ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS

by Jordan McKenzie

 

Part 13

 

Chris stumbled through the darkness feeling the chill of night leech every bit of warmth from his body. He was tired, both bone weary and mentally exhausted, yet he knew he had to keep walking until he reached the orange glow beckoning him in the distance. Little by little he made his way across the desert, tripping over dry rocky earth and yanking free of the clawing brush that snagged his pant legs. Time passed painfully slow as he defied his body’s desire to give in, to collapse on the ground and pull the night into himself, but his heart crushed any plans his body made. There was someone who needed him and he’d be damned if he was going to fail another living soul.

 

The glow grew larger with each clumsy step. It also grew more visually intense as the muted orange of a moment ago became a striking array of vivid reds and yellows. After that there was the heat, inviting at first then overwhelming as tall flames reached out into the night seemingly to ensnare him. His aching limbs welcomed the warmth, but there again his heart overcame his body’s need and forced him to skirt the edges of the blaze as he neared a cavernous hole filled with flame.

 

He looked into the pit of fire and momentarily entertained the thought of throwing himself in. Some part of him craved the release it offered, but he ultimately found the cowardice of such an act so distasteful he decided against it. He narrowed his eyes against its intensity and searched its borders for the person he knew he’d find. There not twenty feet from him, Ezra stood, hunched over, arms bound behind his back and bare feet touching the very rim of the burning crater. His lean form shook with fatigue, or fear, or a combination of both, and when Chris caught his eyes with his own he saw hopelessness and despair. It was as if the heat from the pit below was sucking the life from the Southerner and he had to do something to stop it.

 

“Ezra!” he shouted above the crackling of the fire below. “Don’t move!”


The gambler’s haunted eyes stared at the flames as they snaked their way from the pit and licked at his feet. The desire to move away was evident, written all over his face, but his body wouldn’t oblige. Instead, one foot slid closer, actually curling over the edge. Large tears filled his eyes as they stared blindly into the fire. “You can’t save me,” he said with a husky voice as he choked on heavy black smoke.

 

The gunfighter clambered over ash-covered rock. “I can, Ezra, just don’t go any closer.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Nothing to be sorry about, just stay put. I’m almost there,” Chris answered with a grunt as his foot slipped off a slippery stone.

 

“I didn’t know he’d come back.”

 

“I know you didn’t, just hang on. I’m almost…there.”

 

Chris cleared the rocky perimeter ringing the well of flame and stood within ten feet of the man he meant to save. It was then he heard the familiar sound of a gun being cocked. He searched the smoky haze surrounding Ezra’s head and caught the glint off the barrel of a gun, his own gun. His eyes followed the barrel to the hand of Hank Connelly and he unconsciously stumbled back when he saw the look on his father-in-law’s face. Fury, betrayal and revenge filled Hank’s being and Chris knew it was every bit aimed at him despite the gun being held to the gambler’s temple.

 

“Hank, what are you doing?”

 

“Just giving you what you want.”

 

“What I want? I don’t want this, Hank, let him go.”

 

“And deny you the joy of seeing someone you supposedly care about burning in the fires of hell?”

 

“What are you talking about? I don’t want this. I never wanted this. Just put the gun down and let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

“No,” Connelly said, forcing the gambler to lean over the pit.

 

“Hank, don’t do this. Shoot me if you want, but let him go!”

 

The old man’s face cracked a smile that turned Chris’ stomach. It was a smile of madness, which came dangerously close to resembling evil. In an instant, Hank turned the gun from his original target and pointed it towards him. It exploded, adding its own little puff of smoke to the fire’s larger cloud and sending a bullet straight into Chris. The impact doubled him over and sent him to the ground.

 

“Say goodbye, Chris Larabee, to another lost soul,” Hank said, laughing.

 

Before the wounded man could gather his wits, Connelly had Ezra by the neck and shoved him over the rim of the crater. Chris watched helplessly as the Southerner twisted just enough to reveal a face filled with terror, then screamed as he fell from view into the raging inferno below.

 

Chris fumbled to cover his stomach with his hand as he rolled over and scrambled to the rim of the deadly blaze. The expression on Ezra’s face lingered in his mind as he sought the hungry flames for any signs of his friend’s remains. But he was gone, burning at the bottom of the cauldron beneath him. He pulled away from the hole and dropped to the ground, curling around both the wound in his belly and the ache in his soul. Not again, it couldn’t happen again. Then he heard the sound of boots near his head and knew Hank was standing close. He turned his sight upwards into the troubled eyes of his wife’s father.

 

“Yes, again,” Hank said hoarsely as he knelt down, raised the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger.

 

Chris watched in horror as the gun blast blew away half the man’s head and knocked his body backward into the dirt. He raised bloody hands to his face and cried out in mind numbing pain.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“No!! Chris cried as he tried to bury his head deeper into folded arms. His brain was so full of unbearable memories he felt it would explode. He squeezed his head between his elbows and tried to force away the horrifying images of Sarah, Adam, Ezra and Hank. He was certain his mind was surrendering to his conscience as vivid pictures of fear and death flooded his soul. It was finally happening, he was losing the battle he’d fought for so long and it was clear his sanity lay forfeit. Like Hank, he would fall into madness. Perhaps that was the best he could hope for, to drift away from reality and lose himself in a world of delusion and indifference. He thought of how it would be to live without the ache in his heart and the remorse in his soul. At the moment it was the most tempting prospect he’d ever known. But as seductive as it was he knew at his very core a life of apathy was not what his family and friend had bequest. He owed them the memory of their importance in his life and that meant he had to fight. Unfortunately, fighting meant more pain and already the agony in his skull had grown so severe he feared it may be too late. In desperation, he began clawing at his head. He would fight. If he had to physically remove each terrifying memory with his bare hands, he would do it.

 

Please, God, let me do it.

 

Give me the strength to end it.

 

Just make it…

 

“Stop… make it stop!” he screamed until he could actually feel his own voice push away the threat of madness. He would stay in his own head, suffer his own past and gladly remember those he’d cared about and loved no matter the price.

 

“Chris!” a voice called from the distance.

 

He was so startled by the sound, he couldn’t help but listen.

 

“Come on, Chris, let go!”

 

Strong hands grabbed at his wrists and pulled them away from his head. He fought back, tried to loosen the hold, but whoever had him was determined in their efforts to break through. He pushed his assailant to arm’s length hoping to create enough room to defend himself with his legs, but the moment he raised his knees his middle seized with crippling pain. His body jerked hard as his lungs sucked for air.

 

“Chris, settle down,” the voice shouted.

 

A deep, hacking cough took hold of him and any chance for escape was gone. He fell back, drained, surrendering to whatever the fates had planned. His entire body burned, most likely from being too near the flaming pit, and every muscle twitched out of control. “Stop,” he muttered in a last ditch effort to save himself, “p-please stop…”

 

“Easy, Chris,” the voice said softly, “you’re all right; just settle down.” The strong hands, still firmly gripping his wrists, pulled his fists together and held them to his chest.

 

He took another harsh breath and listened to the reassuring tone hanging above him. Repeatedly the voice spoke promises of safety but it wasn’t until the hands let go he believed it. An oppressive heat still clung to him but as the agonizing pain in his belly subsided to a more manageable level, he felt the flames within lessen. A cool hand came to rest on his forehead and he heard the voice say, “Easy, that’s it. Don’t try to do anything right now except breathe.” A moment passed before the voice spoke again but this time it didn’t seem to be addressing him. “He’s gettin’ real warm, what d’ya think?”

 

Another hand, colder than the one before, touched his cheek. “You’re right; fever’s startin’ to take hold. I figured it would seein’ he left that wound so long without treatin’ it. Now I’ve got two patients in trouble.”

 

A heavy sigh preceded a long pause and then a sloshing sound came within inches of his head. “Bathe him. Keep him as cool as ya can. And try to wake him enough to get some of this tea down him.”

 

A groan sounded nearby.

 

“You go,” the first voice said. “I’ll take care of him.” Footsteps walked away, and then the hands were on him again. “Chris?”

 

The gunfighter tried to swallow but there was so little moisture in his mouth he couldn’t manage it. He pressed his lips together and nearly whimpered when he couldn’t even muster enough saliva to wet them with his tongue.

 

“Easy there, pard,” the voice said just before something soft was pressed against his mouth.

