Thursday Morning at the Cave
Ezra awoke slowly, listening to the sounds around him before he moved or opened his eyes. He always woke up this way, mainly to gauge any trouble around him, usually it was because he hated mornings. On this occasion it was to give himself time to figure out where he was and try to remember how he had got there.
It all came back to him in a flash. Falling from the saddle, no wait he was shot from the saddle, snippets of moments riding in front of B J. Pain, he remembered pain, a lot of it. His eyes darted around him as he suddenly remembered seeing B J hit and his hat flying off and all that hair.
He turned his head to see B J lying on his side, at first glance he could see that a bullet had grazed a furrow along his left temple. Blood was still slowly trickling down his face, running across his eyes and nose. That meant that he had been lying like that for a while. On second glance he noticed how laboured B J's breathing was.
With this he forgot his own troubles and moved gingerly, hissing at the pain in his shoulder to reach B J's side. Reaching for the handkerchief he began by cleaning the blood away from his face. As he continued to clean he began to notice that the shadow on his face was not stubble growing through, it was powder of some sort. When all remnants of blood, dust and powder had been removed the face it revealed was remarkable.
Again noticing the laboured breathing, Ezra began to undo the jacket and the shirt, he wondered at what all the binding was around his chest, had he been hurt and bandaged himself. Gently he began to undo the wrappings; he would need to check any wounds in order to ascertain why his breathing was so bad.
As the last of the wrappings came off Ezra rocked back on his heals. He was starring almost in shock for what seemed like an age. He shook himself suddenly realising what he was doing and gently reached for the edges of the shirt and pulled them together fastening it down the full length.
That done he began to feel with both hands down either side of the ribcage. He stopped when B J let out a cry of pain and lifted the edge of the shirt just high enough to see the area that was painful. The whole left side of the body was covered in black and blue bruises but what worried him the most was a small area that was swollen and almost red. He again probed as gently as he could around that area; B J's breathing became even more erratic. He reached down and listened to both sides of her chest. He sat up and took a deep breath, the lack of sounds from the left side confirmed to Ezra what he had feared.
The lung had been punctured and it was possibly filling with blood from the injury, and if B J didn't get medical attention soon then she would die.
Taking the bindings he slowly began to wrap the wounded ribcage, he wasn't sure if this would aggravate the lung injury, but he knew that if he did not keep the broken bone as still as possible it could make things worse.
Given all that he had discovered in the last thirty minutes, plus their present condition and the situation they were in, Ezra felt remarkably calm. He felt completely in control of the situation. His shoulder still pained him when he moved and he knew he still had a fever, but his mind was remarkably clear.
With the head wound, broken rib and punctured lung, B J's condition was much worse than his, her temperature was rising quickly as well.
Firstly he fed the fire until a healthy warmth filled the small cave; he then began to cool her down using the handkerchief. He vaguely remembered her doing the same for him when his fever peaked. After more than an hour she began to stir, fighting a bad dream she mumbled and called out names, she kept calling to her Mother not to go, she then began to mumble about someone called James, asking where he was. Ezra reached up to B J's face, "Come on, wake up, it's alright, your safe, you can wake up now." After a few seconds B J's eyes flickered open, it took a few moments to focus on the face hovering over her.
"What happened? Ezra your OK?" she looked at him, shocked to see he was up and around.
"I'm Ok what about you?"
"I my head hurts, I can't get my breath, damn how tight did . You tie that thing round . me?" She spoke in short gasps trying to catch a breath between words. "Ezra?" she looked up at him suddenly realising where the bindings around her ribs had come from.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance MISS Roslin, or is that not your real name?" he gave her a stern look and added, "What by chance does B J stand for, if I may be so bold?"
She let out a big sigh, almost relieved that he knew. She hadn't realised how much of a weight would be released from her shoulders now she no longer had to keep up the pretence. "Bettina, Bettina Jane, and yes it is my real name." She relaxed back onto the saddle; startled momentarily as she had not realised she was leaning on it. Within moments her eyes closed and she fell into a fevered deep sleep.
Ezra stared at the face he had come to know over the last few months, he began to put together the feelings he had had over that time and had realised that deep down his body had always known she was a woman. He had berated himself on many an occasion, thinking there was something wrong with him. Hoping it was just the lack of female companionship he had endured. None of the women in town had suited him, and the few that he had liked or even thought he had loved had passed beyond his reach. He recalled holding B J in his arms the night she had saved his life. The bullet graze that had put her there was only minor but he had felt an overwhelming need to protect him. Her. It was going to take some getting used to calling B J Her.
He continued to bathe her face and neck, a small voice in the back of his mind warned him that the water in the trough was running out, but he pushed it aside as he continued to analyse his feelings for this woman.
JD had been riding hard for three hours when he came upon Chris, Vin and Josiah. He filled them in on everything that had happened and told them that Buck and Nathan had started out for Ridge City. "We can cut four maybe five hours from the trip by going over this direction Chris." Vin pointed to a more northerly route; it cut up over a small range of hills and then came down near to the trail coming up from Four Corners. "From here we can be in Ridge City by tonight."
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Nathan rode the trail from Four Corners in silence. Their horses moved at a steady gait, they did not want to miss any signs that would help them find Ezra and B J. "This is hopeless Nate, any sign there might have been will be gone now, it's been nearly four days since they passed this way. I think we should just head on up to Ridge City and then back track from there. We know they made it that far cause we got that telegram from Ezra."
Nathan looked around him before nodding to Buck. "Yeah you're right, come on lets push it." They both pushed their horses into a fast lope, not wanting to go all out in fear of the horses not making it.
+ + + + + + +
It had been dark for an hour when the four riders made their way into town. First they headed for the sheriff's office, after speaking with him for only five minutes they came out. The sheriff in this town did not keep himself apprised of all the goings on. He had no idea that Ezra or B J had even been in his town.
For the next two hours the group split up and searched the town, they met up at the saloon and all reported that although the two had been seen they had also been seen leaving town by the livery owner who had stabled their horses overnight. Vin turned to the blonde haired man dressed in black. "Chris, I think we should head out of town now and maybe camp about 12 miles out." Chris began to protest, he did not want to camp at all until he had found them. "Listen Chris," insisted Vin. "They can't wander off the trail until they get out of the Whitley Pass, there it splits to go three ways, one of em bein' Four Corners. If we camp just outside the mouth of the pass, come first light I may be able to pick up some kind of tracks. I can't do nothin' in the dark 'cept lose em." Chris nodded in defeat. They grabbed some supplies, filled their canteens and headed out of town.
FRIDAY MORNING Nov 6th
Ezra opened his eyes slowly, taking in his surroundings, he had not realised he had fallen asleep. His right hand was resting on B J's arm. When he moved, his shoulder woke up and pain assaulted him. The cave began to swim before his eyes. He lay with his eyes closed for several minutes before trying to move again. His right arm felt numb and heavy, he glanced over at his shoulder and did not like what he saw. Probing with his left hand the fingers came away sticky. It wasn't blood totally; it was a mixture with a white thick substance. "Oh great, an infection. That's all I need." He wiped his hand on his trousers and then felt his forehead. "Oh good, the fevers back as well." He laughed out loud, marvelling at his good fortune.
B J's condition hadn't improved, in fact it had gotten worse, the fever was even higher and her breathing was very ragged. He knew he would have to get help or she could die. All his movements were slow and pain filled, he felt like he was walking through mud. The air around him kept shifting causing him to stop and reach out to steady himself. He got the canteen eventually and filled it with as much water from the trough as he could. It was almost gone. He placed it next to B J, covered her with the bedroll and left the cave. His heart wrenched at the thought of leaving her alone but he knew he had to get help.
