Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made,
Thanks: Mitzi. Any similiarities to Mitzi's story, 48hrs(OW) was unintentional
Ezra whipped his head around peering over his shoulder through the deluge of rain at the surrounding forest. The grey silhouettes of looming trees were all he could see through the blowing storm.
The clap of a thunderhead seemingly just above and had him ducking, an involuntary action that allowed Buck Wilmington to slide to the mud covered slope in an unconscious heap.
Standish cursed as soon as he recognized his folly. With numb fingers, he grasped hold of Wilmington's torn collar and tried to haul the bigger man to his feet by sheer force.
Buck's one downed shoulder unpeeled itself from the muddy ground as did his neck and cheek, but not much else.
The slippery dead weight seemed too much for the cramping and cut hands of the gambler.
"Come on Buck," Ezra hissed, fighting his own nausea born of exhaustion. They couldn't keep running like this, couldn't keep trying to dodge their pursuers like blind rabbits running from the hounds.
They weren't going to survive, not this time.
Ezra felt the sudden weight of desperation settle heavily on his shoulder, soaking through his spirit like the heavy rain through his burgundy wool coat.
It sparked his ire.
"On your feet Mr. Wilmington!" Ezra ground out in anger; anger directed at his own physical weakness; anger aimed at Buck for laying beaten and half dead in the muck on some mud covered tree lined slope and Ezra was angry at having allowed himself to be put in this situation.
Mostly he was infuriated with the men who hunted them down with brutal intensity and tenacity.
Another deafening crescendo of thunder rolled across the darkened skies followed quickly by a loud crack of lightening. A tree near nearby snapped and exploded. Through the billows of wind whipped rain, Ezra stared up into the tops of the greying forest of muted shadows and lines trying to pinpoint the exact location of the falling tree top. A widow maker.
Branches snapped and cracked as the unseen tree toppled to the ground, tearing limbs and branches from itself and its neighbors in its wild descent.
Thunder rolled again, masking the sounds of approaching hoof beats. The thunder shook the earth, camouflaging the pounding of six horses that bore down on the two men trapped in the wallow of a muddy tree lined slope.
Though the rain and thunder muted the senses of the gambler, Ezra knew his and Buck's demise was imminent.
With strength born of desperation and the sheer will to survive, the gambler reached down and grabbed the Ladies' Man under the arms started dragging his friend across the slope, over and through bushes, under branches and around trees.
He would not give up. Ezra would not throw his cards on the table and admit defeat. He would not relinquish the ante that had become his and Buck's lives. He would be damned if he quit.
Every other step had Standish slipping in the ankle deep muck, tripping over his own mud laden boots. Muscles pulled and tore, crying silently but brilliantly as muscle fibers were yanked from their bony roots. Frustration and fury grew exponentially with the will to survive.
Maude Standish had not raised a lamb.
Standish's back and shoulders and legs cried in protest. Muscles burned with fiery agony and almost as intensely as he shouted at his friend to help him; to stand up, to show some fight.
Blood washed down the side of Wilmington's lax features caking them. Blood mixed with the rain that beat his face and head. Blood adorned his shirt collar and his side. His shirt flapped in the wind, peeling from torn skin in tattered strips, revealing lacerated, welted and bruised flesh.
Ezra turned a blind eye to the wounds. He refused to acknowledge the amount of blood that seemed to run freely from Wilmington's side and head. He kept his eyes diverted from the abuse that scoured his friends frame.
"Damn it all to Hell Buck," Ezra whispered out, his voice nearly cracking with fear and frustration and the building anger at his ineptitude to keep one of his friends safe.
The slope slipped from under Ezra's boot heel again, sending the gambler crashing to the ground and slamming a shoulder against a stump of a tree long ago felled.
Pain radiated across Standish's shoulder and down his back. Tears, masked by the torrent of rain, sprang unbidden to fierce green eyes.
Desperation built with every frantic gasp of breath.
"On your feet Mr. Wilmington!" Ezra shouted this time, voicing his fear and panic. His anger and aggravation mounted with the closing in of the yet unseen enemy. He could feel them tightening their distance. Ezra could sense them closing in for the kill, just as Vin had a said a hunted man or animal could just before a trap was sprung. The hunted always kept a weary eye alert, always sensing for the unseen trap that would ultimately bring about their demise…it was simply the nature of things. And, at that time, Ezra had thought Tanner spoke of himself and the bounty on his head….but now standing in the mud, hunched over Wilmington, Ezra clearly understood the meaning behind Tanner's words….and...
Ezra damned Mr. Tanner and his unusual ways, and damned the other men for enclosing him in their circle of friendship and thus dragging him down to this position, where he feared for the life of a fellow man, a friend no less.
Ezra lay half crumpled in the mud, partially buried by the unconscious weight of his friend, waiting for the bullets that were sure to come…just as sure as the next thunder head that tolled above shaking the ground with its raw power.
Thunder boomed with enough force to seemingly shake the land. Small rocks rolled down the slope as mud shifted on its own accord.
Water sluiced down the muddy slope in tiny rivulets undermining the ground under which the two peacekeepers lay, eating at the earth and dragging it away in small bits.
Ezra struggled out from under Wilmington. Every muscle protested, his lungs burned trying to drag in one more breath of oxygen hoping to appease a frantically beating heart and the harsh demands of over taxed muscles.
With a will born of desperation, and the fire to survive as any wild creature would, Standish fought and shoved Wilmington's inert form from his legs and freed himself. He pulled himself from the sucking mud, ignored the excessive weight of the clinging mud on his clothes and pulled himself to his feet.
If Ezra P. Standish had taken the time to think, if he had taken a short moment to remember his mother's lesson, the Southern gambler might have realized that he did not have to die this bleak, dark, twilight, lost and hurt on the side of a mountain with no one to pray over his corpse or that of his associate. His friend
If Ezra had taken just a moment he might have realized his own survival and freedom lay in just a few small movements. If he turned his back and scrambled from his friend, if he took a few steps in another direction and left Wilmington unconscious and unaware of his fate, then he, Ezra P. Standish, might actually survive the brutality that awaited him when the horsemen rode upon them.
A brutality would be fall him and his associate if they were to be caught, there was no doubt. Death would become a welcomed visitor, a relief from the misery that was sure to accost them in a most vile manner if they should become captives again at the hands of the men that pursued them so ruthlessly.
Ezra could simply disappear. He could slip off into the rain and disappear, leaving his captors a corpse to try and get their answers.
Wilmington was practically dead, there was no feasible way Buck could survive the amount of blood loss that he had already sustained. He was no longer suffering. Nor would he continue to suffer at the depraved hands of those that hunted them.
Standing in the rain, covered with mud, with hunters just a few moments behind him, Ezra Standish did not recall, his mother's lessons. Instead, he pictured her elegant face smiling sweetly while muted disappointment shown in her eyes.
