While Nathan gathered all the needed supplies, Vin began boiling the surgical blades and needles. Chris went to Mrs. Potter’s store and borrowed more lanterns. During his absence, Josiah and Buck cleaned Ezra from neck to waist with lye soap and carbolic alcohol. Chris came back with four lanterns and after quickly hammering a few nails into the ceiling and bending the ends upward, he lit the lamps and hung them over the needed site.
Nathan bought one of the three medical books he had over to where Ezra was lying and handed it to Chris. The tall blond would read what precisely needed to be done. Nathan looked around him and saw the complete trust in him in each man’s face. “Josiah, keep the ether dripping, but don’t get him too deep; we don’t need him going into a coma.”
Josiah nodded and placed a small pieces of cotton cloth soaked in ether over Ezra’s mouth. He had opened the window next to the bed, so the rest of them would be breathing fresh air and not inhale as much of the fumes. Nathan slowly inserted the blade into Ezra’s abdomen and slit a five-inch long gap into the welled skin. Buck was ready with rags to wipe away the blood. Peeling back the skin, Nathan asked Vin to hold a lantern closer. Vin reached over to the table and grabbed the lantern that was sitting there. Holding it above the healer’s shoulder, both men tried to not to notice the way the light shook ever so lightly due to the trembling hands that held it.
Nathan slipped his fingers inside Ezra’s abdomen and going by what Chris was reading, felt along the organ, which had been determined by feel alone to be the kidney. Nathan drew his bloody fingers along the edges and soon felt a slight pulsating of blood being pumped against his fingers. “Found it,” he declared. He drew his fingers back out and pick up the scalpel and sliced the opening further open.
Vin readjusted the light and Nathan could see where the blood was flowing freely from a long nick on the right kidney. Buck kept wiping up the blood to keep the site clear. A mound of blood-soaked cloths slowly grew at the cowboy’s feet. Josiah kept his eyes locked on the unconscious friend’s face, his lips constantly moving silently in a never-ending prayer. Chris kept his eyes locked on the book before him. The need to give Nathan a warning about any potential complications had him scanning two paragraphs ahead of what he was reading aloud.
Nathan took one of the already threaded needles and sewed the cut closed. All took a deep breath, but knew they weren’t done yet. There was still the potential for other bleeders. Chris read from the book about checking the liver, spleen, small intestine and pancreas. Vin and Buck stole furtive looks at one another as Chris named each organ. Neither knew there were so many things inside one’s body that could be injured.
Nathan dutifully finger examined each organ and found a small lesion on the small intestine. After sewing it up, Nathan removed his hands from Ezra’s body and rinsed them in the heated water, Chris had carried over to him once he was done reading. Nathan scrubbed his hands and began to sew the outside incision closed. He was in deep concentration when Buck’s low voice startled him.
“You figure he’ll start getting better now?” the tall, black-haired man asked seriously.
“I don’t know. There is so much other damage done to him,” Nathan answered truthfully.
Buck cleaned up the mess on the floor and put the used rags into the boiling pot of water to be cleaned and sterilized. They would be needed again in the future. While Buck cleaned up the floor, Josiah removed the ether-filled rag and began fanning fresh air into Ezra’s face. Chris took the remaining clean rags and began cleaning Ezra’s torso. It had been a joint effort, but Chris figured that was how they did best, by doing it together.
After everything had been put back in order, the men dispersed. Chris, tired to the bone, but knowing that none of the others were any more tired than he was, took town patrol. He checked the stores and looking out for possible loiters. Once secure in the thought that the town had bedded down for the night, he headed towards his bed in the rooming house. He felt it was safe enough and knew there was no need for anyone to stay up all night patrolling the town. This was still the age when people left their front doors unlocked and everyone, including outlaws, was bedded down by midnight. Four Corners was a small, budding town, not some big city back east and for that Chris was eternally thankful.
Vin headed towards the livery and made a pass through, checking to make sure the horses had been properly tended to before heading off to his wagon. His bed, no matter its condition, was going to beat the hard ground any time. Climbing up into the back, he looked over at the single light burning from the jailhouse and caught a glimpse of Buck entering the small structure.
Buck walked into the small building, the sudden noise startling a tense JD. Buck gave a small smile and stared at the slumbering criminals while JD righted himself. Buck was too tired to make fun of the kid tonight. JD had put the two new brothers into the other cell.
Earlier that night, they had seemed real intent on killing their brother and JD was ready to pull his gun and shoot them when Chris walked in. One look at that face and all three brothers went silent. The sheriff didn’t have the ability to read people like the older peacekeepers did, but even he could tell something was wrong. Seeing the lanterns in the gunslinger’s hands, he had asked tentatively, “Chris, what’s going on?”
“Nathan’s going to operate on Ez and see if he can’t get the bleeding to stop,” Chris had answered, the whole time staring at the three men with such hate, JD wasn’t sure the men were going to just explode.
JD had swallowed hard. “Nathan knows what he’s doing. Ezra will be all right,” JD said, trying to convince himself more than Chris.
Chris had nodded once. “If he ain’t…,” Chris left the threat hanging.
Realizing Buck was still standing there, JD blushed at being caught daydreaming.
“Hey, Buck,” he greeted wearily.
“Hey,” Buck answered back. Walking over to the cells, he noticed they were all asleep. One of the twins, he couldn’t tell them apart and didn’t care, had taken a blanket and made a pallet on the floor while they other had taken the bed. “They give you any trouble?” he questioned, turning back to JD.
“Nah,” the sheriff said. “Though I reckon it’d be good idea not to let those two near that David. Figure they’ll kill him if they get the chance,” he finished saying as he fought a yawn.
Buck caught the yawn and fought one of his own. Sleep would be very welcomed right now, but the kid looked like he could do with it more than he could. “Why don’t you go on, JD? I’ll stay here and look after them. Won’t be long until Vin’ll come take over anyway,” Buck said. They all knew Vin rose with the first ray of light no matter what, so it wouldn’t be but a couple of hours.
