Ezra curled up and tried to get to sleep, but his mind was to busy for sleep to claim him. It still felt so good to be in his own bed again. He had finally been allowed to go back to work, but being restricted to light duty was getting old really fast. It had been nearly a month since he was shot, but Nathan still said he needed to avoid over doing it. He did not know how long it would take the wound to heal inside, and he was determined that the gambler was not going to have any setbacks.
He could not believe the strength he saw in Becca. She had been tireless in her efforts to take care of him. Nathan usually had to resort to threats to get her to go get some rest. Since they had come back home she had done everything herself, and she never complained about any of it. He had tried to help, but she would not allow it. He smiled to himself. 'You know you do not want her to leave. Just tell her.' Just about the time he convinced himself, he would talk himself out of it again. 'Not yet. You want her to stay because she wants to, not because she feels obligated to stay.' Ezra tossed from one side to the other, but nothing helped. Not only was he unable to sleep, he had no idea what he should do, either.
He sat up in bed and strained to hear. He thought he had heard a noise from Becca's room. Finally, he heard it again. It was a low groan. That was not unusual. She did that sometimes when she shifted positions. He started to lay back down, but there was a sharp gasp from the other room. Ezra kicked at the bed covers as he struggled to get his legs free. When his feet hit the floor, he managed to take one step before he landed flat on his face. "Damn!" He kicked again and dislodged the corner of the blanket that had tripped him. The gambler scrambled to his feet, dashed into the other bedroom, and tried to light the lamp. It took three tries before he finally got it lit.
It took only one look at his wife's face to tell him that she was in pain. She was lying flat on her back with her knees drawn up under the blankets. The delicate features of her face were contorted with pain. Ezra leaned over the bed and tried to speak calmly. "Hold on! I'll go get Nathan!" He started to leave but stopped when she grabbed his hand.
Becca was shaking her head when he turned back to her. "No!"
"We need his help to bring the baby."
"No, not the baby," she whimpered as she spoke. "My legs!"
"Your legs?" The southerner was totally confused.
"Charlie horse!" she gasped.
He could not help it; he laughed with relief. Becca smacked him hard on the arm. "Oww! What was that for?"
"It ain't funny. It hurts!"
"All right, let me help you get up. You need to walk it out." He had not meant to laugh. He knew how much a charlie horse hurt. Sometimes after he had one, his leg ached for days.
"Can't!" again she shook her head no.
"I assure you, you can. It will hurt for..." That is as far as he got.
"No, both legs!"
Ezra grimaced. He had never had charlie horses in both legs at the same time, and it was not an experience that he thought he wanted to try anytime soon. He pulled the covers back and crawled carefully onto the bed. With great care, he eased one leg onto his lap and began gently massaging the cramped muscle. When that one started to relax, he pulled the other leg onto his lap to repeat the process. Her skin was so soft and so warm. Long after the cramps had eased, he continued to massage her calves. Gradually, his hands began to work their way higher. He sat, enjoying the feel of her, as he caressed her thighs. The gambler glanced up to see that Becca was lying watching him through half closed eyes. A movement brought his attention away from her face to her swollen belly, which was covered with only a thin cotton gown. As he watched, a bulge appeared as the baby stretched. His hand moved to touch the place where the baby had moved, but he stopped and started to draw his hand back before he could touch her. Becca caught his hand in hers and pressed it against her and held it there. Ezra felt the movement, and he beamed with pleasure at the sensation. They sat that way for several minutes. Reluctantly, he drew his hand away and eased himself off the bed. He looked shyly at his wife. "I should go."
Becca took his hand to stop him from leaving. "Please stay."
She eased herself farther across the bed, and gently tugged him onto the bed beside her. Ezra looked at her searchingly. "Are you certain this is what you want?"
"Just for tonight?"
Becca shook her head, "No, always."
He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed a silent prayer. She wanted him with her, always. Ezra lay on his side next to his wife, and he raised himself on one elbow to look at her. "Stay with me."
