Head ‘em Up, Move ‘em Out

by Hombre

+ + + + + + +

The cowhands watered and settled the exhausted herd on their new bed- ground. By the time they had done that chore and been relieved by the night- herders, Vin drew the wagon into the campsite.

“Vin? Yer bleeding, pard,” Buck said as he strode forward to meet the younger man as he jumped down from the wagon.

The long-haired man looked down and nodded. “Yeah, I know. Sure hurts, Bucklin.”

“Take off yer coat,” the taller man ordered. “I´ll treat if for ya ‘cause Nate´s gotten his hands full with Ez, I reckon.” He then helped Vin take off his shirt to reveal the bleeding, ragged gash across his biceps. “Ouch,” he said with a grimace.

“Yeah, I think I agree with ya there,” Vin said with a smile as he watched Buck treat the injury efficiently. He flinched and hissed softly in pain as the wound was touched, but other than that he showed no signs of distress. The ladies´ man helped his friend get dressed again and then assisted him with seeing to the mules needs. Finally, the two men quickly checked on Ezra, not wanting to disturb the healer and his patient too much, before going off to get a meal for themselves.

Chris appeared at the tailgate of the bed-wagon and passed some food up to the healer. The blond took a long quiet look at the gambler and sighed. “Nate? How´s he doin´?”

“He´s right poorly, Chris. Least I think I can say that he ain´t bleeding internally, ‘cause he´d be dead by now if he was. His body´s taken a right battering and he´s feverish and unsettled. By all accounts he should be dead ‘cause very few people survive a fall during a stampede. He was damned lucky that Vin was so close to him and was able to save him from even worse injuries,” the healer said as he wiped Ezra´s brow with a cloth gently.

“Yeah, I know he was. Just wish it´d never happened in the first place. I was played for a fool.” Chris grimaced angrily. “Is he gonna be okay to keep up with us, or what?”

Nathan caught Chris´s eye and nodded quietly. “He´s gonna find it tough goin´ but I think he can travel tomorrow.”

“Well, just take it slow and steady. We´ll just have to wait for the bedrolls until you arrive each night. Won´t be no hardship.”

The two men heard approaching footsteps and they realized that their conversation had been overheard. They looked out to see the cook nearby. “Mr. Larabee? You can put the bedrolls in the chuck wagon, if ya want. There´s plenty of room in there and it would usually have carried them anyway if we´d only had one wagon. There ain´t no worry then for ya about getting to camp before the bedrolls are needed,” the cook said as he turned to Nathan. “If ya need any help with Ezra, just give me a call. I usually help out with any injuries or sickness during a drive.”

“Great, that´s real helpful but I´m a healer too and I´m sure I´ll be okay. You´ve gotten yer own chores to do, but thanks for the offer,” Nathan said gratefully.

The blond nodded to both men and turned away to sit beside the fire and eat his own meal as there seemed no more to discuss. It was just beginning to get dark and it would soon be time to turn in for the night.

Nathan turned up the lantern in the wagon and then quickly ate his meal before turning his attention back to his patient. He wiped the sweat from Ezra´s brow continually as the con man fought the fever that had descended upon his battered body. The healer made the injured man drink some water and then set about making up some herbal brews ready for the morning. He gave Ezra a few mouthfuls of laudanum before trying to settle down for the night. Needless to say, neither man got much rest. Ezra tossed around continually despite his broken bones, and Nathan sat sponging him down for hours on end.

+ + + + + + +

The healer was the second man up in the morning, after the cook, and he woke Buck to get him to keep an eye on Ezra while he washed and shaved. The ladies´ man sat anxiously next to Ezra and talked to him in an effort to calm him. It didn´t work, and Ezra kept groaning and talking in his sleep.

“Thanks, Bucklin,” the healer said when he´d finished his ablutions and arrived back at the wagon.

The tall gunman looked up and frowned anxiously. “You look awful, Nate.”

Nathan laughed sourly as he climbed up to take Buck´s place at Ezra´s side once more. “Yeah, well, didn´t get much sleep, did I? Anyway, I´m used to being up for days on end tending the sick. I´ll manage. Bet I won´t be the only one to miss out on some sleep on this drive neither. Hopefully, we´ve only gotten about a week´s worth of travel until we get to journey´s end, and I can handle that.”

Buck patted the healer´s back gently. “Well, try and catch up on some sleep now. Curly´s gonna drive the wagon for ya, so you ain´t gotta worry about that.”

“I don´t know that Ez is gonna let me get much sleep at the moment. He´s really suffering, Buckin,” Nathan said as he began checking Ezra gently.

The tall gunman watched his friend work for a few minutes and he could see how tired Nathan really was. “Yeah, I know he is, pard. He´s real restless, so give me a yell if you need any help with him. I can always take over during the night for a bit so that you can get some sleep then if ya want. We´re all being disrupted in the night to take our turns with looking after the herd and all, anyway. Maybe Chris can take me off that and we can share caring for Ez between us. I´ll have a word with him.” The ladies´ man strode off and came back with the blond in tow.

Chris leaned against the back of the wagon and stared up at the healer. “Nate? Bucklin´s given me his thoughts. We can manage the herd at night without him, if you wanna use his services. There are only ever two men out at a time, so I´ve gotten plenty spare to take up his duties. I reckon that you need his help more at the moment, Nate.”

“Thanks, Chris,” the healer, replied, finally realizing that he would need help after all. “I just don´t wanna get so tired that I can´t care for him properly. I don´t really wanna ask the cook neither. He works hard enough as it is without staying up during the night helping me.”

“What, and I don´t?” Buck said with a grin.

“That ain´t what I meant, Bucklin.”

“Only kidding, pard,” the ladies´ man said as he patted his friend´s back.

