Main Characters: Chris, Ezra, OC
Webmaster Note: This story was formerly hostead at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
It had seemed like a simple proposition.
Chris Larabee had chosen Ezra Standish to accompany him on an assignment for Judge Travis while the other five peacekeepers remained in Four Corners. There was a large payroll scheduled to come through sometime in the next week, and he wanted to make certain that the town was well protected. So, leaving Vin Tanner in charge, he had ridden out with the Southerner on what promised to be a week long journey.
Arriving in Clemson after a day on the trail, they received a telegram that informed them that Travis had added a second leg to their journey. After some consideration they agreed to split up, each man taking one part of the assignment. Then they would meet back up in the little dust hole they had stopped in and return home. The next morning they rode out in separate directions. Ezra rode toward Serenity to take a deposition while Chris left for Bellflower to identify a prisoner being held for trial.
The next day the blond had arrived back in Clemson in the afternoon, heaving a sigh of frustration when Standish was nowhere to be found. By the time he finished dinner, his emotions were swinging between frustration, anger and concern. If the gambler had found a profitable game of chance it wasn’t too far fetched to think that he’d stay over an extra day. If not, he or his horse could be ill or injured out on the trail. For the Southerner’s sake, Larabee hoped it was one of the latter.
Going to the telegraph office, he sent a message to the sheriff in Serenity, inquiring after the missing man. A short time later he received the reply. Standish had left that morning shortly after sunrise. With a curse he crumpled up the telegram and strode toward his room. It would be a new moon that night, leaving him without the light to search for the man. Deciding that waiting until sunrise would also give Ezra a chance to show up without his having to chase him down, he went to bed.
Waking just as the gray light of dawn touched the single window in his hotel room, Chris dressed and went downstairs. Learning from the hotel clerk that Standish had not checked in during the night, he hurried back to his room, gathered up his things, and left the hotel. He was soon riding out of the livery, heading along the trail of the missing Southerner.
He rode through the morning, hazel eyes scanning the landscape from beneath the flat brim of his hat. The longer the prairie remained empty, the more concerned he became. Ezra Standish was not fond of the outdoors and would not tarry on the road any longer than he had to.
Topping a rise, the blond let out a hard breath. Down below, moving slowly along the trail on foot was a figure in a scarlet coat. Shaking his head and wondering where the younger man had managed to lose his horse, Larabee coaxed his black gelding forward.
Nearing the obviously footsore man, Chris frowned when the usually wary man didn’t acknowledge his approach. “Ezra?”
Standish shuffled to a stop, looking up with a slightly puzzled expression. “Mr. Larabee?”
Leaning forward and crossing his arms over the horn of his saddle, the blond said, “Lose something?”
Heaving a sigh, the gunman said, “Where’s your horse?”
Green eyes flashing as the question rekindled indignity and anger, the gambler spat out, “that villain! I was attacked on the trail by a despicable and unkempt villain who absconded with not only my beloved horse, but all the belongings I had brought along as well! We must hurry if we’re to capture him before he dispenses of my property!”
Larabee dismounted, coming to stand before the irate man. “Now hang on, Ezra, let’s don’t go off half-cocked. We’ll go back to Clemson and get you another horse – “
“NO! That would delay us; keep us from going after him until tomorrow. We must go after him now! There’s no time to lose, Chris. Please, I have to retrieve my possessions!”
“Ezra, you can make up whatever winnings you made off with when we get back to town. We –“
“There are things more important than gold. If you won’t aid me, then I’ll go after the robber myself!”
He was red-faced with anger, his admission shocking Larabee. He couldn’t remember a time that he had seen the smaller man this upset and quickly realized that whatever he had lost had to be very valuable to Standish. Wondering what the grifter could have that he valued above money, he said, “Take it easy. All right, if it’s that important to you, we’ll go. You get in the saddle; I’ll walk for a while.”
Obviously torn, Ezra finally nodded. As he limped toward the big black, his legs started to give way, his knees buckling. He felt the bigger man catch him, but fought to right himself.
“You okay?” Chris asked with concern in his voice.
“Fine… I’m fine,” Standish muttered. “Nothing a good night’s rest can’t cure.”
Nodding, Larabee watched as the other man mounted, his movements stiff and sluggish. He straightened in the saddle, however, taking up the reins as he prepared to move out.
The two men moved back along the path Ezra had taken as quickly as possible. Chris walked part of the time, riding behind the Southerner the rest. Standish offered to take his turn walking, but it was obvious that he was already in pain from his journey in boots not made for walking any farther than the nearest saloon. Larabee insisted he stay in the saddle, unable to shake a nagging concern at the other man’s gray complexion.
“You sure you’re all right?” The blond asked once again.
“My physical state has not changed since you last asked… approximately three minutes ago,” Ezra said in an annoyed tone. Then, nodding toward a small copse of trees he said, “That’s where I was attacked.”
They rode to the trees, Chris dismounting and searching the area for signs of their quarry. “You know which way he went?”
“Alas no. I was rendered insensate by the scoundrel and, when I recovered my faculties, he was no where to be seen.”
Nodding, Chris continued his search and soon found the man’s trail. Pointing, he said, “looks like he rode that way.” Climbing back up behind Ezra, he finished, “let’s go.”
The sun was heading toward the Western horizon when they spotted the ramshackle little homestead. Standish pulled up, watching from atop the other man’s horse. Larabee, on foot at the moment, studied the house then let his gaze drift toward the corral. The gambler’s chestnut stood out amongst the rest of the stock, all of them too thin and uncared for.
