Rating: PG-13 Language. Violence. Dark, Dark fic!
Disclaimer. The Magnificent Seven is owned by Trilogy, Mirish, MGM, and some others I'm not sure of. I'm not making any money.
Spoilers: Ghosts of the Confederacy
Please, if you don't want to read a dark, twisted fic, delete now
Once again I'm using a name from ElfQuest, a comic book belonging to Richard and Wendy Pini. I know what you're thinking: 'How many of these names are there?' <g> Ok, I think this'll probably be the last.
Marla did a wonderful job betaing the third part for me. Thanks to Judy and NotTasha for betaing the story.
This story is in progress, so if you don't want to read an unfinished story you'd better turn back now. Feedback is greatly appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thanks. :)
The rain fell in sheets, dripping off his hat brim and running down his face. The stars were hidden behind the black storm clouds, making the night darker than usual. He could only see a few feet in front of his horse's head. Thunder rumbled in the distance and lightning streaked across the sky. He pulled his red coat tighter around his body, trying to ward off some of the chill. He was soaked to the bone.
He didn't mind being on patrol in the middle of the night, but not out here in the rain. And it was a long patrol, no less. He'd taken Buck's shift, along with his own. The ladies' man had worked for him two nights ago, when he'd been embroiled in that all night poker game. He was cold. He was wet.
Ezra Standish was not happy.
His horse let out a sad whinny. He reached forward, rubbing the chestnut's neck. "I don't like it either, boy."
He heard a faint noise off to his right and turned his head to look up at the boulder that was next to him. He saw a glimpse of metal right before something hit him on the side of his head. He fell backwards, onto the muddy ground.
Bright flashes of light assaulted his vision. He slowly made it to his feet. Swaying, he reached out, grabbing onto a nearby boulder to steady himself. He could see a man standing just a few feet away, but between the rain and his blurred vision, Ezra he had a hard time recognizing him. Finally, the man spoke.
"Been a long time, Standish."
That voice sounded familiar, and when the man took a step closer and the face finally came into focus, he had no doubt who the man was.
He'd played the older man in a high stakes poker game when he'd been about JD's age. He'd won, of course, and had taken everything the man had. Cutter Wilkes had been rumored to be the best player around. His reputation didn't fare too well when he was beaten by a 'wet behind the ears, southern boy.' Ezra could still hear the man screaming at him, threatening to 'get' him.
Besides being known for his poker skills, Wilkes was rumored to be a cold hearted, sick, twisted bastard with an affinity for blades - hence the name.
Cutter took another step towards him. With lightning speed, Wilkes reached out and grabbed his shirtfront, jerking him forward. "Payback's a bitch, ain't it Ezra?" Cutter's eyes narrowed and his lips curled into an evil grin. "You won't believe what I have in mind for you."
Ezra didn't have much time to wonder what that might be. Cutter pulled a large knife from behind his back, flipped it in his hand so he was holding onto the blade, and then, with a viscous thrust, slammed the heavy wooden hilt into his head.
Blackness overtook Ezra's vision as his body slumped to the ground.
"Supper sure was good, ma'am. Thank you." JD Dunne stood on the top step of Nettie Well's porch, hat in hand. He shifted from foot to foot, trying not to glance at Casey, who was leaning on the railing to his right.
"You're quite welcome, young man." Nettie stood before him, a smile playing on her lips as she looked over at Casey, then back at him. "Thank you for helping Casey and me with that fence."
"Yes ma'am, you sure are welcome. I didn't mind helping you out at all." He grinned shyly in Casey's direction, before returning his attention to Nettie.
Nettie walked over to the railing, looking at the setting sun. "Looks like a storm's brewin'." She turned back towards JD. "Better hurry off now, 'fore you get caught in it."
"Yes ma'am." Glancing at the dark clouds gathering in the distance, he smiled, then turned back towards Nettie and Casey. "Ezra's got patrol tonight." He shook his head. "Sure hope he don't get caught in the rain. We won't hear the end of his complainin' till Christmas." Grinning, he put his hat on, then tipped it to Nettie. He looked at Casey for a few seconds wondering what to say, finally he just tipped his hat to her. "Night."
"Night, JD." Casey smiled.
"You be careful young man, and tell Vin that I expect him out here for supper on Thursday."
JD nodded while grabbing the reins and mounting his horse. He tipped his hat one more time before turning his mount and heading towards Four Corners.
As Ezra slowly regained consciousness, he stirred and tried to stretch sore muscles. He found himself slumped over the saddle of a horse.
Taking a look around, the first thing he noticed was that the rain had let up. He could finally see the stars and the moon. It had to be a couple of hours since his unfortunate re-acquaintance with Cutter Wilkes.
The second thing he noticed was - moving around hurt. It hurt a lot. His head, his chest, his stomach, his arms...everything seemed to hurt. He felt like he might have a cracked or bruised rib and he wondered if Cutter might have put him on his horse not so very gently.
The horse was walking at a fast pace, and the movement, combined with the pain in his head made him nauseous. He tried to move his hands, to see if he could maybe get free, but found that they were tied tightly behind his back. No wonder his arm felt like it did when he'd dislocated it in the Seminole Village. He was pretty sure that he was tied to the horse's saddle, or he figured he'd probably have fallen off by now. He could see another horse ahead of him. Suddenly, the horses slowed, then stopped. His movements must have alerted Cutter to the fact that he was once again conscious.
He heard some scuffling around - Cutter getting off his horse, he presumed. Then he watched as the man slowly walked around his horse, coming to a stop a few feet in front of him.
"How'd ya like that ride?" The older man asked nicely, an amicable smile on his face.
Ezra just stared at him.
