By:  Heidi

Type:  Gen Hurt

Warnings: Violence, a few curse words, some humor, and hurtin'.  Not for the really squeamish.

Rating:  PG-13

Author's Notes:  Thanks to Cin, my SUPERDIVA beta, for giving me ideas and opening my mind.

"There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness. There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair."

Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)


He was alive – not just breathing, heart beating alive, but soul-burning, senses sharpened, vibrantly thriving.  No matter what the others said, not that he let them see he gave one whit about their opinions; he was in his element here.  The surroundings could have improved vastly; dust and bare wooden tables were not a gambler's Mecca.  Yet the flow of cards, the frequent exchange of money, Lady Luck shifting sides like the fickle bitch she was, the quickening of his pulse, and the end result – either the exhilaration of winning or the biting sting of all too rare defeat – fired his mind, body, and soul. 

Ezra Standish could not explain it, even with his fancy words, to anyone else how facing a worthy opponent, be it on the fields of battle, wits, or felt, fulfilled him.  The closest he ever came was giving Vin Tanner, wilderness expert and tracker, a scenario that long ago day.  They were standing guard outside the jail, and somehow the conversation came around to why Ezra continued to play.  His response was simple:  Taking me away from my games would be like taking you away from your wilderness; we would survive for a time, but we would be miserable. 

Vin thought it over and it was obvious he understood.  Now, the tracker guarded his back, perched on a stool directly behind his friend's chair. 

Standish normally resented someone leaning over his shoulder, able to see his cards and potentially signal other players to the contents of his hands, but lately he'd appreciated the tracker's presence.  Since this game started hours before when the sun first fell to kiss the horizon, slipping beneath it for a night's repast, a crowd slowly gathered in the intervening time.  Not only had locals filled the saloon, but also several strangers passed through the batwing doors. 

The town was growing, becoming more civilized, bringing new residents and those passing through for points further west.  In some ways the seven protectors were needed more than ever because of the population boom, yet, in others, their reputations made them 'the bad element'.  Not suffering for business, the saloon encouraged the crowds to converge, and Ezra's poker games slowly drew better and better gamblers to try their skills against the legendary Ezra P. Standish. 

Today was not a game for beginners, and those who dared to try quickly left when the abilities of the other players became apparent with the lightening of money from pockets.  The ones that quit stayed to watch, knowing they were observing a professional-caliber game.  Losses and common sense whittled the table down to the four remaining members.  A Southern riverboat gambler named Andre Dupuis was to Ezra's left, resplendently dressed in a white ruffled shirt, navy dress pants with matching navy brocaded vest, and a deep plum jacket over the shirt.  His string tie only accented the outfit. 

Next to him and directly across from Ezra was an Easterner, obvious from his accent and citified suit similar in cut and style to JD's, but made of a more expensive cloth and tailored completely to his body.  He went by the name Percival Wakely, of the Boston Wakelys, and it was obvious he was cultured and wealthy. 

To Ezra's right sat the last man of their quartet.  Dressed extravagantly in clothes more suited for a ballroom than this dustbowl town, Titus T. Tiberius had the adopted air of the rich, yet none of the polish.  He was the loudest speaker of them all, telling them tall tales that would have rivaled Buck's easily.  His blathering amused the crowd, gathering his own set of on lookers, more interested in the show than the play on the table. Of course, Titus T. Tiberius could not hear the locals sniggering about his looks, dress, and attitude, nor did he hear the Spanish insults muttered under Inez's breath at his condescending attitude toward her, all because he was so enamored with himself.  

Ezra played host with panache, keeping the mood light and Titus in check, with dexterous fingers dealing cards with skill and authority.  His face showed none of his inner turmoil, nor the ever-present weakness his recent rise from the sickbed brought with it until that last gunshot wound completely healed.  Right at the beginning of the game, his senses were still slightly off, and he nearly jumped when a hand landed on his shoulder, giving him a companionable squeeze.  A raspy Texan greeting reassured him.  Just knowing the tracker guarded his back relaxed Ezra. 

Green eyes subtly picked out his other compatriots in strategic places – Buck wearing a frown and nursing a beer by the bar, and JD on the other side of the table near the batwing doors with his hands resting on the butts of his guns. 

"Are you in or out, sir?"  A cultured Southern voice belonging to the one of the other professional gamblers at the table - Andre Dupuis – cut through Ezra's quiet musings.

