ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS

by Jordan McKenzie

 

Part 29

 

Madeline squirmed against the heat of Chris’ ailing body. How was he even upright, much less preventing her from going to her husband? Frustrated, she tried to speak against his palm but he merely tightened his grip and waited for her to settle down. “Be still, Mrs. Hobson,” he warned her in a low voice. When his breath blew across her ear, she froze. “I need you to stay quiet until we find out what’s going on. Can you do that?”

 

She nodded slowly and waited for him to remove his hand. “That was Joseph,” she whispered. “Please let me go to him.”

 

“Was he with the Nichols when they left?”

 

“He had to be.”

 

“Why?”

 

“They needed him to carry Mr. Standish. They were…” she looked down.

 

“Mrs. Hobson?”

 

“They had plans for Mr. Standish.”

 

Chris closed his eyes for several seconds before he took Madeline gently by the arms. “Tell me what you know.”

 

“Mrs. Nichols wanted to get that horrible contraption of hers from the livery and leave Four Corners. I thought that would be a good thing until she said they were going to take Mr. Standish with them.”

 

“Well that yell we heard didn’t come from the livery. They’re out back.”

 

She rested a hand on his. “Please, I have to find Joseph. If they’ve hurt him…”

 

“Don’t worry. I’m puttin’ a stop to the Nichols right now.” He stepped around her on his way to the back door. “Stay here and be quiet.”

 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Mark hastily checked the rigging on the horses before he threw the reins up and climbed on board the coach. “Luke,” he called, “you ready to get on outta here?” He leaned over the side when he heard his brother cursing below.

 

“I don’t believe it! They ran off with every firearm we had hidden in here!” Luke shoved the door aside and jumped down.

 

“Well we don’t have time to find ‘em, Ma’ll be waiting.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. I tell you what; you ride ‘round to pick up Ma and Peter. I’ll nose around and meet you there.”

 

“Ma ain’t gonna like that. When she’s ready to go she means now.”

 

“She won’t like it if we go back without our guns either. Just get a move on!”

 

“It’s your hide. I know I wouldn’t want to…”

 

“You boys lose somethin’?” Both men looked up to see Buck Wilmington standing near the exit of the livery with his sidearm leveled at Luke. Mark made a play for his gun but Vin and Nathan came into view with their guns drawn and ready to fire. “I wouldn’t,” Buck advised.

 

“Where’s the stuff you stole from us?” Luke yelled.

 

“Confiscated, not stole. There’s a difference.”

 

“How d’ya figure?” Mark asked.

 

“You’re wanted for murder. In the eyes of the law, any firearms you’re carryin’ should be,” Buck paused and glanced at Vin. “What’s that word Ezra likes to use when he don’t wanna say he stole somethin’?”

 

“Appropriated,” Vin answered snidely.

 

“You don’t have anything on us,” Luke replied. “We ain’t murdered nobody.”

 

“You murdered a good friend of mine, you sick son-of-a-bitch, when you torched that clinic. You shot his father-in-law in the street. You killed a man outside o’ town named Aubrey Candler whose only mistake must’ve been he didn’t answer you quick enough. And I ain’t forgettin’ you tortured another friend of mine who’d damn well better be breathin’ when you take me to him.”


“I ain’t takin’ you no place.”

 

“I’d rethink that if I were you ‘cause it’s the only reason I ain’t puttin’ a bullet in ya where ya stand.”

 

Luke stumbled back a couple of steps when Buck moved forward.

 

“Wait,” Mark cried from atop the carriage, but Buck was in no mood to listen.

 

“I ain’t waitin’ for you to kill again,” the ladies man growled. He made a rush for Luke but the large man reached inside his coat and pulled a knife. A single slice through the air caught Buck across the knuckles, and a boot behind the knee sent him to the ground.

 

“Get in,” Mark shouted to his brother.

 

Luke fumbled his way into the belly of the coach and slammed the door. “Go, go, go!”

 

Vin and Nathan, blocked by Wilmington’s tall frame, weren’t able to make a shot until he fell to the ground. By that time their bullets merely ricocheted off the armored exterior of the coach as it made its escape out the livery doors.

 

“Damn it,” Buck roared, clutching his hand to his chest. “Get after them!” Nathan tried to help but was shoved away for his trouble. “I’m alright! Just get those bastards!”

 

Vin was already at the door to the alley. “Nathan, throw me your rifle!”

 

The healer complied and fell into step behind Vin as he ran into the street. “You see ‘em?”

 

“I hear ‘em,” Tanner answered. “Sounds like they’re near the church.”

 

“They’re leavin’ town?”

 

“I doubt it, more like they’re circlin’ it.” He caught sight of the coach. “There!” He pointed out by aiming his rifle. He followed the driver with the weapon and fired.

 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Joseph couldn’t take any more. He scrambled to his feet and once again placed himself between Mrs. Nichols and Ezra when it became clear she wasn’t going to stop beating the gambler despite the fact he laid as still as death at her feet. “Please, stop,” he shouted with his hands raised.

 

“You weren’t given permission to let him go, Mr. Hobson, and you certainly weren’t given leave to interfere in my business,” she bellowed. “Now move!” She turned the lash on him.

 

The shopkeeper yelped when he felt the bite of the whip and eyed the old lady with contempt. “You have to stop this!”

 

“I said ‘move!’” She raised her whip again.

 

“Mrs. Nichols, you’re beating a dead man,” Hobson cried in desperation.

 

She paused to catch her breath. “Peter, take a look.”

 

Her son motioned Hobson away with his gun before moving to straddle Ezra. He squatted, nearly sitting on the lifeless body before he snaked a hand around to feel for a pulse or a breath.

 

“You had better pray he really is dead,” she snarled at Joseph, “or you’ll be finding yourself in that condition very soon.”

 

And you, you sadistic sister to Satan,” a dangerous voice growled at her back, “had better pray he isn’t.”

 

She whirled around and searched the shadows near the store. “Who’s there?”

 

The barrel of a Colt Peacemaker entered the moonlight ahead of a bloody hand.

 

Peter stiffened at the sight and rested his gun on Ezra’s back. “Well look at that. It appears the dead have risen.”

 

Chris stepped into the meager moonlight.

 

“You!” Mrs. Nichols snapped. “You’re dead. I saw you die in the street!”

 

“You saw what you wanted to see,” he replied and stepped closer.

 

“No.”

 

He looked at the man stooped over behind Peter. “Mr. Hobson, you okay?” Once Joseph nodded his head, Chris followed Peter’s arm to Ezra. “Get away from him, Nichols.”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“I heard what Hobson said. You can’t hurt him any more so just move away.”

 

“Yeah well, the store clerk doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The gambler here’s about as dead as you are.”

 

Chris felt his heartbeat quicken. Was Ezra still alive? The way the gambler looked it was almost too much to hope for. He took another step nearer, careful to keep his gun aimed directly at Peter. “I told you to back off.”

 

“Stand your ground, son,” Mrs. Nichols ordered.

