Ezra felt his good leg moving, bending at the knee and then straightening. Slowly lifting his eyelids, he watched detachedly for a moment until he could register in his mind that it was Nathan that was moving his leg. “Mr. Jackson, what may I ask, are you doing?”
“Exercising your leg,” The healer said, continuing his ministrations. “ I’ve been doing this since the end of the first week. You just never noticed.”
Ezra took a deep breath before speaking. “Why do feel it necessary to carry out such an action?” he asked, the irritation beginning to show.
“Because if I don’t do it, Ezra, your muscles are going to cramp up and it’ll make it harder to use. After I get done with your leg, we’ll work on your arm,” the healer responded.
Ezra had quite enough. He’d had his fill of people putting their hands on him at will. “Stop it!” He commanded with ire.
Nathan, stopped his ministrations and asked, “Excuse me?”
“Just stop it and leave me be,” Ezra said, definitely getting more irritated by the moment. All his control had been stripped away and it was wearing on his nerves. He just wanted a moment where life stopped and let him catch his breath. It all was becoming too much.
“Look, Ez, I can’t. I know it’s uncomfortable, but…” Nathan started to say, his hands going to his hips and a gleam of irritation coming into his own eyes.
“Leave. Me. Alone!” Ezra said. He didn’t want to be touched, no matter what the reason.
Nathan saw something in his friend’s eyes and decided it would be best for the moment to let it go. “Okay, we’ll stop for awhile, but I’m telling you, Ez, it’s for the best,” he said before walking over to his desk.
Ezra stared up at the ceiling, reflecting on his predicament. He hated this. He would rather be blissfully unconscious, like had been in the beginning, than to be suffering through this humiliation. It wasn’t bad enough that he was in constant discomfort, or that Nathan was having to see to all his needs like a parent does for its baby, but to have to be subjected to being manhandled was beyond acceptable.
The other five men came through at regular intervals. He was getting to the point he could tell what time it was just by who was in the room. Vin was always there as the sun rose. After he left, Chris would appear. Josiah came at midmorning. Buck always showed up for lunch and supper, and would insist on helping him with his food. Buck had been too polite to call it feeding. Ezra had to concede that the roguish man may be lacking in manners, but he would never be anything but kind. JD came in the afternoons. Vin would come again after supper, and Chris would appear after the saloon shut down. Josiah would make an another appearance sometime after lunch, but that would always alter, depending on whether any of the townspeople needed his help elsewhere and Nathan, bless his heart, was almost always there when he wasn’t needed any where else.
They had, at different times and in different ways, tried to entertain him to keep his mind occupied. Most of the time he was just too tired to care. The gambler laughed at the irony of that reminiscence. He was too weary to do anything and yet he was unable to sleep, and when he did sleep the nightmares invaded, making sleep unwanted. So there he lay. More than one had offered to deal up a hand for a game of poker, but he had always kindly, and sometimes not so kindly, refused the gesture. He was beginning to believe that Nathan was right; his evil and immoral ways had caught up to him. If he had not been gambling, then he would have drawn those men’s attention, and therefore would not have been accosted. Hence, he would not be lying here. He had never been one for self-pity; what happened in life, happened. He was a firm believer in rolling with the punches and simply reshuffling the deck and starting over again, but with too much time on his hands and nothing but pain and the occasional visitor to keep him occupied, self-pity was settling in.
Nathan was becoming considerably worried about Ezra’s apathy in his own recovery. His body was beginning to heal, but Ezra’s emotions were taking a nosedive. The healer could partly understand; all the men were extremely self-sufficient and, though Ezra liked his comforts and had no problems being waited upon when he was up and about, there was no doubt in Nathan’s mind that Ezra disliked his situation and not just because of the shape he was in. Being pampered was very different from being cared for in the manner he was requiring. The healer sat at his desk staring at the medical book laid open before him without seeing the words. He was stuck regarding what to do for the gambler. If it wasn’t for the hip, he could easily suggest Ezra sit outside the clinic for a few minutes everyday and watch the happenings of the town. Nathan believed the fresh air and the comings and goings of the town would reinvigorate the cardsharp; as it was, with the leg being strapped in place, there was no way the gambler could sit, not for a couple of more weeks at least.
Nathan was still pondering the situation when JD came through the door. Seeing, Nathan at his desk, the young sheriff spoke to the healer first. “Hey, Nathan.”
Returning the greeting, Nathan said, “Hello, JD. How is everything going?”
JD took that to mean how the prisoners were doing. “Pretty good. At least they ain’t squabbling anymore.” Then with a half-smile, he said conspiratorial, “Chris put a stop to that.”
Nathan merely shook his head. The blond gunslinger didn’t have much patience with some people. He could easily imagine how he had silenced any bickering the five brothers had been doing. Looking up at the young sheriff, he wearily asked, “Do I need to go look any of them over?”
JD’s face split into a huge smile. “Nah,” he said, “Chris didn’t even have to touch them.” Then laughing to himself, he added, “Of course Josiah had already scared the youngest two, so Chris only had to ‘talk’ to the oldest three.”
Nathan shook his head as a smile of his own appeared. JD walked across the floor and sat down next to the sickbed. He waited until Ezra acknowledged him before speaking. Ever since that last episode, JD had made a conscious effort never to have that happen again. Seeing that Ezra was looking at him, he said softly, “Hey, Ez.”
“Greetings, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra answered back, boredom and irritation faintly tingeing his words.
JD ignored the tone and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “Want to hear about what happened down at Mrs. Potter’s store today?”
Ezra repressed a sigh. The young man kept him abreast of the comings and goings of their quaint town. Looking into the eager young eyes, the gambler couldn’t resist but indulge the young man. “Pray tell, what might have occurred at the social meeting convergence of our fair town?” he asked.
Absently picking up Ezra’s good arm, JD began exercising it like he had seen Nathan do so many times in the last three weeks, and spent the next fifteen minutes telling of all the latest gossip and dissention among the townspeople. Ezra listened wearily, begrudgingly accepting the arm being moved about without his own doing, confined like the five prisoners held down the street. The gambler figured he owned JD for yelling at him the other day and let the young man ‘help’ him.
