Retribution

by Leslie

Authors Notes: This story came to me in a dream and unless I wrote it, it would not go away, so in two days I laid it out, hope you enjoy it.

It had been just over six months since the seven regulators took the job as protectors of the small burg called Four Corners. And for the last month things were quiet. The reputation spreading of the towns protectors reaching any criminal with a mind to try, well anything criminal.

With things being quiet and seven men used to action and left with nothing to do, well things were getting a bit edgy. Most of which was between the dark clad gunslinger and the conniving con man. Only with the interference of the other five men, that no blood shed was spilled.

Early morning finds JD, Buck and Vin sitting outside the jail watching over the town as the first signs of activity begin. Chris Larabee was already inside the saloon drinking his coffee, Nathan was still in the clinic not yet up and Josiah was cleaning the church. Ezra as was custom did not rise before noon. And in fact, with no available competition present spent most days in his room playing solitaire rather than have to face another day arguing with Larabee.

“Think we’ll see Ezra today?” The Texan inquired, without looking at his two companions.

“If he’s smart he’ll stay in again,” replied Buck, “considering he’s about used up those nine lives.” Which brought chuckles to all three men.

“Why’d you think those two can’t see eye to eye?” Asked JD, who could not understand why they just couldn’t agree on anything.

“Might be there too much alike, JD. Makes them edgy ‘course they can’t see that.” As Vin leaned his chair back a bit, crossing his fingers on his stomach.

“How ‘bout we mousy on over to the saloon and see how Chris is doing, and have breakfast.” Buck suggested.

Vin and JD figured Buck wanted to make sure no additional confrontations took place without back up for the gambler; as they approached the saloon Josiah and Nathan were also making their way to the saloon. All five men entered seeing Chris sipping coffee.

Inez saw them come in, “Buenos dias Senors, what would you like for breakfast today?”

Josiah smiled at her, “I think the usual will be find.”

“Huevos rancheros coming up.” She answered.

“Good morning Brother Chris.”

“Morning Josiah,” looking to the others, “morning boys.”

The four other men nodded their heads and sat down next to each other.

Buck who couldn’t keep quiet broached the issue, “you think we’ll see Ezra this morning?”

They all looked at Chris who replied, “Inez said he came down earlier and took breakfast to his room.”

“Wonder if we’ll see him at all?” Vin inquired.

“Not if he’s smart.” Chris simply stated.

*******

They all chuckled. With no further comment breakfast was served. The rest of the day went without incident. Later that evening Ezra descended hoping for a game of chance. Both Chris and Vin decided to take a ride out to patrol. They had heard about possible cattle rustlers might be making their way to Four Corners.

Buck and JD left for the jail leaving Josiah and Nathan in the saloon. With no injuries in town Nathan had free time to just relax. Josiah had decided to take the day off and not do any repairs at the church. Both turned when they heard the missing gambler make his way down to the saloon.

“Evening Brother Ezra didn’t think you’d be up and about today.”

Nathan watched as he winces knowing exactly what they meant, “yeah, you didn’t even come down for lunch.”

“Well gentlemen I have been enjoying the solitude of my four walls.” Smiling at both men as he sat down next to them. “Might I interest you in a game of chance?”

“Wish I could brother, but I’m afraid I’m tapped out.”

Looking at Nathan he received the same comment. He looked around but the saloon was quiet. “If things don’t improve I think I shall traverse over to Eagle Bend and try my luck there.”

“If’en you do you might let Chris know?”

The gambler looked to the resident healer with a glare, “and pray tell, why should I have to inform our illustrious leader, with my plans?” His angry tone quite evident, both men laughed at the cagey gamblers hostility towards the dark clad gunslinger.

“Well I just thought that way he won’t have to be on edge and can relax knowing he won’t be bumping into you.” The healer comment, which brought smiles on both men as they saw the look on Ezra’s face.

“I suppose I have become a nuisance to Mr. Larabee.”

“More like a spur up his saddle.” Replied the healer, bringing a laugh to the ex-preacher.

After a while JD and Buck returned to the saloon surprise to see the gambler, both also declined a game with the man of chance, so Ezra decided to show off more card tricks for JD, as it became late they all retired.

*******

Vin and Chris returned late and were surprise Mary Travis waited for their return.

“Evening Ma’am,” drawled the Texan. Chris merely nodded to the newspaperwoman.

“Evening gentlemen, I received this telegram from Judge Travis a little while ago, I believe the other gentlemen must have retired for the evening. So I decided to wait for your return.” Replied the proprietress of the Clarion newspaper. “I think it might be important. If it came this late.” Handing it to Chris.

After reading it, he turn to Vin, “seems Judge wants one of us to go to Eagle Bend and pick-up a parcel due to arrive in two days.”

Vin looked at his friend, “want me to go?”

“No, I think I’ll send Ezra, maybe he’ll have better luck at the saloon their.” Vin smiled at Chris’ decision, a few days of relaxation for the gambler might be what he needs.

*******

The following morning Chris was up and headed towards the saloon to speak with Ezra. Before he knocked on the door the gambler was already exiting his room. Both looked at each other not sure what to say.

“Good morning Mr. Larabee, do what due I owe this honor,” drawled the southern man, the sarcastic remark not phasing the gunslinger.

“Got a message from Judge Travis, wants one of us to head to Eagle Bend and pick up a package due to arrive in two days. Thought I’d send you.”

Ezra grinned, “what a coincidence I was just coming to converse with you on my traveling to Eagle Bend.”

“Well that is perfect timing,” the gunslinger commented returning Ezra’s earlier sarcastic tone. “The parcel will be at the telegraph office in a couple days,” as he turned to leave, “try not to get into any trouble.” Then walked away, leaving the gambler shaking his head.

Ezra had Inez pack him some lunch and headed for the livery saddling Chaucer and rode out. Buck and JD saw the gambler riding out and went over to sit with Chris.

“So, I take it you gave Ezra permission to go to Eagle Bend?”

Chris looked over at his long time friend and smirked, “no, sending him on an errand to pick up a package for the Judge.”

“Wow!” Exclaimed JD, “you guys must have read each others mind, just yesterday he wanted to go to Eagle Bend.” Buck laughed and Chris glared at the kid, who merely gulps.

******* After leaving Four Corners, Ezra knew that the journey would take a little over a days ride. Taking with him some beef jerky for dinner, although not his first choice for an evening meal. He didn’t think he’d have much luck catching something in the dark. He and Chaucer rode in a leisurely pace, the gambler as usual flipping his cards keeping his fingers pliant.

*******

While about 30 miles outside of Eagle Bend 20 riders waited patiently on word of a trap set for one of the seven. One man shouted, “rider coming in.”

The man dismounted and approached the leader of these men. A tall, dark hair man, well built not quite Josiah’s build but close to it; a very visible scar along his left face covering across his eye all the way down his neck. The scars obtain from a fire. He looks at the rider approaching, “well?” Was all he had to say?

“As you predicted sir, Larabee is sending Standish.”

“Very good, we’ll ride out late tonight and surprise him.” The man’s name Frank Harding, a former bank robber, now cattle rustler who’d been terrorizing local territories.

He had heard of the seven men who protect this area, but when he heard that one of those men was a gambler who went by the name Ezra Standish, well he just couldn’t past up reacquainting him self with the con man. Touching his scar smiling at how much pain the gambler will be suffering at his hands.

*******

After eating the hard tack for dinner, Ezra took out an apple he purchased just before leaving town that morning. Chaucer’s favorite snack whenever the two found themselves riding on a long journey; which he brought out of his saddle bag, cutting it in several pieces and eating a slice, they both enjoyed each others company, the night air and the solitude.

“Well boy, how do you think I will fair tomorrow in Eagle Bend.” Chaucer nickered his approval. “Yes, I believe things will be quite lucrative too.”

He caresses his horse in understanding, with Chaucer asking for another piece of apple. Ezra smiled and fed him another. Patting his forehead and blowing his breath through Chaucer’s nostrils something the horse enjoys immensely, (which gives the animal a sense of security and calmness.) After finishing the last of the apple, Ezra took his bedroll and laid it comfortably near the fire, although the night was cool and comfortable later in the early morning hours will become colder, no doubt morning dew would be found in the grass, flowers and leaves surrounding the encampment.

As he laid in his make shift bed for the evening, he’s thoughts returned back to the last few weeks, wondering why he always found himself pushing Mr. Larabee. He knew the man was dangerous and without the intervention of the others he’d be dead right now, he chuckled slightly at that thought. What was it about Mr. Larabee, that he was drawn to him? He is not the sort of man he would associate with on any day. Yet, there he found himself in his company. What saddens the gambler is the fact that he didn’t know how to integrate himself with the man. Vin had no problem, and the tracker never found words to be necessary when in the company of their illustrious leader.

Buck, of course has known Chris most of his life and the ladies man could associate with just about any one, Larabee was no different. Even the preacher and the healer had no problem meshing with their leader. Hell even the kid would be able to talk with him, why then was it so hard for him to converse with the man.

Instead, battles of wit would be the only connection both had and sometimes it would lead to him being punched, mind you he deserved every physical altercation he had received. Maybe he was just use to the violence upon his person. Maybe he was use to it, expected it, could it be it was the only form of communication he understood. He shook his head at his melancholy thoughts. He decided to call it a night and hope to be successful at the gaming tables tomorrow.

*******

Back in Four Corners, most every one had already gone to bed. Chris Larabee, was still sitting in the saloon drinking beer when the resident preacher walked in.

“Evening, Brother.” Sanchez greeted, he too could not sleep.

“Josiah.” As Larabee took a sip of beer, “What are you doing still up?”

“Couldn’t sleep, worried about our wayward brother.” Larabee actually smiled at the thought of Sanchez’s concern for the gambler.

“Afraid, he’ll get himself into trouble?”

“Always.” The preacher replied, making Chris laugh outright. Then just as suddenly he sober.

“Why is it we always seem to butt heads?” Without really looking at the preacher and not expecting a reply. The preacher surprised him with one anyway.

“Maybe it’s because you’re both so alike.” This time he receives a scowl from the dark clad gunslinger, which makes the preacher laugh. “Brother, for Ezra it is just as hard to trust as it is for you.” Chris grins and took another sip of his beer.

“Sometimes he pushes me too far and I end up hitting him.” There is regret in he’s eyes, which the preacher is not surprise, but the gambler would be.

“He’s afraid of you.” Larabee looked at Josiah, he never thought the gambler was afraid of anything the way he seems to push people. Sanchez continue, “I don’t mean he fears you, he’s just afraid you’ll hurt him, not physically but more emotionally.”

With a confused looked, “what do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve watched him, and I’ve noticed how he looks at you and Vin. Or Buck and JD, I have no doubt he even watches Nathan and me and wonders what it’s like to have friends.” Chris frowns, “I think Ezra’s been hurt emotionally as a child, those lesson learned can sometimes scar. Those scar stay with you as an adult and you do what you have to, to protect yourself. He keeps us at a distance. I sometimes think that he pushes you, hoping that you will send him on his way. At least that way he feels he won’t be hurt; if he knows that the rest of us agree with you.”

“I never realized he was that complex.”

“For him letting his guard down is dangerous, the longer he stays, the harder it gets for him to want to leave.”

“Any suggestions?” Chris asked.

Sanchez looks at the gunslinger and touches his arm to get his full attention, “it depends on whether you want him to stay.”

Chris looks at the preacher then his beer mug. ‘Do I want him to stay?’ “Josiah, he has gotten us out of some bad situation with just his words. He’s a hell of a shot with those guns of his. And I do trust him to watch our backs. But he is one pain in the ass.” He looks at the preacher again, “but to tell the truth, I can’t help but like him. Is that nuts or what?”

“Nah, we need his wit to keep us on our toes.” Josiah smiled.

“I have no doubt that he is going to drive me insane.” This time the preacher laughs. He’d have to agree on that. “What would you suggest I do?”

“He needs your reassure that he won’t lose out in the end.”

Chris frown he was not the type of man that could express himself in that way. “That won’t be easy for me.”

“I know Chris, but Ezra needs to know that he is a viable member of this team. I don’t think he understands how a man like you could associate with a man like him.”

Chris asks the preacher, “Because he’s a con man?”

Josiah nodded his head, “to him you’re an honest man. How can an honest man associate with a dishonest man? He doesn’t understand. Which makes him more afraid of letting his guard down, afraid this is nothing more than a con he couldn’t see.”

“Damn, how could I’ve miss all that?”

“That’s another thing about that con man, he has a hell of a poker face. He can hide a lot, unless he doesn’t know your watching.”

The dark clad man looked at the ex-preacher, “I wonder if that con man knows how lucky he is?”

Josiah laughed again, “don’t you let him know that, he’ll vent his anger at me next.”

Chris shook his head, but the preacher was right he had to make the gambler understand that he is apart of this team, this group of men that have become apart of his family. ‘Damn, I thought JD was naive.’ He thought.

The rest of the evening both men sat in silence things were now in the open only time will tell if they worked out.

Josiah got up wished Chris a goodnight and left for the church. Shortly thereafter the gunslinger made his way to the boarding house.

*******

As pre-dawn approached, Ezra’s defenses were down. All night his thoughts wonder to the men of Four Corners, which left him mentally exhausted. He fell into a deep sleep leaving him unaware of the impending danger about to befall him. Chaucer sensed movement around them, snorted with ears pulled back, the gambler still sound asleep, became aware of danger too late.

Awaken from his sleep he went for the derringer up his sleeve, but it was already too late. His arm was pulled up as he was hauled from his bedroll. Pulling the sleep from his eyes he looked around to find he was in big trouble.

With an insincere smile on his face he’s response earned him a fist to the stomach, “well gentlemen, do what do I owe this honor?” Gasping for air, left no room for mistakes, he was in very serious trouble. “I take it this isn’t a social call?” Another fist hits him in the stomach this time falling to the ground clutching his abdomen.

The man throwing punches moved aside to let his boss through. Bending down to get a look at the gambler he took his chin, which forced Ezra to look up.

“Well Mr. Standish, we meet again.” Ezra looked at the man, he did not fail to see the scars.

“I’m sorry sir, but have we met?” Still on the ground clutching his sides.

“Yes, yes we have Mr. Standish, a very long time ago. I never gave up hope of receiving retribution.” His smile was maniacal at best, insane at most.

“I take it sir, that our encounter was not fruitful?” The more afraid he was the more sarcastic he became, he knew he was a dead man. But he wasn’t about to show any fear.

