Disclaimer: I don't own any of the rights (or wrongs) to Magnificent Seven, its characters or premise. I mean no infringement on those who created it... didn't maintain it... allowed it to languish... falter... disappear... <ahem> Sorry... did that sound bitter?
Characters: Chris, Buck, Ezra
OCs: Four bad guys.
Dedication: This is for Cathy, who wanted Chris in pain from a gunshot, and both Ezra and Buck in the comfort role. Hope this fits the bill!
~o~ ~o~ ~o~ ~o~ ~o~ ~o~ ~o~
Ezra Standish peered owlishly from beneath the brim of his hat. The steam from the mug of coffee he held obscured some of the view before him. However, he could still see the tall, gregarious ladies man across the street. Buck Wilmington stood on the boardwalk, flirting with the McKenzie twins, Annabelle and Arabelle.
The gambler shook his head. If he was expected to give up spending the morning in the company of his down pillow, certainly Buck should be expected to give up his lascivious pursuits.
The two of them were currently the only peacekeepers in residence. Vin had accompanied Josiah to Vista City after the older man received a rather sobering message concerning his sister's health. Nathan, JD, Mary Travis and Casey Wells had volunteered to take some medical supplies to the homesteaders who they had escorted to their land last year. When she heard about the trip, Mary had expressed a desire to visit, and they had invited Casey along for proprieties sake. In the meantime, Chris had ridden out with Judge Travis, traveling to Landon for the Judge to preside over a trial. If things had gone as planned, the blond should be arriving sometime today. Ezra hoped so. Let the gunslinger keep watch during the morning. He would blissfully return to his usual night hours.
"Hey there, Ace, you sure you're awake?" At some point while he was wool gathering, Buck Wilmington had joined the Southerner in front of the Saloon.
"I am most assuredly not certain of anything at this ungodly hour." Ezra grumbled.
With a chuckle, the taller man responded, "Hell, Ezra, sun's been up two, three hours at least." He slapped Standish on the back, causing Standish's coffee to splash out of the mug. He chuckled as the other man cursed and danced away a step, brushing at the liquid that was, even now, staining his white linen shirt.
"Good Lord, Mister Wilmington, have you no manners?"
"None whatsoever," Buck proclaimed with mock pride. Then, before he could do any further damage, he paused. Eyes drifting down the street, he smiled as he quickly recognized the approaching horse and rider. "Looks like you'll be off the hook here shortly, hoss."
Ezra followed Wilmington's line of sight and spotted Chris Larabee as well. With a smile, he said, "I'm certain Mister Larabee will be chomping at the bit, as they say, to regain his role as guardian of our fair community..." he managed to take a step toward saloon before Buck clapped a hand on his shoulder.
With a chuff of laughter, the big man said, "Yeah, right."
Chris reined in before them, sitting ramrod straight in the saddle. That in itself was enough to send out a signal that something was wrong. If not that, then the gray pallor and pinched features that looked out at them from beneath the brim of his hat did.
"Hey, Stud," Wilmington greeted, a gentle tone in his voice. "You tie one on somewhere last night?"
Larabee blinked, slow recognition settling in dulled eyes. He managed a pain-filled, "Buck," before falling out of the saddle.
"Damn!" The bigger man was off the boardwalk and kneeling at his friend's side in a heartbeat. Reaching out, he carefully turned the fallen man onto his back. It was only then that he noticed the wet patches on the man's black shirt. "He's been shot."
Ezra took the time to gather Pony's reins, tying the big gelding to the hitching post before joining the other man at their comrade's side. He saw the evidence of injury as well. Turning toward the other man, he asked, "What happened?"
"You know as much as I do. Damn! Of all the times for Nathan to be out of town."
"Perhaps we should send for him? I could - "
Shaking his head, the bigger man said, "No. We'll send someone else out to the homestead. I'm gonna need you here."
Standish swallowed hard, suddenly wishing he were anywhere but here. Any of the others would be better suited to care for Chris. Then, squaring his shoulders, he silently berated himself. Nodding, he said, "We need to get him up to the clinic. I'll go borrow the undertaker's stretcher."
