by Heather Hillsden

Disclaimer: The ‘Magnificent Seven’ characters are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and the Mirisch Company. I just borrowed them, abused them a little, and sadly gave them back!

Day One – late afternoon

Ezra really didn’t know how he managed to get himself into some of the predicaments that he did, but it was enough to know that this time he was well and truly stranded, and there was no way – short of a miracle – that he could extricate himself without a lot of help.

Raising his head slightly, being very careful not to move too much, he glanced down once again, studying his trapped limb. With a soft groan, he dropped his head back into the dirt, closing his eyes as he thought back over the events of the last few hours…

Day One – almost midday

"Good day, gentlemen. I take it Mr. Larabee is still out at his cabin?"

Mary Travis stood in front of the desk in the Sheriffs Office, a covered basket in her hand as she regarded the three men lounging within.

Buck hurriedly dragged his feet from the desktop, while Ezra flashed her a dazzling smile as he shuffled the deck of cards he was playing with. Vin tipped his hat at her politely, and surged to his feet, offering her the chair he had just vacated.

"Ma’am," he said, but she shook her head.

"Thank you, Vin, but I’m not stopping. I just came by to see if one of you would mind taking this out to Chris." She tapped the handle of the basket as she placed it on the desk. "I don’t suppose he’ll even think to stop and eat."

"Waal, you know Chris," Buck agreed. "He’s a real workhorse once he gets going." He reached out to lift the cloth, but stopped at Mary’s expression. "What is it, anyway?"

"Oh, just fresh baked biscuits, potato cakes, and some of that spiced chicken and sweet-corn he seems to like."

"Is there enough for two?" Vin asked with a grin, but before Mary could reply Ezra had tucked the deck of cards into his pocket, and pushed himself from his seat.

"For shame, Mr. Tanner, asking a question like that." The gambler sounded most affronted as he swept the basket up. "A true gentleman – like myself - would not hesitate in agreeing to a lady’s request without thought or consideration for himself."

"Oh, sure!" Buck muttered under his breath, but Ezra chose to ignore him.

"It would be my honour, Mrs. Travis, to take your kind basket of sustenance to our illustrious leader." The Southerner patted his stomach, and turned a wicked grin on his two friends. "Both my mount and myself are in dire need of some... exercise."

"Thank you, Ezra," Mary replied graciously, managing – just! – to keep a straight face, as she linked her arm through his and allowed him to escort her from the office. As Vin turned an incredulous face to Buck, both men heard the woman’s comment that ‘yes, there was more than enough for two’.

"How does he do it?" the tracker asked.

Buck shrugged, and pulled at his moustache. "I guess there’s a lot to be said for charm after all," he mused.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was humming as he rode slowly along the trail, letting his horse pick the way. The prospect of sampling Mary's home cooking had been one factor in his offer to run the errand for her, but he had also felt the need to get out of town for a while. The others always seemed to manage to take a few days respite somewhere - Chris at his cabin, Josiah and Nathan at the Seminole village, and Vin... Lord knows where - but he always seemed to be stuck at the saloon. Hell, it was a nice day; maybe he'd even give Larabee a hand. The gambler smiled to himself as he shook his head; there was no point in pushing his good mood too far.

Suddenly the chestnut baulked, snorting nervously at the branch of a tree that lay across the trail. Ezra tried to urge the animal forward and around it, but the horse laid its ears back and pawed at the ground, eyeing the obstruction wildly.

"Steady," the gambler soothed, running his hand down his mount’s sweaty neck. "It's not going to hurt you."

Slipping from the saddle, Ezra dropped the reins and stepped forward to drag the obstruction from the track. As he reached out to grasp the branch, an ominous rattle sounded, and he froze. Curled up in the shade of the leaves, was the largest diamond-back rattler he had ever seen.

The gambler could feel the sweat breaking out on his forehead, as the snake uncoiled itself and slithered forward, hissing angrily. He took a tentative step backwards, his eyes never leaving the reptiles head as it raised itself into a striking position. His hand inched slowly down towards the butt of his revolver; at such close range he wasn't going to miss the target. Then his horse squealed, iron-shod hooves stamping the ground in fear, and the vibrations angered the snake further.