 

Peter obeyed, moving further up Ezra’s body until his legs were astride the Southerner’s tattered bare back.

 

Chris’ anger at the move slowly gave way to light-headedness. He steadied himself. “Seems you just can’t make a move without your ma, can you?” he said sarcastically.

 

Nichols looked as if he’d been sucker punched.

 

“Then again, bein’ unable to think for yourself it must be comforting havin’ someone tell you what to do all the time.” Chris’ vision blurred a moment before a wave of dizziness washed over him.

 

“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

 

He swallowed against the nauseating feeling in his stomach and continued. “You’ve had what, three brothers to die in the past few days because they had no mind of their own. Don’t you reckon it’s about time to step up and be a man before you end up the same way?”

 

“Why I oughtta…”

 

“Peter,” his mother called, “don’t be lettin’ him goad ya.”

 

“See what I mean? She’s one bossy bitch,” Chris said in as nasty a tone as he could muster in an effort to distract them from the trembling in his gun hand.

 

“Shut up, damn you!”

 

Chris could see Peter waver between heeding his mother’s words and strangling the gunfighter with his bare hands. He pushed harder. “Grow a backbone, Nichols!”

 

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Peter yelled angrily.

 

Mrs. Nichols knew instantly what Larabee was up to. “Peter, don’t!” She raised her whip in the air and lunged at the gunfighter.

 

“You heard me, you spineless piece of…” Chris shouted just as the leather talons of her whip bit into the soft skin of his cheek and neck.

 

In a single motion, Peter came to his feet, raised his gun and fired.

 

Chris was sent backwards by the force of the old woman’s heavy frame but managed to twist away from her before he hit the ground. Despite his body’s less than healthy condition, he rolled quickly and smoothly before he scrambled into the dark cover of night. When he looked back, he saw the Nichols matriarch raising herself off the ground in the middle of the alley, hand fisted beneath her collarbone. It wasn’t until she hoisted herself upright he saw she had been shot through the shoulder.

 

Peter blanched when he realized what he had done. “Ma!” he cried. “Oh my God, Ma, I’m sorry!” He left Ezra and Hobson by the wood box and ran to her side. Keeping his gun at the ready, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and timidly pressed it to her wound. “Why did you do that? I was aiming for him! Why did you get in the way?”

 

“He was lurin’ ya away… from the gambler,” she said with a wheeze.

 

“I don’t care about that stupid gambler.”

 

“He was the only thing stopping Larabee… from shooting us.” The old woman gasped but managed to keep herself erect. “I’m… I’m all right. Just find him. Kill him. I want Chris Larabee… dead this time. You hear me?”

 

“Ma?”

 

“Do you hear me?”

 

The anger that shook her body flowed into him. “Yes, Ma!” He reached deep inside his coat and pulled a second gun. “Take this,” he said, and placed it in her hand.

 

Chris tried to stifle the pain that had erupted in his belly when he landed but there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it. He bit his lip, pressed a hand over the wound and dragged himself behind the base of a very large and very dead old tree. He propped himself against it and pulled his gun across his lap. He could see it, lying loosely in his grip, but he could barely feel it.

 

“Larabee!” he heard Peter shout. “It’s time you and I finish this!”

 

He couldn’t agree more. He just wished he had the strength.

 

“You talk about bein’ a man. How about you come on out and face me now?” Peter searched the shadows for his prey.

 

Chris’ ego bristled at the words but his body wasn’t impressed; it wanted to rest and to hell with the insults.

 

“You either come out here and face me or I’ll go over there and finish your friend once and for all.” Nichols glanced over his shoulder to see Hobson ministering to the gambler’s unconscious body.

 

Chris knew he had to pull himself together despite his body’s objections so he climbed the tree at his back. The blood rushed from his brain and sent his senses reeling as the sound of distant thunder boomed inside his head.

 

“I’m warnin’ you, Larabee.”

 

The roar in his ears was making it difficult to hear Peter’s ranting.

 

“Get out here, you coward!”

 

Well that he heard. He clung to the tree and took a look around. He spotted Peter darting in and out of the shadows. In the middle of the alley, Mrs. Nichols was getting to her knees. Great, the old biddy didn’t have the decency to stay down even with a bullet in her. Hobson was off to his left desperately trying to rouse Ezra. Chris shook his head against the low rumble filling his ears and slowly began to wonder if the sound was coming from inside his aching brain or from somewhere else in the alley. He looked the area up and down… nothing.

 

“Larabee!”

 

Enough, he thought. If the son-of-a-bitch wants to finish it then let’s do it! He raised his gun and pushed himself away from his support. “Nichols!” he returned the hail.

 

Peter rounded on the summons and fired in its direction. Chris felt a shot pass within inches of his head and at the same time heard another bullet kick off the tree trunk behind him. He saw Hobson out of the corner of his eye fall flat across Ezra on the ground while Peter maneuvered deeper into the blackness to find him. All hell was breaking loose and all he could do was duck into the darkness and reload. He fumbled with his gun, having to prop it against his thighs to hold it steady, but he managed to replenish its bullets just as Peter skidded to a stop at his feet. He watched his enemy’s eyes light with discovery and knew the time had come for one of them to die.

 

“It’s over, Larabee. You’re mine,” Peter boasted.

 

Chris didn’t take the time to reply or aim. He simply tilted his weapon upward between his knees and fired. Peter jerked and stumbled backwards.

 

“Peter!” Mrs. Nichols screamed when she saw her son stagger into the moonlight with his hands clutching his chest.

 

“M-ma?” he called in disbelief with lips that spewed his life’s blood. He stared at the red soaking his fingers only a moment before he dropped to the ground in a boneless heap.

 

“Peter!” She tried to go to him but was so weakened by her own injury she could do little more than sway on her knees. “What have you done?” She howled into the night. “What have you done?”

 

Chris ignored her, wearily running a hand over his face as he pulled himself to his feet and made his way to Ezra. The roar in his ears was gaining intensity and fast becoming all-consuming until yet another sound joined the chaos. A sound he knew better than any man should -- a familiar click. He lowered his hand and looked over his shoulder to see Mrs. Nichols pointing a cocked Remington revolver in his direction. Although he couldn’t be certain, he had a feeling it was the second time in the past few days one of Ezra’s guns had been aimed in his direction.

 

“You have murdered for the last time, Chris Larabee,” she screamed as she tried to steady the weapon with both hands.

 

“Put it down,” he said.

 

“You and yours have taken the last child you’re goin’ ta take from me.”

 

“Your child was long past saving, old lady. He and his brothers have held an entire town hostage for days now. You’ve killed, tortured and destroyed everything you’ve touched. Why? For what reason?”

 

“All we wanted was Hank Connelly. All this precious town of yours had to do was turn him over.”

 

“So you could kill him.”

 

“Yes. He had to die for what he did.”

 

“He did die.”

 

“Not soon enough!”

 

“You mean not in your own time. You would have liked to have tortured him like you did Ezra.”

