Notes: This was inspired after watching a wonderfully sweet movie called Ladies in Lavender which is based on a short story if you havent seen it, I strongly suggest it. This one is Ezra based because most of my stories arepoor bastard.
Special thanks to my awesome betas (Vira & Anna) who just work their asses off to make my stories come together and who dont push me in the wrong directions, but give me the strength to allow the characters to grow on their own terms! Love you guys!!
Please send comments and suggestions to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
For five days it had done nothing but rain, and the four men riding through it had cursed it and the land they crossed. Mudslides, uncrossable roads, downed trees, and unfortunate spills had not only caused a few verbal fights, but fisted ones as well. Tempers had flared after Bucks womanizing, Ezras gambling, Vins bounty, and Chris history had surfaced during their stay in Harvest. Ezra had a black eye and sore ribs. Buck was sure his nose was broken and his right hand was wrapped, hiding scrapped and bloodied knuckles. Vins bottom lip was split and his nose swollen. Chris looked well, except for the gash hidden beneath his hat.
The horses walked in a narrow path, head to tail, their hooves slopping through the mud. On occasion they would stumble as the earth gave way beneath their weight. They were covered beneath their bellies and on their chests with the heavy brown sludge. Their riders didnt look much different. Splotches of mud covered their clothing, but their faces were clear to the rain.
We cant cross this river with it runnin like it is, Vin said, pulling his horse to a stop. He stood in his stirrups and looked up and down the waterway as the whitecaps appeared and disappeared with the current.
The normally soothing water had turned murky brown. Chunks of earth continuously crumbled at the waters edge. Tree roots poked upward and snaked precariously through the surface. Cottonwoods, Firs, and Junipers swayed and danced as the rain continued its downpour.
A loud crash caused all four horses to spook and Peso jumped right, leaving Vin to struggle for the reins and the horn. Hindered by the slickness of rawhide and leather, he fell to his left, tumbling toward the rivers edge. Bucks big gray reared and then stumbled, landing harshly on his right shoulder and he fought for his footing as the mud sucked him in. Buck had tried to dismount, but he fell over his steeds neck and tangled with the reins.
Having been in the lead, Chris managed to stay seated, but the mud acted like quicksand and his horse fought it, struggling to keep atop the soil. The big black arched his neck and chomped at the bit, fighting the control. Chris dismounted and struggled with the confines of the soft ground, and he moved sluggishly as mud crept and sucked at his boots. Ezras big chestnut stood frozen, ears swiveling forward and back as sounds echoed north and south. He quickly dismounted when he saw Vins tumble and he managed to grab his hand just as Vins legs reached the water.
Buck! Chris yelled, grabbing dead plants and branches to pull himself from his muddy encasement. He could see his friends struggle as he tangled with reins while the big gray continued to thrash his head from side to side fighting for his footing.
A clash of thunder caused the horses to fight their restraints. Trouble bolted, slamming into Peso, pushing him left. The horse stumbled and lost his footing as the ground crumbled beneath him. He twisted right but fell left, tumbling over the top of Ezra and Vin. Peso hit the water with a splash, kicking his legs in all directions and was quickly pulled downstream.
Ezra felt the impact, but the earth molded around him as the horse rolled from his legs, over his back, his head, and then over the top of Vin. He felt a sharp pain in his back but ignored it as his grasp on Vin failed. Vin lifted his head from the mud and took a deep breath, using one hand to claw at the earth he pulled himself up with the gamblers help. A long cut ran from the corner of his mouth to his ear, sliced by a rock from the sudden impact. They could hear Chris yells as the horses continued to panic.
Vin gasped as he felt Ezra grab the back of his shirt and haul him upright, and he lay exhausted in the mud, the toes of his boots touching the waters surface. Ezra flexed his fingers after releasing his hold and slowly turned to maneuver his way up the short incline. Bucks big gray stood with his right leg raised, too painful to step down. He stood in mud knee-deep and he heaved while Buck unsaddled him. Chris slipped on the edge of the incline, grabbing Vins jacket to pull him up.
A series of five lightening flashes fishtailed through the sky, and were quickly followed by a deep roar of thunder. The wind increased and the snapping of wood motivated Chris to shove Vin and grab for Ezra as a tree behind them broke. Like dried twigs the branches snapped and bounced as the top half of the Cottonwood fell. Buck lunged forward, failing to reach the reins of Chris and Ezras horses. The two jumped and bolted south. The big gray fought feverishly to release himself from the mud. Vin dove, avoiding the branches of the tree as it landed. Water splashed and the trunk bounced, sending splinters and twigs in every direction, it lay half submerged and the other half precariously maintaining its position on the bank. He could hear Chris yells and Vin was pushed forward as Buck struggled by, hindered by broken limbs, rain, wind, and the muddied ground.
HANG ON! Chris yelled, tangled within tree branches. His duster was torn, ripped at the shoulder, and blood seeped from cuts on his hands and his face. He had avoided contact with the trunk, but had been slapped by the green whiplike branches. He held Ezras hand while the gambler fought the force of the raging river.
He had fallen backward, tumbled down the incline, avoiding the tree, but he had hit the river with a splash and got caught in the current.
DAMN IT, EZRA! HANG ON! He could feel Ezras grip slipping.
Blinded by muddied water, Ezra felt his boots fill with water and broken limbs slapped against his chest and legs as the current pulled him and the tree under. His hands were numb, the cold steeling what little body heat he had left. He felt Chris grab the sleeve of his jacket as the speed of the current increase.
The tree rolled forward as the river water continued its race downward.
CHRIS! Buck yelled, watching branches leave the waters surface only to spring upward as the tree rotated due to the rivers force. CHRIS! GET OUT OF THERE!
The tree was pulled forward and the broken end snapped upward. Buck and Vin grabbed at branches and felt themselves move ahead as forces stronger than they took control.