"I beg your pardon." Clearing his throat, he tossed in the wager, having heard the amount of the raise without being consciously aware of it. 

"Three jacks."  Andre smiled.

"Full house," Easterner Percival Wakely said, showing fours and sixes. 

"A straight."  Titus T. Tiberius tossed down his cards.

Ezra sighed.  For all his joy at playing, nothing could make his three tens beat those other hands.  Presenting them for examination, he watched the pot snatched from his grasp.  His eyes burned a bit.  He was getting tired, but he refused to show any weakness, he would continue to play for a time.  This wretched exhaustion would not best him, but he would nurse it for the escape from that menial duty of patrol.  It also allowed him uninterrupted sleep in the mornings, a bonus he loathed to give up. 

Titus T. Tiberius cleared his throat.  "Might I suggest a change in dealers?  Our esteemed Mr. Standish has performed admirably; however, a new person could bring vitality back to the game.  I do believe Mr. Standish looks a bit peaked."

All three professionals stared at the amateur and braggart who dared invade their ranks, yet refused to leave when soundly outclassed.  Requesting another dealer was rude, and commenting on Ezra's appearance was downright gauche.  That was not mentioning the implied impropriety on behalf of the current keeper of the cards. 

"I do believe I am well enough to continue," Ezra frostily replied. 

"Something's going on here, because I've only won three hands in two hours!"  The amateur glared at the other three. 

"Yet you continue to play, much to your detriment," Percival answered. 

"Your folly, sir."  Straightening his sleeves, Andre refused to meet Titus T. Tiberius in the eyes.  "No one's held a gun to your head, and we are insulted you believe Mr. Standish would act inappropriately.  He has been the most cordial host, and a true gentleman."

"I thank you, sir."  Ezra inclined his head.

"My pleasure, sir."  Percival returned the gesture.

"Hear, hear."  Andre raised his glass in toast. 

"I want a new dealer," Titus T. Tiberius growled.  He glared at all of them. 

"You, perhaps?  Then should we be surprised when you win?"  Percival lifted an eyebrow. 

"Are you accusing me of cheating?" Angry, Titus T. Tiberius stood, his palms pressed flat on the table. 

"Of course not," Ezra said.  His voice took on a soothing quality along with the biting sarcasm of his natural accent.  "Since what my colleague suggested has not occurred at this present time, no formal accusations have been made.  Yet."  A harder edge entered the tone.  "Perhaps you might consider leaving while you retain something of monetary value in your pockets."  He stared at the man, knowing the amateur was a sore loser.  By the fourth hand, the three professionals pitted themselves against each other, using the amateur's ego to increase the pot.  In fact, three times they mutually agreed to lose a hand to keep the amateur and his money in the game, all by exchanging a simple look.

Personally, Ezra detested amateurs and would have been pleased to see the man walk away.  Yet that overbearing, condescending attitude, treating Ezra like he was a dandified fool, needed adjustment.  That could be accomplished through his skill with the cards.  Suffering this fool was not a relished prospect, but separating this idiot from his money, a few hundred of which was already in Ezra's pile, sweetened the suffering.  Now the idiot was accusing Ezra of cheating, and it was obvious he was trying to figure out Ezra's last remarks, if that oafish face was any indication.

"I want my money back – all of it – or a new dealer."

"May I propose an opportunity to win your money back?"  Well-mannered hands clasped on top of the table, and a smooth smile appeared on the water-tanned face. 

"What did you have in mind?"  Obviously intrigued, Percival turned to Andre. 

"Talk," demanded Titus T. Tiberius.

Ezra only lifted an eyebrow in encouragement.

"We three have won about equal amounts from Mr. Titus T. Tiberius."

Standish wondered how Andre did not choke saying the name that was a joke onto itself. 

"True," Percival admitted.

"I propose we place – equally, of course – what the man has lost into a single ante.  If you will, a stake, and Mr. Tiberius will match it, of course.  There will be one wager, one hand, and one deal.  Winner takes the pot, and the game ends for this evening."  The riverboat gambler leaned back in his chair to watch for reactions.

"You're offering me double or nothing."  Titus T. Tiberius rubbed his chin.

"In a manner of speaking," Andre agreed.

Privately, Ezra wondered where the drool was, since the man was so stupid.  Either the fool walked away with what he brought to the table, or he left with double the loss.  It was a fool's bargain, a well-played gambit, and only needed the fool to take the bait. 

