending that he was almost mortally wounded, and yet ... well, I see no mark on him."

"There's a mark," Vin mutters.

"I'm sorry, Mr Tanner?"

"I said, there's a mark."

Gawtrey perambulates out from behind his table. He crosses the courtroom floor and his steps are crisp and loud in the silence. Chris becomes wary immediately and as Gawtrey gets up close a full-blown wave of protectiveness seethes over him. His gun hand twitches, which he knows is crazy. Next to him, Ezra doesn't move although Chris can feel agitation coming off him in waves.

"Let me see now." The lawyer seems as if he's half talking to himself, but Chris knows he isn't, knows that what he says is for the jury. Gawtrey comes right up and stands in front of Ezra, peers at him. "This mark ..." He examines Ezra's effortlessly debonair appearance with studied concentration, eyes traveling slowly over the glinting shock of hair, while Ezra plucks at the ruffle of one sleeve. As much as he would like the man to see what damage lies beneath, Chris hopes Ezra isn't suddenly going to make some drawling remark about the indentation.It's clear that Gawtrey isn't going to look too closely, and that Ezra certainly won't let him. Both are anxious, for different reasons, to leave the artifice in place. Gawtrey just lets his bemused facial expression do the talking. He makes sure the jury gets the full effect of it as he walks thoughtfully back to his table.

"I have no more questions," he says.

"Mr Tate?" the Judge asks, but Tate shakes his head mournfully.

"Very well then, Mr Tanner, you may stand down. The court will take a short recess."

Vin does more than stand down. He practically leaps off the witness stand, strides past them and barrels through the doors at speed, face flaming. Chris elbows Ezra in the ribs and gets up. They follow Vin right out the courthouse door and down the street, having to run to keep up as he turns the corner headed for the Central saloon.

"Whoah ... hold up there." Chris catches him by the arm. "We're not done yet."

"Anythin' written that you can't take a drink during a recess?"

"None at all," Ezra says, panting a little in their wake. "I think Mr Tanner has the right idea."

"Shit," Chris says, feeling a familiar wave of longing wash over him. "I think he does."

They crash into the Central three abreast. It's busy, smells of food and boots and polish and beer. Through the throng they can clearly see Milt Palmer, the oldest uncle, in residence at one end of the bar.

"Ignore him," Chris just has time to say before they press themselves up against the opposite end.

Vin doesn't speak until he's dropped a shot down his throat.

"Damn," he croaks as the liquid burns.

"Did good, Vin," Chris says quietly.

Vin's teeth are practically clacking. Chris catches the barkeep's eye. The man sidles down, fills him up again.

"No accountin'," Vin says, hand reaching, claw-like for the glass. "Ezra got injured, nearly died, and there's no accountin'".

Ezra shrugs, apparently sanguine. "I am in law enforcement for my sins, Mr Tanner. It's not been my experience thus far that such a career offers security and good fortune." He turns a resigned smile on his companions. "However, I am demonstrably recovered and the Palmers have found themselves a talented attorney at law who understands what this jury wants to hear."

Chris glares at him but doesn't say anything.

You ain't recovered. You're a walking stick of goddamn dynamite, and we have no idea when you're going to blow.

Diverting his stare to the caramel liquid in the bottom of his glass, Chris tips it down with a single swallow. Then he eyes Ezra's shot.

"Better keep ya head clear."

"I'd say it makes little difference, Mr Larabee. Thanks to Gawtrey the jury were not convinced by you, or Mr Tanner. What would you have me do different?"

"Git up and tell them what happened, Ezra, whaddya think?"

Ezra looks a little nonplussed at that notion. "Ah have known many a circumstance - and feel that this may be a prime example - in which the choice of total veracity is, shall we say, unhelpful?"

"Damnit, Ezra, it's just tellin' the truth, why is that such a problem for you?" Vin sounds exasperated.

Ezra shrugs again. "Just an observation. As I have no memory of what transpired, Mr Gawtrey will be free to draw his own conclusions."

"You have to tell the truth," Chris says doggedly, although he sees Vin taking stock of this reality and not liking it one bit.

"Why don't we just stay here?" Ezra suggests brightly. "Not go back at all? I think the outcome would be much the same."

"Finish ya drink," Chris growls at him.

As they push off the bar, a tobacco-rich rumble of a voice says, "And where you goin', Reb?"

Ezra doesn't like to be called names. Chris knows he's had a lifetime of it, a signpost on his head, do feel free to disparage my origins and appearance. Not quite Nathan's experience, but enough that it generally gets a reaction. Chris plants a warning hand in the small of Ezra's back, keeps propelling him towards the door. Vin turns slightly to see who's speaking.

"Uncle Milt," he whispers.

"Hey, handsome! Mistah Johnny Reb!"

There's a loud burst of laughter when they don't respond. At the batwings three or four men group themselves about the exit belligerently, make sure anyone fixing to leave will have to shove their way out.

"Got a date in court, fancy man?" one of them asks, to much ribald sniggering.

"Reckon he has," Chris says quietly. He's turned the flat of his hand into a fist and is digging it into Ezra's spine to signal silence.

"Better let ya go then."

"Obliged."

"Make sure you say the right things, reb."

"We're watchin'" Milt Palmer calls from behind. "An' we'll be waitin' for ya."

The men at the door part and Chris bundles both Vin and Ezra through.

None of them speak until they're at the end of the street.

Ezra comes to a halt, plants his feet to resist the herding that Chris is still attempting, jabs a finger into his collarbone as he speaks. "I'm telling you, Mr Larabee, the truth won't pay. In a situation like this, the truth just never pays."

Chris grinds his teeth in frustration, jabs him back even harder. "Ezra, you'd better get your skinny butt into that court and swear on that goddamn Bible you'll tell the truth or so help me ..."

Ezra throws his hands in the air. "Ah know!" he says. "You'll shoot me!"

"Better him than one a' them," Vin murmurs. "Come on, Ez. Curtain up. We'll be right there, cheerin' you on."

What Ezra has to say to that they don't hear. He sets off towards the courthouse before Chris has time to manhandle him again and Vin falls into step right by him.

Before he picks up speed to join them, Chris glances back to see Milt Palmer standing outside the doors of the Central Saloon, one hand resting on the gun at his hip. Just watching.

Sonofabitch.

There was going to be the Devil to pay for the truth before this day was through.

tbc