Nectar de'Standish

by Pat

Betaed by DCP.

“Later I would remark to Mr. Larabee that I hadn't saved Mr. Jackson's life; it was the tent poles, the handkerchiefs and cookware that I had insisted on bringing along on our journey to Yuma Prison.”

The reputation of the "Magnificent Seven" had resulted in many things. Four Corners had become a thriving town, seven men had found an association that deepened into friendship and purpose and finally, they ended up stuck on prisoner transport detail because they had a tendency to survive the trip.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish woke up to driving heat of the Arizona desert in sheer dismay. It felt like the insides of Mrs. Potter’s oven from back East. Only he was not a succulent pie, he was a soon-to-be very dead gambler. He lay still, listening intently, and heard nothing, not the sound of horses, or a blessed breeze.

“At least the miscreants are gone,” he thought. Then his last memory before being pistol-whipped made him forget his habitual caution.

“Nathan!” he cried, jerking up from his prone position. He and Nathan Jackson had been returning from an errand of mercy. Nathan had heard that a woman was in labor and no doctor for miles, and Ezra had accompanied him to the homestead, while Josiah Sanchez and Vin Tanner completed the paperwork that marked the end of yet another successful prisoner transfer to Yuma.

They had been filled with a sense of accomplishment as Nathan had helped the woman through a very difficult delivery, and presented mother and son to the worried father. Ezra had come to a deeper understanding of the joy that healing afforded Nathan Jackson as well as a new sense of delight in being involved in the beginning of what seemed to be a very nice little family.

He and Nathan had been in such high spirits that they were both taken by surprise when six men on horseback ambushed them. They had tried desperately to escape, and had almost gotten away, when one of their pursuers shot Nathan in the leg. Ezra still could taste the bile in his now extremely dry throat when he remembered the sound of Nathan’s bone snapping as he hit the ground.

One of the robbers had aimed at Nathan’s unconscious form lying in the dust and prepared to finish him off and Ezra had turned Chaucer back and fought like hell to save his friend. The battle, as most skirmishes of this ilk tended to be, was short and bloody. He recalled trying to defend Nathan’s limp body, he remembered the sense of awful failure when he was surrounded and the deep despair when he was finally pistol-whipped into unconsciousness.

He had vague dreams of men who stank of old sweat and whiskey laughing and searching his body rudely for loot. Sitting up painfully, he looked frantically for Nathan Jackson even as he realized his derringer and rigging had been ripped from his body as he lay unconscious. Trembling in reaction, he stood shakily and staggered a bit before he realized Nathan was behind him.

He sank to his knees in the burning sand and horrible sunlight. Nathan lay there seemingly more dead than alive. Ezra reached out and touched the dark-skinned healer’s throat. “Mistah Jackson?” he asked hesitatingly, and then nearly wept when he found a steady pulse. Then the enormity of their situation struck. They were abandoned in June in the Arizona desert. Their horses, weapons and water were all gone. Hell, they might even be in Indian Territory, they had led the miscreants a merry chase before being brought down.

“I’m so sorry, Mistah Jackson,” he said softly and without thinking, reached into his pocket where he found a handkerchief. He grinned briefly, a feral bitter laughter rising within when he realized that his rings, pocket money and derringer were all gone, but the miscreants didn’t want the handkerchiefs. Vin and Nathan had teased him something terrible about all the nonessential items he’d insisted on bringing with them. Even Josiah had been amused, but in a friendly way, as though they would expect nothing less from him, and didn’t mind, because he was one of them.

Gently, he wiped Nathan’s face as he realized there was nothing he could do.

Nathan’s face had a grey pallor to it that didn’t bode well. His leg had snapped and Ezra realized it was still bleeding. Damnation, they were going to die of thirst and heat as it was without Nathan bleeding to death too. If he’d had his derringer, he’d be tempted to mercifully end both of their lives, a mercy that hadn’t been extended to them by their attackers.

Then a cold anger filled him. No – he’d not give up. If they were to die in the barren wilderness, then they’d find their bones together and know that Ezra Standish had done his best by his companion, no, his friend. He looked around, hoping to find something to use as a splint and realized that while the bastards had taken the horse, they’d left the tent, the tent poles and what looked to be a sundry collection of empty whiskey bottles carelessly tossed away by the thieves.

