"This is perfect, JD!" Nathan exclaimed as he turned the loupe around in his fingers. "However did you think of it?"
JD's face flushed with the praise. "Casey and I took a necklace that once belonged to her mother to Mr. Johnstone. He used that to examine it and fix the clasp."
Chris smiled his approval and gratitude at the young man.
"Good job, JD," Buck tentatively remarked. JD's smile fell from his face as he gave a curt nod to Buck.
Josiah suddenly appeared, turning sideways in the doorway, the huge basin he carried banging against the doorframe.
"Put it right here, Josiah," Nathan instructed, pushing his chair back away from the bed.
The former preacher placed the metal basin on the floor, positioning it halfway under the bed. Nathan checked all his instruments and made sure he had plenty of bandages he then turned and looked at the others, seeing the faith they held for him in their faces. These men had given him an opportunity-they had given a black man the chance to do what he wanted to do and what he was good at. Nathan knew he couldn't fail them now. Nathan stepped over and picked up a brown bottle of laudanum and stared at its pain relieving contents. He wished that he could just completely dope Ezra up or even put him to sleep until he removed all the glass, but as Nathan listened to Ezra's struggling breathing he knew that was not an option.
"Here, Ez, I can't give you much, but a little might take the edge off," Nathan said as he measured out a spoonful of the brown syrupy liquid.
Vin lifted Ezra's head to allow Nathan to spoon in the noxious liquid. He gave the gambler one more spoonful then Josiah gave him a cup of water to wash it down. Vin squeezed Ezra's shoulder and whispered so that only he could hear. "We're with you."
Ezra smiled at the sentiment, but he also wished that he wasn't here.
Nathan took a deep breath and started doling out assignments. "Vin, JD you need to make sure he doesn't move around too much. Josiah, I need you to pour water over his back, hopefully that'll remove a lot of the smaller pieces." Nathan held up the loupe. "I'll use this to go over his back and make sure we get all the glass. We risk infection if we leave any in."
Buck scuffed his feet and cleared his throat. Nathan looked over at the contrite cowboy. He still harbored a little resentment toward Buck. He knew it was an accident, but. "Buck, I need you to keep the water coming."
"I'll keep it coming," Buck assured.
Chris leaned against the wall watching the proceedings. His team worked flawlessly during gunfights, well most of the time, each one taking their part seriously. That apparently carried over to other aspects of their lives, namely helping out one of their own. Chris had been trying to distance himself from the gambler's suffering, trying to stay focused and in charge, but every time he looked at Ezra's back he inwardly cringed. When had he started to care so much for the wily gambler and the others? He had thought his heart hardened and beyond caring after his wife and son were killed. These six men had breathed new life into him and he had come to care about each one of them like his own.
Nathan sat down on the chair and yanked the curtain down off its rod, allowing every measure of sunlight to come streaming in. Josiah stood next to him and poured a pitcher of water down Ezra's shoulder blades. Ezra tensed and drew in a ragged breath as the luke-warm water trickled down his back.
"You gotta stay still, Ez," Nathan gently said.
"I shall endeavor to try, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan frowned at how weak the southerner sounded. The constant pain and struggle to breathe was exhausting him.
The healer gently wiped a small area around several deep cuts. He then reached for his forceps. He looked over and saw everyone's eyes glued to his every move. Josiah laid a confident hand on his shoulder. Nathan took a deep steadying breath. Now he knew how Chris felt when everyone looked to him for what to do next.
Larabee watched from his place at the foot of the bed as Nathan carefully began probing the deep cuts. Every few minutes Josiah would pour water down Ezra's back, washing away the trickling blood and bringing the gambler some measure of relief.
After only ten minutes of work Ezra found himself lost in the constant pain, unable to find a way out. He tried to think of a poker game or some grandiose scheme that would make him rich, but the pain and fever stole away whatever distraction he could come up with.
Nathan cut and drew out another long sliver of glass careful not to break it. Ezra's body had started to tremble and sweat was now mixing with the blood. Nathan could hear the gambler's labored pants and looked over to see Vin's very worried face. This was taking a serious toll and Nathan feared that Ezra would go into shock. Nathan stopped his work when the tremors became more violent. He stood up and leaned over seeing the pain-filled green eyes staring wildly.
"Ezra, try to concentrate on something."
"I'm...trying," Ezra breathed through clenched teeth.
Nathan bowed his head and laid a hand on the conman's arm. "Rest a moment." The healer looked up and locked troubled eyes onto Chris's visage.
They all could see what this was doing to the suave southerner. All of Ezra's self-aggrandizing attitude couldn't protect him from the relentless agonizing pain that was slowly breaking his spirit. Tears ran unabashed down his face.
"Please...keep going...I want this over with...as soon...as possible," Ezra gasped out in a pain-husky voice.
Without a word Chris turned and walked out of the room leaving looks of astonishment in his wake. Vin turned his attention back to Ezra and talked softly to him. JD stared out the window onto the bright clear day that seemed to mock the sorrow and anguish that was taking place inside, removed from the rest of the town.
Chris walked down the hall to Ezra's room. He thought it ironic that the clinic was only a few doors down, especially since it seemed that next to Vin, Ezra spent the most time there. Maybe they should just make Ezra's room the clinic and save needless steps. Chris kicked in the gambler's door, knowing it would be locked. He looked around the sparse room. The room hardly ever looked lived in. It was like the person who lived here was just passing through, not planning on staying. A packed saddlebag always sat on the chair next to the door. One recent addition that did give the room a more lived in appearance, and told the dark-clad gunslinger that Ezra was starting to consider the town his home, was the small set of shelves that now lined one wall. Chris stepped up to the shelves and ran his finger across the bindings of several books until he came to the one he was looking for. He pulled out the thick leather bound book, noticing how worn the backing was and knowing the reason. This was one of Ezra's favorites-The gambler would be surprised that Chris would have even known this.
