Author's Note: The title, derived from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities", implies a sacrifice, which there is but not of the sort you might expect. More than likely, I will have to do a sequel concerning Ezra, but for this story I wanted to stay within Buck's POV.
Warning: major (horse) character death.
A long contented breath left Buck Wilmington's chest. It was a good day to be alive. Not many better ways to spend a nice autumn morning, at least if one had to work rather than play, than to be riding home from a prisoner transport through a stretch of scenic countryside with a full belly, a good night's sleep behind you, and two good friends by your side.
He smiled to himself. A little quiet in which to enjoy all those other things wouldn't have been bad either, but the particular pair of friends he rode with made that made that pretty much impossible. JD Dunne was prattling away two miles to the minute and Ezra Standish was egging him on. Buck doubted very much that Ezra even cared how well JD's frog had done in its hopping race against Casey's frog on Monday morning, but just the same he kept on asking for more details. A sly smile twitched his lips and a subdued sparkle lit up his eyes as he endeavored to look fascinated by what he was hearing. Buck would have bet a pretty penny that Ezra was holding some sort of contest with himself to see how long he could keep the young sheriff talking about nothing.
Deciding that it was time to do something before his own head exploded from the amazing wealth of frog facts JD was spewing forth, Buck cut in, "JD, you better quit flapping your yap and pay attention to where you're going or we're all going to end up walking home. That damned horse has bumped into Clyde three times in the last half hour."
As if to signal his agreement, Ezra's horse suddenly stretched his neck out and bit the rented horse on its neck.
"Sorry," JD said, embarrassed. "I keep forgetting that I ain't riding Milagro."
JD had left his usual mount at home this trip when the horse had lost a shoe right before they were due to leave. The best replacement available had been a young roan gelding named Jericho, a pretty animal with more spirit than sense. The young man had been confident that he could control the green horse without any difficulty, but he'd been struggling to keep it in line for the entire trip. With his attention currently diverted by his conversation with Ezra, the horse had taken full advantage and had begun straying toward every patch of edible brush within reach.
Penned in to either side by Clyde and Chaucer, Jericho had shown his displeasure by jostling and nipping. Chaucer, in particular, had not taken kindly to this behavior and had attempted to reciprocate but an occasional pat or murmured word from Ezra had calmed him as the gambler amused himself dredging a series of increasingly unlikely fun-facts about amphibians from JD.
"Seems like days since we set out," JD said after a few minutes of silence. "I swear, this darned trip is taking twice as long going back as it did leaving."
Buck smiled indulgently. "That's just 'cause going the other way, we had a lot to do and not much time to get it done in. Now, we got nothing at all to do and all the time in the world."
"I guess," he agreed with a gusty sigh.
"To address your original query," Ezra chimed in. "I estimate that we are currently just over three hours from home. We should reach the Wells ranch in approximately two hours and if we stop to water our horses there, perhaps Nettie will take pity upon three dusty, road-weary travelers and invite us to stay for lunch."
A thoughtful expression filled JD's hazel eyes. "Today's Wednesday, ain't it? That means baking day."
Buck laughed. "Why do you think Ezra's so keen to stop by? You know how he feels about Nettie's sweet rolls."
The gambler grinned, not denying the accusation.
Excited by the thought of fresh baked goods, JD exclaimed, "Last one there's a hungry horn-toad!" and dug his heels in with a whoop of excitement.
The young man's intention was to leave his two surprised companions behind in a cloud of dust while he galloped ahead of them, taking advantage of his head-start in an impromptu race. The result was all too different.
Jericho, startled by the unexpected action, balked, jerking his head back so suddenly that JD, who had leaned forward in anticipation of lowering himself along the horse's neck as they sped forward, was smashed full in the face before he could arrest his motion.
The reins fell from JD's suddenly slack grip as he slumped to the right and his frightened horse reacted to the lack of direction by spinning left just as Buck and Ezra each instinctively reached out to try and catch their friend.
Clyde whinnied and slammed his shoulder into the oncoming obstacle as Jericho pivoted towards him. At the same time, Chaucer, frightened and outraged by the sudden nonsensical behavior of his companions, began to buck and twist in protest, lashing out with sharp hooves.
The three horses went down in a tangle of writhing limbs, screaming in fear and anger. All three riders were unseated by the melee and for a few moments, everything was chaos.
A pounding ache in his head was the first thing Buck became aware of, the severity of the pain making him extremely reluctant to open his eyes and risk it becoming any worse. The second thing he noticed was the harsh breathing of a frightened and possibly injured animal.
Memory began to filter past the haze of disorientation. Horses thrashing and screaming, JD falling unconscious toward the ground, Ezra cursing as he attempted to catch JD, control Chaucer and avoid being unseated all at once.
The lack of such cursing, or any other sound, from his two friends was what finally allowed Buck to overcome the dizziness and pain filling his skull and open his eyes. As he had feared, the addition of light was his undoing and Buck threw himself sideways just as his stomach launched a rebellion that made him wish he hadn't been so enthusiastic at breakfast time.
Spears of pain radiated throughout his body as he coughed and convulsed and by the time the spell was over he was panting with exhaustion. Forcing his head up, he looked around and nearly vomited anew at the sight that greeted him.
It was Chaucer that lay nearest him, panting so raggedly and Buck could see that the noble animal's right foreleg was badly broken. Gashes and cuts all along the chestnut hide gave proof that his fellow steeds had caused the grave injuries, however accidentally. Chaucer's rider was in a similar condition. Buck could see Ezra lying crumpled a few feet away, both his arm and leg on the left side twisted into unnatural angles that left no doubt that they were broken. A curved gash was visible just above Ezra's temple, a hoof print no doubt, and rivulets of blood streamed freely down his face where they were sucked up by the greedy earth beneath his cheek. It was impossible to tell the condition of the rest of his body, but Buck was thankful to see that his friend was still breathing.
Forcing himself up on one elbow, Buck craned his neck to see around the accident site. He noted thankfully that Clyde was still on his feet. The horse was limping a little as he paced around the area with an air of confusion as if, like his rider, he was unable to comprehend what had happened. Clyde, like Chaucer, had a couple of bleeding cuts in his hide but from his limited vantage point Buck thought they might be merely superficial.
Jericho was nowhere in sight and Buck snorted softly, realizing that the panicky rental horse must, ironically, have escaped the melee unharmed. What truly worried Buck was that he could see neither hide nor hair of JD.
"Kid?" he called out, coughing when his intended shout came out as nothing more than a croak. "JD, where are you? Are you okay?"
He waited, called again, waited some more. There was nothing. Taking a quick inventory of his own injuries, Buck decided that he had cracked some ribs and there was no doubt whatsoever that his right hand was broken. His head still felt as if it might fall off and the uneven spinning of the surrounding countryside convinced him that he had a concussion, but his legs felt all right and the majority of his upper body seemed to have escaped with nothing more than cuts and bruises. He could get up.
Action proved more difficult than intention, but after a couple of false starts, Buck managed to stagger to his feet. He only managed a few steps before his unsteady legs gave way again, but that was enough to get him to Ezra's side where he carefully turned the unconscious man onto his back.
Brushing away the dust clinging to Ezra's face, Buck could make out the beginnings of a spectacular black eye and see that Ezra's nose was bleeding nearly as profusely as the cut on his scalp. He must have taken a shot to the face from some flailing appendage. Helping himself to the handkerchief inside Ezra's coat pocket, Buck used his teeth and his good hand to rip the fine square of linen into two uneven strips, balling one and stuffing it up Ezra's nostrils and pressing the other to his head.
Taking advantage of the man's unconscious state, Buck did his best to straighten the gambler's broken arm and leg. Without full use of his dominant hand, or having anything to splint the limbs with, Buck could not set them right away. He would need Ezra's help with that, but he could at least make him temporarily more comfortable. A quick press against Ezra's ribcage and stomach got no reaction, nor did the area feel at all mushy or swollen. Buck wasn't as experienced with injuries as Nathan Jackson, but he could recognize and treat the basics, as could most who'd had a share of fending for themselves in frontier country. There was no sign that Ezra had managed to bust his ribs or get any of his inside parts scrambled up.
Ezra groaned when Buck again probed at his head wound, giving him some hope.
"Ezra? Ez, come on now, don't leave me out here all by my lonesome," Buck pleaded, surprised to hear that his voice was shaking. "I gotta know you're all right so I can go find JD."
Ezra's eyelids fluttered and squeezed shut more tightly. Then his right arm rose, giving Buck the positive realization that it was not in a similar condition to the left one, and the gambler wiped at the blood obscuring his eyes before finally forcing them open. The right refused to open more than halfway and Ezra blinked and squinted, clearly confused by the difficulty he was having.
"Don't," Buck warned, capturing the hand that was now venturing toward the cloth blocking Ezra's nostrils. "You got a bloody nose and I'm trying to get it stopped."
He nodded slightly. "Are you all right? Is JD . . . I heard you say something about JD . . ."
The sluggish words worried Buck. Ezra was barely audible and sounded as if he was speaking through a mouthful of marbles. Placing his thumb on Ezra's chin, Buck opened his mouth and peeked inside, wincing as he noted the bloody swollen tongue. He must have clamped his teeth down on it when he'd hit the ground.
"I'm fine," he lied, "but I can't see the kid anywhere. Ezra, I gotta go find him; find out if he's . . ."
He couldn't finish the sentence, but Ezra got the message anyway. "Go," he ordered.
Buck stopped, heart clenching when he noticed Chaucer make a sudden futile attempt to stand up as he heard the sound of his master's voice. With all of the men injured or . . . no, he could not even think anything else until he had seen JD's condition for himself . . . with all of them injured, there wasn't a chance that anything could be done for a horse with a broken leg. He wished to God that he didn't have to be the one to tell Ezra, but it had to be done. The gambler didn't give away much, but he loved that horse. Damn near thought of it as family. Buck couldn't ignore the animal's suffering but he also couldn't just pretend it wouldn't matter if he ended that suffering.
"Ezra," he whispered. "I'm sorry, but Chaucer . . . he's down, Ez. There's nothing I can do for him. He's hurtin' bad and I gotta . . . I gotta do something."
An expression of stricken understanding crossed Ezra's face as he turned his head and observed the horse's condition for himself. He reached out his uninjured hand, just barely managing to touch his fingertips to the muzzle that stretched out toward him. Buck gulped as he watched the two old friends silently saying goodbye.
Ezra's swollen blood-smeared features looked even more grotesque when tears welled up in his eyes, a few escaping to track uneven lines through the dirt and blood on his cheeks, but finally he looked at Buck and said, "Please, help him."
Knowing what he was being asked, Buck drew his gun out left-handed and placed it between Chaucer's trusting brown eyes. "I'm so sorry."
Buck, Ezra and Clyde all jumped at the loud crack of gunfire and Chaucer gave one last shudder as the light faded out of his eyes.
Profound silence filled the area for several seconds, then Ezra whispered, "Find JD."
His eyes remained locked on the body of his departed friend and Buck, knowing that he was being asked for a moment alone to mourn, replaced his gun and clumsily patted Ezra's shoulder.
Struggling back to his feet, Buck limped away, finding and following a disturbance in the soil that indicated the path Jericho had taken. He frowned as he noted the wide path in the dirt, only sporadically marked by hoof prints. It looked like someone had tried to cover the tracks. Then, Buck's heart nearly stopped as he realized what he was looking at. It was the sign of a body being dragged.
"Kid?" Buck shouted, staggering and stumbling as he attempted to quicken his pace. The drag marks carried on for what seemed like miles as he continued to follow them, but when Buck risked a glance back over his shoulder he realized that he could not have gone far at all. He could still see Clyde, though Ezra was obscured from his vision by the fallen body of Chaucer.
Feeling urgently that time was working against him, Buck tried again to run. He was forced to stop and tuck his right hand inside the large bandanna he wore around his neck when the jarring of his uneven steps caused spears of pain to lance through it.
"JD!" he screamed again. There was no answer and he choked back tears as he mumbled a heartfelt prayer. "Oh, God, let me find him. Please don't let him be dead."
Apparently, the Almighty was in an accommodating mood. The ground suddenly fell away sharply as Buck staggered over the top of a hill and he nearly tumbled head over heels, barely managing to catch himself as he lost his footing and fell hard upon his knees. He slid several feet down the grassy slope and blinked, unable to believe his eyes when he realized that the unmoving body of JD Dunne was lying just a few feet away. One boot and sock were missing, probably still bumping along in the Jericho's left stirrup, and the young man's clothing was tattered and torn. His hat was gone, his gunbelt empty, his hair was full of dirt and debris and his face was a bruised and bloody mess, but his chest was rising and falling steadily and that fact alone made him the most beautiful sight Buck had seen in a long time.
"JD . . . kid . . . JD, wake the hell up!" he ordered, scrambling to his friend's side. JD ignored him.
As he had done with Ezra, Buck quickly felt along all four limbs and tested for signs of broken ribs and internal injuries. The only thing he found was a broken ankle above the bare foot. Were it not for the fact that JD's face looked like he'd tried to plow a field with it, Buck could have fooled himself into thinking the boy was merely taking a nap in the afternoon sunshine.
Searching for a spot that was not scraped raw, Buck lightly slapped the younger man's face, encouraging him to wake up. "JD, come on now. Don't mess around with ol' Buck. I left Ezra alone back there and he's banged up pretty bad. He needs us." He continued to talk while he eased JD out of his ruined brown coat and rolled him partway over to get a look at his back. Long ragged rips filled the material of JD's white homespun shirt and Buck winced as he struggled to balance his friend in place using a knee and the elbow of his injured hand. With his good hand, he brushed away pebbles and dirt that had driven themselves into the deep cuts lacerating JD's back. He was going to scar a little, no doubt about it, but with any luck a good washing would keep out infection. "You look like you got a skinned knee over your whole back, kid. Gonna itch like hell once it starts healing. Maybe if you're lucky, you can talk Casey into rubbing some cream on the scratches for you. Bet you'd like that, them pretty little hands all over you."
Buck sighed when his teasing received no response. Damn it, how was he supposed to get the two of them back to Ezra? The gambler couldn't be left alone with a head wound and a broken arm and leg. Casting a sorrowful look back in the direction he had come, he mentally sighed and added a broken heart to that list. Even without the injuries, he didn't feel right about leaving Ezra back there alone with the body of Chaucer.
Unfortunately, JD did not seem inclined to wake up and help him. Well, there was nothing to do for the situation except try and fix it himself, then.
Forcing himself back up to his knees, Buck grabbed JD by the front placket of his shirt and pulled hard. Lowering his left shoulder, he cursed in a steady stream at how unnaturally heavy the young man's body seemed as he jerked and pulled and struggled with it. Finally, he managed to settle the unconscious form over his left shoulder and rose unsteadily to his feet.
For a moment, Buck thought he was going to go straight back down again. He staggered back a few paces, lurched forward and then finally found his balance. The slope he had slid down so easily felt like an impossible obstacle as he contemplated walking back up it, but Buck knew he had no choice. "One step at a time, Wilmington," he muttered. One boot moved forward, then the second and Buck again had to stop and reclaim his balance.
