The Magpie



Chapter Eighteen


“Kid!” Buck practically screamed the name as JD fell backwards into the branches that did nothing to stop the inevitable.  Vin, Nathan and Chris ran forward at the same time that the crowd backed up, wanting to get out of the way.  




JD felt every branch, every twig, every knot as he crashed downwards.  Desperate fingers reached for purchase at every branch, legs useless as he was punched and smacked, sometimes back first, then his legs….he couldn’t even see which way was up anymore, but he could feel it….




Seven magpies screeched and exploded up from the tree like bats escaping from a cave, seeking safety in the sky above.




Josiah was running as soon as he saw JD slip backwards, as were the other townsfolk who had been watching from a safe distance.




The gamblers in front of the saloon started calling odds on survival.




The kid felt something break in his right arm, and then his head met a branch as solid as any rock….


Vin, Chris and Nathan stood below the tree, holding up arms over their heads as wood and leaves crashed down around them.  They could no longer see….


Buck never stopped looking up, following the kid’s fall with unwavering intensity. 


As soon as he knew where, the ladies’ man ran over to one side, arms reaching out….


The kid’s body hit the last couple of branches….


And fell right into Buck’s arms.  The ladies’ man collapsed under the weight, but the branches had slowed the kid’s descent more than enough to allow Buck to catch him.


The ladies’ man was on the ground, holding the unconscious kid to him.  Nathan skidded down next to him, shoving aside bits of wood and branch that stuck to JD’s clothes.   Fingers pressed themselves to the side of the kid’s neck, and the healer breathed a sigh of relief at the steady, if rapid, pulse.  The healer then got his hands under JD’s head to see the wound there, frowning at the blood.  He looked up at Buck, brown eyes deadly calm.


“Clinic, now.  Chris,” Nathan looked at the gunslinger who was crouched nearby.  “I need the Greenes.  Tell them what’s happened.”


“We already know,” Belinda Greene said from one side of the crowd gathering in close again.  Her fingers were picking up the pretty blue muslin skirt she had been planning to wear to the concert.  “Stephen’s already gone to get what you’ll need.  We’ll meet you at the clinic.”  And she was gone, running back to join her husband at his apothecary shop.


Nathan nodded, pleased, and blew the air out of his cheeks.  With steady arms, he helped Buck back to his feet.  The ladies’ man grunted, but didn’t release his burden.  Together, with Chris clearing the way, they moved as quickly as they dared towards the clinic.


Vin stood stock still, arms crossed.  His blue eyes were bright with worry…and guilt.


What the hell had happened?


He looked up the tree, noting how strangely quiet it suddenly seemed.


All the magpies were gone.



“Is he out?” Kite asked as Jay bent over Ezra.  As he spoke, the gambler groaned weakly, a hand lifting to touch his bleeding head.  Jay shook his head at his partner.




“Well, don’t take your eyes off of ‘im,” Kite told his partner, touching a hand to the small cut on his neck, “Man’s slippery as an eel.”  He spit some of the blood out of his mouth, then knelt down next to the prone gambler; his hand grabbed the man’s neck and pressed down harshly so that Ezra started to choke. As soon as the green eyes opened, Kite smiled down at him. “You are a son of a bitch, Standish,” he hissed, “You will hurt for this.”  He let go abruptly, and stood up again, leaving the gambler gasping. 


Jay smiled, hefting the rifle higher as Ezra turned his unfocused green eyes on him.  Blood ran down the side of the gambler’s face, pooling next and around his right eye.  The gambler was forced to blink, turning his head to the right to prevent the blood from blinding him. 


Kite, meanwhile, crossed back to the window, leaning out slightly in order to see what was happening across the street.  The kid had seen him, he knew.  If he had survived that fall…he could be telling Larabee and Wilmington right now about what he saw in here.


Not taking his eyes off of Ezra, Jay cleared his throat to ask Kite what was happening.


“I can’t tell. Too many people,” Kite said.  “What the hell was that kid doing up that tree?”


“Looking for the brooch, I think,” Jay replied.  “Someone had the bright idea that one of them magpies stole it.”


“Thieving magpies,” Kite snorted, “That old wives’ tale?  What genius had that bright idea, I wonder.”