Ezra's fingers closed about his weapon, but before he could bring it into line, the snake struck. For once, Lady Luck smiled benevolently upon one of her favourite sons. At the same moment that the snake moved, so did Ezra. Three rapid backward steps carried him out of harms way, but it took him dangerously close to the edge of the trail. Struggling to retain his balance as the snake slithered forward, the gambler felt the earth under his feet begin to shift, and he suddenly found the ground crumbling away beneath him.

With an inarticulate cry he dropped his revolver, arms flailing as the movement of the dirt and rocks carried him down the sloping drop. Ezra crashed down onto his back, as debris showered him from above and, as he reached out to try and halt his downward momentum, a rock larger than a mans fist hurtled down, catching him a glancing blow above his right eye. Pain flashed sharply, but briefly, through his head as the blow stunned him into oblivion, and he knew no more.

Day One – early evening

Ezra was comfortable; the feather mattress beneath him moulded itself perfectly to the contours of his body, and the duck down pillow was sheer bliss. The only thing disturbing his rest was the water that was inexplicably trickling down his face. With a shuddering sigh, he opened his eyes – and groaned out loud as pain stabbed at every part of his body.

For a moment he was completely disorientated, then he remembered the rattlesnake, and his plunge off the edge of the trail. Struggling to push himself up on his elbows he tried to move, and gave a strangled gasp as fire burned all the way up his left leg. Blinking sweat from his eyes, he glanced down.

He was lying at the bottom of a slope, his ankle wedged firmly between two large rocks. The leg of his pants was ripped, and he could see the dark stain of blood soaking through the material. Taking a deep breath, Ezra brought his right foot up and tried to push at one of the rocks, but all he succeeded in doing was sending more agony through his leg. Leaning back as his senses started to swim, the gambler tried to think clearly, but it was difficult. He had a raging headache, and when he put his hand to his forehead, his fingers came away sticky with blood.

Glancing up at the sky, Ezra realised he must have been lying there for a number of hours; the sun had already passed its zenith, and was starting its descent towards evening. The prospect of spending a night in the open, injured and with no water, filled him with trepidation even though he knew the others would start looking for him eventually. Tipping his head back, he called out.

"Hey – anybody! Can you hear me?"

He called until his throat was sore, but he could hear nothing. Even his horse appeared to have deserted him. As he hugged his jacket closer around him, Ezra felt something solid in the inside pocket, and he reached in to pull out his small hipflask. Thankful that he had taken the time to fill it just this morning, he removed the stopper and took a long swallow. The smooth whiskey – the best brand carried by the saloon – burned down his throat, warming him immediately, and he resigned himself to a night under the stars. He could only hope that the morning would bring the chance of rescue.

Day One – late evening

It was almost dark when Chris Larabee rode back into town.

Vin saw him first, guiding his black gelding towards the Livery Stable, and the tracker pushed himself up off the bench outside the saloon, and strolled down to meet his friend.

"Hiya, Chris," he greeted, resting his arms on the door of the stall as the gunslinger removed the saddle from his mount, and began to rub the animal down with a handful of straw.

"Vin," the other acknowledged. "How’s it been?"

"Pretty quiet," the Texan replied, throwing a glance over his shoulder and frowning. "Say, what d’you do with Ezra?"

"Ezra?" Chris looked at his companion, seeing the confusion on his face. "Ain’t seen him."

"You ain’t – " Vin stopped, and his frown deepened. "But he rode out to your place."

Chris shook his head, making sure there was grain in the trough before stepping out and depositing his saddle on a wooden burro, and he ran his hand wearily through his hair. "Didn’t see him. Why?"

"You’re sure about that?"

Chris eyed the Texan curiously. "Yeah, I’m sure! Can we talk about this while I eat? I’m starving!"

Now Vin really was worried. At first he thought that maybe Chris was playing a joke on him, but if the gunslinger was hungry it meant he hadn’t gotten the basket of food that Ezra had left with.

"Sure, but I’ll go fetch the others first."

Day Two – late morning

When Ezra next opened his eyes it was full daylight.