He led the big Appaloosa out and finding a convenient mound of rocks to help him, climbed onto the back of the animal. He held on tightly leaning over Dudley's neck as a wave of dizziness and a sudden feeling of nausea overtook him. With no saddle or stirrups to keep him on the horse's back he expected to fall at any moment. After a few moments he turned the animal's head and headed towards Four Corners.
It took nearly four hours before he was back on the main trail, he had tried to move faster but the pain it caused to his shoulder was too much to bear, now he was simply slung over the horses neck barely awake. Dudley not feeling any guidance from the strange rider plodded along the trail, following where other horses had gone before. It wasn't long before the unresponsive rider slipped from his back landing heavily on its shoulder and lay in a heap not moving. Dudley remained close by, gently nudging the fallen body. There was no movement.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Nathan were riding at a steady gait. At this speed they would reach Ridge City in eight maybe nine hours. They had camped briefly when it had become too dark to travel safely, but were up and moving at first light. As they came up from a small ravine Buck stopped suddenly. "Nathan, look. Ain't that B J's horse?" He was pointing ahead.
"Yeah I think it is, come on lets go." They both spurred their horses into a gallop and as they neared they noticed the prone body on the ground next to the horse. As if it was possible they urged their mounts to greater speed. Before the horses stopped Buck had slid of his at the last moment and was on the ground. He gently turned the body and with an audible sigh of relief was rewarded with a loud moan from Ezra's still unconscious form. He was alive.
The relief was instantly replaced by concern as he saw the now bloody bandage around Ezra's right shoulder. "Nathan he's in a bad way, can ya help him?"
"Let me in there Buck, let me see." Buck reluctantly released his friend gently and moved back out of the way. Nathan moved in and started to undo the wrappings around the bleeding wound. He hissed as he saw the infection, he didn't need to feel Ezra's brow to know that he had a fever, he could feel it through his clothes, coming in waves off his body.
The sound of horses caught their attention. They instantly had their guns out to defend their fallen friend if necessary. "Ease up partner, it's only us." That was Vin's voice. He had been slightly ahead of the others and had seen Buck standing next to the horses as he came over the brow of a hill. Moments later Chris, Josiah and JD joined them. All of them dismounted and crowded round Nathan who was working feverishly trying to stop the bleeding and to clean the wound of infection.
"Nathan, how is he?" There was a concerned tone to Chris' voice that only emerged when one of them had been hurt. He was getting tired of watching his men suffer and constantly berated himself about being unable to stop it. Ezra had had more than his fair share in the last year of wounds and injuries, two bullets that Chris recalled had been meant for him. Why did this man put himself in harms way? He didn't have to prove anything. Yet he seemed to look for ways to show his compatriots, as he would put it, that he was capable of holding up his end of the deal, to protect and serve them and the town. The same feeling of dread had passed through him when they had found Ezra's dead horse further up the trail.
"We got to get him back to town now Chris, he's not only got an infected bullet wound and a fever but I just noticed he has a broken right collar bone as well. He must have done that when he fell off Dudley." He turned to Vin. "Did you buy that swatch of material you promised for Ms Nettie?" Vin quickly rooted in his saddlebag and pulled out about three metres of pale blue cotton. He handed it to Nathan.
"Give me a hand Vin, hold him up and hold his right arm close to his body. That's right, I'm gonna have to wrap his arm tight to his body to keep the shoulder still". Ezra began to stir and groan in pain as he was moved. "Hurry we need to get this done before he wakes up, it's gonna hurt like hell moving his arm." It took nearly ten minutes for them to finish wrapping Ezra up. Chris and Buck had helped to hold Ezra still as he became more lucid and squirmed in pain. By the time they were finished he was fully conscious. Well as fully as he could be with a fever.
"Would you gentlemen mind telling me why you have cocooned me in this manner, I can hardly move my arm at all." At this he tried to move and very nearly passed out from the pain. "Ok so now I know why." He looked up at Nathan with quizzical eyes. "Have I dislocated my shoulder again?" Vin pressed a canteen to his lips, pulling it away before the injured man could drink too much.
"You broke your collar bone Ez when you fell off Dudley." A pained expression crossed Ezra's face.
"I have never fallen off a horse in my life sir and I assure you that is not what happened, I merely attempted to dismount the animal when it moved. I did not fall off." Vin had to smile at this, even in as much pain as he undoubtedly was he still kept up the demeanour of the southerly gentleman. "Where's B J?" a panicked look suddenly crossed Ezra's face as he realised that she was not there. He began to struggle against the hands of his friends. "Chris you need to find B J hurt badly." Ezra slumped back into Vin's arms; Nathan quickly checked him over and confirmed to the worried men around him that he had only passed out.
"I need to get him back to town now. Josiah help me get him up." Gently between the two of them they managed to get Ezra seated in front of Nathan on his horse.
"Buck, you and JD go back with Nathan to Four Corners, he's gonna need your help with Ezra when ya get back, plus I don't like leaving the town wide open for too long." He turned to Vin after watching the four men ride off slowly. "Can ya back track Dudley to find out where B J is?" Vin walked over to the large Appaloosa and lifted each of his feet in turn examining the shoes.
"Sure no problem, large hoof like this it'll be easy to spot." Josiah was on his horse in a moment.
"Come on let's go then, Ezra said she was hurt." Chris turned and stared at Josiah.
"She, what do ya mean She?"
"You mean you hadn't realised, well I suppose not, the way she dresses and all." Josiah turned his horse to follow Vin.
"Hadn't realised what Josiah?" Chris caught up with him, grabbing him by the arm.
"B J is a woman Chris, I knew that from the first time I saw her, confirmed it after she came to the church that first Sunday. Oh she didn't tell me and I never let on. After all it's her business if that's the way she want's to live."
"Are you telling me that I put a woman's life in jeopardy by asking her to go on this trip?" Chris looked down at his hands, off into the distance anywhere except at Josiah. The feelings of guilt were rising fast and he couldn't put them down. Josiah grabbed Chris' arm and pulled him around.
"It ain't your fault, she chose to go, she's been living this way for the last five years or more ever since her Father died." Chris looked up at Josiah in astonishment. "Yeah Chris, didn't ya wonder what we talked about all that time in church."
They continued the journey in silence. Josiah held on tightly to the Appaloosa's reins, Vin was ahead of them scanning the ground moving forward all the time. Chris brought up the rear guilt chewing up his insides, anger increasing at himself for not noticing, Josiah for not telling and B J for well, he would find a reason to be angry at B J later after they had found her.
Vin pulled up his horse and turned in the saddle. "I think I know where they were, for once Ezra was thinking straight. Do you remember that outcropping of hills with shallow caves? We stayed there over night a few times when we was surveying the land round here last spring Chris." A look of sudden realisation crossed Chris' face.
"Yeah I remember, if we travel fast we can be there by nightfall, come on lets go." All three of them spurred their mounts to a gallop. The need to get to B J was urgent in all of them.
Jethro Rawlins stood in front of the Ritz Hotel; he was gently puffing on a large cigar and surveying the dark empty street. Light poured out onto the boardwalk from the Clarion newspaper office and from the various saloons, hotels and restaurants, but all other buildings were dark and closed. This was a small dusty nothing town as far as he was concerned, but he would bide his time until his business was finished. Twice now his subordinates had reported back to him whilst still in New Orleans that their target had been missed. Due to these errors he had decided to blanket hire men of dubious character from the various towns around this small backward hamlet to complete the task, should they be the one to finally kill his target then they would get $1000. He had then decided that he would oversee the completion of his plans himself.
