Disclaimer: Don't own any rights to the characters and concepts of the Magnificent Seven. Don't profit off the fiction I write.
Warnings: Deals with some sensitive subject matter in the beginning, tread lightly. None of it is explicit, but it includes the suggestion of rape and other violence toward a (pregnant) woman. Other violence, bloodshed and language.
Characters: Ezra Standish, the Seven.
Genre: H/C (of course). Ezra gets the owwies, both physical and emotional. The others offer the comfort.
Notes: I've got plans for Ethan, so please don't borrow him. And if that sounds ominously like a sequel? You're right!!
The passages from Gulliver's Travels is taken directly from the following link: http://www.jaffebros.com/lee/gulliver/bk1/chap1-1.html, including the spelling.
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Ezra Standish stepped through the batwing doors to the boardwalk beyond, breathing deep of the predawn air. He scrubbed a hand over tired eyes and took a sip from the steaming mug in his other hand. He had just finished alleviating three traveling businessmen of their discretionary funds an hour earlier, staying in the saloon until he was certain the grumbling trio wasn't going to come back in an effort to 'convince' him to return their money.
The sound of a horse coming up the street caught the gambler's attention and he turned to see the animal moving quickly along the dusty road, its rider slumped forward in the saddle. Setting the mug down, he leapt from the boardwalk and sprinted toward the approaching apparition. As he neared the skittish creature he slowed, not wanting to frighten it off. He was shocked to see a young woman, beaten and bloody, clinging to the reins. She turned, setting pain glazed eyes on the man beside her.
"Help me... please."
Carefully, the Southerner pulled her into his arms. As he did, he realized that the woman was pregnant, her swollen belly pressed against the bloody nightgown she wore. Cradling her in his arms, he hurried toward the long staircase that led to Nathan's clinic. She lay limp against him, one trembling hand clutching his shirt. Her breathing was raspy and hard for him to hear, the tiny moans that escaped from time to time even more difficult.
Reaching the top of the stairs, he called out, relieved to see the big healer quickly open the door. Without a word, he carried his precious burden past Jackson and settled her gently on the bed. He started to move away, but her hand remained wrapped in his clothing. The gambler looked to see her eyes open wide and fixed on him. Tenderly he coaxed her fingers open, and took the small hand in his own. Carefully settling on the edge of the mattress, he kept his eyes locked with hers and managed to paste a small smile on his face. Patting her hand, he said softly, "it's going to be all right."
Nathan came up on the other side of the bed. He lifted her head and fed her something in a metal cup. The healer coaxed her to drink the entire contents of the cup before he laid her back on the pillow. Looking across the young woman he caught Standish's expression, complete with furrowed brow and questioning eyes.
"That seems rather a lot to give her, assuming that it was a sedative."
"Laudanum." The big man turned his head, unwilling to look at his friend.
"Laudanum? Nathan, what are you trying to do? That's too much."
Brown eyes finally turned toward the gambler, pain evident in their depths. In a whisper, he said, "Don't matter none."
Reality dawned, and Standish let out a small groan. He felt the hand in his twitch and realized he had been squeezing it ever tighter. Looking down at the young woman, he said, "my apologies my dear."
Turning to the other man, Ezra asked, "the child?"
"She's 'bout ready to deliver. I'm gonna hurry things along best I can. Can you... can you stay with her?"
Nodding, the smaller man said, "I'm not going anywhere. Do you know her?"
"Yeah, name's Amelia Cooper. She and her husband Ethan took over the old Patterson place about three months ago."
"Do you think..." he couldn't help but look at the cuts and bruises that covered most of her face and neck. "Would her husband have..."
Looking up when the smaller man didn't finish the sentence, Jackson realized what he was leading toward. "Don't think so. Didn't know 'em real well, but Ethan seemed a decent man."
"Then someone else... I wonder as to Mr. Cooper's whereabouts."
"We'll look into it later, Ezra. Right now I need to take care of things here."
Standish looked over his shoulder to see Nathan working feverishly. He saw more blood on the lower portion of her gown and asked in a trembling tone, "was she - ?"
