ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS

by Jordan McKenzie

 

Part 7

 

It took a very long time for Nathan to clean, stitch and dress the countless lacerations covering Ezra’s upper body. To the healer’s surprise, the muscles in his own hand had actually begun to cramp from holding a needle so long. But now that it was done he smoothed clean bandages in place and turned to gently remove the sheet from his friend’s bare legs. Tell tale signs of abuse to the gambler’s lower extremities became evident when the white sheet stained red from hip to knee. It was obvious the whip he’d been beaten with hadn’t discriminated as to where it struck his body. Fortunately, if there could possibly be a “fortunately”, the wounds were treated quickly with salve instead of needle and thread.

 

Nathan’s worry grew as time passed. He knew for a fact his patient was completely aware of every time he’d been touched, he could feel it beneath his fingers as he’d washed and sewn him together. Despite the fact he’d been given as much laudanum as was permissible for a man in his condition, and that he should have succumbed to fatigue long before now, fine tremors and quiet gasps revealed the gambler had never once fallen asleep or passed out. It made the healer’s job that much harder, but he continued his work until he was satisfied infection wouldn’t take hold and once again covered Ezra’s legs with a fresh sheet. He heaved a heavy sigh, rubbed his chin on his shoulder and gave Standish a sympathetic tap near his ankle.

Vin snagged a damp rag from the side table and offered it to Nathan to wipe his hands. “His feet, Nate, how do we go about gettin’ all that glass out?” 


“I’ve been thinkin’ on that. We should probably soak ‘em in warm water for a few minutes; some of the smaller pieces will rinse off, others we’ll have to go after.”


“I sure don’t envy him that.”

 

“No, but it’s gotta be done pretty soon. One of his feet looks to be swellin’ up and there’s heavy bruisin’ ‘round that ankle.”

 

“You think that’s from them holdin’ him down?”

 

“Could be, they weren’t none too gentle. He’s in a lot of pain and he just can’t take much more handlin’, not even by us.”

 

“Why’s he still awake? Why won’t he just let go and sleep?”

 

“I reckon he thinks his job’s not done yet. He went a long way to keep the Nichols from findin’ Chris and Hank. He don’t know half the gang is dead.”

 

“Or that Hank is dead,” Chris said, leaving his watch at the window.

 

“Hank’s dead?” Jackson asked in surprise.

 

“Yeah, Peter Nichols shot him in the street while we were tryin’ to cut Ezra loose,” Vin explained, deciding not to bring up the fact Hank had tried to kill Chris.

 

“Damn, I’m sorry.”

 

Larabee pulled a stool next to where Ezra lay and sat down. “As sick as Hank was, I suppose it was gonna happen sooner or later. Even if he was outta his head, he had a lot to answer for.”

 

“Still,” the healer began.

 

“Forget it. We need to see to Ezra right now. Get that hot water you need. We can move him to the end of the table to soak his feet.”

 

“One of us is gonna have to hold him up to take the pressure off his shoulder and back.”

 

“I’ll do it,” Larabee said.

 

Vin pulled Nathan away and motioned for him to get what he needed. Once he’d gone, the tracker moved alongside the gunfighter and put a hand to his shoulder. He felt Chris’ muscles twitch beneath his fingers and knew the day was quickly catching up to him. “He’s gonna get through this.”

 

Chris took a deep breath and gave Ezra a long hard look. “I pray he does, because as soon as he’s well enough I’m going to kick his ass from here to Sunday. What was he thinking messing with the Nichols like that?”

 

Tanner pulled back in confusion. “He was thinkin’ he was protectin’ you.”

 

“Well, protectin’ me got him tortured.”

 

“Ezra knows the risks of his job, Chris.”

 

“Protecting me is not his job.”

 

“Don’t be an ungrateful bastard, it’s not like he went lookin’ for a fight. He just did what Ezra does best, he conned them.”

 

“Well, it didn’t w-work,” Chris stuttered. His mouth suddenly went dry and his head began to spin.


“Yes, it did, it gave us time to get Hank outta town. He had no way of knowin’ the old man would come back here, half out of his mind.” Vin saw his friend sway a little. “Chris?”

 

“I don’t want him dead, Vin, not because of me.”

 

The guilt that laced his voice caught the tracker off guard. He gripped the gunfighter’s shoulder again and held tight. “I know, Chris, I know.”

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Once Buck had corralled the Nichols’ horses behind the livery and concealed the coach harnesses in the hayloft, he returned to where he’d stowed the armored rig and checked it for any weapons that may have been left behind. He ran a hand across its exterior before he opened the door to climb inside. The craftsmanship of the coach was truly to be admired – it was powerful, dangerous and yet strangely beautiful. Large wooden benches topped with deeply padded leather not only offered comfort for its passengers but also provided storage space for ammunition and guns. The small windows on either side and in the back were ideally positioned to shoot out while safeguarding anyone inside. It was a fortress on wheels, a masterpiece of engineering, and here it stood secreted in a barn for fear it would be used once again to destroy innocent lives.

 

Buck brought his mind back to the business at hand and began searching every bench and cubbyhole he could find. The rummage turned up three handguns, four rifles and eight boxes of shells. There was also a grim assortment of knives, leather straps and rope. It appeared this group had taken vengeance so close to heart they felt the need to carry their own implements of torture, each of them devoting themselves completely to the art of punishment. It was an abysmal thing that an entire family should be so lost in hatred, but sadly it wasn’t the first time Buck had seen it and he was sure it wouldn’t be the last.

 

He stacked the gathered guns in a pile on the floor of the coach. When he bent down to pick them up, he spotted large smears of blood between his feet. It took several seconds for the significance of what he saw to register in his brain, but when it did intense feelings of anger began to ignite. It was Ezra’s blood and the sight disgusted him. That any part of his friend should be left behind in this place was inconceivable, unbearable. He grabbed the scraps of blanket he’d torn earlier in the afternoon and tried to wipe away both the blood on the floor and the image of his friend’s beaten body from his mind. His fury grew as he scrubbed, but after several minutes of intense scouring and enraged cursing, he was forced to accept there was little he could do to remove either. The blood had been virtually sucked up by the wooden floorboards and the picture in his mind had been made indelible on his brain.

 

He slammed a fist down before he leaned back to sit on his heals, his mind racing. God, Ezra, I’m sorry. I knew you lied to protect Chris and I knew they’d come after you when they figured out the truth. Why didn’t I come back sooner? Why the hell didn’t I just come back sooner? He dragged his fingertips absently across the tacky boards and fell silent. There was nothing left to do now but catch the people who had done this. He hefted the weapons he’d collected and climbed out of the coach. The admiration he had imagined for the vehicle before was quickly replaced with feelings of revulsion. If he had his choice, he would burn the abomination to the ground, but there was no time for personal indulgence. It was time to do something about the Nichols family once and for all.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Josiah shook his head as he helped John Nichols lay on the cot inside the Four Corners jail. The little fool now had two broken arms thanks to his family’s desire for revenge. Well that and his inability to move stealthily with one arm in a sling. What the hell was the young idiot trying to prove, sneaking up on him in the middle of a gun battle with more bravado than balance?

 

“You know, next time you come at a man meanin’ to kill him, you might want to make sure you can stay on your feet long enough to see the deed done,” he told the youth.

 

“I would’ve had you if those crates hadn’t gotten in my way,” John growled as he tried to find a comfortable position in which to lie.

 

“Son, those crates didn’t come at you, you came at them, remember?”

 

Nichols turned his face to the wall as Josiah locked the jail cell door.

 

“Ah, problems with balance and skills of observation, not good qualities for a man hunter. You just sit tight and I’ll see if I can find someone willin’ to fix that arm of yours.”