He should know it wasn’t real by now, the nightmares that replayed themselves every time he fell asleep. Yet that in itself was the problem, because it had been real and the his mind could no longer differentiate between the two. As so often happened when the nightmares came, he awoke screaming and struggling for air and control. Also, like every other time, someone was there to help him right his world, gain his control and talk to him until he could made sense of things once again. This time, Josiah had been the one. Ezra would never admit it, but he was always thankful one of them was around to bring him out of his tormenting dream. He wondered sometimes if the dreams would ever stop coming. Ezra felt the hand holding his and soaked up the strength the hand offered.
The ex-preacher hated seeing his young brother bound by such demons. It tormented him to watch as Ezra fought the invisible foes and wondered how much worse it must have been to fight them the first time with none of them to help. It was another cross Josiah felt was his to bear, another penance he must serve. Josiah held the trembling pale hand in his while Ezra stared silently up into the almost dark of the clinic. The preacher had relit the lamp beside the table when he had entered and had turned the wick down to almost indiscernible light. When Ezra began his fight, Josiah had turned up the light so that once Ezra was awake he would be able to discern where he was and with whom. Softly, the large man began humming an old hymn he had learned as a child. Ezra would be awhile in relaxing enough to slip back to sleep. This, too, had become part of their routine.
Night drifted on and Ezra eventually fell back asleep. Josiah continued to hold his friend’s hand and hum. He went through the list of songs he knew and when he finished, he started over again. Whether it was Josiah’s constant hum or Ezra’s exhaustion, it was inconsequential. The dreams were held at bay for the rest of the passing of the moon and the gambler was afforded some decent hours of sleep.
Vin slipped into the clinic quietly. Ezra was on his side. His bound leg, held straight by the splint and wrappings, laid atop his other leg. On his last visit, the tracker had noticed faint bruising had begun to occur on the good leg because of the way the gambler was forced to lay when he was on his side. Vin took in the rest of his friend. His bound hand lay cushioned under him, while his good arm lay over his chest and hung over the side of the bed. His chestnut hair was disarrayed, signifying another restless night of sleep. A couple of them would have to make time to wash the dirty hair later. A good-old fashion bath wouldn’t hurt either, but he doubted he could make Nathan see the benefits of allowing Ezra to sit in a tub of water. It would be a pain to get the southerner down the steps and to the bathhouse, and he doubted Ezra would be too keen on being out in public where gawkers could watch, but it wasn’t completely impossible. He would just have to persuade Nathan and the gambler of that. Nodding his head at a thought, the tracker took his place by the bed and watched Ezra sleep. The fact that Ezra hadn’t roused up when he entered told Vin that Ezra was sleeping pretty deeply, a testament to just how little sleep the gambler was really getting.
Nathan came in from his room and spotted the tracker. Silent acknowledgments were made and then Vin stood and motioned for Nathan to step out on the balcony with him.
“How’s he doing, Nathan?” Vin asked.
Nathan hesitated a moment before deciding on the straight truth. “Physically, he’s coming right along. Doing better than I had ever hoped for,” Nathan started.
“But,” Vin prompted.
“It’s not going to last if we can’t start improving his mental well-being also,” Nathan said. “I think it would be good if we could rig up something, so he could get out of the clinic and be outside,” he continued, before shaking his head, “But he doesn’t seem interested in it all. Doesn’t even want to play cards.” Nathan finally let all his worry show. “Vin, it’s been over three weeks and he hasn’t even mentioned going back to his room.”
He hadn’t discussed Ezra’s lack of mental improvement for fear of being laughed at by the others. On the plantation he had seen more than one slave actually will themselves into dying and knew there was a correlation between mental and physical health. The healer waited for Vin to either question him or laugh.
Vin did neither. He, too, knew that a person who wasn’t happy, or what people called well adjusted, tended not to live very well. The tracker nodded his head in understanding before saying, “Noticed that myself and I had a thought about how to get him out.”
Nathan cocked his head, ready to listen to any ideas the other man might have.
“What about taking him down to the bathhouse,” he started. Before Nathan could say anything, Vin waved him off and continued. “Now, Ez ain’t gonna want to do it when everyone can see him, so what if we did it late tonight?” Vin asked.
Nathan smiled widely. There was only two stripes left with stitches in them; it wouldn’t hurt to get them wet and the heat from the hot water would feel pretty good to those bones that had taken the roughest treatment. “Sounds good, Vin. Only one question, who’s going to talk him into it?” Nathan asked with a smirk.
JD stood outside the clinic. He blew out his breath and swiped his sweaty hands down his shirt. It had not gone as well as Vin had said it would. According to Vin’s plans, JD would be the one to entice Ezra into letting them take him down to the bathhouse after closing. Ezra had been adamant about his refusal to be “paraded through town like a circus animal on display”.
JD had done everything he could think of to make Ezra see the upside. At one point the young sheriff had thought the gambler would acquiesced and allow it, but Ezra’s pride, or self-pity; JD wasn’t sure which is was, bowed up and in the end Ezra had declined. JD shook his head. Ezra had been given the chance to do it the easy way, now Chris and Josiah were going to take matters into their own hands.
Ezra had been mortified at the thought of being ‘carried’ through town like he was some artifact. He was not going to let himself be seen in such deplorable conditions for the townfolk to bear witness to. He might not have much dignity here in the clinic, but he would rather be shot dead than to have his inadequacies announced to the rest of the world. For the rest of his waking hours, he had stewed upon the thought. He was jarred out of his musings when the clinic door was thrown open and Chris and Josiah entered, wrestling a long, wide slab of wood between them. The rest of the peacekeepers followed.
Rising up on his good arm, Ezra demanded, “What are you gentlemen contemplating doing with that piece of lumber?”
“Taking you down to the bathhouse,” Chris answered neutrally, as he and Josiah laid the board next to the bed and wedged the length of it under the mattress.
“I think you gentlemen are greatly uninformed. I specifically informed Mr. Dunne that I would not be transported out of this clinic,” Ezra said, becoming a little unnerved as he watched JD and Buck hold each end of the board.
Buck, standing next to the head of the board, looked down on his friend and said, “Ez, you’ve been up here for three weeks and frankly your beginning smell a little rank.”
