Main character: Ezra
Originally published in Let's Ride! 8 (2005, Neon Rainbow Press).
A speck appeared on the horizon, unnoticed by the townspeople going about their midday business. Even when the speck grew, first into a smudge, then horse-and-rider shaped lump, no one paid attention. People rode in and out of town every day. No one seemed to notice this rider was slumped deeply over his horse, barely in the saddle.
It was JD Dunne, coming out of his office and glancing automatically up and down the street, who finally realized something was wrong with the new arrival and, with a frown, he stepped closer to the edge of the boardwalk, trying to see who it was and what the problem was.
Horse and rider reached the edge of town, passing the end of the outermost building, when JD finally recognized the horse. His mouth opened to shout the same moment the rider finally lost his battle to stay mounted, or perhaps to stay conscious, and slid down into a graceless heap to the ground. He made no effort to check his fall.
JD started yelling, and running.
Townspeople started paying attention as their peacekeepers appeared from different directions: the saloon, the stable, the clinic behind the hotel. The six men clustered around the one who had fallen from the horse, and a minute later several of them were carrying the new arrival up into the clinic. Dunne was left to escort the skittish horse to the stable, Buck Wilmington walking with him, examining the contents of the saddlebags.
They ignored the watching townsfolk, but that didn't matter. There was plenty of news already to share with those who hadn't seen it with their own eyes.
Ezra Standish was back. Either he hadn't run out like speculation had held, or he had taken off but injury had driven him back.
Wonder where he'd been those last five days?
+ + + + + + +
Nathan Jackson worked in near-silent tension, never a good thing.
"Josiah, bring me those boiled rags now." His only words were terse orders. "Vin, soon as that knife's ready, bring it here."
The door jerked open, only Chris turning to see who came in, and JD and Buck blew breathlessly into the room. The strained atmosphere was immediately apparent, and JD was unusually subdued as he asked, "How's he doing?"
"Not good," Nathan said shortly. "Bullet's still in him, looks like it's been in there a few days. Infection an' fever's bad - don't know why he ain't dead yet."
"He had to make it home," Josiah rumbled quietly.
Nathan spared him a sharp glance as he worked. "Home? Fine time to remember where his home was."
"Few days," JD was murmuring to himself. "You think he was shot right after he left?"
"Could be, kid," Vin answered. "Might explain why he disappeared like that."
"Not why he left in the first place," Chris said. "Anything in his saddlebags, Buck?"
"Just some food and clothes, stuff that was missing from his room - nothing to explain this."
"Josiah, hold this for me. Bullet's caught between two ribs an' I can't . . . quite. . ."
Sickened, JD turned away. Buck immediately turned with him, put a hand on his shoulder. "Buck, you . . . you think he's been trying to get back all this time? Hurt like that?" The thought was appalling: spending days with a bullet in your chest, in agonizing pain, just trying to reach home again. None of them liked it.
"Could be," Buck said softly. "Could be he only set out for home when things went sour, too."
"I think I . . . there." It was a soft cry of triumph as Nathan held up the flattened ball of metal and then dropped it a nearby dish. "Got it."
"Went pretty deep," Vin noted. "He's been awful quiet through all that diggin'."
He was. It didn't take Nathans experience to know Ezra was in bad shape. Fever shone even through the dirt and dust that caked his face, and his cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken. His breath came in gasps, as if even that much was an effort for the depleted body, which lay lax, strengthless, barely twitching as Nathan had searched for the bullet.
"Fever's taken a lot out of him." Nathan's voice softened for the first time as he cleaned the wound, still getting no response from his patient. "Wouldn't'a been so bad if I'd gotten to him right away, but now. . ."
JD blanched a little more. "You sayin' . . . he's gonna. . .?"
"I don't know." Nathan shook his head. "I'm gonna do everything I can, but it's up to him now, how much fight he's got left in him."
"Ezra? You ever known him not to fight?" Buck asked with a thread of amusement.
"After days of struggling to get back home after being grievously wounded?" Josiah asked quietly.
Nobody said anything to that, just stared at the silent and too-still figure on the bed.
"I want to know what happened," Chris finally spoke. "I don't care who we have to talk to, or what the town thinks in the meantime - I want to know why he left and what happened after. Nathan, we'll take turns spelling you. Other than that, I want some answers."