He had spent an uncomfortable night drifting in and out of consciousness; his leg hurt with every little movement and his head throbbed, and he was rapidly becoming dehydrated. Just after nightfall, he had nibbled on the small bar of chocolate candy in his pocket, but it had only served to make him thirstier, so he had left it alone. Now, as the hot summer sun began to beat down on his unprotected head again, he wondered whether he would die of thirst or the heat before the others found him.

Suddenly, he heard the excited yapping of a dog, up on the trail and a little way off.


The word spilled from his lips in a hoarse croak, and in desperation he groped around until his fingers closed over a large stone. Flinging it upwards and over his head, the gambler heard it clatter on the trail. The dog’s barking sounded closer now, and Ezra craned his neck as he searched desperately for the source. Long seconds passed by, then a small white head with a dark patch over one eye, peered down at him.

"Here, boy," the Southerner rasped, breaking off a piece of the candy and holding it out enticingly. Ezra saw the black nose twitch, then the little terrier-like dog was scrambling down the slope, eager to collect the sweet titbit.

"Good dog," the gambler crooned softly, as a pink tongue licked the melting chocolate from his fingers. He could see that the mutt was no stray; a collar of plaited hide was fastened around its neck, and it kept looking up the slope anxiously, as though it were waiting for someone. "Do you want some more?"

Ezra continued to feed tiny pieces of the candy to the dog until he finally heard a voice calling, a boy searching for his pet. Hearing its master’s voice, the dog began to yap again, loud and high-pitched, until a shower of dirt from above made Ezra look up. The boy staring down at him looked to be about nine or ten years old, his freckled, pugnacious face topped with a mop of red hair.

"Say, mister – are you alright?"

Ezra closed his eyes briefly, relief washing through his body like a balm.

"No, son. I think I may need your help," he said.

"Sure thing! I’m coming down." The boy eased himself over the edge, dislodging more dirt and stones, and began to scramble down to the injured gambler. The dog, seeing its master slipping and sliding down the slope, thought it was some new game, and it began to bark and leap about frantically.

Suddenly afraid that the dog would jump on his injured leg, Ezra reached out and clutched the little beast to his chest. A startled ‘yip!’ came from the dog’s mouth, and the boy glared at the Southerner angrily.

"Hey – you leave Toby alone!"

"It’s alright, son, I won’t hurt him." Ezra held onto the dog until the boy crouched down beside him. The terrier struggled in his grasp, and then sunk its teeth into his hand. With a hiss of pain the gambler let the animal go, sagging back as the boy hooked his fingers through the hide collar.

"Looks like you busted your leg," the boy commented, reaching out to touch the blood-soaked limb.

"Don’t!" Ezra snapped, wincing as his head responded with a renewed throbbing. The boy jumped, but remained where he was. "Sorry, son." Ezra was having difficulty keeping his eyes open now, but he wanted to send the boy back to get help. "Wha… what’s… your name?" he gasped, breathlessly.

"Joey Williams."

The gambler closed his eyes for a moment; he could feel the darkness gnawing around the edge of his consciousness, but he needed to make the boy understand the serious nature of the situation.

"Well, Joey Williams," he said, blinking several times to clear his vision. "You know Four Corners?" The redhead nodded. "My friends are there. Here, take these coins – " The Southerner stopped, frowning as his fingers pulled the deck of cards from his pocket. Dropping them on the ground, he reached into the other pocket and pulled out what little loose change he had and held it out to Joey. "Take this," he said, but the boy picked up the pack of cards instead.

"Can I have these?" he asked, but before Ezra could reply, the dog, Toby, decided it didn’t like this ‘sitting and talking’ game. Dragging itself free from the boy’s grip, the terrier scrambled across the prone gambler, claws digging viciously into his injured leg, and Ezra’s world exploded.

The pain started in his left ankle, pushing its way up with startling ferocity until it culminated across his forehead, and the Southerner gave a strangled gasp as he passed out, coins dropping from his limp fingers.

"Mister?" Joey shook the man’s shoulder vigorously, but the other didn’t respond. Ignoring the money, the boy picked up the deck of cards and called to his dog. "Come on, Toby."

