Notes: This is an h/c story.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Helen, my wonderful Beta reader who, along with catching typos and grammar mistakes, gave me some great suggestions that really helped me make this story better.
Disclaimer: They do not belong to me. They belong to the Powers That Be. I just to them out to play for a bit.
DAY ONE, MID-MORNING
Darkness pressed in heavily and he fought against it, but the pain that flared with the slightest move threatened to send him back to it.
Where was he?
What had happened?
He couldnt focus enough to remember anything.
All he could sense was the silence around him.
He was alone.
Where was everyone?
As the darkness closed in around him he took comfort in one last thought.
What happened to you two? Mary Travis struggled to hold back a grin as she looked up at her son and Chris Larabee as the sat on the mans horse. Both of them were covered with mud.
We were getting out of the rain when Chris slipped. Billy giggled at the memory. He had felt himself slipping in the mud just before being scooped up in the mans arms, but then Chris had slipped too, and they both went sliding into the mud.
Are you all right? She looked from one to the other.
Were fine, Chris answered.
And we didnt lose any of the fish either. Billy proudly held the string up to show her.
So I see. Theyll make a fine addition to our dinner.
Chris lowered the boy to the ground.
You will be joining us for dinner wont you Mr. Larabee?
Chris grinned. Yes, maam. Soon as I get myself cleaned up Ill be over.
Mary gave him a smile and a nod before guiding Billy off for his own bath.
DAY ONE, EARLY AFTERNOON
He struggled to open his eyes.
Why was it so hard?
Something seemed to be stopping him.
His head hurt.
He tried to raise a hand to try and get an answer, but pain washed over him, taking everything with it, but for a calm assurance.
On his way to the saloon Josiah Sanchez paused as he watched the rider come into town. Nathan Jackson had ridden out early that morning to check on one of the nearby settlers.
Siah. Nathan stopped his horse and leaned forward on the pommel.
How is Mr. Sloan?
Legs healing up fine. Hell be back on his feet in another day or two.
Good news. Josiah gazed at his friend for a moment before grinning. Missus Sloan sure sets a mighty fine table.
That she does, Josiah, that she does, Nathan replied with a smile. Its a wonder Mr. Sloan is not a bigger man.
I was just going in search of some refreshment, care to join me?
Nathan nodded. Ill join you as soon as I get Samson here settled. He gave his horse a pat as he spoke.
I think Ill come give you a hand.
DAY ONE, LATE AFTERNOON
That was all he knew.
Except for an overwhelming urge to cough.
He turned his head slightly as the demands of his body took over.
He gasped for breath when finished, waiting for the comforting hands that would help him.
Who was he expecting to help him?
The darkness that once again claimed him held no answer.
Vin Tanner swung himself down on the edge of the roof and then jumped lightly from the porch railing.
That should hold you, he said as he grinned at Nettie Wells.
Good. Though it doesnt look as if any of that rain is heading our way.
Vin considered the clouds that had seemed to settle in the distance for the past few days.
Dont reckon it will. Though I spect its giving them folks a bit of trouble. He frowned as he thought about the possible effects of that much rain.
Nettie sighed. Well, nothing we can do about that. Come on, Ive got a peach pie just begging to be eaten.
Guess Ill just have to help out with that then. He followed her into the house.
DAY ONE, EVENING
He could feel the rain falling on him.
This time he could open his eyes...
What did that mean?
He could puzzle that out later.
Just now he needed to concentrate on breathing.
God it was hard.
And it hurt.
And it was dark.
Even with his eyes open.
The darkness of night?
It had been morning when. . . .
What had happened to him?
Coughing seized him again and left him wheezing.
Where were they?
Why didnt they come?
Why didnt who come?
Inez gave each man their beer and then put a plate of tortillas between them.
Thanks, Inez, JD said as he grabbed a tortilla.
Yes, thank you, darling. Buck leaned back in his chair to smile at the lovely young woman.