Cutter stepped towards him. Grabbing him by his hair, he yanked his head back, straining his neck muscles to the point where he was sure he'd hear his neck snap.
Wilkes' smile turned into a snarl. "I asked ya a question, Standish. How was that ride?"
Ezra blinked at the man's transformation. One second he seemed to be somewhat sociable. The next he looked like he couldn't wait to kill him. He'd always heard the stories about Wilkes - that he wasn't right in the head. Now he was certain.
Ezra definitely didn't want the other man to know that he in any way unnerved him. He smiled, gold tooth showing. "Ah...the steed in question gave me a glorious ride." He twisted his hands in their bonds while grinning at his captor. "Though, I do believe it would have been much more comfortable if I'd been allowed to sit in the saddle, instead of being draped over it."
"Yeah, well..." Cutter pulled out a large knife. Smiling menacingly, he stepped towards him. "You could have had a blanket draped over your dead body and blood seeping from a large hole in yer gut, but...," he grinned, "I'd like to keep you alive, at least long enough for us to replay the game." He cut through the bonds, but reached out and grabbed Ezra's jacket, keeping him on the horse.
"What game would that be?" Ezra asked innocently.
"Don't play coy with me, Standish. You know very well what game. I'm taking you back to Logan, where you and me are gonna play that poker game again." He tapped himself on the chest with the point of the knife, "And *I'm* gonna win this time."
Ezra knew he was staring at the man with a dumfounded expression on his face, but for the first time in a long time he couldn't think of anything else to do, or what to possibly say. Suddenly Cutter pushed him off the horse and he landed on the ground, hard.
Ezra watched warily as Cutter slowly walked around the horse. He knew he wouldn't have much of a chance with this madman, so as soon as Wilkes pulled him to his feet, he hit him in the chest with his shoulders and took off running.
He didn't get very far.
Cutter tackled him from behind, throwing him up against a tree. He then turned Ezra around, slamming him against the tree one more time. He tucked a beefy forearm under Ezra's chin, forcing his head back and exposing his neck. Ezra watched with wide eyes as Wilkes slowly brought the large knife up to the skin right beside his eye. He had a sense of deja vu, but knew that he wouldn't be getting out of this predicament as easily as the last.
Ezra's bound arms were caught behind his body, and with his head pressed back against the tree, he couldn't get any leverage. He could only watch as Cutter slowly pulled the knife away from his eye, to rest it on the tender skin of his neck.
Ezra winced slightly as Cutter held the knife against his throat, the sharp blade cutting into his skin and drawing blood. His face was mere inches from Ezra's. "I could slit your throat in less than a second." He hissed. With a viscous smile, he pressed the knife deeper into his skin. "And don't think I won't do it."
The storm came faster than JD had expected. The sky opened up and it started to pour, quickly soaking through his jacket, shirt and vest, all the way through to his skin. He shivered as he pulled his hat farther down on his head. Shaking his head, he sighed, wishing for the hundredth time that he'd just stayed at Nettie's.
Right now he could be sitting in front of the warm fire with Casey, eating some more of Nettie's apple pie and staying dry. But instead he was out here, in the rain, and not very close to home.
Stopping, he rubbed his little bay's head and looked around.
He could remember riding out here with Vin one day and the tracker telling him about a shack off the trail a ways. It was ironic, really - Vin had told him about that shack in case he was ever in trouble and needed to find shelter. And now, here he was, in desperate need of shelter, but he couldn't remember where the shack was. He looked around. It was hard to see through the torrent of rain, but he was pretty sure that it was just ahead on the right. He'd head for it, then when the storm let up he'd head for home.
Now, if he could only find that shack.
Ezra could feel the warm blood running down his throat. The sharp blade was cutting deeper into his skin and for a second he wondered what it would be like to die from a slit throat. Would it be fairly quick? Or would he suffer? He shook his head, he had to clear his mind of all these morbid thoughts and try to reason with the madman. Suddenly an idea came to him. He pursed his lips and looked up into Cutter's eyes. "You won't kill me."
Cutter raised his eyebrows. He scoffed, "I won't?"
Ezra swallowed, trying to hide his fear. "No - you won't." He glanced down at the shiny blade at his throat, then back up to Cutter. "Not if you want me to accompany you on your trip - play a game of poker with you, you won't."
Ezra watched as Cutter blinked his eyes, his features full of incredulity. For a second Ezra felt like a lamb right before slaughter. He was surprised when Cutter threw back his head and laughed. He pulled the knife away from Ezra's throat, using the back of his hand to wipe tears from his eyes. He shook his head. "You're still a little spitfire, kid. Brass and balls." He looked down at his feet, then slowly brought his head back up to look at Ezra.
Ezra squirmed when he saw the maniacal light in Wilkes' eyes. It seemed like the devil himself had suddenly stepped in front of him. A snarl replaced the older man's smile and the laughter was gone out of his voice. "You're right. I want to keep you alive. I want you to play that game with me again, show all those sons of bitches that it was a fluke before, that I'm still the best around." He paused, his eyes downcast as he took in a deep breath, then let it out in a long sigh. He looked back up at Ezra, his head cocked to the side. The look on his face could almost be described as intimate. He brought his mouth close to Ezra's ear, and when he finally spoke, his voice was soft, almost a whisper. "I know a hundred ways to hurt a man, without killin' 'im."
Cutter's hand was so fast that Ezra hadn't even see it move. The next thing he knew was that a blinding hot pain had seared him, and he looked down to see the hilt of a knife, still embedded in his side.
Cutter's arm tucked under his chin was all that kept him from falling when his knees buckled. Ezra looked up from the knife into Cutter's eyes. The older man was watching him intently. "That hurt?" He asked without concern.
