Once again, thanks Kelly A for the beta.
Wilmington groaned, cursing his luck that
paired him on this trip with Standish. The man had been totally
unreasonable the entire trip, constantly lagging behind and slowing them down.
If Standish hadn’t stalled so often, Buck would have been easily tempted to
spend an extra day in Ridge City. But as it was, even leaving almost
turn-around, they were going to be pushing mighty hard to make the return trip
in less than three days.
Now, Buck was an easy going kind of guy,
but he’d also known Chris Larabee for over ten years, and when Chris expected
them back on a certain day, well damned if he was gonna cause the man a hernia
worrying about them for no good reason.
Buck drew his grey in a neat circle and
waited for the gambler to come level. “Come on, Ezra,” the ladies’
man grumbled in exasperation, shaking his head.
Standish sighed, wiping at the sweat that
wet his brow. Buck had been on his case the whole journey, nagging him
like an old woman. Even now, after they’d successfully escorted Tony
Harlow to Ridge City where he was to stand trail, Wilmington still pushed them
at an uncompromising pace. “Where is the fire?” Ezra drawled.
“Chris is expecting us the day after
tomorrow, Ezra. Way we’ve been mooching about, we’ll be lucky to get
back some time next week,” Buck equably explained, yet again. But his
patience with the manipulative conman was stretched paper-thin.
Chris, Chris, Chris Standish moaned.
Everything always revolved about the black-clad gunslinger. Why he should
dictate their every move was frustrating. And Buck followed his command
without questioning. Trouble was, they all jumped when Larabee spoke.
Even him, Ezra admitted dissatisfied. Well, it was time for him to call
the shots. “Why don’t we head back to Ridge City, wire our illustrious
leader that we’ve been delayed, relax for a few days in the comfort of a
hotel, have a hot bath, find some lovely company,” he winked suggestively at
Buck. How could Wilmington refuse that offer? “…And have a decent meal.
Not to mention the casual game of chance I… we, could indulge in while we were
there. Then, we can resume this arduous journey.” Ezra crossed his
fingers, hiding them behind his back. Please say yes. God, he was so
tired! All he wanted to do since this mammoth journey had started was to
curl up and go to sleep. He could feel each and every muscle, and they all
ached miserably. Each sway of his mount’s steps brought him closer to
the edge, but he would NOT fall off. He adamantly refused.
“Ah, quit yer complaining,” Buck
dismissed the Southerner’s idea without even commenting on it, convinced that
he was only letting off steam and not totally serious about the alternate plan.
“If we pick up the pace a bit, then we’ll be that much closer to yer own
feather bed. Now, wouldn’t ya rather be spending time in yer own bed,
then out here?”
“Most definitely. But you have
missed my point entirely…”
“We’re wastin’ time, Ezra,” Buck
interrupted, calling over his shoulder as he drew further away from the gambler.
Standish stared after him in dismay.
The gambler rolled his head on his shoulders and sighed. Before moving on
he removed his jacket; it was entirely too hot to leave it on. And
although he was a gentleman, even refined folk at times had to resort to
compromising their appearance when the weather turned sour. And to appease
himself, Ezra was reminded that they were on the trail and Buck was the only
person that was going to witness his less than complete wardrobe. Standish
rolled the coat long ways and tucked it on top of his bedroll.
The gambler winced slightly when he
swallowed; his mouth was dry and his tongue thick and heavy. May as well have a
drink before continuing, and he looped the water canteen off the pommel and
uncorked the vessel. Ezra swirled the container and heard a nearly empty
slosh at the bottom, and drank the remainder of the water in one large gulp.
A few dribbles ran over his chin and down his neck wetting the collar of his
shirt, but the cool taste of water on his parched throat distracted him from the
minor inconvenience. He’d have to remember to fill the canteen at the
next stream they crossed.
Ezra leant forward and patted the chestnut
horse, praising the steed for remaining perfectly still while he fidgeted
restlessly in the saddle. “Let’s continue, before Mr. Wilmington is
tempted to draw a gun on us,” Ezra drawled lethargically.
Wilmington surreptitiously looked over his
shoulder and frowned when he saw the conman had once again removed his coat, and
wore only shirtsleeves. Standish had had that jacket on and off so many
times over the past two days, and it wasn’t even remotely hot. Maybe he
was coming down with something. He’d point this out to Nathan when they
returned, get him to check the wily gambler over.
Least he’s on the move again. They
might at least reach, what JD had dubbed, Heaven’s Falls, by the time they
stopped for the night. The ladies’ man chuckled at the name Dunne had
bestowed on the simple camping area, because it was anything but, Heaven.
A meagre stream trickled over the rocky base, which spread wide at four yards
across, but the water that meandered its path down the centre of the over-wide
streambed was little more than a foot wide and only inches deep.
Buck glanced up at the afternoon sun and
predicted that if the lazy pace continued, it would be dark when they set up
camp. He was sorely tempted to grab the reins from Ezra’s grasp and lead
the man along behind him. At least then he’d be assured of where the
gambler was, and that he could dictate the speed at which they needed to travel.
Buck was getting fed up with dragging the Southerner along.
Buck ducked his head under the wide arm of
a tree and fumed irritably that the gambler had lagged behind, yet again.
He couldn’t even see Standish to know how far back the Southerner had fallen.
Hell, it’s not even an hour past since he had to haul Ezra back into line, and
he’s done it again. Was Standish doing it deliberately? Wilmington
fumed, he’d had enough, and damned if he wasn’t going to let the lazy son of
a bitch know it.
“Ezra!” Buck growled, after waiting ten
minutes in growing ire for the Southerner to thread his way through the same
patch of shaded growth where Wilmington waited.
Standish startled at the fierce tone of
Wilmington’s booming voice. He swayed in his saddle and wiped the palm
of his hand over his brow. The ground swam beneath him and the gambler
tightened his white-knuckled grip. He blinked in confusion and slowly
shook his head in an attempt to clear it.
“Ezra,” Buck repeated, though
fractionally less potent this time. He sidled along level with the
gambler, though his mount was facing the opposite direction to Chaucer. He
frowned looking into the sluggish green eyes. The moustached man reached
over and tilted the gambler’s hat up off his face. Oh, this is not good;
Buck felt the rising panic that swirled in the pit of his stomach. “Come
on, hoss, don’t be doing this to me,” he implored.
Standish finally realised that he’d
stopped and squeezed closed his tired eyes for a moment only to open them with a
start. “Mr. Wilm…ming…ton…” he struggled to get his tongue
around the long surname.
Buck groaned. Damn! The older
man flicked the Southerner’s hat off and pressed his hand to Standish’s
brow. “Damn, son,” he exclaimed pulling back his hand as though it’d
been scorched. “Why didn’t cha tell me ya weren’t feeling well,”
Buck reprimanded, while climbing off his horse. The ladies’ man circled his
companion’s mount and tugged at the smaller man.
Ezra gripped his legs more firmly about
Chaucer and hung on with a death grip. He was NOT going to fall!
“Dammit, Ezra, let go!” Buck
slapped Standish on the thigh, attempting to loosen the cramped muscles. “Get ya down,” he cajoled, finally unseating the sick man.
Chris ain’t gonna be mad now,” Wilmington muttered, dragging the
semi-conscious gambler away from his horse.
Standish waved and swallowed painfully past
his dry throat. “Water,” he begged.
Buck laid the gambler on the lush grass.
“Yeah, ole Buck’ll look after ya, don’t you fret.” Wilmington left
Ezra’s side to pick up the gambler’s canteen. He muttered under his
breath at finding it empty, and quickly collected his own and returned, kneeling
at the Southerner’s head. “Here ya go,” Buck offered, assisting
Standish to raise his head and take a few sips. “You just rest up for a
bit,” Wilmington slapped the gambler on the knee and walked back to tether
both their horses.
Ezra rolled on his side and sleep came
Damn, Damn, Damn! Buck swore,
stamping his boots into the earth. Why did this have to happen now?
He glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping gambler and sighed. They
couldn’t stay here. There was no water for miles, and his canteen was
close to empty and Ezra’s was dry. He’d let Ezra rest for a while, but
then they’d have to keep moving.
Long shadows stretched elongated, leading
the path for the twosome. The sky had become a mottled hue of purples and
blues, signalling the closing chapter of the day. Buck gritted his teeth
and pushed his grey faster over the rocky trail, dragging Chaucer and Ezra
behind at a steady pace. “Not too much further, Ezra,” he announced
over his shoulder. “Just hold on. Gonna stop real soon.”
Standish’s head bobbed, but he voiced no
comment. He wriggled his fingers; they were stiff in the rope bonds that
Wilmington thought necessary, tying him to the saddle horn so he wouldn’t fall
off. But Ezra had promised himself that he wouldn’t do that, and had no
intention of falling. So undignified. God, his mouth was dry.
His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and he couldn’t even generate any
saliva to moisten it to set it free. He desperately needed a drink.
And to drink, he needed to alert Buck to his predicament. Standish croaked
Buck’s name, but the sound that escaped resembled nothing like Wilmington’s
name and could barely be considered a whisper. Buck didn’t respond,
unable to hear the soft plea.
The gambler leant over Chaucer’s shoulder
and lay as flat as possible, what with the saddle between him and the horse and
his bound hands that was rather difficult. Ezra rested his head against
the gelding’s neck and gradually increased the pressure with his legs,
squeezing the sides of the mount. Chaucer quickly grasped the gambler’s
silent message and stopped mid stride. The reins became taut between the two
parties and wrenched from Buck’s hold.
“What the hell?” The moustached man
spun in his saddle and frowned in confusion. Now his damn horse is
dictating the pace. But Standish had the horse trained so well that it had
to be the gambler that called a halt. “Ezra, you doing okay?”
Ezra lifted his head a fraction and stared
mutely at the older man. He opened his mouth to repeat his earlier request
for water, but nothing came out.
Wilmington jumped off his grey and strode
back the short distance. “Need a drink?” Standish blinked his
eyes, that was as much as he could command of his body. Buck supplied the
water and reassured Ezra that they would be stopping for the night, very
shortly. Buck tested the gambler’s brow, and wasn’t surprised to find
that it was still incredibly hot.
Buck had been right in his prediction, the
sun had set and it was only by the last dying passage of light that they had
arrived at Heaven’s Falls. Wilmington had moved efficiently in the small
clearing, establishing camp and tending the horses. With the soft glow of
the burning campfire, he concentrated on filling both the canteens from the
narrow stream and making the gambler comfortable for the night, or however long
they would be staying here. He couldn’t expect the Southerner to travel
again, at least until he was recovered from this bout of fever. He
wondered how long it would be, before the others turned up looking for them.
Ezra lay curled on his side, shivering
under the double layer of blankets and Wilmington’s jacket. His glazed
green eyes darted nervously and the shadowed light of the fire glistened on his
Buck soaked a cloth and wiped it over
Ezra’s face. He removed the shoestring tie and undid the buttons on the
shirt and continued to wipe around Ezra's neck and exposed chest.
“C...c...cold…” he rasped, attempting to
pull up the blankets.
“I know you are,” Buck nodded, dabbing
the damp cloth over heated skin, “but yer burning up, Ezra.”
“Cold…” Ezra shuddered, closing his
eyes. He weakly waved his arms, attempting to push the wet cloth away, but
Wilmington tucked them down by his side.
“You let ole Buck fix you up,” he
Wilmington spent the night tending the
feverish man, comforting, soothing and reassuring. Standish had become
delirious and fought Buck with his waning strength. Ezra’s fever broke
just as the dawning sun crept over the horizon, and after the tumultuous night
he’d spent, the Southerner fell into an exhausted sleep.
Buck checked the horses and sank down by
the small fire to catch some shuteye himself.
Ezra slowly allowed the dark recesses to
leave his mind and he woke finding the sun high in the sky. “Buck?” he
croaked hoarsely, sitting up and looking around for Wilmington. “Buck,” he repeated when the first attempt was pitifully weak and went
unanswered. He frowned at the still figure that lay unmoving across from
him. Had something happened to the ladies’ man during the night?
Standish rubbed his eyes, but he had no recollection of the previous night.
He’d best check on Buck, and started pushing away the collection of blankets
and jackets that tangled about his body.
“Whoa there, pard,” Buck called a halt
to the gambler’s actions. He jumped up and knelt by the Southerner’s
side. “You stay right where you are,” he commanded.
“Mr. Wilmington, I seem to be smothered
under all these garments and blankets,” Standish continued to fiddle with them
until Buck pushed him down and readjusted the coverings over him.
“You don’t need to be gettin’ up, so
just lay back down.”
Ezra stopped struggling and frowned in
confusion at the tall gunslinger. “Why would you want me to do that?”
he asked hesitantly.
“‘Cause I’ve just spent all night
tending to ya, and I don’t need for you to have a relapse or something.”
“I feel fine, thank-you Buck. I
apologize for any inconvenience…”
“Ya ain’t no inconvenience, Ezra.
You’re my friend, and yer gonna stay right there ‘til Nathan says ya can
move.” The tall gunslinger folded his arms across his chest and waited
for the Southerner’s reaction.
“What?” Standish sat bolt upright,
flinging the blankets off to the side once more and would have climbed to his
feet if Buck didn’t tackle him back to the ground.
Panting, Buck grinned mischievously at the
gambler. “Make a deal with you.”
“And that would be…” he asked,
pushing the ladies’ man off his chest.
“We stay here today, and if yer feeling
okay in the morning, then we’ll head out then,” Wilmington bargained,
sitting back on his heels to scrutinise the gambler. Ezra had dark circles
under his eyes and his cheeks were still partially flushed. And
he’d bet anything that Standish was still fighting with a mammoth headache and
“And what about Chris?” Ezra hedged.
“Reckon we’ll be meeting them halfway,
anyhow,” Buck’s smile grew. They weren’t gonna be back in Four
Corners on time no matter how hard they pushed. Standish slowly nodded his
head in agreement. “How about some breakfast?”
Standish made a show of looking at the sun,
high in the sky. “It’s a little late for that isn’t it?”
Buck’s smile broadened. “You only
just woke up,” he countered.
“Touché, Mr. Wilmington.”
Want to read more of this series?
A Weight to Bear - Series
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