DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
RATING: PG-13 for Language
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Buck and JD… and all the rest have a little somethin' to do here.
SPOILERS: small spoilers for Ghosts of the Confederacy and Vendetta
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: A very special thank you to Raquel for doing the translation so that it didn't look stupid. Thank you also to KellyA for her beta reading. Kristen provided the name of Ezra's horse. I borrowed the names of some of the other horses from Eleanor T.
SUMMARY: Some baddies don't care too much for JD. Ezra and Buck do what must be done to protect him.
DATE: July 29, 2000. Latest clean up revisions done September 9, 2013 - wow, over 13 years ago!
NIGHT AND DAY
First story in the South Bridge Series
A/N: the majority of the South Bridge Series focuses on Josiah and Ezra, but this first story centers on Ezra, Buck and JD. I don't know how that happened, but that's the way it is.
"Come on, open those eyes... I know you can."
"He's movin'! He's actually movin'! His arm twitched! Who would'a thought it? He's gonna get up... he's gonna...aw..."
"And he's asleep again..."
"I guess we got no choice."
"Yeah, we're runnin' outta ideas."
"It's not like we didn't warn him."
"Gave him more chances then he deserves."
"Man, is he gonna be mad."
"Well, he does like takin' baths more than natural. We're just gonna help him out this morning."
Ezra Standish opened his eyes in time to see the two pitchers of water leveled over his head. Quick as a cat, he spun out from under the covers, knocking JD Dunne backward. JD fought to keep his grip on the pitcher and barely managed it...but the water sloshed forward...onto Buck Wilmington.
"JD!" Buck yelled, looking down at his soaked shirtfront as Ezra gained his feet.
JD laughed, pointing toward Ezra who was trying to move out of range. "Not my fault, Buck. He..." But before JD could finish the sentence, half the contents of Buck's container was thrown his way.
"Hey!" JD sputtered.
Ezra continued to edge away from the two sodden men. Quickly, he summed up his options.
Option One: Escape through the door or window in nothing more than his nightshirt...oh, the humiliation. He wouldn't allow himself to be mortified like that in this strange town. And, if he were to escape from Wilmington and Dunne, it would mean an endless day of watching his back, waiting for retaliation. The two did end up rather... well... damp. Ezra realized that they were not about to let that go unanswered.
Option Two: Fight like hell. Still could end up wet... and would definitely end up retaliated against.
Option Three: Remain and take his medicine now.
He chose Option Three. At least he'd get it over with in a hurry.
He stood calmly as he watched the two men approach. Both moved cautiously, as if they were attempting to trap a dangerous animal.
Ezra smiled at their exaggerated stealth as he folded his arms behind his back and said, "It's fortuitous that the two of you have now bathed. Seein' as how we will be spending the day together, it will improve your odor tremendously."
He steeled himself for what he knew would happen. The contents of the two pitchers hit him simultaneously...on either side of his head, filling his ears and dousing him entirely. He never dropped his calm smile. At least, he thought, the containers weren't completely full.
JD and Buck grinned victoriously at the dripping gambler and set the empty containers on the hotel's bed stand.
"Come on, Ez," Buck said cheerfully, giving Ezra's wet shoulder a slap. "Judge Travis is gonna be waiting."
"We're gettin' some breakfast downstairs. You comin?" JD asked.
Ezra tried to wring water out of his hair with his hands. Giving up on that he picked a towel off the dresser. "I'll be down in time to meet with the Honorable Judge Travis and to receive our orders for the day from Sheriff Hughes."
"Come on, Kid," Buck said as he headed out of the room. "He's gotta pretty himself up. Probably won't be seein' him for another hour... at least."
Ezra watched the two men leave the hotel room, and then he set about the task of preparing himself for the day.
The three men had been loaned to the town of South Bridge to help out during a powder-keg trial. They had arrived the night before and met with Sheriff Hughes, who paid them their promised $5 each. Ezra, of course, headed immediately to the poker tables at the local saloon and found them ripe for the picking. He hadn't returned to their hotel room until after 2:00 am.
Standish yawned as he picked up his pocket watch. His eyes opened wide as he registered the time. "Seven in the morning? Lord, I hardly even knew that this time of day existed."
Ezra caught up with Buck and JD in time to meet with Judge Travis and the local law. The three listened to what was expected of them for the day. Apparently, they would do little more than act as a security detail during the trial.
A stranger to the area had been accused of killing a prominent citizen in a dispute over land. He had brought in a lawyer from the east, and the townspeople were up in arms. There had been talk that the stranger would walk away from the conviction and a promise of retribution hung heavily over the trial.
Buck, JD and Ezra headed out to take their places as a crowd gathered outside the courthouse. Ezra chuckled to himself as he garnered the courthouse's shaded front porch while Buck and JD ended up in the sun-baked courtyard. Serves them right, the gambler thought, remembering his rude awakening.
The job of security guard is an exceptionally dull one... for the most part. Buck, JD and Ezra spent the day of the trial posturing around the courthouse, displaying their weapons and keeping a grumbling crowd at bay. The people of South Bridge, although complainers, seemed to be peaceable at least.
Fortunately for everyone (except for the stranger) the verdict was guilty. The trial ended after a tedious day of witnesses and cross-examinations; the threat disappeared and the three lawmen from Four Corners were free for the day.
Judge Travis bid them goodbye before he headed out on the next stage, complementing them for remaining out of mischief during their tenure in the town. He had high regard for the Magnificent Seven, but he also realized that trouble seemed to follow them like flies after honey.
Buck sent a telegram, letting Chris know that they would be leaving the following morning. Ezra returned to the tables; Buck went in search of a barmaid he had seen earlier; and JD wandered the town. They spent an enjoyable evening and another night in South Bridge.
