Strength in Numbers
by Helen Adams
Ezra soaked and dozed in the hot bath for nearly an hour before the discomfort of breathing the decongestive steam became too much to bear. Muscles feeling as weak as if they were made of wet tissue paper, he allowed his friends to haul him out of the water and get him dried and dressed, managing to walk back to the saloon only with the steadying grip of Buck and Vin on either side. Fortunately, very few people were out and about to observe how strongly he was forced to lean on them.
JD had managed to find an umbrella somewhere and he held it poised over Ezra's head as the quartet made its slow progress toward the saloon. Ezra knew that they must look ridiculous, four grown men moving in a slow parasol-topped huddle down the muddy street, but he was grateful for the consideration as the rain poured down around them twice as hard as it had fallen an hour before.
Josiah and Nathan were waiting at the saloon doors and readily took over the task of getting Ezra to his room, giving the other men a chance to rest and dry themselves off. They were forced to all but carry Ezra up the stairs, as his boots seemed to fill with lead, growing heavier with each step he took.
Ezra was barely conscious of being redressed in his nightshirt and tucked back into bed, but the touch of a cold hand, entirely too rough to be Nathan 's, clamping down on his forehead to check his temperature brought him back to awareness.
Opening his eyes, Ezra found himself staring into a stern face and hard greenish-hazel eyes. "Mister Larabee," he whispered. "I wasn't aware you had returned."
"Did you really take the morning patrol out in this shitty weather just because I forgot to change the schedule?" Chris blurted, disapproval lacing every word. Not bothering to wait for a reply, he went on, "Do you have any idea how stupid that was in the shape you're in?"
Irritated, Ezra told him, "I was not fully cognizant of my condition at the time."
"He thought he just had a cold," Nathan interjected. "So did I, at first."
Looking annoyed at the defense, Chris narrowed his eyes at the healer, then removed his hat and slapped it against his thigh, running his fingers roughly through his dirty blond hair in aggravation. "You still should've asked one of the others to ride in your place. I wouldn't have expected you to return from a prisoner transport only to head straight back out again, even if you were healthy. Didn't you know that?"
"I had a duty to perform," Ezra defended, pausing to cough harshly.
Chris frowned as he offered three or four helpful swats to Ezra's hunched back. "Fool," he muttered finally, the word possessing no heat. "You know how it would've made me feel if you'd fallen off your horse and broke your neck or something, all because I forgot that goddamned schedule?"
Gasping for breath, Ezra flopped back, noting absently that three or four more pillows had joined his own, enough to keep his body tilted into a three quarter seated position. Wiping his mouth on the back of one hand, he grunted softly, "Mother always did say I was stubborn."
A gruff breath of laughter signaled Chris's agreement. "I'd call it contrary. If you'd been feeling well, you would have cursed my name, told somebody else to do your damn patrol and gone back to bed."
Ezra's lips twitched. "Perhaps."
Listening to the exchange, Nathan smiled. "Think if I go fetch this stubborn contrary fool some food, you can get him to eat it, Chris?"
"Not hungry," Ezra interjected, screwing up his face in distaste.
"I didn't ask you," Nathan told him flatly. "You want to beat this thing, don't you?"
Ezra nodded mutely.
"Good, then you just do what I tell you. Good nourishing food and lots of water is what you need, and after that, another dose of cough syrup and fever tea. Then you're gonna spend the rest of the day right where you are, sleepin' until it's time for you to eat again. You're not to get out of that bed for anything besides a call of nature until I tell you otherwise. Hear me?"
Seeing the rebellious expression that instantly came over the sick man's face, Chris answered for him. "I'll see to it." As Ezra's outraged gaze shifted to him, Chris smiled. "Fight me if you want to. You are going to eat that meal, and I'm going to stay right here and see to it that you finish every bite."
As he had just admitted to his companions, Ezra Standish was a stubborn man. He was not, however, a foolish one. Larabee could out-stubborn an entire mule train if he took the notion and Ezra could see by his body language, the way he had thrown his shoulders back and widened his stance as though he were preparing to engage in a gunfight, that he had indeed taken that notion.
With a small sigh of defeat, Ezra shifted to look at Josiah, who was standing next to the door watching the scene with a huge grin on his face. "Scrambled eggs and buttered toast?" he asked hopefully. Nathan would probably argue for broth, but Inez always put far too much salt in hers. Josiah disliked it for the same reason, making him a potential ally.
"That'd be all right," Nathan agreed, smiling slightly at the weak attempt to defy his orders. "In fact, it'll give you something to wash that tea down with, seein's how you complain so much about the flavor when I give it to you on its own."
"With honey," Ezra countered.
The healer's grin widened. "Have it your way. I'll sweeten it up some, but that means you're drinkin' the whole cup this time."
Pulling the rocking chair up next to the bed, just as Buck had the previous night, Chris helped himself to a seat and repeated, "I'll see to it."
Ezra threw his body back more firmly against the pillows in a silent display of childish pique. There was just no dignity to being ill.
Fragile fingers of sunlight drifted through the curtained window, threading through the slight gaps in the material to shine dully on the man moving slowly in the old oak rocking chair. Chris noted them absently, pleased to see that the rain seemed to have finally given up. It was about time.
He sat slumped in the chair, one booted foot resting on the edge of bed, ankle flexing back and forth, just enough to rock him gently without disturbing Ezra. One hand rested lightly upon his stomach while the other slowly twisted the toothpick that lay between his lips as his somber eyes watched the man in the bed.