Buck nodded absently, his attention on his old friend. He focused on the man's chest, watching the shallow, rapid rise and fall as the Chris struggled to breathe. "Just keep fighting, ol' son. They ain't beat you yet."
The two peacekeepers, helped by Yosemite and Tiny from the livery, loaded the injured man into the basket style stretcher and carried him up the long flight of stairs to where Nathan Jackson had his clinic. The entire way, Buck was grumbling about the sense of 'having to carry the sick and injured up two flights of stairs'. Ezra only smirked, silently agreeing with the other man.
The livery men stayed long enough to help situate the blond, even assisting in stripping him to the waist. Tiny let out a low whistle at the sight of the grievous injuries. "Don't know how he managed to sit his horse with all them holes in 'im."
Wilmington shook his head as he examined the wounds. "At least two of them went through."
"The third?" Standish asked with trepidation.
Hand tracing the air above the wound a few inches below Larabee's right shoulder; the ladies man said solemnly, "It's still in there."
Tiny and Yosemite left, taking the stretcher with them. They left behind a promise to care for Larabee's gelding and to bring up enough hot water to aid the men in caring for their injured friend.
Ezra busied himself, bustling around the room, gathering up whatever they might need. Buck remained at his friend's side, doing whatever he could to make the man comfortable. At the same time, he worked hard not to jostle Larabee any more than absolutely necessary. Pulling off the gunman's boots and socks, he watched the pale features for signs of pain. He wasn't certain whether he should be happy or worried when Chris didn't respond at all. Next came his gunbelt; still no response. Undoing the buttons of the man's black pants, he slowly skinned them down the narrow hips and lean legs. Throughout it all, the gunman lay perfectly, horribly still.
Tiny returned with two buckets of hot water, carrying them with the same ease that most men would carry a pair of teacups. He sat the buckets near the bed, asking if they needed anything more. He also informed them that he was going to ride out toward the homestead, hoping to find Nathan, JD and the ladies on their way back. He would hurry them on, sending them back as quickly as possible. Nodding at their thanks, he left the clinic.
The two men worked diligently, cleaning the area around the wounds, so they could better ascertain the extent of the gunman's injuries. One was little more than a deep cut along his side, a furrow etched in his flesh, just below the ribs. The second was slightly higher, a wide groove along not only his side, but the flesh of his inner arm as well. The bullet having, presumably, found it's way between them.
Both wounds were red and swollen, showing signs of infection. These they cleaned out; Buck holding his friend down while Ezra administered enough carbolic acid to clean them out. This caused pain that even deep unconsciousness couldn't hide Larabee from.
"Sh, hang on, Stud," Buck whispered. "I know it hurts, but it won't hurt long."
Chris's eyes slanted open, and he pointed an unfocused stare toward his old friend. "Stop," He managed between clenched teeth. "Stop."
"Take it easy," Buck encouraged. "We're almost done."
"Finished," Standish interjected into the conversation. While the bigger man continued to restrain the gunman, he once more wiped the wounds clean.
As the pain slowly ebbed, Chris was able to relax. The other men saw the tension draining from the taut frame, although it didn't leave completely.
Looking across the bed to catch the other man's gaze, Standish said, "There's no way he can endure cleaning the last wound. Not in the shape he's in at the moment."
With a shake of his head, Buck said, "We've gotta get that bullet out. Look at it," He gave the smaller man a moment to focus on the obviously infected wound. "He can't afford to wait for Nathan to get here."
"Have you ever removed a bullet?" Ezra asked.
Nodding, the brunet said, "A couple out of his hide, in fact. But..." He paused, staring at the other man.
Blanching when he realized just what the other man was thinking, Standish shook his head vigorously. "Oh no... no... you can't be serious!"
"Chest wounds can be difficult, and you've got the steadiest hands I've ever seen. I'd feel a lot better if you were handling the knife."
"No... I couldn't possibly, what if... what if something happens? What if I slip, or make the damage even worse? No, I... I just can't!"
Larabee chose that moment to come around, moaning as the pain took control of his consciousness. His head tossed back and forth on the pillow as he pleaded, "Make it... stop!"