"Come on, Ez," Buck said tiredly, eyeing the gambler at his craft, finding it hard to believe that Ezra was at a game so early in the morning. He wondered if it had gone on all night. Buck himself had been up most of the night with Miss LuBelle, finding out exactly how congenial the people of South Bridge could be.
Ezra did not raise his eyes, but remained slouched in his chair, glancing out across the table at his opponents. "In a moment, Mr. Wilmington."
"Hell, Ezra, we gotta get moving soon if we wanna make any distance today," Buck reminded. "And the way your going, we won't be getting outta here a-fore midnight."
Ezra smiled across the table at Wilmington and said, "As long as the game is profitable..."
"Ezra," Buck sighed, "Chris is expecting us home by mid-day tomorrow."
Ezra raised and said, "You've already stated this fact."
"You know what kinda mood he'll be in if we're late."
"Yeah, a deplorable mood..."
"No, my hand, deplorable," Ezra frowned at his cards, but stayed in the game.
Buck watched while Ezra won the hand with a deplorable two pair. The other four men at the table grumbled as the grinning gambler raked in the winnings.
"My my my, it would appear that the Fates have smiled upon me," Ezra drawled as he straightened the bills into a neat stack.
Buck shook his head and headed back to the bar, where JD was sitting.
"He about ready?" JD asked, sipping his coffee.
"Who knows," Buck sighed. "I've never known a man who could go on like that for so long. Let's give him another five minutes, then we'll haul his ass outta here." Buck didn't relish the task. "Hell, we should 'a been started for Four Corners an hour ago."
"Four Corners?" a dark-haired man beside JD asked. "You boys from Four Corners?"
"Yeah, we sure are," JD replied. "You ever been there?"
The man snorted. "Headed there." He was a tall man, some thirty-plus years old, with a lean face and a dangerous look about him.
"Oh yeah?" Buck started, "You got business with anyone there?"
"Unfinished business. Been in Tuckersville. Just headed through here to meet up with my kin." The man took another swig from his glass and then turned to the two. He asked, "What do you know about those lawmen they got out there?"
Buck felt the alarms go off in his head and was about to probe the man for details when JD piped in, "Well, we are the law. I'm the sheriff."
Damn it, JD, Buck thought. He watched as the dark-haired man stood suddenly and stared at the easterner. "You? You're John Dunne?"
Shit! Buck stood, moving protectively to JD's side. "Why do you care?" Wilmington asked, his voice thick with threat.
"My name's Frank Hollowell," the man said defiantly. Buck racked his mind as Frank continued speaking, "Hollowell... does that ring any bells, Mr. Sheriff?"
"Ah, well, I can't say I've heard of ya," JD responded resolutely.
The man nodded grimly, his gaze fixed upon the young man. "Yeah, maybe you know of my brother Rick?"
Buck looked between JD and Frank, trying to figure out what was going on. All he needed to see was the startled look on JD's face.
Hollowell swung. He would have clocked JD if Buck hadn't thrown himself at the man. Wilmington and Hollowell pitched onto a table, toppling it. Half-filled glasses were sent flying. Startled patrons leaped to their feet and scuttled out of the way.
"Buck!" JD shouted as chairs clattered to the floor. Hollowell had a tight grip on Buck's neck. JD grabbed onto Hollowell's arm, trying valiantly to pull him off of Wilmington.
"Leggo!" JD shouted, trying to get some purchase on Hollowell's arm.
Frank's gaze shifted from Buck to JD. Noticing who was grabbing onto him, he let loose his grip on Wilmington and lunged for Dunne. JD shouted and was thrown backward toward the bar. Hollowell was on him in a second.
Buck scrambled to his feet and wrapped his hands around one of Hollowell's arms, pulling the man away from the struggling sheriff and hauling him to his feet and stopping the assault.
"Goddamn you, sheriff!" Hollowell gasped at JD. "I'll git you for what you done to my brother. I'll git you!"
The doors behind them swung open and the South Bridge sheriff and his deputies arrived. "What's all this then?" Sheriff Hughes asked as he strode into the room.
The citizens of the town, knowing the Hollowell family and their ways, remained silent as Buck and JD gave an account of what had happened.
When Sheriff Hughes questioned them, the saloon patrons reluctantly agreed with Buck and JD's account of things. Hollowell had started it. The other two were just minding their own business. Hollowell had thrown the first punch.
The sheriff just smiled. "It seems like a week don't go by without a Hollowell behind bars." He tipped his hat and again thanked the men from Four Corners for their assistance that day, before leading Frank Hollowell away.
"So, JD, ya think you can explain what that was all about?" Buck asked. "Who's this Rick Hollowell anyway?"
Ezra brushed past them before JD could answer, stating, "I believe it's time to depart as the game has gone cold. Perhaps you gentlemen have finished with your exercise?" He straightened the lines of his red jacket as he moved through he batwing doors.
"Ezra, where were you?" Buck demanded as he followed the gambler.
"Mr. Wilmington, I believe you were well aware of my location," Ezra replied, unconsciously touching his Remington as he fussed with the jacket.
"We could have used you," Buck stated, exasperated. "I mean, he could have hurt JD."
"Hey," JD said. "I had things under control."
"Under control, yeah," Buck sighed. "That man would 'ave broken your neck like a chicken bone."
"Wouldn't have," JD countered and looked to Ezra for support.
"You paint quite a picture, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said with a smile. "It did appear that the you had matters well in hand." Ezra continued forward with Buck and JD close behind. "I was certain that the two of you were capable of subduing one man. I saw no reason to intercede." He pulled out his pocket-watch as he paused on the boardwalk, taking a minute to run his thumb along the monogrammed lid. "We had best leave this lovely establishment as you've worn out our welcome."
Buck sighed, grabbed JD brusquely by the elbow and pulled him after the departing con man.
"So, JD, what was that fella going on about anyway?" Buck asked once they were outside of town. The three men rode their horses side-by-side, keeping an easy pace.