Larabee returned to the sounds of Ezra's muffled cries, his face buried deep into his pillow. Vin had a hand on his shoulder as JD held onto his legs, trying to keep him still. Nathan's face was coated in a sheen of sweat, concentrating, as he meticulously removed glass bits. Buck was rushing back and forth, bringing up water and clean rags-This was taking a toll on everyone.
Chris grabbed the extra chair near the door and set it down on the other side of the bed so he would be facing Ezra. He watched as his friend's face scrunched up when Nathan again cut into his flesh to remove another large sliver of glass.
Chris opened the well-used book of poetry and with a strong voice began, "I wandered lonely as a cloud. That floats on high o'er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees..."
Chris's deep, sonorous voice broke through Ezra's pain-ridden mind. His green eyes seemed to clear slightly as he tried to focus on the words spoken and leave the pain behind.
Vin smiled as Ezra's breathing tried to even out. His body still shook from the abuse it was enduring, but Ezra was now riding the cloud that William Wordsworth created with his words and that Chris was reciting.
Chris continued to read, poem after poem, as Nathan continued to cut and remove glass. The poetry reading was having a calming effect on everyone. By the end of the second hour, Ezra was numb to the pain. Every nerve devoid of feeling from the abuse. Nathan sat back in his chair and set down the bloody forceps.
"Did you get it all?" JD asked.
"I don't know."
Ezra groaned faintly and Nathan laid a hand on his head. "Try and rest Ezra." Ezra just gazed straight ahead, no longer having the strength to even talk.
"How you going to know if you got it all?" Buck asked. The front of his shirt was damp from pitchers of water sloping over as he ran up and down the stairs to keep a constant supply of water.
"I think I got most of it, but there might still be tiny bits buried within the tissue. We'll just have to watch for infection and keep cleaning the wounds."
Buck spun around in disgust. According to Nathan, Ezra's torment was far from over. Nathan began applying aloe salve to the smaller cuts on the gambler's back. He looked at the deeper ones, knowing he would eventually have to stitch them up, but he would have to wait and be sure they were completely free of glass. Ezra's breathing was still rough and Nathan knew he was mentally and physically exhausted and couldn't withstand any more. A fever still burned through him giving his pale face a flush shadow. His auburn hair was pasted to his skull and only intensified his sunken green eyes.
Nathan stood and leaned over Ezra's body, taking hold of his right arm that lay limp across Vin's legs. He clasped his hand around Ezra's. "Ez, can you squeeze my hand?" Nathan had noticed that the gambler's hand had remained limp and unresponsive, never grasping, during the whole operation.
"No," came a whisper reply, the effort causing Ezra's whole body to quiver. Nathan patted the hand and laid it back down.
"What's with his hand?" Chris asked in a confiding tone, his own hand still wrapped around the book of poetry.
"I'm not sure, maybe nerve damage. I'll have to read up on it."
"Shit," Chris murmured. How would Ezra live if he couldn't deal? Chris knew that Ezra could shoot well with either hand, but a lawman needed the use of both. Not only was Ezra having to go through all this torture, but his whole life might change because of it. Chris clenched his jaw as sudden resolve lit up his blue eyes. They would do whatever it took to keep the gambler a part of them.
"Is it permanent?" Buck asked softly. How would Ezra ever forgive him?
Nathan shrugged. "Can't say."
As Nathan turned he heard Ezra's weak drawl announce, "I'm going to be sick."
"Ah shit!" Vin yelled as he slid over a little as Josiah got a basin next to Ezra's face. The ex-preacher held the southerner's head up as he retched into the basin, spewing out gastric juices and what little was in his stomach.
When Ezra finished Nathan gently wiped his mouth and gave him a little water. The episode seemed to have sucked even more of the life from him. His face was as pale as the pillow and looked awful.
Nathan stepped back his fingers curled to fists of helplessness. How much more could Ezra take?
"I've got the medicine ready," Josiah suddenly stated.
"Good." Nathan opened his fists, his fingers cracking with the release. "We can't give him much, but we need to keep his fever down so he can sleep."
Josiah and Nathan managed to get the water and herbal mixture down the semi-conscious man. It wasn't long before Ezra was lost to a somewhat troubled sleep, pain still causing his muscles to twitch.
Buck stepped up to the head of the bed laying a hand on Ezra's auburn hair. "He's going to be okay, ain't he?" Buck asked. He had kept his mind numb all morning by concentrating on his task of fetching water and cleaning rags. JD had avoided him as much as was possible within the small confines of the clinic and Buck had finally given up trying to get his attention.
Nathan rubbed his forehead. "We'll have to watch for infection, and I'll probably have to clean those wounds several times a day. Until his breathing improves, I can't give him much in the way of pain medicine. If we can keep his fever down, and he doesn't get dehydrated or go into severe shock he should pull through."
The others looked at the tall healer, not very encouraged.
Buck's eyes followed JD as he dazedly ambled past him without saying a word. The room had darkened somewhat and everyone suddenly realized how much time had past.
"Someone needs to stay with him," Nathan stated. "I need to get a bite to eat."
"Well, I'm stuck here for awhile," Vin voiced from his place on the bed.