Blue eyes locked with green, until the green pair looked away. Heaving a great sigh, the grifter murmured, "All right."
Buck fed Chris a few drops of Laudenum, enough to send the man into the arms of Morpheous while his friends operated on him.
Ezra went about gathering up not only the items he would need, but his courage as well. This was ridiculous! He could no more remove a bullet from Chris Larabee's body than he could suddenly become a clean and virtuous member of society.
"He's out." Buck announced, bringing Standish back from his thoughts.
With an abrupt nod, the gambler picked up one of the sharp instruments he'd laid out, hoping it was the correct one. Taking a deep breath, and closing his eyes as he let it out slowly, he began.
The operation seemed to take days. He was certain that it was several hours at the very least. Finally, after tedious probing for the bullet, he located it. With his free hand he brought up another instrument and very slowly used it to draw the bullet free. He felt some of the tension leave his body, although he still felt as taut as a fiddler's bow, as the piece of metal was drawn from traumatized flesh.
The wound, as with the others, was infected. Yellow-green pus oozed from it, along with the man's blood. Considering the shape his shirt had been in, they weren't certain just how much more Chris Larabee could afford to lose.
"That's gonna need a poultice to draw out the poison," Buck observed, eyes focused on the wound. Then he looked up at the other man, startled at what he saw. Standish was pale, his green eyes over-bright and twice their normal size. With a compassionate smile, Wilmington said, "You done good, pard. Why don't you step outside and get a breath of fresh air?" Pausing, he added, "You got your flask?"
The shaken man nodded, then bolted from the chair before he dashed from the room. Behind him, the ladies man watched, hoping the gambler would be all right.
Turning to matters at hand, Buck began moving around the room, searching the healer's supplies for things he could use to make a poultice. He wasn't nearly as knowledgeable as Nathan in the medicinal arts, but he knew enough to be able to draw the infections from Larabee's wounds. He hoped.
A short time later, Wilmington had applied the poultice and was attempting to bandage up the blond alone.
"Need some help?"
Turning, the big man smiled, finding Inez Recillos in the doorway. "I surely do, darlin'." He carefully lifted his old friend into his arms, holding him while the young woman quickly bandaged his wounds. As he laid the unconscious man back on the bed, Buck asked, "You happen to see Ezra out there?"
"He is not out there any longer. He came into the saloon, looking like he'd seen un fantasma... ah, a ghost, and hurried upstairs. I went to see what the problem was. I found him in his room, packing."
"Packing?" Buck felt a cold knot form in the pit of his stomach.
"Sí. I asked him where he was going, but all he would say was that he wanted to be away from here, before Chris woke up. I didn't understand what the problem was, so I thought it best to come find out."
Shaking his head, the mustached man said, "I'm not certain myself. Can you stay with Chris?"
"Sí. Of course."
"Thanks. I'll be right back." Leaving the gunman in the bar manager's capable hands, Wilmington hurried from the clinic and down the stairs. Since it was closer, he decided to check the livery first. Turning toward the wide, open, double doors, he stepped inside, and was immediately glad he had. Ezra was just tightening the cinch on his saddle. "So, where ya goin?"
The smaller man jerked, taken unawares by the other man's appearance. "I... uh... I thought perhaps..." he stammered, uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
"Ezra, what's goin' on with you?"
"Nothing! Nothing's going on with me," The gambler said defensively. "I simply thought - "
"I don't have time for this. I need your help. I can't do this... can't take care of Chris and watch over the town alone. I need you here, Ezra, not runnin' off." The smaller man glared up at him, fire burning in usually cool, emerald colored eyes.
"That's what he expects of me... what you all expect of me. That's what I do... I run out!"
Confusion obliterated exasperation. "What in the hell are you talkin' about?"
Before Standish could respond, Inez appeared at the doorway. "Come quick! Señor Larabee is trying to get out of bed!"
"Damn it!" Both men said in unison as they started out the door at a dead room. Being smaller and faster, Ezra quickly took the lead. By the time the other two entered the clinic, he was doing his best to restrain the blond without causing him greater pain.
