Wounds of A Friend
by THE BUFFALO GALS
Perhaps it was the whisky, or adrenaline from the fight that disturbed Ezra; he couldn't say for sure. Normally gregarious he found himself shunning his friends, sitting off to one side of the fire, surrounded by an unnatural silence. Rafter and Stone were dead and he felt a grim satisfaction at their demise. He glanced across to where Vin was sitting listening to Larabee's gentle words, nodding dully as Chris wrapped a protective arm around his shoulders.
'Is he thinking about Lily?' Ezra took another drag from his flask, the golden liquid burning away the pain in his heart. 'If only...' he thought, riding a tide of self loathing that threatened to suffocate him. 'If only Ah'd ignored that damn map, none of this would've happened.'
Larabee would blame him for Vin and JD's injuries. If they had died, no doubt Ezra would have too, at the hands of the gunslinger. Chris' disapproval from the very beginning had twisted in Ezra's gut, like a knife. Would he use the latest episode as an excuse to turn the gambler away? Ezra lifted the flask to his lips again only to have Nathan take in firmly in his hands and pull it away from Ezra's weakened grip.
"No more, Ezra. You should be getting' somethin' to eat." The healer's words were curt but filled with concern.
Ezra glared up at the man, his tone dangerous. "Give me the flask." He held up blackened fingers, barely controlling his rage as Nathan pocketed the item, shaking his head.
"No, you've had enough." He stood his ground as the southerner leapt to his feet, hitting out at the healer.
"Who gave you the goddamn right to tell me what's right or wrong! Give me the flask."
Nathan easily parried the blows and shoved the gambler in the chest, sending him back to the dirt, clutching his aching ribs.
Chris and Vin stood up, Chris calling out to them, "What's goin' on?" Getting no answer, he and Vin strode towards the dueling men. Nathan stood, hands on hips, staring down at the gambler.
Bending low to the ground, Ezra wheezed in a defeated tone, "Just give me the whisky, Nathan, ah can't face another day without it."
Nathan dropped to one knee and helped Ezra to sit up. "I'm not gonna help you drown in a bottle," he said stubbornly as Chris and Vin approached.
"What's goin' on here?" Chris demanded, looking from on to the other.
"Ain't nothin'," Nathan said, seeing the dark look Ezra bestowed on the leader.
"Don't look like nothin'," Vin said, his eyes fixed on Ezra.
"You got a problem?" Chris asked the southerner, his tone gentle.
Ezra would hear none of his concern. He pulled away from his grasp and hit back at him, "Ah ain't done anything wrong. He's the one you should be asking." He thrust an accusing finger at Nathan, making the healer flinch. Ezra's words continued to cut at Chris, "You're looking for an excuse to run me out, well let me save you the trouble." He grabbed up his saddle, wincing at the effort. "Ah quit!"
Shouldering through a bemused Vin and Chris; deaf to Vin's protests, Ezra marched to where the horses were tethered. Chris watched him go in dumb amazement.
By his side, Nathan let out his breath. "What brought that on?"
"He thinks you blame him, Chris," Vin whispered, looking back to the healer. "He can't handle that right now, 'cause he blames himself."
Chris cursed softly, caught by those blue eyes. Vin wanted him to follow Ezra, talk to him. "What can I say?" he asked the tracker as they made their way towards the horses.
"Just don't let him go," Vin pleaded, dropping back to allow Chris to approach on his own.
Ezra heard the footsteps and knew it was Chris because of the soft chink-chink of his spurs. Not wanting to speak to him, he turned his horse and tried to head out. Chris was quicker, he grabbed the gambler's jacket and dragged him to the floor.
Ezra rolled over, shocked to the core at be grappled by Larabee. He struggled to his feet and snatched his arms free from Chris' fingers. As he turned to escape he heard a gun being cocked at his back. Ezra froze, jumping when Chris reached inside his jacket to relieve him of his guns. The derringer was dealt with the same way then Chris turned Ezra roughly to face him, his gun aimed at the southerner's chest.
"Remember what I told you I'd do if you ran out on me again?" Chris asked, seeing his words bite home and realizing the extent of the gambler's pain. Ezra stood mute, unable to believe the predicament, though he always thought it would end like this.