Chris clenched his teeth and the toothpick snapped. Glancing down at it, he grimaced and flicked the tiny piece of wood onto the floor. He'd get it later. Eyes drifting back to look once more at Ezra, he released a quiet sigh. It had been three days since his return from Eagle Bend and there was a part of him that still cursed himself for going. Logically, he knew that his presence in town would have made no difference and that Ezra had likely already been well on his way to getting sick by the time he'd left, but his conscience pricked him just the same.
Over the past three days, Ezra's condition had worsened to the point that Nathan was no longer using his typically cheerful and reassuring tones unless talking directly to his patient. He believed that a positive attitude could go a long way toward helping people recover quickly, but away from his patient the healer had gone almost silent. Whenever he dropped by to confer with whoever was standing watch over the sick man, he had taken to shaking his head in dismay and muttering in frustration about wishing there was a "real" doctor on hand to consult with.
For his part, Ezra had put up with being badgered, coaxed, babied and bullied by his six self appointed nursemaids with little fuss. He had eaten when, and mostly what, he was told to, done his best to seem welcoming and appreciative of whomever had dropped by to spend time with him, and voiced no complaints at being helped with personal tasks; all of which revealed better than anything else could have just how terrible he really felt.
The only treatments that had caused any real problem were the plasters Nathan had been making up to help Ezra rid his body of the thick liquid filling his lungs. Formed of a combination of ginger and garlic heated into a paste and spread thickly over the surface of his chest, the noxious substance made the sick man gag and cough, eyes and nose both streaming as the mixture washed through his sinuses. The pungent plant mixture had a similar effect upon his caregivers, but at least the other men had the option of backing away and standing by the window for a breath of fresh air when the odor became too strong. Poor Ezra was confined to close proximity with it, forced to hack and choke painfully until Nathan decided he'd had enough.
Sadness filled Chris' eyes as he remembered witnessing the latest of those treatments. He had arrived to take over nursing duty from Vin and it had shocked him to see the normally cocky self-sufficient Ezra offering an almost pathetic display of gratitude toward Vin for the simple act of sponging that foul substance away from his skin. Chris had been unsure whether the tears leaking down Ezra's cheeks were caused by the fumes from the plaster or the sheer misery his body was undergoing, but either way they had disturbed him, making him feel that he was intruding on something no man had been meant to see.
And now Ezra lay sleeping, cheeks flushed brightly and incoherent words mumbling from his dry lips as he fought against the grip of a high fever. His temperature had been spiking off and on ever since his illness had begun, but this was the worst yet. It had been a full 24 hours since the fever's onset and while it had started off low, just enough to make him uncomfortable and a little grouchy, Ezra's temperature had climbed higher as the hours crept by.
Eventually, he had fallen into a restless doze and Chris had kept a silent vigil ever since, resisting the urge to get one of the handkerchiefs from the pile on the dresser to sponge away the sweat beading Ezra's skin. He was not in any real danger at the moment but needed what rest he could get and Chris feared that the touch of a cloth against his skin would only disturb him. And so he waited, listening to the mumbled fragments of dreams and wondering what images Ezra's fevered mind was conjuring for him.
It was lonely here, Ezra sighed, wishing that the feeling of emptiness was not quite so familiar. So many times he had seen other children, well cared for and much beloved, break down in tears of anguish when they were left somewhere other than home for a short time. Those other children would cry for the familiar closeness of a mother's hugs and a father's teasing. They would pout for a time, indignant over being left, but then quickly forget their misery in the investigation of new and interesting things, always keeping in mind that they would soon be able to share the wonder of their discoveries when those loving parents returned to claim them. They had no idea how good they had it, just possessing that wonderful certainty that someone would return, that their loneliness would be short-lived.
For Ezra, such surety was something to be wished for and dreamed of but never truly experienced. His father had gone away, died or just left he was not quite sure, when he was little more than a baby, and his mother had always had little time for him. She did love him, or at least he thought she must. If she didn't, why would she take care to ensure that the people she left him with were not the sort who would mistreat a boy? But the absolute certainty that she would come back? No, that he would never have. So far, she always had returned, but the frequency and length of their partings did not allow for any certainty.
There was always a lingering question in his mind these days. Was he too old now, at 13, for Mother to feel that he needed her teachings and guidance? Or worse, had he failed her, made her feel that she had wasted her time so that she had gone off to seek a more worthy pupil? For certainly he had no other true worth than his natural talents for gambling and cons.
Casual hugs and kisses, bedtime stories and special gifts, all the little signs of obvious maternal affection that those other children seemed to take so for granted were alien to Ezra. Oh, he had wanted those things. Still wanted them sometimes, he was ashamed to admit. But those things were meant for others, not for him.
Looking out the small window of his temporary bedroom, his Aunt Fran's scrupulously clean but all too empty attic, he watched longingly as Uncle Dennis ran and played below with his three young cousins. He wished he could join them, but he had not been invited and did not know whether he would be viewed as an intruder. That had happened far too many times in other homes for him to take the risk easily. The people he stayed with were rarely cruel, but there was always that discomfort as they tried to decide how to adjust their lives to fit him into it.
He sighed again. What right did he have to envy those children their playtime? It was ridiculous. He was thirteen, too old for silly childish things. He was practically a grown-up. It was time he started acting like it.
Buck Wilmington frowned in concentration, trying to understand Ezra's muttered words. Chris had mentioned to him that Ezra had been rambling a bit in his sleep, but this was the first he had heard of it. For the first two hours, the other man had been quiet except for an occasional soft groan and the constant rattling wheeze of his breathing.
