STAGECOACH

By: KellyA
Copyright@ Oct 2000


[Thanks to my betas and idea gurus: NotTasha and Carla. And a special thanks to Mary M, who breathed life into a potentially dead story.]

Part 1

It was a typical Friday night in the small, frontier town of Four Corners. And for the residents and its seven peacekeepers the saloon offered the only source of entertainment.

Chris Larabee leaned against the bar and tossed back a beer, maintaining a subtle vigilance over the antics in the saloon. At his side the taciturn tracker leaned too, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Chris knew better. Vin Tanner was ready to back him at the first hint of trouble and this friendship endowed the somber gunslinger with a confidence that he hadn't known in a long time.

Vin could sense the trust that Chris had in him. It passed between them as natural as fresh air and the tracker breathed it deeply. It was the kind of loyalty that made men stick together.

Nathan and JD entered the saloon, their patrol duties completed. Nathan's unhurried demeanor contrasted greatly with JD's exuberant energy. The young gunslinger almost seemed to flit around the tall healer. Chris actually expected Nathan to swat him. The two lawmen grabbed the nearest vacant table and settled down. JD removed his bowler, brushing dust from it. He then searched the room for Buck and realized he was too late; the ladies man was already in the arms of some soft, young courtesan. Nathan smiled at the young sheriff. It really was a funny lookin' hat, he thought as he gestured toward the bar maid.

Chris's gaze swept over to a far table where Ezra sat plying his trade. Gambling was really the man's only love. His peacekeeping duties were more of a hobby, but he was good at both so Larabee tolerated the southerner's late night diversions. He glanced back over at Nathan, the only member of their little band who didn't. The rivalry between the southerner and ex-slave had turned into a sort of game, with Ezra doing whatever he could to irritate the healer, and Nathan taking every opportunity to try and knock the arrogant gambler down a notch or two. Nathan always swore that one day Ezra's double dealings would get him in real trouble or killed.

Nathan shook his head when he saw Ezra. Lord, the man would play with anyone the ex-slave thought as he spotted Mr. Lewis Franklin, the bank manager, at the cardsharp's table. Franklin was a large man with thinning brown hair. His eyes looked like two coffee beans set in his loose, fleshy face. Even his toothy smile seemed to get lost in his plump cheeks; not that he smiled much. Ezra's gaze slid to the batwing doors each time they opened. He's waiting for someone, Nathan thought.

When Mr. McPherson stepped inside the saloon Nathan thought nothing of it until he saw Ezra stand. Paul McPherson was a lanky man with a head of thick brown hair. He had a kind face and sharp, bright eyes. Mr. McPherson owned a sizable ranch south of town. There were rumors that he was on the brink of losing the ranch to the bank. Apparently, he had taken out a loan that was now due. Many ranchers had borrowed money after their herds were killed in a freak winter snowstorm and more were lost in the summer's following drought.

Chris took another swig of his beer, wiping the foam from his lips. He watched as Ezra intercepted Mr. McPherson.

"Ah, Mr. McPherson, won't you join us in a friendly game of chance?"

McPherson balked for a moment until he noticed Franklin sitting at the table with a smug grin on his face. The man was heartless, loaning him money at an unconscionable interest rate. Franklin had called in the loan, and he was unable to come up with the balance. By the end of the week his dream would be taken from him. McPherson lifted his chin in defiance. He would not let this man see his remorse. He was still young, but he had sunk every dime he owned into the ranch. He and his wife were ruined and planned to go back east to their families.

"Sure, why not," McPherson quietly replied to Ezra's request. He was surprised that the suave southerner had asked him to play. McPherson knew the gambler was a high stakes player as well as one of the lawmen who protected the town. When he entered the saloon he had only planned on sharing a beer or two with some friends. He enjoyed poker, but wasn't very skilled at the game.

Ezra smiled and leaned into the kindly rancher. "Perhaps Lady Luck will grant you her presence tonight."

"That would certainly be a change," McPherson replied dryly. He'd never be able to come up with the two hundred dollars he needed by tomorrow, so why not have one last night of enjoyment? He might even take a little money from Franklin to ease their trip back east.

Franklin's smile grew as McPherson took a seat. Well, well... the man just doesn't learn, Franklin thought. He nodded politely at the rancher who turned away in disgust.

"What the hell is Ezra doing?" Nathan remarked angrily as he watched McPherson sit down at the table.

"Looks like he's goin' to play poker," JD innocently replied.

"The man is in danger of losing everything he owns and now Ezra is trying to squeeze the last drop out of him," Nathan growled.

JD stared back at Nathan, not understanding what he was talking about. "Huh?"

"McPherson," Nathan tersely pointed out to his young friend.

JD only shrugged. It didn't appear to him like Ezra had held a gun to the man's head.

Chris's gaze narrowed on the gambler. What was Ezra up to now? Chris downed the last of his beer. He watched the game commence as Ezra dealt the cards with his usual flair. Maybe Standish thought with losing his ranch McPherson would be willing to gamble freely with any remaining money he had. God, the southerner had no morals, Chris inwardly chastised. Vin only stared impassively at the cardsharp.

****Part 2

Standish fingered the few remaining coins that sat in front of him, his placid gaze shifting between the two remaining players at his table. Inez began to sweep up, her annoyed strokes endeavoring to tell the remaining men in the bar that it was time to leave. In a few more minutes she would revert to more straight-forward measures, such as the shotgun that lay behind the bar. Vin sat next to the door his chair tilted back on two legs, and his hat pulled low, shadowing his eyes.

Ezra stifled a yawn. "Gentlemen, I'm afraid I will have to call it a night as I have duties to perform in the morning." Franklin sat slumped in his chair, staring blankly at the last cards he held. His earlier enthusiasm having been replaced with disbelief and frustration. The opposite was true of Mr. McPherson who could barely contain his elation.

"I can't believe it. I won two hundred dollars," McPherson blurted out in astonishment.

Vin slowly pushed his hat back on his head and rested his chair down on all fours. He couldn't believe it either and a faint smile tickled the corners of his lips.

Franklin glared at the elated rancher. His plans of owning the ranch had disappeared with the turn of a card. McPherson rose from his chair, scooping up his winnings. He turned joyful eyes toward Franklin, not even trying to hide his relief and pleasure at having bested the banker.

"Mr. Franklin, I'll be by the bank first thing tomorrow to pay off my loan." McPherson tucked his winnings in his coat pocket and nodded politely at Ezra before he sauntered toward the door.

Tanner didn't think the rancher's feet touched the ground as he left the barroom. It was amazing; McPherson had come in a broken man and left on top of the world, all in a matter of hours. The perceptive plainsman studied the fancy dressed gambler for a moment as he casually gathered up his cards. He wondered if Ezra obtained any kind of satisfaction or enjoyment from saving a man's dreams? Vin believed so, but he also believed that Ezra derived even more pleasure from driving people like Franklin to the brink of madness. This was usually what got the secretively good-hearted conman in trouble.

"You cheated," Franklin hissed, anger coloring his disbelief. He had just lost some prime real estate and a considerable amount of money.

Standish's green eyes widen in mock surprise at the accusation, and Vin had to duck his head to keep from laughing out loud at the performance.

"Sir, if I cheated I surely did a deplorable job as you can see I'm destitute." Ezra waved his hand over the paltry remains of his money.

"You didn't cheat for you, you cheated for McPherson," Franklin accused, his face growing flush with his anger.

Standish's brow creased and all humor left his face as he glared at the unscrupulous banker. "There is no need to insult me. I am afraid I just wasn't feeling quite up to par this evening." Ezra smoothly rose and buttoned his jacket.

"Funny how McPherson won exactly the amount of his loan," Franklin sneered.

"Mere coincidence I assure you."

Franklin roughly got out of his chair and grabbed his coat and hat. He glared at the gambler and then turned and marched out of the saloon. Vin watched the infuriated banker leave then stepped up to meet the cardsharp at the stairs.

"Hope ya feel better for mornin's trip," Vin intoned with the slightest hint of amusement in his Texas accent.

"I assure you, Mr. Tanner, that I will be fine for our little excursion; in fact, I think I'm feeling better already." Ezra smiled, knowing he couldn't hide much from the buckskin-clad tracker. He nodded and headed up the stairs toward his room.

Vin shook his head, glad the gambler was his friend. He would never truly understand the smooth operator. One minute he thought he had the southerner figured out, the next Ezra would pull something like this and change his whole perception. Vin only hoped the arrogant southerner didn't get himself killed before the others got a chance to see what was really inside Ezra Standish.