"I don't have enough cash to stake."

"You have nothing of comparable value to what you've lost thus far?  For shame, sir.  Best you leave now and retain what's left of your belongings."  Andre sighed heavily.  "We will be of no further help to you."

"I ain't leaving without this chance."  The three gamblers smiled as the haughty buffoon lost his cultured speech as he became flustered.  Titus T. Tiberius reached into his pocket, pulled out a piece of folded parchment, studied it, and then tossed it to Ezra.  "It's a deed to some land I won near here.  Nice property, but useless to me if I'm going to the gambling halls of San Francisco.  Since you're local, Mr. Standish, why don't you check it out and say whether it's worth my money." 

Ezra unfolded the paper.  His knowledge of the Territory told him this was prime land, with its own water supply and fertile grazing fields, and worth considerably more than the paltry amount of the wager.  Any one of the nearby cattle ranchers would kill for this land, and owning it would be rather enjoyable to spite them.  Perhaps he would even bring in sheep just to vex the cattlemen.  However, right now, he would not share the true value.  "The location leaves much to be desired, yet I will accept it as your ante.  Gentlemen?"

"I will defer to Mr. Standish's local knowledge and judgment."

"As will I."

"What about the dealer?" Titus T. Tiberius stared at all of them.  "I ain't letting of you deal."

Percival answered that one.  "Your choice of anyone but yourself."

The amateur glanced around at the patrons, spectators, and press of bodies surrounding the table.  "Him."  His finger leveled at the mustached, tall man by the bar.  "He ain't shown any interest in our game, or in women.  Been staring at and sipping that same beer all night."

Ezra contained a grimace.  Buck Wilmington was nursing a troubled heart, and that prevented him from being his normal, ebullient self. 

"Ain't interested," Buck replied without looking over.  His eyes only lifted once to the mirror, and then dropped back to his beer.

"I insist on you, sir," Titus T. Tiberius demanded of him.


Ezra's head drooped, a pained expression crossing his face. 

"Aw, hell," the Texan rasped behind the Southerner.

Locals murmured to themselves.  Since that Louisa character left, Buck Wilmington had been wresting with his heart and his mind over whether or not to go after her.  He'd done his duty for them since her departure, but the spark was missing.

"Why not?"  Belligerently, Titus T. Tiberius stood and moved away from the table.

"Ain't interested.  Find someone else."  Buck turned to leave.

"Perhaps you should find another," Percival suggested.

"Oui.  One that would be interested in dealing," Andre added.

The amateur's hands landed on his hips.  "Too cowardly to deal cards?  Or do you think you're too good for us, cowpoke?"

"Damn if he didn't just poke the rattler," Vin whispered. 

"Cowpoke's frighteningly close to cowboy, but that's Mr. Larabee's touchy point," Ezra softly said in an undertone.

"Buck's been waitin' ta go off," the tracker countered.   Vin slid off his stool, ready for the coming fight.

"Buck!" JD interjected himself between the tall gunslinger and the equally stupid wannabe gambler. 

With one hand, the tall gunslinger gently eased his younger friend to the side.  His eyes locked onto the amateur’s, and each word was delivered in a clear, almost frightening drawl that sounded nothing like the resident lothario.  "Mister, either you're climbing Fool's Hill in a hurry, or you weren't born with the sense God gave a squirrel."  Slowly, Buck approached Titus T. Tiberius.  His spurs clicked on the wooden floor.  From his height, his glare bored down on the shorter man while he walked a full circle around him.  "Reckon you're both if you're calling me a coward, Mr. Sissy Names."

Ezra stood at that point.  He saw Buck's temper right beneath the surface, and it wasn't the prettiest thing to watch when it erupted. 

Buck started speaking again.  "Since you're so dumb, and I gave you an extra moment to ponder your own stupidity, I'm gonna give you one last chance.  You callin’ me a coward?"

"If you don't deal those cards, you are," Titus T. Tiberius replied.

Anger flashed over in dark blue eyes, and Buck yelled, "Sit down.  All of you!"  He grabbed the amateur by the scruff of his neck and bodily shoved him into his chair.  All the spectators backed away from the table, the locals knowing that there might be more violence shortly.  Even if there wasn’t, they were entertained because they knew the remarks would be colorful.

Ezra sat himself, wondering what Buck would do.  He felt rather than saw Vin behind him, ready to yank him out of the way of whatever mischief their friend caused. 