"Old?" JD said softly, bringing Buck's eyes up to meet his. The kid had volunteered to take this watch, and Buck had readily agreed to join him. This was the first time JD had taken a turn at Ezra-watch, preferring to take on whatever duties the others might be neglecting in town to stay with him. It was not that he didn't care just as much as the others, but Buck knew without having to be told that keeping watch over a sickbed reminded the younger man too strongly of his mother's final illness. It was a clear sign of his worry for Ezra's worsening condition that he had changed his mind.
"Old?" Buck repeated.
"That's what he said, I think," JD clarified, leaning in a bit closer. "Yep, it sounds like he's saying 'too old'; what's that mean?"
Scratching his head, Buck shrugged. "No idea. Sure sounds sad, whatever he's talking about."
Ezra shifted against his pillows, coughing hoarsely and grunting as he shifted again, trying and failing to find an escape from the discomfort of his own fevered body. He was growing increasingly restless, his eyelids fluttering as his distressed murmuring grew.
"Maybe if we were to. . ." JD flushed, cutting off whatever he was about to say with an embarrassed shake of his head.
Encouragingly, Buck asked, "Were to do what? C'mon, kid, I'd be willing to give a try to anything that might help."
In reply, JD dipped a handkerchief into the tepid basin of water next to the bed. They had been employing this method of cooling at irregular intervals over the past two hours, as Ezra's temperature crept higher. Drawing the cloth in gentle swipes over Ezra's flushed face and neck he cleared his throat with a self-conscious glance at Buck and began to sing.
The light tenor was breathy and a bit tremulous at first, but gained strength and surety as Ezra's fitful tossing began to ease up. After a few moments, Ezra grew still and his glassy green eyes opened, staring at the young man sitting next to him on the mattress with a look that was equal parts confusion and longing.
Realizing the effect JD's idea was having, Buck joined his soft baritone to the song, an old lullaby that his own mother had often sung to him. The two voices mingled in a mellow soothing harmony, the volume dropping bit by bit as Ezra's eyelids closed once more and he sighed, sliding into a somewhat easier sleep with a contented expression on his face.
~*~*~*~*~Nathan! They were going to hang Nathan!
Ezra watched through the batwing doors as the scene played out before him in slow motion. He knew what was about to occur and he strained to force his body forward, but his legs seemed to have been weighted into place. Behind him in the saloon, he heard laughter and an overly loud, overly molasses tinged southern voice saying words as smooth and calculated as their tone was slurred and drunk.
That was why he couldn't move, he realized as he turned around to see. Only part of him was here, at this door, watching Nathan's fate. The rest, apparently the more corporeal part, was back there at one of the poker tables, too busy with plying his trade and fleecing new marks to see the potential death of a friend.
But of course, they weren't friends, were they? Not here and now. The Ezra that was so engrossed in his game of poker had no idea that the events going on outside would cost him something far more precious than money if they were to unfold without interference.
A cry of fearful protest sounded and Ezra turned back around, his attention once more focused on the terrible crime that was about to be committed. He was startled to realize that he no longer stood inside the doorway of the saloon, but was instead just inside the edge of the graveyard. He stared, horrified, as Nathan was hoisted into the air and had a noose looped around his neck. Ezra could see Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner standing just off to his left, coolly confronting the men who had so endangered the town's healer. He smiled, waiting eagerly to see them dispatch the miscreants with bravado and great speed, just the way he had heard this scene described innumerable times by JD Dunne.
Only this time, it did not happen that way.
With a sickening roll of his stomach, the frozen gambler watched as first Vin and then Chris was murdered while trying to protect the life of a greenhorn boy in a bowler hat who suddenly appeared firing twin colt pistols, only to be cut down himself by a hail of bullets. Now all three lay dead, for no other cause than being the only men brave enough to try and stop an unjust lynching.
Nathan Jackson screamed in protest over the deaths, and then with a choking cry, the rope snapped him back and he joined his three would-be rescuers.
They had fallen, outmatched by opponents whose number seemed to double then triple in size, growing larger the more Ezra watched. They were no longer just a few men, liquored up and ready to avenge the death of an employer. They had become the ugly, angry, tar and feather wielding mob of Ezra's darkest memory, the mob who had tried to kill him in his 17th year over a badly timed and not even very lucrative swindle. He had escaped them that first time, but now his tightly clenched guts churned and roiled as the mob advanced on him, bloodlust in its collective eye.
He screamed, begged for someone to help him as clawing hands tore at his clothes and gouged into his flesh, eager to bring him to his fate. Hoisting him up to the same noose from which Nathan Jackson's body dangled, they pulled the rope roughly from the dead man's neck and placed it around his own.
Ezra's cries went unheeded, and as he watched, he saw the crowd outside the cemetery border grow. Misters Conklin and McElroy, Mrs. Juneo, the Pattersons; all the citizens of Four Corners who had so openly and snidely derided his presence in their town. All those nameless citizens of other towns and cities throughout all the years of his life, damning him for his cocky arrogance, his inherited profession, his southern heritage or his God-given talents. A thousand reasons, and none. Such people needed no real reason to hate. Fierce, maddened joy lit their red rimmed eyes, and their very teeth seemed to grow sharper as they grinned at his predicament, shaking hands, pointing and laughing as he prepared to join the four corpses already littering the ground.
Suddenly, at the edge of the crowd, Josiah and Buck appeared and for a moment, Ezra's heart leapt. But then he saw that Buck was shaking his head, looking at him so sadly, and he knew that he had failed. Because of him, Buck would never be reunited with his old friend, Chris Larabee or become the surrogate big brother to JD that he had been meant to be. Because of him, Josiah had not only lost his best friend, but also the chance at personal redemption that Ezra knew the other six peacekeepers had become to him.
