Part 1 - 2 | Part 3 - 5 | Part 6 - 9 | Part 10 - 11
JD cursed Ezra for the umpteenth time. The gambler had coerced every last dime from him with the signed promise that Dunne would hand over his daily wage for a month if JD wanted Ezra to participate in any further dangerous escapades that involved freeing disagreeable behemoths from dire captivity.
Dunne shook his head in exasperation and concentrated on his part of the plan. Ezra might not have all his eggs in one basket, as Buck had said, but he sure as Hell knew how to put on a raid.
Buck had been impressed too and quietly commented it was one reason the War had lasted as long as it did.
Dunne patted Josiah on the shoulder and moved on to the very end of the wagon and waited for the signal with Kyles dropped rifle tucked up tight against his shoulder.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra cursed and muttered without making a sound. Ludicrous. Plain and simple insanity.
He angrily bit the stub off his last cigar and spit the end forcefully into the red dirt of the desert.
He fished in his pocket for his lucifers and brushed up against the signed IOUs. It soothed his anger some and brought a fleeting smile to his face.
The smile diminished and turned into a frown. The four men at the wagon had better be willing to sign the other IOUs which had been penciled out. The two men with him, Buck and JD, had assured him to great lengths that the others would be trustworthy and would gladly sign the agreements even though the deed would have been carried out before said signatures.
Ezra did not like the arrangement, not one bit. He had argued with the two men, as vehemently as he could while ignoring the abuses that had befallen the captives. They were not terrible atrocities. He had seen worse and had been on the receiving end of worse under the tyrannical hands of the blue coats. Still he would not allow another to fall to such brutality, at least not if a profit could be made.
The young one, Dunne, had stared at Ezra as if he had lost his mind. JD had ranted and raved about being friends, working together, saving one anothers lives.
Though the tale sounded intriguing and the big cowboy with the fever and bullet in his shoulder confirmed what the boy sheriff claimed, Ezra remained skeptical.
Though he knew, deep down inside that he could not leave the four men to the whims of the men that held them captive, in order to make a profit from the situation, he could not let his two companions know it.
Ezra suspected the mustached man, Buck, somehow knew Standish wouldnt leave the others to face the demented wrath of the gunmen but he played along.
Ezra was both thankful and wary. However, his head hurt, his shoulder ached, his hip and leg burned fiercely with each misstep and a chill had commandeered his soul with such a grip that his very bones felt brittle. And that cantankerous horse continued to follow him and steal his hat at every turn.
So with signed and unsigned IOUs in the pockets of his green jacket, and the beady eyed, shifty horse securely tied out of sight, Standish stood alone in the dark shadows of early morning and struck a Lucifer. The match flared to life. The flame blossomed for a second and then settled. The gambler touched it to the fuse. The flame sprang to life again and engulfed the tip, sparking it to life. A small flame ran down the length of fuse, consuming it as it moved toward the quarter stick of dynamite at the other end.
The gambler reached back straight armed, dynamite in hand. He snapped his arm upward and forward, putting to use the sorrowful knowledge gained by one who had been too young to understand the necessity and viciousness of war but not too young to learn and become embroiled in its brutal, physical, intricacies.
He lobbed the flaming stick into the air. He watched as it arced its way through the sky with its tiny flaring tail. The dynamite traveled smoothly just yards away where it would do the most damage to the enemy, salvage the supplies and protect the captives. God willing, the horses would be left unharmed.
His heart leapt into his throat at the sound of the explosion and smell of TNT. Sudden glimpses of a war, the bloody stills of blackened faces and torn bodies flashed like quicksilver through his mind.
The steady pop of revolver fire and rifle blasts filled the night. Colt in hand, the gambler held onto his hat, swallowed his nausea and limped into battle with the kaleidoscope of images of six men playing through his mind.
+ + + + + + +
Vin rolled to his right, bringing his borrowed six gun up to bear, and pulled the trigger before his mind truly focused on the target his eye sighted. Kyle Corrigan flew two feet backwards with a hole in his left chest the size of two fingers.
Larabee rolled onto one knee, his ivory handled gun flashing as he squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession. Henry Corrigan danced back a single step, brought his gun up level, and, with blood streaming from his macabre smiling face, fixed his sights on Nathan.
Josiah shoved the healer to the side while he fired his own weapon, one of JDs colts. His shot went wild. The bark of JDs rifle sent its bullet straight and true.
Henry fell to the ground with the back half of his cranium and its contents on his sons chest.
Frank and Roy rolled on the ground in opposite directions trying to create two smaller targets and put more distance between themselves and flying lead.
Roy came up face to face with Tanner.
Nathan finally witnessed the part of Tanner that had been raised by a Comanche and Kiowa hardened and maimed by white men. The tracker forwent the use of his borrowed handgun and utilized a knife.
Jackson shut his eyes at the sudden thick spray of blood. He wondered if that had been the knife Ezra hadnt known he had carried in his elusive red coat.
Frank Corrigan crawled on his belly and elbows toward the horses. He smiled, listening to the fading sound of gunfire as he approached the nervous dancing of the tied animals. He did not recognized the thick shouldered chestnut with the pinned ears and flashing teeth. He ignored the angered quarter horse, bypassing it for a more even tempered mount. Frank was suddenly halted and hauled from the ground by well worn incisors, the teeth clamping down on the meat between his shoulder and neck.
He screamed as the powerful jaws of a simple herbivore lifted his torso off the ground and shook him like a rag doll.