Nodding but not taking the time to look up, the healer said, "She was raped."
"Oh, my lord." He felt the room spin as his mind struggled to take in all that the young woman clinging so tightly to him - and to life - had endured.
Sensing the other man's mounting anger, Jackson said again, "we'll look into it later. Ezra, I need you to keep her calm... keep her company. I'd like to deliver the baby before... I'd like her to see her baby."
Tears welling up in jade green eyes, Standish said, "I will do my best."
The world narrowed until all that it contained was a pair of crystal blue eyes. Eyes that never left his face, even as the opiate began to take effect and their light began to fade. He was vaguely aware of Nathan pressing a cloth to a wound in her upper chest, then moving down to the other end of the bed in preparation of delivering her child. He reached out and gently stroked a hand through sweat curled auburn hair. Finally he managed to find his voice, and sought to use it to keep her anchored to life.
"So, tell me my dear, have you a preference? Do you want a son or a daughter?"
Colorless lips moved as she struggled to answer him, but no sound came forth. He read her answer, though, and smiled. "A son. Yes, that would be quite wonderful, wouldn't it? A son to help you and your husband on your homestead."
Her eyes closed and tears rolled from beneath the pale lids. Ezra mentally kicked himself. Taking a deep breath, he continued softly. "Have you chosen a name?"
The tear-washed eyes opened once more and she once again mouthed her answer.
"Ethan? Ah yes, a fine name it is. He shall carry it proudly, I'm certain... make his father proud."
He stopped as she arched up, her mouth opening in a breathless cry. He took both her hands, holding them firmly between his own. "Stay with me, Amelia. Hold on... squeeze as hard as you dare. Please, my dear, stay with me."
"Don't let 'er move," Jackson commanded. "I've got th' baby... gotta deliver the shoulders."
Nodding absently, Standish's full attention was on the dying mother to be. He wished the Laudanum would take full effect, to spare her some of the pain. At the same time he couldn't bear the thought of those trusting eyes closing. He knew they would never open again.
"Hold my hands, Amelia... squeeze them. Come on, now, you can do better than that. You're an amazing young woman, Amelia. Very brave. You're strong, Amelia. You have to fight."
"It's a boy?"
"Yeah," relief was evident in the deep voice, which was accompanied by a hearty cry. A healthy baby boy.
Ezra looked into her face with a smile, only to have the expression falter as he read something in the ashen face. And he knew. "Give me the child."
"Just a minute, I need to - "
"Give me the child!" Ezra all but ripped the infant from the healer's hands. Cradling the tiny being, still attached to his mother by the umbilical cord, in one arm, he carefully lifted the child's mother into the other. Gently he placed the baby boy against Amelia's chest.
"Here he is Amelia. Your son. And a fine, healthy baby he is."
She reached out, touching the tiny face. He looked to see tears rolling down her face. He pressed his cheek against her head and whispered, "He shall grow to be a fine man, Amelia. I shall do everything in my power to make certain of that."
A soft breath of air escaped the young woman, and he felt her grow limp against him. Standish looked up, tears coursing down his own face as he sought the other man's help.
Jackson took the infant from the Southerner, watching as he gently lowered the young woman back to the bed. "I'll get them both cleaned up... get her to the undertaker. Reckon Mrs. Potter or Mrs. Travis can help take care of the baby 'til we know what happened to his daddy."
"It is not 'the baby'. His name is Ethan."
Knowing the man was speaking out of grief, Jackson said, "We'll take care of Ethan 'til we know what happened."
"You said they took over the Patterson's homestead?"
"That's that little piece of land just west of here, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Reckon we better get Chris and the others and ride out. Soon as I get... Ethan... cleaned up; can you take him to Mrs. Potter?" When there was no answer, the dark healer looked up only to find that Ezra had left the room.
Standish sprinted to the salon, not breaking stride as he dashed through the door and up the stairs. Not even thinking about his bloody clothing, he stayed there only long enough to retrieve his Colt and the stash of ammunition he kept handy. Then he tore back down the stairs and out the door, heading for the livery. A few minutes later, he was back out the door, astride his horse.