“Looks like we found your man,” Chris said softly.
“Indeed,” Ezra replied as he moved to ride closer. He looked down with a frown when the blond took hold of Pony’s bridle.
“Hold up. We can’t just ride in there all piss and vinegar.”
“But – “
“Slow down, Ezra, we’re gonna watch the place for a while, figure out the lay of the land.”
With an angry huff Standish dismounted, grunting when his blistered feet hit the hard earth. Although he was obviously aching to ride in shooting, all he said was, “fine.”
They studied the shack for nearly an hour, watching for signs of life. When no one appeared they began to make their way toward the little house, Ezra slightly behind Chris. Larabee carried his yellow handled Colt, while Standish carried his borrowed rifle. As they drew near, the blond cursed as the door was thrown open. A warning shot whistled past them and a voice called out to them.
“Who th’ hell are y’ and whattaya want?”
“You’ve got some things that don’t belong to you,” Standish announced. “We’ve come to reclaim them.”
“I take it then that someone placed my horse in your corral without your knowledge.” The Southerner replied dryly.
“Ain’t nothin’ in that corral that don’t b’long t’ me!”
“Then you’ve got a bill of sale for the chestnut.” Chris stated.
“That ‘n… that ‘n jist wandered in here last night,” came the response.
“He could be telling the truth,” Larabee admitted.
Shaking his head, Standish said, “No, it’s him. I recognize his voice.”
Glancing over at the other man, the blond said, “you sure?”
Returning the look with an unwavering one of his own, Ezra said, “Positive.”
Nodding, the gunman said, “All right then, let’s go.”
They moved forward, using whatever cover was available. They hadn’t gone more than half a dozen steps when another shot rang out, followed by several more in rapid succession. The two men returned fire and for nearly a minute the air was filled with the sounds of a gun battle. Then Larabee signaled a halt when the sounds became decidedly one sided.
When no shots came from the shack, the blond said, “stay here and cover me, I’ll go check it out.” Receiving a nod from the other man, he moved toward the open doorway, watching for signs of a trap.
Reaching the shack he looked inside the door and saw a body sprawled on a floor. Moving forward warily, he kicked the man’s weapon aside and then nudged the body. Receiving no response, he knelt down and felt for a pulse. Satisfied that the man was dead, Larabee straightened, turned and waved the all clear for the Southerner. When there was no response, he called out “Ezra? Standish!”
With a frown, Chris moved quickly back the way he’d come, calling to the other man as he walked. “Ezra? Where are you? I thought you were supposed to be covering… Ezra!”
Standish lay sprawled against a tree stump, the rifle across his lap. Kneeling beside him, Larabee gently shook a shoulder. Getting nothing more than a grunt he said, “Ezra? Ezra, what’s wrong?”
Green eyes blinking open in confusion, the smaller man said, “Chris? What… I… oooooh.” He cried out as he tried to move. Slumping back against the stump he said, “I’m… sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for. Did you catch a bullet?”
“Bullet… I… no. Earlier…” Standish’s eyes rolled back in his head as he passed out.
“Ah, hell,” Chris growled. He looked around as if expecting someone to appear and help him. Then he pushed to his feet and strode toward the shack. Quickly pulling the dead body out into the yard, he entered the dead man’s home.
He found the inside of the house just as decrepit as the outside. There on a rickety table lay saddlebags and a bedroll which he identified as the gambler’s. There was a canvas cot shoved in a corner, covered in ratty, worn blankets. He moved to it and tossed the blankets aside. The cot was stained and dirty, but at least it would give Standish somewhere to lay his head.
Retrieving the man’s bedroll, Larabee quickly spread the blanket over the cot. Then he sprinted back outside and went to where Ezra still lay. Kneeling beside the smaller man he tapped a cheek. “Come on pard, we need to get you inside.”
Although his eyes blinked open, they were dark and unfocused. Standish stared at the blond, but it was painfully obvious that he wasn’t really conscious. Carefully Chris pulled him to his feet and half-carried him to the shack. Other than the occasional grunt or groan of pain, the Southerner made no comment. He stumbled along beside the bigger man, struggling to keep his feet under him.
Inside the little house, Larabee lead the gambler to the cot, settling him on the blanket covered bed. As the green eyes closed, he tapped a cheek. “Don’t go out on me yet, Ezra. What happened? Where are you hurt?”
“Hurt? I… oooh… hurts.” Standish muttered. When the other man once more slapped the side of his face, he frowned, but came closer to consciousness. “I… Chris, what ha… happened?”
“You tell me.” The gunman’s patience, never long on a good day, was running out. In measured tones he said, “Where are you hurt?”
“My side… I… he cut me… a knife.”
“Cut you!? Ezra why didn’t you tell me earlier? Damn it!” Then he took a deep breath. “Never mind, guess you’re as stubborn as the rest of us. Where’s the cut?”
Auburn brows drew down into a frown. “Cut me… on the left… ribs…”
“Okay, I need you to help me, okay? I need to get your clothes off.” Receiving a brief nod the blond helped Standish sit up. Supporting him as he quickly but carefully removed the man’s coat, he followed that with the heavy brocade vest. He saw it then, a dark crimson stain that surrounded a ragged slash in the man’s linen shirt. Removing the shirt he saw that the injured man had bound the wound with a thick pad of boiled muslin, held in place by a strip of cloth.