 

A damp rag dabbed at his lips several times before it moved over the rest of his face. When it washed away the crustiness around his eyes it dawned on him he hadn’t tried to open them. Perhaps now that they didn’t feel as if they’d been glued shut he could manage to crack them enough to see who was wiping his neck and arms. Concentrating his attention on his eyelids, he finally felt them flutter open and saw a large dark silhouette, backlit by daylight, looming over his upper body.

 

He heard the gentle voice begin to mumble words of worry. When he realized the concern was meant for him he made an effort to reassure whoever was there he was fine. He tried to lick his lips again and drew a careful breath, then relaxed and tried to speak. The words he’d chosen in his mind left his mouth a garbled mess, but at least whoever was fretting over him stopped rubbing his skin with that cold rag and came closer for him to see. It took several seconds to focus on the face beaming down, but when he saw who it was he felt an overwhelming relief wash over him.

 

“B-Buck?” he asked, making sure he wasn’t dreaming.

 

A hand came to the side of his head and moved it just a little so he was actually facing his friend and not the dark blob, presumably a piece of furniture, over his shoulder. A wide grin greeted him as he clearly made out the man’s features. “Yeah, pard, it’s me,” Buck said, a nervous chuckle betraying his fear. “How do ya feel?”

 

The gunfighter thought about it for a second. “Like hell. What happened?”

 

“You passed out while Nathan was diggin’ for that slug you caught.”

 

A look Buck had seen many times crossed Chris’ face.

 

“I know you’re pissed we didn’t keep you awake, but I reckon your body had other plans.”

 

“Ezra!” Larabee cried as memory returned. He tried to pull away from the well-meaning cowboy and get off the cot he’d been laid on, but Buck’s hands were instantly, and successfully, pushing him back to the thin mattress.

 

“Whoa there, he’s right here.”

 

“I-I heard him screaming,” Chris said, his brain still fuzzy.

 

“You probably did, Nathan and Vin worked on those feet of his for a long time,” Buck replied, looking sadly over at the man on the bed.

 

Chris followed his friend’s gaze and caught sight of Ezra, looking very small amongst the large number of pillows and blankets piled around him. His face was drawn and pale in the afternoon light and the dark chestnut hair matted to his forehead emphasized how completely drained of life he was. Dark circles beneath his eyes attested to the gambler’s lack of sleep and the convulsive twitches in his arm and legs, visible even from where he lay, bore evidence as to how much pain he felt despite being unconscious.

 

“H-how bad?” he asked.

 

Wilmington tore his eyes from Ezra and set about rewetting the cloth in his hand.

 

“Buck, how bad?

 

The ladies man reached the cloth to Larabee’s brow, but Chris weakly grabbed the arm in his face and moved the rag away. “Tell me.”

 

Buck hadn’t wanted to add to the guilt his friend had assumed, but knew he couldn’t keep Ezra’s condition a secret. “One of his feet wasn’t cut too deeply. Nathan pulled the glass out without much trouble and stitched up the worst gashes.”

 

“And his other foot?”

 

“His right foot was hurt worse. The glass pieces were larger and deeper. Some were broke off inside and Nathan had to cut into him to get ‘em out. The knife wounds were… more vicious, and…”

 

Chris waited for Buck to finish.

 

“And his ankle’s broken.”

 

“Broken? I thought they used a bottle and a knife. How did his ankle get broken?”

 

“It must have happened after I left,” Nathan said bleakly as he entered the room from the back and moved to Ezra’s bedside. He felt the gambler’s face and checked his eyes before he shook his head and took up a seat next to Buck. “I suspected it was broke when you brought him in.”

 

“But how?”

 

“From the looks of the bruising on his lower leg, I’d say it was stomped. I found marks on him shaped a lot like the heal of a boot.”

 

“Stomped?” Chris repeated angrily as he sat up on the cot, this time roughly shoving Buck’s groping hands aside. “To stomp a man you have to have him on the floor. You mean after they mutilated his feet, they dumped him in the floor and deliberately stomped on him?”

 

Nathan rose from his chair and pushed on the gunfighter’s shoulders trying to keep him from leaving the cot. “Chris, sit down before you bust those stitches I put in ya!”

 

“So help me, when I catch those bastards…” He was so angry he couldn’t see straight, but anger could only carry him so far before he began to shake beneath the healer’s hands and dropped back onto the cot.

 

“Just keep still, Chris, you ain’t in any shape to take on the Nichols right now.”

 

“Why, Nathan, why do that to him?”

 

“Chris, these people have a way of thinkin’ that’s so far outside normal I can’t begin to know why. The best I can figure is they wanted to break him, to teach him a lesson for crossin’ ‘em. I just got back from settin’ John Nichol’s arm over at the jail. That boy ain’t right in the head or the heart. Josiah’s been tryin’ to talk to him, to make him understand that what he and his family’ve done was wrong and that he’s in serious trouble, but he ain’t listenin’. He just keeps spoutin’ off about how we’re all gonna pay.”

 

The gunfighter shook violently, both from fury and pain. “Damn it, how could I let this happen?”

 

“Aint’ none of this your fault,” Buck said.

 

“Yes, Buck, it is. If I’d paid more attention to the situation here in town instead of runnin’ off with Hank, I’d’ve known what the Nichols were up to. I’d’ve seen Ezra had set himself up and been here to stop what was bound to happen.” He rubbed at his face. “My God, what they did to him.”

 

“What ‘they’ did to him, Chris, it wasn’t you. You couldn’t have known what their aim was.”

 

“Has he come to yet, Nathan?” he asked into his hand, not raising his head.

 

“No, he’s been outta his head mostly. Every time we doctor his wounds, he thinks he’s bein’ tortured again.”

 

“So he doesn’t even realize he’s safe now.” He heard the room go silent and looked up at the two men beside him. “What? He is safe now, right? He ain’t gonna die.”

 

Seeing the gunfighter was about to launch himself from the cot again, Nathan put a reassuring hand on his arm and said, “No, it ain’t that. If we can get his fever down and prevent more infection from settin’ in I think we can get him through this.”

 

“You think?”

 

“I can only treat what I see. Some of the things he’s sayin’ in his sleep worry me; they messed with him pretty bad. We’re just gonna have to watch him and take it one step at a time.”

 

“Then there’s something else,” he said, getting so riled Buck moved next to him on the cot and put an arm around his shoulder to hold him still. “Stop playin’ games, just tell me.”

 

“It’s no game, Chris,” Buck answered. “There’ve been two fires in town since last night. Vin’s gathered some of the town folk to help put them out.”

 

“The Nichols, the three who escaped mean to terrorize the town. So help me, I’m puttin’ an end to that family now.” He tried desperately to get up but his friend was prepared. The hand around his shoulder grabbed his bare upper arm while the other pressed firmly against his chest. “Damn it, Buck, let go!”

 

“No way, you’re as weak as a newborn, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Besides that, you seem to be forgettin’ that the Nichols are most likely gonna come after you before anybody. ”

 

“I reckon I deserve what I get.”

 

Buck felt a cold dread run through him at the sound of those mumbled words. “You don’t really believe that, it’s just the fever talkin’. You know none of this is your fault. If Hank had had a better grip on reality…”

 

“If Sarah and Adam hadn’t died he’d of had a better grip! He was right, Buck, I wasn’t there to protect them.”

 

“Neither was he, neither was I. I loved them too, Chris, I loved them like they were my own family. That little boy of yours, he was as near to having a son as I’m ever likely to know. I understand your guilt -- hell, I share it. I was the one who talked you into stayin’ that extra day.”

 

“It was my respons … my responsibility,” he stuttered, “not yours!” He leaned forward and tried to pull free as he worked an arm over the hand holding his chest. He yanked hard but was quickly reminded by a tearing pain in his stomach that he’d just had a bullet removed. He doubled over suddenly and would have fallen to the floor had Buck not caught him.

 

“Dang it, Chris, you gotta stop this,” Buck yelled as he shoved his friend back onto the cot.

 

Nathan moved in and quickly scooped Chris’ feet onto the mattress. He held them and watched as Buck bent down and once again grabbed his wrists.

 

“Listen to me, pard, and listen good,” Wilmington said firmly. “You need to stay down and let me do the worryin’ right now. I swear to you, ain’t no one here planning on lettin’ the Nichols get away with what they’ve done. This ain’t just your fight any more, it’s ours. They hurt one of our own. Ain’t nobody doin’ that and getting away with it. You got that?”

