Eye Of The Storm
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The scene played out in front of Ezra like one long nightmare. Chris wouldn't stay down and the behemoth barely staggered beneath anything Chris threw at him, including bottles, chairs and the occasional table. The fight seemed to grind on for hours, even though it could only have been minutes. The crowded saloon had long since fallen silent in dumb testimony to the brutality.
Ezra winced as a punch from a ham-sized fist sent Chris reeling against the bar where he crumpled heavily to the floor. The behemoth stood in the middle of the carnage panting and bleeding, watching Chris warily. No one moved. Slowly, a gash of a smile twisted over the giant's face. He thought he'd won. Chuckling, he turned his back on Chris and headed for the batwing doors. Just as Ezra was seriously considering putting a bullet or two in the smug bastard, a low growl came from across the floor.
Chris hadn't started to stand yet, but he was glaring out from under a patch of blood-matted hair and looked like the devil himself. The behemoth was just turning around to look back at the bar when Chris launched himself. Ezra watched in horror as Chris ran full tilt into the thick midsection of his opponent and the momentum sent both men crashing through the window into the street.
First out on the boardwalk, Ezra was surprised to see Chris get up before his opponent and almost drag him over to an overflowing water trough where he proceed to drown the man into unconsciousness. When the huge arms finally stopped flailing, Chris collapsed down by the side of the trough, wheezing in great breaths and coughing painfully. He made no attempt to pull his opponent's head back out of the water. After a few seconds, a couple of bystanders stepped guardedly forward to pull the unconscious man to safety. Chris watched them dully but never so much as glanced in Ezra's direction.
"What's going on?" Nathan demanded as he broke through the crowd to first crouch by the behemoth then move quickly over to Chris' side. "Someone give me a hand here," he said while helping Chris to his feet.
Ezra turned away from Nathan to nod at the group of men standing over the unconscious man. "Could you gentleman please aid me in the incarceration of our erstwhile pugilist?"
The men swiftly obliged and Ezra conducted them across the street to the jail. He felt the crowd disperse around him but didn't look over to see Nathan and Zeke White help Chris up to the clinic.
"Any cell will do fine, gentlemen, thank you," Ezra said as he propped open the jail door to let the men pass with their burden. "If he doesn't fit on the cot, the floor will suffice," he continued while following them across the room, picking up the cell keys on the way.
After the unconscious behemoth had been safely locked away, Ezra thanked the gentlemen again, shaking their hands as they left the jail. He then shut the door firmly behind them and leaned heavily against it, closing his eyes and trying not to think about Chris.
By the time the others returned with the two Eagle Bend escapees in tow, Ezra was sitting at the larger of the two desks playing Faro with himself.
"Winning?" Buck asked as Josiah and Vin escorted their two prisoners into a cell.
"As always." Ezra grinned back.
"Well, I'm glad someone had an easy time of it. These fellas led us all over creation."
"And then some," Josiah added, locking the cell door.
Vin nodded towards the other occupied cell. "Who's he?"
"I'm afraid he neglected to introduce himself," Ezra replied while gathering up his cards. "He merely arrived in town an hour or so ago and commenced to making a nuisance of himself by demanding alcohol with menaces."
Raising an eyebrow, Buck went over to the gently snoring behemoth's cell to take a closer look. "Hell. He looks like 400lbs of raw liver. What happened?"
Ezra gave his cards a sharp shuffle before answering flatly. "Chris."
"Chris?" JD repeated in surprise, walking over to join Buck by the cell. "Chris did that? What did he use? An anvil?"
"Actually, I believe an anvil would have proven useful," Ezra returned while dealing out a hand of solitaire. "As it was, he employed four chairs, two tables and various bottles, along with his fists, head, the boardwalk, a hitching post and a water trough."
"Shit," Vin said.
"He over at Nathan's?" Buck asked, already striding for the door to be on his way as soon as Ezra nodded.
Chris felt as if he'd been run over by an eight-horse team and every one of their hooves had left its mark. He hurt like hell and it was only getting worse despite Nathan's reassurances that the grains of quinine and morphine should be kicking in. The agony only reached new heights every time he coughed, choked and brought up blood. Even after he'd spat and rinsed, there was a bitter taste in his mouth he couldn't seem to get rid off.
"You're damn lucky, Chris," Nathan said as he finished his doctoring. "Nothing seems broken but your lungs got rattled hard along with everything else. This liniment should keep the swelling down, but you're bruised bad and going to be hurting for the next few weeks."
Chris was about to respond when the constricted, burning feeling in his chest intensified again and he choked up more blood. As he leaned up to cough and spit into the bowl Nathan held out for him, a strangely numb, almost fuzzy feeling crept over his body. In its wake, the pain eased off to a distant ache and he rinsed out his mouth to watch the blood clots streak down the side of the bowl with an odd feeling of detachment. It wasn't until he sat back against the pillows that he noticed Buck standing behind Nathan, watching him with a pained expression.
"Hell, Chris," Buck sighed and batted his hat against his leg. "Don't you know better than to fight a man three times your size?" He paused in exasperation before adding, "I mean, by now? Ten years ago, I could see, but now? You ain't no spring colt anymore."
"Nope," Chris returned, a hair's breadth away from giggling. "More of a churn-head."
"Looks like that morphine's kicking in," Nathan said as he stood away to tidy his things.
"Looks like," Buck agreed. He then moved to sit down on the chair by the bed at Nathan's consenting nod.
"Just make sure he don't move none."
"Will do, doc," Buck replied earnestly.
Lying propped up on the pillows, feeling light-headed, a little sleepy but damn good all in all, Chris watched Buck shake his head at him.
"Just what in the blue blazes were you thinking, Chris? You and Ezra could have thought up something else. Hell, Ezra could have probably sweet-talked that side of beef into locking himself up. Can't I leave you boys alone for a few hours without you getting some fool notion into your head?"
Chris blinked back at his friend, vaguely wondering why he was so upset. "I'm all right, Buck. Don't get your britches in a stir."
Buck snorted derisively. "When that morphine runs out, my britches'll be the last thing on your mind."
Chris just grinned. He liked grinning. Damn, he felt good.
With a shake of his head, Buck turned around to see Vin ease into the room.
"Thought I'd come over, see how you boys are doing," Vin said with a nod as he walked up to lean against the foot of the bed. "Hell, Chris, you look like you've been done chewed up and spat out twice over."
"Yep." Chris giggled.
Vin smiled ruefully. "Reckon you ain't gonna find it too funny soon enough, cowboy."
"And that's the truth," Buck agreed. "Ezra tell you what happened?"
"Ezra's crankier than a sunburned Gila but we managed to get the gist of it," Vin answered. "Seems Chris decided to take up that grizzly's offer of a fair fight and wouldn't let Ezra in on it."
"Well, I can see why that'd make him cranky," Buck sighed.
"Fair fight?" Nathan interjected from across the room. "Chris wouldn't be half that man's weight sopping wet."
"Yeah," Buck returned with a grin. "But he's the one that got soaked."
Glad that the others seemed to have cheered up, Chris moved to roll out the bed but quickly found himself pinned to the pillows.
"Hey, hey, where'd you think you're going, stud?" Buck asked, holding him down. "You ain't got no where else to be."
"Gonna see Ezra," Chris said before frowning at his slightly slurred words. Had he been drinking?
Buck patted him soothingly. "I don't think seeing Ezra right now'd be for the best for either of you. Leave him be. He'll come visit when he's ready."
Suitably appeased, Chris settled back into the pillows sleepily, already forgetting who he wanted to see and why.
"Give him half when he wakes up--"
"And the rest in four hours if you fail to return," Ezra finished Nathan's instructions with a grin. "I heard you perfectly well the first three times. Now, hadn't you best run along before that baby changes its mind about greeting the world today after all?"
Nodding distractedly, Nathan made it through the clinic doorway before pausing at the top of the stairs. "Remember, even if he asks for it--"
"No more morphine."
"He's had as much as I can give him and--"
"You have already prepared an alternative concoction and measured out the doses. I know. You showed me," Ezra said while shooing Nathan down the stairs to his waiting horse. "Instructions duly received and understood to be carried out in due course. Now, farewell and my best regards to the parents to be." He watched Nathan mount his horse before adding, "And remember, if they happen to get stuck for a name, Ezra is always an excellent choice."
"I'll try to keep that in mind," Nathan returned with a grin before riding off.
"Indeed," Ezra sighed, feeling his forced humour slip away with Nathan's departure.
He didn't want to go back up the stairs to sit in the chair next to Chris' bed in that claustrophobic little room. But he did.
He didn't want to sit there miserably cataloguing every painful discolouration that marred what he could see of Chris' body. But he did.
He always seemed to be doing things against his better judgement these days.
As much as that thought irritated him, his anger bit hard when he contemplated his abominable urge to comply with whatever Chris wanted. Ezra Standish was no one's yes-man -- so why was it so hard to say no to Chris? Instead of standing his ground and refusing to give the behemoth room to fight, he'd just stepped away. Chris had glared a warning and, unwilling to incur the wrath promised there, he'd just backed off. Was he so pathetically needy that he'd stood by and let that fight happen rather than suffer Chris' ire for a few days?