Chris nodded in satisfaction. “That´s settled then. From tonight, Buck helps you out. I´ll square it with Hooper,” the blond said as he went in search of the trail boss.

Nathan turned back to his patient and made him as comfortable as he could by packing blankets around him to prevent him being jostled too much during the journey. He´d just finished when the nighthawk turned up and looked inside.

“Hey, Mr. Jackson. Is it okay for me to keep on sleeping in here during the day?” the man asked anxiously.

Nathan nodded but gave the man a warning. “Sure, but I can´t say if you´ll get much sleep.”

The man grinned broadly, revealing beautifully white teeth. “I can sleep through most things. Been doin´ this job for years and you kinda get to ignore all sorts of noises.”

“I bet. What ya gonna do about yer duties, though? If we don´t get to camp until late you ain´t gonna be able to take over the remuda on time, or have yer meal in peace.”

“I´ve gotten a mule with me. I´ll tie him to the back of the wagon and I´ll catch the herd up if it looks like we´re really getting left behind. Mr. Hooper won´t make me go out all night without food, you can be sure of that. He´s already making arrangements for someone to stay on with the horses until I get there, so don´t fret.”

The man climbed up as he spoke and moved toward the front of the wagon so that he didn´t get in the way of his two traveling companions. He lay down and seemed to be asleep within seconds. Nathan smiled and then turned as Curly then appeared at the tailgate. He was getting non-stop human traffic it seemed.

“All set?” the driver asked quietly.

“As much as we can be.”

The man nodded as he secured the tailgate. “I´ll go steady, but give a yell if you need me to stop at any time. How is he?”

The healer sighed. “Real bad.”

The driver grimaced and then turned away. Nathan felt the wagon rock to one side as the man climbed up into the driver´s seat. He then heard the man urge his team of mules onward, and the journey began.

+ + + + + + +

Five days after the stampede, the men gathered round the campfire to tell stories while eating their meals. They had been very subdued ever since the accident and even now they kept noise to a minimum for fear of disturbing the seriously injured gambler. Not that the man was awake, but they still acted with care when near his wagon. The atmosphere in the camp had totally changed over the last week, from happy to anxious.

Buck walked to the wagon housing Ezra and handed in a plate of food to Nathan. “There ya go, Nate. How´s he been today?” the tall man asked as he took a quick look at Ezra.

The healer took the plate from Buck gratefully and took a mouthful before answering the man´s question. “He´s been kinda restless all day. Sorta mumbling and groaning continually as if he´s in pain, but he shouldn´t be ‘cause I´ve dosed him up well.”

“Do you want me to take over for a spell? I´ve already had my meal,” Buck offered, knowing that Nathan was upset and needed a break from tending his very sick patient.

“Yeah, thanks. Like to stretch my legs, if ya don´t mind. Would kinda like to talk to someone who´ll actually answer me, too,” he said wryly as he dropped to the ground and picked up his plate again.

“Sure.” Buck grinned. “Take yer time.”

The healer cautioned the tall man before finally departing. “Watch him closely, Bucklin. I´m still real worried about him.”

“I´ll call if I need ya but I´ll take good care of him, pard. Go and relax for a bit.” Buck took up position beside the injured man and watched Nathan walk to the campfire to sit beside Chris.

The camp was only lit by the firelight and eerie shadows danced around the area. The ladies´ man stared out at the fire from under the wagon´s tarpaulin top, and strained his ears to hear what was being said by the rest of the men. This was the part of the day that he loved. Listening to all the stories that were told made a nice change from riding. He sat back against the side of the wagon and listened in amusement to some of the windies being related by the cook. The tall man flicked a look at JD and saw the kid´s mouth hanging open in awe. He knew his young friend believed every word he was being told.

Two hours passed in this fashion and then Ezra groaned softly and almost hiccuped. The ladies´ man looked down and saw the man shift slightly on his thin mattress. “Easy, pard. Ole Buck´s here. You okay?” Buck asked automatically as he ran his fingers through his friend´s hair gently.

To Buck´s surprise, Ezra opened his eyes and groaned loudly. The mustached peacekeeper smiled when he saw the two green eyes staring up at him in confusion. He hadn´t expected any reaction from the man, but he was immensely pleased that there had been one.

“Hey, pard. Good to see ya. Yer doin´ just fine,” the tall man said before scooting quickly out of the way when Ezra coughed roughly before throwing up badly. “Alright, son, don´t fret. Think that little lot´s been threatening to come all day, ain´t it? Real fidgety you´ve been, so Nate says.”

The ladies´ man cleaned his friend up gently and then looked toward the fire. “Nate?”

The healer was on his feet in an instant and heading at a run toward the wagon. “Bucklin? Somethin´ wrong?” he asked breathlessly.

“He´s awake but he´s just puked real nasty.”

“Hey, Ez. Let´s check you over properly,” Nathan said as he climbed into the wagon and turned up the lamp inside so that he could see what he was doing. “Ez? I know you hurt all over but I need you to be very specific about the levels of pain. Try to tell me where it hurts most when I touch you, okay? This is important, Ez.”

Ezra nodded slightly so Nathan reached out and began his examination. Ezra tried to concentrate on what Nathan had told him to do, but in truth, every touch hurt him. The healer finally reached round Ezra´s back and began probing there and the injured man yelled loudly.

“Oh, glory be,” he groaned breathlessly.

“Alright, easy, Ez. Have some of this. It´ll ease yer suffering,” Nathan said as he gave the man another dose of laudanum. It didn´t stay down for more than a few seconds though. “Oh, Ez,” Nathan said as he cleaned the man up again.

“Nate?” Chris asked after arriving at the tailgate on hearing the cry.