A branch snapped downward, striking Ezra across the face, sending him beneath the waters surface.
Damn it! Chris felt the trunk of the tree hit his back and he fell forward, bracing his left hand on the muddied ground he felt his grip on Ezras jacket slip.
Vin turned and grabbed the lariat from Bucks saddle and tossed it around the trunk of a nearby Fir near the waters edge. Damn it, Chris, grab thatwell lose you both if you dont hang onto somethin! He crawled up the incline and then motioned for Buck to help him push the tree upward, hoping the force of the water would pull the monster around Chris and Ezra.
Ezra felt his foot slip and he fell forward, disappearing under water.
EZRA! Chris tightened his grip. DONT YOU FUCKIN LET GO! He felt branches poking and slapping against his back. HANG ON!
The swift current grabbed the branches of the Cottonwood and started to pull it downstream. The branches worked like webbing, holding back the tide while building up the waters force. Chris felt the pressure on his back decrease and he watched as the tree slowly succumbed to the pressure. Branches slapped and broke beneath the force and Chris watched in horror as a branch caught Ezra beneath his neck, pulling him further out into the raging water.
EZRA! Chris grasp failed him.
The rain refused to let up, and it only complicated things as night grew darker. Clouds covered the moon leaving nothing but instincts to guide the three men through the harsh landscape. Vin had managed to capture Chris and Ezras horses, having found them cornered against two downed trees. Buck had to destroy his dear old friend, and it pained him to know nothing could be done to cure a broken leg. Peso was still missing.
Chris stood at the waters edge, clenching his teeth and waiting for brief appearances of the moon. It wasnt enough to see anything except dark shadows and outlines, but it offered him some hope. He clenched his fist, the same hand he had held onto Ezra with the same hand that had failed him.
Vin scraped his hand along the mud still clinging to his jacket and flung it to the ground. His gut was tight, and pain wracked his legs and back, feeling the effects of his horse rolling over the top of him. He knew if he took a seat he wouldnt get back up.
Buck was defeated, and he rested on a large boulder with his elbows on his knees, feeling the rain pound his back. His saddle lay to his left, the saddlepad and bridle resting over the seat.
If we head downriver at sunup Vin sighed, we might find him.
Chris clenched his jaw. Maybe.
Swallowed by both the blackness of night and the rivers rage, Ezra fought. Mercilessly the water forced him downward while debris slammed against him. He coughed and struggled to stay at the surface, only to get forced down.
He groaned when he was forced against a barrier. Water swirled around him and forced him toward the center of the river, but he fought it. He grabbed and clawed his way toward the landline. Ice cold, and unaware of his surroundings, he managed to crawl onto a narrow ledge of land. Gasping, he fell forward and collapsed.
If this rain doesnt let up we might have to build ourselves a boat, Gertrude chuckled, and then straitened her yarn before continuing her knitting.
Her sister Jane nodded, and then turned the pages of the four-month-old newspaper while she sat by the fire. Her glasses rested at the tip of her nose, and she kept her eyebrows raised while glancing from word to word. Itll be good for farmin this year. She lowered the paper and folded it, resting it on her thigh. Harold should stop by next week maybe he would be kind enough to check the damif it continues like this I fear well end up flooded.
Gertrude chuckled: Maybe we should take more precedence to the Good Book and build ourselves an ark? She pushed herself forward and back, keeping in step with the rocking chair.
Jane shook her head: Thats blasphemous, sister dear. Youre getting worse in your old age. She stood, tossing the paper onto the small table next to her chair, and walked to the fireplace. Placing a hand on her back she leaned forward and threw a couple of heavy logs onto the flames, wincing when her knees and back cracked.
Mathew will be here in the spring to help with the planting, wont he?
Jane nodded and stood. Until then were on our own, she said, smiling. Not unlike its been for the past few years.
Gertrude sighed and shook her head as she continued to knit. I like it hereI dont want to leave.
Im not asking you to. Jane leaned back, stretching and she looked at the pictures on the mantel. Carefully, she traced the silver frame with her finger. Im going to bed. Dont stay up late, youll ware yourself out.
Gertrude nodded and watched as her sister left the room, shutting her bedroom door behind her. She listened to the wind and the rain pound the roof of the house. Leaves and branches slapped the windows and shutters. She put her knitting in a small satchel she kept by her feet and rubbed her thighs. Feeling the years wearing on her bones, she took a moment before standing. Her knees cracked, but she ignored it and moved to stand by the window.
As the clouds passed over the moon the rays reflected off the standing water. The reflections glistened, as though the stars were embedded within the earths surface. Gertrude ran her hand along the curtain and sighed, her breath fogging the glass. Too warm to snow, too cold for growth, she could only stand by and wait for spring. She checked the door, made sure it was locked, and then she blew out the kerosene lamp.
Chris led his horse down the rivers edge, carefully looking across the water that continued to flow aggressively. It had stopped raining and the sun peeked from behind the clouds, but just as it had appeared it quickly disappeared, and it would only be a matter of time before the weather started again.
We need to cover more ground if were goin to find him, Buck said. He looked at the river and sighed, running his hand over his face. He paused at his lip to scratch at his mustache. Damn it, Chris, stop a minute!
Chris abruptly turned, his horses reins squeezed in his hand. And do what, Buck?! His duster flapped against his legs. Help us look, or get your ass back to Four Corners!
Im not turnin my back on im, an you know it! Damn it! You cant control the weather!
I let im go, Buck! Chris stepped forward. Menot you!
Vin cleared his throat: With the speed this river is flowin an if Ezra got caught in the current, he could be miles down river. He ran his hand over his face. Ezras a good swimmer, an knowin him, he could ave managed to get to shore an hes probably walkin back to town.
You keep thinkin like that, Vin, Chris said. He turned and continued his trek.
Buck rubbed his eyes and then the bridge of Troubles nose.