Through the shock of pain, and in a desperate attempt to free himself from the nerve clamping force, Frank raised his gun to fire.
His last sight was of a mustached cowboy leaning against the white blazed chestnut horse, the cowboy's gun already aimed.
Frank Corrigan never felt the bullet that punched its way through his coat and shirt, shattering his sternum and ricocheting around his thorax. He did notice however, that the crushing force that cramped his neck and shoulder was suddenly gone.
He fell to the ground with a relieved smile fixed forever on his face.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra limped into the small area slowly, lowering his gun as he examined the scene. The tied captives were now untied and milling about. The darkly dressed one with the dirty blond hair scanned the area, though he kept his eyes on the one with long light brown mane. The man dressed in black pants and filthy white striped shirt held tightly to his side and moved with a disrupted elegance.
The long haired tracker moved with the blond as he too scanned the area, pausing when he spotted the gambler. Standish froze and held the blue gaze for just a moment, meeting the piercing blue eyes directly.
A small smile quirked Tanners mouth. The tracker simply dipped his head in appreciation.
Standish raised a hand and tipped his hat brim in response. The gambler turned his attention back toward the other men.
The older man with the massive bruising on an equally impressive jaw spoke with the black man, who in turn appeared solid on his feet with steady hands despite the evidence of slash marks to his torso.
The gambler watched as JD climbed to his feet using the rifle as an aid and then made his way over to the mustached cowboy who teetered and staggered from the direction of the horses and the bedeviled beast which seemed intent on making Ezras own life miserable.
The gambler fingered the papers in his green wool coat pocket and stared at the men who paired up and seemed to almost congeal together as a whole. His practiced eye kept the three bodies in his periphery.
It was time to have his four IOUs signed and then he would be somewhat assured of his monetary rewards. After all, no good deed should go unrewarded.
He gathered his courage, hid his unease and tried to disguise his limp. His stomach ached with familiar nausea he associated with a persistent headache and fatigue. He stepped somewhat boldly into the area, hoping that his faux confidence would see him through this signing and then hopefully a restful night somewhere other than under the stars, though that seemed unlikely at the moment.
Standish stepped forward, focusing on the older man and his black friend, figuring it would be best to start with them and hoped the gracious momentum of signing IOUs would envelop the two hunters that worked side by side without overt show of aide or sensitivity.
Buck gingerly entered the small camp area, holding his wounded arm close to his side. His muscles ached with the thrum of a fever, while a chill tightened weakened muscles in an efficient attempt to raise the body core temperature even higher. It left him feeling weak, the blood loss adding to his fatigue and light headedness as well as his upset stomach.
Wilmington shuffled into the camp, keeping his injured arm close and gun held heavily but ready at his side. He saw JD and couldnt help the relieved smile that crossed his flushed face.
Movement to his left, however, grabbed his attention and had him dropping his height and twirling around on unsteady legs while bring his gun up to fire.
He shouted, gun!
In his periphery, Wilmington marked JDs position. The boy sheriff had his rifle already swinging up to shoot. Their eyes met for just a second ensuring each other's place and watching one anothers back.
Josiah grabbed his gun watching as Nathan reached for his own. The healer and preacher locked eyes for only a moment before turning as one and facing the threat that rose from the ground, bringing a gun with it.
Vin and Chris had guns in hand, well aware of one anothers actions and taking merely a fraction of a second to assure one another of the others position as they spun, turning their deadly attention on the threat in their midst.
A single gunshot pierced the area, flashing its sound far and wide across the open desert.
Seven gunshots rang out in almost perfect unison. One shot sounding just before the other six. That shot went wild. Its owner was twirled backward off his feet and flung to his side with breath stealing force. Green wool coat tails flapped in the wind as the black low crown hat rolled on its rim away from its owner.
The other six shots found their target and Kyle Corrigan fell to the earth with significant pieces of his torso perforated, smashed and violently expelled from his thoracic cavity.
Blue gun smoke waved from barrels as men paused for a brief moment. Silence gripped the earth for only a splash of time.
Shit, Ezra, JD yelled as he swung away from Buck and headed across the small camp to the gambler who already struggled to sit up, clutching at his trapezius muscle. Blood was slow to appear at first, and then blossomed and streamed with more gusto between and over his fingers.
Damn, the Southerner muttered all too clearly.
Nathan quickly turned and reached into the wagon, fishing desperately for his saddle bags. He pulled them clear of the other bags and gear with a sharp yank and followed JD.
Josiah cautiously lowered his gun and dropped his chin to his chest.
How had Maude known?
Buck limped and stuttered his way closer to Josiah, keeping his eyes on Nathan, JD and Ezra knowing that Chris and Vin would check the dead and confiscate weapons. I woulda betcha any money she was wrong, Bucks soft whisper was just loud enough to reach Sanchez.
Howd she know? Josiahs crestfallen question didnt stretch past either man.
Cuz even she would hesitate if something more valuable was on the line, Buck answered, quietly shaking his head.
Hes not less valuable, Josiah bit out, defiant.
Nope, and she knows that, Buck responded without hesitancy, but she also knows hes not Vin, or JD or Nathan, Bucks voice was full of soft despondency, and he aint you or me or Chris.
Josiah leaned against the side of the wagon and watched as Nathan and JD knelt beside Standish. He heard JD laugh and Nathan guwaff when Ezra handed the healer a piece of paper and pencil. Sanchez smiled half heartedly to himself as Buck chuckled and then grimaced clutching at his shoulder.