Shade. He could put up the tent over Nathan and provide respite from the sun that was slowly baking their lives away. Gently, he put the handkerchief over Nathan’s eyes to shield him from the worst of the sun’s rays. Then he took off his velvet jacket and placed it next to Nathan’s head between the healer and the sunlight. It wasn’t much, but it was some kind of shade.

Still shaking, he rose and made his way to the tent. He almost laughed. They had also left his collection of pots and pans. Perhaps he could dig a well and use the kettle to bring Mr. Jackson some much-needed water. As he leaned over to pick up a tent pole, he realized he was dizzy and carefully got on his hands and knees to gather the materials he needed. He noticed that even the sand seemed hot and burned his fingers. He could feel its heat through his trousers and realized that he probably had a slight concussion. He gingerly investigated the back of his head and realized it was so. He had a respectable goose egg. There was dried blood on his fingers when he removed them and he snorted in self-disgust. He had a tent to raise and a broken leg to set. For once there was no time for personal concerns.

Nathan Jackson never moved once while he laboriously worked. Ezra had to move slow, to pace himself against the terrible heat. He allowed himself brief respites, then continued on.

Once the tent was in place around the silent figure, Ezra searched for some kind of straight piece of wood. Finally, exasperated with himself, he decided to use the tent pole that was used for the doorway, but realized with horror that he hadn’t enough strength to break the wood to size. Then he remembered the long iron handles on the big black kettle. It was held on with a screw.

He stepped out of the tent and realized while he had been uncomfortably hot inside the tent, he was even more so outside. Which meant that the shade was helping to an extent. He had done one thing for Nathan’s comfort. Now he must try to splint the leg.

He walked all the way to the kettle and touched it hesitatingly. The metal burned his fingers, but he was not going to let that bother him. He gathered the pot, and as many more pieces of kitchenware as he could reach, along with two of the empty whiskey bottles. Then he slowly and carefully made his way into the tent. He put down his burden quietly and left the tent flap open. He’d erected the tent facing east so the opening was on the shaded side. Perhaps there might be some kind of breeze that would aid in cooling Mr. Jackson.

Nathan was still silent, but his pulse was strong. Ezra took the jacket off his head, along with the handkerchief and folded the jacket carefully as a pillow.

Then, he sat on the ground next to his friend and worked on removing the long handle. Getting the screw out of the pot was more difficult than assembling the tent. He finally used the nail file that rested inside his nail clippers and got the screw to move. By the time he had the handle free, he was exhausted and aching, but vaguely triumphant.

He had accomplished another task toward helping Mr. Jackson.

Removing the trouser from Nathan Jackson’s leg was done slow and meticulously. While he had no knife, he used the much abused nail clippers and slowly was able to rip along a seam just below the knee. Finally he removed Nathan’s boot, socks and the bloodied legging material and winced at the sight of bone shining through Nathan’s bleeding skin. He was pleased to note that the bullet had passed through the leg, and bled clean. He prayed that it didn’t become infected.

Now he had to set the bone. How fortunate that Mr. Jackson continued to be unconscious. He hoped that state continued. But it was not to be.

Straightening the leg was obviously painful for his patient. Nathan moaned softly as Ezra attempted to put the leg to rights. When he finally aligned the bones properly, Nathan sat straight up and screamed before fainting again. As rapidly as he could, Ezra splinted the abused leg, using the pot handle and several handkerchiefs to keep the splint in place. What was most excruciating was knowing that if he bound the leg too tightly, he’d cause Nathan to lose the leg to gangrene, but if he didn’t bind it firmly, his friend would slowly bleed to death.

Ezra was sure he’d have tears in his eyes, from fear and just from knowing how much agony he had caused poor Nathan, but he was too dehydrated by now to experience even that small satisfaction. Once he was sure that Nathan’s leg was properly splinted and secure, he lay in the sand next to his friend, one hand on Nathan’s arm to alert him if Nathan was restless or in pain and rested his head against the black man’s shoulder, exhausted.

He had almost fallen asleep when he realized that Nathan was stirring. Quickly he got up and prepared to console his friend in the fashion to which he was accustomed.