 

She lowered her eyes to the gambler’s unmoving form. “He had to pay for letting Connelly escape… and pay he did,” she said coldly and dropped her aim to him.

 

Chris took a step sideways to shield Ezra.

 

Mrs. Nichols glared. “Now look at that. You do make a practice of protecting the worthless, don’t you?”

 

“He’s a friend.”

 

“A friend is it?” She laughed. “Does he know that?”

 

He frowned.

 

“Would you like to know something about your friend? He gave up on you, early on I might add. It took very little on our part to convince him you’d leave him to die. It made his time with us that much better.”

 

Chris let his eyes wander to the Southerner’s face.

 

“Every time we cut into him, we reminded him you weren’t coming. Every time we whipped him, he knew he was on his own. He suffered, Chris Larabee. Your friend suffered because of you!”

 

The gunfighter felt rage fill his very soul, but the sickness that filled his body was the real threat now. He had to get Ezra to Nathan and he simply didn’t have the time or the strength to deal with a maniacal old woman with bereavement issues. He watched her hands shake and knew if she didn’t pull the trigger by intent she’d shoot him with her trembling. “There’s been enough suffering to go around. Put the gun down.”

 

“No.”

 

He was about to repeat himself when he heard the rumbling noise return.  He pressed his hands to his ears and shook his head.

 

“I want you to die,” Mrs. Nichols growled as she raised her aim to his chest. “I want you to burn in hell.”

 

The noise was getting louder but this time he didn’t think it was coming from inside his own brain. He looked around, searched the shadows with tired eyes, and then he saw it, there at the edge of town, spilling from the darkness like a demon from hell. The Nichols coach rushed forward in the alley, a single man on the driver’s bench flailing long leather reins at horses that were stampeding out of control. He turned to the old lady and yelled as loud as he could, “Get out of the way!” He couldn’t hear her reply above the thunder of hooves. “Move, damn you! Move!”

 

The fury she felt froze her to the spot. Over and over she repeated, “Burn in hell, burn in hell,” as her hands shook and her aim faltered. So determined was she to shoot him, she didn’t see the horses bearing down on her until it was too late.

 

Chris heard her cry out when she realized she couldn’t get out of the way. Heard her scream as the horses’ hooves trampled her body into a broken jumble of bone and flesh. Heard the unforgettable sound of her dying gurgle as the wheels of her beloved coach crushed her remains with unforgiving force. He heard it all despite the roar of the heavy coach, the clamor of the buggy’s gear, the snorts of frightened animals and the frantic stomping of their turbulent gate.

 

The coach stormed past and disappeared into the darkness, leaving behind dust and silence and little remorse. Chris stared without moving for several moments as the old woman’s terror echoed in his mind. It was over, she was dead, and he wanted to be sick. But the sound of men running forced him once again to gather his gun and fight. He dropped beside Ezra and readied himself for one last battle. No less than three men ran towards him as he cocked his weapon.

 

“Careful there, pard,” Buck said, his hands in the air when he saw his friend. “It’s just us.”

 

The gunfighter hesitated.

 

“Chris?”

 

Weary green eyes looked up to see Buck, Vin and Nathan step around the bloody mess that had been Mrs. Nichols. He squinted just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

 

“Chris, it’s us.”

 

His shoulders slumped and his gun dropped to the ground.

 

Buck pushed it away with his foot and squatted down. “It’s okay, pard, we got ‘em.”

 

Chris smoothed a hand over the back of Ezra’s head and mumbled, “’Bout time.”

 

“Yeah, I know. You okay, buddy?”

 

“No,” he answered softly and fell unconscious alongside the man he had tried so hard to save.

 

 

Part 30

 

“God Almighty,” Josiah mumbled when he first laid eyes on the carnage behind the general store. Nathan, along with Joseph and Madeline Hobson, were huddled on the ground around a body the preacher recognized as Ezra by his bandaged feet and bare legs. Buck was struggling with a semiconscious and somewhat argumentative Chris. The body of Peter Nichols lay face down in the dirt, apparently dead. And his mother, whose first name Josiah had never thought to ask, most definitely lay dead in a mangled mass of flesh and bone.

 

“Josiah,” Buck hollered as he made a grab for Chris’ floundering hands. “Get over here and help me!”

 

Sanchez moved quickly. He gathered the gunfighter’s hands, pinned his wrists together and pressed them to his chest. “What the hell’s been happenin’?”

 

“Chris has been happenin’,” Buck replied.

 

“I’ve been lookin’ for him. He snuck outta the jail when the men from Eagle Bend arrived but he was so sick I didn’t think he’d’ve been able to make it all the way back here.”

 

Larabee’s head jerked back against Buck’s shoulder. “Easy, pard,” Wilmington said.

 

Josiah shook his head. “Did he do all this?”

 

“Most of it from what Hobson told me, but he didn’t do that,” he motioned with his chin towards Mrs. Nichols. “Two of her boys were tryin’ to drive that buggy of theirs ‘round to pick her up. Evidently they lost control and ran her down.”

 

“God in Heaven. So how’s Ezra?”

 

“Nathan’s checkin’ him now.”

 

“And Chris?”

 

“Passed out right after we got here.”

 

“He ain’t out now.”

 

“No, but he ain’t quite come to neither.”

 

Josiah put a palm to the gunfighter’s face. Fevered eyes shied away but couldn’t avoid the touch. “He’s even hotter than he was back at the jail. How’d he make it all the way here on his own?”

 

“You know Chris,” Buck answered.

 

The preacher gave a half-hearted smile before he heard Vin call out from somewhere down the back alley.

 

“Go on, sounds like Vin’s found somethin’. Could be the last two Nichols boys.”

 

Josiah pulled one of Buck’s hands over Chris’. “You got him?”

 

“Yeah, I got ‘im. Go help Vin.”

 

Sanchez climbed to his feet, gave the group huddled around Ezra a worried look then took off in Tanner’s direction.

 

“Nathan?” Buck called when he finally got Chris settled against him. “How’s he doin’?”

 

Nathan was on the ground next to Ezra’s head checking for a pulse, a breath or any other sign he might be alive. “He’s bad, Buck, real bad. They beat him and whipped him again.”

 

“Damn it. You think you can help him?”

 

“I don’t know. His fever’s outta control, his wounds from before are lookin’ infected and these new cuts on  ‘im are bleeding pretty bad. He’s been hurt so long now, I don’t know if he’s got it in him to keep fightin’.”

 

Madeline wiped at the cuts on Ezra shoulder with the clean folds of her skirt. “He’ll fight, Mr. Jackson, I know he will.” Nathan saw Joseph wrap an arm around her and squeeze. She hugged him back. “It seems to me he and Mr. Larabee have each come a long way to save the other. The last thing the Nichols did to him was tell him his friend was dead; we need to convince him they lied. If he thinks Mr. Larabee still needs him, he’ll fight.”

 

Nathan stared at her, encouraged by her determination.

 

“What do you need?” she asked.

 

He took a deep breath and organized his thoughts. “We need to bathe him. If we could get him to the bathhouse, we could wash his wounds and cool him off at the same time. If we don’t get this fever down his body’s gonna give out.”