There were very few lanterns lit in the little town, and few people up and about. Only one pair of eyes beheld the sight of Ezra Standish roaring out of town, as if the devil's hounds were snapping at his heals. Vin Tanner frowned and shook his head at the vision. He could imagine Ezra leaving in such a manner from many of the little towns in the vicinity. Here, however, he had six men who would watch his back if there was a problem. Curious, Tanner noted that the lantern was lit in Nathan's clinic. Still holding the cup of coffee he had been sipping, he strode purposefully across the street and jogged up the wooden stairs.
Entering the room after only a cursory knock, Vin's face paled as he took in the scene before him. Jackson was just covering a very still body that lay in the middle of his bed. A blanket wrapped bundle lay at the foot of the bed, the coverings moving from time to time, accompanied by tiny sounds from the depths of the wrap.
"Ah, hell. I'm sorry Nathan. Didn't mean t' come bargin' in."
"No harm. Did you happen to see Ezra?"
Nodding, Tanner said, "'s what I was comin' up ta check in with ya on. He lit outta here hell-bent-fer-leather jist now."
Heaving a sigh, the big man said, "heading west?"
"Yep. What th' hell's goin' on, Nathan?"
Quickly Jackson recounted the happenings of the past hour, watching rage well up in the finely chiseled features of the other man. "I'm gonna finish seein' to these two, can you go round up the others and get the horses ready?"
Tanner nodded, moving quickly from the room. There was no need to discuss what they would do, it was very simple. They were going to ride out after the gambler and hopefully keep him from getting himself killed.
He couldn't remember the last time he had ridden Lady Diamonds so hard. The little chestnut hurtled full tilt across the prairie, as if she understood what had happened. He bent low over her outstretched neck, ignoring the tears that left wet tracks along his checks before they whipped into the air behind him. He knew he was acting the fool, bursting out here alone with no idea of what lay ahead. For all he knew, he could be riding toward his own death.
He spurred the horse faster.
He slowed an hour later, as he topped the little rise that looked down on the little valley that Ephraim and Clara Patterson had owned for some years. Reining the blowing horse in, he took in the scene below.
It was the picture of serenity at first glance. That was until you noticed the body sprawled face down in the dirt just outside the little house. Standish recalled Amelia's response when he mentioned her husband, and knew in his heart that it was Ethan Cooper lying there.
He watched the homestead for several minutes, searching for any sign of life. There were several horses milling around in the yard, still saddled, which told him that whoever had committed such heinous crimes was still there. Dropping from the saddle, he ground reined Diamonds, slipping his rifle from the boot. Pulling his Colt as well, the gambler slipped quietly down the hill, heading for the little house.
He could hear them before he reached the small, wooden structure. The sounds of several sleeping men told him that the monsters responsible for the deaths of Ethan and Amelia Cooper were inside. Creeping up to the house, he inched along the wooden surface until he reached an open window. Carefully he peered inside, half expecting to see a group of demons huddled there.
They were only men after all. He counted five, sprawled out amidst a large collection of liquor bottles. All of them empty. His stomach churned as he thought of Amelia having to endure the torture they had heaped upon her.
Leaving the window, he moved silently across the yard to where the body he assumed to be Ethan, senior, lay. Kneeling beside the man, he hoped in vain to feel a heartbeat. Turning the man over, that hope died, as he saw that Mr. Cooper's face had been literally bashed in. The Southerner's rebellious stomach threatened to spill its contents into the grass. He held firm, however, knowing that this was not the time to give in to the horror he felt.
Pushing himself back to his feet, Ezra squared his shoulders as he stared toward the little, besieged, home. With a purposeful stride he marched toward the front door. Without missing a step, he kicked the door open and moved inside. A cold smile crept across his face as he beheld the looks of shock on the faces of the men inside.
"Morning, boys," he drawled.
"Wh-who th' hell 're you?" A large, ugly man stammered.
"Me? Why my good sir... I am Satan himself, come to claim your souls."