JD frowned and explained, "You remember that bank job a few months back? One of the fellas involved was a guy named Rick Hollowell, that guy's brother."
Buck nodded. "Yeah, that gang came into town and shot up the place a bit. If I remember rightly, we got back at 'em with a few bullets of our own."
Ezra sighed. "Tell me, Mr. Dunne, that you didn't kill this Mr. Rick Hollowell. The carnage was significant that day. Two of the brigands were sent to their maker if I recall rightly. " He grimaced and continued, "Lord, I do despise dealing with brothers bent on retribution."
JD shook his head. "Nah, Rick wasn't hurt at all. It was his buddies mostly that got shot up. We sent him off to prison. Rick didn't do any of the killings. Remember, he's the guy we found hiding in the bank after it was all over."
Buck nodded, remembering the surrendered. "So what's this Frank up in arms about?" Buck asked.
"Dunno," JD replied. "Maybe he just don't like the idea of his brother bein' sent to prison."
"From what the sheriff said, it sounds like they're plenty used to it," Buck commented.
"Perhaps there's something else we're neglecting," Ezra said thoughtfully.
JD shrugged. "Nothing that I can think of. I mean, that Rick got what he deserved."
"Getting what one deserves is often a very biased thing," Ezra responded. "Some things are not as clear as night and day, and I'm afraid there may be more to this than we realize."
The three men continued homeward. With any luck they would be able to cover half the distance before nightfall, and return to Four Corners fairly early the next day. They chatted amicably as the rode, enjoying the quiet expedition and each other's company.
Their journey took a rambling path as they made their way through the boulders and scrub, the small stands of trees and the shallow creeks that embellished the area. The land had a dreamlike sameness to it. One rock looked the same as the other as they slowly made their way through them, avoiding the well-traveled trails for the more enjoyable back routes.
Buck had to admit, the mission had been a success, all in all - if you forgot about the boredom of the trial. Hell, they even gotten into a bar brawl. What could be better? They were well paid for assisting the South Bridge lawmen - $5.00 each for one day's work and they didn't even get shot at this time. Buck glanced over at Ezra, wondering if Standish had been able to increase that $5 during his long hours at the poker table.
Wilmington enjoyed the company of the sheriff and the gambler. Buck was always an amiable man, quick to make friends - even quicker if the friend were female - but he couldn't remember having friends as good as the ones he had now. The six men that he worked with were like family and he truly enjoyed spending his time with them.
JD was a brother to him, a little brother that needed guidance and protection. And Ezra, a brother? No, more like a cousin...that mischievous cousin who would get you in trouble if you weren't careful. The kind of cousin you always had to keep an eye on, but always wanted around nonetheless. He watched as the gambler rode beside him, eyes forever searching – checking the countryside around them. Ezra seemed to note he was being watched and slowly turned his gaze on Wilmington. Standish nodded and smiled amicably.
Buck turned a brotherly glance on JD, remembering the brawl, wondering why Hollowell was so angry with the young man. Ezra had said that there was probably more to it than they had realized. Well, with the gambler there was always more to everything. You never could tell what went on in that brain of his. It was Buck's opinion that Ezra's mind was packed far too tightly with words and that was why he didn't think along the same straight lines as the rest of them.
JD shook his head as he watched Ezra dusted off his red jacket. "Ezra, I don't understand why you wear them fancy duds when you know we're goin' for a long ride," JD said. "I mean, that nice stuff just ain't right for the trail."
Ezra sighed as he slapped his arms, raising more dust. "The fact that we're in an inconvenient situation is no reason to dress like a heathen."
"Heathen?" Buck echoed incredulously. "JD, I think we've just been insulted."
"Could be," JD replied. He steered his horse, Toby, closer to Ezra and said, "You should wear something like this." He tugged at one lapel of his hounds-tooth blazer. "It does a fine job on the trail."
Buck snorted. "Now JD, what you're wearin' is little better than that fancy piece of fluff that our friend has on." He pointed to his own heavyweight jacket and commented, "You need something like this if you want to be wearing somethin' proper."
"Honestly, gentlemen," Ezra responded with a tilt of his head. "If I were to dress as you, I'd look little better than a scarecrow."
"Scarecrow?" JD interjected, looking at his own clothing in disbelief. "You think I look like a scarecrow?"
"Nah, Kid," Buck commented with a grin. "He said that he'd look like a scarecrow." He rode along Ezra's other side and stated, "You see, Ezra here needs to dress well to compensate for the fact that he'd look like nothin' more than a bag of straw if he were wearing anythin' less."
Ezra glared at Wilmington. "You sir, are a myopic ignoramus."
"That," Buck said, looking across to JD, "Was an insult."
"Yup, sounded like it." JD laughed and Ezra turned his glare on him.
"Unbelievable," Ezra muttered as he pulled ahead, followed by the laughter of the two men.
The three continued onward in relative peace. Buck was enjoying the late hours of the day. He kept his attention ahead, checking for a decent place to spend the night. They still had an hour or two of light. Their path continued to wander... finding an easy but interesting journey home.
"Mr. Dunne," the gambler said, breaking Buck's concentration. "Is everything all right?"
Buck glanced over to the young sheriff, seeing a distracted look on his face. "JD, what're doin'?" Buck asked.
JD fingered his reins. "I... I just thought of somethin'."
"And that would be..." Ezra prompted.
"You were saying that there might be somethin' more about that Rick Hollowell..." JD said quietly. "And I kinda thought of somethin'."
"Out with it, JD," Buck demanded.
JD smiled weakly. "I just remembered what happened to him."
"Happened? He went to prison, right?" Buck asked.
"Well, he was headed there." JD furrowed his brow. "I just remembered that he didn't quite make it."
"Escaped?" Buck asked.
"Well, he kinda got killed on the way to the prison," JD replied.
