Disclaimer: Not mine, never where, never will be.
Note: Please remember I am British and I've never played baseball. My thanks as ever to the wonderful Helen for all her hard work.
JD had decided that they should play baseball. He had played it in New York, and he missed it. He didn't have a bat, though he thought that in time he could make one, but he did have a ball. A traveller had left a bag behind at the hotel. The hotel manager had handed it in to the sheriff office - no doubt removing anything valuable first. In the bag was a baseball. To begin with JD just played with the ball, bouncing it off the walls and tossing it from hand to hand. Then Vin joined in and they tossed it to each other. Nathan had seen baseball played but never participated, but he quickly became adept at catching the high balls JD lofted to him. Josiah said he had participated in various stick and ball games all over he the world, he had even played cricket - in India.
"We should have a game, stick ball," JD announced.
Chris and Buck were drinking and not inclined to go out into the heat of the summer sun and exert themselves, so were most surprised to hear Ezra state that he thought it an excellent idea. The two of them stared open mouthed as the notoriously lazy southerner removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
"Ya coming cowboy?" Vin asked Chris.
"You know how to play this game?"
"I 'kin hit the ball, so ya coming?"
"Come on Buck, it'll be fun, you don't have to hit if you don't want to, you can just catch," JD enthused.
Buck put down his beer and looked at JD from under his hat. "You saying I can't hit it?" he asked, turning his head to one side as he regarded his eager young friend.
"Well we don't have a bat, so we're gonna use a stick, well half a broom-handle actually. It takes a lot of co-ordination, fast reflexes, keen eyes you're probably too old - come on Vin." With that JD turned away.
"Kid, I ain't that stupid, you know?" Buck called.
JD stood still, his back to Wilmington, a sly smile spread across his face. "But you're gonna come - right?"
Buck looked over at Chris raising a questioning eyebrow, Larabee just shrugged. "Alright kid, you're on."
+ + + + + + +
They couldn't play a game of course so it was more like a practice, a very competitive practice. Josiah did almost all the pitching; he turned out to be a natural, once JD had shown him the technique. Ezra naturally wanted to take bets, but the others were too engrossed in the game, so he concentrated on hitting the ball; he had seen baseball played, he had even participated on occasion, not that he was admitting that to anyone. Chris stepped up to the 'plate' stick in hand. He had watched how the youngsters held the broom handle and swung, he reckoned it couldn't be that hard. Josiah wasn't suicidal enough to pitch anything but a straight medium pace ball to Chris, at least to begin with. The man in black swung and connected first time, the ball sailed up, high into an azure blue sky. Remembering what he was meant to do Chris dropped the stick and took off around the bases. He passed first base, passed Ezra at second and was heading for Vin at third when he heard Nathan shout triumphantly.
Chris stopped where he was midway between second and third. He squared his shoulders and turned to face Nathan standing in left field, ball held aloft.
"What?" he questioned.
"Now JD," Buck called from right field to JD who was acting as catcher. "if I got this game right ol' Chris was meant to hit the ball past Nate not straight at him, is that right?"
Chris turned slowly through ninety degrees. "I know what to do," he growled at a smirking Buck.
"Really? 'Cause I thought "
"Buck!" Chris warned advancing on the tall gunman.
As the others tried not to laugh and Buck backed up, Josiah moved to get between the two old friends. "Now brothers, it is just a game," He turned to look at Chris. "right?" Chris just stared at Buck, who was grinning like a loon. "Time to move things round I think."
Chris moved to third base, Vin went to left field, Ezra took up the right field position and Nathan moved to second base. Buck retrieved the stick and took his position, making a few practice swings.
"Right preacher bring it on," he enticed.
"Ain't as easy as it looks 'big dog'," Chris warned.
Buck just grinned. The first ball he missed by miles. JD caught it easily and tossed it to Josiah. "Strike one," he called.
"Hah! Told you it wasn't easy, least I hit it!" Chris goaded.
"I'm jist warmin' up here Larabee, I got two more turns - right JD?"
"Right," JD confirmed.
Buck missed the second one as well, the third ball, his last chance, he hit. It flew off the 'bat', high into the blue, sailing miles over Vin and Ezra to drop, bounce and disappear into the undergrowth on the far side of the field they were using. Buck said nothing as the others stared open mouthed, he casually dropped the broom handle stick and jogged around the bases, as Vin and Nathan searched for the ball, while Ezra gave advise from a safe distance. Once he was home safe Buck strolled over to Josiah to watch the fun as the others looked for the ball.
