Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Copyright @ Aug2002
Mr. Quigley stood nervously at the bat-wing doors debating the foolishness of entering the saloon and handing the piece of paper he held to Mr. Larabee. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow. If what this telegram said was true, he wondered if he would leave the saloon alive or at least bullet-free. Quigley took a deep breath, cursing Standish for putting him in this position, and walked purposefully into the saloon.
The six lawmen were finishing their breakfast and preparing to take up their duties. Chris glanced over as the agitated little man stepped inside. Chris inwardly smiled, the telegraph operator always looked scared to death.
"Ah, Mr. Larabee...I...I." Quigley cleared his throat. "I have a telegram for you."
Chris raised an expressive brow, wondering who would be sending him a missive.
"It's from the sheriff of Gypsum," Quigley added, inching closer to the darkly dressed gunman. Larabee's volatile temper was renowned and feared. Damn, why hadn't couldn't Standish have just left and done everyone a favor?
Chris regarded Quigley through narrow eyes, puzzled by his behavior, but not in the mood for the operator's dithers. The man was more jittery than usual.
"Well, can I have it?" Chris demanded, pulling the telegram from Quigley's reluctant grip.
Buck chuckled as Quigley scampered out of the saloon. He moved up alongside Chris.
Chris shook his head then unfolded the mysterious letter. He quickly read the short wire and slumped heavily back into this chair.
"Chris! What is it? What's wrong?" Buck urgently asked seeing some of the color leave his friend's face and a look of despair fill his blue eyes.
Chris ran a hand down his face and held the message limp in his hand.
Josiah tentatively took up the yellow piece of paper and read the message out loud:IN REGARDS TO EZRA SIMPSON ALIAS SAMUEL ORWELL STOP
NOW RESIDING IN GYPSUM JAIL AWAITING JUDGE STOP
ARRESTED FOR ALLEGED SWINDLING AND FRAUD END OF MESSAGE
Josiah broke into a smile of relief for a moment, happy that Ezra was innocent. The smile left his face as he looked at the expressions of regret on everyone's face. Lord, what had they done? They had allowed their own prejudices to cloud over the friendship they had worked so hard to earn.
"Why didn't he say anything?" Nathan angrily asked.
"We didn't give him a chance," Chris sadly rebuked. "He walked through that door and we judged him guilty without listening to his side."
"Tried, judged, convicted," Vin whispered.
"Yeah without even a trial," JD added.
"Lord forgive us," Josiah murmured.
"He may be the only one who will," Chris stated as he slowly unfolded from his chair and strode toward the door.
The six lawmen trudged across the street toward Nathan's clinic, which now felt way too close. Guilt washed over the six lawmen slowing their steps and weighing heavy on their hearts.
"You think he'll forgive us?" JD asked Buck who walked alongside him.
"Don't know, kid. He'd have every reason not to."
Chris didn't know what he was going to say to Ezra. For the first time in his life the hardened gunslinger might be forced to drop to his knees and apologize. No, Ezra wouldn't buy that. Chris opened the door to the clinic and peered in. He eyed the empty bed and flung the door open.
Nathan pushed past the gunslinger. "Sonofabitch."
Chris rushed out of the boarding house and back toward the saloon taking the stairs two at a time. He kicked in Ezra's door and groaned as he looked down at the empty chair beside the dresser. He leaned against the doorframe, waiting for the others to arrive.
"Shit, he's gone," Buck exclaimed.
"He's in no condition to be ridin'," Nathan said.
"Let's ride," Chris said.
The horse picked his way carefully along the narrow path that ran along the ridge. Turkey Creek meandered gently down its course twenty feet below. Ezra's head bobbed with the steady movement of his horse's cautious path. The sun beat down on him mercilessly, and he scratched absently at the bandage that wrapped his head. He was on his own again. He should feel happy. Instead he felt that his life was over. Ezra glanced over the edge of the ridge and his head spun. He halted his horse and had to swallow back the bile that rose up in this throat. Ezra took several deep breaths and grabbed his canteen. His hand shook as he took a long drink then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. Ezra squinted into the distance, rubbing his eyes as his vision blurred. He gently urged Chaucer forward. He would have to make camp soon and rest.
Reuben and Peter stepped out onto the stone-strewn path. Peter stood tall and held his rifle tightly against his chest. His father killed himself because of this man, he kept thinking, like a mantra that was stuck in his head. Peter slowly brought the rifle to his shoulder and pointed it at the approaching rider. Reuben swallowed and stood behind his brother.
Ezra pulled up his horse as soon as he made out the two men. His vision was slowly improving, but the bright sun made it difficult and intensified the headache that was pounding in his head.
"You killed our pa," Peter exclaimed pointing a rifle at the southerner. Reuben stood nervously at his brother's side, looking over his shoulder.