The man laughed, “you were always a sarcastic son-of-bitch. I am going to enjoy breaking you.” He looked to his two men next to the gambler, “get him on a horse. Leave everything as is.” He then motions his right hand man, “take five men and head to Purgatory, hand Standish over to Cunningham and tell him to take him to the hacienda. Don’t let him have any rest, have him blindfolded and tied before arriving to the hacienda and thrown into the shed. Make sure he gets plenty of water, but only bread. And tell Big Joe not to let him sleep for too long, but not to touch him.” He looked to his man for understanding, “I’ll be there in two or three days.”

He nodded took five men and the gambler and headed south. Harding and the rest of his men headed further west toward Meadow Creek.

But before leaving he un-tethered Chaucer and let him loose hoping he’d make it back to Four Corners. He wanted to make sure that they knew there man was capture. He was going to give them a surprise they soon won’t forget.

*******

After both groups split up, back in Four Corners Vin was up sitting outside the jail waiting for the day to commence. With feet prompt up and chair tilted back he relaxes a bit.

Chris made his way along the boardwalk headed for the hotel when he saw Vin and shook his head. He always managed to be up before him. Vin tipped his hat over he’s eyes sensing someone approaching. He saw Chris and smiled, “morning Cowboy.”

He smirk, “morning Vin, how about some breakfast?”

Getting up quicker than a jackrabbit, “thought you’d never ask.” Both men walked towards the hotel. After ordering their meal, Buck and JD entered.

“Morning, boys.” The ladies man sits next to Chris with JD on his other side.

“Buck.” The dark clad gunslinger replies.

“Hey, guys.” An enthusiastic JD adds.

“Morning, kid.” Vin replies, Chris just nods his greeting.

Buck sees the waitress approach, “darling’ we’ll have the same.” She nods in understanding and heads to the back of the restaurant.

After breakfast they split up headed in opposite direction. The rest of the day passes with out any problems.

*******

For Ezra however, did not bode well. The riders arrived late evening into Purgatory, Williams; Harding’s right hand man searches for Cunningham. As Cunningham approaches he looks at the fancy dressed man who looks about ready to collapse. “Mr. Williams, I wasn’t expecting you back so early. Has something happened?”

“Change of plans, Mr. Harding wants you to take the gentlemen to the hacienda. Only water and bread to be given and tell Big Joe not to let him have any rest.”

He walked over to the gambler took his bandanna and blindfolded him plus tied his wrist in front. The gambler gave no resistance. Then fresh horses were brought, this time only three new men went with Cunningham. The rest that came in with Williams stayed to rest.

They rode the rest of the night; the horses already knew the way to the hacienda and had no problem with the trail. The gambler almost fell off his horse several times, the lead rider held his reins with the others close by just in case.

They kept him awake, by the time they arrived at the hacienda another pre-dawn came. Ezra was roughly taken from the horse and drag to a shack. He was thrown in and left there. He was exhausted and quickly fell asleep.

After Cunningham’s men placed the gambler in the shack, Big Joe approached them. He was then given instructions on what to do with the gambler. No physical abuse; only not allowed sleeping for more then two hours for the next three days or until Harding returned. Afterwards the men retired to the bunkhouse for rest.

After two hours had passed Big Joe entered the shack and roughly awaken the gambler. Ezra was confused he still had the blindfold and wasn’t sure where he was. Then he was lifted his arms place over his head and placed on a hook. He now stood stretch with his feet on tiptoes.

“Where am I? Who’s there?” Shouted the gambler. Then he felt something touch his sides; it felt like a riding crop. Ezra tense. “Answer me, you miscreant. Where am I? Or are you dumb as well as deaf.” The gambler hoped for some response, but nothing. Just the feel of the riding crop along his back and sides. “Well, if you are going to use it, be done with it.” Still no response, so Ezra merely moved away from the riding crop every time it came near him.

The consent pulling on his wrist was becoming painful. He could feel the ropes breaking skin. He then stopped moving around all together. The riding crop still touching his body, making him grimace at the thought of what would be done to him. After a while he simply fell asleep again. Big Joe unhooked him and threw him on the floor.

After another two hours pass he was again awaken, this time he was given water and bread, while placed again on the hook. After a few minutes the same thing happen again. This time it was the sound of a whip being unrolled but the whip never touching him. After a while sleep took him again. This continued the rest of the day. The men of the hacienda taking turns making sure the gambler did not get enough sleep. He would welcome unconsciousness, but it would not come.

*******

Around this time in Four Corners, everyone was oblivious of the danger one of their own was in. Later that afternoon the noon stage arrived. Buck and JD sitting in front of the jail got up and walked over hoping to see if any new ladies would arrive. To their surprise Judge Travis was the only passenger.

“Well good afternoon Judge, what brings you into town.” Asked Buck.

JD however, promptly replied, “you remember Buck, Ezra went to pick up a package for him to bring back here.”

The Judge looked at both men not sure what they were talking about. “Gentlemen, I’ve come to visit my daughter-in-law and grandson.” Carefully receiving his bags from the coachmen. “What’s this about a package? Has Mr. Standish been speaking on my behalf?” Judge wasn’t sure he wanted to know if the gambler was conning his partners.

Both men looked at each other in puzzlement, “no Judge. Mary received a telegram from you two days ago asking for one of us to ride to Eagle Bend to pick up a package.” Stated Buck.

“I sent no telegram, Mr. Wilmington.” Looking at Buck. Who then turn to JD?

“Go find Chris, tell him we may have trouble.” JD ran off, he knew Vin and Chris hadn’t return from patrol. After saddling his horse he let out.

*******

Just about this time both Vin and Chris came upon a tired and sweating horse. Vin practically jumped off his horse and stopped Chaucer. “Woo, boy,” grabbing the loose reins, checking him for any injuries, Vin looked up to Chris he mirrored he’s worry.

Just then they both looked to see JD riding hard. The young sheriff noticed right off whose horse that was. “Chris, Judge Travis just arrived on the noon stage, he said he didn’t send any telegram,” that was all the kid had to say as they headed back to town.

*******

In Four Corners sitting at their usual table are three protectors waiting for the rest of their teammates. Sitting with them is Judge Travis, after the news of the false telegram; he went over to talk with the telegraph operator. According to Mr. Peterson, the information came after his normal hours, but he is always on call after hours, the message in question was sent urgently, he took down the information from Eagle Bend and because of the urgency looked for his daughter-in-law who was still up and gave her the telegram.

So, now four very worried men waited for Chris to join them.

Chris, Vin and JD rode into town, JD said he’d take care of the horses including Chaucer and meet them at the Saloon. When they went inside Buck stood up but before he could say anything.

“We found Chaucer.” They all became even more worried.

“We going to look for him?” Buck looked intently at his old friend.

Vin looked at Chris, “if we leave now, there should be enough light to find tracks.”

“You have an idea where he might have camp?” Chris asked.

“Yeah, last time we went to Eagle Bend, we found a nice spot near water. I think he’ll head there.” Vin replied.

“All right boys, lets ride.” Buck anticipated and arranged for fresh horses to be ready and packed. Chris knew he wouldn’t have to worry about another thing.

Judge Travis also went with them.

*******

Frank Harding and his men had made it to Bitter Creek, arriving by nightfall. He and his boys herded out around 15 head of cattle, most from one of the larger ranchers. They took in small amounts so as not to alert the authority of possible rustlers. This was just a side job. He worked for a powerful land owner in Mexico, where there main source of revenue was a silver mine located at the hacienda where Ezra would be by now.

The thought of what he would do to the gambler made him anxious to return back to Mexico. The day that con artist enter his life was the day he’d plan of getting retribution. Five years ago Harding robbed a bank or rather was in the process of robbing it when he was stop by Standish. Harding had killed outright a young boy who was with his mother in the bank, while Ezra was in their conducting business. The fancy dress man, who Harding didn’t think dangerous, managed to thwart the hold up. He was arrested.

The gambler testified against him at his trial and he was sentence to hang all because he’d been caught. The surviving gang members that were not captured helped him escape their plan was to start a fire near the jail as a diversion only they couldn’t get him out fast enough and was burned when the fire spread to the jail. Ezra had already left the area and was unaware of the man’s escape. It was the only other time the gambler had used his real name Standish. And now because he’d use his name Harding found out where he was located.

Harding and his men with cattle in tow headed back to Mexico, they would arrive in two days time.

*******

Seven men reached the camping area where the gambler had slept two days ago. And as predicted the tracker read the signs. “Chris, there were at least 20 riders,” the gunslinger remained quiet until the tracker search for more. “No blood, looks like six riders headed south and the rest headed west.” He got up before his friend said anything, “there’s no telling which group took Ezra.”

Chris was quiet for a few moments deciding how to work this, “alright, we’ll split up, Josiah, you and Buck head south.” Then he looked at the kid. “JD you and the Judge head to Eagle Bend find out who sent the telegram.” He saw the sheriff want to protest, but Chris cut him off with a glare, not to question him. “Nathan, Vin and I will head west. We’ll camp here for the night and leave at dawn.” With that the men started unloading for the night. They used the same fire area left by the gambler. The ex-preacher as was his custom said a silent prayer for the wayward con man.

*******

Ezra was awakening again and lead to the dreaded hook, where his jailers taunted him. He remain quiet this time, figured that the man who’d captured him had yet to arrive. The gambler had no doubt that he wanted to inflict whatever pain he could on his person. He still could not remember who the man was. Of course, it could mean when he met the man he was not burn. Ezra recalled him mention that he owed him for the scars. Now how it happened, or why the gentlemen blame him was what worried him.

He couldn’t at the moment recall how long he’d been here much lest the man in question. It was getting quite tiresome. But, until he knew what the man wanted he was at their mercy. So he hung on that hook, until exhaustion would take him. Sometimes he’d be up for four or six-hours, then awaken once again. No doubt these men receive their sleep. They also fed him, but only a few pieces of bread, but plenty of water.

What was the most humiliating part was when he’d have to use the privy, they’d merely brought him a bucket pull his pants down and was force to use it. ‘How humiliating,’ he thought. Blindfolded and wrist still tied he was as he thought before, ‘at their mercy.’

*******

If Ezra could see how beautiful the hacienda was, he would have appreciated his stay, that is, if he had a warm bed and plenty of sleep. The spread was large, there were different areas where flowers grew, trees align the hacienda and the whole area was surrounded with concrete fencing, which made the place look like a fortress.

The owner was an ex-military man from the Spanish Army. After it’s separation from Mexico, he decided to retire here. Of course, the home had other occupants, which he promptly murdered. With the profits of the silver mine he built the hacienda. An older distinguish gentlemen of at least 50 years with dark hair slightly graying and neatly cut, blue eyes, rugged good looks for a man of his years, just shy of six feet. He considered himself an aristocrat; Alejandro de la Villa is a man, who like himself was surrounded by dangerous and ruthless men.

When Harding brought the gambler to his home, at first he was surprise. However, later he became curious, he asked the men why they brought him. The only answer was ‘Harding didn’t say, only that he wanted him here.’ Harding would be returning the following morning. He wondered what the fancy dressed man had done to Harding to warrant such treatment.

*******

At dawn Chris and the others spilt up as agreed, by mid-afternoon, Josiah and Buck had followed their trail to Purgatory. The scuttlebutt was a fancy dressed man arrived with other riders, then blindfolded and rode out with others, but it look like they were headed east outside of town.

When asked if any of the original riders were still in town, they were told they’d rode out that morning headed north? Buck was getting frustrated that no viable information brought the gambler any closer. But at least Ezra was still alive. All they needed to know is why he was taken, and who the kidnappers were.

Both men were not trackers, they tried to follow the trail but could not figure if they were on the right track. It was decided they’d go back to their original campsite and relay the information.

*******

Around this time JD and Judge Travis arrived in Eagle Bend, spoke to the telegraph operator in town. According to the gentlemen, no one had placed a telegram from his office or he’d remember, especially when the Judge hadn’t been there in over a month.

Chris had told them if they hit a snag they were to return back to their camp site and exchange whatever information retrieved and go from their. So both men decided to also return.

******* Luck was not with Chris and his party either. Vin was able to follow the trail, but another spilt occurred. Vin and Nathan went one way and Chris went the other.

Both teams however, could not find any other information, Vin’s trail headed back the way they came through another path, while Chris’ trail seem only to end up back where Vin’s original trail ended. Looks like these men anticipated they’d follow them in search of their missing friend.

They decided to ask any of the outlying ranchers if they saw any large group of riders. Several saw strangers riding in their areas. They also mentioned that it look like they may have lost cattle during the night before. The ranchers didn’t know if that was related or not, Chris decided to head back and meet the others. Hopefully, they had better news.

*******

Ezra had fallen asleep when Harding arrived late afternoon. He headed directly to visit the gambler while his men took care of the cattle and horses. Harding spoke to Big Joe for a progress report on the condition of his captive.

They had followed his instructions to the letter, which pleased him very much. He saw the gambler on the floor in a deep sleep. He had just fallen asleep after keeping him awake for another three hours.

He smiled, “alright...” He turned to Big Joe, “I want you to remove all his clothing, from his jacket to his undergarments. Very carefully, do not wake him up.” He made his way to the door, and then turned. “Joe, leave the blindfold, and this time add the shackles on his ankles.” Big Joe nodded, not sure what his boss was up to, but followed orders.

He approached the gambler, started removing his clothes. The gambler mumbled a bit, but fell back to sleep, and so he continued to undress the man.

Big Joe finished and collected all the clothing including the boots and socks. He left the gambler tied, shackled and asleep and walked out.

*******

Ezra felt cold, after about five hours of uninterrupted sleep, he awoke on his own. His mouth was dry and he felt hungry. He sat up, then listened but he couldn’t hear any breathing so he was alone. He realized that his wrists were still tied but this time behind him. Then he felt his back and noticed that he had no clothing. ‘Now what?’ He thought.

He leaned up against the wall and pushed himself up, when he tried to walk that’s when he noticed the shackles as well, and just shook his head in disgust. He carefully made his way along the wall to determine his surrounding and perhaps find something to cut the ropes binding him. From what he could tell the room was empty except for him and the hook. He thought it pertness to sit back down and rest some more, no telling what these miscreants have plan for him.

He also wondered what the others were doing. If they even realized what had happen to him. He hoped Chris didn’t think he’d run out on him. “Ezra, my good man, I am sure these will be trying times.” He spoke out loud.