JD started to argue, but Buck threw his hand in the air in a shooing motion. “Get,” he ordered with a smile.
JD nodded his head and started to turn and leave. Stopping, he asked the question he’d been afraid to ask since Buck walked in, “How is he?”
Buck bowed his head in contemplation. Buck looked back at the kid. “Won’t know for awhile, I guess. He lost a lot of blood before Nathan operated and lost some while he was trying to find out where Ezra was bleeding from. I guess we’ll just have to keep waiting,” the older man said looking very tired. Brightening with a smile for a moment, he shooed JD once again. “Now, go!”
JD stepped out the door. “Night, Buck.”
“Night, kid,” Buck answered as he sat down in the chair, leaned back and put his feet up. When Vin came, there was no doubt he was going to head straight for bed. Right after he checked on that gambler.
Nathan had stayed up the rest of the night, resting in the hard-back wood chair. He was beyond tired now. It had been over sixty hours since they had found Ezra in that ravine, but it seemed more like a month, and in all that time he had only caught a few hours of sleep. To top off his exhaustion, he was still fuming over the tactic Chris had used to get him to operate. He might understand the need, but the words still burned.
Nathan was slightly dozing when he heard the door creak opened. Cracking open an eyelid, he watched JD slide in quietly. Nathan closed his eye and went back to dozing. The young easterner sat down on the far side of the bed and subconsciously picked up the rag in the bowl of water and began wiping down Ezra’s face. The fever that had been surging through the southerner had lowered significantly, but hadn’t broken. After going to bed early that morning, JD had finally received an enough sleep to function again.
JD stared down at his friend and let his memories float along. There had been moments in his life since coming out west that involved Ezra specifically in one way or another. The gambler had been the first of the group to introduce himself and later had almost single-handedly affected their escape. Would have probably worked, too, if that powder keg hadn’t been empty. Then there was the time the young man had shot young Mrs. Annie. Ezra was about the only one that didn’t look upon him without pity in his eyes. Of course, he couldn’t think of Mrs. Annie without thinking of Ezra coming down the street with nothing but a tablecloth wrapped around his waist. JD grinned at the memory. He had been feeling sorry for himself and just happened to look up the street in time to catch the show. The man had absolutely no shame. JD let out a silent laugh.
JD rehashed all the other times that no one else knew about, the times when it had just been him and the gambler, alone. Ezra, no matter what, had always treated him like a competent person and not the young greenhorn the others saw him as. JD kept using the rag in a repeated motion, lost in his thoughts. Only after Nathan shifted for a more comfortable position did he realize the rag was dry. Rewetting the rag, JD decided he could stay a few minutes longer and let Nathan enjoy all the rest he could get.
JD had been in the clinic only fifteen minutes before the door once again opened and Chris walked in a breakfast tray for Nathan. Seeing the man was sleeping, uncomfortably as it was, he nodded his greeting to JD. Heading for the near side of the bed, he spotted the pitcher of water. Remembering what Nathan had said about flushing out the gambler’s system, he picked up a glass and the pitcher. He realized by the coolness of the metal outside of the pitcher that the water had to be relatively fresh. Pouring the water, he walked over to the chair and sat down. Using his fingers to grip either side of Ezra’s pliant mouth and squeezing, he gently forced it open. Slowly he started dribbling a drop at a time into the dry mouth. Reflexes had the gambler’s throat opening wider so the water could make its way down.
JD watched the gunslinger gently feed Ezra the water. Very few people saw the man in black as a caring and considerate person. “You’re good at that,” JD said and then blushed a deep red and ducked his head when he realized he had spoken out loud.
Chris looked up briefly and grinned despite himself at the kid’s embarrassment. “Adam got strep throat once. Took to an awful fever. Sarah couldn’t be nursemaid twenty-four hours a day,” he said and then smiled a small grin. “Though, the good Lord knows she tried.”
JD nodded and went for a diversion. He had been watching Ezra and hoped he had learned enough to do it this time. “Everyone accounted for?” Keeping up with seven men was a bit of a trick sometimes, though with two of them stuck in the clinic it made it a tad easier.
Chris nodded his head, accepting the change in topics with relief. “Vin relieved Buck at the jail at dawn, so Buck’s gone to bed. Josiah has been fielding questions from the citizens since he made his first appearance this morning at sunrise.” Chris shook his head. “Think he’s going to go on a sabbatical if it keeps up,” the man in black said with a larger smile.
JD smiled back at the image. He knew how tiring it could be to have to keep answering the same answers over and over. Chris looked up and said, “Why don’t you go on and see if Vin needs anything. I’ll stay until Nathan’s recovered enough to wake up.” Looking over at the man slouched down on the wooden chair with one leg across the other and head tilted back against the hard board, Chris winced. The healer was going to have a stiff neck when he woke up. JD nodded and whispered a goodbye to Ezra and then left the clinic.
Chris sat, for the most part, alone with Ezra and continued to pour the water a drop at a time. Sitting there in the emptiness, he thought of his life before and after meeting up these men. He had never really contemplated how drastically his life had altered since pairing up with the six other men. It wasn’t so bad. Somewhere far away, he knew Sarah was looking down on him and smiling.
Josiah’d had it. He was tired of answering the same questions from the same sniveling wimps all morning. Finally ushering the last patron out of the church, he did something he thought he’d never do; he locked the doors and snuck out the back. Stopping in at the jail, he could still see tired lines marked the tracker’s face, but knew the man faced his responsibilities with the same duty as the rest. He made a mental note to come back and relieve him early from his duties. “Hey, Vin. How’s it going?”
Vin shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Been pretty quiet. JD just left.” He smiled at the thought of how much they tended to look after each other in tight situations. He couldn’t remember feeling this looked after since leaving the tribe and often they would let him be for days at a time. Not these boys. They wanted to know where you were at and when you were expected to return all the time. He wouldn’t admit it, but he kinda liked it.