"Fine, do si do it is then," he said, sliding one foot up and bringing the other even with it. Forward . . . and match. Forward . . . and match. Step by slow step, Buck carried his friend up the hill and back toward the scene of the accident.
A journey that might have taken him five minutes on a normal day was four times that long today, but at last Buck reached his goal and dropped to his knees, setting JD down gently a few feet from Ezra, even though his muscles urged him to just dump his burden and collapse.
Ezra had turned his head to watch Buck's progress, lips tilting up a smile that contrasted strangely with his blood and tear stained features. "You found him," he murmured.
"Yeah," Buck panted. "He looks like a piece of chewed up jerky but he's breathin' okay and I couldn't find anything broken except his ankle. Must've whacked his head good, 'cause he hasn't woken up since I found him."
The gambler frowned at this news. "We're in quite a bind. All three of us injured, and don't try to tell me you're not, miles from anywhere with limited food and water and few resources, and the horses," he paused in his calm recitation, swallowing as he cast an involuntary glance at Chaucer's still form, "gone. What are we going to do?"
Buck sighed. Somehow hearing everything spelled out that way just made the situation seem worse. "I reckon the first thing to do is get those broken bones of yours splinted and check on Clyde."
Only then did Buck realize that Ezra could not see the other horse from his position. "He's okay, got a limp and some cuts but I don't think he's bad off. Haven't had a chance to check him yet."
"Can he be ridden?"
Not wanting to dash the hope he could hear in Ezra's voice, Buck once again struggled to stand up. "Let me go find out."
Clyde shied and danced as Buck approached him, but a few soothingly spoken words soon had him butting his large gray head against Buck's chest, as if he too was seeking reassurance. Buck crooned and muttered nonsense into one twitchy pointed ear as he ran his hand over the animal's body, checking for injuries in his leg. Nothing appeared to be out of joint or broken and the cuts on his hide were already scabbing over. Resting his forehead on the pale expanse of Clyde's back, Buck whispered, "Thank you," to whoever might be listening.
"Need you to do me a favor, buddy," he told Clyde, scratching between eyes that closed blissfully at the contact. "With only one arm workin', I can't bury Chaucer. Wish I could, but I can't and I don't want to leave Ezra and JD right next to his body. There was a little grove of trees about half a mile back with water and a nice patch of grass. Now, I know you're hurtin' some but Ez and JD need our help. You think you can carry them both real nice and easy if I lead you back to that grove?"
Blinking, Clyde actually seemed to be considering the idea. Then he shook his head and stepped forward, making Buck smile. He could almost believe that the question had been understood as Clyde's limp seemed already to have lessened. He nodded to himself. One knee was a little hot but Buck felt sure that if he bound it for extra support and went slow, just maybe they could do this.
As he turned back toward his friends, Buck's smile turned rueful. He wasn't sure just how he was going to lift two injured men, one unconscious, into the saddle but going slow was definitely not going to be a problem.
JD had still not awakened when Buck returned. "His brain must've got rattled around good when Jericho was draggin' him," he said, thinking out loud. "He should have come around by now."
"He was shifting," Ezra offered. "Reacted with some pain."
Buck smiled. "Well, hell, that's great news! Normally I wouldn't say that being in pain was a good thing, but in this case any reaction's a good one." He looked from one friend to the other, trying to decide what he should do first. Finally, he nodded and knelt next to Ezra. "Not much I can do for the kid until he wakes up, but I think we better get you splinted and bandaged before we try to move anywhere."
Ezra sounded nervous and Buck couldn't blame him for feeling that way. "Clyde's doing okay. Bruised his knee up a little, but he should be okay to carry you guys back to that little stream under the trees. You remember it?"
"I do," Ezra said slowly, "but that's a long way for a half-lame horse. And carrying double?" He shook his head.
Buck sighed deeply. "I don't like it either. I'll be runnin' the risk of permanently laming him, or worse, but I ain't got the supplies for a two man travois, even if I had a way to drag it, and we got to get you boys cleaned up and tended."
Ezra cut him off. "You're not fine. You haven't drawn a deep breath since you returned with JD and you've obviously hurt your right arm."
Buck snorted. "Y'know, I'm never playing poker with you again, Ezra. Even rattle-brained and half-blind, with your arm and leg busted like green twigs, I still can't bluff you."
The gambler smiled a bit. "Don't change the subject."
"Okay, okay, my hand's busted. I must've tried to catch myself when Clyde tossed me. And my ribs are a little sore."
He pressed a hand to his side. "Just cracked a couple, I think. They hurt like a son of a bitch, but they'll hold."
"We should bind them."
Buck sighed. "And how do you figure we're gonna manage that when neither one of us has two good hands?"
"Mine 'r'. . . okay."
Both of them started in surprise at the soft words and Buck grinned widely as he blurted, "Kid!"
JD gasped and winced as he tried to sit up, a string of soft but vehement curses escaping at the pain his effort cost him. He finally succeeded in levering himself onto one elbow and remained there, panting with the effort.
Buck laughed, giddy with relief. "Shit, kid, I didn't think you were ever gonna wake up. How you feeling?"
JD attempted a smile, but quickly gave up as the motion pulled at the skinned and scraped skin of his face. "Like hell," he said bluntly. "What happened?"
"Jericho spooked, hit you in the face and knocked you cold. The other horses got panicky and . . . well, here we are," Buck explained tersely. "We all got busted up, you're about scraped raw all over and Ezra's got a head wound."
Reminded by his own words, Buck reached out and plucked away the remains of Ezra's handkerchief which was now thoroughly saturated with blood. He flung the rag away and examined the cut. It still bled, but not as freely as before. Ezra flinched when Buck pulled the other half of the cloth free from his nose.
"Nose stopped bleedin', that's a good sign," Buck decided, digging his own oversized handkerchief free from inside his shirt and tying it around Ezra's head. "That ought to do you."
"Tell me tha' was clean."
Buck smiled at the half-hearted protest, wincing in sympathy at how much more difficult the gambler's words were to understand than they had been earlier. "Clean enough. Your tongue must be mighty sore; you sound like you're talking through a wet sponge."
Ezra merely shrugged his shoulder, the lack of a verbal response answer in itself.
Sounding confused, JD suddenly interrupted, "What happened to Milagro?"
Ezra and Buck exchanged a concerned look. "You weren't riding Milagro, JD," Buck told him. "You had a rental horse. Jericho, do you remember?"
"Oh . . . oh, yeah. I forgot. Where is he?"
"Jericho's gone," Buck explained patiently. "Took off running and damn near killed you doing it. Clyde's a little banged up but he's okay and Chaucer's-"
He cut himself off, not wanting to remind Ezra of his loss. The sense of guilt he felt deepened when he heard Ezra tonelessly fill in the blank. "He's dead."
JD's eyes widened in sympathy at this news. He looked up, seeming for the first time to notice the large body lying just beyond them. "Ezra, I'm so sorry."
He leaned toward the ground, pressing his forehead against one fisted hand and for a moment Buck was afraid that he was about to pass out again. "JD?" Buck said. "You okay?"
"You told me Jericho was too green but I thought I could handle him. He must have still been too spooky to be out on the trail." He swallowed audibly. "You warned me and I ignored you."
Alarmed by JD's guilt-ridden tone, Buck tried to console him. "It was just an accident, kid. Not anybody's fault."
Lifting his head, he looked again from Chaucer's still form to Ezra's increasingly emotionless face, unshed tears brimming in his eyes. "Yes, it is," he whispered.
Buck felt his heart sink when Ezra rolled his head away and shut his eyes. It was all too obvious that he did not disagree.
Wanting to argue further but knowing that now was not the right time, Buck opted to get down to business instead.
"We need to get these wounds tended, boys. You know what Nathan always says. The first hour is critical when it comes to getting wounds cleaned out and bones set. Don't want either of you fallin' sick on top of everything else." He didn't want to admit to how badly he was feeling himself, but decided that sympathy might be a good way to break the other two out of their sudden self-absorption. Pressing his good hand to his ribcage, Buck levered himself up on his knees and groaned loudly. "Maybe we'd better start with these ribs."
It worked like a charm. JD's head popped up and Ezra's eyes immediately reopened. Both of them struggled to reach a full sitting position, wincing and gasping as the motion pulled and jarred their respective wounds. Buck helped where he could, clasping his good hand around Ezra's uninjured wrist and pulling him forward, then doing the same for JD.
"We're gonna need something for bandages," he realized.
Fighting against a tongue growing too swollen and sore to speak properly with, Ezra slurred, "Mah thhh-addle 'ags."
"You got some in your saddle-bags?" Buck clarified. When Ezra nodded, he worked himself up on his feet and staggered to Chaucer's side. One of the bags was inaccessible, trapped beneath the body, but Buck was encouraged by the fact that he knew Ezra usually kept only spare clothing and personal grooming supplies on that side. His food-stuffs, knife, spare ammunition and the emergency medical kit that Nathan Jackson insisted they all carry would be in the other bag. With any luck, the bandages would be with it.
Fishing the knife, a razor-sharp Bowie that Ezra had received as a birthday gift from Vin, out of the bag, Buck used it to cut the leather binding between the two packs. He knew he'd be hearing about the expense of the finely crafted leatherwork later, but if they got out of this alive it'd be well worth the host of complaints Ezra was sure to level.
Opening the bag, he rummaged inside and grinned at the sight of the thick double roll of bandages. Ezra's spare shirt, a soft white one that he had worn the day before and relegated to the bag as dirty laundry, could also be sacrificed to the cause.
Looking up, Buck noticed JD fidgeting and squirming. It could have simply been discomfort from his injuries but Buck suspected that the problem was more emotional than physical. JD's mouth kept opening and closing, as if he wanted to say something, but Ezra was staunchly ignoring him so he remained silent. Buck decided to throw him a line.
"Hey kid, any chance you can get my rifle off of Clyde? I can't reach Ezra's and we're gonna need something to splint that broken leg with."
"Sure!" he called back. Jericho having run off with his supplies, JD had been dispiritedly watching as Buck did all the work, but he perked up as he was offered a chance to help. Clucking his tongue to get the gelding's attention, he whistled for Clyde to come closer.
The big gray hesitated as he caught the scent of his fallen stable-mate but he was a naturally sociable animal, much like his owner, and the lure of company finally won him over. He hobbled up close enough for JD to grasp his dangling reins.
"Good boy, Clyde," JD praised. The horse blinked placidly, clearly wondering what was happening as JD practically climbed up the side of his saddle, using it for leverage as he worked himself up on his one booted foot and freed Buck's rifle from its scabbard. "Hey, Buck, you want your saddle-bags while I'm up here?"
Buck looked at him and grinned. "That'd be great. I got a bottle of whiskey in there that should help us out some. Grab my canteen, too."
"Right." He struggled with the ties for a couple of minutes but finally freed all of the requested objects. Hopping to turn himself around, JD suddenly found himself with his hands full, only one leg to stand on and a total lack of balance when Clyde moved closer and accidentally bumped into him. JD went down like a felled tree. "Yahh!"
Instinct compelled Ezra forward to try and stop his friend's rapid descent, but he only succeeded in moving far enough to give JD something soft to land on.
As they impacted, JD yelped, Ezra screamed and Buck exclaimed, "Shit!"
For a long moment, all was eerily silent, everyone too stunned to move. Then to the utter surprise of both of his friends, Ezra let go a harsh croak of laughter. "JD, remin' me no' to catch you when you fall. It's provin' to be damn unhealthy."
Hoping that the unexpected quip meant that Ezra had not been hurt even worse, Buck quickly made his way back to his fallen friends and helped JD off of him.
"Ezra, are you all right?" they both asked.
His mouth opened and closed, then Ezra simply lifted his uninjured hand and wobbled it in a so-so gesture.
"You been better, but you're no worse off?" Buck guessed.
"You're bleeding again," JD observed, wincing at the sight of fresh blood trickling out of Ezra's nostrils.
Swiping away the blood, Ezra looked at it and sighed. "I evah catch 'im . . . Jer'cho is glue."
JD smiled a little bit and Buck grinned hugely. In his instinctive attempt to keep JD from further harm, it seemed that Ezra had temporarily come to terms with who was at fault in their predicament.
Assisting JD in lifting the battered man back to his former sitting position, Buck patted Ezra gently on the back. "Let's get these wounds tended and get the hell out of here."
With a lot of effort and cooperation, the three injured men managed to see to one another's injuries. JD and Ezra passed a bandage roll back and forth around Buck's body until his ribs were strapped to their satisfaction and though Buck griped that he couldn't breathe anymore, he had to admit that the pain had lessened. To brace his hand, one of Chaucer's saddle stirrups was removed and Buck wrapped his fingers around it. Then the stirrup was tightly bound to his hand and wrist. The result was bulky and awkward, but the make-shift splint at least kept him from trying to use it.
Ezra's derringer rig was removed from his right forearm. The fit would not be perfect for his left arm since the rig had been designed to be worn the opposite way, but it would be sufficient to hold the broken bones in place once they'd been set.
Ezra gritted his teeth and swallowed hard, trying his best not to scream. Buck held his wrist in a strong grip while Ezra gave a steady pull from the elbow. Luckily, the misaligned bones snapped back into place easily but the additional pain of restored blood flow proved to be too much for Ezra and he passed out.
"Let's get this done before he wakes up again," Buck said as JD quickly strapped the brace around Ezra's arm. "I'll hold him steady and you pull that busted leg back into place."
"Me?" JD protested. "I don't know if I can, Buck. I've seen Nathan fix broken legs a couple of times but I've never done anything like this before."
Buck nodded, sympathetic to the distress he could hear in his friend's voice. "I know, I wish Nathan was here to do this too, but you saw what me and Ezra did with his arm. I need two strong hands to pull his leg back the way it ought to be and right now I don't have 'em. It's got to be you."
"But what if I just make things worse? I already-"
"JD," Buck interrupted sternly. "I'm only gonna say this one more time. What happened today is not your fault. I know that and when Ezra's in a little less pain, he'll know it too. You picked that horse because he was the youngest and fastest one in the stable, same way you always do when you can't ride Milagro. Me and Ezra teased you about picking a greenie because that's what we always do. None of us had any reason to think Jericho would panic when you asked him to run because none of us thought the stable would be stupid enough to rent out a horse that inexperienced. If you want to blame somebody, blame them."
Drawing a deep breath, JD straightened his spine and snapped his head in a quick nod. Buck wasn't sure whether he was actually agreeing or just dismissing his feelings of guilt because he was needed, but either way Buck felt proud when JD scooted back a few inches and set his weight as firmly as he could from a position seated on the ground. He lifted Ezra's damaged leg as carefully as if it were made of spun glass, taking a firm grip around the ankle and beneath the calf. "I'm ready."
"Hold on tight," Buck advised, bracing his undamaged arm beneath Ezra's leg and allowing the knee to rest on his forearm. They had already cut the material of Ezra's black pinstriped trousers away from the wounded area, giving them a good look at the distended skin above the broken tibia. "When I pull back, you pull forward, real strong and steady. With any luck this will pop back in place, just like his arm did."