Vin clenched his fists and sighed. He still hurt, and wished he were back in town soaking in a hot tub anticipating the comforts of his wagon. Ezra wasnt wrong all the time, there were advantages to being comfortable. Come on, Buckbefore Chris walks himself straight into hell.
Thats the problem, Vin he aint walked out yet.
Gertrude stepped onto the front porch and looked across the river, enjoying the brief but pleasant sunshine. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then sighed. With a cup of coffee in hand she allowed herself to feel the bitter wind as it swept past her face. Once the clouds blocked the rays she looked toward the puddles and the work that would need to be done during the spring months.
It was simple, out of the way, peaceful, and their farm wasnt known for large bounties or weighted stock. James had built the house next to the river because Jane loved the sound of the water. The one story, two bedroom home had barely been large enough for their large family, but they had made do with what they had. And then, life had taken over. The children had moved away, and James had died while harvesting his fields. Alone, Jane had called for her sister and Gertrude answered.
Its going to snow, Jane said, stepping beside her sister. I can feel it.
Gertrude looked up, catching the swaying of treetops. A cold wind bit at her skin and watched the clouds darken. We should bring in more wood before this next storm hits.
Jane nodded, wishing the weather would decide on winter or spring. Snow had fallen and covered most of the land, and then the rain had started. For a while it would snow, rain, then snow, but the past several days had produced nothing but rain. And now it looked as though the snow would return.
Whats that? Gertrude said, looking toward the embankment.
What? Jane looked in her sisters direction and saw nothing.
There. Gertrude pointed and furrowed her brow. Theres something out there.
I dont see anything.
There she insisted, grabbing her skirts. Its next to the bolder by the river. She stepped off the porch and jogged toward it.
It could be something dangerous Gertrude, Jane said, quickly following. We must be careful.
Gertrude stopped suddenly. Dear heavens, JANE! She turned and stumbled backward, surprised to see her sister so close behind her.
Do you think hes alive? Jane grabbed Gertrudes arm as they looked at the body laying chest down in the mud. His face was turned away from them.
I dont know.
He could be dangerous.
If hes alive, Jane, hell need our help.
Jane pulled her sister to a stop. Were alone out herewe cant even get to help should something happen.
I wont leave him out here not like this. Gertrude pulled out of her sisters grasp and walked toward the stranger.
Soaking wet and covered in mud he had crawled his way up from the river. Handprints and toe-points made by his boots still marred the ground.
Gertrude carefully knelt by the strangers head and placed a hand on his neck, beneath the collar of his shirt. Jane, hes alive! Dear God above.
Jane joined her sister. Should we turn him over?
We need to get him to the house; hes chilled to the bone. She grabbed his arm, just below his right shoulder and with her sisters help, rolled him onto his back.
We could get him to the house in the wheelbarrow, Jane said, watching as her sister wiped the mud from the strangers face.
The muds too deep, Gertrude said.
Hes too heavy to carry.
Go get a blanket from the house, well roll him onto it and pull him up. She watched a snowflake land on and melt on her hand. Hurry, Jane.
By the time they got him to the house and up the steps, the snow was falling heavy. It drifted as the wind caught the flakes, sending them against bushes, trees, fences, and buildings. Jane placed her hands on her back as pains flanked her sides.
His pants were ripped at the knees, signs of his struggle while crawling his way to land. Buttons were missing from his shirt, vest, and jacket, ripped from the force of the water. Gertrude fought the cracking of her knees as she grabbed a washrag and basin.
I still have some of James things in my bureau, Jane said, wiping her brow with the back of her wrist. Hes terrible sick, Gertrudeif he got river water into his lungs
Well worry about getting him clean and warm first, she said, ignoring his rattled breathing.
We have to try, Jane, she looked up and met her sisters eyes. We have to try.
Jane nodded and quickly disappeared into her bedroom while Gertrude got onto her knees and started wiping the mud from the strangers face. Red welts were beneath his chin and across his face. A long gash ran over his left eyebrow. She looked up as Jane reentered the room with a nightshirt in her hand. She could see the despair in Gertrudes eyes.
Ill get a bath ready for him, Jane said, watching her sister.
Gertrude nodded, placing her hand on his chest. He was cold to the touch and she could feel his struggles to breathe. Taking only shallow breaths he remained unaware of his surroundings. He didnt shiver, move, or act like a man struggling to survive, but rather a man waiting to die.
Vin stopped, blew into his hands and looked at Chris as he continued his search for Standish. We aint gonna find im, he said, pulling the collar of his jacket up and around his neck. Not in this weather.
Chris stopped, watched his breath crystallize and then disappear. I let im go, Vin.
Vin pulled him to a stop by his arm. You did what you couldaint no one here couldve done any better.
Chris looked toward Buck who had taken up the rear, still leading Ezras big chestnut.
We need to get back to town before this storm hits full force he took a deep breath, we may never find im. That waters too damn cold an the currents too fast.
Chris nodded, knowing in his gut that Vin was right, but facing his failure was unbearable. He had failed before, lost his son, his wife, and a very large part of himself. It had taken him nearly three years to find himself, to put his past behind him and he hadnt done it alone. It had taken six men, six men with different backgrounds and lives to force him out of his despair. And they had done it they had managed to do something that nothing else could.
There was a strong possibility one of those men, one of his friends was gone but friends died everyday. It was just the nature of things. Chris swallowed and looked over the raging river as snow started to slowly blanket the banks. Damn the nature of things damn it to hell.
Buck, Chris said, turning, you an Vin head back to Four Corners
An what stick around town while you freeze your ass off?
Were out of supplies an the weather is turnin, Vin said, unless you plan on dyin out here, Chris, youd better start lookin at this clear like. Lets get back to town, get some supplies, an start over in the next day or two were short horses, food, blankets, an clothes an I for one dont want my ass found early spring like some city slick who got lost.