"Get on in there Ezra, it's yer job to find the ball ain't it?" he called.
Ezra turned with disdain all over his face. "Sir, you hit it, you retrieve it."
JD walked up to Chris. "He lied," he stated flatly.
"Buck - he lied to us, he has played before."
Chris shook his head. "Don't think so kid, known ol' Buck a long time, and he's never mentioned playing baseball, besides Buck doesn't lie to his friends, it's just not his way."
"Oh come on Chris, look at the way he hit the ball!" JD waved at the distant figures looking for the lost ball.
"JD, what do you need to hit the ball?" Chris asked.
"Well a bat?"
"No as well as a bat, what do you need?" JD looked non-plussed. "Co-ordination, fast reflexes, a good eye - right?"
"So what do you need to be a fast draw?"
"Fast reflexes, co-ordination, speed I get it, I think."
"Kid who's the fastest draw you ever saw?"
JD almost blushed as he looked up at Chris, his hero. "You know that - you are."
"Want to know who the fastest draw I ever saw was?"
JD was suddenly all attention; if Chris had met someone faster than him, they had to famous. "Wild Bill?" he speculated.
"Buck!" JD spluttered. "Buck ain't as fast as you - is he?"
"No, nor as fast as you from what I've seen. Ezra - maybe, but you know what we three all have in common?" JD just frowned. "We all practice. I do, I know you do and while I've never seen Ezra practice, all them card tricks and stuff he does all day with his hands thats keeping him fast. Buck, now he hardly ever practices, never regularly that's for sure. When we first met I thought I was so fast - then I saw Buck draw on a man, and I knew I couldn't beat him, so I started to work on my draw 'till I was as fast as him and then faster. But natural speed, God-given speed, you won't find anyone faster than that man right there." He pointed at Wilmington's broad back.
JD stared at his tall friend. "So if he practised, he could be the fastest ever?" Chris nodded. "So why doesnt he? He could be famous."
Chris laughed, "Buck doesnt want to be a famous gunfighter, that's the last thing he'd want, he's good enough to earn a living as a hired gun, that's enough for him." And while JD still didn't understand why anyone wouldn't want to be famous, Chris knew that Buck's life as a hired gun, while good enough at the moment, wasn't his old friend's idea of a perfect job. He had tried being a lawman, a real 'sworn-in officer of the court' kind of lawman and it hadn't worked out, he had also been a cowboy and a ranch hand, but that too didn't last, not to mention a soldier. The one time he had seen Buck really contented was when he helped out on Chris' ranch, working horses, being part of a family, that, and not a gun for hire, was, he suspected, his friends ideal job and life was.
A shout from the distant figures indicated the ball had been found, it was followed by a string of curses so base and colourful they could only come from a certain scruffy tracker. Vin it seemed had found a cactus as well as the ball. Thus the game was further delayed while Nathan extracted a spine from Vin's hand and made him wash it with the canteen water they had carried with them. Finally they were set, Nathan and Buck swapped places and the ex-slave picked up the stick. Since knife throwing also required co-ordination JD suspected he would be good at it. At the second go Nathan hit the ball, but like Chris he skied it.
"I got it!" Buck yelled as he ran forward his hand stretching up to meet the ball as it began its fall to earth. It was coming out of the sun, but Buck reckoned he knew where it was, and he was almost right. The ball flew right down onto his hand, bounced and fell to earth.
"Oh Buck!" Chris called. "Isn't the idea to catch the ball?"
Buck didn't respond he was clutching at his hand and hopping from foot to foot, curses every bit as blue as Vin's flowing freely.
Nathan was so happy Buck had dropped the ball he didn't notice his distress until he was home safe, only then did he see Josiah signalling to him.
"Let me see," he demanded, walking up to Buck.
"Oh I'm alright, just pulled the nail back, but damn it smarts!" He showed the healer his right middle finger; blood was pooling around the nail. Nathan sympathised, but there was little he could do.
"I used all the water on Vin's hand, you best suck it," he advised.
Buck needed no second bidding, sucking on it sounded mighty comforting, if a little childish, but if the healer said do it, who was he to go against his doctors orders?
"Reckon we should call it a day," Nathan offered, seeing Vin still rubbing the back of his left hand.