They looked to see the mark of the Devil in those green eyes, and not one of them doubted that he was exactly who he said he was. Then their attention was drawn to a point behind the vision in blood-stained clothing. Standish saw this but, before he could turn to see what they were looking at, something very heavy impacted on the back of his head, and he fell bonelessly to the floor.
Another of the ruthless gang stood over the unconscious man, bloody axe handle dangling in his grip. He looked up at the other men, a cold smile gracing his scarred and hawk-like features. "Reckon we got us another plaything, boys."
It had taken almost an hour to gather the others, ready the horses, and arm themselves. But, finally, the other peacekeepers rode out of town, horses at a gallop as soon as they cleared the livery doors. Townspeople out and about their morning business, hurried to get out of their way, watching after the six men with curious gazes.
They rode hard, cutting across the prairie on the quickest route to the Cooper's homestead. Tanner, in the lead, kept his keen eyes peeled. He hoped to see the gambler ahead, hoping he would calm enough to turn back. He hoped Standish wouldn't be foolhardy enough to take on the unknown without someone at his back.
Their first indication of where Ezra was came when they reached the far side of the hilltop that overlooked the homestead. His chestnut, Lady Diamonds, stood waiting patiently for his return. Dismounting, the men ground reined their own mounts, and moved cautiously to the top of the rise. It was there they discovered just how foolhardy Ezra Standish could be.
He had regained consciousness, although he wished he hadn't. Pain coursed through his body, every fiber of his being screaming with shear agony.
Standish had been stripped to his underwear, and was tied, spread eagle, between the two porch uprights. He had no idea as to how long he'd been suspended there, but had the suspicion that it was nearing a lifetime.
They had taken turns beating him, using fists, clubs, and anything else that caught their fancy. When they tired of that, they settled in several yards away from him. At the moment, they were using his bloodied body for target practice. Each man had drawn knives, some with thick blades, some with thin. They took turns again, throwing their knives at him. Fortunately for the battered man, their hangovers, coupled with the bright morning sun, and his - albeit limited - ability to move, kept them from hitting him very often. Still, they had managed to hit their target several times. Some were glancing blows, the knife clattering to the dusty boards behind him. Others pierced his flesh, leaving the weapon's owner to remove it before his next turn. Which they took great join in doing. Roughly.
He had quickly tired of crying out; realizing that it only seemed to excite the men all the more. He found it distasteful to add to their pleasure, so fought the urge to scream by biting into his cheek. From time to time he was forced to swallow, the sharp, copper taste of his own blood nearly gagging him.
The injured man struggled to keep his head up, not wanting to give the violent gang the satisfaction of seeing how weak their abuse had rendered him. Although he couldn't see any of them clearly, he focused in their direction, a defiant expression on his bruised face.
And then it began to thunder. He groaned. Just what he needed to make it a perfect morning... rain. Standish couldn't understand why he was hearing thunder, however, when the sun was nearly blinding him.
The members of the gang halted in their game, staring toward the hill at the sound. Then they saw that the thunder came on the hooves of six horses, bearing down on them like the wraiths of hell. The men on their backs were armed, guns blazing as they roared toward them.
The gang scrambled for cover, fingers fumbling to draw their own weapons. Some of them managed it, managed to get off a few shots. Others fell with their gun unfired.
The fight was brief, almost anticlimactic. Only one of the vile murderers was still breathing when Chris Larabee and the other men reached the little yard, but died soon after. Writhing in agony, he breathed his final breath lying alone on the ground, drowning in his own blood. The six peacekeepers had other priorities. The only attention he received was when Buck Wilmington kicked his Colt out of his hand. His fate had been sealed the moment he stepped onto the Cooper's homestead, and the men of Four Corners felt no compassion toward him.
On the porch, Ezra managed to focus his attention long enough to see that his compatriots had arrived. He realized that the whole of his vision was suddenly taken up by the much welcome visage of Josiah Sanchez. Frowning, he tried to decipher the reason for the big former preacher was hugging him. While he was ecstatic at their arrival, Standish wasn't certain that he cared about any of the others enough to embrace them.