"If you want to be the one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest for these cut-throat professional cardsharps, you sorry fool, then fine.  Let them sucker you.  Then when you lose, I'm gonna carry your sorry hide to the edge of town and take pleasure in bootin’ your ass out of here.  I might set your horse after you, but then again, if your horse is smarter than you, I might let the animal decide if he wants to follow you."

"You can't do that!  I don't want you for a dealer."

All three professionals had the required ante in the center of the table, along with the deed.  They patiently waited, enjoying the spectacle as much as the crowd.

"Buck?" JD tried again.

"If this piece of horse dung who's stiffer than a mule's tail, uglier than sin, and wearing a ten dollar hat on a five cent head wants me to deal, then I'll deal.  Gimme some cards."  He held his hand out, and Ezra passed him a fresh deck. 

"I believe I'm insulted," Titus T. Tiberius exclaimed.  He tried to stand. 

Buck's left hand shoved the man back in his seat.  "Hell, boy, if you're just figuring that one out, this floor plank's smarter than you.  At least it stays where it's put.  And you've been insulting them since you sat down at this table.  Ya wanted me, ya got me.  I'm dealing, so close that flytrap."

The locals laughed. 

Vin, JD, and Ezra tried to hide their smiles, but only Ezra was the most successful.  Only the corners of his lips lifted while Buck expertly shuffled the cards repeatedly.  All eyes watched the calloused fingers, and then the pasteboards while they flew to the players. 

Standish picked up his cards and nearly groaned at his hand.  It could have been worse, but he wasn't sure how.  He held a pair of sevens, a two, a nine, and a four.  If he wanted to give away his hand, he'd glare at Buck, but he neither wanted to let the others know, nor provoke Buck's ire. 

"Ya read 'em, now how many?"  Buck tapped his foot. 

All but Titus T. Tiberius took three; the amateur stood with what he had, a smile covering his entire face.

"Time to show 'em."  Buck motioned for them to finish this game. 

"I'll go first.  Two pair, eights and nines," Percival said.

"Straight, ace through five of clubs."  Andre placed his cards flat on the table.

"Flush of spades," Titus T. Tiberius beamed.  "What do you have?" 

These were the moments Ezra lived for – to draw out the anticipation, not letting others see what he held until the very last second.  "Two pair."

"Ha ha!  I won!" 

Ezra flipped his cards over one at a time, until all four sevens were in a row over the pot and the amateur's already reaching hands.

"Of sevens.  Four of a kind, gentlemen."

"You cheated!"  Titus T. Tiberius wailed.

"Say goodbye, Mr. Sissy Names."  Buck grabbed him at the neck and at the pants, picked him up and carried him screaming out of the saloon.  Half the crowd followed to see the spectacle.

"Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure."  Ezra extended his hand to the other men at the table, and they shook.

"Perhaps, Mr. Standish, you would be amenable to a private session with us three?" Andre asked.  "Without the distractions?"

"I would be delighted.  Say tomorrow evening?"

"I have the Presidential room at the hotel.  Around eight?" Percival suggested.

"I will see you then." 

The other two left, leaving Ezra staring at the hand that won.  Four sevens.  If there was irony to be found, it was in the fact four of the peacekeepers were present in the saloon, and that seven consisted of their number.  Picking up his winnings in satisfaction, he left the boisterous crowd, and went to his room for some much-needed sleep.


 Three days later…

Vin and Ezra mounted their horses, riding out of town at the first light of dawn.  For all of Ezra's protestations to the contrary, he knew the best time of day to get away from town and all the eyes on him was too leave at first light.

He wanted to check out the property he won, and he figured he would enjoy the tracker's company until they needed to part ways.  They'd made arrangements to meet up and ride out the day after the last professional left.  Nathan, of course, was not informed of the proposed jaunt because Ezra was technically still recovering from his gunshot wound.  It would be certain the healer would not allow Standish to mount a horse, much less consider a potential overnight trip. 

The tracker planned to pick Ezra up at the end of patrol, allowing the gambler the chance to check out the land and have some privacy, but not leave him alone and unattended for too long.  Their ride out was quiet and peaceful, and when they parted, it was amicable.  Vin rode on to complete his patrol of some of the outlying farms, and Ezra continued on to his newly acquired property.

