Moved to Blackraptor November 2009
The day had been a scorcher, the sun beating down with merciless intensity since its first golden rays had broken past the nighttime shadows. For two men who had spent hours riding through the endless rippling waves of heat, a chance to rest by a cool riverbank was too good to pass up.
“Never let it be said that you are anything but a man of good sense, Mr. Wilmington,” said Ezra Standish, lowering himself from his horse’s back with a groan of relief. “We’re only a few miles from home, but my saddle is so hot I feared I might have been permanently baked onto its surface.”
Buck Wilmington snorted at the comment, rubbing his own backside with one hand. “Know what you mean. If I’d stayed on Clyde’s back much longer, I might have started looking like one of those statues they have set up in big city parks.”
In reply, Ezra adopted a wide stance and rose up on his tiptoes as if standing in a pair of stirrups, then gripped his pistol with one hand and lifted the other hand high into the air, staring solemnly toward the horizon. “Noble hero mounted on horseback.”
“That’s the one.”
Laughing, the two men led their horses to the lightly rushing water, removing their hats to hang upon the saddle horns before kneeling to splash handfuls of cool moisture against overheated faces and necks. Ezra sighed. “Lord that does feel good. Almost makes me wish I were a young boy again.”
Buck gave him a puzzled frown. “What for?”
“In my youth there was nothing I liked better than spending a summer day in the nearest river or pond.” The gambler heaved a wistful sigh. “Mother used to claim that I must surely have been born with a set of gills, for I could evidently swim before I had even mastered walking.”
Casting an indulgent smile upon his friend, Buck said, “Why don’t you go on in, then? I’m not in any special hurry and it looks like the water’s nice and deep toward the middle.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t think to store sufficient attire in my packs,” Ezra hedged, obviously tempted.
“You telling me people in the south don’t skinny-dip?”
Eyes fixed longingly upon the water, he admitted. “A proper gentleman wouldn’t consider doing such a thing.”
Buck snorted. “Who the hell needs proper out here in the middle of nowhere? Go ahead and skin off if you want to. I won’t tell anybody.”
The gambler was already removing his tie. “You’re certain it won’t embarrass you?”
At this, Buck threw his head back and laughed. “Me?”
Ezra chuckled. “You have a point. Would you care to join me for a dip then?” he asked, busily stripping off his coat and assorted weaponry. “The water looks to be most refreshing.”
“Nah, I’m not much of a swimmer myself,” Buck told him. “Never quite got the knack for doing any more than just flailing around and I damn near drowned after I fell out of a boat one time. Decided that a bathtub was as much of a swim as I ever wanted to take again. You go ahead, though. I’ll just take me a little siesta under that big shade tree over there.”
Ezra glanced up, studying the position of the sun.
Correctly interpreting the thoughtful expression on his face, Buck said, “We might as well set up camp and make a fresh start in the morning. Nobody expects us back until tomorrow, so they’re not going to care if we take our time getting home.”
The gambler’s face lit up. “Not only sensible, but wise!”
Buck chuckled. “Well, thanks. And just for that, I’ll make dinner tonight if you’ll help me get the camp set up before you head out.”
“Deal,” he said readily.
Together the two friends picketed the horses in a lush patch of grass, gathered together a goodly amount of firewood and set their bedrolls and supplies out for the evening. Ignoring his roll, Buck plunked down next to the large tree he’d had his eye on and stretched out in the soft grass with a sigh of contentment, tipping his hat over his eyes and lacing both hands behind his head.
Ezra smiled as he watched his friend settle deeper into the soft grass. “Enjoy your repose, Mr. Wilmington.”
As he reached the riverbank, Ezra took a moment to study the water and choose a good spot. He had left his outer trappings atop his bedroll, and now quickly stripped off his boots and the rest of his clothing. With a quick, slightly self-conscious glance back toward the quiet camp, Ezra waded into the river, shivering as he went out to the depth of mid-thigh, then took a deep breath and dove in the rest of the way.
“Ah!” he gasped as he broke the surface a few yards farther out. The water was much colder than he had anticipated but the contrast with the air around him felt delicious and he laughed with delight at the feel of the cool water lapping over his hot skin. It took only moments to acclimate to the change in temperature and Ezra indulged himself in a long steady swim against the current, rolling over to float on his back and allow the gentle flow to buoy him back downstream, and then starting all over again.
For nearly an hour, the southerner swam and splashed and cavorted in the river, playing like the happy child he had once been. He continued until both arms and legs began to feel weighted down with fatigue, then swam towards the shore and climbed out, scanning the river bank to locate his deserted pile of clothing. It took nearly ten minutes for his tired legs to traverse the short distance but the day’s heat rapidly evaporated the beads of moisture clinging to his skin and by the time he reached his garments, he was nearly dry.
Thoroughly worn out, but deeply satisfied with his afternoon’s activity, Ezra pulled on his pants, shirt and boots, then lay back in the sun-warmed grass and just rested until a pang in his stomach alerted him that it was time to wake Buck and get their evening meal started.
Hauling himself to his feet, the gambler was trudging toward the grove where they had set up camp when his attention was diverted by a strange glint in the water. He paused, intrigued by the sight. Had it just been a trick of the light; a diamond of sunlight flashing on the water’s surface, or perhaps something more interesting? He took a step closer and saw it again.
“Could it be?” he murmured. He remembered the stream where the travelers on that wagon train had settled a few months back. There had been gold in that ground, or so its reputation claimed. That had been the reason that Dickie O’Shea had wanted it so badly. Surely if that stream, only a few miles away, had held untapped treasure, this one could as well.