Ezra's chin dropped to his chest, would this never end. He raised exasperated green eyes. "Gentlemen, I had nothing to do with your father's untimely demise." Lord, his head hurt.
"You took everything from him!" Peter spat.
Ezra's jaw clenched. He didn't want to draw on these young misguided men. He still felt weak from blood loss, and he was just too damn tired.
"I did not," he tiredly replied.
Peter began to apply pressure to the trigger. Ezra drew his revolver in one smooth motion. He fired, hitting the older Downing in the arm. The rifle fired as Peter's arm jerked. The erratic shot struck the ground between Chaucer's feet. The startled animal reared up.
Ezra was unprepared for his horse's fright. He grabbed for the saddle horn catching only air as he slid from the saddle. Within a second Ezra realized the ground had disappeared as he flew over the edge of the cliff.
Ezra slammed onto the sloped ground, fifteen feet below, the air whooshing from his lungs. He cart-wheeled down the steep rock-strewn slope unable to stop his descent. He came to an abrupt halt as he tumbled into a boulder. His scream of pain was cut short as blackness quickly claimed his battered body and mind.
"Damn, you think he's dead?" Reuben asked, as he peered down at the motionless body, limbs bent at awkward angles.
"Don't know. Don't care," Peter replied as he grabbed the reins of Ezra's agitated horse. "We'll take his horse. Maybe we can sell it." Peter's hands shook. He thought he would feel relief at avenging his father's death, but all he felt was sick to his stomach - Revenge was not sweet.
Vin rode ahead, checking the trail and hoping that Ezra didn't take to the hills. Ezra didn't seem to be in any hurry, but then he had no reason to believe he was being followed. As far as Ezra was concerned, he was on his own. Vin urged his mount into a quicker gait -- They would find him and bring him home.
The others followed a short distance behind the tracker, giving him plenty of space to work. Chris searched the desolate landscape for some sign of the missing gambler.
"What are we going to do when we find him?" JD asked.
Josiah glanced over at the young man. JD always asked the question on everyone's mind but the one no one wanted to answer.
"What if he doesn't want to come back?" JD persisted.
Chris glared at the young gunslinger. He would make Ezra come back, at least long enough so they could convince him how sorry they were.
"Maybe he'll shoot us and save us all the trouble of apologizing," Buck quipped, trying to lighten the somber mood.
Frustration and self-condemnation filled the six lawmen. Chris couldn't believe how much he wanted that trying, self-centered, pain-in-the-ass back. Ezra was the black sheep, the errant step-child of their family, but that didn't mean they didn't want him back. Chris had lost too much family already. He refused to lose any more, not like this.
He could hear the water. The gurgling song was soothing. Ezra tried to move and screamed as agony tore at his leg. Blood rushed to his head and tears further blurred his vision. He would die here. Maybe someone would eventually find his remains and bury him. What did it matter anymore. There wasn't anyone who would care if he died. His mother probably would just believe that he moved on and found something better. She would wonder about him from time to time, but never allow herself to believe he might be dead. She would con herself forever--she was the best.
The pain slowly eased and his mind cleared somewhat. He hadn't deserved this. Ezra chuckled. For once he was innocent of any culpability.
Would Larabee and the others wonder what became of him? Josiah and Nathan would probably say it was divine justice that he died like this. Chris and the others would say he got what he deserved. Maybe they were right -- he was no good after all. He shuddered, his eyes rolled back in his head and he mercifully passed out.
"Chris, over there," Vin pointed toward the east. The Downing's wagon was slowly making its way across the prairie, but what got the tracker's attention was the single horse tied to the back.
The six lawmen spurred their mounts to intercept the wagon.
"Ain't that Ez's horse," JD remarked as they drew close to the wagon.
The six gunslingers moved into the path of the wagon and stopped. Reuben and Peter glanced nervously at each other and pulled up the horses. Peter sat a little taller in the seat. He wouldn't let these men intimidate him. He had to prove that he was a man now.
"Boys, is everything alright," their mother's voice came from the back of the wagon and then she appeared behind them. She smiled when she saw the six stalwart gunslingers.
"Mr. Larabee," Natalie greeted.
Chris smiled and tipped his hat. The recent widow seemed to be dealing better with the death of her husband. His expression changed as he glared at the two young men noticing their uneasiness. "Ma'am, I need to know where your boys got that horse,." Chris bluntly asked.
Natalie frowned and placed a hand on each of her son's shoulders. "They found him," she answered. "Why?"
"We think he belongs to a friend of ours," Vin explained, getting a very bad feeling.
Chris's blue eyes darkened. "Where?"
"Ah, on the trail about a mile or so back," Peter quickly replied. "He was just wondering loose. Didn't see no one around so we thought we'd bring him back to town."
Vin noticed the bandaged wrapped around Peter's arm, below the elbow. "What happened to your arm?"
"Nothing. Just cut it hitching up the horses," Peter nervously answered.