+ + + + + + +

Outside the tent a lizard sat on a rock and watched the new structure in its small universe. A terrific scream was heard, then a conversation.

“Damn, that hurts. Why are you doing this, Ezra? Where’s Vin and Josiah?”

“I regret to inform you that they are not here, Mr. Jackson, so you’ll have to let me minister to you.”

“MINISTER? I thought you were trying to kill me –oh – you did a pretty good job there. I felt a bullet go in.”

“I checked it – The miserable thing went through.”

“Did ya clean it with alcohol or carbolic?”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any, Sir, but it did appear to bleed quite clean.”

“Can’t be helped then. Where are we?”

“We’re in the Arizona desert and I have no clue as to our location.”

“Damn, we got bushwhacked didn’t we?”

“Yes, Mr. Jackson.”

“Did they leave us anything?”

“This spacious tent, my handkerchiefs and a plethora of cookware.”

“Shit. Ezra, you should leave me and try to get to safety.”

“And leave you alone with all my cookware? I think not.”

“Just great, ya damned fool, then we'll both die out here”

“Yes, Mr. Jackson, but you'll die in the best of company. Now quit fussing - you'll only make the pain worse.”


“Now Mr. Jackson, you always say that to me when I'm injured or wounded, so why can't I say it to you?”


“Tut Tut, Mr. Jackson - such language. Tell me, how does it feel to be hoist on your own petard?”

“Ya can take your *&*&)*& petard and *&*)&)*&)*)&*)&.”

“Mr. Jackson you can not place a petard in that portion of the anatomy – it’s a physical impossibility.”

“Just you wait ‘til you get hurt.”

“There's nothing you can threaten me with, Mr. Jackson, I've already drunken your miraculous life-saving swamp scum. How unfortunate that I am without some of the said life giving, fetid, mildew-ridden slime now. I'm sure you would appreciate it. Mr. Tanner has often noted how that horse urine would be an improvement from an epicurean point of view.”


“No, Mr. Jackson, you can't shove an epicurean there either. They wouldn't fit.”

“Damn fool, why are you smiling at me like that?”

“Why am I smiling, because you are a worse patient than I am. In point of fact, I had a bet with Mr. Larabee for a twenty dollar gold piece that you would be. Now Mr. Jackson, don't throw rocks.  If you want me to shut up, you only need say so.”


“See - wasn't that easy?”


“Ouch. Really Mr. Jackson, that was uncalled for.”

The noise settled down and the lizard left for someplace more peaceful.

+ + + + + + +

The first light of the sun kissed his face through the tent entry. Ezra woke, and he clutched for a revolver that was no longer there. He sat up carefully, as his head still hurt mightily and looked down at Nathaniel Jackson, who lay sleeping. Ezra checked first the wound, which had stopped bleeding, and then he listened carefully to Nathan’s heartbeat, which appeared strong and steady.

He put a hand out and stood up and his hand brushed the lower part of the tent. It was slightly damp and cool.

“Good Lawd,” he thought, “there may be some slight hope for us.”

He thought carefully of all the things that Vin Tanner had told him about desert survival. The first, of course, was to take plenty of water, but when one had no water, the fruit and moisture to be had from said fruit could preserve life. And dew, the condensation of early morning, what had been explained to him in another conversation. He wrinkled his brow and then realized that Vin had told him about the decorated dew cloths that adorned the interior of Indian teepees. Oftimes they’d be wringing wet in the early morning, but would dry as the sun rose.

“Good Lawd,” he decided firmly, “I shall become a miser of moisture in all states.”

He thought again of Vin Tanner telling him seriously on one joint patrol that the desert would kill you faster then you’d know you were dead. In the desert, you had to conserve water and energy. During the day, a man could die in a few hours in the sun without proper water. He’d told Ezra of a time when he was trapped without water in a desolate region by bounty hunters. He had hid during the day and moved at night by the light of the stars. He’d eaten the pulp of cactus, and followed a bee to a source of fresh water.

Ezra resolved to keep an eye peeled for bees, and sad to say, savages as well. For all he knew, he was in Apache territory and would end up tortured to death, along with Nathan Jackson. “By God, not if I can help it. I’d rather die with his blood on my hands then knowing they are wringing screams out of my friend.”

Therefore, their needs were many: water, food, weapons, and safety.

