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Notes: There are two other stories in this series, accessed through the links below. You may want to read those first to acquaint yourself with Jess. This story is based on a J.T. Edson story - The Rio Hondo Kid - thanks to Rosie for reminding me of the title!
Ezra took a deep breath and let it out slowly accompanied by a contented sigh. He reached down and patted his horse's neck gently as he looked around him and smiled.
"This is the life. A good long ride, lovely weather and beautiful scenery."
Ezra wasn't just out for pleasure though. The peacekeepers periodically checked on all the ranchers and homesteaders in the area as part of their duties. As the ranchers couldn't always get into town, the seven men made it their business to ensure they had the opportunity to raise any problems they had by visiting them instead. This time it was the gambler's turn to patrol and he had decided to check on Jess. Ezra hadn't seen Jess for quite a while and so had decided to swing by her ranch while he had the chance. Things had been busy in town recently and this had been the first opportunity to present itself. The seven men had come to know the young woman pretty well over the past year and had cause to be very grateful for her help when they'd been in trouble on a couple of occasions.
Ezra began to whistle jauntily as he rode along, his good mood bursting forth unchecked. He trotted up a rise and pulled his horse to a halt as he surveyed the scene in front of him. Jess's ranch was below him to the right. The house looked a bit dilapidated - the young woman unable to keep it in perfect order since her family had been murdered the year before. She lived there alone, receiving much needed help with her cattle from a local boy three times a week. The seven peacekeepers offered their services whenever they had free time too but she was a determined and independent woman and refused to move into town for an easier life. All she knew was ranching and she did it with aplomb.
Ezra's gaze swept over the barn and corral where two roan horses milled about restlessly. The barn was the newest construction, having been rebuilt after being destroyed by fire. The gambler moved his gaze back to the house and watched smoke drift lazily from the chimney. All looked peaceful and he smiled, kicking his horse forward to head toward the yard.
"Hello the house," he called as he drew near.
Jess stepped out onto the porch and smiled warmly as she shielded her eyes against the sun. "Hello, Mr. Standish. Will you join me for coffee?"
Ezra smiled broadly and swung down from the saddle at the invitation. "It would be a pleasure."
He looped his reins over the hitching rail and stepped up onto the porch as he brushed some dirt from his pants.
"Take a seat and I'll bring some out to you," Jess offered as she pointed to a nearby chair.
Ezra made himself comfortable, took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. He turned his head as he heard the soft footsteps beside him and he reached out and took the mug of coffee that Jess held out to him. It smelt delicious and he savored the aroma for a while before taking a sip.
The young woman, dressed in jeans and shirt as normal, sank into a chair next to him and took a sip from her own mug.
"How have you been, Miss Matthews?" Ezra asked as he studied her curiously. "We haven't seen you in town lately, so I thought I'd come out and make sure everything's all right."
"Oh, I admit that I haven't been too well for the past week, but I'm better now. I've just got to catch up with all the chores I haven't done," she admitted with a wry smile.
"Is there anything I can do?" Ezra asked, seeing that Jess was a bit pale and tired-looking.
"Well, Pedro's been a great help as always." She hesitated. "Would you be able to exercise a few of the horses? They've been cooped up in the barn all week. Pedro's fed and groomed them, but he's been out watching the cattle most of the time. He's led the stallion out to the corral each day, but he's proving a real handful right now, so I don't want Pedro riding him."
Ezra nodded. "Of course I don't mind."
He drank the last of his drink and stood up. It was a warm day and he knew that the riding he was going to do would be demanding, so he took off his jacket, derringer, gun and gunbelt, putting them on the seat with his hat. He had to admit that he felt much more comfortable without them. He nodded to Jess and set off to the barn to begin work.
Ezra finished exercising the stallion, took off his tack and let the animal go free in the corral to expend the rest of his energy. He'd certainly proved a challenging ride, but Ezra had mastered him beautifully. The gambler went into the barn to see to the needs of the other horse he'd ridden earlier. He began grooming it and he spoke to it softly as he worked.
He'd only been working a short time when he heard incoming riders. He frowned as he stepped out of the stall and moved to the door to see who it was. Four horsemen rode confidently into the yard and came to a halt by the hitching rail. They looked like saddle bums and although the men looked as though they hadn't bathed in weeks, it appeared that they took better care of their weapons. Ezra let his eyes drift from man to man and he saw that each of them had at least two guns. Ezra tensed when he realized he was actually unarmed. How stupid could I be?
The gambler drew in a breath when he saw Jess step out onto the porch to see what the group wanted.
"Ma'am," the oldest of the quartet greeted as he put a finger to his hat brim. He had piercing blue eyes and his skin had a leathery look to it that showed he'd led a predominantly outdoor life. "Mighty fine stallion you've got there."
"Yes, he is," Jess replied warily as she watched the man's companions spread out on either side of him.