“Uh huh, that’s what I thought,” Jay agreed weakly.  Actually, he’d thought it sounded like a good idea when he’d asked.  “Kid didn’t find anything before he fell, though.”


The words pierced Ezra’s haze.  JD fell? 


“Yeah,” Kite gave a small smile, “I’m sorry I missed that.  Must have been a spectacular sight.”


Ezra’s consciousness rushed back in a wave, with only one thought pulsing in his brain. 


Oh God…if JD fell…if JD fell….


“Is…is….” Ezra stuttered, turning his head again to look towards Kite.  “The…kid…hurt?  Please…” tell me, he begged silently. 


Jay arched an eyebrow, impressed that the gambler was able to string a thought together.  Must have a hard head.  Kite too glanced at Ezra, not hiding his surprise.  He was even more interested when he saw the naked concern in the gambler’s eyes.


“Wait, you know the kid?”


“Hurt…?”  Ezra muttered, closing his eyes.  Man his head throbbed.


“Sure they do, Kite,” Jay answered for the gambler.  “Kid and him, they’re friends.  The kid’s the same one I ran into outside of town.  Was defending the gambler to a buffalo hunter.”


“Vin…” Ezra said, eyes still closed.  Why did his head hurt?  Or…right…someone had hit him….


“Yeah, right, Vin, that’s what he called the buffalo hunter,” Jay tilted his head.


“JD…?” the gambler asked again, eyes opening to look at Kite, a serious plea in his voice.  He had to know.


Kite didn’t answer him.  Instead, his eyes looked back outside.  He was in time to see Wilmington lift up an obviously unconscious “JD” in his arms, and Larabee cleared the way through the crowds for them.  A black man followed close behind Wilmington, holding what looked like a cloth to the back of the kid’s head. 


They headed away from the hotel, past the undertakers, and towards the livery and the church.


Kite nodded in relief that no one seemed to be looking at the hotel for answers, and turned back around to look at Jay. 


“So now what?” Jay asked, hearing the sigh and glancing up at his partner.


“I said keep your eyes on him!” Kite ordered.  Jay grimaced, not seeing what possible threat the stunned gambler could be right now.  He looked back down at Ezra…and was surprised to see a greater consciousness in the green eyes now looking back at him.  Gambler was recovering quickly.


Kite knelt down next to Ezra, picking up the dropped hunting knife as he did so.  As the gambler had done to him, he placed it against Ezra’s throat and pressed.  The gambler reacted by sucking in a breath and closing his eyes.


“You want to know how the boy is?”


Pained green eyes opened again.  Yes, they said.


“Still alive, but it don’t look good.  Wilmington just carried him away somewhere.”  Kite shook his head, “After a fall like that…hitting all those branches probably saved him from dying from the fall, but they had to have done some damage on the way down.  Don’t you think?  Probably gonna die from his injuries….”  Kite smiled at the agony he was causing in the other man.  Ezra took in a shuddering breath, and his right hand lifted, heading for his pounding head.  Kite pressed the knife deeper, “Uh, uh, uh…keep the hands down.”


Ezra complied, the hand dropping down, his jaw tensing.  Kite’s smile grew.


“All right, Standish, here’s the deal,” the blond thief hissed.  “I want that brooch, and you’re going to tell me where it is.”


“Sure he knows?” Jay asked curiously.


“He knows,” Kite replied, his tone short.  “But first…”  He slid the knife down Ezra chest, then tucked it under the waistcoat.  In seconds, he’d ripped the thick fabric open, revealing the pouch.  Grabbing it, he let Jay keep the rifle on the gambler as he looked inside.  “Well, look at this,” Kite smiled.  He held up the cash, and Jay whistled.  Kite smiled down at the gambler.  Ezra glared back, his hands gripping into fists.


“How much is this, huh?” Kite asked, rubbing at his roman nose with his knife hand.  “At least a thousand, I’d say.  Nice.  It’ll help set us up well when we get to Mexico.”  Tucking the pouch inside his own jacket, he used to knife to make a shallow cut down Ezra’s torso, splitting the white shirt in half and staining it with blood.  Ezra tensed, making only a slight noise at the back of his throat at the pain. Kite’s eyes hardened at the lack of response, and he pressed the knife to Ezra’s throat again.