Ezra didn't answer. Working hard to control the pain that was ripping through his side, he just glared up at the older man.
"Cat got yer tongue?" Cutter asked.
Ezra raised his eyebrows, but still didn't open his mouth, unwilling to respond to the madman.
Cutter shrugged. "Ain't talkin' ey? That's ok. Maybe I won't have to hear you scream then, when I do this." In one swift movement, Wilkes pulled the knife back out of Ezra's side.
Ezra couldn't have screamed even if he had wanted too. His world immediately turned black.
JD stood inside the open door of the small shack watching the rain lessening, finally dwindling away. It was time to head home. He hoped that Buck wasn't worried about him. Hopefully his best friend would think that he'd stayed out at Nettie's, like he should have. JD shook his head at that last thought. He sighed and turned to saddle his horse and get ready to head on back home.
When Ezra woke up again he found himself being slung over the saddle of a horse. His hands were still tied behind his back. He grunted when his side hit the saddle. Suddenly he was pulled back off the horse and turned around. Cutter held him by his shirtfront and looked into his face intently.
"Ya awake, boy?" Wilkes grunted out. "Good. I won't have to tie you to the damn horse this time." With that, he shoved Ezra back onto the horse, only this time he was sitting in the saddle. Ezra worked to get his balance. It was hard with his hands tied behind his back, but he knew it was a better alternative than being draped across the saddle like a corpse.
While Cutter gathered his horse's reins and mounted up, Ezra took a moment to glance down at his wound. Blood had soaked the front of his vest. He couldn't tell if he was still bleeding, but if he was, he wasn't bleeding badly. He hurt, though. Lord did he hurt.
The clouds had thankfully parted and with the moonlight helping him find his way, JD rode towards home as quickly as he safely could. With his thoughts returning once again to Casey and apple pie, and not really paying attention to what he was doing, the horse and rider that suddenly appeared in front of him startled the youth more than they should have. He couldn't help the relieved chuckle that escaped him. "Ezra!" He yelled out to his friend, who was sitting awkwardly on his horse, a few feet in front of him.
The voice sounded scratchy and rough. Not at all like the gambler usually sounded. Suddenly JD's hackles raised. He noticed everything at once but too late. Ezra sitting forward on his horse, his hands back behind him and his horse ground tied. The worried, horrified expression on the conman's face as he looked behind JD instead of at him. JD turned in his saddle, getting only a glimpse of something coming fast at his head. Pain exploded within him and he tumbled from the saddle. He would have cried out, but the impact with the hard ground forced all of the air out of his lungs. Slowly stars took over his vision. Then something hit him in the head again, forcing the stars to be overcome by darkness.
When JD finally woke, he found himself sitting up against a tree with his hands tied behind his back. He could feel blood running down his face. He felt pressure on his left side and looked over to find Ezra slumped against him.
He heard movement and looked up to see a man setting up camp. The older man moved slowly, as if he were tired or hurt. JD glanced over at his friend sitting beside him. Ezra's hands were still tied behind his back. His face was bloody and bruised. Sleeping, his head rested back against the tree, showing his neck. JD's brow furrowed as he studied the pale skin on Standish's throat. Was that blood? It looked like a line had been cut about two inches across his throat. Blood snaked down from the line, disappearing under his shirt collar. He couldn't tell if the blood was dried, or still flowing from the wound and with his hands tied behind his back he couldn't touch the blood to check it. He leaned as far forward as he could, hoping that he'd be able to see better in the pale moonlight.
Suddenly JD was knocked backwards. Ezra was lashing out, trying to hit him with any body part he could. "Whoa, easy. It's me, Ez. It's JD." He spoke softly to his friend, hoping a soothing voice would bring Ezra out of his fury.
Standish's eyes finally fluttered open displaying a slit of green to JD. "Ez? Ezra? You with me?"
"J...D?" Ezra's hoarse voice cracked.
JD let out a relieved sigh. "Yeah, it's me. Just sit still. Yer hurt. I'm gonna try to get us out of thi-"
The word would have been a scream if Ezra had had any energy left at all. Instead it came out as a grunt mixed with a sob. JD was suddenly on his knees next to his friend, watching helplessly as Ezra lurched forward, retching into the dirt.
"Easy, easy...calm down. No need makin' yerself sick, now."
Slowly, Ezra leaned back, coming to rest once again against the rough bark of the tree.
"No." Ezra forced out of his dry throat. He looked up into JD's eyes, pleading. "Please, JD, don't do anything, or say anything to that man. His problem is with me, it has nothing to do with you." He swallowed. Closing his eyes, he took in a deep breath then slowly released it. He looked back up at JD and when he spoke again, his voice was even softer than before. "I'm afraid that... Mr. Cutter Wilkes... has taken total leave... of his senses," he paused, quickly looking toward Cutter, seeing him engrossed in his work. Ezra then turned back to JD, "and I'm afraid... he won't hesitate to kill you... should you try to render our... freedom."
JD looked down, not wanting to look at his friend's face. At least this bloody, hurt man in front of him was sounding more and more like the Ezra Standish he was used to hearing, but he couldn't ever remember seeing that pleading, begging look on the gambler's face and didn't want to see it now or ever again.
That one word had JD's head snapping back up. Ezra was looking at him. No, looking through him, right into his soul. He could see the fear and panic that had taken up residence in the gambler's mind. He didn't want to be the cause of it, and would try to alleviate it in any way possible.
"Okay! Okay, Ezra, just calm down now." He sighed and shook his head. "Ok, I won't do nothin' to try and get us out of here." He hoped that God and the gambler would forgive him for the blatant lie. He knew having his fingers crossed was a childish gesture. 'It don't count, I had my finger's crossed.' The sound of his little boy voice in his head was somehow reassuring and he finally smiled. Until he saw the gambler's eyes narrow and his lips purse.