He knew, Buck pointed out, or suspected all along.
Josiah nodded in silent answer.
Ezra knew the truth of his relationship to the rest of them and it didnt seem to faze him. Sanchez felt his heart ache at that thought. The gambler simply accepted it, even expected it, and offered no challenge. Perhaps that was why he didnt or couldnt hold a grudge for too long when it concerned one of the others. It just didnt pay to be too angry for too long because in the end it really didnt matter to the dynamics of the others; or worse if he maintained a grudge perhaps he risked incurring the wrath of some of the others.
Josiah knew it wasnt true. There was no hierarchy to the pyramid of survival when it involved the intricate workings of the seven of them. Josiah knew it just as Buck did, but in the end it was what Ezra believed and what their actions led him to believe that mattered.
Yet if it didnt bother the gambler, if it didnt outwardly set him on edge, how could they go about fixing something that he himself did not perceive to be a problem?
Damn Maude and her manipulations. Damn her for pointing out their inability to care for her son and his dreams, damn her for exposing their propensity for protecting themselves and the others first and her son last.
Damn her for being right; especially when he had been so sure she had been wrong. Even now in the face of the evidence before him, Josiah believed her to still be wrong.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee stared at the campfire as he leaned against his saddle, a warm cup of coffee in both hands. Small spirals of steam curled upward, dissipating in the soft breeze. His side burned miserably. His head ached with the thud of his pulse, making it nearly impossible to keep his eyes open for any amount of time. The pain seemed to recede, if only temporarily, when he closed his eyes. His stomach hurt, yet he couldnt be sure if it was related to the blood loss, headache, fatigue or the scalding wound to his flank. Perhaps it was a combination of all four. His discomfort flared and ebbed, growing and dimming unpredictably yet persistently, but remaining intense with its throbbing.
He held the coffee with two hands, hoping to disguise the minute tremors that shook his body. He took delicate sips, testing just how fickle his stomach was at the moment. The simple act of lifting the tin cup pulled on his wound, causing his pulse to race and thus increasing his headache and causing his stomach to boil. He could feel a low grade fever begin its slow burn as the muscles of his lower back, and the heavy muscles of his legs started to ache with the familiar thrum of a building fever. Exhaustion hung on his frame like over sized, ill fitting clothes, threatening to cloak him and pull him down as if to drown him.
Larabee fought the urge to slide down the crease of the saddle and settle completely in his bedroll. He fought the fierce pull to curl on his side under a blanket and drift off to sleep. Chris wanted nothing more than to cave into the bone numbing exhaustion that leadened his limbs.
He refused, not fully understanding why he revolted silently with himself, and fought the need for rest. He did not even considering that he should question his reluctance to close his eyes. Instead, he fought to stay awake with the bull headed tenacity he accused Buck of suffering from on many occasions.
Larabee wanted nothing more than to lay down. However, Nathan was still tending the others and Chris still had decisions to make.
Tanner, with JD in tow, bedded the horses down despite the depressing lack of feed. There was no water to be had at the camp site. Their captors had not only lacked common decency, they had lacked basic common sense.
The two men had also already dragged the bodies out into the desert, down wind from their camp. They would not waste time or energy trying to dig graves. Large rocks were at a minimum, though JD had done his best to scrounge up a few to cover the bodies. In the end, their exhaustion and lack of commitment to the deed were enough to discourage them from putting forth any more effort on behalf of the dead.
Larabee watched as Jackson once again changed the bandages on Bucks shoulder. The big gunman lay sprawled in a deep slumber under the effects of laudanum and blood loss. Jackson with help from Josiah had dug the bullet out of Buck only hours earlier. The fever that shook Wilmington had Nathan worried.
They would stay here tonight, allow Buck a chance to get some true rest before hooking up the wagon and heading for home. The Judge would be waiting for them in Four Corners.
The gunman straightened out his legs, groaning softly to himself as muscles twinged and joints protested under the undo stress of movement. Larabee closed his eyes for a moment, silently thankful that they were staying put for the night. Chris felt his coffee cup tilt in his relaxing hands. It startled him into sitting up more aware. Fierce pain sparked his side and dizziness swamped and greyed his vision.
Larabees hazel eyes snapped open. It took a few drawn out seconds before he could focus. The fuzzed edges cleared. Chris watched as Josiah once again draped a cool cloth across Standishs bruised temple and cheek. The swelling had gone down somewhat from the last time Chris had seen Ezra a few days ago. The bruising had matured and peaked into its full sharp array of colors and would hopefully begin to dim over the next few days. The gamblers left eye had started to become partially visible under the mantle of colorful, swollen tissue.
Sanchez had wanted to place a cool cloth on Standishs hip but Ezra would not allow such liberties with his person, no matter his discomfort.
They would respect his wishes even when he fell into short, heavy slumbers. Nathan suspected the ease in which the gambler drifted to sleep was due to the head wound or perhaps the chill that still clung to him since Fischers Lake. Chris figured it was probably both.
The gunslinger understood and empathized with Standish and his fierce need for sleep. In fact, it was almost as if the gamblers body acted without benefit or blessing of the conscious mind.
Larabee relaxed deeper into the underside of his saddle and closed his eyes. Standish still had no obvious recollection of them. He suspected, however, that Ezras memory was coming back to him flashes and spurts. There were times when Chris found the conman staring at him as if trying to figure out a knot or a puzzle. Larabee returned those obvious searching stares with displeased glares of his own, just for his own pure amusement.