And what about Ezra? Chris said.
If hes still in this water there aint anyoneeven Natewho could help im, an if he aint, then lets hope he got help, because right now we aint fit enough to help a stranded kitten.
Damn it, Vin. Chris rubbed his eyes, wishing he didnt feel guilty for wanting to be dry, to have a full stomach, or a drink to warm his throat.
Vin right, Buck said, an we need some fresh eyeshell, if anyone could survive, he swallowed, itd be Ezra.
Vin turned and felt his back twinge. Ill ride double with Buck he paused, riding out his pain and exhaustion, well find im.
Chris looked out over the river one last time, watching in horror as the snow covered the ground and everything on it. They would have to hope for rain if they were going to find anything.
This is highly indecent, Gertrude, Jane said, watching her sister run a sponge over the strangers chest while he lay submerged in the bath. Her actions were deliberate, smooth, and gentle. What would become of us should someone find out?
Find what out, Jane, hes in need and were helping him. Gertrude ignored her. Her dress sleeves were folded past her elbows and despite wearing an apron, the front of her dress was soaking wet. She had instructed Jane to keep his head above water, she had, and despite her protests, she found herself washing his hair.
Were two old ladies bathing a full-grown man.
He doesnt have anything I havent seen beforenor you, sister dear. You were married for 33 years, or have your forgotten?
Gertrude, please, Jane said, adjusting her position next to the head of the bathtub. Were out here all alone with a man we know nothing about, in the dead of winter. She fidgeted, rinsing the soap from his hair. She looked stressed: her lips were tight, jaw clenched, and her brow furrowed.
Youre overreactingif it were the dead of winter she paused, hed be dead. She tossed the sponge into the basin next to the tub and then wiped her brow with the back of her wrist. Hes younger than I thought, Gertrude said, pausing to look at his face. Now clear of mud, she could see the extent of his injuries, the redness of the gashes, and the bruising along his jaw. The waters cooled, we should get him into bed. She stood and stretched her back before grabbing several towels. She ran her hand across the coarse texture and looked at her sister: Please, Jane if we can help this boy
He can still die
Then hell die being cared for, its the Christian thing to do.
Slowly, Jane nodded, keeping her hand cradled beneath his neck. The nightshirt is on the table near the oven.
Four Corners was desolate. Snow was covering the street and drifting against the boardwalks. Window shutters were closed, and only one door was open to the livery. Smoke billowed from every chimney, and street fires continued to burn.
Chris dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching rail outside the saloon. He turned to help Vin dismount, and realized they were all in need of a hot bath, clean clothes, and well-placed liniment. Vin stiffly made his way up the steps, feeling the impact of yesterdays ordeal.
Go on, Chris looked at Buck, Ill take care of the horses; you both go get warm.
Chris? Buck said, handing Troubles reins to him.
Tell the others Ill be back in a minute.
Buck nodded and followed Vin into the saloon.
It was warm, and the fire blazed. A few patrons sat in the booths at the far end of the bar while the tender wiped the counters. He nodded toward Buck and Vin and immediately poured them two beers.
Wheres everybody? Buck asked, taking a seat at his usual table. He watched Vin warm his hands by the fire.
Mr. Merdock died yesterday afternoon, Bill placed a beer on the table and took a seat, guess he was tryin to save a few of his hogs from gettin swept down river. He sighed and looked at Buck. Seems the water caught him unawaresJD an Nathan found him this mornin out by the dam, caught up in the rubble.
They with Martha?
Bill nodded: Josiah an Nathan are, think JD went to check on Nettie an Casey. He ran a hand over his face. This sure as hell aint the kinda weather to get tapped in.
Buck nodded and rubbed his jaw with his hand: No it aint.
Chris closed the gate to the stall and wrapped the halter around the post. He turned as the door opened and Nathan and Josiah entered. They looked cold and miserable.
Welcome home, brother, Josiah said, flipping the stirrup over the seat of his saddle. He pulled the latigo free of the D ring, letting the cinch swing beneath his horses belly before pulling the saddle from his mounts back.
Chris looked at Nathan: Vin might need some doctorinhe was walkin stiff after we got back.
What happened? Nathan asked, grabbing his medical bag from his saddle.
Took a spill, Chris said, he looked from Josiah to Nathan and then to the empty stalls. Ezra got caught in the current while we were ridin back.
Is he all right? Josiah face was drawn.
Chris shook his head: Ill meet you both in the saloon. He pushed the livery door open and left, leaving Nathan and Josiah to question the events.
Go check on Vin, Josiah said, Ill see to your horse.
Nathan helped Vin out of his jacket and then his shirt, wincing when he spotted the large black and blue bruises covering his back and chest. Buck stood in front of the stove, his hands clasped behind his back. Josiah watched from his chair across from Vin.
Chris pushed the door opened and closed it, allowing the bitter wind to send dust and debris across the wooden floor. He tossed his duster onto a table and grabbed a bottle of red-eye before taking a seat. He poured himself a shot, swallowed, and then poured himself another.
What happened? Josiah asked, folding his fingers and pressing his thumbnails together.
Nathan applied a salve to Vins back and quickly checked for broken bones.
Got caught up in the storm, Buck said. A tree fellthe winds were blowin hard
I let him go, Chris said, swallowing the next shot. He poured another and fingered the short glass in his hand, watching the amber fluid swirl within the confines. He fell back into the riverI reached for himcaught him and then I let him go.
Somethin spooked the horses, Vin said, wincing when Nathan applied pressure to his ribs, I tumbled outta the saddle an Ezra grabbed me, pulled me up, but, from what I could see, the winds were blowin so hard it snapped one of them ol treessnapped the damn thing in two. Ezra fell back and Chris jumped forward and damn if he didnt catch himbut the river current was just too strong an that damn tree caught Ezra pulled im underwe lost im after that.
Where about? Josiah asked.
