Hard Choices
Outrider & DarkSkies

The cabin was nestled in the rocks with a lot of open ground in front; they'd have to do some scrambling to get close.  Chris contemplated the area then placed his men.   "Vin, JD work round to the left where they've got the horses tied.   If they make a break, they'll go for the horses.  Buck and I will get around back.  Ezra, you stay here and cover us."  He gave Ezra a hard stare.  "You listenin'?  Stay here.  Keep off that ankle."

Ezra nodded solemnly, raising his rifle in a "to hear is to obey" salute.  Then, just as the men turned to disperse, he said quietly, "Remember, Brady kills his hostages.  Kills his own men too.  Never leaves witnesses.  That young man will be the first to die if Brady feels he has nothing to lose.  Whoever has the shot must take it.  Don't wait to see if he will surrender or the senator's son will be taken home draped across his saddle."

From his vantage point, Ezra could see Vin and JD slip into position.  But before Chris and Buck could make their way around back, the front door of the cabin opened.  A prickle of alarm worked its way down Ezra's spine as a sudden horrible conviction entered his mind.  He was sure Brady knew he had trouble.   Either the gunshots at the canyon mouth or the failure of a lookout to return had alerted him.

Three people came out.  A thin figure with his hands tied behind his back led the way toward the horses.  A small man walked behind the prisoner.   He had a bandana covering the lower part of his face and was pointing a shotgun at the figure in front.  A big man, shotgun cocked and ready, brought up the rear.

They walked closer to the horses, their backs to where Vin and JD were positioned above them in the rocks.  Ezra muttered to himself, as he struggled to put words to his nameless suspicions.  Something wasn't right.

As Ezra watched, Vin and JD rose from their hiding places.  JD had a bead on the big man, while Vin had the smaller one in his sights.  Ezra hoped they would heed his warning and give neither man a chance to take a shot.  Either shotgun could cut the senator's kid in half.

The three men continued to march toward the horses and Ezra's stomach twisted in a knot.  Vague memories swirled and finally coalesced into a coherent thought.  Suddenly, everything clicked into place.  He wrenched himself to his feet. He needed to warn Vin and JD.

Sweat beaded on his forehead as he considered his options.  He couldn't figure out how to attract Vin or JD without alerting the two men who had firearms pointed at the hostage.  He could see both his friends were about to take their shots.   His indecision vanished, replaced with a steely determination.  He had to avert the impending tragedy.

Ezra sighted his own rifle and hoped his aim would for once equal Vin's.  He squeezed off his shot just as JD took out the big man.  Ezra's bullet flew straight and true, a direct hit on his target.  Vin went down, clutching a bleeding wound.  An instant later Ezra's next shot took out the figure in front with his hands tied behind him.  The man behind him with the shotgun dove to the ground.

Ezra let his urgent shouts precede him.  "Hold your fire, hold your fire."   He attempted to dash from his hiding place and promptly ended up face down on the hard ground.  He'd forgotten his sprained ankle.

*  *  *

Ignoring the trickle of blood from the wound on his upper arm, Vin made his way down to the three men lying on the ground in front of the cabin.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ezra limping toward them, using his rifle as a crutch.  Chris and Buck covered his back, anxiously watching for whoever had fired at Vin and the hostage.   JD had his revolvers out, pointed at the small man who still hadn't dropped the shotgun.

"Toss that shotgun over here mister.  You try to use it, you're a dead man."

The man didn't seem to understand JD's orders.  He made no move to either use the shotgun or toss it away.  However, Vin was sure if the kidnapper made the slightest hostile move, he'd end up with two bullets in him - one from each of JD's Colts.  Chris and Buck would ensure no more fire came from behind them.

Vin brushed aside the nagging pain from his wound and focused his concern on the hostage.   As he knelt down already reaching to check the boy, he heard the sound of a hammer being cocked.  He spun to see Ezra, revolver drawn.  "Mr. Tanner, while it is quite likely he's dead, it is a certainty he is armed.  Be careful."

Vin gaped at Ezra blankly.  He had no idea what Ezra was going on about -- until he pushed back the hat shadowing the boy's face to find it was no boy at all.   In amazement, he looked up at Ezra. "How'd ya know?"  And then understanding blossomed, and his mouth fell open.  "You shot me."

Ezra shrugged, his features smoothing out into a poker-faced facade.  "I believe if you turn him over, you'll find a pocket pistol of some sort."

By the time Vin recovered the small revolver, Ezra had moved on to the man JD was guarding.

"Ezra! Watch out," JD protested loudly, when Ezra walked in the line of fire and knelt down beside the man who still refused to toss aside his shotgun.

Ezra ignored both JD and the shotgun and pulled the bandana off the man's face to reveal a frightened 16-year-old boy.  He pulled a wad of cloth from the boy's mouth then took out his pearl-handled penknife and cut the thin twine that bound the shotgun to the boy's right wrist and left hand.