His property was more than he thought possible; it was incredible.  There was plenty of room to roam, and he already had the idea of what he wanted to do with it.  It would require an investment by his friends, but it was something they all could do and help raise money for their eventual retirement.  Ezra found he was not interested in moving any longer.  He was finally accepted for who he was, almost no matter what he did.  Life had finally turned a corner, and the Fates smiled on him. 

Taking a deep breath, Ezra dismounted from his horse, walking over to the water source and letting his prized steed drink.  His eyes noticed how clear the water was, and that impressed him. 

With his distraction, he didn't hear the rifle retort, but experienced the pain as the bullet grazed his head.  It felt as if his brain exploded, everything doubled, and he pitched forward into the creek.  Pushing himself up weakly, he managed to crawl to the other bank, trying to take cover behind some brush.  All the cover in the world could not help him when he blacked out.


Vin Tanner waited at the appointed spot.  Ezra was late.  Not only was he late; he was unpardonably late.  Sighing, Tanner went looking for his friend, thinking he got so enamored of his new acquisition that he forgot the time.  The tracker knew where the property was, but when he arrived, there was no sign of Ezra or his cantankerous horse. 

Using his eyes, he read the signs of Ezra's arrival and the track he took on his ridden inspection.  Curiously, the tracks stopped at the water. He noted a disturbance in the foliage on the opposite side of the creek and headed for it.   Narrowing his eyes, he saw the signs of someone crawling up on the bank of the small creek, and he squatted beside them.  With a sinking heart, he knew it was Ezra who had made the marks.  He found his friend's discarded hat behind the brush.  A touch of fear filled the tracker when then he saw the tracks of several men and horses on the opposite side.  They had dragged Ezra away. 

Should he go back to town for backup, or should he follow the tracks now? 

Vin made his decision.


His world was agony.  Pure agony.  There was nothing but pain, and Ezra wondered if he'd ever been out of pain.  No sign of relief was in sight, and the raw hurt continued unabated.


Part Two

Ezra may have worshipped at the altar of Lady Luck, but he considered Self-Preservation a religion onto itself.  Lady Luck was fickle, but Self-Preservation was a constant, and always had his best interests at heart.  Right now, he figured the two had combined to put him in this predicament.  He was alive, although right at this moment he couldn't say it was the greatest feeling in the world.  It would seem that he had finally been left alone, and free from further pain, except that which was making itself constantly known.  As far as being free, it looked like he was left to make what he could of his own luck.  Silently, he wondered if he had any luck left to go around. 

From the moment he was ambushed he knew he was in a precarious situation, and it certainly had not improved.  He'd woken bound, blindfolded and gagged.  Robbed of his sense of sight, he was prohibited from learning the identity of the miscreants who put him in this situation, and took such delight as they did so.  The blindfold only made things worse with the head wound, sticking to the wound, and he sorely doubted it was clean when it was placed there.  With a humorless chuckle, he thought with the list of enemies he could have accrued in his short life, it still might take twice that to sort through the likely suspects.  One thing he was aware of, though; they were mad at him, and they meant business, but perhaps lacked the courage to complete the ultimate revenge themselves, hence being left to wonder if his luck would hold to survive, or it was finally time to fold on his own dead man's hand.

A rough rope hung around his neck in the classic hangman's noose, strung from a tree that was half dead itself, having weathered several years in this inhospitable climate.  He could feel the thick knot at the base of his skull, instead of behind his left ear, and he knew that had been done deliberately.  Beneath him, he sat on his horse, only knowing this from the years spent as partners, and the unmistakable familiar scent.  The beast easily followed the simple grunts of commands from him with the slightest guidance of his bare legs to keep the steed steady.  It was the only contact or control available, as his hands were bound behind him, giving him no contact with the reins whatsoever.  Not that there were reins, considering the lack of amenities beneath his royal personage. 

Every attempt he made to wiggle free only made the leather ties, which had been wet when they were attached, cut further into his wrists.  He felt blood running down from the wounds, and experienced the not so pleasant sensation of flies and other assorted insects crawling around on his skin.  That turned his already sore stomach.  Emptying the contents was not an option; the gag prevented that.

He'd rather take another beating than this…dreadful situation.  Not that he enjoyed the first beating – not at all – but at least it didn't have the sense of finality to it that this did.  If he could see the true predicament he was in, he was sure he would rather face anything else than this.  His head hurt, he was sick and dizzy, yet thirsty and tired.  The sun beat down relentlessly, salty sweat trickling into annoying wounds that made for more discomfort and agitation.  Restlessness transferred itself to his unsteady mount; he was finding it more and more difficult to maintain control.

