To Lethe and Tartarus
Charlie pulled Ezra from the horse and threw him on the ground in the barn. He turned his back and moved to a pile of straw and branches that had been piled on the floor. Ezra watched in horror as it was set alight. He kept flicking his gaze from the flames to Charlie and back again knowing what was coming. The cowboy picked up one flaming branch and approached the gambler again. Ezra tried to scramble away but felt his back hit the wall. He looked around desperately but there was no escape.
He was grabbed by his captor and hauled to his feet. The man waved the branch toward him but didn't touch him with it. Charlie then pulled Ezra roughly toward the fire and held the gambler so he was swaying over the flames. Ezra could feel the heat on his back and he struggled frantically to get away.
Charlie pulled the gag out of Ezra's mouth and smiled. "I want to hear you scream like that homesteader. You did a good job of killing him for me. I enjoyed watching but I can't afford for you to tell what you know. You started to remember things that day you came back to the ranch and touched my neckerchief, didn't ya?"
After the murders Charlie had hoped that Ezra had died. He had watched the man intently as he'd escaped that day and had seen the bullet strike his head. The fact that the gang hadn't been able to trace him when they chased after him, however, had worried the cowboy immensely. Charlie had even ridden out to the wagon the day after the family had been murdered to try to track the gambler down. Charlie, though, wasn't much good at following sign and he'd be unable to find his quarry. As each day passed he'd begun to feel safer and the fact the law hadn't come to the ranch had finally convinced the man that he'd got away with his crime.
He'd been truly horrified when the gambler had been found six days later. Charlie had been waiting for a chance to kill Ezra ever since but the gambler had always had one or more of his friends with him. Charlie had been getting increasingly concerned in case Ezra recalled everything and told his companions that he was involved.
Ezra gasped when Charlie's words finally sunk in because he knew what the man said was true. He'd relived everything when he'd seen the burnt body again in the arroyo but he didn't want to believe that he'd been responsible. He'd buried the memories at that time but now it all came back to him in a rush. He had killed the homesteader. Not willingly but he had killed him nonetheless. He could see himself in his mind's eye being forced to hold the flame against the man's clothes. He saw the look of disbelief in the homesteader's eyes as he was engulfed in flames and he heard the man's horrified screams.
Ezra came back to the present when Charlie waved the branch close to him again. The cowboy let go of him suddenly and Ezra staggered backwards but he was still dizzy and couldn't catch his balance. He fell back onto the fire, unable to save himself as his hands were still tied in front of his body. Charlie got his wish as Ezra screamed in pain as the flames licked at his skin and clothes. He tried to get away from the fire but whichever way he moved, Charlie was there to cut off his escape.
Chris suddenly appeared in the barn doorway and he took in the scene and felt rage rising in him. He shouted a challenge to Charlie, "You bastard, turn round."
Charlie swung round with his gun drawn but Chris was ready and waiting. The black clad man shot the cowboy dead and was moving toward Ezra even before his opponent's lifeless body had hit the ground. He got hold of the gambler roughly and pulled him aside quickly and took off his poncho to try and put out the flames that had enveloped his friend's jacket.
"Nathan!" Chris yelled with a voice like thunder as he carried on with his rescue efforts. After he had finished extinguishing the flames Chris knelt down and cut through the rope that bound the gambler's hands together. He looked up in relief as he heard his three companions come running toward him.
"What happened?" Nathan asked as he approached the two men on the ground.
"He fell or was pushed on the fire." The healer saw the flames had been put out from Ezra's clothes but the smell of singed hair and flesh was overpowering. "Get him out of those clothes now. Find me some water," Nathan ordered.
Josiah stooped and helped Chris turn the gambler onto his front as the burns were to his back. He started to strip the gambler while Vin and Chris laid some of their clothes on the ground to transfer their friend onto. Josiah tried to be gentle as he touched the gambler but he couldn't help hurting Ezra in the process of getting his clothes off. "Don't touch me, please don't touch me. It hurts," Ezra cried pitifully.
"I'm sorry, son. I can't help it." Josiah hated hurting the man and it showed in his tone of voice. He felt a comforting hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Chris watching him sympathetically. The gunfighter patted his back and knelt down to help.
Some of the gambler's clothes were stuck to his body and Nathan stopped his two friends from doing any more. He cut round the pieces of cloth that were stuck and indicated for the men to move Ezra over onto the pile of clothes provided as he didn't want to get the burns dirty as well. Ezra unfortunately was still conscious and moaned at each touch and movement.
Vin arrived with a bucket of water from the stream and Nathan started soaking the remaining bits off cloth from the burns. It took some time to do but eventually the full extent of damage done to Ezra's back could be seen. His skin was red, sore and blistered and Chris winced at the sight and put a hand over his mouth when he felt bile rising in his throat. He swallowed and turned away until he regained his composure.
"Get my bag and check if there's some whiskey in it. I don't wanna give him any laudanum at the moment."