Without thought, without any inclination to his own survival, the gambler disregarded his mother's teachings, reached down with cut and bleeding fingers and grabbed Buck Wilmington from under the shoulders.
Running from Buck never entered his mind.
He closed his eyes trying to shield himself from the raw wounds that adorned Wilmington and tried not to feel his friends pain. A few years ago he would have been able to without hesitation, a few years ago he would have turned on his heels and skidded from the outskirts of their makeshift camp of two nights ago and left Wilmington in the sickening clutches of the marauders that tortured him. Ezra would have bet money that he himself would have put his own self preservation before that of anyone, until a few years ago….That damn Seminole Village, he had turned around. He had not only walked back into the lion den of Anderson's camp, but he freely walked back to face the ire of the villagers that lost loved ones because of his private search for gold, his lust for wealth. He had cockily walked back and faced Larabee….and had stayed.
And like flashes of lightening that streaked over head, impromptu, inconvenient, glimpses of an honorable man came to the surface at the most inoptune times in his life…..
This being one of them.
Ezra cursed Chris Larabee, cursed his band of merry men for unearthing the decent person in him that now stood beside a dying friend in a deluge of rain knowing full well fate would lash him with a painful death. He cursed his fellow peace keepers and he cursed himself.
The muted thud of a horses' hooves on mud had Standish snapping his head up. Through the wall of rain that moved in whitish waves in gusts of wind, Ezra could dimly make out the dark silhouettes of approaching riders.
Standish backpedaled as quick as he could, dragging his friend with him through the mud, the ever growing tributaries of water run off and between the sodden trunks of pine.
They had spotted him as easily has he had spotted them.
They were dead men. All around.
Mud erupted up by his boot, dangerously close to Mr. Wilmington's arm. Standish never even heard the rifle report. Ezra hastened his retreat into the wooded slope scraping his boots through the ever thickening mire and mud. Desolation flooding his system.
Lightening tolled without the overture of thunder. Another tree cracked and exploded close by.
Hunter and hunted alike froze. All waiting, searching the blackened sky through the waves of rain hoping to spot the toppling tree top. Listening intently over the surges of rain.
Somewhere just out of Standish's sight a horse screamed and men shouted. The lead riders turned in their saddles and searched their back ranks.
Suddenly only the sound of driving rain could be heard.
A twisted dimpled smile spread across Standish's mud splattered features. His green eyes glowered with pleasure.
Determination slipped into his system mingling with desperation like the rain soaking his clothes.
He was not dead yet.
With renewed vigor he started dragging Wilmington further into the trees, hoping to stave off a violent death for as long as he could. Scuffing his feet, and dragging his burden hunched over at a painful angle, Standish prayed Wilmington simply passed from this life without ever regaining consciousness. Buck did not deserve the mercilessness of the men that hunted them, he had not deserved the first round and certainly not a repeat performance.
Though only moments earlier, Ezra had nearly begged, offered up his paltry life in exchange for Buck's survival, to the God Josiah spoke of, Standish now feverantly prayed that Wilmington be spared from having to open his eyes and register the pain and masochistic tendencies of the bastards that hunted them down from just a few hundred yards away.
I tried my friend…by God I tried. Ezra whispered silently to Buck as he backpedaled no longer trying to hide their tracks, knowing that the riders that approached them, followed them by sight and no longer needed a trail.
Through the grey downpour, Ezra could see the individual faces, he could make out the rough clothing, the guns, the leather whip tied to a saddle and the rifles that lay across soaked laps.
The, now , five riders approached the two downed men.
Ezra worked feverishly to save them both, knowing full well he held dead man's hand.
The five approached cautiously. The silhouettes of horse and rider materializing slowly as they edged their way through the wall of rain.
Ezra matched the leader's eyes and continued to drag Wilmington away from the five that slowly and methodically closed the distance.
Standish smiled, mocking and belligerent. They feared him and Buck enough not to rush them blindly.
There had one time been ten riders in the group that now stood as five.
Buck and Ezra had proven their worth and their own skill at surviving, costing their pursuers a loss of lives.
The leader did not rush the men. A cornered animal would attack and kill just as easily and efficiently as the hunter that stalked it.
The gambler and cowboy had proven their ability and resourcefulness numerous times over the last few days.
The leader would not underestimate them again. He only needed one of them and didn't need him for long.
The tall cowboy appeared already gone. The gambler, however, had the spark of fire and life. With his friend gone, he became a man with nothing to lose and thus a very frightening and dangerously unpredictable opponent.
The five men started to fan out. Two horsemen angled up slope while two more angled down slope. Their horses slipped and struggled in the deepening and shifting mud just as their prey. The leader maintained his attention on the gambler keeping eye contact with a pair of fierce green eyes.
The defiant cocky smile unsettled the horseman. He rested his hand on the stock of his rifle.
Even a badger could maim and kill a man if not treated with enough respect.
The badger in gambler's clothing would not get a chance to sink his wily teeth or claws into any of them if the horsemen did their jobs correctly.
Though a trapped badger would lunge and spit and tear at its bindings, if handled properly the trapper could escape unscathed and with a new pelt.
The leader hefted his gun, bearing it up to his shoulder. He would wound this badger, bring him to his proverbial knees and stake him out until his defiance drained from him like blood from a wound.
Ezra ignored the four horse men that flanked Buck and himself. He no longer felt the burn of over exerted muscles or the violent nausea that rippled through him. Instead, he stared at the man on the horse, who was forced to show Ezra the respect he was due.
Standish's smile deepened as the middle rider raised his rifle to his shoulder and prepared to fire. Even down in the dirt with an unconscious burden at his knees, Ezra Standish finally commanded the full respect of another. Not the disdain of a loser at the poker table, not the cowardice of a want-to-be gunman, and not the look of someone who surrendered because seven to one just were not good odds.
Standish smiled, defiantly because, even backed into the corner, holding a losing hand, he commanded the respect and fear from someone who held all the cards.
Standish let Wilmington slip from his grasp, hoping to spare Buck any more physical abuse. Perhaps Mr. Wilmington had already slipped from this world.
Mr. Larabee would be devastated at the loss of his oldest friend, but not nearly to the degree of JD. Mr. Dunne would once again lose an integral part of his family. Would he follow Mr. Larabee down the dark path of cynicism and self destruction?
Ezra braced himself for the impact of the bullet knowing it would not be a killing shot, but already wishing that it were.
Another clap of thunder burst over head, deafening in its close proximity, intense in its force. Standish felt the vibrations. Through the blinding rain, staring into the eyes of the man who would murder him, Ezra thought of his mother and wondered if she would mourn the loss of her son alone or in the company of the other five peace keepers.