Ezra was about to reply when felt his body being lifted by the remaining three men and scooted over onto the board. Once on the board, Ezra looked up at the ladies’ man and glared at him. “First of all, Mr. Wilmington, I take umbrage at that ludicrous slander against my person and, second, this is ridiculous!” the gambler said, his voice rising only the barest in levels, but it was enough for his friends to know there was worry in the other man.
Squeezing a shoulder, before letting go and walking around to grab an edge of the transport, Josiah said, “Don’t worry. Most of the town has gone to bed; only the drunks are still out and Elmer has closed up the house to all but us. It’ll be fine.” He said the last bit with deep sincerity, looking down at his friend with honesty.
Ezra knew he had no choice but to go along with this plan. It wasn’t like he could get up and walk off. With determination and brute strength, the six men eased the board through the door, with no space for miscalculation, walked down the flight of stairs and carried their friend down the street.
Nathan removed the wooden splints and bandages from the injured leg and, keeping the blanket over Ezra, the six men picked up the wounded man with ease and lowered Ezra into then steaming warm water. A slow sigh of comfort was their reward.
Chris, Josiah, Buck and JD moved outside, forming a tight circle in front of the door, Nathan joined them after a short time. Vin had stayed inside the building to keep watch over Ezra. Chris eyed Nathan and asked, “Well?”
Nathan cast his eyes downward for a moment before drawing in a deep breath. “It’s like I told Vin, Ezra might be doing fine physically, but mentally…well,” he stopped speaking for moment. “Back on the plantation, I saw men take a beating,. Some recuperated and went right back to work, while others never got out of bed again. Sometimes, it does something to a man. Ezra’s acting like some of those men,” Nathan tried to explain.
“Whadda talkin’ about, Nathan?” JD asked slightly confused.
“He means, we got to give Ezra a reason to want to get out of that clinic and back to living,” Josiah explained.
“How we gonna do that?” Buck asked. He had seen the lifelessness of his friend and it tore at his heart. Ezra was a good friend and, though the man would never admit it, he loved the excitement of life.
“First, we got him out of that clinic,” Nathan said heatedly.
“Excuse me?” Chris smirked. He knew all too well how many times Nathan usually had to fight to keep the injured in the clinic and now Nathan wanted him out.
Nathan knew he would be hearing about this for a long time to come. “ Fresh air and making him do things on his own would help in his healing process, but he is too proud to let any of the townsfolk see him looking nothing less than perfect,” Nathan said.
The five men stood around and thought for a minute of how to get Ezra moving without the eyes of the people on him. Chris slowly looked up and asked, “What about the cabin?”
Seeing the garnered looks from the others, he plunged ahead. “What if we moved him out to the cabin. He would be away from prying eyes. We could rig up some kind of bed thing where he could lay out in the open air,” he said, his voice drifting off as he realized Nathan might not go for it.
Nodding his head, Nathan said, “Than might work.” Then, thinking about Ezra’s personal needs that still needed tended to, he cringed. Ezra had not been happy to learn that the others had been tending to him in that fashion and had been slightly mollified when Nathan had solely taken over the procedures.
“What?” Josiah asked, seeing the mood shift in his friends.
“Well...uhmm… Ezra’s still got personal needs that have to be met,” Nathan said, trying to explain the needs tactfully.
“Ahh,” Josiah answered understanding the problem.
“Hey,” JD exclaimed and was immediately shushed by the others. Looking to see if Ezra had noticed, the five men turned towards where the gambler lay soaking, relieved when Vin shook his head. It seemed for once in a long time, Ezra was sleeping in a relaxed atmosphere.
Lowering his voice, JD said, “When I lived at the mansion, the man once broke his leg. One of the carpenters made a tall box with a hole in it. It set over the other hole in the outhouse and made it so the man didn’t have to lower himself down so far.” By the time he was finished, JD’s cheeks were flaming red in embarrassment.
Josiah began nodding his head. “That could be done. A board nailed to each side wall would help him keep himself level,” he thought aloud.
“How are we going to get him out to the outhouse?” Buck asked.
Again a puzzled silence came over the men. Josiah started slowly, “We could build a push chair and have a board going straight out to support his leg. I could make the back of the chair where it would lean back and that would take the pressure off the hip bone.” After a moment he added, “Take me some time, though.”
Nathan looked delighted. They may just figure out a way to get this done after all. The healer looked at Josiah and said, “Maybe not.”
Getting a puzzled look from the rest, he hurried on. “Last year after Mrs. Loops passed on, her husband gave me her old push-chair. Said he didn’t have a need for it anymore and I could probably put it to good use. I stored it in the livery, in the back part. We could get it out and see what alterations could be done to it.”
Four relieved sighs answered his thought. JD hated to be the negative one in the group, but asked hesitantly, “How are we going to get Ezra out to Chris’?” He looked at the blond and added, “Without tying him up and dragging him out there, ‘cause I don’t see him going willingly.”
A voice from behind them startled them all as Vin spoke up quietly, “Chaucer.” Vin had checked on the sleeping man soaking in the heated water before quietly easing himself to the door. Keeping one eye on the man in the tub, he said, “We use Chaucer.”
Once the plan had been formulated, the six men walked back into the bathhouse. Staring down at the downtrodden friend, each hated the thought of waking the man up and jostling him back to the clinic. For the first time in many weeks, Ezra’s face wasn’t lined in pain or marred by the unfolded nightmare that plagued him at rest. With a diligence of kinship, they woke him and slid him back on the traveling board. Nathan dried him off and resplinted the leg. Shriveled for the long soak, the leg looked even more shrunken next to the good one. Lack of exercise and air had done damage to the muscle tone, but the bath had bought it out clearer.
The six men soon had Ezra back in bed and went to find their own. Tomorrow, they would move Ezra out and begin restoring him to the loquacious gambler they had met four years before.
Ezra woke to the sound of the bustling town. People getting on with their lives, regardless of the patient lying up in the clinic. Opening his eyes slowly to his surroundings, he saw Vin and JD standing in the corner, talking softly. “Ahem, gentlemen. Did your parents never teach you that was impolite to whisper in public?” Ezra said, in a slightly irritated tone.