****Part 3

The sun made a valiant effort to cut through the early morning gloom, but only a thin veil of silver light appeared. The gray sky was content to tease the townsfolk with the promise of rain. Four massive, brown and black steeds pawed and snorted within their harnesses, their impatience growing. At the moment they appeared to be alone in their eagerness on this cool, drab morning.

Mr. Lewis Franklin, stood outside the bank's door, flaunting an ersatz sense of a person in charge. He watched as Buck and Vin hefted bags of gold coins atop the stage, handing them up to Josiah, who settled them into the strong box. Franklin wrapped his long dark coat tighter around his stocky build as a sudden wind cut through him.

Chris and JD kept vigil over the proceedings from beside the stage. The town was still asleep. Chris liked this time of day. There was a certain quiet anticipation waiting for the world to wake. It was different than the night, which seemed to provoke apprehension. The darkness hid all manner of demon-real and imagined.

Vin and Buck tossed the last bag of coins up to Josiah, who nestled it into the strongbox with the others.

"That's it, Josiah," Buck called up to his friend.

"Now make sure you lock that box, Mr. Sanchez," Franklin instructed, stepping up closer to the stage and eyeing the pious gunslinger critically.

"Yes, Mr. Franklin," Josiah tersely replied, not liking Franklin's underlying tone. The banker didn't trust them. Josiah removed the key from the lock and flipped it down to Buck who caught it in mid air.

"I'll take that, Mr. Wilmington," Franklin said as he plucked the key from Buck's fingers. Wilmington glared at the large, polished financier then turned and walked away.

"We should only be a couple days. We'll wire you when we arrive in Tucson," Chris told Buck, who was still glaring at the banker. Chris pushed back his hat and leaned his sinewy frame against the back of the stage.

"Buck, did you hear what I said?"

"Yeah, yeah, wire from Tucson," Buck repeated in a distracted tone. He didn't like or trust Franklin. Buck turned his attention to Chris. "You think the stage will be attacked like the others?"

Four stages traveling between Four Corners, Oak Ridge and Tucson had been robbed over the past two months. Luckily, no one had been hurt-yet. Buck didn't like the idea that only Chris, Ezra and Vin were protecting the stage. Chris had been adamant about his decision. He didn't want the town left unprotected with a band of outlaws on the loose.

"We've kept the transfer of this money as secret as we could. Hopefully, we'll make it through without any trouble," Chris answered as he watched Vin climb on top of the stage. "Where's Ezra?"

As if on cue the smartly dressed gambler stepped into view from the saloon, stifling a yawn and tugging at the sleeves of his jacket. Ezra hated mornings, but at least the sun saw fit not to grace them with its normally brilliant presence. For this, Ezra was eternally grateful, having only gone to bed a few hours ago. He figured he could catch up on his sleep on the way to Tucson. Ezra stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the stage. He could already see the perturbed look on Larabee's stern face, but it only resulted in a smile on his clean-shaven visage. No day would be complete without getting on Larabee's bad side, and Ezra was an expert at it.

Buck moved off as Franklin stepped up alongside, watching the suave southerner's progress toward them.

"Mr. Larabee, do you feel it wise to have Mr. Standish protecting the bank's money, considering his rather dubious integrity? I mean, isn't that like allowing the proverbial fox in the hen house?"

Larabee glared at the pompous man next to him, who stood with his hands clasped behind his back, with an air of superiority that almost made Chris want to choke. Ezra's arrogance was at least tolerable; Franklin's made Chris want to bury his fist in the banker's ugly mug. The businessman had been in Four Corners for a little over a month and had already foreclosed on two ranches and one business. He had denied loans or slapped obscenely high interest on them. The unscrupulous man had no heart, which was, unfortunately, not against the law.

"He's comin' with us," Larabee sharply stated, his dislike for the banker growing by the minute. He was glad Ezra was coming, if for no other reason than to aggravate the smug banker. "And I still think it's a bad idea for you to come along," Chris added. He was not pleased when Franklin informed them that he would be riding with them to Tucson.

Franklin constantly voiced his disapproval over having seven hired guns, all with questionable morals, protecting the town. He believed they were hampering possible growth and progress. No one took him seriously, yet.

"Mr. Larabee, this money is my responsibility; I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't see it safely to Tucson, and anyway I have business there." Franklin leaned back on his heels and brought his hands in front of him. He hated being intimidated by these two-bit gunslingers. This town had proven very profitable, but the seven lawmen were a hindrance in his desire for wealth and power.

As Ezra passed by the two men he tipped his hat and grinned. Chris bowed his head to hide his smirk. Mr. Franklin showed his open contempt for the conman.

"I would prefer someone else riding in the coach with me," Franklin sneered, the sting of last night's game still sitting fresh in his gut.

"Well, Mr. Franklin," Chris began, the exasperation growing in his voice. "Vin don't like the indoors, and Ezra don't like the outdoors."

"And you?" Franklin inquired of the darkly dressed lawman.

"I don't like you."

****Part 4

"It's 'bout time you got here!" Chris snarled at the brightly-attired conman, who stood by the stage door. Chris's agitation toward Franklin still resided in his voice and caused Ezra to arch a sandy eyebrow, wondering what he had done this time to induce the stoic leader's wrath.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled smoothly never missing an opportunity to flex his skill at bedeviling the blond gunslinger. "If you would commence these expeditions at a decent hour, I would be more than happy to comply."

Chris managed a less than deadly glare, and shook his head. Why did he even bother? He and Ezra had finally found an understanding of sorts; at least it appeared to the other five lawmen that they had learned to tolerate each other. Before, it was always a question of who would shoot whom first. Now, the contrary lawmen seemed to revel in their differences and the irritation it always provoked.

Standish held a deep-seated respect for the stalwart gunslinger, something he couldn't explain, even to himself. He had given up trying to figure it out. It was as bad as trying to make sense out of Josiah's parables. Now he just relished the camaraderie he shared with the six peacekeepers with whom he found himself irrevocably intertwined.

Larabee trusted Ezra with his life; unless, of course, his life was threatened before ten in the morning.

"Mr. Franklin, always a pleasure." Ezra mockingly smiled as he opened the stage door and with a sweeping gesture invited the banker inside. Franklin was almost as much fun to torment as Larabee, less the threat of death.

The financier grumbled something about Ezra's heritage under his breath as he hefted himself up into the stage. With a quick smile to Chris, Ezra's lean, agile frame followed suit, gracefully acquiring the seat facing the back of the stage.

Chris climbed to the top of the stagecoach and sat down next to Vin, who handed him the reins.

"Be wary, brothers," Josiah called out from below. "We wish to have our flock whole again soon."

"Don't worry, Josiah, you know how much Ezra hates roughing it and how much we hate listenin' to his complain'," Vin replied from atop the stage. "We'll be back 'fore ya know it."

"Unkind, Mr. Tanner," Ezra's voice rose up from inside the stage, only increasing the laughter Vin and Josiah shared.

Chris leaned over the side and yelled into the stage. "Ready, Ez?"

Standish stuck his head out the window and smiled. "All ready here, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Franklin and I are having a wonderful conversation on the value of good business."

Larabee sat up and glanced over at Vin, who held the same amused grin on his lean scruffy face. Both wondered how a slick conman could be discussing good business dealings with a shady banker. It would be an interesting conversation. Chris only hoped the two men inside didn't kill each other before they arrived in Tucson. He clucked his tongue and struck the reins lightly on the horses' rumps. The stage started with a jerk and headed down the road.

Buck's easygoing expression dropped from his face as he watched the stage disappear within a cloud of swirling dust.

"You okay, Buck?" JD asked, spying the worry on his friend's face. Serious concern was something easily noticed on Buck's normally carefree features.

"Just got a bad feeling is all," Buck replied, his eyes still on the vanishing stage. He really hated this. Those three could get in more trouble in the shortest amount of time.

"Ah, Buck, they can take care of themselves," JD assured, slapping him on the back and heading over to the jail.

Buck smiled and turned to follow his young friend. He took one last glance over his shoulder, wishing the nagging feeling of dread in his gut would move on, but the farther away the stage got the more at home that feeling became.

****Part 5

Ezra stretched out his lean body as much as the small interior of the stage would allow. He glanced over at Franklin, who was perusing several papers in his lap. The banker was as conniving as he, but with a lot less heart. Franklin went out of his way to foreclose on valuable properties only to buy them himself for almost nothing, and sell them at a considerable profit. It was a scheme worthy of-himself, Ezra thought, in his earlier days.