Vin moved to the door but was called back by the blond gunfighter, "Vin? There's some whiskey in my saddlebags if Nate ain't got any." The tracker nodded and continued on his errand.
"Shit, Ezra. This is gonna hurt," the healer said as he turned back to his patient.
"Already hurts," Ezra groaned tearfully.
Vin returned with the healer's bag and the whiskey from the blond's saddlebag. Chris helped Ezra to drink some of the spirit before settling him back down again. No matter how careful he was Ezra still cried out.
"Hurts. Please leave me be," Ezra hissed between clenched teeth. He put a finger sideways in his mouth and bit the knuckle to try to take his mind from the pain in his back. "I'm sorry, Ez," the blond apologized sadly. Chris stayed sitting by the gambler's head and Ezra reached out and took hold of the gunman's pant leg tightly between his fingers. The con man just felt the need of some human contact and Chris was chosen because he was the nearest. The blond reached out and patted Ezra's hand gently.
Nathan was searching his bag and pulled a lot of things from it. He started cooling Ezra's skin with the water Vin had provided. He would rather have used clean water but he had to make do with what was available. He needed to cool Ezra's wounds as soon as possible to stop the skin from burning further with the heat the skin still held. He then treated the burns as best he could and Ezra screamed in agony and bit his finger again. Chris stroked the back of the gambler's head and whispered to him but he knew he wasn't getting through to the man. He was in too much pain. Nathan finished after quite a while and he shook his head worriedly and sighed.
"Vin, Josiah? Could you go back and get a wagon. I need to get him back to the ranch as soon as possible. Bring back a clean sheet as well to cover him with, will ya?" the healer asked as he covered Ezra's legs with his coat.
"Sure." The two men nodded and ran back out to their horses. Chris heard them ride away fast.
"Nate? How bad is he?" the blond asked.
"You got to him fast and the coat he was wearing gave him more protection than the night-shirt on its own so I hope he'll recover fully. The burns are deep enough to have caused blistering but I've got a salve I can put on later when his skin's cooled down. It's an herbal remedy I got from Kojay. Ezra's gonna have a few scars and he's gonna be in a lot of pain for a while and he's already got a fever again which doesn't help."
"I heard Ezra saying something like 'one more man' when he was asleep back at the ranch. Do you think he meant Charlie was the last member of the gang that killed the family?"
"Mebbe. I can't see why else Charlie would wanna kill him."
Ezra tried to concentrate on what his friends were saying. He needed something to focus on so he didn't dwell on how he was feeling. His skin felt tight and hot and every movement, no matter how small, was torturous. Why can't I pass out? I don't think I can stand the pain much longer.
"Okay, Ez? Vin won't be long," Nathan said soothingly as he saw the man watching him intently. He leant down and saw Ezra's fingers were all bloody. "What did ya do to ya hand, Ez?"
He got no reply. He lifted the gambler's hand and saw the teeth marks when he washed the blood away. "Shit."
"What's up?" Chris asked anxiously.
"He bit his fingers to try to ease his pain. I shoulda given him something proper to bite on. He'll need stitches 'cause he's gone down to the bone. Pass me the whiskey again, will ya?"
Chris handed the bottle over and Nathan disinfected the wounds and then set about stitching them up. He bandaged the hand tightly and laid it on the ground again when he'd finished. He felt Ezra's brow once more and sighed despairingly.
Ezra's mind drifted as the fever took hold. He dreamt about the homestead family and the man being burnt to death. "Don't make me. Please don't make me. I don't want to kill him," he cried out.
Chris knelt beside him and stroked his hair again. "It's alright, Ez. You're not gonna kill anyone. Yer just dreaming." The black clad man kept up a steady stream of conversation in the hope of calming the gambler down.
Nathan stood up and moved to the barn door looking for the return of Vin and Josiah with the wagon. He shielded his eyes against the sun and strained his eyes as he looked into the distance.
"They're coming," the healer said as he walked back inside the barn. "How is he?"
"Talking about killing someone."
"It's just the fever."
"It sounds real enough to me, Nate."
Vin and Josiah drew up outside the door and jumped down. Josiah pulled an old army stretcher from the wagon bed and hurried in with it. "Thought we could carry him on this so he might not be jostled so much," the preacher said.
"Good idea. Right, be as careful as possible when you move him onto it." Nathan put the stretcher down beside the gambler and gave the man a piece of leather to bite on. The men helped transfer him to the stretcher gently but Ezra still cried out and sobbed at the pain that stabbed through him.
The men picked him up as carefully as they could and walked slowly out to the wagon. They lifted him into the back and Nathan scrambled in after him while Josiah got up on the driver's seat. Nathan covered the gambler's back with the sheet that had been provided and he tried to make Ezra as comfortable as possible, which was nigh on impossible. Vin and Chris rode the two remaining saddle horses and they moved off slowly in the direction of the ranch. When they arrived after a very slow and painful journey for the gambler, Buck and JD were there to meet them. They helped take the injured man inside once more.