Eight years previously a young upstart from Georgia had duped him. A man who had purported to be a gentleman had involved him in a plan to make a great deal of money with only a relatively small investment. By the time he had realised he had been conned the man in question and his money had disappeared. He had tried for over a year to trace him to no avail, when quite by chance in early June he had seen a pulp magazine showing a group of seven men on the cover. It was a cheap dime novel about the west; the story had not interested him, sensationalist fantasies told by a writer who craved excitement no doubt. It was the depictions of the seven men on the cover that caught his eye, specifically the smart looking one in the rich clothes.
He had found the con man, hiding out in a town called Four Corners just north of Mexico. It did not take long for him to put together a group of men who would search him out and finally kill him. He had specified to these men that he did not want this Ezra Standish killed immediately, he wanted to extend his pain, make him pay for the wrong he had done him.
Jethro Rawlins himself was not an honest man; he had come by his fortune in much the same way as Ezra had taken him. He had then built his fortune further with a great deal of political investment and a little blackmail when necessary. The money itself was not the issue; he had lost more than that in one night of drinking and revelling. It was the fact that he, a renowned con man had been taken in so easily by such a young player. The embarrassment had been more than he was willing to let slide.
Quite by chance the realisation of his plans had taken a turn for the better. The day before he was due to catch the stage to this backwoods town, one of the many young men that surrounded him, had been talking about a cousin of his who was due to inherit a fortune at the end of the year. From the young mans talk the inheritance was most impressive, certainly larger than the total sum of his wealth at that time. He had mostly ignored the boy's ramblings until the mention of Four Corners had come up. At that point, with his interest peaked he had listened intently.
By all accounts one of the ranch hands on his uncles estate in New York had been in constant contact with him about all that was happening. He had been told about the impending move out west and the herding of some of the finest horses in New York to a new site near Four Corners. It would appear that the cousin due to inherit had plans to re locate there and continue in the Father's business of breeding horses. The part that interested him the most was that if this cousin did not for some reason survive, then the estate would be divided amongst any remaining relatives, the boy at that time was the only other relative. By questioning the boy further he had found out that Miss B J Roslin was due to turn twenty five in December, if due to some fatal accident she were not to survive that long then the boy would most likely inherit the lot. Apparently there had been a brother but he had not been heard of for more than sixteen years. It was assumed he had died whilst in the employ of the Army. In the two days he had suffered this town he had not come across any woman matching the young mans description. No doubt she would turn up sooner or later.
A commotion up the street caught his attention, a group of three riders, no three horses and four riders had ridden in to town and were heading steadily for the livery. As they passed him he instantly recognised the man being held in front of the black rider. Ezra Standish. So his employees had found him, and by the look of him had done a fine job of causing him pain. On second glance they may well have succeeded in killing him. The riders stopped at the livery and proceeded to take the wounded man up the stairs to the clinic. A plan began to form in Rawlins devious mind, a plan that would add suffering to the almost certainly doomed gambler. A plan that would ultimately ensure that Ezra Standish did not survive.
+ + + + + + +
Chris, Vin and Josiah pulled their horses to a halt outside the caves; Vin immediately pointed to two bodies lying about 200 yards further up the trail. On inspection neither of them was B J. Ezra's Remington revolver was found in the dust forty yards away from the cave opening, B J's hat lay close by. Picking up the hat Vin noticed the blood inside the rim. The tracks they found confirmed that the two of them had managed to get into the cave.
The three men ran into the opening and were shocked by what they saw. Josiah was next to the prone figure in an instant. "She's alive, just. Her breathing's pretty bad." He leaned in closely to her chest, listening. "I'll bet she has a punctured lung, and that wound on her head is pretty deep, no doubt got a concussion as well." He continued to check her out while Chris soaked his bandanna with water and dribbled some on her lips, she had an almighty fever so he attempted to cool her down as much as he could.
He could not get over how different she looked. How had he missed it, looking at her now there was no doubt that she was a woman? He had never seen B J without the hat on so had never realised that so much hair was hidden beneath it. As he looked at her stricken features the guilt inside him was becoming almost unbearable. "We need to get her back to town fast, Josiah do ya think it's safe to move her?" The big man looked at him and then back to B J.
"I don't think we got much choice, if she stays here she'll die. There ain't no way we can put her on a horse though, that much movement will definitely kill her." At this Vin moved forward.
"There's some trees a little ways off, I could cut down some branches we could make a travois using our jackets, she could travel that way couldn't she?" Josiah nodded and turned back to tend B J as Chris and Vin left the cave. Thirty minutes later they returned with enough branches to put the travois together. It took them nearly an hour before it was ready. Josiah gently lifted B J, placed her on it and covered her with the bedroll. Chris retrieved the saddle and guns as well as the canteen, he saddled Dudley and then he and Vin lifted the ends of the travois and held them steady whilst Josiah tied them on tightly.
Vin turned his head at the sound of a moan, all three came to stand next to B J, her eyes were open and staring at them, she blinked a few times trying to bring her vision into focus. "It's OK B J your safe, we found you, your gonna be fine." Josiah's voice was low and soothing. Chris and Vin glanced at each other, surprised at how gentle the big mans voice was.
"Where's Ezra He was here a moment ago, where is he, is he all right?" Her voice croaked and her breathing became more erratic as she struggled to rise to look around her.
"Rest easy girl, he's gonna be fine. He's with Nathan on his way back to town. He'll be waitin' for ya when we get back." Chris looked with concern at Josiah, they all secretly hoped that Ezra and B J would make it. They were both in a bad way.
It took them all night travelling slowly to get back, the sky was just starting to lighten when they spotted the town.
Saturday Morning November 7th
Nathan looked down at his sleeping patient; it had taken all night and a lot of work to clean the infected wound and to set Ezra's collarbone. The whole of his right side from shoulder down to waist including his arm was wrapped tightly. Nathan knew Ezra would hate not being able to use his arm but in order for the bone to heal correctly then it would have to remain still for at least two months if not more.
The door to the clinic burst open. "Nathan we found B J, Josiah's bringing her up now."
"Her! What do ya mean her?" he stepped back in surprise as the preacher carefully manoeuvred B J into the room and laid her gently on the spare cot. WOW he thought momentarily He is a Her.
Although Nathan had been very tired after fixing Ezra he worked without rest or respite for the next four hours cleaning up the bullet graze on the head and trying to get the fever down. In a moments hesitation he turned to Chris. "I gotta open her up, I have to try to remove the broken rib from her lung and repair it. If I don't she'll slowly drown as her lung fills up with blood". Chris and Vin both looked with utter shock at the healer; he had never had to open up anyone before.
"Will she survive?" Neither of them voiced their thoughts as to whether Nathan was capable of such an operation. The healer ignored the question.
"I need to get the room as clean as possible, all my instrument sterilised, I'll need someone to assist." Vin stepped forward.
"I'll help, I pulled enough bullets out of people."
"This ain't exactly like pulling bullets Vin, there'll be a lot of blood and I'll be cutting into her. I'll need your help to keep her asleep. I got some chloroform, came in with a shipment of supplies two weeks ago, it's tricky stuff but it's the only thing I got that will keep her out for long enough." A movement behind him caught his attention. He turned to look at Ezra who was peering through unfocused eyes at them. "Damn."
"Chris get Josiah, we need to move Ezra out of here he can go to his own room while I get this done. Stay with him and don't let him move." Moments later they began to clean the room and get the examining table and instruments ready. Once that was done Nathan pushed everyone except Vin out. "Are ya ready?" a suddenly sheepish looking Vin gulped and replied
"Yeah, I guess."
