Josiah sat quietly at Ezra’s side. He and Nathan had managed earlier, to swivel Ezra’s unconscious body crossways on the bed with Ezra’s head hanging off the very edge of the mattress, a large bowl sitting on the floor directly under it. While Nathan held Ezra’s head up, Josiah poured a bowl of water through the dirty hair to rinse it out. Using a small amount of soap, he lathered it up in his hands then rubbed it into Ezra’s hair. After a couple of repeats, Josiah rinsed the hair. After towel drying and combing Ezra’s hair, they maneuvered him back in place. Accomplishing the feat, Josiah had suggested the healer catch him some sleep. It hadn’t taken much persuasion this time to convince Nathan to go lay down for a while. The man had been dead tired on his feet. A routine now had been established for rotating through the clinic. Ezra was never alone, though that simple fact was completely lost on the gambler. The preacher watched the other man’s chest rise and fall with each breath.
A couple hours earlier Ezra had scared Nathan and Vin to death when he had begun gasping for air. Nathan had been lost in his own world of thoughts and hadn’t noticed at the very first. He was still reading about all the things that could go wrong with the numerous injuries and ways to prevent them from occurring. He heard shifting behind him and Vin calling his name anxiously. He thought the gambler was waking again. Turning around, the healer saw Ezra’s upper body rising off the bed and Vin standing on his feet shaking the patient; At first glance, he thought Ezra was seizing. Nathan had rushed over to the bed and realized that, instead of seizing, Ezra was gasping for breath. Nathan helped Vin roll Ezra over onto his left side. In Nathan’s opinion, it was better to roll Ezra onto his dislocated shoulder than onto his displaced hip. Vin kept Ezra lifted up a degree to keep the entire pressure off the hurt shoulder while Nathan ran and stoked the embers of the fire under the pot of water he kept simmering at all times. Vin kept talking to the gasping man while Nathan quickly boiled the water.
“Easy, Ezra,” Vin spoke hurriedly. “Nathan’ll be right back with something to help.”
Ezra couldn’t understand anything being said, but understood the words were to be comforting. The struggle to breath was out weighing any additional pain he might have felt in the new position. He felt the strength of an arm holding him while the touch of a hand gripped his top arm. He didn’t fight those hands like he would have in the past because he needed them too much now.
Nathan soon had the water boiling. After pouring it into a bowl, he carried it over to the bed. Smearing a paste made from the local plants around Ezra’s mouth, he set the bowl under the southerner’s face and coaxed Ezra to take as deep breaths as he could. Looking up at Vin, he quickly explained. “Had him flat on his back for too long. Congestion’s build up the lungs. Have to get him cough it up and clear out them out.”
“Gonna be awful hard on those ribs and his back,” Vin said solemnly.
“No other choice,” Nathan said, as he watched Ezra struggled to breathe in the fumes.
Ezra could almost taste the sweet aroma that filled his nasal and mouth. After a few hard won breathes, he could feel that same sweetness in his chest. The more he breathed in the steam, the more a build up could be felt in his lungs. He fought the cough instinctively knowing how much it was going to hurt. It seemed to take nothing to incite the pain to flare and coughing would fan it into an engulfing roar. When he could no longer fight the cough being forced from his lungs, every muscle in his torso tightened as he tried to hunch up and absorb the body wracking coughs that ensued. It never occurred to the ill man that when his body tightened up so did the hands holding him.
The coughing spell lasted an eternity to Ezra, but when it was over he realized he was able to breath much better. The hands still held him taunt and another hand brushed his sweat-soaked hair out of his face. He expected to be returned to his back, but instead was held in place.
For the next couple of hours, Ezra was routinely forced to breathe in the sweet-smelling paste and then seemingly cough up his lungs. Vin had been replaced by Josiah and promptly left for his patrol. The only pleasant thing Ezra could find in all of it, when he was conscious enough to think straight, was that he was allowed off his back and, though it should have hurt to lie on his bad shoulder, he realized it didn’t. Vin and Nathan had cushioned him in every way they could with pillows and blankets, propping his upper torso slightly to take the pressure off the shoulder. Now, for the moment, both Ezra and Josiah were resting peacefully.
Chris walked across the street to the jail. It still didn’t matter how many times he came face-to-face with the Earnest brother’s, his first instinct was still to kill them. He had learned that, if he didn’t acknowledge them, it helped a little, precious little, but still a little. Stepping into the small office, he greeted the sheriff. “Hey, JD.”
“Hey, Chris!” JD answered back. The greeting lifted Chris spirits a bit. It seemed to the gunslinger that, no matter the situation, JD was always enthusiastic to see one of them. The kid, like Buck, was an eternal optimist. Chris figured that’s why the two got along so well.
Walking closer to the desk, he stared at the young man. “Heard from any of those replies you sent out,” the leader asked, purposely avoiding the desire to look over at the cells.
JD could read the tightness in the other man and watched as the gunslinger’s hands clenched tight. With the aim of getting Chris’ attention away from the men behind bars, JD stood up and walked to the door, motioning with his head as he went. He knew there was no need to go outside other than keeping Chris from literally exploding. JD didn’t think a body could take that much pressure.
Closing the door behind them, JD turned to Chris, who had relaxed enough to unclench his hands, and spoke quietly. “Heard from a few of them. No sign of the two brothers, yet.”
Chris was working on controlling his breathing and getting his shoulders to relax. He gave a short nod to the other man and said, “Let me know if you hear anything.”
JD knew better than to sigh or roll his eyes. At this point that could be seen as a possible invite to trouble he didn’t want. Instead, he remained serious and said in agreement. “Yes, sir.”
The young sheriff watched the leader step off the boardwalk and cross the street to the saloon before turning to go back inside. He glanced over at the three brothers for a brief check, then walked back to his desk. Knowing what they had done to Ezra, he didn’t enjoy the sight of these men any more than Chris, but he didn’t have the same desire to reach through the bars and kill them with his own hands either. He wanted them to be judged and sent to prison, but more importantly, he wanted Ezra to be able to witness it. Ezra deserved that much.
Chris stepped through the batwing doors of the saloon and waited for his eyes to adjust. It didn’t take long. Moving to the back table, the blond sat down next to the dark-haired ladies’ man.
“Seen him this evening?” Chris asked as he accepted a cup of coffee from Inez. The mornings still held a tinge of coolness.
“Yeah. Went by earlier. Got congestion in the lungs from lying on his back too long,” Buck informed.
He had been there while Josiah and Nathan had been giving the gambler one of the treatments. It looked real painful as Ezra tried to cough up all the stuff in his lungs while keeping everything else from moving. Nathan had tightened the bandages around his torso as tight as possible to keep the stitches in his back from popping and the ribs from grating on one another. Josiah had slid onto the bed and had held the dislocated shoulder and the underneath of his upper body in a vise grip. To Buck, Ezra had shown a lot of courage right then. If it had been him banged up like that, being asked to cough hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, he would have just asked Chris to shoot him and put an end to his misery. Ezra had eventually stopped hacking up the stuff that had settled in his lungs and laid there like a limp rag. Josiah had taken a cold rag and wiped the gambler’s face and neck, all the time talking to the worn out patient about how well he was doing. Buck figured if he didn’t buy that line, Ezra sure wasn’t, but he kept holding on anyways.
Buck could feel someone staring out him and came back to the present. Chris was looking at him with a half-concerned, half-amused look only few people were privy to. Buck smiled back to answer the question; yes,he was all right.