Nathan rechecked the burns when Ezra was settled on the bed. The healer called for some water and he set about cleaning the wounds again. The gambler was now unconscious so Nathan removed the leather strap from his mouth. When he had finished his treatment he put the salve from Kojay over the whole of Ezra's back when the skin was cold and then bandaged him up. The gambler was covered from neck to hips in white cloth.
"I'm gonna have to clean the burns every day. Thank God they aren't any worse."
After helping Nathan clean up, Chris wandered out onto the porch and joined Buck.
"How is he? He looked bad. What happened to him exactly?" the ladies' man asked.
"I don't know but somehow that bastard pushed or made him fall into a fire. I got there not soon after and managed to get to him and put out the flames. We could hear him screaming just as we got to the group of buildings but we couldn't tell which one he was in. We split up and he was in the barn where I searched first. The smell of burnt flesh was. . ..well, I can't describe it. Ezra was in agony but that coat saved him from worse injuries."
"Shit. Why did Charlie do it?"
"All I can think is that he was another member of the gang. Ezra kept saying 'one more man' and 'masked man' over and over when we brought him back last time and I think he was at last starting to remember everything."
"Ezra said masked man?" Buck interrupted sharply. "Do you remember that Ezra was interested in Charlie's neckerchief the first day we came back? Maybe he used that to cover his face during the killings but then how did Ezra know it was Charlie if he couldn't see his face properly?" Buck asked.
"Now I think of it, he only started saying those things after I heard some of the cowhands talking outside the bedroom window. Charlie was one of them and perhaps Ezra finally recognized his voice and put two and two together."
"Mebbe. If that is right, Ezra probably signed his death warrant with that simple touch of the neckerchief. Charlie realized he was beginning to remember and might spill the beans and he had to get rid of him as soon as possible. Today was the first day that Ezra's been totally alone and he took advantage, the bastard," Buck said angrily.
"I shoulda stayed with him," Chris said quietly.
"You weren't to know what was gonna happen."
"No excuse," Chris snapped before he walked back inside and sat down beside the gambler's bed dejectedly.
Nathan did what he could to make the injured man as comfortable as possible. Both the healer and gunman sat with him all through the night but Ezra got worse. The gambler became very agitated and Chris sat and listened to what he said. The gunfighter couldn't decide whether it was just the rambling of a sick man or not. The man sounded too upset for it to be just a dream and bearing in mind the fact that his previous ramblings were probably true Chris couldn't help but worry.
Nathan went to get them some food and Chris sat back and dozed in his chair when Ezra quieted down. He didn't stay quiet for long though and Chris was started awake by a cry from the bed. He reached out a hand and stroked the gambler's hair. There was nowhere else he could really touch him. The man's upper body was swathed in bandages and Chris didn't want to hurt him by touching him there. His arms, although they weren't burnt, looked sore.
"It's alright, Ez. You're safe," Chris said as he leaned close.
"He's dead. I killed him."
"Who did you kill?"
"Didn't want to. Please don't make me. Bastard! Leave her alone." The gambler's mind drifted from the past to the present. "Bucklin? Where are you?. . . . What happened?. . . . Why did Chris shoot me?. . . I killed him. I killed him!"
"Calm down. Buck's not here."
"Oh God. No! I don't want to. Please." The plea ended in a sob.
Chris picked up the bowl of water and wiped Ezra's face in the hope it would calm him down. The gambler opened his eyes and they shone bright with fever in the lamplight.
"Ezra? It's Chris. Can you hear me?"
"Dead. Burnt. I killed him."
Nathan came in and Chris looked at him worriedly. "He's getting worse, ain't he?"
"Ain't there nothin' else you can do? I can't calm him down," the gunfighter said worriedly as he continued to wipe the injured man's face gently.
"I'm doin' my best, Chris but he weren't in the best condition to fight this to start with. If he'd been fit beforehand I'd give him a better chance but he wasn't."
"I'm sorry, Nate. I shoulda listened to you and left him behind. He wasn't up to it and I shouldn't have made him come."
"No good placing blame. You thought it would help him to remember things. Your intentions were good." Nathan patted Chris's shoulder.
"Are you okay if I go outside for a bit? I could do with a break," Chris asked wearily.
"Sure. Take as long as you need."
Chris walked outside and lit a cigar and leant against a pole on the porch as he thought back over what had been said. Josiah approached him and stood nearby as he watched Chris intently.
"Chris? What's the matter?"
"I've just been listening to Ezra. He's convinced he killed that homesteader."
"What? Surely that's not right," Josiah said disbelievingly. "Ezra's a lot of things but he ain't a murderer. Are you sure he's not just rambling?"
"Hell, Josiah I don't know what to think anymore but it sounds too specific for just a feverish dream. He's really upset and there's definitely more to this than what Ezra's already told us."
"I can try talking to him when he wakes up properly to see what really happened, if you want," the preacher offered.