He cringed as Ezra looked him up and down. The grin that broke out on the gambler's face didn't make him feel any better.
"JD, son, you can't con a conman." His grin turned feral. "That's the oldest ruse in the book, young man. Now get those damn fingers uncrossed and swear to me that you'll do what I asked you."
JD's hesitation sealed his fate. One minute he was looking into the face of his friend, the next he was looking into the face of hatred.
"You son of a bitch!" Ezra screamed out at him, his leg kicking out, connecting with his side.
JD grunted in pain, rolling away from the enraged gambler. "Ezra? What?"
"Get the hell away from me! Wilkes! WILKES!"
JD looked up as he heard a crashing sound. Cutter was standing in front of them, breathing hard. "What the hell is wrong with you, Standish?"
Ezra kicked his leg at JD again. Snarling, he hissed out, "I don't want this no-good piece of nothing anywhere near me. I hope to hell you are not planning on having his presence along on our ride. He's a snot-nosed punk who thinks he's a friend of mine and the rest of the men in that town." He looked over towards JD. The hurt look on the kid's face almost crushed Ezra's resolve. He had to quickly look away before he decided to just give the whole ruse up and let it go.
He took a breath and started playing again. "Cutter, I don't want him anywhere near me. Why don't you just send him on his way. Send him on home to his mama. I'm sure he has toys that need to be played with."
Ezra heard the gasp that came from his young friend at the mention of his mother. He instantly regretted his choice of words, but it was too late to take them back.
Cutter looked from Ezra over to JD, and Ezra chanced a glance in that direction also. Wincing, he shut his eyes and looked away.
JD was sitting stock-still. His large hazel eyes were bright and his face pale. He was staring at Ezra, his face full of hurt and confusion.
Looking sadly down at JD, Cutter shook his head. "Don't think he likes ya, boy. I think I'll just send ya on home."
It took every ounce of training Ezra had as a gambler and conman to hide his relief at Cutter's words.
JD was pulled to his feet to stand in front of him. Ezra couldn't help glancing at his friend who was being held up with one of Cutter's meaty hands around the back of his neck. JD's mouth was open, a shocked look on his face.
Ezra wished that the kid hadn't believed his words so easily. He knew that JD still worried about his place within the seven. It was why Ezra had used that tactic, he knew that JD would believe it more readily.
JD frowned, quickly lowering his head, but it was too late, Ezra had seen the lone tear that had escaped from the kid's eye. He had to take a quick breath and remind himself that a hurt and sad JD was better than a dead JD, because at that moment he didn't think anything was worth the pain he was putting his young friend through.
"Well, come on, kid. Let's get you home." Cutter turned JD and walked him away. JD looked back one last time, before he stumbled and Cutter grabbed a hold of his arm, pushing him ahead of him, out of the camp's light, toward the horses.
Ezra sat alone, his head and heart hurting. Black spots danced in front of his eyes and he could hear the blood rushing in his head. It was about ten minutes later when a grim-faced Cutter slowly walked over to Ezra, sitting down Indian style a few feet in front of him. The man held something beside his leg that Ezra couldn't see in the pale light.
After a few minutes, Cutter looked up at him. "I sent the boy to his mama."
Ezra couldn't hide the shiver that ran down his spine at that phrase. He swallowed hard.
Cutter's lips turned up into a half grin and he cocked his head, speaking softly. "I heard the gasp that came out of that boy when you mentioned his mama...saw his face pale so much he looked like he was 'bout to fade away."
A bolt of terror started making its way up Ezra's spine to clutch at his heart. He furrowed his brow, trying to read the look on Cutter's face. The realization of what Cutter was saying, or implying, hit Ezra like a bullet in the head. He reeled back, his face blanching and his blood running cold. "What...," he swallowed, "what did you do with him?"
Cutter smiled, "Why, I sent him back to his mama. Isn't that where you wanted him to go? Back to his mama?" Looking innocent, the madman shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "Jesus, yer hard to please, kid. First you don't want him here. 'Send him back to his mama,' you say. So I do that and now yer all looking at me, worried, like I just...," he grinned evilly, and lowered his head, looking up at Ezra through sinister eyes, "killed...yer best friend."
He leaned forward, his face inches from Ezra's. "I sent him back to his mama, Ezra." He moved back a fraction of an inch. Looking into Ezra's eyes, he pulled something out from beside his leg and held it up in front of him. "I sent him back to his...dead...mama."
Ezra stared horrified at the bloody, gory knife in front of him. JD was dead? No, he couldn't believe that...but here was the proof right in front of his eyes. He pulled his gaze away from the weapon to look back up at Cutter.
With a maniacal sneer on his face and his eyes bright with the promise of mayhem, Wilkes looked like the devil himself. Suddenly there was no doubt in Ezra's mind that this madman had killed his friend. With a ferocious yell, Ezra launched himself at the murderer, intent on killing him, or being killed in the process.
Walking out of the livery, Vin Tanner ambled up the boardwalk, towards the saloon. Noticing Chris Larabee standing in front of the jail, he changed directions. He walked across the muddy street, looking down, trying to miss the large puddles that were left over from the storm the night before. He stepped up onto the boardwalk next to his best friend.
Chris stood, leaning against a pole, watching the road intently from under the brim of his hat.
Vin glanced down the deserted road, then glanced up at his friend's face. Chris's jaw was tensed, his lips pursed.
"What's goin' on?"
Chris sighed, took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair. He pulled his hat back on his head and looked over at him. "Ezra ain't back yet."