Laying Ezra back, Chris shook his head. What could be so important that the younger man would ignore such a wound in order to go after the man who had attacked him?
Putting aside his questions, Larabee set to the task at hand. Retrieving his knife, he cut the crude bandage and gently removed it. Coming to the place where it was sealed to the wound, he moved slowly and cautiously to keep from making the injury worse. Despite his care Standish cried out several times as the actions brought fresh pain.
“Sorry, pard. Just hang on, I’m almost done.” A hand came up, grabbing at his wrist to stop him. Placing his other hand over the grasping one, he squeezed briefly in reassurance. Then, prying the clenching fingers from his arm he moved the man’s hand to the edge of the cot. “Grab hold, Ezra, hang on.”
“Stop… please… pl-please stop.” The gambler was begging now, the pain growing too great to bear.
Just then the cloth pulled free and Chris tossed it aside. Placing a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder, he said, “I’m done.”
Standish relaxed, blowing out a long breath. His eyes blinked open slowly dark and glazed they roamed the unfamiliar surroundings. Finally his gaze settled on the figure beside him. “Thank… you.”
Managing a grim smile, Larabee said, “Don’t thank me yet. I’ve still got to clean it out and dress it.” With that he looked around. There was very little in the shack at all, and what little was there wouldn’t be much help. Leaving the smaller man where he was, Chris hurried back to where he had left Pony earlier. Bringing the horse back to the homestead he quickly untacked him and turned him out in the corral with the others. He carried his saddlebags, bedroll and canteen back to the shack.
Adding his things to what lay on the table, he sorted through them. Carrying those things he would need to where Ezra lay, he placed them at the foot of the cot. With quick, efficient movements, he gently bathed the angry looking wound. Infection was already making its presence known, the edges of the cut red and swollen. Twice he guided the Southerner’s hands to the sides of the cot, coaxing him to hold on while he tended the knife wound.
Beneath the other man’s touch, Standish struggled to lay still. The pain, which he had been able to put aside for so long, surged and burned through him. His mind screamed, begging for the torture to end, but his tightly pressed lips didn’t utter a sound.
Pressing at the wound, Chris drew out as much of the infection as he could, wiping the gore away until all that welled up in the open gash was blood. He could feel the body beneath him tense, muscled trembling as the other man fought to keep from moving. In a soft voice he said, “You’re doing great. I know it hurts like hell, but I’ve got to get this as clean as possible.”
He couldn’t relax his hold enough to speak, but the smaller man’s eyes slanted open, searching the other man’s face. He blinked, tears of pain spilling down his face as he managed a single nod.
Reaching next for a small amber bottle, Chris warned, “this will be the worst, Ezra, but you’ll be able to rest then.” With that he cleaned the wound with carbolic acid. Standish did scream then, his body bucking and arching off the bed. The blond pressed down against the thrashing form, trying his best to keep the injured man from doing any more harm. Then, after what seemed to be an eternity, Ezra collapsed, falling unconscious.
“About damn time,” Larabee whispered. Sorting through the things Nathan made a habit of sending with them, he found the herbs he needed and pressed them into the wound. That finished, he bound the wound once more then did what he could to make Standish comfortable. Chris covered the unconscious man with his own bedroll, tucking it around the limp body. Reaching out he felt the clammy flesh and the underlying heat of a growing fever. Dampening his kerchief, Chris gently stroked it over the pale features. Standish moaned breathlessly, but didn’t return to consciousness.
Dragging the one chair he found over to the cot, the gunman settled in to watch over his friend.
Night had fallen before the body on the cot began to stir. Chris had tended the horses, both the ones they had ridden, and the poorly maintained creatures they shared the corral with. That taken care of, he turned to the shack, doing what he could to make it habitable. He had found a small stream near the shack that guaranteed them a small but steady supply of water.
Larabee kept a close watch over the injured man, keeping damp cloths on the sweat-soaked forehead in an effort to cool him down. He was just changing the cloth when the younger man’s lids fluttered open, settling at half mast. The pain-filled eyes moved restlessly before looking up at him.
“Welcome back,” Chris said softly.
“What… where… where are we?”
“Some lowlife’s shack. Do you remember what happened?”
Ezra frowned then slowly recognition dawned. “Yes… I was a… attacked. He took… took my horse… my be… longings.”
“Right. I cleaned out the wound, but you’re running a fever. We’re going to have to stay here for a day or two until you’re feeling better.”
Standish nodded weakly, his eyes drooping closed. Then they shot open again and he looked up at the blond with a panic-stricken expression. “Where… where is it? Wh-where? I need to see… see it!” Reaching out he grasped the man in black’s arms. “I need… need to see… need to…”
“Take it easy… calm down. What are you talking about? Ezra! Calm down!” Chris’ voice rose as he tried to get through to the other man. Pulling out of the smaller man’s grasp he easily held the writhing body still. “Ezra! Listen to me pard. Whatever it is, it’s safe. Okay? Your stuff’s all here.”
“Safe?” He dropped back against the cot, chest heaving from the exertion.
“Yeah, safe. You need to lay still now, okay? You need to rest.”
As if responding to the man’s suggestion, the Southerner went limp, eyes closing once more.
Heaving a relieved sigh, Larabee straightened the blankets back over the unconscious man. Shaking his head he muttered, “I hope whatever it is you’re worried about is worth what you’re putting yourself through.”