"Chris, calm down, please. You need to lie down... you've started bleeding again. Please - "
"No... let go. Need to... need to get... get th-them... burning... house is... burning... let go..."
"Chris," Buck came up on the other side of the bed, gently coaxing his friend to lie down. "Come on now. You're sick, Chris. It's just a bad dream."
"But... no... feel the... feel the heat."
"You've got a fever, Chris," Ezra managed to catch the man's attention, staring into fever-bright eyes. "It's just a fever dream, Chris. That's all. Understand?"
"Ezra?" The voice was soft, rough and confused.
With a smile, the gambler replied, "Yes, that's right. Understand now? It was just a dream."
"Yes, it was only a dream. Now, you need to lie down; let us take care of everything. Will you do that for us?"
"I... yeah... o... okay..." Larabee's eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed between the other two men.
Working together, they replaced bloody bandages, repacked poultices, and settled the blond back on the bed. Standish looked up to find Wilmington watching him, with a wry smile on his face.
"And exactly what do you find so amusing?"
With a shake of his head, the bigger man said, "See. We need you here, Ace. I couldn't have done this alone."
The two men spent the remainder of the day and on into the night working in tandem to rid their friend of his fever. Chris lay, insensate most of the time, unable to do so much as lift his head to take a drink. They fed him water and medicinal teas, changed the poultice every few hours to draw the infection out of his wounds, and sat by him while he fought the nightmares that populated his tortured mind. Neither man said much of anything, their focus on the gunman. Finally, midway through the second day, Larabee's fever broke in a burst of heat. He gasped, bucked against restraining hands, and then collapsed in a boneless heap on the bed.
They barely breathed while they waited to see if he continued breathing. Finally, a slight rise and fall of his broad chest proclaimed that Chris Larabee still lived. Both men sat quietly, counting the rise and fall until they could both assure themselves of a rhythm to those breaths. There was a moan, followed by a soft sigh, and Chris drifted into a deep sleep.
"I'll go get some fresh water so we can wash him off," Buck said softly as he rose to his feet. He watched Ezra nod, but otherwise the smaller man didn't acknowledge him.
The sound of Buck leaving the room registered in some part of Ezra's mind, but he kept his focus on the now sleeping man. After the door closed, he let out a long held breath and said, "You're a fine one telling me not to run out on you... how dare you try to run out on us."
They bathed Chris, changed his bandages, and swaddled him in fresh sheets. Resting him on his uninjured side, they placed pillows behind and in front of him, so that he relaxed against them rather than falling to his back or stomach. The blond roused from time to time, expressing his anger at being cared for in a breathless whisper, or complicating things by trying to help the men care for him. The rest of the time, he was as limp as a rag doll... a six foot tall, well muscled rag doll.
Gloria Potter came up late in the afternoon, scolding them for not caring for themselves as well as they cared for their friend. "You two men go on down to the saloon and have a drink, get some dinner, and then go get some rest. I'll stay with Mister Larabee for a few hours."
"We couldn't ask you to do that, Gloria," Buck argued.
"You didn't, I volunteered. Now go on... scoot."
Buck had to acknowledge that they could both use a brief respite from caring for the injured man. With a sigh, he said, "All right, but one of us will be back up here after we've eaten. We'll take turns with him." When the woman started to argue, he held out a hand to stop her. "He's been pretty agitated from time to time, ma'am... out of his mind. If he takes another spell, well, I doubt you can handle him alone."
Bowing to the man's logic, Gloria said, "All right then, but only one of you, and you'll sleep on the cot. I'll stay with him tonight. Is that acceptable?"
With a grin, the rogue said, "Yes, ma'am," as he all but pushed Ezra out the door before him.
A short time later, the two men were sitting in the saloon, drinking from one of Ezra's private bottles, waiting for their dinner. Buck stole looks at the Southerner from time to time, hoping he would start the conversation. When it didn't seem that was going to happen, he spoke up. "We've been busy the last couple of days, but I've still been pondering the way you acted."
Eyes focused on his drink, Ezra watched the amber liquid dance around as he twirled the glass between his fingers. "I'm not certain what you're speaking of."