"Oh Lord, it is retribution," Ezra murmured in disgust. "And just how did this Mr. Rick Hollowell meet his end?"
JD licked his lips. "I kinda heard he hung himself in a holding cell along the way...in Tuckersville."
"That's where his brother Frank just came from..." Buck groaned.
"It's okay though," JD said with a nervous smile. "Frank's locked up. There's no problem, right?"
The report of a rifle denied this statement. The three men turned, drawing their weapons to find five horsemen closing on them.
"Damn it to hell," Buck shouted, quickly turning his mount and the three took off at a gallop toward the cover of the rocks. The deadly sound of gunfire chased them.
"Come on, Toby!" JD urged his horse as bullets whistling past him. He turned and fired at the five followers, who didn't slow their pursuit.
Ezra crouched down in his saddle and glanced over his shoulder. He squeezed off a couple shots before facing forward again, urging Chaucer to an even faster pace.
Buck turned, firing at their pursuers. He could see five dark-haired men on matching blue roans. He faced forward and spurred his horse, Clyde, onward. Buck spotted a group of rocks not far from them. It would provide the cover they needed. He shouted to the others and the three headed to the protection of the rocks. He turned to watch his compatriots follow him, grinning tightly at their success.
And JD, as he nearly reached Buck, lurched forward as if slapped soundly from behind. He cried out, twisting in the saddle as Toby skittered, confused by the gunfire and his rider's sudden change in position.
Buck leapt from his horse and lunged toward the injured man while Ezra provided cover. Toby panicked and danced about and his stunned rider couldn't hang on. JD slid helplessly from the saddle. Buck's quick hands grabbed the young man before his head made contact with the dirt and then quickly dragged JD to safety as the horse fled.
The gambler looked over his shoulder and asked, "And how is our Mr. Dunne?" his voice betraying his concern if his face didn't.
"JD? JD? Talk to me!" Buck demanded. Wilmington held the sheriff tightly, willing him to be okay. He pulled his hand away from JD's back, horrified at the amount of blood on his hand.
JD blinked at Wilmington. "S'okay, Buck. I'm okay."
Buck looked up worriedly, checking to see if Ezra was managing. Ezra leaned against their stone cover, firing at the five. "Ez?" Wilmington asked.
"I'm handling it." The gambler did not turn. "See to Mr. Dunne," he said. "And hand me your guns as I have no time to reload and my weapons will be empty soon." He fired one more shot and said, "Let me amend that... empty now."
Buck tossed Ezra his pistols, and the gambler caught them before turning back to the fight.
"You can keep 'em bottled up there?" Buck asked as he hurried to the horses to find bandages.
"As long as the ammunition lasts."
Buck grabbed the saddlebags off their two remaining horses and returned to JD. He handed JD's Colts and the ammo to Ezra before he returned his attention to the sheriff.
JD looked up at Wilmington, his eyes made intense by the pain. "Buck?" JD gasped.
"Hang in there, Kid," Buck said as he sat the sheriff upright.
JD gasped and helped as much as he could as Buck worked off his jacket, vest and shirt. The bullet had apparently gone clean through his shoulder, back to front, leaving a ragged wound.
Buck laid JD back, shoving the wadded shirt behind his shoulder. He pressed a cloth against the front wound, trying to stop the bleeding. JD cried out and Ezra turned at the sound.
"Ezra, you got that flask of yours?" Buck asked and was tossed the silver vessel.
A voice suddenly called out, "Hold on there!"
Ezra drew back the weapon, and seeing that the gunfire had temporarily ceased, used that moment to reload his pile of now empty guns.
The voice spoke again. "We got nuthin' against the two of you. We just want that sheriff. John Dunne is the name on the paper that sent Rick to his death. He's why Frank is locked up right now. Let us have 'im and we'll let the others of you go."
Ezra looked to Buck as he quickly loaded the weapons.
"The hell you will!" Buck shouted back, as he increased the pressure against JD's wound. JD moaned loudly. Buck bit his lip, wishing there were some other way around this.
"He's the one who done it. We want him for what he done to our brother, Rick."
Ezra muttered, "More brothers. Lord, I'm grateful to be an only child. I don't think I could handle going after everyone who wronged a Standish sibling." He clicked the cylinder of his Remington. "Considerin' the course my life, I'm certain it would be a full time profession."
"Look," the Hollowell brother continued, "It's gonna get dark soon. Let's put an end to this. Give us the sheriff and you two can go. We know we shot 'im. It's not as if you're gonna get anywhere with 'im now."
"Damn you!" Buck yelled. He stood quickly, intent on grabbing one of the weapons and killing any of the Hollowells that showed their faces. A hail of bullets impeded his progress.
Ezra once again took to firing. "It may be best if you keep your head down, Mr. Wilmington. I'll tend to this little imposition. You tend to Mr. Dunne."
Buck took a moment to appraise the situation. Ezra had found a fairly well protected position and seemed to be keeping the Hollowells at bay. He turned back to JD to see what he could do.
It took some time to slow the bleeding, clean and then bandage the wound. JD drifted in and out of consciousness as Buck worked. By that time he was finished, the barrage of gunfire had nearly stopped. Ezra continued to fire at the Hollowells position from time to time, to keep them in their place and the Hollowells returned the favor. Ezra kept his head tucked within the shelter of the rock, throwing glances back toward Buck and JD when he was able.
Finally, satisfied that JD was all right for the time being, Buck crawled over to Ezra and looked out to see what they were facing. Dusk was falling and the sky was growing dim.
Ezra pointed to another group of rocks some distance from them. "Five of them, concealed there," he said, reloading again. "They seem more than happy to remain there for the present." Ezra nodded to the darkening sky. "Once night falls, they may attempt an attack. I don't believe that I'll be able to continue keeping them in their place if I can't see them."
"We gotta get JD to some help," Buck insisted. "Get him out of here."