"Yeah," Vin replied. "I was just in the livery. Ezra and JD are both still out."
Chris frowned. "Yeah, I figured that JD probably stayed at Nettie's, but Ezra," he shook his head, "he should'a been back by now."
"Well maybe he found a dry place to wait out the storm." Vin knew it sounded logical, but still a grain of worry was growing in his stomach.
Vin looked up again, seeing the worry that Chris was trying hard to hide. He glanced one more time at the empty road. "Maybe I'll head on out, take a gander."
Chris's mouth turned up in a tight smile. "Yeah, figure I'll go with ya. I know Buck'll be head'n out to Nettie's, checkin' on the kid as soon as he finds out that he's not back yet."
Grunting, kicking and screaming, Ezra put up one hell of a fight. One hell of a very short fight. Without the use of his arms, and with his side hurting like hell from the knife wound, he could really only use his lower body.
Evading Ezra's thrashing legs, Cutter easily flipped him over on the ground, pulling his bound arms high behind his back.
Yelping in pain, Ezra fought while his arms were wrenched back, up and away from his body.
"Whoa now, Standish. I'm about two seconds away from just breakin' both of yer damn arms!" Cutter hissed out.
Ezra felt a horrible pressure on the small of his back. Something was pushing him hard into the ground, taking his breath away. He wrenched his head around to see that Cutter had one foot on the small of his back. The madman suddenly put all of his weight on that leg, and then, using the other foot, sent a crushing kick to Ezra's side.
Ezra twisted away in pain, toppling Wilkes. Cutter's unbalanced body came crashing down on him, one of his knees slamming hard into his back. Ezra suddenly couldn't breathe and he started to panic.
He bucked and thrashed, trying to get the weight off. Suddenly he felt a rough hand grip him around his throat and start to squeeze. Now he *really* couldn't breathe. Gagging, his eyes watered and he finally stopped fighting. Blackness started to encroach upon the edges of his vision. He felt lightheaded, and right when he thought that he was going to be strangled to death, the grip slackened and suddenly he could breathe again.
Ezra lay still, drawing huge gasps of air into his lungs. He could still feel Cutter's body on top of him, but at least the man had stopped in his attempt to squeeze his head from his neck. Everything hurt. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to ride out the excruciating pain in his skull. His knife wound was throbbing and every single breath he took sent a knife sharp pain down his side.
When he finally seemed to get his breathing regulated, he felt Cutter push off from him, sending some bony part of his body into Ezra's back, making his breath catch in his chest again. He coughed, turning his head to the side when he felt the bile rise in his throat. He retched into the dirt next to his face and then lay absolutely still, wishing that the pain would just go away. Cutter didn't give him a chance to recover. Ezra was dragged from the ground, pulled up by his bound arms. Pain shot through him and he cried out before he could stop it.
Cutter turned him around, his face was red and sweaty, his breathing hard. "You through?"
Ezra swayed and Cutter shook him. "That's enough. I swear to God, Standish, you try that again and game or not, I'll gut you right here."
Wilkes turned him back around and headed Ezra towards his saddled horse. Ezra glanced around, noticing that the camp had been picked up and Cutter looked ready to head out. He thought he might be able to find JD's body, but wasn't sure where Cutter had, he squeezed his eyes shut, -killed- him.
The sky was lightening. The sun just starting to peak out, shedding some pale morning light. Ezra was pushed up onto his horse. Cutter mounted up with the reins of Ezra's horse in the palm of his hand. He turned his horse around and came up beside Ezra's mount. Leaning towards him, he pulled his knife. There were dark circles under Wilkes' eyes and he looked haggard. Ezra wondered if along with being sick in his mind, the man wasn't sick in his body also. When Wilkes spoke, his tone was menacing. "Just so you know, as soon as we get done with our game, I'm gonna take this here knife and... slit you," the madman pushed the tip of the knife against the base of Ezra's throat, "from here...," he then raked the knife down Ezra's front, finally resting it on his belt buckle, "to here."
Ezra stared down at the lethal weapon that was poised to be plunged into his stomach. He gulped, then looked back up into Wilkes' twinkling eyes. Cutter started to laugh. Drawing the knife away and sheathing it, he finally moved his mount away from Ezra's, turning it around and heading out - all the while laughing like a loon.
When they were some feet away from camp, Ezra heard a noise and looked off to his left to see JD's chestnut horse standing over something on the ground. He narrowed his eyes and strained his neck to get a better look at what it was.
His heart stopped. It was JD.
The kid's body was lying on the ground, curled in on itself, his knees close to his chest. He could see the kid's dark hair and a just a glimpse of his pale face. Mostly he could see blood - lots and lots of blood. The small amount of JD's chest that he could see was covered in the dark red liquid. Ezra's mount was being led away from the gruesome sight and he had to turn around in the saddle, trying to see some sign of life from the kid's body. Some sign that Wilkes had lied to him - that the kid wasn't dead.
His horse moved out of the line of sight, and Ezra could barely see the body now. He leaned back, trying to catch one more glimpse of the boy. Wanting to see his shirt move, or anything that would tell him the kid was still alive and hadn't been killed by an enemy of Ezra's, but finally they were too far away and all Ezra could see was the face of JD's faithful horse.
He turned back to face forward once again. Bowing his head, and with his shoulders slumped in defeat, he cried.
Ezra woke with a start. His horse slipped and he jerked his head from his chest just in time to catch his balance and keep himself from tumbling off. He looked around to see the rocky ground they were crossing. Suddenly he thought of Tanner. Wilkes probably thought that he was hiding his trail in these rocks, but Ezra knew that Tanner could find a trail in the clouds. He had to be the best tracker that Ezra had ever met, not that he'd met a lot of trackers in his time. A 'city boy' doesn't often have the need for a tracker, he smiled to himself. A city boy. He winced and looked down at the pommel of his saddle, thinking about another 'city boy.'
