Ezra didn't know what bothered him more, the nagging ache in his chest or the fact that two people in a row that night had beaten him at his own game. He hadn't let Buck win, and heaven knew he never would have let a complete stranger take his money under even the most dire of circumstances - unless it was somehow to his advantage.
What the hell was wrong with him? Try as he might to keep it there, his mind just hadn't been on the cards, and they felt awkward in his hands somehow. Maude was right to have called him stupid.
Even so, the fact that it was the truth didn't take the sting out of her words.
It never did.
It was much too early to be retiring for the night, but he could no longer deny the fact that he was feeling a bit less than his best. His chest hurt, and he couldn't remember if that had started before or after the coughing fit at the saloon. Truth be told, he didn't clearly remember most of what he had done that evening, which was strange and decidedly a bit frightening.
He removed the ever-present flask from the pocket of his vest. Maybe it's time to give it up, he thought, as he opened it and took a generous swallow.
He wondered where he'd left his nightshirt.
He looked for it in the obvious places, and, not finding it, simply gave up and crawled into bed in his underclothes.
Normally, he would have taken the room apart looking for it because he hated to lose or misplace anything. Ever since he was a child, he'd taken a certain perverse delight in keeping close track of his material possessions. It was one reason that, even though no one knew it, he could easily buy half the town of Four Corners if he wanted to.
There was a distinctive tap on the door, and Ezra groaned. "What is it, mother?"
Maude didn't wait for an invitation. Somehow, somewhere, she'd gotten a key and when he didn't open the door, she let herself in.
Ezra pulled his blankets up, "Mother, I'm not dressed."
"And I'm your mama, darlin'. You've got no secrets from me..." She dropped a small, red leather pouch on the bed. "I took the liberty of getting your money back from those itinerant poltroons. They were hardly a challenge."
She was mocking him, and he knew it, but he just didn't feel up to playing her game. "Thank you."
He realized Maude was expecting him to be a bit more confrontational when a frown creased her forehead. "Ezra, darlin', are you all right?"
"Your maternal concern overwhelms me."
"Now, there is no reason to be peckish," she huffed.
"I feel like shit."
She bent over the bed and felt his forehead, suddenly dropping the charming and genteel facade that she wore like a cloak. "Ezra, you were in Eagle Bend..." she said softly.
"Yes, mother, I was, and I fear that the mantle of pestilence is upon me as a result."
"This isn't funny, son. People are dying there."
"Well mother," he coughed. "It looks like people might be dying here before much longer, because I am definitely unwell."
"I'll go get Nathan."
"No. There's nothing he can do."
"Don't be a martyr, Ezra. It doesn't become you," she scolded, but he actually thought he detected a hint of fear in her voice.
The woman was just full of surprises.
He let his head drop back against the pillow. "They are saying it's plague, mother. Do you know what that means?"
"Of course I do," she said, "but that's nonsense. There's no plague in this day and age."
A blinding stab of pain shot through his head, and Ezra sucked in his breath.
"What is it, darlin'?" Maude asked him.
As quickly as it had come upon him, it began to fade, but it left a dull throbbing in its wake, and his vision began to fade out.
He didn't think he was losing consciousness, but when he looked up at Maude, he could barely make out her face. Blotches of bright white space obscured his field of vision.
She seemed to realize that he couldn't actually see her and there was an edge of panic in her voice when she took his face in her hands. "Ezra?"
"I'm fine, mother," he lied. "I just need to get some sleep... if you don't mind?" He attempted to convey the hint that he expected her to leave. He didn't really want her to - he could feel himself getting worse by the minute - but Maude had never been one to sit a bedside vigil, so letting her think he expected her to go would make it a bit easier when she actually did.
To his surprise, however, she sat down at the small dressing table and took out a deck of cards.
"Why are you staying?" he asked her, because he really wanted to know.
"Well, son, if I had any mother's intuition, I'd blame it on that, but since I don't, I can honestly say I don't know."
Funny how Maude was more skilled at running a con than any person he had ever known, but there were still times when she couldn't lie to save her life.
He had discovered that the whole town knew about the mysterious illness that was striking down the citizens of Eagle Bend. Plague or no plague, he'd also heard it was killing people, sometimes in a matter of hours.
Despite his growing discomfort, Ezra still saw a perverse humor in what Maude would not admit even to herself.
Damned if she wasn't actually worried about him...