Ezra looked at the pale easterner, licked his lips and said, "I agree. A workable plan would be advantageous."
Buck nodded and stared out across the distance that separated them from the Hollowell brothers. He scanned the area, looking for something he could use. "I think I may have that plan," he declared.
Yeah, Buck thought, it just might work. Still, his stomach twisted as he realized the risk. He'd be leaving himself open for attack, an easy target. He turned back toward JD, who lay with his eyes closed and his shoulder bandaged. Buck had to ensure that the Kid was safe, even if it meant getting himself killed in the process.
"Are you going to keep me in suspense?" Ezra asked.
Buck turned back to the southerner, who gave him a steady look. "I'll crawl out that way." Buck pointed to another group of rocks. "I should be able to make it without 'em seeing me. When I get there, I'll give you a signal. You and JD get on my horse - Clyde's the stronger of the two we got left. Then you get him to town."
Ezra frowned. "You believe that two men on one horse would be able to outrun any one of them? They seem quite proud of their blue roans."
Buck grimaced. "I'll be providing a pretty good distraction. They'll be more bullets headin' their way then they'll know what to do with. You just gotta take advantage of it."
"It's possible that one of the five would be able to avoid your attempt to stop them."
"It's what we're gonna do."
"You'll get Mr. Dunne and myself killed."
Buck's expression darkened. "Look, I could be the one with him on the horse, 'cept that you're the lighter of us. The two of you got a better chance of getting away than JD with me. 'Sides, I'll be taking a bigger chance by staying behind."
Ezra didn't respond to Buck's comment. He returned his attention to where the Hollowells were situated.
Finally Ezra responded, "Perhaps both of us should try that position. Working together we may be able to dispatch the lot of them. Then the urgency to move Mr. Dunne will be eliminated. We'd be able to take care of him properly."
"No," Buck shook his head decisively. "There's no way in hell we're leavin' JD unguarded while the two of us go off there. What'll happen to 'im if we both get killed?"
"I'm not planning on getting killed, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra drawled. "I try to avoid that at all costs."
"If those brothers realize that we've left him alone, then they'll have a chance to get at him." Buck grabbed his weapons, along with JD's and most of the remaining ammunition. "You stay here. Lay down some cover if I need it."
Ezra drew his mouth to a tight line and was silent for a moment. Finally he nodded sharply. "Good luck, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck extended an arm and the two men shook hands. "It's been fine knowin' you, Ez."
Ezra sighed. "Mr. Wilmington, a more positive attitude may be of assistance."
"I did say it was 'fine' knowin' you. I coulda described it differently."
Ezra quirked a smile. "Why, Mr. Wilmington, I never knew you cared."
Buck got into a crouch and slapped Ezra on the shoulder. "Take care of JD. His life is..." Buck stopped and started again on a new tack. "He's dependin' on you."
Ezra touched the brim of his hat and promised, "Not even his bowler will be damaged while in my care."
The gambler watched Wilmington begin to move away before he whispered, "Buck?"
Buck turned to face him. "Yeah?"
"The feeling is reciprocated," Ezra said seriously. When he saw Buck's puzzled look, he added, "What you said goes double with me. It has been an honor to work with you and a pleasure to know you."
Buck nodded and returned to his task.
Buck moved cautiously in the growing darkness, using the scant cover of the scattered rocks, making his way to the outcrop that could effectively hide him. He heard JD cry out more than once as he crawled onward. Buck froze, looking back toward the enclosure at every pain-filled utterance.
Take care of 'im, Ezra, Buck thought.
Wilmington knew that what he was doing was suicide. Trying to stop five men from pursuing his friends would be nearly impossible. If he could only keep them pinned down, then JD and Ezra would have a chance. If he allowed the Hollowells to get past, the brothers could easily catch up to the overburdened horse and his friends wouldn't make it home.
Buck knew that he would do anything it took to stop the Hollowells in their tracks.
Wilmington edged up slowly to the protective row of rocks and looked back to where JD and Ezra were still secreted, before returning his attention to the Hollowells.
It was nearly dark by the time he reached this point. In the meager light, he could see the five remaining brothers in their hiding place. They were a big-bodied group, with childish faces. He noted that the youngest of them was probably no older than 15. The eldest was probably in his mid-twenties. They were nothing more than a group of overgrown boys. They milled around in the relative safety of their enclosure, cautious of the man who had been firing on them for the past hour.
Buck tensed when he realized that these men were preparing to make their move. There was no time to lose. Buck signaled, hoping that Ezra had seen him and a moment later he saw a figure on a horse, stepping clear of the rocks. It was JD, crouched down in his jacket, his bowler evident against the dimming sky.
Damn it, Buck thought, what's he doing up there alone? Where the hell is Ezra? He squinted, and thought, The horse is too dark. Why the hell is JD on Ezra's horse? What's Ezra thinking? Damn it! Ezra doesn't trust any horse but his own. Chaucer wouldn't make it with two men. That horse is all show and no strength.
JD hunched, and turned toward Buck.
He's doin' better at least, Buck thought.
In the next instant JD fell forward onto the neck of the horse. The animal reared for a second and then took off like a shot.
It was everything Buck could do to stop from shouting . The horse made a beeline directly toward the Hollowells. The brothers scattered at this unexpected attack, then tried to find safety in the rocks. A moment later, they started firing at the young sheriff as horse hurtled away and into the dusk, in the wrong direction.
Buck stepped out from behind the rocks and provided what cover he could as the Hollowells quickly mounted and took off after the young man.
"Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!" Buck yelled after them. The five men escaped, headed at a full gallop after the departing horse.
"Ezra!" Buck shouted as he ran back to where had he left them. "Goddamnit, what the hell happened?" he screamed. He'd have to catch up to them, have to save the Kid.
