Alternate Universe - Sporting Seven
Notes: I'm very apprehensive about posting this fic. Every time I write about this subject I go and do the selfsame thing fairly soon afterwards, though thankfully without the injuries. I swore after last time I wouldn't write about this again but so much for that! Read on to find out what I'm waffling on about and keep your fingers crossed that I remain in one piece. If you want to know how this Sporting Seven Universe started, it all began with the fic New Ventures in which Ezra ends up with a heart pacemaker. Why he was fitted with one is the basis of that first story and all the guys are featured in it.
Buck left his log cabin and made his way to the kitchen in Chris's ranch house to find something to eat. It was 8am and he was starving. Unusually, Ezra was also up, standing by the sink staring out the window. The ex-attorney was filthy and covered in straw but Buck, for once, didn't make a comment. He was too intent on filling his empty, rumbling stomach to be sarcastic. The ladies' man wandered to the cabinet that contained the cereal and picked his favorites out before turning back to the table. He was just in time to see his friend look round briefly and put a hand to his eyes to quickly wipe them.
Buck frowned. "Ez? You okay?" he asked in concern. He received a ghost of a nod in reply but no words.
The tall man walked to stand beside his friend and looked over at him curiously. He saw a solitary tear trickle slowly down from one of Ezra's downcast eyes. "Ez? What's wrong, pard?"
"Nothing," the smaller man whispered as he wiped the errant tear away with an outstretched finger.
"Bullshit. Yer shakin' like a leaf, pard. Talk to me. I might be able to help."
"I'm okay, and unless you're God there's absolutely nothing you can do anyway."
"Okay, my ass," Buck disagreed. "Come on, man. This ain't like you, Ez. You ain't usually one for cryin'." He reached out a hand and patted Ezra's back gently.
The ex-attorney bowed his head and raised a hand to his mouth. "Shit," he mumbled and hiccuped.
Buck got hold of the man's shoulders and turned his friend to face him. He put a hand under Ezra's chin and raised his head so that he could see his eyes. "Ez, it ain't no good keeping it inside, pard."
Vin wandered in from outside after catching the end of the conversation. He caught Buck's eye and said simply, "Jasper."
Buck frowned and turned back to Ezra questioningly. "Jasper?"
"He's dead," Vin said from behind.
Buck looked from one man to the other in confusion. "Look, guys. Am I s'pose to know what yer talkin' about? Who the hell is Jasper?"
"Pernickety's foal. He died in the night while Ez was with him."
Buck looked quickly at Vin and then back to Ezra. "You named him?"
Ezra nodded. The ex-attorney had been up all night with the fragile creature but despite his best efforts the tiny foal hadn't survived. The upset man sat down suddenly and sobbed as he remembered watching the last light of life disappear from the creature's eyes.
Buck squatted in front of him and said, "I'm so sorry, Ez. I know how much you wanted that foal but it just weren't meant to be." The ladies' man stood up after patting Ezra's knee and suggested, "Let's get some breakfast 'cause you must be hungry after being up with him all night."
"You think having sustenance will deem everything fine and dandy? You're a damned fool sometimes, Bucklin," Ezra snarled as he stood up and headed for the door, nearly knocking Buck over in the process.
Vin put out a hand when he saw the ladies' man making moves to follow his upset friend. "Buck? Leave him. I'll talk to him in a minute when he's calmed down." The long-haired man grimaced and then transferred his gaze to someone who had just walked into the room behind Buck.
The tall man turned to see who it was and saw Chris standing there.
The blond smiled at his two business partners and unaware of the night's events asked, "Seen Ez today? How's the new father feeling, do ya reckon?"
"He ain't happy, cowboy. Jasper died during the night," Vin informed the black-clad man sadly. "I woke up just after midnight and saw the light on in the barn and went to see who was there. Ez was just sitting in the straw with that tiny foal's head in his lap, stroking its neck over and over again. Pernickety stood right next to him and kept nudging her baby like he'd suddenly come back to life. It sure brought tears to my eyes, bud."
"Oh, Jesus. Where's Ez now?"
"Stormed out just before you came in. I was on my way to talk to him."
"Okay, Vin, I'll leave it to you to deal with but don't upset him any more than need be."
"That weren't my intention, cowboy," Vin said sharply as he turned abruptly and walked out.
The quiet man made his way over to the barn knowing that was where Ezra would be. Sure enough, the dark-haired man was leaning over the stall door fondling Pernickety's nose and whispering to her. The creature raised her head and put her nostrils against his cheek and blew out a soft breath, almost saying she understood how he was feeling and that she didn't blame him for her foal's death.
Vin wandered over and reached out a hand to stroke the mare's neck as he put his other hand on Ezra's back. "How ya doin', Ez?"
"I'd been waiting so long for him to be born, Vin. The match between Pernickety and Mercury seemed to be perfect and I just can't believe Jasper didn't survive. I prayed so hard last night, Vin, but, as normal, God saw fit to kick me in the teeth instead of grant my wish."
"It was nature, Ez. I know you don't believe in God so you can't blame him." Vin shrugged. "Nature's cruel sometimes. Only the strong survive and Jasper just weren't one of them."
"Doesn't make it any easier to accept."
"I know, Ez. Least Pernickety's okay. You coulda lost her too, ya know," Vin said quietly.
"Yes, I know, so I will just have to count my blessings, won't I? I just don't feel like putting myself through the anxiety of getting Pernickety in foal to Mercury again."
"Give it time, Ez. There ain't no rush."
Ezra nodded and walked over to see Mercury, Chris's stallion. "Hello, big fella. You sure are a handsome beast, aren't you? Little Jasper certainly took after you in looks and I'm so sorry that he didn't live." The dark-haired man patted the horse's neck and then headed back to the house with Vin.
The two men walked into the kitchen and Ezra looked at Buck apologetically.
"I must apologize, Bucklin. I was a trifle upset when I was so rude to you."
"That's all right, Ez. It was a stupid thing for me to say in the first place. Is Pernickety all right?"
"Yes, she seems a tad depressed though. She keeps searching for Jasper although I know she understands he's gone."
"Musta been hard for her, pard."
Ezra nodded and sat down between Vin and Chris. The blond reached out a hand and patted his back and smiled sadly when Ezra looked up at him.
"How about you take Mercury out tomorrow, Ez? I know it won't bring Jasper back but you might enjoy getting away from here for a while. It'll give you time to think things over and I think you deserve a break. We ain't got no clients 'til next week so you might as well make the most of it."
"Thanks. I'd like that," Ezra replied gratefully. He loved riding Mercury and that was precisely why he'd mated his new mare with him. He'd hoped to get the best of both animals in their offspring. "I'd like that very much and I could do with some time for contemplation, as you say."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra tightened the cinch on Chris's stallion's saddle before leading Mercury out of the barn and meeting up with the blond in the yard.
"All set, Ez?"
"Yes, he seems rather lively today, I must say. He's had a few nips at my backside already."
Chris reached out and patted the elegant arch of the stallion's neck. "He's a cheeky devil, ain't he? Where are ya gonna go?"
"I thought I'd travel toward the ski slope. There's some nice views in that direction and it'll assist in clearing my head."
"Fine. You've got yer cell with ya? You'll take it easy, won't ya?" the black-clad man said anxiously.
"Yes, Dad. Will you please cease this incessant fussing? I've ridden Mercury numerous times but that doesn't signify that I will be complacent when handling him. I know all about his tricks and irascible moods. He takes after you in that respect. I promise that I will take good care of him."
"Sorry, Ez. It's just that he's my baby and worth a lot of money so I worry about him."
Ezra stood with hands on hips and sighed loudly. "Would you rather I returned him to his stable and tucked him in with a comforter? Don't you trust me? Do you think because I lost his son I will kill him too?" the man asked, sounding irritated.
"No, Ez. Of course I trust you and stop blaming yerself for Jasper's death. There was nothing you coulda done," Chris stated as he patted Ezra's back apologetically. "All I meant earlier was that stallions, and Mercury in particular, are unpredictable."
"Good God. Well, I never realized that fact, Chris," Ezra said wryly as he threw his gaze heavenwards.
"All right, all right, get going before I clock ya one," Chris laughed.
Ezra swung up into the saddle and moved the animal away from Chris. Mercury took a dislike to a shadow and pranced sideways suddenly and Ezra laughed out loud as he looked back at Chris and saw the look on the man's face. Ezra encouraged Mercury away from the house and waved before he lost sight of the blond.
The ex-attorney reached down and patted the horse's neck. "There, peace and quiet, Mercury. Your master is such a worrier, isn't he? I do believe he has no faith in me whatsoever."
The horse nodded its head up and down and jogged along while shying and spurting forwards every so often.
"Yes, Mercury, I am awake. You can desist in jumping about in that manner to ensure that I remain that way. Let's just attempt to have a nice enjoyable outing, shall we?"
As he rode, Ezra thought back to when he'd joined Chris and the others in running the holiday center. He had to admit that he'd been pleased with his change of profession. He'd never thought that he'd like working outdoors all year but now he couldn't imagine doing anything else.
The dark-haired man made his way up into the mountains and pulled the horse to a halt when he reached his favorite viewing spot. He dismounted and tied the stallion to a tree before wandering to the edge and looking at the scene below. He sank down and crossed his legs as he studied the terrain. He took a deep breath and enjoyed the aroma from the surrounding plants.
"Beautiful, just beautiful," he murmured as he closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of nature.
He stayed where he was for an hour, just drinking in the scenery, before looking at his watch and deciding it was time to head home. He walked back to Mercury and stroked the animal's nose lovingly.
"Let's go home, shall we, fella? I think I've had all the time for contemplation that I can handle at the moment. I won't get over losing Jasper easily but on days like this it's hard to be depressed and upset for long." He swung back up into the saddle and headed Mercury back toward the ranch.
Ezra made his way down the side of the ski slope mountain. He came to a particularly steep section, and when Mercury hesitated, he urged the animal on gently to get it to take the first tentative steps downward. The ex-attorney leant well back in the saddle and kept a good hold on the stallion's head so it couldn't go too fast.
"That's it, nice and gentle, Mercury."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a snake appeared from its burrow under the horse's feet. Mercury snorted in fear as the reptile hissed and snapped at the equine's leg. The horse moved back but Ezra could feel it bunching its powerful hindquarters under itself and there was nothing he could do when Mercury leapt forward into nothingness. He managed to keep his seat but as the horse eventually came back down, landing hard with nose on the ground, the earth beneath its feet broke away. The animal slid forwards uncontrollably as it lost its footing on the shifting ground and Ezra was thrown roughly over its head. He tumbled downhill with the horse rolling behind until it managed to regain its feet. Its forward momentum carried it onwards and it loped down the rest of the slope heading directly for Ezra. The ex-attorney couldn't control his descent and was horrified to discover that he was heading for a ledge at high speed. He reached out for passing bushes in an attempt at bringing himself to a halt, but that just resulted in him cutting his hands badly as the branches rushed through his grasp. He then felt the horse trample his body as it suddenly appeared over top of him and he watched it leap off the ledge before following it over with a yell.
Thankfully he didn't fall far but he still came to an abrupt, painful halt as he landed back first on a fallen branch. He felt as if he'd been broken in half as his legs landed on one side and his head on the other side of the obstruction. His right arm had somehow ended up under his back and had taken the full weight of his body when he'd landed. He lay still, winded and head spinning.
"Oh shit," he mumbled, forgetting his oft-spoken words that he never swore, no matter the circumstances.
He then felt a warm, moist breath on his face accompanied by a snort. He opened his eyes to be confronted by two flaring nostrils and a hairy muzzle. The horse blew out another grassy smelling breath and Ezra grimaced.
"God, you need some breath freshener, Mercury. Horsey halitosis is disgusting."
The dark-haired man tried to sit up and cried out at the pain in his upper back and hip. Ezra lay still as he tried to regain his breath before managing to roll off the branch into the dirt. He reached into his pocket for his cell with his left hand but it was inevitably broken and he threw it away in disgust.
"Godammit! Now what am I supposed to do?" Ezra grumbled. "God, why am I asking you, Mercury? You stamped all over me with those great hooves of yours, you know? But then I s'pose I should be grateful that you didn't depart for home without me." The man sighed as he inspected the damage to his hands as best he could. "I think this is all some sort of bad karma because I didn't manage to save your son's life, Mercury. God knows I did all I could, except give artificial respiration," Ezra said sadly as he reached up his left hand and patted the horse's head, which was near ground level. The man was beginning to feel maudlin again but the horse snorted, shook its head and stamped a hoof as if saying that Ezra shouldn't be sad. Ezra's hand fell back to earth and he let his eyes drift shut as he waited for some energy to return to his body. He tried to move again and managed to sit up a bit more although the pain in his hip was excruciating. His right arm was useless and he moved it gently and hugged it to his chest. He knew only having one arm and leg in proper working condition was going to hamper his progress somewhat.
Mercury put his head down near him again and Ezra reached out and patted his nose. He got hold of the split rein that he could reach and pulled on it gently. Mercury took a step forward so Ezra pulled again and the horse took another step. The saddle was now opposite the fallen man so Ezra reached up and put his hand on the stirrup instead. Mercury immediately shied sideways as he felt the pressure and Ezra was pulled over onto his knees. He put out his uninjured hand so he didn't land flat on his face and he ended up supported on three out of his four limbs. Mercury snorted and looked down at his erstwhile rider as if he were insane.
"Ow, shit, fuck and damnation," Ezra swore. "Cease looking at me in that manner and help me, you sorry excuse for an equine."
Ezra shuffled forwards awkwardly and sat down on his uninjured hip. He reached out his hand again for the stirrup and this time Mercury stayed still. Ezra used all his strength and managed to pull himself upright with a lot of cursing and tears. He hopped on one leg as he leant against Mercury and put his uninjured arm as far over the animal's withers as he could. He sincerely hoped the creature would stay still or he'd be back on the ground in a split second.
"Now to get on you," he mumbled wearily.
He put his left foot on the ground and cried out as his hip almost gave way. He rested his forehead against Mercury's sleek coat and groaned in frustration as a wave of heat spread throughout his body. He looked up at the saddle longingly and wished he could just spring up into it.
He looked around him and then pulled the horse toward the branch he'd originally landed on and hopped up on top of it. That, at least, shortened the distance he'd have to jump in order to mount his mode of transport. He stood on one leg again and bounced a couple of times to give himself some impetus. The impact of his leg on the branch sent a stab of pain throughout his body so he stopped abruptly and wobbled precariously on his perch while clinging to Mercury's saddle.
He couldn't stop the tears that trickled down his cheeks but he gritted his teeth and ignored the pain as he jumped and scrambled partially onto Mercury's back. He was lying with his upper chest in the seat of the saddle but he was in danger of slipping straight back off again. His injured arm was trapped underneath and he yelled in pain and nearly passed out as he knocked it hard against the saddlehorn. Once he'd regained his balance and senses, he reached up with his leg and blindly found the stirrup. That gave him something to push against and he finally wriggled enough so that he could get one leg either side of his horse. He lay panting, with his head against Mercury's neck, unable to sit up at all.
Mercury set off slowly and Ezra sincerely hoped it was in the correct direction. The horse's movement did nothing to ease the pain in his body and he closed his eyes and groaned continuously as he left their destination up to the horse.
+ + + + + + +
In the ranch's yard, Chris looked up and saw Mercury returning so he put up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun and squinted into the distance. Someone was in the saddle but they were not upright. The blond could see that the horse was walking with its head held awkwardly to one side so that it didn't tread on the dangling reins. Jeez, Ez. What have you done?
"Nathan!" he yelled as he began running toward his stallion. "Nathan? Hurry up!"
As he got nearer, he slowed his pace so as not to spook the horse. He slowly reached up and pulled the animal to a halt and looked up at Ezra worriedly. "Ezra? What happened?"
The blond turned as he heard running footsteps and Nathan finally appeared at his side, accompanied by the others.
The therapist reached up to Ezra and touched his face gently. "Ezra? Open your eyes for me, will ya? Are you okay?"
Ezra blinked and fixed his gaze on him. "Fell off. Snake," he mumbled incoherently.
"What? Say that again, Ez. I don't understand."
"Snake frightened Mercury. We fell," Ezra said as he bit out each word shortly.
"Let's get you down so I can look at you then. Where do you hurt?"
"Hip. Upper back. Arm," Ezra replied through gritted teeth.
"All right. Wait a minute." Nathan checked the man's neck and back before attempting to move him. "Josiah? Help me get him off. Take his top half and I'll see to his legs. Mind his arm though, won't you?"
The two men reached up as Chris kept Mercury still. Ezra groaned loudly as he was pulled sideways gently and the two men stopped what they were doing immediately.
"Ezra? You okay?" Nathan asked worriedly.
"No. Hurts all over. Feel faint," he mumbled quietly.
"Okay, just hold on and we'll have you down soon."
They moved Ezra again and laid him carefully on the ground. Nathan knelt beside him and checked every inch of his body. As he touched Ezra's upper right back, the man cried out loudly.
"JD? Get my bag, kid."
"What's wrong with him, Nate?" Buck asked as he hovered nearby.
"He's cracked his shoulder blade maybe and broken his arm badly. Need to immobilize them both. Both hands are pretty badly cut and they're as dirty as hell. His hips real bruised but that's all by the look of it except for a few horseshoe-shaped bruises all over his body."
"Thought you only saw those in comedy westerns," Vin said quietly but with a smile that Ezra returned weakly.
"I'll call an ambulance," Buck said as Chris checked his stallion for injuries.
"Ezra? What happened exactly?" Josiah asked quietly as he helped Nathan secure Ezra's injured limb.
The dark-haired man began his explanation, albeit not very coherently. "We were descending an incline when a snake emerged from its burrow........ It hissed and lunged at Mercury............. Mercury leapt forward and we fell down the slope.............. He trampled me and we tumbled over a ledge and I thought we were dead but fortunately we didn't drop as far as I'd feared. I landed on a branch at the bottom but Mercury luckily wasn't injured and didn't run off. If he had, I'd never have made it back. The cell was broken so I couldn't call.................... I'm sorry, Chris................ I couldn't help it."
"It's all right, Ez. Don't worry about it. Sounds as if you couldn't have prevented it," the blond said as he knelt beside the man and cupped Ezra's face gently in his hand. "Just lay still and get yer strength back."
Chris stood and beckoned Nathan toward him. Every time Ezra hurt himself Chris panicked that the man had somehow damaged his pacemaker. He knew Ezra felt the same and he could see the fear in his friend's face right now. "His heart's all right, is it, Nate?"
"Yeah, I'll get them to check the pacemaker but his heart's got a regular rhythm and I'm sure he's fine, Chris."
The two men turned back to Ezra as they heard Josiah talking to him.
"No, Ezra, don't think that, son. You weren't being paid back for Jasper's death. Try not to think like that 'cause this was just an accident today." The ex-Academy instructor looked up at Chris and grimaced at Ezra's explanation for his injuries.
The ambulance arrived before anything more could be said and the paramedics transferred Ezra to it after double-checking his injuries. The vehicle started off on its journey and Nathan moved to sit opposite Ezra so that he could talk to him and keep him calm. He knew that since his heart scare the previous year Ezra was always uneasy about going to the hospital.
"There's really nothing to worry about," Nathan said.
Ezra nodded as he looked up apprehensively at his friend. "I know but I can't help it."
The therapist kept a hand on Ezra's arm throughout the journey but he knew the contact wasn't helping much. He could still feel the man trembling nonstop.
They were taken straight through for treatment when they arrived at the medical facility and as soon as the doctor came to check Ezra's condition, Nathan stood and took him to one side.
"He's got a pacemaker," the therapist told the doctor worriedly. "He gets a bit uptight about it when he hurts himself so he might need a bit of reassurance. He always worries that he's broken it in someway and he's terrified of dying."
"Okay, no problem." The doctor turned and stood next to Ezra after Nathan had left them alone. "Well, what have you been up to, Mr. Standish?"
"Fell off a horse."
"That can't have been very pleasant. Perhaps you should consider a less hazardous sport."
"As we specialize in mostly dangerous sports, I think that would be rather difficult to accomplish. All sports, I think you'll agree, are potentially dangerous; even synchronized swimming," Ezra said through gritted teeth as he tried to think about anything else but the fact that he was in the hospital again.
The doctor smiled and examined Ezra thoroughly and he could feel the man quivering continuously under his hands. He patted Ezra's shoulder and said, "I understand you have a pacemaker?"
Ezra nodded and looked unsettled.
The doctor smiled encouragingly. "Well, everything seems fine in that respect, Mr. Standish. It's ticking away nicely so there's nothing to fear. How do you feel in yourself?"
"Battered and bruised."
"No dizziness or nausea?" the doctor asked insistently.
"No. I'm just in pain."
"Well, we can soon remedy that." The doctor treated all the man's injuries and gave him a painkiller. "I'll get one of your friends to come and collect you, shall I? You're well enough to go home."
"Well, I'm certainly relieved to hear that," Ezra said with a smile. He couldn't wait to get home.
The doctor walked out of the room and found Ezra's friends in the waiting room along the hallway. After giving them an update on Ezra's condition, he informed them that the ex-attorney was being released. Buck volunteered to collect the injured man and he ambled along the hallway after getting the directions from the doctor. He stopped when he reached the room and stood leaning against the doorframe as he studied his injured friend critically. "Hey, Ez. Look a mite uncomfortable, pard," Buck observed.
"Yes, I feel as if I'm confined in a straightjacket."
"Well, that'll keep you out of mischief," the ladies' man said with a smile.
"Thanks for your sympathy, Bucklin. It touches my very soul that you care for me so much."
The tall man laughed and escorted the man out to join his friends. They greeted him warmly and helped him climb into the back of Chris's Ram.
"All set, Ez?" Chris asked as he turned round and looked at his passenger.
"Yes, thank you. Sitting does hurt rather a lot but I'm certainly not complaining. I'm just immensely grateful that I don't have to stay in this place one second more," Ezra said as he shifted on the seat in a futile attempt to get comfortable.
The blond man smiled sympathetically and drove his friend home at the head of the convoy of the friends' vehicles.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning, Chris ambled into the kitchen. "Anyone seen Ez yet?"
"Out in the barn, pard," Buck said with a sad smile.
Chris shook his head and wandered over to check on the man's welfare. He saw his friend caressing the mare's neck and whispering quietly to her. "Ez? What you up to?"
The man turned around slowly and grimaced. "Just commiserating with Pernickety once more. As Vin said, it's nature and only the strongest survive but she doesn't understand that. It's hard enough for me to accept. Nature's cruel sometimes."
"Cruel to be kind, mostly, Ez. That little pony didn't deserve to suffer and he woulda done if he'd lived, son," the blond said as he moved forward and rubbed Ezra's back gently. The blond knew how hard it was to get over losing a foal. He'd been breeding horses for years but still couldn't handle it when one died.
Ezra nodded. "Yes, I can see that now but it's just so sad."
"I know, Ez, but it was for the best."
"Try telling that to Pernickety," Ezra said as he turned to walk back to the ranch house. He felt Chris put a hand on his uninjured shoulder and give him an encouraging squeeze. The ex-attorney smiled at the man and not for the first time thanked his lucky stars that he'd met such a wonderful set of friends. When one member of the group was in need of support, the others were always there to help in whatever way they could. To find one friend like that was lucky, to find six was a miracle.