+ + + + + + +
Over at the saloon, Josiah and Chris settled Ezra into his bed; he had remained awake the whole time cursing like they had never heard before. "I thought a gentleman never used language like that Ezra?" Chris was trying to lighten the mood a little, he knew the gambler had seen and heard what was about to take place and he wanted to take his mind off it. He also knew that he was in intense pain, and still fighting the infection. Nathan had said he would be for a while to come. Because laudanum made Ezra sick he had been given some of the herbs that relieved pain, they were not as effective but would help to take the edge off. All the moving around from the clinic to the saloon had woken up the fire going on in his shoulder, by the time he was laid in his own feather bed and between his clean soft sheets he was sweating like a stuck pig. Within moments of his head touching the pillow Ezra was asleep again.
Six hours later Buck came bursting through the door, he came to a skidding halt as he looked into the barrel of Chris' colt .45 Peacemaker. He gulped and then smirked. "Sorry Chris, Nathan's done he says time should tell but he thinks she's gonna be fine." A visible tension drained from the gunfighter's face and he let out a large sigh of relief.
"Well Ok, go back and tell Nathan we'll be over soon." Buck left and Chris turned to face Josiah and the bed. He was shocked to find Ezra awake. He was looking directly at Chris and with amazing clarity started to speak.
"Help me Chris, I need to see her." With that he began to move the sheets from his body. Josiah laid a gentle hand on his good shoulder and pushed him back, it was like pushing a child, there was no resistance.
"You're not goin' anywhere brother, Nate will skin us alive if you get up now." He backed away suddenly as Ezra's left hand came out from under the sheets holding a gun.
"I am going to see her, now help me or get outta my way." Chris looked at the gambler in astonishment, where the hell had that gun come from. He must have had it in the bed all the while. This man truly did not trust his life to anyone, he had never know a man to have so many guns.
"Back off Sanchez." The words came out in a vicious snarl, no hint of the southern gentleman could be heard in his voice. Chris had seen Ezra like this once before. His face had the look of a wounded animal cornered and extremely dangerous. He moved round the bed to stand in front of the preacher. He stopped dead in his tracks as the wounded man clicked back the hammer. "I mean it Chris, help me or move, I have to see her." Chris could hear the determination and the pleading in the man's voice, sweat stood out in beads on Ezra's face as the effort to hold the gun got harder and harder.
"All right Ezra, calm down we'll take ya to see her. Now put the gun down, we'll take ya, I promise." He reached forward and snatched the gun from Ezra's fingers as the gambler collapsed in a dead faint into his arms; he gently pushed Ezra back against the pillows. Both men visibly let out a sigh. Chris released the hammer and checked the gun. He looked up at Josiah in shock; the gun was fully loaded.
Chris kept his word to Ezra and two hours later when the gambler woke up again he and Josiah helped the injured man over to the clinic. It took them nearly an hour to get him there. They had to stop to allow Ezra to rest four times. He had insisted on walking himself, saying that it was his shoulder not his legs that were hurt. Needless to say the effort of moving nearly made the stubborn gambler pass out on several occasions on the short journey. JD had seen them coming and before Chris could tell him not to say anything to Nathan he had run upstairs to the clinic. Moments later the black healer burst out and stood at the top of the stairs.
"What the hell do you think your doin'?" The gunfighter inwardly cringed, if there was one thing he did not like to face that was an angry Nathan. He would rather face a bunch of hell raisers than a riled up Nathan.
Without much protest from Ezra, Josiah lifted him off his feet and carried him up the stairs to the clinic. He kept his eyes down away from the seething black man. "We didn't have much of a choice, he pulled a gun on us, if we hadn't helped him he would have tried on his own." Nathan glared at the three of them and then went to check on his patient. Josiah placed Ezra carefully by B J's bed. He stepped back but kept a hand on his shoulder should he be needed quickly. Ezra stared at B J for what seemed like an age. He looked up at Nathan. His pleading eyes asked the question.
"She'll be fine, it'll take a while but she'll heal." His hand shot up to Ezra as a wave of dizziness shook the gambler. "Which is more than I can say for you if you don't rest. Your body has had a hell of a shock Ezra, it needs to heal as well." Josiah guided the weak and trembling gambler to the spare cot. He laid him down and covered him with a blanket. Ezra was already unconscious. Nathan checked him over and turned to face Chris. "If he gets worse I'm blaming you, he's as weak as a kitten, you could have easily stopped him from coming over here."
"You didn't see him brother." Said Josiah; "He was ready to use that gun." Nathan turned to look at the large man.
"You mean he really pulled a gun on you?"
Chris headed for the door. He stopped and turned looking first at B J's still form and then at the injured man. With all the trouble that Ezra caused, he had somehow come to call this man friend. The man he had let down too many times, the man who had put himself in harms way to protect all of them. The man who had dropped his own barriers to call them friends.
He looked back at Nathan. He suddenly felt tired and old. "Yeah he did." That said he walked out.
During the next week the town of Four Corners started to fill up, at least that was the way it felt to Chris Larabee. The Tuesday afternoon saw B J's horses being driven into town, the men had been told to come there first, pick up supplies and any instructions from B J and then head out to the ranch. B J was still in no condition to speak to any one so it had fallen to Chris and Buck to explain the problem to the ranch hands. One of the men visited the telegraph office immediately, and then Buck took them out to the ranch on the Wednesday morning and was back in town by the late afternoon.
Three men disembarked from the stage on the Wednesday afternoon, Chris watched them intently, they wore nondescript clothes but their guns were worn low and tied down. He had seen their type before. He made sure all three were checked out and watched constantly. Two more riders with the same descriptions rode into town on the Thursday morning.
There were just too many new faces around for Chris' liking. Too many, for the six regulators to watch all the time. The southern gent that had been in town when Chris and the others had returned with B J was still there; he had been seen in most of the saloons that frequented main street, drinking, gambling and talking. It didn't take long for Chris to realise that most of the men this Mr Rawlins spoke to were those that had arrived in town only recently.
WEDNESDAY Nov 11th
He headed to the clinic to speak to Ezra, a bad feeling had begun to niggle him and for some reason he thought that the still recovering gambler would be able to help. He opened the door quietly and walked in. Ezra was sat on a chair, blanket around his shoulders next to B J's bed. Nathan was stood in the corner talking to Vin. He walked over to the two men. "How's Ezra doing?" He glanced over at the still pale looking gambler.
"The fever broke last night, no signs of the infection returning, he's been sittin' in that chair since he woke up, won't move, refuses to eat or drink anything, I know he's concerned about B J but he needs to think about himself as well. If he doesn't eat he'll just get sick again."
"Is it alright if Vin and me take him out? We'll make sure he eats and drinks." Nathan pondered for a few moments and then nodded.
"Yeah, but no beer or whiskey, he needs milk or water, even coffee would be better than nothing." Chris turned and nodded at Vin. The two men moved as one over to their injured friend. Vin reached down, put his hand under Ezra's good arm and gently pulled.
"Come on Ezra we need to go for a walk, doc's got things to do, he don't need you hovering like a love sick child." Ezra started to protest but seeing the determined look in the two men's eyes realised he did not have the strength to fight them.
It took both men, one in front and one behind to help Ezra get down the two flights of stairs. Although his fever was now mostly gone he was still not well and was very weak. On two occasions they needed to stop to allow the wounded man time to catch his breath and keep his footing. At the bottom of the stairs Chris steered Ezra to a bench and sat him down. He could see a pained expression on the man's face and knew that the short trip had aggravated his shoulder. Vin glanced at Chris and then back to Ezra, "I'll get some coffee." He headed to the saloon and several minutes later came back with a steaming pot and three mugs.
"Ezra, I need to ask ya somthin' are you up to it?" Chris sat down next to him. Ezra nodded so he continued. "Do you remember the gunfight in the street a few months ago, when JD got hit in the side. B J was there and injured one of em?" Ezra took a few steadying breaths and then looked over at Chris, he thought for a few moments and then began nodding his head.