“I can only provide what I can. I shall have to be alert to any opportunity. “

So, with small hope but much ambition, he surveyed the terrain. They appeared to be in a low area, surrounded by many rocks and near the foothills of the many mountain ranges that were part of Arizona. About him were the saguaro cacti, their arms reaching upwards as though in entreaty for mercy from heaven. They never grew in clumps but at a distance from each other as though laid out by some desert gardener seeking balance between them, the rocks and the plants that abounded.

The air was actually dry and pleasant right now, so this would be his time for action. The lion’s share of the day must be spent tending Mr. Jackson and conserving his energy. Any possible food and moisture to sustain them during the day must be found now.

The lower position of their sad little encampment was bad from a defense standpoint, but better for not being found by any Indians in the area by accident. And if a certain tracker realized his friends had been put upon, he’d set about to find them with no trouble.

He gathered all the materials left and put them inside the tent to cool. He found a small pocketknife and smiled grimly. He could always slit both their throats now if he had that as a choice between death by long torture. On the other hand, the knife could be very useful. He could perhaps fashion a sling. He certainly had enough handkerchiefs for the job, and as a child he’d been a good shot with a weapon. He had kept the skill up with the children in town on their frequent outings.

He grabbed one mid sized pot and found it still had serving tongs in it. They might be useful in picking up parts of cactus covered in spines. So he walked around the tent, eyes trained to read a man now struggling to read the land and the plant life.

He found a bunch of cactus that Vin had called out to him as potential food. Nopales were the names that the Mexicans used for it and Vin confessed it made a fine meal in the wilderness. While Ezra doubted that it would be an epicurean delight, it had potential.

He used the tongs, his small knife and several rocks and harvested several of the red spine-encrusted fruit. The tongs made it easy to put them in the pot. The pads had fewer spines, but he took the same care with them.

He checked the sun. Already he could feel increased heat. The temperature in June in the Arizona desert went up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit according to information he’d read on the area.

Doves flew over and he eyed them. They were clustering at the top of the saguaro plants. He stared. Vin had told him that any place animals in the desert gathered was either a place for moisture, food or shade.

There was no shade on top of the saguaro, but might there be something else? They appeared to be pecking at a green fringe of pods along the top of the great cacti. Perhaps it was sustenance. Perhaps it was moisture that would sustain him and Mr. Jackson.

First he tried throwing rocks, but the cactus was not an easy kill for him, and the birds just flew away and scolded a bit. It was getting hotter. He must hurry before it grew too hot for any expenditure of energy to be worthwhile for their mutual survival.

He needed something long and snapped his fingers in exasperation at his dense thinking processes. Of course, one of the tent poles would be perfect. He grabbed one of the extra poles from its place next to the tent and went harvesting. Soon his pot was full of green pods, which had the kindness not to have spines.

His pot full to overflowing, and the heat beginning to make a sweat breakout on his brow and underarms, he returned to the tent.

Nathan’s eyes were open. “Ezra,” the man exclaimed in relief, “Are you all right? Did we get rescued?”

Ezra sat down with his desert booty and touched his hand to Nathan’s forehead. It was warm, but not hot. He felt a flush of gratitude. He was not prepared to deal with fever in this desolate waste.

Nathan was looking a million questions at him.

“I regret, Mr. Jackson, that we are in the same predicament we experienced yesterday. While they left us no scrap of food or drop of precious water to sustain us,” He drawled in his best honey-coated tones, “they did leave the tent. Therefore, I have provided us some scant shade. When the sun comes up, I shall roll up the sides and hope for a small breeze. Also, I haven’t the faintest idea where we are, so there is great danger that our flight took us into hostile territory.”

Nathan’s face was grim. No fool in desperate situations, he knew their chances of survival. Yesterday he’d been too involved with his pain to fret about anything else.

Ezra smiled softly at the memory. Nathan was just as bad as any of them when he was hurt. If they survived, this would be excellent blackmail and teasing material.

“Damn,” the black man said in soft tones. Then he looked at his leg. “Ya’ll done a fine job on my leg, since I ain’t dead and I don’t see any fresh blood.” He lay back carefully, wincing and then looked at Ezra with dark brown eyes, “Ya done real good, Ezra. Thank you for caring for me. Sorry about nailing you with the rock. I guess I don’t take well to being bushwhacked; put me out of temper.”