Becca touched his face and smiled. "I'll never leave you."
Ezra lightly touched his lips to hers, and she gently returned the kiss. The kiss deepened as their hunger grew. He slowly slid the tip of his tongue across her lips. She moaned in pleasure and let her lips part. His desire took the kiss deeper as he let his tongue flick into her open mouth. Passion flared as their mouths explored each other, tasting each other for the first time. When the kiss ended, they clung to each other, both of them shaking from the shear intensity of it. Ezra whispered breathlessly, "I want you. God knows how much I want you." He looked into her passion filled eyes, "but we can't."
Becca pressed herself closer and laid her head on his shoulder as she clung to him.
"Darlin', there will be plenty of time, after the baby comes." He held her closely to him. "Nathan said that the baby should be here soon."
She trusted him to know what to do. She ached for him, but he was right, they could wait. It would not be that much longer. For now, this would be enough. Becca turned her head and kissed him on the neck. Softly she said what he had longed to hear, "I Love You."
Ezra kissed her gently on her forehead and pulled her tighter against him. "I Love You, Mrs. Standish."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra felt the bed shift as Becca crawled out of bed. He was getting used to her frequent trips tot he chamber pot, but it still woke him up when she got up in the night. He gathered her into his arms when she slipped back into bed, and they drifted back to sleep.
She was up again. Ezra cracked his eyes open to see that it was daylight this time, but it was still early. He watched his wife with sleepy eyes as she shuffled back toward the bed. Slowly, his eyes drooped shut as he anticipated going back to sleep. The sound of gushing water and Becca's startled gasp brought the gambler fully awake. She stood a few feet from the bed, clutching her belly and staring at the floor. "Becca?!" He scrambled across the bed toward his wife. The sound of more water splattering when the first light contraction hit her focused his attention on the growing puddle on the floor. "Oh, my God! I'll get Nathan."
Ezra practically flew out of the house. He darted down the street toward the healer's rooms, completely heedless of the startled looks he got from people on the street. He took the steps to the clinic two at a time and burst through the door. Nobody was there. Quickly, he clambered back down the steps and dashed off at a dead run, headed for the saloon.
The gambler crashed through the swinging doors and franticly scanned the room, looking for the healer. He saw him sitting with the other lawmen at a table in the back. Spoons stopped halfway to open mouths when the six men caught sight of their friend as he charged into the room and headed for their table.
"Nathan!" Ezra gasped for air as he tried to speak. "Becca..... she was standing there.....and water just started pouring out...."
The older men started to chuckle, or to laugh outright, while J.D. looked from face to face and tried to figure out why this was funny. The southerner's face flushed with anger. "Gentlemen, this is hardly a laughing matter!" he growled at the men at the table.
"Whoa, Ezra!" Chris held up a hand to stop the gambler's outburst. "It isn't that, it's just....well.....if you could just see yourself." The big man chuckled again.
The color drained from his face as understanding dawned on the gambler, and he slowly looked down at himself. For the second time he felt his cheeks grow warm as they became flushed with color, this time from embarrassment. He had just run through town wearing nothing but a pair of red silk pajama bottoms. He looked back up at the grinning men, and gave a feeble half-smile. "Uh....I was in a hurry." Laughter erupted again from his friends at the table.
Chris sat shaking his head as he struggled to stop laughing. Finally, he flashed a smile at the half-dressed man. "I think that's kind of obvious." He got up and offered Ezra the use of his long black duster, which the gambler accepted gratefully.
Once covered, his mind snapped back to what had caused this whole incident. "Becca!" He looked at the healer and saw the black man push his chair back to get up.
"Don't worry," Nathan said calmly. "The water just means its time for the baby. I'll get my stuff and go check on her. Will someone go see if Mary can meet us there?" He gave the worried man a reassuring pat on the arm as he walked past.
Ezra was relieved but still visibly shaken. Chris turned him toward the door and gave him a nudge to get him moving. "Come on, let's go see what's happening." The two men headed for the house at a brisk pace.
They arrived before Nathan, to find the expectant mother still standing where her husband had left her. She was scared and it showed. "Becca, you're all right," Chris said softly. "Stand still and I'll be right back." The gunslinger went after an armload of towels and tossed some on the floor to soak up the water. "Everything is all right. Didn't you know this would happen?" he asked as he guided her to the bed and made her sit down. She shook her head as he dried her feet and legs before turning her around so she could lie down. "It's all part of having the baby," he said calmly.
"You sure?" she asked in a timid voice.
"I'm sure, and Nathan will tell you the same thing when he gets here."
Ezra watched as his friend took care of his wife. At this moment he was very glad that Chris had been through this before and knew what was going on. Ezra felt completely useless.
+ + + + + + +
"That's it!" The healer pushed the agitated man toward the door. "Out!"
"Nathan, don't do this to me." Ezra begged as he was shoved out into the hall.
"I told you what I was going to do if you didn't calm down." The black man shut the door despite the gambler's protests.
Buck and Chris watched the exchange from the sitting room. "Wonder what he did now?" the ladies man asked.
"With Ezra, who knows," Chris observed.
The gambler stood for a moment staring at the closed door. Then he found his voice. "Mr. Jackson!"
"Go away, Ezra!" the healer shot back.
"Mr. Jackson, I will not be treated in the manner in my own home! You can't do this to me!" The gambler reached for the doorknob, but the door was yanked open before he could touch it.
"I can, and I will! I told you I would put you out if you over reacted again. You're upsetting her. Now, go wait in the other room." Nathan ordered and pointed to the sitting room. "Don't make me lock the door on you, Ezra. I'll tell you when you can come back." With those words, the healer firmly closed the door in his friend's face.
Green eyes glared at the closed door, but it did not open again. Finally, he gave up and slowly made his way down the hall. He looked up to see four of the five remaining lawmen waiting in his sitting room. He felt a little better knowing that he would not have to wait alone.
"Ezra, everythin' all right?" Buck asked.
"I appear to have made a nuisance of myself, and I have been ejected from the room," the gambler replied sadly. "I am at a loss to understand, which of my actions were inappropriate."
"It isn't that anything you did wasn't right. It's just that things that don't bother a woman any other time, will bother them now." Chris explained. "I drove Sarah crazy, because I couldn't sit still. Before it was over she threatened to have me sent to the barn."
"Is that true, Mr. Larabee, or are you trying to make me feel better?" Ezra gave their leader a hint of a smile.
"Both. Did it work?" Chris smiled in return.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee, it did." The gambler sat down and tried to stifle a yawn.
J.D. headed for the kitchen and brought back a cup of strong coffee. The young man held the cup out to Ezra. "I thought you could use this." Tired green eyes looked up at the young sheriff, but he did not make a move to take the cup.
"You should drink that. It could take hours yet," Chris suggested.
"Hours! It's already been nearly a full day." The thought of several more hours of waiting made the gambler feel ill. He sighed heavily and took the hot cup. "Thank you, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said as he accepted the coffee.
The sound of the hall door opening caught the gambler's attention, and he surged to his feet. It had been over two hours since he had been sent from the room, and there had been no news since then. Mary closed the door behind her and headed toward where the southerner waited. "Ezra, Nathan asked me to tell you that it will be a while yet. He wants a cup of coffee. Is there any made?"
"Just made some more," the young sheriff offered. "Would you like a cup too, Mrs. Travis?"
"I would love a cup, J.D." Mary responded as the young man went to pour the coffee.
"Mary, is Becca all right?" Ezra was clearly worried and he was desperate for news.
"She's tired, but things seem to be going fine." Mary wanted to reassure the gambler.
"But, it's taking so long." His green eyes were filled with concern.
"Sometimes first babies take a long time. Try not to worry." She laid her hand gently on the gambler's arm for a moment, before she took the two cups of coffee from J.D. and headed back to the bedroom.
+ + + + + + +
The sun had been up for several hours when the sounds coming from the bedroom suddenly stopped. The men waited in silence, listening for the baby's cry. They began to shift around nervously as the minutes ticked by and there was still nothing. Ezra fought the urge to force his way into the room. He stood staring at the bedroom door, as if willing it to open.
At last, Nathan appeared and Ezra rushed to meet him in the hall. The healer reached out and stopped the smaller man from going past him into the room. The gambler took one look at the black man's face and knew something was terribly wrong. He closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively as he braced himself for bad news. Nathan put a strong hand on his friend's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze before he spoke to his friend. "Ezra, the baby didn't make it. There was nothing I could do."
"What about Becca?" The gambler could barely choke out the words.
Nathan shook his head and took a deep breath before answering. "It doesn't look good. She's bleedin' and I can't get it to stop. I've tried everything I know to try. If it doesn't stop on its own soon......" The healer couldn't bring himself to tell him that his friend's wife might die.
Ezra stood for a moment trying to get his breath. It felt like all the air in the room was suddenly gone, and there was nothing left to breathe. He searched the healer's face and saw the truth of Nathan's unspoken words. The healer moved aside to let him into the room.
Ezra hurried to the bedside. He tried to avoid looking at the shrouded bundle lying on the chest at the foot of the bed, or the pile of blood soaked towels heaped on the floor. All he wanted to see was his wife. Gently, he took her hand in his. It was so cool to the touch, and she was so pale. He saw Nathan remove another stained towel and replace it with a fresh one. Ezra leaned closer and gently kissed his wife's forehead. "Becca!" He stroked her hair with his free hand. "Becca, wake up darlin." The words caught in his throat as he tried to speak. "You told me you wouldn't let me die when I was hurt. I stayed for you. I wanted to give up, but I stayed for you. Now, you have to stay for me. You said that you would never leave me. Stay with me, Becca!"
Her blue eyes opened slightly, and she looked up into the eyes of the man she loved. She struggled to speak, and when she did her voice was barely audible. "Ezra?"
"Yes, darlin' I'm here."
He had to lean closer to hear her words. "I love you, always."
Very gently he gathered her into his arms and hugged her to his chest. "And I love you, always." Ezra tenderly kissed her lips, and for a moment he felt her respond, before her lips went slack against his own, and he knew that she was gone. He clung to her as he looked to Nathan, praying that he was wrong.
A tear rolled down the healer's cheek as he shook his head and said the words that he did not want to say. "She's gone," as grief threatened to take is voice away.
Ezra laid her back onto her pillow, and softly kissed her good bye. He turned away and pushed his way past his friends and out of the room. He did not stop until he was out of the house.
Chris watched his friend go and decided to go after him. He remembered, so vividly, the pain of losing a family. He caught up to him outside the house. "Ezra," Chris said as he laid his hand on the smaller man's back. The grief stricken man jerked away from him.
"Don't touch me!" the grieving man commanded.
"Ezra, I know what your going through." Chris tried again to approach the gambler.
"Leave me alone, Larabee!" the gambler growled. "I don't want your sympathy." Ezra turned away and ran off down the street.
"J.D. you look like hell. Is Ezra still bunking with you at the jail?" Chris was worried about both men.
"Yeah. I can't get any sleep around him. When he's awake he just sits and stares, and drinks. When he's asleep he tosses and turns, talks in his sleep, and cries. I don't know which is worse Ezra awake or Ezra asleep." The young man sipped gingerly at a cup of steaming coffee.
"Looks like he ain't goin' to get any better on his own," Vin observed.
"Well, it looks like we're going to have to do something to snap him out of it," Chris announced. "I know from experience that the longer he is allowed to go on like this the harder it will be for him."
"What do you have in mind?" Josiah asked.
"I think it is time that Mr. Standish and I had a talk. J.D. come with me. I have something I need you to do." Chris gave his instructions to the younger man and then headed for the jail.
Ezra was still asleep on a cot in one of the empty cells. Chris stood over the sleeping man who had so recently lost his family. The memories that came flooding back caused his chest to grow tight with the resurgence of the grief that never went completely away. Normally, he would not push himself in where he was not wanted, but he could not let his friend go through the torment that he had endured when he lost his wife and son; not without trying to do something to help him through the pain. He hated what he was going to have to do, but he knew that he had to do it. Chris tossed the cold water on the prone form and was instantly rewarded with a string of curses. Standish glared at the man in black through bloodshot eyes. "What the hell was that for?" The simple act of talking sent pain shooting through his skull. The hangover caused his head to throb with every heartbeat. The gambler groaned and closed his eyes again.
"Oh no you don't." Chris grabbed the front of Ezra's filthy shirt and hauled him into a sitting position. "We need to have a talk, whether you want to or not."
"Leave me alone." The smaller man tried futilely to push Chris's hands away so that he could lay back down.
"No, I've left you alone for too long. There are decisions that you have to make. I can't make them for you. Now get up and come out here. There's coffee on the stove." He did not give Ezra any real choice. He hauled him to his feet and half drug, half carried him to the outer office.
Once he had managed to drink most of a cup of coffee, the southerner began to wake up a little. "What is it that I have to decide?" he grumbled.
"You need to decide what you are going to do about the house." He saw his friend flinch at the mention of the house. "The rent was due two weeks ago. Mr. Lawrence has been very patient, considering the circumstances, but he can't wait forever for you to make up your mind. Are you going to move back in there, or move out entirely?"
"I can never live there again." Ezra could not bear the thought of even going into the house again.
"All right, I can tell Mr. Lawrence that you are moving out, but what are you going to do with Becca's things?" Chris was pushing and he knew it. "If you can't handle it, I can get some of the others to help and we'll pack her things. You can go through them later."
"No!" Ezra snapped at the man in black. "No one's touching her things but me!"
"Then we need to get it taken care of today." Chris did not give the gambler a chance to back out. He pushed him out the door and headed him up the street. Instead of going to the house, Chris steered Ezra into the bathhouse. He had already sent J.D. to bring fresh clothes for the southerner and to arrange for a fresh, hot bath to be ready.
Ezra just stood looking at the steaming water. The sight of the tub reminded him of Becca. "Um.... the idea is for you to get into the water." Chris informed the smaller man. "Ezra, you are not going back into Becca's house looking and smelling worse than a he bear."
The gambler shot a withering look at the other man, but he did not make a move to get into the bath.
"Either you take your clothes off and get into the tub, or I'll take them off for you and throw you in." Chris threatened. When Ezra just stood there, he moved to make good on his threat. The gambler backed away and started to take off the filthy clothes. He climbed into the hot water and leaned back to soak.
Chris waited patiently for a few minutes, but the gambler was still just sitting there. "If you don't start scrubbing some of that grime and stink off, I'll scrub you myself." Chris picked up a wash cloth and soap and headed for the tub. The troubled man snatched the objects from his leader's hands and started to scrub.
The beard was going to have to go. He handed the towel wrapped man a straight razor and watched as he raised it to his face. Before the blade could touch skin the big man plucked it back out of the gambler's hand. "Sit down, Ezra." He pushed him into a straight-backed chair. "You are shaking so much, you'll cut your own throat if you try to use that razor." Chris carefully shaved a month's growth of whiskers from the southerner's face. "There, it might not be quite as good as you could do yourself, but it will do." He handed Ezra the fresh set of clothes and waited for him to dress. The clothes hung loosely on his body, because he had lost so much weight. The gambler was barely a shadow of the man that he had been a few weeks ago.
Josiah watched the two men approaching the house. He had seen men walk to the gallows with more enthusiasm. The packing crates were already inside, now it remained to be seen if they could get Ezra in there too.
Ezra stopped at the door. He closed his eyes and clutched the doorframe to still his shaking hands. After a couple minutes he took a deep breath and forced himself to walk inside. Everything was just as it was the day he saw it last, except for a light film of dust on everything. Becca would never have allowed dust like this. It was a struggle, but he managed to get everything packed from all the rooms except the bedroom. He had saved it for last, so he could hold off on facing the memories in that room for as long as possible.
Chris and Josiah went into the bedroom ahead of their friend. They had made sure that all the signs of death were gone from the room. The stained towels and mattress had been removed. The window had been opened to clear out the smell of old blood. The gambler went pale when he entered the room. "Ezra, are you all right?" Josiah asked with concern.
The southerner swallowed hard before he could reply. "I am managing, Mr. Sanchez."
"Are you sure you want to do this yourself?" Chris asked.
Ezra nodded and started to pack things from the room. There was one crate that he had set aside for things that he wanted to keep. Josiah had set it on a low table inside the door. The gambler worked his way around the room sorting and packing piece by piece. He picked up a small silver music box and opened the lid.
"It's beautiful, Ezra," Chris commented.
"I gave it to Becca for her birthday," Ezra's voice cracked as he spoke. He added the music box to his own crate, along with the silver hair brush and mirror that he had given to her, simply because she had liked them so much.
Her clothes were next, and he dreaded going through them. Every article that he touched held memories of his wife. He got them all packed except one dress, and he could not avoid it any longer. It was the one she had worn that last day before the baby came. He took the dress from its hook and hugged it to him. The fabric still held a hint of lavender scent and soap. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel her there with him.
Josiah placed an arm around his shoulder in consolation. "We all miss her."
Ezra shook the big man's arm away and meticulously folded the dress before putting it in a crate.
There was one last thing to pack, and Ezra seriously considered asking one of the other men to do it, but he did not ask. He went to the small chest where Becca had stored the things she had made for the baby. He had come to think of the baby as his own, and it broke his heart to think that she did not get to have even one day with her mother. She had been buried with his wife. Josiah had insisted that she had to have a name; that no soul should go to the next life unnamed. He had named her Rachael, after Becca's mother. As he placed the last of the baby clothes into the cradle, instead of a crate, his hand brushed against something soft. When he pulled the item out of the stack, his legs went weak and he leaned his shoulder against the wall for support. It was the last blanket that Becca had made. He had seen this yarn at the mercantile, and he had to have it for her. It was pale yellow, and as soft as brushed cotton. Becca had rushed to get it finished in time and she nearly had not made it. Ezra clutched the small blanket to his chest as the grief that he had held in for so long welled to the surface.
Chris heard the strangled sob, and saw the gambler slump against the wall. He caught the grieving man and held him against his chest. At first, Ezra resisted, but the grief was too overwhelming. He let himself go, and leaned his head against the big man's shoulder and wept. Larabee held on as his own tears rolled down his cheeks, and the memories of his own loss blended with the pain he felt pouring from his friend.
Ezra's sobs had begun to subside, but Chris still would not let go. He would hold on until Ezra pushed him away. The gambler had reached the point of sniffs and hiccups. The worst of the outpouring of grief had passed.
The southerner leaned against his friend, reluctant to break the contact. He had spent so much of his life alone. Now he realized that he did not have to go through all this on his own. He had friends that would be there for him. At last, he took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the man in black. He looked up and saw the tears on his friend's face. He knew that Chris understood, better than anyone else could, about the pain that was tearing away at his heart. The gambler looked over at Josiah and thought about all of his associates. He needed those six men in his life. They had become more than friends; they were his family.
Ezra added the blanket to his crate and looked around the room one last time, before reaching to pick up his crate. Josiah stopped him and picked up the crate for his friend. He carried it out of the room and out of the house with the other men following not far behind. Outside Ezra paused and looked back at the house that he had shared with Becca. "How shall I survive without her?" He looked at Chris for the answer.
"The only way you can." Chris said as he turned Ezra away from the house. "One day at a time."
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