Ezra pulled his black, crown hat down low, hoping to obtain some measure of privacy, and folded his arms across his chest. He allowed the swaying of the coach to relax him and tried to ignore the occasional thump whenever they encountered a gopher hole or some other obstacle in the road. Stagecoach travel had to be one of the most uncomfortable and detestable forms of transportation ever invented.

They were several hours into their trip when Ezra finally raised bright green eyes to the dusty dim interior of the coach. He peered out the side of the stage, looking toward the distant foothills, which were cloaked in a blanket of low-lying clouds creating a tropical appearance. "Ah, I do believe we're at the edge of the McPherson spread," he nonchalantly noted.

Franklin gritted his teeth and a flash of anger crossed his face. He quickly turned to stare out the 'other' side of the stage. Franklin knew Standish was responsible for him losing the McPherson ranch. For the life of him he couldn't fathom why a conman such as Standish would give money to a farmer, but that was surely the intent when Ezra allowed Mr. McPherson to blatantly beat him at poker.

Ezra stretched out an arm across the back of his seat and brought his right leg to rest on his left knee. "That is going to be truly valuable property, but you already knew that didn't you, Mr. Franklin?" Ezra's grin widened as the banker couldn't stop the sneer that broke across his face. "I hear tell McPherson's wife is expecting. I find that heartening that he'll have someone to pass his legacy to, keeping it in the family for generations." Ezra stressed the last words.

Vin grew more anxious with each passing mile. The intuitive tracker knew if anything was going to happen to the stage it would be soon. The first bullet clipped the wooden seat, causing both men to dive for cover. God, he hated when he was right. Twenty outlaws on horseback were suddenly bearing down on them.

"So much for a quiet ride," Vin shouted, grabbing his rifle. Chris whipped the team into a gallop, as Vin positioned his rifle in the crook of his arm. He sighted along his weapon putting all of his concentration in targeting.

At the sound of gunfire and the sudden surge in speed Ezra drew his Colt and peered out the right side of the stage. He had hoped this would be an uneventful trip. Seeing the outlaws bearing down on them, he took careful aim and fired, watching with satisfaction as one of them fell and was lost in the churning dust of horses' hooves. Ezra glanced over at Franklin, who was holding tightly to the seat. He was surprised that the man appeared unfazed by the sudden riotous activity. Apparently, the banker had more backbone than Ezra had given him credit for.

Larabee kept the team racing at a furious pace, as Vin held the bandits at bay, both men trying to avoid the bullets whizzing past.

Standish kept his eyes on the pursuing robbers and fired whenever one started drawing closer. He was starting to get a bad feeling. He noticed that the majority of outlaws were hanging back, not in any hurry to catch up with the stage. It would have been easy to over take the gold-laden transport. Ezra quickly reloaded his Colt, wiped at the dust in his eyes and took aim at another bandit.

Franklin held onto the seat as the stage continued its furious ride. He watched as their attackers held the gambler's attention.

'It's about time,' Franklin thought. He had been anxiously waiting for the attack. The stage robberies had been his idea; brilliant actually. Hire some outlaws and tell them when and where the stages that were hauling the most money would be. He got a cut and the risk to him was minimal.

A sinister smile appeared on Franklin's face, as he carefully removed the revolver from his jacket, keeping his eye on Standish. This was his chance to get even and get the cardsharp out of his hair for good. He slowly brought the revolver up, but a sudden bounce caused the gun to fire prematurely the bullet ripping into Ezra's left side.

Ezra's Colt slipped from his grasp, his right hand clasping over the bleeding wound. He stared open-mouth at Franklin, who only glared at him with hate-filled eyes and a mirthful smile.

Franklin had hoped to kill the gambler with the first shot. He knew he couldn't risk another since the other two lawmen might realize it was coming from inside the stage. Instead, he tackled Ezra, planting a knee in the gambler's stomach and forcing the breath from his stunned victim.

Vin continued to fire at the outlaws. A bullet clipped his arm, and he hissed as he fell back. Chris glanced quickly at his friend, keeping the horses going at their furious pace. Vin pulled off his bandana and using his teeth quickly wrapped and tied it around his arm.

Standish tried to shove the heavier man off, but he was weak from blood loss and shock. Franklin grabbed the wounded gambler by his fancy jacket. He hoisted up the lawman and shoved him back toward the stage door. Ezra fell hard against the secured door then slid to the floor of the stage. The two men again started wrestling. Franklin slammed his fat fist hard on Ezra's wound causing the gambler to twist in pain, knocking his head back and lifting his jaw, making it an easy target. The banker threw a punch to Ezra's chin forcing him back against the stage door. The small access door could not withstand the abuse and suddenly broke open. Ezra's body disappeared as if grabbed by a huge unseen hand and yanked away. Lewis Franklin fell back against the seat, gasping from the exertion. He saw the revolver on the seat and immediately threw it out the window. He then found Ezra's Colt and threw it out, too. Franklin wearily produced a white handkerchief and mopped the sweat from his brow. All he had to do now was put on the best show of his life.

****Part 6

He had definitely underestimated the deceitful banker. The gunshot itself was a shock, especially coming from the financier, but the icy pain that followed in his flank caused him to forget any reasonable explanation for it. He had felt the door give and spent a short, silent moment suspended amid the wind and dust the stage kicked up. The roar of the gunfight resumed as the hard packed earth jumped up and slammed against him. Once was not enough, heavens no, his momentum enabled him to test the inflexibility and denseness of the ground several times as it rose up to meet him. His shoulder was the first part of his anatomy to challenge the ground's solidity and it failed. He heard the pop and felt the raw pain race through his arm as the shoulder joint separated. Then he felt himself rolling head over heels finally coming to a painful and bone jarring stop. The ground shook as the banditos thundered past; hooves barely missing his battered body. Ezra lifted his head-- the scope of his vision shrinking. He watched as the stage disappeared within a pinpoint of light, then his head fell back to the ground and silence surrounded him.

****Part 7

The tracker nodded, reassuring Chris that he was okay and resumed his position on top of the stage. Something wasn't right. The thought gave Vin pause, and he raised his head up from his rifle. He realized that the bandits weren't drawing any closer, and in fact seemed to be falling back. The ex-bounty hunter's next thought was that he no longer heard the report of Ezra's Colt. He did hear Chris swear and grabbed hold of the seat as Chris yanked up on the reins, bringing the frenzied team to a skidding halt.

Ahead, the tracker saw five masked men on horseback standing in front of a large, fallen tree. Deep gullies ran down both sides of the road making passage impossible. The five men all wore bandanas, covering the lower half of their faces, and held guns casually pointed at the two lawmen, who slowly raised their hands.

"Shit, we were being herded," Vin hissed.

Chris only glared at the five men before him.

"Okay, senors, drop your guns and come down, slowly," a heavily accented and muffled voice instructed. Shoulder length black hair curled out from under a wide plains hat and dark eyes stared menacingly up at the two lawmen.

Larabee scanned the area quickly, his mind searching for any avenue of escape, but finding none. Three of the outlaws dismounted and came up to the stage, pointing their guns at the two friends to hurry their descent.

Vin looked at Chris, waiting for his lead. Slowly, Chris took his guns and threw them to the ground. The weapons were soon in the company of Vin's rifle. Both men climbed down and were forced to the back of the stage. Three masked banditos kept their guns on the peacekeepers as a fourth entered the coach. The bandits, who had been chasing the stage, remained in their saddles, forming a half circle wall of horse flesh, and guns, around the stage and its passengers.

"Please, don't hurt me," Franklin pleaded as he fell to the ground, trying to keep his hands up to avoid any misunderstanding that might get him killed. He was then grabbed by his jacket and forced to his feet.

"Git over there," the one that threw him growled, shoving him toward Chris and Vin. Four outlaws now surrounded the three men, their guns drawn and ready.

Chris was not about to risk lives for gold. They would get the others and go after the outlaws later. He watched as two bandits climbed atop the stage, his blue eyes narrowing as he noticed that Ezra had not yet appeared. He looked to Franklin, who was also watching the bandits on the stage. "Where the hell is Ezra?" Chris asked, ignoring the glare from one of his guards.

Franklin turned to stare at the stoic gunslinger and stepped back from the cold steely gaze. He swallowed the lump that suddenly formed in his throat, making if difficult to talk. He had spent the last few minutes coming up with a suitable story. Now, under Larabee's deadly gaze he was having trouble remembering it.

