Fork in the Road

by Beth

Chapter 24

Buck sat uncomfortably in his chair looking at the deathly pale form on the bed. The only reason he knew the gambler was alive was the slow rising and falling of his chest. They had all come close, some closer than others, to loosing their lives. They should have been prepared for Mercer and his men but they took advantage of a situation that arrived during the fight between Chris and Ezra and now they were all suffering the consequences. The ladies man tried to reason in his mind Chris's actions at the saloon but he kept coming up short. He'd known Chris a long time, and Buck had to rub the tension away from his head with the palm of his hand, his best friend changed into a completely different person after Sara and Adam died. She and that boy of his meant everything to him. He'd seen bits and pieces of the original Chris he came to know years before within the past year. The way he was with Billy when he thought nobody was looking, or Mary when they had a quiet moment alone. Even the friendship he shared with Vin, it was reminiscent of how himself and Chris used to be. Buck wasn't jealous of the tracker, not at all, in the matter of fact he was relieved the gunslinger had finally come out of that cold dark corner he had put himself in. And it was Vin who helped bring him out of it. Buck smiled to himself, what an unlikely bunch of men the seven of them. He looked toward the bed and sighed, was the damage done too much to repair, or could they all go on as if it never happened? No, Buck answered his own question; he could feel it in his gut. Things are different now he just hoped the man lying motionless in the bed next to the wall would help them piece back together the part that had been broken.

The very thought of moving made Ezra hurt, though his back wasn't on fire like it had been but their was a new pain high on his right side. He was chilled and tried to pull the blanket covering him up over his shoulder but found that he was to week to do so. He was relieved when he felt someone cover his bare shoulders but moved his head away from the hand that wanted to check him for a fever. It was dark, he knew that much. There was only one lantern burning and for that the gambler was thankful, he didn't know how much light he could stand. His eyes fluttered open again and he tried to make sense of his surroundings, Netties he supposed, how long has he been there? Memories came back to him in short flashes at first they were confusing but the more that came the clearer they got. He brought his hand up to his face and rubbed his eyes, "Mercer?" he said aloud and jumped at the thought.

"He's dead," Buck said moving closer to the conman. He'd noticed earlier that Ezra was trying to pull the blanket up over his shoulder but couldn't quite get it there so he grabbed one off of Nathan's bedroll and covered the gambler up. "How you feeling?" he tried again to put his hand on the patients forehead.

"Why's it so cold?" Ezra asked ignoring the other question.

"Didn't think it was that cold," Buck tried to lighten the moment by grabbing another blanket up off the bedroll. Ezra was hot; the ladies man could tell that much and he was worried as well as everyone else. "Do you need me to get you anything?"

Ezra didn't hear anything Buck was saying, he looked past the hovering gunslinger and at the lamp sitting on a small table next to the chair Buck had been in. Within minutes he was out again and Buck instinctively placed his hand on his forehead to check for the fever he knew would get worse before the night wore on.

Buck woke suddenly to the light of the early morning sun creeping in threw the small window above the bed. He sighed and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The gunslinger couldn't hear any movement from the adjacent room and knew everyone was still getting the sleep they so very much needed. He looked to the inert from still lying motionless on the bed. The gambler was covered in blankets and once again he was hidden from view except for his right hand and the top of his head. Buck slowly got up and stretched even his shoulder was feeling better today and for that he was relieved. He stepped closer to the gambler and checked his forehead for the fever he had making sure it wasn't any worse. Ezra didn't move away from the touch but Buck pulled the blankets up closer over the conman and shook his head, the fever was higher.

Buck opened the door surprised to see the sleeping forms threw out the room. Nettie was in her rocking chair with a blanket thrown over her; Nathan was still on the floor he didn't look to have moved since he laid down; Vin too was asleep on the floor, Buck had to chuckle lightly, usually the tracker was the first awake but the long ride from yesterday must have taken more out of him than he was willing to admit; both Chris and Josiah had their arms folded and their heads comfortably in them on the table. The room was warm and Buck was thankful for that. He was surprised to see Casey step threw her bedroom door. Her hair had been combed and she looked as though she got a good night sleep. She put her finger to her mouth letting Buck know JD was asleep as well.