With that thought floating through his mind, Chriss muscles began to relax without his permission or cognition. The coffee cup tipped unnoticed from his slack hands and toppled to the finely stippled dirt of the semi desert floor. His chin lulled to his chest.
Josiah gazed up from the slumbering gambler and watched quietly as Larabees breathing evened out into the soft, shallow cadence of sleep. The preacher moved away from the gambler to tend Larabee.
They were a stubborn lot, worse than any toddler fighting bedtime.
+ + + + + + +
JD woke with a start. He sat up straight and stared wild eyed at his surroundings. Memories flashed to the surface. Dunne breathed a sigh of relief and pulled his blankets up as he shifted into more comfortable position.
The early morning sun had just started cresting over the distant mesas. Dew soaked the ground, turning the light clay to a darker reddish orange. A chill held the air but it lacked the deep bone rawness that seemed to cloak the higher altitudes.
Dunne spotted Tanner watching him. JD shook off his blankets and joined Vin at the sitting log near the cook fire. The rest of the camp still slept, though Buck had been restless due to the fever and Chris constantly shifted through the night trying to alleviate the discomfort in his side. JD scanned the camp and found Ezra sleeping under the wagon wrapped tightly in his bedroll, well away from Chaucer, who sporadically badgered the man. Dunne shook his head--that gambler and horse deserved one another.
JD accepted the hot cup of sweetened coffee the tracker offered him, Wheres Chaucer?
Tiedim good next to Grey. Vin lifted his cup to his lips and paused. His breath disrupted and dispersed the small whimsy curls of steam, Figured Ezra needed a break and some decent rest.
Dunne nodded in agreement. They sat quietly. Vin counted the number of seconds that passed before JD spoke again. The tracker laughed at the low number and figured he would have owed Ezra another penny.
We goin home today? JD whispered.
We gotta move on, thats fer sure, Vin answered, not sure if well make it home before tomorrow.
Dunne nodded following the trackers concerned gaze to Buck who only now slept soundly after a restless night.
Think Buckll be up to traveling? JD asked.
Dont got a choice, Vin answered
JD nodded, understanding what the tracker was saying. They had no water, their supplies were depleted and the horses still had no feed. They couldnt stay here. They had to move on even if Buck wasnt up to traveling.
Ezra? JD asked, staring at the blanketed form under the wagon and just a little apart from the group. The graze to his shoulder had taken a chunk of meat. It would be painful for a week or two but not overtly serious, unless it got infected. The extensive, deep muscle bruises from his fall into Fischers Lake and the new wound to his shoulder kept him from a restful nights sleep. The gambler carefully tossed and turned in a futile attempt to find a comfortable position. Chaucers infrequent visits into camp were of no help either.
His frustrated restlessness of last night mirrored and yet occasionally diverged from the fevered haphazard movements of Wilmington and Larabee.
You want to tell me what happened out there, JD? Vin asked, sipping his coffee and staring at the younger man over the rim of his speckled blue cup.
JD pulled his eyes from the sleeping forms of the others to Vin. The last few days flashed through his mind.
Dunne bit his lip. He had been worried when it had been just himself, Buck and Ezra alone and free in the desert. Ezra had bound Bucks wound the best he could with the supplies he had with him. Buck could hardly sit up--he had been feverish, weak and in pain. Ezra acted like he didnt know any of them and didnt want to help them in any way. JD figured Standish would have just ridden away if he hadnt been so unsure of Chaucer and if his hip and back hadnt pained him so relentlessly. Dunne smiled, remembering how Standish had watched the horse with equal amounts of trepidation, distrust and something almost akin to contempt. Chaucer on the other hand, badgered and followed the gambler obstinately. Any other time JD would have found the antics between the two amusing, but out in the desert, with the others captured, it was all JD could do not to throttle either of them. In the end, JD had managed to convince Ezra, with the promise of monetary gain, to help him get Buck on the horse. JD rode with Buck while Ezra limped painfully in front of them. The gamblers hip and lower back would not tolerate him sitting a horse, what with the frequent sudden, lancing pain that bolted up and down his back, pelvis and legs. He had led them with a agonizing limp, which had caused JD to cringe in sympathy, over uneven and rocky terrain, paralleling the progress of the others. They had been losing ground. Buck had been getting worse and Ezra seemed more and more confused and disoriented instead of improved. They had no water and little food. JD had struggled to keep Buck in the saddle; Chaucer fought to keep moving while carrying the weight of two grown men; and Standish grimaced with each foot placement, always looking off into the distance as if awaiting his chance to run. And JD, for the first time, was very glad that Standish was hurt, too hurt to bolt.
JD grimaced and stared beseechingly at Vin when he confessed that he had hoped Ezras leg and back continued to pain him until they could free Vin and the others. They would have lost them all together if Ezra had not fired and downed one of the wagons horses in its tresses.
Once they had the Corrigans all but stopped, JD and Buck and Ezra rested and planned their attack to free the others. It was Ezras shot that took out the Corrigan with the knife when Vin had been tied to the tree. JD sucked in a breath, remembering how quiet and still Standish had become while he sighted down the barrel. He could still see Ezra resting his forehead on his arms after taking the shot, carefully letting out a held breath.
JD had been ready as a second, a back up shot had things not gone well.
Vin swiveled his eyes to JD, staring at the young sheriff, and then turned his attention to Standish who once more fidgeted and shifted under his bedroll, trying to find that elusive comfortable spot which would not irritate his hip or lower back.