A hot flash of greed washed over Ezra, making him forget all about his fatigue. With his luck, it would turn out to be nothing but an old dinner plate or a few flakes of iron pyrite, but it would do no harm to take a closer look. As he reached the edge of the water, he looked more intensely at the river, trying to determine what lay below the surface. Where had it been, that mysterious gleam? He had thought it was off to the left there, but a patch of debris blocked his view. He would have to get closer.
Ezra bent down, taking a moment to pull up the cuffs of his pants and tuck them inside his knee high leather boots. This would only take a moment; just long enough to be sure of his discovery before he went about staking a claim.
He smiled, wondering what Buck would think if he awoke from his nap to discover that they had struck gold. For surely he would demand a share. Well, that would be all right, Ezra thought. He could afford to be generous with a portion of his newfound wealth, particularly if he could find a way to convince Buck to do all the hard and tedious work of panning the ore out of the soil for him! In that event, partnership could be a very good thing.
Of course, Buck would probably piss away his share on wine, women and song – particularly women – but there was no doubt that he would have a grand time while it lasted. As for himself, Ezra could already see the fine home he would occupy, outfitted in the finest pieces of furniture and decor. He would have a team of matched thoroughbred horses pulling his carriage, and he would keep Chaucer just for pleasure rides. His horse’s tack and his own beautiful wardrobe would be the envy of every man near and far, and the women would be falling at his feet with admiration.
His mother would be caught between pride in his achievement and jealousy over his good fortune, no doubt full of schemes to part him from a portion of that wealth the moment she became aware of it. Perhaps he would build a new gambling palace, with a saloon that would boast the finest liquor and amenities from here to Tennessee. He would invite Mother to become a partner and together they would become stinking rich.
The gambler’s grin became wolfish as he imagined JD, Nathan and Josiah, the fair-weather friends who had so carelessly stamped on his offer of partnership in the Standish Tavern a year ago, and so casually expressed their distrust of him during the Governor’s rally last fall, staring inside his dazzling new casino/saloon with their noses pressed pitifully against the plate glass windows, just wishing they had been smart enough to back him when they’d had the chance.
Had he been less caught up in his vibrant inner fantasy about all the things he would buy and do with his newfound fortune, Ezra might have paid more attention to where he was stepping. Instead, he was so busy scanning for precious metals that he failed to see the true source of the gleam until it grabbed hold and bit him.
An inarticulate shout wrenched from Ezra’s throat as he lurched forward, losing his balance as his foot was caught and held in a vice-like grip beneath the surface of the water, causing him to go down with a mighty splash as his trapped ankle snapped.
Struggling back to the surface, Ezra coughed and choked, trying to expel the water that had filled his lungs when he had involuntarily gasped at the shock of the pain. Unable to use his legs properly; his tired arms could barely hold him aloft in the current. The water flowed more strongly here where the debris of mud and fallen tree limbs clogged part of the flow than it had in the open area upstream.
Ezra ducked beneath the surface of the water and felt down his trapped leg, trying to determine what held him. A mix of dismay, disappointment and self-disgust flowed through his heart as his fingers brushed the metal casing that had trapped him. His fascinating glint had not come from gold, silver or any other precious metal. It had come from the jaggedly toothed jaw of an animal trap. Breaking the surface again, he cursed. How could he not have realized what that collection of debris really was, or that the metal might have been a snare planted beneath the surface of the old beaver dam in some pelt hunter’s hope of fresh prey?
Trying to ignore the pain and the rushing water, Ezra sucked in a deep breath and shouted for help, praying to a God he barely believed in that Buck would somehow hear his cries and save him before he drowned.
Buck Wilmington leapt to his feet, gun drawn and heart thundering. His eyes darted wildly about as he searched the quiet grove for the source of his rude awakening. He had heard something, an odd out-of-place noise that had instantly pulled him from the depths of slumber.
Now, he heard nothing. Just the twitter of birds, the low crackle of flame from the campfire Ezra had started, and the rush and gurgle of river water in the distance. The horses still seemed calm and there was no one about. So, what had it been?
Then, Buck frowned as he checked the position of the sun overhead and realized that he must have been asleep for more than an hour. Shouldn’t Ezra have returned from his swim by now?
“Ezra?” he called. He took a few steps forward, and tried again. No response. Instinct urged him forward faster and finally Buck broke into a run toward the river, shouting out the gambler’s name. His boots slid a bit in the thick grass as he skidded to a halt, his ears having picked up the sound again. It was a tired but urgent sounding cry for help. “Ezra, damn it, where the hell are you?”
“Buck!” The name was gasped. “Here . . . over here!”
Buck moved toward a thick bramble of sticks and mud floating out into the water at the far edge of a grove of trees that overlooked the river. It appeared to be the remnants of a beaver dam and as he reached the edge of the water, he finally caught sight of Ezra. The current was swift and strong here and Buck could just make out Ezra’s head and shoulders bobbing up over the lower edge of the dam. From the shore-line, he had not even been visible.
Horrified to realize that a friend was possibly drowning before his eyes, Buck waded in, heart thundering as he clung to the crooked limbs of the dam for purchase when he felt the water shoving at him. He was submerged all the way to his chest before he managed to reach Ezra. “Are you hurt? What happened?”
“Trapped,” Ezra gasped, coughing as the water burbled over his chin and into his mouth. “Beaver trap. I broke my damned ankle.”
“Shit,” Buck muttered. “Guess I’m going to have to go for that swim, after all, then.”
Shifting his hold from one sturdy looking piece of the dam to another, Buck moved carefully around Ezra’s body, not wanting to become caught himself if there happened to be multiple traps.