Chris holstered his gun with a sigh, "I ain't gonna shoot you, Ezra." He said, leaning back against the rock behind him.
Ezra turned away, the act of robbing him of his guns had been as much a violation to him as the whipping he'd received at Stone's hands. He felt naked without their protection and he felt vulnerable at the side of this man he knew did not trust him. "What happens now?" He asked eventually, his voice dull and weary.
Chris shifted uneasily, words were not his strong point and he was not comfortable, alone with the gambler. He stepped up behind Ezra, noting how uneasy the other man stood, having Chris at his back. "I never blamed you for this," Chris said with his usual candor. "I understand you might want to leave, and I won't stop you. But I don't want you to go because of a misunderstanding. " He let the words hang in the air for a moment, gauging the gambler's response.
Ezra felt a glimmer of hope rise inside. "It was mah map, and mah ideas that led us to that place," he whispered.
"Could've been anyone of us," Chris answered in his usual drawl and Ezra believed his words. After another lengthy silence, Chris shifted from one foot to another, so close to the southerner his breath turned wisps of hair.
"Come back to the fire, and sleep on it. "Chris offered, holding his breath as he waited for the gambler's reply.
Ezra nodded. "Ah'd like that," he said softly, warmed by Chris' invitation. He felt a lump rise in his throat and knew he wouldn't be able to contain it. "Just give me a minute."
"All right." Chris agreed, preparing to leave. "Just one last thing," he stated, keeping his tone gentle. "You are one of us."
Tears coursed steadily down Ezra's cheeks as Chris spoke but he held his composure. "Yes sir, Ah suppose Ah am." He answered, never turning to look at the gunslinger.
In a rare moment of unity, Chris reached out to squeeze his shoulder then moved away to give the gambler some privacy.
Once he'd gone, Ezra covered his face, trying to crush the rising emotions. A single sob broke free. Half moaning from the pain of it, Ezra hugged his sore ribs and sat down. He didn't hear the tracker's cat like approach and jumped at Vin's soft, silky words.
"Ya know, when you're back in the saloon, hustlin' and winnin' ya ain't gonna remember this time, or this place. So I'm gonna put my arms around ya, like so, and hold ya."
Ezra allowed Vin to turn him to rest against his shoulder, the half protest dying on his lips as Vin's arms wound around his waist.
"So let ya tears go, Ezra. Ain't nobody gonna remind ya when we're back home."
Ezra raised tear streaked face and looked into Vin's gentle eyes. "What about you?"
Those gentle eyes crinkled at the corners. "Oh, there'll be a time for me, but not now. Now's your time." He stroked Ezra's hair and helped him settle back against his shoulder.
Ezra felt the first wave of misery reach up and take him, wrapping his hands in Vin's shirt he sobbed into his neck. The tracker's hand cupped his face, fingers tracing the tracks of his tears as he whispered soft words into Ezra's hair. As Ezra's pain intensified, Vin was there, caressing his back, in long, soothing strokes that reached the gambler through his grief. Vin was his lifeline. He accepted the younger man's offer and wept until all that was left were empty tremors. He sagged against the tracker's chest, spent.
Vin stopped stroking the gambler's back and turned his forehead against Ezra's cheek. "You're cold. The others will be asleep. We should go back to the fire."
Ezra nodded, sitting up he reached up to wipe his eyes.
Vin caught hold of the gambler's hands in his own, careful not hurt the healing flesh. "No Ezra, let me," he smiled, gentle fingers brushing the tears away. Green eyes gazed back at him, solemn and trusting, and fresh tears spilled over Vin's fingers. He reached around the gambler, caressing the muscles at the nape of his neck. "Ya ready to go back now?"
A ragged sigh escaped Ezra's lips. Vin got to his knees and wrapped his arms around the gambler, hugging him tightly, "It will be all right, pard. Maybe not tomorrow... but we will come through."
Ezra rested his forehead on Vin's shoulder. "Ah know, it's just..." His voice faded away as Vin pulled back to look at him.
"Just what?" He whispered, turning Ezra's cheek so the gambler had to look at him.