Man was full of surprises. Hell, Ezra probably could not make a shot like that twice but he had done it once. The one time it was needed. For that Vin was grateful.
Dunne let his eyes fall to Wilmington. The sheriff worried his lip and then sighed, relieved that they finally had Nathan to help them. Everything would be okay now. Buck would be fine. Nathan would beat the fevers. Hed get Chris and Buck back on their feet and somehow find a way to get Ezras memory back.
JD turned his attention to Vin when the tracker lifted his coffee cup to his lips in a show of patience. Dunne sighed and continued with his story. He explained how Ezra had been reluctant to help them. Dunne was quick to point out that he had feared Standishs unwillingness was due to his injuries and fatigue.
The tracker chuckled and nodded his understanding. Ezra, after all, didnt know who he was risking his life to save.
At the end if his tale, JD looked to Vin, hoping to find understanding.
Tanner stared back at the young sheriff and chuckled. Ya did good, JD. You and Ezra did real good.
Dunne smiled and released a sigh of relief. Might not want to tell Ezra, JD warned, a serious look falling across his face as he turned his attention to where the gambler stirred once again in agitated discomfort. He might charge us more.
Tanner laughed and nodded his head in agreement.
The two men relaxed under the increasing warmth of a new day.
They would have to be moving in a few hours.
Their day was about to get more complicated and louder.
Ezra, git yer gaw damn butt back in that wagon, Larabee hissed through gritted teeth. He kept a hand tight to his side, fisting his dust covered, white striped shirt in a physical attempt to control the pain in his flank.
Standish ignored him, slipping from the back of the moving wagon, pressing the palm of his hand tight against his hip. He stumbled, nearly crashing to his knees. Nathan reached out to steady the man but the wagon had already rolled forward, creaking with every roll of the iron rimmed wheels. Standish gasped as pain shot from his hip when his feet hit the uneven ground. He limped and staggered a step then two before catching his balance and then his breath. He grimaced wearily and then slowly turned and started walking in the same direction the wagon was being pulled, ignoring Larabee.
Ezra , Larabee started again, his impatience nearly tangible.
Easy brother, Josiah intoned as he rode up between the two men. The big preacher rubbed hesitantly at his sore jaw. It felt swollen and tender. His teeth ached and it hurt to move his tongue. Eating and drinking had become a painful. Talking was no good and getting in the middle of a potential fight was doing nothing for the dull headache that drummed just behind his blood shot eyes.
The preacher ignored the smoldering gunfighter, understanding his impatience and short temper were most likely due to the building fever and fledgling infection Chris was trying to hide from them.
Ezra. Well Josiah figured it was in Ezras nature to test the boundaries of those that assumed they had authority over him. With his brains scrambled, it was safe to assume that he did not remember that he had already spent two years testing and pushing Larabees remarkably shallow well of benevolence and patience.
Sanchez held a little more tension on his reins, holding his gelding back, letting the wagon draw ahead.
Standish steadily lost ground, falling further behind the slowing wagon. JD grinned at Vin from the drivers seat. The tracker tilted his hat back off his forehead and grinned back, catching a glance of Nathans silently laughing visage.
Chris sure got pissy when he werent feeling good, Vin thought. Course if he had Ezra pulling his strings when he himself werent feeling good, Vind knock that damn gambler on his ass, truss him up like a spit hog, slap im over a saddle and haul his addled ass home.
Course Vin wasnt Chris. Thank goodness for small wonders. Let Chris deal with Ezra.
He and the others would just sit back and enjoy the show.
At this rate Josiah, we wont reach Four Corners in a months time, Larabee ground out, not concealing his impatience.
I know, brother I know, Josiah nodded in understanding. The preacher leaned forward in his saddle and draped heavy wrists across the oversized saddle horn.
Ezra continued to plod ahead, shuffling a few unsteady feet at a time. He refused to let anyone tend his hip. Nathan had speculated that the muscles of the gamblers lower back were spasming and cramping as the result of the injury and awkward gait. Time, rest and hot compresses would be the only cure.
Brother Ezra, wouldnt it be more comfortable to ride in the wagon?
Josiah watched as the gambler continued to walk up behind his horse and then along side of it, as if unaware that everyone around him had stopped.
Ezra, git in the gawd damn wagon, Larabee ordered again.
Josiah sighed, shaking his head No. Ordering and demanding something from someone like Standish was a sure way not to get their cooperation.
Vin, JD and Nathan continued to share a silent laugh. Buck slept, heavily dosed with laudanum, a fever stubborningly holding its grip.
Standish continued to walk and bypassed the wagon, circumventing it and heading toward Vins horse. Chaucer nickered to his master from his pony line behind Josiah.
Hey Pard, why dont we dont rest here for a bit, give the horses a break, Tanner suggested, swinging his blue eyes from Standish to Larabee.
Larabee shook his head in frustration, pushing his hat back and rubbing his heated forehead with the back of his hand.
Fine. Well stop here for a bit. Chris wanted to lean heavily against the horn, but the growing ache in his side kept him upright and at a slight list. His muscles and joints ached tirelessly, and his appetite from the morning seemed to have disappeared.
His tired, gritty eyes followed the haphazard movements of the Southerner. Damn nuisance of a man, he muttered.
He ignored the amused smirks of the others.
Hey, Ezra, JD called, why dont you wait up, were stopping here for a bit.
The gambler stopped his shuffling march and carefully raised his head. His left eye was opened a little wider this afternoon. Standish merely nodded, stepped off the trail, and very gingerly eased himself down to the ground. He sat for a moment before carefully laying on his side and slept.