Halfway up Pikes. We followed the river for about 5 miles never found a damn thing, Buck sighed, Pesos missin as wellcurrent pulled him downstream too.
Josiah stood and walked to the door.
Wherere you goin? Chris said, swallowing another shot.
Josiah grabbed the doorknob and turned. You best lay off the bottle. Im headed over to Mr. Dawsons, he knows the Pike better than anyone and if were going to find our lost brother wed better have all the information available.
Chris stood, clenching his jaw. That waters too damn cold, Sanchez, and nobody, I mean nobodys goin to make it more an a few hours in it.
Josiah clenched his jaw, flared his nostrils, and looked at Chris. No offense, brother, but thats for God to decidenot you. He opened the door and left, slamming it behind him.
Chris grabbed the bottle of whiskey and threw it against the back wall, sending alcohol and glass in a turret of shards.
Ezra shook to the point of convulsing. Laying on his right side he could feel the weight of blankets and the occasional heat of a cloth on his neck, but it did little to aid his discomfort. Muscles ached and protested with agonizing cramps. His knuckles were white, clasping onto the edge of the blankets, and the smaller he tried to make himself the more uncomfortable he became. His chest was on fire, his throat felt raw, his stomach felt as though someone had taken a branding iron to him, and his joints throbbed. Every sound, vibration, and light bore nails into his head, and he could only gasp for breath.
Hes in a bad way, Jane, Gertrude said, applying a warm cloth to her patients neck. She gently rubbed his shoulder and pressed her palm to his forehead.
Jane stood over the stove, boiling a hearty broth. The house was warm, warmer than it had been in a long time and the fires in the stove and fireplace continued to roar with life. Flames flew upward and out the narrow chimney. Melting snow dripped past the windows despite the freezing temperature outside.
I dont know what to do, Jane, Gertrude said, Even after the bath hes freezing.
Jane grabbed a cup and ladled some of her soup into it. Lets get him up, maybe get some hot broth down him. Maybe we should warm him up from the inside. She grabbed her skirt and walked across the uneven floor and carefully placed the cup on the end table.
His sudden gasps and moans brought tears to her eyes as she forced him upright, and Gertrude wrapped her arms around him while she sat leaning against the headboard of the makeshift bed. She pressed his head against her shoulder, keeping one hand on his forehead and the other wrapped around his shoulders.
Jane sat on the edge of the bed and stirred her soup. Hes young and strong. She scrapped the bottom of her spoon against the lip of the cup and brought it to his lips. Drink up, son, my sisters beside herself.
His lips parted and Jane took advantage, tipping the spoon upright. She grabbed a washrag and wiped his chin, catching the spill from his mouth. She wiped his cheek with her hand and sighed.
He swallowed, Gertrude said, bringing a smile to her lips, rubbing his throat with her hand.
Jane nodded: Well then, lets keep at it.
He never opened his eyes, and only after the swallowing became painful did he stop. He reached from beneath the blankets and was rewarded when Gertrude grasped his hand. She looked up and met Janes eyes.
Just this once, Jane, just this once. She ran her fingers over the top of his hand and gently pressed the tops of his knuckles. Familiar in an unfamiliar way, she smiled, clenched her jaw, and looked at Jane.
Hesitantly, Jane nodded. She replaced her spoon into the cup and stood. She looked at her sister, bent at the waist and kissed her cheek. Hes not David.
Gertrude nodded, and pressed her lips into a thin smile. I know."
The problem with Pikes is its unreliable, Mr. Dawson said, pointing to a fork on the map. With the speed of the river in this weather, Mr. Standish could have been swept into this fork, he pointed toward the one flowing north, if hes lucky, he may have managed to get himself in one of the alcoves
If he didnt? Chris asked, looking at the map.
The southern most tributarys rougher, and, as much as I hate to admit ityou could be searching for your friend for the next several years. A lot of dirt farmers have been branching small dams along the southwestern sidehe may might have got caught up in one of the damsbut if he did He shrugged and wiped his chin.
Damn, Buck sighed. He leaned back and rubbed his neck.
With the speed of the current, how far do you think hed be down river? Josiah asked, looking out the window as the sun started to descend.
Dawson shrugged: I cant answer that, Josiahnobody could.
Well head out first thing, Chris said. He grabbed his duster, slipped it on, and then walked out the front door.
Thank you, Mr. Dawson, Josiah said, folding the map.
He walked to the door and turned. You boys have done a lot for this town, and if theres anything I can do to help
Prayer, Josiah said, we could use your prayers.
Dawson nodded and left the saloon.
Howre you feelin, Vin? Nathan asked.
Vin leaned back, feeling his muscles tighten and protest. Should be good as new after some restIll be ready to ride come sunup.
Buck grabbed his hat and stood, slapping it against his thigh as he walked toward the door. Ill ride out an get JDwe could use the extra set of eyes.
Buck? Josiah said, allowing his gaze to fall across the faces of his friends before settling on Buck.
Ill be careful.
Gertrude sat on the edge of the bed carefully brushing the strangers bangs from his forehead. Her sister sat in the chair facing the fireplace, her glasses rested on the tip of her nose while she read. The stranger had stopped shivering, and now he suffered the occasional tremor. He was more relaxed and his breathing had eased.
Jane looked up, closed her book and set it beside her on the table next to her chair. She removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. You should get some sleep, Ill stay up with him.
Gertrude shook her head. Im fine. She pulled the blankets around his shoulders. Did you love James? she looked at her sister.
Jane sighed: Of course I loved him.
Gertrude nodded and gently brushed the right side of the strangers face with the back of her fingers. How did you know?
Whats gotten into you?
How did you know you were in love? I dont remember what it felt like. She looked at her sister while sitting on the edge of the bed.
Youre tired, and you need to get some sleep. She stood, placed the paper on the counter and poured herself some tea. As soon as hes well enough we should send him on his way.