They looked a rough lot and she couldn't help the shiver that ran the length of her body at the sight of them. She regretted the fact that she hadn't picked up the rifle she kept in the kitchen. Having said that, she wasn't sure that coming out waving a rifle about would have helped the situation anyway. It was much too late to do anything about it now, but she realized that she'd unconsciously let her guard down because she felt safe knowing Ezra was around. It was a big mistake, especially when she remembered that Ezra had removed his weapons - so couldn't defend himself either.
"I'll take him off your hands for a fair price," the leader, Manners, said, cutting into her thoughts.
"He's not for sale."
The man's eyes darted about, taking in the run down state of the house. He looked Jess up and down - his motives changing. The stallion being in the corral had been fortunate. It had given him an excuse to approach the ranch to check it out. Now he saw what he really wanted. His men had been on the trail for weeks and female company was just what they needed - be she a willing participant or not.
"Everything's for sale for the right price. Why don't we go indoors to discuss terms?" Manners suggested, licking his lips in anticipation.
"I said he's not for sale, and nor am I," Jess said, picking up on the man's intentions.
"You look as though you could do with the money, sweetheart. Place don't exactly look prosperous. Don't look like you've got a man around the place to satisfy your needs either. It's your lucky day that we came along, I reckon," Manners said as he made to get off his horse.
"I beg to differ," Ezra said as he stepped forward calmly.
The four men turned to look at him. The tallest of them reached down toward his gun, but as yet didn't pull it from the holster. However, the threat was plain enough.
"Who are you?" the leader asked as he settled himself back on the horse.
"A friend," Ezra replied as he came to a standstill nearby, eying the men speculatively as he tried to decide who posed the biggest threat.
"Well, friend, butt out. I got business with the lady."
"I believe she declined your offer - on both counts," Ezra said wryly as he caught Jess's eye and indicated for her to go indoors.
She flicked a quick glance at Ezra's gun on the chair, but at the moment she didn't dare reach out for it. The men looked too dangerous to provoke and she didn't want to inflame the situation. She looked once more at Ezra and he shook his head - sensing her thoughts. She turned and did as she had been told, locking the door behind her.
Manners looked Ezra up and down and saw he had no weapons. Fancy dressed dandy don't look like much competition. Four against one is good odds, and I'm looking forward to unwrapping my prize after getting rid of this idiot. "I usually get what I want, mister," he said aloud.
The gambler shook his head and replied, "Not this time. Now I suggest you turn your steeds around and head out."
"You gonna make us?"
"Yes." Ezra leapt forwards and managed to pull the nearest man from his horse. He then reached up and pulled the rifle from the saddle-boot. He turned quickly when he heard a gun cock behind him and he fired at the man he had just unhorsed, killing him with a shot to the head.
The gambler then used the man's horse as cover to try to get to the corner of the house. He didn't want to be caught in the middle of the yard with bullets coming at him from all directions. Although he tried hard, he didn't make it. A bullet from the leader's gun creased the horse's rump and the animal reared in pain, knocking Ezra to the ground. He scrambled frantically to his feet and ran towards the house, firing as he went.
He was only a few strides from safety when he suddenly felt a fiery pain in his side and he was thrown against the hitching rail hard with the force of the bullet's strike. He fell to his knees clutching the injured section, the breath knocked out of him. He was then driven bodily to the ground by another bullet which hit him high in the chest.
Ezra could do nothing but look up at the sky as his eyes lost the ability to focus. He found it increasingly difficult to breathe and he grimaced at the pain that came in waves throughout his body. Sounds around him became muffled, he heard voices but couldn't distinguish what they were saying. He thought he heard Jess's voice shouting nearby but then everything faded to black.
Jess watched the scene unfold out in the yard as she stood by the kitchen window. She reached out for her late father's rifle which was resting against the wall, but she heard a shot from outside and turned just in time to see Ezra go down. Not hesitating, she unlocked the door and stepped out onto the porch with the rifle raised. After her previous error of judgement, she was not going to stand by and leave Ezra unprotected now, no matter the threat to her own life. She had no doubt the men wouldn't hesitate to shoot a woman.
She fired at the man nearest her while screaming like a banshee. Manners managed to dodge the bullet and he turned to face the young woman angrily. He raised his gun and Jess felt her heart contract in fear as she looked down the barrel almost hypnotically. From the direction of the barn, though, more gunfire erupted and she watched as the man who had been her closest threat fell from his saddle to land in a heap in the dirt. He didn't move again. Jess turned to see who had intervened and she saw Pedro standing in the doorway with his father's pistol. She had no idea how long he had been there but she was immensely pleased to see him.
The two remaining men decided that perhaps they wanted to be elsewhere now that their numbers had been depleted. They cursed and kicked their horses out of the yard and left at the gallop.
Jess watched them until they were out of sight before running to Ezra. He was unconscious and bleeding badly from the two wounds to his body. His beautiful ivory-colored shirt glistened wetly with blood in the sunlight. She reached down and ripped off a strip from her own shirt and used it to try and staunch the flow.
"Yes, Miss Jess?" the boy said as he approached her hurriedly.