Chris had decided to ride out to his shack after Vin had decided to turn in early. Riding back the next morning, he encountered two of Guy Royale's men manning the road block. No one had cared when he'd ridden out of town the night before, but now one of them, Coop Marvin, stepped in front of him and blocked his path.
Chris didn't even stop his horse.
Marvin cocked his gun, "That's as far as you go, Larabee."
Chris glared at him. "What the hell is your problem, Coop?"
"Ain't nobody comes into this town on this road," Marvin said.
"I ain't comin' from Eagle Bend."
"Don't matter. Mayor Conklin's orders."
"Mayor?" Chris scoffed. "When was the election, before breakfast this mornin'?"
The other man, Ed Rice, cocked his weapon, too. Had the whole town gone insane?
Chris stared them both in the eye. "So shoot me. I'm ridin' through."
He knew both men. He didn't think Rice had the cojones to shoot him in the back, but he wasn't sure about Marvin. Luckily, it turned out he didn't have them, either.
"You could be ridin' to meet your own death, Larabee," Marvin shouted after him. "Your friends brought that plague into this town."
Chris turned in his saddle. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"Your boy, Dunne. Virginia says he's down." Virginia was the woman who ran the boarding house where Buck and JD had rooms.
Chris turned away. He wasn't about to give Marvin any more of his time, or the satisfaction of knowing that what he'd just said had sent a cold chill through him.
Normally, he would have gone to the saloon. It was where everyone knew to look for him if he was needed.
But instead, he went to the boarding house where JD and Buck stayed. He didn't find either of them there, but Virginia appeared to be cleaning JD's room. She'd stripped the linens off the bed and was attempting to push the mattress through the window.
"What the hell are you doing?" he startled her.
She turned on him, her eyes reflecting a mixture of fear and indignation. "I'm burning everything in this room. Doctor Pinsette says its the only way to stop the plague."
"You don't even know Pinsette," Chris frowned.
Virginia thrust a copy of the Clarion at him. Sure enough, there was an article by Ira Pinsette in which he gave advice on how to thwart the deadly disease that had stricken Eagle Bend. Ironically, next to it was an article on the mounting death toll. There were now 7 people dead.
"Where's JD?" he demanded.
"Your friends took him to the hotel. I won't have him here."
Chris's first impulse was to say something vulgar, but he left her to her business. He had to make sure the kid was okay, although he had no reason to expect that he was.
He arrived at the hotel and was directed to the second floor. The hotel looked completely deserted, which was odd for that time of the morning. Even the clerk took a few steps back when he spoke to him and told him where to find JD.
Nathan stopped him at the door when he tried to enter the boy's room. Behind the healer, he could see the diminutive youngster huddled in the large bed, with Buck sitting on the mattress beside him and Josiah standing over him.
"You might not want to go in there, Chris," Nathan said. It was the look in his eyes that alarmed Chris more than any talk of plague. Nathan had patched all of them up a time or two. He'd even seen JD through a couple of rough days after he'd been shot by that little bitch bounty hunter. During those times, he'd seen concern and compassion in Nathan's dark eyes, but never fear.
It was fear he was seeing now. "What is it?" he asked.
"Chris, I don't know. Pinsette is blowin' smoke with all this plague talk, but I can't be sure he didn't just make a lucky guess. I don't know what this sickness is."
Chris looked past him. "How's the kid?"
Now there was fear in Nathan's voice as well as his eyes. "Not good, Chris. He's slidin' downhill right before my eyes. It took everything he had for him to walk over here... Virginia said he had to leave the boarding house," he shook his head.
"Yeah, I know. I was just over there," Chris said angrily.
"Don't be too hard on her, Chris. For all we know, she did the right thing by most of the other folk who live there."
"JD shouldn't have been moved if he's as sick as you say."
Nathan couldn't argue with that. The boy's condition had deteriorated rapidly during the night. His fever had climbed and he'd become confused and combative. It had taken Buck and Josiah both to get him into his clothes, and then out of them again. They'd finally gotten him settled, but he was scared, and any reassurances Nathan could offer him sounded hollow. The boy had every reason to be afraid, if he had whatever was going around Eagle Bend.
JD wasn't their only concern. "Ezra's sick, too," he told Chris.
Chris raised an eyebrow at that.
Nathan continued, "Maude came and fetched me in the middle of the night. He's got some of the same symptoms as JD, but they each got some different ones, too. I don't know if it's the same thing ailin' 'em both or not," he said, and then added what Chris already knew, "but they were both in Eagle Bend, Chris."
DAMN! Chris cursed himself for not thinking of the obvious sooner than this. "Has anyone seen Vin?"
Chris didn't waste his time looking around town for Vin. The tracker's calm, quiet nature was misleading. The man never missed a thing that was going on around him. Vin would have known JD and Ezra were sick, and would have come looking for him by now, unless something was wrong.
He headed straight for the wagon where Vin stored his belongings. He usually slept there, too, although Chris didn't see how he got any rest with the noise and hubbub of the town all around him until late into the night.
It was almost 9 in the morning, several hours past the time Vin was usually up and about. But Chris found him in the wagon, and Vin didn't stir when he called out his name.
He climbed inside the small space so that he was kneeling beside the tracker. He knew even before he touched him that he was burning with fever. His face was flushed and his hair was damp with sweat. There was a puddle of drying blood beside his head, and more of it streaked under his nose.
"Vin?" He shook him gently.
Vin mumbled something, but his eyes stayed closed.
Chris grabbed Vin's canteen and a stray bandana and soaked the cloth with the cool water. He wiped the blood and sweat off of Vin's face with it, concerned that he'd been able to get this close to him without Vin even seeming to be aware of it.
Vin finally opened his eyes. He put a hot hand on Chris's arm and attempted to push the cloth away.
"You okay, Vin?" Chris asked, even though the answer to that was obvious..
Vin's voice was weak, raspy. "Been better."
"Can you sit up?"
Chris watched him struggle to comply with that simple request.
"Damn, I hurt everywhere," Vin whispered.
He was wearing that cursed hide jacket that he never took off, and Chris removed it hoping it would cool him down some. The tracker didn't offer up any resistance, which Chris knew was another bad sign.
"We need to get you to the hotel. You can't stay out here."
Chris expected Vin to disagree with him. Hoped he would, in fact.
But there was no fight in him. He clearly felt as bad as he looked.
"Okay," he nodded.
Chris climbed out first and then literally had to lift Vin out of the wagon. He got him on his feet, but he just stood there gripping the frame for support as if taking that first step was just too much of an effort.
He looped Vin's arm around his neck. "Let me give you a hand, pard," he said softly.
Vin didn't argue. They started walking towards the hotel with him supporting most of Vin's weight.
Mrs. Potter was supervising her daughter as the youngster swept the boardwalk in front of her store. Chris caught her eye, and the look on her face was one of concern for Vin, but she stepped back away from them and drew the child from their path.
"Mr. Larabee?" she asked in a small, nervous voice.
He answered her unasked question. "He's sick. I'm takin' him to the hotel."
She stepped back even further, far enough that she and her daughter were inside the store. She closed the door and bolted it as they passed.
Vin's feet stopped moving and he grabbed his middle. "Chris..."
Chris suspected the problem. "You gonna be sick, Vin?"
The tracker nodded.
Chris looked up to see that other people in the street were watching them. He didn't want Vin to embarrass himself in front of an audience. He put an arm around his waist and dragged him into the nearest alley.
Vin gagged and brought up an alarming quantity of what looked like clotted blood. Chris felt the bile rising in his own throat and quickly kicked dirt over the mess before the site of it made him upchuck, too.
Vin had leaned against the wall, his head back and his eyes closed. His features were all the same color - an ashen grey.
Chris pulled him close and then hooked an arm under Vin's legs, lifting him off the ground.
"Chris, don't..." he protested weakly.
"We'll go around the back way," Chris assured him. "Ain't nobody gonna see."
Vin nodded and let his head drop against Chris's shoulder.
The window of JD's hotel room faced the back of the building, so Josiah saw them coming even though no one else did. He hurried down the stairs and was there to meet Chris when he brought Vin in through the kitchen entrance. There was no one in the kitchen. Normally, the cook began preparing the noon meal as soon as breakfast was finished, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Josiah offered to take Vin, but if he was still conscious, Chris didn't want to be passing him around like a sack of flour. It was enough of an indignity for him that he had to be carried.
"We need to get him a room," Chris said as he followed Josiah into the main lobby.
Josiah jumped behind the desk and grabbed the key to room 9.
"We might as well help ourselves. Everyone else has left."
"The place is deserted?"
"Yeah, the clerk was the last to leave, but he said he wasn't going to stay if we were going to be bringing sick people here... JD is in 10 and Ezra is in 11. Might as well keep the family together."
All of the rooms were on the second floor. Chris was panting from exertion by the time he got Vin up the stairs and his taut muscles relaxed gratefully as he laid Vin on the soft down mattress.
Vin opened his eyes. "Thanks, Chris," he muttered.
Josiah went to get Nathan as Chris moved to unbuckle Vin's gunbelt. Vin didn't protest, and when Chris started to unbutton his shirt, he opened his eyes again. He made no effort to stop him, but did manage to rasp, "Whatya think yer doin', Chris?"
Chris managed a smile. He wasn't comfortable undressing another man, and the tracker's sense of humor was still intact enough that he wasn't going to make it easy for him.
"Just tryin' to get you comfortable," Chris said. Vin spared him having to unbutton his pants. He did that himself as Chris pulled off his boots. The pants followed, but he needed Vin to sit up so he could take his shirt off. He was so weak, though, that when he tried to raise himself up, he couldn't do it. Chris lifted him to a sitting position and rested him against his shoulder while he removed his shirt. His undershirt was soaked with sweat, so he removed that, too. He tried to be careful, but Vin moaned with pain.
"What is it?" Chris frowned, still holding him upright.
"I dunno, Chris, everything hurts inside," he muttered.
Chris eased him back down as gently as he could. Vin managed to roll onto his side and even though the effort was painful, he seemed less uncomfortable that way. Nathan walked in as Chris was pulling up the sheet to cover him.
The healer knelt down beside the bed. Vin had closed his eyes again, so he gently brushed the side of the tracker's face with one of his big hands. "Vin? Can you hear me?"
"How you feelin'?"
Vin was well past the point of trying to conceal how bad he felt. "Not so good, Nathan."
Chris could see the concern in Nathan's eyes. "He's pukin' blood," he said.
Nathan frowned at that. He pulled down the sheet, but Vin didn't want to straighten out and lie flat for him.
"C'mon, now," the healer prodded, and gently pushed him onto his back.
Vin cried out in pain and then was embarrassed when he'd realized he'd done it.
Chris reached for his hand. He held it loosely because he was afraid of hurting him, and because he wasn't sure Vin would accept that small comfort. But when Nathan's probing fingers pressed against his right side, Vin almost came up off the bed, and his fingers wrapped around Chris's hand like a vice. "JESUS, Nathan!" he gasped.
The frown hadn't left Nathan's face. His fingers moved to the same spot on Vin's left side. He pressed more carefully this time, but Vin still flinched.
"What's makin' him hurt like that?" Chris wanted to know.
Nathan shook his head, bewildered.
"You still feelin' queasy?" he asked Vin.
"Not since I upchucked."
"Think you can hold down a spoonful of laudanum?"
Vin nodded and Nathan went to get the medicine. It would make Vin sleep, which normally would have been a good thing, except Chris had a nagging fear that if Vin went to sleep, he might not wake up. It wouldn't leave his mind that there were seven people dead in Eagle Bend.
He sat on the bed beside him. "Anything I can do for you, Vin?" he asked.
Vin shook his head. "Wouldn't blame ya' if ya' had to leave," he said softly.
Chris smiled to himself. That was Vin's way of asking him to stay. "I ain't goin' nowhere, Vin. Count on that."
His nose was bleeding again. Chris got a washcloth from the dressing table and dampened it with water from the pitcher there.
He gently dabbed the blood away.
Vin closed his eyes. "Ezra and JD... heard you talkin'..."
Chris knew he couldn't lie to Vin. "They're sick, too."
"Eagle Bend," Vin voiced what Chris was already thinking.
Nathan returned with the laudanum and an old porcelain chamber pot. "Vin, I need you to pee in this," he indicated the pot. "Think you can do that?"
Vin opened one eye to squint at him suspiciously. "What the hell for?"
Chris just took the pot. "He'll do it."
Nathan smiled and shook his head. Vin might give him an argument, but he'd do almost anything for Chris. He opened the laudanum and poured a generous spoonful. Vin took it willingly. He'd refused the drug before, despite some painful injuries, so Nathan knew he had to be hurting more than he was letting on.
The healer opened the room's only window. It was only midmorning, but the breeze was already warm. In a couple of hours, the room would be a furnace if they didn't let some air in.
He knew Chris wouldn't leave Vin."You need to keep him from gettin' too hot," the healer explained. "Sponge him down if you need to. I don't know what we can do for any of them right now except try to keep 'em as comfortable as we can." He ran his hand over his short-cropped hair.
"You'll do your best, Nathan," Chris told him.
The healer looked at Vin sadly. "It ain't good enough, Chris. Vin, JD, Ezra.... they were all fine just a few hours ago. If this starts to spread through the whole town..."
He didn't finish. He didn't have to.