Buck sank carefully but gratefully into the bath Sophia had prepared for him. Every muscle seemed to ache, every tiny jar of his right hand radiated through his body. But it felt good to be clean. Sophia came in to the room with a shaving kit.
"You will permit me?" she asked.
All he did was nod, knowing she wouldn't offer if she didn't know what she was doing. All this time young Eric was out making inquires and scouring the liveries for a buckskin horse. Buck thought Groves was a fool, buckskins were uncommon, and riding one just made you easier to track. Closing his eyes he rested his head back and let the talented young madam shave him. By the time her son had returned he was clean and freshly shaved, he'd drunk some coffee and eaten one tortilla, thought he couldn't face anything else, despite Isobella's efforts to tempt him.
"Well?" Sophia asked.
"Si, I have found him. His horse is most easy to find." Buck snorted, as the boy continued. "He is at Murphy's, with a girl, he sleeps."
Buck fumbled in his right pocket with his left hand and eventually found a dime, which he tossed to the boy with a wink.
"Gracias senor." He beamed as he caught the coin.
"You mind your ma, you listen to the ladies, you remember all the things they teach you and you dont let no one hurt them, you do all that and don't listen to what them 'respectable' folk say about you, and life can be real good."
The boy regarded the tall American for a long time then he smiled again. "I will senor."
"I swear senor."
With that he pushed himself to his feet and wished he hadn't, his head still pounded and for a moment he was dizzy. Sophia wanted him to stay, he was clearly unwell and in need of rest, but she knew better than to stand in the way of men like Buck Wilmington, beside them, behind them, but never in front.
"You know where we are if you need anything, Eric will show you the way. And gracious senor."
"What you just said to my son. Not many men are kind to him or trust him, but he is a good boy, it is good he knows others can see that. Your mamma would be proud of you." With that she kissed him and was again alarmed at how hot he felt to her.
There was no point asking the local law to assist him, in Purgatory there was no law. Murphy's was the cheapest saloon in town with the cheapest whores. Eric showed him up to the second floor landing via the back stairs. "The man is in the last room."
"Good, off you go now, my horse is behind your ma's place, bring the man's horse to him. There is a halter and long lead rope in my saddle bags, put it on his horse, no saddle or bridle - you understand?"
"Keep his saddle and tack, if I don't send for it in two months you can keep it. Can you find me a strip of leather, like a boot lace?" he asked the eager boy.
"Take one to the horses, but soak the ends in a horse trough for a few moments first."
With a quick nod and a grin, Eric was gone.
Deke Groves lay snoring on his back, in the centre of small double bed that took up the best part of the tiny room; the girl had already left. The room, the bed and the man were all filthy and Buck had to fight his gag reflex at the stench. Groves had no boots on and his flys were undone but apart from that he was dressed.
Drawing and holding his gun in his left hand Buck kicked the bed.
"Wake up you mangy dog!" he bellowed, wincing as the sound of his own voice made his head hurt even more. It took three heavy kicks to the less than stable bed frame, but eventually Groves raised a head. It took him a moment to recognised the thing pointing at him was a gun, and when he did to reach for his own weapon, he found only an empty holster.
"Looking for this?" Wilmington asked.
Groves looked at the man, realising that his gun was tucked into the stranger's waistband.
"Fuck! Who the hell are you? What do you want?"
"You, dead or alive, makes no odds to me. Get up." Buck made him remove his belt and refused to let him put his boots on. So bootless and clutching at his pants to prevent them falling down he walked ahead of the Four Corners lawman to the two horses behind the bordello. With the help of Sophia and her son, Buck tied the man's hands behind his back with the partially soaked leather thong. In the noonday sun the leather would dry and contract, thus the knot, tied in the wet part of the leather would set hard, only a sharp knife would free Deke Groves from those bonds. By standing on an old table in the yard Deke mounted his horse, bareback. The rope from the simple halter was tied to Max's tail.
"Now," Buck explained to his hung-over and miserable prisoner. "Ol' Max has done this before, you keep that nag of yours so the rope is slack, but don't let his nose come up too close or Max is like to kick and your gonna be on the ground. I can't lift you and I ain't untying you, so if you don't wanna walk, be careful. If you let him drift back too far it'll pull Max's tail and he don't like that so I'll know. You upset my horse you walk, and remember " Buck eyed at him with pure malice. "I have all the water."
With that he finally holstered his own gun and trying not to let his own pain show, mounted up.
+ + + + + + +
When Ezra awoke after his little trip to the stables he found Vin dozing in the chair beside him. After nearly fifteen minutes of the soft snores he reached out a hand and tentatively poked the scruffy looking individual next to him. Vin's head came up in a shot, blue eyes daring around the room for a second seeking danger, then relaxing when he remembered where he was.
"Who are you?" Ezra demanded. "Have I seen you before?"
"Yes, my name's Vin, remember me?"
Ezra frowned. "You from Texas?"
"There's another one."
There was something endearing about Ezra speaking in these basic, short, somewhat cryptic sentences.
"Another fella, black fella."
Ezra thought about it, no that was wrong, no he had met Nathan, he kept trying to make him drink that God awful tea stuff, it tasted like, well he didn't know what; it was a taste unknown to man or beast in his opinion.
"Well there ain't no other black fellas around here," Vin advised.
"Yes, all black, tall, mean," Ezra sounded very sure.
"Well we got Chris, he's a mean one, but he ain't black."
"Chris?" Ezra tried to see if he could remember a Chris. No, he couldn't but he did remember a tall man in black with yellow hair. "He got yellow hair?"
"Yup and he do tend to favour black clothes I guess. Hey, this is great, you're remembering!"
"I'm hungry." With that Ezra tried to get up.
"Oh no you don't." Vin placed his hand on Standish's chest.
"Ge' off me." Ezra brushed the hand away.
"Come on Ezra, don't give me no trouble, Nate 'll have my hide if you go wandering again, you want food I'll get some," Vin would have said more but he suddenly had the feeling Ezra wasn't listening anymore.
"Is that my name - Ezra?"
"Yes, Ezra Standish, that's you."
"Not Edward or Edmund or Ethan, you sure I'm Ezra."
"Standish? Not Simpson, or Smith, or Sands?"
"No definitely Standish, that's what your mamma calls you."
"Mamma?" Ezra's eyes became wide as saucers.
"Sure Mrs Standish, Maude, she's a fine looking woman, but kinda slippery."
"I'm hungry." Ezra was off again, trying to get out of bed.
"Oh Lord!" Vin sighed as he once more restrained the confused gambler. He was still trying to keep the struggling Ezra on the bed when he suddenly said.
"Whos he? Hey, he's got food."
Vin looked over his shoulder to see an amused JD standing in the doorway with a tray in his hands. "Oh thank God, give him some food will you, please."
Vin was contentedly dipping his biscuits in Inez's fine stew, while Ezra regarded the young lad in a wool suit that had seen better days. "Your stew's getting cold," he advised Ezra.
"How old are you?" Ezra asked JD. "Do I know you?"
"I'm old enough and yes you know me, I'm JD."
Ezra seemed to accept this and made a start on his stew. He was about halfway through when he suddenly put the tray down on the bed bedside him. Vin looked up to see their southern and currently very confused friend once more staring at JD.
"What?" the sheriff asked.
"There is something missing," Ezra stated. "Oh dear." With that he began to turn very pale.
"Um Vin, I think he's gonna puke," JD offered, while taking two steps back.
"No, really," the tracker commented sarcastically as he leapt to his feet. "Don't you go no place JD, you stay here and help!" With that Vin grabbed Ezra and pulled him over the edge of the bed just in time.
It took a little time to freshen up both patient and room, remove the rest of the food and persuade Ezra to stop apologising. Nathan came and made him drink peppermint tea, which for once he actually quite liked and finally Josiah and Chris arrived. Ezra stared hard at Chris, who finally began to squirm under the examination.
"You're the mean one," he stated.
"Me?" Chris asked.
"Yes, you - you are Chris, black clothes, yellow hair, mean. Yes, you are Chris."
Chris shot Vin a look as if to say What have you been telling him? All this time Ezra was surveying the five men around his bed, his eyes went back and frowe as if he was counting.
"Six," he finally stated with a yawn. "There should be six, six and me, where is the other one?"
While it was gratifying and a relief that he seemed to be remembering things more and more no one was willing to explain were Buck was. Ezra zeroed in on JD and pointed.
"There, someone should be there, beside you." He yawned again and this Nathan took as a cue to shoo them out of the room.
+ + + + + + +
Buck let Max just walk. He knew he was ill, and he knew if he stopped and dismounted he might not ever get back up, so his return to Four Corners would have to be a non-stop one. Groves had complained continually, but after nearly two hours his captor had not replied once so he gave up. He was hot, his head hurt, his side hurt and he was totally dependent on the man who rode ahead of him. The wet leather had dried out and the knot binding him was now rock hard, there was no way he was going to be able to work his hands loose. With no boots, no belt and riding bareback on a horse with no bridle, his only hope was to take his captor off guard. So he waited. The man, who he though he might have seen in Four Corners, looked ill - all he had to do was wait. The more he looked at him the more Deke thought this was the man whose bullet had grazed his side as he escaped the town. Well he was going to die, just like everyone who ever stood in his way. Just like the dandy who shot his friend Tom in Four Corners. Just like the stupid idiot in that damn bank who thought he was a hero, he had forced Deke and the others to kill all the hostages. Just like his parents, who tried to make him stay on some dirt poor farm, like some peasant.
The sun dipped below the horizon and a near full moon rose in a cloudless sky, and Max walked on. Sophia had packed Buck some food and refilled his canteen, but the food had gone untouched, he just didn't have any interest in food, the canteen had been drained already and yet he was still thirsty. Under the sun he had sweated profusely, now as the heat of the day evaporated into the desert night he was shivering.
"So when are we gonna make camp?" Groves shouted out from behind him.
Buck didn't reply, he just tapped Max with his heels, encouraging him to pick up the pace, forcing Groves to push his horse on and concentrate on keeping his balance. While his prisoner concentrated on staying on his horse Buck thought about Ezra. It was is fault Standish was shot, injured, maybe dying, possibly dead already. Chris was right, it was all his fault, just like it was his fault the boy was dead. The boy, he was so young, JD was young, the boy was an innocent, just like JD, trapped into a life of crime by circumstances. What if it had been JD? What if someone shot him, the way Buck shot the boy. What if he couldn't protect JD the way he didn't protect Ezra? Then his increasingly confused mind started to dwell on Ezra again. My fault, all my fault, Ezra's dead and its all my fault.
By now the only one who knew where they were going was Max, with an unerring sense of where home was he was steadfastly making his way to the barn where he lived. Where Tiny or Buck would bring him sweet feed and Pony and the others would greet him into his stall except Chaucer, who was too proud and Peso who would try and bite him.
As the night drew on Buck's head drooped more and more, he found it harder and harder to keep his eyes open, the already dim moonlit world became dimmer with each step his horse took. Deke Groves, tired, hungry and thirsty, watched his captor carefully, he knew that he was close to dropping; soon, very soon, he would be free. Despite his resolve to keep watch Groves was almost asleep when his horse suddenly stopped. Ahead of him the grey was standing with his head down nuzzling the dark form of Buck Wilmington as he lay unmoving on the dusty ground.
"'Bout time!" Groves swung his leg over his horses neck and slipped to the ground. Doing his best to avoid the rocks and small cacti he made his way over to Buck. The big man was lying on his side which made is very easy for Groves to remove his knife. Cutting through the leather took a long time. He dropped the knife more then once and had to scrabble around in the dust behind his back to find it. The cutting angle was awkward and he cut his own wrists more than once, but after over an hour's efforts he was free.
Kneeling, he examined his former captor. The man remained still and unmoving as Groves removed his gun and boots. The boots were several sizes too big but they were better then no boots at all. Since Buck wore suspenders and his own pants only had belt loops he cut a length of rope to keep them up before rifling the saddlebags for food and drink. While he gorged himself on burritos, apple pie and tortillas he considered his options. He could just kill the man, but there seemed no point - he looked like he was dead already, his horse was a good looking beast, bigger and much younger then his buckskin.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan frowned as his patient tossed and turned in restless sleep. That Ezra was remembering things was a good sign, but he wouldn't relax until the man was once more bending his ear with $20 dollar words and conning hapless travellers out of their hard won money. Ezra was missing something, his mind struggled to understand what or who was missing. Suddenly he sat up.
"Buck!" he called desperately.
Nathan had been dozing and was woken suddenly but the cry from the bed.
"Ezra, you alright?" he asked.
"Buck? Where is Buck?" he eyes darted around the dim room.
"You remember Buck?" Nathan asked tentatively.
"Of course I remember him, why wouldn't I remember him? Mr Wilmington is hardly inconspicuous, where is he?"
"Well he's not in town right now, he took out after the shooting, you remember that? The shooting?"
"I remember some neer-do-wells gathering around the bank - what happened to me?"
"Bullet grazed your skull, you've been well, confused."
Nathan got Ezra a drink and explained everything that had happened. "So Mr Wilmington left because he inadvertently killed this youth?"
"Seems so, yeah. You know Buck, he takes things like that to heart."
Ezra frowned. "What was my condition when he left?"
"I believe I made myself clear."
"Um, well you were in a bad way, I wasn't sure you were gonna wake up," Nathan admitted.
"And Buck knew this?" Nathan nodded. "Has it not occurred to you that our large hearted rogue believes he is also responsible for my injury, possibly my death? Has anyone looked for him?"
When Nathan admitted no one had, Ezra snorted. Before Nathan could stop him he was off the bed and standing on the far side away from Nathan, and wishing he wasn't as a wave of dizziness assaulted him and he felt instantly nauseous. "Oh good Lord," he moaned.
"Ezra you get your hide back in that bed!" Nathan demanded.
"Not until you find someone to go in search of our errant friend."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah and Vin had left before dawn. They had no idea where Buck had gone, but Ezra insisted that he would try to find the man who shot him. The man was after all driven by misplaced guilt, he would try to at least put some of it right. So the two regulators headed south in the general direction of Purgatory, it was the most logical place to look, and therefore where they hoped Buck would have gone first. Both man chided themselves that no one had tried to stop Buck or go after him. They knew Deke Groves was a mass murder, Buck didn't. The sun was coming up, banishing the deep moon shadows for the pale long shadows of dawn. Suddenly over the ridge in front of them came a horse, a big grey horse, he was running free, neck stretched out, tail up and streaming out behind him.
"Wasn't that " Josiah asked, twisting around in his big saddle.
"Yup sure was - come on." Vin pushed on, back-tracking Max's trail. They didn't need to waste time catching the horse, he was on his way home. Before they had really started a second horse, a buckskin, trailing a long rope behind him from a simple rope halter, passed them.
"Interesting," Josiah commented as the two of them pressed on.
The trail lead them on for nearly and hour, when they pulled up short. A man, on foot, turned at the sound of their approaching horses. He pulled out a hand gun and raised it, firing once. Groves was hopelessly out of range and both men knew it. Vin calmly pulled out his rifle.
"Mind if I?" Vin asked.
"Oh do please be my guest, brother."
Three well placed shots later and Deke Groves held up his hands. There was no cover, he had foolishly left Wilmington's rifle on his saddle, the saddle that was still on the horse when it threw him and bolted for home, his buckskin following in its wake. Damn horse has no loyalty. While Vin advanced on him, rifle unmoving in his sure hands, Josiah circled around , coming at him from the left.
"Drop the gun," he ordered. The pistol fell to the ground. "Now kick it over towards me." The gun skidded across the desert floor.
Vin advanced on them until he was close enough to see the gun on the ground. "Josiah, that peacemaker look familiar to you?" he asked.
"Mighty, and them boots too. Little big aren't they, son?"
It took them another two hours to back-track Groves to Buck. He was where the killer had left him, lying huddled and alone on the trail.
"Well?" Vin asked anxiously as Sanchez made an examination.
"He's burning with fever, we need to get him back to Nathan." Even as he spoke the big ex-preacher had his canteen out and was trying to get some water past the parched lips.
Carrying Buck and Josiah Cardinal could only manage a slow walk, it didn't help that he had some smelly human tied to his tail. But his master had asked him to do it, and he would try to please his master as best he could. Peso was also keen to please, of course it helped that his master wanted him to run like the wind, because he loved to do that anyway. He flew over the rough ground as if he had wings, covering the miles to Four Corners as if he were a pure-bred racehorse and not the common mustang he was born.
+ + + + + + +
"Damn!" Jackson swore.
JD and Vin had raced out of town in a wagon almost as soon as Vin arrived, Tiny had barely started his day when the shaking and sweat-drenched Peso came to a halt outside the barn, with Vin already shouting at Tiny for a wagon. His shouts brought JD racing from the jail. Once they got back and Buck was safely moved to the clinic JD and Vin marched Groves over to the already crowded jail. Chris stood in the open door way while Jackson stripped his oldest friend and examined him.
"What?" Josiah asked, as he pulled up the sheet and began the process of cooling the fevered man off.
Ezra, who had been moved to the smaller bed against the wall, sat up.
"Look." Jackson held up Buck's swollen and discoloured right hand.
"What happened?" Josiah asked. "He just pulled his nail back."
"Yeah, but he got hit by that ball, it's a hard ball."
He put the ugly appendage down and crossed the room to his books. It took him a moment but then he began to read - "Any break of the skin which is associated with a bone fracture however minor, brings a greatly increased risk of infection. Every possible measure must be made to clean the wound and keep it clean, any indication of fever or infection must be treated promptly." - "And I told him to suck it! Damn, I should have looked more closely! I shouldn't have just assumed it was just a pulled nail, damn it! I never even considered it could be broke."
"Nate it's not your fault, Buck should have said if he was hurt that bad," Chris reasoned.
"I have suffered a similar injury myself," Ezra began. "and I can tell you that the pain while unpleasant is not unbearable, unless you actually try to use the damaged digit."
"So he might not have known he'd broken a bone - assuming he has?" Nathan clarified.
"All the more reason for me to have checked it more closely."
Whatever guilt Nathan was feeling he had to push it aside and deal with the problem at hand.
+ + + + + + +
Buck's fever rose with the day's heat. Nathan had opened up the finger to lance out some of the pus from the infected area. Now the hand was tied to the bed frame above Buck's head so it would drain, it was only loosely stitched to let the fluids out. Once they managed to get him to swallow some water he became more animated, tossing and turning, trying desperately to pull his hand free.
"Hush son, easy lad," Josiah once more washed down the sweat-drenched face and chest with cool water. It was a never-ending task, as soon as the water touched the heated skin it evaporated.
Ezra had left the clinic. It was too crowded and Nathan only had time for one patient. Normally on escaping the healers clutches he would head straight for the gaming tables. But he was still dizzy, his head pounded and his stomach was rebelling. If he became ill again, Nathan would have to come to him and leave Wilmington, so he headed for his room.
With so many prisoners, seven in all, crammed into the tiny jail, the others had their work cut out just to keep them fed, watered and clean. JD even joked about feeling like a zookeeper - he then had to explain what a zoo was to Vin. Both young man regularly visited the clinic and made it their job to keep the carers supplied with food, drink and most importantly buckets of cool water. Chris seemed to find reasons to stay away.
"My fault, " Buck muttered repeatedly. "All my fault, my fault." Josiah looked over at Nathan who was making up more willow bark and feverfew tea, and shook his head.
"No it's not, nothing is your fault, just rest easy Buck, easy," Josiah soothed.
For some of the time he was quiet, but at other times he tossed, turned and struggled, repeatedly blaming himself, though he never said what for. As the sun dropped his fever still burned, and he began to tire, no longer trying to pull his tethered hand free.
"Ezra!" he suddenly cried out, his eyes shot open.
"Buck?" Nathan came to his side.
Fever bright eyes mover toward his voice but they weren't seeing him. "Killed Ezra, my fault, all my fault, killed so many, Ezra "
"No! No Buck, Ezra ain't dead, he's fine, he's alive, do you hear me, Ezra's not dead." But it was no good, Buck was convinced his failure, his pride, had killed his friend.
"Josiah you better get Ezra in here."
Ezra sat down beside the bed. By the time he got there Wilmington was quiet. Ezra watched the perspiration break out on the heated skin and dry almost instantly, he watched the thin trail of yellow fluid that snaked down the elevated arm, he watched the little frowns that creased the brow. Buck had accepted him almost from the beginning. He and Nathan had had to work very hard to find even some common ground, Josiah wanted to save him, JD had arrested him, Vin hadn't trusted him - thought to be fair, Vin didn't really trust anyone to begin with - and Chris well Chris still didn't trust him. Buck might not trust him, but he never let it show if that was the case. He called him 'Hoss', a term of endearment Ezra professed to hate, but though he hated the name itself, he liked more then he could say that Buck, that anyone, would like him enough to give him a nick-name.
Ezra knew why Buck didn't admit he was hurt, thought he did believe that Wilmington had been unaware how badly his finger was damaged. It didn't matter how badly you were hurt, if your mother was working, if you were always on the move, if there was no one to look after you when you were sick except her, and looking after you cost her money - well you learnt quickly not to be sick or hurt. It was a hard habit to break, probably couldn't be broken, it was learnt too young and too well.
"Buck, do your hear me my friend? I am here, right here, I'm fine." He prayed his words would get through but there was no indication, the sweat-drenched head still tossed on the pillow.
"Ezra, killed Ezra, my fault, all my fault all my "
Standish reached out and took hold of the undamaged hand, holding it tight.
"No, no, I'm fine, I right here, this was not your fault, how could it be?"
Nathan finish bathing his patient again and then stood, stretching cramped back muscles. "Ezra will you be alright? I need to stretch my legs for a moment, I will be just downstairs if you need me."
"We will be fine."
"Ezra Ezra " Buck repeated over and over.
Standish squeezed out the rag and placed it on the fire-hot brow. "If you had not called out I would not have turned and would no doubt be dead. You did not kill me you saved me. Why? Why would you think I was your fault?"
"Because of me." Ezra jumped, he hadn't heard Chris come into the room.
Chris had been avoiding Buck, his own guilt had gnawed away at him. Why? He asked himself, why did he always seemed to be so ready to condemn Buck? Why did he expect more from him? Why he never cut him any slack? Because deep down he really did blame Buck for keeping him from his home that fateful day? He knew Buck blamed himself, but he always told him he didn't. He repeatedly told Wilmington that he could have come back on his own, he could have made Buck come with him. But deep down he did blame Buck, at least partly. And that blame was making him punish his oldest friend, without even realising it he was making him pay over and over again for something that really wasn't his fault.
"What did you do?" Ezra asked, anger flaring in him and evident in his voice.
"Blamed him, he couldn't draw fast enough to stop Groves because of his finger. I told him it was his fault you were hurt."
"Mr Larabee, even had he been uninjured there is no guarantee that he could have stopped the man."
"I know, I know."
"You have done this, only you can put it right."
The gambler stood up and stepped back, an unspoken invitation to Larabee to take his seat and sit with the distressed friend. Chris hesitated for a second and then stepped into the room. As Chris took his seat Ezra slipped out into the night, below him he could just make out the forms of Nathan and Josiah sitting outside the jail, deep in conversation.
"Well old friend, here we are again. This is all my fault and no one else's. Ezra feels guilty that he has been unable to convince you he is fine, Nathan feels guilty that he didn't pay more attention to your injury - and no doubt that it was his ball that hit you. And you, my brave and faithful friend, are blaming yourself for not protecting Ezra and killing that boy. Stop it, stop blaming yourself for things you have no control over, things you are not responsible for, don't blame yourself because you saved your own life. You are worth more to me, to all of us than that kid. JD needs you, Ezra needs you, I need you." Chris looked up, having been studying the floor. He reached out and took the hot damp hand that had hung limply of the bed all the time he had been talking. "Come on back to us big dog, we all need you to look after us."
As Chris watched his friends eyes fluttered and opened, confusion was evident in eyes that were unnaturally bright with fever.
"Hey there pal, welcome back."
"Ezra," Buck breathed, even thought the voice was no more then a rasp, the despair was all too evident.
"Ezra is fine, believe me, he's fine he's just outside. Can you stay awake for me?"
"Try," Buck whispered.
Chris darted to the door and called Ezra in. Buck gazed up at Standish, trying to get his confused and exhausted brain to understand what he was seeing.
"Not dead?" he asked.
"Most assuredly not my friend, thanks to your timely warning I received but a glancing blow, it was nothing, barely worth mentioning really."
"Yes, I am alive."
The rather fuzzy figure before him looked like it might be Ezra, there was a lot of red, and the voice and words were Ezra's.
"Sorry, my fault, you shot, my fault, sorry." With that his eyes fluttered closed and he sank into the pillow again.
Nathan was summoned, Josiah followed, standing in the doorway as the healer made his examination.
"Well?" Larabee asked.
"It's the crisis, all we can do is wait and hope, it's up to him now."
The four of them watched and waited and talked. Josiah and Ezra made occasional trips to the jail to check on the prisoners. Dawn came, Vin and JD arrived, they too waited and watched. The town came to life just the way it had two nights ago as Ezra struggled back to the waking world. Nathan was sleeping, sitting at the small table he had succumbed to days and nights of long hour and little rest, his head rested on the table, gentle snores escaping as he slept. Josiah had gone over to the church to pray, Ezra sat out on the veranda dozing in the morning sun. Vin and JD returned to the jail. Chris kept watch, praying in his own way, to a God he wasn't sure he still believed in. Bring him back, don't leave me alone, please don't take him. He pleaded.
As he looked up from his impromptu prayer he noticed something different, the un-natural flush had faded from Buck's cheeks. He stood up and laid a gentle hand on his friends forehead, frowned, moved his hand to rest the back of it against the stubbled cheek.
"Nathan!" he called out.
The healer was there in a heartbeat. "What?"
"Something is different."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan confirmed that the fever had broken, Buck wasn't out of danger but the worst was over. The weak and still very ill man slept on through the new day, his fever dropping all the time. Nathan insisted that his hand still had to be elevated, since puss was still oozing from it, though there was much less now. The shadows were lengthening again as Ezra watched over Buck once more. He looked up to fine himself being scrutinised by deep blue eyes.
"Hello, welcome my friend, I have missed your company."
Buck continued to stare at Standish, clearly confused. Finally he spoke. "It's you," he croaked past parched lips.
Ezra made a play of examining himself. "Yes I believe you are right, it is me. Let me bring you a drink."
Once Wilmington had drunk almost a full cup of water he rested his head back on the pillows. His tired eyes went to his right hand.
"Mr Jackson insists that it remains were it is, he believes your finger is broken. Infection set in and the poison must be expelled," Ezra explained.
"Yes, you were not to know, that is why you weren't able to bring your weapon to play with your usual speed and skill. It was not your fault, if you had not shouted, then I would surely be dead. Thank you Buck Wilmington, for saving my life - yet again - you seem to make a habit of it, for which I am eternally grateful."
Buck didn't respond, he still felt guilty for failing to keep Standish from harm, the white bandage still around the mans head was a continual reminder of his failure. Jackson came; he prodded and poked, he examined the finger - which hurt like hell - and made him drink the dreaded tea. Chris came, he sat, there was a long awkward silence, eventually the other two left the old friends together, promising to send food.
"What I said," Chris eventually started.
"You were right."
"No, no I wasn't, if you had known how badly your finger was damaged, you would have declared yourself unfit, you're a professional, I know that, I should remember it, I should trust you."
"I never would have endangered anyone. It didn't hurt that bad, not then."
"I know, believe me I know." Chris reached out and gave Buck's good shoulder a squeeze. "Next time you tell me something, I'll believe you."
"Really that a promise?"
"Yeah, I swear it."
A mischievous grin appeared. "Oh the possibilities!"
Despite his moment of humour Buck wasn't his old self. It wasn't just that he was still ill and weak, or even the unremitting throbbing pain in his hand. He had a quiet evening, everyone visited him, but he barely spoke. The next day Nathan said his hand could be released, but even this didn't improve his mood.
"Mornin' Buck!" JD all but bounced into the room, Nathan had gone in search of Ezra, his bandage needed attention but he was avoiding the healer.
"Morning," Buck all but muttered.
"Want me to read you the paper, it just came out?"
"It's all about the gang we caught and the shoot out." JD began to read. Too tired to be bothered to stop him Buck was only half listening. " Mr Wilmington shot one of the gang behind the bank, wounding him fatally "
"Stop! Please JD I don't want to hear it, not again, please."
JD looked up from his reading, his friend, his big brother, looked so lost at that moment it all but tore JD's heart out.
"Please, let me read a bit more, you need to hear this please."
"JD dont do this, I killed a kid, I know he had a gun, I know I didn't mean for him to die, but he was just a kid, younger than you. He didn't deserve to die."
"Buck, please trust me, listen."
Despite the silence that met his plea, despite the head hung down in despondency, JD pressed on. "This young man, who died some time later from his wound, has been identified as Charles Dawkins, younger brother of the gang leader. He was seventeen, but was able to pass for much younger, often claiming he was fourteen or even thirteen. Charles was wanted in Nebraska for the murders and rapes of three women during stagecoach robberies. It seems our Mr Wilmington has cheated the hangman of another victim." JD looked up. "He was a killer Buck, a rapist, if he had lived he would have hung."
Buck's head turned, his pleading blue eyes met JD's.
"It's true Buck, you didn't kill an innocent kid, you killed a man, a very bad man, anyone old enough to rape and kill is a man, and should be treated like one."
As he watched, Buck turned his head to face the ceiling, closing his eyes he let out a long breath, JD could almost see a weight lifting of him. They sat in mutual silence for a long time until the clinic door was flung open and Josiah all but dragged Ezra into the room, followed by Nathan.
"I assure you I can remove the thing myself, I do not require your assistance. Mr Sanchez unhand me!" Ezra protested.
"Oh for heaven sake man just shut up and sit down, stop acting like a five-year-old!" Sanchez commanded in no uncertain terms.
JD could barely contain his mirth as Standish capitulated, sitting on the end of the bed, his wound now facing Buck. JD was suddenly worried the sight of the long line of stitches would upset Buck once more. But he needn't have worried.
Nathan carefully unwound the bandage and with a little water and much complaining and claims that Nathan was deliberately torturing him, removed the pad over the actual wound. Sanchez and JD had seen the shaved patch before, Ezra was still unaware of it. Buck burst out laughing - he laughed so much he all but fell off the bed. His laugher was a joy to the others, who had feared the old, gregarious, fun loving Buck wouldn't return to them. Ezra just stood there and stared at the man as he rolled on the bed laughing.
"What is so amusing? Is my suffering so risible? I find that to be in very poor taste, I would have thought better of you my friend."
"Oh Ezra," Buck managed to gasp out past the laughter. "I like it, it suits you very um stylish!"
"Mr Jackson, to what is he referring? Pray tell?" Ezra turned to face Jackson, who was smirking.
"Now Ez I had to do it, there weren't no other way, honest," the healer protested.
"WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME!" Ezra demanded.
Jackson pointed to his mirror. With considerable trepidation, Ezra walked to the mirror and peered at his reflection, very slowly he turned his head to view the sight of his injury.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin were doing a walking patrol of the town and were just passing the clinic. Vin stopped and cocked his head on one side as a never-ending sting of curses came from above.
"Guess ol' Ez finally got a look at himself," he commented.
"Sounds that way," Chris agreed as they walked on.
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