Nathan settled Ezra carefully back on the mattress and pulled the covers back over the man as he spoke. “As well as all the other injuries that we know about, his back seems to pain him the most from what I can tell. It´s badly bruised and I should think it took the most hits. He´s feeling real sick too as you can see. I´m gonna keep him sedated while we on the road, if I can. I´ve done all I can for him medically, so I just need to get him to civilization so he stop all this moving about. The only good thing that I can say is that he ain´t getting any worse.”

“Okay, s´pose we should, at least, be thankful for that. We should reach our destination tomorrow all things being equal. We´ll make an extra early start to make sure we get there.”

The healer nodded gratefully. “Thanks, Chris.”

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, all the men were up very early. They knew how sick Ezra was and they were all anxious for his wellbeing. They started the herd moving in the required direction, and settled down to concentrate on getting to their goal as soon as possible.

Vin scouted ahead as usual, but this time with Josiah for company.

Noon came and went, and the men chewed on some beef jerky to keep their strength up. The two men rode in silence, sometimes riding together and sometimes splitting up to cover two sides of a valley. Having just checked out some nearby cave, they joined up once more and rode along companionably toward a low hill.

“Hey, do you see somethin´ over there, big fella?” the tracker asked quietly as he pointed to a small copse ahead.

Josiah squinted into the distance as he put up a hand to block out the sun while wishing he had Vin´s eagle eyes. “Yeah, looks like some of our friends from the stampede deception,” the big man said in something close to pleasure.

Vin looked at the preacher quizzically as he patted his mare´s leg. “Do ya think they´re gonna try something else? Think we need to discourage them?”

“I reckon we do, son. Need to exact retribution for their evil ways,” Josiah nodded as he grinned broadly.

The two men dismounted and left their horses hidden before making their way on to the distant camp. They settled down in some bushes to watch and wait for a suitable time to tackle their foe. The herd was still some way behind so they at least had time in their favor.

They watched as one of Royal´s men stood up and headed off into the trees: his purpose clear. Vin smiled in a feral fashion and set off, after trading an amused glance with Josiah. Five minutes later, the tracker came back looking satisfied.

“Alright, son?” the preacher asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, seemed a bit cruel to wallop him in the middle of what he was doin´, but it sure made things easy for me,” Vin said with a grin.

Their attention was drawn back to the camp when two of the remaining men moved to where their horses were tied in the trees. It looked as though they were going to break camp so that they could put into action whatever plan they had in mind. Vin and Josiah moved in and dealt with their opponents while they were occupied with their mounts. The animals luckily didn´t give away their presence and soon the two men were bound and gagged securely. The final man became suspicious when none of his companions returned to camp. He disappeared to look for them and found one friend trussed up like a turkey. The startled man suddenly caught movement out the corner of his eye and turned to see Vin heading toward him fast. The man snapped off a quick shot and heard the tracker curse as he was hit. The outlaw moved in for the kill with an evil look on his face, his mind concentrating totally on the sharpshooter. Josiah, however, crept silently in from behind and knocked the man out while his attention was focused on Vin.

“Son? How bad?” Josiah asked when he saw the blood on Vin´s sleeve. The preacher carried on securing his prisoner while studying Vin quietly.

“Just another nick, although it´s bleeding a lot. Matching pair now. One on each arm,” Vin said with a grin as he holstered his gun and flexed his fingers quickly.

“Let me see,” Josiah said as he hurried toward the younger man. He examined the wound and winced in sympathy. “Painful,” he muttered.

“You can say that again. Stings like hell.”

Josiah treated it there and then as best he could and then helped the man onto his horse. “Let´s get you back to Nate. These gents will eventually get free, but not until we´re well out of the area. I´ve taken all their weapons so if they do catch up, they ain´t gonna prove a problem.”

The two men urged their mounts back toward the herd, which had just come into sight in the valley below.

Chris was still riding point and he put his hand up to shade his eyes as he looked into the distance anxiously. He recognized his two friends and rode out fast to meet them. He´d been wondering where they´d gotten to and had become increasingly worried when they hadn´t appeared at noon.

“Vin? You hurt?” he asked when he was close enough to see the man´s bloodstained sleeve.

“Only a scratch, cowboy. We met up with our decoy stampede friends and I´m pleased to tell ya that they won´t be interfering again.”

The blond looked both men up and down to make sure that they weren´t hiding any other injuries. “Great. You go and see, Nate, while Josiah and I go and scout ahead again, Vin. Good work both of you,” Chris praised.

Vin nodded and split up from his two friends. He rode back past the herd, greeting his comrades as he met them. Finally, he turned up at the wagon that housed Ezra, and he rode along behind it to catch Nathan´s eye. “Hey, Nate. Kinda got shot.”

“Let me see. Curly? Can ya stop a minute?” the healer called as he slithered toward the tailgate.

The wagon came to a smooth halt soon after and the healer stepped down quickly as Vin dismounted from his horse more slowly.

Nathan pulled up Vin´s sleeve and undid the makeshift bandage that Josiah had applied. He studied the wound as he sucked in a breath and sighed. “Could do with some stitches.”

Vin shook his head in disagreement. “Just bind it up tight, Nate. Stitches can wait until we hit town ‘cause Chris still needs me to scout.” The tracker quickly gave the healer details of how he´d come by his injuries and stared pleadingly at the healer. “Need to make sure Royal ain´t gotten no more tricks up his sleeve.”

“Well, he´s a fool if he has. I think we´ve seen the last of his men,” Nathan said as he tied of the bandage and tucked the ends in neatly.

“Hope yer right.”

Nathan smiled and patted Vin´s back. “Come back if it don´t stop bleeding; scouting or no scouting, you hear me?”

“Sure, I hear ya, Nate.” While the tracker was at the wagon, he flicked a quick look at the injured gambler before turning back to Nathan. “How´s Ez doin´?”

“Semi-conscious and feeling as sick as a dog,” Nathan said dejectedly as he climbed back into the vehicle.