JD nodded and firmed his hold a bit more. "Okay."
Buck tensed his arm. "Pull."
Together they slowly manipulated the broken bones. Unlike with the arm, this process did not go smoothly and JD was forced to tuck Ezra's foot up under his armpit for extra leverage as he laid his hand over the swollen area and pressed down even as he continued to pull. His face broke out in a sweat and his complexion went green when the two halves of the larger bone ground audibly together.
Ezra began to moan and twist as they worked and he came awake with a hoarse scream just as the bones finally slid back into place.
"Hold him steady, kid. Hold him!" Buck ordered, letting go his grip on Ezra's thigh and grabbing his empty rifle. "Ezra, don't move, we gotta tie this in place."
Teeth and eyelids both squeezed tightly shut, Ezra managed a nod, the fingers of his right hand clenching around a handful of the scrubby desert grass he rested upon.
Working with frantic haste, JD and Buck tied the rifle tight against the damaged limb, binding it close with several layers of ripped cloth bandages. At last, JD was able to set the broken leg gently back down, at which point he scrabbled away as far as his own damaged body could manage to get him and vomited noisily in the dirt.
For several long minutes the exhausted trio simply lay still, trying to get their panting breath under control. Finally, JD managed an awkward crawl back to them and, embarrassed by his display, whispered, "Sorry."
"Don' be," Ezra told him, dashing away a few tears that the pain had forced past his control. "'f I were mo' mobile, I' migh' have followed your zample."
JD smiled. "Guess so. How you doing?"
The gambler huffed. "Be'er 'f I could 'alk."
"Better if you could talk?" Buck translated. "Not sure I agree with that. The quiet is kind of nice."
He smiled at the one-eyed green glare he received. Ezra's bruised eye had finished swelling shut and between that and his tear-stained, dirt-encrusted, blood-smeared face, his attempt at a haughty stare just didn't have much power.
Buck wished that they could wash away the accumulated filth for the fastidious gambler's peace of mind, but with JD's canteen gone and Ezra's lost somewhere beneath the body of his fallen horse, their water supply was limited and the mass of abrasions on JD's back and face still needed cleaning.
Picking up the canteen and the half full bottle of whiskey he had taken from his saddle-bag, Buck tore off a piece of Ezra's spare shirt to use as a wash cloth. He flashed JD a sympathetic smile. "Wish I had something better to clean those cuts up with. This is gonna hurt."
"I got an idea," JD said suddenly, seeming to ignore Buck's words. "We got any white sugar?"
"Uh, yeah," Buck said slowly, confused. He hoped the strange question was not a sign that JD's concussion was getting worse. "I got some in with my coffee stash. Why?"
"I was just remembering when I was a kid and I bit my tongue, my mom used to give me a big spoonful with a little water." He looked at Ezra. "You don't swallow it, you just hold it in your mouth for as long as you can. It turns kind of syrupy and something about it reduces the swelling."
A grin broke over Buck's face. "Hell, I forgot all about that. My mama used to do the same thing. It's real good for taking the infection out of cuts too. If I got enough sugar, we can put the same goop on any of those wounds on your back that look like they might get infected."
Ezra was looking from one to the other of them, clearly believing that they'd lost their minds. "Sugar?"
"White sugar," JD repeated. "I dunno why, but the brown kind doesn't work the same. Luckily, Buck always buys the white if he can get it, even though it does cost twice as much."
Buck shrugged. "I like it."
Ezra turned to Buck. "You thupport dis notion?"
"Sure, Ezra, didn't your mama ever . . .? Forget I asked that. The point is, it works and it ought to help you both." He grinned. "And even if it doesn't, it'll taste a lot better than any of Nathan's remedies."
Ezra had no argument for that.
So, Buck gave Ezra a heaping spoonful of sugar to suck on then the two of them did their best to set JD's ankle, using another bit of the saddle and the last of the rolled bandages to bind it in place, then giving him Ezra's discarded boot to wear over the top. JD could not help but smile at the sight of one foot encased in a worn and scuffed brown boot while the other was encased in a slightly too large polished black one.
Having no choice but to remain silent while he waited to see if JD's home remedy would work, Ezra used a bit of water and Buck's shaving mug to mix an herbal paste out of some of the supplies in his medical kit. While none of them were experts, they had all been drilled mercilessly by Nathan in the use and application of each plant. In Buck's coffee cup, he created more of the sugar syrup. There was not enough of either substance to treat all of the numerous abrasions so they had decided to apply the sugar to anything that was no longer bleeding and the herbs to everything else.
Buck, meanwhile, stripped away the remains of JD's ruined shirt and dabbed all of the scabbed and sluggishly oozing cuts free of dirt, blood and debris. The skin was shredded in numerous spots, making him wince at the sight, especially when JD gasped and flinched with each application of alcohol. He stopped apologizing halfway through, determined to simply finish the task and get it over with.
Finally, the cleaning portion was done and Buck began applying their treatment to the cuts on JD's back while Ezra worked on his face.
Allowing JD to simultaneously clean and treat the oozing cut on his forehead, Ezra took a small swig of clean water and washed the sugar out of his mouth before saying carefully, "Di' you know that th' earliest known 'pecies of frog lived in the Jurassic period, some 190 million years ago?"
Recognizing what Ezra was doing, JD smiled a bit even as he jerked away from the pain in his back. "Really?"
The gambler nodded. "Some say tha's how frogs developed jumpin' legs, to keep from bein' consumed by pre'ators."
"Wow," he replied, honestly impressed with this bit of knowledge. "You sound a little better, Ezra. Is the sugar helping?"
He nodded and took another spoonful, then gestured for JD to keep talking.
The young man yelped when Buck hit a particularly sensitive spot.
"Sorry, kid. Um, say, did you know that a whole group of frogs is called an Army? Imagine ol' General Sherman tryin' to take over Georgia with an army of little green soldiers."
JD managed a slight laugh, wincing when Ezra began to dab at a particularly deep cut on his cheek. "Did you guys know that in India frogs are considered the symbol of thunderstorms? Josiah told me that. And in Japan they're good luck because they're descended from some ancient spirit or something that brings good fortune. And in China . . ."
As his enthusiasm for the subject grew, JD seemed to forget about his pain. Buck and Ezra exchanged a smile over the young man's shoulder and Buck gave his friend a wink of gratitude.
Eventually, every wound was treated to the best of their limited ability. Buck carefully loaded the supplies back onto Clyde's saddle. JD, now wearing the sleeveless remains of Ezra's spare shirt as a bandage over his wounds, half-heartedly suggested that he could limp along next to Clyde rather than ride the injured animal, but was quickly countered by Buck, who pointed out that with only one arm and leg working, Ezra might need some help staying in the saddle.
Ezra had been studiously avoiding looking at Chaucer, but now, faced with the reality of leaving him behind forever, could not tear his gaze away. The gambler's normally steady hand trembled as he stretched to his right and laid it gently upon the animal's still face. "I'll miss you, mon cher ami," he whispered.
Buck gave them a minute, then knelt carefully at Ezra's side and said, "We'd best be going, pard."
The gambler's face flushed as he recognized that his tender farewell had had a witness. He did not reply but merely looped his good arm around Buck's neck and allowed the tall man to help him struggle up onto his right foot. JD was already standing next to Clyde, holding onto him for balance, and between them, he and Buck managed to lift Ezra's weight enough for him to hop up into the stirrup.
Struggling and cursing, the three of them got Ezra turned and his broken leg lifted across Clyde's broad back to sit properly in the saddle. Ezra was sweating a river by the time this was done and he gratefully accepted the swatch of cloth that Buck handed him, grimacing as he saw how filthy the rag came away from his skin.
Removing his foot from the stirrup, Ezra looked at JD and held out his hand.
Accepting, JD held on tight and allowed Buck to lift his left knee while he worked his own right foot into the stirrup. Having two good hands made it easier for him to accomplish his goal but JD was also panting and sweating by the time he was settled.
He put his hands on Ezra's waist to steady him and both of them nodded to Buck.
Taking a deep breath, Buck patted Clyde on the neck and picked up the reins. "Here we go," he murmured and took his first step. Clyde moved forward confidently, in spite of his still present limp and Buck took heart from his valiant companion. He felt exhausted and the half-mile journey ahead of them had never looked so long.
Buck's estimate proved to be overly optimistic. The journey was stretching closer to a mile by the time JD called out, "There it is." The lack of enthusiasm in his voice showed just how weary he was, and Ezra's exhaustion was even more apparent in the fact that he did not speak at all.
Buck felt as if he'd taken a day-long hike against hurricane winds. He had wanted to stop any number of times to rest but each time he considered it, he would look over his shoulder at his two more severely injured friends and carry on. Clyde had begun to limp more heavily under the double burden but the slow pace seemed to help him and as they neared the water hole the stalwart animal perked up, sniffing the air. Buck patted him on the neck. "Smell that, buddy? Just a few more steps and we'll all have us a nice long drink and a little siesta."
Seeming to understand the words, Clyde picked his feet up a little faster, half dragging his tired master toward that lovely scent of water. In spite of his eagerness, however, the horse stopped on Buck's command and stood still so that Buck could help his friends dismount.
Quickly spreading his bedroll over a shady spot beneath the trees, Buck settled his two companions on the blankets, unsaddled his faithful horse and allowed Clyde to take a well-deserved drink, then sprawled out in the grass, too tired to do anything else.
"Thank you, Buck."
Buck rolled his head back, looking at Ezra upside down. He started to shrug off the gratitude, but the sincerity in the gambler's voice stopped him. Ezra was an expert at sarcasm, witty comments and offhand casualty when speaking with others. It was a rare thing for him to offer heartfelt thanks for anything.
A long silence fell, each of the men grateful for the chance to rest and be still. Then, a soft buzzing sound filled the air that made them smile. The snoring inspired them both and within seconds all three were sound asleep.
Well over an hour later, Buck opened his eyes. Ezra was already awake, staring at the sky overhead, which Buck realized with a start of surprise had clouded menacingly in the short time he had been unconscious.
"The kid had a good idea," Buck commented in greeting, sitting up and stretching the sore muscles in his back. His broken hand was throbbing but the nap seemed to have done some good for his ribs.
Ezra sighed. "We shouldn't let him sleep much longer. I believe he is concussed."
"Think we all are," Buck agreed, rubbing his aching head. "You're sounding a lot more like yourself, Ez. How's the tongue?"
In reply, Ezra stuck the organ out, his one good eye focusing downward as he tried to get a look at the damage.
Buck laughed at the sight. "Looks a lot better too. You should drink some cold water; see if you can get the swelling the rest of the way down."
Studying the cool running water a few feet away, Ezra admitted, "I'd like to stick my entire head in. It feels like it's about to come off." He touched gentle fingers to his swollen nose and eye socket. "And my face is throbbin'."
Buck struggled onto his knees and shuffled over to Ezra's side, where he offered a hand. The gambler accepted without comment, gripping Buck's hand and using it and his good leg to scoot and slide his body through the grass and over to the water's edge.
Ezra paused when he got far enough over the lip of the bank to see his reflection in the gently rippling water. The left side of his face was swollen and discolored, the entire surface streaked in blood, dirt and flecks of greenish herbal paste. "Good Lord, I look exactly like I feel."
Patting him on the back, Buck said, "Yeah, you and the kid are a matched set. His nose looks like a black and blue dough-ball where Jericho smashed him."
"Think so. I did my best to set it but it might heal a little bumpy."
Ezra simply nodded, not bothering to confirm the sight for himself as he carefully balanced his broken limbs and dipped his good hand into the stream, splashing cold water over his face and lifting a few handfuls to his mouth.
"You know, Ez, JD didn't mean for any of this to happen. It's not his fault that Jericho spooked or that we got hurt."
He stopped, seeing the tightening of Ezra's jaw.
The gambler continued to bathe his abused face for a minute or two, ignoring the world around him. At last he spoke. "Intellectually, I know you're correct."
"But your heart ain't so sure?"
The jaw muscles twitched. Ezra's soft drawl was little more than a whisper as he said, "Chaucer . . . was my best friend, Buck. Perhaps that sounds stupid or even insulting, but . . ."
"I understand. Me and Clyde have been through a hell of a lot together. I count him as good a friend as any of you."
Ezra nodded. "Ten years. We shared so many adventure and intrigues. I taught him tricks to amuse myself and amaze others, sometimes to quite a lucrative effect."
He smiled a bit at the memory, but the expression quickly faded again. He fell silent and Buck simply waited him out, knowing that Ezra was not finished and willing to give him all the time he needed.
After a few seconds, Ezra went on. "Chaucer listened to my thoughts and plans and dreams and fears, even the ones I never shared with another soul, all without any hint of judgment. Saved my life on numerous occasions." He closed his eyes, swallowing a lump in his throat. "He deserved so much better than a bad decision and a cold bullet, Buck. He deserved better than to become . . . carrion for some hungry vulture."
The gambler turned his face away to hide tears that were nonetheless given away by the quivering in his shoulders.
Buck squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sorry. It's damned unfair that you had to pay that kind of price for someone else's mistake, but you know that's what it was. The odds against Jericho rearing up when JD told him to run have got to be a hundred to one."
Ezra nodded but did not lift his head.
Giving him a sympathetic pat, Buck moved away to give the grieving man some peace. The sadness that he felt grew even deeper when he noticed JD, no longer asleep but watching Ezra with brimming hazel eyes.
Buck shook his head. The decision he had been wrestling with all the way to the water hole seemed even harder now, but the day had stretched on past noon and the crisp autumn morning had given way to a chilly afternoon. The sky was already growing increasingly gray with clouds and the way their luck was running today; he wouldn't be surprised if it rained before sundown. Outside of the ground sheet and two blankets that made up his bedroll, the men had nothing with which to keep away the cold and damp and the scrubby stand of half denuded trees around them would provide enough wood for a campfire but not much in the way of shelter.
They needed help, and he was the only one healthy enough to go after it. He just wished that he felt better about leaving Ezra and JD to their own devices. He would be gone for hours and between their injuries and the high emotions running between them, he hated to think what result leaving those two alone together might have.
"I have to go," he said, the words breathing out on a sigh.
Ezra and JD both looked up, twin expressions of alarm filling their battered faces, but Buck was surprised to see acceptance take over with equal swiftness.
"Guess so," JD said, glancing regretfully at his ankle. "Wish I could go in your place, Buck."
"As do I, Mr. Wilmington. You've done more than your fair share already."
He grinned. "Well, I reckon you boys are gonna have to owe me one then. Maybe I'll let you buy me a bottle of that good Tennessee sipping whiskey at Inez's tonight."
They nodded, accepting his unspoken promise to bring help as quickly as he could. Ezra attempted a smile. "I'll consider it, if you'd be good enough to bring a basket of Miss Nettie's sweet rolls back with you."
"Maybe an apple pie, too. Sure would take my mind off our troubles," JD said, agreeing that the Wells ranch would be the best destination for Buck to try.
Buck recognized the message in their joking suggestions. They were giving him permission to go and wishing him a safe and speedy trip. "I'll do what I can," he promised.