+ + + + + + +
The seven of them strolled back toward the town, all intending to head straight toward the saloon. Comforting as it was, Buck removed his sore finger from his mouth when he reached the outskirts of the town. He was grateful he did because they were met by Mary Travis, she ran down the alley to intercept them, signalling desperately for them to move into the deep shadow of the building to their left.
"Mary? What's the matter?" Chris asked in hushed tones.
"Some men, maybe ten just rode in, they're strangers, all armed and they sort of spread out and circled the bank. I thought it looked "
"Stay here," Chris hissed, moving past her, the others following on, their previously relaxed, easy manner gone in an instant.
As Mary had said ten men, clearly not innocent travellers, had spread themselves out around the bank. So far they hadn't done anything, but it was clear they were not amateurs so the chances were they were wanted someplace.
"Right," Chris began. "Vin get up someplace high were you can see the front of the bank." He glanced at Vin's hand. "You alright to shoot?"
"Ain't Josiah, don't shoot with this one." With that he was gone.
"Nate and JD take the left side, come up on them from behind, Buck and Ezra same on the right. Buck?"
"Can you shoot?"
Buck glanced down at his still bloody middle finger. "It's not the trigger finger and it's only a torn nail, I'm fine."
"Sure? 'Cause I need to know now if you can't."
"Chris I know if I can fight or not!" Buck snapped, angry that Chris thought he had to ask, he hadn't questioned Vin's answer after all.
+ + + + + + +
They spread out as agreed and waited for Chris and Josiah to challenge the men at the front of the bank.
"Afternoon gentlemen," Chris began. "Can I help you?"
One of the men turned, his hand on the butt of his gun.
"Don't think so, we're just passing through, what's it t you?" he drawled out.
"We're the law in this place - strangers come, we like to know their business." Josiah explained, keeping his tone neutral.
"Well our business is our own, we don't need to share it with anyone. When it is done, we will be going."
If he was going to say anymore it was cut short but the sudden appearance of Chris' gun, followed no more than a second later by Sanchez's.
"Now. You will be going now," Larabee stated flatly.
Suddenly Vin's rifle exploded from the rooftop behind them. One of the strangers who was just outside Chris' peripheral vision spun around, clutching his shoulder, his pistol falling from his fingers. Gunfire erupted from everywhere. Chris got a shot off as he dived for cover, wounding the man he had been speaking to in the leg.
As gunfire came from all around them. Buck managed to take out one man with a shot to the leg, as he was removing the man's gun he realised his victim was losing blood at an alarming rate.
"Help me!" the man cried, clutching the blood drenched thigh, he was no older than JD. Still with his gun in his right hand he pulled off his large bandanna and dropped it for the wounded boy.
"Tie that on it tight!" He didn't look down; he was still watching Ezra's back. After a few frantic minutes the fight seemed to end, the gunfire ended. He could see Ezra, bending over the body of a miscreant that hadn't been as lucky as the boy.
"You all right there Ez!" he called. Standish gave him thumbs up. Happy his friends had things under control, Buck holstered his gun and bent down to the boy. He had seen wounds like this before, especially in the war, blood literally pumped out of him. He cast his eyes around and found a spacer bar from a broken chair and twisted it in the tied bandanna to make a tourniquet.
"I'm gonna die, ain't I?" the boy asked.
"Nah, we got a fella here, he'll fix you right up. What you doing with this lot, kid?" Buck asked.
"My brother, he's the boss, I got no one else." With that the boy grimaced and clutched at his leg. Not for the first time Buck realised how easily JD could have fallen in with bad company.
The sound of hoof beats made Buck spin around on his heels, a horse and rider were pounding toward Ezra, gun drawn. Buck shouted, his hand came to his gun, the fingers closed automatically on the wooden stock and pulled up at the same time. Pain which had been an annoying throb in his finger suddenly screamed at him, before he could get his reactions under control he momentarily dropped the gun back into the leather holster. It was only a second, before he blocked the pain and pulled the gun, but it was too late, the horseman had fired and Ezra was lying over the body of his earlier victim. He fired after the rider, was sure he hit him, but the horse turned a corner and was gone.
Fear gripped his heart as Buck pounded down over the hard packed dusty ground toward Ezra.
"Oh God!" he gasped as he saw all the blood in Ezra's hair and running down his face and neck. "Ezra, please Ezra don't be dead." He placed his fingers on his friend's neck. He found a slow, weak, erratic pulse. "Nathan! Nathan!" he shouted.