When Buck reached the safety of the rocks, he looked in disbelief. Ezra was asleep, his coat thrown over himself like a blanket, his hat slouched down over his face. Damn him! That's what comes of stayin' up all night. The gambler couldn't even keep his eyes open for five minutes to protect their friend.
"What the hell are you doing?" Buck angrily shouted, snatching up the conman's hat and was shocked to see brown eyes looking up at him instead of green. "JD?"
"Buck?" JD cried querulously, "What happened?" He fingered the red jacket that lay across his chest.
Buck spun around, back to the direction where the Hollowells had disappeared, chasing down what they thought was the sheriff. He looked back at the young man.
"Ah hell, JD," Buck muttered.
"Where'd Ezra go?" JD tried to sit up, but the pain kept him down. "He was here a minute ago. Told me everything was gonna be all right. Told me to tell you he was sorry 'bout the change it plans, but it came to him sudden-like. Where'd he go?"
"I don't know." Buck pushed his hat back and sighed. What the hell, he thought as he listened to the departing Hollowells.
He flinched at the sound of gunfire. Oh God, please, Buck thought, looking anxiously in that direction. Just keep ahead of 'em, Ez, he thought. Just outrun 'em and hide in the night. He looked down to see JD's terrified expression.
"He'll be okay, won't he?" JD asked.
"'Course," Buck replied, trying to believe it. "We gotta get you home." Buck leaned down and helped Dunne to painfully sit up. "Come on, we gotta go now." He jammed Ezra's hat onto JD's head, finding it a bit too small.
"But what about Ezra?" The young man asked, trying not to cry out as Buck got him to his feet.
"He's provided the distraction we needed. We'd better take advantage of it."
Ezra kept his head down as he urged his horse onward. He had to keep his head tipped to avoid losing the bowler that proved to be little too big for his head. Who would have thought that the young sheriff would have such a large cranium?
JD's jacket, although cheaply made, fit well enough. Ezra glanced uncomfortably at the jacket's ragged and bloody shoulder, shivering at the thought of JD's wound. Lord, he hoped the boy was all right. The sheriff's cries of pain still tore at the gambler as he hurried onward.
Chaucer's hooves thundered across the hard baked earth as the two of them sped into the darkening night. Ezra gripped the brim of the hat as he turned his head to see what was behind him. He could hear the five men shouting in the distance. At least they stopped firing. Apparently, they were conservative with their bullets.
Five, yes, he was fairly certain that he could still hear all five. He knew that he hadn't been able to hit any of them as he fired backward at them. At least they still pursued. This would do no good at all unless he was able to draw them all away. Well, Buck could handle the leftovers if there were any, but Buck had another responsibility at this moment. Wilmington had to get JD home.
But what if Buck couldn't get JD onto the horse? What if JD was too gravely injured to move? That was why Ezra had to keep going... had to ensure that the five still followed him... he couldn't lose them in the darkness.
He chuckled, realizing how startled Buck must have been. The idea of switching places with the sheriff had come to Ezra as he had tried to prepare the young man for the journey. JD had cried out as the gambler had shifted him toward the horse. Ezra had apologized, hating to cause the young man any additional pain. It seemed that everything he had done caused JD agony. In the end, he decided he couldn't handle that any longer.
His plan, in short, was an act of pure cowardice. Ezra couldn't brave the act of hurting JD to get him on that horse.
Ezra shook his head. Well, and then there was the fact that Buck's idea just wouldn't work. He did have confidence in Buck's abilities, but not his plan. Standish was afraid that if any of the Hollowells made it past Wilmington's barrage, JD's life would be forfeit... and his own as well in the bargain. Ezra also had realized the suicidal nature of the whole mess - that Buck's scheme left very little chance for the ladies' man's survival.
People as fine and heroic as Mr. Wilmington were too few and far between. There had to be another way... and then he had realized that there was.
It wasn't a foolhardy plan - at least, not as foolhardy as Buck's. Ezra did have a goal in mind... if he could just get the Hollowells to follow him for along enough, he could eventually hide. He frowned, realizing how long he would have to keep them behind him if he wanted to reach his goal.
As the horse slowed to pick its way through the growing gloom, Ezra glanced idly at his saddle. If he had an iota of sense he would have grabbed the discarded saddlebags, but of course there was JD to worry about. The JD would need the supplies more than he did. At least, Ezra thought, I have a canteen...some ammunition. It was all he really needed.
He slowed the horse further, not able to hear his pursuers anymore. Chaucer snorted in confusion as Ezra drew him to a stop and waited. Man and animal breathed deeply. Ezra listened to the darkness, hearing nothing. Had he lost them?
He reloaded his guns and slowed his breathing. The box of ammo that he had grabbed before he escaped proved to be rather insufficient. He filled the chambers of his guns and discarded the empty box. It would have to do.
He listened... still no sound of his pursuers. No, that would not be acceptable. If the Hollowells lost him, they would return to where the attack took place... return to pick up the goods they had left behind.
What if Buck hadn't been able to move JD? What if they hadn't gone very far? What if they had left a trail of blood and the brothers figured out the ruse? The Hollowells could catch up to them.
"HEEE-YAH" Ezra shouted. Chaucer lowered his ears and glanced up at his rider in suspicion.
Somewhere far behind him, Ezra heard the voices of the Hollowells.
"There he is!"
"That sheriff's gonna die!"
"Not today," Ezra whispered and then spoke to his horse, "Onward, my friend." Chaucer continued as quickly as the darkness allowed.
Nathan Jackson left the empty jail and walked along the dark boardwalk. It had been a calm night. He usually was able to avoid 'night duty' due to his other responsibilities in town, but the lawmen were rather shorthanded at the moment. Chris had taken the first shift, leaving Nathan to finish it up. Josiah and Vin were scheduled to return late tomorrow morning after making a delivery to the Clarkston - they were probably camped somewhere between the towns. Buck, JD and Ezra wouldn't be back from South Bridge until tomorrow afternoon... or evening if Ezra delayed them.