"You need to rest too," Nathan berated. He didn't need to be frettin' over two of them.
"I'll let Vin have my room when I relieve him in an hour," Chris assured the kindhearted and weary healer.
"Hey, I got my own place, you know," Vin replied in annoyance. Nathan and Chris both regarded him like an impertinent child.
"You're not stayin' in that wagon while you're recovering," Nathan vehemently stated. He couldn't understand how anyone could be comfortable in the back of a flimsy covered wagon.
Vin was about to object until Chris shot him a glare that could only be construed as meaning, 'one more word and I'll lock you in the jail'. Vin huffed slightly and folded his arms across his chest in restrained protest.
Josiah replaced the curtains to block out the afternoon sun and everyone quietly left. A gentle breeze fluttered the gossamer curtains, and Vin breathed in the refreshing air. The clinic had been suffocating with so many bodies in it, and he was grateful for a little fresh air. The tracker stared down at Ezra's face, which showed the pain that tortured his body even in sleep. Vin could feel the heat coming off Ezra's bare torso and face and pulled the sheet up to his shoulders. He reached over and grabbed the rag out of the basin and gently wiped at his friend's forehead. Vin released a tension-filled breath. The past few hours had been hard on everyone. He looked back down at Ezra, feeling him stir. He thought about how relaxed Ezra had become when Chris read the poetry.
"Hey, Ez, I don't know if you can hear me, which is probably good since I don't want anyone to know I done this." Vin's face actually flushed with embarrassment. "You know I can't read to you out of them fancy books of yours, but I learnt a poem awhile back that I sorta took a likin' too. So if'n you like to hear it." Vin paused, listening to Ezra's steady, but shallow breathing. "I'll take that as a yes."
Vin cleared his throat and his smooth Texas drawl filled the space between them. "Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?..." Vin smiled faintly. "Maybe you could explain symmetry to me one day," Vin murmured quietly then continued, "In what distant deeps or skies burnt the fire of thine eyes?..." Vin recited the whole poem, only struggling through a couple words. He thought that maybe Ezra was a little more relaxed. He laid his head back against the headboard and closed his eyes, knowing if Ezra stirred within such close proximity he was sure to awake.
The remainder of the lawmen had gathered downstairs in the saloon, which was not yet open for normal business. The quiet only emphasizing the despair the five gunslingers carried with them. Inez had thoughtfully prepared several plates of food that were now waiting on the bar. No one said a word as they each took a plate. Chris looked up to see JD wander over to the farthest table-away from Buck. Josiah and Nathan followed and sat down with the young easterner. Chris joined Buck, who was just pushing his food from side to side on his plate.
"You need to talk to 'im, Buck," Chris quietly said as he glanced at JD, over a spoonful of eggs.
Buck took a deep breath, held it, and then released it. "I know, but what do I say. That I'm sorry I care. He knows I didn't mean to shoot Ezra."
"Just go and talk to him," Chris urged.
Wilmington glanced over at his young friend who was staring morosely down at his plate. Buck stood and slowly walked over to JD's table.
"Nathan, Josiah, can I have a word with JD?"
Both men nodded and left the table.
Buck continued to stand, not sure if he should sit. He shifted from one foot to another like a nervous school boy. JD continued to stare down at his cooling food.
"I'm sorry 'bout what happened, JD. I truly believed that you were in danger. I had no idea it was Ezra." The words came out in a rush. He was already afraid he might lose Ezra's friendship; he didn't want to lose JD too. "I'm not sorry that I care 'bout ya."
JD slowly raised his head, and Buck's heart skipped a beat at the look in his friend's dark eyes. "You shot him because of me," JD stated, his voice low and menacing, a tone that Buck had never heard from the kid before. He looked into eyes that now radiated hate.
"I thought you were in danger," Buck repeated.
JD let his head drop. "You shot Ezra protectin' me. It's my fault," JD continued, the anger slowly dwindling to sadness and regret. "You all think I'm just a kid, can't take care of myself."
Realization at what JD was saying lit up Buck's brown eyes. He had not thought of it that way. "Ah geeze." Buck wiped at his face pulling down his tired eyes and feeling the stubble on his chin.
"If you weren't always watching out for me, mollycoddlin', Ezra wouldn't be going through all that pain and fighting for his life," JD snarled, his anger returning. JD abruptly stood up and cast a withering glare around the saloon, seeing that he had now captured everyone's attention. "You all don't think I'm man enough to take care of myself, always have to watch out for the kid, don't let nothin' happen to the kid." JD choked back the sob that suddenly erupted from his throat. He stared back at Buck, a man he almost considered an older brother. Then he thought of Ezra and seeing him laying in all that glass with a bullet hole in his chest, all because Buck thought he was in danger.
Buck grabbed the angry young man by the arm. "Now, you listen' up, I'm not sorry for protectin' you. You think you're a man? That you don't need watchin? Well that's no attitude for a man. I depend on everyone here to watch my back. I'm man enough to admit when I need help."
JD pulled out of Buck's grasp and rushed out of the saloon.
Buck watched the young gunslinger go and wondered if they would ever have the relationship that he had grown to love back. Buck swallowed the sudden emotional lump that had got stuck in his throat and sat down at the empty table.
The rest of the day and the night blurred together for the six gunslingers, who took turns watching over Ezra and helping Nathan clean the wounds. Something that was extremely painful for Ezra and painful for the others to watch.
The next morning Buck quietly entered the clinic to find Josiah sitting next to Ezra, fighting not to fall asleep. His large hand rested on the gambler's shoulder to keep him from rolling over. Buck knew that Ezra had no idea who had shot him, but every time he walked into the clinic he expected the gambler to rise up and point an accusing finger at him.