*******

After falling asleep again, he was roughly awakened; Ezra found himself sitting on a chair. He was confused, for a moment he wasn’t sure where he was. Then a slap to his countenance reawakens him to his current situation.

“Please refrain from your abuse, sir.” Ezra drawl, sleep still event as he spoke.

“Welcome back, Mr. Standish. And how are we this morning?” Asked the stranger.

“We would be better, if not here at all.” Was the southerner’s reply? Bringing laughter to the stranger.

“Indeed, Mr. Standish.” This time the stranger grabbed his face with a vice, “Mr. Standish, have you finally remembered me?” He paused for a moment, “I realized when last we met my features were more presentable. So, I will give you a clue. Five years ago, in a bank, there was a robbery and a child died.”

Ezra’s head was bowed down when the stranger released his hold on his face. When the man spoke and told him a little about how they met, he brought his head up, “Harding,” was all he said, for the moment. “I thought justice had prevailed and found yourself in the hangman’s noose.”

“Ah yes, it would have if not for my loyal men. And five years later destiny comes full circle.”

The gambler didn’t like the tone of his words so he decided a little redirection. “Why do I find myself, without my apparel?”

“Ah, I will let you know soon enough, for now drink some water.” He motioned to his man and a glass was brought to the gamblers mouth and he began to drink.

After he’d had enough, the gambler decided on a few questions, “If you plan on killing me, why allow me to quench my thirst?”

“No, Mr. Standish, death would be too quick I have something else in mind.”

“Would you care to enlighten me on your plans?”

“At the moment, I wish for my plans to be a surprise. For now it is enough that you are alone with no one to help you nor have any idea of your location, Mr. Standish.”

With that said he heard a chair scrape the floor and movement, a door opened and closed. He was alone in the room again. His arms tied behind the chair and his legs tied to the chairs legs. Ezra’s head hung low; he was at a lost as to what to do. How to get himself out of this mess, he berated himself on depending on the others backup. He thought he’d lost his edge, become soft. If his mother were here she’d be very disappointed on how low he’d sunk.

*******

The regulators of Four Corners met up at the campsite. All the information relayed to Chris. The following morning, JD, Nathan and Judge Travis headed back to town, they would find out more from the telegraph operator. Chris, Buck, Vin and Josiah would head back south towards the location where two of the regulators lost the trail. Chris was hoping Vin would have better luck.

“It looks like they came this way, but they covered their trail real good.” The tracker replied.

“Any indication which way they’d plan on heading,” asked Chris.

“They back tracked too many times, can’t tell for sure. Wish I could figure it out?” The noted disappointment in his voice was evident.

“It’s not your fault Vin, you did what you could,” Josiah looked at the tracker, “something will turn up.” Vin nodded his head grateful for the ex-preachers words.

Buck went over to Chris, “what do we do now?”

The dark clad gunslinger stared out at the open desert before answering the jovial man, he as were the others all worried about the gambler, and not knowing what fate would be in store for their friend.

“We’re at a dead end, we’ll head back to town and hope the others find answers.

*******

Judge Travis headed again to the telegraph office. Mr. Peterson was sending off a telegram for a customer. The Judge waited patiently for the man to finish. Once done, Peterson turns to the Judge.

“Can I help you Judge?” Was the man’s question, he knew what was coming, and all ready knew what to say.

“Eagle Bend said the telegram did not come through them. Any ideas how that could happen?”

He sat down in his chair a moment in thought, “can’t say for sure Judge. The only thing I can think of would be someone cut into the wires and sent it that way. If that’s the case they’d know something about how to send wires.” Judge Travis looked at him it was the same thing the other operator said, nodded his thanks and left the office.

Peterson watched him leave and smiled, things were going as plan. When he first came to this town, it was to start a new life. He was a gambler, but not a very good one. At least not in Standish’s category, he’d begin loosing to him quite heavily. And he owed him more money then he was making in his current position.

Then some men approached him and offered an opportunity to get back at the gambler and in turn make a lot of money, which he agreed. All he had to do was give a report on Standish and how best to get him alone from the others. Once he saw the battle of wits between Larabee and Standish well a plan started forming and suggested a solution, the plan was sound and Peterson guaranteed the con man would be sent. And sure enough the plan worked and now the gambler was no longer a thorn in his side and no one knew about his gambling debt. Standish would never confine in the others with that type of information. As it was they constantly frown on his less then stellar ventures.

The others would never figure out that he was a part of Standish’s disappearance, and in time he would be forgotten. The townspeople could never understand why he was a part of the seven any way. No one would miss him and his gambling debt would be erased.

As Judge Travis left the office he made his way towards the Clarion, JD who had just finish taking care of the horses saw him and ran up to him.

“Judge, did he say anything else?” JD meekly asked.

“Afraid not son, he said the same as the other operator. That someone might have cut into the wires and sent the message. The question now becomes, were they after one of you or did someone want Standish?” Looking at the kid, “son, the man is a con artist, it could be that someone may have wanted revenge.” JD couldn’t believe that the Judge would even think that, after everything Ezra has done the Judge still didn’t trust him.

But he couldn’t voice this to the Judge, “I hope Chris has better luck.” Then he headed to the clinic to talk with Nathan, he had to unload on someone who he hoped would give the gambler the benefit of the doubt.

As JD made his way to the clinic, Nathan was on his way to the saloon, no one needed his services so he’d wait for the others at their usual table.

“Nathan, wait up,” called the sheriff.

“Hey, JD. The Judge find anything?” Nathan inquired as they both headed towards the saloon.

“Just the same thing the other guy told us.” There was a frown on his face that did not go un-noticed.

“What’s wrong?” The healer asked.

“Oh, it’s what Judge Travis said.” Looking at the healer.

“And what did he have to say?”

“That either these people are after us, or they wanted Ezra all along.” He looked up to the healer for some reassurance.

“What ever the reason, you know we won’t give up.”

“I know Nathan, what I don’t understand if they did want Ezra why go through all this, I mean to cut into the telegraph and send a message, how’d they know Chris would send him and not one of us?”

The kid made sense, even the healer didn’t think one of his marks would hold this kind of grudge against the gambler. He smiled at the kid wrapped his arm around him and both continued to the saloon, to wait for the others.

*******

Ezra could not tell how long he’d been imprison, if his friends were even still looking for him, the heat during the day and the nights being cold, the gambler had develop a fever. Making him even weaker and depended on his jailers.

His wrists and ankles were becoming swollen and would only be untied when he fell asleep which was more and more. He would receive soup in addition to the bread and water, which thankfully had herbs to alleviate the fever. Ezra was becoming more depress wondering why they wouldn’t just kill him and be done with it. Harding told him he wanted something else for him, to suffer not for him to die.

Which Ezra said he’d suffered long enough and was ready for him to be killed? Harding laughed and said not yet he still had a surprise for him. Nearly, ten days had pass when he received his surprise.

“Well Standish, I have good news.”

“Really, have you finally decided to send me home or to simply kill me.”

“Neither, I just came to tell you that your friends have found your dead body. Or rather what they assume is your dead body.” He said in a very cheerful tone.

“How will this benefit your cause?” The gambler asked, not really sure he wanted to know the answer.

“Well you see, now that you are dead and buried, you no longer exist.” Was his answer?

“I don’t understand?”

“Simple, you are now a walking corpse. Ezra Standish is dead, therefore you no longer exist.”

“So, what you are saying is now you will kill me, but my friends will not be able to give me a proper burial?” Ezra was confused as to what the man wanted.

“Not at all, now you truly belong to me. You are now a dead man, no one will look for you. In fact, you will now be re-christened with a new name.”

If Ezra did not have the blindfold on, he would have looked at the man with shock. He could not believe the extremes this man was willing to go in order to possess him. “You sir have taken leave of your senses.”

“Hardly Mr. Standish, oh, excuse me you are no longer Mr. Standish, so what do I name you.” He began to think of a new name, when it came to him, he would give the gambler the name of the dead man, ‘let me see what was that,’ he thought. “I know Antonio, that will be your new name. And it will fit with your soon to meet co-workers.”

The gambler became angry, “sir, I beg to differ, my name is Ezra Standish.” But before he could say anything more, Harding hit him, drawing blood from his mouth.

“No sir, your new name will be Antonio, do you hear me!” He yelled to his face. Ezra flinches back at the loud outburst, but would not give in. He again refuses to answer to the new name and again his countenance was punch. Drawing more blood, in his weaken situation he didn’t put much of an argument, losing consciousness.

After Harding composed himself, he left and turned his attention to Big Joe. “When he comes too, will you convince Antonio of the situation?” Big Joe smiled at his boss; he would look forward to inflicting pain to the gambler.

*******

After a week they were still no closer to finding their friend. The Judge had left Four Corners, and said he would return in a month hopefully to receive good news on the whereabouts of the gambler. The longer it took, however, the more worried they became of ever finding him, at least alive. All they could do was wait.

*******

The Dowling farm, around 50 miles outside of Four Corners, Jack and his son Dennis were on their way to town. About every few weeks they rode in for supplies, usually his wife and daughter join them, but at the moment both ladies were working on a quilt for one of there neighbors who would soon give birth to their first child. They wanted to make sure it was ready when the baby was due.

As Jack and his son were on their way, they decided to take the long trail to town, it was such a beautiful day that the extra time on the rode would be welcome. Both father and son were talking about the repairs that needed done and checking their list of items to be purchased, when suddenly Jack looked up as he caught a flash of red along the running creek that’s near their property. He took another look to make sure what he saw were real and not the sun playing tricks. Indeed, their was something hidden in the bushes. He stopped the wagon and gave the reins to his son.

“Dennis, stay here I want to check what that is.” He told his son.

Upon closer inspection, the man gasps at the body that lay before him. It look like a fancy dress man, his face was severely burn, hell there wasn’t much of a face left on the man. He didn’t want to leave the body, the man could have family around this area and should be notified, and with the way the man dress maybe someone would recognize him.

He returned to the wagon and told his son what he’d found, Dennis was 15 years old and the hard life of farming made him strong and muscular his father would require his help, but even with the harsh life they’d led, he told his son not to approach the body until he’d covered it. Jack refused to allow his son to see what a man was capable of inflicting on another.

Once wrapped Jack called to his son and both lifted the body and placed it on their buckboard. They would let the protectors of Four Corners deal with informing the man’s family. Dowling, met on occasion some of the regulators, knew their were seven but that was all, since he only traveled every few weeks, he didn’t know them fairly well. Except the preacher and the healer both offend spent time checking to see that everyone in their area of protection was well. And the fact that one of their neighbors would soon be delivering a baby had the healer visiting on a regular bases.

*******

In front of the jail, sat a very quiet JD, he seemed the most affected by the mysterious disappearance of their friend. But really all six men were affected the kid was just the only one who couldn’t hide it. Buck walked over and sat with the kid.

“JD, want to go over for some lunch?”

“Thanks Buck, but I’m not very hungry.” The gunslinger nodded his head in understanding. They both looked when a wagon came through town headed in their direction, they stood together and walked over to the two men. Buck recognized the father and son, and then noticed the blanket.

“Afternoon, Mr. Dowling, what happen?” Indicating the blanket in the back.

“We found a body, badly burned, couldn’t tell who it might be, hoped you’d have better luck. Didn’t want to leave him out their, thought he could use a decent burial.” Jack got off his wagon and Buck and JD made their way to the back of the wagon. “Ah, sheriff, I know your one of the protectors and all, but this body is very bad, don’t want you to have to see it in this condition.”

JD looked at Buck, “why don’t you go distract Dennis, no sense in him having to see this.” Still looking at Buck and then the body, he thought he would rather not have to see a burned body.

When Buck pulled the blanket aside, he gasp making JD and Dennis both look at him, ‘it must be bad,’ thought JD. Buck holding back the bile that wanted to come he looked at the kid wondering how he was going to take this.

“JD, go find Nathan and Josiah tell them we have a burn body,” JD hesitated a moment, “go on Kid.” When JD raced off to find help, Jack looked at the gunslinger.

“You know him?” Buck merely nodded, then looked over to Dennis.

“Son, do you know who Chris Larabee is?” Dennis nodded his head, “he’s in the saloon will you ask him to come?” The boy nodded again and raced off.

Chris and Vin came out of the saloon, JD was still getting Josiah when they walked over to the wagon the look on Buck’s face, put a knot on both their stomach.

“What’s wrong Buck?”

“I think its Ezra.” The look of dread was evident in all their faces Chris walked over to the body and uncovered it. If not for the clothing no one would know the identity of the body. There was no room for error.

The look of sorrow that they had failed their friend overwhelm them all, heavy footfalls could be heard, Chris turnaround to see Josiah, Nathan and JD coming down the boardwalk. He worried more about JD; he would be hardest hit. When the ex-preacher looked into the eyes of Chris Larabee, there was no doubt whose body had been found. He walked over pulled the blanket that had been covered again and he now gasp.

“Oh Lord, no.”

JD pushed past Buck, he wanted to see who it was but the jovial man held him back and whispered in his ear, “JD, it’s Ezra,” which froze him, “he wouldn’t want you to see him like this.” He relaxes and looks at his friend, tears filled his eyes as were in his own.

The townspeople saw the gathering of the seven and wondered what drew them all out. They had heard about the gamblers disappearance, most people thought he’d just decided to move on, but the body and the looks on the six men told them otherwise.

Josiah wrapped the body tenderly and began to pull the body off the wagon, Nathan and Buck helped carry their friend to the undertakers. JD couldn’t say a word, he was too stun, he was certain that they would find Ezra alive and well and ready for more mischief, but now reality sunk in, the gambler his friend was dead. He couldn’t believe it, how could this have happen.

Chris turns to Dowling, “Mr. Dowling, where exactly did you find him?”

“Just east of my ranch along the creek. I had no idea who he was, I should have realized the moment I saw the clothing, I’d heard of the fancy dress man, but never got the chance to meet him. I am truly sorry.”

When JD heard Mr. Dowling refer to his friend as ‘the fancy dress man’ that made him angry, “his name was Ezra Standish!” He yelled. Chris held him and pulled him away from Dowling.

“JD why don’t you and Vin ride out and see if you can find out anything, and then come back.” JD was about to protest when Vin pulled on his arm guiding him to the livery stables, Chris made his way to the undertakers, tipping his hat to Dowling.

Dowling now wishing it wasn’t him who brought these men such bad news.