Joey scrambled back up the slope and ran across to the small dun pony waiting patiently for him at the top of the rise. Snatching up the reins, he sprang lightly onto the bare back and touched his heels to the animal’s sides.

Urging it into a canter, he headed towards town, the dog racing excitedly at the pony’s heels

Day Two – early morning

When morning arrived with still no sign of the missing gambler, Chris decided to take the others out to search for him. To be honest, it wasn’t a decision he made alone; Vin and Buck were already at the Livery saddling their horses when he arrived, and the remaining three made their appearance just a few minutes later, ready to do what they could to find Ezra.

They followed the trail until they reached the point where they had two options for continuing on to Chris’ cabin, so the gunslinger split the group up; Buck, JD, and Nathan would take the longer, slightly easier route, while Vin and Josiah would accompany him on the shorter, more difficult path.

+ + + + + + +

The noonday sun was high in the sky when Chris and his group arrived at the cabin, to find that Buck and the other two were already there. As they slipped from their mounts and fastened the reins to the partially built corral fence, Vin noticed JD rubbing down an obviously distressed chestnut gelding, and he nudged Chris.

"I see it," the gunslinger acknowledged as he strode up to Buck.

"We found him snagged in a stand of trees – about three miles back," Wilmington said, before Chris could speak. "Looked like he’d been wandering for a while. Beats me why he didn’t head back to town, though."

"Any sign of Ezra?"

Buck shook his head. "Nope. Not a trace."

Chris frowned; obviously the gambler was afoot and in trouble, and they had missed him somewhere along their search. "When the horses are rested, we’ll go back to where you found him. Maybe Vin can cut some sign." He glanced at the tracker, hovering by his shoulder.

"I’ll give it a whirl," Vin promised.

Day Two – mid afternoon

Ezra didn’t know what his mother expected him to do. No matter how much he tried to please, he was always a disappointment to her.

"What do you want, Mother?"

"I want you to be a man," replied the distant voice. "Don’t take this lying down!"

"But my leg – "

"Don’t whine, darlin’. It doesn’t become a Standish. Now - get up!"

The gambler struggled to his feet, gingerly putting his foot to the ground, and discovering to his dismay that it was impossible to put any weight on his ankle. He opened his mouth to speak …

… and came to with a sudden groan, breathing hard as he tried to collect his scattered senses.

He was still lying at the bottom of the slope, and he could feel the sun beating down on his face with unrelenting persistence. Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter; he felt numb, his body alternating between being unbearably hot, and then feeling as though he were lying in a deep snowdrift, and he couldn’t stop shivering. He vaguely recalled the boy and his small dog, but it all seemed like a dream. The only thing that seemed real was his mother, and he closed his eyes again, hoping that she would return to him.

He drifted for a while, his mind pushing the suffering way back into its darkest recesses, then he became aware of voices, and a presence beside him.


"Yes, Mother?"

He felt a hand touching his cheek. "Mother?" A deep relieved laugh sounded, and the gambler opened his eyes in shock.

"Son, you’re in for a helluva surprise!"

Ezra stared up at the concerned face floating above him, and then his bruised mind took the simplest option to save his abused body from any further harm. With a soft sigh, the Southerner slipped over the edge into blissful unconsciousness.

Day Two – early afternoon

Vin had found the tracks of the chestnut gelding as it had wandered aimlessly away from the spot where it had lost its rider. The churned up ground had told its story, and he had set off on foot, his black quarter horse on his heels, and the others holding their mounts down to a slow walk as they followed in his wake. Suddenly he stopped, squatting down and rubbing his fingers across a patch of torn up grass.

"What is it?" Chris dismounted from his horse and tossed the reins to Josiah as he came to crouch beside the tracker.

"A dog," Vin said cryptically. "Chasing rabbits, I’d say."

"Anything to do with Ezra?"

Vin stared ahead, seeing the scuffed earth and the smaller prints of a pony. "I reckon not."

"Okay." Chris dropped a hand on the Texan’s shoulder as he pushed himself to his feet. "What now?"

The tracker narrowed his eyes, and pointed off to his left. "The chestnut came from that way. I guess – " He stopped, and cocked his head on one side, his face a study in concentration.