They smiled at one another. Their situation was truly desperate, but they were glad to face it together.

Ezra sat the pot down and emptied it of the green pods, leaving the cacti for later. Then he remembered Vin cautioning him about tiny itchy claws on the surface that could be worse than the spines. He dumped the nopales into the sand and looked out. Dare he risk another foraging trip? Then right opposite the entrance of their dwelling, he saw something that made him smile. A large lizard was sitting on a green aloe plant. He picked up a handkerchief, being careful not to stare directly at the creature.

He loaded it with a rock and then let fly and nailed the poor creature. Quickly he jumped up to retrieve his prize, which was stunned and trying to escape. He stabbed it with the pocketknife, spearing its writhing body. Swiftly, not wanting to cause even a wretched lizard pain, he hit it on the head with a large rock. All movement ceased.

For just a moment, he felt sorrow. “I’m truly sorrowful to have to kill you in such a brutal fashion, poor creature, but I must find food to sustain myself and Mr. Jackson. Thank you for your life, little lizard.”

He felt momentarily foolish, but remembered Vin doing something similar and realized how precious all life was to the tracker. And subsequently, in this dire circumstance, he felt the same way. He needed the creature for food, but he felt gratitude for anything that helped him preserve Nathan’s life.

Using the knife, he now cut aloe leaves carefully. Aloe, while not a food, was an excellent salve for bruises as well as sunburn and he was sure he was red as an Indian from lying insensible in the sun yesterday. Nathan’s body had some scratches and abrasions as well, and his friend the healer would know how to administer the plant for their mutual healing.

He returned with his kill and showed the lizard to Nathan.

“Ezra, are you going to eat lizard?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Jackson,“ was the smiling reply. “I intend for us both to fully dine on the fruit of the land.”

Nathan was more pleased at this point with the aloe, which he immediately wanted to put on Ezra’s face.

“Mr. Jackson, my dear friend,” the gambler chided, “I have a limited amount of time to build a smokeless fire to cook our repast.”

He gathered brush, particularly the strange smelling creosote. It had the advantage of burning hotter than normal bushes, and also it had no thorns. He made sure it was clear of all greenery when he used the flint and pyrite kit that Vin had insisted they all carry when on prisoner detail. Vin had told him that they might need to set signal fires. Ezra had never needed it before, but was glad of it now, and that their attackers had considered it useless.

He could feel a slight breeze to the east, so he built a primitive fire pit downwind of the tent and the breeze, surrounding the creosote sticks with quite a few rocks. A small pot was very useful in digging up the pit area. A good fire pit would prevent the fire from spreading. He and Nathan just didn’t need to fight a brush fire today.

He lit the fire on the first try and smiled to Lady Luck in appreciation. As the fire started up, he skinned the lizard and cut off the claws and poor mangled head. He skewered the pieces on small branches, which he sharpened with the knife and sat them over the flame. The tent actually afforded him a little shade as he watched over the food.

When he’d judged it charred enough to be fit for human consumption and to have killed any parasites, he put it in a pot and carried the meal in triumph to Mr. Jackson. He went back and carefully banked the fire, using techniques that Vin had taught him. The coals would be useful later if he caught more game. The fire had been smokeless and he was grateful. He hoped any new waves of heat appeared to emanate from the desert floor, and not his poor little efforts.

He returned. Nathan was eyeing the lizard with a peculiar expression.

“Mr. Jackson, since you are wounded, I shall give you first choice. Mr. Tanner tells me that the tail is the best part and that many of the Indians consider that a delicacy.”

Nathan gave him a look that showed no great faith in Vin Tanner’s taste in food. The black man sighed and shifted painfully. Then he realized he was laying on something, Ezra’s velvet jacket.

“Oh no, I wrinkled it bad.”

Ezra scowled at him, “The jacket can be replaced. You cannot.”

He sat Indian style next to Nathan and tried to give him his best approximation of the healer’s own glare.

“You must eat something, Nathan. Please, accept my humble culinary efforts.”

Nathan looked sheepishly at him.

“You’re right Ezra. We gotta keep up our strength.”

He tentatively bit into a piece of the tail and chewed thoughtfully.