 

“Get me that black healer, he did a fine job before,” John ordered.

 

Josiah turned a look on him that was anything but preacherly.  “Mr. Jackson is currently seein’ to the man your family whipped and strung up on the hotel steps. I doubt very seriously he’ll be of a mind to help you anytime soon.”

 

“But he’s a healer,” Nichols whined. “He has to.”

 

Josiah raised an eyebrow.

 

“Make him!”

 

“Make him? After what you did to his friend? You really want me to force him to come in here, take a hold of your broken bone and twist it back into place. You’re a bigger fool than I thought. You’d be lucky if he didn’t twist it right off.” Sanchez knew Nathan would never deny anyone help, but the boy needed a good lesson in what goes around comes around. Fear could often times be a great teacher.

 

“It wasn’t me, I didn’t cut that gambler up and I didn’t whip him.”

 

Josiah winced at how easily the description of torture came to Nichols’ lips, but he also knew his description of Nathan’s treatment was getting to him; he could definitely detect fright beneath the condescension. “You think that’s gonna matter if he can’t save our friend?”

 

John hesitated just a moment before he said pitifully, “But… you can’t just let me lay here and suffer.”

 

Josiah was astounded by the man’s overblown sense of self and complete lack of compassion for others. He rattled the cell door to make sure it was secure before he looked Nichols straight in the eye. “Yes,” he said calmly, “I can.” With that, he turned and walked over to throw the keys on the office desk.

 

JD, who’d listened to the exchange from his position near the gun rack, shared the preacher’s dismay. “It’s hard to believe someone so young could be so coldhearted. He’s no older than me.”

 

“Yeah, and since his brother ain’t been dead that long, I doubt it’s something that came over him all of a sudden. He was probably that way long before any of this happened.”

 

Dunne nodded as he threw Josiah a reloaded rifle and grabbed another for himself. “We can’t leave him here on his own. Those brothers of his might come lookin’ to turn him loose.”

 

“I’ll baby-sit the brat, you go on to the clinic and meet up with the others. Let ‘em know we think three of the boys got away and we’re still not sure what happened to the old lady.”

 

“Okay, I won’t be gone long though.” He peeked out the window before going to the door. “Looks like folks are startin’ to move around out there. That’s a good sign. I’ll be back quick as I can.”

 

“You just be careful and watch out for the brat’s kin,” Josiah said.

 

JD hefted the rifle in his hand and headed out the door.

 

 

Part 8

 

“Hey Buck, wait up,” JD called when he saw the ladies man making his way up the clinic stairs, his arms full of confiscated weapons.

 

Wilmington turned, visibly relieved to see the young peacekeeper. “Glad you could make it, JD. Where’ve you been?”

 

“I’ll tell you all about it inside. Need some help?”

 

“Yeah,” Buck grunted as he handed over part of his load.

 

“How’s Ezra? Did you get him to Nathan okay?”

 

“He’s up there but he’s in bad shape. On top of everything the Nichols did to him, he was shot.”

 

“Shot? How?” JD asked, his eyes wide with surprise.

 

“It was Hank. He wandered out of the saloon and came after Chris meanin’ to kill him. Ezra must have seen what he was up to because he threw himself in front of Chris when Hank fired the gun.”

 

“My God, how much more can he take?”

 

“I don’t know. Let’s just hope Nathan can help him.”

 

“Well where’s Hank now?”

 

Buck shifted uncomfortably. “He’s dead. The man who whipped Ezra killed him.”

 

“And Chris, how’s he doin’?”

 

“I think he’s kinda numb, just doin’ what he can to keep going. Come on, we need to get up there.”

 

JD followed Buck up the steps, all the while scouting the area for any signs of the Nichols. The two men entered the clinic, dropped the guns in a corner and turned to see their friends gathered around the decimated body on the exam table.

 

Chris spoke first. “JD, you and Josiah alright?”

 

“We’re both okay. Josiah’s back at the jail keepin’ an eye on our new prisoner, John Nichols.”

 

“John?”

 

“Yeah, the youngest of the bunch. He broke his arm when you grabbed Hank off the street before you left. Nathan fixed him up, but now he’s gone and broke his other arm.”

 

Jackson looked up for just an instant then went back to tending Ezra.

 

“It’s alright, Nathan. Josiah said he was leavin’ it up to you whether or not you wanted to take care of him. He’s fine just like he is and I think Josiah might be tryin’ to make him see how stupid he’s been… not that it’ll do any good.” JD leaned to look around the gunfighter. “Is Ezra gonna be alright?” 

Chris put a hand on the gambler. “He’s gonna be fine.”


Nathan looked up again to stare at the gunfighter. The man spoke with such certainty even he believed it. He just hoped Ezra was listening.

 

“What about the rest of the family?” Vin asked.

 

“We’re pretty sure three of them got away, probably with their ma. We haven’t seen any signs of ‘em, but I have a feelin’ they’ll be comin’ back for the one we got in jail. And the way they crave revenge; I don’t see ‘em passing up a chance to come after those who crossed ‘em,” JD said, unconsciously eyeing both Chris and the man twitching beneath the healer’s hands.

 

“No one’s gettin’ to Ezra,” Chris stated firmly. “We watch him ‘round the clock.” He stood up slowly, a little too slowly Buck thought, and walked around the table.

 

“It’s probably best if you stay here, Chris,” Wilmington suggested.

 

“I’ll stay here to give Nathan a hand then I’m goin’ lookin’ for the rest of that crazy family.” 

 

Vin noticed an uncharacteristic slur in his friend’s speech and an alarming lack of color in his face. When he actually staggered and bumped into him, he knew something wasn’t right. “Chris?”

 

The gunfighter didn’t appear to hear his name. He simply brushed aside the hands reaching out to steady him and stepped away.

 

“Chris,” Tanner called again.

 

Finally he raised his head, a dazed look on his face. “We need to keep the Nichols away from here.”

 

“Yeah, yeah we do,” Vin said warily. He glanced at Buck and saw he hadn’t missed the peculiar way Chris was behaving either so he motioned for the ladies man to move closer.

 

The gunfighter’s eyes wandered lazily to Nathan. “You ready?”

 

Ezra groaned as if he knew what was about to happen. Chris bent down to gather him in his arms and carefully positioned himself as a prop behind his back. He then used one hand to wrap around the gambler’s waist, and the other to steady his head against his shoulder. The man was beginning to shake in earnest, but he held tight and nodded to Nathan when he was ready.

 

The healer pushed a bench to the end of the table and situated a large white basin of warm water on top of it. “Vin,” he called over his shoulder, “you wanna take him around the knees and help Chris scoot him to me?”

 

The tracker continued to study Chris worriedly but moved in to help.

 

Dark hands took hold of Ezra’s ankles and together the three men shifted him towards the basin. Giving the men in the room a look of ‘here goes,’ Jackson gently guided the bloody feet into the water. The instant Ezra’s tattered flesh was submerged he jerked in Larabee’s arms, twisted his face away and groaned pitifully against the lawman’s chest.

 

“Easy, Ezra, easy,” Chris said softly near his ear and pulled him closer.

 

“P-please,” he answered, and the gunfighter realized it was the first word he’d spoken since he’d been shot.

 

Nathan continued to hold his feet under water and Ezra began to squirm.

 

“Please stop,” he pleaded again. “H-he’s gone… Chris is… gone.”

 

“I’m right here, Ezra,” Larabee replied with a conviction he didn’t truly feel. There was an odd detachment building around him. His brain and body felt out of sync, as if one were slowly disconnecting itself from the other. But he stayed put and held on despite the numbness he felt creep up his arms and into his shoulders.