"What can – ?" Chris began, but Vin held a finger to his lips for silence.

"Listen," he said. A few more seconds passed, and then Chris and the others heard it to; the faint barking of a dog, punctuated with childish shrieks, carried to them on the breeze. "That way."

"It’s worth a try," Josiah said, bringing Chris’ mount forward as Vin climbed back into his saddle. "Whoever it is may have seen something. We can’t overlook that possibility."

"He’s right," Buck agreed, and JD nodded his head as he glanced sideways at the chestnut, its reins clutched in his hand.

"Let’s go then." Chris pointed his black’s head in the direction Vin had indicated, and they set off, keeping their horses to a steady, mile-eating lope.

+ + + + + + +

Joey Williams was on his hands and knees beside the large mound under the clump of trees, and he was digging as frantically as the small white dog. The dun pony stood patiently in the shade, its reins fastened securely to a branch, and its neat ears flicking back and forth as the boy yelled words of encouragement at the dog as it desperately tried to dig the rabbit from its burrow.

Their noise masked every other sound, and it wasn’t until the pony whickered a greeting that Joey turned and saw the group of men approaching. He felt a moment of apprehension as he studied them; the man in black, in particular, looked to be very dangerous, but his father had told him not to judge strangers by what he saw, but by what they did.

The group halted as the boy faced them steadfastly, and the oldest man with them climbed from his horse and stepped up to the youngster, his hand held out in greeting, and a friendly smile on his face.

"Howdy, son," Josiah said, surprising the boy by shaking his hand as he would have another man. "What are you doing out here all by yourself?"

Joey drew himself up to his full height, eminently pleased at being treated like an adult. "Toby and me was chasing rabbits," he stated, indicating the dog sitting at his feet, pink tongue lolling as though it were laughing. "But then I – Oh!" The boy clapped his hand to his mouth, and his expression was stricken as he suddenly remembered what he was supposed to be doing before the terrier had flushed the buck rabbit from its hiding place.

"What’s wrong?" Josiah crouched down and placed a large hand on the skinny shoulder.

"I’m supposed to be going to town. I found this man, and he said –"

"Whoa! Slow down." The ex-preacher glanced over his shoulder; he knew the others had heard the boy’s words and he saw Buck drop from his grey and come across to join him.

"What’s your name, son?" he asked, a warm smile crinkling his mouth, and the boy responded to him.

"Joey Williams."

"Well, Joey, we’ve just come from Four Corners looking for a friend." Buck pulled the boy forward until he was standing in front of Chris’ black horse. "D’you know who that is?" The boy shook his head, gazing up open-mouthed at the gunslinger. "That’s Chris Larabee."

"Really?" Joey turned wide green eyes on Buck. "My pa talks about him a lot."

"Yeah, and the man we’re looking for is his friend, too. D’you think you can help?"

The youngster nodded. "The man I found was hurt real bad."

Josiah looked past Buck and the boy, seeing the dismay on the faces of the others. "What was his name, Joey?"

The boy glanced round at Josiah and reached into his pocket. "He didn’t say – but he gave me these."

"Ezra!" Chris breathed as he saw the pack of cards. He leaned down in his saddle and spoke directly to the child. "Son, can you show us where he is?"

"Of course I can," he replied proudly. "My pa showed me how to find my way." Joey pulled out of Buck’s grasp, and ran for his pony, snatching up the reins and scrambling onto its back. "Come on."

Buck and Josiah climbed back into their saddles and followed the others as they kept their mounts to a fast trot, in deference to the pony’s shorter strides. For his part, Joey felt as though Thanksgiving and Christmas had both come early – and at the same time! He hadn’t lied when he’d told Buck that his father spoke about Chris Larabee all the time; stories about the black-dressed gunslinger and his companions were the stuff that boys dreams were made of, and now here he was, riding at the front of this legendary group.

The boy led them unerringly for more than five miles, finally bringing his pony to a halt when they reached a point on the trail that was blocked by a fallen branch.

"Damn!" Chris swore viciously.

"What?" As usual, Vin was keeping pace beside his friend, and he saw the anguished look pass quickly across his face, gone before anyone else saw it.