He paused outside "The Clarion" office, surprised to see Mary Travis up at this hour. She was hunched over her press, setting type for the next run of the newspaper.
She stopped her work, realizing that someone was watching her and turned to look out the window. She smiled and grabbed a rag from her desk, wiping her fingers as she walked to the door. "Nathan," she greeted, drawing the door open. "I'm surprised to see you out tonight."
He touched the brim of his hat. "Just doin' my duty for the town, Mary."
"Quiet night for it," she said as she walked out onto the boardwalk. "Hardly seems right for you to lose sleep over it."
Nathan smiled. "I could say the same to you. You got a big story that needs to be done tonight?"
"If I want to start the run tomorrow morning, I'd better get it ready tonight," Mary said. "I'm just putting the final touches on it, then I'll put it to bed."
"And what's the big news this week."
Mary laughed, "Oh, the Beaumont's cow had twins."
"Front page news?"
"It's been rather quiet around here lately."
Jackson smiled. "I prefer it quiet to the alternative."
Mary nodded. "Not good for the news business, but I agree."
Nathan turned when he heard the sound of a horse approaching. Pretty late for a traveler, he thought. "Excuse me, Mary," he said as he moved out into the street to see what was coming toward them. The figures suddenly became visible in the darkness. He recognized Buck and Ezra riding double on Buck's horse.
His heart skipped a beat, realizing that JD was missing. Oh my God, what happened to JD? He put that thought aside as he hurried out to meet them with Mary following.
He could see Buck holding Ezra tightly, barely able to keep him upright. By the gambler's slouch, Nathan knew that Ezra must have been badly hurt.
"Buck!" Nathan shouted when he reached them, "What happened? Is he okay?"
"Gotta get 'im to the clinic," Buck said tiredly. "Gotta take care of him, Nate. Ya gotta save 'im." He gently released the man into the healer's care.
It was only once Jackson had a hold of the second rider that he realized that it was not Ezra at all, but JD, wearing Ezra's jacket. The young sheriff's chest was heavily bandaged with blood soaking through the cloth. The sheriff was pale and still. Gunshot! Blood loss, shock, fever, infection... the healer's mind reeled at the possibilities.
"My God, it's JD!" Mary cried, gazing at the man in Nathan's arms.
"Buck?" Nathan questioned, looking up at Wilmington. "What happened?"
"Get 'im to the clinic. I'll explain," Buck said as he dismounted and moved to help Nathan carry JD to the Nathan's room.
"Where's Ezra?" the healer demanded as they reached the steps and Mary ran forward to open the door. "Is he all right?"
Buck answered quickly, "God, I hope so."
Chris had finished the first night watch and was too tired to return to his cabin, so he slept in the room that he kept at the boarding house. He had fallen asleep fully clothed, not caring... he was planning to wear the same clothing tomorrow anyway.
He fell into a pleasant dream that became more pleasant by the minute. In his dream, he was on a ranch and the golden light of dusk was drifting through the windows of an uncluttered bedroom. The curtains danced in a light breeze and a woman lay beside him on the bed, the thin sheet barely covering her nakedness.
She smiled at him and reached out her hands toward him, the sheet shifting. He leaned to her, grasping her shoulders and drawing her close. The woman - who had started out nameless and unknown, suddenly took on Mary's face and voice.
"Chris?" she said.
"Mary," Chris murmured in his sleep.
"Chris!" the dream Mary said to him as she pulled her arms from his grasp and pounded on the headboard. "Are you there?"
"It's an emergency!"
Pounding...headboard...no... it was the door.
"Chris?" dream Mary demanded, as she continued to pound. "Chris, come quickly."
Larabee jerked awake. He was in his boarding-house room, alone. He struggled to get his mind in order as the knocking continued.
He jumped to his feet, grabbing his hat and holding it at his waist as he threw open the door to find Mary. "Mary? What're you doin' here?"
She kept her eyes averted. "It's JD, he's been shot. Buck just brought him to the clinic." She lifted her head and looked up at Chris, seeing the hurt in his eyes. "And Ezra's missing."
Chris stood stock still for a moment, searching Mary's face. Then, he flew into motion, pausing long enough to pull on his boots and gunbelt before he took off down the hallway. The other residents of the boarding house, awakened by the knocking, leaned out of their doorways, and watched him depart.
Chris ran out of the building and down the boardwalk through the crisp night, to burst into the clinic less than a minute after leaving his room. Buck was hovering over Nathan as the healer tended to the young sheriff. JD was unconscious and pale from both blood loss and the strain of the journey.
The healer looked up as Chris entered and said, "He's plenty weak. Fever's setting in." He bit his lip as he leaned over the young man. "If we're lucky, he'll be okay."
Chris then looked to Buck and demanded, "What the hell happened?"
Buck wrung his hands, and looked to his friend. "We gotta go, Chris. Oh God, we gotta go back."
Chris grabbed hold of Buck's arm, steered him to a chair and sat him down. "Where's Ezra?" he insisted. Mary silently entered the room and closed the door behind her.
Buck related the whole incident to him, from the encounter of Frank Hollowell in the saloon, the revelation of Rick Hollowell's demise, to the attack from the rest of the Hollowell clan. Buck explained to Chris his plan to provide a means of escape for Ezra and JD, and then his surprise at what finally transpired.
"Didn't know what to think at first," Buck commented. "I still don't know if I should be pissed off at him, or goddamned thankful."
Buck continued telling him of the harrowing trip home, of the gunshots in the distance, of JD fading on him. Chris watched as Buck yawned and as his voice started to drift. Wilmington was obviously fighting to stay awake.
"Get some rest, Buck," Chris ordered.