"Don't know whether he'll tell us or if he'll even remember it. If what he says is true though, it's no wonder he didn't want to recall what happened when Buck talked to him at the camp."
"We'll just have to wait and see what he says when he recovers. Do you want me to go in now and give you a break?" the preacher asked. He could see how upset Chris was.
"Yeah, thanks. I don't know how much more I can listen to at the moment."
Josiah patted his shoulder and walked inside and along to the bedroom. He smiled at Nathan as he entered and took the seat by the bed. The only sounds in the room were the shallow breathing and an occasional groan from the gambler.
Chris, meanwhile, stood up straight after finishing his cigar and wandered over to the bunkhouse. He arranged for the rest of his men to go back to Eagle Bend and collect the prisoners. Judge Travis was due in Four Corners at the end of the week and the blond wanted them there for trial. After watching his friends leave he walked in the direction of the nearby creek to try to clear his head. He stood on the bank and threw stones angrily into the clear sparkling water.
Chris, Nathan and Josiah stayed at the ranch to take care of the gambler. Josiah headed into the bedroom to take over from Chris again the following morning and he sat down next to Ezra.
"How is he?" he asked quietly as he studied the injured man with a critical eye.
"Fever broke a while ago, thank God," Chris replied as he smiled and left the room wearily.
The gambler stirred as he heard the voices and opened his eyes slowly when the preacher wiped the half of his face that was uppermost on the pillow with a wet cloth.
"You haven't come to give me the Last Rites, have you?" Ezra croaked as he squinted and distinguished the features of who was beside him.
"You had us worried for a while there but you ain't dying, Ezra."
"Sure feels like it. Is it Confession you've come for then?" "In a manner of speaking. You don't have to say anything if yer not up to it. I can leave it 'til later 'cause you must still feel pretty bad. If you do say anything though I won't tell the others any details that you don't want me to," the preacher assured Ezra with a smile.
"Well, if you want to hear all my sins you may regret it. You could be here for ever." Ezra was quiet for a minute before saying, "I think you need to tell them what I did."
"While you were sick, Chris heard you say you killed someone but I assumed it was just feverish ramblings. Did you kill someone, Ezra?"
Ezra sighed and was silent for quite some time. He really did feel the need to confide in someone and he couldn't keep what he knew bottled up for much longer. "Unfortunately none of it was a figment of my imagination. I killed the homesteader. They made me do it and my subjugation to their will was terrifying. They put a knife to my throat and held my arm so I had the flaming branch against his clothes. I'll never forget the look in his eyes or his horrified screams." Ezra sobbed and Josiah took hold of his hand before the gambler continued shakily, "Only one gang member had his face covered. It was Charlie. The others must have been so confident of getting away with what they'd done. So arrogant, so cruel." Ezra came to an abrupt halt as he relived his nightmare.
The preacher said thoughtfully, "Hearing about the knife at least tells us why you didn't wanna be shaved or have yer hair cut. Seeing the barber's razor and scissors must have reminded you of being forced to kill that man. What else happened, Ezra? It'll be good for you to tell me everything."
Ezra started talking again but his words were interspersed with sobs and long silences. "The homesteader's family was crying and screaming as he was killed but there was nothing I could do. I've never witnessed anything so horrific and I hope I never do again, Josiah. After the man died, the gang turned their attention on the woman and I tried to intervene but they knocked me out and I woke up too late. The rest of the family was already dead. When I looked toward the arroyo I could still see smoke rising from where the man's body had fallen. I will never forget that image. All I could see in my mind was his burning body. One minute he'd been alive and so happy and the next his life had been snatched from him. Life's so unfair." Ezra sighed tearfully and then continued haltingly, "I knew I needed to get away before they remembered I was still there. Anyway, I crawled to my horse while they were otherwise occupied and escaped but I still don't recall what happened after that."
Josiah sat quietly and stroked Ezra's hair as the man cried. Finally Ezra got his emotions back in check and he looked at Josiah sadly. "If you thought I was full of sin before I must be halfway to Hell after this. Perhaps falling on the fire was meant as an expiation for what I'd done."
"You ain't going to Hell, Ezra. You tried to help those people and you certainly didn't murder that man."
"As good as."
"No, son. You may have been their tool but you're not a murderer. It's not in your heart to take life like that. You didn't need to suffer penance either 'cause you're clear of any sin in this. Don't fret, you won't be meeting the Devil anytime soon."
"Well, I've been to Hell and I know I don't wanna go there, but I'm not so sure that Heaven's any better."
"Why do you say that?" the preacher asked frowning as he wiped the tears from his friend's face.
"That family was very religious. Why did He let them be murdered like that? They'd done nothing wrong."
"I can't say why they died, Ez. Only God knows the answer to that."
"You're a preacher, aren't ya? You're suppose to know why," Ezra sobbed angrily.
Josiah squeezed his hand. "I know He let you live so we could catch the murderers. He has a purpose for all His actions."