“Hang on tight,” he ordered. “I’m going to need to duck under the water and see what’s holding that thing in place.”
The gambler reinforced his grip.
Sucking in a deep breath, Buck plunged beneath the water’s surface. The river was murky and dark here but the sunshine lit the water’s surface just enough that he could see the rounded metal clamp that had fastened its hinged jaws around Ezra’s right boot. The trap was anchored by a short chain to a heavy metal weight, meant to weigh the unlucky beaver down until it drowned, preserving the quality of its pelt while the animal lost its life. Buck realized that it would do the same thing to Ezra unless he acted fast.
Breaking the surface long enough to take another lungful of air, Buck worked his way down the chain and pulled, cursing silently when the weight refused to budge. It probably weighed no more than fifteen or twenty pounds, but it had evidently sat in the riverbed for a long while, sinking deeper and more firmly into the muck, so that he now had the pull of the soil working against him.
“Son of a bitch!” he gasped, surfacing once again. “You’re weighed down and I can’t get the chain loose. I’m going to have to try and get the trap jaws open so you can pull yourself free. How bad do you think it’s broken?”
Ezra shook his head, his lips pressing into a tight line as he tried pulling up his right leg. “Feels bad,” he grunted, “but do whatever you must. I can’t remain here much longer.”
Buck nodded. He could hear the fatigue and undisguised pain in Ezra’s voice. He wouldn’t be able to hold out for long. Giving him an encouraging pat on the shoulder, Buck dove once more, feeling his way down the trapped leg and taking a firm grip on the fettered limb as he attempted to pry the trap loose with his free hand. Ezra jerked in his grasp, his other leg kicking back instinctively before he could stop it, barely avoiding kicking Buck in the head.
Quickly realizing that he was not going to be able to manage enough leverage to open the trap one-handed, Buck let go of Ezra and worked his other hand inside of it.
Lungs burning with the need to take a breath, Buck grasped both serrated metal jaws and pulled with everything he had. A bubble of panic rose in his chest as instinct urged him to abandon his efforts and save himself. Fighting it down determinedly with a reminder that Ezra would die if he did not free him, Buck pulled even harder.
Finally, the rusted hinges gave way enough for Ezra to pull himself free. Buck released his grip with relief, vaulting toward the surface and desperately sucking in fresh air.
“Are you . . . all right?” Ezra panted, clinging tightly to the dam with one arm while trying to support his gasping friend with the other.
Buck coughed but nodded. “You?”
“Thanks to you,” he agreed. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve had quite enough swimming for one day.”
A smile broke free at the gambler’s vehement words. “That makes two of us.”
Together, the two men made their way to shore, Buck supporting Ezra as they struggled up onto the bank. Wrapping an arm around his ribs, Buck helped him hop one-legged all the way back to their camp, where he set the exhausted man down beneath the tree.
“Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra panted. “I have no words . . . sufficient . . . to thank you.”
“I think you just said ‘em,” Buck told him, plopping down next to Ezra and slapping him lightly on his left knee.
He shook his head. “I owe you my life.”
Buck waved away the words. “You’ve saved my neck a few times during a fight. I think we’re even.” Wanting to change the subject, he asked, “How long had you been trapped before I got there?”
“It felt like hours . . . but I’d estimate that it was no more than ten or fifteen minutes.” He gulped, forcing himself to breathe deeply and slowly for a few seconds until he had managed to get his panting breath under control. “I was certain that I was about to meet my end when you suddenly appeared. How on earth did you know?”
“I guess I heard you,” Buck said, running a hand through his dripping hair. “It was kind of strange. I just woke up in a rush, knowing something was wrong. Somehow, I guessed that you were in trouble.”
Ezra gave a shaky laugh. “Perhaps I ought to put more faith in Mr. Sanchez’s saints and angels.”
“Maybe we both should,” he agreed. Hauling himself to knees, Buck sat back on his haunches and gave Ezra’s boot a little tug. “Let’s have a look at that ankle. I don’t have any poultices and potions like Nathan would use, but I know how to set a broken bone and we’d better get it done before your foot swells up too bad to get the boot off.”
Reluctantly, Ezra agreed. He pulled the wet bunched material of his trousers out of the boot top and rolled it over his knee, giving Buck room to work. “Wait!” he said, when Buck began to take a grip. “You’re bleeding.”
Surprised, Buck looked at his hands. The palm of his right one was lacerated jaggedly, blood oozing out of the crooked gash. “Well, I’ll be damned. I didn’t even feel it get cut!”
“You must have sliced it on the trap when you held it open to free me. Please, allow me to bind your injury before it becomes any worse.”
Buck sat back down, feeling a little queasy at the sight of the nasty cut. He had seen any number of wounds over the course of his life, many nastier than this one, but he had always hated the sight of his own blood. Had he been alone, he would have simply washed out the cut and wrapped a cloth around it, but the obvious guilt in Ezra’s anxious offer had him asking instead, “You got anything to use for a bandage?”
Lying back to reach his saddlebags, which lay resting next to his nearby bedroll, the gambler fished a clean white handkerchief from the side pocket. “Always,” he said simply. He rummaged again for a moment and came up with his silver flask. “A bit of alcohol to clean the wound first, I think.”
Before Buck could react, Ezra had grabbed his hand and poured a shot of whiskey into the cut. The mustached man howled in pain and released a spate of colorful curses. “Ah! Christ, Ezra, warn a man next time!”
He smirked. “I did.” He bound the wounded hand with the efficiency of a man used to tending to his own needs, tucking the edges neatly under the bandage to keep it from unraveling. Taking a deep swallow from the flask, he grimaced. “My turn.”