Mud shifted under him. The water running past him increased in strength and speed.
He felt himself slide and shot one hand out to steady himself and laid a protecting hand on Wilmington's inert form.
He broke eye contact with the man with the raised rifle.
The shifting and sliding of mud had his attention.
Another crash of thunder exploded over head with frenzied zagging streaks of lightening interrupting the horrific clap of noise, as if too impatient to wait its proper turn.
The mud moved in earnest, as a slab.
Ezra snapped his eyes up in macabre fascination to the horse and rider just a few feet from him.
He had just enough time to register the wild panicked dancing of a single horse and the screams and whinnies of other horses somewhere in the forest.
He thought he heard the rifle report just a split second before another roll of thunder.
The earth finally let go.
Standish was flung back his head snapping backward and toward the side, twisting his body with it as blood spurted from the corner of his forehead.
Wilmington started to slide away with the land. Standish's twisted unmoving form following a moment later.
The mud cascaded down the slope building speed as it gathered momentum and mass. Horses and men alike were washed away in a tsunami of rain soaked mud and top soil.
Trees stood like silent sentries until at last ,young trees and ancient ones alike were uprooted and toppled, swallowed under, along with everything else, only to boil to the top of the massive avalanche of cascading soil.
Mud rushed like an out of control train, down hill, knocking over all that stood within its path, filling every space that sat within its borders. Crushing the life out of whatever was trapped within its grip.
Mud flashed down the hillside, muddying small and big streams alike with its impending approach.
It was this small churning of water, the ever sensitive earth, aware of even the tiniest vibrations sent its own kind of warnings to those that listened even as far down as narrow valley floor a quarter of a mile below.
In that valley, where the rain had yet to hit, five horse men sat at a stream contemplating their next move, hoping to find their two missing friends before it was too late.
It was JD who noticed the small stream suddenly turn cloudy. However, it was Vin who immediately interpreted what they saw and it was Chris who quickly assessed the situation and led his men out of the path of the wall of mud that boiled and rolled down the mountain slope with its incredible speed and force.
And it was Josiah who sent up a prayer asking for guidance and a miracle….and it was Nathan who spotted the first body as it washed passed; the flash of burgundy all too familiar.
Rain, wind, and thunder followed shortly after, punctuated by bolts of lightening streaking across the sky and reaching for the ground. Prairie grass and trees bent under the gale like winds as driving rain pummeled the earth.
Five men worked frantically standing and kneeling bent and braced against the elements, trying desperately to move a mountain of mud.
The frantic few hours that passed were some that none of them ever wanted to repeat in their life time.
JD would forever remember the heaviness of trying to move mud in a fashion that was too fast and too unproductive. The heavy slop oozed and sludged forward in a manner that filled in what little spots he had cleared. qqq qqq Chris felt old fury and familiar frustration ripple in the depths of his soul and leech its blackness through his body, devouring his heart.
Josiah fought the mud with an anger to match the jealous God of the old Testament. Sanchez hurdled mud and rocks to the side like God himself had hurled plagues down upon his own people.
Vin worked quickly, methodically, offering promises of small sacrifices to the Spirits of the Earth in appeasement if they were allowed to find their friends alive. He worked steadily hoping to spare himself another massacre of family, this time brought about by the Earth itself.
Nathan worked steadily, running through his triage of knowledge as quickly as he removed mud and rock from an area he thought he had spotted a flash of a burgundy coat.
Damn Ezra and his coats. The man liked his colors though.
The first cry of alarm, dulled by the beating of incessant rain, shot forth. That first horrid moment when others paused and waited unsure of whether to be elated or crushed, stretched for an eternity.
No one moved. Nathan and Josiah waited staring at the respected ground at their feet wondering which of them would be called.
"Nathan!" it was JD's voice, cracking with relief and tension, "git over here…Buck!…hold on Buck!"
The frenzy of activity that followed would be lost to memories that were engorged with adrenaline and relief.
Shortly after, came the second the voice. Chris this time, lacking the excitement and emotion that JD put into every syllable and every letter when he had found Buck.
Instead, Chris had simply increased the tempo of his work. Then he had frozen.
Vin read the signs and waited…as had Josiah. Neither stared at one another, neither wanted to see each others fears or hopes.
They did not want to witness the emotions of one another, too consumed and rawed by their own turmoil.
"Nathan, git over here….Josiah, Vin, give me a hand….this wiry son of a bitch is cheatin' death again." Larabee's words though spoken briskly and with a hint of irritation could not hide his relief or elation.
Vin and Josiah struggled through the knee deep sucking mud and crossed the distance to Larabee in less time than it took for him to finish speaking.
+ + + + + + +
The five riders that had hunted Wilmington and Standish had been lost. Three horses were found and ponied behind the small buck board Josiah had hauled with them from the town of Circle Creek on the hunt for trouble and her two partners, Buck and Ezra.
Circle Creek, a three day ride from Four Corners, was more danger than it was worth. One step above Purgatorio but well beneath the likes of Jericho.
Buck and Ezra should never had been sent there by the Judge and they should never had been sent alone.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah snapped the worn leather reins over the backs of the four mules urging them to move with more alacrity. The rain and lightening had left the grasses and trees lusher and brighter bringing out their vibrant colors.
The mules' coats beaded the rain and dried in the sun that tried to break free from the thinning cloud cover. The mules refused to trot but they lengthened their strides and quickened their pace with their long dark ears twitching in time with each forefoot fall.
"Josiah hold up," It was JD, "think Ezra's gonna be sick again…Nathan?" The unsureness of JD's voice had Josiah swinging around on the bench and hauling back on the reins.
The single gun shot that had burned a furrow alongside Standish's forehead and temple promised to keep Nathan busy for the next few days.
"JD git his head down and over the side," Nathan spoke from Buck's left side, with Buck's unconscious form between himself and Ezra he couldn't move fast enough. "JD! Git his head down…" The brusqueness in Jackson's voice belied the fear and yoke of responsibility he garnered when they found survivors. Not just any survivors but their friends.
The reflexive gurgle and contraction of muscles in retrograde motion had the gambler's abdomen flexing up and down and spoke volumes of JD's assessment of the situation.
"Here, I'll help you brother," Josiah wrapped the thick leather reins around the brake lever as he jumped from the bench. In one fluid motion, he hauled the semi conscious gambler to the side of the buckboard and held his head down as once again Standish's stomach emptied itself.
"Any blood Josiah?" Nathan asked, still pinned by his responsibility to Buck. Internal bleeding had Jackson worried for both men.
Wilmington was pale, his breathing shallow, the knife wound in his side deep while the lashes on his back, though shallow, were red, puffy and wept heat, serum and infection.
The sounds of retching filled the small area. Vin pulled his horse back a pace and offered up another offering to the spirits that had taken mercy on them and had answered his earlier pleas.