 

“There’s no need to take him to the bathhouse,” Joseph announced. “There’s a tub in storage in the back of the store. I’ll get someone to help me move it and have Archie haul in some water.”

 

“You have a tub?”

 

“One of the perks of running a general store, Mr. Jackson,” Madeline said and left it at that.

 

Nathan looked surprised.

 

Madeline looked suddenly alarmed. “Oh dear.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“Your clinic, it was on fire. Although I’m sure we have a few of the medicines and supplies you’ll need, I’m not sure we have everything.”

 

“That’s alright, Mrs. Hobson. I have some supplies at the jail. I’m sure I can make do.”

 

“Well until we know more about the condition of your clinic, would you like to work here at the store? We have plenty of room.”

 

“That’s kind of ya to offer, ma’am, but I reckon it’d be best to tend Ezra back at his place.”

 

“At the saloon?” she asked doubtfully.

 

“His room’s not so bad. It may be over the saloon, but it’s quiet and clean and large enough for me to take care of both him and Chris. It’s also familiar to Ezra, so if he wakes up he might fret less if he’s in a place he knows.”

 

“If?”

 

“When,” Nathan corrected himself.

 

She smiled.

 

“Besides, now that the threat of the Nichols is over folks are gonna need you and Mr. Hobson to supply them with goods.” He eyed the gambler sadly. “We just need to get Ezra, the tub and the water to his place.”

 

Madeline jumped to her feet and ran inside the store. When she returned she carried two patchwork quilts. “Here, Mr. Jackson,” she said and once again knelt down. She handed Nathan one of the quilts and spread the other on the ground. She then tugged at the filthy sheet clinging to Ezra’s hips and pulled it away. If she was affected by the condition of his body or his lack of clothing, she never let on. She merely rested a hand to the side of his head and spoke to him as if to a child. “Now you listen to me, young man. We’re going to take good care of you and you’re going to get better. I’ve bragged to your friends how tough you are, so don’t go making a liar out of me.” She patted him gently before she turned to her husband. “Joseph, would you ask Archie for the use of his wagon? We’ll move Ezra to the saloon first then we’ll move the tub.” She turned back to Nathan. “Let’s get him onto the quilt now.”

 

Together, Nathan and Madeline raised and shifted the unconscious gambler so that he still lay on his stomach atop the clean cloth. While Madeline shook out the second quilt and gently covered his naked body, Nathan tried to situate his injured shoulder and stop the bleeding from the bullet hole in his back. A frightened look flashed across his face.

 

“What is it?” Maddie asked.

 

“This old wound is bleeding pretty heavy.”

 

“And that worries you more than his other injuries?”

 

“Yes ma’am, it does. This bullet hole goes all the way through, front to back. I’m afraid the Nichols might’ve busted somethin’ inside.”

 

“If they did, can you help him?”

 

“Nathan’ll fix him right as rain,” Buck said. He had tried not to interrupt their conversation, but felt compelled to remind the healer of his skills.

 

“I’ll try,” he replied, “ but he’s weak. I just don’t know how much more he can stand.”

 

Madeline folded her hands in her lap and fell silent. It wasn’t until she saw Vin and Josiah emerge from the shadows with one of the Nichols’ boys in tow that she spoke again. “Mr. Jackson, look.”

 

Nathan stood.

 

“Look what we found,” Vin said. He pulled Luke Nichols along by the rope binding his hands.

 

“Where was he?”

 

“In that buggy of theirs. It came to a stop a ways down the alley. He was out cold on the floor.”

 

Buck tugged at Chris and settled him against his shoulder. The gunfighter had given out and become dead weight. “What about the one doin’ the driving? Where’s he?”

 

“Dead. I spotted the coach after it got away from us at the livery and was able to get a shot off.”

 

“Appears you hit the mark.”

 

“Yeah, except the shot didn’t kill him right off. Looks like he bled out before he died.”

 

“That’d explain how he managed to run over his own mother. He was too messed up to control the horses.”

 

Luke shook his head and wiped at the blood trickling down his brow, obviously dazed. “Ma?”

 

“Let’s go, Nichols,” Vin said, at the same time drawing the man away from the broken body lying in the dirt. He had no love for the large thug, in fact, quite the opposite, but it wasn’t in him to rub Luke’s nose in his mother’s hideous demise.

 

“Where is she? Where’s ma?”

 

“I said ‘let’s go.’”

 

Josiah took Luke by the arm. “I’ll take him back to the jail, you stay here and help Nate.”

 

“I ain’t goin’ to no jail. Now tell me where ma is?”

 

“Son, you keep your mouth shut, come with me and I’ll tell you all about your ma.”

 

“I told you I ain’t goin’!”

 

“And I,” Josiah said just before he spun the man around and punched him hard in the face, “said you are!” He jerked him hard by the arm and threw him over his shoulder. “If you gentlemen will excuse us, Mr. Nichols here has a date with the law.” He turned a quick look toward Ezra. “I’ll be right back.”

 

Madeline heard Ezra groan. He didn’t open his eyes or offer to move, but he did push an anxious moan past bloody lips. “I think he heard that Nichols boy,” she said worriedly.

 

Nathan reached under the quilt to lay a hand on the Southerner’s overheated skin. “Rest easy, Ezra, it’s over. Ain’t nobody hurtin’ ya again.” He watched Josiah disappear into the shadows. “Nobody.”

 

 

Part 31

 

Sarah,” Chris mumbled as he pushed away the icy, wet cloth being held to his face. “Sarah, ’m c-cold.”

 

“It’s alright,” she answered gently.

 

“Why’s it so cold?”

 

“Hush now.”

 

He shivered when the cloth came to rest on his chest. “No… stop,” he complained and tried to move away.

 

“Lie still now, we’re trying to help you.”

 

“W-we?”

 

A large hand and a familiar voice stopped him from rising. “Yeah, buddy, we.”

 

“Buck?”

 

“Right here. Why don’t you settle down and listen to Mrs. Hobson.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Mrs. Hobson.”

 

“Where’s Sarah?”

 

There was a long silence before he decided to see for himself where his wife had gone. He forced his eyes open and shifted uncomfortably when he noticed two shadows floating above him. “What’s goin’ on?” Wilmington’s face came into focus.

 

“Take it slow, Chris, you’re hurt and you’re sick.”

 

“Hurt?” He was beginning to feel foolish asking so many questions then he felt the growing ache in his belly and began to recall the past few days.

 

“You got shot, remember. The wound’s got fever in it and it’s makin’ ya sick.”

 

He pushed away the blanket covering him and fingered the bandage around his middle. “Hank,” he said flatly.

 

Buck watched the sadness in his friend’s eyes return as he remembered his father-in-law’s death. He also saw the overwhelming disappointment on his face when Chris identified the woman at his side.

 

“Mrs. Hobson,” he said, a little embarrassed.

 

She gave him a kind smile. “It’s good to see you awake.”

 

He tried to smile back but failed miserably. “How long?”

 

Buck sat back in the chair he’d pulled beside Chris’ bed. “You’ve been out of it for almost two days now.” He noticed the gunfighter’s eyes wander. “You’re in Ezra’s room. The clinic was burned pretty bad in the fire the Nichols’ set so Nathan’s takin’ care of ya here.”

 

“W-where are they?”

 

“The Nichols? Most are dead. Two of the boys are back in Eagle Bend.”

 

“And Ezra?” He was almost afraid to ask.

 

“He’s alive.”

 

He knew there was something wrong. “But?”

 

“He’s fightin’ a fever even worse than yours. Nathan’s doin’ all he can, and he keeps tryin’ to tell us Ezra’s strong, but I can tell he’s more worried than he’s lettin’ on.”

 

Chris heard the sound of water splashing and men talking. “What’s happening?”

 

Buck leaned back so he could see around him. On the far side of the room Vin, Nathan and Josiah were huddled around a large bathing tub, all leaning over its edge and all holding on to a limp, semiconscious Ezra. “We’ve been tryin’ to bring his fever down by putting him in cool water and feeding him lots of Nathan’s teas.”

 

“And it hasn’t worked?”

 

“Not like it did with you?”

 

Chris shot him a look.

 

“You were pretty bad off yourself for a while, pard. Fortunately we only had to hold you in the tub once before we got your fever down enough to put ya back in bed. This is the third time for him.”

 

The gunfighter stared at Ezra’s black and blue face. “He ain’t movin’.”

 

“No, he fought us pretty hard when we first cleaned him up, and even managed to smack Vin in the face the second time, but now the fight’s just gone outta him.”

 

He rolled to his side and propped up on his elbow. “Can’t let him… give up,” he said around a harsh breath.

 

“We won’t let him give up, you can count on that. He’s had someone with him every minute keepin’ an eye on him. Nathan’s even beddin’ down on the floor so he’ll be close if he takes a turn for the worse.”

 

Chris watched Josiah support most of Ezra’s weight as Vin held his head up and Nathan washed him down. The only outward signs the gambler was still alive were the twitching in his slackened jaw and the occasional blink over his watery eyes. He wondered how much Ezra was aware of. Did he understand his body had literally been ripped apart? Did he realize he was being held, bare and broken, underneath water cool enough to drink? Did he understand his friends were struggling to save him and were willing to do whatever it took to keep him breathing? He stared at the bruised face as long as he could, willing Ezra to hang on, praying he would make it to see another day and then fell back to his pillow in exhaustion. His eyes tried their damnedest to roll back into his head before he squeezed them shut and groaned in frustration.

 

Buck put the wet cloth Madeline handed him to Larabee’s reddened face. “There ain’t nothin’ you can do, Chris, so just get some rest. When Ezra does wake up he’s gonna need to see you in one piece so he’ll know he didn’t do battle with those bastards for nothin’.”

 

Wilmington’s words had the desired effect – Chris was stunned into silence. He knew his friend was right, and after a few moments stopped trying to shove the cool rag away and allowed Buck to do what had to be done. He pulled at the blanket he’d pushed to his hips and dragged it beneath his chin. Despite the burning fever he still felt like he would freeze to death, but at least he was alive. And that thought stayed with him until he finally fell asleep.

 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

It was the next day before Chris’ fever broke and two days after that before he could manage to sit up on his own. In that time, he’d seen Ezra’s condition go from bad, to worse, to slightly better than dead, and never once had the gambler made a sound. It was similar to the way he was back at Nathan’s clinic, but this time the man barely even breathed. It was unnerving before, it scared the crap out of him now.

 

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and carefully stretched the muscles in his back. He was weak and slow to move, but at least the pain in his belly had been reduced to a dull throb instead of the raw hurt of the past few days. He rubbed a hand over his face and realized the scruffy stubble of beard was gone. He tried not to think on who had cleaned him up; it was embarrassing to have such intimate things done for you while you were unaware. When he looked down the length of his body he realized he had more than personal hygiene to feel uneasy about – his clothes were gone. Well damn. He shook his head anxiously and scanned the room for his pants. He spotted them across the back of a chair, clean and neatly folded. It was dark out and the room was dimly lit, so he decided now was probably the best time to retrieve them without being seen.

 

He slid slowly forward until his feet touched the floor. With a deep breath and a clenched jaw, he forced himself to stand and walk across the room. Taking the pants from the back of the chair without falling over was one thing; putting them on was something else altogether. He dropped into the chair with a huff and leaned over to rest his elbows on his knees.

 

“Just what do you think you’re doin’?”

 

He looked up to see Nathan standing over him, arms crossed, face creased with worry. “I need… my pants,” he gasped.

 

“Why? You goin’ somewhere?”

 

He thought about it and decided he really hadn’t planned on leaving. “Back’s hurtin’,” he answered simply.

 

“I don’t doubt it after your tussle with Buck and Vin yesterday.”

 

“What ‘tussle’?”

 

Nathan raised an eyebrow before his face softened and he answered, “You really don’t remember, do you?”

 

“What?”

 

The healer uncrossed his arms and moved closer to the chair. “You tried to leave yesterday. Said you were goin’ after the Nichols and nobody was gettin’ in your way. You almost made it past Vin, but Buck came in about that time and the two of ‘em wrestled you back into bed.”

 

Chris groaned and buried his face in his hands. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s alright. It was probably the medicine I was givin’ ya makin’ ya crazy. But you really do need to stay down a while longer.”

 

“My back hurts from layin’ around so much,” he said into his hands. “I need to get up and move around.”

 

Nathan took pity on him. “Tell you what. You can have your pants back, and I’ll even let you sit in a chair for a while, but don’t be tryin’ to go anywhere on your own. And when I do tell ya to get back in bed, don’t argue, understand?”

 

Chris eyed him suspiciously; the healer was being too agreeable.

 

“Understand?”

 

He muttered a pitiful ‘yes’ and Nathan helped him with his pants.

 

Leaving Chris to his moment in the chair, Jackson went to the bed in the middle of the room and checked on Ezra. The gunfighter raised himself onto shaky legs and followed. “Chris.” The way Nathan said his name definitely held a warning.

 

“I hear ya,” he answered. “How’s he doing?”

 

A dark hand felt Ezra’s face. “It’s hard to tell. His fever’s down some, but he hasn’t come to since we got him back.”

 

“I thought I heard someone say he punched Vin.”

 

Nathan gave a little grin. “He did, but he didn’t know what he was doin’.”

 

“I suppose he’ll come round when he’s good and ready. You know Ezra, he does everything in his own time.”

 

Jackson didn’t seem convinced. “Maybe,” he said, his shoulders sagging.

 

“When’s the last time you slept?”

 

“I got about an hour last night.”

 

“Well how about you rest a while and let me watch him.”

 

“No, I’m fine. Josiah’ll be back soon. I’ll rest then.”

 

“You might as well get some sleep now. I ain’t gettin’ back in that bed ‘til the ache is gone in my back and Ezra ain’t goin’ any place with me playin’ watchdog. Lay down. If he needs you, I’ll wake you.”

 

Nathan thought about it.

 

“Or I can wait ‘til you fall on your face and then I can sneak outta here good and proper.” Chris settled back in his chair. “You just said Josiah’ll be here soon.”

 

“Alright, but trust me, if you leave that chair on your own I’ll be takin’ back those pants of yours and it’ll be another week before ya see ‘em again.”

 

Chris swallowed hard when he realized Nathan wasn’t kidding around, and Nathan knew by the look on Chris’ face the gunfighter wouldn’t make a move without him. The conversation ended with Jackson returning to his pallet on the floor and Chris grumbling about bossy, know-it-all healers.

 

 

Part 32

 

Chris hadn’t been sitting in the chair by Ezra’s bed long when the gambler began to groan in his sleep. It was a low, guttural groan broken by such harsh gasps for breath it sounded as if he was physically taking hits to the stomach. He was on his side, propped forward against a stack of pillows to keep his shoulder safe and to lessen the pressure of the whip marks on his back, and Chris wondered if the position was making it difficult for him to breath. “Ezra,” he called softly, leaving his chair to sit on the bed. He reached a hand to touch him, and even through the blanket covering his torso, felt a constant tremor run the length of his body. Uncertain whether he should try to move him or just leave him alone, he called his name again. The gambler jerked and Chris quickly snatched his hand away.

 

“S-stop,” Ezra slurred.

 

Chris looked closer at his face. “It’s alright, I won’t touch you again.”

 

Another hard shudder racked the Southerner’s body as a whimper escaped his lips.

 

“Ezra, I…”

 

“It ain’t you, Chris,” Nathan said, appearing from the darkness. “He’s dreamin’.”

 

“He’s awake, his eyes are open.”

 

“He’s been doin’ this off and on since that fit he had the other night.”

 

“What fit?”

 

“His fever went so high he seized a couple of times. Since then he has spells where his muscles start actin’ up on their own.”

 

Chris looked again at the blind green eyes staring at the pillow. “He’s asleep?”

 

“I don’t think he’s really asleep, it’s more like his brain can’t quite get awake.”

 

The gunfighter’s eyebrow went up.

 

Nathan shook his head, he knew what he was saying didn’t make a lot of sense. “He’s somewhere in between being asleep and awake. It usually don’t last long, but the shiverin’ gets pretty bad so we need to make sure he don’t hurt himself. We also need to make sure his fever stays down.” He pulled a cloth from the water basin on the bedside table and wrung it out. Folding it long ways, he raised Ezra’s head enough to slide it around the back of his neck. He then reached for a cup of herbal tea and offered it to his patient. Surprisingly, Ezra took a long drink before he settled down; his lips quivered, his eyes closed and his body slowly let go the tension that fed his twitching muscles.


“How long’s he gonna be like this?” Chris asked.

 

“I wish I knew.” Nathan pulled the cover down and examined the freshest slash marks on Ezra’s back and hips. “He’s got a ways to go before I can say he’s outta danger.”

 

Chris stared at the damage revealed by the blanket’s removal. It was the first time he had actually had a chance to see the gambler’s injuries for himself and the sight cut through him like a knife.

 

“You alright?” Nathan asked when he saw the gunfighter pale.

 

Chris turned away.

 

“I knew it was a mistake lettin’ you up. You should be in bed.”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

The healer waited and watched.

 

“In fact, I think I’m well enough to get back to my own bed in my own room.”

 

“You’ll stay here ‘til I tell ya you can leave.”

 

“You can’t keep me here.”

 

“The hell I can’t. You ain’t strong enough to get past me yet.”

 

“Don’t push me, Nathan,” Chris said, coming around with fire in his eyes.

 

“Look, I know you hate this, but you gotta know I’m just tryin’ to help ya.”

 

The blond steadied himself against the bed and stood. “I need to get outta here.”

 

“You ain’t leavin’ ‘til I turn ya loose, so get that through your head.”

 

Chris’ back stiffened and his eyes drifted to Ezra. “I can’t stay here,” he said just before he swayed forward.

 

Jackson made a grab for him but he stumbled out of reach.

 

“Back off,” he snarled after he bumped the tub behind his legs and lost his balance. He wrenched his body sideways to avoid falling in and awakened the hurt in his wound.

 

“Dang it, are ya tryin’ to kill yourself?” Nathan circled the bed and gathered him up in his arms. “Why do ya have to be so damned stubborn?”

 

The gunfighter tried to pull free. “I told you to back off. Don’t you get it? I can’t stay here. I can’t be here when…”

 

Nathan didn’t let go. “When what?”

 

Chris was dangerously close to caving in. He drew a long breath and let his head fall back against the healer’s shoulder. “I can’t be here when he wakes up.”

 

“Why would you think…”

 

“I’m the reason he’s in this mess. If we want him to survive, I can’t be here remindin’ him how he got this way.”

 

“Chris…”

 

“Just let me go. I can go back to my place, do my healin’ there.”

 

“You will do no such thing!” The two men looked up to see Madeline Hobson, flanked by Josiah and Vin, standing in the doorway. “Mr. Jackson has worked himself to near exhaustion trying to save you and Mr. Standish and you are not undoing his fine work by going off before you’re well enough.”

 

Nathan adjusted his hold on Chris. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said with relief.

 

“Lady, this is none of your business,” the gunfighter growled.

 

Vin stepped into the room and sat down the basket of food he had carried for Madeline. “Mind your manners, pard. I reckon she’s earned a right to speak her mind since she’s been helpin’ tend you and Ezra these past few days.”

 

“Why?” he asked sarcastically. “Guilty conscience?”

 

“Chris!” Nathan yanked the gunfighter’s arm tighter.

 

“It’s alright, Mr. Jackson. I know he’s not himself and I’m sure he understands how things were when my husband was forced into service for the Nichols family.”

 

The anger on Chris’ face quickly turned to shame and the fight in him dwindled into fatigue. His knees sagged and Nathan felt his awkward grip fail him. Josiah hurried forward, scooped the gunfighter off the floor and returned him to his bed.

 

Madeline was at his side in an instant. “Do you see now why Mr. Jackson didn’t want you to leave?”

 

“You don’t understand,” he mumbled.

 

“I think I do. You did quite a lot of talking when the fever had you.”

 

He looked up in surprise.

 

“It’s alright. Your friends set me straight about what you were saying, and I promised never to repeat what I heard.” She pointed the three men standing to the food baskets in the corner. “Now, you boys need to eat. I’ll prepare something for Mr. Larabee and then perhaps he can get some sleep.”

 

Chris touched her arm as she began to rise. “I meant what I said. I don’t want to be here when Ezra wakes up.”

 

She patted his hand. “You don’t seem to understand, you have no choice. The Nichols convinced him you died because he failed to protect you. That knowledge might cost him his life unless you make him understand you’re all right. He has to see you and hear you,” she sandwiched his hand between her own, “and feel that you’re alive.”

 

“He should never have taken on the Nichols for me in the first place.”

 

“I know Mr. Standish is a little different from the rest of you, but do you think so little of the kind of man he is to assume he wouldn’t ‘take on’ the devil himself if it meant protecting you?”

 

Chris turned sharply at the accusation. “No.”

 

“Then appreciate his sacrifice for what it was. Let him know he did his job as a lawman and as a friend.”

 

He didn’t say a word when she put his hand down and left him to prepare a plate.

 

Vin came to stand beside him. “Smart lady. She’s been through a lot herself lately.”

 

“I’ll apologize to her later.”

 

“Good. And listen to her. She was with Ezra right there at the end before we got ‘im back. I reckon she probably saw some things we didn’t.”

 

Chris rolled to his side to get a better look at the gambler on the other bed. He stared long and hard at the bruises and bandages and came to the conclusion he’d never really seen the man beneath. Approval pulled at the edges of his mouth and he ultimately had to admit, “Yeah, I reckon she did.”

 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Ezra heard them talking close by, a woman and several men, and his heart threatened to stop. He didn’t understand where he was or how he had gotten there, but the sound of those voices terrified him so badly he could barely breathe. “Get away,” he wheezed as the overwhelming urge to escape hammered in his chest. Sadly, his first attempt at moving gained him nothing except a massive hurt from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. It was a pain so intense it sent his mind reeling; like nothing he’d ever experienced, cold and deep, and in complete contrast to the heat burning just beneath his skin.

 

And they were here, those who had done this to him, standing just feet away, talking and laughing and obviously planning his demise. He moaned in frustration and tried again to force his body to move. Why was this happening? What had he done to deserve a death that destroyed him a piece at a time? He was dizzy from his efforts but finally coerced muscles too tired to respond to push him onto his elbow. Daggers pierced his upper body and tears of pain were sent down his cheeks. “Oh God, I can’t…” he cried and reached out to grab anything he could find to stop himself collapsing. In the midst of his panic, someone took hold of his fingers and slid a hand round his neck. He cringed at the touch and tried to wriggle away, but whoever had him wasn’t letting go.

 

Giving freedom one last shot, he jerked hard, snatched his hand to his chest and fell awkwardly onto his back. The agony that resulted literally swallowed him whole and he screamed until his lungs began to smother and choke.

 

He couldn’t fight them any more.

 

No man could.

 

So he gathered his hurt and his sorrow close to his heart and slowly stepped away…

 

 

Part 33

 

In all the years Nathan had spent tending the sick, he had never seen anyone fight so hard to survive. Every time it looked as if Ezra would succumb to the terrible devastation of his wounds, the stubborn Southerner would rally and claw his way back to life. It was a remarkable thing to see, but as was evident by the stoop in Chris’ shoulders, it was nerve-wracking as well. It had been several days since Ezra’s fever had broken yet he still hadn’t wakened. Considering how badly injured he had been it wasn’t really surprising, but it was difficult to watch what the gambler’s lengthy recovery was doing to his friends – Chris in particular. The gunfighter, although healing nicely since his own fever had run its course, was a bundle of nerves. Nathan could tell by the look on his face he was ready to bolt, but something inside made him stay. It was as if he thought he could ‘will’ Ezra back to health. Perhaps he had because by all rights the gambler should have died.

 

A light knock at the door caught Jackson’s attention and Buck entered carrying a tray of food. “Hey, sorry I’m late with your supper but I went over to check how things were comin’ along at the clinic.”

 

“How’s it look?” 


“Better than a week ago.”


“No kidding,” Nathan mumbled as he sorted his meager medicines atop Ezra’s chest of drawers.

 

Buck gave a supportive smile. “The good news is the damage was mostly to the front of the building. The back room is nearly intact.”

 

“The bad news,” the healer added, “is that most of the stuff I use for doctorin’ was in the front room.”

 

“Yeah, but the better news is that everyone in town is gathering some of their own supplies and sendin’ them to the General Store; Mr. Hobson’s holding it all for you ‘til you need it.”

 

Nathan’s jaw dropped slightly.

 

“Real nice, don’t ya think?”

 

The first smile the ladies man had seen in ages crossed Jackson’s face. “Thanks, Buck.”

 

“Hey, don’t thank me. I didn’t do anything.”

 

“I’m thinkin’ ya probably did.”

 

“Nah, not me,” Buck replied. “So how’s Ezra?”

 

The smile faded. “’Bout the same.”

 

“Dang, he’s been out of it a long time now.”

 

“He’s more restless than before so I’m hopin’ that means he’ll be wakin’ up soon.”

 

“And Chris?”

 

Nathan shook his head. “Worryin’.”

 

“Sounds like Chris.”

 

“I reckon. Why don’t ya talk to him?”

 

“Right, give me the hard jobs, why don’t you.” Buck gave a grim smile of his own and went to drag a second chair by the bed. He bumped Chris’ knee with the back of his hand. “How’re ya doin’?”

 

The gunfighter seemingly ignored the question. “He should’ve come round by now,” he said flatly.

 

“He’s had a rough ride there, pard, can’t damn him if he wants to sleep in.” When Chris didn’t reply, he decided to change the subject. “We got word back from Eagle Bend. The two Nichols boys we sent back there are gonna stand trial for murder sooner than we thought. It seems the town’s real anxious to get started so Judge Travis’ll be brought in to hear the case by the end of next week.”

 

Larabee just stared at the floor.

 

“Damn it, Chris, say somethin’.”

 

He didn’t. Not until Ezra’s leg moved and a bandaged foot slid out from under the blanket. Then he was on his feet and bent over the Southerner trying to talk him awake.

 

It took several minutes of encouragement, but the gambler finally opened his eyes. He lifted his head from the pillow only to have it fall back. Vaguely aware someone was speaking to him, he grimaced, grunted and raised himself again, this time succeeding in glancing around the room. He caught sight of Chris and froze.

 

The gunfighter saw a look of fear spark in his eyes and reached out to offer comfort, but when his fingers touched his arm, Ezra jerked away.  Chris fell back in his chair, feeling as if he’d been punched in the gut. He knew he should have trusted his instincts and made himself scarce before the gambler woke up, but he had wanted more than anything to help. Now it appeared that wasn’t going to be something Ezra wanted or needed. “This was a bad idea. You just rest and I’ll leave ya be,” he said quietly and turned to rise. Before he could make it to his feet, a hand shot out and grabbed him by the wrist.

 

“N-no,” came the painful reply from the bed.

 

Chris looked back to see panic in the Southerner’s damp green eyes.

 

“No,” Ezra wheezed again.

 

Chris settled back in the chair and scooted closer. The hand on his wrist was weak and trembling but it did not let go. “Easy now,” he said evenly. “I’ll stay.” His heart gladdened at what the contact implied, but he was deeply worried by the desperate look on his friend’s face. It was clear he wanted to say something, but obviously couldn’t make his lungs and mouth work in unison. “Take your time, I ain’t leavin’.”