She shook her head and added a small amount of sugar to her tea. Its not right that hes here she said, and then took a deep breath to continue, I loved James, and together we had four beautiful children, and there isnt a day that goes by that I dont think about him. She retook her seat and blew into the cup.
Father told me once that I would have to marry a fool, Gertrude said, folding her fingers together and dropping her hands to her lap. She smiled, thinning her lips. When David asked me for my hand she looked at the stranger in the bed and then back to her sister, I refused him.
Jane lowered the cup and watched the fires reflection dance across her sisters frail face. Why?
Gertrude wiped the stray tear that fell and took a deep breath. I didnt think I deserved him.
But all those letters he sent you?
He wanted to ask me again after the unpleasantness was over, she turned and tucked the blankets around the shoulders of the stranger, but he never made it homeIndians took him from me. She licked her bottom lip and rolled her lips. Father would have been surprised if Id married himDavid wasnt a fool he was a good man.
I think youre right, Jane, I do need some rest. She stood and patted the front of her dress. Ill leave my bedroom door ajar should you need anything.
Jane sighed and lay against the back of her chair. The fire blazed and the winds continued to pass the house, reminding them of their place reminding them of their isolation. She looked at the stranger, catching glimpses of a young man fighting for his life. I hope you have family, she said, family makes all the difference. She looked toward her sisters room and slowly rocked back and forth in the chair.
Despite being bundled, the weather stung. Chris pulled his jacket tighter around himself and watched angrily as the snow continued it descent. The ground had frozen during the night, and snow continued to gather within the confines of the scarred earth. Horses slipped and stumbled through wagon tracks, in the places where the wildlife had trekked and where horsemen and farmers had traveled.
Vin winced with every stumble. Muscles were tight, sore, and badly bruised, but he ignored them the best he could. The palomino he rode had a smooth gait, but it didnt match Pesos. He clenched his jaw and looked over the white-blanketed land, knowing what they would and would not find. He looked toward Josiah and saw the same.
They all knew the odds, but they would continue their search.
If not for a friend, then a brother
The stranger sat up and collapsed to his right. His chest tightened, and he coughed. He grabbed the blankets and tightened his hold as he tried to keep the spasms from becoming worse. Every muscle protested with each agonizing wretch. He could feel hands on his back, gently moving in circular motions, easing his misery. A wet rag was pressed to his mouth and wiped his chin, and he moaned when stomach muscles trembled. Green eyes peered through thick lashes, and he caught glimpses of color shades, and blurry forms. The aroma of home hit his senses and he looked up.
The woman sitting next to him on the edge of his bed smiled. Her brown hair was streaked with gray, her features lined with age and wisdom.
Shhhhh, the woman soothed, helping him lay back against the pillows. She ran a hand through his wet hair and then wiped his face again. Youve been coughing since two this morning.
How is he, Jane? Gertrude tied an apron around her waist and quickly checked her appearance in the broken mirror next to her door, before walking up to the bed. She placed her hand on his brow and sighed. Fever?
Jane nodded: Started early this morning. She stood and walked to the kitchen as her sister took her place on the edge of the bed. Im going to make up some of Mommas elixir. She pulled a few tins from the cupboards and a small bowl.
Gertrude stood and pulled the blankets from the end of the bed, folding them toward the strangers knees. She sat by his feet and grabbed his right foot. His feet are cold. She placed his foot in her lap and began massaging his calf. Theres some liniment in the cupboard, Jane, bring it to me.
Jane spun, grabbed the brown bottle and handed it to her sister. Hes a gentleman, she said with a smile. He trims his toenails. She walked back to the cupboard. James, she gasped and shook her head, he had the worst feet Id ever seen and his toenails good heavens, Id make him go outside and trim them.
Gertrude chuckled: Ive never heard you talk about him in such a manner.
I shouldnt, she said, measuring a small portion of mustard seed. But Lord Above he had the worst feet.
Gertrude smiled and then winced when the stranger choked and then started violently coughing. She moved from her position at the end of the bed to the head, and held him while the episode continued. He tried to cover his mouth but he was just too weak to lift his hand. She braced her arm hand beneath his chin and across his shoulders while she rubbed and patted his back with her left. He wheezed, fighting to breathe, and she could feel his tremors and pain. Shhh, take a deep breath, she said. She looked over her shoulder and saw Jane mixing her concoction. Gently, she helped him lay back, and sighed when he heard the rattling of his chest, the fluids building up within his lungs. I dont know, Jane, she said, standing.
Dont give up on him, she said, adding a small amount of whisky to the mixture. The Good Lord never gave up on His people, and we shouldnt either.
Gertrude nodded and grabbed a thick pair of wool socks from a bureau. She walked to the end of the bed and applied more liniment to his feet before slipping them into the socks. They were too large, and gathered at his toes and ankles, but they worked. She stretched her back, feeling the pains start and she walked to the fireplace where she pushed a stone from the embers and rolled it onto the floor. She gathered it up in a towel, checked to make sure it wouldnt get too hot and then placed it between his ankles and then covered his feet with the blanket. She wiped her brow, watched him shift uncomfortably on the bed and then she looked outside as the snow continued to fall.
Jane sighed, and then tossed her spoon into a bowl. She followed her sisters gaze and smiled when she spotted a horse in their front yard. Do you think its his?
Gertrude shrugged and pulled her shawl from the hanger. Ill put him in the barn, he looks as miserable as our charge.
Jane patted her sisters shoulder and then walked to the bed. She heard the door squeak open before sitting on the edge of the mattress. She unbuttoned the front of the strangers nightshirt and pulled back the fabric. The mixture was thick as she carefully applied it to his chest, and it warmed beneath her fingers. The smell wavered and she could feel it clearing her sinuses. I hope this helps, she said, Momma swore by it. It was the only time I ever saw her use whisky. She ran her hand along his collarbone, and then lay her hand flat against his chest above his heart. You look to be about my sons age hes a newspaper man in Texas. She sighed and carefully closed the front of his shirt.