Nathan watched the gamblers controlled movements from his spot in the wagon beside Buck and shook his head.
The healer understood and sympathized with Ezra. There was not much he could do for the man short of forcing a muscle relaxing draught down him.
Nathans attention turned to Chris who gingerly eased himself out of the saddle, holding onto his horse just a touch too long and with too tight a grip.
Jackson recognized the signs of a building infection. The trick would be getting Larabee to acknowledge it as well.
+ + + + + + +
How long you think that stuff is gonna keepim out? JD asked Chris as JD pulled his Bay up beside the wagon.
Chris sighed and fought to find some patience with their slow progress. Larabee shook his head, With any luck---until we reach Four Corners.
JD nodded and smiled.
Nathan had finally convinced Ezra to drink one of his teas, with the promise that it was better than any coffee Vin could hope to make and that it would go well with corn dodgers and hard tack. The others had waited patiently as the Southerner sipped the drink and eyed them warily over the rim of his dented cup, nibbling on a sparse lunch. He occasionally fingered the signed IOUs in his red coat pocket.
Vin and JD busied themselves with the horses, while taking surreptitious glances at Standish as he nursed his seemingly benign drink. Nathan kept occupied with tending Buck, but kept the gambler in his periphery, hoping to catch the first signs that the drink was taking hold. Chris just glared at Ezra, silently trying to intimidate the gambler to drink faster. Standish returned the impatient, hostile glare with a smirk and proceeded to take dainty, polite sips of his tea, as one would do at a polite luncheon. His smirk quirked brighter every time Larabees scowl deepened.
Vin silently wondered if one of them was going to strangle the other before they ever reached Four Corners.
Ten minutes or more of irritating Larabee, Standish merely toppled to the side with the empty cup still in hand.
Well Ill be, Cowboy, Vin spoke up, your dity looks finally took someone out.
Shut up, Vin, Chris retorted with a hint of impatience and humor.
Your side ailing ya, Chris? Nathan asked, staring pointedly at the gunslingers side where he gripped his wound.
Aint nothin to be concerned about, Chris stated emphatically.
Least ways, until he falls from his saddle, brother, Josiah laughed as he, Vin and JD grabbed Standish by his shoulders and legs.
The three men shuffled passed Larabee and swung Ezra up into the wagon beside Buck. Standish landed with a thud and moved about listlessly in an uncoordinated attempt to sit up even though his eyes remained closed. Sanchez merely kept a meaty hand on the Southerners shoulder to keep him down.
Jackson climbed over the side of the wagon, stepped over Buck, and placed Vins hide coat under Ezras head before turning his attention to opening the filthy, once white, ruffled shirt. It was time to try and get some poultices on bruised muscles even though the healing was well underway.
Standish raised his hand and brushed at Nathans arm, trying to push the hovering healer away from him.
Yer gonna be alright, Ezra, go to sleep, Jackson quietly assured and commanded as he pushed Standishs heavily waving hand away and peeled the unbuttoned shirt open, revealing heavy mottled bruising that stretched from armpit to under the waist band. It wrapped impressively around to his navel and up to his sternum.
Gawd damn, now thats one Hell of a bruise, Vin whistled out, drawing Josiah and JDs attention back to the side of the wagon.
Brothers I have not seen such a display of color since my days in Louisiana at Mardi Gras, Sanchez let out with a low whistle of appreciation.
Yeah, think he broke anything? JD asked, reaching over the side of the wagon to touch the deep green/maroon bruise.
Nathan swatted Dunnes hand away and stated, Nah, movin too good for somethin to be busted or busted bad, but itll hurt for long bit yet. Jackson reached into his back to pull out a hidden poultice and laid it over the injured area, Sure is a pretty blend of colors though.
The other three agreed and were silently relieved that the colors were not found on themselves, well at least not to that extent.
JD looked to Josiah and cringed. Josiahs head was still pretty swollen and misshapen and pretty colorful itself.
Dont say it, John Dunne, Josiah rumbled as he headed for his horse and secured it to the back of the wagon.
Tanner chuckled and swung easily onto his horse.
Larabee struggled to pull himself into the saddle. The others milled around, waiting on horseback , not directly watching Chriss futile struggles.
When yer done foolin around with yer horse, Cowboy, Vin stated, why dont ya jist get up in the wagon with Josiah, Tanner paused and chuckled, iffen ya play nice, he might even let you hold the reins.
Larabee rested his forehead against the smooth worn leather of his saddle and gathered his strength, Youre an ass Tanner, ya know that?
Yup, the tracker laughed and gathered the dropped reins of Chriss black to pony the animal while Larabee carefully made his way to the front of the wagon.
JD nudged his little bay into a trot and took the lead.
Josiah gently snapped the reins over the two team hitch, putting them in motion. The wagon lurched, the planks complained and harnesses jingled. Nathan held onto the side of the wagon for the initial lurch and then turned his attention back to his patients.
They traveled through the day and into early evening. The small glow of Four Corners street fires gradually came into view as they crested the low lying hills surrounding the small town.
With quiet sighs and smiles of relief, four of the seven men guided the horses home. The other three slept oblivious.
+ + + + + + +
Buck moved a leg and relished the feel of crisp sheets moving against his bare skin. He shifted the other leg, easing the tension on his back and again enjoyed the soft comfort afforded by a mattress. It was then he paused and realized that he no longer rode in the back of the wagon. A satisfied smile moved his mustache.