"Take my horse and ride to town. Get Mr. Jackson," she ordered urgently.
The boy nodded and ran to the barn. A few minutes later he emerged into daylight and raced toward town.
Pedro loped down the main street in Four Corners and spotted Chris on the boardwalk outside the jail. He turned his horse and steered it toward the man.
"Mr. Larabee!" he yelled as he waved his arm in the air frantically.
Chris swung round at the urgent call and jumped down onto the street and pulled Pedro's horse to a halt. "Pedro? What's wrong? Is Jess okay?"
"Yes, but Mr. Standish is hurt bad." The boy gave a quick description of what he had seen.
The blond digested what he had been told, his mind whirling as he made appropriate plans in his head. "Right, you find Nathan while I get the rest of the boys rounded up. You go on back home afterwards, son. You did real good," the blond said as he gave the youngster's shoulder an encouraging squeeze.
Chris watched Pedro dismount, tie the horse to the nearby rail and head off to the clinic. The blond nodded in satisfaction and then ran to the saloon, pushing through the batwing doors noisily. He looked around the darkened interior until his eyes settled on two familiar shapes.
"Buck? JD? Mount up," he called from the doorway.
"What's up, pard?" the ladies' man asked as he put his half empty glass down with a frown and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
"Ez is in trouble. He's been shot."
"Where is he?" JD asked, not having heard any gunfire in town.
"Out at Jess's," Chris said, indicating that he wanted to leave.
"We'll meet you at the livery," the older man said as he ushered his companion toward the door.
The blond nodded and turned to run down the street to the church. Other pedestrians moved aside quickly when they saw the obviously anxious gunslinger. Chris took the church's steps two at a time and strode down the aisle like an avenging angel.
"Josiah? Need you now. Get your horse and meet us at the livery," he said when he tracked the preacher down to his room at the back of the church.
The big man didn't question the black-clad gunslinger, but jumped to do what he had been told. He would find out what the problem was later.
Chris changed direction again and hurried to Vin's wagon. The long-haired man smiled in welcome, but the smile faded when he saw the look on his friend's face. He automatically reached out and picked up his rifle, knowing it would be needed.
"Vin? Ez got caught up in some trouble at Jess's. He's hurt bad."
"Damn," the sharpshooter said as he quickened his pace to join his friend.
Minutes later, the six men mounted their horses and set off at speed out of town.
After riding hard, they eventually breasted the rise that overlooked Jess's ranch. They saw the young woman kneeling next to the prostrate form of their friend. The peacekeepers couldn't miss the fact that there were two other bodies also lying in the yard, but they ignored them, knowing they were never going to cause trouble again. They kicked their horses onward and arrived in the yard minutes later.
Nathan leapt off his horse before it had even stopped and ran toward Ezra anxiously. "Jess? How bad?"
The woman looked up in relief. She'd worried that Ezra would bleed to death before help arrived. "Two bullets. One in his side and the other in his chest. He's bleeding badly, so I didn't dare move him."
"Okay, let me check him over." Nathan looked at his injured friend and didn't like what he saw. The man was pale, sweating and unconscious. His breathing was labored and his pulse weak and thready. Nathan took a quick look at each wound and pursed his lips worriedly.
"Buck? Josiah? Help me get him indoors," he called over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off his patient. "Jess, keep up the pressure on those wounds while we move him."
The two summoned men appeared at the healer's side and bent to pick up the gambler. Josiah put his hands under Ezra's armpits while Buck got hold under his knees. Ezra's head lolled lifelessly against Josiah's chest and he didn't make a sound as he was lifted.
"Put him in my room," Jess ordered as she walked carefully alongside the bleeding man.
The group walked through the living room and on to the bedroom at the back, carefully avoiding bits of furniture that were in the way. Having reached their destination, the two men lowered Ezra gently onto the bed and stepped back.
"Right, everyone out except Josiah. Take over from Jess, will you?" Nathan said.
"Sure thing, brother," Josiah said as he moved into position.
The rest of the men and Jess congregated worriedly on the porch. They knew from the nature of Ezra's injuries that they could be waiting for news a long time. All they could do was hope and pray that there would be a positive outcome.
Chris let his gaze wander over his men, noting how anxious they all looked. These were the types of situations that they hated, and it never got any easier to deal with no matter how many times it happened. One of their own was injured and it always cut them to the quick.
The blond's eyes finally settled on Jess. She was leaning against the rail, wiping blood off her hands with a towel. "You okay, Jess?" he asked.
She nodded, but didn't speak.
"What happened exactly? Pedro only arrived on the scene at the last minute from what he told me in town."
Jess sighed and shifted uneasily. "Four men rode into the yard and offered to buy my stallion. Ezra'd left him in the corral in plain sight you see and I reckon they used that as an excuse to get in close and see who was here. When they thought I was alone their real motives emerged. They wanted me, well... you know," she said in embarrassment, turning red.
"Where was Ezra?" Buck asked from where he was listening to the conversation.