Despite the gunman’s attention, the fever continued to build, burning through Standish like a wildfire. He moaned softly, tossing and turning restlessly on the cot. Larabee kept vigil at the man’s bedside, bathing the flushed features and tending to the infected wound. Whenever he could, he lifted the sweat-soaked head from the blankets and coaxed a few sips of water past slightly parted lips. From time to time Ezra’s eyes slanted open slightly, moving restlessly and unseeing from side to side.
“Take it easy, you’re all right,” Chris said reassuringly. He watched as the man’s lids drooped once more.
As the fever continued to build, Standish began to mutter. Incoherently at first, but as he continued, Larabee began to make out some of hat he said.
“No… please, Mother… I don’t want to. I… don’t like this… please… don’t be angry… Mother, please. I’m so… so scared.” His voice was small and frightened.
Larabee found himself picturing a very young Ezra, once more left by a mother more interested in money than her son.
“Yes… Mother, all… all right. Yes, I can… I can do that. Will we make lots of… of money then… Mother? Will you be… proud of me? Will you… love me?”
Chris felt his heart drop at the innocent and hopeful words delivered in a trembling voice. In a sad whisper he said, “No wonder you set so much store in money, pard.”
As he stroked a rag over the handsome face he studied the Southerner’s features. He had never noticed just how young the gambler looked. Chris realized that there weren’t that many years between Ezra and JD. He found himself wondering what it must have been like for the boy Standish had once been.
He had been around enough to know something of the lives of grifters. They lived out of suitcases, flush one day and bust the next. They were loyal only to gold and saw others only in terms of potential profit and gain. That was true for any children they might have as well.
The gunman recalled an incident that had occurred a few months earlier. Three people had gotten off the stage; a man, a woman and a young boy of about five. To the rest of them, it looked like a young, fairly prosperous family.
Ezra, however, had seen something different. He had quickly warned the other six peacekeepers to keep an eye on the trio.
Thanks to his warning they were quickly able to pick up on things that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The couple realized before day’s end that their cons wouldn’t work in Four Corners. They had spent a miserable three days there, waiting for the next stage out of town.
He had seen Ezra with the couple’s boy here and there around town. When asked about it, the Southerner insisted that he was only gathering information from the boy. He had taken the man at his word, but knew better now. Recalling the man’s attention to the child from his present standpoint, he saw things in a different light.
He recalled the trips to the restaurant, candy and small trinkets from Potter’s store. He saw the sad smiles, the brief hugs and gentle touches. Ezra had gained little information from the child and none of it had helped them to bring charges against the con artists. The family had left on the next stage, going to run their cons elsewhere.
He recalled with far greater clarity than before the days that followed. Standish had been quiet, hardly coming out of his room unless necessary. He hadn’t given it much thought at the time, the gambler often kept odd hours. Now, though, he saw the sadness and the wistful gazes in his mind’s eye. Ezra had to have seen something of himself in the little boy; had done his best to give the child a few good memories.
Larabee heaved a frustrated sigh. What else had he over-looked and taken for granted about the Southerner?
Morning dawned and the sun moved slowly across the sky with maddening normalcy. Chris opened the door and windows to coax fresh air into the cabin. He dragged the former owner’s corpse farther away from the cabin and dumped him unceremoniously into a shallow gulley. He didn’t have the time, energy or interest in making an effort to bury the man properly. The only thing he cared about was keeping the predators and carrion that had already come to visit away from the cabin.
He tended to the horses, fuming silently at the poor condition of the stranger’s animals. After looking them over, he slipped a rope around one beast’s neck and led it toward the gully where he had left the poor thing’s dead owner. The animal was old, toothless and blind. He could count every bone of its skeleton through sore-riddled flesh.
Bringing the poor thing to a stop, he reached up and stroked its matted mane gently. After a few moments he moved back and drew his Colt. With a murmured “sorry boy,” he fired a bullet into the suffering creature’s brain. Dead instantly, the horse dropped to the ground.
Most of the time, the blond sat at the fevered man’s side, doing what little he could to tend him. Throughout the day, Standish suffered through more bouts of delirium. More of the fever talk gave Larabee insight into the man’s past. And very little of it was happy. Ezra often called out to his mother, begging her not to leave him, or to come get him from one place or another. At those times his voice was small, vulnerable and frightened.
At other times he spoke with anger, berating Maude for the things she had done. He raged at the woman’s callous treatment, cried out to her and asked over and over why she had ever given birth to him.
Chris did his best to comfort Standish. He talked to him any time the words seemed to be getting through to the fevered man. When words had no effect he stroked the cooling cloth over the waxen features and across his chest. From time to time he stroked the damp auburn locks back. Anything he could do to bring comfort he did without pause or embarrassment. It seemed little enough to do for a friend who had been given so little in his life.
Just before nightfall the gambler’s fever broke. Chris managed to feed a mug of herb tea to the insensate man before he drifted into a deep, healing sleep.
Satisfied that Standish was sleeping, Larabee left the cabin long enough to check on the horses and bring in a fresh bucket of water. He fixed himself some dinner, realizing he couldn’t remember eating since the day before. After that he made himself a pallet on the floor, wrapped his duster close around his lean frame, and dropped off to sleep himself.