What happened next seemed to take forever and yet it all happened so fast he couldn't remember it. Nathan and then Chris came; Nathan examined Ezra and then between them picked up his limp form and carried him toward Nathan's clinic. Buck stood and watched, his own pain forgotten, the presence of so much of Ezra's blood all over his hands and shirt unnoticed. Still pale and shaking with shock Buck turned and walked back toward the bleeding boy, he barely noticed that Josiah had appeared and was preparing to lift the limp figure who was now as white as milk.
"Who was it?" Buck demanded, grabbing the youth's shirtfront.
"Buck, not now," warned Sanchez.
"Who was he, who was on the horse?" Buck pressed on ignoring, not really even hearing the ex-preacher.
"Buck, leave it."
Wilmington pulled away from Josiah's words but he never took his hands off the boy. "Tell me his name!"
The trembling boy whispered. "Deke, Deke Groves." With that he fainted.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan was already pulling of his jacket as Chris laid Ezra on the bed in the clinic. Skilled hands made quick work of examining the head wound while Chris pulled Ezra's boots and jacket off. He cringed at the audible hiss Nathan let go when he found the wound.
"Bullet grazed his skull down to the bone, but it don't look broke to me. Gotta wash it real good though." He motioned Larabee to come to Ezra's side and placing a clean folded towel over the wound he told him to press gently but firmly while he got some things ready. Ezra made no response; he never moved or so much as twitched.
Nathan was still getting things read to clean Ezra's wound when Josiah carried the boy Buck had shot into the room.
"He's bleeding bad, Nathan," the big man warned.
"On then cot, put pressure on the wound and wait for me to clean up Ezra," the healer instructed.
The gash to Ezra's skull was a good two inches long, Nathan hated to think what the dandy was going to say when he woke up and found Jackson had shaved a neat rectangle around the wound, but he had to ensure it was well cleaned and nothing was caught inside when he stitched it. After repeatedly washing the wound with warm soapy water, Nathan gave it a wash with alcohol. Ezra should have come off the bed in agony, but he never stirred.
"Stay with him Chris," Nathan instructed as he turned to his other patient.
"You're not gonna stitch it?" Larabee asked.
"Not just yet, wanna give it a chance to bleed a little more, wash out anything I missed."
The boy was breathing in unsteady shallow gasps; he heart was beating so fast Nathan could hardy count his pulse. He examined the leg, and looked up at Sanchez. "You put this on him?" he asked.
"Buck, think he was the one shot him."
"Saved his life, for now anyway."
It was a bloody messy affair, finding the damaged artery, closing that and then the two bullet holes in the youth's leg, but Nathan did it. Then he stitched and dressed Ezra's head wound. Finally the two wounded men were undressed and tucked up in bed.
"Well?" Chris asked.
Nathan shook his head. "I don't know, they're both touch and go. The boy is weak and he's lost way too much blood, we just have to wait and see. Ezra? I don't know, you never can tell with heads. Depends on when or "
"Or if he wakes up," Chris finished.
"That's about it yes. He should have felt something when I cleaned it, he should have felt that."
Chris nodded his understanding and walked out onto the veranda.
"Well?" Buck asked as he came out.
"He's alive, they're both alive - for now." Buck's face betrayed his emotions, but Chris missed it as he walked to the rail. "Where are the others?"
"The others, where are they?" Chris reiterated looking over the shoulder at the distressed man.
"Oh, um securing the prisoners, JD needs Nate to go to the jail when he's done. Two of the survivors are hurt but not bad," he reported in a dead monotone voice.
Chris put his head into the clinic, there was a brief conversation that Buck didn't hear and then Nathan left carrying his medical kit.
"What happened?" Chris asked, but he got not response. "Buck, what happened to Ezra?"
Slowly Wilmington turned around and faced his oldest friend, guilt writ large over his open features.
"I shot the kid in the leg. I just meant to wing him, he's just a kid "
The tone Chris heard in his oldest friend's voice was familiar, he was well aware of how much Buck really hated killing, especially if the victim was in his eyes an 'innocent'. It was one of the reasons he never tried to become a gunfighter and never practised his fast draw, it just made it easier and more likely he'd kill someone.
"You couldn't know the bullet would hit something important, he's not dead yet. Don't go beating yourself up for something that wasn't your fault. Now how did Ezra get shot?"