"In the barn."
"Did they hurt you?" Chris asked gently.
Jess shook her head. "No, Ezra came out when he realized what they really wanted, but he'd left his guns on the porch while he was riding and I stupidly hadn't thought to pick up mine. He made me go into the house, but he couldn't handle all four of them on his own without a weapon. I grabbed my rifle to help, and he had somehow managed to get one of the gang's guns, but it was too late and they shot him."
"Did you see which direction they went in when they left?" Vin asked with interest.
"Yes, towards the creek," Jess said as she pointed in the exact direction.
The tracker stood and looked into the distance for a while before beckoning to his youngest colleague. "Come on, kid. Let's go have a look-see."
Chris nodded his approval and watched his two friends leave. He then took a seat to await news of Ezra. Buck smiled encouragingly at his oldest friend before moving to stand beside Jess and putting his arm round her. She looked up at him and smiled before leaning against his side, taking comfort in his presence.
Back inside the bedroom, Nathan gently looked at the wound in Ezra's side. He pulled away the remnants of Jess's shirt and peered underneath.
"Bullet went straight through. Now, let's look at the other one."
Josiah moved his hand to allow Nathan access to the injury in Ezra's chest. He frowned with worry when he saw the blood that flowed freely from the wound.
Nathan mopped up some of the red liquid and felt around the bullet hole as best he could, but the continuing flow of blood meant he couldn't see much. "Reckon the bullet musta nicked a vein or somethin' for him to still be bleeding like this." The healer lifted Ezra's body carefully to get a look at his back. "Bullet's still in there, too," he said as he pursed his lips. Digging around would only make matters worse, but it had to be done. "You'll have to hold him for me, Josiah. Daren't give him any laudanum so it's gonna hurt him like hell."
The preacher nodded and moved to hold Ezra's shoulders. Nathan got the instruments that he needed and set to work, wishing he could have got to his friend earlier to begin treatment.
He delved into the oozing hole in Ezra's chest and felt around for the bullet. Ezra bucked on the bed as pain filtered through, raising him from unconsciousness briefly. He groaned and tried to move away from the source of the pain. Josiah tightened his grip, but had a hard time controlling the injured man.
Nathan didn't hurry - daren't hurry - despite knowing his friend was suffering. He took a deep breath and when Ezra had subsided in exhaustion onto the bed he continued his search. His fingers were slick with blood and he found it increasingly difficult to hold the probe steady.
"Found it," he eventually sighed in relief. "Hold him real tight, Josiah. I can't afford for him to move around like before."
The big man nodded and increased his grip again while Nathan began to pull on the bullet. The healer hoped to be able to remove it without inflicting anymore damage to his friend's body.
"Ah," Ezra groaned, rolling his head from side to side in distress at the stab of pain he felt in his chest.
"Nearly done, brother," Josiah said soothingly.
One last jerk and Nathan had the bullet free, but he cursed when blood pumped out of the wound alarmingly.
Nathan bent to his task and eventually managed to slow the flow with his fingers. "Get me a needle and thread, Josiah. I need to close the tear in the vein and then stitch the whole wound closed."
Twenty minutes later, the healer sat back with a heartfelt sigh. "Well, I've done all I can for him. I've stopped the bleeding, but we need to keep him still so he don't tear the stitches. He can't afford to lose anymore blood 'cause he's real weak."
Nathan stood and stretched wearily as he smiled in thanks at Josiah. He then went to the kitchen where he washed the blood off his hands before going out onto the porch.
"Nate?" Chris asked anxiously, trying to read the expression on the man's face.
"He's still with us, but he lost a lot of blood. Can he stay here, Jess? I don't want him moved to town just yet," the healer said as he dried his arms thoroughly on a towel.
Jess nodded emphatically. "Sure he can. You boys can visit as often as you like, although I know it's a long way from town." She looked at Nathan and raised a questioning eyebrow. "You staying, Nathan?"
"Yeah, I will until I know he's improving."
"I'll stay too to help out around the place," Josiah said as he stepped into view and smiled at Jess, seeing she was glad of the company.
The sound of approaching hooves came from behind them as Vin and JD rode into the yard, interrupting the conversation.
"Any luck?" Buck asked as he turned to face them.
"Followed 'em as far as the creek. They rode downriver, but I couldn't find where they left the water. I need more time to do a thorough search," Vin said as he took off his hat and wiped his brow on his sleeve. "Is Ez okay?"
"Well, he's in pain and still unconscious, but I've done all I can for him," Nathan said with a shrug.
Vin nodded and turned his attention to the black-clad gunslinger. "What do you want us to do next, Chris?"
The blond stood up and moved to stand beside the ladies' man. "I want those bastards caught. Nate and Josiah are gonna stay out here with Ez while he recovers. Buck and I'll head back to town with the bodies and let Travis know the situation. You and JD go back and continue searching for the remaining two men and we'll all meet up here again tomorrow afternoon."