Vin came up behind Ezra and together they helped the boy to his feet while JD confiscated the shotgun.

"I believe Mr. Dunne, you'll find that weapon is quite harmless - either unloaded or disabled.  Its only purpose was to convince us that this young man was Brady."  Ezra couldn't suppress a small smile when JD broke open the shotgun and showed them it had no cartridges.

Vin held out the small pistol to JD.  "Found this under his body."  He jerked a thumb at the man they had assumed was the hostage.   "Ropes tied around his wrists were fer show.  Had this aimed at the kid here, I reckon."  He looked at Ezra and asked for the second time.  "How'd ya know?"

"He employed a ruse like this previously, in New Orleans.  He must have had his sentries timed to report back on a regular schedule.  Perhaps you dispatched the last one just before he was due to report or perhaps he should have reported back as soon as the gunshots were heard.  Clearly he was aware of trouble before they ever left the cabin."

Ezra reached out and touched the bloody tear in Vin's jacket and swallowed hard.  He was about to explain when Chris reached them.

"Damn it Vin.  How'd you get shot?"

Stomach churning once more, Ezra helped Vin off with his buckskin jacket anxious to get a look a look at the wound.  He sighed with relief.  Not bad.  Not much worse than a graze.  Only enough to make him lose his grip on the rifle.  Just as he'd hoped.

As he ripped Vin's shirtsleeve to fully expose the wound so it could be washed, he looked at Chris and shrugged.  "It appears I did not inflict any serious damage."

Chris nodded abstractedly, apparently believing Ezra was talking about his current ministrations.  "You're doing fine, Ez."  Already his attention was moving on, as his keen gaze took in the surrounding area once more.

Ezra walked over to Brady's waiting horses for a canteen and something clean to use as a bandage.  Then all of a sudden it caught up to him.  He'd shot Vin.  What if he'd missed?  It could be Vin lying with sightless eyes instead of one of the outlaws.  Ezra broke into a cold sweat, and wiped his forehead with a shaky hand.  He turned away and vomited up the little he had left of the miserable breakfast of hardtack and jerky he'd eaten on the ride in.

Chris handed him one of the canteens then rummaged through the saddlebags, pulling out what looked to be a clean shirt.  "You OK?  Never thought you'd get queasy at the sight of a little blood."

Ezra leaned against the horse, trying to steady himself.   "I'm so damned arrogant.  I could have killed Vin if I'd been slightly off.  I shouldn't have taken such a risk."

"You shot him?  You?"  Ezra's meaning was abundantly clear this time, and Chris wasn't taking it at all well.

Vin joined them in time to prevent a bloodbath.  "If he hadn't, I'd've shot that kid."

With swift hand motions and a few well-chosen words, he explained the set up.  Chris was still scowling as Vin turned his attention to Ezra, placing his hand on Ezra's shoulder.

"Glad yer such a good shot Ez.  But even if you'd a got me worse, I'd rather a bin shot by you than ta have shot that kid.  Couldn't a lived with that."  He glanced back at Chris then turned to hold Ezra's eyes with his own.  "Ya did right Ez.  Don't let Chris make ya doubt yerself."

Ezra looked him in the eye.  "I rather imagined you'd feel that way Vin.  Unless of course, my shot had hit you a few inches over."  He brushed his fingers over Vin's shirt, feeling the gentle beating of Vin's heart. A misplaced shot, and the rhythm would have been stilled forever.

Chris muttered something unintelligible that nonetheless conveyed his disgust.  His eyes simmered with latent anger.  "When you've finished patching Vin up, maybe you can start looking for the ransom money.  Between you and JD there ain't no one left alive to tell us where it's hid, 'less the kid knows."

Now that he was sure Vin bore him no ill will, Ezra quickly regained control of himself, firmly willing his shaking hands to still.  "I apologize Mr. Larabee, I was concentrating so intensely on not killing Vin, I didn't have much time for a careful shot on the second one."

Chris shrugged, "Can't fault that I guess."

"You could say that with a little more enthusiasm Chris," Vin complained.  He winked at Ezra, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder.  "Hey, Ez.  Let's you and me search the cabin.  You can tell me all about how ya managed ta pull off sech a fine bit a'shootin' while we look fer the money."

"By all means, Mr. Tanner."  Ezra grinned, his gold tooth glinting in the sunlight.  "We've got ample time to explore the premises.  But first let's take care of that wound."

The two men strolled off, Ezra ripping the shirt into strips as they walked.  A quick glance over his shoulder made him grin again.  Chris Larabee was standing with his hands on his hips, shaking his head in disgust.  Ezra turned back to Vin.  "What do you think the odds are we'll find some decent breakfast waiting in that cabin? I'm famished."

The End


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