Chris ground his teeth and took a deep breath. A shout from behind them cut short any further conversation as the lawmen turned their heads to see Lucas coming up over the slight rise of the road.
"Mr. Larabee," Lucas called out again, waving. Clayton smiled and tried to catch his breath as he pulled up his horse. His smile faltered when he noticed the disturbing expressions on his nephews' faces.
"Uncle, any luck in Cedar Ridge?" Reuben quickly asked hoping to divert the darkly dressed gunslinger's gaze.
"No, the bank wouldn't loan me any money. I guess we'll have to head back east." Lucas frowned.
"Maybe not," Buck said.
Chris pulled out the telegram from his pocket and handed it to Lucas.
"What's this?" Lucas read over the telegram silently.
"They caught the man who cheated you and Mr. Downing," Chris exclaimed. "He's in jail back in Gypsum," Chris said his gaze shifting to Reuben and Peter. "Been there for the past two days."
The boys' eyes widened and their mouths dropped open. "No...it can't be," Reuben stammered.
"Shut up," Peter snapped.
Lucas frowned at the anxious look on his nephews' faces. Reuben had paled noticeably. He could never hide anything from him. "Boys, what's goin' on? What are you doing out here? I told you to wait for me outside of town."
"They told me you wanted us to go on," Natalie added.
"We want to know where they got that horse," Chris turned to Lucas. "We think they might know where a friend of ours is."
Lucas took notice of the animal tied to the back of the wagon for the first time. It was a fine horse.
"It weren't our fault, Uncle," Reuben blurted out, guilt swelling up inside of him until he felt as if he'd burst. They had killed an innocent man. "We thought he was the one. Everyone thought he was the one."
"Who? What the devil are you talking about?" Lucas growled.
"Boys, what have you done?" Natalie whispered.
"Your boys are talking about persecution of an innocent man -- by all of us," Josiah desolately replied. "Now, sons, where did you get the horse?"
Reuben hung his head. "We didn't mean it," he whispered. "He shot Peter in the arm and the rifle went off. The shot spooked his horse and he was thrown off the cliff. He's dead."
"Oh no," Josiah moaned, looking to the right to hide the shine in his gray-blue eyes.
JD bowed his head. He knew that Ezra was innocent. He had felt it. Why hadn't he stuck up for the cardsharp? He would never be able to forgive himself -- none of them would.
"Are you sure he's dead?" Nathan asked. "Did you check?"
Reuben and Peter regarded each other then looked back at the healer. "Well, we didn't go down into the ravine to check."
"Show us," Chris solemnly said.
They all arrived at the spot where Ezra had fallen. Chris leapt from his horse and stopped at the edge. He peered over and saw Ezra's inert body resting at the bottom of the cliff. He couldn't tell if the gambler was alive. The cliff wasn't very steep; they could climb down with some ropes.
"JD, you and Lucas take the wagon and find a way to the bottom. We'll need it to get Ezra back to town. The rest of us will make our way down to him now."
Lucas jumped onto the wagon and shoved his oldest nephew aside as he took over the driving of the team. "How could you do this?" He growled. Lucas snapped the reins and followed as the young gunslinger rode along the edge looking for access to the bottom.
Josiah collected up the ropes from their horses and began tying them together. A studded old tree clung to the edge of the cliff. Josiah and Vin tied one end of the ropes to the base of the tree and dropped the free ends down the face of the cliff.
"Josiah, Vin, grab all the canteens and bed rolls," Nathan instructed as he grabbed his medical bag.
"Do you have everything you need?" Chris asked the healer
"Yeah, I think so. Let's just hope I get a chance to use it." He didn't think that Ezra was alive.
The five gunslingers made their way as cautiously as possible, but the sight of their injured friend hurried their descent. Rocks skittered out from under their feet, making the descent difficult.
Nathan was first to reach level ground and without hesitation rushed to the gambler's side. Ezra lay face down, unmoving. His heart sank at the blood pooled under his right leg and the unnatural angle below his knee. Nathan's hand shook as he reached out and laid two fingers aside his neck. The others gathered around him, holding their breaths. The small nearby creek sounding like a roaring river within the concerned quiet.
It was a moment before he could feel the slow beat of life. Nathan hung his head and released a long held breath. 'Maybe they'll at least get a chance to apologize and say good-bye.'
"He's still alive," Nathan intoned. "But he's in bad shape. We need to turn him over carefully." Vin and Buck moved quickly to Ezra's side.
Nathan took hold of Ezra's head. "Vin, take hold of his right leg and keep it steady. I think it's broken. Buck, put your hands on his back." Chris and Josiah stretched out two bedrolls alongside their injured friend.
The three men slowly turned the cardsharp over onto his back and onto the bedrolls. Nathan sat back and ran a hand over his head. It was a bad break, part of the bone was sticking out. Luckily, the bleeding had stopped. Nathan then noticed that Ezra's shoulder was also out. He pulled off the dirty bandage that wrapped Ezra's head.
A soft moan parted Ezra's chapped lips and his head turned to the side.
"Easy, Ez. Please stay unconscious," Nathan murmured, resting a hand on the gambler's shoulder. Vin's head snapped up and fear filled his blue eyes. It was bad, very bad.
Nathan undid Ezra's jacket and shirt taking note of the bruises that mottled his chest and sides. He gently probed the gambler's torso, feeling a couple of cracked ribs. He ran a hand under the conman's back feeling the stickiness of blood. Some of his stitches must have opened. Nathan then raised one of Ezra's eyelids to see the abnormal pupil.
Nathan returned his attention back to Ezra's right leg. The break was bad. Even if Ezra survived, he wasn't sure the gambler would be able to walk correctly again. During the war, surgeons normally removed the leg to minimize the chance of infection. The gunslingers watched as Nathan sat silently at Ezra's side. Buck glanced over at Vin to see apprehension and fear filling his blue eyes. Vin actually looked young and vulnerable for the first time. Nate continued to stare down at the injured southerner, everyone noticing the lack of urgency in the healer's movements -- Was it too late?
"Fix 'em up, Nate," Chris said, breaking everyone from their self-imposed guilt and trying to vanquish his own demons of blame. The healer's silence and inaction was driving him crazy.
'What did Larabee think he was, a doctor, a miracle worker?' Nathan laid a hand on Ezra's chest -- Too shallow -- he was barely breathing. He moved a hand up to Ezra's forehead. He was burning with fever.
"Nate?" Vin asked seeing the worry and uncertainty in the healer's dark eyes.
Nathan shook his head, and his shoulders slumped in defeat. His voice was soft, but still grabbed everyone's attention. "He hadn't even recovered from the concussion and whipping he got yesterday. He's dehydrated and that leg is bad he might go into shock." Nathan swallowed the sudden lump of sorrow and looked up to face the men surrounding him. "I can't give him laudanum with a head injury. As it is, he may never regain consciousness." Maybe that would be for the best, Nathan thought, but didn't voice his thought.
"Nate, what are you sayin'? It's Ez," Buck choked out.
"A body can only take so much, Buck. I think Ezra might have reached his limit."
Chris snatched the front of Nathan's shirt and pulled into him. "Don't give up on him!" Chris snarled, all his anger and hate at himself, at everything that had happened burned in his dark eyes.
Nathan glared back at the blond gunslinger, matching Chris's own deadly gaze.
Nathan's sudden rush of anger drifted away. He knew what Chris was going through, what they all were going through. Chris felt responsible, but he wasn't alone in his blame. They had all believed the worst of Ezra. The Downing boys had believed Ezra guilty because of what a town believed. Reuben and Peter might have caused Ezra's fall, but the six gunslingers and a whole town had put him at the edge of the cliff.
Nathan laid a hand on Chris's clenched fist that was wrapped up in his shirt. Chris released his hold on the healer, feeling suddenly drained and weak.
"It might be better if I just take the leg," Nathan said.
Chris looked back at the healer then down at the gambler. "No, after everything that's happened he'd never forgive us for that."
"It might be the only way," Nathan stressed.
Chris shook his head. "Do the best you can, Nate. No one will blame you," Chris sadly said and turned away.
Nathan looked at each of his friends in turn, seeing their trust and faith. He owed Ezra a chance. "Josiah, get a fire going. I need lots of water and something to bind this leg up with."
Chris and Vin started searching the area for suitable wood to use as splints. Buck checked each of the canteens to be sure they were full.
Nathan pulled one of his knives and carefully cut up Ezra's pant leg. He looked at Ezra's face seeing him wince then become still. Nathan examined the break. A small portion of bone jutted out halfway between the knee and ankle. He would have to try and put the bone back in place and then hope that gangrene didn't set it. Nathan glanced over at Chris who was hauling several pieces of wood toward the fire. He would amputate Ezra's leg before he let the man died, no matter what the others said.
"Josiah, I'm going to need your help," Nathan called out to the giant gunslinger. Josiah was quickly at Nathan's side eager to help. "Let's do this before he comes to. You're going to have to watch his shoulder. It's still out."
Josiah got behind Ezra and pulled his head and upper body onto his chest. He wrapped his massive arms around the gambler's midsection careful of the damaged ribs and torn back.
Nathan knew that no matter how careful they were, Ezra was in for a whole lot of pain. He moved down to Ezra's right foot and gently slipped off his boot. He then looked up at Josiah who was murmuring softly in Ezra's ear.
"I'm going to have to do this slow to minimize any damage to the skin and blood vessels. I can't risk cuttin' an artery. He can't afford to lose more blood."
Josiah nodded. "We'll be fine, Nate."
"Buck, I need you over here, too."
The mustached cowboy dropped the canteens and loped over to the healer. Nathan handed Buck a wadded up cloth. "As soon as I get this leg set you'll have to apply pressure to the wound."
Buck looked unsure, but nodded and knelt down beside Ezra's injured leg as Nathan took hold of it at the ankle.
The healer took a deep breath and slowly began straightening out the leg. Ezra groaned and Josiah tightened his hold as Nathan continued to pull, watching as the protruding bone slipped back in. Buck rested a hand on Ezra's upper leg as Ezra's struggles increased.
"Almost got it," Nathan grunted as he continued to apply even pressure.
Ezra's eyes flashed opened and he gulped out a breath mixed with a strangled cry of pain. His eyes were wild trying to focus on the source of his agony. It felt like his leg was being ripped off. Ezra's struggles increased along with his breathing.
"Hold him, Josiah!" Nathan was surprised at the gambler's sudden reserve of strength.
Vin and Chris came around the creek bend and froze at Ezra's scream.
Chris and Vin raced to Nathan's side. Vin dropped several stout branches next to the healer and looked at the now unconscious gambler. Ezra's pallor matched the gray weathered rocks surrounding him and sweat plastered his dark hair to his skull. Buck was holding a rag over Ezra's wound trying to stop the bleeding without applying too much pressure and separating the bones. Chris held onto several strips of material as he stood staring down at Ezra and once again feeling the pangs of regret.
Nathan wiped the sweat from his brow. "Keep the pressure up, Buck. We got to stop the bleeding."
Josiah continued to hold onto Ezra whispering into his ear and absently rubbed his thumb along the young gambler's temple.
"Well?" Chris asked, his voice pleading.
Nathan allowed himself to relax. He was exhausted. "I don't know. I think I have the bone in place, but I don't know how much damage was done." Nathan looked up at Ezra's face and exhaled. He still needed to get his shoulder back in place. Nathan wiped his eyes and moved up to Ezra's finicky shoulder. "Hold 'im Josiah. I don't think he'll feel this though." Nathan manipulated the separated shoulder smoothly and quickly without a sound coming from the gambler. He checked Ezra's breathing finding it far too shallow.
"Okay, Buck, let's see if the bleeding has stopped."
Buck slowly released the pressure and leaned back so that Nathan could take a look.
"Good. I'll have to wait until we get back to town to stitch it up. I need to watch for infection and clean it out better," Nathan explained as he grabbed a clean rag and water and gently cleansed the wound and applied clean dressing and bandages. He then took up the two stout branches that Vin had smoothed and wrapped with cloth. He lined them up along Ezra's leg. The men remained silent, handing the healer whatever he asked for. After Nathan finished binding the leg he moved up to the shoulder and secured Ezra's arm to his chest. He would take care of the gambler's back when they got him home.
The five gunslingers heard the rattle of the wagon as it slowly approached. The whole time JD was searching for a way down the mountain, he hadn't know if Ezra was alive or dead or if he would get a chance to apologize. Buck grinned as JD raced ahead and jumped from his horse.
The young gunslinger froze at the sight of the injured gambler. He didn't have to ask how Ezra was doing; the answer hung thick around the five men surrounding him.
Lucas jumped from the wagon and looked down at the injured man. "You all thought this was the man?" He had to admit the man was similar in appearance. He dressed like the gambler in Gypsum and even under the dirt and bruises Lucas could tell that the gentleman gambler maintained a neat and clean appearance, but that was where the similarities ended. The man who cheated them was younger and heavier with dirty blond hair.
"Ezra's been known to use the alias of Simpson," Chris said in way of understanding why they all thought Ezra was guilty.
Lucas nodded his understanding. "I guess it's an honest mistake."
"Yeah, all gambler's look alike," Nathan sarcastically spat, placing a cool cloth on Ezra's brow. How would he ever make it up to the urbane southerner?
Vin laid an understanding hand on the healer's shoulder.
"We'll camp here for the night and head back to town at first light," Chris said.
Nathan handed the rag he was using to cool Ezra's fever to Vin and stepped up to Chris.
He stared at the wagon and the non-existent road back to the top. "The ride back might kill 'im," Nathan said.
"He's going to feel every bump and rock. I can't give him laudanum with that concussion." Nathan paused and took a breath. "I don't know if he'll be able to take it without going into shock and that leg has got to stay completely still or we risk cuttin' an artery or the leg not settin' right."
"What can we do? Stay here?" Buck interrupted, overhearing the conversation between the two men.
"No, it'll be weeks before he could be moved safely. He needs to be kept warm and comfortable," Nathan explained.
Chris wiped at his face and looked over at Ezra. The flush of fever was the only color in the gambler's face and his chest barely rose. He could see Ezra's lips moving, murmurings of a fever-induced nightmare.
"So what other choices do we have?" Chris asked.