Using his uninjured hand to grip the heel of Ezra’s boot, Buck grasped the top with his fingers and gave a steady pull. The footwear gave fairly easily, but the strain on his ankle had Ezra sweating and pale. He held his body rigidly still while Buck removed his sock and tenderly probed the discolored ankle. “Broke all right,” Buck commented. “We need to bind it good and tight so the bones don’t grind around. If it was your leg, I’d just splint it with a couple of sticks but this is going to be a little trickier. Especially with no real bandages.”
Even as he made his diagnosis, Buck was working his large wet neck cloth free. “Be better if this was dryer, but for the moment it’ll have to do.” He bound the large cloth tightly around Ezra’s foot, then shoved his own saddlebag under the appendage to keep it elevated. “There. You rest here for a spell while I go and get something to fix you up with.”
Looking dubious, Ezra asked, “What did you have in mind?”
Buck stood, flashing him a grin. “You’ll see. Hand me that plate you keep in your pack, will you?”
Thoroughly puzzled, but reassured by his friend’s confident attitude, Ezra pulled forth his metal dinner plate and handed it up. “I wouldn’t advise panning for gold in that stream,” he commented lightly. “It has proven to be a rather dangerous practice recently.”
Understanding dawned across Buck’s face. “Is that you were in the water with all your clothes on?” Ezra looked away, embarrassed, and Buck smiled. “I had wondered. Thought maybe you couldn’t bring yourself to be ungentlemanly enough to go skinny-dipping, after all.”
Ezra grimaced as he attempted to shift without jarring his ankle. “I did go, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. If I had simply stuck with my initial intention to come back to camp and wake you for dinner, this wouldn’t have happened. I spied something metallic in the water and the anticipation of a potential fortune overrode my good sense. It never once occurred to me that an abandoned beaver dam might also contain an abandoned beaver trap.”
“Well,” Buck said philosophically “at least you had the brains to put your boots on before you went in to check it out. The teeth on that trap weren’t thick like they are on a bear-trap. Didn’t even cut all the way through the leather. If you hadn’t had the bad luck to break your ankle, you’d have got nothing worse than a ducking.”
“But you still would have been forced to wade in and rescue me. I am genuinely sorry about that, Buck, especially now that I know you are neither skilled nor comfortable at swimming.”
Buck shrugged it off. “I been uneasy around water for years but today I went in and managed to save your bacon without doing any real harm to myself, so maybe it was for the best. One of these days maybe we’ll even come back out here and you can teach me how to do things right.”
Ezra smiled, realizing that he was being absolved of his role in things with a very generous olive branch. “You’re a better friend than I deserve, Mr. Wilmington. I would be pleased to provide any instruction you may desire.”
“Good,” he said with a smile. “Now you just settle in there for a while and I’ll be right back.”
Buck flexed his right hand, wincing at the sting of pain and the bright dots of red soaking through the white linen of his make-shift bandage. He had played his injury off as a minor scratch, but that cut hurt like a son of a bitch and he knew that at the very least, he was in for some stitches the minute Nathan Jackson got hold of him.
“Wish you were here now, Nathan,” he murmured.
Returning to the river’s edge, Buck began scraping at the loose clay-like soil there. He worked for several minutes, mixing water into the dirt to form a thick paste of mud with his good hand, and then piled the gooey globs onto Ezra’s borrowed plate. He hoped that the fastidious gambler would not balk too badly, or pick up on the fact that he was making up this course of treatment as he went along, once he presented his idea.
When the plate was piled high, Buck rose, carefully balancing it in his good hand as he walked back to camp. As he had expected, Ezra’s expression was somewhere between dubious and revolted when he got a look at the ‘medicine’ Buck had chosen.
“Just what, pray tell, are you planning to do with that?”
“I’m going to pack it around your ankle and foot and let it dry there. Just like one of those plaster casts that Nathan used when JD broke his wrist a couple of months ago. It won’t take the same pressure, so you can’t walk on it, but it ought to be enough to keep your ankle from moving until we make it back to town and you can get Nathan to take a look at it.”
Ezra stared at the plate of mud for a few seconds, then allowed his gaze to travel over their supplies. They had not been away long enough to pack heavily, just a day’s journey to Watsonville to give witness at a trial, and then back again, and so their options were limited. With an unhappy huff, he gave in. “Unfortunately, your plan makes a great deal of sense. Do you think you’ll be able to help me onto my horse once this make-shift cast has dried? I think our plan to spend the night in this sylvan glade will have to be abandoned, but I’m worried that your own injury may cause problems.”
Buck flexed his hand. “Doesn’t even seem to be bleeding anymore. I’ll be fine. If you’re worried about being able to stay in the saddle, though, I suppose I could just set you up with some food and water and a good fire, then bring back a wagon to fetch you.”
“You’d never make it to Four Corners and back before nightfall,” Ezra countered. “I’m afraid I don’t care for the notion of spending the night with potential predators lurking about while I’m alone and immobilized. Besides, you may have stopped bleeding but you need to have that laceration seen to properly. If necessary, I am fairly handy with a needle, but I’m sure you’d rather have our resident healer do the honors.”
Buck scowled down at his stinging hand. “It ain’t that bad, Ezra.” His eyes met the gambler’s and it was clear at once that Ezra was planning to be stubborn about this. “Fine. We’ll head back as soon as this mud plaster has a chance to dry.”
“Agreed.” Ezra sat up straight, stretching his uninjured leg out before him and carefully bending the other to rest the calf upon his knee, allowing both of them access as he unwound the bandanna and began to apply some of the cool mud to his foot.