"Can't," Buck said, struggling to get to his feet. He was plumb worn out from worry and hanging onto JD during the strenuous night ride. He'd been up most the previous night with Miss LuBelle. "Gotta find Ezra. He's out there alone."
"You ain't gonna be any good in this condition." Chris easily pressed Buck back into the chair. "Where did all this happen?"
Buck shook his head in frustration. "Somewhere out to the south of the Prosper place."
"Can you be more particular than that?"
Buck sighed. "We were meandering. Weren't on no particular path. There was no landmarks to speak of...just them boulders. I could getcha there, but I can't tell you exactly how."
Chris nodded grimly. "I can handle it."
Buck sat back in resignation, his attention again on JD. "Nate, he's doing all right, ain't he?"
Nathan didn't look up from his work. JD flinched under him as the healer worked to tend the wound. "I'll need to keep an eye on him for a while. You done all you can for 'im. It's time you got some sleep."
Chris stood for a moment, watching Nathan work and JD toss, and then he turned and left the room.
His determined stride took him to the livery. He had already bridled his horse and was reaching for the saddle blanket when Mary came up behind him.
"What do you think you're doing?" she asked.
"I'm gonna find Ezra," Chris replied evenly.
"How?" Mary inquired. "You don't have a clue where he'd be. Buck couldn't say for certain where the whole thing took place, so you don't even know where to start looking."
"I'm goin' after him," Chris responded. "I may not know where it happened, but I can follow the path JD and Buck took getting here. I ain't gonna leave Ezra out there alone."
"It's too dark," Mary said, knitting her brow.
"I can manage," Chris replied decisively.
"It's been hours since this all started. Ezra's probably escaped them by now."
"Either that or he's in a heap of trouble."
"Listen, Mr. Larabee...Chris," Mary said, keeping her voice steady, realizing that Chris had not moved since she stopped him. "You should wait until Buck can help you, until Vin and Josiah get back. It'll be morning soon. They'll be back in a few hours. You can't go out there alone."
"Ezra's at it alone."
"You won't be able to find him until it gets light. It's too dark to track him. You're upset that Ezra's alone, and then you go and do the same thing yourself? Don't be so pig headed," she spoke severely. "Wait until you get the help of the others."
"Well, I can get a start in that direction if nothing else," Chris replied.
"If you go alone, you'll just get yourself killed. If you wait for the others, you may have a chance of actually helping Ezra," Mary stated. She watched as Chris continued to prepare the horse and then she added, "Ezra'll probably be back any minute. You know how good he is about getting out of trouble. You'll probably pass him on the way out."
Chris stopped. "Yeah, I'd put money on that. Still, he's mighty good at gettin' himself into trouble. I'm fixin' to be there if he needs a means out." Chris nodded to her as he moved his horse out of the livery.
"At least send for Vin and Josiah," Mary said. "They're probably only a few hours out of town. Chris, please don't go out there alone."
Chris regarded her for a moment and then rode off into the night without another word.
"Nathan," JD called weakly.
Nathan stirred from his chair and leaned forward. "Lay quiet, now," the healer said softly. "No movin' around."
Buck, JD thought. He could remember Buck holding him up in the saddle, talking to him, encouraging him as they rode toward home, as the waves of pain had captured him. JD had been slipping, falling into some horrible darkness and Buck was there to hold him back. Buck... "
"Nathan, where's Buck?
"Asleep over yonder," Nathan said with a nod. "He got you home right fast. Brought you in safe and sound." He picked up a pitcher and filled a glass. "You lost a lot of blood. I'm gonna need you to drink some water now. Thirsty?"
JD nodded. JD tried to bite back the pain as Nathan assisted him in sitting up. After he finished the water, Nathan settled him again in the bed.
JD could only remember bits and pieces of what had happened. He could recall the force of the shot driving him off his horse, the pain, Buck pulling him into the rocks. He could remember seeing Ezra firing at someone, Buck tending to his wound. Buck left. And then... Ezra was trying to move him. It hurt. Then what? Ezra was talking to him and settling him down again, making him comfortable. And then Buck was there, but Ezra was gone.
"Ezra?" JD turned his head, looking for the gambler. He caught sight of the familiar red jacket and hat hanging from the bedpost.
JD smiled. "Nathan? Ezra came back?"
Nathan gently laid his hand on JD's chest and said, "Chris's gone off to find him."
JD frowned at this response. JD remembered...Ezra had grabbed the bowler and the bloodied jacket, and pulled them on while JD watched.
"Don't worry a bit, Mr. Dunne," Ezra had said to him. "I'll take excellent care of your property. I only ask that you return the favor." Ezra had briefly modeled the apparel. "I believe I will make a passable 'Sheriff of Four Corners', don't you agree?" He had smiled and added, "As long as no one looks too closely. No one would believe the ruse if they could see me clearly. No, I'm evidently of a different breed and simply not the sheriff type - as different as night and day."
Ezra had leaned over, tossing his red jacket over JD. "Remain perfectly quiet, Mr. Dunne. Mr. Wilmington will return shortly. He'll see to your well-being. Everything will be all right," Ezra had said. "Be certain to give Mr. Wilmington my apologies for the change in plans, but the solution came to me like a bolt out of the blue." And then Ezra had dropped his black low-crown hat over JD's face and disappeared.
The young man felt a coldness pass over him at this memory. Oh God, no, JD thought. If those men caught up to Ezra… in my clothes… if anything happened to him... oh God. He could remember the shouted conversation of the Hollowell brothers. Oh, God.
"JD?" Nathan inquired, seeing the anguish pass over JD's countenance.
"They wanted me, Nathan, just me," JD said sadly. "It'll be my fault if somethin' happens to Ezra." He could feel himself weakening again.
Nathan shook his head and said, "Don't you go thinkin' that, JD. It's no fault of yours that those crazy brothers came after you and it's no fault of yours that that insane southerner did what he did."
"He did it for me," JD said as he succumbed to sleep.