Half an hour later, Buck, with a little manual assistance from JD, had managed to break off enough tree limbs to build a decent campfire and set a few extra branches aside to keep it going. The sky seemed to mock his efforts, growing ever darker and more threatening. The wind was picking up as well and the two injured men on the ground shivered and wrapped themselves in the blankets. Ezra still had his ruined wool jacket and Buck his coat, but JD had to make due with the tattered remains of Ezra's extra shirt.
For a moment, Buck debated leaving his coat behind, but this trip was going to be difficult enough without freezing on the way. The last thing JD and Ezra needed was for their rescuer to catch a fever and keel over on the way to bringing them help. He needed to move quickly.
"You'd better get going, Buck," JD suggested, echoing his own thoughts. "I don't think that storm's going to wait much longer."
Shaking hands with JD, then clasping Ezra's right hand with his left, Buck mounted the resaddled Clyde and started a slow walk out of camp. He waited until he was out of earshot to whisper, "Wish I could let you stay behind and rest, ol' buddy, but I'd never make it on my own."
Clyde's ears twitched, as they often did when his master spoke to him, and without any prompting from Buck, he picked up his pace.
Buck smiled and patted the muscular gray neck. "You're one in a million, Clyde, I ever tell you that?"
The horse modestly declined to reply.
Buck had been traveling for an hour when the first raindrops began to fall. At first they were few and widespread, just an occasional cold splash on his hand or face, where the wind blew moisture past the protection of his hat, but within another hour they were falling fast and Buck hunched miserably in the saddle.
Noticing that Clyde's pace had slowed, he dismounted and began to walk. He had adopted the habit of dismounting on an average of every twenty minutes and walking for a while to give the horse some rest. Buck prayed that he would not be forced to put his own friend down the same way he'd had to do with Ezra's.
Lead seemed to fill his boots as he walked along on the increasingly soft earth and after only about ten minutes, Buck had no choice but to get back into the saddle. His injured hand ached with relentless intensity and the binding around his ribs was both a blessing and a curse as it prevented him from taking the deep breaths he tried for with increasing frequency.
"Don't give up, Wilmington," he ordered himself through gritted teeth. "What's a few bruised ribs, huh? You had worse than that before."
Finding that talking to himself provided a mild distraction, Buck recalled, "Betty Turner, now that was a hell of a lot of woman. Outweighed you by a good fifty pounds, but she could ride a man 'til he about fainted from the pleasure of it. She cracked a few ribs for you too, didn't she? But were you complainin'? Hell no, you weren't." He laughed, patting his companion on the neck. "Hey, Clyde, you recollect sweet little Miss Diamond from Kansas City? I bet you do. She liked it outdoors better 'n' anyplace else and we gave you a real eyeful, didn't we? Little gal loved to take me out to her daddy's barn, get down on all fours and let ol' Buck just ride that pony."
He sighed blissfully at the memory.
Suddenly, Buck's attention was diverted from his musings when Clyde whinnied and increased his pace. He lifted his head and grinned in relief as he saw a buckboard driving toward him. Removing his hat, Buck sprayed water in every direction as he energetically waved it in greeting upon recognizing the driver as Nettie Wells.
"Buck Wilmington," she greeted as soon as she was within shouting distance. "Land sakes, boy, what mess have you got yourself into now?"
As the wagon drew closer, Buck's mouth fell open a bit. Tied behind the conveyance was the missing Jericho.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said, realizing that the frightened stable horse must have run straight for the Wells ranch upon escaping from the melee. "That sorry excuse for a nit-brained, knock-kneed, glue pot actually did something right."
Hearing the comment as she reached his side and pulled the brake on the buckboard, Nettie raised an eyebrow. "If you mean, he headed for my place, then you're right. Casey found him just outside our property line and brought him back to the house. I recognized the stable brand and sent Casey into town to bring back some help. Figured if the horse was out here all alone rigged out in full gear, then somebody'd be needing it."
"JD was riding him," Buck said, silently breathing a prayer of thanks to any deity that might be listening. Seeing Nettie's alarmed look, he nodded. "He's hurt, got dragged a mite and broke his ankle and Ezra's even worse off. Busted up his arm and leg, walloped his head real good and I'm pretty sure they both got concussion."
"Don't look like you two are faring much better," she observed shrewdly, noting that Clyde was favoring one of his front legs.
Buck shook his head wearily. "No, ma'am."
"Well, hop down off of that horse and climb in. You need to show me where the others are and help me get 'em loaded in the wagon. Casey will bring Nathan back to my place." Seeing him hesitate, she said, "Don't worry about Clyde. Predators ain't gonna come out in this weather. Just ground-hitch him and we'll get him on the way back."
It was a reasonable suggestion and would save Clyde from the need to walk back and forth on his bad leg. Buck dismounted and walked Clyde over to a small stand of trees, hoping the branches would provide a little shelter. He left the saddle on as protection and gave his friend a parting pat as he went to join Nettie.
Deciding that it would be wisest to rest while he could and ride Jericho back to Nettie's ranch after the others were loaded, Buck climbed up into the seat next to the old woman. As they traveled he explained the events of the morning, answering every question she asked about the medical treatment the men had given one another.
Nettie nodded. "Sounds like you did the best you could with what you had. That's about all a body can do and I'm sure they're resting easier knowing you're out here bringing help."
Buck looked at her, surprised. For some reason he could not name, he had expected condemnation for leaving the other men behind.
"What are you looking so guilty for?" she asked, surprising him still further. "You didn't spook the horses."
"I know, it's just . . . I . . . they-" He stopped, confused as he realized that he wasn't completely sure of the reason himself.
"You men always think you ought to be giving God some competition when the chips are down. No man I ever knew had Divine foresight or the ability to snap his fingers and turn back time once something went wrong."
Buck grinned sheepishly. "That's kind of what I told Ezra."
"He's feeling sore at JD because of what happened to Chaucer. I told him it wasn't the kid's fault, and that these things just happen sometimes."
Buck was learning that his innate ability to understand the minds of women did not extend to crusty old ranchers. Nettie gave an unladylike snort and said, "I'm sure that made Mr. Standish feel a whole lot better." Seeing his puzzled look, she elaborated. "That boy might know a thing or two about horses, but JD ain't got any more sense than Casey when it comes to picking a sensible one. Young folks never do. They all want flash and fancy, even when steady and reliable would do the job a whole lot better. "
"Ezra and I both thought Jericho seemed a little too jumpy," Buck admitted. "But I've seen JD handle green horses before. He's good with 'em, ma'am, real good."
"I agree," she said. "He's come out to work with my stock a time or two and as long as he's paying attention, he is good, but he gets distracted real easy if something more exciting comes along. He just ain't got enough experience under his belt yet to keep his head steady when a dozen things are happening around him. That's why he needs all you fellas to learn from yet."
Having witnessed this himself on a number of occasions, Buck could not deny it. Just the same, he could not resist saying, "He didn't mean for this to happen."
Nettie gave him a withering look. "Well, of course he didn't. We don't make accidents happen, that's why they're called accidents. But that don't change the fact that JD is a little bit responsible for what happened today, and you telling him otherwise might make him feel better right now but it won't remind him to pay heed next time. He's growin' and learnin' but like any young pup he needs a good nip from his elders now and then to keep him on the right path."
"And when I keep telling Ezra that it's nobody's fault, it says to him that I think losing Chaucer was nothing to get upset about," he concluded. He sighed. "Damn."
She patted him on the leg. "Reckon he understands, deep down. He's just hurtin' too much to realize it yet." A faraway look came into her eyes. "When I was a girl, even younger than Casey, I had a sweet little bay filly that I loved like anything. We spent part of every day together and some warm nights I even used to go out and sleep in the barn, just to be close to her. One winter, she caught some kind of virus and started having trouble breathing, wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep. I stayed with her every minute but she died just two days after she first got sick. That wasn't anybody's fault, but I wanted to blame the whole world for it."
"Best friends," Buck said, then clarified, "That's what Ezra said, that Chaucer was his best friend."
Nettie looked at him, a wealth of understanding in her faded blue eyes. "There are days when I think back on Sally and still feel that grief, but it's a soft kind of hurt now, tempered by the memories of all the good times we had together. As hard as it was for me to lose her, I had family to help me over the pain. A man like Mr. Standish don't strike me as having had a whole lot of folks to rely on in his life, so losing an animal he felt that strong about has to cut deep."
Buck nodded. "Yes, ma'am, but I reckon Ezra's got family to help him over it too."
She smiled. "You just make sure he knows that. JD don't listen sometimes because he's young, but I think that gambling man is just too flat out stubborn to pay heed to good sense."
Suddenly feeling much better, Buck laughed. "Miz Wells, I believe you're right."
The rain was still falling steadily when the buckboard pulled up to the waterhole where Ezra and JD waited. JD struggled up into a sitting position and waved as he caught sight of them, grinning so broadly that Buck just knew it had to hurt like hell, given the state of his face.
"You found Jericho!"
"More like he found me," Nettie replied, pulling her team to a stop and setting the brake. She jumped down from the wagon with the energy of a woman half her age and went to kneel next to the young man. She took hold of him by the chin and tsked as she examined the cuts and swelling. "Buck was telling me you and Jericho smacked heads. Looks like he got the better end of it."
JD gingerly touched his bruised nose. "Sure did." Hopefully, he asked, "Don't suppose you found my other boot, or my hat, on the way back here?"
With an exasperated frown, Nettie smacked him alongside the head with barely enough force to unsettle a housefly, though JD yelped in indignation just the same. "Land sakes, boy, is that all you can think about at a time like this? You tried to race a green horse and got dumped on your head for your trouble, which is no more than you deserved. You managed to injure your two friends, and cost one of them a real valuable animal into the bargain, just because you weren't thinking beyond your next adventure. And now you're miles from nowhere, in the rain, and all three of you look like something the cat dragged in. Seems to me you got bigger worries than a hat!"
Even as she treated him to the sharp lecture, Nettie's hands were gently and efficiently ghosting over the young man's injuries, applying dabs from the bottle of medicine she'd brought along to any cut that still looked inflamed, and efficiently covering his hurts with dry bandages. JD looked increasingly ashamed of himself as she spoke, but somehow Nettie's forthright manner was as soothing as it was scolding and he accepted the rebuke without rancor.
Buck smiled as he watched them together. It was a pure marvel the way a woman could make a man face up to the consequences of his actions, but somehow remove the pain of them at the same time.
Glancing down at Ezra, who had neither spoken nor stirred beyond offering a vague wave at their approach, Buck saw that Nettie's scolding was having a similar effect on him. He looked sad and solemn, but some of the hurt looked to be easing, as if all he had really wanted was to hear someone else agree that JD had at least some culpability in Chaucer's death. Nettie had been right.
The splints they had placed on Ezra's arm and leg appeared to be holding, so Buck left them in place. Nathan would be better able to determine what else needed doing. The cut over his temple was more worrisome. The wound was inflamed and caused Ezra to gasp and jerk away when Buck gently probed at it. With the gambler being so uncharacteristically tight lipped, it was impossible to say how his injured tongue was faring, but there wasn't much he could do about it anyway so Buck decided that was just as well.
"You got a fever going," he commented, scowling up at the clouds, which continued to show a complete lack of sympathy for their situation. "You feeling sick or dizzy at all?"
"Both," he grunted, giving Buck a fairly good guess as to the reason for his lack of conversation. Talking yourself out of the urge to vomit could take about all the concentration a man had. "Well, we'll get you boys back to Nettie's place and have Nathan come take a look at you. Reckon he's got something in that magic bag of herbs that'll settle you real fine."
As if the suggestion of Nathan's remedies was enough to overcome the last of his defenses, Ezra's complexion suddenly went white and Buck barely managed to get him rolled to his side out of the way of the blankets before he lost control.
The gambler groaned as he flopped back over onto his back, panting miserably.
Nettie laid a hand on Ezra's forehead and cheek to check the level of his fever and it was a sign of just how terrible he felt that no protest was issued, though he did flush when it occurred to him that Nettie had witnessed his undignified performance.
"Don't fret, son," she told him, a hint of humor in her voice. "A whack to the head is a sure way to get a person's stomach upset. Throw in a fever on top of that and you had no say in it at all. These things have a way of coming on fast and hard when a body's been through too much all at once. State you're in, I'm just surprised all three of you ain't burnin' up and heavin'."
"We already did," JD volunteered ruefully.
Buck nodded. "Yep, me when I first woke up and JD after we set Ezra's leg. Guess this makes us all even."
Allowing himself to be mollified by the reminder, Ezra sighed. "Just the same, we'd best not remain in the vicinity of the evidence or you'll all be subject to a repeat performance. "
Encouraged by the normal sounding reply, Buck nodded to Nettie and between the two of them they managed to get the battered gambler upright and assisted him in hopping over to the buckboard. Once he was seated, they went back for JD.
Buck set about extinguishing what remained of the campfire while Nettie efficiently gathered up the bedroll, laying the ground cover and both blankets on the bare planks of the wagon bed and urging the two injured men to lie back before she covered them warmly with the additional blankets she had brought along.
"Not the softest bed you've ever slept in," she apologized, "but it should be a site more comfortable than resting on the cold ground."
"It's real fine, Miss Nettie," JD said, accepting the saddlebags and other supplies that Buck handed over. "We'll ride real comfortable back here."
Ezra simply said, "Our thanks."
"Got something else here that you fellas might appreciate. Casey received this here gewgaw from her cousins back east for her birthday. Neither one of us ever found any use for it and it's just been rolling around in the buckboard with me for the last couple of months." As she spoke Nettie opened up a lacey purple parasol and jammed the handle between two boards just above the men's heads. The addition looked completely ridiculous, but it proved effective in keeping the increasingly heavy rain off of their faces.
Studying the delicate looking object overhead, Ezra managed a smile. "Most kind."
The rancher chuckled. "Pure selfishness. You boys don't behave yourselves back there; I'll tell everybody you know that you been using it."
As he checked Jericho's cinch and stiffly climbed up onto the bay roan's back, Buck smiled. He was enjoying watching the old rancher deftly manipulate her two charges with a touch as gentle as her tongue was sharp.
The three of them could not have been in better hands.
The journey to Nettie's ranch was a long and difficult one. Nettie drove as carefully as she could, but the rough uneven ground was simply not conducive to a smooth ride. JD was forced to wriggle and squirm, finally lying half on his stomach when bumping along on the hard surface of the wagon bed proved to be too much for his injured back. By resting his injured ankle on the saddlebags and curling one arm up under his head, he finally got comfortable enough for the steady rocking motion of the wagon to lull his exhausted body into sleep.
Ezra was not as fortunate. They had padded his broken limbs as well as they could but Buck, watching from the elevation of Jericho's back, could see that he was still feeling every jolt.
Buck was thankful that the gambler's supine position prevented him from seeing over the side boards of the wagon bed when they passed by the accident site. It was difficult enough for him to see the forlorn remains of Chaucer lying untended in the driving rain. Ezra did not need to witness that again.
When they were nearly a mile past the place of injury, Buck noticed Ezra's control slipping too far for him to hide his agony. His lips and eyes were both clamped tightly closed and his right hand was gripping the sideboard of the wagon so tight that it seemed likely to splinter in his grasp.