 

“Tell… m-me.”

 

“What d’ya wanna know?”

 

“What… happened?”

 

Chris hadn’t expected the question. He looked at Buck and Nathan for help. Buck frowned and Nathan shook his head. “We can talk about it later, Ezra.”

 

“Now,” he insisted. “Need… to know.” He paused and squeezed his eyes shut when another pain traveled his body. It took some time, but he finally managed to finish his question. “Did we stop them?”

 

The gunfighter flinched both at the question and the grip around his wrist. “Yeah, we stopped them.”

 

“Buck’s… alright?”

 

“Buck? He’s fine.”

 

The ladies man moved closer for the gambler to see. “I’m right here, pard.”

 

His eyelids fluttered open to see the smiling mustached face. “Glad… you made it out… didn’t know if it’d work.”

 

Buck raised an eyebrow. “If what would work?”

 

Ezra bit down hard as the misery that was his body flared with pain.

 

Chris felt the fingers clutching him tighten. “We’ll talk later. Just rest now. Get some sleep.”

 

“Can’t sleep… hurts… too much.”

 

“Damn,” Chris mumbled under his breath.

 

“H-hurts.”

 

Nathan hurried to his small stash of medicines.

 

“Hang on, Ezra. We’ve got somethin’ that’ll stop ya hurtin’.”

 

“What’s… goin’ on?” he begged and shook harder.

 

“Just hold on to me.”

 

Nathan returned with a small brown bottle. “Give him a swig o’ this.” He pulled the cork top off. “Don’t worry none about measurin’, just get some down him.”

 

Buck pulled the gambler’s head back so Chris could put the container to his mouth. “Drink, Ezra.”

 

He tried to comply but most of the bitter liquid leaked past his lips and dribbled onto the bed.

 

“Try again. Take your time.” This time when the medicine left the bottle, Chris put a hand to the man’s chin and closed his mouth for him. He sputtered and gagged but managed to swallow what he had been given.

 

The gunfighter waited for the drug to take effect as Ezra shook hard enough to make his teeth rattle, then he slowly turned the grip on his arm around until he could hold the weakening hand in his own. It was cold and unsteady but its movement was the first positive sign of life he had seen from the man in over a week. After several husky groans, Ezra began to relax. “You think you might wanna sit up some?”

 

He nodded and the three men set about helping him. Once he was situated among the thick padding of pillows against the headboard, Chris offered him water. He took one sip, then another, and before he knew it the cup was empty.

 

“Better?”

 

He slid deeper into the pillows as the soothing comfort of Nathan’s drug began to reach for his arms and legs. His breathing calmed and the involuntary jerking of his muscles began to lessen. The pain was more manageable, but now the medicine was affecting his ability to speak. “Wh-where?” he slurred as he tried to make out his surroundings.

 

“We’re in your room at the saloon.” Chris answered.

 

That couldn’t be right. Surely he would know his own room. He shook is head and made a face.

 

“I ain’t messin’ with you. We’re in your room. Nathan and the others brought you here after the clinic burned.”

 

He paused a moment to let his brain interpret what he had heard. “Burned? I wouldn’t… wouldn’t hurt Nathan…”

 

“No, you didn’t burn the clinic, the Nichols did.”

 

The gambler’s head bobbed, but he was able to pull it back against a pillow. “Who?”

 

“The Nichols boys.”

 

“They were… after Buck?” he asked, again in a panic.

 

“Ezra, nobody’s after Buck; just settle down.”

 

“N-no… they’re goin’ trap him.” His words were becoming so jumbled together Chris could barely understand. “C-can cut’em off… ‘round the gully.”

 

“The gully,” Wilmington repeated. “Wait a minute. He’s talkin’ about that run in we had on patrol out at Walter Hensley’s place.”

 

“You mean when those two boys tried to strong-arm ol’ Walt into sellin’?” Nathan asked.

 

“But that was two weeks ago,” Chris pointed out.

 

Jackson sat on the bed and steadied his patient’s head. “Ezra, look at me.” Lazy, bloodshot eyes blinked the healer’s face into focus. “I want ya to think real hard for me.”

 

They all watched the effort of concentration draw itself on the bruised face. It might have actually been humorous if it hadn’t been so worryingly pathetic.

 

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

 

His anguish was palpable. Some part of him knew the question was important but there was such a sense of dread sucking at his mind he found it difficult to answer. “I was ridin’… the gully. Wha’ happnd… t’ me?” He pulled away from Nathan and turned his face to the pillow. “Wha’d I do? Oh God, what’d I do?”

 

The Southerner’s thickened accent added to the ambiguity of his slur, but Chris clearly understood what he said. “You listen to me, you didn’t do anything. You got that?” The hand in his began to let go. “Ezra?”

 

Nathan reached a hand to check his eyes before he felt for a pulse. “It’s alright, Chris, he’s just asleep.”

 

The gunfighter discreetly wiped his face and muttered an inaudible curse as he unconsciously fingered the bandage still wrapped around Ezra’s wrist. “I wish I could bring every one of those dead son-of-a-bitches back to life so I could kill ‘em all again with my bare hands.”

 

“I’m with you there, pard,” Buck said once he had cleared the emotion from his throat.

 

Jackson situated the blanket over the inert body of his friend and sighed. “I suppose it’s a blessin’ though he don’t seem to remember what happened.”

 

“But how long will that last?”

 

“Got no way of knowin’, Buck. I seen this sort of thing before when a memory’s too painful to hang on to. Some or all of it could come back to him tomorrow, or his mind might just shut it out for good.”

 

Chris, still running his fingers over the gambler’s thick bandage, announced clearly, “It’s best he doesn’t remember.”

 

“Probably, but it ain’t somethin’ you can decide,” Nathan said.

 

“Maybe not, but it’s something I don’t have to help along either. I don’t want anyone discussing what happened in front of him.”

 

“Chris, people around town…”

 

“Are gonna keep their mouths shut.”

 

Nathan knew better than to argue.

 

“Look, I know we can’t hide everything from him but we don’t have to remind him of the details. He’s gonna have questions when he sees beneath the bandages so we can’t pretend nothin’ happened… just don’t fill in the blanks for him unless he asks.”

 

“You’re right,” the healer replied. “We need to get him on his feet first, then we’ll handle the rest as it comes.” He watched Chris slump a little further. “Buck, why don’t you two get outta here for a while?”

 

“No,” the blond answered.

 

“Chris, he’s gonna be asleep for a long time with what we gave him. You get some fresh air and somethin’ to eat and you can be back here before he wakes up.”

 

“Come on, buddy, he makes sense,” Buck said. “You wanna be able to help Ezra down the line.”

 

Chris didn’t want to leave, but he knew there would be no peace until he did. He buttoned his shirt and pulled on his jacket. He paused when Buck opened the door and looked back at the bed in the middle of the room. “Nathan… thanks,” he added before leaving, knowing the gambler was in good hands.

 

 




PARTS 1-6
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Jordan McKenzie 2009