JD Dunne was dead.
Ezra had gotten the kid killed and he knew he'd never be forgiven for it. Hell, he'd never forgive himself. JD had tried to protect him and had gotten killed for his trouble. Ezra sighed.
Wincing, he bowed his head, thinking about that look on JD's face when he'd told him that he wasn't wanted and then mentioned his dead mother. Cutter had pulled the kid away before Ezra could even attempt to explain himself. JD went to his death thinking that Ezra and the guys didn't want him around.
He gulped, wondering what it had been like for JD in those last few moments of his life. Hopefully, Cutter had been quick and painless when he ended JD's life.
He raised his eyes to stare at the madman's back.
Frowning, he sighed. No. Cutter Wilkes hadn't offered JD any mercy. He was sure that when the time came, Cutter probably made the kid's death as terrifying and painful as he possibly could. Shaking his head, he thought about how scared JD must have been. The kid thinking that he was being sent home, only to have Cutter grab him and ram a knife into his chest instead. A vision of JD's face hit him hard - the kid's face contorted in horror and agony as the knife entered his chest. Bile rose up Ezra's throat and he swallowed hard, trying to keep it down.
When he'd told JD those horrible things, Ezra had been trying to save the kid's life. But it didn't work, and, in the end, JD died thinking that Ezra hated him - that all the guys did. There wasn't any forgiveness for that sin, he knew. No. No matter what happened now, Ezra Standish was bound for Hell where he'd reside in terror and pain forever - or that's what Josiah would say, anyway. A just punishment, he was sure.
Ezra's mouth turned up in a grim smile. Maybe if he were lucky, he could force Cutter's hand and the bastard would just go ahead and carry out his threat to kill him. Then he wouldn't have to live with this damn guilt that was already eating a hole in his stomach. He'd be dead and he wouldn't have to think about this anymore.
His lip curled up in a snarl as he watched the back of the madman who held him captive. What he would do now was wait, and when the opportunity arose, he'd make his move.
"Buck, wait up," Nathan called out.
Stopping in mid-stride, Buck spun around to see the healer trotting towards him. While he waited, he glanced down the main street, where he saw Chris, Vin and Josiah with their heads together, discussing something.
"Headin' out to Nettie's?" Nate asked when he reached him.
Buck pulled his hat off, running his hand through his messy, black hair. "Yeah," he grinned, trying to hide his worry, "just gonna check on 'im. You know how JD is, that boy carries trouble with 'im in his saddle bags."
Laughing, Nathan nodded as he pulled his coat on. "Well, if you don't mind, I'll head on out with ya. I been meanin' to ask Nettie somethin' and I figure this is as good a time as any."
Buck bobbed his head. "Glad to have ya."
Smiling, Nathan clapped Buck on the back, then turned and headed towards his clinic.
Chris, Vin and Josiah rode up, stopping when they were beside him.
Chris, leaning forward with his hands on the saddle horn, cocked his head to his two mounted companions, then nodded to Buck. "We're headin' out, gonna see if we can't find Ezra."
Buck smiled grimly. "Yeah, he shoulda been back by now." He shook his head, a mystified look on his face. Buck had a bad feeling, an ache in the pit of his stomach. Ezra, JD, both gone. He could feel that something was wrong. Whatever was keeping the gambler couldn't be good. And the kid? Well, logically, everything was fine and JD was probably on his way home right now. But, this was JD Dunne they were talking about. He shook his head. No, something was wrong. He swallowed, looking back up at his friends. "Nate and I are gonna get on out to Nettie's, check on the kid."
Vin sat stoically, his mouth a harsh line. Tightening his chinstrap, he stretched his legs in the saddle, leaning back to pop his back. "Buck, you know the old Colin place?" he asked.
Buck nodded. "Yeah, been by there a couple times."
"Well, I showed it to JD once, told him it would be a good place to hole up if he needed shelter," the tracker spoke softly. "If he left Nettie's last night, you ought to check it, see if he maybe stayed there."
Buck narrowed his eyes, glancing in the direction of Nettie's ranch. "If he waited out the storm there, Vin, you'd think he'd have headed on home when the weather broke." He looked back up at the tracker. "You'd think he'd be back by now."
"Unless he ran into trouble," Chris spoke quietly from under the brim of his hat. Finally, he looked up, meeting his oldest friend's eyes.
Buck met his gaze and kept it.
"Well, hell," Josiah rumbled, seeming to sense the morbid direction the conversation was heading, "when ain't that kid met up with trouble? Saddlebags - right, Buck?" He chuckled mirthlessly. "Just get on out there, Buck, no use worry'n on somethin' you don't know is happened."
Buck sighed, looking away from Chris to glance at Josiah, then Vin. Nodding his head, he put his index finger to his hat. "You guys find Ez, bring him home."
"That's what we mean to do, Brother Buck." Josiah answered.
Nathan rode up, leading Buck's grey. Buck mounted up, turning his horse's head towards his companions. "Well, boys," he paused, looking down for a long moment, then slowly looking back up, his hat brim shadowing his eyes. "Watch yer backs," his voice was rough, filled with emotion.
He whirled his horse around, Nathan following, and headed towards Nettie's ranch.
Chris watched the trail in front of him. Vin rode by his side, Josiah right behind them. The rain the night before had washed the tracks away, so the three men decided to just follow the trail that Ezra had ridden on patrol last night. The Ridge Trail, as the men had taken to calling it, circled the town of Four Corners from about a mile out. Chris liked his men to ride it, checking on the neighboring ranches, and also to see if there was any trouble coming into town.