Drinking the last part of his coffee, Chris sat the cup down and asked, “Feel like taking a walk?”
Buck broke out into a grin and stood up. “Yep,” he answered. The townspeople only got to see one side of the fearsome gunslinger. The other part was reserved only for the members of the group. The two men walked out of the saloon and headed across for the clinic.
It had been two weeks since the incident and Chris had three of the men with him in the livery saddling up their horses before the sun was even with the horizon. The telegraphs that JD had sent out had come back negative. As a precaution, Chris had wired the sheriff in River’s Bend to notify him immediately when the two brothers came into town. The wire informing Chris the brother’s were back in town had come yesterday. Chris had wired the sheriff back, telling him to leave the brothers alone; he would come take care of the matter himself. The sheriff had no problem with that. He was tired of messing with the brothers and he had a feeling Chris Larabee was going to get rid of his problem permanently. Besides, crossing Chris Larabee was never a smart move. After that telegram, Chris sent a fake one to the eldest brother using one of the twin’s names. He had the telegram read that the twins would be in the next day and that they had the youngest with them. It didn’t take much persuasion to get the ones behind bars to tell him where the other two would be staying while in town.
Chris had sat in silence the night before when the group met for their regular evening get-together. Their normal routine had been reestablished and, except for Nathan or whoever might be taking his place, and Ezra, the men were back to eating their meals together. The blond had seen the furtive looks that had passed between Buck and Vin. Both knew something was eating at him, but were willing to wait it out. The evening passed more quietly than usual. During the meal, all of them at one time or another had looked over to “Ezra’s table’ like they had done so many other times in the past couple of weeks and then looked away as if suddenly remembering why the gambler wasn’t at his place. Oddly enough, even the locals seemed to shy away from the table, as if it held a special reverence to them, also; or perhaps they were just afraid they’d have to face the wrath of the five sitting in the back if anyone had the gall to sit down at the reserved table.
Standing up, Chris looked down at Buck and motioned with his
head to move outside. The two men moved through the crowded building with ease.
Ever since bringing the gambler back to town, Chris Larabee had fairly crackled
with tension and no one in their right mind was going to do anything to set him
off. JD had mentioned to the others how even the regular local troublemakers
seemed to have found other places to do their mischief. JD, Vin and Josiah
watched the two men leave’ keeping their thoughts to themselves.
Once outside, Chris walked down the boardwalk a ways before stopping in front of the closed-up mercantile. He planted both hands firmly on the railing and leaned forward. Buck leaned against it with his hip, crossed his arms and waited for his friend of twelve-years to talk. Chris, took a few minutes gathering his words together. He knew what he was going to say was not going to go over well. Staring out into the inky black night, he took a breath and stated. “Need you to stay here tomorrow.”
Buck came off the railing. “What!? Why?” the big man said angrily.
Chris sighed. He understood where Buck was coming from and knew this wasn’t going over well. None of them wanted to be left out of the action tomorrow. “Because I need someone to stay and watch over the town,” he said.
“Let JD stay, he’s the sheriff. Besides, he don’t need to be going anyway,” Buck exclaimed in a huff.
Chris eased back up off the railing and turned to Buck, the two of them had ridden a lot of trails together, some better than others. “Buck, I need you to stay here and…and keep an eye on things for me in my place,” the blond said slowly. It was as close to asking for a favor as he was ever going to get.
Realization dawned on the ladies’ man as he finally understood Chris’ request. He was being asked to stay behind and watch over Ezra, not that Chris didn’t trust Nathan, but this was something more. Buck was being asked to stay in Chris’ place to watch over a family member. In the last three years, Chris had tentatively formed more than just a friendship with these men; he had let them in to become brothers. Therein lay Chris’ earlier dilemma. Which man to ask to ride with him tomorrow and which man to ask to stay behind and watch over the one in the clinic without making the wrong move and causing friction.
“All right, Chris. Since you put it that way, I’ll stay behind and watch over things,” Buck said.
Having that settled, Chris moved to go back into the saloon, but was stopped by the other man first. “You didn’t have to worry yourself so, Chris. Vin and I know we don’t line up behind you, but rather stand on either side. ”
Chris simply nodded and kept walking, a small smile forming on the edges of his mouth. He should have known better than to be concerned. Those two were both very smart men and, if he had switched the roles, it wouldn’t have come out any differently.
Chris led his horse out of the livery and over to the clinic. Tying up the reins, he walked up the stairs. He moved quietly across the floor of the clinic not wishing to disturb the sleeping man on the bed. Now that Nathan had backed off the laudanum, the pain edged out Ezra’s ability to rest more soundly, unless Nathan knocked him out with one of his teas. Easing his tall frame down into the hardback chair, he studied the man before him. Ezra had started doing slightly better in the last couple of days. Nathan would be taking out a few more of the stitches in the next day or two. Slowly, but surely, those were healing without complications. The shoulder was healing like it always did. The swelling in the abdomen had gone down and the internal bleeding had stopped. Now what passed through was clear and that seemed to excite Nathan more than anything else, but then again after all the blood that had been lost during those first couple of days and during the proceeding surgery, Chris couldn’t blame the man. The leg was propped up and still swollen. It would be a long time before it would be movable. The bruises on his torso had turned from black and purple to deep blue and purple. The ribs seemed to be holding together, much like the gambler’s luck. Chris let out a sigh.
“Hey, Ez.” His voice barely more than air, so as not to disturb the sleeping man. “Me and the boys are going after Earnest and his brother. I’m leaving Buck here. He and Nathan’ll take good care of ya.” Chris paused for a minute. “Ain’t gonna swear to ya I’ll bring ‘em back alive, but I promise I’ll do my best,” he said softly. Chris stood up and then stopped. Flexing out his fingers, he lightly ran them through the brown hair. “You keep holding on and I’ll see ya tomorrow night, okay?” With that, he left the room.
Chris walked to the door and opened it, finding Buck leaning back against the railing with that cocky grin of his plastered across his face. “Shut up,” Chris growled, losing complete ferociousness with a smile of his own. Stepping passed the lanky cowboy, the blond added softly, “Thanks.”
Buck reached over and slapped the man on his shoulder blade. “Get ‘em, Chris,” he commanded gently.
“Will do.” The blond tug his hat into place and walked down the stairs to where his men had gathered. Taking his reins from Vin, he mounted up and swung his horse around. The three men followed without a word, each giving Buck a salute as they rode off.
Chris pulled his horse up to a stop about a mile out of River’s Bend and waited for the men to gather around in their usual way. Each man looked at the town with a different thought. Josiah had noticed that Chris had led them way around the spot where they had found Ezra. The preacher had wondered what the real motivation had been for such an action. He wondered if it was to protect them from remembering such harsh details or simply because Chris didn’t wish to see the place again, much like how he hadn’t returned to his ranch home after that dreadful day until Fowler had forced him to. It didn’t matter. What mattered were the two men in that town before them. The three men silently waited for Chris to make the first move.
Chris picked the loose reins up in his hands and shifted in his saddle slightly. The three men followed suit. Before he made a move, Chris vowed, “We do our best to bring them out alive.” He received three nods of confirmation.
The four horsemen rode into the livery and dismounted. Walking down the aisle Chris found Chaucer in the back stall. Walking into the stall, he muttered some oaths that made the stable boy back up into the shadows. Chaucer nickered at the man in black and rubbed his chin against the outstretched hand. The equine knew these people. These were his rider’s people. “JD, get in here!” Chris demanded harshly, continuing to rub Chaucer’s chin and made soothing sounds to the otherwise skittish horse.
