He was too hot. While the sun beat down from above, heat rose from the ground beneath him, the earth appearing to wave in an optical illusion. He could remember times when a heat wave would drag on for days and days, but he couldn't remember ever being this hot. He could feel the perspiration running down his face and tried vainly to wipe it with his already sweat slicked arm. His heavy arm dropped to his side. This ungodly heat was sapping all his energy.
'It's all right,' the voice told him.
Ezra sighed. His inner voice had always been a source of assurance when no one else seemed to care. Any time things got too stressful, too lonely, too lost, the voice would remind him it would be all right. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the case for much of his childhood.
'It's all right.'
Ezra tugged at his collar in a very ungentlemanly manner. It was too hot for his jacket and vest. Appearances be damned. He struggled to shed his jacket only to find that it didn't want to come off. That was odd. Not only was the heat sapping his strength, it seemed to be stealing his coordination as well. He gave up his battle against the unruly jacket with a sigh. It was too hot to wear it, but he didn't have the energy to take it off.
Ezra jolted awake. He couldn't let himself fall asleep. He was supposed to be doing something. What was it? What was he supposed to do? Hot. It was too hot to do anything.
A swim would be nice.
A drink would be better.
Nice, cool, thirst quenching water.
Ezra looked at the cup in his hands, thinking that he must be hallucinating from the heat. If he took a drink, he was certain it would be a cupful of sand or something equally as revolting. He threw the tin cup to the side. He didn't need any more trouble.
Hearing a growl, he reached for his Remington, but couldn't find it. It wasn't in his holster. Ezra searched frantically for his source of protection, until the heat overwhelmed him again. He tried to release his derringer, but it was missing as well. The unbearable heat pressed him back to the ground almost as if someone was holding him down. It was so hard to breathe. He would give anything for a nice cool breeze and a refreshing breath of air.
'It's all right, now.'
Ezra frowned. That wasn't his phrasing. That wasn't his voice. The heat must be playing tricks on him. He had something to do. What was he supposed to be doing? JD! He was supposed to relieve JD at the jail. He was late. Again.
He looked at the cup that seemed to float in front of his face. It looked like water. But where would he find water in the middle of the desert? And why was the cup floating? It was a trick. It had to be. Ezra reached for the cup and pushed it away.
'Gawd dammit, Ezra!'
He blinked wearily and turned toward the voice. He tried to lift his head but it was too much effort. He never heard the muttered curses as he sank into the darkness.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Chris had to walk away from the southerner. He couldn't count the number of times Ezra had knocked the water away. The fevered man just couldn't seem to grasp that it was water, not sand.
"Why the hell would he think I'd give him a cup of sand?" he muttered as he picked up the cup and the canteen and headed for the stream again.
He knew Ezra couldn't help his reactions. The high fever had him tight in its hold. There wasn't much more Chris could do for his friend other than to try to cool him down and get him to drink. He'd long ago stripped Ezra of his weapons and his jacket, but the fool kept trying to take off a jacket that wasn't there. Chris's gut instinct was to get Ezra to town and leave him in Nathan's hands, but he couldn't take that risk. It ripped at his heart that Ezra might die out here, but he couldn't risk the lives of the entire town with an epidemic.
The two of them had been returning from Vista City and had passed near the small town of Crooked Creek. They'd stopped along the trail to allow the horses to rest. That's when Ezra had spotted the children, a boy and a girl, Nellie and... he couldn't remember the boy's name. But he remembered the fevered blue eyes. They had taken the children back to their farm, but were met by the father standing on the porch with his rifle pointed their way. He had yelled at the children, angry that they had returned. It had angered Chris and Ezra until they understood the man's reasoning. Their elderly grandmother had died from the fever and he was trying to protect his children from the same fate. It was with great sadness that he took his fevered son from Ezra's arms and warned them away from the town.
Chris and Ezra had moved on, avoiding not only Crooked Creek, but all towns along the road. It had been barely a day later that Ezra took sick. They'd gone as far as Ezra could travel and stopped at this nice little oasis in the middle of nowhere. They had shelter with trees and rocks, and a cool stream nearby. He hoped it wouldn't be Ezra's final resting place. Nor his. With as quickly as Ezra had taken ill, he figured it wouldn't be much longer until he was sick as well.
Chris rinsed the tin cup in the stream, then filled the canteen. He filled the cup again. He'd hold Ezra down again if he had to, but he'd get the man to drink. The last two days had been hell on both of them. When he was still lucid, Ezra had been cantankerous and understandably so. He was angry at his perceived weakness and he was secretly afraid he was going to die. As time passed the fever consumed him and it seemed like he grew weaker with every hour. Soon he wouldn't have the strength, or the mental capacity to knock the cup away.
With a sigh, Chris walked back to their camp. He set the cup in the shade of the rock and sat down next to Ezra's still body. Uncorking the canteen, he poured some water onto the kerchief and wiped some of the sweat from Ezra's forehead. Ezra muttered something unintelligible. Chris assured him he would be all right. It was the same thing he had been doing most of the day. It was the same thing he'd keep doing until...
A bird call interrupted his thought.
"Vin, coming in!"
"No!" Chris stood up suddenly and turned toward his approaching friend. "No, Vin! Stay back."
Vin frowned but stayed by his horse.
"Looks like you could use a hand," Vin said. "You look done in."
Chris shook his head. As much as he could use the help, he wouldn't risk Vin being exposed to whatever fever had taken Ezra. "No," he said. "We passed by a little place called Crooked Creek. They had some kind of epidemic."
Vin looked past Chris. "Ezra?"
Chris nodded. "He got sick yesterday. We're going to stay here until... it passes."
Vin stepped forward in concern for his friends.
"No," Chris said softly. "I need you to go back to town and warn the others."
Vin nodded, understanding the logic, but not liking the idea of leaving Chris and Ezra out here.
"Anything I can do?" he asked.
Chris shook his head. "Got anything for fever?"
"I'll see what I can find around here," said Vin, "and then I'll head back to town and get whatever Nathan thinks we need."
Chris gave a nod and turned his attention back to Ezra. He had to get him to drink some water.
Less than an hour later Vin returned to the edge of the camp.
"I'll leave these here," he said placing his coffee pot, some bandages he carried in his saddle bags, and some leaves on top of a rock. "Boil these leaves down about a half hour or so. Strain them through the cloth. Get him to drink as much of the tea as you can. You can use the rest of the bandages to wipe him down."
"Thanks, Vin," Chris said. He looked the tracker in the eye, communicating with his expression that he understood and appreciated Vin's reluctance to leave.
"I'll be back," said Vin with a nod. He mounted his horse and rode toward the town.
Chris watched him go, wishing that he and Ezra could ride along.
Chris shook his head and turned toward the delirious gambler. "I know you're hot, you damn fool," he muttered. "So why won't you trust me and drink?"
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Sleep had finally won. Chris had been awake and worried about Ezra, tending to him for too long and sleep had finally claimed him. He didn't even stir when riders came into the camp. The fierce Chris Larabee sat with his back against a tree, one arm wrapped around Ezra's chest and arms as the gambler reclined against him, his chin resting on the top of Ezra's head.
"Hey, Pard," Vin said softly, touching Chris on the shoulder. He stood to the side expecting Chris to come alert instantly. He wasn't disappointed.
"Vin... What? I told you to stay away." He looked and saw Nathan approaching. "No, stay away!"
"No need," said Vin. "Nate wired Crooked Creek to see what they were dealing with."
"Weren't no epidemic, Chris," Nathan said as he knelt down beside the pair and started checking Ezra over. "Sheriff said a couple of families on the outskirts of town had taken sick with a fever. One of the farmers lost his mother, but other than that, the fever just ran its course."
Chris blinked, trying to absorb what Nathan was telling him. "It's not deadly?"
Nathan shrugged. "Could be for some folks if they were old or sickly. Let me take him, Chris."
Chris looked up and saw the twinkle of amusement in Vin's eyes. "It was the only way I could keep him calm," he explained hastily. "Damn fool kept knocking the water out of my hand. Thought I was giving him sand."
"That's the fever talking," said Nathan, ignoring Chris's embarrassment, gently pulling Ezra to the side and lying him flat on his back. "You feelin' all right?" he asked Chris, but kept his attention on Ezra.
"Fine," Chris said. "Nothing a little rest won't cure."
"Looks like he might be past the worst of it," Nathan said as he put an ear to Ezra's chest. "His lungs sound good and he's not too hot."
"You gonna sit around all day?" Vin asked Chris with an amused grin. He knew what it was like to sit up all night with a friend. It was likely Chris's legs were all pins and needles and wouldn't support him yet after being in the same position so long.
Chris growled. "Maybe some scrawny tracker could make himself useful."
I should just let ya sit there. Buck'll be here any minute with the wagon," said Vin. "I'm sure he'll have something to say about your sleeping arrangement."
"Shut up and help me up."
Vin chuckled and offered a hand, grateful that they weren't facing the outcome Chris and Ezra expected.
Vin grinned as he pulled Chris up and helped him take a couple steps toward Ezra, both men peering over Nathan's shoulder at the weak southerner.
"Rest easy, Ezra," Nathan answered. "Ya been sick with a fever. Going to be weak for awhile."
"Someone tried to make me drink sand," Ezra said, his words barely audible.
"It wasn't sand!" Chris growled in frustration.
Chris couldn't ignore the weak plea. He looked at Ezra.
"I had the strangest dream," Ezra said. "I was sick and you were holding me..."
Chris growled as he limped away from Vin's soft chuckle. "Try to help a friend and all I get is grief," he muttered.
"Was it something I said?" asked Ezra.
Nathan grinned at him. "You just lie back and rest. Buck will be here soon with a wagon and we'll get you home to that nice comfy feather bed of yours."
"It will be much better than last night's accommodations," said Ezra. "I seem to have developed a crick in my back."
"Damn ungrateful sons of...." Chris's growl was lost as he reached the creek.
Vin grinned. Give Ezra a couple days and he'd be back on his feet and everything would be back to normal.
He was looking forward to normal.