"Drop it, Ace. If I hadn't stopped you, I've got the distinct impression that you'd have been long gone by now."
Standish sighed, turning away to look around the saloon. Anywhere but across the table. After a painfully long silence he said quietly, "You're right."
Dropping his gaze, the smaller man stared down at the table now. "Because. Because I was afraid... am afraid. What if..." Finally he forced himself to look across the table, staring at Wilmington. "What if something I've done... what if I've caused him damage? What if he's crippled? What if... what if he dies?"
Frowning, Buck replied, "Fever broke, he looks to be comin' round... goin' on the mend."
"You know as well as I do that it's too early to know for certain." Standish was growing angry and defensive again.
"Okay... say you're right. Are you sayin' you can't face up to Chris if he don't make it back whole? Or are you afraid to face the rest of us if he dies?"
Another long pause before, "Yes... both. Either. Look, I'm sorry if this is confusing to you. It's confusing to me as well. All that I know is that I nearly proved him right... again."
"You want to explain that?"
"I was ready to run out again. To leave... desert my post as it were. Just as he expected me to do when this all began. He's right... I'm a deserter. I haven't the courage to stay... to stay and face up to... to whatever happens."
"And if nothin' happens? If he recovers just fine?"
"I... I just..." Standish blew out a breath and wiped his hand over his face. "I'm just afraid, Buck. Afraid that... I don't want to let him down. Not again."
"You've never let him down," Buck argued. "Sure, you've dealt with some temptations, but you never failed him... or any of us. Hell, stud, if anything, you've proven yourself in some damn tight spots."
"It doesn't feel like that," The gambler admitted.
"Well, then you need to rethink some things. You should know as well as the rest of us do that Chris lets that 'moral code' of his get in the way sometimes. He's a good man, Ezra. He's had some things happen to him that've left him changed. You know that as well as any of us. But there's something else that we all know, pard. You're a good man, too. There's only four other men... well, three men and a kid... okay, that's not fair... true, but not fair... that I'd have at my side right now." Buck's words had the response he had hoped for. Ezra chuckled at his verbal antics. "Now, I need you to put those thoughts aside, because it's just me and you right now, and Chris is gonna need us both."
For the first time in days, Ezra Standish relaxed.
After dinner and a few more drinks, Buck sent Ezra to his room after extracting a promise that he wouldn't try to leave again. He also promised to send for him if he was needed in the clinic. Flirting just a little with Inez, the former lawman returned to the clinic. True to her word, Gloria Potter insisted on staying with Chris while Buck got some much needed sleep.
"You'll do him no good falling on your face when he needs you."
"Ma'am, I'm fine," Buck began to argue, only to be betrayed by a jaw cracking yawn.
"Why, yes, I believe you are." The store owner gave him the same stern expression he'd seen her give her children a few times. "Now, Buck Wilmington, I'm going to say this one more time. Go lay yourself down and get some sleep. I'll call you if Chris wakes up."
With a hangdog expression, the big man said, contritely, "Yes, ma'am."
Just as the first hints of dawn began competing with the lantern sitting on the clinic table, Chris Larabee began to stir. A soft groan startled Gloria, and she sat aside her neddlework. Moving to sit on the edge of the bed, she reached out and touched the man's shoulder that peeked out from beneath the sheets. "Take it easy, Chris, you're safe."
Hazel-green eyes blinked open, settling at half mast as the gunman struggled to wrap his brain around reality. Frowning as he worked to first figure out who was speaking and then what they were saying, he finally murmured, "Gloria?"
Smiling, the woman said, "Yes. Are you in any pain?"
She knew enough about these men to know that comment meant that he was experiencing a great deal of pain. "All right, I'll wake Buck, and he - "
"I'm awake, ma'am." Wilmington scuffed over to the bed, looking down at his friend. With a smile, he said, "You awake?"
"Seem to be." Chris frowned. "What... happened?"
"Don't know. You came ridin' into town a couple days back, and fell out of the saddle. You'd been shot, and more than once. Anything you can add to that?"
Larabee's frown deepened as he searched his memories for some explanation. After a few minutes he shook his head. "No... not at the... moment."