"How are you doin' darlin?" Buck said getting closer to the stove to put more wood in it and to start a new pot of coffee.

"Fine," Casey whispered tucking the blanket around her aunt a bit tighter.

Nettie smiled, "heavens," she squeezed Casey's hand and looked around the room to the now stirring occupants. "You are making coffee Mr. Wilmington?" she smiled getting to her feet and folding the blanket that had been covering her.

"Yes mam," Buck smiled big knowing his coffee could wake the dead.

"Well at least we have some warning this time," Nettie smiled gently grabbing Buck's arm. "I'll get some breakfast started," she grabbed a heavy pan from the wall and thanked Casey for bringing in the basket of fresh eggs. "How's Mr. Standish fairing?"

"Fever's coming on him again, but he woke up for a bit last night," Buck sounded encouraged.

"Morning Mr. Jackson," Nettie stepped over his moving legs.

Nathan sat up and rubbed his eyes, both Josiah and Chris sat up surprised they'd slept at the table all night. "Everyone all right?" Nathan asked looking around the room then getting to his feet.

"I think we'll live Brother Nate," Josiah got to his feet to look out the window at the early morning sun. Six a.m. he assumed by the looks of things.

"I best go check on Ezra," Nathan sighed and headed into the back room.

"You feel good enough to ride Buck?" Chris shrugged the blanket off his shoulders that someone had placed there during the night.

"Figure I am," the tall man smiled watching as Nettie scrambled some eggs the aroma making his stomach growl.

"Josiah?" Chris looked at the former preacher.

"Ready when you are," he smiled knowing what was going on.

"We'll ride out in an hour," he moved to look at Vin who started right back at him.

"I should go with you."

"Not after yesterday," Chris shook his head, "stay here with JD, Nate and Ezra. If we find McKinley we'll take him back to town and come back with a wagon."

"I want him as bad as you Chris," Vin argued but knowing the man had a point.

"If we don't find him," Chris continued, "when you're up and around we'll go after him, hell, you can track him all the way to Oregon in you want to." The hardened gunslinger stifled a grin he knew Tanner would go all the way to Oregon if he had to in order to find the bastard.

"Fine, but I still don't like it."

"You don't have to like it, just do it."

Nettie placed a plate full of scrambled eggs and a piece of her homemade bread in front of Chris as well as a hot cup of coffee. "You're not going anywheres neither until you fill your stomach with some food." She put her hands on her hips and backed away from the table, "I don't want you boys going out there and getting yourselves in more trouble," she snapped.

"We'll be careful Sister," Josiah smiled and suddenly frowned when Nettie turned on him.

"Careful?" she questioned, "that's why Mr. Standish is in the other room fighting for his life, or JD is so beat up, and don't get me started on Mr. Tanner." Vin smiled seeing the all-powerful Chris Larabee scolded like a schoolboy, "don't make me slap you Vin Tanner," Nettie continued to scold. She didn't have to turn her head in his direction to know what he was up to; Vin ducked his head and lost his smile. Nettie turned back around and looked at her niece with a smile on her face stretched from ear to ear, "have a seat Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Wilmington. If you think your leaving here without a full stomach you have another thing coming."

Nathan entered the small room and went to the side of the bed where Ezra quietly lay. Just a hand and the top of the gamblers head sticking out from the cover of blankets. Nathan carefully laid the palm of his hand over the conman's forehead and frowned when he felt the fever flowing throughout, "damn Ezra," the healer swore to himself more than anyone else, "can't you do anything the easy way?" Not hearing a response, Nathan pulled the blankets back enough so he could carefully check the gunshot wound. He was relieved to see it only a couple of severe blisters and slight swelling around the injury. Carefully Nathan rewrapped the gamblers chest and leaned back in the chair. It bothered Nathan that Ezra hadn't so much as stirred while he checked his wounds and rebandaged them. The healer put his head in his hands and rested his elbows on his knees; he didn't know what else to do and he cursed himself for not knowing more than he did. He raised his head hearing the light knock at the door and Nettie came threw carrying a plate of food and a hot cup of coffee.

"How's he doing?" she handed the plate of food to Nathan and he nodded his head in thanks.

"I done all I can for him," Nathan shook his head hoping for some kind of a miracle.