Vin nodded and smiled in encouragement and then mounted his gelding agilely. “Look after him.”

“That was my intention,” Nathan said as he saluted.

+ + + + + + +

The herd finally arrived at their destination late afternoon, but the men still hadn´t finished their work. They needed to do a head count to see how many animals they had lost on the journey due to the stampede and other accidents. Two men rode past the head of the herd and stood on opposite sides of the street. The cattle were slowed and strung out, before being driven between the two men so that they could assess numbers. The counting cowhands used a piece of string and knotted it whenever a hundred cows had passed by. When a thousand had gone by, they tied a loop instead of a knot. It took quite some time to get the job done, but Hooper was pleased to see that they hadn´t lost too many animals, which was a miracle given the stampede. The animals were finally taken to the holding pens where Hooper had arranged for their new owner to collect them from later that day.

Nathan, meanwhile, parted company from the crew on the outskirts of the huddle of buildings and went in search of the town´s doctor. He drove the wagon down Casper´s main street and asked directions to the clinic from a woman on the boardwalk. He drew the vehicle up outside the building shortly afterwards, hopped down and ran inside.

“I´ve gotten an injured man outside. Can you make room for him?” he asked breathlessly when the doctor looked up from the medical book that he was reading.

“What´s wrong with him?”

“Trampled in a stampede.”

The doctor stood up quickly and nodded as he dropped his book onto the seat. “Bring him right on in. I´ve gotten a spare bed out back that you can use long term,” he said before disappearing to get the bed ready for its new occupant.

“Thanks,” the healer said as he hurried back outside.

Josiah rode up at that moment and dismounted next to the wagon and tied his horse to it. The preacher realized that Nathan might need some help in dealing with their injured friend, so he´d gotten permission from Chris to leave the herd early. “Need some help, brother Nate?”

“Yeah, great timing, Josiah. Just need to get him inside. The doc´s gotten a bed that we can use, thankfully,” the healer said as he prepared his patient to be moved.

Josiah then pulled Ezra gently toward him and lifted one end of the makeshift stretcher while Nathan dealt with the other end. They stepped up into the porch and maneuvered the stretcher through the door but, no matter how careful they were, they still hurt Ezra badly.

“Leave me……please. Nnngghhh…….Hurts,” Ezra pleaded as he clutched at the big man´s arm weakly. The gambler opened his eyes and stared up at Josiah in a panic. He was dizzy, hot and, for some reason, terrified.

“Alright, son, the doc´s gonna help ya. Nearly there. Yer gonna get a bit of comfort from now on. No more traveling until yer better. There ya go, son. Bet that feels real good, don´t it?” Josiah said as he helped lay the man on the bed.

Nathan and the doctor rechecked Ezra´s injuries and by the time they´d finished, he was unconscious again. The healer fussed around the man for a while longer and made moves to take a seat beside the bed.

Josiah shook his head and grabbed Nathan´s arm before he could descend onto the seat. If the man once planted his ass on the chair Josiah knew that there would be no budging him. “Yer coming with me, brother Nate. He´s in good hands, so you come and get a proper meal and some sleep. You need a break, son. You´ve been working yer butt off over the past week so you need to take some time for yerself.”

Nathan looked unhappy and was on the verge of refusing as he pulled against Josiah´s grip while looking down at Ezra worriedly.

“He´ll be okay. I´ll take good care of him, but I promise that I´ll come and find you if I need any help. I don´t wanna see ya until the morning, though, if at all possible,” the town´s doctor said sternly, seeing how exhausted Nathan looked.

The healer gave in knowing that he didn´t stand a chance against his two determined companions. “Thanks for giving him a place to stay. Gotten one more patient to check on before I can eat, though. Vin needs stitches in his arm so ya can´t do me outta that chore, doc.” Nathan grinned and then ambled off with Josiah to find the injured tracker.

+ + + + + + +

The blond man pushed aside his empty plate after the six men had finished their meal in the saloon. He looked up curiously as a shadow fell over him and he saw Hooper hovering nearby.

“Pull up a chair,” Chris offered as he took a sip of whiskey and pointed to the vacant chair. The men had automatically collected seven chairs together, forgetting that one of their number wouldn´t be joining them.

The man shook his head but held out his hand instead. “We´ve just sold the cattle and we want you to have this,” he said nervously.

Chris could see the pile of money that the man held tightly. He stared at the bundle and then raised his eyes to study the trail boss. “I said we didn´t wanna get paid.”

“You deserve it because we´d never have made it without you. Please take it to cover Ezra´s medical expenses, if nothing else. He´ll need caring for, I reckon, for quite some time.”

“He won´t want it neither,” Chris said, knowing that, despite the con man´s continuous grumbles, he´d have worked for nothing anyway.

The trail boss stood his ground and stared back at Chris thoughtfully. Hooper decided to try a bit of emotional blackmail instead. “We´ll be insulted if you refuse. All the boys pooled their wages and they want you to have it. Please don´t make me have to give it back to them.”

The blond narrowed his eyes and scratched his lightly stubbled chin and knew that he´d been checkmated. “Okay, thanks,” he said as he nodded gratefully.

“That was real nice of them,” Josiah said after Hooper had gone.

Chris nodded as he split the money up into equal amounts and handed the bundles out to his men. “Yeah, it was. Right, I´ll just go see Ez before I turn in. ‘Spect he´d like some company.” He pocketed the gambler´s pile of cash and then rose from his chair.

The black-clad man wandered along to the clinic and knocked on the door. He waited patiently for it to be opened and as he did so, he turned his back on the building and looked up at the stars. He let out a breath as he thought back over the days that it had taken them to reach this town. He´d enjoyed the experience despite the hard work and Ezra´s accident. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and he was glad that he´d decided to participate. He heard footsteps approaching from inside the clinic and he turned back just as the doctor opened the door.