Buck grinned at the disgusted grimace his friend wore as the smooth squishy mud was smeared thickly over his skin, but to his credit, Ezra did not voice the protest that was obviously on his mind. Together they packed enough of the substance around the foot to form a peculiar looking boot, leaving Ezra’s toes uncovered and free to move, but the rest encased to about two inches above the ankle.
When they were finished, Buck used his canteen and Ezra’s now-filthy handkerchief to wipe off his hands. The cut on his palm had begun sluggishly oozing blood again and the flow became faster when he brushed it free of the dirt that had managed to get under the bandage in spite of his best efforts. Passing the cleaning supplies over, he helped Ezra to once again prop the wounded leg up, using both sets of saddlebags and his own bedroll to elevate the leg without touching the mud-booted foot.
“Might as well have some grub while we wait for it to dry,” Buck commented. “It’s still a long way back to town.”
Ezra produced his flask and yet another handkerchief from his pocket. “Allow me to rebandage your hand first.”
Reluctantly, Buck did as he was told, gritting his teeth against the sharp sting of the alcohol that washed through his injury. “Damn, why does something that feels so good going down your gullet have to sting so bad everywhere else?”
Ezra grinned. “A mystery, to be sure.” He took a swig of the fine whiskey and handed the container back to Buck. “Please.”
Happy to obey, Buck took a healthy swig. It seemed to make the hurt lessen at once. “That’s good stuff.”
“Only the finest for Maude’s little baby boy,” he replied with a hint of sarcasm. “She sends me several bottles of Tennessee sipping whiskey for my birthday each year.”
“Your ma has some strange notions about living, but she does have mighty fine taste in birthday gifts,” he said, taking another swallow and smacking his lips.
Ezra smiled. “Indeed. And speaking of taste, I believe it’s only fair that I prepare our meal since you are working one-handed. If you would be kind enough to pass me the supplies, I may as well make myself useful while we await the result of your medical experimentation.”
It took nearly two hours for the mud to dry hard enough that the men felt they could risk moving. Still feeling guilty as he watched Buck wince every time he jarred his right hand, Ezra kept any inclinations to complain silent. He helped where he could, packing up the saddlebags and managing through a bit of gymnastic twisting to stand upright and hop over to Chaucer without aid. Buck had to lift the saddles onto the horses’ backs for him, but he managed to hold his balance well enough one-legged to get both of the saddles secure and tight while Buck gathered the bedrolls and made certain the fire was dead.
“I’m afraid I will require some aid to get aboard,” Ezra apologized.
“No problem,” Buck said, taking a good grip under the gambler’s bent knee and lifting as he jumped and worked his booted foot into the stirrup. Carefully lifting his right leg over the horse’s back, Ezra situated himself in the saddle, feeling the ache as he allowed the broken ankle to dangle free. The weight of the mud cast dragged at his leg but he deliberately held it steady.
Buck watched him for a moment. “Sure you can ride like that? I could still go for that wagon.”
“I’ll be fine,” Ezra told him shortly.
Taking him at his word, Buck carefully gripped his own saddle and mounted up. “Let’s go.”
The journey felt endless. Forced to move much more carefully than usual due to Ezra’s infirmity, they kept the horses to a brisk walk. The refreshment gained from the river became a rapidly faded memory for both men as the sun once more beat down upon them, but once the sun set and the temperature dropped, they shivered in the cool desert air, neither having bothered with jackets in their haste to get moving.
At long last, the street fires of Four Corners came into view, bringing unconscious sighs of relief to the lips of both weary travelers. At the edge of town, they were met by Vin Tanner, who was just setting out on a patrol of the area.
The buckskin-clad man frowned at the sight of them, taking in their disheveled state and slow pace at once. “You boys run into some trouble?”
“We went wading in the river back yonder to cool off and refill the canteens and Ezra managed to step down on an old beaver trap. Busted his ankle up pretty good,” Buck explained, gaining himself a surprised look from Ezra when he did not elaborate any further.
Vin shook his head. “Damn, those things can be right nasty. Reckon you better get up to Nathan’s.”
“Perhaps you might lend us a hand getting up those stairs of his,” Ezra suggested. “Mr. Wilmington lacerated his hand while freeing me from my predicament and he really shouldn’t put any unnecessary pressure on the wound.”
“Sure,” he agreed. “I’ll see to your horses, too. They’re looking pretty tuckered out.”
Buck tipped his hat. “Appreciate it.”
“How’d the trial go?” Vin asked, pacing his horse to match theirs as the rode back into town.
“Not bad,” Buck told him. “The judge decided that the charge should only be aggravated assault instead of attempted murder, but he still passed down a couple of years in the pokey for it.”
Vin nodded. “Good enough. Ain’t no way any of us could prove he intended to kill that other fella. Could have been a disagreement that just got out of control, like he said.” He grinned. “Course it would’ve stayed a lot more in control if he hadn’t smashed the other guy over the head with a whiskey bottle during the fight.”
“At any rate, the hapless defendant is no longer our problem,” Ezra said with clear satisfaction in his voice. They had reached the base of Nathan’s stairs, and he simply reversed the trick he had used to mount up, swinging his leg over, lying across the saddle for balance and then sliding down Chaucer’s side to land on his good foot.
Vin watched with amused eyes. “Interesting bandage you got there. Who came up with that?”
“Me,” Buck said, a trifle defensively.
Soothing his feelings at once, Vin patted him on the shoulder. “Smart thinkin’. Must’ve kept it good and still on the ride back.”
“That was the idea,” Ezra said, “And a very good one it proved to be, though I must admit to having been a trifle dubious of the notion.”
The other two moved to either side of the injured man and hop-lifted him up the long double flight of stairs to Nathan’s clinic.