Nettie moved closer to the still form and touched his forehead, "I'll make some more of my concoction." She pulled the blankets up closer over the gambler after he started shaking. "Don't give up on him Mr. Jackson." Nettie stood up and straightened her skirts, "Mr. Larabee is riding out with Mr. Sanchez, and Mr. Wilmington."

"Thank you," Nathan started to get up, he wanted to stop Chris and Buck from heading out. It was to soon after their injuries.

"Eat, Mr. Jackson," Nettie touched his shoulder, "I already gave them a warning. Besides, you have a patient to take care of." She smiled then headed back out of the room.

Chapter 25

"How's Ezra?" Chris asked Nettie as she reentered the room. He was up and putting on the shirt she'd given him. Buck and Josiah were all ready out saddling the horses.

"He's in good hands," she tried to reassure him, "you just get back without a scratch on you." She handed him a heavy jacket to ware, "don't kneed you getting pneumonia on top of everything else."

"Thank you Nettie," Chris said before heading to the door.

"Be careful Mr. Larabee," she said watching him leave.

Casey came back out of the room housing JD with a handful of plates. "JD says thank you for the meal Aunt Nettie."

"How's the boy feeling?" she asked once again grabbing a cup and filling it with warm water, sugar and a raw egg.

"Better," was Casey's simple reply.

"How about you Mr. Tanner?"

"I recon I'll live," Vin said looking out the window.

"They'll be back Vin," Nettie smiled knowing what it was the tracker was looking for.

"Spose they will," he smiled shyly and lowered his head ashamed for wanting to have gone with them. "How's Ez doin?"

"Lets go find out." Nettie headed for the room and stopped, "Casey?" she looked to her niece. "Will you start to clean this mess?"

Nathan finished his plate and sat it on the small table then slowly sipped at his coffee all the while not taking his eyes off the motionless form on the bed. Nathan rubbed his head in frustration and sighed. He knew the gambler was just to weak to fight, not enough food and water combined with the amount of injuries. Nathan shook his head at the thought. Now on top of this he had to worry about Buck, Chris and Josiah. The healer moved closer to the bed and checked Ezra for the hundredth time for the fever he knew was there. Nathan took a breath when the gambler moved away from his touch, "Ezra!" he called wanting so much to get a response. "Ezra!"

Ezra flinched when he heard his name being called, no yelled, in his ear. He tried to move away from the sound but he found it to difficult. He heard his name again followed by a slap to his cheek. He struggled to open his eyes and found it increasingly difficult to focus them. Now he could feel someone prying up his shoulders, if he wasn't so weak. The blanket that had been covering him fell from his shoulders and he trembled from the cold air. Ezra tried to lift his head and get himself focused but was failing miserably, "cold," was all he could say.

"I know," Nathan tried to comfort while lifting Ezra's upper body so he could get him to drink some water.

Nettie and Vin came threw the door in time to see Nathan slap the gambler again trying to keep him awake. "Damn Nate," Vin gasped, "he bite your hand or something?"

"Trying to keep him from passing out on us again. Ezra!" Nathan yelled again. Nettie handed the tracker the cup of her now famous miracle cure and headed for the bed with determination in her stride.

"You're not going to beat it out of him Mr. Jackson," Nettie pulled his arm back. She worked her way behind the gambler until his head rested in the crook of her neck and shoulder. Ezra didn't protest to the movements, there wasn't a lot he could do to stop them. He tried to focus his eyes on something in the room but failed every time he thought he found something. "Give me the cup Vin," Nettie reached her hand out and Vin handed her the warm concoction. She raised the cup up to Ezra's lips, "come on son," she encouraged, "you gotta drink some of this." Ezra brought his hand up to swipe at the assaulting smell but was easily caught by Nathan's hand. Nettie tried again and this time got results, she smiled up at Nathan and Vin.