Sanchez carefully held the slender form while Chris and Vin quickly cut the ropes holding him. As they did, the gambler slumped in the bigger man's embrace with a moan. He managed to look around him, seeing the familiar faces of his friends. Then his eyes rolled back in his head as he lost his bid to remain conscious.
"'Bout time you woke up."
Standish slowly managed to turn his head, announcing his pain in a small gasp. Blinking, he struggled to clear and focus his vision, finding Buck Wilmington sitting beside him. He couldn't clear his mind, however, and had already forgotten what the other man had said. "What?"
Good lord, was that his voice?
"Said, it's about time you woke up," Wilmington repeated.
"I... did I sleep... long?" Why couldn't he form a coherent sentence?
"A time," the bigger man said cryptically.
The former slave was suddenly in his line of vision, a serious expression on his face. "Well, at least you know who I am. What else can you tell me?"
"Thirs... I'm thirsty," he acknowledged.
Then something happened to reality and he was being held and fed something sweet and cool. He frowned, trying to adjust his hold on the world around him.
It didn't work, however, and he suddenly realized that he was once again lying prone. And he was chilled. Struggling to pull himself up, he managed to lift his head enough to see that the blankets were gone. And he was completely naked! "What the..."
"Lay still, I'm almost finished." Josiah Sanchez was sitting on a chair beside him, holding a wash cloth that he lowered, stroking it over shivering flesh.
"I can... why are... please!" He complained.
"It's all right," Sanchez said softly. He continued his ministrations, the cloth sliding ever lower.
"Jo... Josiah!" Ezra protested as he was touched by the warm cloth in areas that only he himself, and a few women, had touched.
Smiling, the older man said, "Ezra, lay still. You've been unconscious for more than a week. There are certain things that need... well; they need to be tended to."
Standish groaned; an embarrassed sound. And once more he found himself waking to another part of his life. He was being carefully lifted into the air, on a stretcher between his friends. "Where..." This was becoming ridiculous.
"Welcome back," Chris looked down at the smaller man from where he was supporting one corner of the stretcher.
"We're takin' you up to your room," Buck explained from another corner.
Seeing the look of confusion, Vin offered from a third corner, "Had ta keep ya out at the homestead 'til you were strong enough fer the trip back."
"How badly... what happened... I don't un... understand." He couldn't wrap his already overwhelmed mind around what little information he could retain.
"Don't worry about it," Nathan instructed from the fourth corner of the stretcher. The only thing you need to think about right now is getting well."
"Don't think he heard ya, Doc," Vin mentioned, tilting his head toward the once more unconscious man.
"Well, better he's out for now, anyway. Won't hurt so bad. Let's get him upstairs and settled in."
It had been over two weeks since Ezra had ridden out to avenge the death of Amelia Cooper. For the first three days after they'd found him, he'd been deeply unconscious. Since then he had been in and out, sometimes recognizing them, at other times calling them strange names and talking about a part of his past that none of them had ever been privy to before.
The fact that Nathan had been concerned only increased worry in the others. He wasn't able to tell them anything more than that he'd suffered a serious head wound, along with more knife wounds, cuts, scrapes and bruises than any of them could count. His body was now a patchwork of healing wounds and stitches. The soft tissue on each of his wrists and each ankle had been bruised, strained and torn; it would be a long time before he would be able to walk to the gaming table or shuffle his cards once he got there.
They had been afraid to move him until today. Instead, they'd kept him at the Cooper's homestead.
They had laid the wounded gambler on the roughhewn table that sat in the Cooper's kitchen. Nathan and Josiah spent hours stitching, patching, bandaging and cleaning him up. While they were busy with that, the others were kept busy cleaning up the place. They piled the bodies into the back of Cooper's wagon, taking care with only the brutalized homesteader. The others were piled like kindling at the back of the wagon, while Ethan was wrapped in blankets and carefully laid out near the wagon seat. No one said anything, but they couldn't even bring themselves to let the man's body be touched by the bastards who'd murdered him.
The days to follow were busy for the other six men. They all took turns staying with Standish, two at a time, while the others saw to their duties in town. The Coopers infant son, Ethan, was placed in the care of Mary Travis, who quickly found a young woman to act as his wet nurse. As the news spread about the tragedy of the Cooper family, many of the townspeople showered the infant with clothing, diapers and anything else that he might need.
Amelia and Ethan, Senior, were given a fine funeral; nearly the entire town turning out to say good-bye. Josiah officiated over the funeral while Nathan, JD and Buck attended along with the others. Mary carried Ethan close behind the wagon during the procession from the church to the cemetery.
Chris and Vin stayed with Ezra that day. Vin could see in Chris' eyes that he wouldn't fare well at the funeral, so suggested that they "nursemaid" the badly injured man. While they were there, Chris kept himself busy going through the Cooper's belongings, searching for any indication of family they could contact. Eventually he found a Bible, with several letters tucked inside the pages. They were all to and from "Annalyse Tyler" and included an address near the northern border of the territory.
As soon as they returned to town the next day, Chris took the letters to Mary Travis, knowing that the newspaper woman's natural talent at uncovering facts would allow her the best opportunity to find the woman.
And now they were all back in town.
They all hoped, wished and prayed that eventually they would be seven again.
Reality yanked hold of him again, and he found himself ensconced in his own bed, propped up on his down pillows and dressed in one of his night shirts. He felt as if his body were at once weighted down and floating, nothing hurting, but everything throbbing with that dull ache of resting far too long.
It took some time to focus his vision, which was becoming more and more annoying each time it occurred. Finally he found that he could make out his surroundings, which at the moment included two women. One he recognized; Mary Travis. The other was a stranger, although there was something vaguely familiar about her. She was holding something that was bundled in a blanket and squirming. Each time a small sound came from inside the bundle, the woman would speak nonsense to it; at least that was what it sounded like to his ears.
"Ezra!" Mary jumped from her seat and hurried over to the bed. Perching on the edge of the mattress, she gently took one of his hands in hers. "Are you with us?"
"I believe so," he managed, still in that horribly weak sounding voice.
"Good. Are you thirsty?" When he nodded, Mary reached for a glass, holding it for him while he managed a few sips. When he lay back against the pillow, she took it away. "Better?"
"Yes... thank you." He frowned, wondering why she was sitting with him, who the other young lady was, and how he could seek answers to those questions without offending her.
Smile growing wider, Mrs. Travis said, "The others had to ride to Eagle Bend. Sheriff Stains was injured and needed some help transporting some prisoners. That man has an amazing nerve, asking for help after the things he's done. At any rate, I told them I'd help... " She paused, blushing before finishing, "look after you."
He nodded, no longer shocked to find that he was being cared for like an infant. He also wondered if he'd asked his questions aloud, or if he'd become very easy to read. When the widow didn't offer to answer the other question, he asked aloud, "your companion?"
"Oh! I'm sorry, Ezra. This is Annalyse Tyler, Amelia Cooper's sister. Do you remember... meeting Amelia?"
Good lord, how could he not? Spending those last, excruciatingly painful moments of the brave woman's life would never leave his consciousness, of that he was certain. But all he said was, "Yes."
More footsteps; and the other woman was standing beside the bed. She smiled down at him, and he knew instantly what Amelia Cooper would have looked like if he'd ever seen her happy. He managed a brief smile.
"Hello Ezra... oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Standish. I apologize for being so intimate, it's just that... well, I've heard so much about you, that I feel I know you already."
"Quite all right, my dear," He offered graciously.
"I just arrived two days ago; I wanted to tell you how grateful I am for what you did. I... well, your courage in going after the men who...
who..." she stopped, overcome by emotion. Tears rolled down her face.
"I only wish I could... could have done more."
Shaking her head, the young woman sniffed and then continued, dabbing at eyes as blue as her sister's had been. "No, no, please. You gave Amelia comfort in her... her last moments. I'm so, so grateful for that." The bundle in her arms let out a loud noise, and she looked down into the blanket. "Hush, now, it's alright."
It finally dawned on him just what... or who... was in the blanket. "Is that... is that Ethan?"
Smiling again, Annalyse said, "Yes, it is. Would you like to see him?"
He nodded. Mary moved away, allowing the young woman to sit on the edge of the bed. She held out the bundle, moving the blankets aside. A tiny, pink face stared back at him, large, blue eyes locking with his. He could swear that he saw Amelia looking at him, the thought sending shivers through him.
"Are you all right?" Annalyse asked, concerned.
"Yes... yes, I'm fine. He's quite handsome."
"Yes, he is." The young woman said, love evident in her voice. Gazing down at her nephew, she said, "He's the perfect combination of... of my sister and brother-in-law."
Mary could see just what the discussion was doing to the gambler, so she broke in. "Ezra, are you hungry? We've got some soup here. It's still warm."
It took some time for him to switch his attention from the infant to himself. Deciding that, yes, he did feel hungry, he nodded. "That sounds wonderful."
Annalyse, belatedly seeing what Mary had seen, said, "I believe I'll take Ethan to Bridgette's for lunch, too." Smiling, she said, "I'd like to come visit you again, Mister Standish, if that's not too bold."
"Now, Miss Annalyse, you've already called me Ezra, let's not become formal now. And yes, I would love to have a visit from you... both of you... again, soon."
He watched from the bed as she carried the infant from the room. She was beautiful. Petite, that was the word. Were he standing she would barely reach his shoulder, and he had never been a man of any great physical stature. Her hair was dark, with hints of red and gold catching the light from time to time. She wore it down, pulled away from her face by a pale blue ribbon that matched her dress.
A moment later Mary was seated in the same spot, placing a tray on his lap. He started to reach for the spoon, only to find that he couldn't make his fingers respond to his bidding. Frowning, he noted that both wrists were bandaged and his hands looked vaguely disfigured. Looking up at the blonde, he stammered, "What... am I... Oh, lord..."
Reaching out and taking his hands, Mary said, "Ezra, listen to me. It's going to take time, but Nathan believes that you'll be fine. You have to calm down now, please? I'm certain that Nathan can explain it all to you much better. You're going to be fine, Ezra, please believe that."
He simply lay there, staring at his hands. All he could say was, "I... I don't believe I'm hungry... after all."
The six peacekeepers sat in the saloon, Mary Travis taking up the space that normally would have been filled by Ezra Standish. She looked sadly from one face to the other. "I... I should have handled it better. I just didn't know what to tell him."
"Not much you could have told him, Mary," Chris offered, softly.
"He's got to face up to it at some point, Miz Travis, might as well be earlier than later." Nathan added.
"But, he seemed so stricken. As if his life had been taken from him."
"If he can't use his hands, it might as well be," Buck added pragmatically.
"You givin' up on 'im?" Vin frowned at the bigger man.
"Hell - 'scuse me Mary - no, I'm not givin' up on the man. Just lookin' at things from all angles. The truth of it is, the man makes a livin' with his hands. If they don't heal right, then... " He trailed off, no need to finish.
"How do we help him?"
The people at the table all turned toward the voice, finding Annalyse Tyler standing nearby. "What do we need to do to help him regain the use of his hands?"
Eyes moved from the young woman to their healer. Heaving a sigh, Nathan said, "I'm tryin' to find that out, now. We've got to start soon, though, before his hands - and his feet - get too far gone and atrophy."
"Then, what can I do to help?" Annalyse asked.
Shaking his head, the former slave said, "Same as the rest of us, Miss. We just need to stay optimistic and keep him positive."
That was easier said than done, as they all discovered. As Standish grew stronger, staying awake and coherent for longer periods of time, the more depressed he became.
Nathan uncovered very little information, and found himself relying more on instinct than anything else. They began wrapping Ezra's hands and feet in cloth that had been soaking in boiling water. This was done several times a day and, each time, the injured man took the treatment in stoic silence. They bound each limb in the cloth, settling each one on a folded blanket, covering them with another blanket to keep the heat in as much as possible.
Before the heat had completely dissipated, they removed the cloth, and began to gently massage the stiffened appendages. Although they were as careful as possible, it was very obvious that each movement; each contact, caused more pain.