Sorry, havent seen anyone around these parts since before Christmas, the man said, closing his shirt-collar against the bitter wind. His graying hair fell along his face, swaying as the breeze swept it. His glasses hugged the end of his nose and peeked over the top to glance from man to man. He stood within the doorframe of his house, grasping the door against the cold. Whend your friend go missin?
Three days agogot caught up in the current after a fall, Buck said, and then blew into his hands.
The man shook his head: Try the Walkers up the road a ways, theyre always irrigatin their bottom pasture from the river, Mr. Walker might know if theres a place you could lookdont be shocked though ifn you cant find your friend. Snow could cover im right up an youd never see im. Ifn I was you, Id get back to the town you come from and wait til it meltsthatd be your best bet.
Chris nodded and turned toward his horse. How many folks live along this stretch of the river?
Cant say for suregettin lots of city folk tryin to make a livin out here. Ask the Walkers, they might know.
Chris sighed, gripped the saddle horn and slipped back into the seat. His thighs and ass felt the sting of snow. Thank you, he said, reining his horse right.
Josiahs stomach roared and he tightened his gut to hide his hunger. Buck smiled and then stretched his face, feeling the animation of cold. JD had hunkered down within the confines of his jacket and his bedroll, satisfied with peering through a narrow hole for his eyes. Nathan blew into his hands and rubbed his thighs. He turned and looked toward Vin who sneezed and then coughed. Chris continued on.
The Walker house was large and it rested adjacent to an equally large barn. A large corral filled with horses and stock was attached to the barn. A dog barked, but remained in the yard tied to a tree. A simple doghouse was next to the front porch. Six children stopped playing and pointed toward the group of riders. One child yelped and ran for the house.
A man stepped onto the front step with a rifle propped against his hip.
Chris pulled his horse to a stop and looked around. It was a nice place, a place a man could easily call home. We aint lookin for trouble, just want to know if youve seen a friend of ours?
The man shrugged: Aint seen anyone here abouts for near five months. You lookin to collect a bounty?
Chris shook his head and rubbed his face. Were the law from Four Corners, a friend got caught up in the river current after we transported a prisoner to Harvestwere just lookin for him.
A woman stepped behind the man with a toddler in her arms. Come in, yall look near froze to death.
Couldnt put you out, maam, Buck said.
Youll put me out by not comin in. Ive got a pot of coffee on the stove an I just pulled a pie from the oven. My oldest boy, Tommy ill see to your horses. She turned and reentered her home.
Mrs. Walkers set in her way, boys, you best come on in. The man watched his sons take the reins of the horses while the riders relinquished them.
The heat felt good against their skin and Vin moved closer to the stove to warm his hands. He coughed and wiped his jaw. He moved back when he felt a hand touch his brow, and smiled when Mrs. Walker returned to the counter with a shake of her head.
Thank you for the invite, well be out of your hair
Oh, hush, Marylynn said, passing out cups of coffee. I was born to this land, an Harold knows it about as good as me. She motioned for them to sit while her husband leaned against the counter, his rifle cradled in his arms. Your friends got a fever.
It aint nothin, maam. Vin wiped his face with his hand and ignored the looks.
Yet, she said, grabbing her pie. Much longer an it will be.
Who is it youre lookin for? Harold asked, shifting his weight to his other leg.
A man by the name of Ezra Standish, Josiah said, hes about Vins height, fancy dresser, real smooth talker.
Harold shook his head: Aint seen anyone like that around here ever. He sighed and placed his rifle into the corner. He looked out the window and watched his children gather around the horses. You say he fell into the river? How long ago? He watched Marylynn pass out the slices of pie.
Couple three days, Buck said, warming his hands on the bottom of the plate.
Harold took a deep breath and shook his head: Sorry, boys, you aint lookin for a man, youre lookin for a body.
JD sighed and picked at the crust on his pie.
Ezras pretty resourceful, Chris said, an we aint willin to give up on himnot til we know.
Marylynn helped Vin remove his jacket and she placed it on the back of a chair. He remained by the stove and sighed when Nathan moved across the room and pressed his palm to his forehead.
You aint gonna make it anywhere tonight, Harold said. Theres plenty of room in the tack room for yall to sleep, an theres a stove out there to keep you warm. Youre welcome to stay, prepare yourselves for the ride tomorrow, but he looked at his wife, fact is, you aint gonna find your friend. If he was lucky to get himself pulled from the river hes probably covered in snow about now, an ifn he wasnt lucky enough to get out o that waterhe could be 100 miles from here. He watched their faces fall. I think its a might noble for you to be out lookin for im, riskin your lives, but it aint worth any of you gettin sick with lung fever or worse. Nature dont care who he was, just the six o you, an I think ifn your friend was lucky nough to ride with you, he probably wouldnt want you killin yourselves for nothin. He pushed himself off the counter and looked at his wife. Marylynn an I ill go fix up that room for you.
Chris watched them leave and walk to the barn hand in hand
Hes right, Josiah said, looking out the window.
He dont know Ezra, hell, the mans more resourceful than a one-legged man at a butt kickin contest.
Buck, Chris sighed, frowning.
Its true. Buck stood and walked to the door.
Howre you feelin, Vin? Chris asked, pushing himself away from the table.
Vin coughed and shrugged: Been worse.
Hell, Chris, Ill fix him up when we get to the barn, but if he takes it easyhell be fine.
Well head back to town tomorrow
What about Ezra? JD asked, feeling a shiver move up his spine.
You cant fix what you cant see, Chris said, pushing the door open. He stepped out into the cold and slowly walked to the barn.
Were leavin im? JD asked, looking from man to man.
Josiah nodded, a tear slipped from his eye. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.