"Ay, Josiah, I'll take over," Buck whispered, causing the big man to jerk up. "How's he been?"
"He's still in and out of consciousness," Josiah replied stretching his large frame. "Nathan cleaned out his cuts again says he thinks he'll be able to sew them up soon. He gave him a little more medicine and some whiskey for the pain. Says that's all he dares right now."
Wilmington nodded and sat down in the chair that Josiah had vacated. Buck's forlorn voice stopped the ex-preacher as he reached the doorway. "Josiah, you know it was an accident? I would give my life for him, or any of you." Buck turned forlorn dark eyes up toward the gentle giant.
"I know, brother, we all do. But we also know that JD holds a special place in your heart, and sometimes that place refuses to be anything but first, above all else. There was no way you could 'ave known it was Ezra and in time JD will come to realize that and so will Ezra."
"I hope so."
"Nathan will be relieving you in about three hours," Josiah added and walked out the door, closing it quietly behind him.
Was Josiah right? Would he fail to protect the others if JD was in danger? Did JD come first and foremost before anyone else? When he had seen that shadowy form creeping down the boardwalk, his first thought was that it was one of the outlaws even though he had accounted for all of them only moments ago--It could have been a civilian--Why hadn't he waited and made sure? Because he felt that JD was in danger.
"Oh, Ezra, I'm sorry," Buck whispered to the unresponsive gambler.
Buck caught sight of the book on the nightstand. He picked it up and carefully flipped through the pages. He though how much it had helped Ezra when Chris read to him. He knew he would probably stumble through the big words, but he thought he could muddle through. Buck smiled when he came across a poem that struck his fancy. He cleared his throat and leaned forward, holding the book in both hands.
"Jenny kissed me when we met, jumping from the chair she sat in. Time, you thief, who love to get sweets into your list, put that in. Say I'm weary, say I'm sad; say that health and wealth have missed me; Say I'm growing old, but add-Jenny kissed me!"
The town returned to normal quickly. The people being used to the occasional outburst of gunfire. With the outlaws dead and buried and damage repaired, including the Assayer's Office window, Chris and the others tried to return to their normal routine. Gossip floated among the town people as to what had transpired. They had all heard that the gambler had been injured, which was nothing new, but it was how he had been injured that got tongues a wagging.
"Almost done, Ez...okay, you can breathe now."
Ezra exhaled and a shiver went up his spine.
Nathan dropped his tools into the basin. He had just finished cleaning out the last of the cuts on Ezra's back. The gambler was still running a high fever, which had led Nathan to believe that there was still glass bits in some of the cuts. It had been two days since the accident and Nathan was still pulling out glass.
"How you doin' pard?" Vin asked from his place on the cot. He was up and around now, but had been spending a great deal of his time in the clinic.
"If one more person asks me that inane question..." Ezra angrily replied, a coughing fit ending his sudden tirade. The endless days of pain had taken away his good humor and patience.
"Easy, Ez." Nathan grabbed hold of the wheezing southerner. The coughing jag left Ezra weak and gasping for breath. He still sported a high fever, but it didn't seem to be getting any worse. "I think we're getting a handle on this, a lot of your cuts are clear of infection. I should be able to start stitching them up soon."
"Oh joy," Ezra dryly replied.
Nathan released his hold on the gambler as his breathing settled somewhat.
"What about my hand?" Ezra asked as he stared down at the useless appendage. He couldn't feel or move his right hand or fingers. He had spent hours concentrating on each finger, trying to force some type of movement. How could he be a gambler with only one hand? For that matter, how could he be a lawman?
Nathan pulled a thick tome from his shelf. "I read up a little on nerve damage. The feeling might come back in time or there could be permanent damage."
Josiah entered the clinic, carrying a tray. He paused in mid step when he saw the look on everyone's faces.
"C'mon, Ezra, we need to turn you over on your other side. You must be getting sore lying on that one side all this time," Nathan imparted, trying to distract the conman from his previous thoughts.
"Yes, it has grown rather uncomfortable," Ezra drawled, the words sounding detached and far off as he continued to stare down at his hand.
Josiah and Nathan managed to carefully roll the gambler over onto his other side. His back was still too tender to allow any pressure.
Nathan checked Ezra's pulse and his breathing. "Your breathing is better so I'm going to give you a little more medicine. You need to get some sleep," Nathan said. "I also need you to eat something." Vin lifted the cover off the tray, feigning interest in the beef broth, slice of meat and piece of bread.
"I'm not hungry," Ezra replied.
"Oh yes you are," Nathan countered, he only grinned at the deadly glare the gambler directed toward him. "When you finish eating, I'll give you some medicine for the pain and fever," Nathan said as he stood over the southerner with his arms folded across his chest.
"Is this a form of blackmail?" Ezra asked.
Nathan shrugged. He had no intention of keeping the pain relieving medicine from the injured man, but Ezra had to eat. The gambler had been compliant the first few days, the pain having displaced his normal smug attitude. It was good to see signs of it re-emerging. Ezra glared up at the healer for a moment then reached over and grabbed the piece bread from the tray.
A soft knock on the clinic door jerked Nathan from his place in the chair. Mary quietly entered the darkened room, the sun having set an hour ago. A lantern turned down low enough so even shadows had to fight to survive, flickered on the dresser, barely illuminating the prone figure on the bed.
"Nathan?" Mary whispered.