"I came back this way," he replied slowly, tipping his head towards the branch. "I remember riding round that."

"Well, you weren’t to know," Vin told him, as they all dismounted, and the redheaded youngster went to the edge of the trail and pointed.

"There he is."

Without being told, JD stepped forward and dropped his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

"Can you help me hold the horses, Joey? We’ll walk them away a bit so Chris and the others can help Ezra."

"Sure." The youngster solemnly took the reins that Vin and Chris handed to him, and he led the two blacks and his dun pony a little further up the trail, the excitable little dog following him, much to Chris’ relief.

"Thanks, kid." Chris was grateful to JD for keeping Joey distracted as Nathan, Buck, and Josiah scrambled down the slope. Squatting on his heels, he peered down as they stopped beside the motionless form of Ezra Standish, and he was grateful for Vin’s comforting presence at his back.

"Nathan?" he called, the question evident in his voice.

The healer glanced up at him. "Give me a chance, Chris."

He examined the unconscious man carefully, seeing the caked blood on his forehead and on the torn pants. Grasping the gambler’s chin, he turned his face towards him.


He placed his palm against Ezra’s cheek, feeling the unhealthy heat of his skin and the tremors that wracked his body, and then he paused as the Southerner moaned and stirred.

"Yes, Mother?" came the mumbled reply.

"Mother?" Nathan exclaimed, and gave a relieved laugh. "Son, you’re in for a helluva surprise!"

Dark lashes quivered, and the green eyes slowly flickered open. Ezra stared at Nathan, confusion and pain warring for supremacy, and then he gave a soft sigh and passed out.

"Nathan!" Chris’ voice floated down again, and this time the dark-skinned healer could hear the impatience in it.

"He’s alive, Chris," he yelled back. "But he’s in pretty bad shape."

"What d’you need?"

"Nothing at the moment. Just hold on." Nathan ran his hands expertly down Ezra’s left leg, feeling the break just above the ankle joint. He pursed his lips as he turned to Buck and Josiah. "Do you think you can move those rocks when I tell you?"

"I would move Heaven and Earth if it would help," Josiah told him as he and Buck placed their hands against the boulders, ready to heave them out of the way.

"Just those rocks will do fine," the healer responded, grasping Ezra’s foot and calf gently, but firmly. "Okay, now would be a good time."

As the rocks were shifted, Nathan kept a hold of the gambler’s leg, preventing any further damage from being inflicted. Carefully lowering the injured limb to the ground, he ripped away the remains of the tattered material, sucking in a deep breath at what he could see.

The broken bone had pushed through the skin, leaving a ragged tear that had become inflamed and still oozed blood, and the other lacerations on the gambler’s leg had contributed to his blood loss, and general weakened state.

"Josiah, can you hold his shoulders? I need to straighten the bone."

The ex-preacher scrambled around until he was kneeling by Ezra’s head, and he gripped his shoulders firmly.

"Whenever you’re ready, Brother Nathan," he said. The healer grasped Ezra’s foot, shifted his grip slightly, and then pulled and twisted until the bone slid smoothly back into place. The gambler gave a sharp cry and shuddered, his body tense beneath Josiah’s hands, then he went completely limp. Nathan wiped the sweat from his own brow, and laid his fingers against the gambler’s throat. He could feel the pulse, fast and erratic, but at least he was still hanging on.

Nathan slipped the pack from his shoulder and began to pull some clean cloth from it. "Buck, can you find me some strong pieces of wood or something? I want to splint his leg."

"Sure." The ladies man gave Ezra a quick glance. "Is he gonna be okay?"

"I hope so." The healer rested his hand across Ezra’s forehead, his face concerned. "Apart from the broken leg and loss of blood, he’s got a touch of heatstroke. The sooner we can move him, the better."

"I’ll get them splints," Buck promised, as he scrambled back up the slope.

Nathan looked up, unsurprised to see that Chris and Vin were still watching him anxiously. "Chris – can you toss me down a canteen?"

Vin disappeared from the healer’s view, re-appearing moments later, and holding a canteen by its strap. "Catch," he called.