"Before anyone does anything else you are gonna join me for a meal. None of you have eaten and I'm not sending you out without food," Jess said forcefully.
"Sure you got enough to feed us all?" Buck asked, realizing just how hungry he actually was.
"Of course. Had to kill one of my cows yesterday, so there's plenty for everyone."
Buck licked his lips in anticipation of a nice juicy steak, so he nodded and led the way into the kitchen.
Chris and Buck loaded the bodies onto the two loose horses that Vin had rounded up. They tied them in the saddles securely, not wanting to lose them on the journey home.
"Watch yer backs," the blond said to Vin and JD when his two friends rode up.
"Will do," the tracker said with a grin as he reached down to grip the blond's arm.
"Vin?" Jess called. "I drew pictures of the two men who escaped. Maybe they'll help you to identify them."
Vin took the sheets and studied them as he nodded in approval. Jess had shown them her artistic skills before and the faces that looked back at him now from the pages in his hand appeared very lifelike.
"Thanks, Jess. They'll do great," the tracker acknowledged as he put the sheets safely in his pocket.
After saying their goodbyes, the four men rode off to their destinations. Josiah watched them go, hoping that Vin and JD would return safely and not run into trouble of their own. He sent a quick prayer up to God before turning to face Jess.
"Anything I can do before we retire for the evening?" he asked.
Jess took a moment to consider the offer, trying to get her mind to think clearly. "Can you put the stallion away and check on the other horses?"
"Sure thing." Josiah strode toward the corral. He caught the stallion and led him back to the barn, putting him in an empty stall. He then made sure each horse had fresh water and something to eat to last them through the night. The preacher finally looked round and made sure everything was secure. After nodding in satisfaction, he ambled back to the house and stepped back into the kitchen. "All settled in for the night, Jess."
The preacher went on through to the bedroom and poked his head round the door. "Need anything, Nate?"
The healer turned to look at his friend and nodded. "Could you get some cool water? He's real feverish and I'll need to wipe him down. I might need you later on when I change the bandages."
Josiah headed back to the kitchen and filled a large bowl with water. He picked up a clean cloth and took them back to the bedroom.
Ezra felt something delightfully cool on his face. It was in stark contrast to the tremendous heat that his body was currently experiencing. He shifted on the bed slightly and couldn't help the groan that escaped his lips. The pain that movement caused was almost unbearable. It was like fire was burning deep in his chest and it momentarily took his breath away. He gasped and choked and really rather wished he hadn't. He unwittingly emitted another agonized moan as he tried to make sense of things. What had happened? Where was he? He heard two male voices nearby but he couldn't make out what they were saying, or even if they were talking to him. He gave up caring and surrendered to unconsciousness again.
"Easy, Ez. Easy," Nathan murmured soothingly as he wiped the damp cloth over his friend's face.
"Sounds like he's in pain, brother," Josiah said quietly. Ezra's moan had cut to his very soul, so he reached out and gently cupped Ezra's hand in his to offer comfort.
"Yeah, I know, but I daren't give him anything while he's unconscious 'cause he could choke on it." Nathan wiped a hand round the back of his neck and sighed. He hated leaving someone to suffer like this. He could only hope that Ezra would wake soon so that he could give him something to ease the pain.
The preacher studied the ex-slave quietly for a while. "Why don't you get some rest? I'll sit with Ezra for a while," he said, as he raised a hand, anticipating Nathan's next request. "Yes, I'll come and get you if his condition changes."
The healer smiled sheepishly. "Okay, thanks, Josiah."
The house quietened down as three of the four occupants slept. Josiah kept his promised vigil, washing his injured friend down when he became agitated with fever, or talking to him gently when he was distressed.
Although Ezra muttered and moaned he never woke totally, but he was vaguely aware that he wasn't alone. All he felt was heat and unbearable pain which seemed to throb through his body with every breath he took. He tossed and turned continually as his fever raged and his body became bathed with sweat.
The hours of darkness dragged by for both men, but dawn eventually broke over the horizon and flooded the room with natural light.
"Josiah? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to leave you here all night," Nathan apologized as he hurried into the room while pulling on a shirt.
"No problem, son. You obviously needed the rest. Ezra's no better, but no worse, so there's no need to fret," Josiah said as he stood and stretched before going round the room and blowing out the lamps.
"I'll take over then," Nathan said as he headed to the now vacant chair by the bed.
"How about some breakfast first?" Jess called from the kitchen.
"Yeah, I sure could eat," Josiah said as he rubbed his rumbling stomach.
"Guess Ez will be okay for a little bit. He seems settled, but I'll keep an ear out for him," Nathan said as he followed Josiah out of the room while taking a last look at his injured friend.
"Wonder how Vin and JD are getting on," the big man mused as he sat down at the table.
"Well, they only had a couple of hours of daylight left when they set off again yesterday. I can't think they got far," Nathan replied, nodding at Jess in thanks as she placed a plate overflowing with delicious smelling food in front of him.
"Guess you're right," Josiah agreed solemnly.