"I er I was tending to the kid, stopping the bleeding, Ez was checkin' on the guy he killed, he gave me a sign that he was alright and then there was a horse "
"And?" Chris prompted as Bucks narrative trailed off and he looked back at the clinic.
"I turned and saw a gun, the horseman had a gun, I shouted to Ez and drew but I I was too slow."
Chris frowned, that didn't sound right, in the time it took to turn and shout Buck should have cleared leather easily, something was wrong. It was then that he noticed the awkward way Buck was holding his right hand. With the speed of the lethal gunman he was, Larabee's hand grabbed hold of his friends right wrist and pulled it up, he saw the flash of pain, he took in the mass of dried blood around the discoloured finger nail on the middle finger.
"You couldn't draw because of this?" He asked it as a question but didn't wait for an answer. "That's it isn't it? Damn it Buck! I asked you - I asked if you were fit to fight!" Chris let go of the wrist and turned his back on his friend, clutching the veranda rail with white-knuckled intensity. "Why did you lie? Youre a professional Buck, I expect rely - on that, damn you!"
"I I didn't think it was that bad I was doing all right it just it was a surprise " Buck's voice trailed away.
"Yeah? Well now Ezra's paying for your dumb-assed pride - isn't he?" Chris turned back to face Wilmington, whose face was now blanched white.
"Chris!" Josiah shouted from the door, making both men turn and face him as one.
"We need Nathan fast, something's up with the kid!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Buck paced outside the clinic while Nathan worked inside with Josiah. Eventually the tall healer emerged; he was wiping blood from his hands. The expression on his face said it all but Chris asked anyway.
"I lost him," Nathan said wearily as he breathed in the fresh air, tilting his head up to be warmed by the setting sun. "His heart just couldn't cope. I'm sorry, don't reckon he was much more then fourteen."
"His brother is over at the jail. I better go tell him I guess." Chris turned to go.
"No, no I did it, I'll tell him." Buck was gone before they could say anything.
"It's not your fault Nathan, you did what you could." Chris put a hand on the broad shoulder before him.
"Yeah I know, but it ain't his fault either." Nathan nodded as the tall gunman now crossing the street below them."
"I know that."
"But does he?"
+ + + + + + +
"Hey that's enough!" JD tried to stop Hank Dawkins as he continued to hurl verbal abuse at the man who killed his kid brother, from behind the bars.
"Enough? How can it be enough? He killed my brother, he was thirteen years old! How can a man kill a thirteen year old kid?"
"Easy, when the kid is shootin' at him," Vin commented, coming to stand beside the devastated Wilmington.
"You just shut up," JD ordered.
"The hell I will," Dawkins retorted.
"I told you "
"It's okay JD." Buck placed a restraining hand on the youth's shoulder. "He's right, he's right about all of it. Like I say mister, I'm sorry. I didn't aim t' kill him, but I did, it's all my fault." And with that he was gone.
Nathan and Chris were still on the veranda outside the clinic when the disconsolate figure walked from the jail and straight into the livery. A few moments later Buck's big grey sped out, and disappeared down the street.
"Damn!" Nathan swore.
"He'll be back, he always comes back," Chris assured him.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah finished giving the dead boy in the narrow cot the last rites and pulled the sheet up to cover his face. Then he turned to the still figure in the other bed. Ezra was breathing evenly, though his breaths were shallow, a fine sheen of sweat covered him. Sanchez gently laid a single finger along the shaved patch of scalp, tracing around the neatly stitched wound. Nathan had been about to wash the all the blood out of what was left of Ezra's hair before he covered the wound. Then Chris called and said he was needed at the jail, so he had asked Josiah to do it for him, but then the kid had started to fit.
"Well son, we best do as we were asked. I know Nathan is just outside but he needs some fresh air right now." He poured some water into a basin and picked up a clean rag and a comb. "You know you are going to feel better when we have done this. Vanity Ezra; it's a sin, but without it there would be no beautiful women sashaying in those fine gowns, and no southern peacocks with hidden hearts of gold." With a care and a tenderness most would have not thought possible from such a large man, Josiah washed and teased and combed out the blood and dirt and tangles. He was just finishing when Nathan returned.
"All done?" he asked.
"Yes, he's ready for you. Arent you Ezra?"
Nathan raised an eyebrow; he looked down at his patient. "Did he wake up?"
"No, never moved, but that doesnt mean we have to behave as if he's not here."