“Oh hey, Ez,” JD said walking towards the bed. Coming to the side, he held his smile and went forth with the plan they had cooked up last night. JD wondered how he always got stuck trying to persuade a person to do something, he didn’t want to. Buck had told him it was because he had the gift to swivel people around into doing the right thing. JD, himself, thought it was because they believed none of the others would hit the “kid”.
“Guess what?” he asked. Seeing Ezra blank, uncaring face, he went on. “Nathan says you’re well enough to get out of the clinic.” Dropping his head and countenance a little, he said, “But not well enough to go back to our own room. Sorry.” Brightening up again, just like he had rehearsed, he said cheerfully, “That’s why we’re moving you out to Chris’ ranch.” He took an involuntary step backwards when announcing the last part.
“Excuse me?” Ezra said incredulously. This was not what he needed first thing after waking up. “I certainly will not be carted off to Mr. Larabee’s ‘abode’ ” he said tightly, inflicting a rather harsh tone on the word abode.
Vin stepped forward and said, “See, JD, I told you guys he wouldn’t want to move out there. Guess you’ll just have to keep riding out there and taking care of Chaucer yourself.”
“Chaucer?” Ezra asked worriedly. “What’s wrong with Chaucer?” Trying to prop himself up a little on his good arm.
“Got roughed up a bit when he was with those fellows,” Vin answered causally. Actually thanks to JD ministrations the wounds had begun healing nicely, but the equine was still not eating like he should.
“Roughed up?!” Ezra exclaimed as he tried to sit up further.
Vin moved in and tucked pillows under Ezra so he was propped up. “Chaucer was vitiated by those ill-reputed, reprehensible, nefarious, repulsive, malfeasant, miscreants and you said nothing?” he shouted. Vin believed that if Ezra could have reached a weapon, he and JD wouldn’t have chance. As it was, Ezra was struggling to roll out of bed.
The tracker looked up to find JD looking a little frightened by the change in the normal easy-going gambler. Reaching out to stop Ezra from hurting himself and trying to lighten JD’s fear, Vin said casually, “Jeez, JD. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Ezra is kinda riled.”
This earned him a disbelieving look from the younger man and a rather scathing look from Ezra. Sighing loudly in a put-upon way, Vin tried to explain. “Well, Ez, let’s face it. You haven’t been feeling right perky lately. We just didn’t want to upset ya none.”
“I demand to see him right now!” Ezra said harshly, valiantly trying to roll over again.
Fear rose in the gambler’s chest. He had been so relieved when Vin had informed him that, along with the miscreants, they had recovered Chaucer. Vin hadn’t acted worried or concerned at the time, and Ezra had taken it as a sign that the horse was in good health. Now he was learning that the horse was far from that.
“Well...ya see there in lies the problem, Ezra. Chris took Chaucer out to his place. You want to see Chaucer, you’re gonna have to go out there,” Vin said nonchalantly. “That horse has taken a real shine to life on a ranch. Open spaces, no crowded barns. Doesn’t have to share the place with lower class breeds of horses. Yep,” Vin said, listing onto one hip. “Chaucer has really taken to living at the ranch.”
“Fine,” Ezra huffed. “I’ll move out to the ranch.” Ezra wasn’t so angry that he couldn’t see the con, but had to give it to his friends; they were pretty sneaky.
“Thought you’d see it our way,” Vin said, as he strolled to the door. “We’ll move ya tonight, after dark.” With that Vin walked out the door, leaving JD standing by the bed wondering what to do.
Noticing the young sheriff’s presence, Ezra turned to JD. “Are you going to stand there all day or is there some other place you need to be?”
JD turned red a minute before scooting towards the door. Before leaving, he turned to Ezra. “I’ve been looking after Chaucer, Ezra. He’s doing real well,” he said, receiving a gracious grin from Ezra.
“Thanks, JD,” Ezra said.
Ezra went through a myriad of emotions waiting for darkness to fall; the predominate one was apprehension. He rationalized that his fellow peacekeepers understood he had limitations and certain needs to be seen after, but knowing about it and dealing with it were two separate things. He couldn’t see Chris Larabee, fearsome gunslinger changing sheets, or JD being able to handle his excrement. The more he laid there and thought, the more problems he saw arising and soon his stomach was in one big knot. He had always taken care of himself. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t and now he was going to be dependent on the others, not just Nathan who was a professional.
Nathan had left Ezra alone for a few minutes while he checked on an elderly lady a couple of blocks away. Arriving back at the clinic, he was dismayed to find the coverings of the bed tumbled about and Ezra lying restlessly on his back. The healer knew it wasn’t a good sign and set about easing some of the anxiety he felt coming off his friend.
Sitting down next to the bed, he began straightening up the sheets and light blanket. “Ezra,” he spoke in a low tone. Garnering Ezra’s attention, he continued, “It’ll be okay. You don’t think I would approve of this if I didn’t think it so. Do you?”
Ezra studied the warm brown eyes and thought about what made Nathan such a good healer. Nathan was a stickler for doing the best he could for his patients. He had stood toe-to-toe with Chris when the gunslinger had been wounded and tried to escape the clinic after a couple of days. Nathan had won that round. There had been the other times when Nathan had caught any escaping patient, mostly him or Vin, and dragged them back to the clinic until the healer was satisfied they could be on their own. No, Nathan would not allow anything that wasn’t in the best interest of his patient.
Ezra slowly shook his head. “No, Nathan. Contrary to popular belief, I do hold your abilities with the highest regards.
“Good. So stop worrying,” the healer said as he moved off.
It was late at night when the six men appeared in the clinic. Nathan had offered Ezra some laudanum, but Ezra refused. The stuff only intensified his already harrowing nightmares. The gambler did accept some of the tea that contained natural sedative. Ezra was quietly and efficiently loaded onto the same board that had carried him to the bathhouse. He was slid into the back of a buckboard and the journey began.
Josiah was careful not to hit any of the large ruts in the path that led to the small cabin. Being out to Chris’ on numerous occasions, he had no problem remembering where they were located and circumventing them. Once arriving at the dark house, the men unloaded Ezra and carried him in. They stalled long enough for JD to light a few lamps and then carefully placed Ezra into the bed.
“Not as comfy as your feather bed, but it’ll have to do,” Chris remarked as the men scattered about.
“It is just fine. Thank you, Mr. Larabee, for your accommodations,” Ezra said sleepily.
Chris laid one hand on the friend’s arm. Giving a small pat, he walked away to find his own bed. His shack was not that big, but big enough for two small bedrooms. Except for his father-in-law, Hank and occasionally Buck or Vin, no one else had used the spare room. Chris laid in his bed listening to Josiah and Buck whispering in the kitchen. Nathan would sleep in the room with Ezra for this first night, and JD and Vin had gone to the barn. Chris smiled lightly into the dark; it felt nice to have a houseful of friends.
The next morning, Ezra woke to find himself in the room alone in the predicament he had feared. He would have to call on one of the others to help him out. Gathering up his resolve, he called out, “Hello.”
Vin came in immediately. “Hey, you finally decided to wake up, huh?” he said jokingly. Seeing the tight lines around his friend’s face, he moved into the room and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Blushing the brightest red, Vin had ever seen Ezra blush, Ezra mumbled, “I need help.”
Vin walked on up to the bed. Taking in the bright blush and the mumbled statement, it didn’t take long to figure out Ezra’s ‘need’. “No problem, Ez. Be right back.”
Ezra laid there listening to an odd rumble with a distinct squeak. He looked over at the doorway and there was a pushchair with an extended board sticking straight out. “Uhh. Vin?” he asked hesitantly.
“This is your new mode of transportation,” Vin said. “At least until you can walk again,” Vin finished, sidestepping the chair and walking into the room. It was then that Ezra noticed Josiah.
Ezra would have backed away from the approaching men if there had been anywhere to go. “Mr. Tanner, to what are you alluding to?” the gambler asked nervously, as Josiah and Vin stopped by the bed.
“We’re alluding to the fact that you ain’t going to stay locked up in this room,” Josiah said briskly. Before Ezra could protest any further, Vin and Josiah reached underneath him and scooted him to the edge of the bed. Then Josiah picked Ezra up while Vin kept the leg straight. Settling Ezra into the chair, both men looked quite please at their actions.
Ezra looked up at his friends and asked, “How is this going to solve my current necessity?”
“Hold your horses, Ez. We’ll get to it?” Vin said as Josiah began pulling the chair out of the house.
Once on the porch Josiah maneuvered the chair around to face forward and Ezra noticed that a ramp had been placed to cover the steps. Josiah carefully eased the chair down and began pushing it towards the outhouse. Ezra’s anxiety level was once again rising. How were they expecting him to use the facilities when he couldn’t bend yet?
Vin could see the bright green eyes darken in worry. Patting his friend’s arm, he whispered, “Don’t worry, Ez. We thought about this.”
Once at the door, Josiah put a small block behind the two big wheels. Then, while Vin lowered the leg off the board, Josiah, grabbing Ezra from behind around the waist, lifted the man into a standing position. Knowing this was the first time the man had been upright in weeks. Josiah tightened his grip and waited until Ezra’s dizziness and vertigo passed. Vin had stood in front just in case Ezra had lurched forward. Seeing the color return to the gambler’s face, the tracker opened the door and Josiah lifted Ezra straight up and placed him inside the building. Ezra noticed the extra high box and sideboards to grip onto. He had to commend his friend’s ingenious thinking. Ezra grabbed the smooth board with his good arm and, with Josiah’s help, managed to stay upright. Josiah asked, “You okay?”
Ezra nodded. “Yes. Thanks,” he said.
Josiah didn’t miss the almost happy lilt to the voice. Ezra realized the necessity of needing Josiah to keep him upright, but at least he wasn’t stuck in bed having Josiah take care of dirty linens.
Once everything was taken care of, Ezra was wheeled to the front of the porch and parked. Ezra couldn’t believe how such a small action had taken so much energy out of him. He was thankful for the reclining position. After being parked in front of the porch in the shade, he lifted an inquiring brow up at his friends.
“Thought you might enjoy being outside for awhile before it gets too hot,” Vin said.
Ezra nodded in agreement, feeling his heavy eyelids already closing. A moment later he felt a light wrapping placed over him and, for the first time in days, Ezra slept a peaceful sleep.
He was awakened sometime later by voices. Opening his eyes, he searched for the source of the words being carried on the slight breeze that blew out of the north, off-setting the heat. Ezra sat there contemplating the world around him. How he wound up with six good men becoming true friends still baffled him, even after all this time. The amount of work they had to have put into the modified accessories to accommodate him was beyond his comprehension. No one in his life, up to now, would have put forth so much effort for him. The headiness of that discovery was overwhelming. He could almost become maudlin. The sound of the voices becoming louder broke him out of introspection of his life. He turned his head in the direction of the voices and soon Vin and Josiah came walking around the corner of the cabin.
“Hey! You’re awake!” Vin exclaimed with a smile.
He and Josiah had taken turns checking on the sleeping man. After the fourth hour, they came to the conclusion that Ezra’s nightmares seemed to have been kept at bay. It was well after the noon hour and both men had come to conclusion that they were going to have to move Ezra to keep him out of the direct sunlight. Now that Ezra was awake, they wouldn’t have to jar him awake doing so.
“Rest well, Ezra?” Josiah asked as he walked to the back of the pushchair.
“Indeed, Mr. Sanchez. I feel quite reinvigorated by my repose,” Ezra said, as he was pushed back up the ramp and into the small kitchen.
“Well, at least you’re beginning to sound like the Ezra we know,” Vin said with an easy laugh. “How about some lunch?” he asked.
“Lunch would be most suitable, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra replied. His voice sounding stronger than it had in a long while.
A chair was removed from one side of the table and Ezra’s chair was rolled alongside of it. Josiah made sure that Ezra’s good hand was next to the table and capable of reaching his plate of food. While the man had been in the almost prone position in the clinic, Buck had taken it on himself to feed Ezra his meals. Now that they had the man partially upright, Ezra could feed himself and give him back that much needed independence.
Josiah had just started serving up the meal when horses could be heard approaching. Vin stepped to the door and announced, “Just JD and Buck.” Turning back into the kitchen, he said, “Hope you made enough.”
Josiah laughed. JD could out eat Buck sometimes. “Made plenty,” he answered
The meal of mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits was eaten with relish. Josiah had kept in mind that Ezra still needed to eat soft foods and foods that would be easy on the stomach. None of the four men said anything about the way the gambler dug into his food with seeming enjoyment. Already a slight transformation could be seen in the man, but it was a long ways from the normalcy. Josiah looked over to Buck and then to Vin, who had taken his plate and sat on the hearth next to JD, and winked. It was good to see Ezra eating on his own. After lunch, they had something planned that would surely perk their friend right up.
Ezra had eaten in the finest restaurant there were, but at that moment, the simple meal was the finest cuisine he had ever tasted. He enjoyed the simple task of being able to feed himself, but more, he was beginning to feel more like a human again. The easy camaraderie the three men shared, talking about whose cows got into whose field. How one rancher was trying to divert the water system away from other rancher’s and the on-going, awkward and sometimes entertaining relationship between JD and Miss Wells. This was what he missed, Ezra suddenly realized, being included in simple moments with his friends.
After the dishes were cleaned and put away, Buck grabbed the back of Ezra’s chair and began pushing him back outside. Ezra assumed it was so he could see Josiah and Vin off with the other two regulators. JD had hurried outside moments earlier. Ezra thought nothing of the incident; JD wasn’t the type to stand around and take things slowly; he always had to be moving. Being pushed down the ramp, Ezra waited for Josiah and Vin to head off to the barn to fetch their horses. He was slightly puzzled by their demeanor; Buck, Josiah and Vin had the look of men who were bursting with a secret and barely restraining themselves. Equally puzzling was their lack of interest in getting back to town. His attention was quickly diverted and all thoughts about the other men vanished when he turned towards the noise.
“Hey, Ez!” JD shouted, leading Chaucer out of the barn on a halter lead.
Ezra turned towards the man calling him and sat up a little straighter, ignoring the various pulls and strains to his upper body. His only focus was upon his beloved horse. Ezra’s critical eye took in every movement, every rib showing, and every scar that was still slightly visible and sucked in his breath, Chaucer was a sight for sore eyes. A little worse for wear, like his owner, but still in one piece. Ezra watched with amusement and a glad heart as Chaucer pulled the rope from JD’s light grasp and moved into a trot towards him. Reaching his owner, Chaucer lowered his head and pushed his muzzle into Ezra’s chest. Man and horse were back together.
The four regulators stood back and watched the reunion in quietness. They all knew of the bond between horse and man, they shared the same with their own steeds on different levels, but something about the moment just made each man fight a little lump in their throats. Josiah finally cleared his throat and gruffly said, “Well, Vin and I have to get going.” He headed for the barn before anyone could see the unconcealed look on his face.
Vin, thankful for the distraction, quickly concurred, “Yep, best get going.” He walked by Ezra and gave him a slight pat on the back and then gave Chaucer’s muzzle a quick rub, before heading towards the barn. A few minutes later the two men exited the barn with the horses and mounted off. Josiah and Vin called their byes and headed back to town.
Buck clapped his hands softly and said, “Let’s get you and that ornery horse of yours over in the shade of those trees.”
JD went to take Chaucer’s rope, but missed as Chaucer yanked his head away and began following on his accord. Once settled in the shade, JD said, “I’ll go get his brushes and you can curry him out. Doesn’t like it half as well when I try. He got kinda cantankerous about the whole thing,” the young man said, the last part said lightly in a joking manner. It was well known that Peso and Chaucer was the most difficult of all seven horses and only behaved properly for their masters.
JD moved off to the barn and, after making sure one last time that Ezra was well removed from the glare and touch of the sun. Buck headed for the house. Ezra rubbed Chaucer’s forehead. “You aren’t cantankerous, are you, boy,” he said softly, love flooding his voice. Chaucer bobbed his head down further so Ezra could reach behind his ears for a good long scratch.
The currying didn’t last long, as Ezra tired out quickly, only having limited mobility and use of one arm, but it was enough for both man and beast. As Ezra’s strokes became softer and more sporadic, Chaucer moved closer to the chair in which his master sat. It was an instinct to protect the human in his weakness from anyone. At last the brush dropped to the ground with a soft thud as the hand holding it became lax. Chaucer glanced sideways to cast a quick look at his master before turning back and stood firm. When Buck came out a short time later to check on the two, he couldn’t help the wide smile that formed on his lips. Ezra was sound asleep, while Chaucer quietly munched on the grass that was in reach without having to move. Buck walked up to the horse and gave him a sound scratching behind the ears before turning and walking back to the house. He knew better than to try and get the stubborn animal to leave his post.
The two peacekeepers kept a routine of checking on their slumbering friend while they wiled away the afternoon. They had thought at first about working on repairing some of the fence rails around the corral, but hated the thought of making any noise that would disturb Ezra from his much needed rest. The injured man had slept, sure enough, in the clinic, but it had been a far cry from a restful sleep. Out here, the man seemed to be able to sleep more soundly, without the nightmares that had been plaguing him recently. So, Buck and JD had decided a day of simple ease wouldn’t do any harm. That was how Chris and Nathan found the three men in the late afternoon when they arrived.
A new routine quickly fell into place. Ezra was pushed outside after breakfast until lunch. During that time, his body was exercised, he groomed Chaucer and he helped hand tools to whomever happen to be on duty and was doing whatever around the place. Chris found that having Ezra at his place was beneficial to both of them. Ezra was able to exercise, get out and was recuperating well, while Chris’ place was getting the repairs it desperately needed. In the afternoons, Ezra spent the time under the stand of trees reading or sleeping. In the evenings, one of the men would fill the tub they had borrowed for the gambler and Ezra would enjoy the luxurious accommodations of a hot soak. The men weren’t sure which made Ezra smile more, the soak or spending time with Chaucer.
The transformation in Ezra was like night and day. The man became more lively and animated. The spark slowly returned to the green-eyes and the quirk of a smile played easily about his lips. The men had quickly learned that as long as Ezra was complaining about the exercises they forced (or cajoled, depending on the person) him through, the gambler was tolerating it well. It was when Ezra became stoically quiet that they knew he had had enough and then would quit. At the end of the week Nathan removed the bandages from his shoulder, giving orders to SLOWLY begin to exercise it. Nathan was relieved that everything was healing so nicely. All the stitches from Ezra’s back had been removed and the scars were going to fade into very fine lines. The thing, other than the hip, that Nathan had worried most about had been the repair done to the organs. The healer had kept a close eye on all the signs the book foretold about that would tell him something was wrong, none had come to fruition. Nathan had heaved a big sigh of relief. He figured that after four weeks, if nothing had gone wrong, it was a sure bet that it wouldn’t. The only major problem was the hip.
The healer had sent out telegrams to a few doctors in Denver about treatment and procedures for the dislocated joint. Only two had written back. Nathan had then written a condensed version of what he had done. Both doctors had written back praising Nathan for his thinking and skills. One had written and advised that since it had been five weeks since the incident, he allowed that Ezra could start bending the knee. Sitting up would need to wait at least another week at least and light exercise on the muscles would be beneficial. The other doctor had written and said that Ezra should stay in bed for another three weeks before even contemplating getting him out of bed. Nathan had cringed at that advice, since Ezra was already up, albeit by a chair on wheels. The healer decided since Ezra seemed to be tolerating what he was doing already, he would go with the first doctor’s advice.
Ezra sat under the tree, staring out across the landscape. The sun drifted downwards towards the horizon, setting the sky ablaze with a glorious golden haze. He couldn’t deny that the gunslinger had a good location for his new homestead. Unconsciously, he rolled his bad shoulder. It had been three weeks since he had been moved out here. Two weeks since Nathan unwrapped the shoulder permanently and Ezra had regained full use of it once again, but there were times when he had to reassure himself it was in working order. He had managed to roll himself to the spot on his own. No longer did he sit in a half reclined position and Josiah had taken away the board that kept the leg straight. Nathan had yet to give his permission to start putting weight on it, but due to the therapy his friends did on it during the day and the small flexing ones he performed while in the water, he knew it was getting stronger. Now, as he watched the sun touch the beginning of the horizon, he thought about what had driven him out here in the first place. His friends. Good ones, he would be the first to admit, but they were driving him slightly nuts with their furtive glances and unspoken concern. He couldn’t take it anymore and sought refuge in complete solace.
Judge Travis had arrived in town early that morning. After visiting the prisoner’s and getting a progress report on the victim of the assault, the judge made the excuse of needing a day to rest from his journey and informed the men that the trial would start the next day, first thing. Six of the peacekeepers noted how unhurried the Judge seemed to be in starting the trial and wondered if it wasn’t for the gambler’s benefit.
Ezra had known the day was coming. Knew the judge would arrive and he would have to get in front of everyone and relive those terrifying moments out loud, but now that the time had arrived, he felt uncertain he could do that. Out here, away from the town and the men responsible for his condition, he had been able to push the thoughts away. Here, he had been able to escape reality and enjoy the camaraderie of his friends and enjoy the relaxation that the illusion of the here-and-now bought him. Now he would have to leave this place and step back into reality.
The soft rustling of clothes forewarned him of a visitor approaching and slipped his straight face into place with a deep sigh. He did not wish to talk to anyone at the moment; he had too much on his mind. Glancing over, he was relieved to see it was Vin, who dropped down into a squat beside his chair. The two men sat in silence as the sun slipped past the horizon, leaving a colorful array of pinks and blues behind. One man giving his strength in silence and the other absorbing that strength to fortify his own. An hour later, complete darkness had engulfed them and the one-time buffalo hunter stood and pushed the other into the house. No one mentioning Ezra self-imposed exile, each one understanding the gambler's need for privacy.
That night, Vin helped Ezra into bed and left the room. Going back in after the gambler had fallen asleep, the tracker took a seat in the chair next to the bed. Reclining as far as possible, he stretched his legs out and propped them on the edge of the mattress. He had no doubts that the nightmares that had left his friend alone for the past few weeks would be revisiting him tonight. As thought, Vin awoke to the muffled pleadings of the gambler caught in an inescapable dream. Reaching over with one hand and placing it lightly on Ezra’s arm, he whispered, “Right here, Ez. You’re safe.” It seemed to take no more than that to abate the dreams and calm the man down. Less than an hour later, Vin felt a hand on his own arm. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring into Chris’ face. “My turn. Go get some real sleep,” he ordered in a soft voice. Vin nodded and went to find a more comfortable place to sleep. Before the morning was over, at least five of the men had rotated through the bedroom. JD didn’t see himself as being much of a comforter to the gambler and stayed out of the room
The next morning dawned a splendid day. No one really noticed. Josiah had gone to Ezra’s boarding room the day before and found the gambler’s favorite shirt and pants, and had taken them down to the Chinese laundry and had them pressed. The clothes, plus his black coat hung in the small room that Ezra had taken up residence in. The gambler sat on the edge of his bed staring at the clothes and wishing for some small earthquake to swallow him up. Buck leaned against the wall, one foot crossed over the other with his arms crossed. He had been waiting five minutes for Ezra to indicate he was ready to get dressed. For the most part Ezra could dress himself, except for the pants, and the sock and boot on his right side. Buck silently blew out his breath and decided it was time to give a gentle reminder that they didn’t have all day. “Planning on making it there before noon?” he asked with a half-smile.
Ezra looked up at the man and chided himself for getting caught with his guard down. If he had known how long he had been off in his own little world, he would have felt humiliated. Buck saw no reason to bring this to his friend’s attention and continued to wait for Ezra to make the first move.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience I have placed upon you, Mr. Wilmington. Of course, let’s proceed with the apparel,” Ezra said in a light tone. Buck noticed it sounded a little forced.
“If that means getting dressed...then all right!” he said, as he pushed off the wall and reached for the clothes. Carefully, he removed the shirt and handed it to the man on the bed.
Twenty minutes later five men were outside pacing. Josiah finally threw his hands up in the air in resignation and walked into the house. Knocking lightly on the bedroom door before opening it, he came face to face with Buck. With a simple nod of the head the two stepped out of the room, Buck closing the door behind him.
“Well?” Josiah asked, with a lift of his brow.