"Well, we'll figure it out later. Right now I'll fix you some of Nathan's horse piss... excuse me ma'am... to help with the pain."
Realizing that the blond might have a few other needs to tend to that would be more comfortable without a lady present; Gloria excused herself, saying, "I'll go get you two some breakfast."
With a grin, the big brunet said, "Thank you, ma'am."
Waiting for the lady to leave, Buck turned, gave his friend a wink, and proceeded to help him use the chamber pot. Having taken care of that, he settled Chris on his back, checking his wounds. The blond hissed with pain from time to time, but otherwise lay still and quiet on the bed.
Next on the agenda was to get as much of Jackson's medicinal tea into the injured man. Propping Chris up in the bed, Wilmington helped him drink the mug full of bitter tea. After he was able to focus, Larabee insisted on handling the drink himself, although his friend sat on the edge of the bed, making certain he didn't lose his grip.
Gloria returned a short time later, carrying a breakfast-laden tray. Setting it on the table, she removed the plate she had brought for Buck. With an apologetic smile, she brought the tray over to Larabee then. Setting it down, she watched the gunman's face betray his distaste at the sight of watery mush and a mug of weak broth. "I'm afraid you're going to have to accept it and eat it, Chris. You're not well enough yet to have anything more substantial."
With a resigned tone, the blond said softly, "That's okay, Gloria." He managed a wan smile before picking up the spoon with his good hand.
Insisting that Buck eat as well, Gloria took the chair next to the bed once more, making certain that Larabee managed his meal without any serious problems. While he drifted off from time to time, the spoon clattering against the side of the bowl, he ate nearly half of his breakfast before dropping back, heavily, on the stack of pillows.
"Chris, you need to eat more if you can." Mrs. Potter urged softly.
"Sorry, ma'am... I just can't."
"Well all right - " Before she could finish, she was startled as the clinic door burst open, Ezra Standish dashing over the threshold.
"Damn, Ezra!" Buck yelped, wiping bits of egg off the front of his shirt after being startled by the Southerner. "You tryin' to kill us all with heart attacks or somethin'?"
"Apologies," Standish said in an irritated tone. "I thought perhaps the fact that four men have been asking around town after Mister Larabee might warrant a bit of speed."
"Who are they?" Chris asked, already trying to push himself up off the bed one handed, Gloria just barely rescuing the tray.
"We've heard no names so far. Inez is keeping them busy at the saloon right now. I believe someone has already informed them that you're up here, however."
"Figures," Buck said as he stalked to the bed and gently pushed the blond back to the bed. "You're not goin' anywhere, pard. Not alone at any rate."
"We will need to move him," Standish observed.
"Don't take offense, stud, but it might be better if you were dead," Wilmington looked down at his friend, a glint in his dark blue eyes.
"Buck Wilmington!" Gloria scolded. Then she looked and saw something pass between the two men. Curiously she asked, "What are you two thinking?"
Four men watched the action playing out from seats in front of the saloon. Bart Manfred had spotted the woman hurrying toward the undertaker's, her handkerchief held to her face. He called inside the saloon, alerting the other three he rode with; Rey Diego, Sid Whitman and Davy Spikes, and the quartet settled on the boardwalk to watch. Soon the woman was hurrying back across the street, the undertaker behind her, carrying his stretcher.
"Someone's dead," Sid observed. "Reckon it's him?"
"Reckon we'll find out soon enough," Davy replied, a cold gleam in his dark eyes. Chris Larabee had sent his brother to hang, and he was set on revenge. Bob was the only family he had, and he was damned if the cocky son of a bitch would get away with his murder. If there was one thing his brother had taught him, it was vengeance. Retrieving a match from his pocket, he scratched it alive with the edge of his nail. Mesmerized, he watched the tiny flame come to life while they waited.
After what seemed a long wait, the woman and the undertaker returned, accompanied by the gambler they'd seen earlier, the man from the livery and another man. The four men carried the stretcher between them, something... or someone... lying beneath a blanket on it. As the morbid little parade neared the saloon, the woman moved away, coming toward them. The men rose and removed their hats as the lady passed, before sprawling back in their chairs. They listened as she spoke to the barmaid inside.