"I...I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this." The lump seemed to grow larger, and Franklin had to cough to try and dislodge it. "But, Mr. Standish is dead-shot dead. He fell out of the stage a ways back."

Both lawmen stared in disbelief at the weasely man until Franklin felt he needed to say more. "I assure you he died in the line of duty, and I'll see that he is commended for his bravery."

Chris and Vin's stupor was interrupted by a gunshot as the lock on the strong box was blown away. The shot echoed long in their ears coloring Franklin's words.

"Ye haa, looky here boss!" one of the bandits yelled, pulling out large bags of coins and holding them in the air for the others to see.

"Good work! Let's git out of here now. We'll split 'em up later," the man with the thick accent ordered. He then looked toward Chris, Vin and the banker. "Well, senors, thank you for the donation for which we'll leave you all alive and well. If you start walking now you should make town by nightfall."

The bandit boss laughed and spurred his high-spirited animal into a gallop. The rest of the bandits soon followed, their laughter filling the air as they took the horses from the stage. It wasn't long before the three men found themselves standing alone.

Then the explosion that is Chris Larabee ignited. Chris lashed out at Franklin, grabbing two handfuls of the man's wool jacket and bringing him within inches of his face. "What the hell happened?" he growled.

Vin stood back, content to allow Chris to work his own special form of persuasion on the banker. He was not too worried since Chris didn't have his guns, although, some people believed just a look from the dark-clad gunslinger could drop a man.

"I...I...told you...he was shot by one of the bandits. The bullet threw him back, but he fell forward, and before I could catch him he tumbled out the door. He must of hit it hard enough to break it open. There was nothing I could do," Franklin stuttered, his voice rising with his fear to a squealing pitch.

Sweat beaded up on Franklin's high forehead, and he fought to keep the bile churning in his stomach from gagging him. Chris shoved the financier away, walking over to the stage as the banker staggered and fought to regain his balance. Chris grabbed the door and studied the lock on the inside. It was busted. Chris tried to re-latch the door without success then ripped the failed door off its hinges and threw it into the nearby scrub.

Vin came up from behind, laying a hand on his friend's tense shoulders. Chris slapped the side of the stage and turned to face his friend. "Damnit, Vin! He didn't even want to come."

Chris turned around to face his friend and saw the blood soaking through the make-shift bandage. "How's the arm?"

"I'll live."

Franklin removed a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped the sweat from his brow. He always considered himself above such boorish individuals, men who preferred their fists to intelligent discussions, although sometimes violence worked. Franklin stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket and straightened his jacket as he tentatively approached the two gunslingers. All he had to do was get back to town and everything would soon return too normal.

"Ah, Mr. Larabee." Franklin hesitated for just a second when Larabee's attention was directed toward him, Chris's cold stare turning his blood to ice. "Don't you think we should start back toward town?" The words came out hesitantly, as if testing the waters, hoping not to find any sharks.

Chris glared at the man. "We're goin' to fetch his body, bring it back to the stage and wait for the others."

Franklin's small eyes widen in surprise. "Sir, I believe that is a waste of valuable time. I for one don't want to spend the night out here." The sudden bravado that filled the banker's voice was quickly squelched as Chris stepped toward him; his fists clenched at his side wishing he had his gun.

"I won't have any of my men lying out in the desert alone." Chris's voice was low, but easily carried the few feet that separated them. He knew what wild animals could do to a body, and he wouldn't allow that to happen to one of his friends. "And as soon as the others get here we're going after them outlaws."

"And what am I suppose to do?" Franklin indignantly asked.

The gunslinger's anger at this sorry excuse for a man was starting to peak. Vin wondered if Franklin didn't see it, chose to ignore it, or was just plain stupid.

"You? You can go to hell!" Chris retorted hotly, his fists opening and closing, trying to siphon off some of his anger. Ezra was dead and all this son-of-a-bitch cared about was getting back to his warm bed. He wasn't even concerned about losing the gold-- this sudden revelation caused Chris to freeze.

"Easy, cowboy," Vin soothed.

Chris turned and walked away. Vin glared at Franklin hoping to silence any further remarks. He then grabbed a canteen off the stage and went after his distraught friend.

"I...I'll just wait here," Franklin called out.

****Part 8

The gunslinger and tracker walked side by side, both lost in similar thoughts. The knowledge that one of their own was gone weighed heavy on their hearts. Apprehension slowed their strides as they backtracked the trail left by the stagecoach. The pain of the loss was raw within Chris's own soul. So many times he had wanted to strangle the obstinate cardsharp, now that he was gone it felt like someone had punched him in the stomach and the fist was still there. Ezra was the last person he thought he would feel any regret over. Damn him! That self-serving southerner had somehow inveigled himself into Larabee's hardened heart; and probably cheated to get there. The thought softened Chris's hard gaze.

Tanner was having a hard time believing the slick southerner was gone. The two men had more in common than either one would admit. Vin just wanted to find him and bring him home where he belonged. He wondered what this would do to the others. Would it fracture the unique bond they shared, now that one of the ties had broken?

They both stopped when they saw the crumpled purple-clad form on the ground. Vin swallowed hard, wiping an unexpected tear from his eye. He glanced at Chris, who stood motionless, just staring.

Vin continued forward and stopped when he came abreast with Ezra's body. He knelt down to lay a hand on the dust covered, auburn hair. He stopped short and moved a callous hand down to Ezra's throat. He felt the weak throb of a heartbeat.

"He's still alive."

Chris didn't remember traversing the few feet that separated him from Vin. He suddenly found himself on his knees at Ezra's side. The man had more lives than a cat.

Tanner took a deep breath. "Okay, what would Nathan do first?" he murmured as he took in the battered form of his friend. Vin took hold of Ezra's head holding it straight. Chris followed the tracker's lead and without words the two men worked together. They slowly straightened out Ezra's body, hoping they weren't causing any more harm. Chris opened Ezra's jacket, vest and shirt, and immediately applied pressure to the still bleeding bullet wound. He rocked the gambler's upper body off the desert floor and Vin ran his hand gently over the conman's back searching for the bullet's exit. Ezra moaned painfully, and Chris felt the bones in his friend's shoulder shift under his grasp.

"Vin, it looks like he threw that shoulder out again."

"And the bullet is still in 'im," Vin said.

On Ezra's right side his holster still carried the Remington. The derringer was no where to be found.

"Well, at least we have something for protection," Chris noted, using one hand to remove the gun and check the chambers before slipping it into his waistband. Vin cut Ezra's sleeve, grateful the outlaws hadn't taken his knife, and removed the derringer rigging on Ezra's arm.

Tanner produced a clean bandana and exchanged it for Larabee's bloodied palm against the wound. Chris sat back on his knees, removing his hat he ran a hand through his blond hair. "I think he has a couple busted ribs on his left side."

Vin carefully removed the bandana from the wound satisfied that it had stopped bleeding. "Cracked his head on something too," Vin noted feeling the blood in Ezra's hair. "He probably has a concussion. What do you want to do?"

Chris wiped at his face and released a long held breath. He looked back over his shoulder the way they had come. "Go back to the stage and get whatever supplies you can find and bring Franklin back here with you. Looks like we're spending the night."

Vin stood up. "He ain't goin' to like that," he replied with an exhausted grin.

Chris allowed himself a faint smile. "Well, he can go back to town alone then. Buck and the others will be lookin' for us in a day or two."

Vin nodded in agreement and jogged off toward the stagecoach.

*****Part 9

As Vin neared the stage he saw Franklin sitting inside the door, staring at the dirt his foot was stirring. A nagging feeling tugged at Vin's mind. He couldn't put his finger on the elusive thought that tickled his brain.

Franklin didn't notice the silent tracker and his approach caused him to jump to his feet. "Oh! Mr. Tanner, you startled me."

"Bad habit," Vin voiced in way of an apology. He thought the banker appeared very nervous.

Vin moved past the ruffled man and entered the stage, pulling up one of the seats where he knew blankets, bandages and water were kept. He would definitely have to thank Nathan for this forethought. He gathered up what he could carry and let the seat fall back in place. Vin paused momentarily, as he noticed the blood splattered low over the worn leather seat.

Franklin stared bewildered as Vin rummaged through the stagecoach. He assumed the lawman was just getting supplies for the return to town.

"Did you and Mr. Larabee find Mr. Standish?" he tentatively called into the stage.

"Yep."

Mr. Franklin hung his head in mock remorse. "I'm truly sorry for your loss. Mr. Standish and I didn't always see eye to eye, but..."