"I'm here to relieve you for a bit. The others are downstairs eating. I thought you might like to join them," Mary stated.
Nathan stretched up his arms, trying to release the kinks in his back from sitting all day. He had finished stitching up some of the cuts on Ezra's back a little over an hour ago. "Thanks, I could use a break." Nathan placed a hand on his patient's forehead, still feeling the heat of fever. "Keep fighting for me, Ez," he quietly urged.
"How's he doing?" Mary asked.
"Better. I got most of the cuts cleaned and stitched. Still has a fever, but he's sleeping better, even managed to get a partial meal down him. Still pretty weak from the whole ordeal."
Mary's face brightened at the good news.
"If he starts to wake up come and get me," Nathan instructed. "And don't worry if he's a might ornery."
Mary chuckled. "I won't."
Nathan left and Mary sat down in the chair next to the bed. She noticed the white bandages now wrapped around half of Ezra's torso. She had been spared the sight when he first was injured, but what she had seen had caused her heart to go out to the smooth-talking southerner. She could only imagine the pain he must have gone through. Mary gently pulled the corner of the blanket up to Ezra's neck, causing him to stir weakly. He was such a handsome man. She, like many of the other women in town were grateful his face had been left untouched.
Nathan plodded slowly down the stairs, his steps heavy with the weariness that had settled into his bones. The saloon had been emptied by Chris and Vin earlier, both men figuring the commotion wouldn't be good for Ezra's recovery. Nathan sat down across from Josiah at a table near the bar. He looked over at Vin and Chris who sat in the center of the room, waiting for a meal. Buck pushed his way through the doors. The normally animated and fun-loving gunslinger strolled in like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Nathan could tell that he wasn't getting much sleep, not that any of them were. Buck went up to the bar and ordered a whiskey. Chris looked up over his clasped hands, knowing his friend was hurting, but not sure what if anything he could say to ease his pain.
"Did you find Brother JD?" Josiah quietly asked Buck. The young gunslinger had disappeared early that morning without saying a word to anyone. After what he had said in the saloon the other day, the others felt it a good idea to give the young gunslinger some time and not go chasing after him like some recalcitrant child.
Buck shook his head, keeping his back to the room. Inez smiled and placed the shot of whiskey down in front of him. Buck downed it in one gulp and slowly turned around. "He's found himself a right good hiding place, and I reckon he has a right to his privacy," Buck grudgingly admitted.
"Don't worry, he just needs time to think and sort things out some," Nathan tried to assure.
"So when are we going to tell Ezra who shot him?" Josiah abruptly asked the room. He knew the others were trying to avoid the subject.
Buck glared at the ex-preacher, feeling suddenly betrayed.
Chris rubbed at the back of his neck, trying to ease the growing stiffness. They had managed to keep quiet the details of Ezra's misfortune. They didn't want him finding out from loose talk on the street.
"Think that's such a good idea, Josiah?" Vin asked. "It was an accident. No sense stirring up bad feelings' and all."
Inez appeared from behind the bar carrying a tray of food, which she placed on Chris and Vin's table.
"He deserves to know," Inez blurted out. "You can't keep it a secret forever."
Vin shrugged and the others looked at the raven-hair senorita. "He's your friend. He'll understand," Inez added.
"I'm not so sure 'bout that," Vin quietly replied.
Inez looked at the five gunslingers she had come to care about greatly, and she knew they all cared about each other, just too stubborn and proud to admit it. Inez threw up her hands and returned to the kitchen.
"Nathan, how's he doing?" Chris asked.
"If we can just get the fever down I think he'll be fine. He's going to carry a few scars, but I think most of the cuts will heal up good."
Chris raised his head to look over at Buck who stood against the bar. "You'll have to tell him sooner or later, Buck."
After watching everything that Ezra had gone through over the past few days and knowing that he was responsible, the thought of telling him didn't sit too good. Buck had been thinking about what the gambler might do. One possibility was that Ezra would shoot him-- that was the lesser of two evils. The worse would be that he'd lose the gambling man's friendship and Ezra would leave.
"Why didn't you let me tell him when it first happened?" Buck angrily asked his long time friend.
"Nathan didn't need him riled," Chris calmly explained.
"Well, let's not worry on it tonight. I still don't think it would be good to tell Ezra in his condition," Nathan explained.
Inez stood behind the bar and listened, keeping her lips pressed together and fighting the urge not to interfere. She knew they trusted her to remain silent, and she didn't take that trust lightly. But she couldn't believe they were actually thinking of keeping something like this from Ezra. Inez turned on her heel and headed back to the kitchen behind the bar.
Inez entered the clinic, carrying a tray of food and muttering in Spanish, her face livid with frustration.
"Inez, what's wrong?" Mary asked, taking the tray from the obviously distraught woman.
Mary rolled her eyes in agreement, even though she had no idea what had put the dark haired woman into such a tizzy. Inez looked over at Ezra, seeing that he was asleep. Her heart broke at the pain he had been forced to endure over the past couple of days. He looked so pale and fragile. Inez lowered her voice to a confiding tone, but the anger still managed to leak through.
"Senor Chris and the others are down stairs actually contemplating whether or not they should tell Senor Standish that it was Buck who shot him."
Mary closed her eyes. She knew Buck was suffering greatly, and she honestly felt sorry for him. "It was an accident." Mary turned her head to look over at Ezra when she thought she heard him stir.
"Still, I just think it is wrong," Inez vehemently declared. "Senor Standish deserves to know the truth."
"They're his friends. I'm sure they're just waiting for the right time to tell him," Mary hoped.