"Yes I recall, I believe that was the first day B J came to this fair town. I also recall that her being there probably saved not only my life but JD's as well." He gave Chris a questioning look. "Why?"
"The man B J winged had been paid a lot of money, so had the one you killed. He said it was some guy from New Orleans a fancy man, same kind of clothes you wear."
"Yes I remember, and I think I told you then that it could have been anybody." Ezra tipped his head back and closed his eyes, the pain was beginning to dissipate but a dull throb was replacing it, one that kept up with the pounding of some very angry hammers in his head. His eyes shot open again as Chris' hand grabbed his left arm.
"Think dammit, I know you're hurtin' but I need to know, do you have any idea who it might be." Vin grabbed Chris' arm and twisted him around.
"Leave him be, why is it so important, it was months ago?" Chris stood to face the tracker.
"Yeah it was months ago but how many times in those few months has Ezra been shot at, and now this happens comin' back from a simple job." He quietly whispered, "Is it a coincidence that a fancy dressed southerner has been in town this last week or more and according to Buck is from New Orleans." A look of deadly understanding crossed the tracker's face.
A noise caught their attention and they turned to see Ezra struggling to stand, Vin moved to his side instantly, Ezra reached out and grabbed his arm and carefully rose to his feet. "Just need to stand up for a while, move around a little. I've been in that most uncomfortable bed, if he can call it a bed, for too long." A big sigh was released from his lips as he stood and gently twisted his back. "I shall no doubt suffer from eternal back pain for the rest of my life." At that moment a man brushed by him catching his right arm. Ezra would have fallen from the pain had Chris not been there to catch him. Instantly Vin was at his side.
"Hey watch where you're goin' mister, can't you see this mans been hurt." It took all his will power to stop from shooting the guy. The man turned, mumbled an apology and then continued on his way, crossing the street just ahead. They eased Ezra back onto the bench and were immediately concerned by the sudden paleness of the gambler's face.
"I'll go fetch Nathan," said Vin
"No." The word came out sharp and clear. "I I will be fine, he just caught me off guard that is all." The two friends could see the difficulty with which Ezra spoke and the obvious pain etched around his face.
Chris glanced up, his angry eyes following the man that had bumped him, he watched as he stopped next to the Southern Gent he had just been talking about. A smile crossed the elderly mans face and after a moment he lifted his fingers and tipped his hat in much the same way he had seen Ezra do on many an occasion. He turned and calmly walked toward the saloon followed by three other men.
"That's the man you were talking about, wasn't it Chris." Vin had followed the gunfighter's eyes.
"Yeah and he just happened to be talking to the man that bumped Ezra, too many coincidences around here lately."
"I'll go and find Buck and JD, we'll go and have us a talk with this gent." Vin looked down at the pale Gambler and added "You OK to stay with Ezra?" Chris nodded.
"Excuse me!" Chris turned to look at the pale, sweating man slumped on the bench next to him.
"May I inquire as to what you two were whispering about?"
"NO, come on let's get you back to the clinic before you pass out."
"Fine but could you please send Josiah to see me, I need to speak to him about a private matter."
Thursday, November 12th
The throbbing in her head was the first thing she notice, she lifted her arm to rub her temple and was immediately rewarded with a sharp pain down her left side. She heard someone groan and gasp and realised it had been her. A hand gently took her left arm and placed it back on the bed.
"Take it easy B J, it's going to hurt for a while." She instantly recognised Ezra's voice. It took a few moments to open her eyes and a few more to focus on the face hovering over her.
"Hello." She looked at him deeply noticing how drawn and pale the usually handsome face was. Her gaze took in the sling and the way it was held to his body. "Are you OK?" she asked him, vaguely recalling that she had asked him that before. She also noticed the gun belt tied to his left side. One thing she had begun to realise was that this man never went for long without a gun of some description near him.
"I'm OK are you OK?" A big smile lit up his face; her heart jumped and began to beat faster. Her breathing got suddenly quicker. "Hey calm down, your fine, everything's going to be fine. Wait here I'll get Nathan." Before he could move she grabbed his arm. He turned and looked at her, concern was all over his face.
"No wait, I'm fine honest, I need to tell you something first." She took a deep breath and cut it short when a knife like pain shot through her. She winced, closing her eyes. After a few seconds she opened them again and looked deeply into Ezra's beautiful green eyes. "I've never felt like this before Ezra, and no I don't mean the pain, although yeah, that sensation is pretty new. What I mean to say is, well, since the first time I saw you sitting at that table in the saloon, I've wanted to, awh hell Ezra I think I love you." He blinked, pulled back his head and turned to look around the room, as if he was checking to make sure no one else was there. He looked back at her with an expression she had not seen before; he smiled and said.
"I know." Quite unexpectedly he bent down and gave her a soft gentle kiss on the lips. "I need to get Nathan, I'll be back." He whispered and then was gone.
+ + + + + + +
Mr Simmons sat quietly looking out of the window. It was pitch black out side and had been for the last four hours. The train continued to rumble on through the night deeper into the heart of the country, further away with every mile from civilisation. The boredom of the journey was relieved only by the infrequent stops the train made, mostly to take on water and fuel for the engine and to let the passengers off to eat and stretch their legs. Occasionally passengers would disembark at the end of their journey, but his was far from over. He still had another two days to go on this train and then a days travel on a stagecoach.
When they stopped in the morning he would send a message at the telegraph office to the sheriff of Four Corners, explaining the situation and warning him that Miss Roslin's life was most possibly in further danger. After the distressing news of her injury from the foreman delivering the horses, he had immediately made arrangements to travel out to complete the details of Mr James Roslin Sr.'s will. Certain details had still yet to be revealed to Bettina and they could only be done in person.
Several years ago some of his colleagues had come across information that had proved to him that a certain cousin who had fallen on bad times due to gambling had been inquiring about the will and estate. When Bettina Jane had voiced her intentions to travel the West as a man he had immediately realised that this would be a way to disguise that she was a woman and therefore protect her from her enemies. She had regularly reported to him her general whereabouts over the years and he had dutifully sent her money as she requested it. She never asked for more than her allowance and in most cases had used far less than she was allowed according to her Father's will.
What Miss Roslin did not know and indeed none of her family alive or dead had known was that her elder brother James Edward Roslin had not died sixteen years ago as had been reported. Yes he had been wounded and unable to remember who he was for six months, but when he had finally recovered he had contacted Mr Simmons to enquire of his family. On hearing about his Mothers death, and his assumed demise he had stated that he was not to be resurrected, he was to be kept informed as to the health of his Father and Sister but under no condition was Mr Simmons to reveal his whereabouts to them.
Over the years the two of them had kept in contact through letters and telegrams. Mr Roslin JR was now a Major in the US Army and had finally confirmed to the Lawyer, on hearing of his Father's death, that he had no intention of taking what Mr Simmons had said was his rightful inheritance. Bettina Jane had worked for it and was entitled to it. He had a family with the Army and everything he wanted. Just knowing that she was safe and well with a secure future made him happy.
Unfortunately the recent turn of events had forced Mr Simmons to contact Major Roslin and inform him of the final twist in the will, it was against all his instructions and broke several codes of ethics but he knew he had to protect his client any way he could. A return telegram on the morning he was to leave for Four Corners had confirmed that Major Roslin would meet him there, he would also come with a dozen men to help protect her until the wishes of the will were fulfilled.
Friday, November 13th
JD barrelled his way through the bat wing doors of the saloon, he stopped only long enough to see where Chris was and then continued in a run, skidding to a halt into the outstretched arms of Buck.
"Whoa there tiger, what's the hurry?"
"Just got this telegram, Chris I need to talk to you now." He looked around him at all the unfamiliar faces and then back to Chris and Buck. "Not in here, outside." Without looking to see if the others followed him he turned and headed for the door.