Josiah couldn’t keep the smile from blooming on his face as he watched the one-time buffalo hunter sharpen his long Bowie knife. The preacher could only imagine what types of things Vin had hinted at that led to the three jailed men’s silence. “I’m headed on over to check on Ezra and then I’ll be back to relieve you,” he told the tracker.
“That’s all right, Josiah. JD said he’d relieve me in an hour,” Vin answered, never missing a beat in sharpening his knife.
Josiah left the jail and headed for the clinic. The big man climbed the stairs, feeling like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The fact that Ezra was still with them seven hours after the surgery, while hopeful, didn’t mean that Ezra couldn’t still die. He had seen men in the war practically ready to leave for home after being patched up at the army hospital only to die of sudden complications. Stepping up on to the landing, he quietly opened the door. Apparently it wasn’t quiet enough because Nathan roused and then attempted to straighten up. Both Chris and Josiah smothered their humor at watching Nathan try to stretch and maneuver all the new kinks out of his body.
While Nathan worked on regaining circulation to parts of his body, Josiah walked over to the bed and sat down in the empty chair. “How’s he doing?” the preacher asked as he took up the limp hand and began rubbing it gently.
“Still with us,” was Chris’ reply.
Those simple words held so much hope and faith. Nathan finally walked over to the bed and, after momentarily glaring at the bowed head of the blond leader, he checked Ezra’s brow. “Fever still hanging on, but it’s down considerably,” he commented.
“Need us to help with anything while we’re here?” Josiah asked. He knew how devoted Nathan was to them when they were down, but realized having extra help was always appreciated.
Nathan seemed to give the question some serious consideration and then answered, “The padding on his back does need changing and the shoulder could be looked after,” the black healer said thoughtfully.
“Ok, let’s do it,” Chris said already standing to turn Ezra over.
Nathan was still burning from Chris’ remarks from the night before, but recognized he needed all the help he could get at the moment. With gentle ease that would shock the fair people of Four Corners, the three men eased the bound gambler over onto his left side. During Nathan’s initial review of injuries, he’d figured out the right side had taken more hits than the left and therefore the left wasn’t quite so damaged. Plus, Nathan wanted to keep Ezra off that right leg.
Josiah held the bandaged shoulder steady while Chris and Nathan unwound all the binding that had been wrapped around the battered torso. Removing the bandages, Nathan lifted up the old soft cloth that covered the majority of the whipped back. Breathing a sigh of relief, Nathan nodded to himself. His musing was interrupted by Chris’ voice. “Looks good to me.”
Nathan would have thought Chris had a mean streak in him if he hadn’t known exactly what the blond had meant. The lashes were looking good. None were swelled or red with infection. The shallower ones were even beginning to form a thin scab. The deeper ones that had been sewed closed looked clean and healthy. Nathan had worried some the other night when they had soaked the gambler in the tub to get his fever down. Afterwards Josiah had helped him unwrap the bandages and dry off the wounds.
Nathan went over to his shelves and picked up a large jar that had been reused many times. Rubbing it between his hands, he warmed up the gel inside. Taking off the lid, he dipped his long fingers into it and scooped out a huge portion. Rubbing it between his hands, he then smeared it evenly over the exposed skin. Afterwards, Chris helped him rewrap the bandages and turn the gambler back over and then set to work rewrapping the dislocated shoulder. The whole job made more difficult due to the fact that Ezra’s right leg was still splintered from the hip down to the toes. Nathan had decided against unwrapping it, afraid that any instability would cause the bones to shift. He didn’t want to grind the bones anymore than necessary. It could still cause infection to spread in there between the joints and cause more problems and right now, Nathan figured Ezra had had enough.
Once Ezra was cared for and tucked back under his covers, the three men had nothing left to do again but wait. Josiah turned to the healer and informed him, “Why don’t you get out and get something to eat? The breakfast Chris bought earlier is too cold to eat now.”
Nathan started to refute his need to leave the clinic when Chris spoke up. “Josiah’s right. Go on and get some fresh air. We’ll take care of things here.”
Nathan bit back the retort that popped into his mind, but didn’t control the blazing glare he shot at the leader as he turned and strode out of the clinic and down the steps.
Chris turned to Josiah in confusion. He didn’t understand Nathan’s hostility towards him. “What was that about?” he questioned.
“Don’t rightly know, Brother. Perhaps Nathan is just overly tired. He hasn’t slept very much since we found Ezra and bought him home,” Josiah explained cautiously. He figured he really knew what had ruffled Nathan’s feathers, but he figured it was Nathan’s business whether or not Chris should be informed.
“Well,” Chris said uneasily, stalling a bit. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much for the healer to be mad at him; when Ezra was always getting ticked off at him. Maybe it was because that was the nature of his and Ezra’s friendship, and Nathan and his was so different. Slowly he stood up. “Think I’ll head out and see what the others are up to,” he said conversationally as he headed towards the door.
Josiah nodded his head and then, after the blond had left, shook it. Chris ought to be careful or Nathan would tell that gunslinger just why he was so mad. The preacher had seen the healer rip into Ezra enough times to know it wasn’t pretty when Nathan let go. Looking back down at the sleeping gambler, he dearly hoped Nathan didn’t get to overly righteous with Chris. The man wasn’t like Ezra; he wouldn’t sit there and take it. Chris would fight back and right now, they were too shaky from dealing with one uncertainty with Ezra for a rift between any others.