No argument. They all wanted answers.
Five of them left, subdued, and spread out to start their search, while the two stayed behind to fight for life.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan barely glanced up as the clinic door opened, then quietly shut again behind Josiah Sanchez.
"How is our prodigal doing?"
"Mwen nenpÛt. Mo . . . m'espere que. . ."
Josiah raised an eyebrow at Nathan.
Nathan made a tired face as he wiped the wet cloth again over loose skin and feverish, wasted muscles. The cool water always changed to damp heat almost as soon as he applied it. "He's been goin' on like that a while now. Think it's French, or Creole, maybe - heard slaves from Louisiana speakin' it sometimes. Didn't even know Ezra could speak another language."
"I think there's much about our resident gambler that would surprise us," Josiah answered with a small smile. "Nathan, how can I help?"
"Work on his legs a little." Nathan stretched the basin over. "I'm tryin' to get rid of some of this heat 'fore he cooks himself. Already had a fit once from the heat."
". . . m'espere. . ." Ezra's voice was a painful whisper, as weak as his restless movements.
"Wish I knew what he was saying. Might give us a clue why he ran out on us."
Josiah looked up at him from the end of the bed. "Are you so sure he did run out on us?"
Nathan frowned. "I don't know what you call it, but when a man packs up his valuables and skips town without even leavin' word where he's goin' or why, yeah, I call that running out."
Josiah barely smiled again. "I seem to recall a few times you disappeared on us in the middle of the night, too, without word. Sometimes we wouldn't see you again for days."
Nathan straightened. "Wait a minute, you sayin' what Ezra did is the same as my leaving for an urgent medical call?"
"Until we have an explanation from either of you, how is it any different?"
"I don't run out on people," Nathan said angrily.
"And Ezra's only done it once - once when he changed his mind and came back to set it right, I might add. Last year hasn't been easy but he always held up his end - how long does a man have to keep proving himself? Or is he damned for one mistake?" Josiah's motions never stopped, his touch light and gentle. Nathan had mused more than once that the former preacher would have made a good doctor, too.
Nathan sat in irate tension now, though, although he didn't stop his cooling strokes, either. But he was a fair man, and Josiah's words thawed him by degrees. No, Ezra hadn't run out on them after that first time, and had proven himself many times since. It was really his attitude: his interest in money, his preferred means of acquiring it, what he did with it, that really irked Jackson. But that wasn't the same as disloyalty.
He cast Josiah a sidelong glance. "You sayin' you think he's got a good reason for takin' off like he did?"
Josiah paused a moment. "I'm sayin' we shouldn't assume the worst until we know. Town's already doing that plenty." The rumors had reached his ears the moment he'd stepped out onto the boardwalk, and none of them were kind.
Ezra murmured fretfully again.
Nathan nodded slowly. "Yeah, okay, I owe him that much. I won't judge. Doesn't change how I take care of him one way or another, anyway," he added defensively.
Josiah gave him a soft smile. "I never woulda thought different, Nathan."
Ezra arched feebly against the bed, his whisper a bare thread of sound.
"By the way, the phrase he keeps sayin', 'M'espere'? I think it means, 'I hope.'"
Nathan stared at Josiah a moment, then silently went back to bathing the flushed face, his own expression thoughtful.
+ + + + + + +
The clinic door opened again and Nathan knew he should look to see who it was - Ezra's shooter was still out there somewhere - but didn't, too busy with his fitful patient.
The silent approach of the new visitor told him who it was, anyway, and buckskin clad arms sliding into his frame of vision confirmed it. Vin took hold of Ezra's weakly flailing arms and held them in a gentle grasp as Nathan pinned Ezra's shoulders.
"I was lookin' fer Chris. . ."
"I ain't seen anybody, but I've been kinda busy," Nathan said tersely.
"How long he been fightin' like this?"
"Too long," Nathan muttered through gritted teeth. "He don't have the strength to spare to be fightin' us, too. I tried wrapping him in the blankets to calm him down, but he just fights harder." He cursed as Ezra gave a faint cry and twisted, nearly dislodging him.
There was a pause. "Ya mind if I try somethin'"? Vin asked him.
Nathan gave him a surprised blink. "What-? Never mind. Go ahead - this ain't workin'."
Vin nodded. He'd seen men with lesser injuries die because they no longer had the strength to fight for life. That was what Ezra needed his energy for, which meant they needed to calm him down. And Vin had seen something once that might possibly work.
Silently, he pulled off the blankets that were twisted around the feverish patient, until Ezra lay shivering and exposed on the bed. One sheet Vin folded in half and lay across Ezra's middle, providing some warmth and modesty, but leaving his arms and legs completely free.
"You sure 'bout this, Vin?" Nathan asked doubtfully. Already Ezra's trembling had increased, his agitation growing.
"Nope," Vin said unhesitatingly. "All this shakin' gonna hurt him?"
"Not the bullet wound, no. But what-?"
"Good." Vin sat on the edge of the bed now, his hip and leg against Ezra's side. He could feel the fever radiating through the thin sheet, and knew Ezra would feel the warmth of Vin's body. Then Tanner gently picked up one of the man's hands, curling the fingers around his own. Vin leaned down to the gambler's ear. "Ezra, yer safe now. Nobody's gonna tie ya down, so quit fightin' and rest now."
Ezra flinched, releasing another breath of unintelligible sound.
"Yer safe now. Hang on t' me if ya want, but try t' relax." Vin gave the thin hand a squeeze. "Yer safe now," he repeated.
The faint movements slowly faded, then stopped, labored breathing the only sign of life now. And the fingers that curled stiffly around Vin's hand to grip him, hard.
Vin looked up with a smile into Nathan's amazed eyes.
"How'd you do that?"
"Some don't like t' feel like they're floatin', 'specially when they can't sort out what's real and what ain't. Swaddlin' makes them feel like they got somethin' holdin' on to them."
"Or trappin' them," Nathan said with furrowed brow.
Vin nodded. "Other folk feel like they're tied up, so 'course they're gonna fight it. They need to feel free, but like they got somethin' to hold on to if they want. Just have to figure out which one you're lookin' at and give 'em what they need."
Nathan's mouth pulled. "And you figured Ezra would be the kind who doesn't like tyin' down."
Vin smiled back. "Old habits' are like old clothes - hard t' get rid of."
Nathan sighed deeply. "Well, I'm glad we got him calmed down, but that fever's gotta come down, too, an' lyin' here half-naked'll only give him a chill. He ain't so hot as when he rode in - hasn't had a fit in a few hours - but fever's blazin' through him like a brushfire, burnin' up all his strength."
Thoughtful blue eyes met his. "How 'bout usin' the tub?"
Nathan nodded. "I was just thinkin' about that when you got here. Might do the trick."
Vin thought for a minute. "Ya been here all day, Nathan. He's restin' now - why don't ya have some dinner first, let me sit with him a spell. We can try the tub if he's not better when ya come back."
Nathan stepped back from the bed, twisting his head to loosen sore neck muscles. "You sure?" he asked doubtfully.
"Yeah, just do me a favor - find Chris an' send him up here on your way. Got some news for him."
"About Ezra?" Nathan asked immediately.
"Maybe," Vin said simply.
Well, he'd find out soon enough and a break sounded very welcome, especially now that it did seem Ezra was resting a little easier. Nathan chewed his lip. "You'll call me if he gets worse."
"Josiah'll probably hear me clear t' the church," Vin said with a grin.
"All right," Nathan said and nodded. "Try to get him to take some of that tea if he wakes up any. It'll help fight the fever." And with a last glance, he pulled himself away and left.
Vin made himself more comfortable on the edge of the sick bed, and examined the man he was tending. "Just you an' me now, Ezra. Don't make me sorry I told Nate t' leave."
Ezra trembled but stayed silent, his hand flexing in Vin's as he fought his battle internally now.
Vin sighed deeply, and waited.
The soft sound of spurs jangled up the stairs, and Vin found himself smiling again as the door opened behind him, knowing who the new arrival was.
"You got something?"
Chris Larabee had never been one to beat around the bush, not even asking about Ezra, although Vin knew his eyes would be fixed on the injured man. "Maybe. Been asking around - seems Ezra rode out with a fella he'd been talkin' to earlier in the saloon."
Chris stepped around the bed and took a seat in the chair on the other side, eyes pulling away from Ezra to give Vin his full attention. "Anybody hear what they were talking about?"
Vin shook his head. "Nope. But Inez got a good look at him."
Chris mulled over that briefly. "Five days ago . . . If he shot Ezra, he could be anywhere by now."
Vin's eyebrow went up. "'Nez thinks she saw him yesterday, sneakin' 'round the saloon."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "He'd be a fool to come back to town alone after being seen last with Ezra."
"'Less he doesn't think he did anything wrong," Vin said mildly.
The Larabee stare could be sharp as honed steel. "You don't think Ezra ran out."
But Vin Tanner was the one person on earth who was immune to that glare, and Chris knew it. The tracker's eyes softened. "Maybe it got too much for him. Times I feel like the town's closin' in, too, tyin' me down." Trapping him, just like those blankets.
"You don't take off when it does," Chris spat.
"That ain't true," Vin countered mildly. "Difference is, ya trust me t' come back."
"He came back, all right - when he needed help."
"Ain't that what home's for? Place where people look after ya, give ya a hand when ya need it?"
He sounded honestly curious, Chris realized with surprise. Ezra wasn't the only one who'd had some adjusting to do to the idea of a home. Larabee's anger ebbed enough for common sense to be heard. Why had Ezra turned back that first time, at the Indian settlement? It hadn't been because he'd needed help then; in fact, he had to know he was riding back to danger and scorn. Yet he'd returned. And that had been a year earlier, before he'd stood by their side so many times and risked his life over and over for them and the town. Did that mean so little that Chris would assume the worst at the first possibility, the first time Ezra had given him cause again to doubt? Between the shameless greed and the mischievous, gold-toothed smile, it had always been easy to assume the worst about the gambler, and Ezra probably knew it. He might easily have guessed what Chris's instinctive reaction would be.
Which was maybe why Ezra hadn't said anything before he'd ridden out, for that matter. The thought was as troublesome as the poke of a sharp rock under his bedroll, but Larabee would have been an unworthy leader if he didn't at least admit the possibility.
"Yeah, that's what home's for," Chris said quietly. He traded a long look with Vin, then rose. "I'll go have a talk with Inez." He hesitated, then bent down toward the bed. "You just keep hangin' on to Vin, Ezra." He gave the patient's shoulder a gentle tap, then turned and strode out of the room.
Vin grinned at Ezra. "Don't reckon it's just you an' me, after all, pard. Wonder if that woulda surprised ya?"
Ezra's only answer was a muted groan, his fingers burning as they tightened briefly on Vin's.
Tanner's smile grew sad as he grasped back. "Yeah. That's kinda what I figured."
+ + + + + + +
"He's not looking too good, Buck."
Buck gave the man in question yet another serious examination, seeing the same thing he had when he'd first come in. Ezra was losing the battle to the fever that had taken hold of him. Too depleted now for delirium, he lay motionless and limp, a burning shell. JD didn't recognize the look of death yet, but Buck did.
"No, he ain't, kid," he agreed softly.
JD frowned. "I thought that bath he had before was supposed to help him."
"Fever's feed on the inside, boy, not the outside. You can try to fight the fire, but y'can't put it out."
JD stood, paced inside the small room, stopping sometimes to glance out the morning-lit window. There was something in him that rebelled against this sitting still and waiting when a friend was in trouble. Nathan at least had been able to do something to help, until Buck had sent the exhausted healer to catch a little sleep. Even Vin and Buck had helped bathe the patient, trying to lower the temperature that was eating through him. But all JD had been able to do was sit and pace, and in the meantime. . .
"It ain't right, Buck."
"No, it ain't," his friend's quiet, sad agreement came from behind him.
"I mean, he should've told us if he was riding out someplace dangerous."
A pause. Buck turned to look at him. "We back to that again, are we? JD-"
Dunne whirled on him. "We're supposed to be his friends, Buck. What kind of a friend just rides out on ya without even lettin' you know he's going?"
Buck smiled a little, understanding now. "He probably had his reasons, kid. Those three bodies Vin found out in the desert last night-"
"Reasons!" JD spluttered. "To just-"
"Yeah, 'to just.' How well do we know Ezra, JD? You know if he's got any other family besides that she-wolf of a mother? Any property or businesses? What's in his past? All of us got secrets, kid. Sometimes they come calling. Seems like some of Ezra's were out for blood."
"Well, I don't have secrets," JD answered stubbornly. "And if I did have to go somewhere, especially to meet three armed men, I'd tell you first."
"Even if people usually don't quite trust you?"
JD opened his mouth, turned red, shut it again, and looked chagrined. "You think that's how he thinks of us?" he asked, more subdued.
"He's got some reason to."
JD thought about that a moment, then nodded unhappily. He tended to take people at their face value unless they gave him reason to believe otherwise, and had done the same with Ezra, but there had been times others' distrust had bled over to him. Ezra probably knew it, too. And JD couldn't even imagine how lonely a feeling that was. He looked at the gambler now with new sympathy, and a troubling shame.
Ezra's heavy breathing hitched, and Buck leaned forward to make sure it continued. It did, but to Wilmington's ears, the gasps of air sounded weaker than they had an hour before. Sighing, he dipped the rag Nathan had left him into the bowl of alcohol and patted again the sunken planes of Ezra's face, the hollow of his neck, the shoulders and chest that quivered with the effort to draw in air.
"You ain't lookin' too good there, son," he said gently. "Time to kick this fever and start getting some real sleep."
JD had quietly moved up behind him to watch, and Buck looked up when he heard the younger man swallow.
"Don't know," Buck answered, almost honestly. "He hasn't got much left to fight with."
"He's still got us." As if that would make all the difference to the fever.
As if Ezra even knew.
But Buck just nodded, taking hold of the gambler's wrist. It wouldn't keep him from slipping away, but maybe it would somehow penetrate the fire that he wasn't alone.
With a soft sound of despair, JD turned away again to pace. If and when Ezra lost this fight, Buck knew he'd have a whole other one waiting for him as JD tackled grief and guilt. And that was besides the grief that already lingered on the edges of Buck's own heart. Of all of them, Ezra had been the one he would have least suspected to go first, or to be missed. Yet there was something about the young gambler, with his painfully broken dreams obvious to everyone but himself, that had struck something familiar in them all. Annoyance with his schemes had long turned to fond exasperation and indulgence, and his loss would be a harder blow than Buck thought Ezra himself would ever have expected.
JD slumped against the windowsill. Up all night, he was tired, but he felt more tired inside, like when Buck had been all cut up in that swordfight not too far back. Even then, what had they given Ezra but grief for his knowing how to handle a sword and for trying to teach Buck how to fight? Maybe it'd been too fancy a way to do them any good, but he'd tried. He really had tried, as hard as any of them, but they'd been far less accepting of his efforts than anyone else's, and that included JD's green behavior. Maybe he could understand a little bit of why Ezra had ridden out alone like that. Not running away; JD had never believed that. But to do something he knew they might not approve of, or just to have some time to himself - was that . . . so. . .
A figure, hunched secretively, crept around the corner of the hotel and underneath the steps leading up to Nathan's clinic.
"Buck," JD muttered, distracted.
The shadow headed back toward the rear of the building, a moment later passing out of JD's line of sight. But not before the sun had caught a glint of white-blond hair.
Just like the description of the man Ezra had been seen riding out with.
"I think that's the guy we've been looking for," JD exclaimed, and leapt for the door.
They probably shouldn't have left Ezra alone, but he was still grateful to hear Buck's steps pounding behind him as he flew down the stairs. If this was the man who'd shot Ezra, it was probably a good idea not to face him alone.
Or for him to be alone with JD.
At the end of the stairs, Dunne swung sharply around, splinters from the wooden railing digging into his palm as he used it as a pivot. Then he threw himself after the figure just disappearing around the back corner.
His leap caught the man around the waist, and they both tumbled into the dust. JD recovered first, whipping around so he was on top, then jerking the man upright with handfuls of his coat. Even though he JD was a few inches shorter, the sheriff hauled the man against the back wall of the hotel with easy vehemence.
"I want to talk to you," he growled at the face that squinted back at him in astonishment.
"You one of those friends of Ezra?" came the surprising response in a high-pitched squeak.
JD loosened his grip fractionally, hearing Buck sliding up short behind him. He had backup now. "Yeah, why?" he asked suspiciously.
The man, no older than Ezra, but with a weak build and a fearful cast to his eyes, glanced over at Buck, then back at JD, and took a deep breath. "Then I wanna talk to you, too."
+ + + + + + +
Seven men packed the sheriffs office in silence and various shades of hostility, six staring at the seventh and waiting.