Josiah stood up, and caught the water as the tracker dropped it, and he handed it to Nathan. The healer unscrewed the cap and poured some of the liquid onto the cloth in his hand, handing the canteen back to Josiah. He dabbed at the wound on Ezra’s leg, cleaning the blood away so he could see the extent of the damage. Ideally the tear caused by the broken bone needed to be stitched, but he didn’t want to do it here.

Taking another square of cloth from his bag, he folded it in four and placed it over the wound, bandaging it firmly in place.

"Will these do?"

Buck had returned, several pieces of wood in his hands. Nathan sorted through them, but only one was suitable for his purposes.

"I can use this," he said, laying it down beside Ezra’s leg. "But I think I’ll just strap his legs together. It’ll be easier on him." Shrugging out of his jacket, Nathan rolled it lengthways, and used it to cushion the gambler’s left leg against his right.

Josiah coughed. "If I might pose a question – how do you intend to get him back to town? He’s not going to be able to ride."

Nathan regarded him intently; that was going to be a problem, and one he hadn’t really thought about. He glanced up at Buck, and a grin split his face, teeth standing out white against his dark skin.

"What?" asked the ladies man suspiciously.

"Go and ask Chris what he can do about getting a wagon to get Ezra outta here."


+ + + + + + +

"A wagon?" Chris stared at his friend in dismay as he came up the slope, and dropped the request in the gunslinger’s lap. "Someone’ll have to go back to town, and – "

"My pa’s got a buckboard," Joey interrupted, and four heads turned to look at him.

Chris raised his eyebrows. "Where do you live, son?" Larabee asked, placing his hands on the boy’s shoulders.

"Not too far away, but my pony can’t run very fast."

Buck turned away, hand over his mouth as he tried to hide his laughter. He had seen the envious way the boy had looked at their horses, almost as though he were promising himself one like them someday. Chris glanced over the boy’s head, seeing the amusement on the tracker’s face, and blinked in amazement as the Texan gave him a wink.

"How about if you borrow one of our horses, and JD rides back with you?" Vin said.

Joey nodded earnestly. "Wow! Can I borrow yours, please?" he asked, turning to Chris.

The gunslinger smiled, and reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair.

"Of course you can, son. JD?"

Chris waited as the young peacekeeper altered the stirrups, then he boosted the boy into the saddle and watched as they rode off. Turning to Buck and Vin, he found them grinning like idiots.

"What?" he demanded.

Buck just laughed out loud and walked away, but the tracker placed his hand on Chris’ shoulder, tilting his head on one side as he regarded him with a wry smile.

"I think you got suckered into that one, Cowboy," he told his black-dressed friend.

"Maybe, but he was right about one thing. He’ll make better time on a horse." Chris pushed his hat back and brushed the sweat-darkened hair from his forehead. "The quicker we can Ezra back to town, the better."

+ + + + + + +

Joey’s father did indeed have a buckboard, and he had been more than willing to loan it to them. In fact he had insisted on driving it himself, with a mattress and blankets spread out on the floor as he followed Joey and JD – minus the dog which the boy had reluctantly left at the homestead with his mother - back to where the others were waiting.

Using one of the blankets, it had taken four of them to carefully bring Ezra up the slope and place him on the mattress in the buckboard. Nathan had fastened his mount to the back and climbed in beside him, in case he became restless, but although the Southerner moaned and stirred, he showed no other sign of returning consciousness.

Joey’s pony was also hitched to the rear of the wagon, but he refused to ride up on the seat beside his father. The problem was finally resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and it was a very proud boy who entered Four Corners, perched on the saddle in front of Chris Larabee.

Day Four – early morning

For almost a day and a half, since they had arrived back in town, Nathan had hardly left the side of the injured gambler.

After his leg had been set, and he had been loaded into the wagon, Ezra had barely stirred, but by the time they got back to Four Corners he was feverish and delirious. Knowing how dangerous heatstroke could be – especially in the Southerner’s weakened state – Nathan had sent everyone but Josiah away, and stripped the gambler’s clothes from him.

It had taken the two of them almost three hours, and several buckets of water, to draw some of the heat from Ezra’s body. As Josiah continued to apply the cool washcloths to his face and chest, Nathan took the opportunity to properly clean and stitch the wound in his left leg. The healer then splinted and bandaged the limb and placed a pillow on either side to try and keep it immobilised.