Amazed it had taken so long, Buck called out, "Miz Nettie, I think we better take a break."
She stopped at once, looking down at her charges and nodding when she observed the same things he had. "You need me to take a look?"
"No, ma'am, I've got it. Could use a few minutes out of the saddle myself," he replied honestly. The pain in his ribcage had been growing more intense as they travelled, and it was a complete tossup as to whether his head or his hand ached more fiercely. The gait of his borrowed horse was just not as easy as Clyde's.
Jericho had at least behaved well so far. Whether this was caused by the lack of competition with other horses or a simple wish to get in out of the rain as quickly as possible, Buck did not know, but he was grateful either way.
Climbing carefully out of the saddle, Buck dropping the reins to ground-hitch Jericho. He grasped the bridle in his good hand and looked the horse straight in the eye. "Don't be thinking you're back on anybody's good side just yet. You move one inch from this spot and I'll render you into glue myself. We clear?"
As if sensing that this was the time to make a good impression, Jericho lipped sweetly at Buck's sleeve and blinked big, innocent-looking brown eyes at him.
In spite of himself, Buck chuckled. "All right, then."
Leaving the horse to its own devices, Buck lowered the tail gate on the buckboard and sat down. He groaned out loud at the pleasure of sitting in one unmoving spot for a moment.
The sound awoke JD. "Are we back?" he mumbled.
"Not yet," Nettie told him. "Just resting the stock a minute." She had ignored Buck's assurance that he could check on his companions without assistance and come around to look them over.
Buck tapped Ezra on his good knee. "How you doing?" And just to prevent any attempt at prevarication, he added, "Straight answer."
Ezra's taut muscles had relaxed a bit when the wagon stopped moving but his pale face was dripping with sweat. "My leg," he gasped. "Splint's not holding."
Concerned, all three of the others moved to check.
JD sat up straight and pulled the blankets back; moving the material of Ezra's torn trousers aside to offer the others a better look. Ezra yelped and swore viciously when Nettie gently probed the wound with her fingers.
"He's right," she said bluntly. "The bone's slipped out of place again."
Swallowing hard, Ezra grated, "Apologies for the language, ma'am."
The old rancher actually laughed. "Well, hell, boy, I think you got a right to a few colorful phrases at a time like this. You should've heard the things I called my late husband when I was giving birth to our young'uns."
Grabbing onto the distraction as a lifeline, he said, "I wasn't aware you had any."
"Kids, or husbands?"
He smiled, though the expression looked more like a grimace. "Either."
Nettie met Buck's eyes, silently asking whether he felt up to resetting the broken bone. Buck shook his head. He was feeling about as strong as a day old kitten now and JD didn't look much better. Nettie nodded. She had the will and probably the knowledge, but she didn't have the necessary hand strength to pull misaligned leg bones back into position.
"Well, what do you say I just take a turn riding back here and tell you all about them?" Looking at the surprised JD and Buck, she ordered, "Get this rifle out of here and help me strap his legs together. The right one will splint the left and keep it from suffering any worse damage until Mr. Jackson can have a chance to set it proper and get some plaster around it. Buck, you look about ready to fall over and JD here needs to quit napping before he damages those rattled-up brains. I think between the two of you, you can handle the driver's seat for a couple miles."
The two men obeyed without question. There was just something about the old woman that demanded obedience and they each responded to her as they would have done their own mothers. Finding that they were out of dry bandages, Nettie wasted no time in tearing several long strips off the hem of her petticoat, an action which caused JD and Ezra to instinctively avert their gazes. Buck was not embarrassed by the sight at all, simply accepting the cloth strips as JD worked the wet ones loose and disengaged the empty rifle from Ezra's leg.
The gambler resumed his white-knuckle grip on the wagon side but somehow managed not to engage in any further displays of profanity - at least not out loud - as the rifle was removed and his legs were lifted and gently tied together, the bandages being wound around and around until they ran out, leaving his lower extremities reminiscent of those on an Egyptian mummy.
Once they had been securely strapped, Nettie grabbed Jericho and tied him to the back of the wagon again. Buck managed to climb up into the driver's seat without much difficulty, grateful that Nettie had an old-fashioned prairie wagon with a solid box seat, rather than the more fashionable model with a spring-balanced bench. He was able to offer a helping hand as Nettie assisted JD in limping over and climbing up to join him, one hop-step at a time.
"You okay, kid?" Buck asked, when his panting, sweating friend was finally seated beside him, carefully propping his injured foot on the wagon's front support.
JD managed a grin, his usual pluck making a solid comeback as he said, "It's a lot better up here. My ankle wasn't doing too bad down there, but my back was killing me."
Buck smiled. "Reckon you can just do the driving then, seeing as you got two good hands to my one."
"Can if you handle the brake, seeing as it's on your side."
"You got a deal."
Accepting the reins, JD looked back at Nettie, waiting for her order. The old woman had climbed inside the wagon bed and sat sideways, allowing Ezra's legs to rest across her lap. The steadying force of her hands and the extra padding offered by skirts and petticoats would, with any luck, keep Ezra still until they reached help. She nodded to JD, who snapped the reins lightly and got them back underway.
The new arrangement worked perfectly. Nettie was able to keep Ezra from jostling around while Buck and JD both found the solid seat far more comfortable for their own injuries.
Outside of a short stop to pick up Clyde, who had waited patiently beneath his tree until Buck climbed down to get him and tie him to the wagon beside Jericho, they did not require any further stops. The wagon moved slowly and Buck, finding that his tired brain was not up to its usual tale-telling capacity, reminded Nettie of her promise to tell about her family.
Accepting the suggestion easily, Nettie entertained the men for miles with colorful tales of her husband, Ben, and the four sons they had raised together in wild frontier country. All of the boys had been bitten by wanderlust and traveled far afield when they reached maturity. Nettie herself had been invited to join each of them any number of times, but she had loved her little ranch, and her freedom, too much to give them up when she became a widow.
"When Casey's folks passed on from a fever about eight years back, I found myself hankering for company again. There weren't no nearby women folk to raise her, so she came to live with me and we been as content as two bears in a honey pot ever since." Her voice trailed off when she noticed that Ezra had fallen asleep somewhere during her latest story. "Well, now, ain't that a welcome sight?"
"Sure is," Buck agreed, relieved to see that Ezra appeared to be resting comfortably.
"Are all those stories true?" JD asked after a while, looking over his shoulder at Nettie. Quickly, he added, "Not that I doubt you, it's just that Casey never told me she had all those uncles."
"Cousins," she corrected, then shrugged. "Though they might as well have been uncles for all the years between 'em. Casey was the only child of my husband's brother. There was a good 20 years between Ben and John, and Casey was a late-life baby. She barely knows my two oldest, but we still see David once every couple of years, and my son Daniel and his wife are the fools who sent this here bit of frippery."
Both men grinned at the obvious contempt that Nettie felt towards the purple parasol.
"No offense, ma'am," JD said, "but I'm kind of grateful they did. It kept the rain off real nice."
"Did a better job than that little piss-pot hat ever did," Buck commented with a grin. "Maybe you ought a consider buying a nice frilly bonnet to replace yours with."
JD scowled, dashing a few strings of dripping wet hair out of his eyes. He had experimentally tried on Ezra's, but found that the black riverboat hat was a good half size smaller than his derby. He had decided that a little rain was preferable to making his head ache even worse and had set the hat aside. "Shut up, Buck."
The quartet travelled in companionable silence for another half hour, then an excited whoop made all of them look up, seeing Casey waving frantically from the back of her little brown mare. As soon as she was sure she had been seen, the girl turned around and galloped away, leaving Buck and JD staring at each other in confusion.
"Appears she appointed herself lookout," Nettie commented placidly. "Reckon we can take that to mean that Nathan and whoever he brought with him are getting things set up back at home."
Buck relaxed at the news, and saw JD do the same. He had not realized how close they were to their goal but as he forced his tired brain out of the fog it had fallen into and took a good look around, he easily recognized the familiar landmarks of the Wells spread.
Casey soon returned with Vin Tanner riding at her side. The buckboard rolled to a stop, allowing the duo to meet them.
"You two are a sight for sore eyes," Buck said in greeting, slumping a bit and pressing a hand to his aching ribcage as he gave up the pretense of perfect health that he'd been trying to maintain for most of the day.
Vin grimaced at the colorful array of bruises and contusions on JD's skin, his sharp gaze taking in the elevated ankle, Buck's bandaged hand and the manner in which the bigger man was clutching his ribs. "I reckon we are."
Far blunter, Casey asked, "Dang, JD, what happened to your face?" The rude demand was quickly followed up with a far more concerned, "Are you okay? What happened to you?"
Before he could get any further, Casey interrupted again. "I rode in to get Nathan, but he wasn't at the clinic when I got there so I went lookin' around town for him and I still couldn't find him, but I ran into Josiah and Vin at the livery stable. I told them about the horse we found and Aunt Nettie figuring some feller got thrown and was lying out here hurt maybe, and then Josiah told me you'd been the one riding it. I sure am glad to see you ain't hurt any worse than some scrapes and bruises. You about scared me to death when-"
"Casey!" Nettie said sharply. "Did you find Mr. Jackson or didn't you?"
The girl blushed. "No, ma'am, he wasn't in town."
"Josiah went up to the clinic to fetch some supplies and I told Chris where we was headed. We just got here ourselves, so Chris and Nathan should be coming along directly," Vin told them.
As she rode closer to her aunt, Casey let go a wordless exclamation of dismay.
Vin neared to have a look. His expression became grim when he saw Ezra. "Damn. When I didn't see Chaucer I figured he hadn't rode back with you two."
"Ezra's not . . . he isn't . . .?"
"Just sleeping," Buck assured Casey, realizing the conclusion she had drawn.
JD was quick to add his own reassurance. "He's banged up real fierce but he ain't dead."
She heaved a relieved breath. Then, as her gaze travelled back to Buck's thickly bandaged right hand, she said, "Looks like you all been through something."
"And the sooner we all get in out of the rain, the better off everyone will be," Nettie said, her tone leaving no room for argument.
A bit of quick rearranging had Buck once more riding Clyde while Vin took over the job of driving. JD relinquished the reins without argument, looking relieved.
As Vin started the wagon into motion, JD filled the eagerly questioning Casey in on their misadventure. Buck had to stop himself from voicing the automatic protest that sprang to his lips when he heard JD again express guilt over the accidental death of Chaucer, but after a glance at Nettie he held his tongue.
Casey was equal parts sympathy for Ezra, admiration for Buck, sadness for Chaucer and blunt scolding for JD.
"Well, it wasn't like I knew what was going to happen!" JD protested, irritated by the girl's criticism. "You and me have raced dozens of times on horses younger and greener than Jericho."
"He's right, young woman," Nettie said, stopping Casey's argument before it could start.
Casey ducked her head. "I know. I'm sorry, JD. It's just . . ." She looked at Ezra, who had not stirred a muscle in the advent of the conversations buzzing around him, and then waved her hand in a helpless gesture that encompassed all three of her injured friends. "It ain't fair for all this not to be anybody's fault."
Glad he had not intervened when he watched JD's stiff shoulders relax, Buck sighed. "Darlin', I reckon that about sums it up."
A few minutes later, just as the wagon pulled up to the Wells home, the rain stopped.
"Well, don't that beat all?" Vin snorted.
"Take it as a sign that this day is about to get better," Josiah suggested, coming out of the house and hurrying down to help them. He whistled in concern upon taking in their battered condition but wasted no time on questions. Instead, he simply stepped up to assist Vin in helping JD down from the wagon seat, then once he was secure, moved back to help the stiffly moving Buck down from the saddle.
"We're gonna need some kind of stretcher for Ezra," Buck advised, nodding his thanks. "His left leg is busted and we couldn't keep it set. It won't take much pressure."
Josiah considered the matter for a moment. "I believe I saw just the thing out in the barn."
"Use whatever you need," Nettie told him. Addressing Buck and JD, she told them, "You two get inside and sit down before you fall down. I'm sure that these two can get Mr. Standish inside without you."
Nodding wearily, the two injured men made their way slowly toward the front door, Casey willingly supporting JD all the way. Buck followed, but held back to watch when Vin and Josiah led Clyde and Jericho into the barn and emerged a couple of minutes later carrying a wide flat plank.
"That should do," Nettie approved, waiting until Josiah had taken a good hold on Ezra's bandaged legs to scoot out of the wagon. She assisted Vin in holding the plank steady while Josiah slid the unconscious man on top of it.
"You got it okay?" Buck could not resist asking, even knowing that he would be next to useless in assisting them.
Rather than answering in words, Josiah took a firm hold on the board and scooted it the rest of the way out of the wagon bed, turning the makeshift stretcher around so that he could back in through the door. Vin had taken over the full weight of the opposite end, and between the two of them, the men carefully maneuvered it inside.
"Go straight on through and put him on my bed," Nettie advised. Pausing to rummage in a large sewing basket on a table next to the door, she produced a pair of long shears.
As the bedroom door closed behind her, Buck went to join JD and Casey at the kitchen table. Casey was poking busily at JD's injuries, doing little to actually treat them, but clearly making JD feel better just by her fussing. "Think he'll be okay?" JD asked, looking worriedly at the closed door.
Buck sighed. "I sure hope so."
A few minutes later all three smiled when Nettie's sharp voice suddenly rose up, saying, "Quit your squawking. There's not much left of 'em anyway."
"Ezra must've woke up," Buck commented, not bothering to hide his relief as the sound of muffled arguing continued. "Reckon he's more upset about having his fancy clothes cut up, or of having Nettie get a look at what he keeps underneath 'em?"
Casey tried to pretend that she was not embarrassed by this comment, tossing her head and saying, "Reckon he don't look no different from any other man."
"And what would you know about that?" he teased her, raising an eyebrow at JD.
This time both the young people blushed scarlet.
By the time Chris and Nathan arrived, just over an hour later, the situation was well in hand. Buck and JD had both been helped out of their wet things and into blankets and old clothing borrowed from the store of family cast-offs in Nettie's garret. JD's assorted contusions had been cleaned and treated again and Buck's ribs had been rebound tightly with fresh white bandages.
Josiah and Vin both had experience in setting broken bones, and had managed to reset Ezra's leg without much difficulty, but they had decided that the more delicate ones of Buck's hand and JD's ankle would best wait on Nathan.
The healer nodded as he examined the wounded men, muttering words of approval and advice for additional treatment as he expertly set and casted their damaged appendages. "Don't look like you fellas left me much to do," he commented to Vin as he washed off the gooey plaster he had just finished smearing over Buck's hand and wrist.
Vin watched interestedly as his friend began winding thin bandage strips over the wet cast to help it set. "Weren't us, mostly. Next time I get banged up on the trail, I want these boys there to put me back together. They did a real fine job doctorin' each other."
Buck smiled as he felt Chris lay a hand on his shoulder and give him a quick supportive squeeze. Such gestures were rare from his old friend, and all the more meaningful for that very reason. "Didn't have a lot of choice. Between the three of us we had just enough undamaged parts to get the job done."