“Do you know what my nickname is, Standish?”


Ezra smiled, “Pretty boy?”


Jay snorted, and Kite sneered, slapping Ezra’s face with his other hand.


“Cutter,” the blond man told him, “And can you guess why?”


Ezra’s smile returned, “Uncontrolled flatulence?”


Jay laughed out loud, while Kite delivered a sharp back hand blow across Ezra’s face.  The gambler blacked out for a second, and had to blink several times before the room came back into focus.  Kite, meanwhile, was now pressing the point of the knife in between two of Ezra’s ribs.  When he knew he had Ezra’s focus again, he pressed down…then slashed to the right between them.


The gambler couldn’t hold back the cry of pain at the deeper cut.  Kite lifted the knife up, wiping the bloody blade against the torn shirt.


“I do hope this blade wasn’t too dirty,” the thief hissed.  “Enough cuts…untreated…allowed to fester….”


Ezra somehow got his breathing back under control, tears slipping down his face.  He looked at Kite, no humor left in his face.  Seeing that, Kite pressed the edge back against Ezra’s throat.


“Now where is it?” he asked, “Where is that brooch?”


Ezra frowned, icy green eyes locked on Kite’s dull brown ones.


“Go…to…hell…” he muttered.


“Pretty tough for a gambler,” Jay noted, still amused. 


Kite wasn’t.  He pressed the knife deeper into the throat…then suddenly lifted it away to make another slash down Ezra’s torso.  The gambler gasped, his back arching slightly.  Before he recovered, Kite started cutting slowly down the sternum, grinning as Ezra literally started to shake from the pain…then the thief shifted the blade to the left, finding the spot above where he knew the heart would be.


“All I have to do is press down, gambler….” he threatened, “and it stops beating.”  He pressed it down, opening a small cut.  Smiling, he then turned the knife in a circle, tearing the flesh, clapping his other hand on Ezra’s mouth as the gambler involuntarily screamed, muffling it.  When the gambler’s liquid eyes were on him again, he lifted the hand off Ezra’s mouth.


“Where is the brooch, Standish!”  Kite demanded.   He hissed in annoyance as Ezra responded by pressing his trembling lips together, the green eyes closing again in defiance.  The knife was back against the gambler’s throat, but it only seemed to lock the man’s pale lips tighter.  Kite grimaced.  The gambler knew they wouldn’t kill him until he told them about the brooch.  And Standish also knew they’d kill him as soon as they did know.



Chapter Nineteen


The tracker half walked, half stumbled up the stairs to the clinic, still not quite believing what had just happened.


If the kid died…oh God….


He reached the platform outside Nathan’s clinic, where Chris was leaning against the wall next to the door.  The gunslinger looked up at him, then looked back down at his feet.  Josiah leaned against the banister, fingers tapping against the wood as he stared at the magpie’s tree.  Vin swallowed, walking past the preacher to the door.


“How is he?” he asked weakly.


“I don’t know,” Chris growled.  The gunslinger stood up and walked to the banister at the corner of the balcony, staring at the crowded streets below.  Vin shivered, gripping his arms as if he’d just felt a sharp chill, and closing his eyes.  Josiah turned and frowned as he saw the tracker’s shaken state.


“Vin?”  the preacher grabbed Vin’s arm and gave it a shake.  Vin, you alright?” 


Over in his corner, Chris looked back at the question, his eyes narrowed as he waited for the answer.


The tracker looked first at his arm, as if wondering why it was shaking, then blinked up into Josiah’s concerned face. 




“You alright?”


Vin shrugged.  Chris sighed at the non-response and returned his eyes to the street below.  Josiah accepted the response, but didn’t let go of the arm.  He needed an answer to something.


“Vin, talk to me.  What happened?  Why did JD fall?”




“JD.  I was watching from back there,” the preacher pointed vaguely towards the middle of town. “Why did he fall?”


Chris heard the question, and his eyes drifted up town where Josiah pointed, towards the saloon.  A stray thought entered his mind upon seeing some of the professional gamblers hanging out front, and he frowned. Just a minute…where…?  He started searching the crowds….


Vin blinked, clearing away some of the haze in his head, and finally registered some of the Josiah’s words. He shook his head.


“He fell because of me.  It’s my fault,” he muttered, using his free hand to cover his eyes.  “I should have been the one up there.  It was my idea….”


Josiah frowned, “No, Vin, that’s not what I meant.”  He gripped the tracker’s arm tighter, “JD didn’t slip, he actually let go.  With both hands.  I saw him do it.  Why did he let go?”



Kite’s lips were pressed in a thin line.  He’d had enough.  The knife lifted away, and he let it hover in front of Ezra face.


“All right, you two bit thieving piece of garbage, you listen to me.  One friend of yours is already going to die because of that brooch.  I’d hate to have anyone else share his fate.  Maybe that buffalo hunter friend of yours that you mentioned…Vin something or other, wasn’t it?  Can’t be too hard to find him.  You could find him pretty easily, couldn’t you Jay?”


“Oh sure,” Jay said, excited at the prospect.  “And I could find that former Ranger too, even more easily.  How about it, Kite, can I?”


Kite’s smile was cold as he lifted the knife away, “Sure, Jay, why not.  You can take ‘em both if you want.”


Ezra’s eyes opened again.  He looked up at the blond man, then to the dark-headed man beyond.  He had no doubt they would make good their threats…in fact, something in the tall man’s eyes when he mentioned the “Ranger” told him they would probably go through with it whether they got the brooch or not.


Kite smiled.  He could see it in the gambler’s eyes – he’d won.  “Where’s the brooch, Standish.”


Ezra sighed, weighing his options.  He wanted to keep these men here…perhaps the others would notice he was missing and….


JD fell.


No help would be coming.  The town would have to be on fire to distract them away from the kid’s beside.  As it should be. 


He was alone…well…shit. 


“All right,” he croaked, “I’ll tell you.”


And if I’m going to die at the end of this, he added silently…I’m going to take you both with me….



Vin lifted his hand away from his face.  He looked at Josiah clearly for the first time, eyes shifting from hazy blue to solid gray.  Chris had also turned and was staring at both of them, his brow furrowed.


“He what?” Vin said.


“JD let go.”


“He...let…go.” This was delivered in the “you’re shittin’ me” voice.




Vin frowned, and then looked at his arm.  Josiah gave a wan smile and let go his grip.  With a nod to the preacher, Vin turned, looked at Chris then over at the tree.  The birds still hadn’t returned to it yet.


“Were the birds attacking him?” Vin suggested to the preacher.  “I assumed he fell because they….”


“No.  There were none attacking him.  He must have seen something.  Something that spooked him.”


Vin looked back at Josiah, “Something?  Like what?”


Josiah shook his head, also looking at the tree.  Then his eyes drifted to the hotel opposite it.


Vin’s eyes made the same connection, “Something in one of the hotel’s windows?”


Chris, meanwhile, had returned to his search of the streets below, hearing and not hearing the conversation behind him.  At the mention of the hotel, he straightened, zeroing in on the third floor rooms…Gwendolyn Pigeon’s former rooms…. 


He turned and looked at Vin and Josiah, breaking in on their conversation,  Either of you seen Ezra?”


Vin’s eyebrows rose at the seeming non-sequitur.  Josiah’s brow furrowed.


“Has anyone seen him since before JD climbed that tree?” Chris demanded more fervently.  “The saloon maybe?”  He looked at Josiah.


“No,” the preacher said, “He wasn’t there….”


“You’re right, he should be up here with us.  There’s no way he could have missed this,” Vin realized.  “Unless he’s left….”


“He hasn’t,” Chris stated.


“Are you sure?”


“Yes.  He wouldn’t leave.”


It was an odd statement, but the others didn’t comment on it.   


Chris turned again, pinpointing the dark hotel windows.  Suddenly, he swore under his breath and whipped around, pushing past both Josiah and Vin towards the stairs.  The two men looked at each other, then moved quickly to follow, bounding down the steps as Chris started running for the hotel.



Chapter Twenty


“Up…it’s up,” Ezra told Kite.  The blond thief frowned.




“Not sure where.  In an open knot in one of the overhead beams…maybe hidden inside the curved moulding….or on top of the wardrobe….”  Ezra closed his eyes as a sharp pain rippled down the side with the deepest cut, hissing a little.  One leg lifted, bending at the knee, trying to lessen the pull on the cut.   When he opened them again, Kite was still staring at him, not understanding.


“You hid it up somewhere?”


“Obviously,” Ezra growled, his teeth gritting together as the pain finally subsided, “I didn’t hide it.  If I did, I would know exactly where it is.  But I’m certain its up.”


Kite frowned, he didn’t get it.  “If you didn’t hide it, then, what, the real thief have told you where it was?”


“Something like that,” Ezra agreed weakly, not denying the statement.  Let them think what they wanted.


“Okay,” Kite still frowned, “We’ll play along.” He lifted the knife away, then wiped it off using Ezra’s navy jacket.  Sliding it back into the sheath, he rocked back off his knees onto his heels, then stood up with a grunt, leaving Ezra still lying on the ground.  The blond thief looked back at Jay, “Give me the rifle.”


Jay frowned, “What?”


“You’re taller than me.  Pull out the desk chair, stand on it, and look around.  I’ll watch the gambler.”


Jay grimaced, then shrugged.  He handed Kite the rifle, who proceeded to kneel, resting on his heels, back next to Ezra’s side, about hip level.  The rifle was long, and he proceeded to point it straight at the point between Ezra’s eyes.  He sighted down it, unnecessarily of course, and smirked.  The gambler didn’t take his eyes off the thief’s brown ones – locking the man’s attention on his face so that he wouldn’t pay attention to anything else….


Jay pulled the chair over behind Kite, which was sort of the center of the room, and, gingerly, because the floor was uneven, he clambered up on it.  One hand braced itself against one of the exposed beams and he proceeded to peer around in a circle.  Suddenly, he grinned.


“There it is!” he cried cheerfully, pointing at the wardrobe.  “Over there!”


Without thinking, Kite looked a little behind him at the call, wanting to see where his partner pointed. 


When he looked back, Ezra’s left hand was gripping the barrel of the rifle, and he’d brought both legs up against his chest.  Before Kite could react, Ezra punched the thief’s chest with both feet, sending Kite sprawling backwards, right into Jay’s chair.  The tall man toppled over off his precarious perch, crying out as he hit part of the wall by the door and landed awkwardly against his left arm.  Kite rolled, feeling more than seeing Ezra wrench the rifle from his grasp, missing pulling the trigger by inches. 


The gambler tossed the rifle to the side and lurched to his feet, reaching for the desk where his guns lay.


Kite hit the wall next to Jay, pulling out a throwing knife from a sheath on his hip as he did so.  As Ezra grabbed the Remington with his right hand, Kite rose to one knee and tossed the knife, hitting the gambler deep in the upper right shoulder, and Ezra’s whole right sight reeled backwards from the blow, the gun flying from his grasp.


Kite pulled the another knife from seemingly out of nowhere and clambered to his feet.


Still moving, Ezra grabbed the colt with his left hand….


As Kite lifted to throw it, Ezra pointed and fired, the bullet drilling a hole into the wood paneling just inches from Kite’s head.


“Drop it!” the gambler hissed.


Kite hesitated, breathing hard, half smiling as his hand trembled where it held the knife, wanting to throw it. 


“You really are fast, Standish….You left handed too?”  the thief wondered absently.  The knife was still in Ezra’s right shoulder, rendering the right hand basically useless, but the left hand seemed to be having no problem….


“I said drop it!” Ezra repeated.  “And get back down next to your partner.”


The thief’s smile grew, but he dropped the knife and carefully sat back down against the wall.  Jay groaned, lifting himself up out of the heap he’d collapsed into.  He blinked blearily back at Ezra, one hand gripping his left arm, and leaned himself against the wall next to his partner.


“Hands up!” Ezra commanded, “Way up!”


Both men raised their hands up, though Jay’s left arm lifted only about halfway, the tall man grimacing at the pain radiating down it.  Kite’s smile never diminished; he could see the gambler was fading fast.  Ezra was leaning heavily against the desk, sweat and blood mixing as they dripped down the right hand side of the gambler’s face.  The man’s whole body was shaking, the right arm bent at the waist, pressed against his torn chest, as if it could keep anymore blood from escaping from the cuts.  More blood blossomed from his shoulder, around the embedded knife.