Inez snorted softly. "I hope so, senora. If Senor Standish finds out on his own that one of his friends shot him there's going to be hell to pay."
Ezra's brow furrowed faintly as low murmurs started breaking through his drug induced sleep. Words began to punctuate the light haze of his mind-Accident. Deserved to know. Friends shot him. It took everything Ezra had not to bolt up in bed. An accident? His fellow lawmen trying to hide something from him. Deserved to know. Aww hell, one of your own shot you, suddenly resounded clearly in his head. Ezra felt his mind go white, like this rush of information was triggering a mental seizure.
"Thank you for the food," Mary said.
"Da nada, senorita, I put a little broth on the side in case Senor Standish comes around."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate that."
Inez took one adoring glance at the southerner and quietly departed, her anger now tempered. Mary picked up the cup of coffee on the tray. Mary breathed in the aroma then took a sip, she winced slightly at the bitter taste. "Needs sugar," she muttered, searching the tray for any sign of the sweetener. She glanced over at Ezra and decided it was okay to step out for just a moment.
Ezra's eyes opened at the sound of the door closing. Blood-shot orbs tried to focus. He was so tired, loss of blood and constant pain had combined to steal every ounce of strength he had. Ezra slowly and painfully pushed himself up and swung his legs over the bed, the act stretching unused muscles and pulling at newly stitched skin. A fiery rage burned within his emerald eyes stoked by a still raging fever.
At first no one noticed the cardsharp slowly making his way down the stairs. He had managed to pull on a pair of pants and slip a clean shirt over his shoulders and in to one sleeve, covering the bandages that were wrapped around his torso. His left hand gripped the banister firmly and slowly slid down the smooth wood. When he reached the bottom few steps he stopped. His so-called friends all stood up with looks of disbelief on their faces.
"Damnit, Ezra, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Nathan angrily yelled. Ezra's face was flushed from the exertion and fever, and his breaths were coming out in tortured pants. His good arm shook from the strain of holding him up. The glare in the gambler's eyes sent a very bad premonition to Chris-He knew.
Nathan was preparing to grab the obstinate southerner and put him back in bed. He stopped when he saw the deadly look sweep over them all.
"Which one of you reprobates shot me?" Ezra snarled, his teeth clenched and his eyes wild with rage and fever. He couldn't believe it; didn't want to believe it. He trusted these men to watch his back and be honest with him. But why should they? He had always told them he could take care of himself. He was nothing but a two-bit gambler anyway, his fevered brain reminded him.
Standish's emerald gaze immediately flashed and locked on Larabee. "No, too obvious," he murmured. His gaze then drifted over to Tanner. Ezra shook his head. "I'd be dead."
Ezra released his grip from the newel and turned toward the bar his eyes crossing with Buck's. "It was an accident," Buck declared, before Ezra could say a word. "I thought you were one of the outlaws and that JD was in danger." Buck stared straight back at the wavering gambler.
Ezra cocked his head and a curt feverish chortle burst forth. At first he couldn't believe it. He had hoped it was all a mistake, or some type of joke-a sick one, but a joke nonetheless. But now, right in front of him Wilmington had turned his worse fear into reality.
"You all were protecting, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked the whole room, his voice now calm and sending chills down everyone's spine. Buck started to grow uncomfortable under the gambler's maniacal gaze, which was as cold and dark as a long winter's night.
"We weren't protectin' no one; we just wanted to wait until you were better able to handle it," Nathan explained.
Ezra took a couple painful steps toward the ladies' man, who pushed himself away from the bar prepared to take whatever the southerner wanted to give. Buck also realized that Ezra could collapse at any moment and he wasn't going to let that happen. The man looked terrible, the days of endless pain showing on his gaunt face and in his sunken eyes.
"It was an accident," Chris stressed.
Vin grabbed Ezra's arm as he passed, afraid what the gambler might do in his mind set. He was glad that at least Ezra wasn't wearing a gun. Ezra pulled his arm out of Vin's grasp and glared angrily at the tracker, before returning his glare back to Buck.
Ezra now stood in the center of the room, the others slowly surrounding him. "Now this is ironic," Ezra suddenly mocked, there was no humor in the southern drawl. "You all accuse me of watching out for number one when Mr. Wilmington only watches out for Mr. Dunne, and everyone else be damned."
"That's not true," Buck quietly replied.
Ezra reached out and grabbed the back of a chair as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Josiah and Nathan moved up closer as Chris and Vin tensed. They all could see that Ezra's strength was quickly waning. Sweat now soaked the white shirt plastering it to his back.
"But why should Mr. Wilmington be any different then the rest of you?" Ezra continued, turning around to face the others. "Mr. Larabee, you and Mr. Tanner take great pains to watch each other's back, don't you?" Chris kept his face blank of expression. Ezra snorted at the leader's lack of response. He shifted his gaze to Josiah and Nathan who stood side by side. "And Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Jackson, I'm sure your first considerations turn to each other during a gun battle." A flicker of guilt flashed on both Josiah and Nathan's faces. Ezra grinned, but it wasn't a smile that reached his eyes or showed any hint of mirth. Chris could see Ezra's arm trembling at the strain of holding himself up.
"Now, let's see that's one...two, three...four, five...six," Ezra paused a second. "But wait, there's seven of us." The maniacal tone of those last words gave everyone a very uneasy feeling and they wondered if they had lost their friend forever.