*******

Ezra was buried the following day, all his friends attended including Mary, Miss Nettie and Casey. Josiah recited the eulogy and his coffin was later intern, funny the day before was clear and sunny, now a shroud of darkness enveloped the town and rain came pouring down. It seem rain always was present at funerals. The men headed for the saloon all except Josiah he made his way back to the church.

By the time he reach his sanctuary his heart was so heavy with an ache the ex-preacher was surprise. He kneeled before God’s alter and prayed silently hoping for some answers. He was overwhelmed with emotions he could no longer control and wept. Even at his father’s funeral he could not weep, now it felt as if he would never be able to stop. How was it possible for this man to have welded his way into his heart that he didn’t even realized he was beginning to feel more fatherly towards the con man. After the tears finished he went to the back room and fell asleep.

*******

As promised Big Joe kept at it with the gambler, telling over and over of his new identity, beating him every time he refused to accept. Finally, he could not take any more and gave in. Consumed by pain and fear, took it’s toll. The fact that his friends believed him dead gave him no illusion of ever being rescued. So, after two weeks, of consent badgering not to mention beating, the gambler gave in. He decided that he would live the con and hope to survive.

Harding came into the small room. It was blistering inside; Standish was un-cleaned and sweating having never allowed bathing since his capture. The man sat in the chair in front of the con man.

“Well Antonio, I hear you’ve come to your senses.” He waited for the gambler to lift his head. “What is your name.”

Ezra could feel his countenance release the tears, which were being absorbed by the blindfold, but he sat up straight and replied, “My name is Antonio,” was his answer.

“Very good,” he looked over to Big Joe waiting for instruction. “Joe please take Antonio and see that he gets a warm bath, be sure to remove the ropes, shackles and blindfold. Then give him appropriate clothing for his new job, also give him food, water and rest.” Looking at the gambler before leaving the room, “for tomorrow he starts his new life.”

Then he directed his question to the gambler again, “what is your name?”

The gambler turn his head to the direction of the voice, “Antonio, sir.”

“Excellent!” And he walked out the door.

Big Joe approached the gambler and began uniting his wrists from behind the chair. Then he untied his legs. He removed the blindfold, which Ezra began to try and focus on his new surroundings. The big man lifted the thin gambler and supported him as they both made their way towards the door. When Joe opened the door the rush of bright light hit the gambler with full force and he almost lost his balance burring himself into the big man to avoid the direct sun light.

He was use to the darkness that the sudden awaken of light made him nauseous and unsteady. Once he managed to regain his footing, the big man helped him towards his warm bath. He allowed him half an hour to soak and clean himself. Then he was given clothing, which Ezra took and put on. He noticed that he would be dress like all the other peasants that worked in the mine. ‘So that was his new life,’ he thought.

Ezra didn’t fight, or argue. He merely did as he was told, then he was directed to the campground where the other workers lived and then he was introduce to his new brother Diego. (He was the dead man’s brother and now he would be the con man’s brother.)

Ezra couldn’t believe the length Harding was going too. Looking at the man in front of him he wish he could say something, how sorry he’d lost his brother. But he was tired, hungry and hurting. Diego was given medical supplies to clean the gamblers cuts and bruises, so he began to administer to the wounds. Food and water were brought to the gambler and grabbed them from the man; Diego motion for him to slow down, or he’d lose all the food when he’d become sick.

After a good meal his wounds looked at, he succumbed to sleep. Diego watch him and smiled, he would try to look after this man, he wasn’t able to protect his brother Antonio, but he would do his best to help the stranger who was given to him as a gift.

*******

Life continued as life always does, weeks had turned into months and for the gambler his new situation became better with the help of his newfound family. He didn’t feel all alone anymore. The void of his missing friends was filled with the men he shared the encampment. But when left alone too long with his thoughts, they would stray to another life he thought in terms of a dream then a reality. The ache in his heart would on occasion waver.

*******

JD was making his way through town headed for the cemetery to wish Ezra a good morning and leave fresh flowers. The others didn’t think this was strange. For JD putting flowers on a friend’s grave became a necessity for him. This is how the kid dealt with the lost of the gambler, is how Josiah explained it to Buck.

So, with flowers in hand and a sprint in his walk, he marched on. Buck spotted him on his morning walk and decided to tag along.

“Morning JD,” the gunslinger called out.

“Morning Buck,” with a wide smile on his face. “You going to visit Ezra this morning?” JD knew that for some reason the gunslinger was uncomfortable about the whole situation, his visiting the gravesite and talking to Ezra. So, looking at his friend’s countenance, he decided to get this out in the open. “Buck, I know you don’t understand, why I come out here every morning.” The gunslinger averted his eyes from the kid.

“Kid, Ezra’s dead, I’m just worried about you.”

“I know Buck, but that’s no reason why I can’t visit with him. To me this is like playing a joke on Ezra.” This made Buck even more worried.

“What you mean Kid?”

“Well you know how Ezra hated getting up early mornings,” the gunslinger nodded his head. “Well this is my way of getting back at Ezra for not being able to get up mornings.” Now Buck was really worried and confused. “Buck! Now he can’t complain.” JD started laughing at Buck’s grin.

“Kid, that’s down right mean.”

“I know Buck, but Ezra would understand, he had a wicked sense of humor.” Both men started laughing even harder.

“You know what Kid, he did at that. How about I join you and I can tell him of all my latest conquest.” This time JD had a serious look, “what!”

“Now Buck that really is down right mean.” Then he started laughing again, and with a slap to the kid’s head they both continued to their friends resting place. Over by the church the ex-preacher was watching both men. He knew how worried Buck was about the kid, but he understood why JD was compelled to visit Ezra, he felt that because the gambler died alone, he wanted to make sure that the man of chance knew that his friends would always be near him in their hearts. That was the kid for you, which the others would never want him to change.

*******

Every day was the same, two months had pass and the revenue from the silver mine had increase. Antonio, aka Ezra, was adept for invention. With a little finesse, and help from his compadres, he developed mining tools to help him and the others extricate more silver then pass endeavors, which pleased the owner Senor de la Villa, but angered Harding. He hated to see any happiness in the gamblers eyes and whenever this happened, he’d make sure to punish him.

He would send him back to the small shack where he would be humiliated and belittled by Harding, taking the glint from the card sharp eyes. He’d keep him there for one or two days and when returned to the encampment the others could see the pain in those green eyes the others so admired. His surrogated brother Diego would do what ever it took to comfort the gambler by telling him of his home, family and his brother. This would help him, but at the same time he would take the memories of his brother to heart and he would integrate himself more as Antonio. He’d use the memories to forget his own pain, by forgetting who he was, the man Harding detested with a passion.

What was even more interesting was Ezra’s adaptability to speak the language. Turns out that when the con man was a young boy, he and his mother Maude had lived in Argentina for nearly three years.

She had married a nobleman, who had a title and nothing more with her ability to make money, so to speak, she was able to regain his finances, although this was the longest mother and son spent time in one location they didn’t live together, he was shipped to a boarding school with other children of noble blood and that’s where he learn the language.

Unfortunately, after the so-called nobleman regained his finances, he sent Maude packing and married his mistress. That was when Maude decided never to trust again and made sure her son did the same. Learning Spanish however was the best thing that ever happens, as all the labor workers at the encampment only spoke Spanish. About the only time he spoke English was when he had to deal with Harding, which for the con man became less and less, which was find with him.

(Conversations between Antonio and Diego and the other workers, happily translated with the use of a universal translator.)

He was in an Indian Village; he wasn’t sure how he got there. The first explosion hit and everyone scattered, the children were running everywhere all of them scared, they were calling his name, but he couldn’t hear the sound of their voices. “Noooo,” sweating and breathing hard Antonio woke from his sleep, his brother Diego quickly got out of his bed and went to his brother. He sat next to him and looked at the gambler.

“The dream again?” A slight nod, “why won’t you tell me it.” Antonio looked at his older brother taking comfort that he was not alone.

“I wish I could dear brother, but when I wake it is gone.” Then looking at his older brother he asks, “perhaps it is the village where we grew up?” Diego is a little uncomfortable when this man talks about their past. He knows that the stranger has been tortured and given the name of his brother as part of that torture, but he worries that this man has come to believe he is actually his younger brother Antonio. “Describe it to me what happens?” The gambler relaxes and looks to his brother, “there are explosions everywhere, children are running, I think they are calling for me, but I am not there.” He looks at him again, “I think I have runaway. There are also white men, but I think they are helping us, do you remember any of this?” He looks at his young friend not sure how to reassure him or even if he should tell him the truth, that he is not his real brother.

“No, but perhaps it is not our village,” the gambler looks confused. “There was a time when you left our village to stay with a cousin of ours,” smiling he continues. “You see there was a young woman you had your eye on and you wished to marry her. But, then we were to meet later at the village of another cousin and that is where we were caught taken as cattle and brought here.” This part had happen but, of course to his brother Antonio.

“Is that where the explosions happened?”

“That I don’t know, you never told me what happen at the other village. But the sadness in your eyes told me that the young lady did not consent to marry you.”

The gambler looked at his brother not sure if he was telling him everything. There seem to be something missing, something he could not forgive himself. Was he a coward? Why did he feel as though he’d abandoned the people of the village or the white men who came to help his people? Maybe one of those explosions hit him and he could not remember all that had happened.

“Antonio?” He could tell he was thinking about the dream, “you are not a coward, if that is what you are thinking?”

“How do you know? I cannot even remember clearly what happen, or why I was not there. I feel as though I let those people down, betrayed them, and yet I can not even remember the events.”

“Antonio, you are my brother, and I know you are a good man, and a very courageous one as well. I do not understand why you are having those dreams, but I can tell you that by doing all that senor Harding asks of you, you have protected us.” Turning the gamblers chin to face him, “I know it has not been easy for you, but we are alive because of you. You are a brave man Antonio. You are our protector.” Ezra nods his head in understanding and both men return to their sleep.

*******

Four months have now passed and more and more cattle have gone missing. At first ranchers were missing maybe one or two, the thieves being subtle hoping not to cause notice. But they have become boulder and now the ranchers have become furious contacting the seven protectors of Four Corners, bringing attention to Judge Travis a possible cattle ring of thieves that have hit other neighboring states. Even the military has taken an interest of these rustlers.

Mary entered the saloon searching and finding Chris Larabee at his usual table. “Chris,” he turns to look at the young widow, ‘she looks so beautiful in that pale blue dress.’ His thoughts quickly disappear he doesn’t wish to go down that road. “I just receive this telegram from Judge Travis, he’ll be arriving in tomorrows stage with news on the cattle rustlers.”

He takes the telegram, remembering for a moment another such message, which caused the death of a friend. The pain is evident for a brief moment and then gone. “Thank you Mary.” He gets up and walks over to the jail; JD should be there.

“Hey Chris,” he can tell troubles coming just by looking at his blue eyes. “I’ll get the others.” Chris smiles he’s been hanging around Vin way too much.

After a few minutes the jail is filled with the six protectors, just the thought of that causes him to grimace, he still hasn’t gotten over the death of Ezra.

“All right, just got a wire from Judge Travis, he’s got news about the rustlers and he’ll be here in tomorrows stage. We may have trouble coming, so I want us to split up in teams and head out, but I want every one back in town by tonight and no heroics out there. Just ask around if they’ve seen any strangers and then head back.” He looked at everyone making sure they all understood.

*******

The next day, the six men waited for the noon stage, their search around the surrounding areas was not as fruitful as they’d hope. No strangers lurking about, but still there were ranchers who were still losing cattle. The trails were well covered making the tracker feel useless. As the stage pulled in and stopped, Judge Travis and another gentlemen depart the stage.

“Afternoon boys, Chris.” He looked at the leader of these men, “I’d like you to meet Captain Bartholomew Henderson.” Chris shook the man’s hand, but he could hear Buck and JD smirk no doubt at the man’s name. He turned to glare at them.

“Captain. Has this become a military problem?”

“In a way Mr. Larabee, it has.” Chris motions them over to the saloon so they could talk.

Once there the Captain continued, “we have reason to believe that the cattle that has been stolen from these ranchers as well as the ranchers in other states are the same.” Pausing for a moment, “we have reason to believe we know who is behind this gang of thieves unfortunately we lack proof.” They all remain quiet waiting for the Captain to continue.

“He is an ex-officer of the military, I found out also that he use to be a bank robber as well, he gain his expertise through the war when he was ask to do the same against the confederacy’s own gold shipment. The reason we can’t prove it’s him, is that he was sentence to hang when some gambler managed to stop him after he killed a child.” At this they all looked at one another unsure at what to think. The Judge caught the looks too, but thought it would be too much of a coincidence.

“Do you know who this gambler might be?” The dark clad gunslinger asked.

The captain was surprise by there question, “no I don’t know, the important issue here is Mr. Frank Harding, he is the man we’re after.”

Chris would have exploded, but felt Josiah’s hand on his arm, which made him re-think about shooting this man. So, the ex-preacher continued the conversation.

“What makes you think this is the same man, if you believe he was hanged?”

At this the Captain looked a little uncomfortable, “gentlemen, I am ashamed at what I will have to tell you.” He paused a moment then continued, “it turns out that this Harding has been supply the military with beef at a lower rate than most of the cattle ranchers. So, he has become our main source of supplier, one of my lieutenants recognized him, well I should say almost didn’t recognize him.” Looks of confusion on their faces, “Harding doesn’t do the actual dealings but does accompany his men, my lieutenant noticed him because half his face is burned.” This made the others even more apprehensive. “But he did manage to recognize him, at first he wasn’t sure, because as I said he was sentence to hang, then when he checked his background, he found out that there was a fire in the jail where he was kept, they found a body but were unsure of the identity. He was supposed to be the only prisoner inside, so they thought it was him now we believe the dead body may have been a decoy. Who would look for a dead man.”

“Oh my god,” gasp JD. The others thought the same, ‘who would look for a dead man’ rang in there ears.

“Judge we have to find out who that gambler was, is there anyway of finding out?”

“That could be a problem, that was nearly five years ago, there might not be any records.”

He knew what Chris and the others were thinking, “Chris the chances that Mr. Standish could be alive,” he left it unspoken.

“Judge, we have to try,” the judge nodded and headed for the telegraph office.

An unspoken hope resided in each of there hearts.

After the Judge sent the wire, the operator told him he should get a message tomorrow. Then he returns to the hotel and checks in. The travel and the unexpected news exhausted him, JD showed the Captain to his room, the rest of the day was quiet no one spoke of what was said.