I am not your darling, senor, she said sharply as she walked away.
Shes coming closer every day.
Closer to what, Buck?
Closer to admitting her love for me.
JD snorted. Closer to shooting you, you mean.
Buck slapped at JDs head. Just shows how little you know about women, kid.
DAY TWO, EARLY MORNING
It had been so long.
What was he waiting for?
Why did he cling to hope?
No one knew he was here.
Wherever here was.
The pain surged up again, a welcome distraction from his dismal thoughts.
Vin stood leaning against his wagon, a mug of coffee cradled in his hands, as he watched the town slowly come awake for the day.
Josiah came out of the church and looked around. He waved at Vin when he noticed him, and then walked down the street towards the restaurant.
Mrs. Potter opened the door to the mercantile and proceeded to sweep the area near the store. She smiled at Vin before turning to go back inside. He could hear her voice as she called to her children.
It was a comfortingly familiar beginning to the day and Vin let out a contented sigh.
DAY TWO, MID DAY
Pushing the pain aside, he tried again to move.
It was as if he was weighted down.
His eyes sprang open.
The Patten girls!
He had to get them!
He could feel muscles responding, but it only resulted in more pain.
The effort left him gasping.
With a satisfied sigh, Buck dropped into a chair at the table the others had taken.
Soundin a mite tired there, Bucklin, Vin teased him.
Tired!? Now Vin, that just goes to show that youve never experienced what Ive just experienced.
And what might that be, Brother Buck?
Dont get him started, Josiah.
Say, whens Ezra getting back, JD interrupted.
Should be late today or sometime tomorrow, depending on how hard he pushes. Vin took a pull on his beer.
Now theres a thought, Nathan paused as the others looked at him. I was just thinking that Ezrad find that to be a dilemma. Whether to ride harder, or stay on the trail longer.
Wonder what odds hes give on that, Vin mused.
That set off a round of speculating that ended with Inez holding the terms of the wager and the money. They agreed that the winner would share a percentage with Ezra when he returned.
DAY TWO, MID-AFTERNOON
He could see sky.
He must be on his back.
But everything seemed tilted.
He remembered riding quickly into town.
There was a reason for that.
Something was happening.
Something he needed to help with.
Not his town.
He knew it wasnt his town.
It was too much effort to think.
Hed just close his eyes a bit.
Chris stopped and turned to see Mary Travis coming towards him.
Chris, were getting together some supplies for River Run.
Theyve been hit by flash floods and mudslides. Someone got out to another town with the message, and they sent telegrams out from there. Their own lines are down.
Do you have the telegram?
She nodded and handed it to him. He frowned as he read it and then looked north in the direction the mountain town lay. He didnt notice as Tanner came up to them until he spoke.
Do you think Ezra wouldve gone through River Run on his way back?
Vin gazed at him thoughtfully. Reckon he would'a. There a problem?
Towns been hit bad with flooding. Mudslides too.
Ill go see to what well need.
Larabee nodded and went to round up the rest of the men.
It took less than an hour for the six men to gather at the livery with their horses and gear ready.
River Run's a good two day ride from here, and were gettin a mighty late start, Buck said worriedly
Itll take some hard riding, but I can probably get us there in half the time, Vin said. Weve got about three hours of daylight left. We get an early start in the morning, we could make it by the afternoon.
The men mounted at Chris words and headed out of town.
DAY TWO, NIGHT
It hurt to breathe!
He could hear himself wheeze with every breath.
Why was he wheezing?
Why did it hurt?
Why couldnt he think?
He was waiting.
Yes, that was it.
But what was he waiting for?
What if it wasnt worth it?
It was worth it.
He was sure of that.
It was a quiet camp that night. They had no reason for thinking that something was wrong, but the fears weighed on them nonetheless.
Hes probably trying to make deals, selling his gear to someone whos lost their home. Nathans comment carried no real conviction. While Ezra did try to profit from a situation, he would also be right there with a helping hand. He hoped that would be the way theyd find him tomorrow.