“Forget fine clothes and fancy saloons,” Ezra puffed as they reached the top. “The first thing I’m going to do when I make my fortune is build Nathan a medical office at ground level!”
Two days later, the incident at the river had been all but forgotten. Ezra, in a fresh plaster cast set to replace the temporary mud model that even Nathan had praised as being ingenious, was getting along well on a pair of borrowed crutches. He was also thoroughly enjoying his medical restriction from duty, sleeping late into the mornings, reading away the afternoons and staying up all night playing poker.
Buck’s hand had been cleaned with carbolic acid, stitched up and bandaged, and he had also made the most of his situation. To show his gratitude, Ezra had let it be known to anyone who would listen that Buck had acted in a most heroic and clear-headed manner, saving him from the brink of death and getting him back to town for treatment in spite of his own grave injury. The fact that Buck had returned from the adventure with nothing more than a cut hand was conveniently ignored in the telling. As a result, Buck found admiration and female favors lavished upon him with even greater enthusiasm than usual and he was eating it up. JD alone had made him retell the heroic story a dozen times while Chris, having a better knowledge than most of his oldest friend’s aversion to water, offered a few sincere words of praise that meant more to Buck than all of the more public attention could.
Chris, Buck, Ezra and Vin were sitting in the saloon whiling away the afternoon with a game of poker when Chris suddenly asked, “Are you all right?”
Everyone’s attention focused on Buck, who they now realized was sweating profusely and rubbing the side of his face as he frowned down at his cards. “I don’t know,” he admitted. Clearing his throat, he grimaced and took a sip of his beer, tipping his head back and grimacing as he made a visible effort to swallow it down. “I been fighting a headache all day long but it seems like it’s spreading out over my whole face, and now my throat’s closing up on me.”
“Think you might have picked something up in that stream a couple days ago?” Vin asked. “There’s all kinds of nasty critters to be found in the region of a dam. How about you, Ezra? You ailin’ at all?”
Dismayed by Buck’s obvious difficulties, Ezra shook his head. “Nothing. Outside of my sore ankle, I feel perfectly sound.”
“Maybe I’d better lie down for a little while,” Buck mumbled, pushing back from the poker table with clumsy effort. The one step he took toward the batwing doors was as far as he got before his eyes rolled back in his head and he crashed to the floor.
“Shit! Buck,” Chris exclaimed, flinging himself from his chair and rolling his friend to lay face up. Buck was twitching, his breathing harsh and shallow. “Jesus, he’s burning up. Somebody go get Nathan!”
Vin was already on his way and Ezra had made his way down to the floor, his damaged leg extended to one side as he knelt next to Buck and peeled his eyelids back, running a hand down his jaw to check the rate of his heartbeat. “His heart is racing,” he said grimly, “and I can feel some swelling along the edge of his jaw. Chris, I think Buck has contracted lock-jaw.”
As if to confirm the diagnosis, Buck suddenly gasped and arched upward, his back bowing with the strength of the muscle spasm that wracked his body.
“My God,” Ezra whispered as the spasm ended and Buck’s unconscious body collapsed back onto the floor. A frightened look passed between Ezra and Chris, neither wanting to voice the worry that their friend’s condition had ignited in them. Lock-jaw was a dangerous illness, and in the majority of cases, a deadly one.
“How?” Chris said grimly. “How did this happen?”
Guilt suffused the gambler’s tight features. “That trap, that damnable beaver trap that had me in its grip. Buck had to force it open it with his bare hands. That’s how he lacerated his palm and from the trouble he had forcing the jaws apart, I think it’s very likely that the metal had rusted. He must have become infected. Oh, dear God, why didn’t I just stay out of that river?”
Chris’s jaw hardened.
He had no words of absolution to give.
Ezra had not confessed the true nature of his venture into the stream,
but it had been clear from the start that there was more to the story than just
being unlucky enough to have stepped on a trap. “If you’re right about
lock-jaw. If Buck . . .”
Ezra simply nodded. He knew whose fault it would be if Buck died, and that there would be no forgiveness in this man’s eyes. His welcome in this town would be at an end.
Just then, Vin returned with Nathan. Ezra quickly explained what had happened and his suspicion of what was wrong. Nathan simply accepted the information with a nod, his dark hands traveling over Buck’s face and neck with thorough attention. He let go a curse as he lifted the bandage covering Buck’s right hand and found the palm red and puffy looking, the wound an angry line with seepage leaking from it. “Damn it, I told him to come back and see me if he was feelin’ any discomfort from that scratch! I’m going to have to pull the stitches and reopen the wound, drain some of this infection out and debride the tissue that’s causing him grief before it gets any worse.”
“Do you think Ezra’s right?” Chris demanded.
The healer sighed deeply. “I’m afraid so, especially if he’s already having muscle spasms as bad as you described. Lock-jaw’s the only thing I know that causes something like that.”
“Is there anything you can do, anything you can give him to treat the condition?” Ezra asked hopefully. “If it’s something you don’t have in stock, I would be more than happy to obtain it for you. No matter how much trouble or expense it might be.”
“Wish it was that easy,” Nathan told him. “There just ain’t any treatment I know for lock-jaw short of keeping the wound really clean and havin’ the victim get as much rest as possible. If he’s strong enough to ride out the infection, he will. Otherwise there ain’t much I can do.”
All the fire seemed to fizzle right out of the gambler at those words. He sat down heavily on the saloon floor and simply watched as the other three men lifted Buck’s limp body and carried him off to the clinic, Nathan already shouting at pedestrians to clear the way and for Josiah to come help them.