 

Chris wanted to answer, but couldn’t. He hurt so badly he couldn’t manage much more than a groan and a fist slammed against the frame of the cot.

 

Buck shook his head, put his hands on his hips and turned to Nathan. “You think we oughta tie ‘im to the bed?”

 

“Only if the bed’s nailed to the floor.”

 

Buck ran a hand through his dark brown hair. “What are we gonna do with him? He ain’t gonna stop tryin’ to catch the Nichols no matter how much danger he puts himself in.”

 

“Then I reckon we best be tryin’ to stop the Nichols. If he keeps this up, we won’t have to worry about them killin’ him, he’ll do it himself.”

 

Wilmington agreed and wondered where he could find some large nails.

 


Part 14

 

Vin Tanner’s ears roared as he walked the boardwalk between the jail and Nathan’s clinic; the sound of flames burning out of control and the shouts of men fighting to put them out echoed in his mind with a rush. He’d spent half the night and most of the day extinguishing fires presumably set by the Nichols family in retaliation for the gun battle the day before. Although he hadn’t had time to help clear the bodies littering the street, he had been witness to their removal as he battled the fires hoping to prevent new deaths being added to the count. Three of the Nichols’ boys were currently at the undertakers being cleaned up and fitted for sturdy coffins so they could be transported back to Kansas City. They would be sent to the undertaker’s office there and released to the appropriate family members. Hank Connelly presented a different problem; they knew Chris would probably want the old man sent home to be buried with his own wife, but where exactly was home? He’d have to ask the gunfighter when he woke up.

 

The tracker shook his head in an effort to quiet the roar. So much needless death, he thought, all for nothing. Death and suffering that should never have happened. He thought of how Ezra had been tortured for trying to do the right thing. He’d wanted nothing more than to protect Chris and to shield someone Chris cared about, even if the gunfighter was reluctant to admit he did indeed care. The gambler had displayed amazing courage and Vin felt his heart swell with pride at the thought. Then his heart nearly broke when he recalled the image of the man being handed down to him from the Nichols’ carriage, broken, bleeding and half dead. He’d paid a heavy price for doing the right thing.


He removed his hat and ran a hand over his scalp and through his long hair. He supposed he should have taken a moment back at the jail to wash away some of the ash and dirt that had adhered to his body, but despite the available water basin and towel he simply couldn’t force himself to be around the youngest Nichols’ boy. In the short time he’d been at the jail to check on JD and Josiah, John Nichols had gotten on his nerves so much he’d wanted to shoot him where stood -- the man was more than arrogant, he was callous and self-righteous. He honestly had no regrets that he and his family had sadistically threatened an entire town, mutilated Ezra and killed Hank Connelly. He didn’t think any of the Nichols knew about Chris being hurt which was probably a good thing since as far as they were concerned they were the victims in all this. Now, despite three brothers being dead and one in jail because an old woman decided she alone should mete out justice, three surviving sons would be expected to continue menacing the town in order to fulfill her desire for retaliation. He understood her loss, her pain, but she was out of control and he was beginning to think she wouldn’t be happy until she’d killed everyone in her path, including her own children.

 

Damn, he could use a drink. He gave thought to actually stopping by the saloon and picking up a couple bottles of whiskey to take to the clinic, but stopped himself cold when he remembered Ezra’s last encounter with a whiskey bottle. He suddenly lost his taste for liquor and headed instead for the General Store. He remembered Nathan had been running low on bandages after he’d wrapped Ezra’s wounds so he thought he’d make himself useful and gather a few supplies. “Afternoon, Mr. Hobson,” he said as he entered.

 

The shopkeeper, who stood low on a small ladder near the back of the store, startled and twisted too quickly. He lost his balance and fell awkwardly to the floor. He wiped his hands on his apron before he moved clumsily behind the counter. “Oh afternoon, Mr. Tanner, I didn’t see you there.”

 

“Didn’t mean to scare ya none. You okay?”

 

“Fine, fine, just a little nervous what with everything that’s been happening lately,” he replied, taking in the tracker’s disheveled appearance and eying the floor. “I just wasn’t expecting you to come in here.”

 

Vin looked down at himself and discovered he was dropping a trail of ash. “Dang it, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was makin’ such a mess.”

 

“Don’t worry yourself about a little dirt, Mr. Tanner, a broom’ll take care of that in no time. I meant I’m surprised to see you after your hard work battling those fires. You must be out on your feet.”

 

“Yeah, I’m a little tired. I just thought I’d pick up a few things for the clinic.”

 

“Well certainly, what did you have in mind?”

 

“Bandages mostly, maybe some more laudanum, and some of those dried herbs Nathan favors for his teas. Do you know which ones he uses?”

 

“I certainly do, it’ll only take a few minutes to package everything up for you,” he said as he fidgeted with his apron.

 

“Thanks, I think I’ll sit a spell over here outta the way and wait.” Vin watched as Hobson hurriedly gathered the supplies, wrapped them in brown paper and tied the bundle with heavy string. “Mrs. Hobson not workin’ today?”

 

“No… yes, she’s probably working in the stockroom.”

 

“Please tell her I was askin’ ‘bout her.”

 

“I will. I think that’s everything you needed. Um, pardon my asking, but how is Mr. Standish doing?”

 

“Not too good right now, but I reckon Nathan’ll fix him up. How much does all this come to?”

 

“Don’t you worry about the cost.”

 

“I ain’t takin’ goods without payin’.”

 

Hobson leaned close, lowered his voice and said, “After all you and the others have done to protect this town, Mr. Tanner, this is the least I can do. Please, take it.”

 

“But…”

 

“Please.” A gentle hand reached for Vin’s wrist as he pushed the package away. “Take the supplies.”

 

The tracker looked into the eyes behind the spectacles and read their sincerity. “Thank you.”

                                                                                                                                

Hobson smiled before he turned to greet his next customer. “Hello, Mrs. Travis.”

 

“Afternoon, Mr. Hobson, Vin,” Mary replied, gracing both men with a soft smile of her own.

 

“Ma’am,” Vin said, tipping his hat and stepping out of her way so he wouldn’t dust her with ash.

 

Mary made note of his attempt and motioned him to stand still. “I must say you look ready to drop. I know you’ve been trying to pull everyone together to keep an eye on things but maybe it’s time for you to get some rest.”

 

“I will once we find Mrs. Nichols and her boys. Speaking of which, you should be careful walkin’ ‘round town ‘til we’ve caught ‘em.”

 

“I have an escort just outside that door.”

 

He raised an eyebrow.

 

Mary grinned. “Archie Sanders saw me leave my office and insisted on walking me over here.”

 

Vin knew Archie from the Barber Shop. He was an older gentleman, but he was damned good with a gun. “I reckon he can look after ya.”

 

“Yes. Now, Mr. Hobson, I’m in need of a few things. With everything that’s been happening I’m afraid my cupboard has gone quite bare. Speaking of which, Vin, have you boys been eating?”

 

When he took too long to answer, Mary gave the storekeeper a list of more items to gather. “I was planning on making some bread and stew. I’ll just throw a couple more potatoes in the pot and bring some over to the jail and the clinic. Would that be alright with you?” she asked eyeing Vin as he licked his lips.

 

“You don’t have to do that, Mary. We can round up something from the hotel.”

 

“Are you saying you don’t like my stew?”

 

“No, ma’am, I remember that stew of yours when I was sick last winter. I know for a fact it was what cured me and not Nathan’s potions.”

 

She laughed and so pleasant was the sound Vin felt the roaring in his ears fade away. “Well now, I think we’d better keep that our little secret or Mr. Jackson may get his feelings hurt.”

 

“You’re right,” he agreed, a little embarrassed. “I’m headin’ back to the clinic now to help him with Ezra. I can walk you back to your place first though if ya like.”

 

“Thank you, but I wouldn’t want to hurt Archie’s feelings either.” She suddenly became very serious. “Uh, Vin, how is Ezra? Will he be alright?”

 

“We hope so. Nathan’s doin’ all he can.”

 

“I only caught a glimpse of him when the Nichols had him at the hotel, hanging…” She couldn’t bring herself to finish. “He looked terribly hurt. I’ve never seen anyone abused so badly. I just don’t understand how anyone could do that to another person?”