He also cleaned the messy graze across his forehead but, beyond keeping Ezra cool with damp cloths, there was little else he could do. The gambler’s fight now was with the fever, and the healer could only sit and wait for it to break.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra opened his eyes slowly, and he was amazed to find that the mattress beneath his body really was there this time!

He lay there for a moment, trying to figure out where he was and why his body didn’t hurt quite so much. Lifting his head cautiously, he looked down. A thin sheet covered his body, and he could just make out the outline of his left leg, swathed in bandages. Turning his head to the right, he realised he was lying on the bed in Nathan’s small clinic and, when he blinked and looked again, he could see the healer scrunched in a chair at his bedside, fast asleep.

A faint smile touched the gambler’s lips when he realised they had found him, and that he was finally safe.

+ + + + + + +

The clatter of crockery startled Ezra awake this time, and he heard a voice – it sounded like JD – mumble an apology, and then the door slammed shut.

The gambler stirred slightly, wincing as his leg started to throb again, and he looked across to the table where Nathan was pouring himself a cup of fresh coffee, his back to the bed and unaware that his patient was conscious. Ezra tried to speak, but his throat was sore and his mouth felt as though it was full of sawdust, and all he could do was cough.

Nathan turned, putting his cup down and pouring a glass of water from the pitcher on the table. Perching on the edge of the bed, he slipped his arm under Ezra’s shoulders and raised him up. Putting the glass to the gambler’s lips he allowed him several small swallows, taking it away quickly as the Southerner gulped thirstily at it.

"Whoa – not too much, y’hear?" he chided. Ezra nodded and closed his eyes briefly as Nathan eased him back down and placed his hand on his forehead. "Well, your fever’s almost gone. Any headache? How d’you feel?"

The hint of a smile curved the gambler’s mouth. "Not as bad as you look," he rasped out, and was rewarded by a grin from Nathan.

"Well, you are not the worlds best patient, Mr. Standish." The healer paused, relishing the effect his next words were going to have. "Especially when you keep wanting your mother!"

"My… Mother?" Green eyes widened in disbelief as Nathan chuckled. "My Mother," he repeated, almost to himself, and a flush crept up his cheeks as hazy recollections surfaced in his memory. "Oh," was all he said.

Nathan patted his bare shoulder. "It’s alright, Ezra, your secret’s safe with me."

"My secret?" The gambler regarded him suspiciously, seeing the laughter in the dark eyes.

"Yeah! No-one will find out from me that one of our up-standing peacekeepers is a mommy’s boy." Despite his words, Nathan had no intention of mentioning the gambler’s delirious ravings to anyone, and the sting was taken from the healer’s comment by the broad grin on his face. Ezra started to reply, but he was caught by a fit of coughing, leaving him weak and trembling when it had passed. Nathan wiped the sweat from the gambler’s forehead, and allowed him a few more sips of water.

"You need to rest. A few more days to get your strength back, and then we’ll get you up on that leg." He pulled the sheet back up as Ezra’s eyelids began to droop, and he moved quietly away.

"Mr. Jackson? How long have we been back?" The words were soft, slurred by fatigue, as Nathan picked up his unfinished coffee.

"Nearly two days."

"Nearly… " Ezra’s voice trailed off as he realised what that meant. He could vaguely remember the few occasions that he had come to, and the healer always seemed to be beside him with a cool cloth and soothing hands. "You’ve been here all the time?"

"More or less." Which was true; apart from the few short catnaps he’d managed to snatch while Josiah sat with the Southerner, he hadn’t left the clinic. Ezra was quiet for a long time, and Nathan thought he had finally fallen asleep, but then he spoke again.

"Thank you – Nathan."

The healer smiled to himself as he poured another cup of coffee. It was rare for the gambler to call him by his given name, and rarer still to hear such warmth and feeling in his voice. Perhaps there was hope for him yet.

Glancing round, he saw that this time Ezra really was asleep. Well, let him rest – he was going to need all his strength to cope with the exuberant redheaded youngster who was planning on making a visit soon.


Comments to: