Never Released

by Kris

Chris walked backed to the jail, disgruntled that he hadn't found Ezra so he could apologize to him. As he sat down, he noticed the envelope with his name scrawled in a flowing script. He fingered the envelope wondering what it could say. He figured it was from Ezra, who else would write so pretty.

Tanner walked in and saw his friend playing with a letter. "Secret admirer, Cowboy?"

Instead of a quick come back, Chris took on a more serious expression, "Nope. Think it's from Ezra."

Vin sighed, "Well, read it."

Chris opened the letter. Written on fine stationary, the pen strokes looked as though they belonged on the paper. The gunslinger took a breath before he read the words.

"Mr. Larabee,

It has come to my attention that a predominant number of members from this group have no confidence or trust in my person. Unfortunately, I've undergone enough of a change that I can no longer belong to the world I came from.

Obviously, I cannot remain here either, as I have little or no chance of altering the mind set of those around me. With this knowledge, I see no option but for me to vacate this municipality.

I also realize that you will see this as a breech of faith, and, that I finally did run out on you. It is with great sorrow that I bid you adieu.

Mr. Tanner is hereby released from all promises made.


Ezra P. Standish."

Chris swore aloud as he finished reading Ezra's letter. Vin made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, he directed it toward Larabee himself. Chris didn't comment on it, he knew that the sharpshooter and he didn't see eye to eye on Standish.

"Damm, Chris. You and Nathan drove him away." Vin said accusingly.

"It was Buck and me...." Chris broke off as the puzzled look on the tracker's face told him that wasn't what he was referring to.

"Ya did something more?" Tanner asked.

"Well, I mighta jumped to a conclusion too soon." Chris confessed without details.

"Ya always do with Ezra, pard." Tanner told him quietly.

Chris rubbed his face in confusion. "I just don't trust him yet."

"Dammit Larabee. Why just Ezra? How come not all of us. You didn't know any of us but Buck. Why trust any of the rest. Is it what he does....gambling? Have you ever really watched him play with us? Do you ...or any of us...leave the table without our money. We may feel the loss, but he always lets us win it back.....but real slow like, so's we don't notice. Musta worked, cause you all never noticed." Vin was worked up real good. Other than nodding or shaking his head, Chris couldn't get a word in. "Nathan's always accusing him of cheatin, but the only time we've ever seen him do it was when we......we, Chris, needed him to so's we could get the bad guys. Anybody ever says thanks pard? Good job? Nah, not even me 'til just real recent. When I began noticing the changes." Vin paced the office in agitation.

Chris broke in, "He's always grippin."

"Sure he does, all part of keepin the con going. The one where we all still see him as he first was. Couple of months ago, that thing with Josiah. I told ya to think on it. Kin see ya didn't." Chris started to say something, but Vin put his hand up to stop him. But the direction of his thoughts changed as the table began rumbling and the ground beneath them shaking. "What the hell?"

+ + + + + + +

The ride out of town was more difficult than he expected. He wished that he had not broken his own cardinal rule. Don't develop friendships.

Ezra took off in the direction of Colorado. Hadn't been there much, should be able to work the gambling halls. He knew he could put a lot of miles on before dusk, so he kept to a steady gait.

Emotions continued to war within. He already missed these men that he had allowed too close, but he also felt a great burden lifted off his shoulders. Now he could not let them down or fail them. Something he was bound to do. It was better to have Mr. Larabee angered at a suppose failed deed than an actual one. Ezra figured he could live with this. Well, he had to, whether he really wanted to or not.

After just an hour of riding, the gambler crossed a stream. As he made the other side, he dismounted so that Chaucer could drink as much as he wanted. Ezra walked to a shrub to relief himself. The birds all around squawked suddenly. He turned to Chaucer, who was pawing the ground and moving toward the water nervously.