 

“No, no… Y-you won’t find him.” A slow, anomalous smile crept across his face and lingered there several moments before he began to frown. “Nathan?”

 

Jackson looked up from the basin at the sound of his name.

 

“Don’t… don’t hit him… I-I’ll do what you want,” he choked out. “Nathan? Oh, God… w-what are they meaning to do… knife, they’ve got a knife.”

 

“Oh shit,” Nathan said worriedly when he realized what his patient was talking about.

 

“What?” Tanner asked.

 

“He thinks he’s back in the hotel, being cut again. Here, Vin, take over for me.”

 

The tracker quickly stepped in as Nathan moved up the table to seize his friend’s head between his hands. “Ezra, you listen to me, all right? You’re safe, the Nichols are gone.”

 

Chris felt the Southerner push against him as he tried to retreat.

 

“Noooo,” Standish cried.

 

“Ezra, you have to listen to me, you’re safe.”

 

“Chris?”

 

“Chris is fine. I just need ya to calm down and let me help you.”

 

“T-they’ll… kill… him,” he said amid panted breaths.

 

“No, Ezra. They’re gone.”

 

The gambler struggled to free himself but found his arms restrained and his head trapped. It slowly filtered through to his brain he was once again being pinned down, so he used the only thing left to him, his feet -- he pulled them free of Vin’s gentle grasp and attempted to climb away from his captors. It was the last thing he should have ever tried. The glass shards sank deeper into his flesh as his wet feet skidded across the tabletop, and brutal stabs of pain were sent up into his legs. He bucked and screamed as the agony passed through him.

 

Everyone in the room moved forward as Ezra tried to escape. Nathan grabbed at his legs, Vin forced his hips down and Chris worked to keep him from leaving the table altogether. The battle to subdue him went on until suddenly his entire upper body jerked back, sending his head and elbows into the person directly behind him. Buck heard Chris respond with a sharp intake of breath and a muffled gag. The lines around his eyes and mouth deepened and what little color his face had held instantly drained away. He was in pain, real pain, and was gritting his teeth against a cry of his own. He kept one arm around Ezra but quickly relinquished the other so he could shove a fist against his side. Vin saw the move and jumped to take Ezra away from him.

 

Buck reached Chris just as he wrenched himself free and staggered to the footboard of the clinic bed. “Chris, what the devil is goin’ on with you?”

 

“Nothing,” he stammered, “it’s nothing.” He stooped at the waist, braced himself on the mattress and clutched one hand to his abdomen.

 

“Like hell it’s nothin’!” Buck stepped beside his friend and tried to turn him. “Chris, look at me.”

 

The gunfighter pulled away and began walking towards the door. “I’m fine, it’s just a banged up rib. Take care of Ezra… I’ll walk it out.”

 

Two or three steps later, Buck saw something fall from Chris’ hand and land with a dull splat on the floor.


He scooped it up and immediately recognized it as a piece of the blanket he’d torn in the coach; it was soaked through, heavy with blood. “Rib, my ass, since when do banged up ribs bleed?” he said, holding the cloth for Vin to see.

 

Tanner cautiously laid Ezra flat to the table and stepped aside as Nathan took over his efforts to ease the Southerner’s pain. He was reaching to take what Buck was holding when he saw Chris’ head fall back and his knees buckle. The two men rushed to catch him as he toppled over and crumpled to the floor.

 

Buck slid beneath his friend as he curled across his long legs, groaning and still trying to argue.

 

Vin tugged at the fist he pressed to his side. “Let me see.”

 

Chris squinted up at him with unfocused eyes, dropped his hand and allowed the tracker to dig through the layers of clothing.

 

When Vin pulled the tail of his shirt up and the waist of his pants down he discovered what his friend had been hiding -- a bullet wound. “Damn, when did this happen?” He grabbed a clean towel from the stand behind him and pressed it to the gaping hole.

 

Events began to line up in Buck’s mind and he knew exactly. “When Ezra was shot,” he mumbled.

 

“What?”

 

“Hank was aimin’ to shoot Chris, but when he fired, Ezra got in the way.” Buck looked up at Vin in disbelief. “The bullet that went through Ezra… went into Chris.”

 

 

Part 9

 

The numb feeling that had consumed his upper body finally reached his legs. Larabee knew it was inevitable, but he’d hoped he could have lasted until Ezra had been taken care of and declared out of danger. He understood he was being overoptimistic, but he’d had little choice but to try. The gambler was in this mess because of him and there was no way he’d let him die because Nathan had been distracted. Now Chris lay across Buck Wilmington’s legs, gripping his friend’s arm as wave after wave of nausea threatened to spill the contents of his stomach all over the clinic floor. He tried to smother the urge by burying his nose and mouth in the crook of his arm, but he feared it was a battle he’d lose.

 

Somewhere above him he could hear Vin’s voice. He sounded strange, concerned. No, actually he sounded downright pissed off. Chris knew the tracker’s irritation was meant to gain his attention, but for the life of him he couldn’t get his head around it. All he wanted was to make sure Ezra was going to be all right. The gambler couldn’t protect himself now, which meant he had to. He had to be ready to stop the Nichols clan before they tried to seek retaliation. They’d gotten Hank, shot him down in the street, and Chris knew he and Ezra were heading for the same fate if the fanatical family had their way. He had to get back on his feet.

 

“Buck,” he said with a gasp.

 

“Right here, pard.”

 

“Get… me up.”

 

“Can’t do that, just be still.”

 

Chris felt one hand on his shoulder and another prodding his side. He attempted to jerk away but didn’t get far.

 

“Hold still,” he heard Vin order. “I need to check this out.”

 

“Leave it,” he countermanded.

 

“Not happenin’, you danged fool. You’ve gone and left it too long already. Why the devil didn’t you say you’d been shot?” Yep, Vin was well and truly pissed.

 

“Ezra…”

 

“Is in good hands.”

 

“Needed to give him a chance. He’s in bad shape,” he answered, panting now as his vision filled with bright white flares.

 

“So you thought you’d bleed to death just to help him out.”

 

“Need to keep the Nichols away from him.” Oh, but he was getting sicker by the second and it didn’t help that the temperature in the room felt like it had fallen by twenty or thirty degrees. His serape had somehow been taken from him and his shirt was hanging open.

 

Buck felt Chris shiver and unconsciously began rubbing his arm.

 

“Did it ever enter that self-sacrificing brain of yours that we could handle the bad guys?” Vin griped as he fussed over his friend’s wound. “Damn, this is not good. Nathan!”

 

Jackson turned from Ezra who had fallen into an unexpected stupor beneath him. “On my way.” He looked up at JD as the young man stared at the gambler on the table. “If he tries to move, hold him down, if you can’t, holler.”

 

JD nodded.

 

The healer crossed the floor and knelt next to Vin. “What’ve you got?”

 

“It appears Ezra and Chris have shared a bullet.” He moved his hand from the gunfighter’s side to reveal the nasty looking wound. “He’s been hidin’ it from us; looks likes he’s been bleeding real heavy.”

 

Nathan leaned over and fingered the injury, noticing the blood caked around the opening. “How’s he been hidin’ it?” he asked, glancing back at Ezra, still amazed at the path the bullet had taken.

 

Buck picked up the sopping wet blanket scrap and showed it to the healer. “With this.”

 

“That thing’s filthy.”

 

“Yeah, I don’t think he was really thinkin’ about that when he snatched it off the floor of the coach. It wasn’t near this bad when I wrapped Ezra with it.”

 

Nathan shook his head. These men had a death wish, plain and simple. He reached down, pulled at Chris’ shirt and ran a hand beneath him. “No exit wound,” he said to himself.

 

“Is that good or bad?” Buck asked.