DAY THREE, PRE-DAWN
It had been too long.
He couldnt hold on any longer.
It was time to let go.
He couldnt let go.
He wouldnt let go.
DAY THREE, AFTERNOON
Even from a distance they had seen the gashes in the mountain where the floods had sent trees tumbling, leaving long stretches of bare mountain. They hoped the town itself had been spared that.
As they got closer they could see the damage it had taken. Several buildings had been washed down slope and many others were showing some damage.
Entering the town, Vin called to a man ahead of them.
Vin! You here to help?
That too, the tracker tipped his head. We came looking for Ezra. You seen him?
Standish? The surprise was clear in his voice. No, I havent seen him. Was he coming this way?
Might be. Figure heda been here bout three days ago if he did.
Damn! Thats when the worst of it hit. He coulda been here and no one noticed.
Vin shook his head, He woulda tried to help. Someone should remember that.
Molly Patten took a deep breath and approached the men. She held her three-year-old daughter tightly in her arms while her twelve-year old tried to hide behind her.
Youre looking for Mr. Standish?
Yes, Maam, we are. You seen him? Vin answered her. He remembered seeing Ezra with her daughters on previous visits.
With tears in her eyes, she shook her head. Hes gone.
What do you mean gone, Chris growled.
He saved my babies and then the mud took him.
And you didnt do nuthin? JD demanded.
My Jilly just told me. She hasnt spoken since it happened. Not until she saw Mr. Tanner.
It happens that way sometimes, maam, Nathan hastened to reassure her. What happened?
Seems he must have heard my girls screaming. Bella was inside the bedroom, and the house had tilted so Jilly couldnt get the door open. Mr. Standish went in and sent Jilly from the house.
The twelve-year-old spoke up. Her voice was quiet and tears streamed down her face. I waited outside. Mr. Ezra came out with Bella, but the house moved again and he fell. The house was still moving, and he kind of tossed Bella towards me, and I ran to pick her up, and when I looked at the house it was going down the mountain, and I couldnt see Mr. Ezra anywhere.
Vin gathered the distraught child in his arms trying to soothe her.
Chris turned to Mrs. Patten. Can you show us where the house was?
Ill show you, Jason offered. They dont need to see it again.
When the reached the site, they stare at the devastation for several moments. Pieces of buildings were scattered down the mountainside, along with downed trees. The slide area went far down the mountain. Ezra could be anywhere along that path.
Well, we best get started. Josiahs voice got them all moving again and they gathered ropes, canteens and shovels before heading down.
Chris moved cautiously through the debris, stopping every few steps to scan the area hoping to find their missing friend. They had to find him. One way or the other. If they didnt, if they never knew for sure what had happened to him, that would hurt worse than actually finding a body. Chris shook himself. He wouldnt let himself go there. They were going to find the cardsharp and he damn well better be alive when they did.
He made his way around the roots of a downed tree and stopped short. There, barely visible in the mud, was their gambler. His white face and one hand were all that was visible. The rest of him was trapped under mud and debris. Chris felt tears flood his eyes. Damn it Standish. Whyd ya have to do this? The words were whispered as he moved closer. At least theyd be able to take his body back home.
He took a breath to call the others when a faint sound caught his attention. Ezra? His eyes wide with shock he dropped to his knees and reached a hand out to lay it on the still chest. He could feel the movement that matched the faint, yet harsh wheeze.
Five heads turned to the sound of that shout. Five bodies froze their movements. Five hearts felt a momentary pause before resuming their beats. Then five men seemed to move as one, converging on their leader.
The Healer had been called for.
Their seventh was alive.
Larabee moved just enough to let Nathan in without taking his eyes from the still figure. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up at Buck
Hes alive. Dont know how, but that damned, lucky son-of-a-bitch is alive.
How is he Nate? Vins question was soft.