Chris woke as the early morning sun peered in at him through the cracks in the shack walls. He groaned as his sleepy mind slowly processed where he was and why he was sleeping on the hard packed earth. As it did he pushed himself up off the dirt floor and padded to where the other man lay. He frowned as he saw how still Ezra was lying. Reaching down, he felt the man’s forehead, satisfied that it was cool. Standish was just asleep his body doing what it could to recover from the injury and infection.
Letting Standish sleep he went about fixing them both something to eat. It was meager at best, but would have to do. Finishing the preparations, he moved to the cot and gently shook the younger man’s shoulder. Rewarded by a slightly confused gaze, he said, “morning. Got some breakfast for you.”
Chestnut brows furrowed and the gambler continued to stare up at him long enough to concern the gunman. Leaning a little closer, Larabee said, “Ezra? You with me?”
Running the tip of his tongue over dry lips, the Southerner blinked and then seemed to truly come awake. “Chris? Breakfast? Morning?” His voice was a faint, raspy whisper.
Grinning, the blond said, “There you go, all the basics. Think you can eat something?”
Managing a nod, the conman started to rise, only to fall back with a groan.
“How about some help?” Without waiting for a response, Chris carefully helped the injured man sit up, propping him up against the wall. He saw the green eyes squeeze tightly closed as perspiration broke out on the gray-cast features. “Take it easy. Just take a breath. Slow and easy. That’s good.”
Finally feeling that he wasn’t going to shatter into a thousand pieces, Ezra opened his eyes. He focused on the other man, surprised to see concern in the gunman’s face. Then he registered the fact that his fingers were clamped tightly around one black clad arm. With an apologetic expression, he loosened his hold. Surprise returned when the gunman smiled and patted his shoulder.
Larabee dished up a plate of beans, added some hardtack and a spoon, and carried it back to the cot. Handing it to the gambler he watched to make certain that the injured man was able to handle things on his own. After Standish managed a few bites he left to fix his own plate.
After breakfast, Chris took a look at the wound on Ezra’s side. Satisfied that it seemed to be okay, he re-bandaged it and helped the injured man settle back on the cot. Seeing that the Southerner was resting easy, he went to tend the horses.
A short time later he re-entered the cabin, carrying a bucket. “Brought some fresh water, I though – Ezra! What the hell?”
All but dropping the bucket, he hurried the few steps to where the smaller man was slumped to his knees. He was leaning against the table, one hand pressed against his injured side. His other arm was stretched across the tale, his hand clenched tight atop his saddlebags.
Kneeling beside the Southerner, he took him by the shoulders. In a worried tone, Chris said, “what did you think you were gonna do, pard? Come on let’s get you back to bed.”
“No… where…” Ezra mumbled breathlessly. “I want… need to… please…”
“Come on, let’s get you back to bed, then you can rest.” Larabee lifted the semi-conscious man to his feet and all but carried him back to the cot. Getting his friend settled then retrieved the fresh water and a rag. Bathing the perspiration from the waxen features he watched as the man slowly relaxed. Chris thought he was sleeping until green eyes, glassy with pain, blinked open. “Better?”
Standish nodded, then said, “sorry, thought I was… stronger. Sorry… please I need to see… is it… safe?”
Larabee remembered the man’s incoherent ramblings of the day before. He realized that there was only one way to keep the man from injuring himself further. “Okay, what is it, Ezra? What are you so worried about?”
Running his tongue across his lips again, Standish said, “In my… saddlebag… a red vel… velvet… pouch…”
“Okay, lay still and I’ll find it.” The blond patted the man’s shoulder companionably. Going to the table, he carefully went through the other man’s things. Tucked way at the very bottom of one leather bag he found a small, worn velvet pouch. Resisting the temptation to open the drawstring top, he carried it back to the cot.
Standish opened the top, peered inside, and smiled. Closing his hand around the pouch, he settled back with a sigh. Relaxing on the cot, he drifted off to sleep with a sigh.
Chris shook his head, wondering once more what it was that was so important, he moved away from the sleeping man.
The Southerner slept most of the day. He woke from time to time, taking water or eating, going back to sleep almost immediately. Eventually, however, he needed to take care of another basic need.
Larabee saw the look of discomfort on the handsome face. “Problem?”
“Yes. I fear that I am in need of… whatever passes for… facilities… here.”
“Ah,” Chris said with a small smile. “Well that would be a tree out back.”
“Lovely.” He allowed the bigger man to help him from the cot and across the small shack to the door.
The two men moved slowly over the dusty ground. Larabee kept one arm around the Southerner’s back and his hand beneath the man’s elbow. He walked with him until they reached one of the hardscrabble trees. Letting go, he made certain that Standish was all right before moving away. He allowed the man his privacy, scanning the horizon more out of habit than concern of unwanted visitors. Then a sound drew his attention back to matters at hand. Ezra was moving slowly and unsteadily toward him.
Cursing under his breath the gunman hurried over, catching the injured man just as his knees buckled. “You know, giving me a heads-up would have been good. Save us both having to pick your ass up off the ground.”
“S-sorry, I thought… sorry,” the gambler apologized, his voice tight with pain.
Drawing the other man’s arm over his shoulder Larabee said, “Stop apologizing, Ezra.”
“I just… don’t want to be a nu… nuisance.”
“Now, you decide not to be a nuisance,” the blond said sarcastically. When the other man turned to look at him he said in a more serious tone, “Look, let’s make a deal. I’ll tell you when you’re being a nuisance and you just concentrate on getting batter. Deal?”