 

Vin saw Mary blink away tears threatening to spill from her gentle blue eyes. “It’s alright, Mary, try not to think on it.” He risked smearing her hand with ash as he took it into his own.

 

“I have to think about it. We all have to. Ezra Standish helps protect this town. He’s one of our own, even if he tries to deny it sometimes.”

 

The tracker smiled at that. “You know him pretty well.”

 

“Oh, he’s not so difficult to understand. He’s actually a very charming person.”

 

Vin pulled back in surprise and watched her turn away just long enough to discreetly wipe at her eyes. “Well, how ‘bout that. Ezra has a fan.”

 

She turned back and caught the amusement on his face. “Now Vin, he’s a very kind soul, if a little withdrawn at times. He’s a good fit with you and the others and this town needs you all. Would you please tell him… tell him…” she struggled for the right words.

 

“Don’t you worry none, I’ll tell him.” He patted her fingers before he released her.

 

“I take it Chris has been helping at the clinic as well.”

 

Vin paused for just an instant, thinking he should probably tell her Larabee had been wounded in the rescue, but changed his mind when he saw other customers enter the store. “Yes ma’am, he’s got his hands full right now.”

 

“I’m sure,” she answered. “Please tell him I’m very sorry about what happened to his father-in-law.”

 

“I will, Mary. I’d best be gettin’ over to the clinic. Tell Archie to keep his eyes peeled.” Tanner nodded his thanks to the clerk, tucked the package beneath his arm and headed out the door.

 

 

Part 15

 

Buck laid a hand across Chris’ brow and blew a long sigh of frustration when he realized the gunfighter’s fever was gaining momentum. If they could keep him still and quiet he would probably recover his strength within a few days, but Buck had every idea, given his friend’s state of mind, ‘still and quiet’ were too much to hope for. His suspicions were confirmed when Chris weakly swatted his hand away and mumbled something about ‘leaving at first light.’ Buck glanced out the window to see the sun positioned high in the sky and knew Chris was dreaming. The man could be as stubborn as a mule and just as ornery if he was of a mind to – awake or asleep.

 

Feeling as if the chair he occupied was growing to him, Buck twisted around and slowly stretched the muscles in his back. He spotted Nathan anxiously crossing and uncrossing his arms as he paced back and forth opposite Ezra’s bed. Eventually he settled himself on the mattress, but he looked worried, more worried than Buck had ever seen him. “Nathan?”

 

Oblivious to Buck’s attention, Nathan leaned over to tug at some of the bandages across Ezra’s chest. The gambler tried to roll away but a firm hand pulled him onto his back again and the examination of the angry red wounds continued. Not for the first time since his fever had developed, Ezra mumbled in unintelligible gibberish. The slurred words intermittently hosted deep groans and occasional terrified cries and the healer knew exactly what demons haunted his patient’s mind. Apparently displeased with his own handiwork, Nathan moved down Ezra’s body to check the bindings holding his arm in place and the bandages circling his middle.

 

“Nathan?” Buck repeated.

 

Jackson looked up to see Wilmington standing next to him.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Me? I’m good, but Ezra…”

 

“His fever?”

 

Jackson let go the wrappings around the Southerner’s waist and for what seemed like the hundredth time put a hand against his cheek to gauge his temperature. “It’s much higher than before, he’s wearin’ out.”

 

“He ain’t the only one who’s wearin’ out. Why don’t you go get some rest? I can watch these two.”

 

Nathan didn’t answer; instead he stared at Ezra as if contemplating what to check next.

 

“What is it? What’s eatin’ at ya?” Wilmington moved to sit on the chair next to the bed.

 

“It’s nothin’.”

 

“I’ve never known ya to worry over nothing, Nate.”

 

The healer didn’t raise his dark brown eyes, but after a long pause, he did eventually speak. “It’s somethin’ Chris said -- about Ezra not knowin’ he’s safe.”

 

Buck waited and listened.

 

“He’s right. Ezra ain’t come ‘round long enough to know where he is. We keep tellin’ him, but he doesn’t understand. The nightmares he’s havin’ are keeping him with the Nichols and I’m afraid the longer he’s with them the harder it’ll be to bring him back in one piece.”

 

“The fever’s causing the nightmares, right?”

 

“Partly, but I have a feelin’ there’s something else goin’ on. I’ve been listening to him, trying to figure out what he’s rememberin’, but I can’t understand most of what he’s saying,” Nathan answered, fidgeting with the white bandage around Ezra’s wrist. 

 

“You’re worried the Nichols really did do something to him we’re not seeing.”

 

Jackson’s eyes revealed a look of dread. “Maybe, I reckon I won’t know for sure ‘til he wakes up.” Again there was a long pause. “Damn it, what was I thinkin’ leavin’ him alone with them? Why the hell did I walk outta that hotel when I knew they’d hurt him, that they’d already hurt him?”

 

“You didn’t have much choice.”

 

“I coulda fought back, maybe given him a chance to get a way.”

 

“If you hadn’t left when you did they coulda killed him outright. They could’ve killed you both, and don’t think they wouldn’t have done it. As it is, we got him back and he’s got you to take care of ‘im.”

 

Nathan looked away obviously reluctant to let himself off the hook so easily.

 

“Things could have been much worse if you hadn’t come after us when ya did. He was pretty far gone by the time we got to him and you know better than anyone he couldn’t have lasted much longer. Be grateful we got him back alive.”

 

“I am grateful, Buck. It’s just… they came after me to get their hands on him and he let ‘em. He gave himself up to stop them hurtin’ me. He did everything they told him, no matter how bad it was.”

 

“Did you think he’d wouldn’t?”

 

“No… I don’t know.”

 

“You sure? Maybe deep down you expected him to save himself. Come on, Nathan, sometimes we all tend to think of Ezra as a self-serving son-of-a-bitch, but ya gotta know that’s just how he likes people to think he is, how he keeps himself safe. Since he’s joined up with us though, he’s proven he’ll do whatever it takes to protect us and this town.” Buck rose from his chair, walked to the window and pulled the curtains aside.

 

“I know I haven’t cut him much slack,” Nathan finally said, “but I swear he does things sometimes just to piss me off.”

 

Buck almost laughed. “I ain’t sayin’ he don’t deserve a boot in the ass sometimes, but there’s no doubt he deserves our faith in him.”

 

The healer’s face gentled as he brushed aside the hair matted to Ezra’s forehead and pressed a palm to his skin.

 

Buck could see Nathan mull over what he’d said. “Come on, pard, give it up. You’re gonna wear him out checkin’ his fever every two minutes. Go on and get yourself some rest. Like I said, I can keep an eye on things here.”

 

Again Ezra tried to pull away from Jackson’s touch but soon settled after he rolled himself into what must have been a more comfortable position. Nathan stood, circled the bed and returned his patient’s broken ankle to the pillow on which it had been resting. “I wish I could get more of that tea down him. I need him still so he can heal.”

 

“He’s taken some of it, hasn’t he?”

 

“Not enough.”

 

“We’ll keep trying. Now go, Nathan, lie down for a spell.”

 

“You can’t handle ‘em on your own, Buck. If Ezra starts yellin’ in his sleep you know damn well Chris is gonna be back on his feet tryin’ to help him.”

 

“I can call you.”

 

“I’d better just stay here.”

 

Buck was about to insist when he heard footsteps on the landing outside the clinic. Catching sight of Vin, he announced, “Looks like help’s arrived just in time.” He grabbed the doorknob and ushered the tracker inside. “Albeit very dirty help,” he added.


Nathan joined the men near the door as Vin offered him the package he carried and swatted at some of the ash on his sleeve. “I went by the General Store and picked up a few supplies for ya,” Tanner said.


Jackson looked him over. “You alright?”

 

Quickly recognizing Nathan in full doctor mode, Vin stepped deeper into the room and hurriedly reassured him. “I’m fine.”

 

“You look like crap, pard,” Buck put in.

 

Tanner scowled. “I said I’m fine. Ain’t nothin’ a little soap and water can’t fix.”

 

Nathan decided to take a closer look. He reached for Vin’s hands and turned them palm up. “Soap and water’ll help, but these burns are gonna need some salve. You hurt anywhere else?”

 

Tanner visibly squirmed under the healer’s scrutiny but knew there was no way to avoid it. He shifted awkwardly from one leg to the other, waiting for Nathan to turn him loose.