Jackson picked up the soft cloth pad he was going to place against the wound and a bandage. "I guess not. So Ezra, you ready for this? It might hurt a little while we do it, but it's best if we cover that wound of yours."
Ezra was floating in an everlasting black sea. It was warm and safe and pain free and really quite pleasant. He thought if he knew were it was people would undoubtedly pay good money to float for a bit. Nothing disturbed the blackness, no light, no wind, now feelings, nothing - except far away he could hear voices, they were so far away he couldn't make out any words or even identify voices but it was there. That was annoying, he tried to ignore the distant voices and float in peace some more.
"Get some sleep Nathan, take my bed, I'll watch him tonight." Josiah wasn't taking no for an answer as he pulled up the old low stuffed chair Nathan had recently acquired. Since sitting and watching seemed to be a regular occurrence, he had decided he would invest in something better than the unforgiving straight-backed wooden chair, which was slowly wrecking all their backs. "Just have Inez send over some of them fine enchiladas she was cooking up tonight."
Nathan considered arguing, but in the end gave in gracefully. "You come get me if there is any change, if he starts to puking or raving - alright?"
"I know what to do, go man, eat, drink, sleep."
+ + + + + + +
Buck hadn't planned his ride, he hadn't packed, and he didn't even have that much money in his pocket. But he knew where he was going. Purgatory. If he was going to pick up Deke Groves trail, that was the best place to start. He rode on into the gathering gloom, relying on the strong moonlight to guide him. But as the hours went by the clouds gathered and began to block out the moon. Eventually, concern for his horse's safety made him stop. Heading toward a clump of small shrubs he heard the trickle of a small stream. Then in the near total darkness he struggled to take off the saddle all but one handed. With that done he gave the patient grey half the emergency bag of corn he always had stashed in his saddle bags and ate some of the beef jerky he carried for himself - just in case. He had no way to see well enough to gather fire wood, and even if he could he had no notion as to whether it was safe to light a fire. So shivering under the meagre protection of his bedroll he curled up under his horse and tried to sleep.
Sleep did not come. He was too cold, too hungry and his finger hurt too much. The damn thing was a minor injury, he had bent back a fingernail far enough to make it bleed lots of times, it never hurt like this or for so long before. All night it throbbed, with every beat of his heart it throbbed, and just to make matters worse it itched as well. Between wanting to cut it off just to end the pain and trying to remember what it felt like not to have a sore and swollen finger, he wanted to scratch the itch. He even tried once but the pain was too much. Touching or bending his finger was out of the question. In the morning he found some relief while washing. It was so soothing that he sat there beside the stream for nearly an hour. In the end though he had a mission to complete, it was his fault the boy died it was his fault Ezra was hurt, dying maybe, for all Buck knew he was dead already. Shaking that image from his mind he forced himself to get up and saddle his horse. All the good the cool stream had done was undone as he tried to get the heavy saddle on and do up the cinch. Max stood as still as he could, not understanding why his master, normally so gentle and considerate was suddenly hauling and pushing him around. Try as he might Buck couldn't help knocking the finger and that hurt. At first he just cursed and carried on, but in the end he just whimpered to himself and gritted his teeth. There was no one there to hear his curses and no one to see his weakness, so why waste one or try to hide the other.
Already exhausted, and without bothering to eat anything, he pulled himself into the saddle and started out again, headed for a place he genuinely hated.
+ + + + + + +
The voices that had so disturbed Ezra in the dark place had gone for a while, now they were back, they seemed closer, he thought he could occasionally make out his name among the blur of sounds but he wasn't sure. Making sure required effort, some movement toward the sound and he didn't have the energy or the inclination, let them come to me he decided.
"Ezra you about ready to open them eyes this morning?" Josiah asked as he made himself some coffee from Nathan's supplies.
The younger man on the bed showed no reaction.
"Well suit yourself but I have to tell you, you are missing a glorious sunrise, the world is still and sleepy, but here and there you can see it come to life. Did you hear the dawn chorus? What a heavenly sound, God's wonder of creation waking up yet again." Sanchez wandered over to the small window. "Now see, there is Mr Miller, bringing in the milk, he'll go to the saloon first and drop off a churn for Inez yup, there he goes around the back. Then he'll continue until he gets to the hotel before he crosses the street and takes some to Gloria at the store. Did you know that is what happens every morning? I bet you don't, you're never up this early are you?" He shook his head. "Mornings are the best part of the day son, you shouldn't miss them." He watched the street some more, he watched young Hannah Frazer carrying a full basket of eggs to the store and a sleepy looking Tom Potter open the front of the store and letting her in. Moments later the diminutive blonde girl came out clearly counting her money.