Franklin staggered back from the door as Vin stepped out of the stage, his arms laden with supplies. "He's alive."

Franklin stared slack-jawed at the buckskin-clad man and stammered. "Well...that is...good news." His face darkened as Vin continued past. Franklin quickly pulled himself together. If Standish had told them what had happened he didn't think he would still be among the living. Now he had to think of another plan to save his life.

****Part 10

As Vin approached his friends he saw Chris brush a stray hair off of Ezra's forehead and speak quietly to him. He smiled. Ezra would be truly amazed at the hardened gunslinger's show of concern for his well-being since most of the time the two men were threatening each other's lives.

"Ay, cowboy, any change?" Vin asked, kneeling down and setting the supplies aside.

"Nope. Hasn't stirred," Chris sadly replied. He reached over for the canteen and took a swallow of the lukewarm water.

Both men turned as Franklin entered their boundaries. The banker was huffing and puffing and sat down on a log to catch his breath. He smiled weakly at the two men.

"How is he?" Franklin asked.

"He's pretty banged up," Chris replied, returning his attention to Ezra. Vin let his eyes linger a little longer on the exhausted banker.

"Vin...Vin." Chris touched his friend's arm to get the distracted tracker's attention. "Let's try and make him more comfortable and see if we can get his shoulder back in place."

Vin stretched out a couple of blankets, and then took hold of Ezra's legs as Chris got carefully under his shoulders. Together they smoothly lifted the gambler and laid him on the blankets. Ezra moaned softly, and his head lolled to the side. Vin pulled back the torn fabric of Ezra's jacket, held his bruised arm and positioned the bone at its joint.

Franklin jumped to his feet, his heart felt like galloping hooves inside his stout frame. He quietly took a deep breath as the gambler gasped and opened his eyes.

"No. Please-no."

"Hey, it's OK, Ezra-we can do it," Vin reassured him, "We seen Nathan do it a bunch of times."

Ezra summed up surprising strength in his attempt to escape the men, but it did nothing to loosen their passionate hold.

"Ezra!" Chris sharply whispered, turning his friend's face, "You're going to be OK-do you hear me?"

"Please...don't..." the gambler gasped, squeezing his eyes shut.

"Do it, Vin," Chris urged. With the first shove Ezra was again unconscious and by the second try the shoulder was in place. Chris acquired a new appreciation for Josiah and Nathan's strength, but together he and Vin were able to pop the capricious shoulder back into its proper alignment.

"You all are pretty adept at that," Franklin nervously commented. The sickening pop of grinding bones causing even him to cringe. He needed to get away from here.

"Seen it done a few times," Chris sadly replied. "A few times too many."

Tanner took a closer look at the gunshot wound. It had gone high in the gambler's side, and Vin had to wonder why Ezra would have fallen out of the stage? He gently wiped away the blood then placed a bandage over the wound to keep it clean. He knew they would have to get that bullet out soon or risk serious infection. Vin lifted Ezra's head so Chris could wrap a piece of cloth around it to keep the deep laceration on the back of his skull clean. Vin then removed his belt and made a sling to keep Ezra's shoulder in place.

"We have to get that bullet out," Vin stated, taking a rag and wetting it with some water from the canteen. He gently wiped Ezra's slack face, trying to remove some of the powdery dust that made him appear paler than he already was.

Chris laid the back of his hand on Ezra's forehead. "Fever's already building. We're just goin' to have to keep him comfortable and wait for Nathan."

After they had cleaned up their friend as best they could Chris covered the injured man and sat back.

Franklin had remained seated on the log, watching as the two men tried to do what they could for the injured gambler. His hands pulled and tugged at the now sweat soiled handkerchief. He was surprised at the extent of Larabee's concern over Standish. He hadn't thought the two men got along very well. Events had definitely taken a turn for the worse. If Standish remembered anything when he regained consciousness the banker knew he was as good as dead, and his little enterprise would come to an abrupt and probably unpleasant end. Franklin prided himself at being able to adapt to any situation. There had to be a way to remedy this little set back and still maintain his practiced reputation.

"How's he doing?" Franklin asked, kneeling next to Larabee.

"He's still alive," Chris gruffly replied.

Franklin stared down at the inert gambler, wishing the man would die, but realizing he'd probably have to take matters into his own hands or better yet have someone else do it for him.

"Let's fix up your arm. No sense in giving Nathan two patients," Chris suddenly said.

Vin was about to object, but then realized it would probably take Chris's mind off of feeling so helpless about Ezra. Chris removed the bandana and ripped the tracker's sleeve. The bullet had only grazed the arm and it was only slightly inflamed. Chris soaked a clean cloth and started to clean the wound, ignoring his friend's sudden harsh intake of breath. After the wound was clean Chris wrapped it with a clean bandage.

The orange sun had decided to make a belated appearance and was now hanging just over a distant hill. The coolness of night was already starting to surround them. A magpie's high-pitched petulant call echoed up from the brush then went silent as the jangling of a buckboard interrupted. Chris and Vin stood protectively in front of Ezra, and Franklin scrambled behind a clump of brush. Chris laid a hand on the handle of the Remington tucked in his waistband.

A deep strong voice called out as the wagon broke into sight. "Hello! Do you need help?"

Chris and Vin both smiled as they recognized the McPhersons. Mr. McPherson pulled up the two horse team and smiled down at the two lawmen. His smiled dipped as Franklin came up alongside them.

"Oh, Dear Lord!" his wife's voice broke and she climbed down from the rig and went to Ezra's side.

"What happened?" Mr. McPherson asked, jumping down from the rig.

"The stage was attacked, and Ezra was shot," Chris explained to the older man.

McPherson's brow furrowed, and he walked over to stand next to his wife, who was kneeling down beside Ezra's inert form.

"Dear God," Mrs. McPherson murmured as she checked over Ezra's wounds.

Mae McPherson was a diminutive woman with a strong heart and soul. Her blonde hair was tied back with a blue ribbon, and her cornflower blue eyes danced with an intelligence and confidence that few women, or even men, possessed. Chris didn't miss the determined fire in her eyes. This was a woman who could hold her own.

"We need to get him back to the ranch, Paul. His wound is infected," Mae explained. She felt the heat rising from the unconscious gambler and thought of the hundreds of soldiers' faces she had held during the war. They had moved west hoping to leave the violence far behind, but once again had found the need for the skills the war had taught her.

The men carefully got Ezra into the back of the buckboard. Franklin reluctantly climbed in and grabbed hold of the side when it started out. Things were getting more complicated.

*****Part 11

"Bring him this way," Mae led the three men who carried the limp form into the house. They laid Ezra down on a bed and quickly moved aside as Mae took control. Vin was reassured as the woman did everything that Nathan usually did, checking his breathing and pulse.

Ezra's face was pallid and his wound had started to bleed again. Mae McPherson pulled back an eyelid and gazed at the sluggish pupil.

"Let's git his shirt off, and I'll be needin' some water," she abruptly ordered, breaking the men from their stupor. She turned to look at her husband. "Paul break out that sippin' whiskey-- we're going to need it."

"Maybe we should wait for Nathan," Vin quietly suggested. Ezra looked awful and he was growing very afraid for the gambler.

Mae straightened to her full height, which barely came up to the tracker's chest. "I was a nurse in Virginia during the war. I can remove that bullet, but I'll need help." Mae's voice was strong and sure, and Vin met her gaze. "And I don't think Mr. Standish can wait for your Mr. Jackson."

This caused Chris and Vin's faces to fall as the seriousness was laid out before them. Chris stepped forward and started to remove Ezra's upper clothing.

Franklin had stood silently in the doorway, knowing by the look in Paul McPherson's eyes that he was not welcome. Damn, if they had stayed out in the desert, maybe Standish would have succumbed to the elements and his injuries, but now he had a chance to survive. Would his luck ever change?

"Maybe one of us should go to town and get help," Franklin suddenly suggested.

"It'd be dark before you reached town," Chris said, not stopping from his task of removing Ezra's clothing.

"Well, ah, I guess I'll go and get some water then," Franklin offered, much to everyone's surprise. Larabee shrugged his indifference as the banker left.

Ezra groaned and his hand came up trying to push Larabee away.

"Ez, can you hear me?" Chris asked, grasping the smaller man's chin and staring down into his face.

"Here, see if you can git some of this whiskey down 'im," Mae said, placing a small cup into Larabee's hand.