Chris watched from a distance anger waving off him like the smell of heavy rains.
"No blood," Josiah held Standish's head by the temples while JD had a hold of the gambler's bare shoulders. Dunne closed his eyes each time Ezra's back arched reflexively upward accentuating vertebrae and ribs as the gambler's stomach curled and lunged itself toward his throat.
"Looks like mud again," JD spoke quietly and in revulsion. How much more mud was Ezra going to bring up before this was through?
After a few minutes, that had to have seemed eternal to the gambler, the retching stopped. Josiah and JD eased Standish back into the wagon and onto his side.
"You doin' ok Ezra?" JD asked peering into the glazed green eyes that dripped water from their corners. Dunne quietly accepted the freshly damp rag that Josiah handed to him and wiped the gambler's face again, hoping the cold water would cool him and the touch soothe some of his fear.
JD didn't expect an answer nor did he get one, though the disappointment still weighed heavily with the young man. He wanted Ezra and Buck alive and well, not half drowned and crushed with mud and beaten listless. Even still, this was better than the alternative, though not near as good as if nothing in Circle Creek had ever happened. But still this was better than death.
At the moment JD didn't think Ezra or Buck, if and when Buck woke up, would agree. JD took a forlorn look at his big friend and felt his heart sink a little more.
He turned his attention back to Ezra, "Jist hold on Ezra, we're gonna fix you up in no time." His words were spoken softly and he hoped he spoke the truth.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan ran the cold cloth over Wilmington's chest and stomach trying to wash away the dry dust, a remnant of the lingering mud, and cool the fever that had been slowly building all day.
Josiah sat on the opposite side of the fire doing his best to wash the caking mud from Standish's ears and eyes. The gambler fidgeted weakly, swatting at the preacher's hand and trying to curl away from the relentless scrubbing.
A sad smile graced Nathan's face as he watched as Ezra rolled onto his side trying vainly to escape the wash rag that assaulted in and around his ears. The gambler's low moans and haphazard resistance earned him no respite.
Standish still lingered in the disoriented haze of a concussion and near asphyxiation. He slipped in and out of awareness as often as JD moved.
The silhouette of a dark shadow had Nathan glancing up away from Josiah and his charge to the form that stalked back and forth, nothing more than a shadow cloaked in the deep night.
Chris's relief at finding his men had slowly boiled away and was replaced by familiar anger. Occasionally he would stop to stare at Josiah and the gambler contemplating something and then resume his shadowy march.
Nathan picked up a canteen and poured more water on an old bandage turn rag and resumed cleaning Buck's lacerations. He prayed that Wilmington would start fussing like Ezra. Jackson turned his gaze to the campfire.
JD picked the cooked meat off the last of the rabbits, deboning them and wrapping them like Vin had taught him to preserve the meat a little longer in saddle bags.
Tanner sat somewhere off in the night keeping watch over the camp.
Circle Creek was a day or more away but Four Corners still sat and elusive two days away.
What trouble Buck and Ezra had found in that sorry excuse for a town would not be sneaking up on them tonight. Jackson feared perhaps that was exactly what Chris and perhaps the others wanted. The need for revenge waved off Larabee and Tanner like an obsession. Jackson understood the feeling. He too felt the need to retaliate with some plantation type justice, for the wrong doings that were done to his friends. Unlike Chris and Vin, Nathan had his mind and hands occupied by trying to save their friends lives. Revenge and retribution could wait a few days, a couple of weeks or months or even years. Jackson had learned at a young age all about grudges and repaying injustices. His father had just recently exposed how long a man could wait to wreak his revenge.
The healer cringed and caught himself staring at Chris. Three years and Chris still hunted his family's killer and those few times they had come close, the old murderous rage was easily brought to the surface. Larabee had proven his patience. Nathan hoped he would be patient enough to get Buck and Ezra home before starting out to Circle Creek.
Buck moved a leg and rolled his head letting a small moan escape.
It garnered the attention of the camp.
"Buck?" Nathan turned his full attention to the large man, "Come on Buck," Jackson tapped the lightly grimacing features. Wilmington rolled his head away from the contact.
"Ezra…" Wilmington's lips barely moved as the name was spoken as a simple breath.
"He's doin' fine Buck…" Nathan quickly reassured, casting a glance at Sanchez and the recumbent Standish across the fire, as if making sure he did not speak a lie.
"Ezrrrraaa?" again the Ladies' Man spoke softly slurring the name as lips refused to form the syllables. "Don't…Ezra.." Buck scraped his feet against the bed roll, tossing his head and furrowing his brow, "don't…hoss, kill's fer sure…Ezrraa.." Buck's whispered cries tapered off in an exhale.
Nathan looked up to Chris and watched the gunslinger, as Larabee stared from Buck to Ezra back to Buck. Jackson hadn't ever seen Chris look so intensely angry.
Wilmington unconsciously shifted a leg and drew the healer's attention back to him.
"Buck, I need ya to drink some water," Jackson grabbed the canteen that rested next to his hip, "JD, give me a hand."
Dunne was there instantly wiggling under his large friend and propping Wilmington up against his knees.
"Let me help you brothers," Josiah dropped his dirty rag and left the half awares gambler with a partially cleaned neck, face and a rim of wet hair. Standish burrowed under his blanket. Out of sight out of mind.
The preacher crossed the camp to help JD and Nathan.
Chris watched from the shadows. He watched as his oldest friend had to be propped up and fed like a new born calf too weak to stand and nurse on its own. Those kind of calves tended not to survive. Larabee could see the bandages, the bruised skin and the hint of the lacerations that came from a whip. His anger grew.
He worked his jaw fighting the rage that skimmed so close to the surface. Retribution for the wrong done to his men rolled forward like an incoming tide. He rolled twin fists and clenched his jaw.
Larabee's gaze was pulled from Wilmington when Standish moved under the blanket.
Chris observed the gambler for a moment, Ezra's head wound kept him confused, unbalanced and unsure of the things around him, spending more time unconscious than awake and never truly coherent. Nathan said it would quickly pass, it was just a matter of time.
Larabee watched through the flickering of the campfire as Josiah, Nathan and JD worked in concert to get water down Buck's throat.
Down foals were more apt to die, weak calves faded and died despite a farmers best intentions. Chris watched Buck as the Ladies' Man struggled with the simple reflexive action of swallowing.
It was all wrong. Wilmington was vibrant, full of spit and vinegar with tales as tall and as loud as the man himself. To see him wasted to nothing more than a helpless victim was more than Chris was willing to tolerate. Larabee bristled.
Chris stepped out of the shadows and squatted down beside the gambler, taking Josiah's spot. He just needed a clue, a name, something to follow, to lead him to the man or men who had beaten Buck in such a manner.
He wanted answers. He needed to act, sought revenge.
"Ezra," Chris spoke softly as he turned his attention away from the four men across the fire. He eased the blanket back off the gambler's head. Mud still streaked the younger man's bare shoulders and torso. His face was cleaner but still carried the fine stiff dust of mud that refused to leave after just one cleaning.
"Ezra," Chris said again in a more commanding voice trying to garner the gambler's attention and hoping to spark some lucidity.
Standish rolled his head toward the voice. He raised a hand to swipe at his eyes. Chris grabbed his wrist and held it, keeping it from rubbing at the closed swollen eyes that constantly drained tears. Nathan said it was from the mud and dust that was trapped under the lids. Though Josiah had tried to clean the gambler's face as best he could Standish fought just enough to keep the job from being done completely.
Larabee forced the captured wrist to the ground and noticed the lack of rope burns. Buck's wrists were torn and gouged, ropes had bitten into the big man's wrists burning and tearing skin. Furrowing grooves almost to the bone.
Larabee stared at the pale unmarred wrists of the gambler. A jealous anger started to boil. Chris bit back at it, irrationally wishing it was Buck who had been spared but knowing it was wrong to wish harm had befallen Standish instead. Larabee was a better man than that, Sarah had married a better man, and Adam's Pa was certainly above reproach.
With a calming breath, Chris tried to bury his reactive suspicion. What had happened out there?
"Ezra." Chris spoke again, the anger he felt for the bodies still buried under the avalanche of mud colored his voice, despite his best attempts to disguise it.
Standish shied from the underlying rage, furrowing his brow and trying to blink his eyes open. The fine particles of dust and debris prevented it. The furious blinking spilled a stream of tears down the gambler's cheeks leaving tiny trails highlighting the remaining skiff of dirt on his cheeks.
"Ezra, what happened out there?" Chris asked again grasping the gambler by the chin trying to keep Standish from rolling his head off the makeshift pillow Josiah had fashioned from his coat.
Standish shrunk back from the captive holds, tried to pull his wrist and head free. He moved his legs slowly at first kicking at the blankets that ensnared them. His sense of captivity became enhanced.
Larabee noted Standish's dark pinstripe pants were as dirty as the ground he lay on. He felt the younger man's struggles increase. Larabee fastened his holds tighter.
A vicious circle neither man understood they perpetuated.
"Ezra, what happened? Who did this?" Chris's frustration communicated itself through his hands. The grip on the gambler's jaw tightened as Standish's left wrist was pinned to ground.
Standish began moving his legs in earnest, to free himself of whatever entangled him.
He needed to get away. Get Buck. Where was Buck? Panic began to spike.
"Ezra, knock it off," Larabee hissed out cinching his grip tighter hoping to convey his strength to that of his friend. "Just answer me Ezra. Who did this?"
Standish stopped moving. Answers, they had wanted answers, a name. They had kept asking Buck who had sent them….Just tell them a name and they would stop….tell them or they would find the gambler and ask him. They had just wanted a name, who knew of their operation to send lawmen from Four Corners. Buck's pain would have stopped with a just the utterance of a name…the whip and taunting laughter would stop if Buck just whispered a name or gave up the Gambler…offered a toy for them to tear strips off.
With his heart fluttering in his chest, unable to see or make sense of what held him captive, the Southerner kept completely still. He willed his chest not to move with each breath. He froze, like an injured creature hiding from a maundering predator. He had to get Buck. Rescue Buck.
"Leave'im be brother," Josiah's voice so close had Larabee snapping his head around and reaching for his gun. He had been so intent on Ezra that he had missed the preacher's approach. "Brother Ezra, won't be able to tell us much even if he were in his right mind." Sanchez spoke with understanding; acknowledging Chris's desire and need to know what had happened and who had perpetrated such heinous brutality upon Buck.
Larabee held his breath and released it slowly, simultaneously relaxing his grip on Ezra's chin and wrist and realizing just how tightly he had held his grip. The finger indents from the pale flesh were slow to fade.
"Buck?" Larabee nearly hissed out the words. His anger and building frustration needing a vent.
"Got some water down him," Josiah said as a way of encouragement as he adjusted the blankets Standish had kicked free of in his struggles.
Ezra held still, afraid to breath thus move and reveal his place amongst them. Anxiety pounded through his veins as he desperately tried to disentangle hazy disjointed images. One image kept repeating; Wilmington tied, hung by his wrists facing into the wooded glade that Ezra had concealed himself when he had tracked Wilmington to the encampment just out of Circle Creek. He had to help Buck…somehow he had to free Buck.
Chris growled under his breath and pushed himself to his feet keeping his eyes on the still form across the fire and under Nathan's and JD's care. He melted back into the shadows generously afforded by the dark night.
Josiah settled down next to the gambler and could see the tension in the taut muscles of the Southerner. "Easy Ezra, no one wants to hurt you." He laid a reassuring hand on Ezra's bare shoulder and frowned when he felt the muscles twitch away from the touch.
Ezra kept still, listening. The camp had quieted down some time ago. He scrubbed furiously at his eyes and still could not get the sensation of something trapped under the lids to lessen. No one held his wrists down, no one tried to ask questions of him.
The gambler lay listening intently to the sounds of the night. He could hear the fire crack and snap and the smell the distinctive odor of wet wood burning. Two different snores rattled around the camp, competing with one another.
Standish tried to open his eyes and was reward with the unquenchable instinct to rub at them and keep them closed. He could not ignore either reflex.
No one tried to stop him. The gambler slowly sat up. No one pushed him back down.
Through tears and rapid blinking he searched the immediate area looking for Buck. The glare of the firelight had him raising his hand and turning his head.
Still no one sounded the alarm. He had to protect Buck.
The gambler crawled from his blankets. His hand hit a solid object and immediately recognized it as a holster with a gun. Things were improving. The gambler quickly belted it around his waist pulling the belt to the last hole. The gun slung dangerously low on his hips, threatening to fall to the ground.
Barefooted and determined, the gambler circled around the campfire searching for Buck.
He had to get Buck away…Unsure of why and away from whom…But somewhere deep down he knew Buck needed his help. And for a moment he was back in that wooded glade staring at the glazed eyes of Wilmington that squeezed shut with every landing of the snapping whip as it lanced his back. Ezra had remained concealed, heard the questions, the laughter, and the orders that demanded a name or the gambler.
Buck had at one time even focused on Ezra. The hint of a lazy quarter smile from the Ladies' Man had nearly crushed the concealed gambler. Still Standish had remained in hiding, biding his time, as his friend lost strips off his back.
They had just wanted a name. Buck had given them the name of every whore he ever knew and then some. It had not been what the monsters were seeking, and he had paid for his glibness in blood.
Ezra had remained unseen and waited. He had closed his eyes to the pain but could not drown out the sounds of the snapping whip or the soft cries that escaped Wilmington's bleeding mouth.
Ezra, as he searched the now sleeping camp, remembered that particular scene with startling clarity but not much more. He circumvented the fire. He was through hiding and biding his time. It was time to act.
He found Wilmington. With eyes, that refused to open or stop blinking, the gambler did not notice the bedroll that Wilmington lay on, or the bandages that adorned his upper body. Standish did not register or try to rationalize why their captives would treat Wilmington with such kindness.
Instead, the gambler tried to quietly rouse his big friend, to no avail. Desperate and knowing he was flirting with lady luck, the gambler reached down and grabbed the edges of the bed roll and, with aching muscles that burned in protest, began to drag Wilmington away from the fire, away from the camp, and away from their captives.
He would kill to defend Buck.
Bare footed with no shirt the gambler eased Buck from the light and warmth of the fire, careless of the tracks he left, yet profoundly aware of the noise he made and carefully made their escape. Not unlike the night he had originally rescued Buck.
This night, however, had he been able to open his eyes and see clearly, he might have noticed the quiet long haired tracker who blatantly watched him from just within the reach of the fire light. Had Ezra been more coherent he would have realized he ran from friends into the unknown and would have seen the silent commands from the tracker and dark gunslinger for the others to remain still and quiet, to keep from risking a sure death at the hands of Standish.
Ezra slid into the night dragging Buck with him, determined to save his friend and kill anyone who interfered, or tried to stop them.
When the two lawmen disappeared into the dark shadows, the other five climbed to their feet.
"He's a determined bastard ain't he?" Vin shook his head and chuckled.
"Where ya think he's takin' Buck?" JD asked strapping on his revolvers.
"Not far," Nathan remarked tiredly.
"Well Brothers, should we go after our wayward lambs?" Josiah started forward. With an amused grin, despite the danger in the gambler's speed and unpredictableness, Larabee nodded and led the way.
"Jist remember Josiah, one of them lambs got himself your six shooter, and he's lookin' pretty dead set on getting' away." Vin pointed out as he and JD peeled off to the West to circle around.
"Hope he don't go cuttin' his feet on anything…or steppin' on any mesquite thorns." Nathan shuddered at the thought and followed Josiah and Chris.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had made it as far as the horses and had stopped. He leaned against the nearest horse and tried to catch his breath.
JD's young gelding took the extra weight amicably.
JD and Vin watched from the safety of the shadows. Dunne started to speak but Vin quickly hushed him.
Josiah, Chris and Nathan waited from the direction that the gambler had just traveled. They watched and waited as Standish struggled to get his breath.
Nathan tried to step around Chris and Josiah. Ezra needed help, they couldn't let him keep abusing already overtaxed muscles and it was not doing Buck any good. Jackson hoped to just talk to Ezra and help him realize he and Buck were no longer in danger.
A twig snapped underfoot. The sound seemed to echo around the small rumudea line.
Ezra cleared leather before the others could blink.
They watched as the gambler tilted his head trying to pick up any sound that would give him a hint as to which direction the danger lurked.
The five men in hiding remained unmoving. Standish had the look of a man determined to find freedom no matter the cost. Nathan recognized the look and felt a pang of familiarity.
No one moved. They watched as Standish kept still and bent his head in concentration, the hammer of the revolver cocked back and ready to fire. Buck lay slumped at his feet.
The others waited, what seemed an eternity. Finally Standish uncocked the gun and slowly reholstered it.
Chris and the others remained silent. They knew they were no danger to Ezra and Buck but they could not believe the same thing of Ezra.
And wait they did.
Finally Ezra started moving again. Unable to keep his precarious balance, the gambler was unable to lift his unconscious burden onto the back of the horse. Though he struggled and tried, cursed and fell a few times, his white feet shining in the moonlight when he would fall, Ezra could not lift Wilmington high enough to drape him over a horse's back.
JD's gelding stood patiently, munching grass but keeping an eye on the activity at his flank.
In the end, cursing and frustrated the gambler continued to drag Buck off into the night.
The other five men shadowed them.
It was some time later, with the sun just peaking up over the horizon, that Standish finally succumbed to exhaustion and fell to his rump for what seemed like the thousandth time that evening. The difference being, this time he sat, shoulders slumped, head bowed, chin touching his chest before he fell over to his side, unmoving.
The mumbled apologies had not gone unheard.
The five peacekeepers waited in the dim light of predawn for any sign of movement from the gambler. Vin melted from the shadows and silently approached the two crumpled men. He carefully reached down and removed Josiah's gun from the holster around Ezra's hips.
Tension diffused from the area.
"I'll get the wagon." Josiah said turning back toward their camp.
"JD give'im a hand," Chris said with a touch of respect in his voice as he stared at the pair huddled in the grassy plain. Ezra you tenacious son of a bitch, what the Hell happened out there?
"Sure Chris," JD turned to follow Josiah and then stopped and looked back, "never thought he'd get this far….never would have believed it." There was a touch of awe in the young man's voice.
"Tryin' to save a friend JD, you'd be amazed at what you can do," Nathan spoke with a touch of quiet admiration that was tinged with hard won experience.
Tanner silently nodded his agreement.
+ + + + + + +
Chris, Josiah and Nathan loaded the wagon in the light of a false dawn, while JD and Vin started breaking down camp and saddling horses. The five met on the trail, JD and Vin ponying the other horses and riding at a slow trot.
The wagon and her crew had not gotten too far ahead.
The road back to Four Corners, under the heat of the sun, was bumpy at best.
Buck had begun to fight, as Nathan had hoped and feared. The fever climbed unchecked while bound wounds still seeped their foul poison.
Josiah hauled the wagon to a stop multiple times, and at such constant intervals that the mules learned to slow down and stop in their tresses without command, whether Sanchez wanted them to or not.
Poultices were quickly made and changed. Buck's discomfort grew with each passing hour. His hoarse cries and frantic movements had the others keeping their eyes on the wagon but keeping their distance. Trying to find comfort in the space they created hoping, perhaps to stave off any bad news.
It was late afternoon when Standish finally pulled himself into a sitting position and sat hunched at the back of the wagon. Unlike so many times in the past day and a half, he did not try to slide from the moving wagon seemingly unaware of its very presence, instead he sat at the back edge and kept a white knuckle grip as his bare feet dragged dangerously close to the ground.
Nathan tried to reach for the gambler's shoulder, mindful of the scrapes and bruises that lay disguised under the sheen of dirt and sweat.
"Ezra?" Nathan questioned over the noise of the rocking wagon and rattle of leather, wood and buckles as the mules' moved in their harnesses.
Jackson tried to work his way free of Buck, to steal this chance for himself, a break from constantly tending the delirious man, and use the small amount of freedom gained to stretch knotted muscles and stiffened joints as well as check on the welfare of his other patient.
Ezra had been on his own since morning. He no longer needed someone constantly at his side to keep him from choking, simply because his stomach had nothing else to reject.
Chris reined his black in behind the wagon. His search of answers had been put on hold since following Ezra and Buck into the plains. Standish was doing his damndest to protect Wilmington and Chris would reciprocate in kind. In fact, his form of protectiveness crossed the line to aggressive. Larabee knew he would be returning to Circle Creek some time soon.
"Ezra?" Chris slowed his black to a walk and paced beside the wagon. Standish sat with his head down clutching the bed of the buckboard with a firm grip. The gambler did not raise his head.
Larabee shot Jackson a questioning glance.
Dunne cantered up, brought his horse to a stuttering walk and slid from the saddle while the horse still moved. The young sheriff jumped up onto the tail end of the buckboard next to the gambler.
"Hey Ezra, ya feelin' better?" JD gave Larabee a quick smile.
Standish responded by lifting a hand to his head.
"Betcha ya head is killin' ya huh?" Dunne pointed out.
Standish nodded delicately.
"JD." Chris made his unspoken order clear.
Dunne nodded, understanding. The young man turned his attention back to the gambler who swayed gently with the motion of the wagon.
"You remember what happened at Circle Creek?"
Ezra sighed and rubbed at his head. His balance became precarious, forcing JD to place a guiding hand on the older man's dirty knee. The pant material felt stiff with mud.
"Rustling cattle, but we found," Ezra paused and swallowed back the bitter taste of bile as his stomach complained about the motion of the wagon.
"Whatda you'n Buck find Ezra?"
Ezra held his head and bowed forward slightly forcing Chris to quickly slide from his horse, dropping the reins and putting his hands on the gambler's upper arms, to keep him from sliding from the back of the wagon.
"Josiah," Nathan spoke quickly but unnecessarily. Sanchez brought the wagon to a stop.
Vin sidled Peso closer to the group.
"What else Ezra?" Chris asked tilting the gambler's head back trying to get a better look at the pale features and glazed, partially opened eyes.
The green eyes were no longer glazed nor did they blink with the rapidity of having something trapped beneath the lids. Josiah and Nathan had worked that morning to finish the job. The canteens would need refilling at the next stream.
Standish appeared more lucid than he had since they found him and Buck.
"They were rustling cattle and what else did you find, Ezra?" Chris focused his attention on the gambler, ignoring all else around them.
"Judge just thought it was cattle, but, they're tradin' homesteaders too, kids, women, moving them with the cattle…cross the border."
The others swore.
Standish kept talking, "They wait a while across the river and then move the cattle back across the border back into the territories, new brands, new papers, sell'em at the trail heads. Their human stock, more valuable, is sold or traded along the route, above and below the border…Or to the highest bidder, few Judges, couple of Governors and an Eastern Congressmen are on the buyer's list." Ezra's voice was laden with exhaustion matching his physical appearance.
"Son of a bitch," Tanner spat out.
"Next shipment is in a little over a month…they gather the cattle in small groups, cut down suspicion." Standish muttered out and leaned heavily against the buckboard's sides.
Larabee's anger expressed itself physically. Standish weakly attempted to wiggle free of the cinching grip encasing his upper arms.
"Uh..Chris?" JD spoke up nodding his head toward Ezra.
Chris lightened his hold.
"You and Buck did good…real good, Ezra." Vin stated from the back of Peso. He stared at Chris.
Josiah read the look, "We get them home first, tell the Judge, and then go back out." Sanchez paused and his eyes hardened, "with or without his consent."
"Few days and Ezra might be able to give us some more." Jackson said from his seat in the wagon next to Wilmington. He hoped Buck would be able to offer his help as well.
Tanner and Larabee conceded. "Lets git'im home then."
+ + + + + + +
Judge Travis sat alone in a chair in the saloon nursing the one shot of whiskey Inez felt obliged to give him. It had been the only one she had graced him with and he feared it would be the only one he would receive for the rest of the night from the bar maid. Her looks of contempt, now that was something that she offered every few minutes.
The saloon patrons themselves were subdued. Two of their lawmen were injured, one still flirting dangerously close to death as if the grim reaper himself wore a skirt.
The Judge sighed. He had expected Larabee's ire, Tanner's contempt, Sanchez's dark warning gaze and Nathan's stony silence, but he had not anticipated the scathing ire that spewed forth from the diminutive sheriff.
JD Dunne had proven yet again, that he was a man not to be trifled with when something stirred his blood or endangered his friends. The young man had grown quite a bit from the first eager days he wore a sheriff's badge.
The title of Territorial Judge or the person who wore it, no longer sat upon a pedestal that seemed raised above reproach or question, in the young sheriff's eyes.
The Judge could not help but feel that in sending Wilmington and Standish to Circle Creek he had fallen from a place of esteem with the young sheriff.
Perhaps it was a mistake to send only two men to such a town. And perhaps, the Judge mused with saddened introspection, that it was a potentially fatal mistake to send them on an errand to investigate the where-abouts of missing beeves.
Though they were lawmen and were slated to do his bidding he did not wish to wield men's lives like a blacksmith wielded a hammer.
And perhaps that was where his fall from grace had come. JD had seen the Judge's actions as putting friends lives behind the lives of some missing cattle, but it was more than cattle that were being stolen and resold. Much more. He hadn't known…If he had he would not have sent just two men…never.
Though the boy's assumptions were wrong, Judge Travis could not fault the younger man for his anger.
Travis sipped at his drink and once again felt the burning gaze of the barmaid as she pointedly ignored his near empty glass.
Travis sighed, placed his glass down and waited with the rest of the lawmen and the town.
When the batwing doors flew open a few hours later and JD burst through with all the energy of a tornado on the plains, Judge Travis knew that Buck Wilmington had made the turn and would survive his bout with the denizens of Circle Creek and his run-in with mother nature.
Tomorrow he would visit both lawmen and offer up an apology.
The Judge blanched and shuttered at the mere thought of having to apologize to the gambler.
The damn man, had been brought into town hanging over the side of the wagon, retching up whatever Nathan had given him that morning. He had enough energy, however, to caste a watery gaze on the Judge and simply quirk an accusatory eye brow.
Judge Travis closed his eyes at the thought. He would be paying on this mishap for a very long time. Already the cries for hazard pay, compensation for damaged property and risk of life could be heard from the porch of Nathan's clinic.
The Judge feared walking into main street anytime after late morning. The gambler was worse than a rooster waiting on the sun. The minute he saw the Judge he made his demands.
Across the saloon Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee both tried to relax, settling into their chairs the minute JD burst through the doors. Even before JD could make his announcement the two men tipped raised glasses toward one another and slung back a silent celebratory shot.
The Judge had wires out checking into the information Standish had related. The others would be heading out soon.
Buck was going to survive…just like Ezra….and probably like Standish, Buck would spend the next few days wishing he weren't going too.
The tension in the saloon defused with an almost audible sigh.
Larabee and Tanner, though relieved, also grew slightly more tense. They would be heading out in a few days.
Tanner stared across the saloon to the Judge and watched as the older man seemed to let go of the tension that had squared his shoulders for the last two days. Then a look of consternation settled over the aged worn features.
"I'm thinkin' the Judge is thinkin' about how he's gonna have to apologize to Buck and Ezra."
"Yup." Larabee answered nodding his head in thanks to Inez as she refilled his glass. The dark gunslinger had not let it slip his attention that the Judge had been practically ignored all night. His face softened with the twitch of a smile.
"I'm thinkin' that must burn his craw to think on apologizin' to ole Ezra." Tanner couldn't keep the smile out of his voice.
Chris chuckled and brought the shot glass to his mouth, "Yup."
"Thinkin' it might be best to keep the Judge company some, maybe Inez might give'im at least one refill on that empty glass he's been toilin' with all night."
Chris pushed back from the table and slowly unfolded himself from the wooden chair, "yup." It would be good to close the distance to the Judge if only to increase the tough old man's unease. Larabee was slow to let go of his anger, his men were not fodder to be spread from town to town on a whim.
The two men slowly made their way across the room and took seats on either side of the Judge. They would be working closely together for the next few days. It would do no good to let anger and blame stand in the way.
Inez watched from behind the bar. Her ire at the Judge did not wane.
+ + + + + + +
A day and a half later, Nathan could be heard from the porch of his clinic hollering for the unseen gambler and Ladies' Man. Vin had disappeared into the wilderness a day ago after reassuring himself that his two friends would indeed survive their ordeal but perhaps not each other or Nathan. The tracker planned to spend his time offering up his 'thanks'. And to scout about and talk to a few braves about the black dealings over by Circle Creek.
Chris had retreated to his cabin to keep from being pulled into the middle of whatever trouble Buck and Ezra caused while under Nathan's care. Though when he had left, Buck was intermittently coherent, sleeping most the day through.
The wires the Judge had sent had come back with ambiguous answers. Travis sent a calvary regiment to watch a section of the border below Circle Creek.
JD found helping Ms. Nettie a lot more preferable to being under Nathan's feet and emptying and cleaning an assortments of pots. He rifled through his list of bills and Mary's newspapers hoping to catch a glimpse or hint that would help them with the 'rustling'.
That left Josiah to carry the burden of keeping Nathan from killing his two patients. It also entailed keeping his two younger friends from getting into more trouble than they could handle. Which at the moment consisted simply of moving on their own.
It was with a patient sigh that Josiah waited for the inevitable. They wouldn't be heading out to Circle Creek unless they were seven strong.
Ezra sat within the cool confines of the saloon and sipped his first whiskey in what he believed to be too long a time, and carefully tested the fickle nature of his delicate stomach with Ms. Inez's flour tortillas.
Josiah sat at the table with him enjoying the quiet and focused attention the gambler gave his lunch. It was preferable to the last few days of verbose complaints and nights of delirious slumber and restless dreams.
The last few nights had set the preacher on edge. Standish's nightmares simply replayed the black nights he and Buck were missing.
"I'm thinking that Brother Nathan is going to be in here in a minute or less and not be pleased to find you here." Josiah sat back in his chair and enjoyed the dynamics of his friends. Yin and Yang under the effects of Peyote.
Not that Jackson wasn't correct in his concerns. Josiah stayed close by because the gambler's sense of balance seemed as fickle as fate and at times headaches hit him with such force the color drained from his features and would nearly take him to his knees. Nathan had good reason to be upset, just as Ezra had good reason to be restless.
Buck, however, was another kettle of missing fish and a little more difficult to find. His fancy pulled him in whatever direction a willing, comforting skirt billowed.
Standish carefully nodded at Josiah's assessment and stared at the small fork full of food and contemplated the intelligence of actually putting it in his mouth and swallowing. He did not after all want a repeat of the last few days. His head nor his abdominal muscles could take much more. Perhaps Mr. Jackson was privy to information the gambler was not when it came to the ease in which his stomach would or would not handle certain foods.
As if on cue, the batwing doors blew inward and Nathan stormed through, "What the Devil do you think you are doing?"
Standish moved his eyes from his fork to Josiah and raised his eyebrows expectantly.
"I think brother Nathan was speaking to you," Josiah offered in his most serious tone.
Ezra quirked his eyebrows as if it had never occurred to him that Nathan would actually be searching for him.
"Ezra you ain't ready to be eatin' spicy solid food jist yet," Jackson spied the whiskey glass that had only been sipped at. "And no whiskey."
Standish placed his forked down, having not tasted it, "Perhaps you are right." Ezra offered a weak half smile at the healer playing one of the angles his mother had taught him from the time he was a child. He played to the healer's more basic caring side and appeared tired and ill. Not a difficult illusion to portray.
"Have you seen Mr. Wilmington? I would like to speak to him about certain things," Ezra spoke, again employing another of his mother's tactics and redirected the conversation not only away from himself but onto someone not present and who could dominate the attention of others. A layer of truth always helped as well. He needed to speak to Buck, in private, offer his apologies, as he had at night when they found themselves alone in the clinic. Wilmington had dismissed the apologies, and explanations the gambler offered. Buck had simply said it wasn't anyone's fault but the bastards who did it.
Though Ezra agreed, he could not help but feel the weight of his failed responsibilities. He needed to talk to Buck. But Wilmington had disappeared as soon as his legs allowed him to move to the closest female bed.
"Josiah keep an eye on that fool…and haul his sorry ass back to bed when he collapses." Jackson stared pointedly at Standish as if daring him to argue. Ezra maintained his boyish innocent mask.
Frustrated Jackson threw his hands up in the air, "Buck's probably at the boarding house." Jackson bit out as he stormed toward the bat wing doors.
"I'll kill him…I'll wrap my hands around his neck and throttle'im," Nathan muttered as he crossed the floor weaving between empty tables.
Ezra smiled, revealing the devilish gleam that sat hidden just below the surface.
"I'd try room 12, Ms. Ellie is back in town, but perhaps you should knock first, I fear it might be her legs you find wrapped around Mr. Wilmington's…."
"Brother?" Josiah spoke out in warning, stopping the description before it crossed the line of crude.
Ezra gave Josiah one of his patterned innocent perplexed looks and then dropped his gaze to contemplate eating his lunch.
Josiah stared out the window of the saloon and idly wondered when they were all heading back to Circling Creek.