"Seems you got the healing touch Mrs. Nettie," Vin said grabbing the chair that Nathan had previously occupied. Ezra coughed and Nettie was quick to wipe his chin with the soft white cloth Nathan handed her. She handed the empty cup to Nathan, "time to wash it down with cool water," she smiled at the healer knowing they had to get as much fluids into the gambler as they could before he succumbed once more to sleep. "When my youngest son came home from the war," Nettie started, Vin noticed the far off look in her eyes, "he was thin as a rail and could hardly walk," she seemed to hang onto Ezra a bit tighter and continued to brush his hair back away from his face with her hand. "He got sick and the care he got wasn't good enough at the hospital he was at. He fought real hard for a long time….." Nettie wanted to continue but found it difficult. She took the cup of water from Nathan who once again sat on the bed ready in case he was needed.

"I'm sorry for your loss mam," Nathan looked at her not realizing how difficult having them all there, and all of them wounded, had been on her. He watched as Nettie patiently and carefully got Ezra to drink the cup of water he'd brought to her just moments before.

"When I lost my son's," Nettie pulled the blankets up higher on the gamblers chest after feeling him shiver lightly, "I didn't think it was going to be possible to move on." She looked at the two men in front of her and then at JD who was standing in the doorway, "my husband was dead, so here I was a woman all alone in the middle of a desert." She looked to JD and smiled, "then all of a sudden I was faced with raising my half grown niece. I didn't know I had it in me and look where I am now," she chuckled, "I've got more family now than I know what to do with."

Chapter 26

Chris, Buck and Josiah rode slow for the first few miles trying to get a feel for the ride ahead. Nobody wanted to push themselves to hard, more afraid of Nettie's wrath than anything else. Chris thought about finding McKinley and what he would do to the man when he got his hands on him. He was, in a way, thankful that Josiah and Buck were with him otherwise he was sure he would kill the man who had caused all of his men so much harm. Chris rubbed his side unconsciously and looked to Buck and Josiah both of whom were more than willing to help him find McKinley and possibly, if it came down to it, track the man to where ever he tried to hide. There had been more damage done than anyone of them could really grasp and Chris had done a lot of it. He rubbed his forehead feeling an oncoming headache all the while not knowing how he would repair the damage that had been done.

"You all right?" Buck asked riding up beside his long time friend.

"Yep," was the simple definite reply.

Buck continued to ride in silence next to Chris. He'd known the man long enough to know when not to push and now was one of those times. He could assume he knew what was bothering the man but he didn't know how to ask without triggering the wrong reactions. "You think we'll find McKinley?"

"Doubt it."

"You gonna talk to Ezra when he's up to it?" Buck looked to Chris feeling the gunslingers eyes upon him. "I've known you a long time pard," he paused looking up ahead. "If it had been anyone of us other than Ezra I don't think you would have reacted the way you did," Buck knew he was touching on a sensitive subject but it needed to be done, not just for him self but for the rest of the men as well.

Chris didn't answer right away he looked at the road and thought about what Buck had just said. He knew the man riding beside him was right he just didn't know why it bothered him more knowing that he shared something in common with Ezra than the rest of them. "When I lost Sara and Adam," Chris started but paused, "how could someone murder a child?"

Buck looked to his friend and nodded his head understanding a bit more; three long years had passed since Chris's family burned in that fire, three long years since Chris died, in part, along with them. "Ezra didn't abandon his family."

"I need to know that for sure," he snapped.

"Why can't you accept the fact Ezra had a family and they died?"

"It's not that I can't accept the fact Buck, it's the man behind it."

"What in the hell is that suppose to mean?"

"The first time you met him, what did you think?"

"What?" Buck looked at Chris confused.

"I knew he was a cheat the first time I saw h'im in the saloon," Chris started and then cleared his throat, "he's spent his life moving from town to town conning people out of their money. What the hell does he know about family? You've met his mother."

"Ain't no reason to judge the man, you of all people should know about having a past you don't want talked about."

"It ain't the same thing Buck."

"How's it different?"

Chris continued to stare ahead. He didn't want to admit he'd been wrong and in a strange way he felt ashamed for the past three years of his life, the way he acted after Sara died, the men he killed out of anger, and the choices he made in the name of his murdered wife and son. He saw in Ezra confidence, something Chris had lost and only regained from the passing time, he also saw control in the gambler, control that Chris sometimes lost. "He lost a wife and three babies Buck and he never gave anything away," he shifted in his saddle becoming visibly uncomfortable. "Fuck!" Chris snapped causing Buck's head to snap in his direction, "I've done things Buck, things that I'm not proud of."