Chris walked down the steps of the clinic and looked the street up and down. He made a mental calculation of where each of the men were. Vin was at the jail; Buck was still sleeping probably; Josiah, of course, was in the clinic with Ezra;and Nathan was at Inez’s eating. That left the young sheriff unaccounted for. Chris took another look around the town and started across the street when he heard his name being called. Turning, he saw Mary headed his way. Chris liked the blonde woman for the most part, but there were times when she had a little too much brass for his liking. There was a time to butt into their business and a time to bow out; unfortunately, Mary didn’t always care to notice when those times were. The first time they had met face to face was after that initial business with Nathan and those cowboys trying to hang him, the newspaperwoman had written an article about the gunslinger cleaning up the town. She had said she had good reason to elaborate and didn’t mind using his name if it got rid of the bad element. Chris smiled at the thought; he’d told Mary at that time he was the bad element. The woman had stayed clear of him after that for a little while.
The man in black stopped in the middle of the street and waited for Mary to catch up. Stepping up beside Chris, Mary asked, “How is Mr. Standish this morning?”
Chris began guiding the two of them off the street. He noticed that the woman seemed to be truly concerned for the cardsharp. “He’s holding on,” he said.
Mary took a sideways glance at the man beside him. Over the three years they had known each other, Mary had learned just how much of a good man the gunslinger was and knew just how far to push before he pushed back. Of course, she didn’t always heed those warnings. She also knew how much he cared for and felt responsible for the men around him. She watched his jaw clench and unclench and knew the man was not in a happy mood and therefore decided it would be wise not to press the issue. Stopping in front of Mrs. Potter’s, she waited until Chris also stopped. Looking into the intense green eyes, she smiled and said, “My prayers will be with Mr. Standish for a speedy recovery.”
Chris just nodded and touched the brim of his hat before moving on. He nearly made it to the saloon when JD came running up from behind shouting his name. Stopping once again, Chris heaved a sigh as he waited for the young sheriff to catch up.
“Hey, Chris,” JD said with a smile on his face.
Chris was amazed at the young man; nothing ever seemed to dampen the sheriff’s mood for very long. At time, he almost hated it. Mentally shaking his thoughts clear, he returned the greeting. “JD.”
The young sheriff fell in step with blond and began retelling of his morning. “I’m been over at the telegraph station. Since those two brothers you bought in last night didn’t know where the other two went, and David said they were supposed to meet back up at River’s Bend in a couple of weeks, I figured they didn’t go no further than fifty miles. So I sent out telegrams to the surrounding towns describing the two.” JD stopped to take a breath.
Chris stopped and looked at the other man in appreciation. The kid was right in his thinking and was glad he took the initiative to start looking for leads to find the missing brothers. “Good job, JD,” he said as he started walking again.
“Of course that left those small towns without telegraphs unaccounted for, but at least we’ll know where they’re not at,” JD explained.
Chris nodded at the man’s thinking again. Before turning into the saloon, he said, “Why don’t you go relieve Vin at the jail. I’m sure he didn’t get enough sleep before taking over for Buck, and when Buck does get up, I’ll send him out on patrol.”
“Sure, Chris. See ya later,” the sheriff answered and took off.
Chris entered the dim saloon and waited for his eyes to adjust. His first glance went over to the corner round table where he automatically expected to see the gambler cleaning up in a poker game. After remembering where the gambler was and why, Chris let out a long breath and searched the rest of the room. He spotted Nathan in the back at their table eating.
Chris made his way back to the table, greeting Inez along the way. Before he could get settled, she was there with a refreshing cold drink. Taking a long thirst quenching pull on the tall glass, he set it down and took a long look at the healer who had yet to acknowledge him. “Problem?” he inquired straight forward. The blond wasn’t positive the healer was mad at him or really worried about Ezra.
“Nothing you’d cared to hear,” Nathan shot back.
Chris sat up straighter in his chair and looked right at the healer and demanded, “You got something to say to me, say it.”
Nathan laid his fork and knife down and stared back at Chris, unflinching. “You don’t have any call judging my abilities. You might be head of this so-called group, but you don't have no say in my clinic.”
Chris sat there waiting for Nathan to get out the rest of whatever was bottled up inside of him. He didn’t have to wait long. The man resolved he wouldn’t hit the healer without good cause. Nathan was a good man, but like any of them he could get a bur under his blanket and make a mountain out of nothing.
Trying to get his rage and hurt under control, Nathan took a deep breath before saying, “You really think I wouldn’t try to save a friend because I was too proud? You’re wrong.”
“I think you were scared of letting Ezra down,” Chris said simply. The vein in his temple had already popped out like it did when the gunslinger was trying to control the instinct to reach out and hit someone.
Neither man spoke for a while, judging the other man and still seeing the same friend that was there yesterday. Taking the rest of his drink in one gulp, Chris sat the glass back down on the table and said, “Maybe you’re right, Nathan. Maybe I don’t have no call to question your judgment, but answer me this: Would you have had the nerve to do it if I hadn’t of challenged you? And if butting into your business at the clinic saves a friend, let me assure you, I’d do it again.” With that, the blond stood and walked out the door.
Nathan sat there for a long time staring at his plate. He’d been shocked that Chris had understood the real reason he had feared operating on Ezra. Nathan had to slowly admit to himself that Chris hadn’t challenged his abilities because of the color of his skin, like he had subconsciously thought, but had challenged him to simply save a friend. A slow grin slid onto the healer’s lips. He would give Chris his due; the man was a sneaky person. Instead of ordering him to operate, the blond had made him want to operate
After waking and getting a bite to eat, Buck headed over to the clinic, stopping by the jail first to see who was covering. The schedule had gotten a little skewed lately and he wondered if it was back to normal yet, which would tell him when his turn would be next. Stepping into the darker room, he saw JD sitting behind the desk sorting through wanted posters. “Hey, JD,” he called out.
Looking up from the stack he was working on, JD responded, “Hey, Buck.”
Stepping further into the jail, Buck looked over to where the prisoners were sitting quietly in their cell. He noticed someone had given them a deck of cards and the three brothers had obviously buried the hatchet temporarily, out of boredom Buck would guess, and were silently playing poker.