Vin stepped up to the other side of the bed and raised the gambler's head as Chris placed the cup against Ezra's lips. The southerner's shaking hand came up and folded over Chris's hand. Ezra managed a couple of careful sips, trying to allow the warmth of the liquor to numb the pain. Chris pulled the cup back when Ezra started to cough, agony scoring his face. "Easy, Ez," Chris soothed.

Chris and Vin watched as Mae prepared several instruments, which she had removed from a dresser drawer, including a shiny, sharp scalpel that would have made Nathan envious.

"A doctor with one of the regiments gave this to me," Mae explained when she noticed the lawmen's interest.

Ezra watched her, too, through half hooded eyes. Her movements seemed graceful and slow as she appeared and disappeared from his line of vision. He sensed that the others were present, but could not hear them. He heard only the pain screaming in his head.

Mr. McPherson busied himself with starting a fire. He knew his wife was quite capable even if the two lawmen had their doubts.

Mae McPherson gently pressed the gambler's muscular forearm against the bed frame and then began wrapping a soft bandage around both to secure them together. The feel of his skin brought a slight flush to her cheeks. She stared down into the handsome, sweat-covered face of the southerner whose emerald eyes tried to focus on her.

Vin folded his hand over Mae's. "That ain't necessary," he said in an even tone. "We can hold him." He locked eyes with the woman showing her the depth of his concern for their friend. Mae knotted the binding. "I still need his arm still."

"Alright, I think I'm ready..." Mae began then turned her head at the sound of a horse outside.

The three men raced outside just in time to see Franklin riding away into the night.

"That son-of-a-bitch stole my horse!" Paul ranted. "First he tries to steal my home now he steals one of my horses."

Chris and Vin regarded each other with a mixture of worry and fear. Something told them that trouble might be coming.

"C'mon Mr. McPherson, let's go back inside there's nothing we can do till morning," Vin said as he lay a hand on the rancher's shoulder.

"Mae, that banker fellow stole one of our horses," Paul complained, setting a pail of water down alongside the bed.

"We'll worry about the damn horse later. I need you all to hold Mr. Standish still so I can get that bullet out."

Chris moved to the head of the bed and grabbed hold of Ezra's hand, holding his injured shoulder secure as Vin and Paul lay their weight on the conman's hips and legs. Mae looked at each of the men, took a deep breath and picked up the scalpel. It had been a long time since she'd cut into anyone, but it was something a person didn't easily forget. During the war they were so short of doctors that she was shown how to do simple operations, and she got lots of practice removing bullets. Her mind focused on the distant past--on a different life--where she was trying to save young men who had been brutally violated; many died, but she had managed to save a few. Mae's trembling hand steadied. She leaned over her patient's bound arm and started cutting into the festering wound causing Ezra to arch upward.

"Hold him!"

Everyone strengthen their grips as Mae continued to cut and search for the intrusive piece of metal that was slowly poisoning the gambler. "I see it."

Ezra's breaths were coming out in labored pants and veins stood out on his neck as he held back the scream that was tearing at his throat. Every limb struggled to pull free of the torture. Mae had left his left hand loose when binding his arm and he grabbed a fistful of her skirts and held fast. Mae got hold of the bullet and pulled it out, tossing it into a basin. She allowed the wound to bleed a moment then grabbed the bottle of whiskey that was sitting on the table. When Chris saw what was coming, he lay more of his weight on Ezra's shoulder. Mae poured the alcohol on the wound, and Ezra released a feral scream that caused everyone to tense. He fell back onto the bed, his chest heaving, his breaths coming out hard and fast.

Larabee looked down into green eyes swimming with pain. "Easy Ez, it's over," Chris soothed and lay a hand on the conman's cheek. Mae tried to move from the bed for water but was held fast in Ezra's grip. She stopped short. She touched his hand, gently massaging the desperate man's fingers and wrist until he released her and her skirts swung free. "It's over now, Ezra," Chris repeated. The simple statement was all that was needed for Ezra to allow himself to fall back into the quiet embrace of oblivion. Mae held the elegant fingers a moment longer, then placed the gambler's hand on the bed. She handed Chris a damp towel and the gunslinger started wiping the sweat from Ezra's brow as she quickly sewed up the wound and bandaged it.

After about an hour Ezra was finally resting as much as his pain would allow. Mae wished she had something she could give the suffering man. Everyone moved out to the living room, leaving the door open so they could keep an eye on the injured cardsharp. Paul had a roaring fire going and the room was comfortably warm.

"I'll see what I can whip up for us to eat," Mae said and headed toward the kitchen.

"That's some woman you have there, Mr. McPherson," Vin praised. The woman had just pulled a bullet out of a man now she was going to make dinner.

"Don't I know it," Paul stated not hiding the pride he felt.

*****Part 12

Vin stepped up to the fireplace and stared into the flames that danced over the logs. Paul McPherson handed each of the gunslingers a glass and filled it with whiskey. "Here, take some of this. Y'all need it."

Chris nodded and downed the fiery liquor, allowing the warmth to untie the knot of tension that resided in his stomach. He glanced over at Vin, who was scowling and seemed lost within the flickering flames.

"Is there somethin' you want to talk about? Chris asked.

Vin pushed one side of his long hair back behind his ear. He couldn't keep anything from the astute gunslinger; the two men were kindred spirits. "I think Franklin shot Ezra," Vin simply replied. Chris stared back at his friend a moment, and then looked back toward the room where Ezra now rested. Chris's blue eyes narrowed, and he laid a hand on Ezra's Remington, which was still in his waistband. "I'm positive Ezra was shooting out the right side of the stage," Vin continued, "Now, I've seen bullets do some fancy things, but..." Vin paused running a thumb over his bottom lip.

"What the hell?" McPherson whispered his disbelief as he down his glass of whiskey.

"Sort of been wonderin' how those robbers knew when we were coming," Chris quietly stated. "They were ready for us and knew exactly where we'd be."

Paul McPherson shook his head. He knew the banker was no good, but had no idea the man would resort to murder and robbery.

"Mr. McPherson, how many guns do you have?" Chris asked.

"Ah, just this here rifle and two Colts," Paul replied.

"Give Vin your rifle."

Paul complied without hesitation, knowing the tracker's reputation as a sharpshooter. "You think we're in for some trouble?" Paul asked.

"Better to be prepared," Chris said.

"I have more ammo over there in the drawer. I might even have some for that Remington," Paul noted.

"We'll take turns on guard tonight," Chris stated. "Is there someplace you and your wife can go and be safe?"

"Yeah, we have a root cellar under the house the trap door is just over there." Paul pointed to the corner of the room where Vin could just barely make out the outline of a small door in the floor. "But I ain't going. This is my home and I aim to protect it and anyway I have a feelin' you are goin' to be severely outnumbered."

Chris and Vin smiled at each other then looked back at McPherson. "Thanks," Chris said.

****Part 13

"MENDOZA! Where the hell are you?" Franklin called out, as he pulled the stolen horse to a halt in front of a rocky cliffside. He was grateful that the moon was full and only a few clouds dimmed its luminescent light.

"Senor, your plan went perfectly as always although we were a little surprised to find you on the stage," a thick accent rose up from the rocks followed by the dark silhouette of a large man.

Franklin dismounted as the stout Mexican appeared. "Yeah, well we got a problem," Franklin angrily growled. "Standish is still alive, and Larabee plans to wait for his friends and come and track you down."

Mendoza scratched at the stubble on his chin and a toothy grin stretched across his face. "The hombre that fell out of the stage is still alive?" he chuckled. One of his men had told him that some fancy dressed gringo had suddenly fallen out of the stage. They had thought he was dead and hadn't bothered to check.

Franklin started pacing back and forth in front of the composed bandit. The banker was not amused by Mendoza's obvious lack of concern and this only caused his hands to add to his nervous strides. "We have a good thing going, you and I. It could all come to an end if Standish tells his friends that I shot him."

Mendoza's smiled faded as he thought this over. He did have a good thing with the bank manager. Franklin would tell them whenever a big delivery was to be made and where to intercept it. Why had the man been so stupid as to shoot a lawman?"

"So, compadre what do we do?"

"We take care of all of them, now!" Franklin bluntly stated

Mendoza released a tired breath. They had tried to avoid killing anyone. That only made people angry and more determine to come after them, and killing lawmen would not make them very popular with other lawmen. "Why don't we just move on, amigo," Mendoza cheerily suggested.

"Because there's still more to do here." Franklin was figuring he could take care of two birds with one stone. If Mendoza and his gang killed the lawmen and the McPhersons he would be free to claim the valuable property as well as any other fortune he could squeeze out of this territory. With Larabee dead the remaining lawmen would eventually move on.