With a chuckle, Nathan bent to look over the cast he had applied to JD's ankle, checking the color of his toes to reassure himself that good blood flow was circulating. "Just the same, you should be proud. How's your head, Buck?"
He had taken one of the healer's bitter powders as soon as it was offered. "Better. Feels like it might just stay on my shoulders."
"Good. Your pupils are even and you don't show signs of trouble with your breathing or heart rate. You probably got a concussion, but it's a pretty light one. Good solid sleep and some nourishing food and you'll be entertaining again before the week's out. Just make sure you don't hurt none of them gals swinging that cast around."
In deference to the presence of the ladies, Buck confined his response to a saucy wink.
"As for you," Nathan continued, addressing JD, "you must have a head like a granite boulder. Even after all that jouncing and knocking it got while you was being dragged along by that horse, you don't have more than a couple of bumps back there. Your brain couldn't help getting bounced around good, though, so you just take it easy for a week or so. I'm gonna have somebody wake you both up every couple of hours tonight, just so I can look you over and be sure you didn't do any lasting damage. Keep taking that headache powder whenever you need it and be careful sitting or standing up too fast. And both of you let me know if you get any bad dizzy spells."
"Thanks, Nathan," they chorused, amused by his fussy manner but appreciative of it just the same.
Glancing toward the bedroom where Josiah was keeping watch over Ezra, Buck asked, "Same go for Ezra, on the headaches and all?"
"I'd say so. That blow he took was pretty nasty. Missed the temple, thank God, but I had to clean and stitch it real good. Can't really tell by his pupils, what with one eye swelled shut but if he don't have a concussion, it's a miracle." He shook his head. "That fever has me a mite worried, but with any luck it'll burn off once he gets some rest and starts to heal up. Be best if he could stay in one spot until he makes a little progress on that front."
The last comment was address to Nettie, who nodded. "Figured as much. Wasn't thinking to throw any of these boys back out in the rain tonight anyhow. And the rest of you might as well stay for supper. Ain't enough room for nine people in the house, but any of you that want to stay the night are welcome to the barn. It's well built and got plenty of straw to lay your bedrolls on."
Chris and Vin exchanged a look, then Chris said, "Thanks for the offer, but I reckon we'll head on back to town. Josiah can stay to help Nathan."
"We'll come back in the mornin' with a wagon to fetch the boys home," Vin promised.
"Make sure you put a lot of padding in the box," Nathan advised. "The more the better, Ezra ain't gonna need any jostling around. In fact, I might just give him something to make him sleep through the whole trip."
JD yawned deeply at the mention of sleep, and, unable to resist the sight, Buck immediately did the same, bringing chuckles and a few sympathy yawns from the rest.
"I better get that supper going, while there's still enough folks awake to eat it," Nettie commented wryly. Snagging the surprised Chris and Vin by the wrists, she tugged them towards the kitchen. "Casey, we got us a couple of volunteers. Let's see how handy these boys are at peeling spuds."
Casey grinned widely when the two tough lawmen just sighed and went meekly to their fate.
Buck woke up with a jerk and an exclamation of alarm, still hearing the nightmare echo of horses and men screaming. He pressed his free hand to his chest, feeling the sweaty skin and the thundering of his heart. The damaged limb was throbbing in reaction to the elevated heart-rate and Buck knew that he would not sleep again tonight.
Carefully, so as not to disturb whoever it was snoring softly from a bedroll on the floor; Buck slipped out of Casey Wells' borrowed bed, picked up his boots and hobbled to the door. Every muscle in his body was stiff and aching, making him feel about 90 years old.
Closing the door behind him, he paused to let his eyes adjust to the fire lit main room. JD was slumbering on a narrow sofa, his ankle propped up on a pile of pillows, and Casey lay in another bedroll on the floor just below, her hand protectively clasping the one that dangled off the sofa towards her.
From a rocking chair next to the fireplace, Nettie sat knitting, keeping vigil over all of her sleeping charges. She looked up as Buck came into the room, not appearing surprised at all to see him. "Need some more of that painkiller?"
"Wouldn't turn it down," he admitted.
Setting her knitting aside, Nettie rose and gestured him to sit at the kitchen table while she went to fetch a cup and the kettle that had been left on a low fire burning in the cook stove. She measured out a spoonful of ground herbs from a small jar, added some hot water, then dumped in a generous scoop of sugar. "To make it go down easier," she told Buck as she handed him the cup.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Buck relaxing by degrees as the warm homey atmosphere mixed with the soothing balm of the tea to drive away his pain and the persistent dream-images that haunted him.
"That was a fine brave thing you did yesterday, Buck," Nettie said, surprising him. "You shouldn't doubt that. I know you're thinking that you didn't have any choice but to do it, and that's true, but taking on a challenge and seeing it through to the end ain't necessarily the same thing."
Buck sighed. "I don't fault myself for what happened after the accident, but I keep seeing the thing in my mind and thinking I could have done something different while it was happening. Saw Jericho start to go loco, stopped JD from trying to race, warned Ezra to back off and not reach for them, reined in Clyde before he could get in the middle of things . . . just something."
Nettie reached out and laid a hand over his. "Hind sight is always perfect, son, and memory has a way of slowing things down and letting us see possibilities that didn't exist in real time. I'll wager that entire accident happened in just a few seconds, even if your dreams are telling you that you had all the time in the world. There was nothing you could have done once events were set into motion and there's no use in beating yourself up over could-have-beens."
The silence stretched out, long and easy, as Buck drank his tea and Nettie sipped at a cup of coffee. He was glad that Nettie was not pressing her argument, beating him over the head with it the way some people would. That ability to make a point and then let it soak in, in its own good time, was one of the qualities he liked most about the old rancher.
"Well, since you look as if you're up for good," Nettie said at last, "maybe you'd be willing to check on Mr. Standish for me. I convinced Mr. Jackson to get some rest just a couple of hours ago and I'd rather not disturb him yet."
"That him snoring next to my bed just now?"
"Surely you didn't think it was Josiah!"
Buck had to laugh at that. Josiah's prodigious snore was a thing of legend among his friends, starting off soft and gaining momentum and volume the longer he slept. "What'd you do with him? Send him out the barn?"
"Figured the horses wouldn't object."
He had his doubts on that score, but let it go. "Can I ask you something, ma'am?"
"How come you don't call Ezra, Chris and Nathan by their given names, the way you do all the rest of us?"
She looked surprised by the question. "I suppose there's just a natural sort of formality that goes with doctor types, and Chris Larabee has always been a little standoffish when he's been out here, so it feels more fitting."
"And Ezra? He's been out here at least as often as me, and you two seem to like ruffling each other's feathers too much for any formalities to stand between you."
Nettie's eyes grew warm and merry. "Reckon it's kind of a game with him and me. We pretend not to like each other. Gives us leave to do nice things now and again without either one of us feeling obliged for the favor. The day ever comes that he starts callin' me Nettie, or Miz Nettie, the way the rest of you do, I'll return the courtesy."
"But then the game will end too."
"Silly, ain't it? Don't you go telling him so, but I really do have a strong feeling for that boy. Vin's a lot like my oldest son Matthew. Him and me are like peas in a pod, same as it was with Matt. We understood each other right from the first day and will until we draw our final breaths. Ezra's more like my middle boy, Luke."
He pressed. "In what way?"
"He's a dreamer, always chasing rainbows and pots of gold and finding nothing but mud. Clever and quick, fussy and vain as any woman, funny enough to make your sides split, and contrary and stubborn as a herd of mules."
Buck smiled. That was Ezra to a T. "Never figured you knew him that well."
"Neither has he," she chuckled. "Luke and I used to fight like cats and dogs, too, but he had a way of making even the hardest times seem like good ones. I'd venture a guess that Ezra's had to see himself through plenty of tough times when there weren't nobody else to do it, but he likes folks, needs 'em. He's the type who craves attention, but at the same time tries his darndest to keep anyone from getting close enough to find out that he feels too much and gets hurt too easy."
Intrigued, Buck asked, "Are the rest of us anything like your boys?"
Nettie smiled. "Oh, here and there. Not as much as those two, but there are times when I see one of you doing something that makes me think back on my sons. Having you all around makes me miss them a whole lot less, that's for sure." Glancing at the window where the first pale streaks of dawn were beginning to show, she rose. "I'd better get started on some breakfast for all you men before Vin gets back here with that wagon. Knowin' him, he'll be hungry enough for three."
"I'll bet you're right," Buck agreed. "I'll just go in and see how Ezra's doing."
Buck crept into the bedroom, trying not to disturb his friend, but the effort was wasted.
"Mr. Wilmington, please stop shuffling and skulking about like an oversized field mouse and walk like a human being," a testy sounding southern drawl ordered from the darkness.
"Well, good morning to you too."
A soft sigh was heard. "Is it morning, finally?"
Finally? From a man who considered any time before 10am to be a pointless waste of perfectly good sleep, that was a worrisome comment. Buck walked to the window and moved the sash out of the way, allowing them both to see the dim predawn light. "It's just starting."
He winced in sympathy when he got a good look at Ezra. Nathan had applied a poultice to his swollen eye last night that appeared to have done some good, reducing the swelling and allowing the gambler to see out of both eyes again, but the entire sclera was bloody red. The surrounding skin, from the base of his left cheek to the top of his hairline, extending outward all the way across Ezra's nose, was a colorful combination of black, blue and red. The surface was still lumpy with swelling and the rapid blinking of the damaged half-closed eye was enough to tell Buck that it was as painful as it appeared.
"Couldn't sleep last night?"
Ezra shook his head slightly. "Not consistently. I kept trying to turn over and waking myself up."
"And if you weren't doing it, Nathan was," Buck guessed, having been disturbed a number of times himself by the healer's need to check on his concussion.
"It made for a rather long night." He took a better look at Buck. "How are your injuries faring this morning?"
Buck waved his cast. "This ain't gonna be any fun to live with, but my ribs feel a lot better and the headache's mostly gone."
"I'm glad to hear it. Mine is proving somewhat persistent." The broken arm and leg were both propped up on rolled quilts to keep them from shifting and Ezra winced as he tried to stretch his back without moving them.
"Need some of Nathan's tea? Nettie's got hot water on the stove for it. Just had me some," Buck told him. Resting the back of his fingers on Ezra's brow for a moment, he nodded at finding the fever still present, though perhaps not as hot as it had been the night before. "I could tell by the flavor that he's got some of that stuff he uses for fever mixed into it too."
Ezra nodded. "I suppose that would be a wise idea. But before you go-" he started, stopping Buck from leaving. He paused, appeared to be arguing silently with himself, then finally sighed and gave in. "Is there any chance you could fetch me a receptacle of some sort? I suspect that between your injuries and mine, a trip outdoors is not going to be advisable."
As if it, too, had taken the hint, Buck's bladder spoke up and reminded him that he had not yet emptied it this morning. He looked around, including a peek beneath the bed, but did not see anything that would fit the bill. "Let me go outside and grab Josiah. Reckon between the two of us we can get you where you need to be."
"Haste would be appreciated."
Taking the request seriously, Buck hurried out of the room, knocking briskly on the closed door of Casey's room as he passed, knowing that Nathan would not be sleeping deeply. At Nettie's concerned look, he shrugged. "Man's gotta go."
She merely nodded and made no comment as Buck hurried out to the barn.
The older man came awake at once, rolling to his feet in a smooth motion. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Nettie's fixing breakfast and Nathan could use a little help getting Ezra on the move for . . ." He waved his hand in the general direction and then hustled out to make his way up the small path to the outhouse, his own need occupying his full attention now. He could hear Josiah's deep chortle filling the air behind him.
By the time Buck returned to the house, having stopped back at the barn for a few minutes to check on the horses and been pleasantly surprised to find that the herbal wraps Josiah had been applying to Clyde's knee at regular intervals all night had taken much of the swelling away, breakfast was being served.
JD and Casey had awakened and washed up, and other than the assortment of healing scrapes and the peculiar raccoon-mask of bruising, JD looked to be in fine fettle. He was currently laughing and teasing Casey while at the same time risking Nettie's ire by attempting to slip a corn muffin off the serving platter unnoticed.
The young man yelped when, without so much as a glance in his direction, Nettie reached out with her wooden spoon and rapped him on the knuckles. "Not until everyone is at the table, young'un," she scolded, making JD blush and Casey giggle. "Your stomach can hold out for five more minutes."
Buck grinned and quickly washed his hands, pulling up a chair and waiting for Nathan and Josiah to finish up with whatever they were doing and join them. In a minute he was surprised to see them emerge from the bedroom with Ezra balanced between them, his injured arm draped carefully over Josiah's shoulders for support, and the other gripping Nathan's arm as they awkwardly moved toward the table.
One look at the beads of sweat popping out across Ezra's face and the tight strained lines of his mouth, and Buck knew that it was too soon to be doing this. He was a little surprised that Nathan and Nettie were both allowing it, but there was a pleased glow of accomplishment on Ezra's face when he was at last settled into a chair among the rest of them, Nathan placing a small wooden footrest under the casted leg, that spoke volumes. Glancing at Nettie and catching a fleeting smile as she turned back to the stove, Buck remembered her earlier words and understood. Ezra needed "folks" more than he needed rest and solitude right now.
"Guess you're feeling better today, huh, Ezra?" Casey said, face breaking out in a sunny smile. "I sure am glad. I was worried about ya."
Ezra flashed her as charming a smile as he could manage. "Thank you, my dear. Your concern is most appreciated."
He made an automatic effort to straighten his borrowed clothes, a pair of rolled up dungarees and a plain brown shirt, both ridiculously oversized and therefore large enough to accommodate his casts, but gave it up as a lost cause and settled for adjusting his suspenders instead.
"Funny to see you dressed like one of us," JD said, flicking the collar of his own borrowed shirt, which did not look overly different from his usual attire. "Everybody's gonna think you lost a bet."
"Not to my usual standards, certainly, but I found this outfit preferable to the alternate choices of sitting down to breakfast attired in one of Mrs. Wells' quilts, or of not joining you at all."
Nettie put down the last dish, a heaping bowl of fried potatoes, and took a seat. A gleam lit her eyes as she said, "I don't suppose it'd be much of a hardship for you to miss breakfast, Mr. Standish. The way I hear it, you ain't usually up soon enough to know there's anything in the world besides lunch and dinner. As for the other, weren't you the fella that I hear once challenged some gambler to play a poker game in only the suits the good Lord gave you?"
It was a little hard to tell, but Buck thought Ezra might have blushed. His brain was clearly not working at its usual capacity, for he had no immediate comeback to offer. Buck decided to lend a helping hand. "That was a little different, Miz Nettie. There was money involved."
She snorted. "Fine excuse for scandalizing women and children in broad daylight."
"The ones I saw didn't look too scandalized," Vin countered, walking in the open front door with a grin, obviously having heard the conversation as he approached. "Matter of fact, some of those ol' biddies looked downright giddy. Howdy, folks. Got enough for two more?"
Chris Larabee followed Vin inside the house, nodding to all as he set his hat down on a side table that already held an assortment of others. "Morning."