“Is Ez up to visitors?” the blond asked quietly.

“Yeah, he´s awake so don´t tire him out. He needs all the rest he can get,” the doctor warned as he stepped back to let the tall gunfighter in.

Chris was shown through to Ezra´s room and he smiled down at his friend. “Hey, Ez. Do ya want some company?”

“Company would be nice.”

Chris sat in the chair beside the bed and made himself comfortable.

After a moment of silence had passed, the gambler looked at the black-clad man with a rueful smile. “Seems it was safer to ride drag after all, Mr. Larabee. Riding point had hazards that I hadn´t even contemplated,” Ezra said softly as he closed his eyes and began to doze.

The blond smiled sympathetically, picked up a book and began reading it silently while his friend rested. When the black-clad man didn´t speak, Ezra opened his eyes and saw what he was doing. The injured man realized that he wanted to hear the sound of a human voice without actually having to speak himself, like he would if he engaged in conversation.

“Would you read to me, Mr. Larabee?” he asked quietly, knowing that would be a solution to his desire.

Chris flicked a look up at him and obeyed without question. He turned to the very beginning of the tome and began to speak quietly. He looked up after a while and saw that Ezra had his eyes closed, but Chris could tell that he wasn´t asleep. The man was mouthing some of the words, at the same time as Chris, as if he knew the story word-for-word. Knowing Ezra, he probably did. The book was just the type of highbrow literature that he would choose to read. It was a bit dry for Chris´s taste, but he battled on regardless.

Vin entered the clinic but stopped outside Ezra´s room when he heard Chris´s voice. He just listened to the story and smiled at the thought of his friend reading to the gambler.

“Fearless gunfighter reading to his injured friend. Sure was a pretty sight,” he whispered to himself as he made his way out on tip- toe.

The tracker looked up and down the street slowly before ambling back to the saloon to join his friends again. He found Nathan on the verge of leaving though.

“I´ll go check on Ez before going to bed too,” the healer said as he drank the last of his coffee and stood up.

“No, he´s okay, Nate,” Vin said hastily. “Chris is still with him so it´s best not to disturb them, I reckon.” The tracker didn´t think that Chris would be pleased if everyone got to know of his caring bedside manner.

The healer stared at Vin curiously. He sensed that there was more to the man´s words than met the eye but he decided to obey the unspoken warning anyway. Vin very rarely warned anyone off and he only ever did so for a good reason. “Okay, if you think he´s alright,” Nathan agreed as he headed straight to bed instead.

Vin nodded and smiled as he took a seat beside Josiah and settled back for some quiet contemplation in the preacher´s company.

Back in the clinic, quarter of an hour later, Chris looked up and saw that Ezra was definitely asleep. He reached out and wiped Ezra´s hair from his brow. “Hope you enjoyed yer story, Ez,” he said before putting the book aside and leaving the room quietly.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, Nathan arrived eagerly at the clinic to see how his friend had fared overnight. “Hey, doc. How is he?”

The doctor smiled in greeting and stopped Nathan from entering the room until they had spoken. “Well, after yer friend left, I dosed him up with some laudanum and he slept through without trouble. I´m amazed that you got him here in such good condition because he´s seriously hurt.”

Nathan sat on the corner of the man´s desk and swung his leg as they talked. “Yeah, I know. He was vomiting badly when he first woke and I admit I really feared for his survival then.”

The doctor nodded in understanding as he stood up. “He´s still gotten a bit of a temperature, which ain´t surprising after what he´s been through. His body´s black and blue too. I´m trying to keep him as still as possible because of his pelvis, but he sure fidgets.”

The younger healer laughed softly. “Tell me about it. Unless he´s sat at a poker table, he´s forever on the move. Not necessarily walking about, but his fingers, in particular, seem to have a life of their own if they´re not occupied. His hands fascinate me,” Nathan admitted with a smile as he stood up too.

“You wanna see him?”

Nathan nodded. “If it´s okay.”

“Sure, it is. Look, I could really do with some sleep. Would you mind taking over for a bit?” the doctor asked as he yawned loudly.

“´Course I can. I´m happy to cover any patients that come in during the day, if you could cover the night shift. Is that fair?” Nathan asked apprehensively. He didn´t want to tread on the man´s toes. It was his clinic after all.

“That mighty kind but it seems that you´ve gotten the tougher deal,” the doctor pointed out.

“Suits me fine,” the healer said as he patted his counterpart´s back in agreement.

Nathan was then shown into Ezra´s room and he took a seat by the bed and checked the man´s condition for himself. Ezra woke and groaned loudly during the examination when the healer´s fingers touched a particularly painful area.

“Hey there, Ez,” the healer greeted softly. “Sorry to hurt ya and wake ya up.”

Ezra blinked and swallowed slowly as he looked around the room curiously. “Oh, Mr. Jackson, good morning. It is morning, isn´t it?”

“Yeah, you had a real good night´s sleep, Ez. Looks like it´s done you the world of good. How do ya feel?”

“Well, I feel mummified. My hip area especially. Is there a reason?” Ezra asked wearily, not having the energy to lift his head to check for himself. He really hadn´t taken much notice of his injuries up until now.

Nathan held the man´s gaze as he leaned over him. “Well, for starters you broke yer arm and yer leg real bad. Then you also broke your pelvis. Need to keep ya still so that ya don´t break in half, ‘cause you could flip open like a book if you ain´t careful.”

“It´s being so cheerful that keeps you going, isn´t it?” Ezra stated sarcastically as he groaned again and rubbed his face.

Nathan smiled at the man´s comment as he ran his fingers through Ezra´s damp hair gently.

“What happens when nature calls?” Ezra asked quietly, not meeting Nathan´s eyes.