"Inez, he's passed on... Mister Larabee has died!"
"Madre de Dios! No! I thought he was getting better!"
Gloria hated putting the young woman through unnecessary pain, but it needed to appear real to the men outside. She would apologize as soon as she could, and hope Inez would forgive her. "He seemed to be, but then... I'm not certain what happened. They've taken him to the undertaker's, and then Buck and Ezra are going to send for the others before he's... before he's buried." The shopkeeper felt a cold shiver down her spine at that last, hoping that the plan they'd hatched wouldn't end in Chris Larabee's true death.
Outside, Davy smiled as he blew out his fifth match. "Well boys, looks like we got 'im after all. How about we wait for them fellas ta leave, then we'll go pay our respects to the departed."
Inside the undertaker's, Yosemite nodded to the peacekeepers and slipped out the door. As agreed upon, Jake Moss, the undertaker, slipped out the back door and out of the line of fire. They had already lost one undertaker to violence; they weren't ready to lose another.
They had uncovered Chris, removing the knotted cloth he'd insisted they give him to bite on to keep him from giving away their plan. He gasped and groaned, his waxen features covered in a thin sheen of perspiration when Buck removed the cloth. "W-well?"
"It appears to have worked," Ezra announced from his post at the window.
Wilmington gently bathed his friend's face, silently cursing the man's stubbornness. He had wanted to give Larabee a dose of Laudanum, but he'd refused. Instead, he insisted on being part of the plan. "Well you're about a white as a ghost... reckon that'll work in our favor." His joke fell short, and he shook his head. "Damn it, Chris, I don't like this."
"No, this wasn't. My idea was to get you out of harms way, not to plunk you right down in the middle of it."
Opening his eyes, the blond managed, "You kn... you know me."
"Yeah, too damn stubborn for your own good." He bathed the ashen face once more, then offered the injured man his own hip flask. Allowing him a couple of sips before drawing it away, he said, "Well, you ready?"
Nodding, the gunman reached out a hand, gripping the one offered him. Turning slightly, he called out softly, "Ezra?"
Standish moved over to the other side of the undertaker's examination table, where the 'corpse' of Chris Larabee rested. He was surprised when the gunman offered him his hand as well. Taking it, he was unable to do anything more than stare down into the fever-bright eyes.
"Thanks, Ezra," was all the blond said. But it meant more than words could convey.
With a smile, the conman said, "Thank me only if this works... Chris."
They watched as two men exited the undertakers. Both looked somber as they stood together on the boardwalk for a moment, before parting to go their separate ways. One headed toward the telegraph office, while the other moved down the ally and disappeared through a door at the side of the building across from the undertaker's.
"Well boys, let's go have us a private viewing." Davy Spikes chuckled as he rose to his feet. Tossing away yet another spent match, he moved out onto the street, the other three behind him.
A minute later they entered the near-darkness of the undertaker's, blinking as they tried to adjust to the change of lighting. Davy moved toward the table where he could just make out a very still shape laid out on its surface, partially covered by a blanket. Coming to stand above the body, he stared into the pale face of Chris Larabee. The man who had sent his brother to be hanged. The man who was responsible for his brother trying to escape, only to fall beneath a hail of bullets. Just yards from him. David Spikes would never forget watching his older brother collapse, one arms stretched toward him even as the light faded from his eyes.
Maybe he couldn't free his brother, but he was going to avenge his death.
"That him?" Diego asked.
"It's him." Davy assured.
"But you ain't never seen 'im up close. What if it's some other cowboy?"
"Don't call me cowboy."
The four men started as the 'corpse' was suddenly holding a gun on them.
"He hates that."
Heads swiveled, finding the bigger man they'd watch leaving, suddenly entering from the back room.
"Discard your weapons, gentlemen."
Four men watched the smaller of the two men appear through the front door.
"Yeah, 'cause since we're right here in the undertaker's and all, it might just be too temptin' to give him your business." Buck observed.