Buck shook his head. “He’s fixed the tie twice, readjusted the belt three and now can’t decide whether or not to leave his jacket open and button it,” he said with a sad smile.
Josiah nodded his head in understanding. Stall tactics. This was not going to be easy for the southerner. They had known that, they just didn’t realize how hard until now. “I’ll talk to him,” the ex-preacher said.
Buck nodded and walked outside and was quickly ambushed by the young sheriff. “What’s taking him so long,” JD asked impatiently.
“This ain’t easy for him, kid,” Buck said in a wise old voice. He knew all too well what fear did a person.
“Why? I mean…he’s going to be fine. We’ll have the bad guys covered during the trial. It’s not like they’re going to do anything to him and we won’t let it happen if they try,” JD rattled off in his innocent point-of-view.
“Kid, bones mend and heal, but memories last forever,” Buck said in a low tone before walking past the kid and going to stand with the other three men. JD looked back at Buck as he joined Chris, Vin and Nathan. He wondered just what kind of memories the four peacekeepers had that made them understand Ezra so well.
No one questioned what words of wisdom Josiah had spoken to Ezra, they were just relieved when the older man appeared pushing Ezra out to the wagon. Nathan and Josiah lifted the gambler up into the wagon seat beside Vin, as Buck and Chris loaded the chair into the back. Ezra had announced he would only be caught riding in the back if he was dead or unconscious, the man did have an image to uphold. The rest mounted up and the seven men headed for town.
The trial was shorter than any of them had expected it to be. In Ezra fashion, the man had been wheeled to the front of the makeshift courtroom like the regal man he portrayed everyday on the streets. His posture rod-iron perfect, his hands lay folded in his lap, and his face held nothing of the turmoil he felt deep within. He had recounted every moment that was burned into his mind, from his initial encounter with the youngest outlaw and one of the twins, to the hazy, but memorable event of being tossed over the ledge. Throughout his testimony he held the fury that burned within him at bay. He controlled every nuance that might give his emotions away. He was the perfect southern gentleman. There were only six men that he fooled in that courtroom. Ezra was grateful for the small allowance that the judge had granted him by making it a closed hearing. Mary had balked at first, but after a short, but productive encounter with Chris, she quieted down and stayed in her printing office.
It took the judge exactly thirty seconds to bring down his gavel and pronounce sentencing. It took that long for the judge to quell his own temper. The sentence was based on a small talk he’d had earlier with the gambler right before the trial. The two men had been sequestered alone at the insistence of the Judge. When finally alone, Judge Travis had asked the gambler what kind of punishment he would like the men to receive, if he was doling it out. The sentencing went forth. The youngest one, David, received five years in prison. Ezra had asked for only three, but the Judge hadn’t felt quite as lenient. Ezra knew, for the young man, the five years would seem interminable, especially considering it would be the Yuma Territorial prison, and hopefully it would give the young man the incentive to turn his life around. Jimmy, the second youngest, received eight years. Ezra figured if the boy lived to be paroled, Jimmy might also redeem himself. For the other three, Ezra held no illusions. The twins, Randy and Roger, received twenty-five years. Bill Earnest, the oldest and ringleader and whose past deeds had finally caught up to him, was sentenced to hang.
JD and Buck easily led four somber men back to the jailhouse, while Nathan, Josiah, Vin pulled and wrestled an irate and scared Bill Earnest back to his waiting cell. The man had done some terrible things based on a belief he would always get away with them. That time had just ended.
Chris sat on the bench next to where Ezra had been parked. The Judge rose quietly from his seat and waited until he briefly caught the eye of the gunslinger. With a simple nod that implied a plethora of thoughts, the older man eased out of the building and went in search of his grandson. He could use a little ray of light.
The two men sat in the empty granary in silence, neither knowing what to say. Chris had no words of wisdom or comfort for his friend. The nightmares would plague Ezra for a while to come. The scars on his body and mind would always be a reminder of what the man went through and the hip was still an uncertainty as to whether it would create a limp or not. Ezra had no idea how to face the man next to him. The conman had always utilized his gift of speech to extract him from any predicament he had found himself in the past. He had even used that gift on more than one occasion for the benefit of the six other peacekeepers and the townspeople he found himself protecting. He had finally failed. He wasn’t sure after today he could look the man beside him in the eye. Ezra pondered whether Chris would think the gambler was no longer viable to the small band anymore. That fear was worse than anything. To have Chris Larabee, or for that matter any of the others, to look upon him and find him lacking was not something Ezra thought he could handle. Ezra dragged in a deep breath and tried to shake off the unthinkable
Chris caught the shudder and came to conclusion they were sitting in the granary for nothing. It wasn’t helping either of them. Rubbing his hands along his pants, he said quietly, “Don’t know about you, but I could do with a drink.”
Ezra nodded his head. “An indulgence in a fiery liquid would be most appreciated,” he replied. Looking down at his position, he gave long-suffering sigh. He hated the blasted chair. It was an all too blatant reminder he was not whole and that he couldn’t take care of himself.
Chris stood and began walking alongside Ezra as Standish moved himself under his violation towards the saloon. Looking down at Ezra, he asked, in a humorous tone, “Wonder how many free meals you can get out of Inez with that thing?” Winking as he nodded at the chair.
Ezra thought for a minute before a glimmer of inspiration lighted in the green eyes. “Now that is something to wager on,” he said.
“If nothing else it’ll stir up Buck with all the attention she’ll be giving to you,” Chris laughed.
“Indeed, Mr. Larabee. You have a wicked mind,” Ezra replied, a full-blown smile gracing his lips.
The two men reached the saloon and met up the other five, who had been waiting for them, before entering the saloon. Josiah took over for Ezra’s strained arms and pushed him to the back table. The five walking in front of them kept well-wishers away for the time being. As Ezra was settled into place, he looked around at the men who surrounded him and, for once, counted his blessings instead of his money. He was beginning to see a glimmer of the kind of true friendship he had with these six men as he realized Nathan would do his best to see him recover completely. As for the others, they would take him limp or no limp. He came to the quick conclusion that he was far richer in blessings. Raising his glass to meet the other six, the glasses clinked in unison saluting friendship.