"I don't know," Nathan answered. "I guess we'll just have to risk the ride..."
"I think I might have an idea," Lucas suddenly broke in. The two men turned to him. "What if we make a sling inside the wagon? Then he won't feel all that rough road."
Nathan's brow furrowed and a smile tickled the corners of his mouth. "Yeah, we'd still have to go real slow, but it would protect him from the worst of it." His eyes shined with excitement, Ezra would have a chance.
Racing the last rays of sunshine the wagon was quickly emptied. Lucas and Vin worked on making the ropes into a net and Natalie sewed several blankets together.
Nathan and Josiah erected a temporary shelter over Ezra and continued to try and cool his fever.
"Nate..than," Ezra gasped as his eyes fluttered open. "What's...what's happening?"
"Easy Ez, you're in bad shape, but we're taking care of ya," Nathan assured, he looked over at Chris who had taken up a position by Ezra's head.
Ezra pushed the blanket away only to have Nathan replace it. "You gotta keep warm."
"Hot." His skin felt like it was bursting from the heat and swelling.
"I know. Here you have to drink." Nathan brought a cup of water to Ezra's parched lips and allowed him a few sips. An enormous bolt of pain surged through his leg causing him to gasp and clench his teeth.
"Ride it out, Ez," Nathan said, staring worriedly down at the suffering gambler.
"I'll go," Ezra mumbled.
"What?" Nathan said.
"No good, I'll go," he repeated.
Nathan's dark eyes flashed up in shock at Chris who instantly moved to Ezra's side and leaned over him.
"Ezra, listen to me," Chris sternly said. "None of this was your fault. We made a mistake." Chris squeezed Ezra's shoulder trying to convey how sorry he was. "A big one."
Ezra fought to keep his eyes open and understand what the blond gunslinger was saying.
"We know it wasn't you," Chris continued.
Ezra's brow furrowed as he tried to comprehend the words that were whispering overhead. "You...still...believed...it...was me," he managed to say, before falling back into the beckoning blackness.
Chris's fist shook, and he bowed his head. "And I'll go to my grave ruing that," he answered to the unhearing man. He raised his head and peered over his shoulder at the others, who had gathered around, each one of them wearing expressions of guilt and regret.
Fever raged through the gambler throughout the night. Vin, Buck and Josiah struggled to hold the delirious man still as the others kept up a constant supply of cool water.
"Ezra, you have to calm down," Nathan yelled out his frustration as he kept hold of the injured leg. The agony was clear on Ezra's face and his pain drowned out any demands the others made on him. The pain was all encompassing, ruling his entire world.
A convulsion made Ezra arch his back and cry out. His muscles relaxed and he dropped flat. Nathan quickly laid a hand against his neck expecting the end. He bowed his head. How much more could Ezra take? He looked up at the silvery slice of moon then turned his attention to the five gunslingers who stared back at him with fear stricken faces. Morning couldn't come soon enough.
Morning brought little life to the bone-weary gunslingers, but an eagerness to get Ezra back home was bringing them all to their feet. Ezra's fever had remained steady for the past few hours, and he had slept fitfully throughout the night with Nathan and Josiah constantly at his side and forcing much needed fluids down him. The healer had risked several spoonfuls of laudanum to help the pain-ridden gambler get some sleep.
"Damn, I need a cup of coffee," Buck griped, as he tried to stretch out the kinks in his back. JD staggered up beside him and Buck threw his arm across the young man's shoulder. JD's knees buckled slightly under Buck's sudden weight.
"Hell, I need a whole pot," Vin added.
"You'll both have to wait till we get back to town," Chris said as he walked past.
Buck and Vin noticed the weariness etched in the blond leader's face. Chris seemed to have aged ten years over the past four days. They knew he was blaming himself.
"Cowboy," Vin called out, stopping Chris in his tracks. "There's plenty a fault to go around."
"Yeah, don't need you hoggin' it all," Buck sullenly said.
Chris smirked and continued over to where Nathan was tending to Ezra. He wondered if Nate had gotten any sleep. He found the altruistic healer slumped against a tree stump. Chris went and shook his shoulder.
"Wha...What." Nathan woke with a start and his eyes went immediately to Ezra who stirred weakly. Nate wiped the sleep from his eyes and looked up at Chris who stood soberly near by. Nathan inched over to the gambler and checked his pulse and breathing. "He's holding his own, Chris."
Chris nodded and turned away. Nathan watched the blond gunslinger leave, noticing the slump of his shoulders and the heaviness of his steps, as if he carried the weight of the world, or one wily cardsharp upon his soul. Nathan had to wonder if they would lose their leader and friend.
"My nephews have generously volunteered to remove the rocks from our path," Lucas announced as he came around the wagon, eyeing the sleep-deprived gunslingers.
"What!" Both boys yelled in unison. Their posture slumped as all eyes glared at them.