Ezra had ridden out of town from the south. They decided to start on the trail from the north, hopefully meeting the gambler as he rode back into town. Chris watched a hawk as it lazily hung in the sky above, flying slow circles, looking for prey. Glancing over, he saw that Vin was also watching the hawk. The lean tracker must have felt that he was being observed; he suddenly looked over at him.
"Least it ain't a crow." Vin grinned sardonically, turning his head so the preacher could hear.
Josiah smiled. "Nah, I ain't seen any crows this mornin', Brother Vin." He shifted in his saddle, looking from one side of the trail to the other, the same as Vin and Chris had been doing the whole ride.
Chris pursed his lips. Nothing. Not one sign of the gambler and they'd been riding for a while now, they were almost to the middle mark of the trail.
They heard something and all three men jerked their heads to the left. Off the trail a ways in front of them, a horse stood with his head down and the reins hanging loose.
"That's JD's horse." Vin was off his horse and on the ground before either of the other two could think about it. He slowly walked up to the animal, not wanting to spook it.
"Easy. Easy now, eas-" His breath caught in his throat as he glanced down at the ground. Swallowing twice, he turned towards his friends. "I found the kid."
Chris was right behind him, staring down at the body. The two glanced at each other, their faces grave, before quickly going to JD's side.
JD was curled up on his side, his black hair partially covering his face. Chris saw the amount of blood on his shirt. A pink stain covered the whole front of his shirt; a smaller very-red stain showed the two men exactly where the kid had been hurt.
"JD?" Chris asked, concern clouding his husky voice. Feeling for a pulse, his face instantly softened and he let out a shaky breath. "He's alive."
Josiah knelt next to Vin. Pulling JD's legs out straight, the three men laid him flat on the ground to get a better look.
Chris gently pulled the remnants of the torn, wet shirt away from JD's chest.
There was a deep knife wound on the lower left side of the kid's chest. JD's face was deathly pale. His wet hair stuck to his face and Josiah gently ran his hand across his forehead, pushing the hair back. The preacher pulled his coat off, wadded it up and held it out to Chris.
"Lord, kid," Vin hissed out, shaking his head.
Blood welled up from the cut and Chris grabbed the coat out of Josiah's hands, pushing it hard against the angry wound.
"Josiah, ride out to Nettie's. Get Nathan and Buck," Chris held the jacket against the kid's side as he spoke.
"I'll bring `em, and a wagon." Josiah stood, glancing down at the kid before taking off for his horse, mounting up and riding away.
A low, pain-filled groan and small movements alerted the two men that JD was starting to come to. Eyelashes fluttered opened, revealing confused brown eyes.
"Chr-" JD coughed, a rough, harsh sound. He wet his lips before speaking again, his voice hoarse. "Vin?" He swallowed. "What?"
"Just lie still, kid. We got ya." Vin grabbed JD's arm, holding him while Chris tried to stop the bleeding.
"Hurts," JD's rough voice hissed out. He tried to push Chris's hand away from his body. "Stop. Hurts..." Suddenly, lethargic brown eyes opened wide, and he was looking around frantically. "Ezra?" He looked from Chris to Vin, panic-stricken, his breathing labored. "Where's Ezra?"
"Calm down, JD" Chris gently admonished. "Ezra ain't here." He shook his head, frowning.
"What `bout Ezra?" Vin asked, concerned.
"He's...he's got `im." JD had to pause, trying to breathe through the pain that was ripping through him.
"Who, JD? Who has Ezra?" Chris asked.
"I don't know who he is." JD shook his head. "And I don't know what he wants with Ezra, but," he grabbed onto Chris's forearm, looking up into his eyes, "he's crazy, Chris. He's got `im...and he's crazy." The boy opened his mouth to speak again, but instead he furrowed his brow, seeming to think about something. Suddenly he weakly slammed his fist on the ground beside him. "Stupid. I'm so stupid." Tears leaked out from the corners of his eyes.
Chris and Vin shared a worried, sidelong glance. The kid didn't seem to be talking to them any more. He was mumbling to himself, his head moving back and forth.
"Stupid. He...he was lying..." he sucked in a deep breath, letting it out with a sob, " I shouldn't've believed him...he was just...trying to... help me..." He shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "Stupid."
"Easy, JD." Chris tried to hold the kid's thrashing head still. He didn't know what JD was talking about, but whatever it was, it was sure upsetting the kid. "Yer not stupid, JD. Just hang in there, kid. Nathan and Buck are on their way. We'll get ya home."
JD opened his eyes, looking right at Chris. "You gotta help him, Chris. Please. Let him know that I don't believe him." JD smiled, a defeated look on his face. He took in a breath, letting it out slowly, shakily. Pain furrowed his brow and he moaned. "Tell him...tell him thanks for trying to save me." He sniffed and swallowed. Glancing to the side where Vin sat, he nodded, smiling sadly, then looked back at Chris. "Thanks," he said weakly. Suddenly, he started coughing, curling up and grabbing his belly. "Errgg." He grunted out. His breaths were coming in short, sharp bursts, his face paling instantly.
Just as quickly as the pain came, it was gone and JD's body was deathly still. His breathing hitched. The pain lines disappeared from his face and his whole body went limp as his eyes drifted shut.
"JD? JD?! Dammit!" Chris frantically felt for a pulse.
Vin reached his hand down under JD's nose, feeling for a breath.
Both men glanced at each other, sharing grim-faced nods.
"Christ." Chris shook his head, running his shaking hand down his face. "He's passed out," he spoke more for his own benefit than for Vin's. JD was warm to the touch; a fever had gripped his body.