The blindfold provided protection from the bright sun, covering eyes that he could feel were swollen and painful, joining several other swollen and painful parts of his body.  While his eyes were protected from the sun, he also knew the rest of his body was not.  He was sitting on his horse, a hangman's noose around his neck, hands bound, gagged, blindfolded and bare as the day he was born.  Also limiting his control of the horse was the fact too of a lack of a saddle.  While he had been forced to hasten a retreat riding bareback before, to save his skin from hostile victims of his business propositions, this was not the style of bareback riding he cared to indulge in.

What worried him more was his horse.  It was getting harder maintain control of his old friend.  He was sure given his own relentless thirst and the unbearable heat that his horse was of similar want and desire of a refreshing drink of water.  As the steed's agitation and quiet nickers increased, he imagined there was water nearby.  It would be a temptation the unfettered and unsaddled animal could not resist for much longer.  If the horse went too far, Ezra would slide off the back of the animal and swing from the rope.  The knot at the base of his skull meant he would jerk and flop about until either he stopped breathing, or his neck finally snapped.  It would not be a clean, easy death.  He was meant to suffer.

The worst part was the not knowing the people that did this to him; he didn't recognize the voices.  He would remember them for this now, though.  Not that it might do him much good, but he'd always prided himself on his attention to detail.  Remembering faces to put to names was made easier by adding the inflections of speech unique to each individual.  It might be harder, but he would find the faces to match the voices of his assailants today.  Even if he had to haunt them from his grave.  Oh yes, he would remember, and they would pay dearly for each one of these indignities.

His skin itched, parts of it now seeing the sun for the first time, and beads of perspiration drifted down his back to pool on the coat beneath him, making him all the more uncomfortable.  Ezra preferred not to think of the sweat running down his chest, nor the salt of it getting into the raw and open wounds.  His discomfort was increasing, and his will to rise above it falling in proportion.

Pounding incessantly, his head throbbed in synchronicity with his heart.  He was sure if he could see, the landscape would be spinning.  Even without sight, dizziness was his constant companion, damaging his balance, and causing him further problems staying aboard his precarious perch.

His thirst was powerful.  Though he doubted given a chance at some cool liquid, it would stay down long.  It didn't help that the gag tasted like someone's used socks.  His stomach was rolling along with his dizziness, and the foul taste was not helping his nausea.  He could feel the passage of time, with the slide of the sun and the turn of the breeze as day crept to night.   Thankfully, he looked forward to nightfall, and the drop in temperature   that came with it.  He wasn't a fool, though, knowing the drop would bring chills to go with the sunburn he was acquiring.  Worse, it would bring out the night predators. 

Belatedly he thought of his six friends; maybe they would come to his rescue.  The recent wound still ached, reminding him that he certainly didn't always give them a reason to care what happens to him.  But they did. Vin knew where he was; perhaps he was looking for him, and the tracker had been very protective of him of late.  He could hope.

His attackers laughed when they left him, joking about how his friends would find his body, "nekked and twitchin'", once his horse had enough of the heat and trotted off to partake of the water.  This was not how Ezra wanted to die; this was not how he would want his friends to find him.  In fact, it was the main reason he was calling on his faith in Self-Preservation. 

Once again, he clamped his aching thigh muscles around his horse, nearly screaming at the agony of it, and having to sit through a severe dizzy spell.  When that finally passed enough to make him functional, he backed the animal up using knee commands.  It was getting harder for the well-trained horse to obey, the scent of water overcoming his desire to serve.   His thoughts were to get his horse more behind the noose than in front of it so he was warned if the faithful beast tried walking forward.  Then perhaps he'd have a little time and could try to stop him.  Never leaving anything to chance, he'd taught his horse knee commands for those times when giving voice commands would not be possible.  For example, talking his way out of a tar and feathering session, and using the stupefied looks to make a clean getaway.  

Unfortunately, this was not a tar-and-feather session, nor was there the chance for a clean getaway, but an exercise in humility combined with pain, and sprinkled liberally with torment.  Like his favorite food dishes, this combined several ingredients to create a pain soufflé.  All he needed now was for the horse to move, and the pain soufflé – him, Ezra P. Standish – would fall.  Permanently, and there was no coming back from a hanging death.