Now that the jovial man had been able to get some sleep, he was more aware of things and one of those things was how JD kept avoiding him. Walking over to the desk, he slid his hip up onto the corner and picked up the discarded wanted posters. Flipping through them, he kept one eye on the young sheriff who was trying very hard to ignore him. Laying the papers down, he crossed his wrists over his leg and said, “What gives, JD?”
Standing up, JD walked away from where Buck was perched and ambled around the room. “Nuthin’, Buck. Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said casually.
“JD,” Buck said in his long and low voice that said he didn't believe the kid.
Glancing back over to the patrons of the cells, JD restated, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong.”
Buck glanced over to the cells and understood the situation. Walking over to the kid, he threw an arm around the thin neck and guided the man towards the door. “Come with me. I got to talk to you and not in front of them.”
JD let himself be guided outside by Buck. After the door had been shut, he turned towards the younger man. Buck looked the sheriff in the eye and said, “Give it up, JD.”
Twisting away from Buck, the young man couldn’t look his big brother in the eye. So many times he felt like such a little kid around these men. It didn’t help that half the things he did proved them right. Oh, he tried to bluff his way, make them think he was tougher than he was and not let on how really scared he truly was half the time. Once Buck knew what he was worrying about, he was sure the ladies’ man would have it spread to the others in a matter of minutes.
Buck grabbed JD’s arm and turned him back towards him. “Tell me,” he coaxed.
“Aw, Buck, it’s stupid and you’re just gonna laugh and go tell everyone and…and,” JD ranted.
Buck put a stop to it and said, “Let me be the judge of that. Now c’mon; spill it.”
“I got sick, okay. The sight of what those men did to Ezra made me sick to my stomach and I got sick,” JD said angrily. “There you happy now? You can go tell Chris and the others how the young greenhorn wasn’t tough enough to look at his own friend without losing his lunch.”
Buck stood there for a minute appraising his young friend. JD was red with embarrassment and anger at himself. Buck hemmed and hawed silently, finally tilting his head slightly before speaking. Placing his hands on his hips, he ducked his head before speaking. “JD, you ain’t the only one that had trouble looking at Ezra. We all had trouble. And as far as losing your lunch, don’t you think for a minute the rest of us didn’t have to fight that same urge.”
JD looked more intensely at the man speaking. Buck went on. “JD, we’ve all seen things that makes you wonder how a body can survive, whether it was in the war or else-place. Nathan’s seen men nearly beaten to death,” he paused. “Probably seen some that were. Vin saw his mother die. Lord can only imagine what Josiah’s seen in his lifetime. Just ‘cause we didn’t lose control don’t mean it don’t make us sick. You never get use to the sight of another man’s pain. If you do, then that’s when you truly better start worrying. As long as it bothers you, boy, you are all right.”
JD took a cleansing breath and began feeling better. It was good to know that he wasn’t the only one that had felt so horrible. Buck clasped his hand around the back of his neck and jostled him a bit in a brotherly fashion. Everything was all right again.
Three days passed like each of the previous days. Nathan was grateful that with each changing of the padding there was less blood. Enough fluids were poured down the man to float a small wooden boat. The healer was at his desk and Vin had stopped by to keep the gambler company for a while before it was his turn to go on patrol. A visit to Ezra just seemed to be incorporated into the routine for everyone, whether it was before or after a patrol or a turn at the jail. Sitting by his friend’s side the tracker noticed the movement under the closed eyes. The shifting increased and a slight tightening and loosening could be detected in the grip he held. Looking up, he called softly, “Nathan, I think he’s coming to.”
Nathan hurried over to the bedside and took in the small almost undetectable agitated movements of the man on the bed. Sliding his hand under the other hand, Nathan began feeling for the pulse. He could detect a definite increase in the heart rhythm. Softly he called out to his friend. “Ezra. It’s okay, Ezra, it’s me, Nathan.” The healer had long ago learned each man’s little quirks when being shut in at the clinic. For the gambler it was a panic to find himself in a place he couldn’t readily identify, like his room. Nathan settled on the other chair and kept calling out to his friend, reassuring him he was safe. “It’s all right, Ezra. Vin and I are right here.”
“C’mon, pard,” Vin cajoled. “We’re waiting for you right here.”
The first thing that Ezra slowly became aware of was the pain raging throughout his body. He was pretty sure someone had set him on fire from the inside out. The closer to consciousness he rose, the more intense the pain became. He wanted to move away from it, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. Someone had wrapped him up like some mummy he’d seen once at a museum. The fleeting thought made him think he might be stuck in a tormenting nightmare until the pain wracking his body came back to the forefront. He tried to call for help, but couldn’t get his voice to work. Desperately he tried again. With each moment that passed, he became more restless and panicked. With a last effort, he managed to vocalize his plea. “Help.”
“Right here, Ez,” Vin said
Ezra could hear voices that were soft, warm and inviting. Voices that sounded comfortable. He let his mind drift through the fog that surrounded him trying to ignore the burning fire that was consuming him and focused on those voices. He tried again to use his voice. Tried to tell them he was in excruciating pain. “Help,” he squeaked out again.
“I got you, Ez,” Vin said sternly, tightening his grip on the hand he held while lifting the sweat covered limp head as Nathan placed a cup of warm tea to the southerner’s lips.
Ezra felt the liquid slosh up onto his lips and tried to drink greedily, but was stopped by Nathan’s control over the cup. Nathan had been applying oil to Ezra’s lips continually, preventing them from dying out and cracking and with all the fluids that had been forced down his throat on a regularly basis, his throat was not as sore as it had been during previous injuries. Ezra fought to get his eyes opened, but they seemed determined to stay closed. He wasn’t sure, but like the rest of his body, his eyes felt bound shut. Drawing back from the cup to signify he couldn’t drink any more, he tried his voice once more. “Pain. Fire.”
Nathan picked the bandaged wrist up again and rubbed the hand gently. “I know, Ezra. It’ll end soon. Gave ya some tea that’ll help,” the healer whispered. “Don’t want to give you too much laudanum,” he said by way of explanation. Not only did it give Ezra truly terrifying nightmares, but he also had a hard time coming out from the effects of the heavy drug.
Vin tightened his grip just a little a said, “Hang in there, Ez. You’re going to make it.”
Ezra wanted to nod, to acknowledge he’d heard, but his head felt like it weighed a ton. Wanting to slide back into the darkness that seemed buffeted by the pain, he concentrated on the hand squeezing his. It seemed to be tightening and then loosening, almost like whoever was on that side understood he needed something to focus on until the pain faded. After what seemed like eternity, Ezra finally felt him sliding back into that painless bliss. With a last effort, he let out a satisfied moan.
Vin watched his friend go back to unconsciousness. Until then, he hadn’t wanted to disturb Ezra and had kept silent. Now that the man was back asleep, he looked up at Nathan. “Well?” he asked.
Nathan didn’t let go of his grip. “Waking up was a good sign,” he answered hoping it was enough. Glancing up at the tracker, he saw it wasn’t and sighed. “You saw the damage, Vin. Anything could still go wrong. Won’t know for sure until we have him up and about before I feel like we got a clear shot.”
Vin looked back down on his friend and continued to squeeze the hand in his. He thought back to that day that seemed ages ago, but was only less than a week. At first sight, the tracker had held no hope for his dear friend. At first glance, no one would put the two of them together as friends. The gambler was a complete opposite of him. Ezra liked loud colors, large crowds and money. The man was educated and had a vocabulary to beat the band with, and none of these things mattered or were Vin’s cup of tea, but yet the two men had meshed unbelievably well. The tracker smiled slightly; the Navajos would have said this belágaána (white man) had the power to become a trickster or a Wiseman. Vin always thought Ezra was a blend. He used his wise knowledge to trick people. The tracker had noticed something Nathan never did. For all Nathan’s blustering about how evil and immoral Ezra was, Nathan never seemed to notice that Ezra only tricked those that needed to be or was to their benefit.
Vin finally whispered a goodbye to his friend and rose from his chair. “Got patrol,” was all his explanation.
“Be safe,” Nathan said as the tracker headed for the door. He knew Chris would tell Vin the same when the tracker checked with the leader before leaving. Since they didn’t know for sure where Bill Earnest and his brother, Jimmy were they had taken extra precautions when going out on patrol such as letting the others know exactly what route they were taking and how long they would be gone was one. Vin ducked his head once in compliance, smiled and left. Nathan turned back to his patient and wiped Ezra down with the cold rag. He would feel better if the fever would break.
Vin was saddling Peso when Chris walked into the livery. Without stopping what he was doing, Vin asked, “Hear that Ez woke up?”
“No. When?” Chris asked. He hadn’t stopped by the jail to check on JD yet. If he had, he would have learned that Vin stopped in before going to the livery and had told the sheriff the good news.
“While ago. Weren’t for long, but at least he came awake,” Vin replied as he tightened up the cinch.
“That’s good to hear,” Chris said, failing to keep the relief out of his voice.
“Yep,” The tracker led his horse out of the dark building and mounted up. “Be back in about three hours. Taking the north side,” he informed the leader as he reined his horse in the right direction.
Chris nodded once and said, “See ya in three hours.”
Vin knew it wasn’t a command, but with the remaining two brothers out there it was best to keep to his word and not drift off for a ride to Miz Nettie’s like he might have done any other time.
Nathan was alone with his patient when the door eased open. Looking up, the healer saw Buck trying to sneak quietly in. Smothering the laugh that was waiting to be let loose, Nathan admonished the ladies’ man, “You don’t have to sneak in here like it was a married woman’s house, Buck.”
Buck almost blushed at that and slid on into the room. “Heard he woke,” was all the man said as he straightened and patted the covers on the prone man.
“For a second. Not enough to really know where he was or anything, but it’s still a good sign,” the healer responded.
Waiting for a moment, observing the big man gently tuck the covers around the smaller man, Nathan hesitated a second before asking. “You mind sitting with him for a while? I haven’t been out see any of my patients for a week. I thought, if you didn’t mind, I’d ride out and see them.”
Buck looked up. “Naw, go on. Between the rest of us, we got it covered,” he said seriously.
“He should be all right while I’m gone. Going out to the Thompson’s and check on their boy, then over to the Billing’s and check on Minnie, and then I’m going to the Frankford’s and check on that new baby,” Nathan reported as he gathered his supplies.
“All right. If anything happens, I’ll send JD for you,” Buck said, not really paying attention to the medic, but watching Ezra’s chest rise and fall.
“Ok, be back in a couple of hours.” Nathan picked up his bag and walked out the door and right into Chris.
“Trouble?” Chris questioned, growing serious in a blink of an eye.
“No, just going out to check on some patients,” Nathan said as he bypassed the leader.
Without looking back at the leaving man, Chris called out, “Be careful.”
Nathan rolled his eyes and then knew how Vin felt when he had told the Texan the same thing. Sometimes they were a mite too protective of one another. Nathan smiled at the thought of having such good and loyal men he could call friends.
Chris walked into the infirmary and stood inside the door. Watching Buck talk softly to Ezra and dribble water down the gambler’s throat reminded the blond of just how good a man Buck really was. For someone so big and boisterous, Buck could be as gentle as Ezra when he shuffled cards.
“Looks better,” the blond commented as he moved to the vacant chair. Ezra looked about the same as he had when they found him, but Chris felt the need to be positive.
“Yeah, he does,” Buck answered with a full smile.
Chris looked at his friend and couldn’t resist smiling back. To Buck, Ezra probably did look better because Buck had that gift. Where he saw the glass half-empty, Buck just saw the simple positive. The glass was half-full and had the possibility of being filled to the top. The two men sat in silence, enjoying the peace they shared and the promised devotion to see Ezra all the way through his recuperation.
After supper, they were replaced with JD and Josiah. The young sheriff feeling better about his poor performance six days earlier could look upon his friend and not feel overwhelmingly guilty for caring so much about the man that it had made him physically sick. The young sheriff watched as Josiah wiped the constant sweat from the gambler. Feeling the need to break the overpowering silence, he asked, “Reckon how long he’s going to run that fever?”
Josiah never missed a beat as he answered, “That’s all up to Brother Ezra now, I suppose. I guess he’s working real hard just to stay with us. He ain’t bothered by no small fever right now.”
“But if he fought the fever and it broke, don’t you think he’d start feeling better?” JD inquired.
“Maybe the fever is what is keeping him asleep and away from the pain. Perhaps, Ezra knows this on some level we don’t understand and therefore does not wish to fight the fever so he doesn’t have to face the pain,” Josiah explained.
JD thought about the words spoken and agreed silently. Josiah made sense, why would Ezra want to face the pain if he didn’t have to? Then another thought occurred to him. “But the longer he runs fever the worse for his body and the worse for him, right?” he asked worriedly.
“It would seem Ezra has found himself in a no-win position and knowing the gambler in him, he would prefer the less painful way out.”
“Ezra isn’t a coward, Josiah,” JD snapped.
“No, but he’s caught between having to deal with an excruciating amount of pain and the chance of escaping it altogether,” Josiah tried to reason. The missionary’s son had decided that was why so many soldier boys had died. It had seemed the better option at the time.
“Ezra is tougher than he looks and he always manages to deal the cards where he comes out winner in the end. He’ll do it this time, too,” the young man said faithfully.
Josiah gave up trying to show JD the other side and relented. “You’re right, JD. Ezra always takes the pot.”
JD nodded his head in satisfaction. For once he had won an argument with the philosophical man.
The two men sat on either side of their friend. One willing the gambler to have the strength to fight and the other one believing Ezra was just biding his time before he came back. Each hoping for the best for their brother.
Chris sat in the jailhouse. Up until now, the men had done a fairly decent job of keeping him away from the three prisoners. Now, with JD and Josiah in the clinic, Nathan on rounds, Vin out on patrol and Buck...well Buck was probably being Buck somewhere, not caring if Chris wanted to vent some of frustration on the men. Chris leaned back in the chair and had to grin. Buck had let him take over at the jail because he trusted Chris not to outright kill the three men behind bars. Now, if he wanted to scare the living jibbies out of them, Buck probably figured they were owed that. Chris shook his head. Buck and him had a definitely odd friendship, but it worked for them.
He had promised himself he would not kill the unarmed men behind the bars, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun with them and make himself feel better in the process. Getting out of his chair, he walked around the desk and sat down on the corner closest to the cells. “You tried to kill one of my men. I take downright exception to that, boys,” he said, chillingly calm. The smile gracing his hard chiseled features was eerily nice.
The three men didn’t say a word. They didn’t dare, for fear of provoking the man in black into doing something life altering, especially where it concerned their lives.
“You ever heard of a Mexican Necktie?” Chris asked, looking down at his hands; still using that deceptively nice voice. The three men audible gulped and backed further away. “Ya slit a man’s throat from side to side and pull his tongue out through the slit. Real nasty way of dying. Man has no chance of screaming.” Chris looked up. All signs of pleasantries had vanished; in its place was what could only be described as pure venom. The green eyes had taken a dark shine to them and the three men were pretty sure they were fixing to die.
“Did you make Ezra scream? Did you hear him and ignore it?” Chris said evenly. “I can ignore screams pretty well myself,” he said as slid off the desk and stood. The three men, as if attached to some invisible string, moved further back into their cells at the same moment.
Giving an exceptionally cold smile, Chris suddenly lightened, “You boys think about it.” With that, he walked outside and shut the door. Once the obstacle stood between him and those men, Chris, sitting down in the chair, took several deeps breaths reining in his anger. He had managed not to go with the urge to do more than talk to them swine and he felt like he had accomplished a major accomplishment. Ezra would be proud of him.
Sometime during the cool night with the breeze blowing gently through the open window, Ezra finally won the battle over the fever and it had broken with a soaking of the sheets and bandages. Nathan had been feeding him broth when the body became inundated with moisture. Not wanting to leave the patient lying in wet dressings, Nathan went out onto the landing, leaned over the railing and peered into the dark. There on the other side of the street was the familiar flare of a cheroot lighting up as the owner inhaled the smoke. “Chris, need some help. Fever’s broke and we gotta change the bandages,” Nathan spoke loud enough to garner the gunslinger’s attraction. Nathan didn’t receive a verbal reply, but could easily imagine the nod of assurance that the man in black surely gave that he would go round up some help as he stood up.
In less than five minutes, Chris came walking in with Buck and Josiah behind him. Buck was a grumbling as he reached Ezra’s side. “You got rotten timing, you know that, pal,” he said jokingly as he pulled his suspenders up over his shirt that had yet to be buttoned.
“Maybe you should be thanking him. Probably kept you from being shot,” Chris hinted. Seeing Buck’s puzzled look, he finished, “Seen Mr. Taylor heading in as I was walking over to the church,” Chris replied with a huge grin on his face.
“Taylor? He’s not due for another three days,” Buck said in confusion.
“Surprise!” the other three men said in unison as they prepared to help Nathan tend to Ezra.
“Buck, you’re like a cat with nine lives,” Nathan chastised with a laugh as he walked over to the bed.
With four of them working in tandem it didn’t take long for Nathan to rewrap the bandaged area. Still hesitant to move the leg, he also knew it needed fresh dressing and the skin needed to get some air. He also needed to look for and doctor any bedsores the prone man might be developing.