The man in question sat in a chair by the stove and twisted his hat in his hands. "My name . . . my name's Morris. Morris Bell. I, uh, I used to . . . work with Ezra, back when he rode the riverboats."
"You ran cons with him," Josiah translated.
"Uh, well, yes, sir, but little ones, none of the big fleeces like Devol and Canada Bill. Ezra, he, uh, never liked to clean people out to the last penny. An' we were always square."
"Get on with it," Chris growled from where he leaned stiffly against the jail door.
"Yes. Right. Well, I rode in 'bout a week ago, looking for Ezra. Some fellas I knew were planning a big heist, robbing the bank here after they picked off some of the bunch of peacekeepers they'd heard about. Last I knew, Ezra was one of 'em, so I came to warn him."
"And he left town with you," Nathan said, although doubt streaked his voice.
Washed-out blue eyes skewered him. "Not like you think. I told him he should take off, but he wasn't runnin' away. Said he had a responsibility to the town. But he didn't figure any of you would listen to me, so we went out to talk to Ayers and his men."
"Ayers, that the guy who was plannin' on cleanin' out the bank?" Buck asked, shifting forward on the corner of the desk where he sat.
Bell nodded. "Ezra thought maybe we could pretend to join up with 'em, then hit 'em from behind. Even took along some of his own money and stuff to sweeten the deal for Ayers."
The six of them stirred in place. "But something happened," Josiah finally ventured softly.
"Ayers seemed to take the bait, at first. Said he could use some extra hands. Then his third man came back, the one who'd been scoutin' the town, and he knew who Ezra was. Ezra didn't even wait, just started shootin'."
"Three against one," JD murmured.
"Where were you during all this?" Nathan demanded.
"Me? Where do you think? I took off! No use both of us gettin' killed. Went 'round the long way, but I guess I wanted to find out what happened to Ezra. I'm real sorry he got hurt."
Chris straightened and Bell gulped nervously, nearly tearing his hat in two. "Two men plus Ayers - that's all there were?"
"Uh, yes, sir."
The blond head nodded fractionally toward the door. "Get out of here. I don't want to see you in town again."
"Sure. That's a good idea." Bell sidled past them as if he were afraid one of the six might lash out and bite him. "I'll just, uh . . . Oh, would you tell Ezra-"
Chris scowled at him.
Bell fled, leaving the door flapping open behind him.
Silence filled the small jailhouse.
"Kinda sorry now I buried them three rats," Vin finally said. "Shoulda let the vultures have 'em."
"Guess Ezra was lucky he only had the one bullet in him," Nathan added quietly.
"I still wish he'd said something to us."
"On the word of the reputable Mr. Bell, JD? Would we've believed him?" Josiah asked.
A moment's silence. Then, quietly, Chris said, "Yes."
A few glances were exchanged, and then again when Buck said, "Would Ezra've figured we'd believe him?"
No one answered that one.
"Mr. Jackson?" The small voice from the door broke the quiet.
Nathan turned in surprise. "Billy?"
"Mama wants you to come. She says for Mr. Standish."
The healer's jaw tightened and he gave the rest of them a glance, seeing the same knowledge in their eyes. Nodding heavily, he hurried out the door and ran for the clinic.
He was the first to make the landing, then burst into the sick room, but the others were close on his heels. Nathan could hear the heavy breathing and unspoken dread behind him as he strode inside, up to Mary Travis sitting beside the bed. Ezra lay so still, Nathan couldn't even tell in that moment if he was still alive or not.
But he was . . . sweating.
Brows drawing together, Nathan glanced at Mary, realized she was smiling at him.
He swung back to Ezra, and the clinical part of him kicked in. Sweating meant a falling temperature, and dead men didn't sweat. Still disbelieving, he reached out a hand, feeling first the damp forehead, then the pulse under the chin.
He couldn't even tell which of them asked, but Nathan turned to them with marvel in his face. "Fever's falling. Still not broken yet, but he's not burning up anymore. I don't . . . I didn't think he was strong enough to beat it, but. . ."
A beat, then Buck laughed. "Never bet against a gambler!" he crowed, giving JD's shoulder a squeeze. The kid grinned back at him, eyes bright.
"Amen," Josiah breathed.
Vin looked at Chris, who threw him a mock glower. "You always gotta be right, Tanner?"
"Only when it counts, Cowboy." He smiled, and got a faint twitch of the mouth in return.
"All of you, go talk someplace else. I got a patient here needs some peace and quiet for mending," Nathan shooed them out.
They went, Mary going with them, light-hearted banter and smiles where worry and grief had held reign minutes before. And, when each would take the time later to consider it, it wasn't because of what Bell had revealed, either.
And back in the clinic, with his fingers pressed against that miraculously throbbing pulse, Nathan sank into a chair beside his recovering patient and fervently prayed his thanks.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra turned in his sleep and groaned, strained and fatigued muscles no doubt complaining at every movement. Chris watched with equal parts sympathy and amusement at the contortions. Nathan said it was a healthy sign he was approaching wakefulness, the body starting to talk to the mind again, and already a few times the dim green eyes had fluttered open, given whoever was sitting there a long, dull look, then slid shut again.
Ezra settled back into still silence, and after a moment, Chris resumed carving.
It had been three days since the gambler had taken a turn for the better, but Nathan said recuperation would take a while after being so near death for so long. Chris wasn't surprised. He hadn't seen many men return from a severe fever like that. Ezra probably wouldn't have recovered, either, if not for Nathan's skills as a healer, and the stubbornness of the gambler. And, maybe, the men who'd tended him, unwilling to let him go without a fight.
Chris blew the wood shavings gently from the top of the train car that was taking shape under his knife. He'd never been one given to sentimental inclinations - that was more Buck's territory - but he of all of them knew best how much the heart affected the body. More than once he'd been tempted to let go of the latter since his family's death had shredded the former, and more than once only Buck's determination and friendship had stood in the way. Sometimes all it took was someone believing in you.
And somewhere along the way, he'd started believing in Ezra.
Not always, not instinctively like he did in Vin and Buck. There were still moments of doubt, like there had been that week, and times when his own darkness clouded his sight of any light. But when it came down to it, Chris Larabee, loner and bad element, trusted the gambler at his back, a fellow worn and battered soul. And the others felt the same way, even Nathan with all his bitterness to overcome. The town had also rallied around their fallen peacekeeper, after Bell's story and the memory of all the times their resident rogue had risked his life for them had crushed the rumors and speculations into a quick death.
Chris suspected Ezra believed in all of them more than he'd realized, too, which was probably why he'd ridden determinedly for days to reach Four Corners with a bullet in him and strength failing, when Trader Town had lain only a scant mile in the opposite direction.
Chris glanced over at the bed again, and he lowered his hands to rest on his knees at the sight of Ezra looking at him glassily, confusion creasing his forehead.
Getting water into the healing man had been Nathan's number one directive, so Chris took advantage of the momentary wakefulness, setting down his carving and sliding a hand under Ezra's head to lift him enough so he could drink from the glass Chris offered him. Which he did, draining it dry for the first time.
"You want some more?" Chris asked mildly.
"No." It was a bare, rough whisper, but it made Larabee's brow rise. Ezra hadn't even seemed awake before, let alone talking. Although even now, sleep was already tugging his eyes shut. And Ezra was resisting it, brow furrowing even more deeply.
"It's okay, Ezra, Nathan says you're gonna be fine. Few more days rest and you can go back to that feather bed of yours."
A slight shake of the head, frustration lurking behind it. Something important had to be bothering him enough to keep him awake despite his exhaustion, something more important than his own well-being.
Chris's expression cleared with comprehension. "Ayers an' his men are dead. Danger's over. You can rest." He paused a moment, then reached up to squeeze Ezra's thin shoulder. "You did good, pard. But next time you come to us first. We'll back you up."
The green eyes were awash with bewilderment and not quite focused, and Chris wondered if the gambler had understood a word past the offer of water.
And then the lines of strain in Ezra's face smoothed out, his mouth creeping into a tired shadow of a smile, the most peaceful Chris had ever seen on the man. A moment later, he lost the fight to sleep, eyes drooping shut again and breath evening out. Or he just had no reason to fight sleep anymore, having found out what he'd wanted. What he'd hoped.
There were still a few things, even in that uncertain world, which weren't just speculation.
The corner of his own mouth pulling up, Chris patted the sleeper's shoulder, then picked up his carving and went back to work.