Cant tell too much down here. Hes hit his head on something and his breathings pretty bad. Theres bound to be heavy bruising, and if hes escaped having any bones broken the healer broke off and shook his head. Hes been out here too long. Lets get him above and cleaned up. Then Ill know more.
They carefully dug him out and placed him on the waiting canvas. Each man taking a section they climbed back up the slope. When they reached the level of the town they lowered him down for a moment. Nathan took advantage of the break to begin washing off Ezras face. Suddenly Ezra began to cough. Nathan quickly slid under his shoulders and lifted him up, supporting him. The coughing turned to violent retching.
Nathan? JD was alarmed by the color of the liquid Ezra was coughing up.
Its mud JD. He probably couldnt avoid swallowing it.
As the spasms let up they eased the injured man back against Nathans shoulder and Vin used a wet bandanna to clean his face. I think hes comin round.
They watched as eyes struggled and finally opened to look around, pausing at each face gathered around him before looking up at Nathan with a sigh.
He couldnt restrain the coughs.
Nor the spasms that followed as his body fought to expel anything that was left in him.
But there was a difference this time.
He felt himself supported.
And when his body finally allowed him to try breathing again, he found he was leaning against something firm yet soft.
Something wet moved gently across his face.
It felt good.
He wanted to see.
It was so hard to open his eyes.
He could make out forms around him.
Forms that slowly came into focus.
He found a name for each face.
He tilted his head back and found he was resting on Nathans strong shoulder.
He smiled before closing his eyes again.
Knew youd come.
Knew youd come.
The whispered words held them still for a moment, his rasping breath the only thing they heard.
Lets get him to the meeting hall. Nathan had noted the building being used as a makeshift hospital when theyd first entered the town. Well get him cleaned up and see what the damage is.
Nathan sighed as he finished checking Ezra over. Not as bad as it could have been, but bad enough.
He looked up at Chris who stood leaning against the wall. Josiah was also waiting. The others had gone to see what they could do to help.
Near as I can tell, theres no broken bones. The swelling makes it hard to be sure, but I think thats from sprains. Cant tell whats happening inside im, but his belly aint specially tender
The bad news?
Looks like hes taken a couple of hard blows to the head. Cant tell what effect those might have.
He came to and recognized us, brother.
Yeah, Josiah, he did and thats good.
The way he was lyin if he was throwing up down there he probably swallowed some of that back down along with the mud. Nathan took a deep breath. He likely breathed some into his lungs too.
Chris let his gaze drift into the distance, and Josiah lowered his head.
Nathan nodded. Itll be bad. He paused for a moment shaking his head. He was down there like that for three days.
What are his chances? Chris looked into his eyes.
Hes alive. Dont know how, but he is. His heartbeat is strong. I want to say theres a chance, but I just dont know.
Chris sat in the chair next to Ezras cot, and waited for him to open his eyes and look at him.
Wanted to let you know Im heading back to town. Vin and JD are coming too.
Nathans staying here with you. Buck and Josiah too. At least til Marys ready to head back. Well be waiting for you. He held Ezras hand in a tight clasp for a moment, before letting go.
See you there.
Chris nodded and took one more long look at his friend. A look that he sincerely hoped would not be his last.
Nathan gently cleaned Ezra up from another failed attempt to keep food down.
The others will be heading back day after tomorrow.
Lets go with them.
Nathan shook his head. Youre not strong enough for the trip.
A too weak hand grasped his arm.
And when will I be strong enough?
The intensity in his voice and in the eyes that looked straight at him shook the healer.
Nathan. I want to go home.
He yielded. All right. But only, he held up his hand to prevent the interruption. Only if you can keep some food in you between now and then.
Ezra flinched, but then slowly nodded.
Chris! JD came running towards them waving a telegram. Chris! Theyre coming back.
He took the telegraph and read it with Vin looking over his shoulder. On our way. Ezra wants to come home.
Ezra must be doing better if Nathans agreed to bring him back.
JD watched as the muscles in Chris face twitched before he walked away.
Vin? Ezra must be better, right? Nathan wouldnt let him travel if he wasnt. Would he?
Reckon well just have to wait and see, JD.
Josiah gently settled Ezra onto his waiting bed. Chris watched for a moment before turning and heading back down into the saloon.
Come on, JD. Im gonna get me a bath and you can tell me all about any new ladies in town. Buck clasped the back of the younger mans neck and guided him out of the room.
A few minutes later Josiah also left, heading for the church.
Vin remained where he was.
Yeah. Nathan sighed deeply.
Best go down and talk to Chris. Looks like hes got something to say to ya. Ill stay with him.
Nathan nodded and stood to go. A hand reached out to touch his. Surprised he looked down into feverish green eyes.
Nathan. Thank you.
Nathan nodded and squeezed Ezras hand before leaving the room.
Vin smiled and moved to sit with his friend.
Chris was sitting at a table nursing a whiskey when Nathan came down and sat across from him.
What were you thinking?
I was thinking that a man facing a fight would be more comfortable with his friends around him. Might find it easier to fight. He sighed. Might find it easier to let go too.
You saying hes dying?
Chris . . .
Never mind. The gunslinger let his eyes travel up the stairs the hallway where Ezras room was. He looks worse than when we left you.
Hes actually doing better than he was for a while. Nathan saw the question in the other mans eyes. From shortly after the three of you left he hadnt been keeping down any food. I could get my teas in him, and some water, but nothing else. I told him the only way Id agree to bring him back was if he could keep his food down. Hes done it. Cant take much at a time, but Im not going to force it. Hoping hell do better now.
Chris rolled the glass between his hands. Go get some sleep. Vin and I will keep watch.
Nathan nodded and headed for his room.
He stood at the window looking out at the late afternoon movements of the town. Hed noticed several people glance up at the room. More people seemed to be concerned about Ezra then one might have guessed. Movement from the bed caught his attention.
Ezra moaned and then began coughing. Chris eased in behind him offering his support and comfort. Finally the spasms eased and then stopped. Chris continued to support him as he rearranged the pillows and then settled him back.
Lord. Ezra opened one eye slightly. If I said. I was running out. Would you shoot me? Now? His voice was breathless and he had to pause frequently as he spoke.
Afraid of that. The indignities continue.
You might want to keep that in mind the next time you go saving females.
You do have a point.
Here. This should help. Chris held the cup while Ezra drank the medicinal tea.
Finished, Ezra settled back and sighed.
How do you do that?
Sigh without setting off a coughing spell.
Practice, he smirked.
Chris laughed. The familiar banter was reassuring.
It was about an hour later when Nathan entered the room. Hows he doing?
Holding on. Got some of your tea down him.
Then he took some of Miz Potters broth.
He keeping it down?
Yes, _he_ is, thank you.
Ezra had kept his eyes closed throughout the whole exchange and Nathan chuckled, sharing a smile of relief with Chris, at the normalcy of Ezras comments.
Id best be seeing how the town is getting on. See you later, Ezra.
With his eyes still closed, Ezra felt Nathan do a quick check on him. His touch was so light that it brought no new pain. That would come later. When Josiah came up to help Nathan change the bandages. That was when the ever-present pain would flare to almost intolerable heights.
It seemed to be the one constant in his life right now.
His vague memories of the past few weeks were shrouded in it, and his immediate future was burdened by it.
He sighed and started to shift, before freezing with a gasp. Nathan was right there, with his gentle hands and his soothing voice, helping him settle again.
He was wrong.
Pain wasnt the only constant in his life.
Nathan was one, too.
And the others.
They would help ease the burden.
From the time they had found him, at least one of them had been by his side.
Talking to him.
Caring for him.
No matter how bad the pain became, it could not take away his awareness of their presence.
Nathan took his hand, and Ezra grasped it for a moment, hoping to convey something of what he felt.
Feeling himself drifting off to sleep he smiled.
His friends were with him.
They had come.