Vin and JD had used their two hours of daylight well though. The tracker had finally managed to find out where the two men had exited the creek. They hadn't bothered to cover their tracks after leaving the water, thinking their trick would flummox anyone following. They hadn't counted on the patience and sheer determination of Vin.
He felt a considerable pride when he finally found their tracks again and he let a rare smile grace his lips. "Come on, kid. They're getting sloppy now," he said as he kicked his horse into a lope. The tracks were so plain they could follow at speed without any fear of losing the trail.
"Where do you reckon they're headed?" JD asked as he drew alongside his friend, keeping his horse at a steady pace.
"Well, there's one or two possibilities, but they could hole up in the old Cole ranch. It's empty and would provide shelter and water as well as a good all-round view of the country. They'd see us coming a mile off," Vin said thoughtfully. "We're gonna have to be real careful when we get near, if that's where they are, that is."
They rode on silently for another hour until Vin put up his hand as he pointed to the ranch in the distance. "Right, kid. Let's head on over to those trees and watch from there. Looks like it's the only cover here abouts."
"But it's too far away," JD protested as he squinted at the buildings. He could just about make out the forms of some abandoned cattle moving about nearby but that was it.
"Good job I've got my telescope then, ain't it?" the tracker said as he patted his pocket.
The two men made their way to the small clump of trees and dismounted. JD moved the horses away and secured them well out of sight. Vin, meanwhile, moved to the edge of the cover and laid down. He pulled out his telescope, putting it to his eye so he could study the surrounding area carefully. So far he could see no sign of human life, but the tracks had continued in that direction and he was sure the men were there. There were no horses at the hitching rail, but it was more than likely that they would have been secreted in the barn. Vin turned his attention back to the ranch house and his patience paid off when he saw a tall, dark man step out of the building and stretch. He compared the man to the description that Jess had given him of the men concerned and he smiled in satisfaction.
"They're here, kid."
"What do we do?" JD asked anxiously as he took the offered telescope and looked at the ranch himself.
Vin looked up at the sky and studied the sun's position. "Well, it's too late to do too much now, but come morning you get back to Jess's and meet up with the others. Bring them here and we'll round those yahoo's up."
"Wouldn't the dark be to our advantage though? We could creep up without them seeing us," JD pointed out.
"Yeah, and if they don't put any lights on in the house, we'd be blind, JD. I got no idea now where the second fella is, and I sure as hell don't wanna meet him by accident in the dark."
"What happens if they leave in the morning though?" JD asked instead.
"I'll track them and leave you sign so you can follow. They look real cozy, so I reckon that they'll stay put for the time being. They don't even know we're on their tail, kid, and that's to our advantage."
Vin sent JD off to get some sleep, but he refused the youngster's request to have a fire. He didn't want to alert the two men at the ranch of their presence. The night was cold, but the two men made do by wrapping up in some thick blankets they had brought with them.
Dawn came and Vin, despite the situation, took pleasure in watching the beautiful color spread across the sky. The land was bathed in a warm glow which enhanced the natural landscape and he studied it appreciatively. His gaze was eventually drawn back to the ranch and he got out his telescope again. No lights had shown in the house all night, as Vin had predicted. The men weren't stupid enough to draw attention to themselves by showing that a supposedly empty property was inhabited.
Vin tensed as he saw both men head towards the barn and he hoped they weren't on the move. He waited half an hour until the two men emerged and headed back to the house. Vin sighed, assuming they had been seeing to their horses' needs.
The tracker smiled as JD yawned and came to sit beside him chewing on some beef jerky. The youngster still looked half asleep and couldn't suppress another yawn.
Vin reached out and patted JD's knee quite hard. "Come on, wakey, wakey, kid. It's time you got back to Jess's."
JD fisted his right eye and stretched luxuriously before standing up, feeling more alert. "Okay, I'll be quick." The dark-haired man went to his horse, mounted and set off at speed, making sure he didn't show himself to the men at the ranch.
"Hey, all," Chris said as he stepped into Jess's kitchen mid-morning. He reached down and hitched up his gunbelt so it lay more comfortably on his hips as he spoke. "Got here sooner than we thought. Hope that's okay. How's Ez doin'?"
"As Josiah said to me earlier, he's no better, but no worse," Nathan said from where he sat drinking coffee. "He had a bit of an uncomfortable night, but that's to be expected after the injuries he had."
"Can I see him?"
"Sure," the healer said, as he pushed himself to his feet, letting Buck take his place.
The black-clad man followed Nathan to the bedroom and entered quietly, not wanting to disturb the injured man who lay inside. He moved to the bed and looked down at the pale gambler, studying him minutely. Ezra looked to be in pain judging by the drawn appearance of his face. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and one finally broke to run down Ezra's hair-line toward the pillow.
Chris reached out a rough hand and felt Ezra's brow. "Fever broke?" he asked quietly, when he detected no heat.
"Yeah, an hour ago."
"How come he's still sweating?"