The following day was exhausting, waiting for the wire was rattling their nerves, Chris was the only one missing, and even Vin wasn’t sure where he’d gone off. Everyone was waiting on the wire in the saloon.

At the telegraph office, a wire message was coming in, each letter tapped out and written out on paper, once finish the operator read it, “shit,” he gasp and read out load what the message said, “inquiring on witness, Ezra Standish.” Was all it said, he then crumpled the paper and threw it away then started to rewrite the telegram, he failed to notice the figure behind him.

The click of a gun however caught his attention. Then the sound of the cold voice near his ear sent a cold chill up his spine.

“Why don’t you hand me that telegram?” The man could of jump out of his skin, his hand was shaking, he was a dead man for sure. But he did as was ask and hand the telegram to the dark clad gunslinger. He read it, then lifted the operator off his seat and the cold stare from his eyes, made him wish he were in hell, rather than standing in front of this man. “You’re coming with me.” He walked him or rather dragged him over to the saloon.

The irate gunslinger sat him roughly next to his friends; the judge was surprise. “What is the meaning of this Mr. Larabee?” He looked over at the Judge then back at the operator, handing him the telegram. The Judge read it, “oh my god.”

“What the hell is going on Chris,” exclaimed Buck, he was sure he wasn’t going to like the answer, just by the look on his friend’s face. There would be hell to pay.

“It seems Mr. Peterson, is a spy.” He stated then he leaned looking right into his eyes, “you set up Ezra, why?” He tried to find his voice but nothing would come out. Chris stood up and continued, “Peterson, wasn’t going to show us that telegram, Ezra was the gambler that caught Harding and testified against him, it was probably the only other time Ezra actually used his real name.” The Judge showed the others the telegram. “How did you know I’d send Ezra to Eagle Bend.”

Peterson was loosing it, he knew he was a dead man, so he got cocky, thought he was real smart on how it was his plan to get back at the gambler. He smiled, the gunslinger wanted to wipe that smile off his face, but held back.

“Oh, that was the easy part, you and he kept at each other. It was no secret how you two fought.” Chris would have blown up but a look from Buck held him back, it said ‘wait lets hear him out’ so again he held back. “I was approached by some men of Harding’s they knew I was in debt to Standish, a lot in debt. But the man was patient; every time I saw him it was a reminder, that I owed that bastard money. He looked so smug, the way he wears his cloths that fancy walk of his thinks he’s better then me.”

He looks at the gunslinger forgetting his fear, “he’s nothing but trash, a two bit con man. So, I knew how to get him out of town, there was no action here no one to gamble with, I was surprise he didn’t leave sooner, so I sent that telegram, for an important package to be pick-up at Eagle Bend. If anything he would have volunteer for the job or you would have decided he should go either way he’d be alone, no back up nothing.” Josiah about jumped; Nathan could tell the ex-preacher was about ready to rip this man apart.

Judge Travis, the ever-present law, stood up, “sir, you are here by under arrest for tampering with the government telegraph service.” He motion over to JD, he was about to stand up when the man seem not to hear at all and continued.

“But I heard what their doing to Standish...” they all heard that remark and decided not to stop him from talking, “they say Standish lost his mind,” he laughed, Chris would have ripped his head off, if not for the fact he had to restrain by Vin from doing it, Peterson just pulled back. “Doesn’t remember who he is, or so they say. Seems they tortured him.” That was it, Nathan had enough and attacked the man, hitting and beating him. He would have continued if not for Josiah and Chris’ interference.

It was Buck who grabs the operator before anything else happened and pulled him towards him, “for your sake you had better tell us where he is or I’ll let Nathan finish what he started.”

The man held nothing but fear in his eyes, “I don’t... know... I swear.”

Still gripped by Wilmington, “how do you keep in touch with your contact.” By this time Nathan had calm down and Chris and Josiah released him all waiting... Buck still holding the man shook hard to coax him to continue.

“There’s a pole... no one uses,” now gasping, “near Purgatory... he’ll be there tomorrow waiting for information from me about the militaries involvement.” Buck finally released him. He looked at Larabee; the look on his countenance told him he had a plan.

He had a sinister smile on his face which made Peterson grimace, “Buck, JD take our friend here and put him in a cell, tomorrow he’s going to send a special wire.” His eyes were now ice cold. Buck smiled knowing they would be getting their own retribution soon.

When Buck and JD left with Peterson, the others sat down, all appeared emotionally drain Josiah couldn’t take it, he covered his face with both his hands, tears stream down his eyes, but you couldn’t tell. But his friends could feel his pain; they all felt the same. They’d buried him nearly five months ago, all this time he was a prisoner and no one knew, Chris looked at the big ex-preacher and his own heart broke to see such a strong man, near tears. He places his hands on his shoulders.

“We’ll get him back Josiah, you have my word, no matter what, and we’ll get him back. And heaven help Harding for all the pain he’s inflicted on Ezra, I promise he won’t get away.”

The Captain wanted to say something, but held back when he saw the look on the man in black. He looked like death himself. He thought he’d face fear in battle before, but nothing like this, he was glad he didn’t say anything.

Josiah composed himself after a few minutes, his eyes red and watery. “How do we help...” his voice broke for a moment, “our wayward brother.”

Just then Wilmington and Dunne returned, “tomorrow we’ll have Peterson send a telegram to meet with his contact in Purgatory, a message that things have gotten out of hand and that he needs to meet him with the information. Then we’ll coax the information from his contact, so there are no misunderstanding.” The look on his face did not match his calm voice.

“Oh, I’m going to enjoy meeting this man,” replied Buck, sending a cold chill down the spine of Judge Travis and the Captain. ‘Guest he’s been hanging around Larabee for a long time.’ Thought Travis.

*******

After the telegram was sent all except JD and Buck left for Purgatory. Chris and the others would wait in town until the meet took place, which would be later that evening. Buck, JD and Peterson rode in, all three dismounted and they allowed the telegraph operator to go in first, Buck gave him fair warning not to try anything or he was dead.

Peterson went up to the bar to meet with Cunningham, Cunningham looked at the man beside him, “so what’s so important you want to meet in person?” Just then a gun was placed at his back.

“Why don’t we take this conversation outside.” Cunningham looked at the man in black and knew exactly who he was; he looked over at Peterson and saw the fear of god himself on his face.

“I’m not alone here.” He said not causing any fear in Larabee.

“Neither am I. Now move.” All three men existed no one the wiser, Cunningham lied, and Harding didn’t think he’d need any more men to get information from the operator, when no one knew he was involved.

Horses at the ready all eight men rode out of town. When they reached the border, Judge Travis, Captain Henderson and several soldiers met them. Chris and Buck got off their horses and pulled Cunningham off his, “all right mister we can do this the easy way or what I like to call the fun way.” Wilmington had a way with people.

“What do you want...” as he looked around, he didn’t see any sympathy anywhere, “the army ain’t got no right to take me.”

Dusting the man off with his hand Buck continued, “oh, them, you don’t got to worry about them boys. There the good guys, they’ll make sure after we’re through with you they’ll give you a decedent burial.”

One look from Larabee told him he’d better cooperates.

“All right, what’d you want to know.”

Chris approached the man who was about the same size and build as the gunslinger, but not as confident as the man in black. “Where’s Standish?”

The man’s face turn pale right before their eyes, they knew.

“He’s at the hacienda, in Mexico.”

The dark clad leader smiled at the man, malevolence written on that expression.

“Your going to show us exactly where that is aren’t you,” he nodded his head.

The Captain spoke then, “Mr. Larabee, if your man is in Mexico, there is no way we can assist you, you’ll have to get him out yourself.”

Chris turns to face the man, “don’t worry Captain, if there’s anything left of Harding we’ll bring it back.” He threw Cunnigham back to Buck, and the three got on their horses, Chris placed his black hat on, he turn again to the Captain. “You keep Peterson with you we’re taking this one with us.” Then he looked at the wagon the Captain brought with him and rode his horse next to the side, “mind if I borrow some of that explosive stuff.” The Captain looked at the Judge who nodded with approval.

“Sure, Mr. Larabee.”

“Ez...” he was about to say, the gambler was their explosive expert. “JD,” the kid walked his horse over to him as Chris got off his horse again, “take these bags, we’re going to need a very big diversion.” Even the kid smiled, he was looking forward to getting a little ‘old testament,’ something Nathan and Josiah always seem to enjoy doing. They took three powder bags of TNT.

After they took what was needed, all seven men rode out. Judge Travis watched them go, he knew they’d return, but hoped the seventh would be with them.

*******

At the Hacienda, senor de la Villa has become concern about the rumors of seven American’s that have been looking into the missing cattle that have been making their way to his home. The last thing he wants is any complications. In his study working his various business ventures, most of which take place in America, there is a knock at his door.

“Enter,” knowing who it will be. “Hello, my friend,” addressing Harding and quickly motioning for him to sit.

“You wanted to see me Senor.”

“Yes, I have been hearing disturbing rumors about trouble in America.”

“What kind of trouble?” He inquires.

“About seven lawmen, that have been asking questions about possible cattle thieves. I fear that if the American government find out that I have been selling to them stolen vaca’s...” he stands up walks around his desk, “you can understand, I can not afford to make enemies with that country.” He sits at the edge of his desk waiting for Harding to give him an appropriate answer.

“Senor, I understand your concern, but I have the situation in control. You see I have one of their men, if they get too close, then I will let them know his life will be forfeited if they persist on investigating.”

Alejandro de la Villa was surprise, “you have one of their men, why wasn’t I informed about this and who is this man?”

“He is the one we call Antonio.” This was quite a shock; he didn’t realize how far he’d go to insure their secret.

“All this time I thought you had a personal vendetta on this man. Now I find out he is a lawman. You had better pray this does not come back to me.”

“Again Senor I have the situation under control.” de la Villa looks at him not sure if he can trust him any longer, then motions for him to leave. As he leaves the side door is open and another man comes in.

Most of the gringos call him Big Joe, “Jose, I want you to keep an eye on Senor Harding, I have a feeling he can no longer be trusted.”

“Si’ Senor,” replies Big Joe as he walks out the front door.

*******

Leaving the hacienda, gave him a feeling that Senor de la Villa, has not approved of his plans for the lawman. ‘It’s been a while, but it will be good to reacquaint myself with Standish,’ he thought.

“Williams!” He shouted.

“Yes, sir.”

“I want you to bring Standish to the shack.”

“Sir, he’s in the mine,” Harding looked at him with a stare Chris Larabee would be proud of, “yes, sir.” He ran out to the mine to find the gambler.

*******

Up at the mine, the labor workers were starting to open a new entrance. Antonio had discovered he had an affinity for explosives. Working with his brother Diego they had laid a small amount of TNT inside the mine. They were getting ready to set the fuse when both men heard shouting at the mines opening.

Both men ran outside, hearing their names called out. Diego saw Williams and standing beside him stood Big Joe, he felt his stomach lurch. He looked over to his brother Antonio and knew he felt the same. Antonio put down the equipment looked at his brother gave him a brief smile and followed the two men down towards the dreaded shack.

*******

Antonio was shoved into the shack; inside Harding was waiting for him. Big Joe sat him down on a chair in front of Harding.

“All right Standish, I want to know what Larabee will be planning?” He asked. Antonio however, did not understand what he was asking. He fidget in the chair then looked over to Big Joe for translation. Which he did, however Harding was not pleased? “Stop playing with me Standish. You know damn well what I’m talking about...” he grabs the gambler forcing him against the wall, trying to get a response. “Tell me what you know!” He shouted, but the prisoner said nothing.

Harding released the confused gambler, who could not remember his own name, let alone what his jailer wanted. So, the irate Harding motion to Williams, he in turn starting to beat on the gambler. Big Joe held his arms back while the other beat him, hitting the stomach, ribs, then starting on his jaw, alternating. Standish was bleeding from his mouth, above his eyes, he already was covered with bruises and his ribs felt like they were on fire.

But they weren’t finish, they stopped a moment long enough for Harding to ask again...

“Tell me Standish! Or I’ll let them beat you senseless.” The gambler lifted his head looking at Harding, his green orbs dull and glazed could not answer. Standish not only could not remember his own name but could not remember Larabee or any of the other men. Williams traded places with Big Joe, and continued beating the con man until he lost consciousness. Williams dropped the man to the ground.

Harding looked at him in disgust. He looked to his right hand man, “kill him, he’s of no use to me.” With that he left the shack.

Williams pulled out his gun, but was stopped by Big Joe, “I will take care of him.” He looked at the big man and shrugged his shoulders and he too left the shack. He then heard two gunshots, then silence. Back at the mine the others heard the shots Diego clutched his chest, for the second time he’d lost a brother.

*******

Chris and the others were on their way further into Mexico. After leaving Four Corners, it was now three days after they found out Ezra was very much alive. Traveling only during the day light hours and carrying explosives, they reached the hacienda where Cunnigham told them Standish was being held. The six men took positions along the ridge above a bluff overlooking the home of de la Villa.

“See anything Vin?” Both Chris and the laconic tracker who had his spyglass were at the bluffs edge.

“I see where the mind is, there are a lot of workers, but I can’t make out where Ezra’s at.” Continuing to look around the area. He spots a large man walking behind a small shack carry over his shoulder an either unconscious or dead man. “Chris, take a look over by that shack.” Chris took the spyglass, looking at the direction the tracker indicated, he swore. The dark clad man returned the spyglass; Vin continued to survey the area looking for any weakness.

After a moment Vin looked at his friend, “we can set the explosives along the outer walls, looks like we’ll have to double the sticks of dynamite, those walls look pretty strong.”

“You think you can shoot the charges from here?”

“Not from here, but there’s a place just below us that’ll hide me, I can do it from there.” Vin replied.

Chris started formulating a plan. Returning to their campground, the gunslinger proceeded to tell his men instructions.

“All right listen up. Buck, Vin and me will head down to the ranch after dark. We’re going to set charges along the premiered of the walls. Come first light Vin and Josiah will position themselves below us about 100 feet from the ranch, from their you’ll start firing at the dynamite giving the rest of us cover, Vin will shoot the doors first then both of you will continue shooting the outer walls. In the confusion the rest of us will head in. Make sure you have enough ammo, once we have it secure we’ll look for Ezra.” Looking over at their prisoner. “You better be right about those twenty men.”

“Yeah, Harding has at least sixteen men in their with him, the rest are Senor de la Villa’s including him. There are also at least ten men working in the mine. There not likely to give you any trouble, seeing as how there slave labor.” Smirking at his last remark and receiving a glare from Larabee made him regret saying it.

*******

Per Senor de la Villa’s instructions Big Joe did not kill the gambler, but took him back to the other prisoners and left him in Diego’s care. Telling him he’d better keep him hidden until their patron gets rid of Harding. So, with the help of the other labor workers they laid Ezra hidden while administering to his wounds. But they could tell he needed a Doctor, his injuries and cuts were bad. Diego had tears in his eyes looking at the severity of the wounds. Every time he touch an injury the gambler moan.

“Estas bien Antonio, estas bien.” Repeated the weeping Diego.

During Ezra’s delirium, he started talking in English again, “mother, are you going to leave me again? Please mother I don’t want to stay with them. He hurts me.” He said this very quietly, in actuality, he never told his mother that this particular uncle beat him; he didn’t want her to worry.

The pain was giving him trouble breathing, he became exhausted and succumbed to darkness once again. Diego remained with him all night hoping for a miracle.

*******

During the night Chris and the others start setting the explosives per his instruction. The next morning just before dawn, the first explosion was heard, the men didn’t respond until the second and the third rocked the hacienda as well as the bunkhouses. By the time they came out Chris, Buck, Nathan and JD were inside the ranch, with sticks of dynamite throwing them at the inside building, explosion were everywhere, shouts of the men heard everywhere. Those that had there guns drawn where easily dispatched, the whole thing took less than half an hour; those that were still alive where rounded up.

Alejandro de la Villa was furious at these gringos invading his home and taking him prisoner. “What is the meaning of this, you have no right to be here.” He shouted at the man in black gathering him to be the leader, Chris just gave him a cold stare.

The labor workers had also been awakens by the explosions, at first they thought it was the mine, but soon they also saw the chaos below. Diego ran into the mine during all the distraction and finished placing the explosives he and Antonio were laying the day before. This time he added more and then brought out the wires and attached them to the detonator. He’d seen his brother do it so many times that he had no problem attaching the wires. Once in place he waited.

Chris found Harding, you couldn’t miss him from the description of Captain Henderson, and his left side was burn. He placed his weapon to the man’s head, he whispered, “where’s Ezra.” The cold voice that went through his ear sent a chill down his spine.

With a smile on his countenance, “dead,” was all he said.

Chris however wasn’t going to believe it this time unless he saw the body. So, with his fist clenched he hit Harding across his face drawing blood. Then he went over to Williams, by the description from Cunningham this would be his right hand man.

“The military wants Harding alive, that leaves you, are you going to tell me where he is or do I put a bullet through your skull.” Williams had fear written all over his face, the look on the man’s eyes burn through his soul and demanded an answer.

He looked over at the big man and replied, “Big Joe killed him yesterday, and you’re too late.” You could hear his voice crack. JD was sickened at the news, but Chris remained unmoved, as he walked over to the big man.

“Looks like you’re the one that better give me a better answer.” He took his gun and pressed it hard on his temple. “Lets hope you don’t disappointment me.”

The man swallow, then replied, “he is up at the campground with the prisoners.”

Harding reacted, “nooo, you were supposed to kill the bastard.” He yelled, Buck struck him, causing him to shut up while he regained his senses.

Then Chris motioned to Nathan, since yesterday he and Vin saw a limp body they thought it might be there friend. They both headed up to the mine. The labor workers were in there sleeping tents. The gunslinger looked around but couldn’t find him, he could see these men were fearful, they’d been through hell, they didn’t need more fear to be added. Putting his gun back in his holster, and with his hands raised he asked these men, “we’re looking for our friend, he’s an American, a gringos.” He waited hoping for some good news.

Diego figured who they were looking for, he hesitates for a brief moment, but something told him these men could be trusted. Maybe this was the miracle he’d hope for, he waved his hand and led them to the unconscious man. Both men gasp at the condition of their friend, Nathan quickly knelt down taking a pulse.

“Nathan?”

“He’s alive, his pulse is a bit rapid. Help me get him onto one of these bed, so I can get a better look.” With the help of the workers they place the gambler on a bed, he moan, but did not regain consciousness. Laying him on his back, the healer started his examination. Diego realize that this man could be a doctor. There are no broken ribs, just bruised. He open his eyelids, he could see his pupils were a little uneven, slight concussion. He could also tell his body was warm, slight fever. Nathan open his bag, motioned to the workers for some water, a glass was brought to him, “Ezra, wake up, Ezra.” He shook him, the gambler open his eyes, and tried to move away from the stranger looking at him, Diego took the glass from the healer and held it for the gambler as he began to drink it.

The gambler closed his eyes, looking at Chris, Nathan related his condition, “no broken bones, he’s got a slight concussion and fever. As you can see he’s also covered in bruises.”

“Can he travel.”

“Yeah, we’ll either need a travois or wagon if they got any.”

“All right, stay with him and we’ll see what we can find.” He went back down towards his men followed by most of the labor workers, sensing that things had changed. “Buck, you and Josiah make sure these men are secure and ready for travel in an hour we’ll take them back with us and hand them over to Captain Henderson, JD you and Vin look for a wagon or something to make a travois, Ezra’s alive but in bad shape.” They looked at Chris and quickly went looking for supplies.

“You can take Senor Harding, but you have no right to take me Senor.” Stated de la Villa.

Chris walked over to the man, “you’re lucky Ezra’s still alive or you’d a joined him. So, don’t push me. We have no intention of taking you, but these men you’ve been holding are now free and you’re going to inform them now!”

Chris lifted the man and pulled him to the labor workers, with a shove, de la Villa spoke to the men, “estan libres, se pueden ir a sus casas.” The men at first looked at one another as the realization that they were free men sunk in. Shouts of joy rang out through the voices of each man.

The gunslinger smiled, and then tosses the man over by Big Joe. Nathan came down the hill, “I got Ezra ready for travel, just need help when you’re ready.”

JD shouted, “Chris, we found a wagon.”

“All right, Josiah go and help him.” The ex-preacher followed Nathan up the hill. Diego motions to the gunslinger towards Big Joe for translation.

He wanted to know where they were taking the injured American, Chris explains who Ezra was and that they thought he’d died several months ago. Diego then related the events of Ezra’s ordeal, he told them how he believes that he is Antonio his dead brother, and he may not recognize them. Chris had heard what Peterson had told them but until now he hadn’t believed him. He nodded his head in understanding telling him they were going to do what ever it took to help him remember, but his home was with them. Diego understood as well.

Diego then asked them, when the gambler was feeling better to ask for his forgiven, for letting him live the lie of his brother, he thought he was doing what was right to keep them all alive.

Chris shook his hand in gratitude for all he did for the gambler. They all watch as Josiah and Nathan brought Ezra down the hill in a stiff board, even though he had no broken bones they didn’t want to cause any more injuries. He was placed in the wagon Nathan next to him. They had captured eight men including Harding all tied together they would walk back with them. Since Nathan wanted them to travel slowly they decided to tie these men up for the return journey.

Alejandro knew that given time he would capture more men and have them continue to work the mine, of course so did Diego he showed the gunslinger the detonator and understood what he wanted, so did de la Villa. “Noooo, you can’t.” A huge explosion was set off and any hope of working the silver mine was sealed forever.

Diego and the other men took the horses belonging to the American prisoners and also another wagon and they rode out hoping to find their families.

*******

They traveled slowly due to the gamblers injuries; during their trip Ezra’s fever became a bit high Nathan thought it was due to the heat of the afternoon sun. By the time they reach a suitable clearing they camped for the night, they would reach Four Corners by late evening the following day.

Nathan and Josiah carried the con man off the wagon and placed him near the warm fire. He was finally in a peaceful sleep. They secured their prisoners and posted patrols during the night. By the next morning Ezra had awoken to find himself in the company of strangers. He was very sore and had still a slight temperature, but his color was back and he looked stronger. He looked at the six strangers, the only ones Ezra recognized were the prisoners, which helped him understand that these men meant him no harm since he was not tied like the others, but not knowing where his brother was left him confused.

Josiah approached his friend with coffee and biscuits for breakfast. The gambler looked at him and took the meal, after consuming the edibles he asked, “Diego?”

Josiah’s Spanish was better then the rest which wasn’t saying much since the others only knew the words to different liquor. “Diego, casa.” He paused then continued, “bueno, casa.” Was the best he could do.

Ezra was a bit confused, if he understood that Diego had gone home why then did he not take him as well. “Por que Diego no me llevo’ a nuestro pueblo?” Josiah picked up some of the words and turned to Chris.

“I think he wants to know why Diego didn’t take him too.”

Chris looked at his friend, “you think you could explain that we’re taking him to his home.”

Looking at Chris he turn to the gambler, “I’ll do my best. Antonio, tu casa es con migo.” Now he was even more confused.

“Como es que vivo donde tu vives si ne te conosco.”

“I don’t think he’s buying it.” Josiah stated.

“How about telling him that Inez will explain it.” The look on Josiah’s face told the gunslinger that was a tall order. “Just do your best.” The ex-preacher nodded.

“Amiga, Inez will explain,” he pauses trying to figure how best to translate. “Inez, te conoce.” Was the best he could do?

“Inez, me conoce, y ella me lo explicara.” If Josiah understood he nodded his head ‘si.’ The gambler nodded his head and smiled for some reason he liked these men.

They began to gather their supplies. Nathan had decided since Ezra was still in bad shape to give him laudanum for the journey back to Four Corners. So Josiah explained to him what the drink was.

“Bueno,” he motion with both hands to express slumber, “no dolor?” Ezra took the drink and smelled it he frown which brought a smile to the black healer. The gambler shook his head and returned the drink. Josiah shook his head and smiled encouraging the timid man. “Bueno por dolor.” He said this time.

The gambler took the small bottle again and grimace then with his eyes closed he swallow the expression on his face brought back fond memories to the men and they laughed more in relief at seeing that look the gambler always had whenever he was force to drink the fowl liquid. Josiah encouraged him one more time; he sighed and repeated the action. Then the ex-preacher took the bottle.

Josiah wasn’t sure at first why the gambler trusted them, they were in all sense strangers to this man, but he noticed Ezra kept looking at his cross.

Josiah thought that some how one of them with a cross could be trusted. He took that as a positive sign. He could see the drowsiness taking over the con man. So the ex-preacher motion for him to lie down, he did, getting comfortable as best he could the steady breathing of sleep could be heard.

Nathan motion to Chris they were ready.

The day went by without any incident, by late afternoon the sun was beating down hard, giving plenty of water to their prisoners and a steady pace they were making good timing. Nathan decided to place a canopy over the sleeping gambler so the sun wouldn’t hit him and with Josiah’s help also force water down his throat so not to cause dehydration while he slept.

As evening was approaching they had two maybe three more hours to reach town, Chris sent JD to warn the Captain they would be arriving soon with prisoners in tow.

They arrived in town shortly there after; all tired which was very evident. Judge Travis, Captain Henderson and JD were in front of the jail waiting for their arrival.

“Judge,” Chris tipped his hat as they arrived, “Josiah drive the wagon to the clinic, we’ll take care of the prisoners.” Josiah with Nathan and Ezra in the back rode up the street towards the clinic.

Chris and the others dismounted and stretch a bit then they hauled their prisoners to the cells. Peterson was already in one. Harding wasn’t yet through however, one way or another he was going to rid himself of the gambler he had to bide his time. After they were secure Captain Henderson placed guards outside the jail, to be taken in shifts. Giving the seven protectors some much needed rest.

Buck and JD headed to the clinic to check on Ezra, Chris and Vin headed towards the saloon to talk with Inez.

“Buenas Noches Senores.” Inez greeted the two men, “can I get you something?”

“Thanks, Inez but we’re just going to head to bed, but I needed to ask a favor.” She looked at the two men, she’d still not asked about Ezra afraid of bad news. Chris noted the look, “Ezra’s okay, but for some reason he doesn’t remember us we need your help.”

She was confused, “how can I help?”

“Well we’re not sure, but he doesn’t speak English, only seems to understand Spanish. We need you to help translate for us, Josiah’s Spanish is better than ours which isn’t helping much.”

“Madre de dios, what did they do to him?” Crossing her self as she gasp.

Neither wanted to answer that question, “we’re not sure Inez, will you help us?” Chris asked.

“Of course, what ever I can do to help.”

“Nathan said he’ll sleep ‘til morning can you be at the clinic tomorrow eight a.m.?”

Inez smiled, “I will be there.”

“Good night ma’am.” Both men tipped their hats to the senorita as they left. The words echoing that ‘he doesn’t remember us.’ Unbelievable.

*******

The next morning Ezra woke with a start, the same dream was still plaguing his mind. Why couldn’t he remember the events that day, the children calling his name, yet he could not quite make out that name? He looked around the clinic nothing was familiar; he got out of bed wincing forgetting his injuries for a moment. He saw the black man and noted he was asleep. The gambler did not wish to awaken him so he got up quietly and exited the clinic.

What he saw was a large town, quite impressive. He walked down the steps looking for the privy, which was located in the back of the building. He returned to the front of the building and started to walk down the boardwalk, he noticed a commotion near a red brick building. He also recognized two men who brought him to this town, the man in black and the man who wore buckskin clothing.

Ezra decided to venture forth, crossing the street towards the men; other men were being moved into a wagon with bars. Their were many men in blue suits hauling prisoners into the wagon, as he neared the wagon no one had noticed his approach except for the man who held a vendetta against the gambler.

As Harding was being placed into the wagon he saw Ezra walking towards them, with a last ditch to exact his revenge, he attacked one of the soldiers, who was hauling him into the wagon and pulling his gun from the man’s holster, he threw the soldier aside took aim and a shot rang out, the gun fell from Harding’s hand never even cocking the hammer back; a bullet hole visible on his forehead, Chris Larabee’s gun smoking in his hand. Vin went over to the gambler and pulled him up the boardwalk, Antonio had never seen a man gun down in front of his eyes before, Chris looked the gambler over making sure he was alright Ezra seemed oblivious, while keeping his eyes on his tormentor it was finally over.

The sound of gunfire brought over the other men of this elite group, JD and Buck arriving first followed by a worried Nathan who noticed the missing gambler and behind him was Josiah bringing up the rear. Ezra who felt dazed by what just happen was leaning on the dark clad gunslinger taking comfort of the close proximity.

Nathan noticed the glazed look on his friend, “Ezra, come on Ezra snap out of it,” then he called out the other name, “Antonio?” Still no response, he was probably in shock, so he slap him across the face to enlist a reaction. The gambler pulled away from the dark healer fear in his green eyes, Josiah gently removed Nathan and took the skittish con man into an embrace. So, many unknowns were taking their toll on the man, he returned the embrace quite out of character of their friend.

“Estas bien Antonio,” ‘your all right’ Josiah repeated to calm the man down. Judge Travis still couldn’t believe that the con man did not remember these men, but seeing the reaction made him realized the gravity of the situation. “Vamos a catina?” The con man nodded yes.

They all took a deep breath and headed towards the saloon, leaving the soldiers to handle the dead man. They all sat at their usual table, Inez walked in looking at the gambler, she couldn’t believe how much she’d miss the con man. Ezra noticed her as she approached their table. Josiah introduced them.

“Antonio, amiga Inez.” Not remembering who he was did not mean he forgot he was a gentleman, he stood took her hand and kissed it.

“Well at least he hasn’t forgotten everything,” replied Buck. The others smile.

“Inez, can you ask him if he’s alright?” Inez looked at the dark clad gunslinger, realizing the gunshot must have involved the wayward gambler.

“El senor quiere saber si estas bien.” The man looked at the young woman then at the men who rescued him.

“Si, gracias al senor.” Indicating Chris. Inez smiled.

“He said yes, thanks to Mr. Larabee.” Chris tipped his hat.

(Translation will continue thanks to the ever-present universal translator.)

“Senorita Inez, can you ask the gentlemen, what happen to my brother Diego, and why was I brought here.” Inez asked Chris and explained to Inez what had happen as much as they knew.

“Senor Chris,” motioning over to Larabee. “Wishes for me to explain that the man you called brother was not your real brother.” A look of confusion on his countenance, but he waited for explanation. “You have some how lost your memory, your name is not Antonio but Ezra Standish.” This was all so strange to him why couldn’t he remember anything.

“Why would he lie to me?”

“According to Diego, it was because Senor Harding said if you didn’t he would kill the men at the silver mine. This is what he told Senor Larabee before Diego and the other men left in search of their homes.”

“And so, I was left behind,” muttered Ezra.

“No, you were brought to your home, this town called Four Corners is were you’ve lived for seven months before you disappeared. These men found a body with your clothes and believed the man was you, his face was burn, you wear special clothes that no one else wears, which is why they believed the man was you.”

They talked for about an hour about why he lived here and what happen when they thought they’d lost him, about Harding’s quest for revenge. So now he had a question, “I have been dreaming about another village I thought was were I lived.” He paused gathering his thoughts, “there are explosions, people screaming and children calling for me, but I can’t hear my name. And I am nowhere to be found. Do these men know where this place is?”

Inez translated what Ezra wish to know; Josiah understood some of what was said. Inez didn’t know the whole story of how these men met, so the ex-preacher explained to the senorita the events of their first venture together. When she translated to Ezra where that was he could not believe what he’d done. Shame crosses his features and a stab of guilt press down on his heart.

“Why would these men choose to ride with a coward?” He asked, angry at himself for what had happen. Inez repeated the con man’s words.

Chris spoke for them, “you tell him he is no coward, that he made a mistake. You tell him he came back and rescued us.” He looked at Ezra while Inez translated.

Although, he took comfort in the gunslingers words, trust was in his voice. He could not get the image of the children calling for him. He looked at Inez.

“What if that is the reason why I can’t remember who I am, because I am not worthy to ride with these men.” He was becoming frustrated at all that he learned about his time in this town, he could not believe he was/is a gambler and con artist. A liar and a cheat, riding with honest men, that helps others who are in trouble. He could not believe, no he would not believe, as Inez was translating, Ezra stood and walk out. Inez made to follow but Josiah stopped her.

“What are we going to do, how do we help him,” asked JD. He felt bad that Ezra would take the news so badly, he’d never think of the card shark as a coward, so he couldn’t figure why he would.

“It’s a hard thing to find out kid, to be known as a gambler and con man, when you’ve never imaged either one.”

“But, why is he taking it so bad Buck?”

Chris answered, “How would you feel, if you thought you were a coward? Or thought others felt the same way?”

“I guess not very good,” JD answered.

“If this is his only memory linking us, then he could but right something in his past is holding his memory back.”

Nathan was curious at what the preacher said, “How do you mean?”

“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure myself, but maybe he’s right about that, the memory is holding everything else. Maybe something happened in his past that somehow triggered that particular memory and it’s tied to everything else.” Josiah paused shaking his head, “I just don’t know enough about the mind to really understand what’s happen to Ezra.”

*******

Ezra walk along the boardwalk not really knowing where he was going, his head hung low, he failed to notice the curios looks he was receiving. Word of the gamblers apparent death was a hoax and now seeing him brought relief to many of the townspeople, but curios at the gamblers appearance, his attire was not what they were use to seeing.

He reaches the end of the boardwalk and saw another building he heard the sound of horses and decided to go into the livery. He recognized most of the animals belonging to the men that brought him to this town. Then he heard a friendly snort come from the end of the stalls. A chestnut colored horse was looking at him intently, he walked over to it, whispering into its ears. He was surprise at it’s familiarity, from behind him he felt a touch on his shoulders. He jumped, turned to see a familiar face.

“That there is Chaucer, your horse.” The Texan tracker commented. He realized the gambler didn’t understand, so he repeated. “Chaucer.” He answered, while petting the animal.

He repeated the name, “Chaucer,” and looked back at the tracker.

. “Yeah,” he then motion that the animal was his. “Chaucer is your horse.” Then he pointed to his horse Sire and then pointed at himself indicating that he was his, while the chestnut gelding was the gamblers.

He smiled at this, “Chaucer, es mio?” Vin thought he understood what he meant and nodded ‘yes’. The horse was very happy to see the gambler. It looks like the animal was searching to see if he had anything in his pockets, but his new attire had no pockets. Vin took out an apple and handed slices to his friend and pointed to the animal. Chaucer took the sliced apple from his palm as quickly as the tracker placed it.

Vin was pleased, the gambler actually laughed when Chaucer took the slices, that was the first time since he’d return. He went over to where the tack and saddles where and brought out the brush, he then handed the brush to Ezra and opened the stall motioning him to enter. He hesitated, it was one thing to touch the animal from outside the stall another to be right next to the horse. But the sincerity of the invitation told him that it would be all right.

So he entered the stall, since Ezra’s disappearance Chaucer wouldn’t let any of the stable hands near him, he ate, but not much. The others notice the horses lost of appetite and tried to help by spending time with him, but the only one he didn’t mind so much was Vin. He just had a natural way with animals and Chaucer was no different. But seeing his reaction to the gambler was amazing. It was like a renew spirit entered the animal and he was filled with relief at seeing his rider.

Ezra started to brush the beast and the nervousness that the gambler felt was gone. It felt so familiar, the horse would blow on the man’s countenance something he’d never seen before and started laughing. The horse was blowing air, so the gambler did the same and blew air onto the horse’s snout. The horse started lifting his head, snorting and stomping his hoofs in response. Which made Vin laugh even louder making the gambler laugh as well.

*******

As time past, Vin and Inez help the gambler re-master the English language. Also Vin spent a lot of time teaching Ezra how to ride. Chaucer at first was confused but adapted quickly understanding that both rider and animal had to be reacquainted. The tracker and gambler were often seen together laughing and joking which the others thought was great maybe the friendship between both men would help.

One particular morning found the Texas tracker in front of the saloon. Chris walked over, “morning Vin.”

Looking up, “morning cowboy.” Chris notices something was wrong.

“Something wrong?” Before he answered Josiah reached them also.

“Morning Brothers.” He looked at both men sensing something was wrong as well. “Is something wrong?”

“I was just asking that myself.” Chris looked at his friend, “how about breakfast, we can talk inside, be more convertible.” Reluctantly the tracker followed, he wasn’t sure how to explain.

After ordering breakfast, Josiah started. “Is something troubling you? Is Ezra okay?”

“Yeah on both question.” He looked at the confusion of his friends. “I’ve been thinking about Ezra a lot, I guess you’ve seen us together all the time.” Both men nodding, “I’m confused, I really like this new Ezra and well,” Josiah had been noticing the closeness of these two men, they waited patiently for the tracker to continue. “I’ve just been thinking that when Ezra does remember who he is, do you think he’ll forget about the new friendship. I know this is probably selfish of me, but I’m not sure I want to lose his friendship. Does that sound strange?”

Josiah had actually been surprise it took the tracker this long to voice how he was feeling. Anyone of them had been feeling the same way. Ezra was so; different from when they first met him. He was more open, honest; he didn’t hide how he was feeling, which made him more human in some ways, more caring. They knew without a doubt that the old Ezra cared also, but he always hid that part of himself under that poker face of his. So often they weren’t sure what was going through his mind. Not that they really mind, that quick mind of his always seem to get them out of trouble, it also made him a viable member, as well as someone to trust to watch your back.

This new Ezra had good qualities, but he didn’t like guns for one thing. And sometimes he was so honest it put JD to shame. He got along great with everyone, and every morning he could be found helping out Inez or Mary, hell even Mrs. Potter was surprise at how helpful he was, to the point where she had made a comment to Chris just the other day. They all missed the old Ezra, his quick wit, and his coning mind, even playing poker with him.

“No Vin it’s not selfish, I’ve been thinking about that myself, I think we all have.” He looked over at Chris and saw the slight nod. “As I’ve said before we’ll just have to wait and see.”

*******

It’d been just over three months since the gambler had return to them, he’s English improved and they were all able to converse with the con man. They referred to him as Ezra, which he accepted even though he still felt like Antonio.

Ezra also took over the task of bringing flowers to the gravesite, which JD always visited when he thought the gambler was buried there. With the help of the others the tombstone was changed, it now read Antonio Sandoval. Ezra was up early, after placing flowers he headed to the livery he and Vin would be going on a morning ride. His riding had also improved.

Another thing that still hadn’t change was his clothing, Josiah had shown him the clothes he uses to wear, and he merely gave him a puzzled look, which made the giant preacher laugh loudly. The man was still not ready to wear such brilliant attire.

Instead, Josiah had used clothing donated to the church for the Indians or the needy; it was comfortable but was quite dull in colors but suited the new Ezra nicely.

He reach the livery stables and spotted Vin saddling Sire and began saddling Chaucer once finish both headed outside, walking both horses, Vin stopped abruptly as he saw four men were exiting the bank with guns drawn he took his sawed off shotgun and shot into the air to alert the others, and grabbed Ezra as they both ran towards the jail for cover.

Just then Ezra saw a shinning reflection from a top the hotel building and push Vin roughly in the jail just as a rifle was shot off. The tracker looked at his fallen friend right at the entrance of the door. He couldn’t drag him in but saw Chris and Josiah firing their weapons. Vin spotted the man who shot Ezra and fired killing him. The other four were caught off guard by the firepower, which they had no idea existed in this small town. Evidently they had never heard of the Magnificent Seven.

They were quickly dispatched with only one survivor. Once the situation was in control Vin was shouting for help. “Nathan!” With his bandanna he press against his friends head wound to stop the bleeding.

The healer was by his side looking at the wound, “Josiah, Buck get him up to the clinic.” They grab the limp form of their friend and rushed him to the second floor of Nathan’s make ship clinic. Nathan manages to stop the bleeding. He checks his pulse and then his pupils, concussion for sure, but he wasn’t sure about any possible brain damage, the bullet hit pretty hard on his skull.

“Nathan, will he be okay,” asked the tracker, if he hadn’t a push him he would be dead or in the same condition the gambler was in now.

The others waited for the healer to respond. “He’s got a concussion, other than that I’m not sure, we’ll have to wait and see, if he wakes up.”

“What you mean if he wakes up,” JD didn’t miss what his last words were.

“The bullet hit his skull, I’m just not sure if any other damage occurred. We’ll just have to wait.”

Chris could see the tracker took it pretty hard, “it wasn’t your fault Vin, besides you know what a thick head he has.”

Vin smiled at that, it was more than a thick head he was as stubborn as any mule would want you to think he was. Each of them took turns watching over their fallen friend, but Vin wouldn’t leave his side. Finally, Chris sat him down and told him in no certain words to get some sleep he’d watch him.

After 24 hours the gambler finally showed signs of life, “Ezra can you hear me,” Nathan was trying to get a response. “Come on Ezra, it’s time to get up,” he called. But the gambler was reluctant to comply. So, he shook him this time, “come on Ezra wake up.”

“Aw hell, Nathan, I’d like to sleep in if you don’t mind.” That smooth southern drawl did not go unnoticed by the other men in the room.

“Come on Ezra, you promised me you’d go riding with me this morning.” Vin replied.

“It would be far more convenient this afternoon, Mr. Tanner.” Everyone started laughing he was back, hearing the laughter brought his eyes open, trying to focus he saw Nathan and behind him and to the side were the rest of his friends. “What the hell happen, what am I doing in the clinic?” He tried to sit up then realized that was no good he moans as he laid back bringing pain to his head.

“Easy, there Ezra.”

“Why does my head hurt?”

“You were shot, you still have a concussion, so just lay back and drink some water.” Ezra gritted his teeth and his head was lifted slightly and took the water, his throat felt really dry until the tepid liquid flowed through.

“Thank you kind sir. Now maybe you can relate the circumstance for the injury.” It really was good to hear that southern accent.

“You saved my life, some bank robbers apparently hadn’t heard about us.”

Ezra opened his eyes again to look at the tracker, “I hope you enlighten the miscreants of there error.”

“We sure did Ezra, only one of them made it to the jail.”

“Then, I would say that was a job well done Mr. Dunne,” as he nodded off to sleep.

There were smiles all around, with a tinge from Vin; Josiah placed his hand on the trackers shoulders. Vin nodded his head glad for his friends concern and understanding.

*******

The next day found the healer and the gambler arguing just as though nothing had pass. Josiah and Vin entered as both men traded barbs.

“Mr. Jackson, I think I am quite fit, to return to my own room.”

“Ezra you had a serious head wound, you’ll fall on your ass before you even reach the door.”

The gambler smiled, “care to make a wager Mr. Jackson.”

He moan and looked at the two men who’d just entered, “Josiah could you please talk some sense into this fool.”

“I think Brother Nathan that it would take a miracle for that to happen,” Ezra glares at the ex-preacher. Bringing laughter to the big man.

Vin walk over to his friend, “how you feeling Ezra?”