 

“It ain’t good either way,” he answered, trying to turn Larabee’s face towards him. “Chris?”

 

“ ‘m alright,” the blonde mumbled.

 

“No you’re not.” And to make his point Jackson pushed down on the large hole in his side. “Does that feel alright to you?”

 

The gunfighter groaned, loudly, as he grabbed hold of Buck’s arm again.

 

Nathan released the pressure and reached to steady him as he rode out the pain. “I’m sorry, Chris, but damn it, you gotta listen to me. You are not all right. We’ve got to see about gettin’ that bullet out.”

 

When he could open his eyes again, Chris turned a determined look on the men around him. “J-just get me up.”

 

“We will. Right up onto that table so we can go after that slug. Now shut up and be still ‘til I can get things ready.”

 

Chris gathered a fistful of Buck’s sleeve in his hand and clutched it to his brow as he struggled to speak. “I have… to get up. Those men’ll come af –after…” His voice faded with a moan.

 

Buck felt the body propped against him shudder again. “Best you just do as Nathan says, Chris. We’ll keep an eye out for the Nichols; we won’t let them anywhere near Ezra.”

 

Nathan stood, looked around the room and began organizing his thoughts as to how he could best take care of two patients. Ezra’s feet desperately needed to be treated before infection set in and were no doubt causing tremendous pain. Chris was currently bleeding out all over his clinic floor and needed surgery now. He would have to delegate and hope for the best.

 

“Vin, help JD get Ezra onto that bed. Then I want you to try again to soak his feet in the water. When you’ve rinsed away as much of the glass as you can I want you to take those instruments lying on the bed stand and start pulling out what’s left.”

 

Tanner noticed the doubtful look on Dunne’s face. “Don’t worry, JD, if I have any trouble Nathan is right here to take over.” He slid his arms beneath Ezra’s back and raised him up.

 

The youth gave a look of better you than me and carefully took hold of the gambler’s lower legs. Together they moved him onto the large bed in the corner of the room. Once they had him positioned on several pillows against the headboard, Vin leaned over and put a hand to his chest. He’d suddenly gone very still, too still, and for a moment the tracker feared the worst. He moved his hand to Ezra’s nose and mouth and felt soft pants of breath. He’d finally passed out, good, maybe that would make what they had to do a little easier.

 

Nathan grabbed another clean cloth, folded it and placed it over the bloody hole in Chris’ side. The gunfighter was visibly shaken now and leaning more heavily against Buck. Still he tried to push away the hands that were touching him.

 

“Leave… me,” he ground out. “I can wait ‘til…”

 

“No, Chris, you can’t,” Nathan answered back as he and Buck moved to either side of their friend and lifted him up.


The man went ashen the instant he left the floor. By the time he was stretched out on the table Ezra had just occupied he was white as a sheet. He swallowed hard and growled through the pain as he felt his gray shirt being taken away, the waistband of his pants loosened and a glass pressed to his lips.

 

“Drink this, Chris, it’ll ease the pain,” Nathan said.

 

“No, you’re not puttin’ me to sleep.”

 

“Listen to me; you don’t wanna be awake for what I gotta do.”

 

“No,” he said, “g-get off. You’re not keepin’ me here.” He tried to swing his numb legs over the side of the table but strong hands prevented him.

 

“Chris, stop fightin’ me, I have to get that bullet out.”

 

The blonde’s voice grew dangerous. “I said no. It’s not safe ‘til we stop ‘em… You’re not druggin’ me.”

 

Buck saw the anxious look on the healer’s face. “Nate, maybe we should let him have his way. He ain’t gonna give in.”

 

Jackson shook his head as Chris’ fingers clawed at the wound in his side and for a moment he thought the gunfighter was going to dig the bullet out himself. He was just too stubborn for his own good.

 

“Let him try,” Wilmington urged.

 

“Buck, if he moves while I’m diggin’ around in there we could do him worse damage.”

 

“W-won’t… move,” Chris replied.

 

Nathan deliberated the wisdom of what they were asking, but eventually gave in. He leaned over his patient and took hold of a bloodied hand. “Chris, are you sure?”

 

Green eyes, dulled with pain, softened as he nodded his consent.

 

“Alright, we’ll try it your way, but I swear if you start moving around, one way or another I will put you out.”

 

Chris squeezed his hand and fell back to the table. Buck caught a glimpse of uncertainty on his face as Nathan began gathering his instruments and considered suggesting his friend rethink his plan. But he knew, all too well, once the hard lines of determination had set on his face it was too late. The healer would be allowed to operate on his patient, but only under Chris’ terms. Buck just hoped the gunfighter hadn’t underestimated what was about to happen.

 

 

Part 10

 

Josiah looked out the jailhouse window and watched as the citizens of Four Corners began sifting through the debris left by the gun battle earlier in the day. It was amazing how resilient these town folk could be and it never ceased to amaze him how ready they were to just move on and get the job done. Good people in a hard land struggling to survive, and doing so with grace and courage.

 

Then there were folks like John Nichols, who hadn’t stopped whining since his arrival. Granted the man had two broken arms, but unlike nearly half his family he was alive. Gratitude was something he appeared to avoid. Regret and sorrow also seemed to elude him. He hadn’t mentioned the loss of his brothers once, only his desire to make the peacekeepers pay for what had been done to him. It was the sheer callousness of the man the preacher detested the most. To look at the young man you would assume a quiet goodness, but his boyish looks were misleading. His heart had obviously been blackened at a young age and he was well versed in selfishness and cruelty. He’d been swearing revenge nonstop since he’d been caught and the sound of his voice was grating on Josiah’s nerves.

 

“Son, I promise you, if you don’t shut up I’ll come in there and start breaking your legs,” he said over his shoulder.

 

John ignored him and continued to fuss until the large man turned away from the window and took a step toward him. He wisely closed his mouth and looked to the floor inside his cell. Josiah sighed in relief and went to his chair behind the desk to have a seat. Just as he leaned back, he heard someone knock on the door. He pulled his gun and rested it across his lap.

 

“Mr. Sanchez?” a timid male voice called.

 

“Come in,” he answered, “slowly and with your hands where I can see them.”

 

A middle-aged man with spectacles eased around the door and entered the office. Josiah recognized him as the shopkeeper from the General Store.

 

“It’s alright Mr. Hobson, come on in. What brings you here?”

 

“I was looking for Mr. Larabee.”

 

Josiah holstered his gun. “Mr. Larabee isn’t here. Can I help you with something?”

 

“Will he be back?”

 

“No time soon, there’s something he had to tend to.”

 

“Mr. Standish, you mean,” Hobson said, fidgeting where he stood.

 

Josiah eyed him curiously. “Yes, Mr. Standish, he was hurt by the Nichols family trying…”

 

“Trying to protect Mr. Larabee and his kin.”

 

“Mr. Hobson?” Josiah rose as the shopkeeper’s nervousness got worse. “Are you all right?”

 

“He’s not a bad man, Mr. Standish,” he said, but Sanchez wasn’t altogether sure he was speaking to him.

 

“Ezra has his ways, but no he isn’t a bad man.”

 

“Folks can surprise you given the chance… he sure surprised me.” Again, Josiah got the feeling the man was holding this conversation with himself.

 

“He surprised you, Mr. Hobson?”

 

“At the store, those men were there, before they took him and… you know…” the shy voice drifted into silence.

 

Josiah watched the man absentmindedly fiddle with the buttons on his vest. “Would you like to sit down?”

 

Distant gray eyes looked up at him. “He tried to help, but he’s paid a terrible price.”

 

Sanchez tilted his head and waited for the man to clarify.

 

Clarification never came. Instead the shopkeeper wandered to within a few feet of the jail cell and asked, “He one of the men responsible?”