Forgotten by all, Ezra worked his way up off the floor and sat back down in his abandoned chair. Gathering the cards that lay scattered over the surface of the table, he began to shuffle, staring out the saloon doors with a lost look upon his face.
“Hold him steady,” Nathan ordered. “If he starts spasming again, he’s likely to hurt himself and I don’t want him moving around while I take care of this hand. It’s gonna hurt, so hang on tight.”
His three assistants each grabbed a leg and the left arm, leaving Nathan free to tend to the damaged hand. The healer carefully plucked out the stitches he had applied, frowning at the smell of infection that rose from the thin wound.
“Is he going to lose his hand?” Chris asked grimly.
Josiah and Vin grimaced, having been thinking the same thing but not wanting to voice the words.
“Might lose some mobility if the infection has gone deep enough,” Nathan replied. “I need to get all of the bad tissue out, but I think if I’m careful he’ll be all right.”
Ignoring them then, Nathan carefully pared thin slices of flesh away from the wound, mopping up the blood with a cloth. After a few minutes, he let the fluid flow as he studied the surrounding tissue, then gave a nod of satisfaction as he grabbed his pre threaded needle and got ready to stitch the area once more. “Looks good. Hand me that carbolic.”
As Josiah obeyed, he poured a thin stream of the antiseptic liquid over the wound, causing Buck to jerk and moan at the burning pain it caused.
“Easy, big fella,” Chris soothed. “He’s almost done.”
Now that the hard part was over, Nathan was able to employ more haste, stitching and bandaging the wound with quick precise movements. “It’ll probably bleed a bit more and I’ll need to keep a sharp eye on the wound for several days, cleaning it good every few hours to make sure no more infection sets in.”
“What about the infection that’s already in his system?” Vin asked, wiping his brow as Nathan gave them the nod that it was all right to let go of the patient.
Nathan shook his head. “Hard to say. He’s gonna be mighty sick, that’s for sure, but I just can’t tell you how bad it might get. Some folks recover from lock-jaw without much difficulty, other people really have a fight on their hands, and some . . . well, y’all better be prepared just in case the worst happens.”
Frightened by the lack of optimism in his prognosis, the other men watched in silence as Nathan finished his clean-up and got Buck settled more comfortably into the clinic’s one bed. All they could do now was wait.
The mood in the saloon was grim. With the exception of Nathan, who was again watching over Buck, all of the peacekeepers sat around their usual table, drinks going untasted and card games going unplayed as they sat brooding over the fate of their friend. Their sober mood seemed to affect everyone around them, for no one had stayed long today in the quiet tavern.
Friends, both male and female, had stopped by to inquire after Buck’s health regularly over the past three days. The news of his collapse and ongoing illness had traveled far and fast, bringing with it worry and expressions of sympathy from every direction. The constant barrage of questions and well-wishes was kindly meant but it had begun to wear on the six men who had no new answers to give, however much they wished otherwise. Buck was getting no worse, but outside of the fact that he had regained consciousness and was awake off and on when they visited now, he seemed to be getting no better.
“I just can’t believe it,” JD said for what seemed like the hundredth time. “One little scratch and Buck ends up in the clinic, fighting for his life. It still doesn’t seem possible! I’m going to go back up and see him.”
“Sit,” Chris ordered, his voice never rising above a quiet murmur but still carrying the iron of authority, which the younger man obeyed without question. “You know Buck had a bad day with all those muscle spasms and headaches. Nathan wants him to have some peace and quiet tonight, and that’s what we’re going to give him.”
Josiah sighed. “I just wish there was something we could do to help. Praying just doesn’t feel like enough, though I’ve certainly done enough of that.”
JD fidgeted in his chair again. “What if something happens? What if Buck’s fever gets worse! When he started convulsing this morning during my visit I thought sure he was going to . . . well, what if he gets worse and there ain’t any of us there?”
Reaching out a comforting hand, Vin clasped JD’s forearm. “I reckon Nathan will send somebody over to get us if Buck takes a bad turn. He knows how we all feel. He feels it too and he’s doing his best.”
“I just wish I knew that was enough,” Chris said, the words so quiet they would have been lost in any normal setting.
Ezra had been silent while the others talked, staring intently into the still-full glass of whiskey on the table in front of him as though trying to divine answers from its depths. He had spent most of the last few days in this spot, prevented from visiting Buck in his sickbed due to his current inability to climb stairs without help. The feelings of guilt over his role in Buck’s infirmity had kept him from demanding that assistance. Unable to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time, he had taken to just staying up, holding a private vigil in the saloon while he engaged in any number of poker games to which he paid little attention.
“We’ve got to have faith,” Josiah said quietly. “I’ve seen other men, sicker than Buck, who beat this illness. When I was a boy, my family was in India doing missionary work, and I remember one of the village elders coming down with lock-jaw. The local priests held vigils and waved incense as they prayed and he did eventually recover.”
A sudden gasp and exclamation of, “That’s it!” had everyone staring at Ezra.
Josiah frowned. “What’s it?”
“Cannabis!” he said, looking from face to face for some sign of understanding. “It’s a weed. It can be used for treating an assortment of ailments, although its strong fibers are more commonly employed to make rope and sacking materials.”
JD and Chris exchanged a confused shrug but Vin stared intently at the excited gambler. “You mean hemp?” He nodded. “He’s right. The Indians dry the stuff and use it for pain and stomach ailments, as well as throwing on the fire to help in their spirit-quests.”
Ezra looked up, excitement filling his green eyes. “That’s right. It’s been niggling at the back of my mind for days. The Ohio State University did a study recently on the medicinal effects of the plant, which they referred to as cannabis. They said it proved most useful in counteracting chronic pain and treating convulsive disorders, including lock-jaw!”