“Just wondering. The time is fast approaching when I will need to find out,” the injured man admitted in embarrassment as he clutched the blanket nervously.

“Okay, don´t fret. We´ve gotten it all under control.” Nathan saw to the man´s needs without comment. He then poured him a drink of water from the pitcher on the nightstand. “Josiah´s arranging some broth for ya. You hungry?”

The gambler sighed and shook his head. “Not really.”

“You don´t feel sick or nothin´?” Nathan asked anxiously as he checked the man´s temperature again. Ezra obviously hadn´t eaten since the stampede and his lack of nourishment was now beginning to show.

“No, I haven´t had much activity to give me an appetite, but I´m also in too much pain to feel like eating.”

“Well, I can give you something for the pain,” Nathan offered as he raised a questioning eyebrow. Not that Ezra would get away without some sort of medication, whatever his reply was. Nathan wasn´t going to take no for an answer.

“For once, I won´t turn down one of your disgusting brews,” Ezra admitted sheepishly.

“Glad to hear it.” The healer turned to pick up the correct medication. As he did so, the door opened to reveal Josiah carrying a tray with a steaming bowl of broth on it.

“Hello, brother Ezra,” the preacher boomed as he stepped inside and put down his burden. “Yer looking……”

Ezra held up his one working hand, palm facing the preacher, to stop the words. “Don´t try to think of a compliment. I know I look like death warmed up.”

“I was gonna say rested, son,” Josiah replied with a grin as he moved to the bed.

“As long as it´s not resting in peace. Don´t feel like expiring right now,” the con man said as he dropped his arm back on the bedcovers. He really felt dreadful.

Josiah shook his head negatively. “Yer too ornery to die, Ez. Ain´t yer time anyway, son.”

“Have this before you start the broth, Ez,” Nathan said as he gave the gambler his medication. He then helped the man consume what Josiah had brought, but after only a few mouthfuls Ezra signaled that he´d had enough. “You sure, Ez?”

“Yes, if I have any more, it will result in a bout of nausea, I fear,” Ezra said as he rubbed his stomach slowly.

Nathan nodded and put the bowl aside on the nightstand and then helped settle the injured man on the bed again. “Okay, we can reheat it later when you want some more. Get some more rest. ‘Fraid yer gonna be stuck in this room for quite some time, Ez.”

“I realize that, Mr. Jackson. I dare say I will always be able to remember where each crack in this ceiling is. Whenever I close my eyes I will be able to conjure up a perfect picture of it.”

Nathan smiled in understanding as Ezra closed his eyes. He then ushered Josiah out of the room and closed the door so as not to disturb the sleeping con man.

“Nate? Is he really okay?” the preacher asked worriedly as he held the tray of broth carefully. Ezra still looked terribly pale and had multicolored fading bruises on his face, which didn´t make him look well either.

The healer shrugged. “More communicative than he was and he seems settled, but he´s still feverish and his appetite, as you saw, ain´t what it was,” Nathan said quietly.

“Give a yell if you need any help with him. We ain´t exactly gotten much to do,” Josiah offered as he turned toward the door, which Nathan opened for him.

The healer patted his back gratefully. “Thanks, Josiah,” he said as he watched the preacher walk slowly back to the saloon balancing the tray carefully as he went.

Nathan turned and went back inside and took up position beside his patient once more. He was going to get used to sitting in that chair for hours on end over the coming weeks.

+ + + + + + +

For Ezra, each day merged into the next and he spent most of the time sleeping. He still suffered bouts of sickness but overall, Nathan was pleased with his slow progress. Nathan and the town´s doctor continued to share caring duties, while the rest of the men kept themselves occupied any way they could. Chris had considered sending some of the men home but his idea had been firmly turned down. He received the message loud and clear that the seven men would go home together or not at all.

Ezra´s health finally started to improve on a daily basis, although he was still nowhere near recovered. He was allowed to get out of bed for short stretches, but he was still weak and tired very easily.

One day, Vin was asked to look after the sick man when both Nathan´s and the doctor´s services were needed out of town. The tracker made his way along to the clinic at the appointed hour and was just in time to meet the two healers as they hurried off on their errand of mercy.

“Ah, Mr. Tanner, how nice to see you,” Ezra greeted eagerly, when the tracker appeared in his room.

“Jeez, ya make it sound like you ain´t seen me for ages. I only visited ya yesterday, ya know?”

Ezra smiled ingratiatingly. “I remember, but I do so enjoy your company.”

“Glad to hear it, but don´t think compliments will get you out of taking yer medicine,” the younger man said sternly. He knew exactly what Ezra was up to.

“You can read me like a book, can´t you?” Ezra grumbled, as his bottom lip pouted. His brain was, meanwhile, feverishly trying to think of something else he could plead for.

Vin just grinned as he saw the scheming going on behind those expressive green eyes.

“Would you mind just helping me out of bed? I rather fancy sitting by the window and watching the world pass me by,” Ezra asked quietly after a minute.

Vin shook his head. “Nate said that you had to stay in bed today,” the man said uncertainly.

“I´ve been allowed out every day recently. Please, Vin,” the gambler begged as he stared up with wide, innocent eyes.

The tracker scowled and narrowed his gaze, not knowing what to do. He could see that Ezra would fuss and fidget if he refused the request, which surely couldn´t be any good for the man´s health either. What harm could it do?

“Okay, but just take it easy.”

Vin bent down and eased his friend up and escorted him to the window gently. He lowered the man into the chair situated there and then retrieved a couple of blankets to put over the man.

“Good Lord. I feel like an old man,” Ezra said as he looked down at his material-covered knees.

“Look it,” Vin agreed with a grin.

Ezra smiled and turned his gaze out the window as his mind started thinking of his next request. “Oh, I miss the fresh air on my face,” he said wistfully.