"Sit down, boys. We been waiting for you," Josiah said, kicking out a milking stool that had been brought in to accommodate the extra bodies surrounding Nettie's table.
Obeying the invitation eagerly, Vin reached for the fried ham slices as Nettie began passing a bowl of eggs around the table, signaling everyone to begin.
JD snagged the coveted corn muffin first thing, then remembered his manners and offered it to Casey, who grinned and split it down the middle, handing half back. Chris and Nathan each wordlessly set about using their two good hands to fill the plates of their friends who were down to one apiece. They paused long enough for Josiah to offer the customary blessing and then everyone was digging in with evident enjoyment.
Buck found it a little awkward to eat with his left hand and he could see by the careful way in which Ezra was chewing that his bitten tongue must still be sore today, even if he was talking normally again. JD was doing fine except when the motion of opening his mouth wide enough to take in a bite of food or a swallow of milk would stretch his healing skin too far.
Taking a sip of coffee, Buck addressed Chris. "How you figuring on working this to get us all back to town? I'd like to give Clyde a day off if I can, just to make sure he's recovered, and there ain't no way JD can ride with that busted ankle."
"I did yesterday," JD reminded. "Me and Ezra both."
"An experience I would prefer not to duplicate," Ezra said hastily.
Nathan nodded. "I'd rather none of you did any riding today. If Vin and Chris padded up that wagon like I asked 'em to, I don't see why all three of you can't take a ride in back. Even if one of you lays down flat, you should all fit."
"We laid a good helpin' of straw over the wagon bed and put a groundsheet and every blanket and pillow we could lay hands on over the top of it," Vin revealed. "Be like ridin' on a cloud."
Recognizing the stern look that the healer was shooting his way, Buck raised his injured hand in surrender. "Sounds good to me. I could stand a bit more lookin' after today." He gave them a sly grin. "Though I'd sure enjoy it a lot more if you fellas were prettier."
By the time breakfast was over, Ezra had fallen asleep where he sat. Before anyone could stop him, he slid sideways and plunked his head right down on Josiah's shoulder, treating them all to a snore that would have no doubt embarrassed him if he'd been awake to hear it.
Nathan chuckled. "Sounds like he's about ready to get going." He nodded to Nettie, "Thanks for your help, Miz Nettie."
"Reckon he won't be too happy with us when he figures out you slipped him one of your potions with his breakfast," she replied, "but he'll get over it once he realizes that he made it back to town without feeling the trip."
Helping Josiah lift and steady their unconscious friend, Nathan smiled at the women. "Thanks for taking care of everything like you done, Miz Wells. Hate to think what kind of shape these boys would have been in if it weren't for you."
"Glad to do it," Nettie replied. "I'll send Casey to town in a day or two to check up on all of you. Make sure nobody's gone and undone all my hard work."
Nathan grinned. "Yes'm."
The others said their own goodbyes and quickly gathered up what few possessions they had come with. Buck dropped a kiss on each of the ladies' cheeks. "Thanks, Miz Nettie, Casey. We owe you."
Casey blushed like a blooming rose when JD followed his mentor's example and kissed her on the cheek. The young man was not quite so bold when it came to Nettie, but he energetically shook her hand. "Thanks, ma'am. For everything."
"You two take care of yourselves," she ordered. "And see to it that gambler-man don't try to get above his abilities and break himself into any more pieces."
"We'll look after him," Buck promised, tipping his newly donned hat at both of them.
Josiah and Nathan had just finished setting their slumbering friend down to rest in the back of the wagon when the others emerged. Vin and Chris helped JD up into the wagon bed and got him settled, then did the same for Buck.
"We'll get the horses tied on back, then me and Vin are going to ride out to the accident site," Josiah told them. Answering the question in Buck's eyes, he nodded. "I promised Ezra last night that we'd take care of Chaucer for him."
JD frowned, suddenly subdued at the reminder of Ezra's lost horse. "How are you gonna bury him with just the two of you?"
"We ain't, kid," Vin told him. "We're gonna give him a funeral like he'd get from some of the tribes, release his body into the sky, and set his spirit free."
Seeing the lack of comprehension on his young friend's face, Buck said, "They're going to burn the body. It's quicker and easier than buryin' and Ezra will be glad to know there ain't no body for the predators to mess with, assumin' they ain't already."
JD looked down at Ezra. "Does he know that's how you're planning to do it?"
Vin nodded. "We talked. He understood."
"We'll see you back in town," Chris said, ending the discussion.
Chris Larabee had a mother hen quality that emerged when anyone he considered one of his own was in need of looking after. Or maybe more like a mama badger, Buck decided, smothering a smile as his old friend demanded for the second time to be told if his ribs were starting to bother him, checked over his shoulder to make sure that Ezra was still breathing, then sternly ordered JD to sit still and quit trying to scratch his healing back against the side of the wagon bed.
"Can't leave you fools to look after yourselves alone for five minutes. I swear, Nathan and I should demand an extra fifty cents a day from the judge for the added responsibility of babysitting the rest of you. Turn my back long enough to take a piss and one of you is going off and getting yourselves in some kind of a mess ," he growled, snapping the reins in frustration, then shooting his passengers a sharp but apologetic glance when the team sped up and caused the wagon to bounce. "Whoa, slow down there boys."
"Now, Chris, that ain't fair," Buck teased him, knowing that Chris was simply expressing concern for them in his own unique way. "We done bailed your skinny ass out of trouble a lot more times than you done us, considering that there's six of us and one of you. Besides, we made it through three whole days without a scratch. Weren't for that contrary rental horse deciding to strike off on his own, we'd have been just fine."
A loud snort showed the blond man's opinion of that argument. Nathan, who had been listening to the exchange with a huge grin on his face, decided to interrupt the friendly argument before they could really get going. "Buck, you know you three attract trouble like a dog does fleas. Why don't you just lay down and take a nap before something else happens to you?"
The lack of sleep he'd had the night before made that sound like a fine idea. "If you weren't making such good sense, Nathan, I might be inclined to take offense at being told to take a nap like a five-year-old," he protested. A huge yawn interrupted him. "But, seeing as you are . . ." He scooted down and curled up on his side to make use of a fat feather pillow.
Vaguely, he heard JD start up a conversation about what had been going on in town during their absence, but Buck closed his eyes and let the rest of the ride pass without him.
The arrival in town of the three battered lawmen caused quite a flutter of interest among the citizens of Four Corners. Some of Buck's lady friends approached offering to help him up to bed, but they were promptly shooed away by Nathan with the claim that Buck wasn't up to company just yet, much to his disappointment.
JD was equally dismayed to learn that he was expected to report to Nathan's clinic for the day and coming night. His wounds needed careful watching to make sure they hadn't taken on any infection since he had started running a mild fever.
"Least I'll have Ezra to talk to," the young man sighed, giving in with an ease that spoke more clearly of how he was feeling than anything else could have.
"I'd rather put Ezra in his own room," Nathan disagreed, his tone apologetic. "Be better all around if he had a room on the ground floor, but at least if he's in his own bed for a couple of days I know he'll get some rest and those broken bones will make him stay put awhile You all need to rest. I'll get someone to look after Ezra and make sure he don't take a turn for the worse. Meantime, JD, I want to make sure we nip that fever in the bud. There's still a good chance you might've got some dirt in those wounds that could turn septic."
Buck was surprised to hear his own voice volunteer, "I'll stay with Ezra."
"You?" Nathan looked surprised. "Buck you ain't in much better shape than he is."
"Aw, I'm all right. You just want me to rest, and I can do that in Ezra's rocker. That thing is real comfortable, better for my ribs than lying flat, and all you need me to do is get up and tell you if he starts feeling sick, right?"
The healer rubbed his neck, still looking doubtful. "I suppose so."
"Let him do it, Nathan," JD advised, beginning to smile. "Ezra needs looking after, and Buck needs to make sure everybody's all right. Soon as he's satisfied at Ezra's, he'll be up at the clinic buzzing around me and you, and driving us both crazy."
"And once you let JD go home, none of us will see Buck for a week 'cause he'll be so busy making up the time he's missed with the women around town," Chris added, eyes laughing even though his face continued to look perfectly sober.
Buck grinned sheepishly. It was a little embarrassing that they all knew him so well, but it saved a lot of time, too.
Nathan was already nodding. "All right," he agreed. Seeing Ezra start to stir and yawn, he added, "Help me get him upstairs before he wakes up the rest of the way. I ain't ready to hear how many names he'll think of to call me when he figures out I drugged him."
"Coward," Buck teased.
Nathan's rich laugh bubbled over them all. "Damn right."
Buck lifted his eyes from the book he had borrowed off Ezra's shelf. His friend had been shifting and making vague sounds for several minutes, but these were the first coherent words. Even when Chris and Nathan had stripped off his borrowed clothes and rolled him carefully into his beloved feather bed, Ezra had responded with no more than a vague murmur and a sigh, curling into the softness and settling into deeper sleep.
"You talking about me?" Buck asked, alerting Ezra to his presence.
Ezra lifted his head to confirm the identity of his company, then let it drop again. "Mr. Wilmington," he said. "I hadn't realized you were here."
"So you weren't talking about me."
A soft snort came from the bed. "Nathan," he verified. "I believe our wily Mr. Jackson put something in my breakfast this morning to render me insensate."
Buck chuckled. "If you mean, did he knock you out so you wouldn't have to suffer the trip home in that bumpy wagon, you're right. Think Nettie's the one who actually served it to you, though."
"I should have known," he sighed. "I don't much appreciate the increase in my headache their potions have caused, but I cannot say that I'm ungrateful to have been spared the second half of the journey home."
"Figured you'd see it that way. Nathan left some headache powder to give you when you woke up," Buck revealed, rising to pour the waiting packet into a glass of water he'd left by the bedside. Sitting down on the mattress, he swirled the glass in an attempt to stir up the powder and then handed it over to Ezra. With a grimace of anticipation, Ezra swallowed the dose down as fast as he could.
Ezra squinted at the window, where the brightness of afternoon sunshine lit up the curtained surface. "I appear to have slept a good long while."
"Pretty near four hours, I'd say," Buck told him, taking advantage of his proximity to check the other man's temperature. "It was around nine when we left the Wells place. You still got a touch of fever, but that nap probably did you some good."
"I believe so," he agreed. Ezra carefully shifted his limbs so that the broken ones lay against the mattress and he was able to roll onto his left side facing Buck. "You haven't been sitting around waiting on me to awaken this entire time, I hope."
Buck shrugged. "Mostly. I did go downstairs an hour ago for some grub and a little sympathy."
He grinned. "She gave me a kiss. Said I was a hero." Then the grin turned rueful. "Right before she slapped me upside the head and told me I was an idiot for getting myself hurt. Never will understand that woman, but I'm definitely wearin' her down. I can feel it."
Ezra smiled. "I believe you may be correct. A year ago, the lady would have smacked you without benefit of the kiss." His expression grew distant as he stared at a spot on the wall, becoming lost in thought. Buck was just about to ask what he was pondering about when Ezra asked, "Have Josiah and Vin made it back to town yet?"
" Not yet, but I'm sure they took care of Chaucer's body, just like they promised," Buck said, saddened by the slight flinch his words caused. "It's too soon for them to have made it all the way back to town. Vin probably wanted to gather up your saddle and as much of your gear as he could, too. That'd take a little time."
Ezra swallowed hard. "I told him that I didn't want them back. I should want them, that saddle was expensive in the extreme, hand-tooled and specially fitted." He took a deep breath and shook his head. "But I have funds enough to purchase a replacement, and I have another travel kit. Several, in fact. Such things are easily and often replaced when a man lives his life on the move."
Which Ezra had not done in more than two years. Buck's brow furrowed, wondering if Ezra was trying to tell him that he intended to move on to a new start once he was able to travel. "Friends ain't so easily replaced."
The gambler swallowed again. "No."
Sensing that he needed to make Ezra talk about his loss, Buck adopted a casual tone. "You said you'd had Chaucer for ten years. How is it you came to choose him?"
For a moment, he didn't think Ezra was going to answer, but at last he said, "I didn't exactly choose him."
Ezra shifted again, trying to find a comfortable position. "Meaning that I had just turned eighteen and was feeling very full of my now legally recognized manhood. In order to celebrate this coming of age, I had decided it was time to strike out on my own, apart from Mother." He sighed. "I hadn't quite counted on the fact that she had been the one to purchase all of my possessions, from the clothes I wore to the horse I rode, and was told in no uncertain terms that if I was going to be an ungrateful wretch who needed no one, then I could just provide for myself. "
Buck snorted, easily able to picture Maude doing such a thing. "She repossessed your horse?"
"Indeed she did, and my wardrobe as well. All I had were the clothes I stood up in, a deck of cards, a pocket watch and a pair of cufflinks that had belonged to my father." Ezra gave a rueful one-shouldered shrug. "That argument had not been one of my more well thought out moves. Mother took off on the first stage that came through town, leaving me behind with my meager possessions and barely a penny to my name. I found a pawn-broker and sold my watch, which gave me enough money to enter a poker game, where I won just enough to purchase a half-decent meal and a night in the hayloft of the nearest livery stable."
Intrigued, Buck asked, "Is that where you found Chaucer?"
Ezra nodded. "I could see him from my loft, and hear the livery men discussing his fate. He was one of their rental horses, you see. They had purchased him as a yearling colt and then didn't take the time to train him properly. He was both too young and too spirited to be reliable, as if that was his own fault, and they were planning to dispose of him because he was too uncontrolled to make a proper mount for ladies and only the day before he had dumped some idiot banker on his fat head and the man was crying law-suit."
"What'd you do?"
"In a moment of madness, I swung down from my loft and dropped right into the middle of their conversation. Told them that I had been looking to purchase just such an animal, one with spirit and potential, and that as they didn't want to keep him, I would take him off their hands."
Buck laughed. "But you didn't have any money."
"Which they undoubtedly knew, since I was occupying their stable for the night, but I pulled out the full measure of the skills my mother had taught me and within minutes I had convinced them otherwise. I was a noble and wealthy young blueblood, from the very finest of Southern aristocracy, who had run away on a grand adventure against the advice of my loving and stinking-rich family, but fallen afoul of bandits on my way to their fair town. Chaucer, or Chester as his name was then, would allow me to go back home to my poor worried relations, who would welcome their impetuous child back into their loving arms and rich coffers, where surely anyone who had aided in that return would be handsomely rewarded for their assistance."
Laughing so hard he had to wipe away tears, Buck asked, "And they fell for that?"
"Practically gave him to me. I sold my cufflinks and got into another game the next morning that proved lucrative enough that I was able to repurchase my belongings and receive a bill of sale for Chaucer and all of his gear. He was sold for less than a quarter of what he was truly worth. I rode out of that town and never looked back." The smug look Ezra had worn while telling his story faded back into one of intense sorrow. "It took months to retrain him out of all the bad habits he had learned but he was a good companion, even then. We learned together, grew together, became as close as man and animal can be as the years passed."
Ezra closed his eyes, unable to say any more. Buck squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ezra. Real sorry." He waited a few seconds, then guessed, "You need me to leave you alone for a while?"