"Well, I wish He wouldn't involve me in some of them." Ezra sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily.
"You said you fell on the fire. Charlie didn't push you then?" the preacher asked.
"No, not as such. He was waving a flaming branch at me while he held me over the fire and he suddenly let go. I tried to back away but I was still dizzy and fell as I tried to evade him. I have no doubt he intended to kill me in the same way as the homesteader though, but I nearly saved him the trouble. It was very fortuitous that Chris arrived when he did or I may not have been here now to relate the whole tragic affair to you." He sighed loudly and sniffed before wiping his eyes on the edge of the pillow. He shifted uncomfortably under the covers and then winced and groaned.
"Do you need help with anything, Ezra?" Josiah asked as he noticed the pained expression on his friend's face.
"As a matter of fact, yes, Mr. Sanchez and rather desperately now that you mention it."
"Okay. Don't fret. We'll have to take it slow moving you though. Can you hold on?"
"If I could tie a knot in it I would, Mr. Sanchez, but as I can't we'll just have to trust to luck. I'll try not to embarrass either of us though. Bodily functions are a curse when you're sick," Ezra said with a slight smile on his lips.
"A full bladder sure concentrates the mind and that's a fact," Josiah said with a grin.
Josiah helped Ezra up but it sapped the gambler's strength noticeably. The preacher assisted with what was necessary and laid Ezra down gently. The gambler groaned and sobbed at the movement.
"No. Thank you, Josiah, for your kindness. It was good to tell someone what happened but I'm sorry for letting my emotions have free rein." Ezra's voice faded and Josiah watched as his eyes closed and he fell into a restless asleep.
Chris came in and looked toward the bed. "Still out?"
"Na. He woke up for a bit and we talked. He's just gone to sleep again."
"What did he have to say?"
Josiah sighed and told Chris everything Ezra had related about his experiences. Chris sat on the bed and listened angrily. He shook his head and patted Ezra's leg comfortingly. "Bastards," he said when Josiah had finished. "How was he when he spoke?"
"Very upset, naturally. I think it's done him good to talk but he won't get over it quickly."
"No, I should think not." Chris stood up and walked to the window. "Vin and the others are back. Travis got there early so he's already dealt with the gang. They got what they deserved."
"Glad to hear it."
Vin knocked on the door hours later and tapped Chris on the shoulder. The gunfighter looked up and smiled.
"How is he?" Vin asked as he nodded at the still sleeping gambler.
"Tired. He's been asleep for ages but Nate says he's bound to be like this. He needs lots of rest after what he's been through."
"I thought about going back to where Ezra parted company with his horse. I'll see if I can find out what happened to it."
"Won't the sign have been washed away?" the blond asked.
"The rancher said it didn't rain all that hard here so I might strike it lucky."
"Okay. Do ya want some company?"
"Na. I'll be okay. See ya later." The tracker touched his hat brim and walked back outside.
He mounted his horse and headed it in the right direction. He got off when he reached where Ezra had fallen and he wandered around for some time sorting out all the tracks. He finally found the set he wanted and set off in earnest. It took him longer than expected but he eventually saw a small homestead in the distance. He pulled out his telescope and the first thing he saw was a sorrel in the corral. He urged his horse onwards and dismounted in the yard. He looked around and called but no one seemed to be there.
He walked over to the corral and climbed through the rails. The sorrel saw him and ambled over with its ears pricked in recognition. Vin reached out a hand and stroked the animal's neck as he checked to make sure it was definitely Ezra's steed. He stood up suddenly and turned slowly as he heard the sound of a rifle being loaded.
"What do ya want, Mister? Not fixing to steal my horse, are ya?" the homesteader asked angrily.
Vin looked at the man and saw he was wearing a few items of Ezra's clothing. "Are you positive it's your horse? It looks powerful like the one my friend had stolen recently."
The man didn't answer but narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips as he watched the tracker carefully.
"Where'd you get them clothes?" Vin persisted. He knew he had the man bang to rights and he wanted to get some sort of explanation from him.
"You sure they weren't still on my friend when ya found them?"
"He was buzzard-bait."
"Did you bother checking to see if he was still alive?" Vin asked angrily.
"He looked dead enough to me," the man replied insolently.
"So you didn't even lift a finger to help him, you bastard." Vin shook his head at the man's callous act. "Well, I'm a peacekeeper in Four Corners and I'm gonna take this horse and the clothes back. Think yerself lucky I don't take you in for horse thieving. I could hang you for that right now." Vin saw the homesteader pale at his words but he felt no sympathy. "I hope when you need help, someone treats you better than you treated my friend. What day did you find him?"
"Tuesday, I s'pose."
"Who did you find first, the horse or my friend?"
"The horse. He hadn't strayed far and I found yer friend under the trees in the shade. I s'pose he'd crawled there."
"How could you just leave him like that?"