Chris kept the leg stabilized as Buck and Josiah held each side of Ezra gently in case he made one of his untimely arousals. With patience, Nathan slowly unbound the leg. The swelling had gone done a fraction and the bruising was a little less black and more of a deep blue and purple. Nathan gently probed the site and felt a rush of relief to know that the socket had stayed in place and no extra warmth was radiating from the spot. Re-splinting the leg, Nathan carefully rewrapped the bandages and Chris lowered it back down onto the pillows they had lined up on that side to rest the leg on. Heaving a sigh of relief that the job was done, the four men stood in silence. Josiah, followed by Buck, turned and left the room, leaving Chris and Nathan alone.
“Leg looked good,” Chris said.
“Yeah, I hope he’ll be able to use it once it mended,” Nathan replied, putting away his materials.
Chris looked up. “You think there’s a chance he won’t?” he asked in concern.
“Possible,” Nathan answered as he moved to dump the used bandages in boiling water. “Possibly, he could have a limp, too.”
Chris sat there for a minute before a chuckle escaped. Nathan turned around puzzled. “What?” he asked.
Chris shook his head, a smile forming on his lips. “Just imagining Ezra walking down the boardwalk with one those fancy walking canes with the silver knob on top,” Chris said with a low laugh. “Man would really think he was something then, wouldn’t he?”
Nathan had to laugh himself at the image: Ezra dressed in his crisp white shirt, black cravat, those black pants pressed so sharp you could cut yourself on the crease, his black long coat and the shiny walking stick strolling down the street. “Yeah, Ezra would really be something,” Nathan answered.
The two men stayed in companionable silence the rest of the night, each taking a turn at catching some precious sleep.
He couldn’t stay hidden in the darkness any longer. He had tried, but the pain had won out over the ability to stay cocooned in his black and anguish-free world. Slowly, he drifted upwards to the level of consciousness. It seemed for every level he gained, the agony grew. His whole body drummed with misery. The sound of his moaning was barely audible, but it was loud enough in the tomb-like clinic for JD to hear. The sheriff had taken to coming in early in the morning, before his shift at the jail, and sitting with Ezra, allowing Nathan time to get out and get breakfast and some air. The young sheriff all but lunged forward in his chair. “Ezra?” he asked plaintively.
Another moan, much more pronounced, escaped from Ezra and JD was out of his chair and leaning on the porch railing outside in seconds. Searching the street, he finally spotted Vin making his way to the restaurant from his wagon. “Vin!” JD shouted. Upon the swiveling of the tracker’s head in his direction, the sheriff yelled, “Get Nathan! Ezra’s coming to.” Vin took off at a run and JD returned to Ezra’s side.
JD silently prayed that the southerner wouldn’t become fully conscious until help arrived. Openly, he voiced, “Easy, Ez. It’s me, JD. You’re in the clinic.”
With another more audible and clearer moan, JD said quietly, “It’s all right, Ez. Nathan’s coming.”
A twitch of the good hand told JD that Ezra going to come to before Nathan and the other’s made it to the clinic. He sat down on the edge of the bed and grasped the good hand and kept talking while praying Ezra would recognize his voice. He nearly came off the bed when five of the peacekeepers came bursting through the door, led by Nathan.
Like soldiers in a battlefield that had been played one too many times, the men took up their positions. They had each prayed for this moment and yet on the other hand dreaded it. To see the green eyes open and recognize them was wanted, needed, but the pain that Ezra would have to endure to reach that goal was nothing any of them would wish for the southerner. Chris squatted down on the far side and rubbed the free arm. “It’s okay, Ezra.”
Ezra knew that voice, it was the voice that wouldn’t let him give up when he so desperately wanted to. He licked his lips and winced at the taste of the oil that had been slathered on them. Swallowing, he gasped, “Hurt.”
“I know, Ez. Just hang on for a few minutes,” Chris coaxed. The others letting Chris do what he did best, lead.
“Pain,” Ezra moaned. He wasn’t sure if the words he was saying were out loud or in his head.
“Nathan’s going to help with that in just a minute, Ezra. Right now I need you to open your eyes for me,” Chris commanded softly.
Ezra licked his lips again. He was so tired he just wanted to go back to sleep, but the pain was keeping him from that. “Pain,” he tried again.
Chris shook his head in frustration. The man was obstinate, Chris would give him that, but he could be just as stubborn.
“Nathan’ll help stop the pain, Ezra, but I need you to open your eyes first,” Chris said, his voice rising.
“Promise,” Ezra said weakly. He really did want the agony to stop.
“Promise,” Chris swore.
Ezra took another breath, deeper, and froze at the added pain the small movement caused. Without meaning to, he let out a moan.
“Easy, Ezra. Just take small, shallow breaths,” JD told him. His young face portraying all the worry and concern he felt inside.
The pain passed and Ezra took a shallow breath and concentrated on getting his eyes opened. After a couple of tries, he said, “Can’t.”
Josiah rested his hand on Chris shoulder, reminding him Ezra was already in enough pain without the blond adding to it. “Try again, Ezra,” Josiah ordered in his deep rumbling voice.
Ezra concentrated on only opening one eye at a time. After a couple of tries the lid finally slid open enough for him to see through. The eye was bloodshot, but was focused and after a second or two, the image it was seeing was clear. “Vin,” he breathed out.
“Right here, Ez,” he said, not retaining the immense relief he felt at the very small accomplishment.
“Tired,” the southerner announced softly.
“Okay, Ez. Nathan has something for you,” Vin said in a brotherly voice.
Vin moved down a bit and allowed Nathan to step up to the head of the bed. With Josiah holding the southerner’s head, Nathan tipped the cup up to the waiting lips and held it while Ezra drank down the tea. Laying Ezra’s head back down, the preacher ran his hand through the dirty hair. Later, he and Nathan would drug Ezra a little, enough to move him around the bed so they could wash his hair. For now it was just good to see Ezra coming around.
“He was able to actually communicate,” JD announced as he stood, his voice showing his relief. He knew that, though no one had mentioned it out loud, Ezra’s mental capacity was a real concern.
“Yeah,” Buck breathing a sigh of relief.