“It’s a bit like chicken,” he said. They ate every bit and Ezra was pleased when Nathan actually licked his fingers.

“Now we shall try to obtain some moisture from the desert plants.”

Nathan held up a hand, “You got a bad burn, Ezra. I can’t do much like this, but I’d be proud to put some aloe on the worst parts.”

Ezra grinned at him, heartened. “Why Mr. Jackson, leave it to you to find some way to minister in your capacity of healer. Of course.”

They both ended up gingerly smearing the green moist insides of the aloe all over.

“Cools the skin some too, don’t it?” remarked Nathan.

“Yes, and every bit of comfort we glean while the sun is up is valuable,” said Ezra. He looked down at his friend who was lying back on his jacket.

He knew Nathan was in considerable pain, but had said nothing of it. Buck and Vin would have said that Nathan had sand.

“I’m proud to be your companion in this test of our resolve, Mr. Jackson. I assure you that I shall endeavor to bring us back home safely.”

Now he turned to the nopales.

Nathan eyed them and suddenly smiled, “Those are prickly pear. They say they’re good eating up at the Seminole village. Ya done real good.”

Ezra smiled and rolled the strange fruit in the sand until he was sure it was free of all the tiny encumbrances. He painstakingly also removed the spines from the green pads.

Soon he was splitting the plant; which proved to have a green moist interior that reminded him of the aloe plants. He tasted it. It was lush, green and bland. It was also moist. He considered pounding the inner pulp for moisture, but then changed his mind. It was moist, but didn’t have that much moisture. In the heat, it might lose even more moisture. It would be better to eat it. He gave some to Nathan who ate with satisfaction.

When they finished the prickly pear, he had to admit to feeling refreshed. He decided to leave the prickly pear fruit for last, since it had the most spines on it. Now the gambler turned to the fruit of the saguaro. When his knife split the fruit, he was astonished at the deep red pulpy fruit within. Riddled with seeds, it was cool. Immediately he handed the sliced pod to Nathan.

“I believe it would be best in this situation to just spit the seeds out. We needn’t be formal,” he said.

Nathan laughed sharply. “Damn, and I was hoping we’d be on our best behavior. Well, can’t be helped.”

Ezra sliced several more of the fruit, and found them refreshing as well. Then he got an idea. Using one of his lovely handkerchiefs, he used it to squeeze the pulp into one of the whiskey bottles. It wasn’t much, but it was something. He did this leisurely, conserving energy until he had nearly half a bottle. Not as good as water, but it was liquid and nourishing.

He handed the bottle to Nathan, who took a sip. “This is really good, Ezra. You might have just saved both our lives.”

Ezra felt unaccountably pleased. He knew he should be pessimistic, but he had provided shelter, food and saguaro juice. Granted, it had taken the rest of his harvest to get only half a whiskey bottle, but it was more than they had, and would doubtless extend their lives.

The sun was now high in the sky. Ezra opened the southern exposure of the tent and tested for a breeze. There was none, but it was definitely much cooler in the tent.

He wrapped the bottle in the moist handkerchief and then hung it from the top of the tent. The coolness of the cloth would help keep the juice cool.

“Mr. Jackson. This is the most dangerous time of day for both of us. I suggest we both get some sleep. Waken me if you need me for anything. I shall forage when it grows cool in the evening gather more of the fruit.”

He lay next to Nathan, making sure he was between the black man and the entryway of the tent. If some Indian or miscreant were going to come in to kill Nathan Jackson, it would literally be over his dead body.

He woke again to find Nathan in the midst of a pain-ridden nightmare.

“No Master. Please, Sir,” he was muttering and twitching.

It was unpleasant to think what memory went with the agony of a broken and gun shot leg.

He touched Nathan to settle the dream and was immediately terrified. Their healer’s skin was hot. Ezra touched his own skin and then Nathan’s and determined that it was not a very low fever; they just both were hot from the desert.

Nathan woke groggy and flinched from Ezra’s hand. “No,” he said weakly, as though his last hope was being taken from him.

Ezra knew Nathan was in the midst of a dream of southern slavery, but it still hurt. It hurt because he wondered if Nathan would ever fully trust him. It should have been amusing to him, that he, a gentleman adventurer should so desperately desire trust from a Union stretcher bearer, but it was true. Nathan had saved his life many times, with a tenderness and wisdom that Ezra found astonishing.

