Main Character: Ezra
Ezra stood in the doorway, his eyes narrowing into slits. Vin had looked at him, grinned and winked in Nathan’s direction. Nathan’s lips were pressed together as if he was trying not to chuckle. But what was most suspicious, and ominous, was the slow smile on Chris Larabee’s face.
“What is going on here, gentlemen?” he asked, just as Buck bumped into him from behind.
“Hey, hoss, move it.”
Frowning, Standish walked into the room, allowing Buck and a trailing J.D. to enter.
“Everything set?” asked Larabee from his chair near the fireplace, his swollen knee propped on a stool.
“Yup,” replied J.D. “The prisoners are tied up proper and ready to go, Digby’s body is wrapped and in the wagon.” The young sheriff shook his head. “Too bad he didn’t live long enough to hang, the rotten, evil, sonofabitch bastard.”
Buck grinned at his young friend. “Them’s mighty strong words for you, kid. Not that the sonofabitch bastard didn’t deserve ‘em. The world’s better off without the likes of that murdering Marcus Digby around, that’s for sure.”
“There’s something real fitting about one of his own men shooting him in the back when he tried to run out on them with the bank money,” added Vin.
“Wish we could just dump him in a hole instead of lugging him all the way back to Dry Springs,” grumbled J.D.
Nathan raised his bandaged hand towards the narrow stairs. “Now you know the Lawsons deserve that reward money after what Digby’s gang did to Henry and this place. Alive…or dead, Digby’ll get them $700.”
Agreeing with a nod, J.D. edged past Ezra and plopped down on the remaining spot on the small sofa, next to Vin.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” said Larabee. “I want you and Buck to head out to Dry Springs with the body and the prisoners right away. Turn ‘em over to the sheriff and have him verify the reward. Vin, you and I are heading back to Four Corners with the bank money. Josiah’s been minding the town by himself long enough.
“I’ll just grab a cup of that fresh coffee and we can be on our way,” replied Buck as he headed for the cupboard.
Vin lifted a large, scarred saddle bag off the floor beside him. “The sooner we get this money back in the bank, the better,” he said.
“Uh, now, wait a moment, wait a moment, what about me?” asked the gambler, turning a piercing stare towards their leader who was rising carefully from his chair.
It was Nathan who answered as he glanced up the stairs. “You’re staying here with me to help keep an eye on Mister Lawson and deliver Missus’ Lawson’s baby.”
Ezra’s head jerked towards the healer. “What?! Me? Why me?” His eyes flashed over the other men in the room. “Why not…uh…uh…Vin? He’s the…the…epitome of calm and equanimity.”
The tracker shook his head so hard his hat almost flew off. “I’m not sure what you’re calling me there, Ez, but sure, I can face a pack of hungry wolves with a smile, but a woman having a baby? All that wailing, poor lady suffering, and the…the…whole baby comin’ out thing. Oh, no, no. Makes me queasy just thinking about it. Got no nerves at all for that, pard.”
Ezra rolled his eyes and huffed. “Well, I’ll have you know the prospect leaves me rather light-headed, too.”
“C’mon, Ez,” cut in Buck, “You can’t expect Nate to go it alone with his hand all bandaged up. I can see where you’d be the best choice.”
“Me! Why not you?!”
“Well, hoss, I might get on with the ladies like a house on fire but a pregnant woman? I’d feel about as comfortable as a man in a horsehair union suit. I get all clumsy and stupid something terrible around pregnant women.” Buck gave him a goofy grin.
“Lawd have mercy,” drawled Standish, his gaze drifting to latch onto the youngest in their group.
J.D. jumped up from the sofa, face draining of all color in an instant, his mouth dropping open in sheer panic.
Ezra watched him for a moment, his own shoulders slumping. “Aw, hell.” He turned back to their leader. “Chris, can’t you stay?” he asked, a whine bleeding into the question.
“Well, now this is a small house but it’s still got two stories. Henry and Clare Lawson are both upstairs. I think I could just about make it to my horse,” he stated with a pointed look at his knee which had swollen to twice its size. Nathan needs someone who can move quick.” As Ezra opened his mouth, Chris pointed a cautionary finger at him. “Listen, Ezra, even if Vin didn’t turn green to the gills at the prospect and I hadn’t twisted my knee, we both have to get back to town. Are you forgetting the two horse thieves who tried to kill Yosemite that Josiah’s got in our jail? Judge Travis is coming in for the trial tomorrow and we need to be there to keep an eye on things, not to mention that Vin is one of the witnesses.” He jerked his head towards Buck and J.D. “And they need to get those three prisoners and Digby’s body back to Dry Springs.”
Just then, a woman’s pained voice called out. “Mister Jackson, oh…please…ohhh…”
Nathan stood up. “Damn, what with seeing her husband pistol-whipped and beaten unconscious and then all the shooting and the barn fire, it’s no wonder she’s going into labor early. Better take off that jacket and roll up your sleeves, Ezra,” he added briskly as he dashed up the narrow stairs.
“Guess we best take our leave,” announced Buck, gulping down his coffee and glancing nervously at the stairs as Clare Lawson let out a scream. J.D. was already halfway to the door. “Marcus Digby didn’t smell too good alive. Lying dead in that wagon in the sun ain’t gonna make him smell any better.” He patted Ezra on the shoulder as he brushed passed him. “Good luck, hoss.”