Nathan shrugged. "He's in considerable pain."
"Woke up yet?" Chris asked, his eyes never leaving Ezra's face.
"Not properly, but I hope he will soon 'cause I need to get him to drink. With the blood loss he's suffered, as well as the fever, getting fluids into him is real important. Also need to ease his pain." Nathan rubbed his brow and sighed dejectedly.
Ezra shifted uneasily and mumbled incoherently as his hands clenched fretfully. The healer reached out a caring hand and tried to comfort the injured man as best he could. Ezra groaned, his eyes moving furiously behind the closed lids. He was obviously engrossed in a dream or nightmare of some intensity.
"Anything I can do?" Chris asked as he watched the healer running his fingers through Ezra's hair gently.
"Can you help me change his bandages?" Nathan asked, taking advantage of the offer.
"Can you hold him up for me? Just take care when you move him, okay?"
Chris bent over and gently raised Ezra into a sitting position. He held him carefully against his chest as he sat next to him on the bed. Nathan reached in and began unwinding the bandages from his friend's torso. He put them aside for washing so they could be reused later. He then removed the poultice and studied the wound underneath, reaching out to probe it gently.
"Ah, please don't," Ezra mumbled as he turned his head away and pressed it against Chris's chest, his breath hitching in his throat.
"Sorry, Ez," Nathan murmured. "Can you open your eyes for me?"
No response other than a muffled moan.
"Ezra? Can you hear me?"
The gambler moaned, but eventually two green eyes opened and squinted at Nathan in confusion. The healer's face swum in and out of focus so Ezra blinked to try and clear his vision. It didn't help but at least he managed to remain awake.
"I need you to drink this."
Nathan held the glass of water against Ezra's lips and the con man took a few sips before sagging back into Chris's arms. He sighed and welcomed the beckoning darkness.
"He's out of it," Chris observed.
Nathan sighed and shook his head. "Least he took some water in, but it's nowhere near enough to replace what he's lost."
The healer got back to work, placing a new poultice over the chest wound before binding it in place again with clean bandages. He then did the same to the injured man's side. He was pleased to see that the wounds were clean, although they were raw looking and the skin around them was bruised.
"There don't seem to be any infection," Nathan confirmed.
Chris nodded and gently laid Ezra back down. He pulled the blanket up over his friend and patted his shoulder.
"Chris?" Buck called. "JD's coming in fast, pard."
The blond strode outside onto the porch and watched as JD raced across the yard to come to a sliding halt nearby. Where the hell is Vin? Chris wondered anxiously, his stomach clenching in fear.
"Found 'em," JD blurted out.
"The old Cole ranch. Vin's watching 'em," the youngster said as he tried to catch his breath.
Chris sighed in relief on hearing that Vin was okay. "Right. Nate, stay here and care for Ez. The rest of you, let's go catch some bad guys," the blond ordered.
"Can I get a fresh horse?" JD asked Jess as he jumped off his sweat-covered mount.
Jess nodded and pointed to the barn. "Help yourself. I'll see to your horse for you, so leave him where he is."
JD headed to the barn and reappeared shortly afterwards with a hastily saddled bay gelding. He leapt aboard and the four men set off in the required direction.
Nathan watched them ride away until they were just specks in the distance. He then returned to the kitchen, washed the soiled bandages and hung them outside to dry before going back to check on Ezra. He was pleased to find him awake.
"Hey, Ez. Need to get you to drink some more water." He sat on the bed and held the glass after raising Ezra up. The gambler drank the entire contents as he leaned wearily against his friend. He was devoid of energy and he closed his eyes momentarily, hoping some strength would return to his ailing body.
"How's the pain?" Nathan asked as he studied his friend worriedly. Ezra seemed to be getting paler and paler with each passing second.
"Excruciating," Ezra replied through gritted teeth, his head drooping with fatigue.
"Okay, have some laudanum and then get some more rest."
Nathan helped the injured man drink the medicine and felt Ezra's hand clutching the front of his shirt tightly. He laid the man down, but Ezra wouldn't release his hold. Nathan ended up stretched out on the bed beside his friend. He tried to loosen Ezra's fingers, but the man's hold tightened if anything.
The healer settled back, content to give Ezra the comfort he so obviously needed. When Ez goes to sleep I'll be able to extricate myself, he thought to himself wryly. Nathan didn't get that far though. He felt his own eyes grow heavy and he couldn't help falling asleep.
Jess looked into the room half an hour later when she realized that Nathan hadn't emerged. She smiled when she saw the healer sound asleep carefully cradling Ezra's injured body against his. She backed out, closed the door quietly and got on with her chores.
The four riders approached the clump of trees where Vin had been hiding. They were immensely pleased to find that he was still there. The men dismounted and stretched the kinks out of their bodies. Buck took charge of the horses and led them away, tying them next to Vin's animal.
"Ain't left then?" Chris said as he indicated the house with his chin.
The tracker smiled and shook his head. "No, they've really made themselves at home. How do you want to play this?"