Filled with pain, not knowing where he was, slowing burning and being eaten to death, Ezra was fast losing hope.  His attempts to loosen the ties were unsuccessful, frustrating him further.  Not even the sharp edge of his ring was doing any damage to the leather ties.  Still he tried not to give into despair, he thought of his friends again, and tried to cling to hope.  Then he frowned and tried to remember, what else was it his assailants said about his friends?


Revenge burned in his heart.  No one insulted him or treated him the way those people in that town had treated him.  They would pay for their boorish, ignorant behavior.  The man sulked, got drunk, and began to plan his revenge.  It was over, no one probably gave him another thought, he could just move on and no one would remember.  That was part of the problem, they were the start of his ruin.  Part of his unfinished business, and he'd never been one to let things go unfinished.  It was so easy to find those willing to help finish the job, and put his plan in action. 

Plan in mind, empty bottle at his feet, the man who fancied himself a gambler pushed himself off the hard ground, swung himself into the saddle, and rode to make the local gambler Ezra P. Standish and that tall, obnoxious cowboy gunslinger accountable for their deeds.

He'd already sent men ahead.  Men eager to earn the twenty dollars offered for one day of services, and they should have everything well in hand.  By the time he reached the point of rendezvous, things would be prepared for him to step in and take the credit for it. 

The tracks continued right past the Plater farm, so Vin stopped at the small farm house.

"Mr. and Mrs. Plater!  It's Vin from town."

Mr. Plater opened the front door cautiously, a cradled a shotgun in one hand.  Once his face showed recognition, the shotgun lowered.  "Vin.  What can we do for you?  Come in."

"Can't stay, Mr. Plater, but I need yer help."

"Name it."

"Ya seen any strangers 'round today?"

The older man shook his head, "No, been working around the barn most of the day.  No one's been around.  Trouble?"

"Yeah, ain't sure what kind. Need ya ta ride ta town.  I think Ezra's been wounded and taken prisoner fer some reason.  I'm trackin' 'em, but I'm gonna need help."

"I'll go, but it'll take me most of the daylight to get there.  Might take them some time to catch up."

Vin bobbed his head.  "I know.  Tell 'em I'll leave an easy trail fer them ta follow.  Much obliged."  He tipped his hat.

"You're welcome."  Mr. Plater turned around and yelled inside.  "Caroline, get my gear together.  I've got to go to town."

"I heard you, Owen," Caroline Plater came outside carrying a small burlap sack.  "Here Mr. Tanner, just a few biscuits and ham.  Lord, you boys do get into trouble."

"Thank ya ma'am," Vin shyly accepted the small sack from the woman and tipped his hat in thanks.

"You take care and I hope Mr. Standish isn't harmed too badly."

"Yes ma'am," Vin turned his horse to head back and pick up the trail.

 Mr. Plater yelled after him, "Safe journey!" 

The tracker waved back, more intent on following the trail than taking more time talk.  His eyes read the markings clearly; six horses, one of them Ezra's, and they were traveling in a group.  What he looked at was hours old, but he refused to consider that he might be too late.  From the weight distribution, Ezra was slung across the saddle.  What grabbed his gut in fear were the occasional odd markings he found.  The scattered drops of crimson changed the texture of the brown dirt, and left a foreboding trail. 


The sun was slowly setting, giving him a relief from the unending rays on his tender skin.  He wondered how long it would be before he would be wishing for the warmth once more, or if he'd care.  Would the chill of the night be any better?  And what predators would be coming out soon?  Hell, he already heard the buzzards high above.  He was surprised, and thankful, they had not attempted to claim an early taste. Without a doubt, he knew the night would bring predators with much less consideration.  A shiver went down his spine as he thought of those other things starting to slither and sneak up on him.  Didn't matter that he was alive, and his horse was alive; they were stuck here, with no means of protection. 

While the hours passed, his horse stayed true to him, not moving away for the water nearby.  He'd thanked his companion once, more like grunted through the gag.  His throat was dry and raw, his mouth and jaw past the point of feeling the pain from the tight fitting cloth preventing him from crying out.  Not that he felt he could.  Nor did he feel anyone would be around to listen or care.  The discomfort was nothing from the other aches and pains of his body. 

He was miserable, and could not help feeling sorry for himself. What had he done, which one of his many sins, had brought this about?