Standish watched speechlessly as J.D. threw him a sympathetic shrug and left, Buck on his heels.
Vin threw the saddle bag over his shoulder. “Need a hand, cowboy?”
Larabee was grimacing as he took a tentative step. “Go on, just bring my horse as close as you can.”
Tanner nodded and looked at Ezra. “You’ll do fine,” he said with a soft smile. “Chris, I’ll have the horses out front in a minute.” And then he left, too.
Finding his voice again, the gambler gave a resigned sigh. “The fates are truly against me.”
Limping heavily, Larabee paused beside Ezra, waiting until their eyes met. “Nathan wanted you from the first. He said you’d be the most help to him, that you’d be able to handle the situation better than any of us. He trusts you.”
Head tilting, Standish couldn’t quite hide his surprise. “Nathan said that?”
“Yes, Ezra, he did. Now, the two of you take care of Clare and her baby and keep Henry from worrying too much until he’s able to get out of that cot and be up and about again. We’ll get back here as soon as the dust settles. With the reward money.” He reached over and clasped the gambler’s shoulder with his hand. “By the way, I trust you, too,” he said, his eyes warm.
“Ezra!” called Nathan from upstairs.
A small but genuine smile slowly lit the gambler’s face. “Kindly close the door on your way out, Mister Larabee,” he said as he stripped off his red jacket, and headed determinedly towards the stairs.
+ + + + + + +
Several days later, Nathan was standing on the small porch of the Lawson homestead, face turned up to the afternoon sun, breathing in the scent of wildflowers that hung in the warm summer air. The sound of horses made him turn his head, squinting to see beyond the ruins of the barn to the road that sloped down from the hills.
His shoulders relaxed as he recognized the three horses and their riders. A few moments later, they were slowing to a trot by the hitching rail near the house.
“Nathan!” Josiah dismounted, walking quickly towards the healer. “How are you faring? I wish I could have been here to help you out, brother.”
Nathan smiled. “I’m fine, Josiah. Me and Ezra handled things just fine.” He held up his hand, fingers now visible, and gingerly wiggled them. “Should be able to take the rest of the bandages off in a couple of days.”
Chris and Vin tied their horses and strode towards them. “How are the Lawsons?” asked Larabee, who was moving with only a trace of a limp. Nathan eyed the man’s knee, noting the lack of swelling with relief.
“The proud parents of a beautiful, healthy baby girl,” replied Nathan with a beaming grin. “Henry’s feeling better, too. Not seeing double anymore and his ribs are healing up. Clare’s a mighty happy momma.”
“Right here, gentleman.” The gambler stepped out onto the little porch. He wore no jacket, vest or cravat, white shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows.
“We brought the reward money. Buck and J.D. are organizing a barn raising. They wanna make sure we let the Lawsons know so we can get everything ready,” said Vin.
“That is excellent news,” replied Ezra, his gold tooth glinting. “Now, allow me to introduce you to the newest addition to the Lawson family tree.” He waved his friends inside.
They entered the house to the sound of a baby crying. A wistful expression grew over Larabee’s face as he hesitated. Only Vin saw him draw in a steadying breath. The tracker looked away and herded the others up the stairs, giving his friend a moment alone.
The second floor of the house was a single room. Its sturdy furniture included a bed, a new cradle, a rocking chair and a cot. Colorful quilts covered the bed and cradle. Sunlight streamed in through a single window. The roof was peaked, slanting the ceiling on either side, but still allowed enough room for a handful of tall men to stand without stooping.
When Larabee made it up the stairs to join them, his gaze focused on Clare Lawson sitting in the rocker, the baby wiggling and fussing in her arms. The baby quieted almost immediately as she began to rock gently. Henry stood next to her, smiling wide enough to hurt despite the vivid bruises on his face and the bandage across his forehead.
A round of greetings and heartfelt thank-yous quickly followed as the peacekeepers gave Henry the reward money and told them both about the plan for a new barn.
“Oh, she’s a little beauty,” murmured Josiah as the big preacher crouched down to stare at the baby.
“Her name’s Nadine Eliza Lawson,” announced Clare with a glance towards the healer and gambler.
“Mighty pretty name, ma’am,” said Vin throwing a wink at Nathan and Ezra.
A little while later, Ezra was downstairs with Chris as the other peacekeepers talked over the details of the barn raising with the Lawsons.
“So, looks like you managed to survive,” said Larabee, amusement dancing in his hazel eyes.
“Unequivocally, it was an experience I will never forget. My admiration for Nathan’s abilities and the responsibilities he carries as a healer has grown tenfold. Terrifying though it was for far too many moments, I now realize that holding a newborn life in one’s hands is amazing and, well, undeniably…wondrous.”
Chris nodded knowingly, his eyes drifting to somewhere beyond the view through the window beside him. “In our line of work we see too much dying, Ezra. Hell, we cause too much dying. Seeing something like this, it’s like sunrise after a long dark night. Evens things out a little, helps restore the balance.”
“The scales of life and death,” added the gambler with atypical brevity, his expression thoughtful. He raised his coffee cup as if in a toast. “To balance,” he said softly.
Just then, the sound of laughter wafted down from the upstairs room, followed by a healthy baby’s cry.