"All your life, they've given you that look," Josiah intoned solemnly, looking him straight in the eye, his voice seeming to come from every corner of the suddenly quiet cemetery. "That tilt of the head, that question in the eye. Can I trust him?"
Buck smiled sorrowfully; his whispering tones seeming somehow even louder than Josiah's as he sadly said, "Thought we knew you better, pard."
Ezra struggled and strained, his arm pulling free from his captors, reaching out to Josiah and Buck in silent supplication. Tears of despair leaked from his eyes as the final two members of a brotherhood that would now never exist, walked away and left him to his fate.
"Oh, God, no," Ezra mumbled frantically, head moving back and forth against his pillow, arms reaching out pleadingly. "Please, please, don't. Don't leave me. I didn't mean it. I wanted to help him! Help all of them! Don't you know how sorry I am for what's happened?"
The voice was cracked and harsh, the words barely understandable through the ravages of illness and the thickness of anguish, but Nathan did not need to understand exactly to know what action was needed. Taking a firm hold of the flailing hand nearest him, he pulled Ezra into a full sitting position. There had been a time when he would have hesitated to take such action with this particular man, but now he easily pulled the southerner forward into a firm embrace and held on tightly as the physical struggle weakened and Ezra's pleas became softer and more emotional.
"Take it easy, Ezra," the healer crooned. "You're all right. I'm right here. You're not alone and I'm not going anywhere. Shhh, just calm down now."
Without quite realizing it, Nathan had started rocking as he spoke, one hand gently stroking the disheveled sweat-soaked hair of the man in his arms as he repeated his reassurances over and over again.
The horrific images slowly faded. The crowd of laughing, jeering spectators blurred out of existence. Then the lynch mob slowly followed. Soon, Ezra found himself alone once again; sitting astride his horse on the hilltop overlooking a small Seminole village, struggling with a decision that would change his life forever.
There were three kinds of people in this world, and he had been the third kind all his life. He had a second chance now, or maybe just the first true opportunity anyone had ever offered him, to be something more than what he had been raised to be. It was time to try his luck at a different game.
Nathan smiled as he felt the figure in his arms finally stop fighting, the tension in the overheated limbs softening and fading as Ezra settled once more into dreamless sleep with a final soft hiccuping noise that could have been a sob. For a moment Nathan continued to hold him, wanting to make sure that the nightmare was truly over. Then, satisfied, he carefully laid his friend against the pillows and settled back in the rocker to resume his vigil.
"It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket handkerchief."
"Great . . . Expectations."
Buck stopped reading and looked up, a smile spreading across his face as he realized that Ezra had awakened and was watching him with sleepy eyes that no longer held the bright glassy look of fever. "Hey, welcome back!"
"Love that story," Ezra murmured, licking his lips and making an experimental attempt to clear his dry throat.
"I know," Buck told him, moving to take a seat on the bed as he set the book down and got a glass of water from the freshly filled pitcher on the table. "That's why I chose it from your bookcase. Here, take a sip of this."
Ezra could not believe how weak he felt as he tried and failed to sit up straight, his hand shaking like a feeble old man's as he lifted it to hold the glass. Seeing this, Buck helpfully slid an arm behind his shoulders and assisted him. The cold water sliding down Ezra's parched throat tasted like the finest ambrosia and his grip on the glass tightened instinctively when Buck tried to pull it back.
"Take it easy now," Buck told him, a note of amusement in his voice. "I'm not taking it away, just giving you a few seconds to breathe."
As if provoked by the reminder, Ezra's body suddenly curled in on itself as his breath caught and expelled in a deep cough. The fit lasted only a few seconds, but left him tired and gasping. Gratefully accepting another swallow of water he lay back, groaning, "Is this never going to end?"
"It will," Buck told confidently. "In fact, you're already doing better."
Ezra cast a skeptical glance that made the other man smile.
"Much better," he emphasized. "You're awake and aware, for starters. That's something you haven't been able to claim for about three days."
"Three?" Ezra repeated in shock.
"Mmm, that fever has been rising and falling and keeping you mostly unconscious since late Monday night. Right now it's about two hours to dawn on Friday morning."
Ezra pressed back more heavily against his pillows. Good heavens, no wonder he felt so weak! His body must have been using all of its resources to combat the infection in his lungs. He remembered feeling utterly miserable, as his condition grew increasingly severe and the treatments more complex and difficult to bear. Part of him was not sorry to have been unaware of this latest stage, but to realize that he had missed so much time was distressing, to say the least.
Slowly, a smile drifted over Ezra's drawn features as he recalled how the misery and tedium of those first long days of illness had been broken at regular intervals by visits from his six compatriots. At some point everything had become disjointed and unfocused, blurring together into a span of time he could not seem to put into any sensible order. But threading through the haze were a few warm memories of being read to, talked to, encouraged to fight when he felt like giving up, and even, though he was not quite convinced of the veracity of this particular memory, sung to. It had been very nice to just let go for once and bask in the unfamiliar pleasure of being cared for.
Suddenly, a chill washed over Ezra, wiping the smile from his face. If he had been insensate for three days, then he must have lain here completely helpless, completely dependent on others for his every need. Oh, lord, they would have had to feed him, bathe him, and possibly even change him like some oversized infant! It was too horrifying to contemplate.
"I hope my prolonged convalescence has not caused great inconvenience or discomfort to anyone," he whispered, lowering his gaze to study his fingertips as they plucked and worried at a worn spot in his quilt. He knew he should stop, that he was giving away his distress more with every nervous fidget, but he could not.
Buck waved a hand breezily through the air. "Nah, weren't no trouble at all. In fact, we made some pretty good money chargin' folks fifty cents a visit to come in and gawk at you while you were raving like a lunatic. Twenty five for the gals who just wanted a peek at what's under all them fancy clothes you wear."
Ezra's uncomfortably lowered gaze had shot up at the casual words, eyes going wide with outrage. Then, slowly, he recognized the twinkle in Buck's dark blue eyes and a reluctant smile twitched his lips. "I'll expect a fair cut, then, seeing as how I provided the show," he suggested.
A delighted chuckle bubbled up as Buck slapped a hand on his thigh and said, "Had you going for a minute there, didn't I? To answer your real question, Nathan and Josiah took care of any personal stuff for you, and none of us minded doing the rest. After all, you'd have done the same for any one of us. Right?"
Ezra nodded. "I'd like to think so," he said, oddly comforted by Buck's certainty that he would be willing to drop his own concerns to help a sick friend, just as any of the other men would. He also very much appreciated knowing that only the healer and former priest, both of them experienced at physically disagreeable tasks, had handled him at his most vulnerable.
"Besides," Buck added, "you're actually a pretty good patient. The only one who's suffered any from tending you is Chris."
Almost afraid to know the answer, Ezra asked, "What happened to him?"
"Well, see, yesterday you got kind of delirious and started refusing to spit out the gunk you were bringing up. Kept saying you weren't really sick and we shouldn't leave you behind. Don't know what that was all about but you were turning kind of blue with the effort not to cough or spit, so Chris tried to force the issue by applying one of Nathan's plasters. I guess you kept just swallowing and swallowing until your stomach couldn't take it any more."
Ezra scowled, wishing the other man didn't sound so cheerful about it. "I lost control?"
Seeming not to notice his displeasure, Buck grinned. "Oooh, yeah. I wasn't here at the time, but to hear Josiah tell it, you exploded like Mount Vesuvius, all over Chris. Last anyone saw of him, he was cursing a blue streak and heading off to burn the shirt he was wearing."
"Oh, dear lord," Ezra moaned, hiding his burning face in both hands.
"Don't worry, he'll get over it. Chris was a father once, don't forget. This isn't the first time something like that's happened to him. And it ain't like you did it on purpose. Anyhow, your fever broke last night and you've been at near normal temperature for several hours now. You're starting to cough up a lot more stuff now too, and Nathan is confident that once you manage to get it all out you'll be on your way to a full recovery."
"Charming," Ezra replied sourly, already contemplating what sort of gift he might offer to Chris Larabee in recompense for such a humiliating incident. As he considered, he shifted in place and could not quite stifle a groan as his lower back twinged in protest. It also seemed as if his legs had forgotten how to bend properly, while his neck and shoulders felt achingly tight from the unnatural angle of being propped into a half-seated pose for so long. It was much easier to breathe while raised, but the elevation did not offer much relief otherwise.
"You all right?" Buck asked, his jovial tone dropping to one of honest concern as he watched a grimace of pain cross his friend's face.
With a sigh, Ezra gave up, realizing that there was no comfortable position. "Sore," he admitted.
Instantly, Buck's grin was back. "Reckon we can take care of that. What do you say to a hot bath?"
A sensation of longing instantly rose up in Ezra at the very words, but he shook his head. "I doubt I have enough energy to stand, much less dress, walk to the bathhouse and convince Mister Murphy to open for business several hours early."
"No problem," Buck told him triumphantly. "Murphy let us borrow a tub to put in the back room of the saloon. We would've brought it all the way up, but Inez didn't want us sloshing water all over the stairs."
Ezra frowned, confused. "Why would he do that?"
Buck shrugged. "His business has about tripled since you came to town, between the number of folks you've talked into going there and all the baths you take yourself. He likes you for your own sake, though. Says you're a real fine gentleman and he looks forward to seeing you every week. When he heard you were so sick, he come over to the saloon and told us we should take a tub and put it someplace convenient for you until you're well enough to come back to the bathhouse regular again."
"Most kind," Ezra said quietly, stunned by the generous gesture from a man he'd had no idea viewed him as anything more than a regular source of income. "How did he know of my condition?"
"JD probably told him. He'd have found out anyway, though. You know how long secrets keep in a town this size."
Ezra sighed softly. He did indeed, which meant the news of his incapacitation must have spread like wildfire.
"Lot of folks have been asking after you and you got a few gifts too," Buck continued. "Miz Potter sent that real handsome strawberry pattern quilt over on the bureau. Inez and Mary have both been making up little treats to tempt your appetite. Nettie Wells sent a big bottle of homemade currant wine and Casey added a whirly-gig and some new cards to keep you busy while you're stuck in bed."
Touched more deeply than he cared to admit, Ezra cleared his throat self-consciously. "I trust you extended my thanks."
"Yep, sure did. Now, how about it? Won't take more than a few minutes to heat up some water, and I'll even give you a nice backrub afterwards."
Ezra looked up quickly, certain that he was once again being teased, but saw only sincerity in Buck's eyes. "Why?"
It was Buck's turn to look surprised. "Why not? I'm real good with my hands, just ask the ladies."
Ezra grimaced, less than reassured.
Noticing his expression, Buck laughed again. "Don't worry, pard, you ain't my type. I'm telling you, though, I got a knack. In fact, if there were a way to make money off it, I'd be set for life. Folks'd be lined up from here to Frisco just to get their chance at the magic Wilmington hands."
Feeling his back spasm again, Ezra nodded. "If you're certain you wouldn't mind, I would be most pleased to test that claim."
"That's more like it," Buck approved. "You wait here while I go get some water boiling and fetch one or two of the boys to help me tote you downstairs. You don't even have to get dressed first, if you don't want to. You can just go as is."
Frowning slightly at the insinuation that he was to be lugged about like a sack of wheat, Ezra said, "So long as I have your word that no one else will see me in this state."
"Well, it is more or less the middle of the night," Buck reminded him. "I figure your odds are good."
Ezra sighed, suspecting that he was not really going to have a choice in the matter. "Do with me as you will."
Ezra waited until he was certain that Buck would not be coming back immediately, and slowly removed the blankets to slide his legs over the side of the bed, using the night table to lever himself into a full seated position.
He held steady after that, taking silent inventory of his condition. He felt a bit lightheaded but not as dizzy as he had feared. His arms were shaking as he used them to brace himself against the mattress, and a faint trembling had overtaken his entire body, but all in all he felt a bit better. Aching, tired, and still wheezing louder than a blacksmith's bellows, but better.
A heavy pressure low in Ezra's abdomen proved that his friends had apparently managed to keep him well hydrated during his period of unconsciousness and for a moment, he wondered whether he ought to wait until Buck returned and ask for assistance. Unfortunately, his awareness of the problem immediately seemed to increase its urgency and he realized that waiting a potential ten to twenty minutes was not a viable option.
Leaning sideways, he groped beneath the bed near the footboard only to realize with a feeling of dismay that the chamber pot had been moved from its customary place. He could see it, now that he looked around, over in the far corner next to the bureau. Well, there was no help for it then. He was just going to have to get up.
Grateful that no one was present to witness his lack of coordination, Ezra braced his hand on the floor and rolled off the bed, landing on his knees and using the mattress to push himself up onto shaky legs. He swayed for a moment, alarmed by his own weakness, then set his jaw and moved forward, weaving slowly across the floor in a drunken but determined pattern.
He paused when he reached the bureau, shocked at the sight of his reflection in the mirror that hung above it. His hair was matted and disorderly and his face pale and gaunt, dark smudges drawn beneath each red-rimmed eye. A somewhat scraggly beard covered his lower face, giving clear evidence that keeping him properly groomed had not been anyone's priority over the week or so that he had been ill.
"Deplorable," he muttered, averting his gaze from the mirror and moving urgently to his intended destination. Just as he flipped the lid away from the receptacle, the door opened behind him.
"What do you think you're doing?" Chris Larabee demanded, fairly radiating exasperation at finding Ezra out of bed.
Deliberately turning a bit further into the corner to afford a small measure of privacy, Ezra braced one arm against the wall and snarled, "What does it look like?" Not bothering to wait for an answer, he hitched up the front of his nightshirt and set about accomplishing his goal.
Unable to stifle a sigh, Ezra rested his head on his raised arm as a feeling of intense relief coursed through his body. His ears began to burn as he heard Chris break into quiet laughter behind him.
"Buck told me you were awake, but I didn't expect to find you up and around yet. Guess I can't fault your reasoning, though."
"Had I known assistance would arrive so quickly, I might have waited," he replied, straightening the nightshirt back into order with as much dignity as he could manage before turning to face his visitor.
Taking the hint, Chris moved at once to help him back to a seat on the bed. "How you feeling?"
Ezra considered the question for a moment. "Much improved, I think." Remembering the story Buck had told him, Ezra's grimaced. "I fear that I owe you a most profound apology, Mister Larabee. I'm told that I behaved in a most distressing manner towards you yesterday."
"You mean puking on me?" he said, grinning when Ezra winced at the blunt words. "Can't say I enjoyed it, but I should've expected it."
"You're not angry with me?" Ezra asked, astonished.
A frown flickered across Chris' face at the question. "For what? You weren't even in your right mind at the time. Besides, I figure it must be what Josiah calls karma, payback for all the times I drank too much and made a mess of whoever was nearest me."
Ezra smiled weakly. "Must be why Mister Wilmington was so amused."
A hint of laughter met the guess. "Wouldn't be surprised. You gonna wear that downstairs or you want to change?" He had noticed Ezra plucking distastefully at the sweat-stiffened flannel of his nightshirt.
"Is anyone about?"
Chris smirked. "Nobody who's gonna be shocked, if that's what you're asking. JD's there helping Buck. Everyone else is asleep, or should be."
"Then I believe it would be a good idea to replace my attire. Perhaps with the dressing gown Mister Tanner suggested the last time I ventured forth." He smiled ruefully. "Our friend seemed somewhat amused by the fact that I refused to wear it in public."
As he moved to get the requested item from the wardrobe, Chris gave a soft snort. "Vin probably would think that was funny, you wandering through the middle of town in a rig like that. This it?"
He pulled out the red and black garment, examining it as he efficiently helped the sick man change. "Pretty fancy. Maude?"
"How did you know?"
"Seems like something only a mother would buy," he explained. "Mine did. Not that I ever wore it, but she bought me a similar thing one Christmas."
Ezra smirked, enjoying the idea of Chris Larabee receiving such a gift and being unable to disparage it because of the source. "Mother says every gentleman should own a dressing gown," he explained. Then, pausing a moment to cough roughly, he shrugged sheepishly. "This is the first time I've ever worn mine."
The two men shared an understanding smile.
"Ready to head down?"
"As much as I am likely to be," he agreed. "Would you do me a favor, Mister Larabee, and bring along my shaving supplies?"
Chris's eyes glinted. "Why? Don't you like your new look?" The silent glare Ezra shot in reply had him laughing outright. "Fine, I'll bring 'em."
It took far longer than Ezra had expected just to walk down the hallway and descend the steps separating the upper and lower floors of the saloon. By the time he reached the first table on the main floor, he no longer would have cared if the building were filled to capacity and every person in it staring at his state of semi-dress, so long as there was an unoccupied chair within reach.
"Easy," Chris said, lowering him into a seat before he could fall. "Just take a minute to catch your breath. In fact, why don't you sit here and rest a few minutes? No reason you can't have your shave right here."
Patting his shoulder in an unexpectedly sympathetic manner, Chris shouted loudly for Buck to bring out a bowl and some water.
It was JD, not Buck, who complied with the order, carrying out a bowl and a pitcher and setting both on the table in front of the panting, coughing gambler. "Hi, Ezra. Glad to see you're feeling better!"
Ezra shot him a withering glance, not appreciating the attempt at humor, but then, seeing only sincerity in the young man's bright brown eyes he realized that the words had been meant in kindness. "Getting there," he replied hoarsely, offering a weak smile, which JD returned with a beaming one of his own.
"You sure sound better," JD continued, whipping a bar towel out from where it had been tucked into his belt and draping it around Ezra's neck in an oddly professional manner. "I could hardly understand you at all yesterday. By the way, thanks!"
"For?" Ezra asked simply.
JD grinned. "Because of you, Buck owes me a dollar. He thought you'd want to wait until you were back upstairs. I bet him that you'd want a shave first thing, and that Chris would give in 'cause he's been worried about you and wouldn't be able to say no."
Flatly astonished by this and more so by the fact that Chris only snorted mildly at the claim rather than denying it, Ezra covered his reaction by saying, "You've been taking my lessons in reading others to heart, I see. First Mister Murphy and Josiah, and now Buck. Most commendable."
JD's grin widened at the praise. "Pretty soon, I'll even be able to bluff you."
A raspy laugh met this boast. "Let us not overreach ourselves, my friend."
Undisturbed by the light mockery, JD set about filling the bowl, then dipped another towel in the steaming water and wrung it out, pulling Ezra gently by the shoulder until he rested against the back of the chair, then carefully placing the hot towel around his face.
"I wasn't aware that barbering numbered among your many talents, Mister Dunne," Ezra said curiously.
JD shrugged. "The estate I grew up on was pretty far out from town, but the owners liked their comforts. I was hired to work with the horses, but I used to make an extra four bits a week coming up to the house to give Mister Landers a shave every morning."
Watching the calculating look that slid across Ezra's features, Chris laughed. "You and Buck better be careful there, JD. You revealing all these hidden talents means you might just find yourselves at Ezra's beck and call next time he cleans you out at the poker tables."
Seeing the gleam in the gambler's eyes, JD looked to be caught somewhere between alarm and amusement. "Thanks, but I already got a job."
"Just something to keep in mind for the future," Ezra said lightly, closing his eyes and heaving a soft sigh of pleasure as the towel was removed and he felt the soft stroke of bristles spreading rich foam across his cheeks and chin.
"You cold?" Chris asked, noting that Ezra's arms were still wrapped tightly around his middle, where he had placed them while struggling against his cough.
In reply, Ezra simply gave an affirmative grunt, not wanting to do anything that would cause JD to stop as the straight razor drew its first smooth stroke down his right cheek.
"Buck, bring one of those blankets out here!" Chris barked.
"What's the matter, you break a leg on the way down?" Buck called back, nonetheless emerging from behind the bar and flashing Ezra a grin as he flung a blue woolen blanket at Larabee's head.
Deftly catching the projectile, Chris shook it out and rose from his chair long enough to drape the covering over Ezra's exposed legs, tucking it roughly into the chair on either side of his ribcage. "Inez has a whole stack of these in the back. Need another?"
"This will do nicely, thank you," Ezra murmured through stiffly posed lips as JD drew the razor over his upper lip
JD was efficient and thorough, finishing his task in only a few minutes and once more applying the freshly dampened cloth to Ezra's face to pick up the last few flecks of shaving soap. "That'll be two bits," he quipped, grinning as Ezra patted the sides of his dressing gown, giving him a palms up gesture. "Dang. On the house, then."
Ezra smiled. "Your generosity is much appreciated."
Rising from his seat, Chris moved to lever the sick man up. "All right, then. Let's get you cleaned up before the water cools."
Ezra's bath was a much less leisurely activity than he was accustomed to. Buck had mysteriously disappeared, leaving Chris Larabee to assist, and Ezra found the man's brisk but impatient manner inspiring him to unusual efficiency.
Within fifteen minutes of beginning the process he was finished, and soon, once again dry, robed and securely wrapped in the folds of a woolen blanket, Ezra was seated in the saloon sipping slowly from a glass of cool water. He had been ordered to wait while the other men emptied and washed out the borrowed tub but truthfully he could not have done otherwise if he'd wanted to. He was exhausted, unsure whether he even had enough strength left to get back up to his room. No doubt the others could carry him up if he asked them to, but he so did not want to make that request.
God, he was getting tired of feeling sick and sore and weary . . .
The sound of boot heels clumping down the stairs drew his attention. Buck was descending and frowning sharply as he took in the tired slump of Ezra's posture "You feelin' all right?" he asked gently, helping himself to a seat at the table.
"I don't know," Ezra told him honestly.
Sympathy softened Buck's gaze. "Let's just get you back upstairs to bed, then. We'll see if you're up for what I promised when we get there, and if you're not, I'll just owe you one. How's that?"
As soon as he received a reluctant nod, Buck called out for Chris, who emerged from the back room wiping his hands on a towel. He took one look at Ezra and tossed the towel aside, moving to drape the listless man's arm over his shoulders and walking him to the base of the stairs.
Buck took the same position on Ezra's opposite side. Standing normally, Ezra's height was only a few inches less than his companions' but with both arms draped around their necks, the difference was sufficient to keep his weight completely off the surface of the stairs as the trio moved slowly upward.
"Thank you," he gasped as they reached the top. In response the men set him down and allowed him the dignity of walking to his own room with only minimal aid. Once there, he recognized the reason for Buck's temporary absence. The bed had been neatly remade with fresh linens, the window opened to allow fresh pre-dawn breezes to sweep through and air the staleness from the room.
Taking a closer look, Ezra saw that his pillows had been rearranged into an uneven mound near the top of the bed. As he cast Buck a questioning look, the other man smiled.
"I can move 'em back where they belong, if you want to sleep," he offered. "Otherwise, just settle down there on your stomach and wrap your arms around a pillow. Should prop you up high enough to keep breathing steady while I work."
"I believe I should like to try it," Ezra said, feeling his energy level rise a bit at the enticing sight. Even if he fell asleep before it was over, he would happily enjoy the experience while he could. "What do you recommend I wear?"
Buck frowned thoughtfully. "Dunno. Ain't a question I usually get when I do this for the ladies."
With a soft snort, Chris reached into the wardrobe and pulled out a pair of pants. "These'll do. Won't matter if they get slept in when you're done."
Ezra snatched the garment and moved to the closet, hanging the trousers carefully back on their hangar and replacing them with a far more worn pair. "Those are new," he explained simply, ignoring Larabee's roll of the eyes.
Changing as quickly as his tired body could manage, Ezra climbed onto the freshly made bed, a shiver traveling up his spine as a breath of cold air drifted across his skin.
"Looks like you two are set for awhile," Chris said, closing the window and chuckling as he watched Ezra embrace a pillow and nestle into it, looking like a child with a favorite soft toy. "I'll see you later."
"Thank you again for your kind assistance," Ezra said.
Buck simply gave him a nod; hands already occupied with warming a large dollop of lotion in his palms. As Chris departed, he rubbed the cream briskly between his hands. "Didn't see any liniment but I figured this stuff you had on your dresser would do," he revealed. "What do you use it for?"
Craning his neck a bit to see what the other man was talking about, Ezra grunted, "Hands; promotes tactile sensitivity."
"Sounds about right," Buck said. "You ready?"
Ezra squirmed, hunkering further into the pillows in anticipation of what was to come. "Proceed."
Buck began at the top, using his strong fingers and warm lotion-slicked palms to knead the tense muscles in Ezra's neck and shoulders.
For several minutes, Ezra remained silent except for a periodic sound of discomfort when the probing hands would encounter a particularly tight area.
"Doing all right?" Buck asked, feeling a knot at the junction of his friend's shoulder blades suddenly release, causing Ezra to gasp and then release a long slow breath.
"If I say yes, will it cause you to stop?" he replied, the words sounding a bit strained even through the pillow his face was half buried in.
Concerned that he might not be doing as much good as he had intended, Buck stilled his hands. "You need a break?"
Ezra shook his head. "What I meant to say is that I will gladly claim to be doing miserably if it means that you will continue your actions."
Buck laughed softly. "Don't worry about that, I've got a good ways yet to go and I ain't one to leave a job half finished."
"In that case, I'm fine."
Taking him at his word, Buck formed his hands into loose fists and began twisting his knuckles firmly against the tense muscles in Ezra's lower back. He was rewarded when the other man gave a sharp gasp, his body seeming almost to melt into the mattress as the tightly pulled cords loosened.
"Oh, that's wonderful," Ezra groaned. "I've been somewhat tense since the day I left for Eagle Bend and the circumstances of my stay only made things worse."
"Being sick couldn't have helped much either," Buck added, pressing the warmth of his hands lightly against the still quivering muscles, encouraging them to relax further.
Ezra made a sound of agreement. "The soreness has become a very persistent companion. Not even hot bath water has been able to alleviate it entirely."
Lightly scolding, Buck told him, "You should've said something."
Coughing harshly for a moment, Ezra replied, "It never occurred to me." There was a thoughtful pause, and then, "I hadn't realized that there were such benefits associated with being ill."
Buck smiled at the comment. "What, you've never had somebody take good care of you when you were sick before?"
Ezra was silent for nearly a minute, his lack of reply an answer in itself. Buck shook his head. That just wasn't right.
"Why are you doing this?" Ezra asked finally. "All of you, I mean. With the possible exception of Mister Jackson, none of you were obliged to offer such generous . . . care."
There was a drowsy quality to the hesitantly spoken words, and Buck suspected that increasing fatigue was the only thing that had allowed Ezra to lower his guard enough to voice them.
"You needed us," Buck told him simply. "Ain't often that you seem to need folks, or be willing to take help from anyone."
Ezra turned his head just enough that he could see his companion's face from the corner of his eye. "Such assistance typically comes with a price."
"Sometimes it does," Buck agreed, "and having somebody owe you a favor's not all bad, but that ain't what's going on here. You're my friend, Ezra, and that means you don't owe me a thing."
"Nothing?" Ezra asked, a note of disbelief in his voice.
Buck tilted his head a bit to meet the suspicious green gaze. "Nope. See, you can't owe a man your friendship any more than you can owe a woman your love. You either feel it or you don't. When you do, you got an obligation to yourself and nobody else to see that the other person's taken good care of, and to give whatever comfort you can offer when it's needed."
"Simple as that?"
"Is for me, and I reckon it's the same with the others. You gonna ask 'em?"
Turning his face back into the pillow, Ezra seemed to be thinking hard. Finally, he shook his head and closed his eyes. "I have no need."
Buck smiled and silently resumed his massage, concentrating on offering simple tactile proof of his words. It took only a few minutes before Ezra sighed gently, and relaxed into a deep healing sleep.