His eyes burned with tears, but he had responsibility. “Mr. Jackson,” he said, trying to clear the molasses from his tones, “You are free, my dear friend. You need fear no master’s whip.”

Nathan however, appeared to be in the thrall of pain and he whimpered like a small child until finally, he fell into deeper slumber.

Ezra slept near him, and his sleep was shadowed with sorrow.

He woke later, the light was lower and the heat had dissipated.

Nathan’s head was turned and looking at him with concern.

“Did I say something mean to you, Ez?” he asked and Ezra realized his cheeks must be streaked with unmanly tears.

Nathan looked sheepish, men of the west didn’t talk about feelings much, but Ezra felt in this desperate circumstance that he wanted to share the truth.

"I fear I am repugnant to you, Mr. Jackson," he whispered, "And because our association has been so pleasant and beneficial, it grieves me."

To his vast surprise, Nathan smiled at him, "I love you too, Ezra. I figure we’re all family now," he said in matter of fact tones.

Then his brown eyes grew fierce, “You aren't anything like my old Massah was, Ez. To him I was less than a dog. To you, every stray dog, every horse and each child is a treasure to be protected and fed. You got a big heart Ezra, but don't worry - I won't tell no one. Wouldn’t want to ruin a perfectly good reputation.”

It was odd but Ezra Standish, who was trying desperately to conserve water, leaked a bit more and hugged Nathan Jackson, trembling just a bit.

Truth was damned inconvenient at times. Not to mention embarrassing as hell.

Ezra shook off the emotion that had assaulted him. He could worry about truth between friends later. It was now cool enough to attempt more foraging to preserve their lives.

He took down the whiskey bottle and handed it to Nathan. “You need this.” He said.

Nathan drank half and then grinned at him and handed the bottle back, “You do too,” he said and then lay back closing his eyes. Ezra shook his head. Nathan Jackson made mules look like reasonable people.

He went out into the fading light. Putting the tent pole back in action, he was soon happily harvesting the pods, to the music of doves cooing. He had filled one pot with the pods, which he immediately returned to the tent, carefully watching the perimeter and trying like hell to fit in with the terrain. Fortunately, his clothing was amazingly brown with dust. Smeared with aloe jell and filthy, he must be a pretty sight.

Now he selected smooth stones and put the sling to work. He took down two doves, one after another. Then he went to retrieve their supper. He picked them up, poor beautiful creatures and held them close to his breast for just a moment. “Thank you, little ones, for your lives will save ours,” he whispered and felt again that strange kinship with the raw philosophy espoused by Mr. Tanner.

He returned to the tent, and set up an earthen oven where he’d cooked the lizard yesterday. Then, he harvested cut the prickly pear fruit in half. It too was filled with seed and moist. He presented it to Mr. Jackson.

Nathan tasted it and smiled. “Kinda reminds me of berries and a little of watermelon. And since you had it cooling in the shade, it’s even better.”

+ + + + + + +

Two Feathers watched the white stranger with interest. White men were truly crazy. This one had absolutely no weapons but a small blade that would only be good in hand-to-hand combat. He didn’t walk loudly like the few white men of Two Feathers’ acquaintance, but he was not prepared to survive in the desert. Since the man presented little danger, he decided to watch him. Two Feathers loved curiosities and this strange white man was interesting.

He scouted around the man and saw the wounded black man asleep in the tent. This was strange too. He knew enough of white men to know that many of them were cruel to black men. This he had heard from those who knew. This was his first black man. He was obviously in pain, but made no cries, but lay patiently like a warrior. Two Feathers liked him.

Then the white man surprised Two Feathers. He gathered the gifts of grandfather saguaro, did so respectfully, and then used a crude sling to take two doves. Two Feathers began to rethink the man’s competence. But what really was interesting was the way the white man thanked the birds for their lives. He had never known of any grateful white men. This one was different.

He also only took two birds and the pods. White men were usually so greedy, but this man obeyed the law of the earth mother.