Franklin saw Mendoza's hesitation and decided to add to his thoughts. "Listen, if I go down I'm taking you down with me, a...mi...go," Franklin snarled.

Mendoza's smiling disposition vanished; he didn't like being threatened, but he did like what they had together. "Okay, we try it your way for now," he relented, bringing a smile to Franklin's pudgy face.

*****Part 14

Ezra began, quite painfully, to come around. At first he was confused. He realized that he was lying on a very comfortable bed, and he was warm, a little too warm, but warm. At the thought a chill chased itself through his body. Every breath was painful, and he had to keep his breathing shallow. He felt like he'd been run over by a herd of stampeding cattle, and with the memory of large wheels, speeding ground and horses he didn't think this thought was too far from the truth.

Chris rose from the chair that was beside the bed when Ezra's head rolled to the side and a soft moan escaped his lips.

"Ezra, can you hear me?" Chris gently wiped a damp cloth over the gambler's face, watching as eyelids fought to open.

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra hoarsely drawled, hissing as streams of pain coursed through his body.

"Don't try and move. You're pretty banged up," Chris warned. He grabbed a cup of water and carefully lifted Ezra's head, allowing him a few sips.

When Chris laid Ezra back down his eyes slowly closed, but then snapped open. "Franklin!"

"Gone," Vin answered, stepping into the room. He had heard Ezra and wanted to see his friend. "Don't worry. McPherson is watching," Vin replied to Chris's glare.

"...son of a bitch... shot me... threw me out of the stage," Ezra angrily explained, his rage dipping into a hidden reserve of strength and numbing some of his pain.

"We already figured that out," Chris replied, smiling at Ezra's lack of ten-dollar words.

"Figured he's also in with those bandits too," Vin pointed out.

Emotions struggled across Ezra's battered features. He thought about what Vin said and then slowly nodded his head once in agreement . "Yeah...the robberies...who...who else would know?"

Chris lay a hand on his friend's shoulder. He could see that even a few words were tiring him out. "You rest now."

The southerner didn't even have the strength to reply, allowing his eyes to slowly close, and his breathing to even out to show his compliance with Chris's order. The gunslinger smiled, the only time Ezra ever listened to him was when he was injured.

"When do you think the others will come?" Vin asked.

Chris rubbed the back of his neck. "We're not expected in Tucson until morning hopefully they'll start out sometime tomorrow afternoon."

****Part 15

Night was silent and cold out on the plains, only a distant coyote's bay broke the peace from time to time. Vin was again at the window, his eyes piercing through the darkness. He had all his senses tuned sharply to their surroundings, picking up on the slightest unnatural sound or sight. They all now firmly believed that Franklin was in cahoots with the outlaws. The sporadic snores of the rancher got Vin's attention, and he looked over at the man who was asleep in a chair. Both he and his wife had probably saved their lives, they definitely saved Ezra's. Vin wished there was some way to get the McPherson's out of this. He didn't want to see the kindly couple die.

"Anything?" Chris asked as he stepped up alongside the tracker. He had just left Ezra whose body was now racked with spasms as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

"As quiet as a church on Friday night," the tracker replied. McPherson snorted and mumbled something in his sleep. "Well almost," Vin amended with a grin. He glanced over Chris's shoulder. "How's Ezra doing?"

"Still runnin' a fever. Mrs. McPherson is checking him now." Chris's brow furrowed in worry. He still hadn't forgotten the feeling of dread when he thought that Ezra was dead. When had he started to care so much? "If anything's going to happen, it'll probably be first thing in the morning."

Vin nodded in agreement.

"You go and get some rest. I'll take over for a couple hours," Chris advised.

Vin walked over and stretched out his long lean frame on the cow skin sofa. Chris stared up at the star-studded night. He loved the solitude of the night, but hated the demons that rose up in his mind. The loss of his wife and child was always more acute at night, and he had to fight off the ache that gripped his heart. Chris thought about Vin and Ezra, men he barely knew, but was starting to feel something akin to a brotherly affection for. He smiled. There were four other men he had also found himself connected to. How could he have gone from being so alone to being surrounded by six stalwart and loyal men in the space of a couple months? Maybe Josiah was right and somehow they were predestined to be together.

*****Part 16

Morning brought more than the warmth of the sun. A heavily accented and familiar voice broke the early quiet, immediately getting Chris's attention; it was the voice of the bandit, who had robbed them. Chris was up and at Vin's side, having slept the past hour since being relieved.

"Ay Senors, Como estan?" The voice mocked.

"Sorry, no speak Espanola," Vin smugly replied, bringing the rifle up and resting it on the window ledge.

Franklin and Mendoza had spent all night trying to come up with a plan. They had more men, but Larabee and Tanner were expert shots, and Franklin was sure that McPherson probably had guns and ammo.

"All you have to do is come out and walk away. I promise no harm will come to you," Mendoza shouted. They had decided to try and see if given a chance to save the McPherson's would Larabee take the risk. Franklin hoped that the cardsharp didn't mean enough to them to risk innocent civilians.

"We have an injured man," Chris shouted back, knowing this was just a waste of time. He looked over his shoulder at the McPhersons and swore under his breath. He wouldn't let any harm come to them.

"We'll take care of him. I promise you, it'll be quick," Mendoza replied.

"They think we're stupid or something," Vin quipped.

"No deal," Chris shouted out.

"Now, let's not be so hasty," Mendoza's voice rose up from the distant rocks. "I don't see where you have many options. We're willing to let you all just walk away, but Mr. Standish must stay. A friend of mine wants to have a talk with him."

Chris and Vin could hear the snickering of several men scattered amongst the scrub and rocks. Even if they thought they could somehow get past the outlaws they knew that Franklin had already tried once to end the southerner's life; they weren't about to give the banker another try at it.

"Do you really want to risk innocent lives for a no-account conman?" Mendoza stated.

"Shit, there ain't no way they're goin' to let us walk out of here free and clear," Vin said only half under his breath.

"I think we'll stay right here," Chris yelled out.

"Suit yourself."

Chris looked over at Mae. "Mrs. McPherson, you need to go down into the cellar."

Paul took his wife by the arm and gently led her to the trap door. She looked up at him with loving eyes. "Don't worry woman. I'll be fine." He kissed her cheek and slowly closed the trap door. Mr. McPherson then took up a position at the other window.

"We have three pistols, one rifle and not much ammo," Vin informed his friend. "And I'm saving one bullet for Franklin."

"Don't bother. I'm going to kill him with my bare hands," Chris snarled.

****Part 17

The three men turned sharply at the sound of a groan. Ezra stood unsteadily against the doorframe. Sweat glistened on the gambler's skin, and his face was scrunched in agony. His arm wrapped around his middle. Chris shook his head and wondered where the man's sudden steadfastness had come from. Then he realized that the southerner had it all along, but preferred to hide it behind that egotistical fa├žade.

"Damnit Ezra, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris growled, watching as McPherson jumped to Ezra's side and steadied the conman.

"Gentlemen," Ezra gasped. "If you'll assist me... I believe... I can be of some help in repelling our adversaries."

Larabee smiled with relief--Ezra's vocabulary was back. "Stay down Ezra, you're in no condition..." Chris began.

"I'd rather be with you, trying to save our hides, then stretched out like some waiting corpse," Ezra finished.

Chris cocked his head slightly, allowing his doubt to show through. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the cocky grin on Vin's face.

"He's got a point, pard," Vin interjected.

Larabee relented and nodded. McPherson guided the cardsharp over to the window. Chris offered him the Remington. Ezra's trembling hand reached for the gun as he looked into blue eyes filled with concern and what Ezra thought might be admiration. Newfound strength coursed through the injured cardsharp, and his hand steadied as it grasped the gun. Chris released his hold on the Remington and Ezra turned his attention outside. He clenched his teeth tight as pain filled his entire body.

"Here they come," Vin announced seeing several of Mendoza's men scurrying forward in search of cover.

Larabee aimed and fired, grinning with satisfaction when one of the outlaws fell out from behind a tree to lay motionless on the ground. Ezra aimed through blurry eyes, but managed to still knock one of the attacking bandits off his feet. Chris had to smile; Ezra could shoot straight no matter what condition he was in.

Vin spared a glance at McPherson, who was grinning as he fired out the window next to him. The tracker guessed the rancher was hoping to get a chance to shoot Franklin; he would have to stand in line.