The voice Ezra could hear was now more distinct, he could pick out words now. The soft rumbling baritone was familiar and somehow soothing. The black world had acquired a new feature, pain. A persistent throbbing pain was building behind his eyes. He tried to force the pain back and slip into the blackness again, but that damn voice kept breaking his concentration.
"So Ezra what do you say to a shave? You look right disreputable like that. I know where Nathan keeps the razor he sha " Suddenly he stopped, maybe now was not the time to tell Ezra about his shaven head. "Anyway, I know where he keeps a spare razor and the soap, it won't take long and your will feel more your old self when it is done." He was just washing off the last of the soap and patting the now smooth chin dry when he saw Ezra's eyes flutter behind his closed lids. "Ezra? Son?" Can you open your eyes for me?" Josiah stood and placed a large palm lightly on each shoulder. He gave the injured man only the slightest of shakes. "Ezra open your eyes," he commanded.
Someone was calling to him, someone close by, someone familiar. He really didn't want to open his eyes, but this person didn't seem to understand that, because they wouldn't give up. Finally he forced his eyelids - which felt like lead - open.
Sanchez gazed down as confused half-open jade green eyes in which pain was all too evident.
"Hello son, welcome back."
+ + + + + + +
By the time Buck rode into Purgatory it was close to noon and the sun was merciless. His canteen has run dry around ten and all he could think of then was getting a drink - not beer, not Red Eye, just cool well water. It might have been noon but Purgatory was much as Four Corners had been when Sanchez had described it to Ezra. The streets were still empty, businesses still shut, the majority of the population still in bed. This was a night-time town, like Ezra; it stayed up until the small hours and rarely rose before one. Buck stopped at the livery, it was open, were the surly owner directed him to the well. Having downed several pints of water he hoped his thirst would have abated, but it didn't, his head was pounding, but the water had eased that some, so he headed out to find Sophia.
Sophia ran the towns best best was a relative term in Purgatory - bordello. She wasn't that old for a madam; Buck reckoned she wasn't much more than thirty. He'd met her when tracking down Chris. Sophia wasn't inclined to trust men, much less gringos, but he was different, he spoke the common language of the 'parlour'. He knew she would be up, though probably only just. Leaving Max tethered in the shade at the back of the building he knocked at the kitchen door.
"Somos cerrados," came the sour response.
"Sophia honey, it's me, Buck Wilmington, I need to speak t' ya darlin'."
"Yeah, in the flesh."
She peeked through a crack in the door and instantly recognised the tall gregarious gunman. Flinging open the door, she greeted him with a huge smile that faded the moment she got a good look at the man under the hat.
"Madre de Dios! What have you done to yourself?" she asked, taking him by the hand and pulling him into the kitchen. She was wearing a thin robe and little else but it didn't bother her, especially with him, he was one of them after all. "Sit man, sit!" she commanded.
He sank gratefully onto a chair at the rough table in the middle of the room. As she stood and regarded him she shook her head. The man before her was pale and haggard, desperately in need of a shave and bath; he held his right hand close to his chest, not letting her see it.
"Isobella!" she shouted. "Venido aqui le necesito!"
Isobella turned out to be a small round woman, with dark skin who could have been any age from fifty to eighty. Sophia then issued a long list of instructions to the bemused looking woman, who Buck took to be some kind of cook, since she instantly placed a kettle of water on the stove. Than she turned back to Buck.
"You need a bath, a shave, some food and a good night's sleep," she announced, eyeing the weary looking man with concern. "I should say a doctor as well but we have none I would trust to care for my cat."
Buck smiled as best he could. "I don't have enough money darlin' all I ask is some information," he explained.
"Senor Buck, you insult me," she placed her arm on her hips in indignation. "You are one of the 'family' no?"
Buck smiled sheepishly. "I guess," he admitted.
"So I do not charge family, mi casa es su casa, no?"
"Good. What information do you need?"
"A man may have arrived here, probably yesterday night, all I know is that he rides a big buckskin and his name is Deke Groves."
Sophia smiled; she knew just who would find the man if he were in Purgatory. She held up one finger and disappeared into a small side room for about five minutes. When she returned she was accompanied by a boy of about ten, though he had his mothers - and some how Buck knew he was looking at mother and son - dark eyes and olive skin, his hair was corn blond.