“Deal,” Standish grated out. He was quiet then, focusing his attention on putting one foot in front of the other.
They got back into the shack, Chris lowering the smaller man back onto the cot. Lifting Ezra’s legs onto the narrow bed, he noticed that the man’s hand was fumbling at his trousers pocket. Standish managed to find what he was looking for, and retrieved the little pouch. Pressing his hand against the pale face he said, “Your fever’s still coming down. Think you’ll be able to ride tomorrow if we take it slow.”
“I’ll be happy to… see home,” Standish said with a wan smile. Then, noting the other man’s attention returning to the object he held, he opened his hand as he said, “I do owe you… some sort of… explanation.”
“Don’t owe me anything, Ezra,” Larabee said with a shake of his head.
“On the contrary… I owe you… everything.” The green eyes glowed with unexpressed gratitude.
“Yeah, well remember that next time you rope me into a card game,” the blond quipped.
The smaller man’s smile widened. “We shall… see. If you would allow me to… rest a bit I promise… I’ll explain my… preoccupation with this pouch.” As he finished speaking, his eyes drooped, closing as the gambler drifted off to sleep.
Grinning, the gunslinger said, “Yeah, okay. Get some sleep.”
Ezra smiled as he realized where he was. In all his fourteen years, this was the only place he had ever felt safe and at ease. The only place he had ever felt loved.
A familiar sound, a soft creak and pop, drew his attention and his smile grew wider. With hurried steps he moved toward the sound, anticipation causing his heart to race. Excitedly he entered the small but comfortable sitting room. Seeing the big, wooden rocker by the window, he quickly crossed the room. Moving around its broad, bowed back, he cried out when he saw her sitting there. She looked up at the sound with a sweet smile. Reaching toward him, she said lovingly, “Hello, my sweet treasure.”
He could only stand there, smiling despite the tears that coursed down his cheeks. He felt her touch his face, wiping at the dampness.
Her smile faded, replaced by a frown. “Why child, why are you crying?”
Ezra fell to his knees in front of her, dropping his head to her lap. “I’ve missed you… missed your touch.”
Her withered, knotted fingers stroked gently through his hair. “It’s all right now, my treasure. It’s all right.”
With a sigh, he murmured, “It’s all right.”
Larabee was called to the narrow cot by a faint sound. Unable to see anything in the darkness, the blond lit the lantern nearby. He frowned as he saw tears coursing down Standish’s face, juxtaposed against the blissful smile that lit his pale features. He reached out to wake the Southerner, but stopped short as the sleeping man released a long, drawn out sigh.
In a voice filled with joy, the injured gambler murmured, “It’s all right now… you’re here.”
Chris knew that, in his mind, Ezra was speaking to someone from his past. Someone who had brought him some measure of peace. Moving away, he left the sleeping man to his dreams.
Morning came none too soon for the gunslinger. He waited until he had fixed breakfast before going to wake the gambler. Gently shaking an exposed shoulder, he called out, “Rise and shine, pard.”
Blinking emerald eyes open owlishly, the grifter grumbled “It is far too early to be that cheerful.”
With a snort, the taciturn man said, “been quite a while since anyone called me cheerful.”
“Yes, well there’s a first time for everything I suppose.” He threw an arm over his eyes, making no effort to get up.
“Ezra, stop stalling. Let’s get some breakfast in you and see if you’re up to traveling today.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine… no reason for us to tarry here any longer.” Standish dropped his arm and looked up at the other man with a serious expression.
Folding his arms as he stood over the supine form, Larabee growled, “We’re not going anywhere if you’re not up to it. I’m not going to pick your ass up when you fall out of the saddle.”
Eyes growing dark, the prone man stared at the ceiling. “It seems I’m a bother in any event. My apologies.”
“Standish, I thought we had an agreement. You worry about getting better and stop apologizing. Now, get that hangdog look off your face and let’s get the day started. Deal?”
With a thankful smile and a nod, Ezra said, “Deal.”
They were able to move out by mid-morning, Chris turning the dead man’s horses loose before helping Ezra into the saddle. The two men rode slowly to accommodate his weakened state. The blond called a halt every couple of hours and insisted that Standish lay down to rest when they did. The smaller man protested, but lay down anyway, falling asleep almost every time.
Sitting in the saddle for so long took its toll on the grifter. By the time they stopped for the night, he was weaving atop his chestnut. All but falling from the broad back, he dropped to the ground, he’s knees buckling. Only a pair of strong arms kept him from falling.
“Come on; let’s find you someplace to stretch out.” Chris coaxed as he led the smaller man toward a nearby tree. Ezra muttered a reply, stumbling along beside the taller man.
The blond helped the injured man settle with his back against a tree trunk. Standish groaned as he relaxed. His eyelids fluttered as he tried valiantly to keep them open.
“I’ll see to the camp.” Larabee said simply.
Taking that as a directive to sleep, Standish nodded. Letting his head drop back against the tree, he allowed his eyes to close.
“Mamaw?” Ezra called out in his cracking, teenage voice. “Mamaw, where are you?”
“I’m right here, my treasure,” She called soothingly from the shadows.
Relief washed over him as he moved toward the sound of her voice. He found her ensconced in her rocking chair. He dropped to his knees before her, a willing servant to the queen of his heart. Reaching out, he took her hand.
She smiled down at him, dark brown eyes sparkling warmly with life. “I’m so glad you’re here, my little treasure.”