The bandits began an endless barrage of gunfire, causing the four men inside the house to fall to the floor. Tears came to Ezra's eyes and his body quivered as waves of pain gushed over him.

"Think you made them mad, cowboy," Vin quipped over the sound of bullets whizzing over their heads.

"A talent for which Mr. Larabee excels," Ezra added, still trying to gain control of the pain that had taken control of his body.

Chris stood up by the window and returned fire taking careful aim and making every shot count. Vin wiped at his eyes as he caught the blurred form of an outlaw trying to come around to the side of the house. He reached the corner when the tracker fired, knocking him off his feet.

Chris looked down to see that Ezra was barely managing to stay conscious. He took the gun from Ezra's quivering and reluctant grasp, and patted him on the shoulder.

The bandits were taking their time and making their way closer to the house. Chris knew when their ammo was exhausted they would be in serious trouble. Maybe they could hole up in the cellar, or sneak out the back. Chris looked down at Ezra and knew that the latter wasn't an option.

Larabee smiled when he heard the familiar yell and gunfire of Buck and the others.

"The Calvary has arrived," Vin cheerfully announced. He watched as Mendoza's men scattered, not too keen on being caught in a crossfire.

Mendoza's heart was no longer in this, and he mounted his horse as his men scattered and fled.

"You can't leave me!" Franklin yelled, grabbing his soon to be ex-partner's leg.

"Sorry, amigo, you are on your own." Mendoza kicked the banker away and rode after the rest of his retreating men, who were fleeing under the buzz of bullets.

*****Part 18

Chris and Vin stepped out onto the porch. "Nathan, over here!" Chris yelled out, gesturing toward the healer.

Jackson pulled up his horse in front of the house and grabbed his bag. He quickly looked Chris and Vin over as he neared. The two men parted and urged Nathan forward. "Inside! It's Ezra."

Nathan rolled his eyes and walked inside to find Ezra leaning in the corner of the room. Nathan quickly looked him over satisfied and grateful that he had only one patient to contend with. Especially since the tenacious cardsharp was worse than four normal patients.

"Ezra, how the hell do you always manage to get yourself hurt?"

"It's a talent I'd gladly relinquish, Mr. Jackson," Ezra replied, wincing as Nathan pulled open his shirt and pressed a large hand in the middle of his chest, effectively pinning him to the wall. The healer then poked and prodded his bruised and battered torso. Nathan noticed the stitched up bullet wound.

"That is my handi-work, Mr. Jackson," Mae voiced, coming up behind the dark healer.

"Mighty fine work, ma'am." Nathan praised and looked over toward Vin who had stepped inside. "Can you give me a hand getting him back to bed." Nathan and Vin carefully lifted the southerner and carted him back to the bedroom.

They laid Ezra gently down, and Vin reached up and opened Ezra's shirt. "Look at his shoulder, Nathan-we fixed it," he said, exposing the injury like a prized bass. Ezra dropped his head back in exhaustion, without reply.

"That's real good, Vin, but leave him be now. He's so sick he can't even think of what to say." Nathan could barely contain his smile.

"I cleaned the wound out real good," Mae explained to the healer. "He still has a fever, though."

"I have something that'll help with that. You saved his life, thank you," Nathan told the woman who blushed slightly at the compliment.

Ezra stared up at the healer suspiciously. "Mr. Jackson, did you just thank this lovely woman for saving my life?"

"Shut up Ezra, you're delirious," Nathan replied with just the hint of a smile.

Chris slapped Buck on the back as he met the gregarious cowboy out on the porch. "How'd you get here so fast. I didn't expect you all to come lookin' till later."

"Just Buck's ole intuition," he boasted. "Had a feelin' you all might be needing a little help."

JD guffawed at the older gunslinger. "Hell, intuition nothing, one of the horses from the stage came back to town. We headed out before sun rise," JD explained.

Buck smiled, shrugging innocently then turned and glared at his young friend. "Well, I did have a bad feeling." Everyone's attention was suddenly diverted toward the sound of someone yelling.

"Let me go, ow...ow!"

Josiah suddenly appeared from around the house, dragging a harried Franklin beside his horse. The ex-preacher's huge hand wrapped firmly around the banker's upper arm. Franklin struggled within the grip, tip-toeing to keep from being stepped on by the horse's hooves. As they neared the porch Josiah released his hold on the squirming man, allowing him to crumble to the ground.

"I take exception to this offensive treatment of my person," Franklin snarled from his place on the ground, trying to build up a sense of disdain, which quickly wilted under Larabee's icy glare.

Josiah laid an arm atop his saddle horn and leaned forward. "I spied our Mr. Franklin here, trying to make a clandestine escape. Sorta wondered why?"

Chris bent down and grabbed the man by his fine coat, pulling him to his feet. The heat of his whiskey laden breath wafted over the banker's face. "He shot Ezra and threw him out of the stage. He's also in with the outlaws, who have been robbing the stages for the past couple of months."

Josiah's grin dropped and he straightened in his saddle.

"I'm sorry," Franklin implored. His mouth went dry as he stared back into the dark aquamarine eyes of a man who wanted to see him dead. Larabee had truly earned his reputation. "Listen, I could cut you all in...you'd be rich," Franklin stammered. "You can't make much as lawmen." Franklin's eyes darted around hoping to see one of the gunslingers accept his offer.

Chris shoved him away, causing him to fall to the ground. Josiah kneed his horse forward, causing the weasely banker to crab crawl to keep from being stepped on.

Buck wanted nothing more than to rip the traitorous banker's throat out.

"Buck, tie this sack of shit up. We'll take him back to town and let the Judge deal with him," Chris spat out.

"My pleasure," Buck replied as he reached down and roughly pulled Franklin to his feet.

Josiah dismounted and quickly went inside, not hiding the worry he felt for the gambler.

Chris and Josiah entered the bedroom to find Ezra asleep and resting comfortably. They noticed the half-empty bottle of laudanum sitting on the nightstand.

"How is he?" Chris asked.

"Lost a lot of blood and running a fever. Busted ribs and lots of bumps and bruises," Nathan ticked off.

Chris stepped up beside the sleeping conman and lay a hand on his still feverish brow. "Thought he was dead," he murmured. Nathan's head snapped up, and he stared strangely at Chris, forcing him to continue. "After he was thrown from the stage, we thought we were looking for a body." Chris paused. "He does seem to have the luck of the devil on his side."

Nathan smirked. Well, he won't be ridin' or playin' cards for awhile, so apparently the devil was only workin' part time. I'll have JD fetch a wagon..."

"You'll do no such thing," Mae interrupted.

"Ma'am?" Nathan intoned.

"We." Mae looked around the room making sure her husband wasn't about. "We owe Mr. Standish our lives. Now, my Paul is a fair poker player, but there is no way he won the two hundred dollars we needed to save this ranch in one night."

Nathan and Chris's mouths fell open. Vin leaned against the wall and smiled.

"He did that?" Nathan uttered in disbelief.

"I will tend to Mr. Standish until he is fit to ride," Mae insisted.

"Ma'am you might change your mind once Ez here gets some of his strength back. He can get pretty ornery when he's sick," Vin explained.

"I think I can handle him, Mr. Tanner."

Chris's face broke into a broad grin. "Yes, ma'am, I do believe you can." Chris turned and walked out.

"Well, I'll come back by later and bring some herbs and more pain medicine," Nathan said.

"I would appreciate that, Mr. Jackson."

"And if'n he gets to be a handful you just let us know and we'll cart his sorry butt back home," Jackson added.

Vin stopped on his way out and leaned over close to the kindly woman. "He's no good with knots, ma'am."

Mae McPherson smiled holding back the chortle. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner, I'll keep that in mind."

Chris stepped back out on the porch to see Franklin sitting on the ground with several of Mendoza's men, their hands tied behind their backs, and JD sitting casually on the porch his gun pointed at them. "Buck's getting McPherson's wagon ready so we can take these guys back to town," JD explained to the blond gunslinger.

"Mr. Larabee, you and your associates are passing up on a golden opportunity. I could make you all rich men." Franklin decided to try once more to entice the lawmen. He had met very few men who couldn't be bought.

"You know, the most likely person to take you up on your offer was the man you shot and threw out of the stage," Chris dryly stated.

Chris turned away then abruptly stopped. He inhaled a sudden, deep breath and smiled. He turned around to face the dejected banker. "I take that back. Ezra Standish ain't the kind of man that would take you up on
that offer. Not at all."


THE END