The man scowled and didn't reply. Vin turned his back on the man in disgust and took the saddle from the corral rail and got Ezra's horse ready. He led it outside and tied it to his own horse. He then indicated for the man to hand over the clothes. The man reluctantly went into his home to change and passed the clothes to the tracker. Vin tied the items to Ezra's saddle and mounted his own horse and rode away without a backward glance.
Buck was in the yard when he returned and the ladies' man moved to take charge of Ezra's horse. "Where'd ya find him?"
"Homesteader took him and the clothes. Thought Ezra was dead but didn't even bother to make sure. Bet he thought God was smiling on him to leave such treasures on the prairie for him to pick up."
"Ez will be pleased to get them back."
"I'll go and give him the good news." Vin walked into the house and along to the bedroom. He opened the door quietly and saw JD and Chris inside. Ezra was awake but the other two were snoring their heads off so Vin walked over to the bed and smiled at the gambler. He sat down on the bed softly and drawled, "Found yer horse and clothes, Ez."
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. Most kind of you to go to the trouble."
Vin thought Ezra still sounded tired and depressed. "Weren't no trouble. The man who stole yer horse found you on the Tuesday and he thought you were dead so he just took yer horse and clothes. At least you're only really missing one day from your memory but it looks as though you woke and just wandered to the place where the cowboys found you. The tracks we followed from there were very haphazard and you'd circled back several times from what I could tell." The tracker looked at Ezra as the man sighed loudly and he asked, "How do ya feel?"
"Stiff. I think I will break when I move properly again. My head will probably be stuck permanently sideways. Being on your front for days is not to be recommended. To think I usually like being in bed. I can tell you that I'm thoroughly fed up being in one now. Maybe I'll join you in your wagon for a change of scene when we get home but then again I don't think I want to see a wagon either."
"I'm sorry, Ez. Chris told us what happened. Do you want some company? These two ain't much use to ya snoring away without a care in the world, are they?"
"Yes. Do stay."
Vin found another chair and he moved it next to the bed and the two men talked quietly until Chris stirred. "Vin? What you doing here?"
"I came to see Ez. He wanted to talk and you two were fast asleep so I stayed. I found Ezra's horse by the way but I'll tell you about that later."
"Sure. Sorry for falling asleep, Ez."
"Well, I haven't been the most scintillating company lately, have I? When can I go home?" the gambler asked plaintively.
"Please ask Mr Jackson or I'm going to go mad fairly soon."
"Thought you were mad already, Ez," Chris smiled.
"Well, I'd have to be, wouldn't I, to hang around with the likes of you?"
"That told me didn't it, Vin?" Chris laughed. "I ought to know better than try to joke with you Ezra. Even if yer on your death bed you always get the better of me."
Nathan came in and smiled when he saw Ezra was awake. He started to check on the gambler's condition and was pleased with his progress although the burns still hadn't healed.
"Nate? Ez wants to know when he can go home," Vin asked on behalf of the gambler.
"Not for a week at least. Yer back ain't healed and I don't want to undo what's already mended. Both hands are healing nicely but it would be very painful to get you home in your current condition."
"Well, whatever you are putting on my back had better be efficacious, Mr. Jackson. I don't want to be smelling like this with nothing to show for it."
"It is doing you good, Ezra but it's gonna take time."
"Can't I at least move? I feel numb," the gambler pleaded.
"Well, we can try propping you up a bit, I s'pose. Can two of you help?" the healer asked the room's other occupants.
Chris and Vin rose and Nathan collected a few pillows to use. He stood with his head on one side while he decided what he could do to make the gambler more comfortable. He eventually just laid the pillows down the left side of the bed and lifted Ezra's left side onto them. The gambler was then slightly raised and lying more on his right side. Ezra clenched his teeth and felt as if he was ripping apart when they moved him but he had to agree it was definitely an improvement.
"Okay, Ez?" Nathan asked.
"Yes but I wished I'd never asked. It hurt to move."
"I know. I'm sorry. Does it hurt your back being more on yer side like that?"
"A bit but it hurts whichever way I'm laying." Ezra raised one arm carefully after speaking and hugged the nearest pillow to him and fell asleep contentedly.
"At least he looks more comfortable," Chris said as he looked at the sleeping man. "Might be a bit easier for him when it comes to eating and drinking too."
"We can turn him the other way tomorrow. It's not good for him to be stuck in one position for too long. As long as it doesn't do more harm than good," Nathan said as he rechecked the gambler before leaving the room.
Ezra stayed at the ranch for another week before Nathan said he could be taken back to Four Corners.
"Hallelujah and praise the Lord," the gambler said on hearing the news.
"Let's get you dressed," Buck said as he helped the man out of bed. He dressed the gambler slowly and was careful when he touched the man in case he hurt him. Although his wounds were better they were still tender and not completely healed.
"Whose clothes do I have the pleasure of wearing now?" Ezra asked with a faint smile playing on his lips.