Young Ezra drank in her voice, rich and full with its thick French accent. “I’m glad I’m here, too, Mamaw. I wish I could stay with you forever.”
“Oh, my treasure, so do I. But we both know she’ll need you again. Besides, you’re life is still ahead of you. It would be a waste for you to sit here with an old lady whose life is behind her.”
“No, Mamaw! You’re not old and you still have so much life to live!”
“Sh, hush now, boy.” She pressed narrow, knotted fingers against his lips. “Denying a truth doesn’t make it any less true. I was a girl before your grandpapa was born.”
“But you’re still a girl in my eyes, Mamaw.” He smiled, green eyes sparkling.
She chuckled and shook her head. “Oh my treasure. My sweet angel. Whatever shall I do with you?”
“Love me, Mamaw. Promise you’ll love me forever.”
Stroking her fingers through the thick chestnut hair, she whispered, “forever, my sweet, sweet treasure.”
Ezra blinked as his eyes drifted open. He looked around, finding the only break in the blackness was the little campfire nearby. Letting his eyes shift upward he found only a few faint stars in the black velvet sky.
“Thought maybe you were gonna sleep through the night.”
The grifter’s eyes searched the darkness, locating the speaker. Managing a wan smile, Standish murmured wistfully, “I was having the most wonderful dream.” Then, realizing what he’d said, the reclining man stammered, “I… um… that is to say…”
With an understanding expression, Larabee said, “Sometimes those dreams are the only things that make waking up worth while.”
Standish’s eyes widened then he relaxed. “Yes, indeed they do.”
Chris easily recognized both the looks of longing and the aura of peace that had crossed the other mans features over the course of the past few hours. They were the same feelings he had so often awakened with after he’d dreamed of this wife and son. Whoever had populated his sleeping mind was someone very important to the other man.
Pulling his mind back to matters at hand, the tall blond said, “I’ve got dinner ready. Are you hungry?”
Nodding, Ezra replied, “Famished.”
A short time later the two men were settled in with plates of beans and cups of coffee. They ate in near silence, only the occasional comment passing between them. Finishing their meal, the two men sat near the fire with a second cup of coffee. Chris pulled his flask from the pocket of his duster and added a dollop of whiskey to each cup.
Smiling his thanks, Ezra took a sip. Then the injured man said quietly, “if I remember correctly, I promised to explain my… earlier preoccupation after I’d rested.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, but… well, I’d like to.”
With a nod, the blond leaned back against his saddle and simply waited.
Standish pulled the worn pouch from his pocket, holding it lovingly in his hand. Staring at the faded cloth, he began to speak. His voice was so soft that Larabee had to strain to catch all the words.
“I know that you’re aware of some of what I went through as a child; that my mother frequently left me with one relative or another at any time I wasn’t needed to help her with a con. I was left behind for weeks… even months at a time. She wasn’t especially concerned as to who she left me with… anyone would do. And she never gave a second thought as to how I was… treated… while in the care of whomever she had… persuaded… to take me in.”
“I take it you weren’t treated well very often,” the gunman guessed.
With a sigh the Southerner said, “Indeed. I was frequently used as a servant, even a slave. I was often… well, shall we say, mistreated by many of those whom I was foist upon.”
Larabee studied the words then his mind drew up a memory. He remembered seeing several old scars on the man’s torso when he had tended his wound. Without thinking, he stared hard at Ezra, his eyes clearly showing his shock.
Dropping his gaze, the gambler said, “I thought perhaps you had seen the… the mementos I carry from those years. I believe that the first one…” unconsciously he rubbed a spot on his shoulder as he locked eyes with the blond. “I believe I was six when I received it.”
Finding it suddenly difficult to meet the other man’s gaze, Chris looked away. He tried to imagine what Ezra had suffered through, but decided quickly that he couldn’t stand the thought. In a voice filled with anger, the older man said, “Maude… did she ever ask… ever wonder about the scars?”
With a derisive snort, the green-eyed man said bitterly, “I doubt Mother would have noticed had I been missing a limb. And, had she noticed… well, I’m certain she would have incorporated it into one of her cons. At any rate, that’s not important – “
“The hell it’s not!” Chris growled. Then his voice softened at the look of shock on the other man’s face. “You didn’t deserve that sort of treatment, Ezra, no child does.”
Finding himself momentarily speechless at the gunman’s words, Standish finally nodded. After an awkward silence, he picked up his tale. “A few times I was left with my Uncle Claude and his family. While they didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms, they weren’t especially mean to me. Part of the reason they didn’t mistreat me was because of Mamaw.”
Larabee could see the other man’s features soften and his voice was filled with love. “Sounds like she was pretty important to you.”
“Yes,” Standish responded. “She was the grandmother of my uncle’s wife, Mabel. Her name was Anabella Grace but I always called her Mamaw. She treated me as if I were truly her grandchild. While my uncle and the rest of the family might ignore me most of the time, Mamaw was always kind to me.
“She was quite elderly, unable to walk and her eyesight was failing. She was tended by the maids, quite lovingly I might add. I was not the only person she treated well. She spent her days sitting in a rocking chair in a little sitting room. She would sit there, watching out the window although she saw little more than light and shadow.
“She had the occasional visit from Mabel but, otherwise she depended upon the house servants for companionship.”
“And you,” Chris added.
Nodding, the Southerner said, “Yes, me, too. I spent most of my time there in her rooms. I could sit for hours and listen to her tales of times past. She had lived quite an interesting life. Mabel hated to have any of it brought up, as Mamaw had evidently not been a genteel and refined a woman in her youth. It was not exactly the background that my dear, devious aunt wished to have made common knowledge.
“I found it all very thrilling, though, and asked her to retell those tales every time I visited.” He paused then, a look of sadness darkening his expression. When he began to speak a few minutes later that sadness had leached into his voice.
“I was fourteen the last time… the last time I saw my dear Mamaw. She was far more ill than she would admit to me but I knew that something was wrong. She wasn’t able to sit in her chair any longer and she had lost what faint vision she’d had. She slept most of the time, but I did my best to be there any time she woke.
“She told me many of her stories again, although by that time I could repeat them all verbatim.” Once more he paused. Sadly he continued, “I worry at times that some day I’ll forget them myself. And when that happens… I will have lost her completely.”
Larabee looked away, blinking rapidly as the hot sting of tears burned his eyes. It hadn’t been that long ago that he had realized that his own memories of Sarah and Adam had begun to fade.
Oblivious to the other man’s response, Standish continued. “It was my last day to visit that time. Mother had arrived the evening before, announcing that I would be accompanying her to New York. I’m not certain if I was truly aware that this would be the last time I would see Mamaw, or whether that knowledge came with hindsight. I do know that I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving. I ran to her room as quickly as I could to tell her I would be forced to leave the next day.
“I was overjoyed to see her in her rocking chair. She was bundled in several quilts, staring sightlessly out the window…”
“Mamaw! You’re up!” The young boy dropped to his knees before her once more. He reached out to clasp one withered hand that had slipped from beneath the covers.
Smiling, the ancient woman said in a faint voice, “Yes, my treasure, I’m up. Marie told me that your mother has arrived to take you away. I did not want you to remember me lying abed.”
Not everything registered with the distraught boy. He dropped his head to her lap and shed tears of absolute sorrow. His voice muffled by the thick quilts he cried, “I don’t want to leave you, Mamaw! I want to stay here with you!”
“Hush now, child. There’s nothing to be done for it. You must leave with your mother, my treasure.”
Sniffling noisily, Ezra lifted his head and studied the withered, lined face. She was so fragile, her flesh translucent. In a wistful tone he said, “I wish, then, that you could go with me.”
Reaching out, she unerringly touched his chest with a trembling hand. “I’m always with you, my sweet treasure. I’m always right here.”
He wrapped his hand around hers. “And you always shall be, Mamaw.”
Her other hand slipped from the covers now, clutching something with gnarled fingers. “Hold out your hand, dearest Ezra.”
He did, placing it beneath her hand. She opened her fingers and a tiny velvet pouch dropped into his palm. He frowned, looking the object over carefully. “What is it, Mamaw?”
“It is something to remember me by, my sweet angel.”
His frown deepening, the boy said, “but I could never forget you, Mamaw.”
With a smile, the aged woman said, “I’m glad of that, child. I know I shall never forget you.”
Standish lifted the little pouch, holding it up to study it against the firelight. “I’ve kept it hidden… safe… ever since. When I thought of that… bastard… taking possession of it…”
“It’s safe again,” Larabee assured softly.
The smaller man nodded. Opening the little pouch, he emptied the contents into his hand. “No one else has seen this in all these years. My mother has no idea of its existence; I knew even then that she would have found a way to take it from me, although the intrinsic value is negligible.” With that he held it out, silently offering to show it to Chris.
Momentarily shocked by the gesture of trust, the blond took the object with all due reverence. Leaning toward the fire, he studied the tiny, gold, heart-shaped locket. Handing it back, he said, “It’s beautiful.”
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, the gambler said, “It is simple and elegant, just as she was.”
Carefully handing the trinket back to the other man, Chris caught the other man’s eye. In his usual, straightforward manner, the blond said simply, “Thank you, Ezra.”
The ride back to Four Corners took several days, the recovering man suffering from a return of the infection along the way. By the time they arrived, he was running a fever and needed help dismounting. Fortunately Nathan was able to bring the injured man back around within a few days. He was moved from the clinic to his room, ordered to stay in bed for at least three more days.
Staring morosely out the window, the gambler almost didn’t answer the knock at his door. He wasn’t especially in the mood to entertain guests. However, after the second repetition, he called out, “Come in.”
The door swung open slowly, admitting the blond gunman. He nodded at the prone man, a smile tugging at the corners of his broad mouth. “Well, you still look like shit, but at least you’ve got a little color to you.”
Rolling his eyes, the auburn haired man said, “thank you, I appreciate that.”
With a brief chuckle, Larabee said, “Thought you might. How’re you feeling?”
“Rather bored to be honest. I believe Mr. Jackson’s… instructions… are a bit overzealous.”
“Yeah, well, he takes the job seriously. I brought something for you… thought it might keep you entertained while you’re healing up.” With that he drew a parcel from behind his back and handed it to the other man.
With a frown, Standish pulled the twine lose and opened the brown paper wrapping. Inside was a large, leather bound, journal. His frown deepening, he looked up questioningly.
“It’s a journal,” the blond said softly. “I thought perhaps you could write down some of those tales your Mamaw told you.”
Tears welled up in the bright green eyes. Ezra ran his hand over the smooth cover then opened it and gazed at the empty pages. Swallowing the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him, he looked back up at his friend. The normally verbose man could only find one thing to say.
“Thank you, Chris.”
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