"Eric will find the man if he is in the town." she assured.
Buck watched the boy go. "Does he reminded you of someone?" Sophia asked.
"Mmm, a boy I used to know about thirty years ago," he admitted wistfully.
"I do not think you used to know him, I think that he is still here." She bent down and kissed his forehead, pulling away with concern; he was hot, too hot.
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Ezra said nothing the first time he regained consciousness, he just looked at Josiah with confused unfocused eyes, which fluttered closed after only seconds. Nathan returned and confirmed that this was an excellent sign that Ezra would recover. Ezra was pulled back from the darkness by Josiah's voice twice more that day, the others came to visit but it seemed to be only Josiah who could coax him back, and becaues of that the big man refused to leave him. It was evening when Ezra opened his eyes again he focused on the face before him. It was a familiar face, the powerful jaw, huge smile; gentle pale blue eyes had been there every time he had found his way out of the darkness. Dry lips moved but no sound came out. Before he could even register what was happening he found a tin cup at his lips and cool water flowing down his scratchy dry throat.
"Thank you," Ezra managed to whisper.
At the sound of that raspy, very un-Ezra whisper Josiah beamed even more, relieved beyond belief that Ezra seemed to be returning to them.
"You are welcome, here have some more." He made Ezra drink some more water.
"Do I know you?" Ezra asked, because the man did look and sound very familiar.
"Yes, you know me." Josiah couldn't help but smile at the confused expression on the face that was normally so composed.
"Now I'm gonna go and find Nathan, try and stay awake while I'm gone. Alright?"
"Do I know this Nathan?"
Nathan had been called to the kitchen at the hotel where the chef had cut his finger and no one could get the bleeding to stop. By the time Josiah found him and returned to the clinic the bed was empty. Ezra was nowhere to be found in the immediate area, but his pants and shirt, which had been hanging on the end of the bed, were missing. Several frantic hours later it was Nathan who eventually found him, in the livery, speaking to Chaucer.
"Hello Ezra," Nathan said softly.
Confused jade eyes focused on the tall dark man before beside him. "Hello?"
"I'm Nathan," Jackson stated.
Ezra stared at him for a long time than stated somewhat sadly. "I don't feel well."
"I'll bet," Nathan sympathised. "You gonna throw up?"
By now Standish was defiantly turning a distinct shade of green. He nodded and with that doubled over and lost the contents of his stomach on to the dirt floor of the stable. After he had stopped heaving he just stood there staring at the mess.
"Oh dear, that is bad." Slowly he looked up, and Nathan was distressed to see fear in his eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that to happen, I I can clean it up." But with that his knees began to give way, Nathan only just made it to him in time to prevent him crashing to the floor.
Ezra was quite a bit shorter than Nathan, who was a strong man, but the southerner was all muscle and was heavy, so he was more than grateful when Josiah came running into the barn and help him carry the now unconscious gambler back to the clinic. Once he was back on the bed, Nathan shook his head. "We are going to have to watch him every minute of the day and night, until he's in his right mind at least." Nathan commented as the two friends watch the smaller man sleep. Josiah nodded and headed toward the chair. "But not you my friend, you need some sleep."
The other three had been keeping an eye on Ezra's progress, watching over their now very full jail and looking after its prisoners. Enquires were made and it turned out that the Dawkins Gang were well-known in Nebraska and the Dakotas. Armed robbery, stagecoach hold-ups, and farm raids were their speciality, even horse theft and rustling if it took their fancy. After a bank raid had gone very badly wrong resulting in the death of eight hostages they had disappeared from the district, believed to be heading south for Mexico. Clearly they had run out of funds and fallen back on old habits. There was one piece of information about the gang members JD wanted to show Chris as soon as he got the wire.
Chris scanned the document, a hard set to his jaw as he read and reread the words, anger building the whole time. "Is he back yet?" he asked the young sheriff.
"Make sure he sees this when he gets back. Have you contacted the Marshals?"
JD nodded. Once they knew who they had and what they were wanted for their panicked reaction when confronted made sense. In Four Corners they were only wanted for resisting arrest, and attempted murder, the one who had escaped - Groves - was wanted not only for the crimes committed by the gang as a whole, but also for the brutal murder of his own parents. The US Marshals would collect the remainder of the gang, six men, and transport them back to Lincoln to stand trial and most likely hang.
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