“How long do you think you can keep this up?” Kite jeered.


“Why?” Ezra countered, “You want me to shoot you now?”


Kite’s smile grew, “Don’t be a fool, Standish.  Tell you what – you let us go, and we’ll send someone up to help you on our way out.”


Ezra gave an involuntary chuckle, “And deprive the noose of your company?  I don’t think so.”


Jay sighed, but Kite just continued to smile.  All they had to do was wait…the gambler was about to collapse….


Ezra sucked in deep breath, ignoring the sharp jabs of pain all over his torso, “Chambers!” he shouted.  “Chambers!”


Kite lifted an eyebrow, “Think he can hear you?”


“He had to have heard that shot,” Ezra hissed, “and he’ll hear another one if you don’t shut up.”


Kite nodded, lips pursed in amusement.


“Chambers!” Ezra shouted again, then coughed.  The gun dipped, then rose again.  Kite had twitched at the almost opening, then settled again.  Not yet….


Ezra drew in another breath, “Chambers!  Sykes!” His voice was getting weaker – that shout had been more of a croak.  Damn it…where the hell were they? 


His left arm really started to shake.


“SYKES!” he bellowed. 


“Ezra!” a voice shouted back.


Ezra’s eyes widened.


“Chris!” he yelled, voice thick with exhaustion, “Hurry!”


Kite frowned, his fingers clenching, eyes darting out the door to the parlor.  No….


The gambler tensed as the lock on the doors to the hallway was shot off.  Jay must have set it after he came in.


The outer doors exploded inwards, and Ezra had to use all his willpower not to look out the bedroom door into the parlor room.


Kite begged for Standish to glance away…if he just looked away, maybe….


“It’s over,” Jay muttered, sensing the tension in the man next to him. “Give it up, Kite.  He’s got us.” 


“Ezra, my god….” Chris skidded into the room, followed by Vin and Josiah, and three pairs of eyes focused on the two thieves sitting on the floor.  All three narrowed in instant hatred.


Kite bowed his head.  Jay nodded.  Yup.  They were gonna hang.


“Mr. Larabee…” Ezra breathed the name like a sigh. Thank God.  “You’re…late….” 


Vin set his Mare’s Leg on the two strangers against the wall, and Josiah imitated him with his Smith and Wesson.  Chris pulled the colt from Ezra’s cold fingers, eyes taking in the cuts and the knife in his right shoulder, his arm snaking around under the man’s arms.  He didn’t comment on how awful Ezra looked…or the fact that he was amazed Ezra was even still standing.  Ezra just let him take his weight.


“Damn, Ez,” Vin said, “what the hell happened?”


“Thieves,” Ezra replied.  “Thought…I had the brooch.”  He chuckled, “they tried…to torture it out of me…”


Vin hissed, and Josiah had to fight hard not to fire the gun in his hand right between the blond one’s beady eyes.


“But…I handled it,” Ezra smiled at them proudly, “caught two…birds with one…stone…so to speak.”


“So to speak,” Chris agreed softly, glancing at the gambler.  “Glad to see you didn’t need us.”   


Ezra smiled at him.


“Get them to the jail,” Chris ordered Vin and Josiah.  “I’ll see to…”


“No,” Ezra croaked, “wait.”  He lifted himself off Chris, the gunslinger frowning as Ezra lurched over to Kite.  The blond man stared daggers at the gambler as Ezra leaned over him. 


Ezra held his out his left hand.


Kite’s jaw muscles clenched, then released.  Slowly, reacting to the sound of two hammers being pulled back as he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, he pulled out the small blue pouch…and put it back into Ezra’s hand.  The gambler nodded once, then backed away.  Chris’s eyebrows rose, obviously recognizing the pouch, then smiled slightly as Ezra caught his eye. 


“Get up,” Vin hissed.  “On your feet, both of you.”


Kite and Jay stood up, the tall man holding his left arm to his side.  He’d dislocated it in his fall from the chair.  Kite just kept his hands up.