Hey, I think hes finally waking up.
Buck easily recognized JD.
'Bout damn time.
Wilmington fluttered his eyes open at the sound of Tanners voice.
It took a bit for his eyes to truly focus. After a moment or two, the dark fuzzy thing leaning over him became JD.
Whooo hooo, Buck, JD waved his hand in front of his face, ya sure do have bad breath.
Buck wanted to roll his eyes but instead tried to smile. He could feel the thick fuzzy film that coated his teeth.
Got back two nights ago, Vin answered. Judge hung that last Corrigan bastard yesterday morning.
Buck rolled his head and stared at the tracker. The ladies man blinked and let his eyes remain closed for a moment longer before opening. Whats going on?
Chris is at the jail, keepin an eye on Ezra, Josiahs there, keepin and eye on Chris, and Nathan got fed up with the bunch of ya and headed out to Netties to see to Caseys hand, JD informed.
Buck blinked his eyes a few more times and then asked, What?
Casey cut her hand on the ax when she was sharpening it. Cut it pretty deep, JD informed with a touch of worry etching his words.
Buck stared at JD for a bit and then turned to Vin.
Vin took pity on the gunslinger, Ezra aint got all his marbles in the same bag yet, Vin started to explain. Hes got enough back to scheme and play cards and hes still riling Conklin but I aint sure he knows why hes doin it, Tanner paused and then added, Course he could be playin us too.
Anyhow, JD cut in, too impatient to wait for Vin to get to the point, Ezra scammed Conklin with a get rich quick scheme about buying some bridge somewhere, said Conklin could charge people to cross it n all.
Conklin took the bait like the greedy little bastard he is, Vin added, sunk a passle of coin into the fool scam.
Dropped enough, JD added, that it just might be enough for Ezra to buy a new saloon.
When the Judge found out, he stepped in and kept Conklin from making a complete fool of himself, Vin stated.
Ezra swears, on the grave of his beloved mother that Conklin didnt giveim any money--Conklin swears that he did.
Judge got hisself in a pickle with this, Vin chuckled.
Conklin found Ezra at the restaurant and started insulting him and makin a huge scene, JD added, finding himself getting angry at the bank manager all over again.
Vin laughed and shook his head, Yad figure a guy like Conklin would know not to piss off a sneaky bastard like Ezra.
JD nodded and added, Anyhow Ezra opened the safe--to get back at Conklin.
Buck shook his head slowly, What safe?
His private one? Hell, hes been doing that for months now, Buck pointed out tiredly.
Vin chuckled, No, the banks safe. Tanner leaned back in his chair and pushed his hat off his forehead. Didnt know that sneaky son of a bitch could crack a safe, Tanner paused, Betcha his momma taught im that trick.
That why hes in jail?
Nope, Vin answered.
We aint sure he actually cracked the safe, JD answered. Aint got no proof--but it was him--or Chaucer did it. But dont see how his horse could move the tumblers.
Buck stared at JD as if he had lost his mind. Chaucer was in the bank?
Yup, Vin confirmed.
Chaucers been following Ezra around since we got back to town, JD tried to clarify. He saw that his explanation was falling short, Forget it Buck, it aint important.
Then whys he in jail?
Chaucer aint in jail, Buck, JD clarified.
JD?! Buck ground out. His head was beginning to pound more than his shoulder.
Keep yer britches on Buck, were gittin there, Vin said.
He aint got britches on, Vin, JD pointed out unnecessarily.
Buck sighed heavily and cringed at the dull ache in his shoulder.
Whys Ezra in jail?
Cuz he jumped bail in Fort Laramie a few years ago.
Judge pardoned him for that, Buck stated tiredly.
Yeah, but he dont know that, JD chuckled.
Vin leaned back in his chair, Ol' Chris has been a bit riled with Ezra and all his wandering around and causing trouble--damn fool sparked a brawl this afternoon in the saloon. Chris tossed him in jail, with the Judges okay, until his memory comes back, and the Judge can figure out what to do about the whole Bridge Scam. Vin paused and smiled thinking that the old Judge sure didnt take no gruff from anyone. Ezra would spend some time in jail; itll sooth the bankers wounded pride. Figure Judgell keepim there til things settle down a bit. Iffen Ezra remembers about the pardon theyll keepim for startin the brawl.
Can he do that? JD asked, still curious over the legalities behind Standishs unlawful imprisonment. Ezra had pointed out at his time of his arrest and subsequent escort across main street and into the jail, that he did not start the fight which sparked the out and out brawl, nor had he joined in the fracas. A gentleman, after all, does not debase himself with manual labor, or common fist-a-cuffs.
He had been an innocent bystander and could have been 'unduly maimed during the altercation.'
Larabee had said nothing, grinding his teeth and working his jaw muscles as he escorted Ezra by the upper arm into the sheriffs office. Ezra still touted his innocence. Larabee gently shoved the protesting and sputtering Southerner behind bars.
Guess so, Vin answered.
Josiahs down there now, to keep them two from irritating the Hell out of one another. Vin smiled. Short of gagging Ezra, I dont see how hes goin ta manage it.
Ezras jist about got Chris ready to shoot him, JD stated with wide eyes.
Buck raised his eyebrows at Tanner.
Aint nothin worth frettin over. Just Ezra bein Ezra and Chris bein Chris, Tanner answered. The dust up in the saloon s jist the last straw. Figure everyones safer with someone in jail. Ezra startin the brawl and jumpin bail seemed like a good idea.