"What's the matter, girl? Know that we're leaving?" Ezra didn't get to say anymore for the ground started to shake violently. He ran to the area where Chaucer was, but before he could reach his horse, the tree behind him tore loudly and dipped in his direction. If he hadn't moved toward his horse, Ezra would have been crushed by the base of the falling tree. As it was, he was hit and knocked over by the branches. He then found himself trapped under said branches, branches with a diameter of fourteen feet around. When his head collided with the ground, Ezra lost consciousness.

+ + + + + + +

The earth rippled violently along one of its many platelets. The mere two centimeters of movement didn't look like much to the naked eye, but to the earth itself, that much movement causes an incalculable amount of motion. That motion in turn, unleashes powerful forces that shake all of the surface fixtures. Trees fell, dirt slid. Meager structures crumbled. Animals fled for the open spaces. Human folk, without the ability to feel the preamble shudders the ground sends off, had no such warning and fell victim to the fracturing buildings.

Four Corners was just such a place. Windows busted, shelving downed, trapping shoppers. Outhouses collapsed, some with occupants. Liquor bottles now graced the floor, but the saloon was still standing. The back side of the hotel fell as did the surveyors office. Damage could be found in all structures, but the furniture and shelving posed the most jeopardy.

Vin and Chris were in the middle of the street when the town sustained the most damage. The earth rumbled for what felt like an eternity, but was actually only twenty seconds. Screams and shouts were heard echoing throughout the town. Vin ran to the church, Chris ran to the boarding house. Chris called out for Buck and JD. Buck answered almost right away, then he in turn called out for JD. Many calls and shouts were answered with pleas for help. Chris and Buck together lifted debris and unearthed people from under the fallen wreckage.

One of the groggy coughs from under the stairwell caught at Buck. He turned around quickly and spied a dust covered friend.

"JD! Boy is it good to see you. Are ya hurt?" Buck cried out, as he rushed over to his young friend.

"Just have dirt in my mouth, otherwise I think I'm fine." JD brushed off enough dust to cloud the air about him. "How are the others?" He moved with Buck back to where Chris was.

"We'll have to find out after we help everyone here." Chris reminded them, feverently glad that they were both all right.

JD nodded and joined in at sifting through the debris.

+ + + + + + +

When Vin ran into the church, he looked around for his large friend. Seeing no one, he called out, "Josiah? You hurt?" Vin heard a moan, followed by a groan. Vin headed for the little anteroom where the sounds came from.

He found his friend on the floor, covered in books. Vin moved the books off the large man and visually looked for blood and injuries. He called softly to the preacher, "Josiah, ya with me?"

"That would depend where you are." The rumblely voice answered. Josiah put his hand up to his head before opening his eyes. He brushed off the layer of dust before he tried to open his eyes. Opening them slowly, he looked about him and realized that he lay on the floor. "How did I get here?"

"A ground shake. Shook the town real good. Lots of buildings are down." Vin answered as he helped the man to a sitting position.

" 'Pears that nothin's broken. I'll probably be sore tomorrow." Josiah smiled at Vin's rueful expression. "Shall we lend our hand?" Josiah asked as they both moved toward the door.

They ran toward Nathan's. The stairway was askewed but seemed passable. They both called out to Nathan.

A voice from behind them called out, answering them, "Here. I'm gonna need more bandages." Nathan was bent over a fallen man, checking his damage.

Josiah nodded and indicated to Vin that he would get the needed supplies. Vin nodded in return and went in search of the others.

As he stepped into the main street, he was shocked at the condition of the town. But as in crisis past, people were resilient. As one was helped up from the debris, they would in turn lend a hand to the next fallen person. Vin joined in.

The tracker located Chris, Buck and JD. He let them know that Josiah and Nathan were fine. He met Chris' eyes and said aloud, "Ezra." Chris winced.

Buck looked up and said, "Haven't seen him. Haven't been to the saloon yet."

JD said almost at the same time, "My god, he's probably hurt." JD turned to go to his aid.

Chris called out, "He's not there." JD stopped and turned toward Chris as did Buck. "He rode out this morning."

"Where'd he go?" JD asked, not picking up on Chris' voice.

"He's left for good." Chris ground out.

"Well, we gotta go get him." JD stated as though they were all dense if they hadn't thought that for themselves.

Vin smiled. Buck frowned. He looked up at Chris, "You get a chance to speak with him before he left, Pard?"

The gunslinger shook his head no.

JD wore a puzzled frown, "What happened?"

Instead of answering the exact question, Chris said, "He left a note."

"Still don't matter none, we have to go after him."

Chris almost smiled at JD's steadfastness. A lot like Vin. It seemed so simple to them. Just bring him back. Chris looked about him, "We need to find everybody here." He turned away after the command.

JD seemed about to speak, but Vin silenced him with a head movement. His eyes telling the youth that he would be going out after the gambler. JD accepted Vin's silent declaration.

+ + + + + + +

The three cowboys were relieved that the falling trees hadn't hit them. They continued their ride to Playart. They needed to meet up with the trail boss. They rode without speaking. The three of them saw the downed man at the same time, the red jacket catching their eye amid the many browns of their surroundings. They dismounted and checked the man for signs of life.

The tallest said, "Still alive, but just. Got some fancy boots there."

As though it was a go ahead, the chunky man squatted down and pulled the boots off. He then pointed to the watch that was laying next to the man, still attached to his vest. The tall man nodded. The weathered hands scooped it up quickly. They also tried to search the pockets, but they were hidden by the branches that had the body pinned to the ground.

The tall man added, "Take the hat, he don't need it no more." The hat went the same as the watch and boots. The two men got back on their horses and continued down the trail.

Chaucer stood hidden in the brush, out of sight, watching it all.

Ezra was oblivious to it all.

+ + + + + + +

By early evening the town had found all the missing people. Several had broken bones, cuts and gashes, but only one lost their life. Shopkeepers surveyed the damage, both inside and out. Plans were being made to restore all that had been damaged.

Vin looked over to Chris as they ate the food provided to all the workers by the hotel. "I'm going after Ezra. I'm leaving after I eat."

Chris realized that he had to go too. He knew that a lot of the whys were tied up in him. It had been on his mind most of the afternoon. He was the reluctant leader of this band of peacekeepers and how he handled this would set the tone for the other men. They had to believe in each other, if any one of them could abandon another, they'd not believe, and that would destroy the unique unit they had formed. Ezra had earned his place, it was about time he showed the gambler that.

The enigmatic man looked at the tracker as he said, "I'm going with ya."

JD chimed in, "Me too."

Vin looked at him, "JD, you should go to Nettie's. Check on them. Make sure Nettie's okay for me." The look he gave the youth, let him know that he had just been entrusted to look after someone Vin felt real protective about. JD nodded, understanding the faith that Vin had just placed in him.

Buck was slightly baffled by the Kid's easy capitulation, but spoke to Chris out of guilt. "I'll go with the two of you. Need to mend some fences." Vin nodded, knowing instinctively that Buck had miles of fence line to fix.

Nathan was needed in town. He had lots of folks to care for. Josiah was torn, he wanted to go after Ezra. He owed him, but he knew that Nathan was going to need his help. He elected to stay.

With still two and a half hours of light left, the three men went in search of their wayward member.

+ + + + + + +

A shiver ran through his body, that in turn caused movement and that caused a groan of pain. Ezra woke with a feeling of being squashed. "Would the oaf sitting on me get off." The voice wasn't even a whisper, but sounded loud to his ears. He was puzzled by the lack of answer. "Guys, this isn't funny," he was addressing the whole group. The gambler forced his eyes open, he wanted to glare at whoever was playing this joke.

With his eyes open, Ezra looked at all he could see from his position. The creek, the tree. Event memories rushed in and Ezra knew he was alone. This time no one would look for him and he would die alone. This thought so troubled him, he moved in grief. The pain that lanced his body was severe enough to send him into oblivion.

+ + + + + + +

Vin followed the tracks, sometimes with ease, other times it was difficult. Tree debris and shifted dirt obscured details. The tracker got off his horse several times to double check a hoof print, making sure it was Chaucer's.

Both men knew that Ezra had chosen a trail to new country and realized how final Ezra had meant his leaving. Chris and Buck said little, Buck recognized Chris' mood and knew he would be putting his life on the line if he took to chatting.

But that didn't stop Buck from chatting to himself silently. He was pissed at the gambler now. He had Chris feeling all guilty and Chris didn't need more guilt in his life. He needed to point that out to Chris, "We always figured he'd run out. Ya can't go beating yourself up about it."

Vin was fed up with that attitude. "Hell, Buck, yer sure able to give the Kid all sorts of room to grow. Ezra is no different. Hell, you've met his mother..." Vin lowered his voice and said very softly, "besides, is there any one of us that didn't need a new chance or two along the way?" Vin turned his attention back to the ground and the prints he was tracking.

Buck looked out at the reds in the sky caused by the setting sun and tangled with his thoughts.

The words meant for Buck, really hit home for the gunslinger. He knew exactly what he was. Sarah had believed in him and changed all that. Even though he had resumed the lifestyle after her death, he was never the same reckless man as before.

At least Ezra's lifestyle hadn't left lots of bodies in his wake. To be fair to the gambler, he did wear his colors, proclaiming that he was a professional gambler. Player beware. Vin had also pointed out that the gambler never really relieved them of any great amount of money.

Now, his card playing was a source of fights and barroom brawls, but so was Buck's womanizing. In these moments of rare honesty, Chris knew too, that his past has put the group in far greater danger, mortal danger than Ezra ever had. But his past had done this several times.

Vin was sure right about the kid. They all excused most all his mistakes due to his youth. He was growing up and they were all helping him. But in Ezra's case, most of them have continued to judge him with an unchanged view. Chris thought on different moments that Vin had spoken of, helping that Chinese girl, helping rescue him, taking a bullet meant for Mary. The Ezra he'd met on that first day wouldn't have done these deeds, but Ezra did do them. He had to have changed some and Chris knew that they hadn't seen it and hadn't looked for it.

His smart mouth and poker face made them forget he wasn't all that old either. Chris knew that if he had a change of attitude, that some would follow his lead. Seemed that along with Vin, JD and Josiah had already noticed the changes in Ezra. Chris knew he'd have to let Ezra know too.

Chris looked over at the tracker and met the knowing eyes staring at him. Hazel eyes connected with blue and without words, let him know that he was right.

The tension in the tracker eased a mite, knowing that Chris had rethought the gambler. He knew that their silent leader was the key to getting Ezra back and Vin knew that was important. Lose any one member of the group and the rest would not hang together. This group had become important to Vin.

The tracker was about to call it time to set camp when he saw the horse. He was sure it was Chaucer. He called out to it and sure enough, the roan responded to it's name. The three men rushed to her, but she stepped out of their reach and turned back the way she came.

Vin nodded, understanding and said aloud, "Okay girl, takes us to Ezra."

With a snorted whinny, she turned and led them directly to Ezra. Fortyfive minutes later, with the sun about down, the three peacekeepers saw Ezra, collapsed and trapped by a tree.

Vin was off his horse and at Ezra's side faster than Buck could blink and was checking if there was any life left in his friend. He looked up, "There's a heartbeat." His relief was tangible.

Chris and Buck took a breath in relief too, then tethered their horses, surveying the area as they joined Vin.

"Damm," Vin yelled, startling the two men. They looked to him. Vin explained, "He's been robbed. Someone found him trapped and stole his boots and tore his watch off him. They left him here." Disgust and a promise of retribution were found in his voice. The tracker looked around and at Chaucer, "Hell, they stole his hat too." Vin walked about the area, then pointed to the ground, "Lookie here, three horses, two different men walked around him, stole from him, but didn't help him none."

"Bastards. That is so damm low," Buck said, pure anger in his voice.

Chris bottled his anger for a later time and worked on instead, how to free Ezra.

The tree was too big to lift, even if all of them were there. So Chris figured that they'd have to use a pry bar. The gunslinger knew they'd have to wait for morning to get him out, but he needed to make him comfortable. He looked to Buck, "Go back tonight and bring Nathan with you. We can't move him and then get him all the way back to town without hurting him worse."

Buck knew he could use the moon to get back and left, with getting aid back here on his mind.

Chris looked for a rock he could use for digging. He worked at the dirt along the sides of Ezra. When he was finished, he had released lots of the pressure around Ezra's waist by removing the dirt from under him without greatly moving him. The unconscious man moaned at the pain but said nothing, but his breathing eased a bit.

Vin unsaddled Chaucer and used his blanket to cover Ezra. As the sun was gone, so was the warm air. Ezra didn't need to get chilled on top of everything else.

Chris continued with his digging until he had freed an even amount of dirt all around the gambler's body. While he was still trapped by the awkward position of the smaller branches, the massive pressure caused by the larger branch had been eased. The blanket was wrapped as close as it could be around the oblivious man.

Vin built a fire as close to the gambler as was safe. Ezra was abnormally pale and the tracker knew that wasn't good. Chris brewed coffee and shared the jerky from his saddle bag.

Vin nodded his thanks as he held the cup. "Ya think Ez lost all his money when they grabbed his boots?"

Chris sighed, remorse coloring his tone, "Probably, that's where he usually kept it. It's gonna kill him."

They took turns sleeping and tending the fire. By morning, Ezra's breathing was more ragged and Vin was actually afraid that they would lose him this time. Ez would die, thinking he was alone and without friends.

The two men heard a whistle, closely followed by, "Buck and Nathan coming in."

The gunslinger and sharpshooter both re-holstered their weapons.

Nathan took a sharp indrawn breath as he took in the situation. He and his bag were off the horse before it had completely stopped.

Buck removed the pick-axes that he'd brought with him to dig the gambler out from under the tree. He walked over to Chris and handed one to him, asking with his eyes the question of how Ezra was.

"Holding his own. Hasn't come to." Chris replied solemnly.

Vin stayed next to Ezra as Nathan checked him. Running both hands gently down his chest, feeling for oddities. The healer tried not to add to the pressure on the already distend area. He continued his examination, looking and listening for any signs of discomfort. Nathan was appalled at the amount of damage, and equally amazed that the conman was still alive.

He looked at the three men, shaking his head, "Ezra must be playing cards with the devil himself and cheating at every turn, only way to explain why he's still alive."

"What are ya sayin?" Vin asked, wanting it spelled out.

"Feels like every rib is broke, that could mean a hole in the lung. He's not bleedin from his mouth, so maybe the lungs are okay. Won't know 'til I turn him 'round. Hip might be broken or dislocated. His liver is all puffed out. Really don't know why he's alive."

"He is too damm stubborn to just up and die." Buck said with confidence.

Vin just stayed close to his side as he stated, "He don't want to die alone. He thinks he's alone."

"Well, let's git him dug out from under that tree." Nathan said practically.

Chris and Buck worked at the dirt on either side of the unconscious man, as Vin sat quietly talking to the gambler. Nathan prepared his bandages for wrapping the chest and any other problems that might occur. The side that Chris worked on was deeper first and Nathan wanted to remove Ezra that way. They evened out the area, then Chris grabbed the shoulders, Nathan the torso, and Buck the legs as they tried to move the man in a smooth motion. They rolled him onto the blanket that Vin placed as close as he could. As Ezra was placed on his back, the men received their first sounds, groans of pain.

"Least he's still with us," Buck said into the silent group.

Nathan set about immediately at rechecking what he thought were the damaged areas. He ran his hands along the torso and chest as he watched for blood coming from the mouth.

The pain of movement was enough to drag Ezra out of the blackness. He strained to hear and again he was fooled into believing that he heard his past acquaintances nearby. He knew it was a delusion and returned to the oblivion again.

Nathan placed a bedroll under Ezra's shoulders to keep him propped up a bit, seemed to ease his breathing. Vin let Ezra's head rest on his knees so it didn't loll back.

"Yup, every rib is busted. But...'pears that the lungs don't have no hole. The devil must have lost that round." Nathan couldn't stop shaking his head at the luck the gambler seemed to possess. Nathan knew they couldn't move him and asked if a shelter of sorts could be built.

Buck and Chris set about doing that as Vin stayed close. Vin had a gut feeling that he'd only get one chance to let Ez see that he wasn't alone and that they wouldn't let him go.

The shelter completed, Buck got a fire going and Chris brewed the coffee, he wanted it drinkable.

Nathan kept mumbling to himself about poker and bluffing all the while he tended the gambler. The ribs were wrapped, but it was tenuous at best. He had to avoid putting pressure around the stomach but still manage to keep the ribs together. He couldn't work on the hip without undoing the ribs. And worse part he wasn't even sure any of this would help, didn't know if Ezra would live. He kept his hands busy, didn't want to have to tell Vin any of this.

Buck left, he was bringing back a wagon to transport Ezra. Most of Nathan's tools were back in Four Corners, the books that could help him were back there too.

As Ezra attempted again to climb out of the darkness, he was first greeted with pain. He groaned. Then he realized that the awful pressure that had been holding him down was gone. Intense pain was the only thing he felt in its wake.

Ezra was distracted from his pain by an insistent voice that kept calling him. It sounded like the resolute Mr. Tanner, a man that took the few promises he made very seriously. He should remind him that he had been released from the promise.

Vin and Nathan were delighted by the groans of pain. Vin gripped Ezra's hand and called out to him. "Ezra, Ez......c'mon, open yer eyes. We need to talk to ya. Ezra........Ezra."

Nathan dropped a few drops of water onto his lips and the tongue emerged and whisked them in. Nathan dropped a few inside the mouth and they were swallowed. He turned his smile to Vin, "He's still tryin to live." Nathan was pleased to see these reactions.

Vin was about to call out again, when a feeble whisper sounded, "Vin........Vin, you're released from your promise. You........can......go." That much work exhausted the gambler and he was ready to return to the blackness, but he was prevented by a loud voice yelling at him.

"You get the hell back here Standish, I haven't released you from your promise. You don't get out of it this easy." The Larabee growl was recognizable no matter what condition he found himself in.

Ezra found himself mentally recoiling from the harshness of the voice, realizing that Mr. Larabee didn't take kindly to anyone disobeying his orders. This was the thought he took with him back into the darkness.

Vin looked at his friend with gratitude, he had probably given the gambler the best shot at living. Chris hadn't released him yet, so he couldn't fold. Now he would fight.

Nathan shook his head, looking up at Vin, then Chris, "Seems to be breathing a bit easier. In the future Chris, I just have you come in and order one of the fellas to live, it'll make my work a lot easier."

Chris said nothing as he sipped on his almost cold coffee. He went about brewing some fresh as Nathan kept tending Ezra's minor injuries. Vin whispered into the gambler's ear, then took off for the brush.

Midday faded to afternoon and they could hear Buck and the wagon returning. He had JD and Josiah with him. Buck smiled broadly as he saw that Ezra was still with them. He had been half afraid that he would return to find that he had died. He could feel JD's sigh of relief, the Kid had a way of reading between the lines where the gambler was concerned.

They padded the wagon and then loaded their cargo very slowly and carefully. Nathan and Vin were actually happy to hear the moans of pain. The gambler had been way too silent and Nathan found himself wishing for the incessant chatter. Vin and JD rode in back to further cushion Ezra, as the ride back was sure to jar the injured body more than it could really withstand.

It took double the time to return, Buck figured they could of walked back faster than they were traveling, but they got Ezra back to town no worse for the ride. They had already decided to put Ezra in the anteroom of the church. The outside entrance only had one stair, becoming the easiest place to carry him. Most all movement elicited moans and groans and Nathan had feared the stairs to his place may be quake damaged too.

As Chris, Buck and Josiah carried the gambler into the church, Nathan, with JD's help, ran to get the medical supplies he would need. Then with the help of all, Nathan was able to wrap the ribs while still protecting the liver. The hip was popped back into place. That particular maneuver caused the loudest cries of pain.

It was while they were undressing the gambler that Josiah noticed, "Where are Ezra's boots."

In a low, dangerous voice, Vin explained, "A future dead man stole them off him while he was pinned. His hat and watch too."

"Geez, that means all his money's gone. How do we get it back?" JD asked with straight forward innocence.

Buck gave an exasperated sound, but Chris sat forward in his seat. "We get it back."

"Huh?" The Kid asked.

Instead of answering direct, the gunslinger looked at Vin, "Ya think ya can track those fellas?"

Vin met the direct gaze with a single nod.

Chris nodded in return and said aloud, "We leave in the morning." Chris knew it was a gesture for Ezra, hopefully he recognize it as such.

Morning duty or not Vin was staying in the church for the night. JD had already decided to remain too. He planned on reading to Ezra, to let him know that he cared.

Buck and Chris left to get some sleep, Chris using Ezra's room so as not to make the long ride to his place.

Josiah got out the extra bedrolls and the four men took turns watching over Ezra for any signs of discomfort. What Nathan feared transpired just before dawn. Ezra tried to move while sleeping and wrenched his already abused body. The yelp of pain startled the three sleeping, they awoke with guns drawn. Nathan almost chuckled at the sight.

It was the cough that caused the most pain. Laying down is a tough way to cough as it is, let alone with no ribs attached to the sternum. Nathan signaled that he needed the three of them to get Ezra into a more upright position. Nathan's blood further chilled when he saw the traces of blood in his spit. Nathan tried to get some of the numbing tea inside his patient, but without great success.

An hour later another cough followed by a grunt. Vin was at his side in a moment, talking to him, "Ez, try not to cough. We got ya, but ya need to stay still."

The pain was uppermost in his mind, but Ezra did retain enough manners to try and answer the plea. "What happened?" Not opening his eyes, he was unprepared for the sounds from all around him.



"Ezra, you're with us."

Vin answered the question. "You were trapped under a fallen tree."

Ezra tried to work his throat, but it seemed so dry. No sooner thought, than he felt drops of water on his lips. He nodded his thanks. "How bad?" These words came out as barely a croak.

Vin looked to the healer to answer that question. "Busted all your ribs. Don't know if it hit your lungs or not. Bruised your liver, hurt your hip, the rest are minor scratches and bumps."

Ezra nodded inside his thoughts, but no outward movement showed. He wanted to sleep but was roused again but Nathan speaking at him.

"Can you try taking in an easy breath? Tell me if it hurts." Nathan watched Ezra's face intently.

JD said as though obvious, "Whatever he does is gonna hurt."

Nathan nodded to the logic of the comment. "Ezra, as you take a breath, does it hurt in there?" Pointing to his own chest to indicate where he meant.

Ezra struggled to comply with the healer's request. He took a small breath, then a deeper one. Then he tried to speak, "Chest.........fine.......throat..hurt." The words came separate and breathy.

Nathan relaxed a bit. The blood was probably from the throat and not the lungs. "That's good Ezra. You'll live."

Ezra tried to nod, but was pulled back into darkness.

Morning found Chris saddled and waiting as Vin started to saddle his horse. Chaucer stamped the ground and whinnied at the tracker. He checked her water and feed. She had plenty. As he put the bridal on Peso and led him out, Chaucer became more agitated. Working on gut instinct, "You want to go girl?" Vin didn't know why he was surprised, Chaucer danced her head in the air as though nodding. Working again on that gut instinct, he put Peso back and saddled Chaucer instead. In answer to Chris' raised brow, Vin explained, "She wants to help." Chris stared for a second, then nudged his horse.

They rode to the creek where they'd found Ezra and Vin worked from there. The two men rode in silence, Vin intent on the ground, Chris intent on working out his conflicting thoughts.


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