"If you wouldn't mind," Ezra replied, gratitude for the consideration clear in his voice.
"Need anything before I go? Food, medicine, maybe you got to go again?"
He shook his head. "Nothing."
"All right then, I'll see you in awhile."
As he left the room, Buck had a thoughtful expression on his face. He needed to have a talk with JD. Ezra's story had given him an idea.
For several long seconds, JD simply stared at him, mouth agape. Then he finally blurted out what it was obvious he had been thinking all along. "Are you crazy? We can't do that!"
"Come on, kid," Buck coaxed, holding out his hand in a pleading gesture. "It's perfect. When Ezra was telling me that story about Chaucer, I knew we had the answer right in our hands."
He had repeated the tale to JD and Nathan, seeing JD's face grow increasingly sorrowful even as Nathan's reflected unexpected understanding.
Nathan thoughtfully pinched his lower lip between thumb and index finger as he mulled the story over. "No horse is going to be to Ezra what Chaucer was. From what you've said, he represented freedom and stood as a symbol to Ezra of growing up and leaving his boyhood behind. Thinking on the kind of life he probably lived with Maude, Chaucer may have been the first real friend he ever had, too."
"You think so?" JD said, looking startled.
The healer shrugged. "Maybe. I know how that can be. A slave either makes friends hard and fast, or never allows himself to make any at all, knowing he could be killed or sold or moved off somewhere new at a moment's notice. Ezra weren't no slave, but the rest ain't too different. An animal can't talk to you, but they can sure listen, and that horse was more loyal than an old hound dog. Ezra knew he had one friend that would never run off and leave him. He could rely on Chaucer to always be with him, whether he was running away from trouble or into it."
"But if he felt that strong," JD argued, turning back to Buck, "then he's not going to want a reminder day in and day out of the thing that killed his best friend. How can you possibly think he'll ever want to see Jericho again, much less ride him?"
Realizing that he was missing the point, Buck explained again. "Because Jericho is Chaucer all over again. He's a stable horse that's too young and too wild for the job. He went loco and caused a lot of trouble, even with an experience rider, so you know Tiny won't keep him and risk someone maybe getting killed if it happens again. Nobody else is going to want him for the same reason, but maybe that half-wild quality is exactly what Ezra needs. He won't be able to ride for several weeks, but if he can spend time with Jericho, get to know him, gentle him a bit, start to retrain the ornery out of him, then maybe he can start to get some of what he's lost back again."
"Jericho would benefit from having a patient and gentle hand guiding him too," Nathan added. "Even if Ezra can't warm up to him, you know he'd never mistreat a horse."
JD was beginning to look thoughtful instead of contrary. "So you both think that if I buy Jericho for him, and offer to help with the retraining, Ezra might eventually forgive me?"
"Kid, he don't bla-"
"Yes, he does, Buck," JD cut him off, his hazel eyes large and sad, but filled with determination. "He does hold me to blame and he's got a right. It was an accident, and I didn't mean for anything bad to happen, but that don't make what happened any less my responsibility. I owe him."
Buck was startled by the calm certainty in JD's voice. He nodded, realizing with a sense of pride that he was witnessing one of those moments of maturity that were slowly but surely changing JD from the impatient and naive boy he had first met, to a thoughtful and responsible man that they could all be proud to call friend.
"I'll do it," JD decided. "Ain't been much to spend my pay on lately, so I'm sure I can talk Tiny into selling Jericho at a price I can afford, and maybe Nettie'd let me board him out at her place. That way, Ezra don't have to see him until he wants to."
Nathan smirked. "Give him an excuse to go out and bicker with Miz Wells whenever the need strikes him, too. She gave me a mess of sweet rolls to bring along and help Ezra convalesce, and told me to send him back in person with the basket as soon as he was feeling up to the trip." He chuckled as he noted the slightly indignant look on the faces of his other two patients. "Inez has the apple pie and corn fritters she sent along for you two."
They both grinned. "Sounds like we got us a plan," Buck said. "And if you fall short on Tiny's asking price, just let me know and I'll put up the difference."
"When should we talk to Ezra?"
Buck looked at the small clock on Nathan's bookshelf. It had been just over an hour since he had left the gambler's room. "Reckon it's about time Ezra had some lunch, Nathan?"
"I was just gonna say that. I want all of you to eat regular while you're taking those powders for pain and fever, and it's past time Ezra had something in him." He held up a finger to stop them from speaking. "But I think you ought to wait to talk with him about this. Give him a little time to get over what's happened before you start suggesting he replace Chaucer. A couple of days ain't gonna make much difference to your plan, but he needs some time to recover. Two or three days with nothing to do but rest and Ezra'll be getting fidgety to leave his room and join the world again. You can tell him your idea then."
JD looked hopeful. "What about me? You still planning to let me out of here tomorrow?"
"If that fever don't grab hold any stronger," he promised. "The wounds on your back are looking good, healing nice and clean so far. Long as you rest and eat and don't do nothin' foolish, I'd say you can go home tomorrow."
"All right," he agreed, knowing he had no choice but to wait since he couldn't get down the stairs of the clinic by himself. "Buck, can you go over and see Tiny for me today?"
Feeling just a bit guilty, knowing he had pushed his young friend into making this decision, Buck said, "You sure you want to do this? It was just an idea."
"It's a good idea," JD told him, mind clearly made up. "If Ezra don't want him, it won't hurt to have another horse to back up Milagro. Jericho needs proper training, either way, and I'm the best man for the job."
Cheered to hear the trace of arrogance that infused JD's voice whenever he talked about his experience with horses, Buck reached out and gently ruffled his hair. JD pulled away, feigning insult at the gesture, and Buck's smile widened. "I'll go see Tiny right now."
The revelation of Buck's grand plan had been forced to wait for a week when Ezra's persistent fever had hung on and worsened, making him miserable and exhausted and not in the mood for company. He had put up with the necessary visits that kept him fed, clean and medicated against his illness and injury, but had otherwise been decidedly unwelcoming to visitors. They all knew that part of his dark mood was due to depression and grief, and had respected the need for solitude.
Finally, the prior evening, the fever had broken for the last time, allowing Ezra a long restful sleep that did wonders for his mood. For the first time in days, as he arrived to visit, Buck was greeted with a smile and a friendly salutation.
"Good morning, Mr. Wilmington. How are you this fine day?" Ezra said, pausing in the act of biting into a sweet roll. Vin had brought a fresh batch back from Nettie's early this morning, replacing the rolls that Ezra had not felt healthy enough to appreciate and had passed off to his friends. Ezra lay propped upright against a pile of pillows and he took a hearty chomp on his pastry as he waited for Buck's response, pure bliss filling his features as he chewed it.
Buck smiled at the sight. "I'm real good. Just came back from patrol and the ribs are as good as new."
"I take it Clyde has enjoyed full recovery as well, then?"
Happily, he replied, "Sure has. The swelling in his knee went right down, and after a couple of days in his own stall with fresh hay, oats and a little hot mash with sugar, he was right as rain."
Ezra smiled. "Sounds as if you've been giving him some well-deserved spoiling."
"Seemed only fair, especially since I been getting so much of my own." He hitched his brows suggestively. "All the ladies have all been real sweet about doing things for me that my hand ain't well enough to handle for myself."
A pained expression flashed across Ezra's face. "I'd rather not ask what you mean by that."
He chuckled. "You seem to be feeling a lot better yourself. Your face even looks almost like it should this morning." The swelling had gone and Ezra's left eye was back to normal. His complexion was still marred by a great deal of bruising but it had faded to grays and yellows and the stitches over his temple were due to be removed tomorrow.
Ezra popped in the last of the roll and wiped his fingers on a handy napkin before pressing his fingertips to the bruised cheekbone. "Doesn't hurt," he said in a muffled voice. Carefully tapping his casted left hand against the one on his lower leg, he added, "These are occasionally a different story, but I believe that I am on the road to full recovery."
He scowled. "Constantly."
Buck snorted. "Mine too. Nathan about yelled JD's ears off yesterday after he caught him sliding a butter knife inside the cast on his ankle trying to reach an itch."
"I sympathize with that urge," Ezra sighed. "I have no idea how I'm going to survive another month of these things, especially trapped up here with nothing to distract me."
Seeing an opening, Buck grabbed it. "I might be able to help you with that. Nathan told me he'd let you downstairs for awhile today if you felt up to it, long as you don't do anything strenuous."
Ezra perked up immediately. "Poker isn't strenuous."
Having expected that response, Buck laughed. "Not for you. Mite hard on the rest of us sometimes. I'll bet we could drum up a few interested parties, though."
Practically bouncing in his sudden eagerness to get moving, Ezra brushed away a few crumbs that had fallen onto the front of his nightshirt, and pointed to the wardrobe. "Inez and Mrs. Potter have been kind enough to cut and hem the seams of several trousers, shirts, and jackets for me. Inez assures me that they can all be repaired as good as new once the need for accommodating medical trappings has passed."
"Reckon between the two of us we can manage that," Buck agreed, selecting several articles. Helping another person dress with the use of just one hand apiece was more than a little awkward but after a few false starts and much swearing and laughter, Ezra was dressed much like his usual self. A boot was out of the question, of course, but the ladies had done a good job slitting the inside left seams of Ezra's clothes so that they draped neatly over his casts.
"Much better," Ezra said in satisfaction as he managed to fasten his simple string tie into a neat bow. "Shall we go?"
"Fraid you're gonna have to let Josiah or Nathan carry you downstairs," Buck reminded him, waving his own casted hand in the air.
Ezra made a face but nodded. "I suppose I must."
The fact that he did not argue told Buck just how much Ezra was chafing for the sight of something beyond his own four walls. He went out into the hallway and called downstairs, bringing Josiah up at once to help.
"Ready for a different view?" Josiah greeted, smiling broadly. "I've been waiting downstairs on the chance that you might."
Ezra smiled back. "You're a treasure, Mr. Sanchez. Have I ever told you that?"
He chuckled. "Not as I recall. Come on then, let's go find you some wallets to empty."
Allowing Ezra to use him as a human crutch for the journey out into the hall, Josiah waited until they had reached the top of the stairs before forcing Ezra to suffer the indignity of being picked up like a child and carried the rest of the way.
The gambler's face flamed red with embarrassment when a burst of applause greeted his appearance. Chris, Vin, Nathan, JD, Inez, and a couple of men who had just stopped in for a drink and apparently hated to be left out, all clapped their hands and shouted greetings as Josiah settled Ezra into a chair, he and Buck taking the final two empty seats.
"Well, this is most . . . unexpected," Ezra stammered, smiling as a drink was placed in front of him without his ever having to make the request. "Thank you all."
"Missed having you around," Chris said simply.
Vin grinned. "Everybody's pockets got so much money in 'em lately, we feel lopsided."
Clearly touched by the welcome, Ezra grinned back. "Then I shall have to see what I can do about balancing you out." He picked up a deck of cards that had been left lying on the table and began shuffling them quickly and neatly with his right hand. "Would you care for a game, gentlemen?"
"Well," JD said, then hesitated and looked at Buck and Nathan, who both nodded encouragement. "I, that is, we kind of got a surprise for you first. If you want it. I mean, it was kind of Buck's idea but we thought it was a good one, and that maybe it might make up a little for what happened. You know, for what you lost. If it don't, I totally understand, but seeing's how you'll need something to ride when you're all healed up, and he don't have an owner and all . . .well, if you don't want him you don't have to accept. It's just that I felt like I owed you something more than just an apology, and I know he'll never take the place of Chaucer, but I was hoping you might find another friend in him if you'll just give him a chance."
All of this was spoken on a single breath and when he finished, JD looked at Ezra with blatant hope in his eyes. Ezra frowned, still digesting the deluge of words. Uncertain, he asked, "Are you trying to say that you've bought me a horse?"
Seeing JD poised to start chattering again, Buck laid a hand on his arm and said, "Yeah, Ez, we did. JD and me both felt some responsibility for Chaucer's death and we wanted to maybe help you over his loss a little bit."
The gambler ducked his head. "You didn't have to. I've already forgiven you both, if there truly was anything to forgive; a fact of which I am no longer certain." He looked up into their surprised faces. "Buck, when you asked me how I had come to obtain Chaucer, it reminded me that I was every bit as impulsive and reckless as JD in my youth, and that ten years ago it might have been Chaucer and I who caused such an accident if the opportunity had presented itself."
"You don't hate me?" JD blurted, openly astonished.
Ezra smiled sadly. "If you had asked me that a week ago, I might have answered differently, but I've had a great deal of time alone to think over the past week. No, JD, I don't hate you. I'm going to miss Chaucer terribly, and I would be untruthful if I said that I wasn't dreading the next time I enter the livery stable and fail to see him waiting for me, but I refuse to throw away recent friendships because I've had the oldest one taken away."
JD snuffled and dashed his hand across his nose, then held it out for Ezra to shake. The gambler looked at the hand distastefully and offered a handkerchief. JD flushed, and wiped his hand and nose on the cloth before trying again. This time, Ezra accepted.
"So," Buck said slowly, a little shocked by the unexpected turn of events. "Does this mean you don't want Jericho?"
"Jericho!" It was Ezra's turn to be shocked. He looked from face to face, all around the table. "You purchased Jericho for me?"
Chris, Vin, Josiah and Nathan all pointed at JD and Buck, removing themselves from responsibility. Buck hastily outlined his reasoning again, the same way he had done for JD and Nathan.
"He's out at Nettie and Casey's place," JD revealed. "Figured maybe we could help you train him. He's a good animal, Ezra. Strong, good lines and sweet tempered. He's got some bad behaviors right now but he's still young enough to be trained into a real good horse for you."
Ezra licked his lips, his expression troubled. "I don't know."
"Work with him, Ezra," Chris urged, bringing the gambler's downcast eyes up to look at him. "He needs training and you'll need something to ride. Don't have to keep him if you don't feel it's right."
Reluctantly, JD admitted, "Nettie says she'll trade out any horse in her herd for Jericho if you don't want him."
Ezra looked thoughtful. Nettie had only a small herd, just four or five horses, but they were good hearty stock and well-trained.
Nathan told him, "Not really any losing end on this deal, Ezra. What do you say?"
"Perhaps . . . perhaps in a few weeks, when I've regained my full mobility, I'll ride out and see him. I'll give you my answer then," he said, drawing in a deep breath and holding it a moment before releasing it in a sigh. "Right now, I'm afraid that's the best I can offer."
"We'll take it, Ezra," Buck told him. He had a strong feeling that Ezra's own sense of curiosity would have him driving a buggy out to the Wells ranch long before he was free of his casts. Jericho was an outcast, unwanted, and Ezra related to that particular quality more than most. Buck was certain they would warm to one another, given time. Noticing that Ezra was still shuffling absently as he thought things over, Buck nudged him. "What say you deal up a game while we still got you at enough of a disadvantage to win a few hands?"
Pulling himself from his reverie, Ezra shook off his troubled appearance and smiled at them all. "I'm afraid you'd have to break the other arm and strike me blind to have that much of an advantage, Mr. Wilmington."
The other men laughed, more than willing to challenge that boast.