"Alright, we'll have to do this together and we need to keep Ez as steady as possible," Nathan explained to the four lawmen who were preparing to lift Ezra up.
Ezra was barely conscious and wracked with pain, tired muscles contracted and twitched. He was now wrapped in one of Buck's shirts.
A large blanket-woven net was spread out in the back of the wagon; ropes were securely tied to each corner and run up through the ribbing of the wagon in back and front.
"Alright, JD, you keep that leg still and we'll do the rest," Vin said as he got under Ezra's head and shoulders. Josiah and Buck were on either side of the gambler and were preparing to lift the limp form.
"I got a good hold," JD said.
"On three...one...two...three," Vin called and the four men smoothly lifted the limp man off the ground.
They gently laid Ezra out on the blankets in the back of the wagon. Ezra moaned softly. Chris and Vin grabbed the ropes in front and Buck and Josiah took hold of the ones in the back.
Nathan climbed into the wagon and made sure that Ezra was in a good position. "Alright, ease him up slowly," Nathan yelled out. The four men started to pull taut the ends of the ropes.
The blanket slowly wrapped around Ezra and he was raised up. Nathan kept a hand on the sling, keeping it steady.
"Okay, slow...let up on your end, Chris," Nathan instructed. "Alright, that's good. Tie 'em off."
Ezra swayed freely within the large wagon. Nathan tucked another blanket around him and rechecked his leg. He was happy that Ezra didn't appear to feel any pain during the operation. Maybe this would work.
"Look at that. He's like a baby in a cradle," Buck remarked, peering inside the wagon.
"Better not let him hear you say that," Vin said.
"Ah, don't worry we took his guns," Buck grinned. Tension was released for the first time in days.
The wagon moved slowly back toward town. Natalie and Nathan stayed in the back of the wagon to tend to Ezra. The wagon rolled over a rock and came down with a rough thump. Nathan and Natalie gasped and watched as Ezra swung gently in the sling. He groaned slightly. Nathan smiled and stuck his head out the back of the wagon. "It's working!"
The others grinned and Buck reached over and slapped JD on the back. Their friend had a chance, and they would have a chance to make amends. Nathan tossed an empty canteen toward Vin. "I need more water." The tracker raced off to find a spring.
"You men are special," Natalie abruptly said as she laid a cool cloth on Ezra's forehead. She looked up at the healer and smiled. "You all care for each other."
Nathan felt his face redden. "Yeah." He looked over at Ezra. "Most of the time; sometimes we lose sight that Ezra is one of us."
"He'll forgive you."
"I hope so ma'am. I truly do."
Natalie smiled at the ashamed healer then turned her attention back to the handsome gambler when Ezra moaned.
"My husband was a moral, steadfast man, Mr. Jackson," Natalie suddenly said. "Some people thought he was greedy and a miser, but he worked hard all his life. He missed out on the boys growing up, trying to give us a better life." Natalie paused and her face grew somber. Nathan bowed his head, feeling that the widow needed to tell her story. Natalie took a deep breath and continued, "When he lost the money and deed to that saloon he felt his dream had been stolen and there was nothing left to live. I'm angry at that. He was a good man inside, but he had lost sight of what was really important - his family."
"I'm sorry," Nathan muttered, feeling like he might have just been properly scolded.
Natalie smiled slightly. "So am I, Mr. Jackson."
Ezra felt like he was floating, no swinging. He recalled a large wooden swing that hung from a giant willow tree when he was younger. His father had hung it and was pushing him high into the air. He felt he could almost touch the branches of that mighty tree as his father pushed him higher.
"Ezra, do you hear me," Nathan whispered. He saw the smile on his friend's face and gently took his chin between his fingers. "C'mon, Ez, you need to wake up."
Ezra's eyes fluttered and were still, and then a moment later they slowly opened. Nathan smiled down at the bewildered expression on Ezra's face.
Ezra felt strange. He couldn't move, yet he was pleasantly comfortable, although his leg and shoulder throbbed. His throat was parched and he could only managed a hoarse croaking sound. Nathan brought a cup of water and herbs to his lips. The cool water felt so good that he didn't even mind the detestable herbs.
"Drink it down. It'll help with the pain," Nathan encouraged. "Don't talk just rest. We're almost home."
Ezra frowned. "Home?" he whispered.
"Yes, Ezra, we're taking you home with us," Nathan stressed as he lay another blanket on top of Ezra.
It was near dark by the time the wagon with its entourage of exhausted gunslingers made its way into town.
"Alright, we have to get him up to the clinic. We'll do it just like when we loaded him in the wagon," Nathan exclaimed. Reuben and Peter took care of the horses as the gunslingers carefully carried Ezra up to Nathan's clinic. Josiah helped in removing Ezra's clothing and Nathan quickly cleaned and stitched up Ezra's back before settling him into bed.
Ezra moaned as he sunk into the mattress and Nathan forced more water down the semi-conscious gambler.
Nathan fell into his chair and looked around the room to see the other five lawmen asleep on the floor. He closed his eyes and the dam that held back all his fear and fatigue released, the flood carrying him away.
It was two days before Ezra's fever broke and he was coherent. The lawmen had alternated between their peacekeeping duties and their need to be by their friend. Lucas Clayton and the Downings had moved on after receiving some of their money back and the deed to the saloon. Lucas told the lawmen he was going to name the bar Jeb's Tavern and invited the gunslingers to free drinks whenever they were near town.
"Do you know anyone by the name of Samuel Orwell?" Chris asked as Ezra sat propped up in bed.
The cardsharp hadn't said a word to anyone about the last few days and, in fact, acted as though nothing was amiss. Shame made the others reluctant to raise the subject. Chris had used the excuse of waiting until Ezra was stronger.
Ezra thought a moment. "I seem to recall a young man who went by that name, about a year ago, who I accorded the benefits of using an alias."
"Looks like he took your advice," Buck said.
"Yes, well, I'd hoped he'd have more imagination."
"Well, the judge went up to Gypsum and Mr. Orwell was charged with swindling, fraud and he threw in impersonating a lawman for good measure. He's going to be dealing cards at Yuma prison for a long time," Josiah informed.
Silence fell on the room. Ezra frowned at the disconcerted expressions.
"Is there something amiss?"
The six lawmen stared at their injured comrade in disbelief. Maybe Ez had hurt his head worse than they thought.
"Well yeah, there's somethin' amiss," Buck angrily replied. Ezra's blasé attitude was enough to make him want to shake the cardsharp. Any normal person would be trying to find his guns.
"We chased you out of town, almost got you killed," Nathan said.
Ezra's face remained impassive, but he did cock his head to the side. He was trying to let these men save face and forget the incident had ever happened. He didn't want to cause an emotional scene and most people he'd encountered were grateful for the out.
Chris glared at the cardsharp. He knew what Ezra was doing, trying to wipe it all under the rug. Ezra didn't think he meant enough to them for it to really matter. "We need to apologize," Chris stated.
"There is no need to apologize. With that description, even I would have believed I was guilty," Ezra said, waving his hand in dismissal.
"Still don't make it right," Vin put in.
"You almost died, Ez," JD added. Buck elbowed his young friend in the ribs. "What?"
"He don't need remindin'."
"We jumped to conclusions when we should have known better," Josiah said.
"Some of the townspeople are already tryin' to make amends." Vin moved aside to reveal several pies sitting on a small table.
Ezra grinned slightly. He was shocked that these men felt the need to apologize to him.
"I guess what we're all wonderin' is, 'will ya give us a second chance?'" Chris asked his face solemn as if afraid of the answer.
Ezra stared in shocked disbelief. These honorable men were asking him for a second chance. Did he mean that much to them? Ezra could see that his friends expected an answer and he could even see fear creeping in as he kept them waiting.
Ezra cleared his throat and took a deep breath to control his rising emotions. "I don't know of more deserving men and thank you."
Ezra shifted slightly, trying to get comfortable. Nathan and Josiah had set him in a chair outside the saloon to get some much needed fresh air. It had been nearly a month since his fall. His leg was still held in splints but healing well. His friends had spent all their free time diverting him from his boredom and discomfort. Ezra watched from his chair as Buck finished tying a rope to one of the support beams in front of the jail across the street. Ezra turned his head to see Chris and Vin striding up the boardwalk.
"Gentlemen, join me. I believe Mr. Wilmington is about to entertain us."
Chris and Vin took up the empty chairs and looked across the street.
"What the hell is he doin'?" Vin asked.
"Buck, what are you doing?" JD asked coming up alongside his friend. Buck tugged on the rope and stepped back from the sling that hung between the support posts outside the jail.
"Well, I've been thinkin' how comfy Ez looked in that sling when we brought him home, so I just thought I'd give it a try."
JD rubbed his chin and looked skeptically at the makeshift hammock. "I don't know, Buck."
Buck threw his right leg into the sling and grabbed the side of it with his right hand. He carefully stretched out his body and eased his left leg up. He swayed slightly and his body was rigid as the sides pulled up.
"How is it?" JD asked.
"Well, it takes a little gettin' used to."
JD grinned. "Think that knot is strong enough?"
"What?" Buck jerked his head up to examine the tied end. The abrupt motion caused the swing to flip depositing the cowboy into the dust. Buck coughed up the dust that blew into his mouth and glared at his young friend who was doubled over laughing.
"Shit!" JD said as he leapt from the boardwalk and raced down the street with Buck hot on his heels.
Chris glanced over at Ezra seeing the cardsharp wiping away tears of laughter. Vin held his side and urged JD on. Chris smiled. They were still a family and if he had his way they would remain so.