"The rancher lent you some. He's bigger than you and Nathan thought it would be better to have loose stuff to start with." The ladies' man looked up as he talked and saw Chris walk into the bedroom.
"Hey Ez. Good to see you on yer feet. Are you ready to go?" the gunfighter asked.
"Yes. The sooner the better."
The two men led the gambler outside and helped him into the wagon. The bed had been padded with pillows and blankets to make it as comfortable as possible for him. Ezra lay down and snuggled into the softness. "Ah bliss," he sighed.
Josiah started the wagon moving and Ezra winced a bit as he was jerked forwards. As the journey progressed though he found his eyelids growing heavy and he was rocked to sleep by the motion of the wagon. When they arrived back home Chris dismounted and walked to the tail of the wagon and looked in.
"Aw. Don't he look cute?" Buck said from beside him with a grin. "He's all tuckered out, poor kid."
"Bucklin! Grow up," Chris said although he was smiling too. Ezra was curled up as much as his body would allow and he hugged a pillow close.
"Bet he thinks he's holding a beautiful woman in his arms," the ladies' man said longingly.
"Well, he deserves to dream about something nice for a change," the gunfighter replied sombrely.
"Out the way, you two, if yer just gonna stand there yacking," Nathan said as he climbed up in the wagon. The healer knelt and touched Ezra's arm gently. When the man woke and opened his eyes, Nathan smiled and said, "We're home."
Ezra made moves to sit up and Nathan reached over and helped him. The two men got out of the wagon slowly and Buck took Ezra along to his room. The gambler sat in his rocking chair and Buck passed him a pillow to put at his back and a blanket to cover him with.
"It's good to be home. This town may not be much but I'm glad I'm here," Ezra said.
"Good to have you back. Got everything ya need?"
"Yes for the moment. Thank you for your patience and help, Bucklin. I've heard about my previous behavior and I'm sorry to have burdened you like that."
"You weren't no burden and I was glad to help. I'd better stay with you until you're more mobile, hadn't I? That is, if you can stand my company." The ladies' man smiled and sat down on the bed and the two men talked until the gambler fell asleep again. Buck left him in the rocking chair as he seemed comfortable enough.
Ezra slowly got back into a routine but the other men noticed he was still quieter than usual. He also got angry very easily and most conversations with him ended in an argument. Ezra couldn't help the inner turmoil he was experiencing. He was unable to get over what had happened and he took his frustration out on his friends although he tried hard not to. He slept badly and was plagued by nightmares and felt as if he had nothing to live for.
Josiah decided to try to get Ezra talking about what had happened again. He went to the saloon and saw Chris sitting at his usual table. "Where's Ezra?" the preacher asked.
"Think I saw him heading to the church about a half hour ago."
Josiah hurried back in the hope that Ezra was at last seeking the help he so obviously needed. The preacher entered the church through his room at the back. He opened the connecting door and saw Ezra sitting in the front row with his gun. Josiah frowned and stood in the doorway quietly as he watched the gambler intently. Ezra didn't acknowledge Josiah's presence as he sat turning his gun over and over in his hands. Josiah thought he seemed highly agitated and upset. The gambler suddenly stopped fiddling with his weapon and checked it was loaded before cocking it. He turned it round so he was looking down into the barrel.
"Son! I'd take care with a loaded weapon if I were you," Josiah said as he stepped forwards anxiously with an outstretched hand.
"Well, you aren't me, Mr. Sanchez, for which you should be eternally grateful. Why should you care if I blow my brains out? One less scoundrel for you to bother about. You'd probably rejoice in my demise." Ezra stood to leave and Josiah moved forward and caught his arm.
"No, I care about you, Ezra but is that what you plan?"
"Hell, I don't know what I intend but don't worry I won't kill myself here. I know that would be sacrilegious." Ezra sat down heavily and put his head in his hands. Josiah sat down next to him and Ezra eventually turned toward him with a frantic look on his face. "I don't know what to do, Josiah. Every day I wake up and see that man's face. I feel trapped in a nightmare and the only way I can see of ending it is by dying."
"Well, this is a saying I know about death 'The good man should go on living as long as he ought, not as long as he wishes.' It's not up to you to decide when you should die, Ezra. God is the only one who has the right to end your existence. I know life looks pretty bleak at the moment but things will get better. Slowly, I grant you but they will improve with the passage of time. You have to believe that, Ezra. Don't get mired in misery or you may never get free. Trust in the Lord and He'll guide you through the darkness."
"How can I put my faith in a God who allows murder? If He's so willing to help me, a cheat and a scoundrel, why couldn't He help that family? They didn't deserve to suffer like that. Why kill them but spare me? I've got nothing to offer this world."
"Don't say that Ezra. You've got lots to offer." The preacher patted the gambler's knee before continuing, "I told you before that God let you live so those bastards could be caught. It was just the family's time to leave this Earth. God needed them for a higher purpose."
"Sanctimonious bullshit," Ezra yelled tearfully as he stood up abruptly. He pushed past Josiah roughly and stormed out onto the street.