The young man walked into the stall and made a few exclamations of his own. By now, Vin and Josiah had made their way to the gate of the stall, both letting out low whistles at the sight. There were several whip marks on both hindquarters. JD figured they were made by being hit with the reins. There were also some rope burns. JD sighed. He hated seeing animals being abused at all, but with Chaucer it just seemed that much more uglier on the magnificent steed. Chris looked at the horse and guessed that Chaucer, like his owner, had been his normal charming self and Earnest had not taken it well. Besides the slashes, Chaucer’s ribs were showing. It looked downright sickening on the otherwise well-fed equine. There were sores where Earnest had ridden him hard and then had not brushed him out afterwards. Earnest had not treated the animal kind at all. Chris turned to leave the stall, his anger doubling what it was. “Tend to him,” was his only words as he left the stall.
JD wanted to argue and looked at the others for help. A quick glance at the two and he knew by their looks they weren’t going to talk to Chris about dealing with Chaucer until after they had cornered and captured the brothers. Chris was getting into one of his moods and no one was stupid enough to get in his way. JD watched the three men stride out of the livery on a mission. The young horseman turned back to the horse and sighed. Looking about, he noticed Earnest still had all of Ezra’s riding equipment. “Probably thought it made him look like a better man,” he grumbled as he gently placed Chaucer’s bridle on him. Easing his hands under the side strip of leather on the bridle, he whispered lovingly to the horse as he led him out into the main aisle. “Come on, Chaucer, let’s get you out of there and cleaned up at bit, huh. Can’t have Ezra finding you in this mess. He’ll plumb go nuts and drive the rest of us crazy trying to get to ya.” Chaucer went willingly with the known man, having every faith that he would take him back to his rider.
Chris walked down the middle of the street like the avenging dark angel he had the reputation of being. His long black coat sweeping back from him and the killer green eyes made him look every bit the dangerous man he was at that moment. Behind him, Vin and Josiah followed on either side….three against two; those were good odds. They weren’t worried at all. The deputy, standing outside the jail, watched the as trio walked up the street towards him. He stepped into the jailhouse and a second later, the sheriff walked out and took a look for himself. The deputy made a move to step off the sidewalk and was halted by a hand on his shoulder and a subtle shake of the sheriff’s head. This was Larabee's deal and he would let the man deal with as long as no one else was hurt.
The gunslinger glanced sideways at the sheriff as he passed by and received the slightest of nods. Chris acknowledged it briefly before turning his gaze back to the saloon where he was headed. Stepping up to the batwings, he placed a hand on each one and peered inside, scoping out his prey before entering. Pushing the doors apart, the bartender recognized the blond from the past and began putting the bottles of whiskey down behind the bar discreetly. The patrons of the bar quieted and turned to see who the new customers were. Some had the good sense to slowly get up and quietly ease their way past the trio. Chris didn’t miss a beat as he spotted the only redheaded men in the place and stalked towards the table. He noticed that the older one, obviously Bill, was a little bigger than Josiah and was roughly the same age as himself. The red hair, a family trait, was less bright on the oldest than on the youngest one sitting back in Four Corners. Chris glanced at the other brother and let his eyes rake over the second man. This one was about the same age and size as Vin. The younger one, he noticed, was visibly more nervous about the three men’s appearance than his oldest brother, a sign the man had a keener sense of awareness. The three stopped directly in front of the big man.
“Bill Earnest, you’re coming with me,” Chris stated factually, like he was ordering from a menu.
Bill Earnest cracked a smile while the younger brother looked a little wary and then let out a nervous laugh. Bill looked up at the blond man and recognized him as Chris Larabee. “You calling me out, Larabee? ‘Cause if you are, I ain’t no gunslinger,” Bill said with a smile. “Beside, it don’t seem like a very manly way of handling things if you need a gun. If you got trouble with me, let’s settle it man-to-man,” he said snidely. His size had taught him he could bully or punish anyone to his way of thinking
Only Chris’ cold blue eyes showed his hate and determination, while the rest of features remained impassive. Jimmy went still and his eyes began darting back and forth. Vin and Josiah could hardly keep the smiles off their faces. The kid looked like he wanted to crawl under the table and hide. Jimmy knew Bill had shot people before, but not in an even match. Mostly, they were unarmed or trying to get away when his brother shot them. Jimmy’s eyes grew bigger as he realized the man in front was not falling for his brother’s usual tactic of baiting people into fighting him. In that form, Bill always won. The younger brother wanted to lend his brother a hand and stand up and tell the man in black his brother was no match for a gunfight, but Bill had a real nasty habit of punishing people who meddled in his business, family or not.
“I’m not calling you out. That’d be too easy. I ain’t going to fight you either. I’m taking you back to Four Corners to stand trial,” Chris said more evenly than he felt. He would gladly shoot the miscreant where he sat, but he had made a promise and he had every intention of keeping it to the best of his abilities.
“For what?” Earnest retorted angrily, his anger growing. He was being challenged in front of his brother.
Vin and Josiah had stood back quietly watching in amusement as the rest of the saloon silently cleared out and the bartender disappeared into the back storage room with his best stuff. Reputations seem to grow wildly out in open spaces where there is less else to talk about.
Chris inhaled slowly, his patience waning with each passing second. “For the brutalization of a peacekeeper,” he replied smoothly.
“Peacekeeper. What peacekeeper?” Bill snarled back. He, too, had noticed the mass evacuation of the saloon.
“The one who you tied to a tree and whipped before playing jump rope with him with your horses,” Chris said. He began counting to ten in his head. Once achieving it, he realized it would take more than that and started for a thousand. A promise was a promise.
Bill jumped to his feet at the same time as he drew his gun, yelling, “That dandy was no peacekeeper.”
Three shots went off at once. In his hurry, the redheaded outlaw had shot wide and missed. While Vin’s hit the hand holding the gun, knocking the gun out of the outlaw’s hand and burning a hole in the flesh at the same time. Chris’ bullet went to the right and tore a hunk of flesh out of the portly man’s side. Bill Earnest crumpled to ground whining like a newborn babe.
Chris swung his gun around to the other threat knowing Vin had him covered and saw that while Jimmy had stood and drawn, he hadn’t fired. Josiah had him covered and was quietly suggesting in no uncertain terms that the boy lay down his weapon. Jimmy looked down at his oldest brother writhing around like an idiot on the floor and laid his gun down on the table. His idol worshipping days ended with that scene before him.
As Vin and Josiah hauled Earnest to his feet and shuffled him off to what amounted to the town’s own healer, Chris took Jimmy to the jail with him. They spotted JD racing down the street, Colts ready for use. Waiting for the young sheriff to meet up with them, the three older peacemakers could hardly keep the smiles off their faces at the look of disheartened disgust on the young man’s face. Josiah feeling the need to placate the sheriff said, “Didn’t miss anything, JD. Was over before it began.”
“Don’t look that way,” JD stated unhappily, following in step with Josiah and Vin. Chris looked too angry to be around at the moment.
After locking the Earnest boy in the cell, the sheriff turned to the leader and asked, “How long you planning on staying?”
Chris didn’t hesitate before replying, “Stupid man got himself wounded a bit. But, ready or not, we’re pulling out in the morning.” Mentally he said, ‘Promised Ezra we’d be back by night.’
The sheriff looked a bit relieved and Chris momentarily wondered just how far their reputation went. Just as quickly, he shrugged the thought off. What did he care what others thought? He and his men got the job done. Chris headed for the door. “I’ll be back later to check on him.”
The blond walked down to the healer’s office. It was located in the back of a small three bedroom wooden house at the end of town. When Chris approached the house, the door was opened by a rather large woman who Chris would guess was in her fifties. He followed her through the tidy home, through a curtain partition and found himself in a small add-on room. The clinic, as Chris presumed it was called, was much smaller than Nathan’s place. A half-bed had been placed against the far wall. Next to it was bed stand. Over against the other wall was a large handcrafted bookshelf with a fold down desk. A small chair with spindles for a backrest sat up to the desk. A rocker sat in the corner. Earnest on been placed on the bed and a man, also in his late fifties, was sitting next to it stitching up the abdomen flesh wound. It would make riding hard, but not impossible. Chris didn’t care at that moment. Ezra had survived his trip to town, this man could do the same. Chris looked around at the other three peacekeepers. Vin was leaned against the wall at the head of the bed, his sawed-off shotgun resting easy in the cradle of his arms. Josiah was at the foot of the bed; apparently, he didn’t feel the need for his weapon to be out. Chris saw the clenched fists and the burning desire to inflict a little more pain and thought maybe it was a good thing Josiah kept his guns holstered. Chris switched his gaze over to the youngest. JD was switching from one foot to the other quietly, all his pent up energy looking for some way to be relieved. Chris glanced back to the doctor and found the man more disturbed by JD’s constant moving than the other two men. The place was silent as everyone held their thoughts in check. Wouldn’t do to inflict their wrath while there was a woman in the house. The blond’s feelings still showed through his eyes what he thought of the man and what he’d like to do.
Bill Earnest never once looked up at the leader or opened his mouth. He had been whipped by a man smaller than him and in front of his younger brother. He may have been writhing on the floor in pain, but he had seen the look on Jimmy’s face the moment the boy had stopped idolizing him and that had hurt worse than any bullet wound. The lean, scruffy looking man that had bought him over had already informed him that his other three brothers were in jail. He had no doubt they, too, no longer worshipped him. Getting sent to prison was not the location they had sworn to follow him to. Earnest had noted that the other man, the big one, had yet to say one word. He would have thought him dumb, but he had heard him speak to Jimmy. The rage banked in those blue-gray eyes made him a little scared. Bill hated being scared of anyone.
Chris watched the healer a little longer and then turned to Josiah. “I’m going to the hotel and get us rooms,” he said breaking the spell in the quiet room.
The preacher finally spoke, his voice low, gravely and full of wrath. “I’ll stay with him. Vin and JD can go on with you. When the doc here gets done I’ll take him on over to the jail and then meet up with ya.”
JD wanted to argue, but Chris nodded and motioned for him to follow. Taking one look at Josiah, JD figured he might be better off with Chris. Sometimes it was hard to know which one was the safest to be with when his friends were in the riled mood like they were in now. He knew one thing, arguing with Chris was definitely not the right thing to do.
“Vin’s staying, too,” Chris said quietly, he had no intentions of letting Earnest or Josiah do anything stupid. Stopping in the doorway, Chris said, “Promised Ezra I’d bring him home alive.”
Josiah nodded. After the door shut, he turned to Earnest and said softly with a smile that turned Earnest’s stomach and made the healer a little worried, “Didn’t promise ya had to be one piece though.”
The healer finally finished stitching and sewing up the wounds and stepped back; indicating he was finished. Josiah stepped forward and yanked Earnest off the cot. Earnest rebelled. “Hey, watch it! I’m wounded,” he whined as he tried to jerk away from Josiah.
Vin stepped forward and whispered, “Move.” Earnest whipped around to say something quite ugly, but the look in Vin’s eyes made the words die on his lips. Casting looks between Josiah and Vin, the outlaw buttoned his shirt the best he could with one hand, the other hand been wrapped up tight. When he had done all he could, Josiah grabbed Earnest and swung him towards the door, letting go halfway thought the rotation. Earnest lost his balance and hit the door. “Oops,” Josiah said with a nasty laugh. Looking over at Vin, the preacher shrugged. “Guess he don’t have real good balance.”
Vin shrugged. “Guess not.”
Earnest fell down several times on his journey to the sheriff’s office. Upon arrival, he was manhandled into an awaiting cell. The big man landed on his cot rather awkwardly after a not so gentle shove by Vin. Earnest caught his breath and managed to sit himself up as the peacekeepers left the room. Scooting back on the bed so he could rest against the wall, he looked over to the other cell and noticed Jimmy staring straight ahead. The younger brother wouldn’t look at his brother and, for Bill, that cut deep.
Vin and Josiah entered the hotel and spotted the other two sitting down at a round table. Chris kicked out a chair for Vin while JD motioned for Josiah to take the one next to him. After the two men got settled, Chris asked, “Get Earnest over to the jail?”
Vin and Josiah both shared the same grin that spoke more then words. “Yep. It seems he don’t have much balance though,” the tracker said smugly.
“Sure fell down a lot that’s for sure,” Josiah added.
Chris let a smile of enjoyment slide into place. Tomorrow would be a long day for Earnest. They wouldn’t make it pleasant, but they would keep him alive.
Nathan spent a relatively quiet day at the clinic. Ezra slept through all of it, although sometimes restlessly, except the time Nathan had woken him to eat lunch which consisted of chicken broth and real tea. Ezra had rested between bites and it had taken Nathan almost an hour to get the little food Ezra had eaten, down. Ezra had eaten less than half of his meal before the gambler had closed his eyes for the final time and refused the rest. It had begun to worry the healer at how much weight loss the gambler had begun to show. Being injured and placed in the clinic for a certain amount of time had always caused the patient to lose a certain amount of weight, but today Nathan had realized just how much Ezra had lost. He would have to figure out something that would be rich and fattening, but also go down easily. Buck stopped by at suppertime and bought their dinner. Inez had made Ezra tortilla soup with crushed up vegetables. The tortillas had soaked so long in the broth they slid right down. Nathan had noticed the tortilla bits had been torn up into very small pieces. The healer couldn’t help but thank the lady silently for her forethought. Buck fed Ezra his supper while Nathan ate his. When Ezra closed his eyes to refuse any more, Nathan had figured that was it. He was reminded just how strong-willed the jovial, laid-back gunslinger could be when properly motivated.
“That ain’t all you’re eating, Ezra,” Buck said in a determined voice that reminded Nathan of Chris.
“I’m done, Buck,” Ezra stated tiredly. He had been awake off and on for over twenty minutes and his body was aching for rest.
Buck looked down on his friend, compassion filling his face. Ezra looked like he had been put through the clothes wringer and leeched dry of blood. He also noticed how hallow the man’s cheeks were getting and could only imagine what the rest of him looked like under all those bandages. Charging up his resolve, he shook his head in determination. “No you’re not. I’m not taking this half-eaten food back to sweet Inez. She’ll get it into her head that you’re insulting her cooking and you always say a gentleman never insults a lady. So, you’re eating at least three more bites,” Buck said in a matter-of-fact voice.
“Buck,” Ezra said. Dragging out the name to make it sound like a sentence. He didn’t have it into him to argue. He didn’t have anything in him, he just wanted to lie there and sleep and forget how much pain he was in.
Buck lowered himself to Ezra’s ear and whispered, “Know your tired, Ez, but we gotta get your strength back,” Buck continued, “You lie there with your eyes closed and just swallow whatever I put to your lips. Okay?”