Annalyse had come to visit the second day they began the treatments. She saw how hard he fought the pain, and what a great toll it took on the Southerner. "Ezra?"
He turned toward her, unable to spare the energy to speak.
"Would it help... would you like me to read to you? It might help you keep your mind off... what's happening." When he nodded, she smiled. "I'll be right back, then."
A few minutes later she was back, book in hand. Settling in the rocking chair, near the foot of the bed, she began to read from Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Ezra's eyes locked on her, forcing himself to focus on every word she spoke...
"My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons. He sent me to Emanuel-College in Cambridge, at Fourteen Years old, where I resided three Years, and applyed (sic) my self close to my Studies..."
Before long the painful heat seemed to diminish as he was whisked away on the strange journey by her voice alone....
"We rowed by my Computation about three Leagues, till we were able to work no longer, being already spent with Labour while we were in the Ship. We therefore trusted ourselves to the Mercy of the Waves, and in about half an Hour the Boat was overset by a sudden Flurry from the North. What became of my Companions in the Boat, as well as of those who escaped on the Rock, or were left in the Vessel, I cannot tell; but conclude they were all lost..."
By the time the heated cloth was removed, he had all but forgotten about his pain. Her beautiful voice flowed over him like a balm, better than any of Nathan's teas or poultices. He even managed to smile from time to time.
He pulled himself away from the tale Annalyse wove, green eyes finding Nathan beside him.
"I'm gonna start exercising your hands and feet, now. Then I'm gonna rub some cactus gel into the skin. Best I can figure, this is the best way to bring the feeling and mobility back."
With a sigh, he nodded, then turned back to listen toward the young woman. He saw she was sitting there, quietly waiting. Finding his voice, although it was still too soft and too rough, he said, "Please, continue, my dear."
Smiling, the young woman did just that.
The long days and nights of seclusion took their toll. Ezra lost a frightening amount of weight, his handsome features gaunt and pale. It took several weeks of "daily torture" as he called it, to give him back some measure of movement. Finally, he was able to hold a spoon and feed himself, although he wasn't yet able to shave himself. And, with the added support of his boots, he could manage to walk between two of his friends, from his bed to the privy or, better yet, to the boardwalk outside the saloon.
He had yet to touch a deck of cards.
Through it all, his friends brought him strength and comfort, scolding him back from dark moods to buoy him up when all seemed lost. And then there was Annalyse. The young woman visited him every day, bringing a book and sitting in the rocking chair to read while he was put through his paces. The spells she wove with her voice alone kept him sane and offered him both comfort and contentment.
Nathan worked his own type of magic, albeit lacking any sense of comfort or sanity. It wasn't that the healer was enjoying the treatments; his dedication to restoring movement meant a great deal to the gambler. Never had anyone worked so hard to help him.
He struggled each day with the words he needed to convey his appreciation and gratitude. However, all he could manage to come up with, was, "Thank you, Nathan."
Jackson simply smiled and shook his head. "Don't know what you're thanking me for, Ezra. I just spent half an hour handing you as much pain as you can stand... maybe more. I'm surprise you haven't cussed me out."
It was a particularly beautiful day; the sun shone, but a steady breeze kept the heat and insects at bay. Ezra had walked from his room to the boardwalk with Vin and JD's assistance, relying more on himself as he had each day. It meant so much to him; to regain his independence. But it meant even more, knowing that he had friends to rely on.
Settling in one of the chairs outside the saloon, he smiled at his two companions. "I do believe that this is a most perfect day."
"Seems ta be," Vin agreed. "Long 's nothin' comes along ta mess it up."
His gaze moving beyond the lean Texan, Standish spotted the beautiful young woman who'd come into his life. Annalyse was walking toward them, from the hotel, a squirming Ethan lying against her shoulder. He found his smile growing broader, his heart beating a little faster at the stunning vision. His voice dripping with honey, he said simply, "I don't believe there's a thing in the world that can ruin this day, my friend."
To be continued in The Worth of a Man
Completed July, 2006