“There´s no way I´m taking you outside. Nate would kill me, and Chris too, I ‘spect.”

Ezra grimaced and stayed silent. “Please,” he begged forlornly after fifteen minutes had passed by in silence. “I feel stifled and breathless,” Ezra tried for good measure.

Vin he reasoned that Ezra must be feeling better if he was back to his scheming ways, so he sighed and gave in. Guess I´m a soft touch after all, he thought to himself wryly. He stood up and put a rocking chair out on the boardwalk ready for his friend. He then moved back to Ezra and moved him carefully out to it. He collected the discarded blankets again and tucked them firmly round the man to make sure he wouldn´t get cold.

“That´s it, okay? No more beggin´,” Vin instructed sternly.

“Agreed,” Ezra said. He´d gotten what he wanted and now he was content.

The two men sat companionably together for a couple of hours. Ezra´s eyes were everywhere as he took in all the activity around him. It was much better being out in the action than being separated from it by a pane of glass. Ezra greeted everyone who passed by as if they were old friends, even though he´d never seen them before in his life. Everyone in town knew of the gambler´s predicament and they all replied warmly to his words. The man perked up no end seeing life pass by at close range and Vin was happy that he´d given in to the man´s requests. He could see that it was doing him good. Or, at least, it had been doing him good. Ezra suddenly began to fidget in agitation.

“Ez? You okay?” Vin asked as he flicked a quick look at the man.

“I feel rather sick,” Ezra admitted.

Vin cursed under his breath, knowing he was for the high-jump when Nathan got back. He went inside the room and came out with a bowl which he passed to Ezra in case it was needed on the journey back into the clinic.

“Reckon we´d better get you back to bed,” the tracker said quietly.

Ezra shook his head and actually looked set to cry. “No, I don´t feel that I can move. I haven´t gotten the energy.”

Vin tried to help his friend stand up but had to give up in frustration. He squatted down beside the man and comforted him as best he could while at the same time trying to decide what to do for the best.

“Con on, Ez. Don´t fret,” Vin said as he clutched his friend´s wrist gently. He gave the joint an encouraging squeeze and then ran his hand up and down Ezra´s arm briskly.

He looked around him but saw only women and children. That´s no good, he thought to himself. He then switched his gaze further afield and saw Josiah on the opposite boardwalk. The tracker yelled quickly to gain the man´s attention.

“Brother Vin? What´s wrong?” Josiah asked when he drew up next to the long-haired man worriedly.

“I mistakenly let Ez sit out here, and now he´s sick and I can´t get him back inside on my own. He´s kinda upset too.”

Josiah nodded in understanding, having the feeling that Vin had been bullied into doing Ezra´s bidding in the first place. The younger man was just too softhearted sometimes. “Ez? Did you deliberately wait until Nate´s gone away before getting sick? You oughta know better than to be outside in your condition. Let´s get you back in bed, son.”

“I´m sorry,” Ezra said quietly, taking Josiah´s soft-spoken words as a rebuke.

The preacher hadn´t meant to upset the man. “I weren´t telling you off, Ez,” Josiah replied as he cupped Ezra´s face in the palm of his hand and wiped away the tear that trickled down the man´s cheek.

When Ezra had settled down, the preacher bent down and picked the man up bodily and took him inside where he laid him gently on the bed.

“I´ll stay with ya, Vin, until Nate gets back,” Josiah offered after he´d sorted the gambler out.

Ezra, meanwhile, threw up several times before falling asleep while shivering mightily. He felt very sorry for himself and knew he´d pushed his luck rather too far for his own good.

Vin strode up and down the room and kept looking out the window every so often to see if Nate had returned. He alternated this movement with prowling round the bed and scowling worriedly at the gambler.

“Calm down, Vin. He just overexcited himself. He´s tired after all that fresh air he´s had.”

“Shoulda made him stay in bed like Nate said,” the younger man chastised himself.

“Wouldn´t have stopped him being sick. He´d have found some way to tire himself out even if he was horizontal at the time. You know Ez.”

The clinic door flew opened at that point to reveal Nathan. Vin had missed seeing his approach even after all his efforts.

“Nate? Ez ain´t well,” the tracker admitted as he walked to meet the man.

The healer strode to the bed anxiously and looked down at its occupant. “What happened?”

Vin explained and Nathan growled angrily. “You shoulda done as I told ya and then it wouldn´t have happened.”

Josiah spoke very quietly but in a tone that brooked no argument. “Nate? Leave Vin be. Ez is getting itchy feet is all, and can you really blame him for that? Vin was just trying to humor him by letting him have his freedom for a while.”

Ezra woke as he heard his friend´s voices and he stared up at the healer apologetically. “Oh, Mr. Jackson, I´m so very sorry. I rather regret making Mr. Tanner carry out my wishes. I promise I´ll behave myself from now on.”

Nathan´s face softened, knowing how persuasive Ezra could be when he wanted. The healer patted Vin´s back to show that there were no hard feelings and he then turned back to speak to his patient. “You´d better behave, or I´ll tie you to the bedpost and leave ya there for eternity.”

Promises, promises,” Vin muttered as he smiled softly as he left the clinic with Josiah.

+ + + + + + +

Another two weeks passed by and, even though the injured man was still almost bedridden, Nathan made the decision that it was safe to head home. The healer decided to approach Chris with his suggestion and he wandered round town and found his quarry in the saloon smoking a cheroot. The healer sat down beside him and told him what he wanted to do and he could see that he was going to meet resistance.

The blond sat up and turned to face the younger man. “Nate, are you really sure that he´s fit to travel? He still ain´t well,” Chris pointed out worriedly as he frowned.