"What is it JD, what's so all fired important?" Chris took the telegram as it was offered to him and read it. He looked up and then down to the words again and then handed it over to Buck for him to read. "Great, that's all we need." He looked over to the young sheriff. "JD get Vin and Josiah, we need to get B J out of here and somewhere safe and I think I know just the place."
"F I R E."
His head snapped up at the shout from down the street.
"FIRE IN THE LIVERY."
Without thinking all three men ran at full speed down to the stables. People were piling out from buildings all around him, some had buckets in there hands already. Before they got there they could see the smoke billowing out of the main door. Chris glanced up to the clinic that was above the stables and caught sight of a pair of legs hanging over the edge of the balcony. Within seconds he was up the stairs, he knelt down next to the still form. It was Nathan and from the look of him he had been hit from behind. There was a small cut and blood on the back of his head. He took out a handkerchief and pressed it against the wound.
"Buck, get up here it's Nathan." Buck rushed up the steps and with some help picked up the unconscious healer and carried him carefully down. By this time the smoke was getting thicker. Vin suddenly appeared at Chris' shoulders. "We need to get Ezra and B J out of there now." They both headed for the door to the clinic only slightly aware of the noise around them as the town folk fought the fire below.
Vin opened the door and was pushed back immediately by a billow of thick black smoke. Covering their noses with their jackets they got down on all fours and moved into the room. They could just make out the still form of Ezra in an ungainly heap on the floor. Vin rushed to him and none too gently scooped him into his arms and headed for the door. Chris moved to the bed that held B J and lifted the unconscious woman into his arms, he grabbed a blanket and threw it over her mostly to protect her from the smoke but also to hide her from the people below. The words in the telegram he had just read were still fresh in his mind.
Moments later they were all at the bottom of the stairs coughing, with eyes streaming from the smoke. The fire had been put out and the livery had been saved. None of the horses had been harmed as men had led them out of the burning building. Tiny was leaning against a water trough rubbing his neck. It appeared that he had also been hit over the head. Chris looked over to Buck who was helping Nathan up. He was awake and holding the cloth to the back of his head. As Nathan steadied himself he noticed his two patients lying in the street. With Buck's help he moved over to them and began to check them out. Within minutes he had forgotten his own wound and was shouting for water and other items to help revive his charges.
"Buck, Vin." Chris called the two men over to him, coughing due to the smoke he accepted the canteen that Vin offered him. "Get a wagon ready we're moving those two out of town, somewhere safe." Vin shot him a quizzical look. Chris passed him the slightly crumpled telegram. Without another word the Tracker turned and headed for the back of the livery. Five minutes later the two men returned with a hitched covered wagon.
"Where we taking 'em Chris?" The Tracker tore his eyes from the still unconscious form of his friend. Nathan was trying to stem the bleeding from the re-opened wound to the Southerners shoulder. A feeling of guilt washed over Vin. In his rush to get Ezra to safety he had not taken time to be gentle. Hell he hadn't had time. The building could have gone up in flames at any moment. He had reacted instinctively. He pushed the guilt aside realising that if he hadn't acted as quickly as he had then Ezra may well have died from smoke inhalation. He turned realising that Chris was speaking.
"Sorry Chris I missed that, what did ya say?"
"Yeah, I'm worried about them too. We need to get them out of town now. Not only is someone likely to be after B J, but I think someone is trying to kill Ezra. This fire kind of proves it to me. Nathan and Tiny were both hit over the head before it started. This was no accident. They just didn't count on this town pulling together and acting as quick as they did. That alone tells me that who ever is responsible don't know this town and its people very well." He turned to look at Buck. "You and Josiah get them two in the wagon." He turned back to face Vin. "You ride out and tell Nettie Wells what's happened and that we'll be needing her help for a while. I'll come out with the wagon and the others."
Chris looked around him trying to think if there was anything else he needed to do. Sometimes he hated being in charge. When things went wrong it always fell to him to come up with a plan or get one of his men out of trouble. He looked over as Josiah lifted B J carefully into the wagon. It always amazed him how the big man could be so gentle one minute and like a raging bull the next. He turned and headed towards the saloon; his mind going over the things he would need to do before they could head out of town.
+ + + + + + +
Rawlins stood quietly across the street taking in everything that had happened. Yes it had been on his command that the fire be set. He had hoped that it would engulf the building but had also expected the fire to be put out. Either way it would cause extra suffering to the man inside the clinic.
What he hadn't expected was the added bonus of finding his other quarry. So Miss Roslin had been posing as a man. No wonder he had been unable to find her. He had seen the long blonde hair hanging from beneath the blanket as the black clad Gunslinger had carried what he had initially thought was a man from the smoke filled clinic.
His employees had informed him that a well-dressed man had been with Ezra Standish when he had arrived in Ridge City and was with him when he left. He had also been told that the man had been hurt badly when the failed ambush, in which two of his men had died, had been sprung outside of the town.
He watched intently as his two targets were placed in a wagon. His eyes followed the buckskin clad young man as he mounted a horse and rode at a gallop out of town. Now where might he be going, he thought. He knew there would be no opportunity for him to get to either of his two marks for a while, there were too many people around them. That large man looked like he could take on all his men without breaking a sweat.
His eyes changed direction again and followed the man in black as he walked up the street towards the saloon. That one was going to be trouble. He had seen the way he had looked at him from across the street the previous day. He would need to take care of this gunslinger before his next attempt on Standish.
They had been travelling slowly for an hour when Ezra started to come around. Nathan's first indication was a sudden bout of coughing from the prone gambler. "Josiah, stop the wagon." Nathan was holding Ezra trying to keep his body still as he coughed up the smoke that had rendered him unconscious in the clinic. Chris pulled his horse up close to the wagon.
"How is he Nathan?" He handed the healer a canteen of water as Ezra's coughing fit subsided.
"I don't know Chris, it all depends on how much smoke he breathed in."
"I assure you ." Ezra coughed again; "I will be fine ." He continued to cough and splutter and was unable to finish what he was saying. His left hand came up and grasped Nathan's arm which was supporting him. The healer could feel the pain going through the gambler's body with each cough. He squeezed his eyes closed knowing there was nothing he could do except offer support and water when the coughing stopped. After what seemed an age the fit subsided and Ezra seemed to relax. Nathan almost jumped when the soft southern voice spoke.
"How's B J?" Nathan moved himself gently out from under the injured mans back and placed him back on the pillows. He looked over to the still sleeping form next to Ezra. She had not moved or woken up since placing her in the wagon and truth be told he was getting worried that the smoke may have caused further damage to the already injured lung. He had monitored her closely and had not noticed any added difficulty in her breathing.
"She'll be fine, she's asleep and I don't think there will be any lasting affects from the smoke." He only half believed what he said himself but he didn't see any reason in upsetting or worrying Ezra any more than he was already. He could see the attachment growing inside the usually calm, placid faced gambler. "She was asleep when the smoke hit so she didn't breath in as much as you. I'm more worried about you than her at this moment."
"I'm fine Mr Jackson," to prove it to them and himself he gingerly pushed himself with his good arm into a sitting position. The movement obviously caused him pain and it took all of Nathan's will power to stop from helping. He knew from past experience how stubborn Ezra could be especially when he was hurt. "Oh and by the way." His gaze shifted to the black clad man on the horse at the rear of the wagon. "Why are we in a wagon and where are we going?" Chris looked to Nathan who nodded his head several times. Yes it was time he voiced his concerns to Ezra and told him about the telegram.