 

John Nichols looked up innocently.

 

“Yes, he’s one of the ones who survived. We think there are three more who escaped.”

 

Hobson’s face unexpectedly shown anger and outrage as he stared at the youth in front of him. “He doesn’t look like much, does he?”

 

“Evil comes in many forms,” Josiah said, still unnerved by the storekeeper’s puzzling behavior.

 

“Yes, yes it does. But then so does good, I suppose.” The man was rambling.

 

“Mr. Hobson, is there something I can do for you?”

 

The man turned his face away. “No, I was just hoping to find Mr. Larabee. I can assume that since he’s taking care of Mr. Standish they’re both at the clinic.”

 

“Yes, but unless it’s a matter of life or death I wouldn’t go over there just yet. He’ll be concentrating his efforts on protecting the town and won’t be able to turn loose.”

 

“I understand, and the rest of you?”

 

“You’re a curious one, aren’t you?

 

“Forgive me. It’s just most everyone in town is inquiring about what happens now.”

 

Josiah returned to his chair. “Well, tell everyone to just keep a lookout for the three brothers who escaped. Oh, and tell ‘em not to take any chances if they see the old lady. I’ll be wiring Judge Travis about that young’un in there. I understand he and his family fancy themselves above the law, but I have a feelin’ the law fancies them otherwise. As soon as our men finish up at the clinic, we’ll be searchin’ this town over until we find the rest of the family.”

 

The anger that had been visible in Hobson’s face earlier was replaced by a look of intense fear. “You think they’re still in town?”

 

“Wouldn’t surprise me none so be careful when you head back to your shop.” Josiah noticed the man’s hands were now shaking. “You’re sure there’s nothing I can do in Chris’ absence.”

 

The storekeeper swallowed nervously and took a deep breath. “No, thank you.” He glanced at John Nichols again before he made for the door. “Please, tell Mr. Standish I appreciate what he did.”

 

Josiah pulled back bewildered as he watched Hobson clench his fists and scurry out the door.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The comforting blackness Ezra had fallen into was slipping away from him and there seemed little he could do about it. The pain he felt crawling over him was gaining ground and he wanted nothing more than to escape its reach. Hands were touching him, holding him, forcing him to submit to their will. It was happening again. He thought he’d gotten through it, that it was over, but here he was lying on his back, his shoulders pinned to the countertop and his legs held firmly as his ankles were raised to reveal glass embedded feet. What the hell was happening? He’d done what they wanted, walked through broken glass until his feet left bloody footprints on the floor of the hotel kitchen. He remembered the nauseating pain as some of the shards sliced cleanly through his flesh while others dug deep when his own weight drove them to bone. He’d been made to suffer the trek through glass twice, but still it hadn’t been enough. Now they held him down to do the unthinkable.

 

“P-please,” he pleaded in abject horror. Heavy hands forced his shoulders down, but he was able to lift his head enough to look down the length of his body. “N-no,” he stuttered as a large blade came into view between his feet.

 

Peter Nichols stood near the end of the counter holding the knife, relishing the look of fear filling the gambler’s eyes. “I told you you’d be punished for allowing Connelly to run. You didn’t believe me?”

 

Ezra’s eyes grew large as the metal blade angled down to flick at the pieces of glass protruding from his feet. He could feel and hear the metal tap the glass and it sent a hundred lightning strikes throughout his body. His stomach rolled and his breath caught as he desperately tried to wriggle away.

 

“I always keep my promises, gambler, and I think crippling you would be just punishment for allowing a known murderer to escape. Hank Connelly is evil, as is his protector, this Chris Larabee. I don’t understand why you would so willingly suffer for these men or how you justify your own perverse sense of loyalty, but then what could I expect from a sinner such as yourself. The world should be cleansed of such wickedness and my family is the instrument by which it’ll happen.” He eyed the torn flesh beneath his hands with a look of pure delight.

 

The Southerner was unnerved by the man’s ability to so easily reconcile words of righteousness with actions of evil. “C-Chris Larabee is a man of honor. My loyalty is to him.”

 

Peter ignored him.

 

Ezra looked past the large goon who held his shoulders and spotted Nathan being detained by an arm around his neck and another laced through his elbows. He’d hoped the healer would have been released by now since he’d obeyed every instruction he’d been given, but it appeared the Nichols didn’t feel it necessary to honor their word. He caught Nathan’s eyes and held them. There was a strange comfort there, a feeling some part of him was still connected to sanity and compassion. The gentle brown eyes offered strength, so he grabbed hold of it and buried it deep inside.

 

Then the eyes changed; they widened with fear as Nathan caught movement from Peter Nichols. The man raised the knife he held and slashed it across the sole of Ezra’s right foot. “Look at me!” he shouted.

 

Ezra didn’t look at anyone. His eyes shut tightly against the agony as his head slammed the counter and his body arced up. He cried out despite his efforts not to. Oh God, it hurt! He gasped for air, but none came, then he felt another slice with the knife and he choked.

 

“I said look at me!” Peter screamed angrily.

 

Ezra made every effort to pull his ankles free but couldn’t. He gagged and tried to curl in on himself, but that too was denied him by the hands pinning him to the counter.

 

“Stop it!” He heard Nathan shout and knew the blade was about to fall a third time. It did, only this time it caught hold of one of the shards already buried in his arch. It snagged the jagged glass and twisted it as is continued its path across his heel.

 

Ezra screamed again and tried his damnedest to raise his head enough to look at his torturer. Wet green eyes slowly focused on Peter Nichols. “I hope… you burn… in hell.”

 

Nichols smiled.

 

Nathan struggled.

 

Ezra collapsed.

 

Then another voice penetrated the fog around the Southerner’s brain, a feminine voice. “My boys do the Lord’s work. It’ll be you, Larabee and Connelly who’ll burn in hell.”

 

Dear God, Mrs. Nichols, had she been present for his torture the whole time? A woman, a mother, witnessing the slow mutilation of another human being; it was inconceivable. They were mad; all of them, completely and utterly insane and it was that realization which nearly stopped his heart. He drew as deep a breath as he could. “N-not Chris.” He swallowed. “L-leave him… alone. Let Nathan go.”

 

“You think you’re in a position to give orders, do ya?” She hovered beside the counter and turned back to nod at Peter. Another slash of the knife across his foot sent Ezra into spasms of pain.

 

“Please, ma’am,” Nathan cried. “Please stop. Don’t do this to him.”

 

She stepped to where Jackson was being held and eyed him curiously. “You are a healer, you helped my son and I’ll not forget that.”

 

“Then please, stop this.”

 

“I’ll repay your good deed by allowing you to live.”

 

“But…”

 

“No. This one will pay for his own actions. You, however, will be allowed to return to the others. You will carry a message to Chris Larabee and tell him I expect Hank Connelly to be turned over to me immediately.”

 

“He won’t do it, especially if you kill Ezra.”

 

“Oh, trust me, healer, he will do it.”

 

“How can you think he’d give up Hank if you kill his friend?”

 

She gave him a look that set him back a step. “Don’t you be frettin’ about the how; just see to it Chris Larabee gets the message.”

 

“Don’t cut him again, please.”

 

“Shall I put a bullet in his brain then?”

 

“No,” Nathan said, stunned by her coldness.

 

“Then you will do as you are told.”

 

There was simply no reasoning with her. “Let me talk to Ezra,” he said, careful to keep defiance out of his voice. “Please.”

 

She looked him up and down before she motioned for her son to release him. “You have one minute.”

 

Jackson hurried to where the gambler lay and stared down the animal grasping Standish’s shoulders until he was allowed access. “Ezra, can you hear me?”