“He´s getting out of bed for a while each day as you know, and he´s taken a few steps round the room when he´s felt able. His bones have mended good enough to stand the journey, I reckon. He´s mended better than I could ever have hoped for, although, I admit he´s still prone to the odd bout of sickness. He´s real restless and unhappy, though, and I think going home would be real beneficial for his state of mind.”

The blond pursed his lips as he considered what Nathan wanted. “It´s still gonna be several weeks on the road for him. It´ll be real tiring, I reckon. Look how he was when Vin looked after him the other day. He got all excited at being allowed to sit on the boardwalk, and then tired himself out, didn´t he? Imagine how he´ll react at the prospect of going home. He´ll go loco.”

Nathan nodded as he leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. “I´m sure that he can handle things better now and he´s learned his lesson. He has improved physically since that day with Vin, you know.”

Chris stared at the man, knowing that he wasn´t going to back down. “Fine, but I´ve made my feelings known. I just hope yer right in yer convictions.”

Nathan nodded and made his way to see Ezra to give him the good news. He knew that all the men would be glad to leave the town behind. It was small and didn´t offer much in the way of entertainment. What entertainment there was had been enjoyed so many times that it held no attraction for them any more, anyway. Nathan, for himself, was as sick of being inside the clinic as Ezra was and couldn´t wait to get home.

“Ez? We´re gonna head home,” the healer said as he sat on the man´s bed and smiled. The gambler looked upset at the news, though, and Nathan realized that the man had misunderstood what he´d said. “You´re coming too. We wouldn´t leave you behind,” Nathan said as he patted Ezra´s hand gently.

Ezra´s face cleared and he blinked the tears away that had appeared in his eyes. “Oh, you had me worried for a minute. I thought I was being deserted.”

“No, Ez. I know how much you need to get home. We´re doing this for you because I reckon yer well enough to travel.”

“Thank you, Mr. Jackson. I can´t wait to get back to familiarity.”

+ + + + + + +

At the end of that week, the six men collected their friend from the clinic in order to head home. Ezra still had to travel in the back of the wagon and Josiah volunteered to drive it. Their five friends flanked the vehicle, ready to set off out of town.

“Alright, Ez?” Chris asked as he looked in the back of the wagon to check on his friend.

“Better than alright. I never thought I´d say this, but I´m enormously pleased to be returning home. There, I said it. Four Corners is my home,” Ezra said with a broad grin.

Chris laughed. “Well, try and contain yer joy, Ez. Don´t want a repeat of Vin´s experiences.”

The blond then shouted for Josiah to start the wagon moving and the men set off, glad to be on the move again. Nathan kept a close eye on Ezra on the first day to see how he was coping with the journey. They could always turn back if the healer was unhappy with how things were going. He knew Chris would be watching events closely too, so Nathan hoped he´d made the right decision.

“How´s he doin´?” Chris asked at midday as he drew alongside the healer.

“He´s sleepin´. The wagon´s well padded and he don´t seem to be in pain or nothing,” Nathan said as he urged his horse forward so that he could take a quick peek at his slumbering patient.

“Hope it stays that way,” the black-clad man muttered.

The men traveled a fair distance, taking advantage of Ezra´s sleeping state. When the man finally woke, Vin picked a suitable campsite and they stopped for the night. Josiah was put in charge of cooking and the men enjoyed a meal of various game caught by Vin and his trusty rifle.

Ezra ate heartily, his appetite back with a vengeance, along with his good humor. As Nathan had thought, the man´s mood had improved tenfold at the prospect of going home.

“Okay, Ez?”

“Yes, thank you,” the gambler said as he patted his lips to remove and remnants of his meal.

“Not in any pain?”

“No, my accommodation is exceedingly comfortable.”

“Glad to hear it,” Nathan replied as he quickly checked the man over just for his own peace of mind.

“It´s so comfortable that I may even take up permanent residence in one like our dear tracker,” Ezra stated seriously, but with a twinkle in his eye.

“Can´t see that, Ez. You´ll have changed yer mind by the time we get home, I bet,” Chris laughed from where he was watching from the tailgate. “Reckon, we´ve still gotten about a hundred and eighty miles to go but you´ve done real good so far, Ez. Now, get some rest ‘cause we´ve gotten an early start tomorrow.”

“I seem to have slept for most of the day but after my hearty repast I feel Somnus calling my soul. Goodnight, Mr. Larabee, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra said as he watched Chris put up the wagon´s tailgate and secure it once Nathan had disembarked.

“´Night, Ez,” the two men replied in unison.

+ + + + + + +

The group of men traveled on at a pace that Ezra could handle and they finally drew into town three weeks later. They´d been forced to stop for a few days at one campsite when Ezra had been unwell, but the gambler had amazed the men with his stoicism and strength.

“We´re here, Ez,” Chris called, once they pulled up outside the clinic.

He heard the sighs of relief from all of his men. He´d noticed that their pace had suddenly quickened when they´d come within spitting distance of the town. The blond smiled, dismounted and started undoing the tailgate ready to get Ezra out.

The gambler pushed himself up onto his elbows and stared out the tarp at Four Corner´s main street. “Oh, wonderful. I really feel the need of my feather bed.”

Nathan´s head appeared in view after hearing the comment. “No chance, Ez. Yer coming to the clinic with me.”

“Thought you´d be glad to get me off your hands,” Ezra replied dryly.

“I will be, but only when I know that yer fully recovered. You ain´t exactly had a lot of exercise and yer body is still weak. I want you where I can see you.”

“Oh well, at least there´s no excuse for you forcing your herbal brews on me anymore.”

Nathan smiled broadly; almost demonically. “Don´t you believe it. I´ve gotten a real beauty that´ll help to build up yer strength. It works wonders, but it stinks like a skunk. I´ll start you on it tomorrow.”

“Not if I shoot you first, you won´t,” Ezra muttered darkly.

The End