It took Titus T. Tiberius longer than he anticipated getting back to town.  The liquor had impaired his sense of direction, sending him a couple hours in the wrong direction before he corrected himself and turned around.  Darkness had fallen across the town, and the night fires were being lit as he rode in.  He saw the man signal to him from the shadows.  This one, Axe, he thought the man's name was, told him that things were ready to go.  They anticipated their target would be along at any moment.


Still fortified by the liquor, he, Titus T. Tiberius, superb marksman that he was, decided that he would complete the deed himself.  After all he was the one maligned  by these backwater heathens.  Besides, Axe would still be at hand if he missed, and well paid for that privilege.  The other one, he was told, had been taken care of, and would not be bothering him further. Too bad he could not have seen that one get what he deserved also. 


Mr. Owen Plater rode into town, pulling his horse up outside of the jail.  The black night swallowed his dust, but he knew either the jail or the saloon would have one of the seven protectors in residence.  When he dismounted, he tied his horse to the hitching post, and then climbed the few stairs to the boardwalk. 

"Help you, Mr. Plater?" 

The voice made him jump, not expecting anyone to be standing in the shadows.  

"Oh, yes, Mr. Larabee.  Mr. Tanner needs help."

"What happened?"  The blond-haired local lawman approached, his spurs jangling on the boards. 

"He only told me that Mr. Standish had been wounded and captured.  Mr. Tanner was tracking them, and said he would leave you an easy trail to follow, but he needed help.  I told him it would take some time for me to ride in, but he said that was okay.  You could catch up."

"Did he say anything more?"

"No, sir."

"All right."  Chris Larabee reached into his duster.  "Let me pay for your stabling and a room for the night.  It's the least I can do."

"I couldn't possibly accept."

"Mr. Plater, you left your family and your home to tell us about someone in trouble.  Let me do this for you."

The man was indecisive for a moment, and then nodded.  "I'd be grateful."

"We're grateful to you."  Chris passed the money to Mr. Plater, watching him walk down the street with his horse.

Larabee crossed the street himself, wondering what sort of trouble Standish had found this time.  And wondering if Tanner wasn't already in over his head in some foolhardy rescue scheme.  He needed to round the others up and go after their friends.  That feeling he got sometimes when things went bad was beginning to make its presence known, that couldn't be good.

As he started to step up on the opposite boardwalk, he saw Buck about to stroll into the alleyway.



The target, that boorish dealer, had left the shop after making sure the woman closed without incident, and then swaggered toward the mouth of the alleyway. 

Titus T. Tiberius saw his chance.  Both he and Axe leveled their weapons at the man, fingers ready on the triggers.  They waited for the perfect shot.  Just as he reached the alleyway, they heard a voice. 


The two men fired.


Buck Wilmington had a problem – his bladder was expressing itself most painfully about the urgent desire to be emptied.  He supposed it might have something to do with all the beer he'd been drinking lately.  It wasn't like he was looking for an escape…well maybe he was, Louisa was going to be hard to forget.  He was still not completely sure he wanted too.  Drinking gave him something to do to keep from thinking about it too hard.

Staying busy helped too, so he was also making himself more useful around town.  After making sure Mrs. Potter was able to close up okay, he left her store and headed toward the saloon.  He stopped at the mouth of the alley, starting to turn down it, searching for some quick relief.


Spinning on one boot heel, Buck glanced across the street at his friend walking toward him. 

Two bullets hit him simultaneously, jerking his body off-balance.  While he fell, he struck his head on the side of the building, and the world went dark.


Vin Tanner was frustrated.  Whoever these men were, they knew how to throw off the trail.  It took him most of the afternoon to realize he'd been sent down a false path and to double back.  He pushed on, found another trail, but the faded daylight made things difficult.  Frustrated, he had to make camp, and he hoped the others would catch up before morning.  More than anything he hoped they weren't too late to help Ezra.


The time had come.  Ezra knew it in his heart.  He couldn't hold on any longer and he didn't expect his noble steed to either.  He was proud of his horse for standing as long as he did.  But the magnificent beast was thirsty, the water was nearby, and it was only a few steps. No need for them both to perish.  A few steps Ezra didn't have the strength anymore.  His feeble commands only paused the horse for a second.  Nature finally overruled training, thirst driving his companion forward. 

Ezra said a quick prayer, a silent goodbye and gave his mount his blessing.  It was so easy to let go, to slip off.  Just a last gasp for his own nobility and it was over.