Ezra cracked an eye and looked at the scenery around him. A fire blazed, and a table filled with dried flowers and materials had been placed at the far end of the room. Two chairs were in front of the fireplace. He could see someone sitting, in the far chair. The woman was older with graying hair. She hummed quietly to herself, carefully stitching some cloth.
His throat felt raw, and every muscle ached. He was warm and covered in blankets. The cold wind slammed against the house, and he pulled the blanket further over his shoulder. The woman turned and smiled. Shadows hung below her eyes, and crows feet lined her features.
Howre you feelin? Gertrude said, getting to her feet. She brushed her fingers over hear ear, pushing her grays back into place.
He sighed and nodded.
Good enough, she said, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. She brushed her thin fingers through his hair and smiled. Your fever broke late last nightyou gave us quite a scare.
Sorry, he said, surprised by the harshness of his voice.
She poured him a glass of water and helped him drink it by keeping his head lifted.
Ho how long?
Youve been with us six days, she chuckled, I guess if the Good Lord could create the earth in that time we could heal a dying man. She looked at him and helped him sit up. We found you by the rivers edgenear froze and near drown.
He frowned and rubbed his face.
Whats your name?
He cleared his throat and took a deep breath before saying, Ezra Ezra Standish.
She smiled: Its a good name, strong name.
He took a deep breath again: Thank you.
She grabbed his hand: Youre welcome, Ezra. She smiled, and asked, Are you hungry?
He nodded and watched her stand and walk across the room.
Gertrude sighed, spooning Janes stew into a bowl. My sisters asleep, but I know shed be thrilled to see you awake. She grabbed a roll and a spoon. She retook her seat on the edge of the bed and then handed him the bowl after he sat up.
Jane always had a way with cuisine. She patted his leg and stood to retake her place in her chair. Do you have family, Ezra?
He nodded, savoring the taste of meat and potatoes.
Gertrude smiled and angled the cloth she was mending toward the fire for better light. Thats good, she said, smiling. She paused, dropped her hands to her lap and looked into the fire. You remind me of a dear friend. There was a far off look to her eyes, and she watched the flames flicker.
What happened? Ezra asked, lowering his hands to his lap.
He died. She turned and smiled, sadness hugged her eyes.
Sometimes friends are more devastating to lose than family.
A single tear slipped down her cheek and landed on the breast of her blouse. Indeed.
Ezra wiped his brow and was surprised to see her take the bowl. He lay his head back and close his eyes. Gently, she tucked the blanket around his shoulders and returned to her chair and continued to mend his trousers.
Buck pushed the last bit of snow from the boardwalk and watched as a team of horses was escorted into town. The sun was out and melting snow continued to slip from the roofs. Smoke still billowed from chimneys. It had been ten days since Ezras disappearance, and they were all feeling it. Spring had arrived, but hopes had died.
Vin stepped out of the saloon and leaned against the railing. Seen anythin?
Buck shook his head: Nope. He leaned against the shovel handle and sighed. Ive lost friends before, he said, but it aint the same.
Vin clenched his jaw and nodded: No, it aint. He turned and watched Chris toss his cheroot into the street while standing on the steps leading to the sheriffs office. Dont spose it ever will be.
Ezra tossed the saddle onto Pesos back and quickly cinched the girth. The big black snorted and stomped his front hoof. The wind had died down, but despite that, the cold air continued to lay heavy across the land. The sun glistened off the snow, and the raging river swept past the house carrying with it debris of all kinds.
Ezra untied Peso and led him from the barn. Gertrude and Jane stood on the porch, their arms wrapped around each others waists. The stood side by side, the bottoms of their gowns fluttered against the slight breeze.
Gertrude stepped off the porch and handed him a small bundle. Its for the trip, just a sandwich and dried fruit. She watched him tie it to the saddle. Her heart raced, not wanting to see him go.
He turned and smiled. Thank you, for everything.
Gertrude nodded, looked up and smiled: Didnt think this would be so difficult. She rubbed her hands together. You take care of yourself. She placed her hand on his cheek as he took a step back. I was not fortunate in my life to have a son, but should I have been, I would have been proud if he had turned out like you.
Ezra chuckled, took her hand, and kissed her cheek. You do me honor.
Gertrude stepped back and slowly made her way to the porch. She grasped her sisters hand and stood beside her.
You be careful getting back, Ezra, Jane said, watching him mount.
He tipped his hat, and smiled. She had stitched his trousers, cleaned his boots, and reattached buttons to his shirt and jacket, and she had found his hat two days ago, caught between the branches of a tree that had been caught in the roots near the waters edge. Ezra turned his horse and guided him north.
You okay? Jane asked, pulling Gertrude into a hug.
Yeah, she said. I am.
It was near dusk when Ezra rode up to the livery. The night fires were already burning, and most of the towns citizens were inside, avoiding the cold. Lanterns glowed through windows. He smiled when he spotted Trouble eating contently in his stall. The barn smelled of hay, straw, leather, and shit. The familiar scents brought a smile to his face as he tied Peso to the hitching rail and proceeded to remove his tack. He slipped into the stall next to the palomino, fed him some hay, and checked the bucket of water. He gave him one last pat before laying the halter over the hook next to the stall door.
He wiped his brow, feeling the length of the day and the tightening of his chest. Still healing, he closed the livery door and walked to the saloon.
Chris stepped through the batwing doors and lit his cheroot. He shook the match and then tossed it onto the street. He looked up and stopped.
Ezra, Chris said, looking him up and down. He was pale, thin, and bruised, but it was Ezra. A smile tugged the corners of his mouth, but he fought it. He took a puff and let the smoke escape from his nostrils. Its good to have you back. He nodded once and then stepped off the boardwalk. His duster flapped against his legs as he walked toward the sheriffs office shaking his head.
Ezra chuckled, and then pushed the door open.
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