"I don't think there is a one of us who doesn't have something to hide."

Josiah rode in silence listening to the conversation at hand. He could see the fears and frustration in Chris's mannerisms, he could also see the bond of friendship the two gunslingers shared and it pleased him to know that Buck wasn't afraid to confront Chris on the things that many of the seven would never try to. In some way he understood Chris's anger with Ezra, it wasn't really that he was angry and the gambler but more angry within himself for not dealing with his loss and pain in a better way. He was angry with himself for being so easy to read and for having the reputation he had for doing the things he'd done. Nobody knew what happened to Ezra's family, they were dead, that's all they needed to know, that's all Josiah and the others needed to know. Chris needed to know more of the details so he could judge Ezra the same way he had judged himself. Could he have done something to save his family, was it his own fault that they were dead? This was something that Chris would have to work out for himself and he would have to have a long talk with the gambler in order to accomplish it, otherwise everything the group had come to know over the past year would be destroyed. Josiah was willing to bet that Buck, Vin, JD, and even Nathan would be willing to do whatever they would have to in order to save the only family they had left. Each other.

They rode in silence for what seemed like an hour. Buck knew Chris needed the time to think and unknown to the others Buck didn't mind the silence. He moved his shoulder trying to test it's flexibility and grateful for Nathan's skillful hands. He worried about the mess the three had left behind. Would Ezra still be alive by the time they made it back? Buck shook his head he didn't think so. Vin was getting the rest he was in great need of as well as the kid. They had come so close. Would they ever fully recover? Sure they would heal, in time, but would they be able to fix the damage that was done at the saloon? Buck pulled his horse to a stop watching Chris's actions. The gunslinger sometimes had a sixth sense that the rest of them didn't have, something he shared with the tracker. It was something you paid attention to, especially if you were interested in surviving.

"McKinley's," Chris pointed up ahead. The top of the barn was becoming more visible as they got closer.

"How do you want to handle this?" Buck looked to his friend for the instructions he knew would be coming.

"Tie the horse's before we get to close to the house, we'll walk the rest of the way. Josiah?" Chris turned to look at the preacher.

"I'm ready for whatever lies ahead," the big man responded not only talking about the McKinley ranch but the war going on within each of them.

"You and Buck go in the back way, I'll take the front." He looked back to Buck, "don't shoot me when you get inside," he smiled. "If you have any trouble get back to the horses and fire a shot. Like Nettie said, nobody gets hurt." He looked to both of them making sure they understood.

"Right behind you," Buck smiled and followed Chris toward the tree line.

The place was quiet, much quieter than it should have been for this time of day. As cold as it was a fire should have been burning in the fireplace but looking at the chimney one could tell the house was abandoned. Chris entered slowly threw the front door trying not to make a sound just in case McKinley was home with some surprise guests. He had his weapon out and ready to use. This was payback and he didn't want to be caught off guard. He could hear Josiah and Buck coming in threw the back way. The house was deathly quiet, almost unnatural. Chris entered McKinley's office and felt the log on the fire; it was cold evidence that it had been a while since anyone tried to light it. The drawers to the desk were open and everything was gone. Chris lowered his gun knowing in his gut McKinley made a run for it. A picture on the wall was crooked and the tall blond moved it aside. The safe behind the painting had been emptied out and Chris shook his head, if they had been here sooner. Buck and Josiah entered the room and sighed knowing what was going threw Chris's head. They had checked the rest of the house and found nothing.

"He's gone," Josiah said just above a whisper.

"Damn it!" Chris yelled throwing a lamp against the wall.

"We'll get him," Buck tried to reassure him, "hell Chris by the time Judge Travis hears about all this there'll be a bounty on the bastard so high nobody will be able to resist."

"What about the rest of us?" Chris looked to Buck then to Josiah.

"We'll find him!"

"I don't think McKinley is whom Brother Chris is worried about," Josiah looked to the gunslinger understanding his need for closer. "Ezra will make it."

"I'm glad you know that for sure Preacher," Chris snapped.

"We're all gonna make it Chris," Buck said out of defiance, challenging either of the two to disagree.


Please send comments to: