Once In A Lifetime

By: Angela B

Disclaimer: Don’t own them and never will

Rating: R… Violence and refers to violence

Note: Takes place after Serpents

Special Thanks: To NotTasha for her very hard work and the many hours she put in helping me with this story. All the mistakes have to be mine, ‘cause she really tried.

(Moved to Blackraptor January 2010)

Part 1 

 Ezra was feeling fine. In fact he was feeling great. It was a warm, sunny day, not too hot with just the right amount of breeze whispering about to keep one comfortable. A perfect day to cap off a perfect weekend. After that business with Stutz that ended with him being shot, Chris had decided the man deserved a compensation of sorts for taking the bullet meant from Mary. He also felt slightly bad for Standish, though he’d never admit it, because the gambler didn’t get to keep the money after all. For this reason the leader had decided to let Ezra be messenger boy, running some papers to the sheriff in River’s Bend, and giving the peacekeeper a couple of extra days to remain and enjoy himself in a card game or two.

Ezra had truly enjoyed his visit to the metropolis; well, metropolitan compared to Four Corners. He had indulged in a long hot bath after his arrival, put on his clean suit, found the most lucrative game table in town, and stayed put for the entire time the saloon was open.  He knew he had drawn his share of attention and, since he didn’t have six men watching his back, had kept a watchful eye for potential trouble, but none had come. At the end of his stay, he had saddled up and headed back to Four Corners, feeling much better than he had in a long while.

Unknown to him though, the gambler had drawn some attention that had no plans of going away. Bill Earnest and his brothers were regulars in the town’s holding cells. The local constable and the Earnest brothers had run-ins that you could almost set your watch by. Bill had been in the same tavern that Ezra had occupied over the last couple of days and had kept watch on his next prey. Thinking he was nothing more than a traveling dandy and gambler, Bill figured no one would be missing the man and set up plans to endow himself and his brothers with everything this man had on him.

Chaucer plodded along at a relaxed gait, neither he nor his human being in any hurry. They were less than ten miles from home and would be there long before dark. They had stopped earlier beneath one of the many trees that dotted the trail and had taken a long break, drinking from the clear-running stream and resting a bit one last time before returning home. Ezra was relaxed in the saddle, keeping his eyes alert for any trouble and letting Chaucer pick the pace. It was a startle, then, when two men rode out of the trees on horseback. Quickly finding himself stalled by these men, Chaucer heard the soft reassurances of his master as he was pulled to an abrupt halt and quietly commanded to stand still.

Ezra was annoyed with himself to put it mildly. He hadn’t thought he’d been so lax that these men should have gotten the jump on him without the slightest bit of warning on his part. Gathering the reins in his hands, he kept Chaucer still while he worked over possible solutions in his mind.

“Good day, sirs,” Ezra greeted the two men, slipping into one of his many personalities.  “Is there a basis for this ghastly, abrupt intrusion in my travels?” Ezra asked calmly, trying to slow his heart down and ignore the bells going off in his head.

“Huh?” the younger man said.

“He wants to know why we stopped him, David,” a slightly older version with red hair explained.

“Sirs, I do have places to be and thing to attend to, so if you would just be so kind as let me pass, I would be most grateful,” Ezra said.

“Sure will. Right after you hand over all that cash you won back there at that game table,” the younger boy said.

Ezra let out a long-suffering sigh. Why was it every time he got ahead in life someone came along and tried to take it away from him?  Popping out his derringer, he smiled. “Why don’t we rethink that proposal and you just let me by?” Ezra said, his eyes taking on a harder glint.

“You think you gonna be able to shoot both of us, mister?,” The older one said asked

“I don’t wish to harm either one of you, but a man does have to do what is necessary to protect himself,” Ezra said.

“Well, you might shoot both of us, but what are you gonna do about them?,” the youngest man said mockingly, as he nodded to someone behind the gambler.

Halfway turning in his saddle, Ezra was surprised to find an older man had ridden up beside him, the oldest Earnest brother. Whirling around in the other direction, he found a man on the other side and one behind. His stomach dropped and his gut twitched violently. He quickly figured the odds of getting out of this predicament with his money and his life. The odds didn’t look good for his money and not that great for his life, either. This was going to turn out very bad. There had been a time when facing five men would not have caused such a state within him, but after three years of having six other men at his back, he realized it had become a comfort. A comfort that he now knew had taken an edge, albeit slight, from him.

“Now, sir,” Bill said mocking the southerner’s voice, “I don’t take people threatening to killing my brothers lightly. I don’t like it at all.”

Ezra swallowed hard. If it was the money they wanted, then he would begrudgingly give it up. ‘A dead man can’t own a saloon ,’ he thought silently. “Gentlemen, gentlemen, let’s not get hasty here. I merely misperceived the business transaction. I did not recall this being a toll road before, but evidently you wise gentleman have seen a visionary way of procuring income for you and your family. I, of course, would like to add to that income,” Ezra said as smoothly as his dry mouth would let him.

Reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out a nicely stacked wad of cash and with trembling fingers, handed it towards the obvious leader. Bill Earnest watched in satisfaction as the trembling fingers handed over the cash, thinking how scared this sissified man was of him. Little did the outlaw know the trembling fingers had to do less with being scared and more with Ezra fighting the ingrained notion to keep what was his,  and hating the thought of turning over hard won money. It was just unnatural for the gambler to lose money, no matter what the circumstances were. Watching the man, who Ezra guessed to be Buck’s age, but with none of the man’s finesse, finger his money. The gambler hoped it would be enough to pay for his passage away from these barbarians. The sneer on the man’s face told him differently.

“Boy’s, I think we need to teach Mr. Fancy Pants here that it’s not nice to point guns at people,” Earnest said as he sidled up next to Ezra. Before the gambler could block the move, the horseman was kicking out his leg, knocking Ezra from his saddle. The gambler threw out his hand out of instinct. He landed on his side and heard the discernable pop and felt the rising pain in his shoulder. He laid there for a minute, trying to catch his breath, when he felt himself being yanked to his feet.  Pushing Ezra toward one the other men, Bill said, “String him up.”

The words hit Ezra’s brain like a two-by-four. Panic set in and the natural fight or flight kicked in. Ezra began struggling against the men who were roughly dragging him to a nearby tree. He held his breath against the scream of pain as he jacket was yanked off and winced at the sound of his upper clothes being ripped free. Absently, he calculated the amount it would cost to replace the clothing. Just as quickly, he found his hands bound separately and stretched over his head and tied to a branch. He stared out at his captors and caught the youngest one’s eyes. Ezra would guess his age below twenty, maybe seventeen or eighteen. The kid was absolutely scared. Ezra watched in absurd fascination as the youngest skidded around his brothers in an animated flight that would make their young sheriff seem down-right sedate trying to convince them not to do this. The kid seemed to have a sense of right and wrong, Unfortunately, Ezra thought, he was going up against four men whom it appeared didn’t have that quality.

He squeezed his eyes shut and held back the scream as the burning fire radiated down his arm and into his chest, setting off an equally screaming pain in his head as his body dragged down on his tied his arms. Fighting to regain his breath, he closed his eyes and tried to force his mind elsewhere, like the many times before when he found himself in undesirable positions. He had seen this particular position way too many times as a child on whatever plantation he had landed on when Maude felt the need to depart from his presence and the landowner felt it necessary to punish one of his slaves. Ezra never did have what it took to watch one of the reprehensible proceedings, even though his presence was demanded. He always managed to divert his eyes elsewhere, unfortunately he couldn’t do the same for his hearing or his heart. He refused to remember other times that this position reminded him of. Though expected, the stinging sensation hit him unawares as the whip lashed across his back. His eyes popped opened and his body arched away from the pain. A cry of startled pain ripped from his throat.

“Oh, Mr. Prissy didn’t like that?” Earnest sneered.

 No sooner had the peacekeeper gasped for breath than another lashing came and then another. He kept the pain locked up inside of him throughout the rest of his punishment, not allowing the desperadoes to have the satisfaction of hearing how much pain he was in. He kept his head up and his gaze locked on some point beyond Earnest’s eyesight. He kept reminding himself that it would eventually end. Just when he thought he was going to pass out, he heard the sweetest words he thought he had ever heard. “That’s enough, boys,” Bill commanded. Ezra’s mind was in a fog blanketed by pain. It was all he could do to keep breathing

After Bill had called a halt to the whipping, the five men began divvying up the gambler’s possessions. Young David had innocently claimed the proud steed the man had been riding, setting off a course of action that would cause great suffering for not only the southerner, but also the six other peacemakers.

“You’re too young to own such a magnificent beast. I’ll take the horse, you can have his fancy jacket,” The second to the oldest claimed.

Ezra’s belongings were soon called for, fought over, and the rest of his clothing divested from his body.  In a haste to remove his finely made pants, Earnest yanked off Ezra’s boots, the money folded up inside fell out during the rough handling causing all to immediately stop what they were doing. “Little twerp was holding out on us,” Earnest hissed angrily. “Check the rest of his belongings.  See what else we can find,” he ordered.

Soon Ezra’s blanket, the contents of his saddlebags, and clothing, with their pockets turned inside out, lay scattered out around them. They had found two more rolls of money. The oldest brother was seething; this fancy nobody had tried to get the better of him and had almost succeeded. “Jimmy, I think it’s time you taught your horse a lesson in jumping,” Bill growled out as he stormed towards the semi-conscious gambler, still hanging from his wrists, and stripped down to his cotton bottoms.

“What?” Jimmy, the second-to-the-youngest asked in confusion.

“Just mount up!” Earnest yelled. “You two come help me take him down,” he ordered the twin brothers. “We ain’t got a fence, so we’s just gonna have to improvise,” he said with a wicked edge to his voice.

The other two, Rodger and Randy, stepped forward and helped release the hanging man from the tree, not bothering to care as he fell in a heap to the ground with a sickening moan. The two brothers stretched him out on the ground, the dirt irritating the fresh welts on the gambler’s back. Earnest, ignoring the moans coming from the man on the ground, took a rope from his saddle, tied the gambler’s ankles together, while Rodger tied his wrists in the same fashion as his ankles. He ordered the two brothers holding Ezra down to mount up on their own horses and each take a rope. They soon had Ezra stretched out between the two horses. Ezra, having starting to come to his senses,  knew instantly something was wrong when his legs were bound together and began fighting the new bondage. Dismissing the whistle he heard, he continued to struggle until he was felt himself being lifted up off the ground by the flesh-eating ropes. The first kick of the horse’s hoofs to his mid-section sent the air rushing out of his lungs, ribs to snap and a new kind of pain filled him. For the first time in a very long time, Ezra wished he would just die.

When he realized death would not be instantaneous, the southern gentleman struggled to survive, to remain in control over his mind and his breathing. Sometime during his struggle, he had felt a pull on his leg and a popping in his hip. The searing pain caused him to lose his precious grip on reality and he became lost in a world rife with pain.  The gambler lost count of how many hits his body took as it soon became apparent that the five men were taking turns using their mounts to jump over his tired and abused body. He never really comprehended when the little game of the men’s ended, letting go of the control over his mind and letting it slip into that place where he existed, but did not live. The pain kept rolling over him in engulfing waves. His mind coaxed him to give up and just let go and a majority of his body wanted to desperately, but a deeper part whispered to hold on. He couldn’t put a finger on it, but the voice sounded harsh, demanding and bought to mind the blond gunslinger with hard, penetrating, green eyes back in Four Corners.

David had not wanted to participate in his brother’s decision to horsewhip the stranger, but was too afraid to actually balk and stand up to his brother. He had offered to hold onto the rope binding the legs the entire time, so he wouldn’t have to participate in the torturing of this man. This was beyond anything he had ever imagined his brothers capable of doing. He knew they had a mean streak and were a bit wild, but he never thought it was possible for them to kill a man in such a lingering and monstrous way. His offer had been refused and he had been ordered to do as he was told. The sound of his horse’s hoofs connecting with the body stretched out before him sickened his stomach.

After a time, Earnest called a halt to the fun his brothers and he were having. Checking on the man laid out before him, he could barely discern the chest moving up and down. “Throw the body over yonder,” he commanded, nodding his head to the stand of trees they had hid in earlier.

The set of twins rode over to the side of a small gully; dragging the bonded body between them, not caring that Ezra’s head was bumping the ground with each step of the  horses’ hooves.    His sweat drenched hair sweeping the dirt, making unnatural patterns. With the first impact, Ezra’s consciousness rose and each ensuing impact with the ground was like a nail being driven through his skull. The gambler wished for the darkness, but was denied the blissful pleasure. Taking turns, each brother leaned over and lifted their end of the body, so they could remove their ropes without dismounting. Ezra would have moaned if he had the ability, but it seemed not even his natural reflexes were working properly. Not liking that the body was still in sight, Rodger called back over his shoulder, “David, get over here and pushed this piece of garbage over into the ravine.” The youngest hung his head in sorrow, but followed their directions nonetheless. Walking over to the still body, he gave a small push and watched in sad horror as the body bounced down the side of incline. Ezra hit the small stream of water at the bottom of the shallow culvert, the jolt of cold water hitting his abused body bought hard jerks that sent endless ripples of pain throughout. For a while, he thought he was going to suffocate. It seemed all the ribs were now broken and hampering his breathing. As the body stopped jerking, he finally slipped into the darkness that granted him relief.

Once David joined his brothers, Earnest said,  “Think we should split up for a bit.” He began peeling off paper bills to give to each brother. “We’ll met back in River’s Bend in a couple of weeks. Stay out of trouble and keep your mouths shut.” Aiming his gazed directly at the youngest brother, the last statement was an order and not meant to be taken lightly.

The other brothers nodded their agreement, mounted up and went their own way. David needed a stiff drink and didn’t particularly want to be around any of his brothers at the moment. Turning his horse towards the nearest town, he only had thoughts of getting drunk and forgetting what he had just seen and participated in.  Three hours later, he arrived in Four Corners. Handing his reins over without thought to the liveryman, he went in search of a saloon.

Part 2

Chris sat back in his chair. A beer, his only requirement to wash away the thirst the warm day had caused. A slight smile played across his lips as he listened to the banter of JD and Buck. The ladies’ man was trying to teach the younger man ways in which JD could court a certain young lady, namely Casey. JD, of course, refused to acknowledge any feelings towards the young woman and was becoming quite agitated with his older ‘brother’. Vin looked over at the darkly dressed leader and shot him a smile. Chris winced, knowing Vin was about to up the ante. Before he got the chance, the tracker took note of a young man, followed by Josiah, entering the drinking establishment,

Vin caught the look on Josiah’s face and sat up straighter. He was not the only one who had noticed the young man’s clothes.

Sitting up straighter, Buck and JD quit their haranguing and looked around. The two noticed the same thin boy as the other three did. The newcomer making his way to the bar was wearing black pants made from material other than breech cloth that the men around here wore and an all too familiar purple gaming jacket.

“What’s the odds of there being more than one coat like that in this territory,” Buck asked quietly.

“Not any,” Chris said as he stood.

“Maybe, Ezra lost it in a poker game. It’s been known to happen before,” JD suggested.

“JD, look at that boy. Does he look like the type that could take Ezra in a game of poker?,” Buck said, as he too, rose from his chair.

JD winced at how once again he had been able to make himself appear to be quite the ‘kid’ with such a stupid question. His self-pity was disrupted by Chris’ silent departure from the table.  His men following him, Chris walked up to the young man gulping down his refreshment. David had the uneasy feeling of danger and put down his glass. Slowly turning his gaze to the man standing next to him, he literally jumped back in fear from the danger those green eyes were shooting at him. Bumping into someone, he turned to apologize, only to find himself staring up at the biggest man, besides his oldest brother, with the coldest gray eyes he had ever seen. Slowly glancing around he found himself surrounded and knew the fear the man he had left for dead earlier must have felt.

“Where’s the man those clothes belong to?” Chris asked in a quiet deadly voice.

David gulped. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, mister. Picked these clothes up in River’s Bend,” David lied unconvincingly.

The young man suddenly found himself up against the wall staring into those cold gray eyes. A shiver ran down is spine and he tried to breath around the hand throttling his throat. He was beginning to sympathize more and more with the victim he had just dumped over into the gully. David cursed himself for choosing the closest town. He should have ridden further like his brothers had chosen to do, but at that moment he had only wanted to wash away the memories of that green-eyed man being tortured. He glanced down at the jacket and new pants he was wearing. He had only won the clothes out of default, since all his older brothers were too big for them. He had seen it as a consolatory prize after losing the horse to Bill. Now he wished he, too, had been born big like his brothers, instead of the runt they so often called him.

“Man asked you question and you’re going to answer it right this time,” Josiah said harshly, squeezing his grip a little more.

“All right,” David gurgled out. He felt the smallest release on his throat and said, “I stopped this dandy cheater a ways out of town. Took his belongings...that’s…that’s it,” he said pleadingly.

JD stepped forward.  “Mister, even I can read to it than that. Now tell us what you did to Ezra,” the youngest said heatedly, trying to squelch the rolling in his stomach. He might not have the years his friends had of living out here in the wild, but he knew something terrible had happened to the gambler.

“Okay, I followed him out of River’s Bend and got the drop on him. I tied him up and took his clothes,” David said, not revealing the rest of the story for fear of dying himself after playing a major role in the death of the dandy…whether it was from these men or from his own brothers.

The black leader looked at each of his men and knew what he knew, the kid was still holding back on him and was afraid of someone more than he was of Chris. “Let’s go,” Chris ordered, stepping towards the swinging doors. Without turning, he said quietly, “And bring him along.”

Vin grabbed the man from Josiah roughly and said, “I’ll tend to him. Best go find Nathan. Likely we’re gonna need him.”

Josiah nodded once and left in ground eating strides to find the healer. His stomach doing flip-flops at the thought of what they might find. All knew that the young man had only told half the story, and Ezra wasn’t the type that one got the drop on and he just didn’t hand over his belongings because he was asked. He had proven that when they had that run in with Guy Royal’s men and Ezra wouldn’t hand over his jacket. Man liked to have gotten his jaw broke over a piece of clothing. Nope, if Ezra lost his clothing there was a bigger reason than the one the boy had just given.

Before following Chris, Buck slapped his youngest brother on the back and said softly; “Best hitch up a wagon and follow along.”

JD turned to face Buck and saw the seriousness and fear emanating from those blue eyes and nodded once before heading out to get the wagon. Five minutes later the six men, plus David, were heading out of town. With the pace Chris had set, it didn’t take the five riding peacekeepers as long to get to the site as it had taken David to get to town, but it was still nearly dusk before they came to the spot. JD was bringing up the rear in the wagon and was delayed a bit by it.


The cold water rushing over him felt good to the abused body once it got over the shock. Ezra had lost consciousness when he had finally landed at the bottom of the gully. Now the water was turning cold again and although it felt good, he knew he had to get at least his head out of the shallow stream. Raising his head in thought of moving backwards a bit, the simple act bough forth a rush of pain. Before he could stop it, a scream tore loose from his already raw throat. He didn’t bother wondering about that. His new goal was to ride out the fire pulsating through his body. When Ezra finally realized the pain wasn’t going subside he also realized it wasn’t growing either. With fortitude he never believed he had, he thought through his actions and then, pushing up with his good arm, in one movement he threw himself back out of the water. He wasn’t sure what caused the most hellacious pain, the thrusting upwards of his body or the falling to the ground afterwards. The pain ripped through the gambler taking him back into oblivion. Ezra didn’t care.


David had balked at being towed along, but one glare from the longhaired peacekeeper and he mounted up reluctantly. He had only been able to give an approximated guess of where the incident had taken place and the rest had been left to Vin to backtrack the young man’s journey. Coming up on a spot of misplaced dirt with an infinite number of tracks all around, Vin halted the group and handed the trailing horse’s reins over to Josiah before scouting out the area. “Looks like this is the place,” he said.

Something in the tracker’s face caused Chris to look more sharply at the tracker. “What is it?” he asked.

“Tracks everywhere,’ Vin said, looking up at the leader and waiting for the words to be processed. There had been more than just the young kid who had gotten the drop on Ezra. No wonder Ezra had been so easily disrobed. “Looks like maybe five or six.  Horses were jumping around here quite a bit,” Vin said, puzzled by the signs he was reading.

Josiah didn’t care what the signs said, he just wanted to find Ezra. Yanking the young man, who was still mounted, around to face him, Josiah asked in a deadly voice, “Where is he?”

“I…I…I don’t know. Maybe he wandered off or something,” David said, the sweat ran down his spine and the glare he was receiving caused him to shift uncomfortably.

Chris, who had dismounted, took two steps over to the horse, grabbed David away from Josiah and had him kneeling on the ground with his gun pointed between the two scared eyes. “Where?” he demanded. The rage was rolling off the blond like heat off the desert in July.

David closed his eyes and pointed to the trees. “O…Over there,” he stammered out.

David was dragged to his feet by Buck as the other four men raced ahead into the trees and stopped at the edge of a small ravine. Shock filled the men, making them unable to move closer to the prone body lying at the bottom of the gully by the shallow stream of water. Each man trying to wrap their minds around the scene they were seeing. Nathan was the first to come back to his senses as he rushed down to the unmoving, bloodied body. The others remained, unable to move from their position for a moment longer, before, too, hurled down the small slope, sliding to a stop a couple of feet away from their motionless friend. Chris, his heart beating wildly in his chest, and with fear forming in his heart, finally found his voice and asked in a quietness that carried like a cannon. “Nathan?”

The healer had run down to his friend and carefully knelt down beside him, repeating a quick prayer over and over. Feeling for the vein in the lily-white neck, he gulped in air as he felt his world spin slightly. The question Chris asked shook him out of his slight shock. Looking up at the statuesque men, he asked sharply, “Where’s JD with that wagon?”

Buck, still standing up-top with David, looked over his shoulder and could barely discern the outline of the wagon. Turning back to look down at Nathan and his friend, he responded, “He’s coming. Probably another ten minutes,” Buck answered.

“Hurry him up!” Nathan commanded, the healer taking charge of the situation. “The rest of you get over here and help me!”

That was all it took. Buck yanked David over to the same tree that Ezra had been tied to hours earlier and manhandled him into a similar position before the mustached man grabbed his horse and mounted in motion, running full out towards JD and the wagon. The sight of his beaten friend burned into his mind.

Chris, Josiah and Vin made their way over to Nathan and a still Ezra, lying on his back. The close up look of their friend sickened them: the bloody lashes across his back; the dark black bruising covering all the right side, already spreading out to encompass both the back and front; the distinguishable hoof prints embedded into the pale skin; the twisted way his right leg was bent. Chris and Josiah had to close their eyes briefly while Vin turned his head, each gasping for air and calming rattled nerves. Nathan, already having come to terms somewhat with the look of the gambler, waited a few seconds before saying quietly, “We gotta get him out of here and back up there.”

Three heads nodded. Sucking up their emotions, they each knelt down and prepared to carry their friend out. They realized there wasn’t a place to put their hands that wouldn’t cause some kind of pain.  They gritted their teeth and, after turning Ezra onto his back, slid their hands as gently as possible underneath their friend. Chris put one arm under Ezra’s neck, so that when he was lifted, the gambler’s head would roll slightly back into his arm and not hang down and possibly choke him. His other arm went under the dislocated shoulder. Nathan moved to the opposite side and reinforced Chris position. Josiah slid his arms under the hips on the dislocated side, keeping the leg from moving any more than possible. Vin got down at the end and gathered the ankles. The entire action elicited a small groan from an unconscious Ezra.

“Easy, Ezra. It’ll only last a minute,” soothed Chris, whispering into the gambler’s ear. “Just hang on.”

Without counting, the men acted as one. Slowly, they lifted Ezra up and trudged back up the sandy slope. Going as steady as possible, they finally reached the top.  Nathan, letting go of his position, clambered over the edge first and took Ezra’s head in his hands. With unquestionable resolve, the remaining three men dug in their heels and walked straight up and over the ridge, trying to jostle their comrade as little as possible. Carrying the limp body over to rest under the shady tree, Chris, Vin and Josiah held Ezra steady as Nathan retrieved his bedroll and spread it out on the cool grass. Laying their friend down on his back, each one was thankful that it was late spring and not winter.  After lying Ezra down, Vin went to Nathan’s horse and retrieved the medical pouch. Walking back to the group, he sat down and unrolled the traveling bag and began laying out the supplies. Josiah started a campfire and lit some torches, sticking them in the ground around the small group to give Nathan as much light as possible before taking up the position near the brown-haired head.

The healer looked down on his beaten friend and sighed inwardly at the mess his friend was in. Nathan no longer startled at the word friend when connecting it to Ezra. In the beginning, their relationship had been strained and they still got into it sometimes, just like friends do, but they had a more even keel kind of friendship now. The two were opposite ends of the spectrum, but then again most of the men he rode with were opposites of each other, they also had a great deal in common. It was this commonality they shared that made them such a strong force. To lose one part of that force would weaken their strength. Nathan ghosted his hands along the side of the injured man’s ribcage; the edges of whip marks could barely be seen. It looked like Ezra and him just found one more thing to have in common. That they shared this had nothing but sorrow in Nathan’s eyes.

Chris knelt beside Ezra, subconsciously taking the limp hand in his. The strong leader watched, mesmerized, as the gambler struggled for each shallow breath of air. The blond tried to will those lungs not to fail. Ezra’s eyes briefly fluttered as he struggled for breath. The scene touched off something deep in the leader’s heart, and he leaned down so that his face was next to Ezra’s. “Don’t you quit on me, Ezra! You hear me? You can’t die until I tell you you can. You got that?” Chris said forcibly. Ezra’s eyes fluttered open for the briefest of moments, but the exchange was there. Ezra would hold on as long as he could. Chris squeezed the hand he held firmly. “Don’t give up,” the blond added more quietly.

Nathan’s gentle fingers ghosted along the battered body with featherlike touches, mentally marking all the bruises and hoof prints.  Using, what he considered was his limited knowledge of human anatomy, he tried to estimate what possible internal damage his friend was suffering. As his examination continued, he touched the dislocated hip, eliciting a moan from the unconscious man. Without thinking, Nathan mumbled an apology, “Sorry, Ez.”

 “Hip is out of place,” the healer added unnecessarily. It had been obvious when they found Ezra, that the odd angle of the leg indicated displacement.

After a short, but complete examination, Nathan was a somewhat overwhelmed as to where to start first; the injuries were so numerous and great. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up into Vin’s calming blue eyes. “One thing at a time,” the tracker said quietly.

Nathan nodded and blinked back the tears that threatened to blur his vision. Turning off his personal side, he forced the professional to the front. Ezra needed the healer to be unattached and do what was best for him, even if that meant causing more pain. Skimming the broken body again, Nathan decided it would be best to set the dislocated bones first. Infection could easily start on it’s own and with so many open wounds, it only compounded the possibility. Gangrene sitting in then was very likely. Taking a deep breath, Nathan looked at his oldest friend and made the suggestion openly, “Best set the bones first.”

Josiah stared back at Nathan. The older man could discern the pain hidden in the depths of the healer’s eyes. The one-time slave no more wanted to do this than he did, but it was the only thing to do and they both knew it. Josiah gave a sharp nod of his head. To the missionary’s son it was just another way of serving penance for an imaginary crime he had convicted himself a long time ago of committing: helping his friends when they were injured; taking their anger when they had nowhere else to vent I; suffering through their pain with them was the least he could do for what he figured he had done in the past.  Josiah repositioned his knees and held Ezra’s upper torso, while Vin straddled the prone legs, making sure not to touch the disjointed one. 

Vin had been more than relieved when Josiah had silently agreed to be the one to hold Ezra. The tracker had had to do a lot of patching up wounds when he was both a buffalo hunter and a bounty hunter and, though blood never really bothered him, the sounds of bones scraping together raked on his nerves something fierce. He could do it when he had to, but he wouldn’t volunteer if someone else was around that would do for him. Trying to force himself not to listen for the pop signifying the bones had been moved back in place, he glanced over at the blond leader. He shook his head sadly, that poor David would be lucky to survive the trip back to Four Corners. With a three count, Nathan popped the shoulder back in place. Chris continued to hold the limp hand and will his strength into his friend.

Ezra, weakened by what he had endured already, could only manage a whimper no louder than a breath. Inwardly he pleaded for his tormentors to stop the pain. The four men watched Ezra barely be able to toss his head to the side in an effort to get away from the pain, and felt their resolve breaking. It would be difficult to hurt the man any further knowing instinctively he was needing a reprieve. None of them moved as Josiah bent over his friend and wiped the sweaty hair back out of the closed green eyes. Crooning like one does to an injured animal, Josiah whispered heartening encouragement to Ezra. “Shhh, Ezra. It’s Josiah. We’re all here. We’re going to take you home real soon, promise. Nathan’s just got to do a few things first before we can move you.” Not knowing whether Ezra understood anything he was saying, Josiah continued to talk while he and the others restored their nerves to continue. “Going to be all right. You got the best doctor there is and Nathan and us are going to take good care of you. You just go back to sleep, okay?”

Not knowing if it was the words, his voice, or the fact that Ezra just didn’t have any strength left, Josiah watched as Ezra took a breath and let his body go lax. Nathan normally would have strapped the shoulder in place, but knew they would have to tend the wounds on his back first, so he merely let the arm drape across the bare chest. A few seconds later, the preacher looked up to find Buck and JD standing next to them. He noticed the easy-going man was decidedly rigid with tension. The blue eyes that normally danced with life and mischief were now blazing with anger and worry.  JD’s had a look of absolute horror etched so deeply into his face, Josiah had no doubt this one moment would forever change the young man. JD would finally realize the true cruelty man was capable of committing on one another. Speaking softly, the big man said, “JD, why don’t you make sure there’s enough padding in the wagon for Ezra here. You know how the man likes his comfort?” The last said to lighten the situation a fraction. JD only nodded before moving off, almost in a state of shock. Buck moved to the other side, opposite of where Chris sat.


As JD followed through with Josiah’s orders he recalled  how he had watched the men, as he urged the team pulling the wagon to a faster pace, dismount and run a piece before stopping. He had kept a visual account as Nathan and then the others disappeared, presumably into a ravine hidden by the tall grass. Buck had then yanked the young man to the tree and bound him before jumping his horse and race back towards him. He had known to hurry, and Buck flying back to him only reinforced that idea. He already slapped the horses into a flat out run. Once Buck had reached him and reined his horse around next to the wagon, Jd had caught a glimpse of the normally jovial man’s face. No words were needed. The look on Buck’s face had said it all. They raced towards their friends in silence.

When the two had finally reached the spot, JD jumped to the ground and hurriedly ground tied the team and then ran to catch up to Buck as the pair arrived at their friend’s side together. JD had never seen the likes of man’s cruelty before to that extent.  The dark blue and purple bruises, that looked almost black were rapidly spreading over the entire length of the man, were mind-boggling. He had yet to see the stripes covering the gambler’s back. The easterner was never so glad for a job than when Josiah’s deep voice penetrated his thoughts and gave him something to do.

Once arriving to work on the bedding in the wagon, JD could no longer control his rolling stomach and stepped around to the other side. He wanted no witnesses to his weakness. He was sure none of the other men had lost their guts. The sheriff wiped his mouth and went back to his job. His hands trembled as they worked to fluff up the mostly flattened mattress and blankets that he’d grabbed out of the livery. Tiny had taken to leaving the material handy after the seven became peacekeepers as a joke in the beginning. The joke being started that with that many guns around, someone was going to get hurt. They just never knew how right the large man was going to be.

Josiah had moved down to Ezra’s waist, letting Vin move around to the other side by Chris. They all knew each others’ weaknesses when it came to things like this and the preacher didn’t hold it against the tracker, he had his own weaknesses. Josiah pressed down the torso, while Nathan held Ezra’s leg under the knee with one hand and lower down the leg with the other. Buck, taking his place next to Josiah, held down Ezra’s head with the palm of one hand. JD, coming back to the group, turned around the other way. He knew what was coming and knowing how unbearable the pain must feel. The young sheriff cringed at the weak cry Ezra gave up. Swiping at the tears that flowed, JD promised revenge on those that did this to his friend. 

The five men surrounding Ezra had to take some deep breaths to prepare themselves for what they had to do. Knowing they had to straighten out the leg for their friend’s sake didn’t make the job any easier. Buck’s insides were in complete turmoil. Only a handful of times in his life had he felt this engulfed in emotions. Like Josiah, Buck found it easy to express his feelings with words. Talking constantly to the gambler, he didn’t care if Ezra knew what he was saying as long as the man understood he wasn’t alone and was among friends. Looking over to where Vin sat, Buck knew the longhaired tracker felt no less pain than any of them and would find his own way to express those feelings to Ezra later; probably when Ezra would need it the most.

Buck tried not to inspect his friend’s body too much. He had seen this before; back in Big Sheephorn country where cattlemen and sheep ranchers had taken their feuds to a new level of hatred. Very few men had survived the brutal punishment and just a couple of them came out all right in the end. The others were either crippled for life or never right in their minds again. Buck clenched down tighter to the leg he was holding. Ezra was going to be one of the few that made it all the way back in one piece. He and the other five men surrounding him would make sure of it.

Josiah gripped the body a little tighter, whispering words of encouragement to the unconscious man as Vin and Chris became prepared in their relative spots. Nathan gently took hold of the injured leg, one hand fixed under the knee and other one placed on top of the thigh to press and rotate the bone back into joint. The healer closed his eyes for a moment and then quietly counted to three. On three, Nathan pulled, rotated and pushed the hip back into its socket. Ezra’s eyes came open and he lurched off the ground with the new flaming pain. His scream would have been strong enough to be heard counties away if he had any strength left; as it was, it came out as a pitifully weak cry.

Buck and Josiah tried to comfort the man on the ground whose body involuntarily jerked from the torment it was being put through. Vin grabbed his canteen and drenched his handkerchief. Swiping the wet material across dry lips, Ezra’s body instinctively sought out the moisture. The tracker carefully placed the water soaked hanky into the heated mouth and let nature take its course as Ezra’s sucked the material dry. Vin removed the rag and wished he could repeat the process when Ezra’s tongue darted out looking for more moisture, but knowing better than to fill the man up with liquid. Vin replaced the cap on his canteen and set it aside. “Get ya some more real soon, pard. Just hang in there, Ez. Nathan’ll make it alright,” he said in his soft Texan drawl.

The jerking eased off and Ezra was completely aware of the pain strumming through his body. His face was white and tense, his eyes radiated with shock and pain, beads of glistening sweat formed on his brow and ran down his face, swept away from his eyes by a gentle hand. His hand, clutched in the blond’s grasp, squeezed tighter into a death grip, in some primal need to offload the pain into them. Looking up at the men surrounding him, he knew who they were, even though his eyesight was blurred at best. The touches were ones he had come to associate with people who had helped in the past couple of years when he incurred previous injuries. The voices were like rope to a drowning man. He might not be able to see them clearly, but he knew they were there and for that he would be eternally grateful. He would not die alone as he so often thought he would during his lonely life.

After strapping the damaged leg to the good leg to keep in place, Nathan began categorizing what he needed to do next to make the man able to travel. With nothing left to do and no possible way of helping his friend, Chris handed the limp hand over to Vin and turned his rage on the only person available. The four men working on Ezra snapped their head up at the sound of a painful scream. JD, having finally moved back to the edge of the group, looking lost as what to do, said quietly and without concern, “Guess Chris is asking that David for better answers.”

After the initial surprise the sound caused, the three men went back to working on the southerner. Vin glanced over at Buck and knew it would take both of them to keep Chris from outright killing the young highwayman. Nodding in silent agreement, they rose as one, while Vin gently motioned for JD to take his place. JD was as much a part of them as any and now was not the time to coddle the boy. If JD was going to be a true friend to Ezra, now was as good a time to start being one as ever. As the old saying went, ‘It was time to take a stand or cut bait and run.’ The sheriff moved into position and took a deep breath. If the rest could do this, so could he.  Then, Nathan asked him and Josiah to help turn Ezra over, careful of the damaged ribcage and JD began having second thoughts as he witnessed the gashes marking Ezra’s back. The sickly, dried, brown blood clashing glaringly against the white skin made a morbid picture. Because of the shoulder, Josiah sat flat on the ground and they rolled Ezra over, levering as much weight as possible away from his bad arm onto the preacher’s lap. Era’s upper most torso and head rested on the comfort of the big man.

Part 3

Chris strode over to where eighteen-year-old David Earnest stood strung up by his wrists. The young outlaw had lost his stomach twice already. Once, when they bought the gambler up topside and laid him close enough for David to see clearly all the damage he and his brothers had inflicted on the poor traveler. The second time was when the black man had rotated the leg back into place. Watching the man in black rise from his kneeling position and turn those hate-filled green eyes on him, David felt his stomach lurch again.

The blond didn’t say a word as he approached the young man. The moonlight created an eerie glow around him, light bouncing off the shiny handled gun and reflecting his blazing eyes. Those eyes spoke volumes. Walking up to the strung up human, Chris could smell the foul stench rising from the ground and swiftly kicked dirt over the spot without once taking his eyes off the scumbag before him. The gunslinger felt nothing for this piece of trash as he struck out his fist and hit the face staring back him, snapping the head back. Chris didn’t feel any release, not even at the boy’s scream and drew back for a second go at him when he felt his hand restrained. Swiftly turning to see who dared to interrupt him, Chris found himself staring into Buck’s intense blue eyes and noticed Vin right at his shoulder. Chris stiffened. No one was going to stop him from his intentions, neither his long time friend nor the tracker that he felt oddly related to. Before he could snarl, Buck quietly said, “Don’t plan on stopping you from what you gonna do, but let’s get some answers first, okay?”

Chris stopped and then relaxed slightly and bobbed his head. Stepping back, he let Buck up to the kid. He had seen times when the fun-loving jovial man was a lot scarier than him. For some reason, watching those blue eyes go from laughing to absolute deathly was nerve-wracking even for the gunslinger. Buck stepped up to the kid and stared at the man for a long ten count. David began twitching nervously, wringing his wrists tighter against the ropes until rivulets of blood began oozing down his arms and disappeared inside his shirt. Without seemingly to move, Buck’s hand suddenly held a wicked looking twelve-inch Bowie knife. Twirling the knife between his fingers, Buck stared down at the blade. It shone so brightly, the moonlight reflected off of it. Looking back up into those scared eyes, he said, “Learned a lot of uses for one of these things over the years. Can cut a man for hours, even a couple of days, before he dies.” Looking back down at the blade and then back up to David’s face with dead serious eyes, he asked, “How long you reckon you can last?”

A small patch of ground beneath David became moist and a dark splotch spread out over his pants. Stepping back a pace, Buck ignored the stench and let a smile escape. Vin spoke up in a quiet tone and said, “I reckon not long, but I know how to stretch out the time he does last.”

David flicked his gaze towards the longhaired man standing there in a buckskin coat. David swallowed at the look the man was giving him. The eyes themselves were inviting him to a painful lesson, but the smile was worse. It almost happy, a complete opposite of what the eyes were saying or maybe relishing what the eyes were saying, David wasn’t sure which.

Chris stepped back up to the boy and swung him around to face him. Time for mincing words and threats were over. “Tell us everything,” he said simply. The voice was low and dangerous and David was pretty sure the man could kill with just that voice.

Gulping for air and nerves, the highway robber shook his head and gathered the last of his manhood together. “It was Bill’s idea. He watched the dandy rake in all that money at the gambling table. He thought it would be easing pickings. He got me and Rodger to get ahead of him, while he and Jimmy and Randy came up from behind. Going all right, too, Bill just gave him a little beating for holding us with all his pretty talk. Then we were dividing his belongings and found his other money and Bill got real angry.”

The three peacekeepers didn’t have to guess what Bill had done when he got angry, they knew. “These men any kin?” Buck asked.

David nodded, “Older brothers. Bill’s the oldest. He's been taking care of us since pa and ma died back when I was twelve. Fever,” he added the last part softly.

Chris didn’t care about any sob story. One his men and good friends had been nearly killed. Taking a look back to where Nathan was busy cleaning of the worst in the slashes, Chris figured Nathan had given Ezra some laudanum to knock him out. Turning back to his target he asked, “Where are they?”

David shook his head. “Don’t know. Bill said we should split up for a couple of weeks. Randy and Rodger went one way and Bill and Jimmy went off another. I just wanted to get to the closest town and drink away what we’d done,” David finished quietly, the honesty showing through.

Chris clenched and unclenched his fists. The need to drive this young man’s nose right into his skull was rushing through his system with urgency. He glanced over to Buck and Vin and could see the same thoughts shining from their eyes. He wouldn’t let them do it; he wouldn’t let them become murderers. That’s how they would later view themselves, after the hate died and they got to reflecting on it, if   he allowed them to kill this man, no matter how deserving it was. That was what separated men like them from men like Bill Earnest and his brothers. He also realized the only way to keep Buck and Vin and, for that matter, the others from going on a rampage was to stay in control of the situation. Only for the sake of his friends would he retain control on his killing urges.

“Tie him to his horse,” Chris said quietly before moving back to where Ezra lay motionless. He felt his stomach clenched for a moment in dread as the thought that perhaps the man was no longer with them. One look from Josiah, though, and his stomach unclenched. Ezra was still fighting to stay with them. Vin dragged David back his horse and was sorely tempted to just let the man walk back to town, but common sense told him that would slow them down and Ezra couldn’t spare the minutes.

Nathan finished sewing up the longest gash; he would reopen them once they got back to town and reclean them; for now it would have to do. With the help of the others, they turned Ezra back onto his back. The healer managed to dribble a few more drops of laudanum down the gambler’s throat. He could only hope it would be enough to keep the man unconscious during the trip back to town. The man was going to suffer enough pain and any Nathan would spare him would be downright kind.

With all six men moving him, Ezra was lifted off the ground and placed in the wagon. Nathan crawled up to the head of the buckboard and placed the limp head on his crossed lap. There was nothing more he could do for his friend until they got back to town. The healer felt the wagon give a sway as JD crawled up into the drivers seat and started the wagon in motion. Nathan looked around and noticed a friend surrounded it on each side. The need to ride close and keep an eye on Ezra was in all of them.

Part 4

The ride back was a long one. It was well past midnight when the wagon rolled into Four Corners. Shortly after they had started out, Ezra seemed to have felt every bump in the road. The whimpering quickly taxed JD’s already short nerves, but kept it to himself. Buck noticed the kid cringing every time Ezra moaned and held up the process while he offered the sheriff a trade. During the exchange, Nathan, with Vin’s help, poured more laudanum down the southern. In no time the man’s torment was abated and the journey continued uninterrupted.

Pulling up in front of the clinic, the men dismounted and each lifted up a piece of the blanket Ezra was lying on and carried him upstairs. Once inside, they eased Ezra down onto the cot. Josiah and Buck gently lifted the sick man off the cot long enough for Chris to remove the blanket and then settled him back on the cot.

Vin helped the healer gather the necessary supplies. It was going to be a long night, added to an already long day. Between the two men, they got the tea to simmering and the herbs ground up. Josiah used his knife and ripped the inside and outside seams of Ezra’s torn and bloodstained cotton undergarment and then gently, Chris, Buck and he removed the garment. The red stain did not bode well for the gambler. Covering Ezra up with a sheet, the men stood gathered around wishing they could do more for their injured friend.

Going back to where Ezra lay, Nathan once more began trying to figure out where to start. Knowing there wasn’t much he could do for the set bones or the bruising, he decided the slashes would be best taken care of first. The healer motioned for the three men to help turn Ezra onto his stomach. Sliding onto the bed, Josiah once again took his place underneath the gambler. It was going to painful for the southerner for a very long time.

Reopening the stitches, Nathan scrubbed the dirt and pebbles out of each lash mark with lye soap. It wasn’t the most pleasant of soaps, with its rough texture and strange odor, but it did the job. Rinsing out the sites, Nathan carefully closed up the worst wounds, opting to leave the others open and heal on their own. Nathan carefully spread a thick layer of the mixture all over the back to help in the healing and reduce the scarring. Laying a muslin cloth over the medicine, he wrapped the torso gently but tightly, doing his best not to shift any of the broken ribs. The men eased Ezra onto his back and finally strapped the shoulder down, placing a poultice under the strips of sheets.

The blond slowly backed away from the cot. Too many people around the small bed made Nathan’s work more difficult. Turning, he once again decided his resources would best be put to use in helping JD secure the outlaw and see what other answers he could get from the man. Vin, not feeling useful anymore, followed suit.

Upon turning Ezra onto his back the healer did a cursory glance and swore. Pulling back the sheet that they had just covered the man up with, Nathan’s agitation grew. A large circular spot on the bottom sheet was bright red. Josiah and Buck lifted Ezra upper body partially while Nathan removed the blood-soaked sheet from the top. Once the sheet had been half removed and another one started, the men moved to the end of the bed and repeated the process. After the fresh sheet was in place, Josiah retrieved a folded towel and placed it under Ezra’s lower back. No one needed an explanation; they all knew it meant their gambler was bleeding internally. Nathan began probing Ezra’s abdomen and found it was beginning to swell on the right side.  The touch and subsequent pain was enough to elicit a small moan from the patient. “Okay, Ez. That’s all I’m going to right now,” Nathan said softly patting the man’s good arm.

The men moved away from the sick bed and Buck asked worriedly, “What do we do now, Nathan?”

“We wait. We pour as much fluids into him as possible. Hopefully, the bleeding will stop on its own. Until then we keep on eye out for fever and hope he doesn’t start getting an infection.”

Buck looked at the healer and smiled sadly. “This is Ez, Nate. That isn’t going to happen.”

“We can only pray, boys,” Josiah added.


Chris stepped into the jailhouse and nodded once to the sheriff and then said, “Go on to bed, JD. I’ll look after our young prisoner.”

The young sheriff responded with a questioning look and a quiet thanks. He grabbed his hat and started out the door. Opening the door, he nearly ran into Vin. Sidestepping the tracker, JD threw a worried glance over his shoulder towards the blond leader and looked back to Vin. The Texan nodded once in understanding a sent a silent promise that everything would be all right. JD headed across the street as Vin closed the door and leaned against the wall. Crossing his arms, he would wait the blond out. Only interfering if absolutely necessary.

Chris ignored the tracker and grabbed the keys to the cell door. Stepping inside, he glared at the prisoner. David had not even thought about trying to escape, just trying to position himself as far from the man as he could in the small cell. David stared at the man dressed in black, looking like the reaper himself, and suddenly began to think he wasn’t going to make it long enough to make it before the courts.

Chris took three steps, grabbed the kid by the lapels of his jacket and threw him against wall. “Where’s your brothers?” he demanded.

“Don’t know,” David said as he struggled for air.

Chris shoved the boy a little harder, tightening his grip and shoving his knuckles into the exposed adam’s apple. “Where?” he hissed.

“Think Roger and Randy might have headed for Ridge City. Don’t know about Bill and Jimmy,” David finally confessed.

Chris pressed the vulnerable throat a little tighter. “Getting tired of having to ask you twice for everything,” he said, his jaw muscles tightening as he clenched them together. His green eyes squinting in hate.

 David squeaked, “Honest.”

Chris loosened his grip, but didn’t let go. Something bothered him about the information. Finally remembering something David had said earlier, Chris asked harshly, “You’re suppose to meet back up. When? Where?” The grip tightening back up at the young man’s throat.

“Two weeks … River’s Bend,” the young boy gave up. “Please, Mister, don’t kill them. They’re the only family I got,” David begged as Larabee let the man go.

Chris seemed to see the kid in new light. He was just a young pup. He probably thought of the oldest brother more as a parent than a brother. On some level Chris understood the kid’s point of not wanting to lose his family, but justice would be served. The leader knew the kid didn’t want to be responsible for sending the law after his brothers and possibly their deaths.

Chris looked the kid in the eye and said, “I’ll give them that choice.”

David was smart enough to understand that was the best this peacemaker could do and took the promise as it was.

Chris turned to see Vin still standing there. One nod was all that was necessary. Tomorrow, he and a few of the boys would be going to Ridge City.

Part 5

The next morning bought the sunshine and a bright blue day. For the citizens of Four Corners it was going to a beautiful day. None of the six men gathered in the clinic noticed the weather or the beauty the day was going to bring forth. Ezra has made it through the night and that was the best news that they were going to have this morning.

Chris had already told them that he, Vin and Buck were going to Ridge City. Josiah would stay and help Nathan and JD with their respective duties. No argument ensued. They all had a job to do and it would be performed.

Chris and the two men rode hard that day and made Ridge City before dark. The trip was made mostly in silence. As was customary, Chris stopped at the sheriff’s office, while Buck and Vin took the horses on down to the livery. Checking in, while not mandatory, was courteous. The blond stepped inside the jail and met the deputy. Chris like liked Ryans. He was a man in his thirties, tall and reed-thin, but something in his eyes warned people there was more to him than what they saw and he did his job well. It didn’t take Chris long to tell the deputy who he sought and why.  The deputy stepped out onto the boardwalk and stopped a kid running down the street. The boy was quickly instructed to run to the sheriff’s house and fetch him back to the jail quickly.

Buck and Vin rode on to the livery. Entering the dimly lit building and dismounting, they began looking for the horses David had described as his brother’s. They were looking for a dun and a black with one white stocking on the right foreleg. He had told them that the oldest brother, Bill, had taken Ezra’s horse for himself. Giving the stable boy a couple of pennies, they were shown to the stalls where the steeds had been stabled. The stable boy didn’t know where the men went, only that the two men had only been back once to check on their horses. Buck and Vin looked at each other. Both knew that it  was just plain stupid on the part of the riders. It was bad business not to check on your horse at least a couple times a day, especially in a new town. It was too easy for said horses to accidentally disappear. Buck gave the boy a nickel and asked him to find some extra oats for the three peacekeepers’ horses. After riding so hard to make the trip in one day, the horses deserved a little treat.

Chris only had to wait about five minutes for the sheriff, a man about the same age as himself. The sheriff had plainly been eating his supper when he had been called. Chris greeted him and told him he was looking for two men that hurt one of his own. Sheriff Hayes turned to the deputy and asked, “You seen these two men?”

The deputy replied, “Yeah. Saw him over at the Lucky Spoon Hotel last night.”

“Show Mr. Larabee over there and I’ll stay here until you return,” the sheriff ordered.

Chris knew exactly where the Luck Spoon Hotel was, but allowed the deputy to do his instructed job and followed the man out the door. Buck and Vin stepped up onto the porch as Chris closed the door. Ryans gave the two men a quick hello with the dip of his head and headed for the hotel.

The four men entered the hotel and immediately drew the attention of the sparse patrons sitting in the lobby. The clerk looked up and almost groaned. Chris Larabee and his posse were well known in these parts and having them in town, specifically in his hotel, did not bode well.  The deputy walked up to the counter while the three lawmen hung back.

“Lookin’ for two men in their middle twenties. Would have come in last night,” the deputy explained briefly.

“Yeah, they checked in last night. Kept to themselves today. Figure they’ll be going out soon though. Nightlife picks up after supper,” he said, giving his brows a wiggle and the eyes took on a little sparkle, enough for the men to get the insinuation.

Before Chris could turn to leave, the hotel owner added, “Ain’t had no trouble with them,” He looked at the blond when he spoke the last of these words.

Vin couldn’t help but duck his head to hide his grin. Apparently, their reputation preceded them. The tracker had studied the old man ever since walking into the old building. He figured the man was in his late sixties and was probably the original owner of the hotel.  Vin would bet his last cent that the old man knew everyone and everything that went on in these parts and could tell stories from as far back as when he was a kid.

Chris led the other three men up the stairs quietly. Professional courtesy was over. These men were his and he was going to take care of it. The four men stalked down the hall and stopped in front of the appointed room. Buck and Vin gathered around the door and waited for a sign from Chris. The deputy had moved back a space. He was there only if he was needed and he seriously doubted that would be the case. Being given the slightest nod from their leader, the three men barged into the room like dogs from dominion.

Both outlaws had been in the process of getting dressed to go out on the town and jumped a foot at the crashing sound of the door falling in. They fumbled to reach for their guns, but weren’t fast enough before Chris Larabee, dressed in black with his holster hanging empty from his hip,  was standing next to them with his gun cocked in their faces. “Evening, boys,” he said with a wicked smile gracing his face. The two brothers raised their hands in quiet surrender.

Chris let them finish getting dressed. He didn’t want to give the good ladies of the town the shock of their lives by dragging the men across to the jail in their union suits. With a gun to their backs and one on each side, the twenty-five-year-old men followed the deputy to the jail.

Only after feeling safe behind bars did they object to their treatment. “Can’t lock up folks without no good reason,” Rodger said, stepping away from the bars when Chris turned his attention to him.

“I got a reason. His name is Ezra Standish,” Chris said lowly.

“We never met an Ezra Standish. What about him?” Randy said bravely from the far corner of the cell.

“He’s the man you beat and then horse-whipped yesterday,” Buck said heatedly, his head cocked at an angle as he neared the bars of the cell. “The one you stripped and then rolled over an embankment,” the angry ladies’ man said, stopping at the bars. “The one you left to die.”

The two men gulped. It should have been days before anyone noticed that prissy fellow was missing, if anyone cared enough to file the  report. Then, like a flash they knew how these men came to find that gambler so quickly…David. “What’s that dandy to you, anyway?” Randy questioned with a scowl.

“He’s our friend,” Vin said quietly.

Chris turned back to the sheriff. “Gonna go get us a room. We’ll be back bright and early for them,” he said and then walked out, followed by Vin. Buck stopped at the door and then ambled back to the cell. He stood there for a second before he jumped at the bars and yelled, “Boo.” Both men jumped and for the first time, Buck cracked a smile. It wasn’t a very nice one either.


It had been a long and drawn out day in the clinic. Ezra had roused from his sleep right after the others’ departure, mostly due to the pain that seemed to live a life of its own. He was not coherent enough to know what was happening around him, just that he felt like he was being stampeded upon. The low moans alerted Josiah first and he leaned forward in his chair. Sleep had not been had since the two nights before and the preacher was showing the signs, but didn’t let it stop him from being there for his younger friend.

Ezra had started a low-grade fever  during the early hours of the morning, so Josiah laid a wet cloth on the sweaty forehead and sympathized, “Know you’re hurting, Ez. Just going to have to ride with it for a few minutes. Nathan’s bringing some more tea and then it’ll get better.”

His only answer was another soft moan. Josiah eased the single sheet back from the body and between him and Nathan, replaced the blood soaked towel. Nathan looked into the calm gray yes with a worried feeling. “It isn’t getting better, Josiah. I’d hoped the bleeding would have stopped or slowed down by now.”

Josiah reached out a comforting hand and laid it on his friend’s arm. “It’ll be fine, Nathan.”

“Hope so. All we can do is keep trying to flush his kidneys out with fluids and try not to let him get dehydrated,” Nathan whispered as he turned back to the stove and dropped the rag into boiling water to be cleaned and reused for later. Both men knew that a high fever could literally cook the insides of a man, but dehydration could do just as much harm. Pouring another cup of tea, the healer handed it to Josiah. The big man placed a clean towel over Ezra’s chest for a bib and using a spoon, fed the tea to the unconscious man, drop by drop.

After an hour,  Josiah finally got the last drop down the parched throat. While Josiah fed Ezra, Nathan kept Ezra bathed down with wet rags. He had paid a local boy a dime to make sure they always had a pail of cold water throughout the day.

Both men knew the routine by now and understood rationally that all they could do was sit and wait, but it never seemed enough. They each were privately thankful that the weather was holding at a comfortable temperature. The season was right for them to start having odd weather. Something about the late spring made the temperatures bounce around. One day it would be mild and beautiful, and that night a storm could blow through and lower the temperature. The next day the sun could be out and the heat would rise to unbelievable highs.

Josiah, looking up at his friend’s tired visage, he softly suggested, “Go to bed, Nathan. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on him. You need the rest.”

Nathan stared back at his friend and then barked out a laugh. “Don’t talk. You don’t look like you’re ready for no spring dance yourself.”

“I’ll be all right for a couple of hours while you catch up on some rest. After you wake, then I’ll go get some sleep. No use both of us sitting here,” Josiah wisely stated. Nathan finally consented and headed for his small bedroom.

Josiah looked down on the man in the bed and sighed heavily. He had seen men do horrific things to each other in the name of hate and greed, but could never grasp the why. He began talking about the places he had been and the things he had seen. “Bet you’ve seen a lot in your lifetime, too. Huh, Ez?’ he asked quietly. “I bet it hasn’t all been grand and great, either,” he hazarded a guess. He always had the feeling there had been more to the young man’s life than money and fine articles.

While Josiah tended to Ezra, JD took over the patrolling of the town. He would have to wait to patrol the outlying areas until Josiah could catch a break and get some sleep. The older peacekeeper could watch over the town while he rode out. By the time JD finished doing the duties at the jail and checking on their three guests,  most of the town had heard about the crime that had befallen one of their peacekeepers. While a very few thought maybe the gambler had somehow bought it on himself, most of the people were truly worried.

The sheriff fielded questions concerning the state of Ezra’s health, to questions and concerns that there was now a group of marauders out there. Some had even heard rumors that this gang had intentions of swooping into Four Corners and ravaging it dry and with one peacekeeper down and three others, the ones handiest with their guns, were out of town. The townspeople were becoming unsettled.

It took the better part of the morning and Mary’s help to convince the town that Ezra’s beating had not been some kind of warning to the citizens. It had been a plain act of highway savagery,  and Chris and the others had gone out to catch them. Hearing that the famed gunslinger knew where the rest of the band was and that the others were out, that very moment, gathering them up put the people’s mind at ease and things calmed back down.

JD managed to slip over to the saloon and order lunch for Josiah and Nathan. Inez was already one step ahead of the young sheriff and bought out a tray already fixed. JD tipped his hat and thanked her for her kind generosity and headed to the clinic with the tray. Shifting the lunch tray to one hand, JD opened the door and then kick it closed with the heel of his boot. Sitting down the tray, he walked over to the bed and handed Josiah his plate. Looking down, the guilt of how he first reacted came sweeping back down on him.

Josiah noticed a change in the young man and asked, “JD, you all right?”

Shifting uncomfortably at the thought of Josiah knowing what was on his mind, he tried to change topics. “Don’t look good, does he?”

Josiah took the change of topics and looked back down at Ezra. Under his wrapped upper torso there was one massive black bruise mixed with red splotches that stood out as horse hoofs. The man’s face had never really regained any color and was now covered in light perspiration. The normally perfectly styled hair was sopped and plastered down to his scalp. Josiah had to agree with JD’s observation.

“He’s had better days,” Josiah said quietly. Looking back up at the black-haired  man, he inquired, “So, any problems?” He had already wolfed down half his food, not realizing just how hungry he was.

“Some of the folks were under the impression we were fixing to be under attack,” JD answered with a roll of his eyes. “Might have a houseful when you go back to the church for confirmation that we’re not,” he added.

Josiah noticed the slight dip in JD’s voice and knew it wasn’t easy for the young sheriff. For the most part, the folks accepted JD as sheriff and respected him as such, but unfortunately, when things went awry, the citizens of Four Corners sought out the other members, to confirm that the town was safe, and the sheriff knew what he was doing and had backup if he needed. The preacher admired JD. He knew it must irritate the man something awful to have his word questioned because of his age. More times than most, they turned to Chris for answers or problems, yet the sheriff handled it well and kept his cool.

“I’ll sneak in the back door. Want some sleep before I face them.” Giving the black-haired  man a wicked gleam, he said, “Hate to have to preach them a sermon.” JD smiled back.

Nodding back to Ezra, he offered, “I’ll stay with him until Nathan wakes if you want to head on over now.”

Josiah considered the offer only a minute before nodding is head. “Sure appreciate the offer,” he said as he rose up, the bones in his knees popping as he stood. JD held back the grin and smart remark that threatened to pop up. Josiah patted Ezra’s good shoulder once and whispered, “Be back in a bit. You just keep hanging in there.” Setting down his empty plate, he grabbed his hat and headed out the door as JD sat down, picked up a rag and began swiping down the pale man. “So, Ez, how much did you win in River’s Bend?” JD began conversationally.


Chris, Buck and Vin were up and ready to go at the first hint of light. The sun was still a good hour away from rising, but the dawning of light was enough to see clearly the well-trodden path back to Four Corners. Upon hearing the three men walking into the jail, the arrested were not thrilled at being awaken so early in the morning.

“What the blazes we gotta get up so early for?” Randy whined.

“Because, I said so” Buck answered, unlocking the cell and motioning for the two men to exit and then be handcuffed.

“We ain’t even had no breakfast yet,” Rodger added as Vin locked the shackles into place.

“Shut up or I’ll cuff your hands behind your back instead,” Vin said. “Besides going without one meal isn’t gonna do you no harm,” he added.

Chris nodded once to Sheriff Hayes. “Thanks,” he said quietly before motioning for Buck and Vin to lead their prisoner outside.

“Anytime,” Sheriff Hayes answered. In reality, he liked the hard-nosed, honest gunslinger.

The men traveled back to Four Corners much like they had going: quick pace, few stops and quiet. Randy, they had quickly learned, was the one who liked to whine. After fifteen minutes of it, Vin offered to gag him for the rest of the trip. Surprisingly enough, the man quit his whining and rode in silence for the rest of the trip.

Nearing the town, Buck and Vin flanked Chris and let out their lead rope so the other two horses could lag behind a bit. Neither worried about the men trying anything. One warning from the blond leader and they had all but repeated their youngest brother’s earlier action. Riding with soaked britches was very uncomfortable.

“You reckon he’s still with us?” Vin questioned quietly. Vin had grown to like the gambler. Ezra had a quick wit, an easy style and not too many men were secure enough to don a purple dress and pretend to be a singer. The tracker let a smile escape at that memory. Ezra was game for anything and contrary to Nathan’s popular belief, the man was not always out for the all mighty dollar, just ninety-nine percent of the time. Yep, Vin had taken a real liking to the cardsharp.

“I hope so,” Chris answered somberly.

The first time the blond had run across the gambler, he was holding a room full of angry men at arm’s-length with a simple two-shooter. Chris knew then the man had to have nerves of steel to even attempt such a bold stunt. The man had proved again-and-again just how much gumption he had. Chris wouldn’t admit it out loud, but the gamester was always good for a laugh. Even after being shot, the man had been more worried about the money than his wound.

“Ez, is going to be just fine and somehow, he’s going to come out ahead in all this,” Buck put in. Like Vin, the first memory that flashed into his mind was the gambler dressed up in that gaudy purple dress and hooking those fellows on his line. Man was a good one, even though he had a mother like Maude. Buck shook his head. Well, not everyone could have a saint for a mother like he did.

The men rode into town in silence. JD, having been relieved by Nathan earlier in the evening, came out to assist with the criminals. Buck gave one look at the kid and breathed a sigh of relief; Ezra was still hanging in there. After bedding the horses down, the three men made their way over to the clinic. Walking in with reverence for the ill, Chris made his way over to the far side of the bed, Josiah relinquishing his chair to the tired blond. Buck and Vin took up positions on the near side. Chris lifted the limp hand and pushed the sweaty hair off the gaunt looking face. Looking up, he simply said, “Nathan?”

Nathan held the steel green eyes and said, “Nearly lost him last night.” He then began recapping what had taken place the night before while the men were gone.

As the night slipped into the eleventh hour, the gambler’s fever began rising and his throat had started to constrict, making him choke on any liquid put into him. The healer had decided on taking the man down to the bathhouse. Having the ample supply of water and not having to tote the necessary items up the stairs helped the healer make that choice. He had debated on whether it was all right to get the fresh stitches wet, but after Ezra’s fever increased, he determined there was no choice. Josiah helped wrap him in a blanket and carried him down to the bathhouse.  They had soaked the man in the tub for a good two hours. Josiah had silently sworn he had seen steam come off the water; Ezra was so hot hitting that cold water. Bucket after bucket of cold water was poured over the man, completely sopping the floors and the men’s boots and pant legs. The bath had eventually lowered the fever, but it was still too high in Nathan’s mind.

Chris watched the healer, Nathan wasn’t telling them everything. “Nathan, what’s causing the fever?” he prodded.

“He’s still bleeding inside,” Nathan answered; he had lowered his head.

“Can’t you operate and stop it?” Buck questioned the healer.

The healer turned angry, hurt eyes upon the dark-haired man. “Buck, dang it, I don’t know enough to operate. I could kill him,” Nathan snapped out bitterly. Suddenly,  Chris understood Nathan’s disposition. The man was scared.

“What about taking him to Eagle Bend?” Vin asked. Looking upon his friend, he couldn’t imagine just quitting.

“Doc there is getting old. Not sure he’d be able to perform such an operation,” Nathan answered sadly, he had already thought of all their options and there wasn’t any.

“What about getting him to Denver?” Chris asked.

“Never make the trip,” Nathan replied matter-of-factly.

Chris nodded and then looked up. “So,  either he dies because he can’t make the trip to Denver, the doc in Eagle Bend is too old, or you’re too proud to try,” Chris stated.

“Chris!” Josiah, Buck and Vin exclaimed as one.

Nathan looked up like he had been slapped. “I am not proud!” he yelled.

“Sure you are. You’ve been successful each time one of us has gotten hurt and now you’re afraid to try because you might fail. You’d rather him die like he is and that way you won’t have any part in it,” Chris said logically. In truth, he was trying to get the healer to see he was Ezra’s only chance at living.

Nathan could only stare at the gunslinger. He couldn’t imagine Chris really thought he would sit back and do nothing to help a friend all in the name of pride.

Chris watched the words sink in and then stood up. “Nathan, there’s not a man in this room, including Ezra, who doesn’t trust you completely. Even if you aren’t sure how to do it, you’re still his best chance and I trust you. He’d trust you,” Chris said firmly, nodding towards Ezra.

Suddenly Nathan saw the truth in it all. Even if Ezra were to die; at least he would never be able to say he hadn’t tried everything within his power to prevent it. Slowly, the healer began nodding his head in agreement. He would operate. He would try to save his friend. “Will need help,” he said softly.

Part 6

While Nathan gathered all the needed supplies, Vin began boiling the surgical blades and needles. Chris went to Mrs. Potter’s store and borrowed more lanterns. During his absence, Josiah and Buck cleaned Ezra from neck to waist with lye soap and carbolic alcohol. Chris came back with four lanterns and after quickly hammering a few nails into the ceiling and bending the ends upward, he lit the lamps and hung them over the needed site.

Nathan bought one of the three medical books he had over to where Ezra was lying and handed it to Chris. The tall blond would read what precisely needed to be done. Nathan looked around him and saw the complete trust in him in each man’s face. “Josiah, keep the ether dripping, but don’t get him too deep; we don’t need him going into a coma.”

Josiah nodded and placed a small pieces of cotton cloth soaked in ether over Ezra’s mouth. He had opened the window next to the bed, so the rest of them would be breathing fresh air and not inhale as much of the fumes. Nathan slowly inserted the blade into Ezra’s abdomen and slit a five-inch long gap into the welled skin. Buck was ready with rags to wipe away the blood. Peeling back the skin, Nathan asked Vin to hold a lantern closer. Vin reached over to the table and grabbed the lantern that was sitting there. Holding it above the healer’s shoulder, both men tried to not to notice the way the light shook ever so lightly due to the trembling hands that held it.

Nathan slipped his fingers inside Ezra’s abdomen and going by what Chris was reading,  felt along the organ, which had been determined by feel alone to be the kidney. Nathan drew his bloody fingers along the edges and soon felt a slight pulsating of blood being pumped against his fingers. “Found it,” he declared. He drew his fingers back out and pick up the scalpel and sliced the opening further open.

Vin readjusted the light and Nathan could see where the blood was flowing freely from a long nick on the right kidney. Buck kept wiping up the blood to keep the site clear. A mound of blood-soaked cloths slowly grew at the cowboy’s feet. Josiah kept his eyes locked on the unconscious friend’s face, his lips constantly moving silently in a never-ending prayer. Chris kept his eyes locked on the book before him. The need to give Nathan a warning about any potential complications had him scanning two paragraphs ahead of what he was reading aloud.

Nathan took one of the already threaded needles and sewed the cut closed. All took a deep breath, but knew they weren’t done yet. There was still the potential for other bleeders. Chris read from the book about checking the liver, spleen, small intestine and pancreas. Vin and Buck stole furtive looks at one another as Chris named each organ. Neither knew there were so many things inside one’s body that could be injured.

Nathan dutifully finger examined each organ and found a small lesion on the small intestine. After sewing it up, Nathan removed his hands from Ezra’s body and rinsed them in the heated water, Chris had carried over to him once he was done reading. Nathan scrubbed his hands and began to sew the outside incision closed. He was in deep concentration when Buck’s low voice startled him.

“You figure he’ll start getting better now?” the tall, black-haired  man asked seriously.

“I don’t know. There is so much other damage done to him,” Nathan answered truthfully.

Buck cleaned up the mess on the floor and put the used rags into the boiling pot of water to be cleaned and sterilized. They would be needed again in the future. While Buck cleaned up the floor, Josiah removed the ether-filled rag and began fanning fresh air into Ezra’s face. Chris took the remaining clean rags and began cleaning Ezra’s torso. It had been a joint effort, but Chris figured that was how they did best, by doing it together.


After everything had been put back in order, the men dispersed. Chris, tired to the bone, but knowing that none of the others were any more tired than he was, took town patrol. He checked the stores and looking out for possible loiters. Once secure in the thought that the town had bedded down for the night, he headed towards his bed in the rooming house. He felt it was safe enough and knew there was no need for anyone to stay up all night patrolling the town. This was still the age when people left their front doors unlocked and everyone, including outlaws, was bedded down by midnight. Four Corners was a small, budding town, not some big city back east and for that Chris was eternally thankful.

Vin headed towards the livery and made a pass through, checking to make sure the horses had been properly tended to before heading off to his wagon. His bed, no matter its condition, was going to beat the hard ground any time. Climbing up into the back, he looked over at the single light burning from the jailhouse and caught a glimpse of Buck entering the small structure.

Buck walked into the small building, the sudden noise startling a tense JD. Buck gave a small smile and stared at the slumbering criminals while JD righted himself. Buck was too tired to make fun of the kid tonight. JD had put the two new brothers into the other cell.

Earlier that night, they had seemed real intent on killing their brother and JD was ready to pull his gun and shoot them when Chris walked in. One look at that face and all three brothers went silent. The sheriff didn’t have the ability to read people like the older peacekeepers did, but even he could tell something was wrong. Seeing the lanterns in the gunslinger’s hands, he had asked tentatively, “Chris, what’s going on?”

“Nathan’s going to operate on Ez and see if he can’t get the bleeding to stop,” Chris had answered, the whole time staring at the three men with such hate, JD wasn’t sure the men were going to just explode.

JD had swallowed hard. “Nathan knows what he’s doing. Ezra will be all right,” JD said, trying to convince himself more than Chris.

Chris had nodded once. “If he ain’t…,” Chris left the threat hanging.

Realizing Buck was still standing there, JD blushed at being caught daydreaming.

“Hey, Buck,” he greeted wearily.

“Hey,” Buck answered back. Walking over to the cells, he noticed they were all asleep. One of the twins, he couldn’t tell them apart and didn’t care, had taken a blanket and made a pallet on the floor while they other had taken the bed. “They give you any trouble?” he questioned, turning back to JD.

“Nah,” the sheriff said. “Though I reckon it’d be good idea not to let those two near that David. Figure they’ll kill him if they get the chance,” he finished saying as he fought a yawn.

Buck caught the yawn and fought one of his own. Sleep would be very welcomed right now, but the kid looked like he could do with it more than he could. “Why don’t you go on, JD?  I’ll stay here and look after them. Won’t be long until Vin’ll come take over anyway,” Buck said. They all knew Vin rose with the first ray of light no matter what, so it wouldn’t be but a couple of hours.

JD started to argue, but Buck threw his hand in the air in a shooing motion. “Get,” he ordered with a smile.

JD nodded his head and started to turn and leave. Stopping,  he asked the question he’d been afraid to ask since Buck walked in, “How is he?”

Buck bowed his head in contemplation. Buck looked back at the kid. “Won’t know for awhile, I guess. He lost a lot of blood before Nathan operated and lost some while he was trying to find out where Ezra was bleeding from. I guess we’ll just have to keep waiting,” the older man said looking very tired. Brightening with a smile for a moment, he shooed JD once again. “Now, go!”

JD stepped out the door. “Night, Buck.”

“Night, kid,” Buck answered as he sat down in the chair, leaned back and put his feet up. When Vin came, there was no doubt he was going to head straight for bed. Right after he checked on that gambler.

Part 7

Nathan had stayed up the rest of the night, resting in the hard-back wood chair. He was beyond tired now. It had been over sixty hours since they had found Ezra in that ravine, but it seemed more like a month, and in all that time he had only caught a few hours of sleep. To top off his exhaustion, he was still fuming over the tactic Chris had used to get him to operate. He might understand the need, but the words still burned.

Nathan was slightly dozing when he heard the door creak opened. Cracking open an eyelid, he watched JD slide in quietly. Nathan closed his eye and went back to dozing. The young easterner sat down on the far side of the bed and subconsciously picked up the rag in the bowl of water and began wiping down Ezra’s face. The fever that had been surging through the southerner had lowered significantly, but hadn’t broken.  After going to bed early that morning, JD had finally received an enough sleep to function again.

JD stared down at his friend and let his memories float along. There had been moments in his life since coming out west that involved Ezra specifically in one way or another. The gambler had been the first of the group to introduce himself and later had almost single-handedly affected their escape. Would have probably worked, too, if that powder keg hadn’t been empty.  Then there was the time the young man had shot young Mrs. Annie. Ezra was about the only one that didn’t look upon him without pity in his eyes. Of course, he couldn’t think of Mrs. Annie without thinking of Ezra coming down the street with nothing but a tablecloth wrapped around his waist. JD grinned at the memory. He had been feeling sorry for himself and just happened to look up the street in time to catch the show. The man had absolutely no shame. JD let out a silent laugh.

JD rehashed all the other times that no one else knew about, the times when it had just been him and the gambler, alone. Ezra, no matter what, had always treated him like a competent person and not the young greenhorn the others saw him as. JD kept using the rag in a repeated motion, lost in his thoughts. Only after Nathan shifted for a more comfortable position did he realize the rag was dry. Rewetting the rag, JD decided he could stay a few minutes longer and let Nathan enjoy all the rest he could get.

JD had been in the clinic only fifteen minutes before the door once again opened and Chris walked in a breakfast tray for Nathan. Seeing the man was sleeping, uncomfortably as it was, he nodded his greeting to JD. Heading for the near side of the bed, he spotted the pitcher of water. Remembering what Nathan had said about flushing out the gambler’s system, he picked up a glass and the pitcher. He realized by the coolness of the metal outside of the pitcher that the water had to be relatively fresh. Pouring the water, he walked over to the chair and sat down. Using his fingers to grip either side of Ezra’s pliant mouth and squeezing, he gently forced it open. Slowly he started dribbling a drop at a time into the dry mouth. Reflexes had the gambler’s throat opening wider so the water could make its way down.

JD watched the gunslinger gently feed Ezra the water. Very few people saw the man in black as a caring and considerate person.  “You’re good at that,” JD said and then blushed a deep red and ducked his head when he realized he had spoken out loud.

Chris looked up briefly and grinned despite himself at the kid’s embarrassment. “Adam got strep throat once. Took to an awful fever. Sarah couldn’t be nursemaid twenty-four hours a day,” he said and then smiled a small grin. “Though, the good Lord knows she tried.”

JD nodded and went for a diversion. He had been watching Ezra and hoped he had learned enough to do it this time. “Everyone accounted for?” Keeping up with seven men was a bit of a trick sometimes, though with two of them stuck in the clinic it made it a tad easier.

Chris nodded his head, accepting the change in topics with relief. “Vin relieved Buck at the jail at dawn, so Buck’s gone to bed. Josiah has been fielding questions from the citizens since he made his first appearance this morning at sunrise.” Chris shook his head. “Think he’s going to go on a sabbatical if it keeps up,” the man in black said with a larger smile.

JD smiled back at the image. He knew how tiring it could be to have to keep answering the same answers over and over. Chris looked up and said, “Why don’t you go on and see if Vin needs anything. I’ll stay until Nathan’s recovered enough to wake up.” Looking over at the man slouched down on the wooden chair with one leg across the other and head tilted back against the hard board, Chris winced. The healer was going to have a stiff neck when he woke up. JD nodded and whispered a goodbye to Ezra and then left the clinic.

Chris sat, for the most part, alone with Ezra and continued to pour the water a drop at a time. Sitting there in the emptiness, he thought of his life before and after meeting up these men. He had never really contemplated how drastically his life had altered since pairing up with the six other men. It wasn’t so bad. Somewhere far away, he knew Sarah was looking down on him and smiling.


Josiah’d had it. He was tired of answering the same questions from the same sniveling wimps all morning. Finally ushering the last patron out of the church, he did something he thought he’d never do; he locked the doors and snuck out the back. Stopping in at the jail, he could still see tired lines marked the tracker’s face, but knew the man faced his responsibilities with the same duty as the rest. He made a mental note to come back and relieve him early from his duties. “Hey, Vin. How’s it going?”

Vin shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Been pretty quiet. JD just left.” He smiled at the thought of how much they tended to look after each other in tight situations. He couldn’t remember feeling this looked after since leaving the tribe and often they would let him be for days at a time. Not these boys. They wanted to know where you were at and when you were expected to return all the time. He wouldn’t admit it, but he kinda liked it.

Josiah couldn’t keep the smile from blooming on his face as he watched the one-time buffalo hunter sharpen his long Bowie knife. The preacher could only imagine what types of things Vin had hinted at that led to the three jailed men’s silence. “I’m headed on over to check on Ezra and then I’ll be back to relieve you,” he told the tracker.

“That’s all right, Josiah. JD said he’d relieve me in an hour,” Vin answered, never missing a beat in sharpening his knife.

Josiah left the jail and headed for the clinic. The big man climbed the stairs, feeling like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The fact that Ezra was still with them seven hours after the surgery, while hopeful, didn’t mean that Ezra couldn’t still die. He had seen men in the war practically ready to leave for home after being patched up at the army hospital only to die of sudden complications. Stepping up on to the landing, he quietly opened the door. Apparently it wasn’t quiet enough because Nathan roused and then attempted to straighten up. Both Chris and Josiah smothered their humor at watching Nathan try to stretch and maneuver all the new kinks out of his body.

While Nathan worked on regaining circulation to parts of his body, Josiah walked over to the bed and sat down in the empty chair. “How’s he doing?” the preacher asked as he took up the limp hand and began rubbing it gently.

“Still with us,” was Chris’ reply.

Those simple words held so much hope and faith. Nathan finally walked over to the bed and, after momentarily glaring at the bowed head of the blond leader, he checked Ezra’s brow.  “Fever still hanging on, but it’s down considerably,” he commented.

“Need us to help with anything while we’re here?” Josiah asked. He knew how devoted Nathan was to them when they were down, but realized having extra help was always appreciated.

Nathan seemed to give the question some serious consideration and then answered, “The padding on his back does need changing and the shoulder could be looked after,” the black healer said thoughtfully.

“Ok, let’s do it,” Chris said already standing to turn Ezra over.

Nathan was still burning from Chris’ remarks from the night before, but recognized he needed all the help he could get at the moment. With gentle ease that would shock the fair people of Four Corners, the three men eased the bound gambler over onto his left side. During Nathan’s initial review of injuries, he’d figured out the right side had taken more hits than the left and therefore the left wasn’t quite so damaged. Plus, Nathan wanted to keep Ezra off that right leg.

Josiah held the bandaged shoulder steady while Chris and Nathan unwound all the binding that had been wrapped around the battered torso. Removing the bandages, Nathan lifted up the old soft cloth that covered the majority of the whipped back. Breathing a sigh of relief, Nathan nodded to himself. His musing was interrupted by Chris’ voice. “Looks good to me.”

Nathan would have thought Chris had a mean streak in him if he hadn’t known exactly what the blond had meant. The lashes were looking good. None were swelled or red with infection. The shallower ones were even beginning to form a thin scab. The deeper ones that had been sewed closed looked clean and healthy. Nathan had worried some the other night when they had soaked the gambler in the tub to get his fever down. Afterwards Josiah had helped him unwrap the bandages and dry off the wounds.

Nathan went over to his shelves and picked up a large jar that had been reused many times. Rubbing it between his hands, he warmed up the gel inside. Taking off the lid, he dipped his long fingers into it and scooped out a huge portion. Rubbing it between his hands, he then smeared it evenly over the exposed skin. Afterwards, Chris helped him rewrap the bandages and turn the gambler back over and then set to work rewrapping the dislocated shoulder. The whole job made more difficult due to the fact that Ezra’s right leg was still splintered from the hip down to the toes. Nathan had decided against unwrapping it, afraid that any instability would cause the bones to shift. He didn’t want to grind the bones anymore than necessary. It could still cause infection to spread in there between the joints and cause more problems and right now, Nathan figured Ezra had had enough.

Once Ezra was cared for and tucked back under his covers, the three men had nothing left to do again but wait. Josiah turned to the healer and informed him, “Why don’t you get out and get something to eat? The breakfast Chris bought earlier is too cold to eat now.”

Nathan started to refute his need to leave the clinic when Chris spoke up. “Josiah’s right. Go on and get some fresh air. We’ll take care of things here.”

Nathan bit back the retort that popped into his mind, but didn’t control the blazing glare he shot at the leader as he turned and strode out of the clinic and down the steps.

Chris turned to Josiah in confusion. He didn’t understand Nathan’s hostility towards him. “What was that about?” he questioned.

“Don’t rightly know, Brother. Perhaps Nathan is just overly tired. He hasn’t slept very much since we found Ezra and bought him home,” Josiah explained cautiously. He figured he really knew what had ruffled Nathan’s feathers, but he figured it was Nathan’s business whether or not Chris should be informed.

“Well,” Chris said uneasily, stalling a bit. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much for the healer to be mad at him; when Ezra was always getting ticked off at him. Maybe it was because that was the nature of his and Ezra’s friendship, and Nathan and his was so different. Slowly he stood up. “Think I’ll head out and see what the others are up to,” he said conversationally as he headed towards the door.

Josiah nodded his head and then, after the blond had left, shook it. Chris ought to be careful or Nathan would tell that gunslinger just why he was so mad. The preacher had seen the healer rip into Ezra enough times to know it wasn’t pretty when Nathan let go. Looking back down at the sleeping gambler, he dearly hoped Nathan didn’t get to overly righteous with Chris. The man wasn’t like Ezra; he wouldn’t sit there and take it. Chris would fight back and right now,  they were too shaky from dealing with one uncertainty with Ezra for a rift between any others.

Chris walked down the steps of the clinic and looked the street up and down. He made a  mental calculation of where each of the men were. Vin was at the jail; Buck was still sleeping probably; Josiah, of course, was in the clinic with Ezra;and Nathan was at Inez’s eating. That left the young sheriff unaccounted for. Chris took another look around the town and started across the street when he heard his name being called. Turning, he saw Mary headed his way. Chris liked the blonde woman for the most part, but there were times when she had a little too much brass for his liking. There was a time to butt into their business and a time to bow out; unfortunately, Mary didn’t always care to notice when those times were. The first time they had met face to face was after that initial business with Nathan and those cowboys trying to hang him, the newspaperwoman had written an article about the gunslinger cleaning up the town. She had said she had good reason to elaborate and didn’t mind using his name if it got rid of the bad element. Chris smiled at the thought; he’d told Mary at that time he was the bad element. The woman had stayed clear of him after that for a little while.

The man in black stopped in the middle of the street and waited for Mary to catch up. Stepping up beside Chris, Mary asked, “How is Mr. Standish this morning?”

Chris began guiding the two of them off the street. He noticed that the woman seemed to be truly concerned for the cardsharp. “He’s holding on,” he said.

Mary took a sideways glance at the man beside him. Over the three years they had known each other, Mary had learned just how much of a good man the gunslinger was and knew just how far to push before he pushed back. Of course, she didn’t always heed those warnings. She also knew how much he cared for and felt responsible for the men around him. She watched his jaw clench and unclench and knew the man was not in a happy mood and therefore decided it would be wise not to press the issue. Stopping in front of Mrs. Potter’s, she waited until Chris also stopped. Looking into the intense green eyes, she smiled and said, “My prayers will be with Mr. Standish for a speedy recovery.”

Chris just nodded and touched the brim of his hat before moving on. He nearly made it to the saloon when JD came running up from behind shouting his name. Stopping once again, Chris heaved a sigh as he waited for the young sheriff to catch up.

“Hey, Chris,” JD said with a smile on his face.

Chris was amazed at the young man; nothing ever seemed to dampen the sheriff’s mood for very long. At time, he almost hated it. Mentally shaking his thoughts clear, he returned the greeting. “JD.”

The young sheriff fell in step with blond and began retelling of his morning. “I’m been over at the telegraph station. Since those two brothers you bought in last night didn’t know where the other two went, and David said they were supposed to meet back up at River’s Bend in a couple of weeks, I figured they didn’t go no further than fifty miles. So I sent out telegrams to the surrounding towns describing the two.” JD stopped to take a breath.

Chris stopped and looked at the other man in appreciation. The kid was right in his thinking and was glad he took the initiative to start looking for leads to find the missing brothers. “Good job, JD,” he said as he started walking again.

“Of course that left those small towns without telegraphs unaccounted for, but at least we’ll know where they’re not at,” JD explained.

Chris nodded at the man’s thinking again. Before turning into the saloon, he said, “Why don’t you go relieve Vin at the jail. I’m sure he didn’t get enough sleep before taking over for Buck, and when Buck does get up, I’ll send him out on patrol.”

“Sure, Chris. See ya later,” the sheriff answered and took off.

Chris entered the dim saloon and waited for his eyes to adjust. His first glance went over to the corner round table where he automatically expected to see the gambler cleaning up in a poker game. After remembering where the gambler was and why, Chris let out a long breath and searched the rest of the room. He spotted Nathan in the back at their table eating.

Chris made his way back to the table, greeting Inez along the way. Before he could get settled, she was there with a refreshing cold drink. Taking  a long thirst quenching pull on the tall glass, he set it down and took a long look at the healer who had yet to acknowledge him. “Problem?” he inquired straight forward. The blond wasn’t positive the healer was mad at him or really worried about Ezra.

“Nothing you’d cared to hear,” Nathan shot back.

Chris sat up straighter in his chair and looked right at the healer and demanded, “You got something to say to me, say it.”

Nathan laid his fork and knife down and stared back at Chris, unflinching. “You don’t have any call judging my abilities. You might be head of this so-called group, but you don't have no say in my clinic.”

Chris sat there waiting for Nathan to get out the rest of whatever was bottled up inside of him. He didn’t have to wait long. The man resolved he wouldn’t hit the healer without good cause. Nathan was a good man, but like any of them he could get a bur under his blanket and make a mountain out of nothing.

Trying to get his rage and hurt under control, Nathan took a deep breath before saying, “You really think I wouldn’t try to save a friend because I was too proud? You’re wrong.”

“I think you were scared of letting Ezra down,” Chris said simply. The vein in his temple had already popped out like it did when the gunslinger was trying to control the instinct to reach out and hit someone.

Neither man spoke for a while, judging the other man and still seeing the same friend that was there yesterday. Taking the rest of his drink in one gulp, Chris sat the glass back down on the table and said, “Maybe you’re right, Nathan. Maybe I don’t have no call to question your judgment, but answer me this: Would you have had the nerve to do it if I hadn’t of challenged you? And if butting into your business at the clinic saves a friend, let me assure you, I’d do it again.” With that, the blond stood and walked out the door.

Nathan sat there for a long time staring at his plate. He’d been shocked that Chris had understood the real reason he had feared operating on Ezra. Nathan had to slowly admit to himself that Chris hadn’t challenged his abilities because of the color of his skin, like he had subconsciously thought, but had challenged him to simply save a friend. A slow grin slid onto the healer’s lips. He would give Chris his due; the man was a sneaky person. Instead of ordering him to operate, the blond had made him want to operate


After waking and getting a bite to eat, Buck headed over to the clinic, stopping by the jail first to see who was covering. The schedule had gotten a little skewed lately and he wondered if it was back to normal yet, which would tell him when his turn would be next. Stepping into the darker room, he saw JD sitting behind the desk sorting through wanted posters. “Hey, JD,” he called out.

Looking up from the stack he was working on, JD responded, “Hey, Buck.”

Stepping further into the jail, Buck looked over to where the prisoners were sitting quietly in their cell. He noticed someone had given them a deck of cards and the three brothers had obviously buried the hatchet temporarily, out of boredom Buck would guess, and were silently playing poker.

Now that the jovial man had been able to get some sleep, he was more aware of things and one of those things was how JD kept avoiding him. Walking over to the desk, he slid his hip up onto the corner and picked up the discarded wanted posters. Flipping through them, he kept one eye on the young sheriff who was trying very hard to ignore him. Laying the papers down, he crossed his wrists over his leg and said, “What gives, JD?”

Standing up, JD walked away from where Buck was perched and ambled around the room. “Nuthin’, Buck. Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said casually.

“JD,” Buck said in his long and low voice that said he didn't believe the kid.

Glancing back over to the patrons of the cells, JD restated, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong.”

Buck glanced over to the cells and understood the situation. Walking over to the kid, he threw an arm around the thin neck and guided the man towards the door. “Come with me. I got to talk to you and not in front of them.”

JD let himself be guided outside by Buck.  After the door had been shut, he turned towards the younger man. Buck looked the sheriff in the eye and said, “Give it up, JD.”

Twisting away from Buck, the young man couldn’t look his big brother in the eye. So many times he felt like such a little kid around these men. It didn’t help that half the things he did proved them right. Oh, he tried to bluff his way, make them think he was tougher than he was and not let on how really scared he truly was half the time. Once Buck knew what he was worrying about, he was sure the ladies’ man would have it spread to the others in a matter of minutes.

Buck grabbed JD’s arm and turned him back towards him. “Tell me,” he coaxed.

“Aw, Buck, it’s stupid and you’re just gonna laugh and go tell everyone and…and,” JD ranted.

Buck put a stop to it and said, “Let me be the judge of that. Now c’mon; spill it.”

“I got sick, okay. The sight of what those men did to Ezra made me sick to my stomach and I got sick,” JD said angrily. “There you happy now? You can go tell Chris and the others how the young greenhorn wasn’t tough enough to look at his own friend without losing his lunch.”

Buck stood there for a minute appraising his young friend. JD was red with embarrassment and anger at himself. Buck hemmed and hawed silently, finally tilting his head slightly before speaking. Placing his hands on his hips, he ducked his head before speaking. “JD, you ain’t the only one that had trouble looking at Ezra. We all had trouble. And as far as losing your lunch, don’t you think for a minute the rest of us didn’t have to fight that same urge.”

JD looked more intensely at the man speaking. Buck went on. “JD, we’ve all seen things that makes you wonder how a body can survive, whether it was in the war or else-place. Nathan’s seen men nearly beaten to death,” he paused. “Probably seen some that were. Vin saw his mother die. Lord can only imagine what Josiah’s seen in his lifetime. Just ‘cause we didn’t lose control don’t mean it don’t make us sick. You never get use to the sight of another man’s pain. If you do, then that’s when you truly better start worrying. As long as it bothers you, boy, you are all right.”

JD took a cleansing breath and began feeling better. It was good to know that he wasn’t the only one that had felt so horrible. Buck clasped his hand around the back of his neck and jostled him a bit in a brotherly fashion. Everything was all right again.

Part 8

Three days passed like each of the previous days. Nathan was grateful that with each changing of the padding there was less blood. Enough fluids were poured down the man to float a small wooden boat. The healer was at his desk and Vin had stopped by to keep the gambler company for a while before it was his turn to go on patrol. A visit to Ezra just seemed to be incorporated into the routine for everyone, whether it was before or after a patrol or a turn at the jail. Sitting by his friend’s side the tracker noticed the movement under the closed eyes. The shifting increased and a slight tightening and loosening could be detected in the grip he held. Looking up, he called softly, “Nathan, I think he’s coming to.”

Nathan hurried over to the bedside and took in the small almost undetectable agitated movements of the man on the bed. Sliding his hand under the other hand, Nathan began feeling for the pulse. He could detect a definite increase in the heart rhythm. Softly he called out to his friend. “Ezra. It’s okay, Ezra, it’s me, Nathan.” The healer had long ago learned each man’s little quirks when being shut in at the clinic. For the gambler it was a panic to find himself in a place he couldn’t readily identify, like his room. Nathan settled on the other chair and kept calling out to his friend, reassuring him he was safe. “It’s all right, Ezra. Vin and I are right here.”

“C’mon, pard,” Vin cajoled. “We’re waiting for you right here.”

The first thing that Ezra slowly became aware of was the pain raging throughout his body. He was pretty sure someone had set him on fire from the inside out. The closer to consciousness he rose, the more intense the pain became. He wanted to move away from it, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. Someone had wrapped him up like some mummy he’d seen once at a museum. The fleeting thought made him think he might be stuck in a tormenting nightmare until the pain wracking his body came back to the forefront. He tried to call for help, but couldn’t get his voice to work. Desperately he tried again. With each moment that passed, he became more restless and panicked. With a last effort, he managed to vocalize his plea. “Help.”

“Right here, Ez,” Vin said

Ezra could hear voices that were soft, warm and inviting. Voices that sounded comfortable. He let his mind drift through the fog that surrounded him trying to ignore the burning fire that was consuming him and focused on those voices. He tried again to use his voice. Tried to tell them he was in excruciating pain. “Help,” he squeaked out again.

“I got you, Ez,” Vin said sternly, tightening his grip on the hand he held while lifting the sweat covered limp head as Nathan placed a cup of warm tea to the southerner’s lips.

Ezra felt the liquid slosh up onto his lips and tried to drink greedily, but was stopped by Nathan’s control over the cup. Nathan had been applying oil to Ezra’s lips continually, preventing them from dying out and cracking and with all the fluids that had been forced down his throat on a regularly basis, his throat was not as sore as it had been during previous injuries. Ezra fought to get his eyes opened, but they seemed determined to stay closed. He wasn’t sure, but like the rest of his body, his eyes felt bound shut. Drawing back from the cup to signify he couldn’t drink any more, he tried his voice once more. “Pain. Fire.”

Nathan picked the bandaged wrist up again and rubbed the hand gently. “I know, Ezra. It’ll end soon. Gave ya some tea that’ll help,” the healer whispered. “Don’t want to give you too much laudanum,” he said by way of explanation. Not only did it give Ezra truly terrifying nightmares, but he also had a hard time coming out from the effects of the heavy drug.

Vin tightened his grip just a little a said, “Hang in there, Ez. You’re going to make it.”

Ezra wanted to nod, to acknowledge he’d heard, but his head felt like it weighed a ton. Wanting to slide back into the darkness that seemed buffeted by the pain, he concentrated on the hand squeezing his. It seemed to be tightening and then loosening, almost like whoever was on that side understood he needed something to focus on until the pain faded. After what seemed like eternity, Ezra finally felt him sliding back into that painless bliss. With a last effort, he let out a satisfied moan.

Vin watched his friend go back to unconsciousness. Until then, he hadn’t wanted to disturb Ezra and had kept silent. Now that the man was back asleep, he looked up at Nathan. “Well?” he asked.

Nathan didn’t let go of his grip. “Waking up was a good sign,” he answered hoping it was enough. Glancing up at the tracker, he saw it wasn’t and sighed. “You saw the damage, Vin. Anything could still go wrong. Won’t know for sure until we have him up and about before I feel like we got a clear shot.”

Vin looked back down on his friend and continued to squeeze the hand in his. He thought back to that day that seemed ages ago, but was only less than a week. At first sight, the tracker had held no hope for his dear friend. At first glance, no one would put the two of them together as friends. The gambler was a complete opposite of him. Ezra liked loud colors, large crowds and money. The man was educated and had a vocabulary to beat the band with, and none of these things mattered or were Vin’s cup of tea, but yet the two men had meshed unbelievably well. The tracker smiled slightly; the Navajos would have said this belágaána (white man) had the power to become a trickster or a Wiseman. Vin always thought Ezra was a blend. He used his wise knowledge to trick people. The tracker had noticed something Nathan never did. For all Nathan’s blustering about how evil and immoral Ezra was, Nathan never seemed to notice that Ezra only tricked those that needed to be or was to their benefit.

Vin finally whispered a goodbye to his friend and rose from his chair. “Got patrol,” was all his explanation.

“Be safe,” Nathan said as the tracker headed for the door.  He knew Chris would tell Vin the same when the tracker checked with the leader before leaving. Since they didn’t know for sure where Bill Earnest and his brother, Jimmy were they had taken extra precautions when going out on patrol such as letting the others know exactly what route they were taking and how long they would be gone was one. Vin ducked his head once in compliance, smiled and left. Nathan turned back to his patient and wiped Ezra down with the cold rag. He would feel better if the fever would break.

Part 9

Vin was saddling Peso when Chris walked into the livery. Without stopping what he was doing, Vin asked, “Hear that Ez woke up?”

“No. When?” Chris asked. He hadn’t stopped by the jail to check on JD yet. If he had, he would have learned that Vin stopped in before going to the livery and had told the sheriff the good news.

“While ago. Weren’t for long, but at least he came awake,” Vin replied as he tightened up the cinch.

“That’s good to hear,” Chris said, failing to keep the relief out of his voice.

“Yep,” The tracker led his horse out of the dark building and mounted up. “Be back in about three hours. Taking the north side,” he informed the leader as he reined his horse in the right direction.

Chris nodded once and said, “See ya in three hours.”

Vin knew it wasn’t a command, but with the remaining two brothers out there it was best to keep to his word and not drift off for a ride to Miz Nettie’s like he might have done any other time.


Nathan was alone with his patient when the door eased open. Looking up, the healer saw Buck trying to sneak quietly in. Smothering the laugh that was waiting to be let loose, Nathan admonished the ladies’ man, “You don’t have to sneak in here like it was a married woman’s house, Buck.”

Buck almost blushed at that and slid on into the room. “Heard he woke,” was all the man said as he straightened and patted the covers on the prone man.

“For a second. Not enough to really know where he was or anything, but it’s still a good sign,” the healer responded.

Waiting for a moment, observing the big man gently tuck the covers around the smaller man, Nathan hesitated a second before asking. “You mind sitting with him for a while? I haven’t been out see any of my patients for a week. I thought, if you didn’t mind, I’d ride out and see them.”

Buck looked up. “Naw, go on. Between the rest of us, we got it covered,” he said seriously.

“He should be all right while I’m gone. Going out to the Thompson’s and check on their boy, then over to the Billing’s and check on Minnie, and then I’m going to the Frankford’s and check on that new baby,” Nathan reported as he gathered his supplies.

“All right. If anything happens, I’ll send JD for you,” Buck said, not really paying attention to the medic, but watching Ezra’s chest rise and fall.

“Ok, be back in a couple of hours.” Nathan picked up his bag and walked out the door and right into Chris.

“Trouble?” Chris questioned, growing serious in a blink of an eye.

“No, just going out to check on some patients,” Nathan said as he bypassed the leader.

Without looking back at the leaving man, Chris called out,  “Be careful.”

Nathan rolled his eyes and then knew how Vin felt when he had told the Texan the same thing. Sometimes they were a mite too protective of one another. Nathan smiled at the thought of having such good and loyal men he could call friends.

Chris walked into the infirmary and stood inside the door. Watching Buck talk softly to Ezra and dribble water down the gambler’s throat reminded the blond of just how good a man Buck really was. For someone so big and boisterous, Buck could be as gentle as Ezra when he shuffled cards.

“Looks better,” the blond commented as he moved to the vacant chair. Ezra looked about the same as he had when they found him, but Chris felt the need to be positive.

“Yeah, he does,” Buck answered with a full smile.

Chris looked at his friend and couldn’t resist smiling back. To Buck, Ezra probably did look better because Buck had that gift. Where he saw the glass half-empty, Buck just saw the simple positive. The glass was half-full and had the possibility of being filled to the top. The two men sat in silence, enjoying the peace they shared and the promised devotion to see Ezra all the way through his recuperation.

After supper, they were replaced with JD and Josiah. The young sheriff feeling better about his poor performance six days earlier could look upon his friend and not feel overwhelmingly guilty for caring so much about the man that it had made him physically sick. The young sheriff watched as Josiah wiped the constant sweat from the gambler. Feeling the need to break the overpowering silence, he asked, “Reckon how long he’s going to run that fever?”

Josiah never missed a beat as he answered,  “That’s all up to Brother Ezra now, I suppose. I guess he’s working real hard just to stay with us. He ain’t bothered by no small fever right now.”

“But if he fought the fever and it broke, don’t you think he’d start feeling better?” JD inquired.

“Maybe the fever is what is keeping him asleep and away from the pain. Perhaps, Ezra knows this on some level we don’t understand and therefore does not wish to fight the fever so he doesn’t have to face the pain,” Josiah explained.

JD thought about the words spoken and agreed silently. Josiah made sense, why would Ezra want to face the pain if he didn’t have to? Then another thought occurred to him. “But the longer he runs fever the worse for his body and the worse for him, right?” he asked worriedly.

“It would seem Ezra has found himself in a no-win position and knowing the gambler in him, he would prefer the less painful way out.”

“Ezra isn’t a coward, Josiah,” JD snapped.

“No, but he’s caught between having to deal with an excruciating amount of pain and the chance of escaping it altogether,” Josiah tried to reason. The missionary’s son had decided that was why so many soldier boys had died. It had seemed the better option at the time.

“Ezra is tougher than he looks and he always manages to deal the cards where he comes out winner in the end. He’ll do it this time, too,” the young man said faithfully.

Josiah gave up trying to show JD the other side and relented. “You’re right, JD. Ezra always takes the pot.”

JD nodded his head in satisfaction. For once he had won an argument with the philosophical man.

The two men sat on either side of their friend. One willing the gambler to have the strength to fight and the other one believing Ezra was just biding his time before he came back. Each hoping for the best for their brother.


Chris sat in the jailhouse. Up until now, the men had done a fairly decent job of keeping him away from the three prisoners. Now, with JD and Josiah in the clinic, Nathan on rounds, Vin out on patrol and Buck...well Buck was probably being Buck somewhere, not caring if Chris wanted to vent some of frustration on the men. Chris leaned back in the chair and had to grin. Buck had let him take over at the jail because he trusted Chris not to outright kill the three men behind bars. Now, if he wanted to scare the living jibbies out of them, Buck probably figured they were owed that. Chris shook his head. Buck and him had a definitely odd friendship, but it worked for them.

He had promised himself he would not kill the unarmed men behind the bars, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun with them and make himself feel better in the process. Getting out of his chair, he walked around the desk and sat down on the corner closest to the cells. “You tried to kill one of my men. I take downright exception to that, boys,” he said, chillingly calm. The smile gracing his hard chiseled features was eerily nice.

The three men didn’t say a word. They didn’t dare, for fear of provoking the man in black into doing something life altering, especially where it concerned their lives.

“You ever heard of a Mexican Necktie?” Chris asked, looking down at his hands; still using that deceptively nice voice. The three men audible gulped and backed further away. “Ya slit a man’s throat from side to side and pull his tongue out through the slit. Real nasty way of dying. Man has no chance of screaming.” Chris looked up. All signs of pleasantries had vanished; in its place was what could only be described as pure venom. The green eyes had taken a dark shine to them and the three men were pretty sure they were fixing to die.

“Did you make Ezra scream? Did you hear him and ignore it?” Chris said evenly. “I can ignore screams pretty well myself,” he said as slid off the desk and stood. The three men, as if attached to some invisible string, moved further back into their cells at the same moment.

Giving an exceptionally cold smile, Chris suddenly lightened, “You boys think about it.” With that, he walked outside and shut the door. Once the obstacle stood between him and those men, Chris, sitting down in the chair, took several deeps breaths reining in his anger. He had managed not to go with the urge to do more than talk to them swine and he felt like he had accomplished a major accomplishment. Ezra would be proud of him.

Part 10

Sometime during the cool night with the breeze blowing gently through the open window, Ezra finally won the battle over the fever and it had broken with a soaking of the sheets and bandages. Nathan had been feeding him broth when the body became inundated with moisture. Not wanting to leave the patient lying in wet dressings, Nathan went out onto the landing, leaned over the railing and peered into the dark. There on the other side of the street was the familiar flare of a cheroot lighting up as the owner inhaled the smoke. “Chris, need some help. Fever’s broke and we gotta change the bandages,” Nathan spoke loud enough to garner the gunslinger’s attraction. Nathan didn’t receive a verbal reply, but could easily imagine the nod of assurance that the man in black surely gave that he would go round up some help as he stood up.

In less than five minutes, Chris came walking in with Buck and Josiah behind him. Buck was a grumbling as he reached Ezra’s side. “You got rotten timing, you know that, pal,” he said jokingly as he pulled his suspenders up over his shirt that had yet to be buttoned.

“Maybe you should be thanking him. Probably kept you from being shot,” Chris hinted. Seeing Buck’s puzzled look, he finished,  “Seen Mr. Taylor heading in as I was walking over to the church,” Chris replied with a huge grin on his face.

“Taylor? He’s not due for another three days,” Buck said in confusion.

“Surprise!” the other three men said in unison as they prepared to help Nathan tend to Ezra.

“Buck, you’re like a cat with nine lives,” Nathan chastised with a laugh as he walked over to the bed.

With four of them working in tandem it didn’t take long for Nathan to rewrap the bandaged area. Still hesitant to move the leg, he also knew it needed fresh dressing and the skin needed to get some air. He also needed to look for and doctor any bedsores the prone man might be developing.

Chris kept the leg stabilized as Buck and Josiah held each side of Ezra gently in case he made one of his untimely arousals. With patience, Nathan slowly unbound the leg. The swelling had gone done a fraction and the bruising was a little less black and more of a deep blue and purple. Nathan gently probed the site and felt a rush of relief to know that the socket had stayed in place and no extra warmth was radiating from the spot. Re-splinting the leg, Nathan carefully rewrapped the bandages and Chris lowered it back down onto the pillows they had lined up on that side to rest the leg on. Heaving a sigh of relief that the job was done, the four men stood in silence. Josiah, followed by Buck, turned and left the room,  leaving Chris and Nathan alone.

“Leg looked good,” Chris said.

“Yeah, I hope he’ll be able to use it once it mended,” Nathan replied, putting away his materials.

Chris looked up. “You think there’s a chance he won’t?” he asked in concern.

“Possible,” Nathan answered as he moved to dump the used bandages in boiling water. “Possibly, he could have a limp, too.”

Chris sat there for a minute before a chuckle escaped. Nathan turned around puzzled. “What?” he asked.

Chris shook his head, a smile forming on his lips. “Just imagining Ezra walking down the boardwalk with one those fancy walking canes with the silver knob on top,” Chris said with a low laugh. “Man would really think he was something then, wouldn’t he?”

Nathan had to laugh himself at the image: Ezra dressed in his crisp white shirt, black cravat, those black pants pressed so sharp you could cut yourself on the crease, his black long coat and the shiny walking stick strolling down the street. “Yeah, Ezra would really be something,” Nathan answered.

The two men stayed in companionable silence the rest of the night, each taking a turn at catching some precious sleep.


He couldn’t stay hidden in the darkness any longer. He had tried, but the pain had won out over the ability to stay cocooned in his black and anguish-free world. Slowly, he drifted upwards to the level of consciousness. It seemed for every level he gained, the agony grew. His whole body drummed with misery. The sound of his moaning was barely audible, but it was loud enough in the tomb-like clinic for JD to hear. The sheriff had taken to coming in early in the morning,  before his shift at the jail,  and sitting with Ezra, allowing Nathan time to get out and get breakfast and some air. The young sheriff all but lunged forward in his chair. “Ezra?” he asked plaintively.

Another moan, much more pronounced, escaped from Ezra and JD was out of his chair and leaning on the porch railing outside in seconds. Searching the street, he finally spotted Vin making his way to the restaurant from his wagon. “Vin!” JD shouted. Upon the swiveling of the tracker’s head in his direction, the sheriff yelled, “Get Nathan! Ezra’s coming to.” Vin took off at a run and JD returned to Ezra’s side.

JD silently prayed that the southerner wouldn’t become fully conscious until help arrived. Openly, he voiced, “Easy, Ez. It’s me, JD. You’re in the clinic.”

With another more audible and clearer moan, JD said quietly, “It’s all right, Ez. Nathan’s coming.”

A twitch of the good hand told JD that Ezra going to come to before Nathan and the other’s made it to the clinic. He sat down on the edge of the bed and grasped the good hand and kept talking while praying Ezra would recognize his voice. He nearly came off the bed when five of the peacekeepers came bursting through the door, led by Nathan.

Like soldiers in a battlefield that had been played one too many times, the men took up their positions. They had each prayed for this moment and yet on the other hand dreaded it. To see the green eyes open and recognize them was wanted, needed, but the pain that Ezra would have to endure to reach that goal was nothing any of them would wish for the southerner. Chris squatted down on the far side and rubbed the free arm. “It’s okay, Ezra.”

Ezra knew that voice, it was the voice that wouldn’t let him give up when he so desperately wanted to. He licked his lips and winced at the taste of the oil that had been slathered on them. Swallowing, he gasped, “Hurt.”

“I know, Ez. Just hang on for a few minutes,” Chris coaxed. The others letting Chris do what he did best, lead.

“Pain,” Ezra moaned. He wasn’t sure if the words he was saying were out loud or in his head.

“Nathan’s going to help with that in just a minute, Ezra. Right now I need you to open your eyes for me,” Chris commanded softly.

Ezra licked his lips again. He was so tired he just wanted to go back to sleep, but the pain was keeping him from that. “Pain,” he tried again.

Chris shook his head in frustration. The man was obstinate, Chris would give him that, but he could be just as stubborn.

“Nathan’ll help stop the pain, Ezra, but I need you to open your eyes first,” Chris said, his voice rising.

“Promise,” Ezra said weakly. He really did want the agony to stop.

“Promise,” Chris swore.

Ezra took another breath, deeper, and froze at the added pain the small movement caused. Without meaning to, he let out a moan.

“Easy, Ezra. Just take small, shallow breaths,” JD told him. His young face portraying all the worry and concern he felt inside.

The pain passed and Ezra took a shallow breath and concentrated on getting his eyes opened. After a couple of tries, he said, “Can’t.”

Josiah rested his hand on Chris shoulder, reminding him Ezra was already in enough pain without the blond adding to it. “Try again, Ezra,” Josiah ordered in his deep rumbling voice.

Ezra concentrated on only opening one eye at a time. After a couple of tries the lid finally slid open enough for him to see through. The eye was bloodshot, but was focused and after a second or two, the image it was seeing was clear. “Vin,” he breathed out.

“Right here, Ez,” he said, not retaining the immense relief he felt at the very small accomplishment.

“Tired,” the southerner announced softly.

“Okay, Ez. Nathan has something for you,” Vin said in a brotherly voice.

Vin moved down a bit and allowed Nathan to step up to the head of the bed. With Josiah holding the southerner’s head, Nathan tipped the cup up to the waiting lips and held it while Ezra drank down the tea. Laying Ezra’s head back down, the preacher ran his hand through the dirty hair. Later, he and Nathan would drug Ezra a little, enough to move him around the bed so they could wash his hair. For now it was just good to see Ezra coming around.

“He was able to actually communicate,” JD announced as he stood, his voice showing his relief. He knew that, though no one had mentioned it out loud, Ezra’s mental capacity was a real concern.

“Yeah,” Buck breathing a sigh of relief.

Part 11

Josiah sat quietly at Ezra’s side. He and Nathan had managed earlier, to swivel Ezra’s unconscious body crossways on the bed with Ezra’s head hanging off the very edge of the mattress, a large bowl sitting on the floor directly under it. While Nathan held Ezra’s head up, Josiah poured a bowl of water through the dirty hair to rinse it out. Using a small amount of soap, he lathered it up in his hands then rubbed it into Ezra’s hair. After a couple of repeats, Josiah rinsed the hair.  After towel drying and combing Ezra’s hair,  they maneuvered him back in place. Accomplishing the feat, Josiah had suggested the healer catch him some sleep. It hadn’t taken much persuasion this time to convince Nathan to go lay down for a while. The man had been dead tired on his feet. A routine now had been established for rotating through the clinic. Ezra was never alone, though that simple fact was completely lost on the gambler. The preacher watched the other man’s chest rise and fall with each breath.

A couple hours earlier Ezra had scared Nathan and Vin to death when he had begun gasping for air. Nathan had been lost in his own world of thoughts and hadn’t noticed at the very first. He was still reading about all the things that could go wrong with the numerous injuries and ways to prevent them from occurring. He heard shifting behind him and Vin calling his name anxiously. He thought the gambler was waking again. Turning around, the healer saw Ezra’s upper body rising off the bed and Vin standing on his feet shaking the patient; At first glance, he thought Ezra was seizing. Nathan had rushed over to the bed and realized that, instead of seizing,  Ezra was gasping for breath. Nathan helped Vin roll Ezra over onto his left side. In Nathan’s opinion, it was better to roll Ezra onto his dislocated shoulder than onto his displaced hip. Vin kept Ezra lifted up a degree to keep the entire pressure off the hurt shoulder while Nathan ran and stoked the embers of the fire under the pot of water he kept simmering at all times. Vin kept talking to the gasping man while Nathan quickly boiled the water.

“Easy, Ezra,” Vin spoke hurriedly. “Nathan’ll be right back with something to help.”

Ezra couldn’t understand anything being said, but understood the words were to be comforting. The struggle to breath was out weighing any additional pain he might have felt in the new position. He felt the strength of an arm holding him while the touch of a hand gripped his top arm. He didn’t fight those hands like he would have in the past because he needed them too much now.

Nathan soon had the water boiling. After pouring it into a bowl, he carried it over to the bed. Smearing a paste made from the local plants around Ezra’s mouth, he set the bowl under the southerner’s face and coaxed Ezra to take as deep breaths as he could. Looking up at Vin, he quickly explained. “Had him flat on his back for too long. Congestion’s build up the lungs. Have to get him cough it up and clear out them out.”

“Gonna be awful hard on those ribs and his back,” Vin said solemnly.

“No other choice,” Nathan said, as he watched Ezra struggled to breathe in the fumes.

Ezra could almost taste the sweet aroma that filled his nasal and mouth. After a few hard won breathes, he could feel that same sweetness in his chest. The more he breathed in the steam, the more a build up could be felt in his lungs. He fought the cough instinctively knowing how much it was going to hurt. It seemed to take nothing to incite the pain to flare and coughing would fan it into an engulfing roar. When he could no longer fight the cough being forced from his lungs, every muscle in his torso tightened as he tried to hunch up and absorb the body wracking coughs that ensued. It never occurred to the ill man that when his body tightened up so did the hands holding him.

The coughing spell lasted an eternity to Ezra, but when it was over he realized he was able to breath much better. The hands still held him taunt and another hand brushed his sweat-soaked hair out of his face. He expected to be returned to his back, but instead was held in place. 

 For the next couple of hours, Ezra was routinely forced to breathe in the sweet-smelling  paste and then seemingly cough up his lungs. Vin had been replaced by Josiah and promptly left for his patrol. The only pleasant thing Ezra could find in all of it, when he was conscious enough to think straight, was that he was allowed off his back and, though it should have hurt to lie on his bad shoulder, he realized it didn’t. Vin and Nathan had cushioned him in every way they could with pillows and blankets, propping his upper torso slightly to take the pressure off the shoulder. Now, for the moment, both Ezra and Josiah were resting peacefully.


Chris walked across the street to the jail. It still didn’t matter how many times he came face-to-face with the Earnest brother’s, his first instinct was still to kill them. He had learned that, if he didn’t acknowledge them, it helped a little, precious little, but still a little. Stepping into the small office, he greeted the sheriff. “Hey, JD.”

“Hey, Chris!” JD answered back. The greeting lifted Chris spirits a bit. It seemed to the gunslinger that, no matter the situation, JD was always enthusiastic to see one of them. The kid, like Buck, was an eternal optimist. Chris figured that’s why the two got along so well.

Walking closer to the desk, he stared at the young man. “Heard from any of those replies you sent out,” the leader asked, purposely avoiding the desire to look over at the cells.

JD could read the tightness in the other man and watched as the gunslinger’s hands clenched tight. With the aim of getting Chris’ attention away from the men behind bars, JD stood up and walked to the door, motioning with his head as he went. He knew there was no need to go outside other than keeping Chris from literally exploding. JD didn’t think a body could take that much pressure.

Closing the door behind them, JD turned to Chris, who had relaxed enough to unclench his hands, and spoke quietly. “Heard from a few of them. No sign of the two brothers, yet.”

Chris was working on controlling his breathing and getting his shoulders to relax. He gave a short nod to the other man and said, “Let me know if you hear anything.”

JD knew better than to sigh or roll his eyes. At this point that could be seen as a possible invite to trouble he didn’t want. Instead, he remained serious and said in agreement. “Yes, sir.”

The young sheriff watched the leader step off the boardwalk and cross the street to the saloon before turning to go back inside. He glanced over at the three brothers for a brief check,  then walked back to his desk. Knowing what they had done to Ezra, he didn’t enjoy the sight of these men any more than Chris, but he didn’t have the same desire to reach through the bars and kill them with his own hands either. He wanted them to be judged and sent to prison, but more importantly, he wanted Ezra to be able to witness it. Ezra deserved that much.

Chris stepped through the batwing doors of the saloon and waited for his eyes to adjust. It didn’t take long. Moving to the back table, the blond sat down next to the dark-haired ladies’ man.

“Seen him this evening?” Chris asked as he accepted a cup of coffee from Inez. The mornings still held a tinge of coolness.

“Yeah. Went by earlier. Got congestion in the lungs from lying on his back too long,” Buck informed.

He had been there while Josiah and Nathan had been giving the gambler one of the treatments. It looked real painful as Ezra tried to cough up all the stuff in his lungs while keeping everything else from moving. Nathan had tightened the bandages around his torso as tight as possible to keep the stitches in his back from popping and the ribs from grating on one another. Josiah had slid onto the bed and had held the dislocated shoulder and the underneath of his upper body in a vise grip. To Buck, Ezra had shown a lot of courage right then. If it had been him banged up like that, being asked to cough hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, he would have just asked Chris to shoot him and put an end to his misery. Ezra had eventually stopped hacking up the stuff that had settled in his lungs and laid there like a limp rag. Josiah had taken a cold rag and wiped the gambler’s face and neck, all the time talking to the worn out patient about how well he was doing. Buck figured if he didn’t buy that line, Ezra sure wasn’t, but he kept holding on anyways.

Buck could feel someone staring out him and came back to the present. Chris was looking at him with a half-concerned, half-amused look only few people were privy to. Buck smiled back to answer the question; yes,he was all right.

Drinking the last part of his coffee, Chris sat the cup down and asked, “Feel like taking a walk?”

Buck broke out into a grin and stood up. “Yep,” he answered. The townspeople only got to see one side of the fearsome gunslinger. The other part was reserved only for the members of the group. The two men walked out of the saloon and headed across for the clinic.

Part 12

It had been two weeks since the incident and Chris had three of the men with him in the livery saddling up their horses before the sun was even with the horizon. The telegraphs  that JD had sent out had come back negative. As a precaution, Chris had wired the sheriff in River’s Bend to notify him immediately when the two brothers came into town. The wire informing Chris the brother’s were back in town had come yesterday. Chris had wired the sheriff back, telling him to leave the brothers alone; he would come take care of the matter himself. The sheriff had no problem with that. He was tired of messing with the brothers and he had a feeling Chris Larabee was going to get rid of his problem permanently. Besides, crossing Chris Larabee was never a smart move. After that telegram, Chris sent a fake one to the eldest brother using one of the twin’s names. He had the telegram read that the twins would be in the next day and that they had the youngest with them. It didn’t take much persuasion to get the ones behind bars to tell him where the other two would be staying while in town.

Chris had sat in silence the night before when the group met for their regular evening get-together. Their normal routine had been reestablished and, except for Nathan or whoever might be taking his place, and Ezra, the men were back to eating their meals together. The blond had seen the furtive looks that had passed between Buck and Vin. Both knew something was eating at him, but were willing to wait it out. The evening passed more quietly than usual.  During the meal, all of them at one time or another had looked over to “Ezra’s table’ like they had done so many other times in the past couple of weeks and then looked away as if suddenly remembering why the gambler wasn’t at his place. Oddly enough, even the locals seemed to shy away from the table, as if it held a special reverence to them, also; or perhaps they were just afraid they’d have to face the wrath of the five sitting in the back if anyone had the gall to sit down at the reserved table.

Standing up, Chris looked down at Buck and motioned with his head to move outside. The two men moved through the crowded building with ease. Ever since bringing the gambler back to town, Chris Larabee had fairly crackled with tension and no one in their right mind was going to do anything to set him off. JD had mentioned to the others how even the regular local troublemakers seemed to have found other places to do their mischief. JD, Vin and Josiah watched the two men leave’ keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Once outside, Chris walked down the boardwalk a ways before stopping in front of the closed-up mercantile. He planted both hands firmly on the railing and leaned forward. Buck leaned against it with his hip, crossed his arms and waited for his friend of twelve-years to talk. Chris, took a few minutes gathering his words together. He knew what he was going to say was not going to go over well. Staring out into the inky black night, he took a breath and stated. “Need you to stay here tomorrow.”

Buck came off the railing. “What!? Why?” the big man said angrily.

Chris sighed. He understood where Buck was coming from and knew this wasn’t going over well. None of them wanted to be left out of the action tomorrow. “Because I need someone to stay and watch over the town,” he said.

“Let JD stay, he’s the sheriff.  Besides,  he don’t need to be going anyway,” Buck exclaimed in a huff.

Chris eased back up off the railing and turned to Buck, the two of them had ridden a lot of trails together, some better than others. “Buck, I need you to stay here and…and keep an eye on things for me in my place,” the blond said slowly. It was as close to asking for a favor as he was ever going to get.

Realization dawned on the ladies’ man as he finally understood Chris’ request. He was being asked to stay behind and watch over Ezra, not that Chris didn’t trust Nathan, but this was something more. Buck was being asked to stay in Chris’ place to watch over a family member. In the last three years, Chris had tentatively formed more than just a friendship with these men; he had let them in to become brothers. Therein lay Chris’ earlier dilemma. Which man to ask to ride with him tomorrow and which man to ask to stay behind and watch over the one in the clinic without making the wrong move and causing friction.

“All right, Chris. Since you put it that way, I’ll stay behind and watch over things,” Buck said.

Having that settled, Chris moved to go back into the saloon, but was stopped by the other man first. “You didn’t have to worry yourself so, Chris. Vin and I know we don’t line up behind you, but rather stand on either side. ”

Chris simply nodded and kept walking, a small smile forming on the edges of his mouth. He should have known better than to be concerned. Those two were both very smart men and, if he had switched the roles, it wouldn’t have come out any differently.

Chris led his horse out of the livery and over to the clinic. Tying up the reins, he walked up the stairs. He moved quietly across the floor of the clinic not wishing to disturb the sleeping man on the bed. Now that Nathan had backed off the laudanum, the pain edged out Ezra’s ability to rest more soundly, unless Nathan knocked him out with one of his teas. Easing his tall frame down into the hardback chair, he studied the man before him. Ezra had started doing slightly better in the last couple of days. Nathan would be taking out a few more of the stitches in the next day or two. Slowly, but surely, those were healing without complications. The shoulder was healing like it always did. The swelling in the abdomen had gone down and the internal bleeding had stopped. Now what passed through was clear and that seemed to excite Nathan more than anything else, but then again after all the blood that had been lost during those first couple of days and during the proceeding surgery, Chris couldn’t blame the man. The leg was propped up and still swollen.  It would be a long time before it would be movable. The bruises on his torso had turned from black and purple to deep blue and purple. The ribs seemed to be holding together, much like the gambler’s luck. Chris let out a sigh.

 “Hey, Ez.” His voice barely more than air, so as not to disturb the sleeping man. “Me and the boys are going after Earnest and his brother. I’m leaving Buck here. He and Nathan’ll take good care of ya.” Chris paused for a minute. “Ain’t gonna swear to ya I’ll bring ‘em back alive, but I promise I’ll do my best,” he said softly. Chris stood up and then stopped. Flexing out his fingers, he lightly ran them through the brown hair. “You keep holding on and I’ll see ya tomorrow night, okay?” With that, he left the room.

Chris walked to the door and opened it, finding Buck leaning back against the railing with that cocky grin of his plastered across his face. “Shut up,” Chris growled, losing complete ferociousness with a smile of his own. Stepping passed the lanky cowboy, the blond added softly, “Thanks.”

Buck reached over and slapped the man on his shoulder blade. “Get ‘em, Chris,” he commanded gently.

“Will do.” The blond tug his hat into place and walked down the stairs to where his men had gathered. Taking his reins from Vin, he mounted up and swung his horse around. The three men followed without a word, each giving Buck a salute as they rode off.


Chris pulled his horse up to a stop about a mile out of River’s Bend and waited for the men to gather around in their usual way. Each man looked at the town with a different thought. Josiah had noticed that Chris had led them way around the spot where they had found Ezra. The preacher had wondered what the real motivation had been for such an action. He wondered if it was to protect them from remembering such harsh details or simply because Chris didn’t wish to see the place again, much like how he hadn’t returned to his ranch home after that dreadful day until Fowler had forced him to. It didn’t matter. What mattered were the two men in that town before them. The three men silently waited for Chris to make the first move.

Chris picked the loose reins up in his hands and shifted in his saddle slightly. The three men followed suit. Before he made a move, Chris vowed, “We do our best to bring them out alive.” He received three nods of confirmation.

The four horsemen rode into the livery and dismounted. Walking down the aisle Chris found Chaucer in the back stall. Walking into the stall, he muttered some oaths that made the stable boy back up into the shadows. Chaucer nickered at the man in black and rubbed his chin against the outstretched hand. The equine knew these people. These were his rider’s people. “JD, get in here!” Chris demanded harshly, continuing to rub Chaucer’s chin and made soothing sounds to the otherwise skittish horse.

The young man walked into the stall and made a few exclamations of his own. By now, Vin and Josiah had made their way to the gate of the stall, both letting out low whistles at the sight. There were several whip marks on both hindquarters. JD figured they were made by being hit with the reins. There were also some rope burns. JD sighed. He hated seeing animals being abused at all, but with Chaucer it just seemed that much more uglier on the magnificent steed. Chris looked at the horse and guessed that Chaucer, like his owner, had been his normal charming self and Earnest had not taken it well. Besides the slashes, Chaucer’s ribs were showing. It looked downright sickening on the otherwise  well-fed equine. There were sores where Earnest had ridden him hard and then had not brushed him out afterwards. Earnest had not treated the animal kind at all. Chris turned to leave the stall, his anger doubling what it was. “Tend to him,” was his only words as he left the stall.

JD wanted to argue and looked at the others for help. A quick glance at the two and he knew by their looks they weren’t going to talk to Chris about dealing with Chaucer until after they had cornered and captured the brothers. Chris was getting into one of his moods and no one was stupid enough to get in his way. JD watched the three men stride out of the livery on a mission. The young horseman turned back to the horse and sighed. Looking about, he noticed Earnest still had all of Ezra’s riding equipment. “Probably thought it made him look like a better man,” he grumbled as he gently placed Chaucer’s bridle on him.  Easing his hands under the side strip of leather on the bridle, he whispered lovingly to the horse as he led him out into the main aisle. “Come on, Chaucer, let’s get you out of there and cleaned up at bit, huh. Can’t have Ezra finding you in this mess. He’ll plumb go nuts and drive the rest of us crazy trying to get to ya.” Chaucer went willingly with the known man, having every faith that he would take him back to his rider.

Chris walked down the middle of the street like the avenging dark angel he had the reputation of being. His long black coat sweeping back from him and the killer green eyes made him look every bit the dangerous man he was at that moment. Behind him,  Vin and Josiah followed on either side….three against two; those were good odds. They weren’t worried at all. The deputy, standing outside the jail, watched the as trio walked up the street towards him.  He stepped into the jailhouse and a second later, the sheriff walked out  and took a look for himself. The deputy made a move to step off the sidewalk and was halted by a hand on his shoulder and a subtle shake of the sheriff’s head. This was Larabee's deal and he would let the man deal with as long as no one else was hurt.

The gunslinger glanced sideways at the sheriff as he passed by and received the slightest of nods. Chris acknowledged  it briefly before turning his gaze back to the saloon where he was headed. Stepping up to the batwings, he placed a hand on each one and peered inside, scoping out his prey before entering. Pushing the doors apart, the bartender recognized the blond from the past and began putting the bottles of whiskey down behind the bar discreetly. The patrons of the bar quieted and turned to see who the new customers were. Some had the good sense to slowly get up and quietly ease their way past the trio. Chris didn’t miss a beat as he spotted the only redheaded men in the place and stalked towards the table. He noticed that the older one, obviously Bill, was a little bigger than Josiah and was roughly the same age as himself. The red hair, a family trait, was less bright on the oldest than on the youngest one sitting back in Four Corners. Chris glanced at the other brother and let his eyes rake over the second man. This one was about the same age and size as Vin. The younger one, he noticed, was visibly more nervous about the three men’s appearance than his oldest brother, a sign the man had a keener sense of awareness. The three stopped directly in front of the big man.

 “Bill Earnest, you’re coming with me,” Chris stated factually, like he was ordering from a menu.

Bill Earnest cracked a smile while the younger brother looked a little wary and then let out a nervous laugh. Bill looked up at the blond man and recognized him as Chris Larabee. “You calling me out, Larabee? ‘Cause  if you are, I ain’t no gunslinger,” Bill said with a smile. “Beside,  it don’t seem like a very manly way of handling things if you need a gun. If you got trouble with me, let’s settle it man-to-man,” he said snidely. His size had taught him he could bully or punish anyone to his way of thinking

Only Chris’ cold blue eyes showed his hate and determination, while the rest of features remained impassive. Jimmy went still and his eyes began darting back and forth. Vin and Josiah could hardly keep the smiles off their faces. The kid looked like he wanted to crawl under the table and hide. Jimmy knew Bill had shot people before, but not in an even match. Mostly, they were unarmed or trying to get away when his brother shot them.  Jimmy’s eyes grew bigger as he realized the man in front was not falling for his brother’s usual tactic of baiting people into fighting him. In that form, Bill always won. The younger brother wanted to lend his brother a hand and stand up and tell the man in black his brother was no match for a gunfight, but Bill had a real nasty habit of punishing people who meddled in his business, family or not.

“I’m not calling you out. That’d be too easy. I ain’t going to fight you either. I’m taking you back to Four Corners to stand trial,” Chris said more evenly than he felt. He would gladly shoot the miscreant where he sat, but he had made a promise and he had every intention of keeping it to the best of his abilities.

“For what?” Earnest retorted angrily, his anger growing. He was being challenged in front of his brother.

Vin and Josiah had stood back quietly watching in amusement as the rest of the saloon silently cleared out and the bartender disappeared into the back storage room with his best stuff. Reputations seem to grow wildly out in open spaces where there is less else to talk about.

Chris inhaled slowly, his patience waning with each passing second. “For the brutalization of a peacekeeper,” he replied smoothly.

“Peacekeeper. What peacekeeper?” Bill snarled back. He, too, had noticed the mass evacuation of the saloon.

“The one who you tied to a tree and whipped before playing jump rope with him with your horses,” Chris said. He began counting to ten in his head. Once achieving it, he realized it would take more than that and started for a thousand. A promise was a promise.

Bill jumped to his feet at the same time as he drew his gun, yelling, “That dandy was no peacekeeper.”

Three shots went off at once.  In his hurry, the redheaded outlaw had shot wide and missed. While Vin’s hit the hand holding the gun, knocking the gun out of the outlaw’s hand and burning a hole in the flesh at the same time. Chris’ bullet went to the right and tore a hunk of flesh out of the portly man’s side. Bill Earnest crumpled to ground whining like a newborn babe.

Chris swung his gun around to the other threat knowing Vin had him covered and saw that while Jimmy had stood and drawn, he hadn’t fired. Josiah had him covered and was quietly suggesting in no uncertain terms that the boy lay down his weapon. Jimmy looked down at his oldest brother writhing around like an idiot on the floor and laid his gun down on the table. His idol worshipping days ended with that scene before him.

As Vin and Josiah hauled Earnest to his feet and shuffled him off to what amounted to the town’s own healer, Chris took Jimmy to the jail with him. They spotted JD racing down the street, Colts ready for use. Waiting for the young sheriff to meet up with them, the three older peacemakers could hardly keep the smiles off their faces at the look of disheartened disgust on the young man’s face. Josiah feeling the need to placate the sheriff said, “Didn’t miss anything, JD. Was over before it began.”

“Don’t look that way,” JD stated unhappily, following in step with Josiah and Vin. Chris looked too angry to be around at the moment.

After locking the Earnest boy in the cell, the sheriff turned to the leader and asked, “How long you planning on staying?”

Chris didn’t hesitate before replying, “Stupid man got himself wounded a bit. But, ready or not, we’re pulling out in the morning.” Mentally he said, ‘Promised Ezra we’d be back by night.’

The sheriff looked a bit relieved and Chris momentarily wondered just how far their reputation went. Just as quickly, he shrugged the thought off. What did he care what others thought? He and his men got the job done. Chris headed for the door. “I’ll be back later to check on him.”

The blond walked down to the healer’s office. It was located in the back of a small three bedroom wooden house at the end of town. When Chris approached the house,  the door was opened by a rather large woman who Chris would guess was in her fifties. He followed her through the tidy home, through a curtain partition and found himself in a small add-on room. The clinic, as Chris presumed it was called, was much smaller than Nathan’s place. A half-bed had been placed against the far wall. Next to it was bed stand. Over against the other wall was a large handcrafted bookshelf with a fold down desk. A small chair with spindles for a backrest sat up to the desk. A rocker sat in the corner. Earnest on been placed on the bed and a man, also in his late fifties, was sitting next to it stitching up the abdomen flesh wound. It would make riding hard, but not impossible. Chris didn’t care at that moment. Ezra had survived his trip to town, this man could do the same.  Chris looked around at the other three peacekeepers. Vin was leaned against the wall at the head of the bed, his sawed-off shotgun resting easy in the cradle of his arms. Josiah was at the foot of the bed; apparently, he didn’t feel the need for his weapon to be out. Chris saw the clenched fists and the burning desire to inflict a little more pain and thought maybe it was a good thing Josiah kept his guns holstered.  Chris switched his gaze over to the youngest. JD was switching from one foot to the other quietly, all his pent up energy looking for some way to be relieved. Chris glanced back to the doctor and found the man more disturbed by JD’s constant moving than the other two men. The place was silent as everyone held their thoughts in check. Wouldn’t do to inflict their wrath while there was a woman in the house. The blond’s feelings still showed through his eyes what he thought of the man and what he’d like to do.

Bill Earnest never once looked up at the leader or opened his mouth. He had been whipped by a man smaller than him and in front of his younger brother. He may have been writhing on the floor in pain, but he had seen the look on Jimmy’s face the moment the boy had stopped idolizing him and that had hurt worse than any bullet wound. The lean, scruffy looking man that had bought him over had already informed him that his other three brothers were in jail. He had no doubt they, too, no longer worshipped him. Getting sent to prison was not the location they had sworn to follow him to. Earnest had noted that the other man, the big one, had yet to say one word. He would have thought him dumb, but he had heard him speak to Jimmy. The rage banked in those blue-gray eyes made him a little scared. Bill hated being scared of anyone.

Chris watched the healer a little longer and then turned to Josiah. “I’m going to the hotel and get us rooms,” he said breaking the spell in the quiet room.

The preacher finally spoke, his voice low, gravely and full of wrath. “I’ll stay with him. Vin and JD can go on with you. When the doc here gets done I’ll take him on over to the jail and then meet up with ya.”

JD wanted to argue, but Chris nodded and motioned for him to follow. Taking one look at Josiah, JD figured he might be better off with Chris. Sometimes it was hard to know which one was the safest to be with when his friends were in the riled mood like they were in now. He knew one thing, arguing with Chris was definitely not the right thing to do.

“Vin’s staying, too,” Chris said quietly, he had no intentions of letting Earnest or Josiah do anything stupid. Stopping in the doorway, Chris said, “Promised Ezra I’d bring him home alive.”

Josiah nodded. After the door shut, he turned to Earnest and said softly with a smile that turned Earnest’s stomach and made the healer a little worried, “Didn’t promise ya had to be one piece though.”

The healer finally finished stitching and sewing up the wounds and stepped back; indicating he was finished. Josiah stepped forward and yanked Earnest off the cot. Earnest rebelled. “Hey, watch it! I’m wounded,” he whined as he tried to jerk away from Josiah.

Vin stepped forward and whispered, “Move.” Earnest whipped around to say something quite ugly, but the look in Vin’s eyes made the words die on his lips. Casting looks between Josiah and Vin, the outlaw buttoned his shirt the best he could with one hand, the other hand been wrapped up tight. When he had done all he could, Josiah grabbed Earnest and swung him towards the door, letting go halfway thought the rotation. Earnest lost his balance and hit the door. “Oops,” Josiah said with a nasty laugh. Looking over at Vin, the preacher shrugged. “Guess he don’t have real good balance.”

Vin shrugged. “Guess not.”

Earnest fell down several times on his journey to the sheriff’s office. Upon arrival, he was manhandled into an awaiting cell. The big man landed on his cot rather awkwardly after a not so gentle shove by Vin. Earnest caught his breath and managed to sit himself up as the peacekeepers left the room. Scooting back on the bed so he could rest against the wall, he looked over to the other cell and noticed Jimmy staring straight ahead. The younger brother wouldn’t look at his brother and, for Bill, that cut deep.

Vin and Josiah entered the hotel and spotted the other two sitting down at a round table. Chris kicked out a chair for Vin while JD motioned for Josiah to take the one next to him. After the two men got settled, Chris asked, “Get Earnest over to the jail?”

Vin and Josiah both shared the same grin that spoke more then words. “Yep. It seems he don’t have much balance though,” the tracker said smugly.

“Sure fell down a lot that’s for sure,” Josiah added.

Chris let a smile of enjoyment slide into place. Tomorrow would be a long day for Earnest. They wouldn’t make it pleasant, but they would keep him alive.


Nathan spent a relatively quiet day at the clinic. Ezra slept through all of it, although sometimes restlessly, except the time Nathan had woken him to eat lunch which consisted of chicken broth and real tea.  Ezra had rested between bites and it had taken Nathan almost an hour to get the little food Ezra had eaten, down. Ezra had eaten less than half of his meal before the gambler had closed his eyes for the final time and refused the rest. It had begun to worry the healer at how much weight loss the gambler had begun to show. Being injured and placed in the clinic for a certain amount of time had always caused the patient to lose a certain amount of weight, but today Nathan had realized just how much Ezra had lost. He would have to figure out something that would be rich and fattening, but also go down easily. Buck stopped by at suppertime and bought their dinner. Inez had made Ezra  tortilla soup with crushed up vegetables. The tortillas had soaked so long in the broth they slid right down. Nathan had noticed the tortilla bits had been torn up into very small pieces. The healer couldn’t help but thank the lady silently for her forethought. Buck fed Ezra his supper while Nathan ate his. When Ezra closed his eyes to refuse any more, Nathan had figured that was it. He was reminded just how strong-willed the jovial, laid-back gunslinger could be when properly motivated.

“That ain’t all you’re eating, Ezra,” Buck said in a determined voice that reminded Nathan of Chris.

“I’m done, Buck,” Ezra stated tiredly. He had been awake off and on for over twenty minutes and his body was aching for rest.

Buck looked down on his friend, compassion filling his face. Ezra looked like he had been put through the clothes wringer and leeched dry of blood. He also noticed how hallow the man’s cheeks were getting and could only imagine what the rest of him looked like under all those bandages. Charging up his resolve, he shook his head in determination. “No you’re not. I’m not taking this half-eaten food back to sweet Inez. She’ll get it into her head that you’re insulting her cooking and you always say a gentleman never insults a lady. So, you’re eating at least three more bites,” Buck said in a matter-of-fact voice.

“Buck,” Ezra said. Dragging out the name to make it sound like a sentence. He didn’t have it into him to argue. He didn’t have anything in him, he just wanted to lie there and sleep and forget how much pain he was in.

Buck lowered himself to Ezra’s ear and whispered, “Know your tired, Ez, but we gotta get your strength back,” Buck continued, “You lie there with your eyes closed and just swallow whatever I put to your lips. Okay?”

“Three bites?” Ezra asked in a promising note.

“Three bites,” Buck assured the man.

Ezra barely managed a nod and soon felt the tip of the spoon on his bottom lip. Ezra opened his throat up and let the warm liquid ooze down his throat. He made the mental note that there had been nothing else but the broth. Buck waited a moment between each spoonful. After the third one, Ezra heard the spoon clatter into the bowl and then the bowl being set onto the nearby table. He felt Buck wiped his mouth with a cloth and said softly, “That’s it pard. You did really good.”

Ezra would have answered back, but sleep was already settling around him. In no time Buck was watching the steady rise and fall of the white wrapped chest. Buck could hardly bear the thoughts of what lay hidden underneath all the wrappings. How Ezra had managed to hold on even long enough for them to find him had truly amazed him. The fact Ezra was still hanging on and even aware enough to eat was a thrill for him. Though they hadn’t had much communication with Ezra, it seemed to Buck that from what he could gleem, Ezra had retained most of his faculties.

Nathan looked over to where the lanky man sat watching Ezra and pondered at the small smile playing on the other’s lips. Nathan was glad, himself, that Ezra had been persuaded to eat more, even if was only three bites, but he didn’t see any point in rejoicing just yet. There was still a very large mountain looming ahead that needed climbing before Nathan could relax enough to start feeling better.


The next morning Chris was up before the sun, his desire to get back to Four Corners  unexplainable. Not since his marriage to Sarah had he felt so at ease with being in one place. He had a home once again and the fear of being away too long drove him to stay close and keep the people he had let into his life safe. He had failed Ezra in that way. Rationally he knew that what had happened to the gambler was not of his doings, but he still felt responsible. He, after all, was the one to send the man on the journey in the first place.

The blond stepped out into the hall and caught a glimpse of Vin headed down the stairs. Chris went to the next two doors and briefly, but jarringly rousted the two remaining men out of bed. They were burning daylight when they could be on the trail. Chris headed downstairs and sat down at the table already occupied by the tracker. Vin eyed the black-clad man with a smirk. Vin was an early riser by nature, but he figured it was something else that drove the leader to be up at this hour of the morning. “Any particular reason you’re in such a hurry to get going?” Vin asked, hiding his smile.

“I don’t need a reason,” Chris growled back.

“Except for maybe a gambler laid up in the clinic,” Vin shot back with ease.

Chris kept his mouth shut and concentrated on not grinding his teeth too hard. Ever since he had joined with the other six men life had become interesting again. Hanging around them was never boring and he never lacked for entertainment, whether it was watching JD try to figure out how to spark young Casey Wells, watching Buck torment and harass JD about his hat or his love life, or setting back and watching the gambler do his thing at the card table. Life was full once again and he would fight tooth and nail to keep it from slipping away from him.

Vin, though not knowing exactly what the recalcitrant gunslinger was thinking, could figure out a partial piece. “Ezra’s tougher than people think. He’ll be all right.” Vin said softy as he leaned back in his chair and took a cautious sip of his hot coffee.

Chris could only nod, both in agreement and in appreciation for Vin’s words and confidence.

Josiah and JD soon joined Vin and Chris and the four men ate while listening  to JD talk about Chaucer and all that needed to be done for the horse when they get back home. Chris asked if Chaucer would be able to wear the saddle due to the sores or if it needed to be stored and retrieved later. The young man contemplated the idea for a minute and responded that Chaucer should be okay with the saddle. The men scraped their chairs back and headed for in their separate ways. Vin and JD went to saddle the horses while Josiah and Chris went to get the prisoners.

Chris made short work of relieving the deputy of the prisoners. Walking  through the door outside, the sun was shining brightly without having risen above the horizon yet, Chris yanked the shackled man aside. “You give me any trouble and I’ll give you a matching wound on the other side,” the blond hissed. “You understand me?”

Bill Earnest stared back into the green eyes and nodded slowly. He had underestimated the man last night; he wouldn’t do it again.

Josiah and Chris led the men into the livery. One whiff of the big outlaw and Chaucer rose to his back heels, stretching the lead rope JD had hooked to his bridle and tied to one of the rails. His nostrils flared wide and his eyes grew large at the smell of the man. Chaucer came down and reared back up again, making an awful screaming sound. Chaucer came down again and lunged for the big outlaw. Chris managed to drag Earnest out of the way just in time as Chaucer lunged again; narrowly missing the outlaw. Vin leapt to help JD keep the horse from breaking free and bolting. Though the peacekeepers had been caught off guard for a moment by the horse’s reaction, it didn’t take long for Chris to grab Earnest and dragged him back outside. “Guess he don’t like you,” Chris observed as he watched JD and Vin get the horse back under control. The two men inside were soothing riled nerves.

“The beast just needs some discipline. Stupid thing is a menace,” Bill spat out.

“Horse just has good judgment,” Chris replied with an evil grin.

Josiah helped the younger brother mount up on his horse and then gathered his and Chris  reins and led the horses outside. “Reckon it’d be best if JD bought up the rear. Chaucer ain’t in a mood to be around this one,” the big man nodded towards Earnest.

Chris nodded and then looked at Earnest. “You got your other horse?”

Earnest shook his head. “Had me a fine mount,” nodding toward a calmer Chaucer, “Didn’t need that old beast I had anymore. Sold him,” he said.

“Then you’ll just have to either walk or ride double with your brother,” Chris said as he led the big man over to where the brother sat mounted.

Chris could tell the younger brother was about to argue that point, but kept his mouth shut. Chris and Josiah pushed the outlaw up onto the horse. Jimmy never said a word to his brother. The peacekeepers set out for home, JD trailing behind at a safe distance with Chaucer. With one horse carrying the heavy load, the trip back was much longer. After the second break, Chris made Earnest start walking. Chris may not have liked the men, but the animal wasn’t the one he wanted punished.


Buck walked into the clinic and noticed Nathan was gathering up the usual supplies to undress the wounds and clean them. Nathan had told him the previous night that a few more of the lashes were ready to have their stitches out. The ladies’ man had figured Nathan could use the help, not only in turning Ezra over, but keeping the man occupied while Nathan tended to the scars. Buck sat down on the chair next to the open window. He could tell Ezra was only dozing and not in a deep sleep. “Hey, Ez,” he spoke with a friendly lilt to his voice.

“Buck,” Ezra replied slurring his word. Getting his brain to function required more attention than he had.

Nathan came over to the bed and said, “Ezra, we’re going to unwrap the bindings and turn you over. Some of those stitches are ready to come out.”

Ezra could only nod in understanding.

Buck looked up at the healer and asked, “Shouldn’t he have something before we do this?” He knew how much it was going to hurt.

“Already gave him a little laudanum,” Nathan answered.

Carefully, Nathan and Buck untucked the bandages, eliciting a groan from the patient as they jostled him slightly. Neither man quit working and soon enough were ready to roll Ezra. Buck hand was caught in a death grip by the gambler as Nathan began poking and prodding lightly at the lashes. “Okay, Ezra. I’m going to do this as painlessly as possible,” Nathan pointed out.

Ezra held his breath to fight against the pain. His lips pressed so firmly together they turned white. Buck watched Ezra closely. The grip on his hand tightened even further as Nathan began tugging the stitches loose. Buck watched his friends breathing alter and gripped the hand in his back and said,  “Don’t you quit breathing on us Ezra. If you gotta scream you go right ahead, pard. Ain’t nuthin to be ashamed of . You let it out,”

Ezra unclenched his lips long enough to muffle a reply, “I don’t scream.”

At that time Nathan hit one of the more tender stripes and Ezra couldn’t hold back any further. Blinding lights filled exploded behind his eyelids and a scream tore through his lips, filling the clinic with reverberations. Ezra’s breathing became erratic and fast. “Breath, Ezra. Just breath,” Buck coached as he watched Nathan hurry over to his desk and pour more laudanum into a cup. Buck scooped Ezra head up a little as Nathan put the cup to the gambler’s lips.

 “Drink this, Ezra,” the healer ordered gently.

Ezra smelled the sweet medicine and fought briefly. “Don’t need it,” he gasped out.

“Drink,” Nathan ordered a little more harshly and was relieved when Ezra swallowed the cup of medicine.

Buck lowered Ezra head back down onto the pillow and wiped the sweat-drenched hair out his friend’s face. “Just rest, pard. It’ll stop in a minute,” he said, gripping Ezra’s hand with one hand and combing his fingers through Ezra’s hair with the other.

Ezra breathing slowed down and regulated as he succumbed to the effects of the drug and fell into a heavy sleep.  Buck and Nathan breathed a sigh of relief of their own and finished up redressing the wounds. Buck had to admit the scars on the gambler’s back weren’t going to be as ugly and noticeable as he had feared, a testament to Nathan’s healing abilities.

Part 13

The riders arrived late in the evening. The sun had begun to set, casting the sky in magnificent hues of pinks and blues. Buck had been sitting outside of the jail when he spotted the weary band of travelers and wondered why JD was trailing behind. He knew  if there had been a problem, Chris would have sent Vin ahead for help, so he wasn’t so much worried as puzzled. He waited until they were even with him before standing up. Looking at the two men riding double, he cast a arching eyebrow to Chris. JD rode by trailing Chaucer. Getting one look at the beaten down horse, Buck let out a low whistle as he yanked Jimmy off his horse. “Ezra’s gonna be properly motivated to get well now for no other reason than to kill ya for hurtin’ Chaucer,” he commented to both outlaws as he shoved the boy forward to the jail.

Josiah and Chris dismounted and pulled Earnest off as well. Chris’d had every intention of making the man walk the entire way to town after that second stop, but after cooling down a bit, he realized he was hampering them as well and had allowed the wounded man back up on the horse. Vin picked up the reins of the horses and headed for the livery stable. He wasn’t sure who was more tired from the trip, the horses or the riders.

 Stepping inside the jail, Chris and Josiah held onto the two new prisoner’s while Buck rearranged the prisoner’s to get them all in. They could feel the animosity between the five brothers and knew putting the two youngest in with Earnest was only going to cause them trouble in the long run. Buck put the two youngest and chose the less angry twin in one cell, leaving the remaining twin and Earnest in the other cell. Slamming the last cell door closed, Buck told them, “I’ll see about getting you some supper, though from the looks of things, you could do without a meal or two.” His last shot aimed at the oldest.

The three peacekeepers headed outdoors and away from the argument that arose immediately after the cell doors had been shut. Buck could feel the tension running through Chris and Josiah and made the quiet offer, “I’ll stay with them tonight.”

The other two gave him a grateful acknowledgment. Chris looked up at Buck and asked, “How is he?”

Blue eyes flickered away for a brief moment before coming back to settle on the green ones staring at him. “Holding on,” he answered. “Ain’t eating much and seems to be in a lot of pain. Nathan’s giving him as much painkiller as possible, but he doesn’t want to overdo it.” Buck said in a flat reporting tone.

Chris absorbed the information and gave a small nod of acceptance and dismissal before stepping off the boardwalk and heading for the restaurant. Josiah had listened to the byplay and now that it was just the two of them, the preacher asked, “How’s he really doing?’

Buck contemplated the question for a minute before answering. “Doing better than I would have thought.” He paused for a moment before adding, “I think these last two weeks are going to be thought of as the best part of his recovery. The more conscious he is the more pain he’s going to be in.”

“Just going to have to dig in then and help him,” Josiah said after a long silence.

Three of the travelers were half-way through their meal before JD showed up. “Where you been?” Chris asked.

“Wiring the Judge so he knows we got all of them,” JD answered, taking the plate of hot food from Inez. Chris accepted the explanation and kept eating.

Taking a big bite of food, JD asked, “So how’s Ez?”

Josiah watched the others eat. Laying his utensils down, he cleared is throat and said quietly, “Buck thinks it’s going to get rough from here on out.”

JD, taking a big bite of food, was a little confused since he had believed the worst part was over. Looking up from his plate with melted cheese stringing down from his chin, asked, “Why? We got all of them behind bars and Ezra is still with us.”

Vin explained “Josiah just meant that since Ezra’s doing better, he won’t be able to block out the pain as much. Gonna be hurtin’ bad for a while.”

“Oh,” JD said as he thought about all the injuries his friend had incurred. “Can’t Nathan give him more laudanum?”

Josiah took up the explaining. “If Nathan keeps giving Ezra medicine strong enough to block all the pain constantly, it will hurt him in the long run. Nathan can give him something when it becomes too intense, but otherwise…” Josiah left the thought hanging.

Seeing JD’s confused expression, Josiah tried again,  “Ezra can become addicted to the stuff, first off. Second, it isn’t good for the mind to be blunted like that repeatedly.” The preacher had seen what painkillers used repeatedly could do to a person. In his travels, he had learned a lot about what people did to their bodies to keep from feeling pain.

“Oh,” JD said once again. “So, either he’s in pain or he damages his mind?” he said in a half-way questioning manner.

“About it,” Vin answered JD, as he shoveled another fork of food in his mouth.

“Well, we’ll just have to keep him occupied so he don’t think about the pain then,” the young man said. In his mind it was going to be as easy as that. The other three men shook their heads at the youth’s positive outlook. They knew it wasn’t going to be so easy, but they could hope.


It was late, but Josiah wanted to check in on his friend before turning in. JD and Vin had gone earlier, but Ezra had been still asleep from the earlier dose of laudanum. Sitting his big frame down into the chair, he leaned forward and gently took the pale, lax hand in his. Ezra was a good man despite his faults, but then again weren’t they all? Josiah knew,  that despite what Ezra spoke about not being thrown in with a bunch of uncouth men, the gambler liked them. Why else, would he try to teach Buck had to sword fight or come back with them after that fiasco with the new marshal? Yes, he had been running away from a mob at the time, but there had been no reason the man couldn’t have turned and gone another direction once he was safe. Instead, the gambler had come back and helped take the town back. In fact, it was he who had ridden through town shouting ‘the army was coming.’

Ezra cared about people and deserved that same kind of loyalty. Josiah thought about the one time Ezra had needed him and he had let the man down. Well, he wouldn’t do again. Ezra was going to make it through this if he had to drag the man kicking and screaming. Josiah laughed silently at the image. Ezra wouldn’t kick and scream, it would be to ungentlemanly. Instead, Ezra would carry the indignity quietly while planning his retribution. Putting the hand back down, Josiah gave it a light pat. “Sleep well my friend,” he said before walking away.

Part 14

Ezra laid on his side with his eyes closed, dozing.  Much earlier, he had contemplated whether or not he could get his hands on a weapon to end his torment. The others had repeatedly told him it would get better, but he was loath to believe it. There wasn’t been a place in him that didn’t hurt and all of it combined made his head ache from the overload to the point where it felt like it was going to explode. He had, at one point earlier in the  morning, questioned his sanity when he had considered getting the gunslinger mad enough to kill him and put him out of his misery. He had chosen not to test the idea. The gunslinger might shoot him all right, but not kill him and then he’d have one more injury.

Chris had come early that morning. For a man who scared people just by looking at them, the gambler was learning there was more to him than met the eye, but then again that was true of all of them. The blond had sat down and quietly asked, “You awake?”

Ezra had been lying there on his back for quite some time,  trying to will his tense body to relax, when the blond had appeared. The body had been refusing to obey.  Keeping his eyes closed, he had merely nodded his head.

“Got them all, Ezra,” Chris had told him. “Gonna stand trial for what they did.”

Ezra had sensed there was something in the gunslinger’s voice that was more than just the usual observation, but he couldn’t place the tone and he was too tired to try and interpret what wasn’t being said aloud. Instead, he licked his lips and tried to gather moisture in his mouth to ask a question. Almost instantly he found his head raised and a cup placed at his lips. Ezra drank his full of the tepid water. Tilting his head back slightly to signify he was done, Chris lowered him back down to the pillow. Ezra licked his lips again and asked, “When will the good Judge make his appearance?”

“Not for a month,” Chris replied.

They had all been surprised by the telegram telling them the Judge was having troubles with a trial in Ft. Laramie and wouldn’t be able to come for a month. Chris had personally wondered if the Judge was actually giving Ezra a month more to recover. Either way, he’d take the month, even though that meant babysitting the feuding brothers for another four weeks. Josiah had thought out loud about turning one of the rooms in the granary into an extra cell. It would mean having two men on jail duty, but it might be something to think about if the brothers didn’t start calming down. Chris knew it was going to be a long four weeks. Josiah’s idea just might be implemented before it was over.

Chris had stayed a while, sitting quietly by the sickbed. Ezra simply felt his presence and wished the man didn’t have to see him in this condition. It only heightened his inferiority complex he felt when he was next to the man. The gambler took a deep breath and held it until the pain passed. He was stuck in a limbo with his breathing. His ribs hurt when he inhaled deeply, but his lungs ached from having to breathe too shallowly. The flare of pain eased and Ezra was able to exhale at a slow pace. He had almost convinced his body to relax and was on the verge of dozing off when he heard Nathan’s familiar footsteps approach. He sighed inwardly. Consciously, he knew the healer was doing his best for him, but he was beginning to resent the man. It seemed every time Nathan appeared, pain followed.

Nathan saw the grimace on the blanched face. He knew Ezra hated being turned, tended to and generally touched. Nathan gave Chris a weak smile and knelt down by the bed. “I know you’re just getting comfortable, Ezra, but it’s time to roll you onto your side.”

“Leave me,” Ezra mumbled. He was getting tolerably comfortable in this position.

“Can’t, Ez. You know that. You stay in one position too long and you’ll start getting bedsores. Don’t need that,” Nathan said. Now that Ezra was conscious more often, it seemed he had this conversation every time he had to do this.

“Don’t care,” Ezra replied with a little heat leaking through his tone.

“Yeah, you do. Come on now, the faster we do this the faster it’s over,” Nathan cajoled.

Ezra didn’t reply which Nathan took as an acceptance of what was to come. Nathan raised Ezra’s head and offered him a cup of tea, meant to help with the pain. Ezra made a face at the taste, but drank the liquid. The two guardians stood over the gambler and watched with anticipation as the medicinal tea took effect. Chris had sat back and watched the preceding by-play. He was always amazed at Nathan’s abundance of patience when one of the guys was really hurt. Any other time Nathan would be ripping into Ezra about doing the right thing. But when one of them was hurt worse than usual,  then Nathan had the patience of Job and the ability to coddle them into doing what needed to be done. The blond prepared to help the healer however he could. Nathan indicated with a tilt of his head for Chris to watch the splinted leg and together the two rolled Ezra over.

Chris sighed with relief and then turned to Nathan. “He seems to be doing pretty well...considering,” he said softly, watching Ezra’s face go lax as the injured man delved deeper in sleep.

“Yeah,” Nathan said with relief of his own. “He’s doing far better than I would have ever wagered.”

Slapping Nathan on the back, Chris gave a soft smile, “Well, keep it up. You’re doing a great job.” With that he turned and left the room.


The gambler was dozing and heard the door creak open. He didn’t bother opening his eyes to acknowledge the visitor. He was still under the influence of the tea he had drunk earlier and was enjoying the bliss it brought. The chair creaked, but Ezra didn’t pay any attention to it. He was trying to enjoy the pain-free atmosphere while it lasted. Not really knowing, or caring, if he was sleeping or simply drifting, he shifted his arm a little, moaned and resettled. It only lasted a minute. The next few would be excruciating.

JD had walked into the clinic and sat down on the chair. It was getting easier to see his friend in the condition he was, but not in pain. Seeing the gambler move, JD jumped from his seat, knocking it back into the wall and bent over the patient, he asked excitedly, “You al’ right?” Grabbing Ezra at the same time as he spoke.

Ezra had forgotten JD had come in and the hand grabbing him more than the sound startled him. Lurching forward away from the sudden touch, Ezra found himself free-falling off the side of the narrow bed. In an attempt to save himself, he threw out his bound arm and struck the hand against the floor. A scream tore from his throat and tears of sudden pain instantly flooded his eyes. Half on and half-off the cot, Ezra began panting in exertion and pain, trying to keep the rest of his body from falling onto the floor.

JD moved around the bed in a flash and attempted to find a good spot to grab onto to help Ezra back up onto the bed. “Get your filthy hands off me!” Ezra screamed, his mind in another time and place as wave after wave of pain washed over him. JD backed off in shocked rejection.

Within seconds of the scream, the clinic door flew open and the remaining peacekeepers poured into the small room. Ezra’s scream had been heard clearly through the open window throughout the town: in the saloon, where Chris, Vin and Nathan had been enjoying some quiet time; Josiah had heard it from the church and Buck left his prisoners unattended when he took off for the clinic. The men froze for a heartbeat before racing over to gather Ezra up. In the few seconds in between, Ezra had regained an awareness of his surrounding. There were many: “Easy, Ez”, “Careful” and “Hang on,” said as the five men shifted Ezra back up onto the bed. The gambler could hardly discern the words for the blood rushing through his system, pounding through his eardrums. He, at the moment, would bet his last dollar that Nathan had installed a rotating bed and would give any amount to have it stop spinning.

Chris turned a sharp eye towards JD and asked threateningly, “What happened?”

“I scared him,” JD said haltingly. “Didn’t mean to, “ he added hastily.

“Why didn’t you help him?” Buck asked sharply, as he held down the gambler’s legs from shaking so badly and jarring the already throbbing hip.

“He wouldn’t let me,” the sheriff tried to explain. “He told me to get away.”

“And you listened?” Nathan asked incredulously. He was pouring some straight laudanum into a cup. The healer hated having to give the gambler the laudanum, because  Ezra hated it and giving him the drug so shortly after the tea  was not good, but Ezra was in too much pain. Laudanum was the only thing that would work quickly enough to do him any good in this state. 

Chris turned his attention to Nathan and cocked an eyebrow.

Nathan took the look in stride and calmly replied, “Think he pulled some of those muscles around his ribs loose again. Sure didn’t do his shoulder any good. Have to check his stitches in a minute, too.”

Josiah held Ezra’s head up enough for Nathan to dribble the laudanum down the gambler’s throat . For the first time, Ezra took the hated stuff without a word. JD hung back and watched with immense guilt.  

The laudanum was quick to kick in since it had not been watered down, and Ezra’s trembling body, quivering from the shock of the sudden pain, began to still. With everyone’s help, Nathan soon had all the injuries looked over and tended to. The hip, Nathan was relieved to report had stayed in place. The shoulder, while suffering from the abrupt impact, had managed to stay intact, though it was already swelling. The ribs had taken the worse punishment since Ezra had pulled some of the healing muscles when he twisted and lurched forward. He did pull a couple of the stitches loose in his back, but the rest had stayed tied and Nathan saw no reason to redo them, it would only add to the problem. Infection was still a great risk and opening up incisions when not necessary was a potential breeding ground for infection. The healer figured it was best left alone. The sutures in his abdomen had held and Nathan could only watch and hope that nothing on the inside had torn loose.

After Ezra was tended and rebound the men found resting places around the clinic and sat down. There was no other reason to stay other than they needed to be close for a while again. The last two weeks had been busy and anxious. They had been separated for various reasons and not always been able to be together as a group. Without realizing it, each man missed their times together, whether they were doing anything or not.

Vin had noticed JD had taken a spot furthest from the group and slid down the wall next to the young man. “Weren’t really your fault, JD. We just gotta be careful he knows we’re around so it don’t happen again,” he said softly.

“I thought he knew I was here,” JD whispered back.

“Might have when you first walked in, but sleep and pain make things kinda hazy sometimes, plus Nathan had said he gave him some tea earlier. Ezra probably just forgot you were here,” Vin said.

JD nodded. “Still don’t know why he didn’t want me to help,” he said.

Vin shrugged. He had a pretty good idea why, but trying to explain was going to be difficult. Slowly he felt his way through the explanation, “You know how he is about being touched anyway. After what those guys did, I figure it only made it worse. Maybe…maybe in his mind he was back there with them”

JD thought about it and nodded in agreement. He could understand that. He only hoped it never happened again. It had just begun to get to the point where they could treat the gambler like they would each other without Ezra coming unglued about uncouth manhandling of his person. The sheriff smiled at the thought. Ezra was nothing if not entertaining in his own right.


He was tied to the tree, stripped of his upper clothing. The sun was warm on his skin. The breeze was blowing softly through his hair. His senses had magnified a hundred percent. He could clearly see the uneasy look in the youngest thief’s eyes and the twisted leer on the twin’s faces. He knew what was coming, he knew and yet he still screamed when the lash of the whip connected with his sensitized skin. He kept right on screaming.

The six men had still been camped out in the small room. Other citizens’, some just curious and some honestly concerned, had shown up at the healer’s door wanting to know if everything had been all right. Mary, Mrs. Potter and Inez had all come by out of genuine concern; each woman had offered to do whatever they needed. Mary had told them that Tiny had rounded up a couple of his boys and sent them down to the jail to watch over the prisoners. Not everyone in town was indifferent to the peacekeepers.

Since Chris and Buck sat on either side of the door, Buck had answered the door each time, knowing it would be wrong, although amusing, if he let Chris do it. They all had jumped when Ezra let out his first scream. More than one had gone for his gun before realizing the threat lay in Ezra’s mind. Scrambling to their feet, each one spoke to the drugged man, who continued to scream, as he fought to get away from the pain and his tormentors. Nathan shouted to no one in particular to watch the leg and the arm. Though the healer was sure the thrashing wasn’t doing the gambler’s insides much good, there was little they could do about it, besides restraining the fighting man in the way they already were.

Buck cursed under his breath as he struggled to keep Ezra’s shoulder pinned to the bed. His hate for the men locked up down the street growing with each moment. The ladies’ man looked up and searched each of his friend’s eyes and saw the same feelings he felt. Josiah had stepped up on the far side and had one hand on Ezra’s thigh and one just above the hip joint. Buck knew without a doubt Josiah would rip some heads if Ezra managed to displace his hip and it wouldn’t be anybody’s in this room.

Chris was standing next to Buck,  trying to hold down the other leg. The rage rolling off the blond was palpable to say the least. The cowboy had once seen a picture of a dragon in a book with its eyes glowing and fire coming out of his mouth. Chris reminded him a lot of that picture and he was pretty sure, if it were possible, the gunslinger would have the fire coming out of his mouth, also.

JD had placed himself down on the end, holding down Ezra’s ankles. Buck shook his head at the poor kid’s situation. JD tried hard to do the right thing, but it seemed the young sheriff was one of those that no matter how hard he tried, things were going to go wrong no matter what. His heart was in the right place, but his actions never seem to equal his intentions.

Nathan was across from him holding the opposite shoulder. The fierce determination not to let his patient and friend hurt himself any more than he already was, written across his face. Nathan was a good man and a good healer; Buck had no doubts about that.

Vin had the gambler’s face in a vise grip and trying to get Ezra’s attention. His face down almost touching the other’s. Buck couldn’t hear what Vin was whispering, but it seemed to be working better than their hollering at the man to wake up. Ezra’s thrashing eased off and the tracker continued to whisper softly until the last of the shivering had stopped.

Ezra could feel them holding him down, could feel the hands restraining him. Preventing him from escaping. Then the voices came: yelling, ordering him to do something he couldn’t comprehend, frightening him further. Then the whispering came. The voice so low it was almost drowned out by the other’s, but then the other voices stopped and only the whispering continued; the words beckoning him, using his name softly, whereas, the others had used it harshly and threateningly. The words were spoken so softly and gently that he had to stop moving to hear them. He knew that voice; it meant: peace, well-being and, most importantly, safety. He followed that voice, followed it out of the darkness and the terror, back to the light and serenity of being in the clinic surrounded by friends.

Ezra’s eyes fluttered open and immediately closed. He opened them again and glanced about, orienting and securing himself, of where he was and who was with him. In each friend’s eyes he saw concern and worry. It baffled him completely. He watched as the looks softened and relaxed, each man giving him a gentle pat or a squeeze for comfort. He watched curiously as Buck patted his shoulder lightly and said softly, “Gave us a scare there, pard.”

The others backed up a pace, as if to physically give him more room, but never leaving the vicinity of the bed. Then the nightmare in vivid colors came flooding back to mind. He had been back on the road, captured and tied. He could recall the pain the whip had made as it struck time and again against his skin. He couldn’t help but wince at the memory. Nathan bent down within his direct sight. “Easy, Ez. It was just a nightmare. It’s over now.”

Ezra could do little else but nod his head and take as deep breaths as his ribs and lungs would allow. He regretted the action, but would do again if he could. It was getting harder to breath so shallowly. He closed his eyes and tried to relax his muscles. He heard the six pair of footsteps ease back further, but never heard the opening of the door. Even with his eyes closed, he could feel their presence.


It was late that night before JD returned to check on the prisoners. The five men had heard the scream as and watched in fascination as the tall, well-built peacekeeper ran from the building. Buck had opened the front door earlier in hopes of creating a cross-breeze. Several men in one cell created a certain odor that was hard on olfactory nerves. The young sheriff excused the boys Tiny had sent down, both as big as their father. JD sat down behind the desk. He hated leaving the clinic, but had seen it as the only choice. Nathan couldn’t leave, Chris and Vin weren’t going to, and it was best for all concerned  to keep Buck and Josiah away from the prisoners for a while, at least until they could control their urge for bloodletting. JD rocked the chair back on two legs, placed his hands behind his head and closed his eyes for a little shut-eye. The five men behind bars had roused up when he entered and just as quickly had gone back to sleep.

Part 15

Ezra felt his good leg moving, bending at the knee and then straightening. Slowly lifting his eyelids, he watched detachedly for a moment until he could register in his mind that it was Nathan that was moving his leg. “Mr. Jackson, what may I ask, are you doing?”

“Exercising your leg,” The healer said, continuing his ministrations. “ I’ve been doing this since the end of the first week. You just never noticed.”

Ezra took a deep breath before speaking. “Why do feel it necessary to carry out such an action?” he asked, the irritation beginning to show.

“Because if I don’t do it, Ezra, your muscles are going to cramp up and it’ll make it harder to use. After I get done with your leg, we’ll work on your arm,” the healer responded.

Ezra had quite enough. He’d had his fill of people putting their hands on him at will. “Stop it!” He commanded with ire.

Nathan, stopped his ministrations and asked, “Excuse me?”

“Just stop it and leave me be,” Ezra said, definitely getting more irritated by the moment. All his control had been stripped away and it was wearing on his nerves. He just wanted a moment where life stopped and let him catch his breath. It all was becoming too much.

“Look, Ez, I can’t. I know it’s uncomfortable, but…” Nathan started to say, his hands going to his hips and a gleam of irritation coming into his own eyes.

“Leave. Me. Alone!” Ezra said. He didn’t want to be touched, no matter what the reason.

Nathan saw something in his friend’s eyes and decided it would be best for the moment to let it go. “Okay, we’ll stop for awhile, but I’m telling you, Ez, it’s for the best,” he said before walking over to his desk.

Ezra stared up at the ceiling, reflecting on his predicament. He hated this. He would rather be blissfully unconscious, like had been in the beginning, than to be suffering through this humiliation. It wasn’t bad enough that he was in constant discomfort, or that Nathan was having to see to all his needs like a parent does for its baby, but to have to be subjected to being manhandled was beyond acceptable.

The other five men came through at regular intervals. He was getting to the point he could tell what time it was just by who was in the room. Vin was always there as the sun rose. After he left, Chris would appear. Josiah came at midmorning. Buck always showed up for lunch and supper, and would insist on helping him with his food. Buck had been too polite to call it feeding. Ezra had to concede that the roguish man may be lacking in manners, but he would never be anything but kind. JD came in the afternoons. Vin would come again after supper,  and Chris would appear after the saloon shut down. Josiah would make an another appearance sometime after lunch, but that would always alter, depending on whether any of the townspeople needed his help elsewhere and Nathan, bless his heart, was almost always there when he wasn’t needed any where else.

They had, at different times and in different ways, tried to entertain him to keep his mind occupied. Most of the time he was just too tired to care. The gambler laughed at the irony of that reminiscence. He was too weary to do anything and yet he was unable to sleep, and when he did sleep the nightmares invaded, making sleep unwanted. So there he lay. More than one had offered to deal up a hand for a game of poker, but he had always kindly, and sometimes not so kindly, refused the gesture. He was beginning to believe that Nathan was right; his evil and immoral ways had caught up to him. If he had not been gambling, then he would have drawn those men’s attention, and therefore would not have been accosted. Hence, he would not be lying here. He had never been one for self-pity; what happened in life, happened. He was a firm believer in rolling with the punches and simply reshuffling the deck and starting over again, but with too much time on his hands and nothing but pain and the occasional visitor to keep him occupied, self-pity was settling in.


Nathan was becoming considerably worried about Ezra’s apathy in his own recovery. His body was beginning to heal, but Ezra’s emotions were taking a nosedive. The healer could partly understand; all the men were extremely self-sufficient and, though Ezra liked his comforts and had no problems being waited upon when he was up and about, there was no doubt in Nathan’s mind that Ezra disliked his situation and not just because of the shape he was in. Being pampered was very different from being cared for in the manner he was requiring. The healer sat at his desk staring at the medical book laid open before him without seeing the words. He was stuck regarding what to do for the gambler. If it wasn’t for the hip, he could easily suggest Ezra sit outside the clinic for a few minutes everyday and watch the happenings of the town. Nathan believed the fresh air and the comings and goings of the town would reinvigorate the cardsharp; as it was, with the leg being strapped in place, there was no way the gambler could sit, not for a couple of more weeks at least.

Nathan was still pondering the situation when JD came through the door. Seeing, Nathan at his desk, the young sheriff spoke to the healer first. “Hey, Nathan.”

Returning the greeting, Nathan said, “Hello, JD. How is everything going?”

JD took that to mean how the prisoners were doing. “Pretty good. At least they ain’t squabbling anymore.” Then with a half-smile, he said conspiratorial, “Chris put a stop to that.”

Nathan merely shook his head. The blond gunslinger didn’t have much patience with some people. He could easily imagine how he had silenced any bickering the five brothers had been doing. Looking up at the young sheriff, he wearily asked, “Do I need to go look any of them over?”

JD’s face split into a huge smile. “Nah,” he said, “Chris didn’t even have to touch them.” Then laughing to himself, he added, “Of course Josiah had already scared the youngest two, so Chris only had to ‘talk’ to the oldest three.”

Nathan shook his head as a smile of his own appeared. JD walked across the floor and sat down next to the sickbed. He waited until Ezra acknowledged him before speaking. Ever since that last episode, JD had made a conscious effort never to have that happen again. Seeing that Ezra was looking at him, he said softly, “Hey, Ez.”

“Greetings, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra answered back, boredom and irritation faintly tingeing his words.

JD ignored the tone and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “Want to hear about what happened down at Mrs. Potter’s store today?”

Ezra repressed a sigh. The young man kept him abreast of the comings and goings of their quaint town. Looking into the eager young eyes, the gambler couldn’t resist but indulge the young man. “Pray tell, what might have occurred at the social meeting convergence of our fair town?” he asked.

Absently picking up Ezra’s good arm, JD began exercising it like he had seen Nathan do so many times in the last three weeks, and spent the next fifteen minutes telling of all the latest gossip and dissention among the townspeople. Ezra listened wearily, begrudgingly accepting the arm being moved about without his own doing, confined like the five prisoners held down the street. The gambler figured he owned JD for yelling at him the other day and let the young man ‘help’ him.


He should know it wasn’t real by now, the nightmares that replayed themselves every time he fell asleep.  Yet that in itself was the problem, because it had been real and the his mind could no longer differentiate between the two. As so often happened when the nightmares came, he awoke screaming and struggling for air and control. Also, like every other time, someone was there to help him right his world, gain his control and talk to him until he could made sense of things once again. This time, Josiah had been the one. Ezra would never admit it, but he was always thankful one of them was around to bring him out of his tormenting dream. He wondered sometimes if the dreams would ever stop coming. Ezra felt the hand holding his and soaked up the strength the hand offered.

The ex-preacher hated seeing his young brother bound by such demons. It tormented him to watch as Ezra fought the invisible foes and wondered how much worse it must have been to fight them the first time with none of them to help. It was another cross Josiah felt was his to bear, another penance he must serve. Josiah held the trembling pale hand in his while Ezra stared silently up into the almost dark of the clinic. The preacher had relit the lamp beside the table when he had entered and had turned the wick down to almost indiscernible light. When Ezra began his fight, Josiah had turned up the light so that once Ezra was awake he would be able to discern where he was and with whom. Softly, the large man began humming an old hymn he had learned as a child. Ezra would be awhile in relaxing enough to slip back to sleep. This, too, had become part of their routine.

Night drifted on and Ezra eventually fell back asleep. Josiah continued to hold his friend’s hand and hum. He went through the list of songs he knew and when he finished, he started over again. Whether it was Josiah’s constant hum or Ezra’s exhaustion, it was inconsequential. The dreams were held at bay for the rest of the passing of the moon and the gambler was afforded some decent hours of sleep.


Vin slipped into the clinic quietly. Ezra was on his side. His bound leg, held straight by the splint and wrappings, laid atop his other leg. On his last visit, the tracker had noticed faint bruising had begun to occur on the good leg because of the way the gambler was forced to lay when he was on his side. Vin took in the rest of his friend. His bound hand lay cushioned under him, while his good arm lay over his chest and hung over the side of the bed. His chestnut hair was disarrayed, signifying another restless night of sleep. A couple of them would have to make time to wash the dirty hair later. A good-old fashion bath wouldn’t hurt either, but he doubted he could make Nathan see the benefits of allowing Ezra to sit in a tub of water. It would be a pain to get the southerner down the steps and to the bathhouse, and he doubted Ezra would be too keen on being out in public where gawkers could watch, but it wasn’t completely impossible. He would just have to persuade Nathan and the gambler of that. Nodding his head at a thought, the tracker took his place by the bed and watched Ezra sleep. The fact that Ezra hadn’t roused up when he entered told Vin that Ezra was sleeping pretty deeply, a testament to just how little sleep the gambler was really getting.

Nathan came in from his room and spotted the tracker. Silent acknowledgments were made and then Vin stood and motioned for Nathan to step out on the balcony with him.

“How’s he doing, Nathan?” Vin asked.

Nathan hesitated a moment before deciding on the straight truth. “Physically, he’s coming right along. Doing better than I had ever hoped for,” Nathan started.

“But,” Vin prompted.

“It’s not going to last if we can’t start improving his mental well-being also,” Nathan said.  “I think it would be good if we could rig up something, so he could get out of the clinic and be outside,” he continued, before shaking his head, “But he doesn’t seem interested in it all. Doesn’t even want to play cards.” Nathan finally let all his worry show. “Vin, it’s been over three weeks and he hasn’t even mentioned going back to his room.”

He hadn’t discussed Ezra’s lack of mental improvement for fear of being laughed at by the others. On the plantation he had seen more than one slave actually will themselves into dying and knew there was a correlation between mental and physical health. The healer waited for Vin to either question him or laugh.

Vin did neither. He, too, knew that a person who wasn’t happy, or what people called well adjusted, tended not to live very well. The tracker nodded his head in understanding before saying, “Noticed that myself and I had a thought about how to get him out.”

Nathan cocked his head, ready to listen to any ideas the other man might have.

“What about taking him down to the bathhouse,” he started. Before Nathan could say anything, Vin waved him off and continued. “Now, Ez ain’t gonna want to do it when everyone can see him, so what if we did it late tonight?” Vin asked.

Nathan smiled widely. There was only two stripes left with  stitches in them; it wouldn’t hurt to get them wet and the heat from the hot water would feel pretty good to those bones that had taken the roughest treatment. “Sounds good, Vin.  Only one question, who’s going to talk him into it?” Nathan asked with a smirk.

Part 16

JD stood outside the clinic. He blew out his breath and swiped his sweaty hands down his shirt. It had not gone as well as Vin had said it would. According to Vin’s plans, JD would be the one to entice Ezra into letting them take him down to the bathhouse after closing. Ezra had been adamant about his refusal to be “paraded through town like a circus animal on display”.

JD had done everything he could think of to make Ezra see the upside. At one point the young sheriff had thought the gambler would acquiesced and allow it, but Ezra’s pride, or self-pity; JD wasn’t sure which is was, bowed up and in the end Ezra had declined. JD shook his head. Ezra had been given the chance to do it the easy way, now Chris and Josiah were going to take matters into their own hands.

Ezra had been mortified at the thought of being ‘carried’ through town like he was some artifact. He was not going to let himself be seen in such deplorable conditions for the townfolk to bear witness to. He might not have much dignity here in the clinic, but he would rather be shot dead than to have his inadequacies announced to the rest of the world. For the rest of his waking hours, he had stewed upon the thought. He was jarred out of his musings when the clinic door was thrown open and Chris and Josiah entered,  wrestling a long, wide slab of wood between them. The rest of the peacekeepers followed.

Rising up on his good arm, Ezra demanded, “What are you gentlemen contemplating doing with that piece of lumber?”

“Taking you down to the bathhouse,” Chris answered neutrally, as he and Josiah laid the board next to the bed and wedged the length of it under the mattress.

“I think you gentlemen are greatly uninformed. I specifically informed Mr. Dunne that I would not be transported out of this clinic,” Ezra said, becoming a little unnerved as he watched JD and Buck hold each end of the board.

Buck, standing next to the head of the board, looked down on his friend and said, “Ez, you’ve been up here for three weeks and frankly your beginning smell a little rank.”

Ezra was about to reply when felt his body being lifted by the remaining three men and scooted over onto the board. Once on the board, Ezra looked up at the ladies’ man and glared at him. “First of all, Mr. Wilmington,  I take umbrage at that ludicrous slander against my person and, second, this is ridiculous!” the gambler said, his voice rising only the barest in levels, but it was enough for his friends to know there was worry in the other man.

Squeezing a shoulder, before letting go and walking around to grab an edge of the transport, Josiah said, “Don’t worry. Most of the town has gone to bed; only the drunks are still out and Elmer has closed up the house to all but us. It’ll be fine.” He said the last bit with deep sincerity, looking down at his friend with honesty.

Ezra knew he had no choice but to go along with this plan. It wasn’t like he could get up and walk off. With determination and brute strength, the six men eased the board through the door, with no space for miscalculation, walked down the flight of stairs and carried their friend down the street.

Nathan removed the wooden splints and bandages from the injured  leg and, keeping the blanket over Ezra, the six men picked up the wounded man with ease and lowered Ezra into then steaming warm water. A slow sigh of comfort was their reward.

Chris, Josiah, Buck and JD moved outside, forming a tight circle in front of the door, Nathan joined them after a short time. Vin had stayed inside the building to keep watch over Ezra. Chris eyed Nathan and asked, “Well?”

Nathan cast his eyes downward for a moment before drawing in a deep breath. “It’s like I told Vin, Ezra might be doing fine physically, but mentally…well,” he stopped speaking for moment.  “Back on the plantation, I saw men take a beating,. Some recuperated and went right back to work, while others never got out of bed again. Sometimes, it does something to a man. Ezra’s acting like some of those men,” Nathan tried to explain.

“Whadda talkin’ about, Nathan?” JD asked slightly confused.

“He means, we got to give Ezra a reason to want to get out of that clinic and back to living,” Josiah explained.

“How we gonna do that?” Buck asked. He had seen the lifelessness of his friend and it tore at his heart. Ezra was a good friend and, though the man would never admit it, he loved the excitement of life.

“First, we got him out of that clinic,” Nathan said heatedly.

“Excuse me?” Chris smirked. He knew all too well how many times Nathan usually had to fight to keep the injured in the clinic and now Nathan wanted him out.

Nathan knew he would be hearing about this for a long time to come. “ Fresh air and making him do things on his own would help in his healing process, but he is too proud to let any of the townsfolk see him looking nothing less than perfect,” Nathan said.

The five men stood around and thought for a minute of how to get Ezra moving without the eyes of the people on him. Chris slowly looked up and asked, “What about the cabin?”

Seeing the garnered looks from the others,  he plunged ahead. “What if we moved him out to the cabin. He would be away from prying eyes. We could rig up some kind of bed thing where he could lay out in the open air,” he said, his voice drifting off as he realized Nathan might not go for it.

Nodding his head, Nathan said, “Than might work.” Then, thinking about Ezra’s personal needs that still needed tended to, he cringed.  Ezra had not been happy to learn that the others had been tending to him in that fashion and had been slightly mollified when Nathan had solely taken over the procedures.

“What?” Josiah asked, seeing the mood shift in his friends.

“Well...uhmm… Ezra’s still got personal needs that have to be met,” Nathan said, trying to explain the needs tactfully. 

“Ahh,” Josiah answered understanding the problem.

“Hey,” JD exclaimed and was immediately shushed by the others. Looking to see if Ezra had noticed, the five men turned towards where the gambler lay soaking, relieved when Vin shook his head. It seemed for once in a long time, Ezra was sleeping in a relaxed atmosphere.

Lowering his voice, JD said, “When I lived at the mansion, the man once broke his leg. One of the carpenters made a tall box with a hole in it. It set over the other hole in the outhouse and made it so the man didn’t have to lower himself down so far.” By the time he was finished, JD’s cheeks were flaming red in embarrassment.

Josiah began nodding his head. “That could be done. A board nailed to each side wall would help him keep himself level,” he thought aloud.

“How are we going to get him out to the outhouse?” Buck asked.

Again a puzzled silence came over the men. Josiah started slowly, “We could build a push chair and have a board going straight out to support his leg. I could make the back of the chair where it would lean back and that would take the pressure off the hip bone.” After a moment he added, “Take me some time, though.” 

Nathan looked delighted. They may just figure out a way to get this done after all. The healer looked at Josiah and said, “Maybe not.”

Getting a puzzled look from the rest, he hurried on. “Last year after Mrs. Loops passed on, her husband gave me her old push-chair. Said he didn’t have a need for it anymore and I could probably put it to good use. I stored it in the livery, in the back part. We could get it out and see what alterations could be done to it.”

Four relieved sighs answered his thought. JD hated to be the negative one in the group, but asked hesitantly, “How are we going to get Ezra out to Chris’?” He looked at the blond and added, “Without tying him up and dragging him out there, ‘cause I don’t see him going willingly.”

A voice from behind them startled them all as Vin spoke up quietly, “Chaucer.” Vin had checked on the sleeping man soaking in the heated water before quietly easing himself to the door. Keeping one eye on the man in the tub, he said, “We use Chaucer.”

Once the plan had been formulated, the six men walked back into the bathhouse. Staring down at the downtrodden friend, each hated the thought of waking the man up and jostling him back to the clinic. For the first time in many weeks, Ezra’s face wasn’t lined in pain or marred by the unfolded nightmare that plagued him at rest. With a diligence of kinship, they woke him and slid him back on the traveling board. Nathan dried him off and resplinted  the leg. Shriveled for the long soak, the leg looked even more shrunken next to the good one. Lack of exercise and air had done damage to the muscle tone, but the bath had bought it out clearer.

The six men soon had Ezra back in bed and went to find their own. Tomorrow,  they would move Ezra out and begin restoring him to the loquacious gambler they had met four years before.

Part 17

Ezra woke to the sound of the bustling town. People getting on with their lives, regardless  of the patient lying up in the clinic. Opening his eyes slowly to his surroundings, he saw Vin and JD standing in the corner, talking softly. “Ahem, gentlemen. Did your parents never teach you that was impolite to whisper in public?” Ezra said, in a slightly irritated tone.

“Oh hey, Ez,” JD said walking towards the bed. Coming to the side, he held his smile and went forth with the plan they had cooked up last night. JD wondered how he always got stuck trying to persuade a person to do something, he didn’t want to. Buck had told him it was because he had the gift to swivel people around into doing the right thing. JD, himself, thought it was because they believed none of the others would hit the “kid”.

“Guess what?” he asked. Seeing Ezra blank, uncaring face, he went on. “Nathan says you’re well enough to get out of the clinic.” Dropping his head and countenance a little, he said, “But not well enough to go back to our own room. Sorry.” Brightening up again, just like he had rehearsed, he said cheerfully, “That’s why we’re moving you out to Chris’ ranch.” He took an involuntary step backwards when announcing the last part.

“Excuse me?” Ezra said incredulously. This was not what he needed first thing after waking up. “I certainly will not be carted off to Mr. Larabee’s ‘abode’ ” he said tightly, inflicting a rather harsh tone on the word abode.

Vin stepped forward and said, “See, JD, I told you guys he wouldn’t want to move out there. Guess you’ll just have to keep riding out there and taking care of Chaucer yourself.”

“Chaucer?” Ezra asked worriedly. “What’s wrong with Chaucer?”  Trying to prop himself up a little on his good arm.

“Got roughed up a bit when he was with those fellows,” Vin answered causally. Actually thanks to JD ministrations the wounds had begun healing nicely, but the equine was still not eating like he should.

“Roughed up?!” Ezra exclaimed as he tried to sit up further.

Vin moved in and tucked pillows under Ezra so he was propped up. “Chaucer was vitiated by those ill-reputed, reprehensible, nefarious, repulsive, malfeasant, miscreants and you said nothing?” he shouted. Vin believed that if Ezra could have reached a weapon, he and JD wouldn’t have chance. As it was, Ezra was struggling to roll out of bed.

The tracker looked up to find JD looking a little frightened by the change in the normal easy-going gambler. Reaching out to stop Ezra from hurting himself and trying to lighten JD’s fear, Vin said casually, “Jeez, JD. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Ezra is kinda riled.”

This earned him a disbelieving look from the younger man and a rather scathing look from Ezra. Sighing loudly in a put-upon way, Vin tried to explain. “Well, Ez, let’s face it. You haven’t been feeling right perky lately. We just didn’t want to upset ya none.”

“I demand to see him right now!” Ezra said harshly, valiantly trying to roll over again.

Fear rose in the gambler’s chest. He had been so relieved when Vin had informed him that, along with the miscreants, they had recovered Chaucer. Vin hadn’t acted worried or concerned at the time, and Ezra had taken it as a sign that the horse was in good health. Now he was learning that the horse was far from that.

“Well...ya see there in lies the problem, Ezra. Chris took Chaucer out to his place. You want to see Chaucer, you’re gonna have to go out there,” Vin said nonchalantly. “That horse has taken a real shine to life on a ranch. Open spaces, no crowded barns. Doesn’t have to share the place with lower class breeds of horses. Yep,” Vin said, listing onto one hip. “Chaucer has really taken to living at the ranch.”

“Fine,” Ezra huffed. “I’ll move out to the ranch.” Ezra wasn’t so angry that he couldn’t see the con, but had to give it to his friends; they were pretty sneaky.

“Thought you’d see it our way,” Vin said, as he strolled to the door. “We’ll move ya tonight, after dark.” With that Vin walked out the door, leaving JD standing by the bed wondering what to do.

Noticing the young sheriff’s presence, Ezra turned to JD. “Are you going to stand there all day or is there some other place you need to be?”

JD turned red a minute before scooting towards the door. Before leaving, he turned to Ezra. “I’ve been looking after Chaucer, Ezra. He’s doing real well,” he said, receiving a gracious grin from Ezra.

“Thanks, JD,” Ezra said.


Ezra went through a myriad of emotions waiting for darkness to fall; the predominate one was apprehension. He rationalized that his fellow peacekeepers understood he had limitations and certain needs to be seen after, but knowing about it and dealing with it were two separate things. He couldn’t see Chris Larabee, fearsome gunslinger changing sheets, or JD being able to handle his excrement. The more he laid there and thought, the more problems he saw arising and soon his stomach was in one big knot. He had always taken care of himself. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t and now he was going to be dependent on the others, not just Nathan who was a professional.

Nathan had left Ezra alone for a few minutes while he checked on an elderly lady a couple of blocks away. Arriving back at the clinic, he was dismayed to find the coverings of the bed tumbled about and Ezra lying restlessly on his back. The healer knew it wasn’t a good sign and set about easing some of the anxiety he felt coming off his friend.

Sitting down next to the bed, he began straightening up the sheets and light blanket. “Ezra,” he spoke in a low tone. Garnering Ezra’s attention, he continued, “It’ll be okay. You don’t think I would approve of this if I didn’t think it so. Do you?”

Ezra studied the warm brown eyes and thought about what made Nathan such a good healer. Nathan was a stickler for doing the best he could for his patients. He had stood toe-to-toe with Chris when the gunslinger had been wounded and tried to escape the clinic after a couple of days. Nathan had won that round. There had been the other times when Nathan had caught any escaping patient, mostly him or Vin, and dragged them back to the clinic until the healer was satisfied they could be on their own. No, Nathan would not allow anything that wasn’t in the best interest of his patient.

Ezra slowly shook his head. “No, Nathan. Contrary to popular belief, I do hold your abilities with the highest regards.

“Good. So stop worrying,” the healer said as he moved off.


It was late at night when the six men appeared in the clinic. Nathan had offered Ezra some laudanum, but Ezra refused. The stuff only intensified his already harrowing nightmares. The gambler did accept some of the tea that contained natural sedative. Ezra was quietly and efficiently loaded onto the same board that had carried him to the bathhouse. He was slid into the back of a buckboard and the journey began.

Josiah was careful not to hit any of the large ruts in the path that led to the small cabin. Being out to Chris’ on numerous occasions, he had no problem remembering where they were located and circumventing them. Once arriving at the dark house, the men unloaded Ezra and carried him in. They stalled long enough for JD to light a few lamps and then carefully placed Ezra into the bed.

“Not as comfy as your feather bed, but it’ll have to do,” Chris remarked as the men scattered about.

“It is just fine. Thank you, Mr. Larabee, for your accommodations,” Ezra said sleepily.

Chris laid one hand on the friend’s arm. Giving a small pat, he walked away to find his own bed. His shack was not that big, but big enough for two small bedrooms. Except for his father-in-law, Hank and occasionally Buck or Vin, no one else had used the spare room. Chris laid in his bed listening to Josiah and Buck whispering in the kitchen. Nathan would sleep in the room with Ezra for this first night, and JD and Vin had gone to the barn. Chris smiled lightly into the dark; it felt nice to have a houseful of friends.

The next morning, Ezra woke to find himself in the room alone in the predicament he had feared. He would have to call on one of the others to help him out. Gathering up his resolve, he called out, “Hello.”

Vin came in immediately. “Hey, you finally decided to wake up, huh?” he said jokingly. Seeing the tight lines around his friend’s face, he moved into the room and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Blushing the brightest red, Vin had ever seen Ezra blush, Ezra mumbled, “I need help.”

Vin walked on up to the bed. Taking in the bright blush and the mumbled statement, it didn’t take long to figure out Ezra’s ‘need’. “No problem, Ez. Be right back.”

Ezra laid there listening to an odd rumble with a distinct squeak. He looked over at the doorway and there was a pushchair with an extended board sticking straight out. “Uhh. Vin?” he asked hesitantly.

“This is your new mode of transportation,” Vin said. “At least until you can walk again,” Vin finished, sidestepping the chair and walking into the room. It was then that Ezra noticed Josiah.

Ezra would have backed away from the approaching men if there had been anywhere to go. “Mr. Tanner, to what are you alluding to?” the gambler asked nervously, as Josiah and Vin stopped by the bed.

“We’re alluding to the fact that you ain’t going to stay locked up in this room,” Josiah said briskly.  Before Ezra could protest any further, Vin and Josiah reached underneath him and scooted him to the edge of the bed. Then Josiah picked Ezra up while Vin kept the leg straight. Settling Ezra into the chair, both men looked quite please at their actions.

Ezra looked up at his friends and asked, “How is this going to solve my current necessity?”

“Hold your horses, Ez. We’ll get to it?” Vin said as Josiah began pulling the chair out of the house.

Once on the porch Josiah maneuvered the chair around to face forward and Ezra noticed that a ramp had been placed to cover the steps. Josiah carefully eased the chair down and began pushing it towards the outhouse. Ezra’s anxiety level was once again rising. How were they expecting him to use the facilities when he couldn’t bend yet?

Vin could see the bright green eyes darken in worry. Patting his friend’s arm, he whispered, “Don’t worry, Ez. We thought about this.”

Once at the door, Josiah put a small block behind the two big wheels. Then, while Vin lowered the leg off the board, Josiah, grabbing Ezra from behind around the waist, lifted the man into a standing position. Knowing this was the first time the man had been upright in weeks. Josiah tightened his grip and waited until Ezra’s dizziness and vertigo passed. Vin had stood in front just in case Ezra had lurched forward. Seeing the color return to the gambler’s face, the tracker opened the door and Josiah lifted Ezra straight up and placed him inside the building. Ezra noticed the extra high box and sideboards to grip onto. He had to commend his friend’s ingenious thinking.  Ezra grabbed the smooth board with his good arm and, with Josiah’s help, managed to stay upright.  Josiah asked, “You okay?”

Ezra nodded. “Yes. Thanks,” he said.

 Josiah didn’t miss the almost happy lilt to the voice. Ezra realized the necessity of needing Josiah to keep him upright, but at least he wasn’t stuck in bed having Josiah take care of dirty linens.

Once everything was taken care of, Ezra was wheeled to the front of the porch and parked. Ezra couldn’t believe how such a small action had taken so much energy out of him. He was thankful for the reclining position. After being parked in front of the porch in the shade, he lifted an inquiring brow up at his friends.

“Thought you might enjoy being outside for awhile before it gets too hot,” Vin said.

Ezra nodded in agreement, feeling his heavy eyelids already closing. A moment later he felt a light wrapping placed over him and, for the first time in days, Ezra slept a peaceful sleep.

He was awakened sometime later by voices. Opening his eyes, he searched for the source of the words being carried on the slight breeze that blew out of the north, off-setting the heat. Ezra sat there contemplating the world around him. How he wound up with six good men becoming true friends still baffled him, even after all this time. The amount of work they had to have put into the modified accessories to accommodate him was beyond his comprehension. No one in his life, up to now, would have put forth so much effort for him. The headiness of that discovery was overwhelming. He could almost become maudlin. The sound of the voices becoming louder broke him out of introspection of his life. He turned his head in the direction of the voices and soon Vin and Josiah came walking around the corner of the cabin.

“Hey! You’re awake!” Vin exclaimed with a smile.

He and Josiah had taken turns checking on the sleeping man. After the fourth hour, they came to the conclusion that Ezra’s nightmares seemed to have been kept at bay. It was well after the noon hour and both men had come to conclusion that they were going to have to move Ezra to keep him out of the direct sunlight. Now that Ezra was awake, they wouldn’t have to jar him awake doing so.

“Rest well, Ezra?”  Josiah asked as he walked to the back of the pushchair.

“Indeed, Mr. Sanchez. I feel quite reinvigorated by my repose,” Ezra said, as he was pushed back up the ramp and into the small kitchen.

“Well, at least you’re beginning to sound like the Ezra we know,” Vin said with an easy laugh. “How about some lunch?” he asked.

“Lunch would be most suitable, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra replied. His voice sounding stronger than it had in a long while.

A chair was removed from one side of the table and Ezra’s chair was rolled alongside of it. Josiah made sure that Ezra’s good hand was next to the table and capable of reaching his plate of food. While the man had been in the almost prone position in the clinic, Buck had taken it on himself to feed Ezra his meals. Now that they had the man partially upright, Ezra could feed himself and give him back that much needed independence.

Josiah had just started serving up the meal when horses could be heard approaching. Vin stepped to the door and announced, “Just JD and Buck.” Turning back into the kitchen, he said, “Hope you made enough.”

Josiah laughed. JD could out eat Buck sometimes. “Made plenty,” he answered

The meal of mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits was eaten with relish. Josiah had kept in mind that Ezra still needed to eat soft foods and foods that would be easy on the stomach. None of the four men said anything about the way the gambler dug into his food with seeming enjoyment. Already a slight transformation could be seen in the man, but it was a long ways from the normalcy. Josiah looked over to Buck and then to Vin, who had taken his plate and sat on the hearth next to JD, and winked. It was good to see Ezra eating on his own. After lunch, they had something planned that would surely perk their friend right up.

Ezra had eaten in the finest restaurant there were, but at that moment, the simple meal was the finest cuisine he had ever tasted. He enjoyed the simple task of being able to feed himself, but more, he was beginning to feel more like a human again. The easy camaraderie the three men shared, talking about whose cows got into whose field. How one rancher was trying to divert the water system away from other rancher’s and the on-going, awkward and sometimes entertaining relationship between JD and Miss Wells. This was what he missed, Ezra suddenly realized, being included in simple moments with his friends.

After the dishes were cleaned and put away, Buck grabbed the back of Ezra’s chair and began pushing him back outside. Ezra assumed it was so he could see Josiah and Vin off with the other two regulators. JD had hurried outside moments earlier. Ezra thought nothing of the incident; JD wasn’t the type to stand around and take things slowly; he always had to be moving. Being pushed down the ramp, Ezra waited for Josiah and Vin to head off to the barn to fetch their horses. He was slightly puzzled by their demeanor; Buck, Josiah and Vin had the look of men who were bursting with a secret and barely restraining themselves. Equally puzzling was their lack of interest in getting back to town. His attention was quickly diverted and all thoughts about the other men vanished when he turned towards the noise.

“Hey, Ez!” JD shouted, leading Chaucer out of the barn on a halter lead.

Ezra turned towards the man calling him and sat up a little straighter, ignoring the various pulls and strains to his upper body. His only focus was upon his beloved horse. Ezra’s critical eye took in every movement, every rib showing, and every scar that was still slightly visible and sucked in his breath, Chaucer was a sight for sore eyes. A little worse for wear, like his owner, but still in one piece. Ezra watched with amusement and a glad heart as Chaucer pulled the rope from JD’s light grasp and moved into a trot towards him. Reaching his owner, Chaucer lowered his head and pushed his muzzle into Ezra’s chest. Man and horse were back together.

The four regulators stood back and watched the reunion in quietness. They all knew of the bond between horse and man, they shared the same with their own steeds on different levels, but something about the moment just made each man fight a little lump in their throats. Josiah finally cleared his throat and gruffly said, “Well, Vin and I have to get going.” He headed for the barn before anyone could see the unconcealed look on his face.

Vin, thankful for the distraction, quickly concurred, “Yep, best get going.” He walked by Ezra and gave him a slight pat on the back and then gave Chaucer’s muzzle a quick rub, before heading towards the barn. A few minutes later the two men exited the barn with the horses and mounted off. Josiah and Vin called their byes and headed back to town.

Buck clapped his hands softly and said, “Let’s get you and that ornery horse of yours over in the shade of those trees.”

JD went to take Chaucer’s rope, but missed as Chaucer yanked his head away and began following on his accord. Once settled in the shade, JD said,  “I’ll go get his brushes and you can curry him out. Doesn’t like it half as well when I try. He got kinda cantankerous about the whole thing,” the young man said, the last part said lightly in a joking manner. It was well known that Peso and Chaucer was the most difficult of all seven horses and only behaved properly for their masters.

JD moved off to the barn and, after making sure one last time that Ezra was well removed from the glare and touch of the sun. Buck headed for the house. Ezra rubbed Chaucer’s forehead. “You aren’t cantankerous, are you, boy,” he said softly, love flooding his voice. Chaucer bobbed his head down further so Ezra could reach behind his ears for a good long scratch.


The currying didn’t last long, as Ezra tired out quickly, only having limited mobility and use of one arm, but it was enough for both man and beast. As Ezra’s strokes became softer and more sporadic, Chaucer moved closer to the chair in which his master sat. It was an instinct to protect the human in his weakness from anyone. At last the brush dropped to the ground with a soft thud as the hand holding it became lax. Chaucer glanced sideways to cast a quick look at his master before turning back and stood firm. When Buck came out a short time later to check on the two, he couldn’t help the wide smile that formed on his lips. Ezra was sound asleep, while Chaucer quietly munched on the grass that was in reach without having to move. Buck walked up to the horse and gave him a sound scratching behind the ears before turning and walking back to the house. He knew better than to try and get the stubborn animal to leave his post.

The two peacekeepers kept a routine of checking on their slumbering friend while they wiled away the afternoon. They had thought at first about working on repairing some of the fence rails around the corral, but hated the thought of making any noise that would disturb Ezra from his much needed rest. The injured man had slept, sure enough, in the clinic, but it had been a far cry from a restful sleep. Out here, the man seemed to be able to sleep more soundly, without the nightmares that had been plaguing him recently. So, Buck and JD had decided a day of simple ease wouldn’t do any harm. That was how Chris and Nathan found the three men in the late afternoon when they arrived.

Part 18

A new routine quickly fell into place. Ezra was pushed outside after breakfast until lunch. During that time, his body was exercised, he groomed Chaucer and he helped hand tools to whomever happen to be on duty and was doing whatever around the place. Chris found that having Ezra at his place was beneficial to both of them. Ezra was able to exercise, get out and was recuperating well, while Chris’ place was getting the repairs it desperately needed. In the afternoons, Ezra spent the time under the stand of trees reading or sleeping. In the evenings, one of the men would fill the tub they had borrowed for the gambler and Ezra would enjoy the luxurious accommodations of a hot soak. The men weren’t sure which made Ezra smile more, the soak or spending time with Chaucer.

The transformation in Ezra was like night and day. The man became more lively and animated. The spark slowly returned to the green-eyes and the quirk of a smile played easily about his lips. The men had quickly learned that as long as Ezra was complaining about the exercises they forced (or cajoled, depending on the person) him through, the gambler was tolerating it well. It was when Ezra became stoically quiet that they knew he had had enough and then would quit. At the end of the week Nathan removed the bandages from his shoulder, giving orders to SLOWLY begin to exercise it. Nathan was relieved that everything was healing so nicely. All the stitches from Ezra’s back had been removed and the scars were going to fade into very fine lines. The thing, other than the hip, that Nathan had worried most about had been the repair done to the organs. The healer had kept a close eye on all the signs the book foretold about that would tell him something was wrong, none had come to fruition. Nathan had heaved a big sigh of relief. He figured that after four weeks, if nothing had gone wrong, it was a sure bet that it wouldn’t. The only major problem was the hip.

The healer had sent out telegrams to a few doctors in Denver about treatment and procedures for the dislocated joint. Only two had written back. Nathan had then written a condensed version of what he had done. Both doctors had written back praising Nathan for his thinking and skills. One had written and advised that since it had been five weeks since the incident, he allowed that Ezra could start bending the knee. Sitting up would need to wait at least another week at least and light exercise on the muscles would be beneficial. The other doctor had written and said that Ezra should stay in bed for another three weeks before even contemplating getting him out of bed. Nathan had cringed at that advice, since Ezra was already up, albeit by a chair on wheels. The healer decided since Ezra seemed to be tolerating what he was doing already, he would go with the first doctor’s advice.


Ezra sat under the tree, staring out across the landscape. The sun drifted downwards towards the horizon, setting the sky ablaze with a glorious golden haze. He couldn’t deny that the gunslinger had a good location for his new homestead. Unconsciously, he rolled his bad shoulder. It had been three weeks since he had been moved out here. Two weeks since Nathan unwrapped the shoulder permanently and Ezra had regained full use of it once again, but there were times when he had to reassure himself it was in working order. He had managed to roll himself to the spot on his own. No longer did he sit in a half reclined position and Josiah had taken away the board that kept the leg straight. Nathan had yet to give his permission to start putting weight on it, but due to the therapy his friends did on it during the day and the small flexing ones he performed while in the water, he knew it was getting stronger. Now, as he watched the sun touch the beginning of the horizon, he thought about what had driven him out here in the first place. His friends. Good ones, he would be the first to admit, but they were driving him slightly nuts with their furtive glances and unspoken concern. He couldn’t take it anymore and sought refuge in complete solace.

Judge Travis had arrived in town early that morning. After visiting the prisoner’s and getting a progress report on the victim of the assault, the judge made the excuse of needing a day to rest from his journey and informed the men that the trial would start the next day, first thing. Six of the peacekeepers noted how unhurried the Judge seemed to be in starting the trial and wondered if it wasn’t for the gambler’s benefit.

Ezra had known the day was coming. Knew the judge would arrive and he would have to get in front of everyone and relive those terrifying moments out loud, but now that the time had arrived, he felt uncertain he could do that. Out here, away from the town and the men responsible for his condition, he had been able to push the thoughts away. Here, he had been able to escape reality and enjoy the camaraderie of his friends and enjoy the relaxation that the illusion of the here-and-now bought him. Now he would have to leave this place and step back into reality.

The soft rustling of clothes forewarned him of a visitor approaching and slipped his straight face into place with a deep sigh. He did not wish to talk to anyone at the moment; he had too much on his mind. Glancing over, he was relieved to see it was Vin, who dropped down into a squat beside his chair. The two men sat in silence as the sun slipped past the horizon, leaving a colorful array of pinks and blues behind. One man giving his strength in silence and the other absorbing that strength to fortify his own. An hour later, complete darkness had engulfed them and the one-time buffalo hunter stood and pushed the other into the house. No one mentioning Ezra self-imposed exile, each one understanding the gambler's need for privacy.

That night, Vin helped Ezra into bed and left the room. Going back in after the gambler had fallen asleep, the tracker took a seat in the chair next to the bed. Reclining as far as possible, he stretched his legs out and propped them on the edge of the mattress. He had no doubts that the nightmares that had left his friend alone for the past few weeks would be revisiting him tonight.  As thought, Vin awoke to the muffled pleadings of the gambler caught in an inescapable dream. Reaching over with one hand and placing it lightly on Ezra’s arm, he whispered, “Right here, Ez. You’re safe.” It seemed to take no more than that to abate the dreams and calm the man down. Less than an hour later, Vin felt a hand on his own arm. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring into Chris’ face. “My turn. Go get some real sleep,” he ordered in a soft voice. Vin nodded and went to find a more comfortable place to sleep. Before the morning was over, at least five of the men had rotated through the bedroom. JD didn’t see himself as being much of a comforter to the gambler and stayed out of the room

The next morning dawned a splendid day. No one really noticed. Josiah had gone to Ezra’s boarding room the day before and found the gambler’s favorite shirt and pants, and had taken them down to the Chinese laundry and had them pressed. The clothes, plus his black coat hung in the small room that Ezra had taken up residence in. The gambler sat on the edge of his bed staring at the clothes and wishing for some small earthquake to swallow him up. Buck leaned against the wall, one foot crossed over the other with his arms crossed. He had been waiting five minutes for Ezra to indicate he was ready to get dressed. For the most part Ezra could dress himself, except for the pants, and the sock and boot on his right side. Buck silently blew out his breath and decided it was time to give a gentle reminder that they didn’t have all day. “Planning on making it there before noon?”  he asked with a half-smile.

Ezra looked up at the man and chided himself for getting caught with his guard down. If he had known how long he had been off in his own little world, he would have felt humiliated. Buck saw no reason to bring this to his friend’s attention and continued to wait for Ezra to make the first move.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience I have placed upon you, Mr. Wilmington. Of course, let’s proceed with the apparel,” Ezra said in a light tone. Buck noticed it sounded a little forced.

“If that means getting dressed...then all right!” he said, as he pushed off the wall and reached for the clothes. Carefully, he removed the shirt and handed it to the man on the bed.

Twenty minutes later five men were outside pacing. Josiah finally threw his hands up in the air in resignation and walked into the house. Knocking lightly on the bedroom door before opening it, he came face to face with Buck. With a simple nod of the head the two stepped out of the room, Buck closing the door behind him.

“Well?” Josiah asked, with a lift of his brow.

Buck shook his head. “He’s fixed the tie twice, readjusted the belt three and now can’t decide whether or not to leave his jacket open and button it,” he said with a sad smile.

Josiah nodded his head in understanding. Stall tactics. This was not going to be easy for the southerner. They had known that, they just didn’t realize how hard until now. “I’ll talk to him,” the ex-preacher said.

Buck nodded and walked outside and was quickly ambushed by the young sheriff. “What’s taking him so long,” JD asked impatiently.

“This ain’t easy for him, kid,” Buck said in a wise old voice. He knew all too well what fear did a person.

“Why? I mean…he’s going to be fine. We’ll have the bad guys covered during the trial. It’s not like they’re going to do anything to him and we won’t let it happen if they try,” JD rattled off in his innocent point-of-view.

“Kid, bones mend and heal, but memories last forever,” Buck said in a low tone before walking past the kid and going to stand with the other three men. JD looked back at Buck as he joined Chris, Vin and Nathan. He wondered just what kind of memories the four peacekeepers had that made them understand Ezra so well.

No one questioned what words of wisdom Josiah had spoken to Ezra, they were just relieved when the older man appeared pushing Ezra out to the wagon. Nathan and Josiah lifted the gambler up into the wagon seat beside Vin, as Buck and Chris loaded the chair into the back. Ezra had announced he would only be caught riding in the back if he was dead or unconscious, the man did have an image to uphold. The rest mounted up and the seven men headed for town.

The trial was shorter than any of them had expected it to be. In Ezra fashion, the man had been wheeled to the front of the makeshift courtroom like the regal man he portrayed everyday on the streets. His posture rod-iron perfect, his hands lay folded in his lap, and his face held nothing of the turmoil he felt deep within. He had recounted every moment that was burned into his mind, from his initial encounter with the youngest outlaw and one of the twins, to the hazy, but memorable event of being tossed over the ledge. Throughout his testimony he held the fury that burned within him at bay. He controlled every nuance that might give his emotions away. He was the perfect southern gentleman. There were only six men that he fooled in that courtroom. Ezra was grateful for the small allowance that the judge had granted him by making it a closed hearing.  Mary had balked at first, but after a short, but productive encounter with Chris, she quieted down and stayed in her printing office.

It took the judge exactly thirty seconds to bring down his gavel and pronounce sentencing. It took that long for the judge to quell his own temper. The sentence was based on a small talk he’d had earlier with the gambler right before the trial. The two men had been sequestered alone at the insistence of the Judge. When finally alone, Judge Travis had asked the gambler what kind of punishment he would like the men to receive, if he was doling it out. The sentencing went forth. The youngest one, David, received five years in prison. Ezra had asked for only three, but the Judge hadn’t felt quite as lenient. Ezra knew, for the young man, the five years would seem interminable, especially considering it would be the Yuma Territorial prison, and hopefully it would give the young man the incentive to turn his life around. Jimmy, the second youngest, received eight years. Ezra figured if the boy lived to be paroled, Jimmy might also redeem himself. For the other three, Ezra held no illusions.  The twins, Randy and Roger, received twenty-five years. Bill Earnest, the oldest and ringleader and whose past deeds had finally caught up to him, was sentenced to hang.

JD and Buck easily led four somber men back to the jailhouse, while Nathan, Josiah, Vin pulled and wrestled an irate and scared Bill Earnest back to his waiting cell. The man had done some terrible things based on a belief he would always get away with them. That time had just ended.

Chris sat on the bench next to where Ezra had been parked. The Judge rose quietly from his seat and waited until he briefly caught the eye of the gunslinger. With a simple nod that implied a plethora of thoughts, the older man eased out of the building and went in search of his grandson. He could use a little ray of light.

The two men sat in the empty granary in silence, neither knowing what to say. Chris had no words of wisdom or comfort for his friend. The nightmares would plague Ezra for a while to come. The scars on his body and mind would always be a reminder of what the man went through and the hip was still an uncertainty as to whether it would create a limp or not. Ezra had no idea how to face the man next to him. The conman had always utilized his gift of speech to extract him from any predicament he had found himself in the past. He had even used that gift on more than one occasion for the benefit of the six other peacekeepers and the townspeople he found himself protecting. He had finally failed. He wasn’t sure after today he could look the man beside him in the eye. Ezra pondered whether Chris would think the gambler was no longer viable to the small band anymore. That fear was worse than anything. To have Chris Larabee, or for that matter any of the others, to look upon him and find him lacking was not something Ezra thought he could handle. Ezra dragged in a deep breath and tried to shake off the unthinkable

Chris caught the shudder and came to conclusion they were sitting in the granary for nothing. It wasn’t helping either of them. Rubbing his hands along his pants, he said quietly, “Don’t know about you, but I could do with a drink.”

Ezra nodded his head. “An indulgence in a fiery liquid would be most appreciated,” he replied. Looking down at his position, he gave long-suffering sigh. He hated the blasted chair. It was an all too blatant reminder he was not whole and that he couldn’t take care of himself.

Chris stood and began walking alongside Ezra as Standish moved himself under his violation towards the saloon. Looking down at Ezra, he asked, in a humorous tone, “Wonder how many free meals you can get out of Inez with that thing?” Winking as he nodded at the chair.

Ezra thought for a minute before a glimmer of inspiration lighted in the green eyes. “Now that is something to wager on,” he said.

“If nothing else it’ll stir up Buck with all the attention she’ll be giving to you,” Chris laughed.

“Indeed, Mr. Larabee. You have a wicked mind,” Ezra replied, a full-blown smile gracing his lips.

The two men reached the saloon and met up the other five, who had been waiting for them, before entering the saloon. Josiah took over for Ezra’s strained arms and pushed him to the back table. The five walking in front of them kept well-wishers away for the time being. As Ezra was settled into place, he looked around at the men who surrounded him and, for once, counted his blessings instead of his money. He was beginning to see a glimmer of the kind of true friendship he had with these six men as he realized Nathan would do his best to see him recover completely. As for the others, they would take him limp or no limp. He came to the quick conclusion that he was far richer in blessings.  Raising his glass to meet the other six, the glasses clinked in unison saluting friendship.