"Ezra? Don't go. Stay and talk. Ezra?!" Josiah cursed and ran out of the church and saw the gambler hurrying away still clutching his gun tightly. The preacher made moves to follow but was intercepted by Chris.
"Josiah? What's the matter? Where's Ezra going in such a hurry?"
"I think I just made matters worse. He was in the church with his gun. I don't know what he intends Chris. He's still very unstable and he was talking of killing himself. He so rarely comes for spiritual, or any other help and I've failed him again."
"Leave it to me. I'll see him," Chris said before running after the gambler. He finally caught up and he reached out a hand to pull Ezra to a halt and he saw that the man was crying. He also noticed the gambler was still holding his gun handy. He let go his grip on the man's arm and said, "Ezra?"
"Josiah sent you, did he? I don't wanna be preached at," the gambler sobbed.
Chris took his arm again and sat him down away from any observers. "Look, I know killing yerself may seem like a solution but how would it make Maude feel? The pain and guilt you're experiencing would be over if you died but you'd just move those feelings on to those that are left behind. We'd all feel bad because we hadn't helped you adequately in your time of need and stopped you from killing yerself. End it now. Not by dying but by accepting what happened to you and that family. You couldn't stop it and you can't change it. Learn from it and move on."
"I don't know that I can," Ezra whispered as he wiped his eyes and sighed.
"I didn't say it would be easy, Ezra. It took me three years to start to accept that I'd lost Sarah and Adam and I don't recommend going down the path I took after their murder either. Don't shut us out, Ez. We wanna help."
"Now I know why I always stay on the fringes of society, not getting involved. Looking after number one as Maude taught me. Even though I hadn't known that family long it still hurt abominably when they were killed like that. It was almost as if I'd lost a part of myself," Ezra explained quietly.
"I know but you can't spend yer life never getting involved. No man is an island, that's the saying isn't it? You're involved in this town and with us, ain't ya? It'd be a lonely world if we all stayed separate. Everyone needs a friend when they're hurting. Don't turn us away like I did Buck when Sarah died."
"I really wish I'd never remembered what happened. You could have moulded me into a better person with fewer shortcomings in my nature. Anything is better than what I am," the gambler said as if Chris hadn't spoken.
"Ezra, you don't need altering. Everyone's got foibles, good and bad traits. Hell, look at me. If you need a personality change, where does that leave me?"
Ezra smiled sadly and didn't say anything. Chris ploughed on in the hope Ezra was now taking in what he was saying. "If you were so bad you wouldn't be so upset about the murders. Surely you can see that. Look, Ezra. When we were helping Jess after we first met her, do you remember we were talking about the guilt she must be feeling over her own family's death?" Ezra nodded and Chris continued, "I think your words were that she must be emancipated from the guilt she was suffering at being spared the same fate as her family before she could move on with her life. Bit of a mouthful but you talked a lot of sense that day and you should take some of your own advice. There was something else you said to me at the same time when I talked about not having the guts to kill myself after Sarah died. You said it takes more guts to live through the bad times and emerge battered but unbowed the other side. Live for the day and never despair, Ezra. They're good sentiments in every way."
"Well, I can't ignore my own advice, can I? That would make me a hypocrite. No, don't comment on that, Mr. Larabee. I know your opinion of me," Ezra smiled sadly and re-holstered his weapon.
"Come on. Do ya wanna drink?" the gunfighter asked, knowing there was nothing more he could say to help his friend. He hoped he'd given the gambler something to think about and had, at the very least, prevented him from doing something stupid. He sincerely hoped he'd now got his friend back on the right track so the man could start to come to terms with what had happened.
"God yes. I could certainly drown my sorrows in a good whiskey although I know it will not make the unwanted memories go away completely. At least I can alleviate them for a small amount of time by drinking myself into oblivion. Thank you for taking the time to talk some sense into me, Chris. I know I haven't been easy to deal with lately."
"We all go through bad patches Ezra and yours was a really raw deal. You've helped me out in the past and I'm just repaying the favor. Just don't rely on drink as a way of blanking out what happened. It doesn't work. I've tried it enough in the past myself," Chris warned.
"I know. I will be careful not to become the town drunk, Chris. I am truly grateful to you and the others and I wouldn't repay you by becoming even more of a hindrance to you."
"Josiah didn't mean to upset you earlier, you know. He was only trying to help."
"I know. My state of mind was not the best when I spoke to him. I don't know why I went to the church anyway. I'm not particularly religious but for some reason I thought I might find the answers that I needed there. I will certainly apologize to Mr. Sanchez," Ezra promised.
"You know we're all around if you want to talk and now you mention saying sorry, I'd better apologize to you again for shooting you. I've learnt a valuable lesson from all this too and I promise, in future, I won't jump to conclusions about you. I'll get all the details about what's happened and then shoot you afterwards."
"Oh how kind, Mr. Larabee. You're all heart," the gambler laughed.