Hope battling with doubt, Chris said, “Are you sure?”
“I read the article when it was printed in the Clarion,” he said, the growing certainty in his voice filling the others with a sense of hope. “Very dry and dull stuff, as I recall, but I’m sure Mary would still have it. She keeps back issues of all the Clarion publications in her storeroom.”
JD bounced out of his chair like he’d been sprung. “I’ll go ask her!” he shouted, gone before anyone else could say a word.
“Wait,” Vin said, when the others looked prepared to follow him. “Before we go countin’ our chickens here, does anybody know where we can get some? Like I said, the Indians use it, but that don’t mean I know what it looks like or where we can find it.”
Chris and Ezra deflated, but Josiah’s smile grew wider. “As a matter of fact, brother, I do.” They all looked up in surprise and he explained. “I brought several of the plants back home with me from India after I learned of their use in spiritual rites. I always try to keep some growing wherever I live.”
Buck choked and gasped, his eyes watering as he lay on his bedroll elevated by a number of pillows, breathing in thick sweet-smelling smoke that filled the small sweat-lodge that Josiah and JD had hastily constructed on the empty ground behind the church.
He had felt like shit for days, what parts of them he could remember anyway, and this latest treatment seemed completely insane. His head pounded with pain and the horrible ache in his jaw still persisted. He could barely open his mouth it hurt so bad, but the need to cough kept him trying. Sweat poured from his skin, making him glad that at least Nathan had had the sense to strip him down before sticking him in here.
Who ever heard of breathing smoke from some foreign weed to clear infection from a body? It had sounded ridiculous when Nathan explained it, and seemed even more so now. How desperate did his friends have to be to go trying a crackpot experiment like that? Buck grimaced and coughed again. The mere fact that Nathan had agreed to allow a patient to be removed from his clinic and stuck inside a smoke-filled teepee was answer enough for that. They had believed he would die if desperate measures were not taken.
As the minutes slowly ticked by, Buck began to relax. His thoughts seemed disconnected from one another and the pain was finally starting to ebb as his body seemed to float up on the thick cloud of smoke. He felt relaxed and a bit sleepy, and he began to wish that Nathan had not been so hasty in chasing everyone out. “You boys should try this,” he murmured to no one in particular.
How long he had been subject to this treatment, Buck could not have said. A soft rustling sound caught his ears and he opened his eyes to see what it was, only then realizing that he had closed them.
“How are you feeling?” Ezra whispered, using one of his crutches for balance as he slowly lowered himself to sit next to Buck’s cot, adding a bit of water to the thickly piled collection of wood and medicinal weeds and making the smoke billow faster. “I talked Mr. Jackson into allowing me in to tend the fire. He was feeling a bit light-headed after coming in to change your bandage a while ago.”
“Nathan was here?” Buck asked, blinking his eyes owlishly.
Ezra grinned. “He was, and you snored right through his visit, or so I’m told. Now I know that our good healer is not the most exciting conversationalist in town but that was rather rude.”
Buck snickered, finding that funnier than he should have. Opening his mouth a bit, he worked his jaw back and forth. It was still stiff and very sore but it seemed to be getting easier to move it.
Noticing the motion, Ezra’s smile widened. “You’re improving a bit. I’m told you haven’t had a convulsion attack all day. Nathan says your fever is also going down. That is excellent news.”
“Yeah, feel a little better,” Buck commented, stifling a yawn. “Stinks in here, though.”
Ezra took a deep breath, coughing a bit as he did so. “It does, but Josiah and the Clarion news both agree that the medicinal properties inherent in this smoke are more than worth the unpleasant odor. It seems you’re likely to make a full recovery, given a couple of weeks to rest.”
Buck waved his injured hand lazily through the air. “Aw, I could’ve told you that. This was just a little old cut.”
“Right,” Ezra said with a snort. “Nothing to worry about.”
He grinned, wincing only a bit at the pain in his jaw. “Nothing at all. Take more than one good deed to count out old Buck.”
“A lot of trouble to go through for a simple good deed,” Ezra said softly. “I know I thanked you before, but I wanted to reiterate that sentiment, and to tell you how sorry I am that you were placed in such unexpected peril due to my carelessness.”
“Treasure-hunting ain’t a crime, Ezra. Ain’t like you meant to fall in, or to have me get sick,” Buck protested sleepily. “Just bad luck is all. ‘Sides, I’d a whole lot rather be a little sick right now, than to be healthy and know I’d let you drown in that river. How the hell would I have explained that one to Chris?”
Ezra shook his head sharply. He was beginning to feel affected by the smoke, how else to explain the sudden impulse to both giggle and weep that was sweeping over him? “Did I mention that you’re a very wise man?”
A few minutes passed, during which both men became more and more relaxed by the haze of cannabis fumes filling the tent. Ezra stayed until he was sure Buck had dozed off, then rose unsteadily on his crutches and made his way toward the exit.
Just as he reached it, Buck spoke again. “Don’t forget you owe me a swimming lesson.”
The gambler smiled. “Perhaps we should take up fishing instead.”
Buck chuckled. “Always did say you were the sensible one,” he joked, then settled back into a deep healing sleep.
Author's Note: While the healing/medicinal effectiveness of marijuana have always been heavily debated, the University study mentioned in this story is true. Before the introduction of Penicillin and later Tetanus vaccines, cannabis was used to treat the symptoms of lock-jaw with documented success. The plants were legal to use, easy to obtain, and popular in Indian medicinal and spiritual rites according to a number of websites I consulted on the subject.