“Watch the blond,” Ezra hissed as the two thieves limped out, “his nickname’s Cutter.  He’s got knives all over him.”


“Cutter,” Vin smiled, “nice.”  He shoved the Mare’s Leg in Kite’s back, and the blond man tripped forward slightly.  He turned to glare at Vin, but the tracker just smiled more broadly.


“Move,” Josiah hissed, pushing Jay in front of him out into the parlor.  Ezra followed them for a few steps, and saw that Chambers was standing out there, wringing his hands.  The day manager made a small whimpering noise as he caught his first good view of Ezra’s state.


“I’ll go get Mr. Jackson,” he said quickly, heading out the doors into the hallway after the others.  “And send Sykes up here to help.”  He jogged out of the room, and they soon heard him bounding down the stairs, yelling for help.


“He’s a good man,” Chris muttered, smiling.


“I believe that deserves an ‘I told you so,’” the gambler answered softly, a smile in his voice.  Then he groaned, croaking out a weak:  “Chris….”


The gunslinger turned…and moved like lightning, getting under the gambler to stop his fall.  His balance was off, and both men fell to the floor.  Chris shifted back to put his back against the bed, and rested Ezra against him.


The gambler’s head lolled forward, and Chris pushed it back, so he could see his face.  Ezra blinked up at him, and smiled softly. 


“Thanks,” he whispered.


“Don’t mention it,” Chris replied, just as softly.  “Just hold on…Nathan’ll soon be here.”


At the mention of Nathan’s name, Ezra frowned, “JD…?”


The gunslinger’s face darkened, “I don’t know.”


Ezra sighed, shivering slightly, then looked towards the wardrobe.  “The brooch…its up there.”


Chris frowned, following his gaze to the wardrobe.  “What?”


“Pigeon’s brooch…atop the wardrobe….”


Chris looked at Ezra, “Why is it up there?”


“Because…she hid it there.  I should have figured it out sooner,” Ezra swallowed, fighting to stay awake.  “Gadwall and Plover…gave me all the clues I need this morning.  Pigeon’s…been sabotaging…her concerts….Maybe…because she’s….getting old…. Her voice…is fading…so…in each place…she’s been finding…excuses…to cut her…concerts…short… while…still…getting paid…. Here…our town…its reputation…perfect…for a theft….”  He coughed, and Chris lifted him up higher, wrapping Ezra’s torn shirt across the man’s chest like a makeshift bandage. 


“Keep talking,” the gunslinger whispered.  He wanted Ezra to stay awake.


Ezra took in a shallow breath, “She…hid the brooch…it’s “theft” would have…given her the excuse…to sing…only half…a concert…tonight….and…maybe she could…have gotten…the town….the hotel…to pay…her more money…in recompense….”  Ezra sighed, swallowing again, thinking that his throat felt very dry.  Chris, meanwhile, was remember Mrs. Pigeon’s threat to sue the town from earlier today.  The gunslinger looked up at the wardrobe.


“Why did she hide it up there?”


“Ah,” Ezra smiled, proud of himself for figuring that part out, “because…no one…would ever think to look there….If someone…thought…she’d just misplaced it…they might have searched her things…and elsewhere in the room…where a normal person might…have put something…people might have checked…but…there is no way…it could have…gotten to the top of the wardrobe…unless purposefully…put there….so no one…would ever think to look…. “ He coughed again, swallowed, and started speaking again, “After…she could have…just gotten…it back….then…later…pretended…to have had…another made…. Who…who would…question….” He faded, and his eyes closed.  “I’m…very…tired…Chris….”


“Ezra?”  Chris looked at the gambler’s lax face, “Ezra?  Ezra…come on…wake up…keep talking to me…come on….”  He shook the man in his arms slightly, then more roughly when he got no response.  “Damn it, man!  Wake up!”


Footsteps running up the stairs and down the hallway greeted his ears, and Chris looked up to see Sykes and Nathan run into the room.  The night manager gave a tiny peep at the state of the gambler, and dumped the bandages and cloths in his arms onto the bed.  Nathan was next to Ezra, pulling the shirt aside to look at the man’s injuries.  He hissed as he saw the extent of the damage.


“Who did this?” the healer demanded.


“Dead men,” Chris replied darkly.