Ezra frowned in annoyance. No, that wasn't the answer. The truth was that the fight was going to happen as soon as Chris decided it was. There was no room for consideration or second thought. That's what he'd saw in Chris' gaze, that's what had made him stand down. Nothing he could have said at that point would have made a difference even though he felt spineless for not saying what he had wanted to. Then he remembered that saying what he wanted had probably been the catalyst for the fight to begin with and a headache began to pound over his left eye.
"You gonna say a word?" Chris said hoarsely from the bed.
Ezra blinked at him in surprise. "I'm sorry. I didn't realise you were awake."
"So I noticed." Chris smirked before his expression softened into an inquiring smile. "You all right?"
"I should be asking you that," Ezra said before standing up and moving over to where Nathan kept his concoctions. "You are the one exhibiting several shades of the rainbow."
"Bound to be a colour there that suits me then," Chris replied heavily.
"I'm afraid you've had your quota of morphine," Ezra told him while measuring out half the contents of the first bottle into a small cup. "But Nathan assures me that this will help."
"Be hard to make it worse." Chris winced as he took the cup.
Ezra watched him drink it down. If the concoction tasted bad, Chris didn't seem to care. "It should help," Ezra found himself repeating wretchedly while retrieving the empty cup.
An uneasy silence fell between them. Ezra rinsed out the cup and put the bottle away before sitting back down on the bedside chair.
It seemed a long while before Chris spoke again. "I'm all right, Ezra."
He received nothing but a wry look in return.
"I heal fast," he offered next.
"Perhaps," Ezra conceded the point. "But you don't treat your body with the respect it deserves. One of these days it's not going to be able to do what you want it to."
"I'm glad to hear it," Ezra said, unable to keep the edge from his voice.
Despite the shadows of pained exhaustion staining his expression, Chris' scowl was as ornery as ever. "I beat him."
"Barely," Ezra returned bitterly. "But I have to admit to a certain curiosity," he continued in spite of the waves of guilt that threatened to overwhelm him. "Tell me, Chris, what did my witnessing that bloody beating constitute? Some bizarre kind of foreplay?"
Chris' scowl deepened. "I've been in fights before."
"As foreplay?" Ezra insisted.
Chris just looked back at him stubbornly.
"Forgive me if I misjudged the situation," Ezra went on with a calmness he didn't feel, "but didn't your uncontrollable urge to offer yourself up as a punch bag assert itself just after I mentioned my plans for the evening?"
With an irritated shake of his head, Chris dismissed the idea. "It wasn't about you."
Ezra nodded then waited for him to go on.
"I didn't do it to stop you fucking me," Chris eventually said. "I wasn't thinking that far ahead."
"Oh, so it just seemed like a good idea at the time," Ezra concluded dryly.
Working his jaw, Chris didn't respond.
The headache above Ezra's eye pounded at him mercilessly. Closing his eyes, he rubbed at it in annoyance. "Look, maybe this whole thing is--"
"I want to do it," Chris growled.
Ezra glared back at him. "Well maybe I don't."
Their gazes locked in silence.
"Why do you want to, Chris?" Ezra finally demanded. "Just because you've decided to do it whether I'm willing or not?"
"You're willing enough," Chris snapped back.
"Am I?" Ezra returned low.
Frowning, Chris studied Ezra's demeanour for a moment before turning his head away and closing his eyes. "I guess not."
Even though the admission was precisely what Ezra had been angling for, the defeat in Chris' words stung hard. It was all he could do to swallow the hurt and continue. "I won't be a party to this just because you've decided to be pig-headed about it. If we're going to do it, it'll be on my terms."
It took a moment for Chris' gaze to return to him. When it did, it had narrowed warily.
"Well, you have to admit that you don't extend the same level of respect to your body that I do," Ezra said, taking a gentle hold of Chris' fingers just below the bruised knuckles. "If you'd simply trusted me--"
"I trust you," Chris interrupted, rubbing his fingers against Ezra's. "I just don't always think straight."
"Very well then," Ezra returned with a smile. "Shall we say that for the moment, and until such a time as it's no longer required, you'll entrust your welfare to my direction?"
Chris considered the question. He looked tired and more than a little confused but ended up nodding firmly nonetheless. "All right."
"Good." Ezra leaned up to kiss him lightly on the lips. "As soon as you're fit to travel, we're going to Tucson."
"Tucson?" Chris frowned.
"Tucson," Ezra confirmed with a grin. "Now, is there anywhere in particular you'd like me to rub this liniment?"
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