“Three bites?” Ezra asked in a promising note.
“Three bites,” Buck assured the man.
Ezra barely managed a nod and soon felt the tip of the spoon on his bottom lip. Ezra opened his throat up and let the warm liquid ooze down his throat. He made the mental note that there had been nothing else but the broth. Buck waited a moment between each spoonful. After the third one, Ezra heard the spoon clatter into the bowl and then the bowl being set onto the nearby table. He felt Buck wiped his mouth with a cloth and said softly, “That’s it pard. You did really good.”
Ezra would have answered back, but sleep was already settling around him. In no time Buck was watching the steady rise and fall of the white wrapped chest. Buck could hardly bear the thoughts of what lay hidden underneath all the wrappings. How Ezra had managed to hold on even long enough for them to find him had truly amazed him. The fact Ezra was still hanging on and even aware enough to eat was a thrill for him. Though they hadn’t had much communication with Ezra, it seemed to Buck that from what he could gleem, Ezra had retained most of his faculties.
Nathan looked over to where the lanky man sat watching Ezra and pondered at the small smile playing on the other’s lips. Nathan was glad, himself, that Ezra had been persuaded to eat more, even if was only three bites, but he didn’t see any point in rejoicing just yet. There was still a very large mountain looming ahead that needed climbing before Nathan could relax enough to start feeling better.
The next morning Chris was up before the sun, his desire to get back to Four Corners unexplainable. Not since his marriage to Sarah had he felt so at ease with being in one place. He had a home once again and the fear of being away too long drove him to stay close and keep the people he had let into his life safe. He had failed Ezra in that way. Rationally he knew that what had happened to the gambler was not of his doings, but he still felt responsible. He, after all, was the one to send the man on the journey in the first place.
The blond stepped out into the hall and caught a glimpse of Vin headed down the stairs. Chris went to the next two doors and briefly, but jarringly rousted the two remaining men out of bed. They were burning daylight when they could be on the trail. Chris headed downstairs and sat down at the table already occupied by the tracker. Vin eyed the black-clad man with a smirk. Vin was an early riser by nature, but he figured it was something else that drove the leader to be up at this hour of the morning. “Any particular reason you’re in such a hurry to get going?” Vin asked, hiding his smile.
“I don’t need a reason,” Chris growled back.
“Except for maybe a gambler laid up in the clinic,” Vin shot back with ease.
Chris kept his mouth shut and concentrated on not grinding his teeth too hard. Ever since he had joined with the other six men life had become interesting again. Hanging around them was never boring and he never lacked for entertainment, whether it was watching JD try to figure out how to spark young Casey Wells, watching Buck torment and harass JD about his hat or his love life, or setting back and watching the gambler do his thing at the card table. Life was full once again and he would fight tooth and nail to keep it from slipping away from him.
Vin, though not knowing exactly what the recalcitrant gunslinger was thinking, could figure out a partial piece. “Ezra’s tougher than people think. He’ll be all right.” Vin said softy as he leaned back in his chair and took a cautious sip of his hot coffee.
Chris could only nod, both in agreement and in appreciation for Vin’s words and confidence.
Josiah and JD soon joined Vin and Chris and the four men ate while listening to JD talk about Chaucer and all that needed to be done for the horse when they get back home. Chris asked if Chaucer would be able to wear the saddle due to the sores or if it needed to be stored and retrieved later. The young man contemplated the idea for a minute and responded that Chaucer should be okay with the saddle. The men scraped their chairs back and headed for in their separate ways. Vin and JD went to saddle the horses while Josiah and Chris went to get the prisoners.
Chris made short work of relieving the deputy of the prisoners. Walking through the door outside, the sun was shining brightly without having risen above the horizon yet, Chris yanked the shackled man aside. “You give me any trouble and I’ll give you a matching wound on the other side,” the blond hissed. “You understand me?”
Bill Earnest stared back into the green eyes and nodded slowly. He had underestimated the man last night; he wouldn’t do it again.
Josiah and Chris led the men into the livery. One whiff of the big outlaw and Chaucer rose to his back heels, stretching the lead rope JD had hooked to his bridle and tied to one of the rails. His nostrils flared wide and his eyes grew large at the smell of the man. Chaucer came down and reared back up again, making an awful screaming sound. Chaucer came down again and lunged for the big outlaw. Chris managed to drag Earnest out of the way just in time as Chaucer lunged again; narrowly missing the outlaw. Vin leapt to help JD keep the horse from breaking free and bolting. Though the peacekeepers had been caught off guard for a moment by the horse’s reaction, it didn’t take long for Chris to grab Earnest and dragged him back outside. “Guess he don’t like you,” Chris observed as he watched JD and Vin get the horse back under control. The two men inside were soothing riled nerves.
“The beast just needs some discipline. Stupid thing is a menace,” Bill spat out.
“Horse just has good judgment,” Chris replied with an evil grin.
Josiah helped the younger brother mount up on his horse and then gathered his and Chris reins and led the horses outside. “Reckon it’d be best if JD bought up the rear. Chaucer ain’t in a mood to be around this one,” the big man nodded towards Earnest.
Chris nodded and then looked at Earnest. “You got your other horse?”
Earnest shook his head. “Had me a fine mount,” nodding toward a calmer Chaucer, “Didn’t need that old beast I had anymore. Sold him,” he said.
“Then you’ll just have to either walk or ride double with your brother,” Chris said as he led the big man over to where the brother sat mounted.
Chris could tell the younger brother was about to argue that point, but kept his mouth shut. Chris and Josiah pushed the outlaw up onto the horse. Jimmy never said a word to his brother. The peacekeepers set out for home, JD trailing behind at a safe distance with Chaucer. With one horse carrying the heavy load, the trip back was much longer. After the second break, Chris made Earnest start walking. Chris may not have liked the men, but the animal wasn’t the one he wanted punished.
Buck walked into the clinic and noticed Nathan was gathering up the usual supplies to undress the wounds and clean them. Nathan had told him the previous night that a few more of the lashes were ready to have their stitches out. The ladies’ man had figured Nathan could use the help, not only in turning Ezra over, but keeping the man occupied while Nathan tended to the scars. Buck sat down on the chair next to the open window. He could tell Ezra was only dozing and not in a deep sleep. “Hey, Ez,” he spoke with a friendly lilt to his voice.
“Buck,” Ezra replied slurring his word. Getting his brain to function required more attention than he had.
Nathan came over to the bed and said, “Ezra, we’re going to unwrap the bindings and turn you over. Some of those stitches are ready to come out.”
Ezra could only nod in understanding.
Buck looked up at the healer and asked, “Shouldn’t he have something before we do this?” He knew how much it was going to hurt.
“Already gave him a little laudanum,” Nathan answered.
Carefully, Nathan and Buck untucked the bandages, eliciting a groan from the patient as they jostled him slightly. Neither man quit working and soon enough were ready to roll Ezra. Buck hand was caught in a death grip by the gambler as Nathan began poking and prodding lightly at the lashes. “Okay, Ezra. I’m going to do this as painlessly as possible,” Nathan pointed out.
Ezra held his breath to fight against the pain. His lips pressed so firmly together they turned white. Buck watched Ezra closely. The grip on his hand tightened even further as Nathan began tugging the stitches loose. Buck watched his friends breathing alter and gripped the hand in his back and said, “Don’t you quit breathing on us Ezra. If you gotta scream you go right ahead, pard. Ain’t nuthin to be ashamed of . You let it out,”
Ezra unclenched his lips long enough to muffle a reply, “I don’t scream.”
At that time Nathan hit one of the more tender stripes and Ezra couldn’t hold back any further. Blinding lights filled exploded behind his eyelids and a scream tore through his lips, filling the clinic with reverberations. Ezra’s breathing became erratic and fast. “Breath, Ezra. Just breath,” Buck coached as he watched Nathan hurry over to his desk and pour more laudanum into a cup. Buck scooped Ezra head up a little as Nathan put the cup to the gambler’s lips.
“Drink this, Ezra,” the healer ordered gently.
Ezra smelled the sweet medicine and fought briefly. “Don’t need it,” he gasped out.
“Drink,” Nathan ordered a little more harshly and was relieved when Ezra swallowed the cup of medicine.
Buck lowered Ezra head back down onto the pillow and wiped the sweat-drenched hair out his friend’s face. “Just rest, pard. It’ll stop in a minute,” he said, gripping Ezra’s hand with one hand and combing his fingers through Ezra’s hair with the other.
Ezra breathing slowed down and regulated as he succumbed to the effects of the drug and fell into a heavy sleep. Buck and Nathan breathed a sigh of relief of their own and finished up redressing the wounds. Buck had to admit the scars on the gambler’s back weren’t going to be as ugly and noticeable as he had feared, a testament to Nathan’s healing abilities.
The riders arrived late in the evening. The sun had begun to set, casting the sky in magnificent hues of pinks and blues. Buck had been sitting outside of the jail when he spotted the weary band of travelers and wondered why JD was trailing behind. He knew if there had been a problem, Chris would have sent Vin ahead for help, so he wasn’t so much worried as puzzled. He waited until they were even with him before standing up. Looking at the two men riding double, he cast a arching eyebrow to Chris. JD rode by trailing Chaucer. Getting one look at the beaten down horse, Buck let out a low whistle as he yanked Jimmy off his horse. “Ezra’s gonna be properly motivated to get well now for no other reason than to kill ya for hurtin’ Chaucer,” he commented to both outlaws as he shoved the boy forward to the jail.
Josiah and Chris dismounted and pulled Earnest off as well. Chris’d had every intention of making the man walk the entire way to town after that second stop, but after cooling down a bit, he realized he was hampering them as well and had allowed the wounded man back up on the horse. Vin picked up the reins of the horses and headed for the livery stable. He wasn’t sure who was more tired from the trip, the horses or the riders.
Stepping inside the jail, Chris and Josiah held onto the two new prisoner’s while Buck rearranged the prisoner’s to get them all in. They could feel the animosity between the five brothers and knew putting the two youngest in with Earnest was only going to cause them trouble in the long run. Buck put the two youngest and chose the less angry twin in one cell, leaving the remaining twin and Earnest in the other cell. Slamming the last cell door closed, Buck told them, “I’ll see about getting you some supper, though from the looks of things, you could do without a meal or two.” His last shot aimed at the oldest.
The three peacekeepers headed outdoors and away from the argument that arose immediately after the cell doors had been shut. Buck could feel the tension running through Chris and Josiah and made the quiet offer, “I’ll stay with them tonight.”
The other two gave him a grateful acknowledgment. Chris looked up at Buck and asked, “How is he?”
Blue eyes flickered away for a brief moment before coming back to settle on the green ones staring at him. “Holding on,” he answered. “Ain’t eating much and seems to be in a lot of pain. Nathan’s giving him as much painkiller as possible, but he doesn’t want to overdo it.” Buck said in a flat reporting tone.
Chris absorbed the information and gave a small nod of acceptance and dismissal before stepping off the boardwalk and heading for the restaurant. Josiah had listened to the byplay and now that it was just the two of them, the preacher asked, “How’s he really doing?’
Buck contemplated the question for a minute before answering. “Doing better than I would have thought.” He paused for a moment before adding, “I think these last two weeks are going to be thought of as the best part of his recovery. The more conscious he is the more pain he’s going to be in.”
“Just going to have to dig in then and help him,” Josiah said after a long silence.
Three of the travelers were half-way through their meal before JD showed up. “Where you been?” Chris asked.
“Wiring the Judge so he knows we got all of them,” JD answered, taking the plate of hot food from Inez. Chris accepted the explanation and kept eating.
Taking a big bite of food, JD asked, “So how’s Ez?”
Josiah watched the others eat. Laying his utensils down, he cleared is throat and said quietly, “Buck thinks it’s going to get rough from here on out.”
JD, taking a big bite of food, was a little confused since he had believed the worst part was over. Looking up from his plate with melted cheese stringing down from his chin, asked, “Why? We got all of them behind bars and Ezra is still with us.”
Vin explained “Josiah just meant that since Ezra’s doing better, he won’t be able to block out the pain as much. Gonna be hurtin’ bad for a while.”
“Oh,” JD said as he thought about all the injuries his friend had incurred. “Can’t Nathan give him more laudanum?”
Josiah took up the explaining. “If Nathan keeps giving Ezra medicine strong enough to block all the pain constantly, it will hurt him in the long run. Nathan can give him something when it becomes too intense, but otherwise…” Josiah left the thought hanging.
Seeing JD’s confused expression, Josiah tried again, “Ezra can become addicted to the stuff, first off. Second, it isn’t good for the mind to be blunted like that repeatedly.” The preacher had seen what painkillers used repeatedly could do to a person. In his travels, he had learned a lot about what people did to their bodies to keep from feeling pain.
“Oh,” JD said once again. “So, either he’s in pain or he damages his mind?” he said in a half-way questioning manner.
“About it,” Vin answered JD, as he shoveled another fork of food in his mouth.
“Well, we’ll just have to keep him occupied so he don’t think about the pain then,” the young man said. In his mind it was going to be as easy as that. The other three men shook their heads at the youth’s positive outlook. They knew it wasn’t going to be so easy, but they could hope.
It was late, but Josiah wanted to check in on his friend before turning in. JD and Vin had gone earlier, but Ezra had been still asleep from the earlier dose of laudanum. Sitting his big frame down into the chair, he leaned forward and gently took the pale, lax hand in his. Ezra was a good man despite his faults, but then again weren’t they all? Josiah knew, that despite what Ezra spoke about not being thrown in with a bunch of uncouth men, the gambler liked them. Why else, would he try to teach Buck had to sword fight or come back with them after that fiasco with the new marshal? Yes, he had been running away from a mob at the time, but there had been no reason the man couldn’t have turned and gone another direction once he was safe. Instead, the gambler had come back and helped take the town back. In fact, it was he who had ridden through town shouting ‘the army was coming.’
Ezra cared about people and deserved that same kind of loyalty. Josiah thought about the one time Ezra had needed him and he had let the man down. Well, he wouldn’t do again. Ezra was going to make it through this if he had to drag the man kicking and screaming. Josiah laughed silently at the image. Ezra wouldn’t kick and scream, it would be to ungentlemanly. Instead, Ezra would carry the indignity quietly while planning his retribution. Putting the hand back down, Josiah gave it a light pat. “Sleep well my friend,” he said before walking away.
Ezra laid on his side with his eyes closed, dozing. Much earlier, he had contemplated whether or not he could get his hands on a weapon to end his torment. The others had repeatedly told him it would get better, but he was loath to believe it. There wasn’t been a place in him that didn’t hurt and all of it combined made his head ache from the overload to the point where it felt like it was going to explode. He had, at one point earlier in the morning, questioned his sanity when he had considered getting the gunslinger mad enough to kill him and put him out of his misery. He had chosen not to test the idea. The gunslinger might shoot him all right, but not kill him and then he’d have one more injury.
Chris had come early that morning. For a man who scared people just by looking at them, the gambler was learning there was more to him than met the eye, but then again that was true of all of them. The blond had sat down and quietly asked, “You awake?”
Ezra had been lying there on his back for quite some time, trying to will his tense body to relax, when the blond had appeared. The body had been refusing to obey. Keeping his eyes closed, he had merely nodded his head.
“Got them all, Ezra,” Chris had told him. “Gonna stand trial for what they did.”
Ezra had sensed there was something in the gunslinger’s voice that was more than just the usual observation, but he couldn’t place the tone and he was too tired to try and interpret what wasn’t being said aloud. Instead, he licked his lips and tried to gather moisture in his mouth to ask a question. Almost instantly he found his head raised and a cup placed at his lips. Ezra drank his full of the tepid water. Tilting his head back slightly to signify he was done, Chris lowered him back down to the pillow. Ezra licked his lips again and asked, “When will the good Judge make his appearance?”
“Not for a month,” Chris replied.
They had all been surprised by the telegram telling them the Judge was having troubles with a trial in Ft. Laramie and wouldn’t be able to come for a month. Chris had personally wondered if the Judge was actually giving Ezra a month more to recover. Either way, he’d take the month, even though that meant babysitting the feuding brothers for another four weeks. Josiah had thought out loud about turning one of the rooms in the granary into an extra cell. It would mean having two men on jail duty, but it might be something to think about if the brothers didn’t start calming down. Chris knew it was going to be a long four weeks. Josiah’s idea just might be implemented before it was over.
Chris had stayed a while, sitting quietly by the sickbed. Ezra simply felt his presence and wished the man didn’t have to see him in this condition. It only heightened his inferiority complex he felt when he was next to the man. The gambler took a deep breath and held it until the pain passed. He was stuck in a limbo with his breathing. His ribs hurt when he inhaled deeply, but his lungs ached from having to breathe too shallowly. The flare of pain eased and Ezra was able to exhale at a slow pace. He had almost convinced his body to relax and was on the verge of dozing off when he heard Nathan’s familiar footsteps approach. He sighed inwardly. Consciously, he knew the healer was doing his best for him, but he was beginning to resent the man. It seemed every time Nathan appeared, pain followed.
Nathan saw the grimace on the blanched face. He knew Ezra hated being turned, tended to and generally touched. Nathan gave Chris a weak smile and knelt down by the bed. “I know you’re just getting comfortable, Ezra, but it’s time to roll you onto your side.”
“Leave me,” Ezra mumbled. He was getting tolerably comfortable in this position.
“Can’t, Ez. You know that. You stay in one position too long and you’ll start getting bedsores. Don’t need that,” Nathan said. Now that Ezra was conscious more often, it seemed he had this conversation every time he had to do this.
“Don’t care,” Ezra replied with a little heat leaking through his tone.
“Yeah, you do. Come on now, the faster we do this the faster it’s over,” Nathan cajoled.
Ezra didn’t reply which Nathan took as an acceptance of what was to come. Nathan raised Ezra’s head and offered him a cup of tea, meant to help with the pain. Ezra made a face at the taste, but drank the liquid. The two guardians stood over the gambler and watched with anticipation as the medicinal tea took effect. Chris had sat back and watched the preceding by-play. He was always amazed at Nathan’s abundance of patience when one of the guys was really hurt. Any other time Nathan would be ripping into Ezra about doing the right thing. But when one of them was hurt worse than usual, then Nathan had the patience of Job and the ability to coddle them into doing what needed to be done. The blond prepared to help the healer however he could. Nathan indicated with a tilt of his head for Chris to watch the splinted leg and together the two rolled Ezra over.
Chris sighed with relief and then turned to Nathan. “He seems to be doing pretty well...considering,” he said softly, watching Ezra’s face go lax as the injured man delved deeper in sleep.
“Yeah,” Nathan said with relief of his own. “He’s doing far better than I would have ever wagered.”
Slapping Nathan on the back, Chris gave a soft smile, “Well, keep it up. You’re doing a great job.” With that he turned and left the room.
The gambler was dozing and heard the door creak open. He didn’t bother opening his eyes to acknowledge the visitor. He was still under the influence of the tea he had drunk earlier and was enjoying the bliss it brought. The chair creaked, but Ezra didn’t pay any attention to it. He was trying to enjoy the pain-free atmosphere while it lasted. Not really knowing, or caring, if he was sleeping or simply drifting, he shifted his arm a little, moaned and resettled. It only lasted a minute. The next few would be excruciating.
JD had walked into the clinic and sat down on the chair. It was getting easier to see his friend in the condition he was, but not in pain. Seeing the gambler move, JD jumped from his seat, knocking it back into the wall and bent over the patient, he asked excitedly, “You al’ right?” Grabbing Ezra at the same time as he spoke.
Ezra had forgotten JD had come in and the hand grabbing him more than the sound startled him. Lurching forward away from the sudden touch, Ezra found himself free-falling off the side of the narrow bed. In an attempt to save himself, he threw out his bound arm and struck the hand against the floor. A scream tore from his throat and tears of sudden pain instantly flooded his eyes. Half on and half-off the cot, Ezra began panting in exertion and pain, trying to keep the rest of his body from falling onto the floor.
JD moved around the bed in a flash and attempted to find a good spot to grab onto to help Ezra back up onto the bed. “Get your filthy hands off me!” Ezra screamed, his mind in another time and place as wave after wave of pain washed over him. JD backed off in shocked rejection.
Within seconds of the scream, the clinic door flew open and the remaining peacekeepers poured into the small room. Ezra’s scream had been heard clearly through the open window throughout the town: in the saloon, where Chris, Vin and Nathan had been enjoying some quiet time; Josiah had heard it from the church and Buck left his prisoners unattended when he took off for the clinic. The men froze for a heartbeat before racing over to gather Ezra up. In the few seconds in between, Ezra had regained an awareness of his surrounding. There were many: “Easy, Ez”, “Careful” and “Hang on,” said as the five men shifted Ezra back up onto the bed. The gambler could hardly discern the words for the blood rushing through his system, pounding through his eardrums. He, at the moment, would bet his last dollar that Nathan had installed a rotating bed and would give any amount to have it stop spinning.
Chris turned a sharp eye towards JD and asked threateningly, “What happened?”
“I scared him,” JD said haltingly. “Didn’t mean to, “ he added hastily.
“Why didn’t you help him?” Buck asked sharply, as he held down the gambler’s legs from shaking so badly and jarring the already throbbing hip.
“He wouldn’t let me,” the sheriff tried to explain. “He told me to get away.”
“And you listened?” Nathan asked incredulously. He was pouring some straight laudanum into a cup. The healer hated having to give the gambler the laudanum, because Ezra hated it and giving him the drug so shortly after the tea was not good, but Ezra was in too much pain. Laudanum was the only thing that would work quickly enough to do him any good in this state.
Chris turned his attention to Nathan and cocked an eyebrow.
Nathan took the look in stride and calmly replied, “Think he pulled some of those muscles around his ribs loose again. Sure didn’t do his shoulder any good. Have to check his stitches in a minute, too.”
Josiah held Ezra’s head up enough for Nathan to dribble the laudanum down the gambler’s throat . For the first time, Ezra took the hated stuff without a word. JD hung back and watched with immense guilt.
The laudanum was quick to kick in since it had not been watered down, and Ezra’s trembling body, quivering from the shock of the sudden pain, began to still. With everyone’s help, Nathan soon had all the injuries looked over and tended to. The hip, Nathan was relieved to report had stayed in place. The shoulder, while suffering from the abrupt impact, had managed to stay intact, though it was already swelling. The ribs had taken the worse punishment since Ezra had pulled some of the healing muscles when he twisted and lurched forward. He did pull a couple of the stitches loose in his back, but the rest had stayed tied and Nathan saw no reason to redo them, it would only add to the problem. Infection was still a great risk and opening up incisions when not necessary was a potential breeding ground for infection. The healer figured it was best left alone. The sutures in his abdomen had held and Nathan could only watch and hope that nothing on the inside had torn loose.
After Ezra was tended and rebound the men found resting places around the clinic and sat down. There was no other reason to stay other than they needed to be close for a while again. The last two weeks had been busy and anxious. They had been separated for various reasons and not always been able to be together as a group. Without realizing it, each man missed their times together, whether they were doing anything or not.
Vin had noticed JD had taken a spot furthest from the group and slid down the wall next to the young man. “Weren’t really your fault, JD. We just gotta be careful he knows we’re around so it don’t happen again,” he said softly.
“I thought he knew I was here,” JD whispered back.
“Might have when you first walked in, but sleep and pain make things kinda hazy sometimes, plus Nathan had said he gave him some tea earlier. Ezra probably just forgot you were here,” Vin said.
JD nodded. “Still don’t know why he didn’t want me to help,” he said.
Vin shrugged. He had a pretty good idea why, but trying to explain was going to be difficult. Slowly he felt his way through the explanation, “You know how he is about being touched anyway. After what those guys did, I figure it only made it worse. Maybe…maybe in his mind he was back there with them”
JD thought about it and nodded in agreement. He could understand that. He only hoped it never happened again. It had just begun to get to the point where they could treat the gambler like they would each other without Ezra coming unglued about uncouth manhandling of his person. The sheriff smiled at the thought. Ezra was nothing if not entertaining in his own right.
He was tied to the tree, stripped of his upper clothing. The sun was warm on his skin. The breeze was blowing softly through his hair. His senses had magnified a hundred percent. He could clearly see the uneasy look in the youngest thief’s eyes and the twisted leer on the twin’s faces. He knew what was coming, he knew and yet he still screamed when the lash of the whip connected with his sensitized skin. He kept right on screaming.
The six men had still been camped out in the small room. Other citizens’, some just curious and some honestly concerned, had shown up at the healer’s door wanting to know if everything had been all right. Mary, Mrs. Potter and Inez had all come by out of genuine concern; each woman had offered to do whatever they needed. Mary had told them that Tiny had rounded up a couple of his boys and sent them down to the jail to watch over the prisoners. Not everyone in town was indifferent to the peacekeepers.
Since Chris and Buck sat on either side of the door, Buck had answered the door each time, knowing it would be wrong, although amusing, if he let Chris do it. They all had jumped when Ezra let out his first scream. More than one had gone for his gun before realizing the threat lay in Ezra’s mind. Scrambling to their feet, each one spoke to the drugged man, who continued to scream, as he fought to get away from the pain and his tormentors. Nathan shouted to no one in particular to watch the leg and the arm. Though the healer was sure the thrashing wasn’t doing the gambler’s insides much good, there was little they could do about it, besides restraining the fighting man in the way they already were.
Buck cursed under his breath as he struggled to keep Ezra’s shoulder pinned to the bed. His hate for the men locked up down the street growing with each moment. The ladies’ man looked up and searched each of his friend’s eyes and saw the same feelings he felt. Josiah had stepped up on the far side and had one hand on Ezra’s thigh and one just above the hip joint. Buck knew without a doubt Josiah would rip some heads if Ezra managed to displace his hip and it wouldn’t be anybody’s in this room.
Chris was standing next to Buck, trying to hold down the other leg. The rage rolling off the blond was palpable to say the least. The cowboy had once seen a picture of a dragon in a book with its eyes glowing and fire coming out of his mouth. Chris reminded him a lot of that picture and he was pretty sure, if it were possible, the gunslinger would have the fire coming out of his mouth, also.
JD had placed himself down on the end, holding down Ezra’s ankles. Buck shook his head at the poor kid’s situation. JD tried hard to do the right thing, but it seemed the young sheriff was one of those that no matter how hard he tried, things were going to go wrong no matter what. His heart was in the right place, but his actions never seem to equal his intentions.
Nathan was across from him holding the opposite shoulder. The fierce determination not to let his patient and friend hurt himself any more than he already was, written across his face. Nathan was a good man and a good healer; Buck had no doubts about that.
Vin had the gambler’s face in a vise grip and trying to get Ezra’s attention. His face down almost touching the other’s. Buck couldn’t hear what Vin was whispering, but it seemed to be working better than their hollering at the man to wake up. Ezra’s thrashing eased off and the tracker continued to whisper softly until the last of the shivering had stopped.
Ezra could feel them holding him down, could feel the hands restraining him. Preventing him from escaping. Then the voices came: yelling, ordering him to do something he couldn’t comprehend, frightening him further. Then the whispering came. The voice so low it was almost drowned out by the other’s, but then the other voices stopped and only the whispering continued; the words beckoning him, using his name softly, whereas, the others had used it harshly and threateningly. The words were spoken so softly and gently that he had to stop moving to hear them. He knew that voice; it meant: peace, well-being and, most importantly, safety. He followed that voice, followed it out of the darkness and the terror, back to the light and serenity of being in the clinic surrounded by friends.
Ezra’s eyes fluttered open and immediately closed. He opened them again and glanced about, orienting and securing himself, of where he was and who was with him. In each friend’s eyes he saw concern and worry. It baffled him completely. He watched as the looks softened and relaxed, each man giving him a gentle pat or a squeeze for comfort. He watched curiously as Buck patted his shoulder lightly and said softly, “Gave us a scare there, pard.”
The others backed up a pace, as if to physically give him more room, but never leaving the vicinity of the bed. Then the nightmare in vivid colors came flooding back to mind. He had been back on the road, captured and tied. He could recall the pain the whip had made as it struck time and again against his skin. He couldn’t help but wince at the memory. Nathan bent down within his direct sight. “Easy, Ez. It was just a nightmare. It’s over now.”
Ezra could do little else but nod his head and take as deep breaths as his ribs and lungs would allow. He regretted the action, but would do again if he could. It was getting harder to breath so shallowly. He closed his eyes and tried to relax his muscles. He heard the six pair of footsteps ease back further, but never heard the opening of the door. Even with his eyes closed, he could feel their presence.
It was late that night before JD returned to check on the prisoners. The five men had heard the scream as and watched in fascination as the tall, well-built peacekeeper ran from the building. Buck had opened the front door earlier in hopes of creating a cross-breeze. Several men in one cell created a certain odor that was hard on olfactory nerves. The young sheriff excused the boys Tiny had sent down, both as big as their father. JD sat down behind the desk. He hated leaving the clinic, but had seen it as the only choice. Nathan couldn’t leave, Chris and Vin weren’t going to, and it was best for all concerned to keep Buck and Josiah away from the prisoners for a while, at least until they could control their urge for bloodletting. JD rocked the chair back on two legs, placed his hands behind his head and closed his eyes for a little shut-eye. The five men behind bars had roused up when he entered and just as quickly had gone back to sleep.