“Quite well, as I’ve been trying to explain to our caring if not misguided healer.” Then Vin looked at him seriously, which made the con man look at him, “what is it? Has something happen?”

Vin was a little nervous; he’d spoken with Josiah about asking the gambler if he remember these past few months. “Ezra what’s the last thing you remember?” The gambler looked at him puzzled by the question. But thought it was due to the concussion.

“Well let me see,” he thought for a moment. “Good lord!” He exclaimed, “The package, I don’t remember picking it up.” He looked at his friends, “is Mr. Larabee upset?”

Vin smiled, “no how could he you saved my life and this town from bank robbers.” Ezra noted the disappointing tone in his voice something else happen, why couldn’t he remember what that was.

Then he decided to change the subject, “please Mr. Jackson, I feel out of sorts, in these clothes, I’m sure Mr. Tanner is quite comfortable in his attire, but I assure you I feel naked in this.” Pointing at the simple clothes.

“I guess the old Ezra is back,” replied Josiah heartily. Which also puzzled the gambler but he didn’t say anything.

“All right, but you’re going to need help.” Before an argument took place Nathan put his foot down, “no arguments Ezra, you get help or you stay.”

“I’ll help, if that’s okay with you,” replied the tracker.

“Very well, I accept Mr. Tanner.”

Vin walked to his side and helped him up, Ezra did feel slightly dizzy but he wasn’t about to admit it to the healer, the tracker sense it and waited a moment. Once steady they both headed out the door. After carefully trekking the boardwalk towards the saloon and to his room Ezra rested a moment on his bed.

“Thank you Mr. Tanner.”

“Sure, you want me to wait and help you down to the saloon.”

“Thank you Mr. Tanner, but that won’t be necessary.” With a smile Vin tipped his hat and left the room.

Ezra sat at his bed, wondering why he felt there was something missing. Something he’s forgotten, that was very important. He couldn’t help but notice the look on the tracker, when he asked what was the last thing he remembered.

He went over to the dresser and pulled out some proper attire, he notice that there were also other clothes that he would normally not dress in. He pulled them out and placed them aside. He dress, putting on his purple jacket, he noticed the red one was missing. He groan thinking he must have ruined it when he was shot.

Touching his countenance, he felt the stubble. He looked in the mirror shook his head and shaved. Once properly dress and cleaned he headed down stairs. He saw all his friends waiting in their usual table, Inez came over, and they hadn’t told her that the gambler was back to his old self.

“Buenas tardes, Ezra, que custas de comer.” Inez spoke to him in Spanish and the others realized she didn’t know what had happen. They were about to tell her when the gambler responded in kind, telling her what he’d like for lunch.

They weren’t sure if Ezra didn’t realize he spoke in Spanish, or if he knew the language before any of this ever happen.

After Inez left, (she had already taken the others orders they had told her Ezra would be down shortly and they’d all eat together) the gambler looked at his friends, when suddenly a flash of memories hit him so hard it nearly knocked him to the floor, Josiah grabbed him. He was in pain, Nathan became angry that he let the gambler convince him but the preacher thought this was something else.

“Ezra, what is it? What do you remember?” The others realized what the preacher was saying concern was evident. “Ezra talk to me. What is it?”

“Oh God! Harding, the beatings.” He looked at the preacher his green eyes held tears streaming down. “Oh God! He told me about the funeral. He told me you wouldn’t come looking for me.” Pressing both his hands against his head, “it hurts Josiah.”

The preacher stood, the others weren’t sure what to do, Vin stood up as well, both at the gamblers side. “Come on Ezra, I’ll take you to your room.”

He then pulled from Josiah, “no I don’t wish to go, I want to stay here. I don’t want to go to the shack. I don’t want to be alone.”

Josiah could see that the gambler was becoming agitated; he kneeled down in front of him turning his countenance to face him, “Ezra, your all right, your back in Four Corners, your safe. Chris, Buck, Vin, JD, Nathan and I are here with you, you’re not alone.”

The soft voice coming from the preacher began to calm the gambler. “Ezra? Why did you forget who you were?” A puzzled look, so the preacher continued, “you couldn’t remember your name, what happen to you?”

“I’m all right Josiah, if you don’t mind I wish to rest.”

“Yes I do mind,” this caught the gambler by surprise.

“Excuse me?” The gambler was puzzled by the preacher’s reaction.

“I am not letting you shut us out, something happen, something so terrible that it erase your memories, you forgot who your were.” He could tell Ezra was confused, the gambler stood, but Josiah grabbed him. “You need to talk about it, or you may end up losing yourself again. Is that what you what?”

It hurt so much the memory was right at the surface of his mind. It hadn’t been there since he was nine years old. ‘Why now after all these years, why now?’ He thought. His head hung low and he lean into Josiah’s chest.

“I can’t... Josiah... it hurts too much.” Vin placed his hand on the con man’s shoulders encouraging him.

“Come on pard. Josiah’s right what ever happen it’s hurt you pretty bad. Sometimes it helps to talk about it. Remember that’s what you told me once.” It was one of the things he and Ezra would talk about, while he had lost his memory, he’d like listening to some of the stories the tracker told about him self.

He looked at the tracker, “I’m not so sure, it nearly destroy me a long time ago.” He took a deep breath and sat down.

Chris looked at his friend, “I know some memories you’d like to forget, those are the memories that won’t let go unless you talk about them, put them back in the past instead of reliving them in your thoughts.”

They all waited for an answer the gambler not wanting to look at them. Chris saw Inez coming and waved her away for the moment, she saw something was wrong and left.

“Come on Ezra talk to us.”

Josiah was trying to get his attention, “do you wish to talk in your room?”

He looked up and smiled a little, “at the moment the small room would remind me of the shack.”

“Is that the bad memory?” Josiah asked.

“No, it happen a long time ago, a life time ago. I was only nine years old.” Looking at his friends he took courage and continued, “My mother had left me with a cousin of hers James and Helen Donaldson and their son Matthew who was the same age as my self. This was the first time I’d actually met another child my age. I’ve mostly been in the company of adults so wasn’t sure how to associate with the young lad.”

He poured a glass of water before continuing, “the young boy was quite innocent or perhaps I was too cynical, but it didn’t matter somehow we bridge that gap and became friends. My mother had said I would only be there for two weeks, but as usual things happen and I stayed with them for nearly six months. But it was the best six months of my life.”

He paused a moment the others kept silent hoping to encourage him to continue. Knowing he had to clear the air.

“We did everything together, which caused his parents great distress on occasion, but he had the best parents any boy could want. He told me once that he was going to be the best Doctor just like his father. I had no illusion of what I would grow up to be, my mother all ready had my life planned out.” A smirk crossed his handsome features. “He’d tell me that he was going to find cures for all kinds of diseases. Well, being the realist of the two of us I was not one to burst his bubble. He was a good kid, I remember one time I’d never seen him so mad, especially at me.”

“This ruffian was picking on him the boy was fifteen and big, Matthew wasn’t afraid of him but wasn’t about to resort to violence, unfortunately the other boy had no problem with showing his. I was not about to let Matthew be injured by that Neanderthal, so I hit him and kept hitting until he said uncle. While everyone was clapping at my victory my cousin was furious I didn’t understand.”

“So, he proceeded to enlighten me. ‘How could I do such a thing as hit him.’ I told him he was about to be injured if I didn’t step in. ‘He then asked me how would I feel if a five year old could beat me.’ I looked at him as though he were insane; I don’t think a five year old would have much of a chance. ‘That’s not what I asked you,’” Josiah liked this Matthew, he had wisdom.

“Well it wouldn’t make me feel very good. ‘Then tomorrow your going to apologize to Andy and tell him to come back to school.’ I will do no such thing, but the next day we both went to the boy’s home and spoke with him. He lived in quite a large house, for a boy who didn’t dress well, I thought perhaps his mother or father worked in the mansion.”

“But as it turned out he was an adopted child of a very wealthy man who took in abandon children. Needless to say I felt somewhat uncomfortable, but not Matthew, Andy took one look at us and asked what we wanted, so Matthew looked over at me gave me this look, stomping my foot on the ground, I told him that I wish to apologize and hope he will return to school the next day.”

“He was as shock as I was, but he did return, but shortly there after he was ship to a private boarding school. Then Uncle James received a letter from my mother telling me that she would be coming for me in two weeks, Lord I’d never thought I’d wish my mother had forgotten me. I was none too happy at having to leave. Those last two weeks we made the most of them, we were off school and with chores done every morning, the afternoons were ours. Our favorite past time was hide ‘n seek.”

“Matthew was not the best hider or seeker, he’d always end up calling that he’d give up, I was always the winner.” Ezra pause a moment and took another drink this time he needed a shot of whiskey, which Josiah figured he was getting closer at what was haunting the gambler. “It was his turn to hide, I noticed a few clouds in the sky, and sometimes the weather could be quite fickle. As Matthew would put it, I knew though that I would find him before it start to rain with plenty of time to reach the house. After counting to a 100.”

“I began to search for my dear cousin, already half an hour had past, I began to worry, so rather than risk pneumonia I called out saying I give up. But no answer, so I shouted, but still nothing. I began to worry, and then I headed back to the house for help. Aunt Helen was home, but Uncle James was still in town, I told her what had happen, she wanted me to head to town and get my uncle, but said ‘no’ that we could leave a note, that we needed to find him before it started to rain.”

“So we went together and searched for him, afterwards we heard my uncle and others helping with the venery, but still no luck. I kept telling myself, when I get my hands on that boy I was going to strangle him for making his parents worry like that.” Another pause, “I had separated from my aunt, when I found him, I felt such relief, I ran to him, but as I approach something was wrong. It was starting to rain now, and I notice Matthew had taken his pants off, I thought he must have fallen asleep while reliving him self and I shook my head that I wasn’t about to let him live that down. Then I notice the blood and froze, I began to shout for help and when I kneeled beside my cousin and turn him over, I saw his face.”

He turned to Josiah, “it was pure horror etch on his countenance, to stay with him forever, how could something like that happen to an innocent child? I fell back and screamed, my uncle arriving, he too saw his son, when I saw my aunt come I tried to hold her back I didn’t want her to see him like that, but she pushed me aside. When she held her son in her arms she let out the most horrible moan I’d ever heard.”

The gambler closes his eyes, trying to suppress the tears that threaten to fall. Buck looked over at Chris, he too was reliving that moment when he found the remains of his wife and son. But he wasn’t a child, he couldn’t image what Ezra had gone through all alone.

“I tried to reach out to my aunt to comfort her, but she started screaming at me, telling me this was all my fault, that I was to blame.” Josiah reached out to him and took his hand; he looked up at him. The gambler shook from the memory.

“They tried to find out what happen, my mother had finally arrived by this time. I was living at the clinic, my aunt couldn’t stand to look at me, so my uncle decided it would be best to stay in town.” He brought his eyes again to face his friends both Josiah and Vin held his hands knowing he wasn’t finish yet.

“A few years ago I went to see my uncle I had heard my aunt had pass on, my uncle James told me that a few years after my cousins murder, they found the man responsible, he was that man I told you adopted children, evidently it was discovered that he murdered all those boys he took in, but before he’d kill them he... raped them.”

“Oh, God,” Josiah gasp, “I’m so sorry.”

“When I went into that bank it was in the same town my uncle lived in, before anyone could do anything Harding killed that 12 year old boy and I saw that same look on his face I saw on my cousin, it brought those memories back. I would have killed the bastard, but after I shot his leg and killed his partners the sheriff had arrived and managed to stop me. After I testified against Harding, I had to leave, I pretty much wanted to lose myself, for almost five years I traveled from town to town, until I ended up here.”

“Is that what happen, when Harding capture you?” The ex-preacher asked.

“He brought back so many old memories, that when he actually told me that Ezra Standish was dead and buried, I felt relief, I know it sounds strange. All I could think was that I was alone in that shack, blindfolded, tied and shackle, Harding for some reason wanted to re-christen me, so he beat me until I finally agreed that I no longer existed and he renamed me Antonio. And that I was to make sure that the other workers called me that as well. So, I con myself into thinking I was Antonio, and Diego told me stories about the both of them that I wanted to be him. I didn’t want any bad memories.”

All the regulators were quiet, they could not believe all the pain that there friend had gone through, all this because a mad man blamed him for something the other had done to him self. Ezra wouldn’t look at the men, he was already regretting having told them so much, now he felt vulnerable and alone. He was afraid to look and find only pity, now he understood why his mother always told him to hide his emotions.

“Ezra?” A soft voice called to him, “Ezra, look at me.” It was Josiah. He looked up at the ex-preacher, “I can’t image the hell you went through, but I must say you are an incredible man.” This got the gamblers attention, confusion written all over. “You did the only thing you could do to protect yourself. You said it yourself. You conned yourself into believing you were another man to survive.”

He was quiet trying to understand what Josiah just told him. “Was it right what I did, I mean, was I sane at the time?” Josiah looked at his friend surprise by the question.

“I think so, you did nothing to hurt anyone. What you did was to help others and yes to give yourself a little peace. The death of Matthew weighs heavy on your soul. You survived and he didn’t, guilt lingers especially when you don’t deal with it. Did you ever talk to Maude about it or any one else?” Ezra shook his head, “listen to me, you could not have saved Matthew, that man who attacked him already planned on it. Whether you were there or not would not have made a difference. If nothing else Ezra, his death was not in vain.” The gambler looked at him with a questioning appearance. “It made people aware that a killer was among them. What about all those other children that died before Matthew, no one would have known about them if not for your cousin. I know that’s no comfort, but you have to get pass it, I think your cousin would have wanted you to move on.”

Ezra looked at the preacher, then thought about what he said, “your right Josiah, knowing Matthew he’d probably be angry if I didn’t, thank you for reminding me.”

“Not a problem Ezra.” Josiah replied.

*******

In the days to follow, things started to settle again. Ezra found that letting people care about him and vice a versa was not a bad thing. He wondered how he got to be so lucking to have found these men. He thought maybe Matthew had something to do with it. Vin and Ezra’s relationship remain close; they found a lot of similar qualities that neither knew. Chris also found himself counseling Ezra on releasing his guilt and it helped with his own.

Josiah became an influential source of comfort to the gambler, he never realize that having someone to trust with his emotions was beneficial, both men grew to care for one another very much.

Ezra grew close to all these men, never realizing how much they would come to mean for him. Strange, all his life he was alone, his search for a little peace to settle in his heart he managed to find. He found a family, brothers just like him who were also searching for a little peace in there hearts.

THE END

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