"Ah don't know where to go from here." Brows knitted over green eyes. "Ah feel Ah lost mahself down that mine." He watched as Vin stood and offered his hand to him. The gambler took it and let himself be pulled to his feet.
Vin draped an arm around Ezra's shoulders. "Then let me lead you, friend, at least until yer ready to take up the reins. " The tracker laid his forehead against Ezra's for a moment then, after unsaddling the gambler's horse, they turned back towards the camp. Ezra yielded willingly, allowing Vin to return him to the warmth of the fire.
The others, apart from Josiah, who was on first watch, were asleep, but they'd laid out the bed rolls of the two missing men. Vin smiled and helped Ezra to lie down, wrapping the blankets tightly around him before setting on his own bed, close by the gambler's side.
Vin reached out and touched his friend's face with gentle fingers. The contact brought forth a sigh from Ezra, who felt a weight lift from his shoulders. Suddenly very tired, the southerner settled into a deep sleep. Vin watched the firelight play over Ezra's features and felt a flood of relief course through him. For a terrifying instant he'd thought the gambler would go. Not daring to re-live the events of the evening, he closed his eyes and willed himself into a fitful sleep
Two days into their journey back to Willow Springs, the cavalry came into view. After explaining to the captain in charge of the troop what had happened and where, Chris Larabee gladly gave up the wagons and prisoners to the soldiers. He told the young captain that he and his men would give statements to Judge Travis as soon as they returned to Four Corners. The seven men were relieved to be going home and without the hindrance of the wagons they'd make good time even though they had a certain, stubborn mule back with them. When JD had seen it in the herd of horses, his face had lit up with a smile.
"Know I called him names, but I'm glad we got him back," he'd explained to the others.
Chris eased himself down on a sunlit rock overlooking the deepest of pools at the edge of the main river and looked down at the receding back of his partner, Vin Tanner.
"Hey!" he called out, getting the attacker's attention. "Where you goin!"
Vin turned, smiling up at the man on the rocks who was trying to unravel himself from two poorly constructed willow rods. "To the water, that's where the fish are," he teased, easing off Nathan's borrowed jacket as he reached the water's edge.
"We've got rods!" Chris called down to him, holding up one of the rods and managing to catch the hook in the back of his long black coat. A low curse from the gunslinger had Vin laughing softly, enjoying the other's misfortune.
"Rods is for boys and old men!" he threw back. "We gotta eat today." Smiling to himself, he stole a look at Chris, noting the calculating look he was receiving.
"All right," Larabee said. "Have it your own way. You'd better hope you catch more than me after that comment."
Vin sat down and pulled off his boots and poorly patched socks then rolled up his pants legs to the knees. The sight of his bruised legs had him swallowing down his anger, now was not the time or place. He glanced up at Chris who'd cast out his line and was settling down to watch the tiny float for a nibble. 'Yer goin' to learn a lesson, cowboy.' He grinned, pulling oversized shirt over his head before paddling out into the shallows.
Chris watched Vin wade out, safe in the knowledge that the other man's attention was wholly with the fish. He was glad Vin felt comfortable enough to show his injuries; he knew how difficult it must be for him. The cuts and bruises on his back and arms bore testament to his ordeal, as did the pallor of his skin as it flowed across muscle and bone. Vin had lost a lot of weight over the past weeks, weight he could ill afford to drop.
Watching him stalking his prey with cat like precision, Chris could only marvel at the man's tenacity. Vin's fingers flexed as he anticipated his first catch. He tickled the water with the very tips of those fingers, catching his tongue between his teeth as he neared a fat catfish.
"Gonna scare the fish with that look," Chris drawled, making the tracker lose concentration.
Vin turned to scowl at the gunslinger as the fish darted through his fingers. "T'aint fair, cowboy," he warned, unable to keep a grin off his face. Tucking stray golden curls behind his ears, he searched the water for the errant fish.
Chris turned back to his own rod as it jumped in his fingers. "I got one!" he shouted, hauling the rough line with his hands.
Vin watched as Chris landed a small trout, shaking his head in derision as the fish was held up for his inspection. "Gonna have to land a bucketful of those to fill Josiah!" he quipped, going back to his own fishing.
Chris smiled at the exchange and cast out his line. Once the line had settled he turned to study his friend once more. Vin had his back to the rocks and was up to his elbows in water. The muscles in his shoulders twitched restlessly, a sure sign of overwork.
Chris' mood slipped a notch as he cast his eyes over the ugly red scars dusted with dark bruises that lay over Vin's back. He didn't care if they were meant for punishment or not, no one should suffer this way; man or beast. Death had been too good for Vin's captors. He shifted his gaze over the bright water; he wouldn't have been so lenient if Vin, Ezra or JD had died...
Lost in his thoughts, Chris was stunned by a large catfish that hit him on the nose. He reached out to catch it as it wriggled and bounced off the rocks. Down below, Vin was laughing at him, the sound of mirth, music to his ears as he dispatched the gaping fish. Giving Vin a dark look, Chris was rewarded by a smile.
"Ya should try and concentrate, cowboy," he threw at him, hands on hips.
"Kill your own damn fish!" Chris sniffed, settling down once more to study his line.
Less than five minutes later, Vin caught another. "Fish comin' in!" he called out just as the fat trout hit Chris on the cheek.
Chris was about to retort when another hapless creature came flying through the air. "Steady up!" Chris shouted down to him, almost losing the third fish. Vin wasn't listening; a particularly nice brown trout had stepped into his trap.
Twenty minutes later Chris was tying the fish to his rod as Vin waded in from the shallows. Gathering his coat the gunslinger went down to meet him. Vin smirked as he looked at the catch; seven fat fish and Chris' minnow! Seeing the unspoken taunt, Chris reached out and cupped the back of Vin's neck.
"Not bad," he smiled, drawing the tracker close for a hug.
Vin accepted the gesture willingly, looking up at the taller man as Chris wound an arm around his shoulders.
"It's good to have you as my partner again," Chris whispered, meeting the tracker's gaze.
Vin nodded sagely. "It's good to get the chance!" he answered, grimacing as Chris ruffled his already tangled mane.
"Get your boots on, we've got to get goin!" Larabee quipped, gathering up the catch.
Vin pulled on Buck's shirt, quickly fastening enough buttons to cover his scars then picked up the jacket and boots. "Nothin' like the feelin' of sand between ya toes!" he teased Chris, setting off up the trail in front of him.
Larabee shook his head in disbelief, Nathan would no doubt chastise the pair of them should any harm come to Vin's precious toes.
Chris put on his best poker face as they reached camp. Vin had tugged the catch from him and was now showing Chris' trophy to the men gathered by the fire. Josiah and Buck laughed softly at Vin's eager face and ready tale; even JD managed a shy smile, but Nathan's face was cross.
"Where's yer boots, Vin?" the healer asked, staring at the tracker's sand encrusted feet.
Chris shook his head as he contemplated the healer's wrath as he walked into the gathering.
Vin's boots were offered up for Nathan's perusal. Nathan pulled his full lips into a thin line. "What's the point of patching you up Vin Tanner, when you do stuff like this!?"
Vin's face fell, he sat down heavily on the blanket between Nathan and Josiah. "Hell, I'm sorry Doc, guess it felt good to get out of them boots." He cast doleful eyes on Nathan, silently asking forgiveness.
Nathan smirked, then laughed softly as relief flooded the tracker's face. Seeing the release of tension, the others, including Chris, joined in the moment.
Vin got to his knees and hugged the healer warmly. "Ya got me there, pard!" he grinned clapping Nathan on the back.
"You asked for it!" The healer warned, winking at him.
Sitting back, Vin watched as Nathan skillfully gutted and spiked the seven fat fish, then he picked up Chris' catch and looked around the group.
"Where's Ezra?" he asked, his brows knitting as he considered the worst.
"By the trees," Josiah told him, his tone gentle. "He's still sleepin'. We thought it best to let him rest."
Vin got to his feet and padded across to the bundle of blankets in the shade. He sat down and leaning close to the sleeping man's face he brushed his fingers through the gambler's hair. "Ez?" he called, blowing gently over his friend's eyelids.
Ezra frowned. "Go away," he mumbled, placing a hand over his eyes to stop the teasing.
Vin smiled, he knew Ezra of old. Always the difficult one to wake; he would take some persuading, unless... he looked down at the fish he still held and smiled.
"Hey Ezra, been fishin', caught ya a nice fat trout." Lying on his side and looking directly at the gambler, Vin ran the fish under the refined nose.
After just a fleeting moment, Ezra snorted and reared up in the blankets. "Take that odorous article away from me!" He pushed Vin away with his hands as the tracker waved the offending creature in his face.
Back at the camp fire the others watched the exchange with bated breath; would Vin go too far with the fragile southerner?
"Ah warn you, Mr. Tanner, you will be wearing that insidious beast as a hat if you continue!"
Vin put down the fish and held up his hands in surrender, unable to keep the grin from his face. "Hell Ezra, ya got me beat. How about a nice cup a coffee to moisten ya tongue?" He watched the gambler's shoulders relax and was unprepared for the soft chuckle that accompanied it.
Ezra rubbed the day old stubble in his chin thoughtfully. "An admirable suggestion," he said squinting up at the young man.
Vin got to his feet and picked up the discarded fish. "Good." He helped Ezra to his feet with his free hand, waving the soiled fish at him as he grinned, "Best get yer breakfast cookin'."
Chris watched the two men approach with a half smile on his face. The men by the fire had shared their friend's exchange and welcomed the humor. He watched as Vin wrapped an arm around Ezra's shoulders and drew him into their circle. The gambler's eyes were red rimmed and he looked exhausted but the ready smile spoke of a healing beginning. What Chris wasn't expecting was the hand on his shoulder as Ezra sat down next to him. Chris turned, his eyes relaying his need for reconciliation though he did not mean to portray it.
Ezra smiled; took the fish from Vin; who sat by his side; between finger and thumb, and holding it as far away as he could, he offered it back to Chris. "A fine specimen Mr. Larabee," he jested, smiling enough for the light to glint on his gold tooth. "Ah could not possibly deny you the pleasure of such a repast. Ah will take one of the lesser fish."
He dropped the sprat in Chris' hand, breathing a sigh of relief as he saw the corner of the gunslinger's eyes crease with a suppressed smile. Then he skewered the other fish and popped it over the flames with the others.
"I'm touched by your generosity." Chris whispered to the gambler, hearing the soft chuckles around the campfire as the others settled back to their work. He caught Vin's eye as the other lifted the cup of coffee to his lips. Blue eyes smiled back at him.
Unable to reach the coffee, Ezra was surprised and pleased when Chris gently squeezed his arm before reaching down to collect a mug for him.
"Mind if I join you, pard?" Chris asked his long haired tracker.
Vin glanced up, smiling. Accepting the coffee passed to him.
"Don't want to interrupt."
"Just thinkin'. First chance I've had in a long time to just sit and think." Vin glanced up at the stars, "And enjoy these."
"I was worried about you, bein' trapped down the mine... how you don't like bein' in enclosed spaces..."
A shudder ran through Vin's slender frame at the memory. "Don't know how I held on, some nights..." Vin turned to face Chris, who'd settled himself down on the rocks next to him. "But, I had to keep goin'... for Ezra... and JD. They needed me as much as I needed them." He smiled slightly as he said, "And I knew you'd come lookin' for me."
"You coulda tried to escape."
"No... they'd've hurt them folk..." Vin shuddered as a terrible thought hit him, "Maybe if we had've done we coulda saved some of them..."
"No..." Chris was angry with himself for placing doubts in Vin's head. "You did what was right. Ezra told me you gave them folks their self respect back, somethin' they'd forgotten."
"I ain't special. Just did what I could."
"I think you're special." Chris reached out and squeezed Vin's shoulder. "Don't stay up too late. We've got a long ride ahead of us tomorrow."
"You're cluckin', Chris."
Larabee frowned, not understanding his companion.
"Like a mother hen.." Vin explained with a grin.
"I peck like one, too. So do as you're told. Ezra and JD are already curled up asleep." Chris shook his head as he smiled, "Your bed roll is in between theirs."
"Got to watch over them."
"Ha! Now who's clucking!" Chris stood up, stretched his lean limbs and wandered back to camp. Nathan was taking first watch so that he would have time in the morning to check over his charges. Chris chuckled, guess they were all clucking!
It was evening by the time they rode into Four Corners. They were tired, hungry and dusty. But the first priority were the horses.
"Ah am looking forward to mah own feather bed," Ezra said dreamily as he unsaddled his animal, "And if I do not surface tomorrow, gentlemen, do not worry. Ah am sorely in need of mah beauty sleep."
"Not be seein' you for a week then!" JD replied cheekily.
"You may mock, Mr. Dunne, but at least Ah don't look like a grizzly bear!" Ezra spat back acidly. "Ah cannot see Casey wanting to kiss you while you have a deceased gopher adorning your face."
"He's right, JD, ya look like somethin you'd shoot and use as a rug!" Buck said, tugging at the youngster's beard.
"I think it makes me look older... wiser..." JD ran his fingers through it. "What do you think Vin?"
The tracker pondered for a while. He'd not been able to get rid of his beard fast enough. Stubble was comfortable, the mountain man look wasn't. "Don't want to make yerself old 'fore your time... and you're already wise."
JD sniffed smugly, "Thank you. Then tomorrow it goes. I'll shave it off."
"Ah'd engage a professional barber to do that if Ah was you son. Ah've never seen a scalped face before."
Finally satisfied that his animal was comfortable for the night, Ezra headed out of the stable, "Good night Gentlemen. Sweet dreams to you all."
"Josiah..." Chris nodded to the preacher. "Make sure he gets home safely."
Sanchez smiled at the blond. "Don't worry, I was just about to follow; make sure he's tucked up tight!" The large man ambled after the gambler.
JD felt disconnected, he was so used to having Ezra and Vin by his side yet here they were, splitting up and he was expected to spend the night alone. He wasn't sure he'd be able to sleep through the loneliness.
Buck saw the uncertainty in the boy's eyes and understood. "Ya can bunk down in my room tonight."
"In your bed?!"
"No... fool... bring your bed roll. Ain't gettin' in my bed, not with that beard. God knows what's livin' in there!"
JD felt embarrassed; they'd all seen through his weakness, but the offer was too tempting. "Just tonight, I promise..." Snatching hold of his bed roll the youngster started to follow Buck, then stopped. "Vin, will you be all right?"
"Yeah... ready for some space..."
The boy nodded, then ran after Buck, shouting, "Hey, I hope you don't snore!"
"Tell the world, kid!" Wilmington hissed, his reputation with the ladies in serious danger if this ever got out.
"I'll help you carry his stuff back to the clinic." Chris told Nathan, once the three men had made sure the horses had some hay to munch on over night.
"I'll lend a hand," Vin offered willingly. " Least I can do..."
Once they'd finished their task, Nathan thanked them warmly, ordering Vin to get some sleep.
"Don't worry, Doc, I'll take care of him," Chris joked as he swung an arm around Vin's shoulder and led him back downstairs.
"Chris, I can take care of myself now." Vin tried not to sound irritated by Larabee's fussing.
"I ain't even tired yet." Now there was exasperation Vin's voice.
"Good, neither am I."
"Then where are we goin?"
Larabee chuckled as he headed them towards the swing doors. He'd noticed there were still a few patrons inside.
Vin smiled as he and Chris said in unison, "The saloon!"
Ezra slipped into consciousness. He was lying on his stomach on the softest of beds, his head nestling on a feather pillow. He stretched out his hand, smoothing the sheet and searching for the people his sleepy mind told him would be there.
"Vin....?" he called softly, "JD?" He blinked open his eyes, seeing very little in the early morning shadows.
"There's no one here but an old preacher man," Josiah told him, his voice husky and low. He reached out and covered the gambler's fingers with his own.
Ezra looked up at Josiah and smiled, the expression warm and uncomplicated and reaching his eyes. Almost immediately his heavy lids closed and he drifted away again, secure in the knowledge that his family watched over him.
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