Josiah let him and the Judge do it?
Hell, it was kind of Josiahs idea, Vin clarified.
Yup, JD answered sitting forward, he said you were on the mend and gonna be alright, he said Ezra would get his memory back in no time, just needs to get some rest, which he wasnt doing staying up playing cards all night long and fooling with Conklins safe.
Chris figures hell get some rest in jail. Ezra picked the lock first chance he got and tried to sneak out but ran right into Chris, me, Nathan and the Judge, Vin laughed.
Chris hauled him back to the cell. Ezra started protesting about inhumane treatment and the duplicitous nature of lawmen and their trampling on his constitutional rights. All men were created equal and the such, JD added.
Thats when Nathan threw his hands up and left, Vin clarified.
Chris threatened to shoot Ezra in the leg, JD informed.
Buck raised his eyebrows.
Not to worry, Buck, JD said trying to maintain a serious air. Ezra toldim he probably couldnt hit the broad side of a barn with a 12 gauge let alone shoot an illegally incarcerated, innocent man in the leg at close range.
Thats when Josiah became involved, Vin pointed out.
Theyre down there now, JD said, just kind of staring at each other, with Josiah laughing at em; Judge is visitin with Mrs Travis and Billy.
Vin slouched down in his chair, Count yer blessins Buck, ya got the clinic to yerself and me and JD to look after you."
Ezra really challenged Chris to shoot him? Buck asked, trying to clarify what he had heard.
Oh yeah, that aint even the half of it, but its the cleanest version for your delicate condition.
Nate really thinks Ezras memory loss is temporary?
Hell, Buck, to tell ya the truth, I think Ezra got his memory back and hes just milkin it for all hes worth,Vin stated. Makin Chriss life Hell.
Yeah, hes got Mrs. Potter bringing im meals and feedin him, Yosemite is tendin to Chaucer, even fixed his tack, free of charge. Mrs. Travis had Yosemite and the McTavishs bring one of the hotels featherbeds into the jail so Ezra could rest proper with a good soft mattress and clean sheets under him. Shes been harrumphing at Chris for treating Ezra so poorly while hes sick. And Inez has been visitin im and wiping his brow and holdin his hand every time he gets struck down with a memory headache.
Hes workin it pretty good, Vin marveled. His ma would be proud.
Inez is with him? Buck asked incredulously.
Yup, Vin confirmed.
Holdin his hand, wiping his brow and keeping his blankets tucked up nice, JD reiterated.
Ill kill the slimy no good bastard, Buck ground out.
Youll have to wait in line behind Chris, JD added. 'Course the way Mrs. Potter and Mrs Travis and Inez have been givin him the Evil eye, there might not be much of Chris left.
Whats Josiah saying about all this?
Vin leaned back in his chair and lost some of his amusement, Hes trying to set things straight with Ezra, about Maude n all.
Buck looked to Vin waiting for some indication as to whether it was working.
It aint workin jist yet, not sure Josiahs bein clear enough.
JD watched the two men unsure of what they were talking about.
We got to get it straightened out.
Aint gonna happen over night, Vin responded. Sure as Hell aint gonna happen with Mrs. Potter and the others hanging on his sick bed, nursing his ass back to health. Tanners smile alleviated the spark of tension in the room.
Whens Nathan comin back?
Tomorrow sometime, JD answered. Figured by then, Chris would be tired of keeping watch on Ezra in the jail, and Ezra will be tired of people waiting on his every whim.
Buck raised his eye brow at the last statement.
Yeah, that aint likely to happen, but Nathanll still be back tomorrow. Hopefully by then Ezra will have miraculously regained his memory and Chris will go back to glaring at Conklin.
Ya best get some rest Buck; Nathan ll have our hides if ya aint rested by the time he gets back.
JD and Vin stood and headed for the clinic door.
Bucks voice stopped them. Inez is really with that low down snake?
Yup, Vin confirmed.
Wiping his brow and spooning him soup, JD unequivocally stated.
Damn little weasel, no good, side winding, slithering scaly snake .
JD and Vin slipped out the door, closing it to muffle Bucks tirade.
Tanner leaned against the clinic railing and looked over the town. He chuckled, watching amused as Larabee stormed out of the sheriffs office gripping his side. Josiah followed a few seconds later, his deep laughter rolling up and down the near deserted street.
Ezra musta done somethin awful again, JD said.
Kind of good to have things back to normal, Dunne stated as he watched Larabee purposefullly stride across the street with a bead on the saloon.
Itll be back to normal tomorrow, when Nathan gits back, Vin stated, watching as Sanchez followed Larabee to the Saloon. The older preacher looked up and saw the two younger men.
He grinned and tipped his hat in silent invitation for them to come to the saloon to drink and enjoy Larabees bad mood at the expense of Ezra.
The tracker and sheriff wasted no time clopping down the steps to join their two friends.
The two simultaneously stepped aside as Ms. Blossom jogged up the stairs past them. Both men smiled congenially and tipped their hats as she trotted up to the clinic holding her skirt fronts in both hands. The playful smile and her flirtatious mannerisms assured the two lawmen that Buck would not bemoan Inezs lack of attention for much longer.
Ms. Blossom was most attentive and quite insatiable. Buck would sleep through the night without the aid of any herbal teas.
Tomorrow Nathan would be back, Ezra would continue to milk as much attention and sympathy from the populace that he could, and Buck would start working for Inezs attention.
Today was a good day.
Tomorrow was going to be better.