Gunbelts, guns, knives and other weaponry clattered to the floor, until the four men were completely unarmed. Then, Larabee covering them from where he laid propped on one elbow, while the other two men waved them on, they marched single file from the room. Outside they found themselves surrounded by some of the townsmen, all armed, ready to escort them to jail. Yosemite took the lead, issuing orders as the four would-be killers were herded down the street.
Inside, Buck grinned down at his friend, then leapt to his aid as Chris slumped back toward the table. "Whoa there, son! Reckon you've done more than your share today."
B-Buck... get me up... off... off here." Larabee cringed at the thought of lying back down on the undertaker's table. "P-Please."
His smile fading when he saw the real discomfort on the pale face, Wilmington nodded. "All right, but you're gonna do what we say, and let us take care of you. Understand?"
Chris tried a glare, but was far too weak to hold it for more than a few seconds. Defeated by his own body, he nodded. "Yeah... fine."
"C'mon, Ezra. Let's get this cowboy up and put him back to bed." The grin returned, and Buck gently lifted the injured man to a sitting position.
"Indeed," Standish chimed in as he moved in on Larabee's other side. "I would hate to have him injure himself attempting one of his glares at this time."
"God damn... sm... smart asses," Chris muttered as he felt himself lifted from the table. With a groan, he let his head fall to Buck's shoulder. At the moment he was more than happy to allow the others to take care of things. He was busy enough remembering how to breathe.
His friends would watch his back.
Nathan Jackson hurried up the stairs to his clinic, JD close behind him. Crashing throug the door, he stopped short, staring at the scene before him.
Chris Larabee lay propped up in bed, freshly scrubbed and shaved, his still drying hair combed back from his face. He looked pale and tired, but didn't seem to be in an undue amount of pain. One arm rested across his belly, held there by a sling, while the other held a hand of cards. There was a tray sitting across his lap, discarded cards and coins scattered across its surface. On either side of the bed sat Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington, both holding cards as well.
Tossing away his hand, Larabee grumbled, "Hell, Ezra, where'd you hide the good cards?"
Slapping his cards on the tray as well, Wilmington exclaimed, "Well, he sure didn't pass any this way, ol' son."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen... it is, after all, a game of chance."
"Chance, my foot." Buck growled. Then turning toward the door, he said, "Well hey there, Nathan. How're the folks out at the homestead?"
"Fine," Jackson muttered, still staring at the men. "I thought y'all needed me back here. Tiny said it was an emergency."
Pushing past the bigger man, JD stood to one side, hands fisted on his hips. "We damn near killed our horses getting back here. Even left Tiny with the ladies so we could get back sooner, and we find you three playing cards."
"Guess it wasn't as bad as they thought," Chris studied fresh cards, fixing a glare in Standish's direction.
"Yeah, reckon we overreacted," Buck conceded.
"I tried to be the voice of reason, however," Ezra shrugged, "as usual, no one listened to me."
"Yeah, usually because you're so full of hot air," Chris tossed aside those cards as well. Turning toward the newcomers, his words for the friend on either side of him, he acknowledged, "Well, boys, reckon we'll have to finish the game later. Imagine Nathan wants to have a look at your handiwork."
"Yes, I would imagine so," Standish started to lift the tray off the blond's lap, only to have Wilmington pull it out of his hands. "Mister Wilmington, really!"
"I'll just put it over on the table, so we can finish it later... Ace." Carrying the tray across the room, he turned toward JD. "Oh, Kid, we've got some guests down in the jail. How about you give me a hand gettin' them something to eat?"
"Guests? What... what happened?" Dunne stammered.
Slapping the young man on the shoulder, Buck pushed him toward the door. "I'll fill ya in, c'mon."
Rising from his chair, Ezra aimed his comment toward Larabee. "I believe I'll tag along, just to make certain he... uh... fills in the details properly."
Settling back against the pillows, trying not to show just how weary he was, Chris nodded as the Southerner turned to leave. "Yeah, that might be a good idea. He'll have JD thinking he took care of everything single handed." Pausing, he said, "Ezra?"
Turning back toward the bed, Standish replied, "Yes?"
With a grateful smile, the gunman said simply, "Thanks."
Touching the brim of his hat, Ezra said with a hint of pride in his voice, "You're quite welcome... Chris."