 

Weary eyes opened. Ezra jerked away but soon settled when he realized who was there. “Nathan?”


"Yeah, I need you to listen to me, Ezra. I want you to hang in there, all right? I want you to hang on with all you got.” Jackson leaned down and lowered his voice before he said, “I’m goin’ to get Chris and the others but you gotta be here when I get back, so fight. Can you do that?”

 

The Southerner shook his head.

 

“Ezra, I need ya to hang on ‘til I get Chris. Tell me you can do it.”

 

Nathan pulled back to look into his friend’s watery eyes. Eventually he nodded.

 

“Good. We’ll get you outta this, you hear me?”

 

“That’s enough,” Mrs. Nichols barked.

 

When Nathan hesitated in leaving Ezra, one of the ham-fisted boys pounded him in the back with both hands and sent him to the floor. He was then roughly pulled to his feet and shoved towards the door. He glanced over his shoulder to take a last look at his friend. The sight tore at his soul. He knew full well the butchery would continue with or without his presence so he had to get to Chris. Ezra was staring after him, pleading with his eyes for Nathan to save him, but there was nothing he could do. Then Peter Nichols moved to Ezra’s head and leaned over to whisper something near his ear. The gambler’s eyes went wild as Peter moved back to his feet and again raised the knife. The last thing Nathan heard as he was pushed outside was Ezra screaming his name.

 

“Nathan!” Ezra yelled. Why was this happening? Hadn’t he already been through this? He had, he knew he had. He’d been hanging somewhere, tied up and placed on display. Every inch of him hurt, every part of him begged for relief. But his feet, they were slicing his feet open again. “Nathan!” he screamed again. “N-no, please don’t cut… again. Chris! You were going… to get Chris.”

 

Nathan turned away from the exam table where Chris had just been placed and looked at the bed holding Ezra. Vin and JD were both grabbing on to him as he tried to get away. They had no sooner gotten his feet into the warm water than he again began reliving the nightmare in the hotel. He’d been struggling with the memory before, but now he seemed firmly trapped in its nightmarish horror.

 

Chris tried to leave the exam table. Buck put a hand to him to make sure he stayed put as Nathan went to the Southerner’s side and tried once again to free him from his torture.

 

“Ezra!” he called. “I’m right here, it’s Nathan.”

 

“Nathan d-don’t, don’t get Chris… they’ll kill him.”

 

“No one’s killin’ Chris. You hear me?”

 

“They’re gonna do it! I can’t… stop them.” A dark cloud passed over the gambler’s face as his mind returned him to the cruelty of his captors. “They’re coming… again. This time… they said… they’d do it… this time.”

 

“No, Ezra, no one’s comin’ for ya.”

 

“Don’t, don’t!” he pleaded hoarsely as he sucked in large panic stricken breaths. His chest heaved four or five times before he strangled on a cough and fell backwards.

 

Nathan watched helplessly as Ezra trembled and pressed himself against the pillows. He desperately struggled to breathe but his fatigue seemed just as determined to smother him. Then from nowhere, his battle lessened and an eerie calmness gradually consumed his entire body. “Come on now,” the healer said encouragingly. “I need you to stay with me.”

 

“Oh, God, Nathan… they did it… I c-can’t… can’t feel,” he slurred. “They did it.”

 

“What, Ezra? What did they do?”

 

He didn’t answer. Instead his eye drifted shut and his head dropped awkwardly onto the pillow.

 

“Ezra?” Jackson cried as he scrambled onto the bed and lightly tapped his friend’s face. “Ezra, wake up!”

 

 

Part 11

 

“Damn,” Nathan said, his voice full of worry as he slapped the gambler’s face harder. “Don’t do this Ezra, wake up.”

 

Vin crawled onto the bed behind the gambler and put his hand on Nathan’s arm. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

 

The healer pulled back the light blanket covering his patient’s body and leaned over to rest an ear against his chest. He found the heartbeat but grimaced when he realized it wasn’t beating as strongly as it should. Ezra’s respirations were also sluggish and his skin was entirely too cool to the touch.

 

“Nate…”

 

“His body’s havin’ a hard time dealing with what it’s been through, it’s tryin’ to give out.”

 

Chris rose up off the table and pushed aside Buck’s restraining hands. “What do we do?” he asked tightly.

 

Nathan glanced over his shoulder. “Ain’t nothin’ you can do, Chris. Buck, get him back on the table and keep him there.”

 

Larabee opened his mouth to argue but Wilmington leaned into him and physically moved him away.

 

Jackson bent down to take the unconscious gambler in his arms. “Vin, yank those pillows outta there.”

 

“But Nathan, his shoulder,” JD warned.

 

“He ain’t feelin’ his shoulder, JD. Now go over there and get me another blanket.” Carefully he lowered Ezra to the mattress. “Vin, I need ya to loosen the sling holdin’ his arm.”

 

Vin did as Nathan instructed as the healer took the cover from JD and gently tucked it around Ezra’s unmoving body. He placed his slender fingers against his throat and felt for a pulse… weak, but there. He moved his other hand beneath his patient’s nose and waited until he could just feel the shallow exhalations brush his skin.

 

“Nathan?” Chris asked hoarsely.

 

“Don’t know,” was the clipped reply as Nathan sat on the bed and began checking Ezra’s bullet wound. He eyed the point of entry carefully before he pulled the motionless body toward him and had Vin check the exit wound.

 

“There’s a little blood but it looks okay,” the tracker advised.

 

“Good, can you put another bandage against it for me?”

 

Tanner carefully worked a small piece of folded cloth beneath the wrapping around Ezra’s waist and then helped Nathan settle him back onto the mattress.


“What now?” he asked.

 

“Now we wait. I seen this before. We need to keep him warm and when he wakes up we need to keep him still.”

 

“That’s it?”

 

“You might try talking to him, but keep your voice calm and quiet.”

 

“What about his feet?” asked JD.

 

“Every time we handle his feet, the pain puts him back with the Nichols. We need to let him recover some before we put him through that again.”

 

“Can we give him more Laudanum?”

 

“Afraid not, any medicine right now could kill ‘im. You’ve cleaned away a lot of the dirt; let’s just hold off ‘til this spell passes.”

 

Vin settled close to Ezra on the bed. “He will come outta this, right?”

 

Jackson went to a basin to wash his hands.

 

“Nate?”

 

“He’s been through a lot,” Nathan answered as he dried his hands.

 

“Yeah, but its Ezra, he’s tough,” JD said.

 

“He’s been tortured, JD, they didn’t just cut him up and whip him, they messed with his head. Did you hear him? ‘This time’, ‘this time they’d do it.’ They must’ve threatened him with somethin’ they knew would scare the hell out of him.”

 

“What do you think it was?”

 

“Got no way of knowin’, but Ezra’s mind ain’t lettin’ it go.”

 

“He’ll handle it,” the young man insisted.

 

Nathan saw the fear in JD’s eyes and realized how important Ezra had become to him. In fact, every face in the room held the same look of apprehension and he knew every man present would do whatever it took to keep him alive.

 

“He’ll handle it,” JD repeated, not sure if he was trying to convince Nathan or himself.

 

Grabbing the edge of the table, Chris dragged himself onto his side. “And if he can’t, we’ll help him. Believe it, JD.”

 

Dark eyes glistened brightly as JD accepted Chris’ words as truth.

 

The room fell silent.

 

“We need to make sure,” Chris said around a swallow, “the Nichols are caught. We have to f-find them.” He tried his best to pull his way up Buck’s arm, but he simply didn’t have the strength. He fell back onto the table cursing between pants.

 

Nathan moved quickly to his side. “Come on, Chris, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. We’re gonna go after that bullet in your gut then you’re gonna rest.”

 

The gunfighter would have disagreed, but he didn’t seem able to draw in a decent breath. He patted Buck’s hand to get his attention. “Send JD back to the jail… Josiah may need help.”

 

“You’re right, I’ve got a feelin’ those boys’ll come after their brother next,” Buck agreed. “JD, you think you can get back to Josiah without any trouble?”

 

“Sure, Buck.”

 

“Well, do it. And the two of you keep an eye out. As soon as we’ve helped Nathan take care of Chris and Ezra, one of us’ll be over to lend you a hand. We need to see about movin’ Nichols some place out of his family’s reach. Then we need to go after the three who escaped before they come back here lookin’ to shoot up the town again.”

 

“What about Mrs. Nichols?”

 

“She ain’t gonna be far from her boys -- we catch them, we catch her. Now you head on out and be careful.”

 

“I will. And you won’t let anything happen.” He motioned to Ezra and Chris.

 

“Count on it,” he said firmly and moved to the door to insure JD’s safe departure.

 

 

Part 12

 

“Chris, let us give you something for the pain. You ain’t helpin’ Ezra by sufferin’.” Buck captured his friend’s hand as it grabbed for something to hold on to.

 

“No,” Chris grunted, squeezing the fingers he found. “They’re still three of them on the loose. They’ll be comin’ back… If they find him, t-they’ll kill him.”

 

“I got news for ya, pard, you’re no safer than Ezra if those boys decide to show up.”

 

“I’m conscious… he’s not. I’m stayin’ that way ‘til…”

 

“‘Til when? You’re hurt bad and you need to let Nathan take care of you. I don’t think he fancies cuttin’ into your belly while you’re still able to pitch yourself off the table.”

 

“C-can’t let ‘em get to Ezra… he’s paid too high a price… already.”

 

“And you can protect him how?” Buck asked. “Look at you; you can’t even protect yourself right now.”

 

“Damn it, Buck… just keep me awake and hand me my gun.” Chris’ breathing was becoming more and more labored but he wouldn’t stop glaring until his weapon lay next to him on the table.

 

Nathan raised the clean cloth pressed over the gunfighter’s wound and saw fresh blood soak it through. “We have to get this bullet out now,” he warned.

 

“Do it,” Chris ground out between clenched teeth.

 

Buck looked at the healer helplessly and nodded in defeat as Nathan spread surgical tools on a clean towel near his friend’s head.

 

Larabee laid back and listened to the rattle of metal instruments as he tried to wipe the sweat from his eyes. Buck saw the pitiful attempt and reached for a damp cloth to gently wash away the moisture that had gathered around his eyes, cheeks and upper lip. He leaned close and asked softly, “You really wanna do this?”

 

Chris’ eyes burned with determination as he jerked his chin downward to signal he was ready. In truth, he wasn’t sure at all, especially when he felt Nathan’s cool hands push against his skin in an effort to judge the width of the wound. The sheer anticipation of what was about to happen nearly did him in. No matter how hard he tried to focus on the hand he held, when the healer inserted a slender metal probe into the hole in his abdomen he couldn’t ignore it. The instrument sank deeper and deeper until it finally reached the bullet, and when metal touched metal the sensation sent convulsive pain past his brain and into every muscle of his body.

 

Buck bent down, dried his face again and deliberately blocked his view of what Nathan was doing. It was bad enough he was going to feel the surgery; he sure as hell didn’t need to see it. He peeked over his shoulder as Jackson picked up a scalpel and held it just above the open wound. The dark man mouthed the words “hold him” and prepared to make the incision he needed to allow better access to the bullet. Buck turned his attention to Chris and discreetly held him down under the guise of wiping his face and neck.

 

Chris didn’t really notice the weight on top of him until Nathan pressed the surgical knife into his flesh and cut across the bullet hole. He growled and tried to rise. Buck shifted, let go of his hand and laid a forearm across his chest.

 

Nathan felt the muscles beneath his fingers twitch and tighten as Chris instinctively drew his knees up. This was ridiculous, how the devil did he think he could do this with his patient wound so tight he was about to snap. “Vin,” he called without turning, “how’s Ezra doin’?”

 

The tracker reached under the blanket covering the gambler’s body and put a hand to his chest before he leaned down to listen to his breathing. The heartbeat beneath his palm felt sluggish and the warm respirations against his cheek were uneven. “‘Bout the same, I think. Still shiverin’ like he’s cold.”

 

“Damn, I need you over here so you can hold onto Chris.”

 

Larabee heard the request. “N-no.”

 

Jackson decided to play the guilt card. “I don’t have a choice. You won’t let me put you out and I need those legs of yours still.”

 

“I w-won’t move.”

 

“You can’t help it. Every time I go for the bullet your body buckles. Now either let me give you somethin’ for the pain or Vin’s gonna have to hold you down. We’ll try to keep an eye on Ezra from here,” Nathan replied, praying the gunfighter would see sense.

 

Vin caught the look in Jackson’s eyes and knew what he was up to. “Should I be away from him, Nate? What if somethin’ happens? He’s shakin’ real bad.”

 

“Damn, he must be gettin’ worse, but I gotta have help here.”

 

Buck straightened and stared at the two behind him.

 

Chris raised his head and watched the tracker pull the blanket over the gambler and move to the side of the table. “N-no don’t…”

 

Vin pushed his knees down and leaned over them. “Alright, let’s do it.”

 

Buck eyed Ezra anxiously. “Nate?”

 

“We don’t have a choice.”

 

“But…”

 

Chris tried to roll himself off the table. “D-don’t leave him.”

 

“Hold still,” Nathan said as he snatched a bare shoulder slick with sweat. “Listen to me, Chris, maybe we can compromise. Vin can stay with Ezra if you let me give you somethin’ to take the edge off.”

 

Larabee eyed him suspiciously.

 

“It won’t knock you out, but maybe it’ll relax you enough to let me do what I gotta do.” Jackson watched the lawman think it over. “It’s that or you’re forcing me to risk Ezra bein’ on his own.”

 

“No,” he answered sharply, gripping the healer’s arm in turn.

 

“Okay then, let me get what you need and Vin can help Ezra.”

 

Chris’ agreement was nearly inaudible but he let go and silently waited for Nathan to fetch whatever it was he’d been blackmailed into taking. Tanner, seeing there would be no more argument, hurried back to the bed and began talking to the gambler in a low, soothing voice.

 

When Nathan returned with a cup of tea, he held the concoction to Chris’ lips and waited for him to take a sip. “Drink, I promise it’ll just help you relax.”

 

Chris frowned.

 

“I wouldn’t trick you, Chris. I won’t mess with you unless you mess with me. Now remember our deal and we all just might make it through the night.”

 

Larabee studied Nathan’s face and decided he could trust him. He downed the bad tasting liquid and pushed the cup away when he finished. Damn, but it was nasty stuff.

 

Buck smiled to himself, grateful his friend had consented to some relief before the surgery. He cooled the rag he held in the basin of water, wrung it out with one hand and draped it across Chris’ brow. The man was dog-tired but he wasn’t giving in, he kept blinking his eyes in a stubborn attempt to remain clear-headed. Buck knew he desperately needed an anchor so when Larabee’s trembling hand touched his arm, he quickly gathered it in his own and held tight.

 

Nathan checked on Ezra while he waited for the herbs he’d given Chris to take effect. Despite what the gunfighter had been told Ezra appeared to be gradually getting past the threat of shock. There was however a new danger rearing its ugly head – fever. He’d known from the beginning infection was inevitable; now it seemed he was right. The gambler’s body was struggling against the contamination of its wounds and his condition would likely get worse before it got better. He instructed Vin to watch him closely and moved to stand alongside Buck. He nudged the tall cowboy with his elbow and whispered, “Talk to him.” Then he aimed the forceps he picked up from the towel towards the large hole in Chris’ belly.