 

“Vin, it’s been a hard couple of days and I’ve already had one patient try and hide a wound from me. Just tell me now before I have to scrape your sorry butt off my floor.”

 

Buck came up behind the tracker and spotted a burn hole in his shirt. “Damn, Vin, what happened?”

 

Tanner sighed. “It’s just a little burn, it’s not that bad.”

 

Nathan grabbed his friend’s arm and pulled him around. He eyed the scorched material for less than five seconds before he began yanking the shirt free of Tanner’s body.

 

“Nate?” he asked in surprise, making a grab for his shirt.

 

Jackson ran his fingers around the burn on his right shoulder blade. “How’d this happen?”

 

He hung his head. “A piece of wood fell from the rafters while I was tryin’ to put out one of the fires. I reckon it must’ve been burnin’ when it hit me.”

 

“I reckon. Well it don’t look too bad.”

 

“I told ya.”

 

“But it don’t look too good either. I’ll clean it up and put some salve on that too.”

 

Vin was about to object, but Nathan had already gone to collect what he needed.

 

“Just let him help,” Buck said. “Keeps his mind off other things.”

 

The tracker surrendered and settled on the stool near the exam table. “How are they doin’?” he asked, motioning to the two sleeping men.

 

Buck leaned a hip on the table. “Chris would be fine if we could get him to rest.”

 

“I take it he’s still fightin’ Nathan off.”

 

“Yeah, he’s tried to get up three times now but he’s been too weak to make it.”

 

Vin’s eyes went to the man on the bed. “And Ezra?”

 

“Nathan’s really worried about him. His fever’s bad and he’s not comin’ round.”


“Damn. Is there anything else we can do?”

 

“We need to get some more of medicine in him, but he keeps fighting us too. The last time he was close enough to being awake to give him something, we ended up holding him down and pouring it down his throat. I think more of it splattered on us than went into him.”

 

“Well Mr. Hobson gathered up a few medical supplies for me, maybe there’s something there that’ll help,” Vin said, pointing out the package Nathan laid on the bed stand.

 

“Maybe so.”

 

Jackson returned with a basin of water, a clean cloth and a tin of salve, and quickly went to work on the tracker’s hands and back. To Tanner’s credit he endured the attention with minimum fuss. Fortunately for both men however it didn’t take long to treat the injuries.

 

Vin reached for his shirt. “About John Nichols,” he said as he pulled it over his head, “Josiah got a wire back from Judge Travis. He’s sendin’ a special jail wagon out of Eagle Bend for him sometime late tomorrow. It seems he and his brothers are suspected of killing some town officials there and the new sheriff’s anxious to get his hands on ‘em.”

 

“Now why doesn’t that surprise me,” Buck replied. “Maybe we can catch his brothers before that wagon gets here and cart off the whole family.”

 

“We’ve been lookin’, but so far we can’t figure out where they’re hiding.”

 

“They gotta be close to be settin’ these fires you been puttin’ out. Where exactly were the fires?”

 

Tanner leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “The Boarding House and the Stage Company.”

 

“The north end of town,” Nathan observed. “There’s no place outside o’ town in that direction to hide out. We know two are wounded, Peter and his mother, so they’ve got to be resting up somewhere here in town.”

 

“But where?” Wilmington wondered. He stood and walked to Ezra’s bedside. “Where would those boys take the old lady to hide out?” Coming to no conclusion on his own he turned to the tracker for ideas. The look on Tanner’s face surprised him. “Vin?”

 

“Hunh?”

 

“What is it? You think you know where they might be?”

 

“No, I just keep thinkin’ about those fires.”

 

“What about ‘em?” Nathan asked.

 

“Somethin’ about ‘em don’t feel right.”

 

“You just figurin’ that out, pard?” Buck chided.

 

Vin grinned, he should have seen that one coming. “Just hold on a minute. Since the Nichols pulled into town, have you known them to do anything by halves?”

 

“What d’ya mean?”

 

“I mean they barrelled in on a mission of vengeance, went after Chris the minute they realized he was hiding Hank, tortured Ezra for refusing to tell where Chris and Hank had gone, and threatened everyone else who got in their way. They came with a purpose and they’ve backed up their threats with every bit of meanness they could pull outta their hats.”

 

“Meanness is right. I looked inside that coach of theirs when I put it away – you wouldn’t believe the things they had hid there. Things that had no other purpose than to hurt, maim and kill,” Buck confirmed.

 

“Right, they mean business. When they play, they play for keeps.”

 

“So?”

 

“So these fires are not what I’d expect from folks who have a reputation for not holding back. Something’s off. A fire ain’t a good thing no matter what, but these fires didn’t do the damage I would have expected. Me and the others saved most of the buildings that were burning and no one was hurt or killed. It just don’t seem their style.”

 

“Maybe they just haven’t had much experience with arson. Or maybe there’s too few of ‘em left to do serious harm.”

 

Vin gave the ladies man a sour look. “You really believe that?”

 

“No.”

 

Jackson listened to the two men and went back to check on Ezra. “Well, I don’t care why they didn’t kill anyone else, I’m just glad they didn’t.” Once again, he felt the gambler’s face for fever.

 

“Nate, he’s probably no cooler now than he was fifteen minutes ago. Go get some rest. We’ll take care of him,” Buck said firmly.

 

The healer looked ready to crumble.

 

“Go on,” Vin added, “sleep for a couple hours. We’ll call you if anything happens we can’t handle.”

 

He couldn’t squabble with them any more. “If either one of ‘em wakes up, get some of that tea I brewed into them. And water, they both need water.”

 

“We’ll see to it,” Buck said reassuringly. When the dark man hesitated, he prodded him again. “Go!”

 

Vin watched the healer begrudgingly make his retreat and head to the back. He smirked at Buck. “And he says we’re difficult.”

 

The two men took up chairs alongside the bed and the cot and settled in for the night.

 

 

Part 16

 

Ezra felt the world spin wildly in large sweeping circles as huge hands grabbed him by the arms, yanked him from the countertop and threw him to the floor. What next, he wondered morbidly as he drew in his knees and dragged his tattered feet away from the men who had just cut them. He tried to focus on the voices above him but the shouted words were so intermingled with frenzied howls and wails it was difficult to understand what they were saying. A bloodlust had begun and he recognized immediately he was the sacrificial lamb at its center. He wrapped one arm around his knees and one arm around his head in an effort to make himself appear as small and uninteresting as possible – it didn’t work. The elbow against his head was jerked roughly behind his back and he was forced upright, shoulders pulled back, legs spread wide on the floor.

 

“Talk to me, Standish. Tell me where Larabee hid Connelly,” a voice barked loudly causing a hush to fall around the room.

 

Ezra heard the instruction but his brain failed to register its meaning. He instead stared at his feet, wondering with growing concern at the small red pools forming beneath them. Then the person attempting to gain his attention lowered himself into a squat between his knees and grabbed his chin.

 

“Tell me,” the voice repeated.

 

He tried to avoid the eyes drilling into him but instantly regretted it when his tormentor, Peter Nichols, released his chin and smashed a heavy fist into the side of his face. The skin over his right cheekbone and eyebrow split, and his vision began a sickening dance before him.

 

“Where is Connelly?” Peter shouted.

 

The gambler swallowed hard and tilted his head back. “D-don’t… know.”

 

Nichols grabbed him by the face again and pulled it level with his own. “You’re lying. You work with Larabee, you know how he thinks. Where would he hide?”

 

He tried to squint despite the rising hurt around his right eye and sneered as a bloodstained grin slowly crept across his face. “Chris… doesn’t… hide.”

 

“Is that right, well look around, he isn’t here to save you.”

 

Ezra’s mind began to wander to his feet again and he tried to lean around the man in front of him despite the awkward grip on his arms.

 

Nichols caught the movement and scooted within a hair’s breadth of his victim’s face. “What’re you looking for?”

 

He startled when he couldn’t adjust his focus fast enough.

 

“Your feet?” Peter asked, looking over his shoulder. “You’ve got much bigger problems than your feet.”

 

“Can’t feel…” he mumbled before he realized he’d spoken.

 

“Never mind that, just tell me where Larabee has taken Connelly.”

 

“I told you,” he said softly and purposefully, “I don’t know.”

 

“You do know,” Peter replied before he pulled back and struck him in the face again. “Damn it, I’m talking to you, pay attention!”