Ezra sat in stunned silence as Chris Larabee reeled off his suspicions. When he had finished telling him about the threat to B J he had laid there looking up at the white canvas above him. Chris noticed how the fingers on Ezra's left hand balled into a fist and then opened and balled again almost unconsciously. He recalled that moment in Ezra's room back in town when he had faced that same hand holding a cocked gun. He knew then without a doubt how much the gambler was in love with the woman laid next to him. He felt a pang of envy immediately followed by relief that this man who no one seemed to be able to get close to was actually closer to this one person than any of the six lawmen were likely to get. He had known that kind of love with Sarah and vowed then that he would do all he could to ensure no one got in the way of his friend exploring that love.
"Chris, we got trouble." Josiah reached for his Winchester rifle that was on the seat next to him; he looked over at Chris as he moved up to him on his horse. "Over yonder to our left, I saw dust." Chris looked around him and pointed ahead.
"Let's get into those rocks up ahead, better cover there." Josiah lifted the reins and slapped them to get the horses moving. "Nathan, keep your head down, I think we've got company, it's gonna' get bumpy for a while we need to get to cover." Josiah urged the horses into a fast trot and then a lope, as they began to move faster, the first shots from a rifle were heard. He turned his head just in time to see Chris' horse stumble, the gunslinger went down in a cloud of dust. Josiah pulled up on the reins and jumped down from the wagon. Snatching his rifle he turned and ran back to the prone figure letting off two shots as he did so. He said a quick prayer of thanks when he saw the gunslinger still moving. He slid to a stop and went down next to the man.
"Chris, you ok?" There was blood all over his face, not from a bullet wound but from having hit his head when the horse had gone down. A quick glance told him that Chris' horse was dead. He reached under the stunned man's arms and hoisted him up to his feet and began to move back to the wagon almost carrying the semi-conscious gunslinger. Bullets kicked up the dust around them; he turned and fired two more shots behind him. Seeing two riders coming at him at a fast gallop urged him to pick up the wounded man and run to the cover of the wagon.
"Get down Josiah." Without thinking he flung himself to the ground, he put his hand up to Chris' head in an attempt to protect him from any further damage. The boom of familiar guns went off close to him. After several seconds of deafening noise the sudden silence was almost eerie. He looked up and as the dust cleared he saw Ezra and Nathan both standing at the back of the wagon with guns out still covering the downed gunmen. Nathan's arm quickly snaked around Ezra's waist as the gambler slumped. He gently guided him backwards and sat him on the tail runner of the wagon. The southerner nodded his head slowly to the healer, indicating that he would be fine. Nathan looked at him for a second and then ran up to Josiah who was carefully rolling Chris over.
"I don't think he took a bullet Nathan but that fall was bad. He hit his head, there's a hell of a lot of blood." The sounds of more horses made them turn their heads. Two riders were galloping away in the distance. A shot from Ezra's gun made them duck low in their saddles. A low moan from Chris snapped Nathan's attention back to his wounded comrade.
"Come on Chris, wake up. Josiah go fetch a canteen." He turned as a canteen was suddenly thrust into his line of sight. A very pale Ezra who looked decidedly unsteady on his feet held it out to him. He was shocked that he had been able to make it from the wagon over to them without collapsing. When the shooting had started it had taken a lot out of the gambler to get out of the wagon. He had never seen a man more determined to do something so had helped him get out. Injured or not the man was a deadly accurate shot with a gun. He took the canteen and watched in almost slow motion as Ezra collapsed to his knees. "Thanks." He said, unable to think of anything else to say.
He turned his attention back to his newest patient. Chris had his eyes open, they were glazed and unfocused and immediately Nathan noticed that one pupil was larger than the other was. "Ok Chris lay still, you got yourself a nice concussion there not to mention a few pretty deep cuts in that head of yours." Removing his bandanna he proceeded to clean up the cuts and remove as much dirt and blood from the blond man's face and head. "Come on Josiah, let's get him to the wagon." He turned to face Ezra. "You stay right there till we come back and fetch ya. Do ya hear me Ez?"
Ezra lifted his head and without argument or complaint nodded slowly. Nathan could see that the con man was exhausted. It was usually the only time he did as he was told, when he had no energy left or when he was so ill he could do nothing but behave. It took them a few minutes to settle Chris into the back of the wagon and then a few minutes more to pick up Ezra and get him settled as well. That done Josiah headed the team towards Nettie Wells' place. Nathan busied himself in the back cleaning and bandaging Chris' head.
Sunday, November 15th
His hair was ruffled; the white shirt was less than pristine. The collar was open and the top three buttons were unfastened revealing a smooth chest marred only by the bandage that covered his right shoulder. Her eyes dropped to the right arm that was still securely fastened to his side. Her gaze lifted to take in the sleeping face. Dark circles under the eyes told of too many nights without sleep. A drop of sweat fell from the brow and a slight sheen of moisture on the upper lip told her that he still had a fever, a mild one maybe but he was still hurting.
She looked into the face deeply wishing that this moment could last forever. She could lay there and watch this man sleeping and never want for anything again. No one had ever told her that she could feel this way. She felt her stomach jump at the thought of anyone causing him harm. The mere thought of losing him and never seeing him again caused an almost physical pain to overcome her.
Silently she watched as he woke up. He took a moment to focus and then turned his emerald green eyes to look into hers. Neither of them said a word for at least a minute; they stared at each other falling deeper into each other's souls. She spoke first, softly as if the noise would break the spell.
"Are you OK?"
"I'm OK, are you OK?" The corners of his mouth curled up. He didn't move afraid that she would disappear as she had so many times in his dreams. She took a deep breath, gulped and with a smile whispered back.
"Yeah." He still hadn't moved but his smile deepened as he replied.
"Well that's OK then."
She turned her head slightly on the pillow and with a rather serious tone said, "We're gonna have to come up with something a little more original than 'are you ok'. I mean people are gonna think that's all we ever say to each other." He laughed and pushed himself carefully from the chair.
The spell was broken.
He sat next to her on the bed and took her right hand into his left; he gently squeezed and once again looked deeply into her blue eyes. "Seriously now, how do you feel?" The concern on his face and in his voice was all too real.
She pulled her eyes away from his gaze and looked down as if looking inside herself. "It feels like I'm breathing through a blanket, my chest hurts and I'd swear there was a bull sitting on me. Apart from that I feel fine, raring to go." She stopped took a breath and looked back into the captivating green eyes. After a moment she pulled her eyes away and looked around her. "Where are we, how long have I been asleep?"
"We're at a ranch outside of town, belongs to Mrs Nettie Wells and her niece Casey, we have been here for two days and you my dear lady have been asleep the whole time."
She turned back to look at the handsome face. "You look about as bad as I feel, how are you. Really?"
"Me, well if you were to believe our esteemed Mr Jackson, I should be in bed resting and not undoing all his hard work. Truthfully I am fatigued, experiencing some discomfort and most annoyed that I will be without the use of my right arm for some time to come." He reached up and moved a stray hair away from her face and then continued to rub his thumb along her forehead. "But I would not allow a herd of wild horses to keep me from your side until I knew you were out of danger." The gentle touch of his hand against her brow sent tingles all along her body, her eyes began to close as the movement continued.
"You could have just said you were fine." Her eyes closed and he watched as she relaxed into a deep sleep. A soft noise behind him drew his attention.
"You should get some sleep yourself Mr Standish, I'll watch her for a while." Nettie Wells stood quietly in the doorway, she had not heard all the conversation, but what she had heard gladdened her tired old heart. This man surely deserved the love of a good strong woman. "Come on I'm sure you could sleep some, and she needs her rest."
As if from nowhere, Vin moved in from behind Nettie and put an arm around Ezra's waist. With no effort at all he lifted the gambler to his feet and helped him from the room. Nathan Jackson had not been far wrong when he had said that Ezra needed to be in bed. He was far from well and the fever he still had was stubborn much like the man it infested. Since their arrival at Nettie's ranch two days ago he had been at B J side the whole time, refusing to lie down. He had eaten sparingly and had refused point blank to take any of Nathan's vile repugnant potions. He had slept only for short periods of time jolting awake as his head dropped to his chest.
Until that morning he had not cared for his own well being. Waking up to see her looking at him had been the most joyous moment of his life. She was going to be OK. He smiled to himself as he was gently lowered into the waiting bed. Yes she would recover, so he would recover. As he drifted off to sleep his mind turned to healing his own tired body. No one was going to hurt her again; he would need to be well to protect her.
Nathan watched from the corner of the room as Vin laid the tired gambler down. The sharpshooter moved hair from the sweating brow, his hand rested there for a second and then he turned and looked at the black man. "Miss Nettie say's she woke up, she's gonna be fine." He tipped his head back to Ezra, "Looks like he's ready to start healing now as well." He pushed himself away from the wall and walked over to the bed. He looked down into the sleeping face of the man he had come to call friend. It had been a difficult journey for the both of them, him being an escaped slave and Ezra being a southern gent. The odds against them becoming friends had been enormous. There had been many times when they had almost come to blows and no doubt there would be many more in the future but above it all they were friends. Nathan reached for the bowl next to the bed and wringing out the cloth began to wipe down the fevered forehead and neck.
"Well two down and one to go, all we need now is to get Chris to sit long enough for that damn concussion to heal. Every few hours he's throwing up or falling over, I swear he and Ezra came from the same stubborn streak. Neither of 'em admits when they're hurt." He looked up at Vin. "Can you take over here, I'm gonna check on B J and then see if I can get Chris to rest for a spell."
"Good Luck." Said Vin as he watched the healer leave the room. He turned his attention back to Ezra and the task of cooling him down.
Tuesday, November 17th
The sun was high and despite the time of year it was warm and dry. The nights had been getting steadily colder but the days were holding on to a late Indian Summer. Ezra was out the back of the barn practising his fast draw. He usually had no need to practice but since the injury to his right shoulder had all but put his arm out of commission he had been honing his skills with his left hand.
B J was still sleeping most of the time; he had heard Nathan saying that she wasn't recovering as quickly as he would like but that she had improved a little. She woke enough times for them to get food and water into her along with some of the healer's more noxious smelling concoctions. Ezra wondered sometimes if Nathan deliberately put foul smelling herbs into the mix.
Every moment he was not with B J he was practising, getting used to the way his body reacted when he drew his gun. Back at the wagon when he and Nathan had covered Chris he had realised that due to his arm being fastened to his body, the way he moved was completely different, and the pain it caused had been a shock. He was still fast and could hit what he aimed at but he was not as good as he wanted to be, as good as he needed to be. He re holstered his Remington army revolver and gently kneaded his wounded shoulder. The dull ache was building into a sharp pain and he knew that he would have to stop soon.
He looked over to the corral and saw that Josiah was still there, he had been there for the last two days watching, ready to help if need be or just to talk. Josiah loved to get people talking, he said it cleansed the soul to get things out in the open. He turned back to the targets he had set up on the hay bales. He breathed in and before he had let the air out of his lungs he had downed three of the targets and was turning to down a fourth. He stopped after the fourth target and took in a breath; his hand, with the gun still in it came up to his shoulder again.
He holstered the gun and was just about to finish the other two targets when the sound of approaching horses from behind him made him react before he could think, he twisted his body, cleared leather and fired with lightening speed. The blue coated soldiers ducked and Buck who had ridden out with them had his gun out and aimed in a flash. He lowered his weapon when he saw where the shot had come from; he gaped in shock at the man who had fired on them. When he saw Ezra crumple to the ground he was off his horse and running to his friends side. Both he and Josiah reached him at the same time.
His aim had been off due to twisting so quickly. It had wrenched his bad shoulder and he had suddenly found himself in a heap on the floor, the gun was on the ground next to him and he was holding his arm tightly, almost ready to pass out from the pain. "Shit, Josiah did I hit anyone?" he gasped in pain, trying to focus his eyes on the mass of blue in front of him. Josiah looked up; the troopers all looked fine although one was fingering a hole in the top of his cap.
"No, but ya came pretty close. Lucky for them you weren't on top form, that young man would have been making peace with God just about now." Josiah gently helped Ezra to his feet and began to move him towards the house.
"Why did he shoot at us Josiah?" Buck asked as he walked alongside the gambler, ready to help if needed.
"He was practising his draw when your little army there spooked him. I guess he's just a little on edge from being shot at so many times. I gotta admit, I ain't never seen such a fast draw as that before, I doubt even Chris could ha' beat him on that one." Ezra put his hand out and grabbed a handful of Buck's coat.
"Would you please send my sincerest regrets to that young man, I did not I had no intention well I would never ."
"No problem Ez, I'll tell him . something." A glint came to Buck's eye, he smirked and added, "I know I'll just tell him you used to be one of them there Reb's, and you just can't get over the fact that ya lost to a bunch of Yankees."
"Not if I shoot you first Mr Wilmington, may I remind you I still have one bullet left in my gun." Buck turned away and headed for the soldiers, he stopped and talked for a moment to the officer that had dismounted. Josiah settled Ezra on a bench outside the house and looked up to see a Major and another soldier, walk up to them.
"Where can I find Mr Larabee?"
"Right here." Chris walked out of the house and purposefully put himself between the soldier and his men. "What can I do for ya Major?" There was no longer any sign of the weakness that the concussion had brought on. In fact Chris had been symptom free since late the previous evening. Nathan had been pleased to say that although he might have an occasional headache for the next few days he should be back to normal.
"I am here to see a Miss Roslin, I was informed by that young man," he pointed to Buck. "That she was out here, I wish to see her." Chris shot Buck a look that would have frozen a lake.
"May I ask your business Major, and your name please."
"Of course, I am James Edward Roslin, Miss Roslin is my sister. I am here to ensure my sisters wellbeing until my Father's will has been fulfilled. This is Doctor Matthew Coleman an Army surgeon. Now if you please may I see her." Ezra had been slowly re loading his gun, as soon as the Major had said his name he had snapped his head up and was looking intently at the soldiers face. At the mention of seeing B J he shakily stood up and moved between the Major and the door. His gun lifted and pointed dangerously at the man's body.
"I am sorry Major," Ezra put a lot of emphasis on the word Major. "But if you wish to see the young lady I am going to have to insist on a little more proof that you are who you say you are." He turned to Chris. "I do believe we once pulled a similar con a few years ago with blue uniforms, if you recall Mr Larabee." Chris nodded, he reached in front of Ezra and placed his hand on the raised gun pushing it gently down and stood in front of him. He was beginning to realise how dangerous the gambler could be when the need arose. He did not want a repeat of the 'accident' that had occurred a few moments ago.
"I think Mr Standish is correct, Major. Do you have any proof, identification of any kind?" The officer reached into the front of his jacket, stopping suddenly as he noticed three sets of guns trained on him. He carefully reached into an inside pocket and withdrew several documents. He handed them to the black clad man in front of him. Chris read through them and then passed them to Josiah. He glanced at them, nodded his head to Chris and then handed them back. "Relax, Ezra. According to those papers he is B J's brother."
"Fine, but I do not want him to be alone with her. There have been far too many unforeseen occurrences lately." He turned and looked straight into the eyes of the Major, his face a picture of deadly intent. "As you no doubt noticed a short while ago sir, I hate surprises. Do we understand each other?"
"Josiah, stay out here, keep an eye on our guests. Buck you head on back to town, I don't like leaving JD on his own for too long." Chris turned to the Major, "After you Mr Roslin."