Chris squatted down beside him and considered options. "How about one of us plays like we're sick or injured? We could ride in leading the 'sick' person's horse and ask for help. It'd look innocent enough, I reckon. We could then catch them unawares when we've sucked them in with our ruse."
Vin was nodding as he saw the scene play out in his head. It just might work. They wouldn't look suspicious at all.
"Sounds good to me, cowboy," he said.
"Can I be the sick one?" JD asked eagerly.
"Sure, kid. Let's set things in motion."
Chris reached up and pulled a blanket off the back of his saddle roll and draped it round JD's shoulders. "Hunker in the saddle, okay? Look unsteady," he told JD before turning to the rest of his men. "Josiah? You ride beside him and look like you're supporting him in the saddle. You lead him, Vin. Buck? You come up front with me. We'll have to see how it pans out when we get in the yard, but keep alert and ready for trouble." Chris looked around the group seriously. "All set?"
Vin put a lead rope on JD's horse before quickly mounting his own. He reached over and picked up the rope, letting it lie loosely in his hand. JD climbed into the saddle and slouched over, hugging the blanket tight as if he was cold.
"Perfect, kid," Buck praised.
The group kicked their horses toward the ranch and Josiah moved up beside JD and occasionally reached out as if keeping him on the horse.
Chris forced himself to ride at a steady pace and he tried to keep his hand from wandering too near his gun butt. He was on edge and it was reassuring to feel the weapon under his hand. He resisted the urge though.
At the sound of the five peacekeepers riding into the yard, a man stepped out of the barn. He was armed and his hand automatically moved toward the weapon, but he dropped it back to his side when his eyes alighted on the huddled form of JD.
He frowned and said, "What do you want?"
Chris turned to face him and smiled. "Thank goodness. I was beginning to think the place was deserted. My friend is sick. Could we rest here for a while? We've been riding for hours."
"We ain't really set up for visitors. Just moved in ourselves," the man replied, trying to put them off.
JD coughed and groaned artistically and the man eyed him warily.
"He ain't contagious, is he?"
"No, mister. Could we at least water the horses at your well before we head toward town? Do you know if they've got a doctor there?"
While Chris was talking, Vin was trying to find out where the second man was. His eyes scanned the yard calmly and took in the silhouette at the ranch house window to the left of the door.
Got you, he thought to himself in satisfaction.
JD, meanwhile, decided it was high time for some action 'cause talking seemed to be getting them nowhere. He swayed suddenly and pitched off the horse into the dirt. Josiah immediately dismounted and bent beside the boy as if checking his condition.
He looked up at Chris and said, "He needs rest and medicine. He's burning up."
The second gang member chose that moment to make an appearance. He stepped onto the porch with hands on his hips. The whole scene looked entirely innocent to him and he didn't suspect a thing. "Put him in the barn. He can rest there for a while."
Chris nodded in thanks and indicated for Vin dismount. Buck stayed where he was, just pretending to take his time. The black-clad man and the tracker meanwhile stepped down off their horses, drawing their weapons surreptitiously as they did so. As they hit the dirt they whirled round, one covering the man by the barn, one covering the other. JD leapt to his feet and shrugged off the blanket to reveal the rifle beneath.
Josiah stood up and drew his pistol, while Buck smiled and fingered his gun provocatively. Neither of their opponents had time to even blink and both men lifted their hands away from their guns, knowing they were beaten.
"Keep yer hands where we can see them while we relieve you of your weapons," Chris ordered as he indicated for JD and Josiah to do the task.
"What do you want?" the taller of the two men asked.
"You shot a friend of ours. We're here to take you in for trial."
JD and Josiah moved forward while their friends kept the prisoners covered. They secured the two men's hands behind their backs before disarming them, tucking the confiscated weapons in their own waistbands.
Now that everything was under control, Buck dismounted and went to get the men's horses from the barn ready for the ride to town.
Chris nodded in satisfaction. The bad guys had been caught with not a single shot fired. That's just how he liked it. "You and JD take them back to town," he said to Josiah. "We'll go and update Jess and Nate."
After seeing JD and Josiah safely off toward town with the prisoners, Chris, Vin and Buck set off back to Jess's ranch. They rode at a more leisurely pace than they had on the outward journey to meet up with Vin. Now that Ezra's attackers had been rounded up, there was no need to hurry. They eventually arrived at their destination and dismounted in the yard and headed inside.
The blond nodded at Jess, who was in the kitchen making a meal. "They're caught and headed for jail so they won't be causing you no more trouble. How's Ez doin'?"
"Sleeping," the woman said with a grin.
"Nate with him?"
"You could say that."
Chris frowned at the cryptic answer and went to the bedroom to see what Jess meant. He opened the door and a broad smile grew on his face at what he saw. "Well, would you look at that?"
Buck and Vin pushed in behind him and looked over at the bed where Nathan and Ezra were still asleep.
"Well, you can't fault Nate's bedside manner," Buck said with a grin.