 

Nichols stood, removing his bulk from the gambler’s view. Ezra was so relieved to see his feet he might have actually keeled over had the arm behind his back not been twisted further still from his body.

 

Peter’s patience disappeared. “If you’re so dead set on feeling your feet maybe I should just help you out! Hold him, Luke.”

 

Ezra felt the hands holding him yank hard and saw the man standing between his knees turn sharply towards his right foot. In that instant, a heavy boot rose high above his lower leg and came crashing down – once, twice, three times on his shin and ankle. The action was so severe Ezra felt bone grind and break. He cried out and frantically began battling the man behind him. He twisted and pulled, desperate to free himself, but the grip on his arms only tightened. “Get off me!” he yelled and gave one last, hard jerk. The brother at his back countered his efforts by hauling him upwards. The strain on his body was too much and his shoulder separated itself from its socket. He swore he could actually hear a sucking tear as it let go. Luke, had that been his name, must have heard the same sound because he relinquished his hold and snatched his hands away as if bitten by a snake.

 

Peter spun around when he realized the Southerner was free to curl himself on the floor. “I didn’t tell you to turn him loose!”

 

Luke stood quickly and brushed his hands on his pants. “Something inside him just tore it’s self loose. He ain’t going nowhere.”

 

“No, he isn’t!” Peter twisted a hand in the Southerner’s shirt and pulled him upright off the floor.

 

Ezra’s world again gyrated in a nauseating swirl of bright lights and blurry shadows. He couldn’t stand much more of this. So much of his body hurt he couldn’t tell where one injury ended and another began. He knew his mutilated feet had been the focal point of his attention before, but now his entire upper torso was so rapt in agony it threatened to pitch him into blackness. Please, he begged silently, please, let me pass out. He felt the whole universe conspire against him as his request was denied and a hot breath blew into his face.

 

“Enough of this! I’ve warned you what would happen if you didn’t cooperate. I’ve made it very clear how I feel about your kind and still you defy me. You’re playing a dangerous game, Standish, one you’re going to lose.” He backed away and began pacing. “You know what I have in mind for you so let’s just go ahead and be done with it!”

 

Ezra knew exactly. He heard Peter give the order for his weary body to be returned to the countertop. In the seconds that followed he felt brutal hands grab him off the floor and heave him back onto the unyielding surface. Oh God, they were going to do it this time! He grabbed the edge of the counter and tried to pull himself away, but the effort was a complete waste of time. There were simply too many of them. Every limb of his body was seized and held, a forearm fell across his middle and two hands trapped his head. The only movement allowed him was the painful sucking in of air and that was rapidly becoming nearly impossible to do.

 

He tried to resist and crane his neck around to search for the Nichols matriarch. Was she still there? She had managed to control her pit of vipers up to now, insisting, oddly enough, that the payment to be exacted from him was with regard to helping Hank escape. Despite what her sons concluded were his long list of transgressions as a gambler, she seemed unconcerned. He suspected she meant to see him dead at the conclusion of her vendetta, but at the moment she was more interested in getting her hands on Hank and Chris. He hoped against hope she would intervene and discipline her offspring but evidently she was out of earshot of what was about to happen. “Don’t… do this,” he snarled. “Mrs. Nichols…would not approve.”

 

Peter’s face swam above his own. “You’re mistaken. It’s you she doesn’t approve of, you and your ways.  She fully supports us and our work to defeat evil.”

 

Ezra tried to understand.

 

“Not all punishment need wait ’til you meet your maker, gambler. You’re a disciple of the devil and Ma has walked away from you. You’re mine to judge now.”

 

“Who are you… to judge my sins?” Ezra asked defiantly.

 

“I’m the man with the knife.” To emphasize his point, he raised the weapon so his prisoner could clearly see the bloody blade. Ezra struggled against the biting fingers bruising his flesh as Peter turned the knife in his hand. “Then again, I’ve used this on you most of the day and it really hasn’t done the trick.”

 

Ezra remembered the slicing, the digging and the sawing and felt his cramping stomach send a flow of bile up his throat and into his mouth. Slowly the foul liquid leaked past his lips and down his cheek. He knew; he knew just where Nichols’ mind was going.

 

Then the man actually gave voice to his thoughts. “Hand me the cleaver!”

 

At that moment, he knew this was it. No more warnings, no more threats. “C-Chris!” he cried not really understanding why. Chris couldn’t help him; he’d be killed on sight, but again he shouted the gunfighter’s name. He cursed his own weakness and ground his teeth and pushed a cry of “No more!” from his lips. Finally it sank in. He closed his eyes against the truth, but he knew. As it had always been in the past, he was on his own.

 

The last thing he saw were three men, all dressed in black, reaching for him.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck listened as Vin Tanner snored. He’d dozed off in his chair not long after Nathan went to get some sleep. Wilmington had suggested the tracker lie down, but his friend insisted he could do his resting from a chair. Apparently, he’d been right because the soft rumbling had been Buck’s constant companion for the past three hours and showed no signs of leaving him any time soon.

 

The ladies man sniffed the air and caught the delicious smell of freshly baked bread. Mary Travis and Archie Sanders had delivered a homemade meal of bread and stew just minutes before and he debated whether he should wake Nathan and Vin to eat or just allow them to sleep. Sleep had won out, but the noise emanating from his own belly was fast becoming difficult to ignore. After a couple of minutes, his stomach won out and he swiped the heal of the bread to nibble on. The growling lessened and he silently admired Mary’s culinary skills. He appreciated her personal skills as well. Although she and Archie had been curious about what was happening inside the clinic, they hadn’t asked to come inside. She understood how things were among the peacekeepers and respected their privacy. She left with Archie to visit the jail, the intoxicating smell of home cooking trailing in her wake.

 

Buck was about to reach for a drink when he heard a groan come from the bed. He abandoned the cup and hurried to Ezra’s side, immediately noticing the heat radiating off his body. The gambler’s head tossed against the pillow and his free hand clutched at the sheet draped across his waist.

 

“Get away from me,” he mumbled.

 

Vin came awake at the sound of the Southern voice. His sharp move to reach Ezra caught Buck off guard.

 

“I thought you were sleepin’,” Wilmington said.

 

“Just restin’ my eyes. Is he awake?”

 

Buck shook his head. “I think he’s dreamin’ again, he’s burning up.”

 

“Well, you know what Nate said, we need to get some more medicine in him. Maybe we can wake him enough for him to drink.”

 

Buck stilled the clutching hand. “Ezra, can you hear me?”

 

“Get,” he groaned hoarsely, “get away from me.” He tried to pull his hand free.

 

Buck held tight. “It’s alright.” He watched the muscles in Ezra’s arm tense as he tugged against his grip. “Come on, buddy, wake up.”

 

“D-don’t do this,” he pleaded as he switched his efforts from his trapped hand to that of his bound shoulder and arm.

 

“Ezra, be still, you’re gonna hurt yourself.”

 

“I can’t move! Let go!”

 

Wilmington lightly tapped the bruised face to gain his friend’s attention. “Come on, wake up!”

 

The eye that had been swollen shut the day before was nearly normal again, but it did little good since neither of the Southerner’s fevered eyes seemed able to focus. He backed into the pillows only to have Buck and Vin move with him and pin him down.  “No!” He shouted when he felt the weight on top of him. “No more!” He pulled as hard as he could but failed to free himself from the cloth bindings or the well-meaning caregivers. His mind flinched at the sight of the black-clad demons that tortured and disfigured him and his only desire was to escape their reach. His life depended on it. “I w-won’t let you… do this to me… I’ll see you in hell first!”

 

“Listen to me, Ezra. It’s alright, it’s over!”

 

“No! No more!”

 

“Ezra!” Buck called loudly as he realized just how badly he’d lost control of the situation. Ezra battled one of the hottest fevers and worst deliriums he’d ever seen and he simply wasn’t qualified to help. He wasn’t even sure if Nathan had such experience. He was about to send Vin for the healer, when something changed – the body in his grasp heaved itself against the headboard and literally caved in. Ezra drew his knees towards his chest, bowed his back as far his bound shoulder would allow, and let his head drop forward. He pulled again at his hand and moaned miserably, “Oh God, I can’t do this.”

 

“Ezra?” Wilmington knew his friend was in serious trouble when the very next word from his mouth was Chris’ name. Oh hell, he thought. Please tell me Ezra didn’t call for Chris while the Nichols were cutting him up. The one person who could save him… the last person he could pray for. The allusion was too awful to believe. The second time Ezra cried out for Chris, the plea was too much to bear.

 

Vin looked away, Buck found he couldn’t. He was trapped in the anguish that was Ezra’s nightmare; his own mind conjuring images of the Nichols as they taunted him, abused him, terrorized him. He knew he would probably never know everything his friend had suffered, but he could definitely see the results of it.


Ezra shifted against the headboard. After a long pause, and with composure he didn’t truly feel, he raised blind eyes and asked for the impossible. “Please…just kill m-me.”

 

The request was so unexpected the room fell silent.

 

No one spoke.

 

No one moved.

 

Except for Ezra’s labored breathing, not another sound could be heard until someone in the shadows said, “Let him go.”

 

 

Part 17

 

“Do it, Buck. Let him go.”

 

Wilmington stiffened when he heard the gruff voice at his back. Nathan was right – Chris was on his feet again, which meant the ladies man would suffer a reproachful ‘I told you so’ when the healer woke up. He turned and stared at the figure standing hunched over behind him. The gunfighter looked ready to drop; he also looked ready to kill. Nevertheless, he had to stop Ezra from doing himself permanent damage. “I can’t, Chris, he’s gonna tear himself up fightin’ us the way he is.”

 

“He’s fighting you because he thinks you’re the ones who did this to him.”

 

“I’ll get through to him.”

 

“Not like that you won’t, now let him go.”

 

Buck looked back again to see Larabee step into the light cast by the bedside lantern. The expression on his friend’s face was something akin to worry only a hundred times more dangerous. He glanced at Vin and together the two men surrendered their hold. When Chris staggered towards the bed, Buck went so far as to surrender his seat. He then took the gunfighter by the elbow and helped him settle on the mattress as he discreetly motioned for Vin to fetch Nathan.

 

Chris briefly clung to Buck to steady himself against the rush to his brain. The journey across the room had cost him what little energy he’d gained from his short nap and the dizziness was overwhelming. He’d wakened the moment Ezra started tossing in his delirium, but it had taken him all this time to gain his feet. Now there was next to nothing to pull from, but still he had to find the strength to do what needed doing. He ran a hand through his tousled blond hair and straightened as best he could.

 

Detecting the weight on the mattress Ezra clambered backwards until he had no place else to go. He yelped in pain when his torn back bumped the solid headboard. He tried to regain control, wanting desperately to say something, but in the end couldn’t make himself understood.

 

“Ezra,” Chris called quietly.

 

The Southerner didn’t acknowledge him. Instead he abandoned his attempt at speech and began struggling against the sling tied around his body. “Let… go,” he finally got out. 

 

Chris called again and moved closer, being careful not to touch him. “Ezra, look at me. It’s Chris.” The fight against the imagined assailants lessened only a little, but it was enough for the gunfighter to hope he might have a chance of getting through to the gambler.

 

“Don’t,” Standish said ahead of a stream of mumbled words, and pulled away.

 

“I said look at me,” Chris insisted in a tone he’d used in the past to get the gambler’s attention. It apparently still had some effect because the scramble to move off the bed stopped even if the battle against the sling didn’t. “Do it, Ezra.”

 

Unseeing eyes moved suspiciously from side to side. Someone was with him… someone who shouldn’t be. A flicker of memory flashed through his brain. “No,” he whispered in warning. “Go away.”

 

“I’m not leaving you.”

 

The flicker returned, slowing just enough for him to recognize who was there. “Chris?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You have to go. I can’t do this… much longer.”

 

“You don’t have to, Ezra.”

 

“Can’t… I can’t…” The gambler jerked hard against the sling. “I can’t feel…” He fought harder but achieved little more than breaking open wounds Nathan had sewn closed. Blood seeped through the white bandages around his chest and abdomen, but he was determined and wouldn’t give up until he freed himself. “Get off me,” he yelled.

 

“Ezra,” the gunfighter said sharply. “Don’t move! You hear me? Stay still and let me cut you loose.”

 

Standish froze. Chris was going to cut him free? Hadn’t he already made that promise? There was pain in his wrists and he was hanging, but he couldn’t remember why or how. His mind was such a jumbled mess he couldn’t make sense of events or the passage of time, but it didn’t stop him trying. “They hung me… I can’t stand.”

 

“I know. I’ll cut you loose, just stay still.” Chris reached for the piece of cloth holding Ezra’s sling in place but fumbled slightly with the knot. He bumped the Southerner’s arm and felt him pull away. “It’s alright, be still.”

 

Surprisingly, Ezra did as he was told.

 

Buck watched in amazement. He’d never seen Chris so at ease with Ezra before. There was a trust between the two that quite frankly took him off guard. He wasn’t sure if they were even aware of it, but that trust was the only thing holding the gambler together at the moment and he prayed Chris’ strength would last long enough to see him through. He tore his eyes away long enough to see Vin and Nathan standing in the doorway to the back room. Both men stared but neither man moved. They were obviously as astounded as he was.

 

Chris finally loosened the stubborn knot and untied the strap around the sling. Ezra was free to raise his elbow now but his arm was still trapped in the confines of its cloth cradle. When he reached to untie the material behind his friend’s neck he heard two voices call out. One was Ezra, startled by the hand near his face, and the other was Nathan, warning him against releasing the injured arm. He caught the green eyes staring at him in fear and reassured the gambler with a few quiet words. He let Buck handle Nathan, and listened as the ladies man asked him not to interfere. A moment later, the sling was lowered and Ezra was allowed to bring his two hands together. “Go slow, don’t move too fast,” Chris cautioned.

 

Again, Ezra did as he was told and slowly rolled onto his side. “Hank,” he said unexpectedly.

 

“What?”

 

He tucked his chin and repeated, “Hank.”

 

A little surprised by the gambler’s concern, Larabee answered, “Hank’s fine, he’s gone now.” There was no sense telling him Connelly was dead and his sacrifice had been for nothing.

 

A small smile appeared just before a deep hacking cough overcame him and doubled him over. Everyone in the room reacted at once and reached out to offer comfort. The closeness and the contact drew the demons from Ezra’s mind and he was forced once again to retreat. “No,” he cried. “Get off me!”

 

The three men standing backed away.

 

Chris stayed put. “It’s alright, Ezra, no one’s gonna touch you. No one’s gonna hold you down.”

 

“M-my sins… my sins,” the weary man mumbled. He drew both hands towards his chest and flinched when his left shoulder moved forward.

 

“What’s he saying?” asked Buck.

 

Nathan neared the bed. “I don’t know, but we need to watch that arm of his. He can’t afford to pull that shoulder out again. You shouldn’t have untied those bandages, Chris.”

 

“I had no choice. Tying him up is the last thing he needs right now. If we’re gonna get through to him we need to let him know he’s not with the Nichols any more. They held him down to butcher him; we ain’t holdin’ him down to help him.”

 

Buck stood next to Chris. “Well, you gettin’ him to settle down is as close to him knowin’ he’s safe as he’s been since we cut him down at the hotel. That was good work, pard.”

 

“He ain’t safe yet. We still gotta get through to him and this fever ain’t helpin’,” Larabee answered.

 

“Nathan, can you make up some of that tea of yours? I’ll see if I can get him to take some.”

 

The healer nodded. “I’ll be right back, just keep him still, alright?”

 

Chris agreed and shifted uncomfortably on the bed.

 

“You okay?” Vin asked, seeing the gunfighter pale. “It’d probably be a good idea for you to have some of that tea yourself.”

 

“Later, right now we need to…”

 

“Noooo,” Ezra said tightly, rolling further onto his side.

 

Chris noticed the awkward position he was forcing his shoulder into and put a hand out to stop him. Ezra jerked away and began muttering a stream of curses the gunfighter was sure he’d never heard the eloquent man use before. “Don’t, Ezra, don’t move.”

 

The curses soon faded but the hallucinations of Standish’s delirium seemingly ushered in a deeper feeling of dread and fear. “Knife… no, not a knife… next time… next time…”

 

“Easy, Ezra.”

 

“No… Oh God...” The Southerner’s breathing quickened and before he could say another word he choked.

 

Buck and Vin moved to either side of the bed. Chris scooted further up the mattress. Damn, how the devil were they going to get through to him if they couldn’t touch him? Then Chris recalled his original plan. They couldn’t touch him, but… “Ezra,” he called. “Can you hear me? I need your help.”

 

Ezra was still gagging but appeared to be searching for the voice speaking to him.

 

“We have to get out of here and we have to do it now. But I can’t reach you. I need you to give me your hand.”

 

The gambler actually swallowed the strangling sensation in his throat and tried to listen.

 

“Come on, Ezra, we have to go. Give me your hand!”

 

“I can’t.”

 

“Yes you can.”

 

Confusion filled the blind eyes. “I don’t understand. You… can’t be here.”

 

“I am here, Ezra. I’ve cut you loose and we’re gonna go see Nathan, but you have to help me.”

 

“Nathan… was here.”

 

“Yes he was. He came and told me where you were. He brought me here.”

 

Standish’s green eyes grew large with fear. “No, no, no,” he said quickly. Then he twisted around suddenly and grabbed hold of Chris’ unbuttoned shirt. “They’ll kill you!”

 

The reaction was so abrupt the gunfighter barely had time to respond. He snatched the smaller man’s wrists and held on tight to keep himself from being knocked off the bed.

 

“They’ll kill you,” Ezra cried. “I didn’t tell them, I swear!”

 

“Ezra! No one’s gonna kill me! It’s alright.”

 

“They’ll kill you!”

 

Nathan ran back into the room just in time to see Chris seize Ezra by the wrists and shake him. “What the hell?”

 

“Listen to me. No one is going to kill me,” Chris cried. He let go the hands when he noticed blood soaking through the bandages. He hadn’t meant to grip him so tightly but he had to get the gambler to make a move towards his own rescue. “Come on, Ezra, it’s time to go! Give me your hand!”

 

“I can’t!”

 

“Damn it Ezra, don’t argue with me!”

 

“You shouldn’t have to pay… for my sins… They said they’d do it … Please, Chris…”

 

“What are you talking about? What sins?”

 

“Punished me… for my sins,” he answered stiffly.

 

“The Nichols?”

 

Wild eyes searched the low light until they found Chris’ face. “I didn’t tell them… I know I didn’t.” The fearful stare lowered and came to rest on two bloody wrists. “S-so they did it.” When Ezra raised his eyes again, they were so filled with pain, Chris thought his heart would stop. “Oh God, they did it,” the gambler said despondently. Finally, after several moments of repeating the same words over and over, the overwhelming fatigue in his body forced him into collapse. Chris caught him as he pitched forward, gathered him carefully against his shoulder and maneuvered him back onto the pillows.

 

The fight had gone out of Ezra; giving Nathan the opportunity to coerce him into drinking. The gambler swallowed the liquid obediently but still didn’t like being touched. He drank his fill, curled into the pillows and returned his hands to his chest. Every breath he took after that elicited a pain-filled moan, but he never spoke another word.

 

Buck fell into the chair next to the bed. “Nathan, is he gonna be okay?”

 

“We need to get his fever down. His body’s fightin’ as hard as it can, but he’s gettin’ weaker.”

 

“How ‘bout his mind, Nate?” Vin asked. “Seems like it’s fightin’ just as hard.”

 

The healer didn’t answer and it was that awkward silence which drew Chris’ attention to the peculiar look on Jackson’s face.

 

Buck bent forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “That was good thinkin’ not telling him about Hank, Chris. I just wish I knew what he was talking about when he said ‘his sins.’ What did he mean?”


The gunfighter was so rapt in thought he didn’t realize he’d been spoken to. He just stared at Ezra and thought about the things he’d said. The fear was indisputable – he was genuinely terrified and absolutely convinced that whatever the Nichols had threatened him with, they had done. He listened to the words in his head again and tried to piece things together. It didn’t take long for him to begin to understand. “Oh, shit,” he said suddenly as he reached for one of the hands folded on Ezra’s chest.

 

“What is it, Chris?” asked Buck.

 

Ezra withdrew but Larabee took his hand anyway. “Hold his arm, Buck,” he answered sharply, “carefully.”

 

“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”

 

Gently he pulled the hand into the light and stared at the bloody bindings.

 

Nathan, busy wiping Ezra’s face, stopped when he noticed what was going on. “Chris, leave those bandages. I’ll change them once he’s gone to sleep.”

 

The gunfighter turned the hand and continued to stare.

 

“Did you hear me? I’ll take care of those.”

 

He looked at the healer’s face and saw an unsettling nervousness. “You know, don’t you? You’ve known all along.”

 

“Chris…”

 

“Vin, get me a pair of scissors.”

 

Tanner did as instructed. “You have an idea what Ezra was talkin’ about?”

 

The gunfighter cautiously snipped the cloth around the tattered wrists. “Yes.”

 

Wilmington hovered behind him. “What did they do to him?”

 

Chris kept working.

 

“Talk to me!” Buck hollered impatiently.

 

“Well, if you were going to make a gambler pay for his sins, where would you start?”

 

“Hunh?”

 

“What does a gambler need most in his profession, Buck?” Chris slowly peeled back the bandages.

 

“Oh hell,” Wilmington replied when he figured it out, “his hands. Those bastards threatened to take his hands.”

 

“Exactly, and Ezra thinks they did it.”

 

“But they didn’t, they’re both still there.”

 

“His mind’s tellin’ him something else. He thinks they really cut ‘em off.”

 

“My God…”

 

Chris raised the shredded limb to the light. What he saw turned his stomach.


Nathan appeared behind him with a basin of clean water and a rag. “Let me clean him up,” he said quietly and waited for Buck to move the gunfighter to the chair.

 

Chris paled even more but held himself together. “Why didn’t you tell me, Nathan? You knew and you didn’t say anything.”

 

“I suspected, I didn’t know for sure,” Jackson replied.

 

Buck stepped closer. “What are you talkin’ about?”

 

“When ya’ll brought him in, Chris noticed his wrists were messed up pretty bad. I looked at ‘em and knew somethin’ wasn’t right about the wounds, but I didn’t figure it out ‘til Ezra started talkin’ in his sleep.”

 

“What d’ya mean?” Vin asked.

 

Jackson offered the naked wrist for Tanner’s inspection. Vin took the trembling hand in his own and examined it thoroughly before he spoke. “The underside’s torn up from his weight pulling on it. You can’t hardly miss rope burns. But the back’s been cut,” he said, glancing at Nathan, “with a knife.”

 

“Repeatedly,” Chris added.

 

Buck was incredulous. “You mean they told him they were gonna cut his hands off, then cut him just enough to make him think it was happening?”

 

“Over and over. Remember what he kept saying: ‘Next time, next time they said they’d do it’. They played with him for a long time but at some point they made him believe they actually went through with it.”

 

“Son of a bitch!” Buck growled. “So he keeps reliving the moment he thinks they took his hands.”

 

“He’s too sick right now to know the difference,” Nathan said as he began washing and rewrapping Ezra’s injuries.

 

Chris straightened against the back of the chair. “What I want to know is why you didn’t tell us. Even if you just suspected what they’d done, you should have said something.”

 

“So you’d’ve had more reason to put yourself at risk?”

 

The gunfighter didn’t understand.

 

“Look at you, Chris, you’re so sick you can barely stand. You’re just too damned stubborn for your own good. You hid bein’ hurt from us, you fought me when I took that bullet outta you, and you ain’t barely had a minute’s rest since this whole thing started. I had no idea what you’d do if I said somethin’.”

 

“I’m fine, Nathan, so just stop worrying about me and concentrate on helping him,” Larabee answered, pointing irritably at the man on the bed.

 

“It’s my job to worry!”

 

Chris raised himself off the chair. “I’m nobody’s job!” he shouted. The sudden movement sent him sideways into Buck.

 

“Alright,” Vin hollered, “knock it off! We need to save the fightin’ for the Nichols.”

 

Buck sat Chris down again and waited for him to catch his breath. “You okay?”

 

He gritted his teeth against the hurt in his belly. “Yeah, Vin’s right. We have to take those bastards down and we have to do it soon. Get out there and find them.”

 

The tracker grabbed his gun and headed for the door.

 

“Vin.”

 

Tanner turned back to see Chris’ fevered eyes boring into him.

 

“Save a piece for me.”

 



PARTS 1-6
/ PARTS 7-12 / PARTS 18-22 / PARTS 23-28 / PARTS 29-33 / PART 34

 

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Jordan McKenzie 2009