The saloon was silent. Ezra moved back toward the staircase, taking hold of the banister with a sweat-slick hand. He bowed his head. "I always preferred even numbers myself," the sorrow that laced these words tore into everyone's heart like a knife. "Oddman out I always said." With that somber declaration Ezra's eyes rolled up into his head and he preceded to crumble to the ground. Chris dove for the collapsing conman and caught him before he hit the ground. The stoic leader gently cradled Ezra's upper body in his lap. Nathan was quickly at his side checking Ezra's pulse and breathing.
"We better get him upstairs," Nathan sadly instructed.
Josiah and Nathan gently gathered up the unconscious gambler and carried him up stairs, followed closely by Vin.
Buck hadn't moved and then suddenly slumped down against the bar and slid to the floor. His knees coming up to his chest and his lips pressed together in worry. He leaned his head back, making contact with the hollow wood of the bar and looking up into Chris's visage.
"I did that to him," Buck said his words strangled with torment.
"We all did," Chris corrected. He looked down at the man who was always so carefree and happy with life that man was slowly dying inside. Chris hoped that in time Buck would be able to forgive himself.
"Damnit Ezra, you're not fit to travel yet!" Nathan yelled at the stubborn man attempting to get on his horse. It had only been two days since the incident in the bar. Ezra had refused to speak to anyone and had only allowed Nathan to clean and finish stitching up his wounds. His arm was still in a sling, his hand still refusing to obey any commands, and he was starting to wonder if his gambling days were over.
Ezra stopped with one foot in the stirrup, and his good hand wrapped around the pommel. "Mr. Jackson, I'm quite well; well enough to travel at least."
"You rip open them stitches and you're going to bleed again." Nathan had only just finished stitching up the last of the cuts last night. Ezra's fever had finally broken and the healer felt confident that he had removed every piece of glass. The gambler now sported a thick, linen bandage that wrapped around his whole torso.
Standish rose up and grunted as he settled down into the saddle, taking a moment to catch his breath. He still found it hard and a little painful to draw in a deep breath. The pain of his back was bearable, whether it was because his wounds were finally healing or he was just getting used to it was another matter "I thank you for your attention and concern." Ezra spoke to the kindly healer as if thanking a stranger and not someone he'd known for two months. "Astoundingly as this might sound I find myself in need of some wide open space and time to think."
Nathan knew what Ezra was really saying, the southerner barely tolerated any of them at the present, and they all feared they had lost the conman's trust.
JD rode up and stopped alongside Ezra's horse. The gambler eyed the young man suspiciously. "I don't believe I requested your company, Mr. Dunne." Neither Nathan nor JD could miss the venom that tinged the words.
"You didn't, but I'm coming anyways," JD replied with the same bite.
Ezra raised both eyes to the impertinent gunslinger, and Nathan bowed his head to hide the smile that split his face. Without a word Ezra reined his horse around and coaxed him into a leisurely pace toward the end of town.
"Don't worry, Nathan, I'll take care of 'im," JD assured.
"Here, he might need some of this." Nathan handed JD a bottle of laudanum. "And try and clean his back a couple times."
JD tipped his hat and spurred his horse to catch up with the gambler.
Nathan stared after his friends and a small feeling of loss tickled the back of his mind. He hoped he would see the two men again.
The others had watched from the saloon as JD and Ezra rode off and then returned to their chairs as Nathan entered the saloon.
"Is he alright to travel?" Chris asked.
Nathan shrugged. "So long as he doesn't do anything stupid. The fever's gone, maybe some fresh air will do him some good." Nathan slumped down into the chair and released a tired breath. He had to admit it was good not to have any patients to worry about for awhile.
"Buck, why didn't you try and stop JD?" Josiah asked the now perpetual gloomy gunslinger. Although he disagreed with the reason, Josiah could understand why Ezra was leaving. The aloof southerner felt he was not important and that his well being was only considered an afterthought. The Seven had survived by trusting each other to watch their backs, for Ezra that trust had been torn into so many little pieces. He no longer felt a part of the group or that anyone was really watching out for him. But now JD was leaving as well. Couldn't they do anything to stop it?
"Hell, he's hardly spoken two words to me since all this shit happened," Buck angrily replied. He was tired of being blamed for everything.
"We goin' after 'em?" Vin asked Chris who sat across the table from him.
"Give them both some time to think and cool off then if'n they don't come back by mornin' we'll go after them."
This seemed to satisfy everyone except Buck, who stared worriedly down the street.
"Mr. Dunne, I did not ask for, nor do I desire your company," Ezra vehemently stated as the young gunslinger caught up with him. The growing resentment that he felt toward JD made him angry with himself. The young man had done nothing to warrant such feelings, but Ezra was unable to stem the attitude. JD had what he had craved all his life, someone who cared greatly for his well-being. Jealously is not becoming, Ezra reprimanded himself.
"Well, I'm not just coming because of you," JD bit back hotly, causing the gambler to arch an eyebrow in his direction. "I need some time to think too, you know."
Ezra opened his mouth to say something then closed it.
"And anyway, you'll need someone to clean your back. I promised Nathan," JD admitted a sly smile gracing his boyish features.
Ezra cocked his head and allowed the first faint traces of a grin to tug at his lips in a long time. "Well, we certainly don't want to incur Mr. Jackson's wrath."
The two men rode in silence as the new day sun slowly ascended unceremoniously into the sky. The pristine day starting to improve the mood of the two riders.
"You don't think you can trust the others to watch out for you, do you?" JD suddenly asked.
Ezra didn't answer only keeping his eyes on the distant overlapping hills. His horse enjoying the unhurried pace.
"I don't think they'll ever trust me to be able to take care of myself," JD quietly admitted. "They don't think I'm man enough." JD's eyes looked down at his saddle horn, trying to hide the hurt he felt inside. He wanted to be one of them, to show everyone-- especially Buck-- that he could take care of himself.
This admittance caused Ezra to turn his head and stare strangely at the young easterner. He had never known how the young man felt. JD had done and seen a lot since joining up with the six men, maybe too much, but he was still a very young man and that's what the others saw. Ezra had always considered the young gunslinger an equal, able to carry his own weight. Ezra scrutinized the man who rode by his side. The long dark hair that covered JD's face only lay emphasis on the fact that he'd only recently stepped out of childhood. JD's naïve exuberance also gave-away how young he really was.
Ezra shifted in his saddle and pushed his black Stetson back on his head. "I don't believe it is a lack of trust, Mr. Dunne, as much as an overabundance of paternal feelings that cause our associates to overprotect and try and shield you." Ezra paused. "I feel I am also guilty of, how shall I say, insulating you from certain ugly aspects of life."
Ezra turned his attention back to the trail, missing the stunned and pensive expression on JD's face.
Four dirt and dust covered men rode into town as the sun slowly set without fanfare. No clouds filled the sky enabling the sun to go out in a flare of color. Instead, the lackluster sun sets without too much notice. The four men pulled up in front of the already rowdy saloon, music and laughter pouring out through the doors and into the street. Grant Welby gazed dispassionately at the small town as the three other men with him dismounted and tried to slap the dust from their clothes. A fair hair man in his mid to late thirties stepped over to Grant Welby.
"Wasn't Horace suppose to meet us, boss?" Keats replied, who was Grant Welby's right hand man.
Grant swung his leg over the saddle and lit gently to the ground. His massive form moved with smooth controlled grace. No energy was wasted on insignificant actions. He rubbed at the two-day growth of beard and wanted nothing more than to have a bath and a shave. But it looked like it would have to wait. His brother was not the most scrupulous of men, but he was reliable. Grant looked at the blonde haired man who stood before him.
"Split up, see if you can find him or his men. We'll meet back here in an hour," Grant instructed. The three men split off walking to opposite ends of the town with one going across the street to check the hotel and stables. Grant turned and watched as several drunken cowboys fell out of the saloon, barely keeping their feet. They staggered to the left then continued on down the boardwalk as if walking on a ship being tossed on the waves. Grant pushed his way through the bat wing doors to enter the brightly lit and festive atmosphere of the saloon.
After an hour the four newcomers sat at a corner table in the crowded bar. At first they found themselves under some scrutiny, being strangers, but soon they became part of the scenery that surrounded them and most didn't even give them a second look.
"So, what did you find out?" Grant asked, tipping back his beer.
Keats and the other two men had seen no sign of Grant's younger brother, but had heard some very disturbing talk among the town's folk. The three men didn't ask too many questions for fear of raising suspicion. But they didn't have too, the town was still a buzz over the gunfight.
"Well, it appears that Horace decided to take on the law here," Keats explained.
Grant set down his beer and wiped his mouth. He had never thought of his brother as a brave man, nor particularly bright.
"Horace had eight men," Grant reminded. "Are you saying the law here took them all out?"
A bull of a man with scowling dark eyes shifted in his chair. "Apparently there are seven lawmen who protect this town, gunslingers," Dillon added.
Grant slumped back into his chair his eyes wide in disbelief. "This town hired seven gunslingers?"
The third member of Welby's small group went by the name Char and was a solidly built man with broad shoulders, his dark skin and slight accent reflecting an Indian background. "I have heard of these men. They are led by a man whose soul is said to be as black as the clothes he wears, and he cannot be killed."
"Does this avenging angel have a name?" Welby quipped.
"Oh shit!" Keats muttered. "I've heard of him. He's no one to mess around with."
Char smirked at the other's obvious fear.
"Well, it appears my brother was trying to make a name for himself," Grant said with just a touch of pride in his voice.
"So, what do we do now? We don't have enough men to rob the bank in Tucson," Dillon asked.
A slow smile formed on Grant's face, and he glanced over his shoulder and out the window where he could just see the small bank across the street. "I think the bank here will do."
"What, with those gunslingers, are you nuts?" Keats yelled then lowered his voice as he noticed the attention he was drawing.
"They are still only men and all men have a weak spot," Char calmly said.
Grant smiled at his Indian companion. "As I now have an obligation to avenge my brother's death, I think we need to discover Mr. Chris Larabee's Achilles heel."
Keats and Dillon regarded their boss with confused expressions.
"Mr. Larabee's weak spot," Grant explained.
"I heard talk how it was some pretty newswoman that got them hired," Dillon said.
"Good, maybe she can be of assistance," Grant replied. "Char, Dillon go to Purgatory and gather up everyone who wants to have a good time. Tell 'em there's going to be a party at Four Corners and not to worry about the law. Keats and I will go and pay a little visit to this newswoman."
"Hell, we'll bring the whole bleedin' town here." Dillon laughed as he rose up out of his chair.
Grant and Keats stayed at their table awhile after their two companions had left.
"Do you have a plan?" Keats asked his boss. The two men had been together for a long time and had proven a successful and profitable combination, at least at robbing banks and stages. Keats had been unsure about adding Grant's brother to the equation and was secretly glad the man was no longer an issue.
"First, we get Mr. Larabee and his men out of the way then we tear this town apart--a simple plan really, don't you think?" Welby chuckled and downed the last of his beer as Keats sat back and smiled.