Vin snatched the bedroll off of Chris's horse. Walking over to his own mount, he pulled the bedroll from the saddle, then grabbed a dry pair of pants and a shirt out of his saddlebag. He walked over and handed one blanket and the change of clothes to Chris, then shook his bedroll out, placing it on the ground.
Chris quickly changed JD into the dry clothes and then gently picked the kid up and moved him over to lay on the blanket, covering him with the other one. Vin took care of JD's horse before hunting some dry wood to start a fire.
When the tracker had a warm fire blazing, he came back over to JD. Shaking his jacket off of his shoulders, he leaned down and covered JD with it, tucking the corners of the coat around the kid's body. He sat silently next to the young sheriff for a second before standing. "I'm gonna have a look around."
Chris nodded, turning his attention back to JD who was mumbling, incoherent words. Seeing that the kid's body was starting to tremble, he pulled his own coat off and threw it over Vin's and the blanket. He spoke softly to the kid, hoping that his voice would comfort him some. He glanced up, noticing that clouds were starting to move in. More rain. He shook his head, looking back down at JD. That's all they needed now.
A few minutes later Vin came back, a dark look on his face. "Found their tracks." He went straight to his horse, grabbed its reins and started to swing himself up into the saddle.
"What the hell ya think yer doin'?" Chris hissed out, trying not to wake JD.
"What's it look like, Chris? I'm gonna follow `em. Get Ezra back." Vin was now sitting in the saddle, looking down at him like he'd lost his mind.
"Wait `till the others get here, we'll both go," Chris stated.
Vin nodded towards JD, his face grave. "You heard `im, Chris. He said that the man that's got Ezra is crazy. Ezra's in trouble, an' every second he's with the lunatic, he's that much closer to gettin' dead."
Chris slowly stood. Shaking his head, he glanced down to make sure the kid was still asleep before looking back up at his best friend. He walked over to stand next to Vin's horse. "Dammit, Vin, I want Ezra back safe too, but you ridin' in there hell bent for leather and gettin' Ezra and yerself killed ain't gonna do anyone any good."
Vin bristled. "I ain't no little kid, Chris. I do know what I'm doing," he scoffed, his face hard.
"Yeah, I know that, Vin." Chris stepped closer, reaching out and running his hand down the horse's neck. "But I've also known you long enough now to know that whenever one of your friends is in trouble you stop thinking about yerself." He paused, "Now, I'm just tellin' you that you go in there half cocked and people are gonna die. I don't want those people to be you and Ezra." He sighed. Seeing that his friend was still pissed, he shook his head. "Stop thinkin' with yer heart, and start thinkin' with yer head. Give me an hour, Vin. Nathan should be here by then to take care of JD, and we'll head on out, bring Ezra home."
Vin was still shaking his head, but his face had lost that hard, determined look it had possessed moments before. He glanced up at the ever-darkening sky, then back to his friend. Finally he nodded, sighing. "Ok, Larabee, you've got your hour, but if that storm moves in, I'm headin' out." Still looking unhappy, he dismounted. Tying his horse's reins to a small scrub brush, he went back to sit next to JD.
Josiah rode as fast as his horse could safely carry him. When he was a short distance away from Nettie's he noticed the two riders coming towards him. He could see them move their horses into a trot and then a run.
Nathan and Buck quickly reached him. "What's wrong?" Buck practically yelled.
"We found JD."
"What?" Buck did yell.
Josiah held up his hand, knowing that Buck's questions wouldn't stop there. "No time, Buck. He's hurt, it looks bad."
"Where?" Nathan breathed out.
"On the trail about a quarter of a mile from the old Colin place, headin' into town." Josiah answered. "I'm gonna get Nettie's wagon, I'll meet'cha there."
Buck nodded, wheeling his horse around, he started at a gallop in the direction that Josiah had just come from. Nathan nodded sadly to Josiah before doing the same.
JD was gripped in fever dreams. Chris had tried to clean the wound, at least good enough until Nathan arrived, but it looked like the wound was already infected. Chris watched Vin as the lean tracker paced back and forth, looking down at JD and then off in the direction that Ezra had left in. Suddenly, Chris jerked his head up when he felt something hit him in the face. A raindrop. Damn.
Chris glanced over to see Vin watching the dark storm clouds. The tracker looked over at him. "I'm goin', Chris. I don't wanna take the chance of losin' the tracks to the rain." He walked over to his horse.
Chris blew out a long breath. Standing up, he walked over to his friend, watching as Vin mounted the black gelding. Vin turned to look at him. "I'll leave a trail, `case the rain washes mine away." His blue eyes were dark. He glanced down to JD. "Take care a him."
Chris nodded as he watched his friend turn and ride away. "Watch yer back, Vin."
The rain was dwindling away, and Vin glanced up at the sky to see that the sun was trying to peak out from behind the clouds. The rain had been cold, and without his coat, his shirt had quickly been soaked through. Luckily, it hadn't rained enough to wash the trail away and he was happy, at least, for that. He'd been following the trail for about half an hour now. He looked back down at the ground, the rain dripping off the brim of his hat to soak into his already wet pant leg.
The clouds parted for a moment and out of the corner of his eye he saw the glint of sun off metal. He'd been so intent on the trail and worrying about what might be happening to Ezra that he hadn't been watching his own back. The sudden knowledge that there was a rifle out there, pointed at him, didn't do him much good as he felt the pain of the bullet ripping into his body. He fell backwards off the horse, landing hard on the ground.
He couldn't move. All he could do was lie there, looking up at the sky, while his blood slipped out of the wound to soak into the cold, hard earth beneath him.
'Damn.' He sighed. He'd never hear the end of this from Larabee.
to be continued...
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