 

“Just hang in there, pard,” Buck said. “Nathan’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

 

Chris peered into the blue eyes hovering above him and tried to smile, but the expression twisted into a grimace when he felt the cold pressure of metal once again enter his body. The medicine he’d been given must have kicked in because he was unable to move his hips or raise his knees when he felt the need. His arms and shoulders also grew weaker and he was about to accuse Nathan of lying to him about the medicine when he felt the instrument in his body plow deeper. No, Nate hadn’t lied… he was still very conscious. He felt a foolish grin pull at his lips as he appreciated the fact his trust in the healer hadn’t been misplaced.

 

Buck caught the look and wondered if the pain was too much to bear. “You okay, buddy?”

 

Chris took a deep breath and nodded. The intrusion in his belly seemed to have a direct effect on his ability to speak… pain gets stronger, teeth clench tighter. When he felt Nathan push harder he nearly shattered every tooth in his head.

 

Buck heard the gunfighter gag. “Go ahead and yell if you need to.”

 

He was about to take his advice when he heard a sound… a sound that shouldn’t have been there, a sound that was just outside his own grunts and groans. He turned his head in search of the noise and saw a shadow near the window. The sun had just gone down, and even though the dusky dark could play tricks on a person, he knew without a doubt someone was there. He squeezed Buck’s hand tighter to get his attention. Buck simply squeezed back. He tried to rise, to reach for his gun, but his muscles had gone flaccid. It was happening, the one thing that terrified him most; the Nichols gang had come back and he was unable to protect his men.

 

Nathan continued to dig inside his body, completely focused on his work, but he had to stop him and get his attention. They had to see the danger. He took a deep breath and forced his lips apart. “Nngghhooo,” he finally spat out as he pushed against the weight on his chest.

 

Buck felt him twist and finally glanced down. The look on Chris’ face stopped him cold. He’d seen that look many times in the past and knew in an instant something was wrong. He didn’t hesitate to raise a warning. “Nathan,” he called. “Stop what you’re doin’.”

 

The healer didn’t look up. “Not now, Buck, I’m havin’ trouble holdin’ on to the damn thing.”

 

Chris groaned and pleaded with the man on top of him without having to say a word.

 

“Nathan, you have to stop now,” Buck said.

 

Jackson heard the alarm in Wilmington’s voice and pulled his bloody fingers from the body wriggling under his hands. “What is it?”

 

Larabee stared at the window and again saw the shadow cross it. A second later, he heard a scraping sound.

 

“Something’s got him upset,” Buck said, stroking a hand across Chris’ forehead as the gunfighter strained to look around him.

 

“Well yeah, Buck, we’re trying to dig a bullet from his gut while he’s still awake. I’d say he has every reason to be upset, but it’s his own choice.”

 

“It ain’t that.”

 

The gunfighter jerked and the atmosphere in the room changed. The hairs on the back of Nathan’s neck stood up and he suddenly understood Buck’s meaning. He’d learned long ago to trust the instincts of his leader and right now Chris’ body language was screaming trouble. There was definitely something else going on.

 

“Chris,” Nate said gently, resting a hand on his patient’s chest. “Chris, take a deep breath and tell us what’s got ya so worked up.”

 

Larabee took a long breath and exhaled slowly before he could force intelligible words past his lips. “Someone’s… outside.”

“It’s alright, you’re just in a lot of pain and the medicine is…”

 

“No… saw someone,” he insisted. “Heard them.”

 

Buck kept a firm hand around Chris’ wrist as he tried to get a better look. “I didn’t hear anything.”

 

“Well I did,” Vin said, watching the window and shuffling backwards off the bed. “He’s right, someone’s outside.” He grabbed the gun lying on the bedside table and ran to the door.

 

Chris dragged his free hand weakly from his chest to his side and fumbled for his weapon. This time he managed to loosely grip it as he rolled over to lean against Buck. The room seesawed around him as bright flares ignited behind his eyes. He sucked in a sharp breath and waited for the brightness to dim; unaware Buck had turned him loose and his own fingers now had a death grip on Wilmington’s arm. “G-go help Vin,” he wheezed.

 

A disembodied voice said, “I do that and you’ll find your ass on the floor.”

 

Chris tried to scoot one leg off the table.

 

“Un-unh, pard, just sit still, there’s no way you’re climbin’ down from there.”

 

A hand crept around his back and hauled him to where he started. The brilliant lights slowly faded and the room around him stilled, but before he could celebrate the return of his sight he felt a ripping pain slice through his belly and a disconcerting queasiness swell in his throat. He lowered his eyes to the wound in his stomach and saw a white bandage clinging to him, his own blood apparently serving as the adhesive. It was a chilling sight, and one he could have definitely done without since it raised his nausea to a whole new level, but he couldn’t seem to ignore it.

 

Buck felt Chris sag against him and knew he was about to cave in. He adjusted his hold to keep the gunfighter from toppling to the floor and called to Nathan. “Anything?”

 

Jackson had strategically placed himself between Ezra and the door and stood ready to defend should the Nichols try to enter the clinic. His jaw set, his back went rigid and a gun appeared in his hand. It was clear no one would get past him. He stayed that way, without so much as the movement of breath, until he saw Tanner come running back up the stairs. “Vin?”

 

“Chris was right, there was someone out there. I heard ‘em hit the bottom steps as I went out but I lost ‘em in the dark.”

 

“Damn,” Buck said, “had to be the Nichols.”

 

Vin nodded, shut the door behind him and went back to the bed to sit beside Ezra. He kept his gun close, never taking his eyes off the window.

 

Chris shifted against Buck, still clinging to him as if he were the only thing keeping him conscious. “We have to catch them.”

 

Wilmington turned, pulled Chris’ hands away and reached to take him bodily in his arms. “We will, buddy, we will. Now let’s get you on your back so Nathan can finish up.”

 

Chris offered no resistance as the tall cowboy hefted him up and carefully lowered him flat onto the table. Despite his best efforts, he was growing weaker and the feeling terrified him. He had to be ready to fight. So many times in the past he’d failed to shield those he cared about – Sarah, Adam. Even Hank had suffered because of him. Now they were all dead and here he lay useless.

 

Buck felt his chest tighten when he saw the play of emotions crossing Chris’ face. He’d seen that look before and knew exactly what was going through his mind. “Don’t do this, Chris. Ain’t none of this your fault.”

 

Sad green eyes turned away.

 

“I won’t let nothin’ happen to you or Ezra.”

 

Chris finally faced the gentle mustached face and nodded. He was about to say something but clamped down on the words when he felt Nathan’s hands on his belly again.

 

“Easy now,” Buck said when he saw Nathan reinsert the slender metal instrument into the bullet hole. Blood poured freely at an alarming rate but the healer merely wiped it aside and kept digging.

 

Larabee jerked beneath the pressure of his ministrations and groaned. “Buck,” he called. “Please… don’t…”

 

“Don’t what?”

 

“Don’t… let me… pass out,” he answered in short gasps.

 

“Just let go, Chris. Don’t fight it.”

 

“Buck…” Chris sucked in a painful breath and blinked his eyes again.

 

“It’s alright,” Wilmington answered. “Ol’ Buck’s gonna watch your back. Just let go.”

 

Heavy eyelids fluttered lazily before they finally closed and Chris’ world slowly fell away.




PARTS 1-6 / PARTS 13-17 / PARTS 18-22 / PARTS 23-28 / PARTS 29-33 / PART 34

 

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Jordan McKenzie 2009