He watched the man make his way back to the encampment and do a good job cleaning the birds and burying them in a pit oven. He noticed the man use his hat to keep smoking escaping. This was not a totally ignorant white man.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner and Josiah Sanchez were two very unhappy men. When Ez and Nate didn’t make the rendezvous, Vin had immediately known something had happened, something bad.

Josiah had closed his eyes painfully and Vin knew he was praying for them both. Vin added his own prayer.

“Siah, we’ll have to back track. They were coming northeast.”

Josiah nodded solemnly; “Lead on, Brother,” he intoned.

Back tracking was hard, and never had Vin worried more. They were dangerously close to both Apache and Papago Indians, and in the middle of summer heat in a land where water could be miles out of reach.

It could take days to find them and by then, both men could have died of thirst.

They rode the trail they had all agreed on before and came to a small trading town, built inside a fort. Josiah looked at Vin thoughtfully and said, “I wonder if they have a sheriff. I could ask there.”

Then they heard a horse’s scream of rage and both men flinched. There was one horse they knew who could get that riled.

They swung their horses side by side and followed the noise.

The corral was surrounded by spectators. Chaucer, Ezra’s battle trained gelding, was doing his damn-fool best to get shot. The men attempting to calm and ride him were growing exasperated. Chaucer was easily the most beautiful and well-blooded horse there, breeding showed in all his lines, but it looked like he was going to kill someone soon.

Vin knew that Ezra would give up poker before he’d give up Chaucer and rage filled his heart. He dismounted and strode up to the corral.

“Keep back – that horse is out for blood,” someone advised.

Vin climbed the fence and walked straight up to Chaucer.

“Chaucer, boy, where’s your daddy?”

The horse reared and turned. Like a miracle, he stood calmly and then nickered softly.

Vin held out his hand and Chaucer came to him as meek as a lamb.

The entire crowd fell silent.

Vin patted Chaucer’s nose and whispered to him, “I’ll get you out of here and then we’ll find Ez, okay?”

Chaucer gave a snort that just might be agreement.

An evil looked snaggle-toothed individual strode forward, “Hey that’s my horse.”

Chaucer whipped around and chased the bastard right out of the corral. He heaved against the sides and bit furiously in the man’s direction.

“I kin tell he’s right fond of you.” Said Vin softly but clear enough that many of the crowd began to laugh.

Then a man with a badge came up.

“Seems to me this horse is already acquainted with you, Stranger.”

Vin nodded to him warily. He was not usually disposed to strange lawmen, but right now he’d risk a rope to find his friends.

“Horse here belongs to a friend I was supposed to meet up the road. He’d never sell this horse.”

Then Josiah came forward with Nathan’s gentle mare and the packhorse that had been with them.

“These belonged to our friends as well. Seems to me they’d be traveling damn light in the desert without horses.”

The crowd all looked at old snaggle tooth and his friends, and even though it was hot as hell, you could feel the chill of public opinion. Leaving a man without a horse in this country was a death sentence.

One of the gang suddenly pointed threateningly at Josiah, but the preacher grabbed his arm and held it in the air. A shot went off, safely pointed at the sky.

“Well looky here, Brother Ezra’s derringer and rigging,” he literally tore the entire assembly out of the man’s arms while the man twisted and screamed.

“Looks to me like you left them with no horses, no food or water and no guns. Did you kill them?”

The man’s mouth fell open and Josiah picked him up by what was left of his shirt. “I’m talking to you. Did you kill my brothers?”

“You can’t be brother to a darky,” said one of the men and the crowd closed on him.

“All men are meant to be brothers, but you have defiled that fellowship and trampled upon it. All that remains is to know if their blood is crying out from the earth for judgment.”

Vin felt a grim satisfaction. Josiah was getting Old Testament.

“Now, I’m only going to ask you one more time. Did you kill them?” Josiah’s voice crackled like summer lightning on a clear day, as threatening as an act of God.

The man shook and stuttered.

“We shot the darky off his horse, but he and the fancy fellow were still alive when we left them.”

Vin released a breath and Chaucer nudged his side. There was hope.

Josiah grabbed the man’s arm and snapped it at the elbow, breaking it across his knee like a lesser man might break kindling for the fire. A shrill scream filled the air. The crowd grew still in awe and respect.

“May the hand that shed the blood of my brothers never shed blood again.” Josiah sounded more like a prophet than a lawman.